Editors’ Note: As noted in our recent interview with authors Peter Gentry and Stephen Wellum, Kingdom through Covenant: A Biblical-Theological Understanding of the Covenants (Crossway, 2012) is a groundbreaking contribution to any discussion about the intersection of exegesis, biblical theology, and systematic theology. In 848 pages, Gentry and Wellum have made a substantial case for an independent middle path between dispensational and covenant theology—a case that demands a response.
We’ve invited three noted scholars to evaluate Gentry and Wellum’s proposal: Darrell Bock, research professor of New Testament studies at Dallas Theological Seminary; Douglas Moo, professor of New Testament at Wheaton College outside Chicago; and Michael Horton, professor of systematic theology and apologetics at Westminster Theological Seminary (California). Today we hear from Bock.
Any work that seeks to take on covenant theology and dispensationalism has its work cut out for it, even when it argues for a via media to get there. I have been asked as a dispensationalist to review this work. It is a pleasure to do so. Let me begin by saying this book is clear and thorough in its articulation of a position that does try to split the difference between the two views. It does so through a meticulous look at the covenants in Scripture, a look that has much to commend it.
Against covenant theology, there is a questioning of the covenant of works from Genesis, although it is reformulated into a covenant with creation. There is a challenge to paedobaptism, which isn’t surprising coming from scholars teaching at a Baptist school. There is also a challenging of the hesitation of covenant theologians to recognize in the new covenant a newness that makes the church in some ways distinct from Israel.
The major challenges to dispensationalism come in a claim that dispensationalists distinguish between Israel and the church too greatly by preserving promises to Israel apart from the church (most specifically the land). The idea of a future land promise that will be realized for Israel is rather to be seen as realized in Jesus and his victory on behalf of the world, since land is a type for a much larger promise of God. In sum, new creation means land ultimately is not about Israel but about the world. Key to this argument is the claim that a typological understanding should govern how we see the land promises, with ultimate realization being found in the entire world rather than just a piece of real estate in the Middle East.
For others in both camps, there also is a challenge offered on behalf of particular atonement. This idea that Jesus’ priesthood requires a satisfactory application of Jesus’ work, however, ignores another area of discussion—the claim of the kingdom on all people of the world, with rejection serving as a basis for judgment. This makes more sense, then, if Jesus’ death does make a claim on all, even though it’s only completely applied to those who believe. The kind of reductionism of issues we see in the atonement discussion will also appear elsewhere.
Conditional or Unconditional?
I will focus the remainder of my review on the issues tied to dispensationalism, and will leave covenant theologians to assess the positions taken relative to that theological tradition.
It is only right to begin with what I appreciated about Gentry and Wellum’s argument. I do think the authors have shown there are oversimplifications in dealing with the covenants when one looks at them only as conditional or unconditional, as if that solves various contentious issues. The tension the authors argue for—that there is both the commitment of God to his promises and a call for obedience that affects how covenants are realized—is a helpful way to think about these issues. The presence of this tension means that arguments about how promises work and are realized have to go elsewhere than a simple appeal to the “conditional” or “unconditional” nature of the covenant promise.
It is also the case that the covenants do show signs in various spots of opening up to include all, in part simply by their design to look back to creation as the model for the new creation. These links in Kingdom through Covenant are often well traced. Still, I am not sure about the reading of Isaiah 55:3 that suggests the sure mercies of David go in this direction. Granted, the general prophetic idea that the nations will stream to Jerusalem to worship God points to this conclusion. Even less compelling, though, is the idea that Jerusalem is coextensive with the kingdom, losing its sense as a locale to which people come. If Jerusalem is coextensive with the kingdom, then people are in it and do not need to come to it. Yet the prophets in texts like Isaiah 2:1-4 portray the locale of Jerusalem as a place to which the nations will come from elsewhere. More on this matter of how to see Jerusalem is to come.
The disciplines of biblical and systematic theology join forces to investigate anew the biblical covenants and the implications of such a study for conclusions in systematic theology. By incorporating the latest available research from the ancient Near East and examining implications of their work for Christology, ecclesiology, eschatology, and hermeneutics―Biblical scholar Peter Gentry and systematic theologian Stephen Wellum present a thoughtful and viable alternative to both covenant theology and dispensationalism.
The emphasis on new creation, fulfillment in Christ, and the way kingdom comes through covenants is also important, even if I shall argue that this is realized is a slightly different way than what Gentry and Wellum contend. It must be noted that the idea of kingdom coming through covenants is, despite their stress on this idea, not unique to these authors. Both covenant theologians and dispensationalists have written books with such a focus. With Progressive Dispensationalism, for example, Craig Blaising and I structured the entire book around a discussion of the covenants. Much of my argumentation about how the covenants of promise are already/not yet assumes the centrality of the role of the covenants in these discussions.
Hope for Israel
So what of critique? There are many issues in a book of more than 800 pages, but I will stay focused on the main question of Israel, the church, and the land. For starters, in a work stressing how biblical one must be to expound this topic, it is amazing to see no detailed treatment of Romans 9–11 or how Israel is seen in several texts within Luke-Acts. These texts depict the role of Israel in the New Testament and in light of new creation realities. The result of this omission is a reductionism in Gentry and Wellum’s argument. A single set of ideas is raised to a hermeneutical principle that trumps all discussion of the options. So fulfillment in Jesus, Jesus as the temple, and the idea that land is typological for world precludes a future for Israel and any hope she has of future promise in the land. Does this follow? I am not so sure.
The omissions are significant because in these texts (Romans 9–11 and Luke–Acts) a future for Israel alongside the church is affirmed (not outside the church or the kingdom program as the book implies dispensationalists hold, but within the kingdom program). Nothing in Acts 1:6–8 suggests that the disciples’ expectation of a restoration for Israel was wrong. Jesus’ answer does not challenge the question; it only refuses to give a timetable for it. More than that, Acts 3:18–22 has Peter preaching under the Holy Spirit and in light of Jesus’ Acts 1:6 response. Peter says in light of what Jesus and the angelic voice taught there that the time of the restoration of all things is described in the Hebrew Scriptures of old. If one wants to know what will happen with Jesus’ return, just read those texts. One need only read the restoration themes in those Hebrew Scripture texts, and there are many of them, to see that Israel has a role to play in the eschatological future—not a redefined Israel, but Israel and Jerusalem. These texts point to a role for a physically located Israel and Israel as a people to whom the nations come. Whatever we do with new creation in the end, and there is a role to be played by such themes as the authors describe, I do not think Scripture teaches that we lose this other part of the drama, because one flows into the other and shows God’s complete realization of all his promises and commitments. Luke 21:23–24 speaks of a time of the Gentiles being fulfilled. That would only receive mention if a time for Israel follows (not at the Gentiles’ expense, just as the time of the Gentiles does not preclude Jewish believers in Jesus in this current era). A hope for Israel is the entire point of Romans 9-11, and unbelieving Israel is the issue—since Paul begins the section making it clear that part of his concern is about current unbelief in Israel. (He wishes himself accursed that they might be saved—clearly not a reference to spiritual Israel as the topic of the chapters!) These texts beg for an exegesis on the idea of kingdom and covenants and in my view suggest that the principles enunciated about new creation, many of which are true and biblical, do not give us the entire picture.
In other words, to me a vision of a new Jerusalem in Revelation 21–22, which postdates the millennium, does not by itself preclude the idea that before that time we have Israel and the nations worshiping Christ together in Jerusalem in fulfillment of promises God made in the Hebrew Scriptures to Israel as a sign of his faithfulness, mercy, and grace to her. However we include Gentiles into covenant promise and realization in Christ, we should not discard the original recipients of that promise. God (and Jesus) teach that they will keep such commitments to that audience, promises as sure as the creation itself, according to new covenant language in Jeremiah 31. How else do we explain the twelve ruling over the twelve tribes of Israel if the kingdom rule is inclusive of believers as the authors argue? Nowhere in the work is the possibility of a “both-and” explored on this point. That Jesus is the fulfillment, that the new creation is true, and that the land becomes the world ultimately end all discussion of the options. However, what the book excludes (and what I have a question about), is that before that ultimate fulfillment happens, and in line with other clear promises, Israel (and the world) lives in peace with Israel from the land experiencing God’s grace through Christ and all sharing in that wonderful peace. One set of ideas does not exclude the other.
What is at stake in the difference? The matter of God’s faithfulness. That is part of the point Paul makes in Romans 9–11 in arguing for a future for ethnic Israel. He foresees the mercy of God extended once again to Israel when the nation is one day grafted back into the olive tree (see especially Rom. 11:30–32, verses that show how “all Israel shall be saved” and “removing ungodliness from Jacob” earlier in the passage [v. 26] should be read, pointing to national Israel as the recipient of God’s faithful grace). In other words, typology alone is not enough in the discussion of Israel and the land; the character and promises of God are also in play. This point shows just how important the omissions of these sets of texts are.
In sum, this book is a fine study of the covenants, with much of value to consider about how the Bible presents the kingdom idea through the progress of revelation. However, there may be a via media left between the case the authors argue for and the position dispensationalists hold with regard to Israel and the land. That possibility should be a topic for further discussion.