Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary

21 Nov 2012

Kingdom through Covenant: A (dispensational) Review

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Two profs from Southern Seminary published a biblical theology earlier this year that “fell like a bomb on the playground of the [biblical] theologians,” particularly disrupting the contented play of those of us hailing from either one of the two traditional camps—i.e., dispensational and covenant theology. In it the authors, one a systematician (Stephen Wellum) and the other an OT scholar (Peter Gentry), argue for a middle way between these traditional polarities, calling their view progressive covenantalism. The gist of their proposal is that the covenants—all six of them!—form the backbone of the biblical storyline and that each post-Adamic covenant progressively reveals how God will restore humanity and creation to their original glory (i.e., kingdom through covenant). The answer to the question posed by the Fall, therefore, or, to put it another way, the climax of the biblical narrative is found in Jesus, the antitype of each covenant partner since Adam, who fulfills the role of the faithful covenant partner and, thus, allows covenant blessings to flow to the nations and to the world. Overall, I’d highly recommend the book. You’ll want to put it on your Amazon Wish List, if it’s not already there. However, before we all pack up and speed down Wellum and Gentry’s via media, let me see if I can (with, e.g., Darrell Bock) put in a word of support for the way already carved out by dispensationalism. I’ll have to leave it to others more qualified—and concerned!—than I am to do the same for covenant theology.

Wellum and Gentry insist that dispensationalism is wrong because it fails to see that Israel and her land are types that point to and are fulfilled in Christ and the new creation. Thus, when dispensationalists argue for a future restoration of Israel to her land, it’s as if they’re arguing for Levitical succession once the Melchizedekian priest has arrived. Redemptive history simply doesn’t work that way. The problem with their proposal and critique of dispensationalism is not, as far as I’m concerned, with, e.g., their view of typology (types are canceled out by their antitypes), intertextuality (how else can we discover what a narrator is up to?), or, even, Israel’s land (see, e.g., Rom 4:13). The fundamental problem is that the Bible presents Jesus as the true Israel in a slightly different way than the authors’ insist.

The typology seems to work, rather, like this: Jesus is the true David and in this sense is the true Israel (i.e., corporate solidarity). As the true David, Jesus brought about the conditions necessary for the fulfillment of the new covenant (see, e.g., Isa 55:3 [per Gentry’s exegesis]), which is to say, the conditions necessary for restoring Israel (Abraham’s physical + spiritual seed) to her mediatorial role, thus allowing the Abrahamic blessing to flow from Abraham to the nations (Abraham’s spiritual seed). Thus, in Jesus’ first advent, when he inaugurated the new covenant with his death, Israel was restored, though only partially (see, e.g., Rom 11:1–6), which led to partial blessing for the nations (Rom 15:7–13; also vv. 14–33; Acts 15:15–18). At Jesus’ second advent, Israel will be fully restored (Rom 11:25–26a), which will result in more blessing for the nations (Rom 11:12, 15) and, indeed, for creation itself (Rom 8:18–25).

If, therefore, the NT preserves a mediatorial role for ethnic Jews/Israel, then the covenants find their fulfillment in Christ in a slightly different way than Wellum and Gentry argue. Israel’s role is fulfilled not only in Christ but also through Christ: Christ is God’s Servant for restoring Israel, who as God’s servant and on the basis of messiah’s work restores the nations (cf. Isa 49:1–9 with Acts 13:47). Christ, therefore, is the antitype of David and of Israel in slightly different ways. He replaces David but represents Israel. In short, despite Wellum and Gentry’s fantastic proposal, dispensationalism lives to fight (and create prophecy charts for) another day.

Editor’s note: For a slightly fuller summary and critique, see here (audio) and here (print). Readers will also want to keep an eye out for Mark Snoeberger’s review essay in the forthcoming ed. of the DBSJ.