A Review of Kingdom Through Covenant, by Peter J. Gentry & Stephen J. Wellum
The first 129 pages of this tome sets forth an understanding of biblical and systematic theology, the basic nature of dispensationalism and covenantal theology, and the hermeneutical principles of each.
On page 33, the authors define biblical theology as “Bible’s own presentation of itself.” They further expand that concept:
[I]t is a hermeneutical discipline which seeks to do justice to what Scripture claims to be and what it actually is. In terms of its claim, Scripture is nothing less than God’s Word written, and as such, it is a unified representation of of his gracious plan of redemption. In terms of what Scripture actually is, it is a progressive unfolding of God’s plan, rotted in history, and unpacked along a specific redemptive-historical plot line primarily demarcated by covenants. (33-34).
Systematic theology takes the results of biblical theology applies Scripture “to all areas of life” (35). Thus, “systematic theology is also critical in seeking to evaluate ideas within and outside of the church” (35).
The authors find the Israel/Church distinction to lie at the heart of dispensationalism. This distinction thus drives ecclesiology as seen in baptism:
[D]ispensational ecclesiology views the church as compromised of a regenerate community, born of and permanently indwelt by the Spirit, and not as a “mixed” community of believers and unbelievers. Furthermore, it is for this reason that dispensational theology affirms credobaptism, contra paedobaptism, since one cannot equate the sign of the old covenant with the sign of the new, given the fundamental distinction between Israel and the church and what the sign of baptism signifies under the new covenant. (43).
The Israel/Church distinction is a matter which has effects upon the present time and will continue into a future millennial and/or eternal state (56). There are three distinct types of dispensationalism, classic, revised, progressive, which the authors review.
The Abrahamic Covenant, which will occupy a great deal of the analysis to follow in the book, is seen in dispensational theology as a “royal grant”. The conditions of the grant merely distinguish the means by which and when the blessings will be received. The land is seen as a fundamental aspect of the promise.
Historically, covenant theology has maintained that all of God’s relations to human beings are understood in terms of three covenants—the pretemporal “covenant of redemption” (pactum salutis) between the persons of the Godhead; the “covenant of works” (foederus naturae) made with Adam before the Fall on behalf of the entire human race; and the “covenant of grace” (foederus gratiae) made through Christ with all who are to believe, namely, the elect. Covenant theology subsumes all of the subsequent biblical covenants under the overarching category of the “covenant of grace.” (57-58).
Covenant theology sees a great continuity between Israel and the Church:
[D]espite various nuances, covenant theology agrees that the main difference is that of “promise-fulfillment,” i.e., what the older administration promised through types, ceremonies, and sacrifices, has now come to fulfillment in Jesus Christ. It is with this understanding that most covenant theologians view the “newness” of the new covenant in terms of a renewal rather than a replacement or a strong sense of fulfillment that leads to a discontinuity with the previous covenants. (63-64).
On the matter of the specific covenants, covenant theology [note the matter is nuanced and does not necessarily apply to all forms of covenant theology nor all theologians], the Abrahamic and Davidic Covenants are unconditional; the Moasic Covenant is “predominantly a law-covenant and republication of the ‘covenant of works’ with Abraham” (66). The covenant community is a mixed body made up of those who are covenant keepers and covenant breakers; accordingly, “the circle of the covenant community, whether in the old or new ear, is wider and larger than the circle of election” (67).
This mix of covenants and the singular covenant of grace leads to the matter of the genealogical principle, which is for covenant theology the crux as the land is for the dispensationalist [thus will be the thesis of the text]:
The only way they can justify the ‘dual aspect’ of the covenant, especially in regard to the new covenant community, is by viewing the ‘covenant of grace’ (an overarching theological category) through the lens of the Abrahamic covenant (a specific historical covenant which includes within it national, typological, and spiritual aspects). That is why the genealogical principle found in the Abrahamic covenant and linked to circumcision – “to you and your children” – continues unchanged across redemptive-history, even with the inauguration of new covenant era. (69).
The authors, perhaps because they are Baptists, then undertake an extended discussion of the circumcision=baptism thesis (71-80) as part of the discussion of the nature of the church.
Hermeneutical Issues in “Putting Together” the Covenants
This last section discusses the manner in which one should understand the relationship between the Old and New Testaments. A view issues are raised here. The authors, for instance, consider the “epochal horizon” (94). Since the Scripture is a continuous story, a thing seen at one time will appear different when viewed later in the story. For instance, in Pride and Prejudice the stiffness and distance of Mr. Darcy early in the story is seen to be quite a different thing when it is understood at a later date.
Now, when it comes to Scripture, the matter is more complex than the event of a single novel; because God intends for a speech-act to have a certain meaning at the time it is delivered. The limitation on the disclosure is not due to some failure of perception, as it is in the novel, but rather due to the deliberate determination of God in making the revelation. Accordingly, interpreters will have a tendency to understand this relationship differently: a complete reappraisal, no reappraisal, or something in-between.
One particular element of such intertextuality lies with typology: Is a historical event recorded in the Old Testament somehow a foreshadowing of something in the New – and if so, to what extent?
The authors firmly favor the doctrine of types and give this definition:
Typology as a New Testament hermeneutical endeavor is the study of the Old Testament salvation realities or “types” (persons, events, institutions) which God has specifically designed to correspond to, and predicatively prefigure, their intensified antitypical fulfilment aspects (inaugurated and consummated) in New Testament salvation history. (103)
The difficult aspect of types is that function in a manner similar to predicative prophecy, but they are not so announced. They are only understood to be types after-the-fact: types are “discovered” (105):
They are predictive since God intends for them to anticipate Christ in a variety of ways. They are hidden not only due to their indirectness but also due to the fact that we come to know that they are types as God’s redemptive plan unfolds and later texts pick up the recurring plan. (105).
Having laid out these elements of analysis, the prolegomena then proceeds to specify a thesis which will be expounded throughout the remainder of the text: Both the dispensationalist and the covenantal theologians inconsistently apply their hermeneutic when reading the Scripture as the story moves from before to after Christ: one side favoring the land promise; the other, the genealogical principle –both found in the Abrahamic covenant. That aspect of the argument will be considered in the next section.