by Stephen Wellum and Brent Parker
From the beginning the church has wrestled with how to put together the biblical covenants and understand the nature of fulfillment in Christ Jesus our Lord. In fact, it is impossible to understand many of the early church’s struggles apart from covenantal debates. For example, think about the debate regarding the Jew-Gentile relationship in the church (Matt 22:1–14; Acts 10–11; Romans 9–11; Eph 2:11–22; 3:1–13), the Judaizers’ false covenant theology (Galatians 2–4), the need for the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15), the strong and weak debate (Romans 14–15), and the question of how Christians ought to relate to the Mosaic law (Matt 5–7; 15:1–20; Acts 7; Romans 4; Hebrews 7–10). All of these debates are simply the wrestling with the larger debate regarding the relationship between the covenants, specifically the old and new covenants.
Today, especially within evangelical theology, this debate continues unabated as represented by the two dominant biblical-theological systems of dispensational and covenant theology (and their varieties). Although these two views agree on many areas central to the gospel, they differ on their respective understanding of the nature and interrelationship of the biblical covenants. On these points of disagreement, there is still much division, especially on questions of how the Mosaic law applies to Christians today, the Israel-church relationship, and the various entailments of these discussions for ecclesiology and eschatology. In this ongoing discussion a consensus seems difficult to reach, especially if one remains within the confines of the two views.
In recent years a number of people have sensed the need for a mediating position on these debates, especially arising from the discipline of biblical theology. This is why Peter Gentry and I wrote Kingdom Through Covenant (KTC), in which we proposed a slightly different way of thinking through the narrative plot structure of the Bible in contrast to the current views. Although we have benefited much from dispensational and covenant theology, we were also convinced an alternative view was needed to resolve some of these disputes.
We labeled our view progressive covenantalism (PC) to distinguish it from various alternatives. Progressive seeks to underscore the unfolding nature of God’s revelation over time, while covenantalism emphasizes that God’s plan unfolds through the covenants and that all of the covenants find their fulfillment, telos, and terminus in Christ. We strongly argue for the unity of God’s plan-promise culminating in the new covenant. Our focus on the new covenant is not to exclude the other covenants since in God’s plan each covenant is significant. In order to discern that significance, each covenant must be placed in its own covenantal location and then placed in terms of what covenant(s) preceded it and follow it before we can rightly discern how God’s entire plan is fulfilled in Christ. By doing this, we interpret Scripture on its own terms and discover God’s glorious plan unveiled before our eyes. We learn how in Christ all of God’s promises are yes and amen (2 Cor 1:20).
In KTC we said that our view was a subset of new covenant theology (NCT), but we did not prefer that label, hence the reason for the title of this present work. Even though we respect many who are identified with NCT, our hesitation to use the label was because we were not in full agreement with the diverse views fitting under its banner. For example, some in NCT deny a creation covenant and Christ’s active obedience and imputation of righteousness and hold little instructive place for the Mosaic law in the church’s life—all points we reject. In addition, some distinguish the old and new covenants merely in terms of the categories of external and internal, or that the old covenant was not gracious, or follow the “unconditional-conditional” covenantal distinction—all ideas we cannot endorse. Yet some who embrace NCT also resonate with our proposal, although we prefer to use the “progressive covenantal” label.
When KTC was written, we only scratched the surface of the debate. In one volume it was impossible to say everything—which many of our critics were quick to point out, although few critical reviews actually engaged the argument of the book. In fact, in a number of reviews it was hard to recognize the actual book we had written; nevertheless we knew a follow-up book was necessary to unpack some of the points left underdeveloped or not discussed.
This present work is a continuation of KTC. Its purpose is to develop the overall view in more detail and depth. It is not the final word, but it is an attempt to continue the conversation on these important matters. All of the authors work from within the basic view of PC although not everyone agrees on every point. On certain doctrinal matters we do not take a position. For example, on the millennium, PC advocates can accept historic premillennialism or amillennialism, yet all the authors are united in their rejection of a dispensational understanding of the land promise to national Israel “apart” from Gentile Christians. Or, with regard to a text such as Romans 9–11, people within our view may differ, yet all agree that this text does not demand a dispensational interpretation.
It is our sincere desire that this book will contribute to our understanding of Scripture and continue the conversation between differing theological viewpoints, with the goal of resolving those differences that separate us. It is not enough to affirm the authority of Scripture; we must also seek rightly to handle the Word of truth and bring our entire thought captive to it and to Christ. Ultimately our desire is to give glory to our great triune God for his glorious plan of redemption, of which we are the beneficiaries by his sovereign grace in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Watch our interview with Dr. Stephen Wellum bow as he explains more about progressive covenantalism.
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