Three Views on the Covenants

What Glues the Biblical Storyline Together?

Church history testifies to the significance of the covenants in Scripture. Indeed, “most varieties of Christian theology readily admit that the biblical covenants establish a central framework that holds the storyline of Scripture together.”[1] Since God relates to creatures through the context of covenant,[2] understanding the nature of biblical covenants[3] is of great importance for understanding God, redemption, ecclesiology, and other theological loci (topics). But the question here is not if the concept and reality of covenant is important; rather, the question is concerned with how the biblical covenants relate to one another. There are three general understandings someone can fall into: (1) Covenantal Theology, (2) Dispensational Theology, and (3) Progressive Covenantalism. Where do you fall? What are the implications of your convictions?

Dispensational Theology

First, Dispensational Theology (DT), broadly speaking, asserts that redemptive-history is marked by “distinct dispensations” (distinct periods of time) wherein God operates with his people to serve his overall redemptive plan. Gentry and Wellum believe that “the sine qua non of [DT] is the Israel-church distinction, which is largely tied to their understanding of the covenantal differences between the ethnic nation of Israel under the old covenant and the church as God’s people under the new covenant.”[4] As such, DT asserts that promises to “Israel” in the OT should be understood as referring to the physical, national people. Israel is still awaiting literal land-fulfillments of promises made to them in the OT. And since Israel is still awaiting these promises, the NT church cannot replace historical Israel in God’s plan of salvation. Therefore, the church is a new entity that “finds its origin in Christ and particularly in the baptism of the Spirit.”[5] DT ecclesiology asserts that the church is comprised of Spirit-indwelled believers, and “a ‘mixed’ community of believers and unbelievers.”[6] Likewise, DT ecclesiology asserts that the physical Israel is still awaiting physical Abrahamic covenant promises; therefore, a “future millennial kingdom” is needed wherein Israel will receive these promises “in a manner distinct from the church.”[7]

Covenant Theology

 Second, Covenant Theology (CT) maintains that “all of God’s relations to human beings are understood in terms of three covenants” (the Covenant of Redemption, made between the Godhead before the foundation of time; the Covenant of Works, between God and Adam before the Fall “on behalf of the entire human race;”[8] and the Covenant of Grace, between God and the elect through the Jesus Christ). CT generally has more continuity than DT, especially regarding the Israel-church distinction. CT holds that the nation of Israel culminates in the church, thereby exhibiting God’s “one plan of redemption and one people of God.”[9] Therefore, there is more (perhaps even strict) continuity between Israel and the church. In the Covenant of Grace, though there are many who belong to the covenant community, not all are the elect. Even CT sees the OT “signs” (especially circumcision) in strict continuity. Therefore, the new covenant sign of baptism supplants the sign of circumcision because the new covenant ushers in greater privileges for believers.[10] Likewise, the continuity underscores the spiritual reality behind the signs themselves—namely, that both the old covenant sign of circumcision and the new covenant sign of baptism point to a uniform underlying spiritual reality.[11]

Progressive Covenantalism

Peter Gentry and Stephen Wellum coined the name of the third group: Progressive Covenantalism (PC). They would agree that both interpretive models above have truths to accept, but both per se are insufficient for a “biblical” whole-Bible reading Scripture. In our opinion, Gentry and Wellum present PC as the best of both worlds. For example, PC is generally Reformed in principle but not fully covenantal; PC is generally Baptistic in practice but not fully dispensational. For PC, OT land promises are “literal” (as in DT) and typological (as in CT). In other words, they are brought to fulfillment on the very soil of the new creation. We imagine that Gentry and Wellum would agree with Zaspel on this score: DT over-compartmentalizes redemptive history, whereas CT flattens redemptive history.[12] There are too many similarities and dissimilarities to discuss here, but below is a graphic that Ben created to illustrate some of the major elements of DT and CT that PC tries to unite under a Christological hermeneutic.

Progressive Covenantalism integrates the best features of both Dispensational and Covenantal theologies under a Christological hermeneutic. © 2019 God & the Gospel

[1] Peter J Gentry and Stephen J. Wellum, Kingdom through Covenant: A Biblical-Theological Understanding of the Covenants, 2nd ed. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2018), 32.

[2] Michael S. Horton, The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), 44.

[3] For an overview, see Thomas R. Schreiner, Covenant and God’s Purpose of the World, SSBT 4 (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2018).

[4] Gentry and Wellum, Kingdom through Covenant, 42.

[5] Gentry and Wellum, Kingdom through Covenant, 42

[6] Gentry and Wellum, Kingdom through Covenant, 43.

[7] Gentry and Wellum, Kingdom through Covenant, 43. DT in general divides into three subsections. First, classic dispensationalism (DT) asserts that God has two distinct groups of people with whom he engages: a heavenly people (Israel before the new covenant) and an earthly people (the church in the new covenant). Seeking to correct the implication of a dual-approach to salvation that arose from classic DT, revised DT asserts that though Israel and the church remain distinct entities into eternity, they both receive the same salvation (Gentry and Wellum, Kingdom through Covenant, 47). And third, progressive DT “argues that the church is more organically related to God’s one plan of redemption” than the other two (Gentry and Wellum, Kingdom through Covenant, 50). The church isn’t a new entity, but a product of “successive… arrangements [i.e., a progression] of the various dispensations as they ultimately culminate in Christ” (Gentry and Wellum, Kingdom through Covenant, 50). Though this sounds like CT, progressive DT holds that such progression is a “‘qualitative progression in the manifestation of grace’” (Gentry and Wellum, Kingdom through Covenant, 51).

[8] Gentry and Wellum, Kingdom through Covenant, 57.

[9] Gentry and Wellum, Kingdom through Covenant, 58.

[10] Gentry and Wellum, Kingdom through Covenant, 77–80.

[11] Cf. Gentry and Wellum, Kingdom through Covenant, 121–22.

[12] Paraphrase of uncertain source.