This book introduces readers to the biblical covenants, charting a middle course between dispensationalism and covenant theology. An accessible and abridged version of the influential theological workKingdom through Covenant.
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About the Author
Peter J. Gentry(PhD, University of Toronto) is professor of Old Testament interpretation at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and director of the Hexapla Institute.
Stephen J. Wellum (PhD, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) is professor of Christian theology at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, and editor of the Southern Baptist Journal of Theology. Stephen lives in Louisville, Kentucky, with his wife, Karen, and their five children.
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THE IMPORTANCE OF COVENANTS IN GRASPING THE BIBLE'S STORY
The idea of covenant is fundamental to the Bible's story. At its most basic, covenant presents God's desire to enter into relationship with men and women created in his image. This is reflected in the repeated covenant refrain, "I will be your God and you will be my people" (Exodus 6:6–8; Leviticus 26:12 etc.). Covenant is all about relationship between the Creator and his creation. The idea may seem simple; however, the implications of covenant and covenant relationship between God and humankind are vast ...
The purpose of this book is to demonstrate how central and foundational "covenants" are to the entire narrative plot structure of the Bible. One cannot fully understand Scripture and correctly draw theological conclusions from it without grasping how all of the biblical covenants unfold across time and find their telos, terminus, and fulfillment in Christ. We do not assert that the covenants are the central theme of Scripture. Instead, we assert that the covenants form the backbone of the Bible's metanarrative and thus it is essential to "put them together" correctly in order to discern accurately the "whole counsel of God" (Acts 20:27). Michael Horton nicely captures this point when he writes that the biblical covenants are "the architectural structure that we believe the Scriptures themselves to yield. ... It is not simply the concept of the covenant, but the concrete existence of God's covenantal dealings in our history that provides the context within which we recognize the unity of Scripture amid its remarkable variety." If this is so, which we contend it is, then apart from properly understanding the nature of the biblical covenants and how they relate to each other, we will not correctly discern the message of the Bible and hence God's self-disclosure which centers on and culminates in Christ.
This is not a new insight, especially for those in the Reformed tradition who have written extensively about the importance of covenants and have structured their entire theology around the concept of covenant. Yet it is not only Reformed theology that acknowledges this point; almost every variety of Christian theology admits that the biblical covenants establish a central framework that holds the Bible's story together. Since the coming of Christ, Christians have wrestled with the relationships between the covenants, especially the old and new covenants. In fact, it is almost impossible to understand many of the early church's struggles apart from covenantal debates. For example, think of the many issues concerning the Jew-Gentile relationship in the New Testament (Matt. 22:1–14, par.; Acts 10–11; Romans 9–11; Eph. 2:11–22; 3:1–13); the claim of the Judaizers, which centers on covenantal debates (Galatians 2–3); the reason that the Jerusalem Council assembled (Acts 15); the divisions between strong and weak in the church (Romans 14–15); and the question of how to live in relation to the old covenant now that Christ has come (Matthew 5–7; 15:1–20, par.; Acts 7; Romans 4; Hebrews 7–10). All of these issues are simply the church wrestling with covenantal shifts — from old covenant to new — and the nature of covenant fulfillment in Christ.
Christians have differed in their understanding of the relationship between the covenants. This is one of the primary reasons that we have different theological systems, which is best exemplified today by the theologies of dispensationalism and by covenant theology. Even though these two views agree on the main issues central to the gospel, at the heart of these two systems there is disagreement on what the biblical covenants are and how they relate one to another. Thus, beyond our basic agreement that the story of Scripture moves from Adam to Abraham to Sinai, ultimately issuing in a promise of a new covenant whose advent is tied with Jesus' cross work (Luke 22:20; 1 Cor. 11:23–26), there is disagreement on how the covenants are related. This disagreement inevitably spills over to other issues, especially the question of what applies to us today as new covenant believers. It is at this point, on such matters as the Sabbath, the application of the Old Testament law to our lives, the relationship between Israel and the church, and many more issues, that we discover significant differences among Christians.
For this reason, correctly "putting together" the biblical covenants is central to grasping the Bible's story, drawing correct theological conclusions, and rightly applying Scripture to our daily lives. If we are going to make progress in resolving disagreements within the church, then how we put together the biblical covenants must be faced head-on and not simply assumed. We are convinced that the current ways of putting together the covenants, especially as represented by covenant or dispensational theology, are not quite right, even though it is important not to overplay the differences among us. All Christians seek to do justice to the overall unity of God's plan, and to acknowledge some kind of "progressive revelation," redemptive epochs (or "dispensations"), fulfillment in Christ, change in God's plan across time, and so on. Yet there is disagreement in regard to the specifics of God's plan, the kind of changes that result, and the relationship between Israel and the church, which still requires resolution. What follows is an alternative reading of the covenants, which seeks to build on the insights of both of these theological systems while offering a slightly different way of understanding the unfolding of the covenants and their fulfillment in Christ.
"Kingdom through covenant" or "progressive covenantalism" is our proposal for what is central to the Bible's storyline. Progressive underscores the unfolding of God's plan from old to new, while covenantalism stresses that God's unified plan unfolds through the covenants, ultimately terminating and culminating in Jesus and the new covenant. Our triune God has only one plan of redemption, yet we discover what that plan is as we trace his salvation work through the biblical covenants. Each and every biblical covenant contributes to that one plan, but in order to grasp the full depth and breadth of that plan, we must understand each covenant in its own redemptive-historical context by locating that covenant in relation to what precedes it and what follows it. When we do this, not only do we unpack God's glorious plan; we also discover how that plan is fulfilled in our majestic Redeemer (see Heb. 1:1–3; 7:1–10:18; cf. Eph. 1:9–10). In addition, given that Christians live in light of the achievement of Christ's glorious work, we can apply Scripture rightly to our lives only if we think through how all of the previous covenants find their fulfillment in Christ and the new covenant he inaugurates.
Before we unpack "kingdom through covenant," in the remainder of this chapter and in preparation for chapters 2–10 we will focus on two issues. First, we will briefly discuss how we conceive of the nature of biblical theology and its relation to systematic theology, since this book is an exercise in both disciplines and, sadly, there is no unanimous agreement in regard to these disciplines. Second, we will outline our hermeneutical approach in this study and thus describe something of our theological method. Let us now briefly turn to each of these areas.
BIBLICAL THEOLOGY AND ITS RELATION TO SYSTEMATIC THEOLOGY
Any attempt to understand the progressive nature of the biblical covenants is an exercise in "biblical theology." It is also the first step in drawing legitimate theological conclusions from Scripture and thus applying the "whole counsel of God" to our lives, which is the task of "systematic theology." Since people mean different things by "biblical" and "systematic" theology, let us explain how we are using these terms and how we understand the relationship between them.
At the popular level, for most Christians, when the term "biblical theology" is used it is understood as expressing the desire to be "true to the Bible" in our teaching and theology. Obviously, to be "biblical" in this sense is what all Christians ought to desire and strive for, but this is not exactly how we are using the term. In fact, in church history, "biblical theology" has been understood in a number of ways.
Generally speaking, before the past few centuries biblical theology was often identified with systematic theology, even though many in church history practiced what we currently call "biblical theology," that is, an attempt to grasp the redemptive-historical unfolding of Scripture. One can think of many examples, such as Irenaeus (c. 115–c. 202), John Calvin (1509–1564), and Johannes Cocceius (1603–1669). In this sense, biblical theology is not entirely new, since the church has always wrestled with how to "put together" Scripture, especially in light of Christ. Any position, then, that seeks to think through the Canon is doing "biblical theology" in some sense. Granting this point, it is still accurate to note that, in the past, there was a tendency to treat Scripture in more logical and atemporal categories rather than to think carefully through the Bible's developing storyline. Even in the post-Reformation era, where there was a renewed emphasis on doing a "whole-Bible theology," biblical theology was mostly identified with systematic theology, and systematics was identified more with "dogmatic" concerns.
With the rise of the Enlightenment, however, biblical theology began to emerge as a distinct discipline. But it is crucial to distinguish the emergence of biblical theology in the Enlightenment along two different paths — one, an illegitimate path tied to Enlightenment presuppositions, and the other, a legitimate one that developed previous insights in church history but now in a more precise, detailed, and historically conscious manner, dependent upon the Bible's own internal presentation.
In regard to the illegitimate Enlightenment approach to biblical theology, there was a growing tendency to read Scripture critically and uncoupled from historic Christian theology. This resulted in approaching Scripture "as any other book," rooted in history but also open to historical-critical methods which viewed the Bible within the confines of methodological naturalism. This meant that the Bible was not approached on its own terms, i.e., as God's Word written. Instead, the idea that Scripture is God-breathed through human authors — a text that authoritatively and accurately unfolds God's redemptive plan centered in Christ — was rejected. The end result of this approach was not only a denial of a high view of Scripture but also an increasingly fragmented reading of Scripture, given the fact that the practitioners of this view did not believe Scripture to be a unified, God-given revelation. Biblical theology as a discipline became merely "descriptive," governed by critical methods and non-Christian worldview assumptions. "Diversity" was emphasized more than "unity" in Scripture, and ultimately, as a discipline seeking to grasp God's unified plan, it failed. In the twentieth century, there were some attempts to overcome the Enlightenment straitjacket on Scripture, but none of these attempts produced a "whole Bible theology," given their low view of Scripture.
Contrary to the Enlightenment approach, there is a legitimate way to do biblical theology. In the history of the church, specifically in the post-Reformation and post-Enlightenment era, this path also emphasized a renewed attempt to root the Bible in history by stressing the "literal sense" (sensus literalis) tied to the intention(s) of the divine and human author(s). Yet, it was rooted in a larger Christian worldview and, as such, it operated self-consciously within Christian theological presuppositions, as illustrated in such people as Johannes Cocceius and the post-Reformation ReformedProtestant scholastics who came after him. Probably the best-known twentieth-century pioneer of biblical theology, who sought to follow a path distinct from that of the Enlightenment, was Geerhardus Vos, who developed biblical theology at Princeton Seminary in the early twentieth century. Vos, who was birthed out of Dutch Calvinism, along with such figures as Abraham Kuyper and Herman Bavinck, sought to do biblical theology with a firm commitment to the authority of Scripture. Vos defined biblical theology as "that branch of Exegetical Theology which deals with the process of the self-revelation of God deposited in the Bible." In contrast to the Enlightenment view, Vos argued that biblical theology, as an exegetical discipline, not only begins with the biblical text; it must also embrace Scripture as God's own self-attesting Word, fully authoritative and reliable. Furthermore, Vos argued, in exegeting Scripture, biblical theology seeks to trace out the Bible's unity and diversity and find its consummation in Christ and the inauguration of the new covenant era. Biblical theology must follow a method that reads the Bible on its own terms, following the Bible's own internal contours and shape, in order to discover God's unified plan as it is disclosed to us over time. The path that Vos blazed was foundational for much of the resurgence of biblical theology within evangelicalism, in the twentieth and now twenty-first century.
Following this evangelical view, we define "biblical theology" by employing Brian Rosner's helpful definition: "Biblical theology" is "theological interpretation of Scripture in and for the church. It proceeds with historical and literary sensitivity and seeks to analyze and synthesize the Bible's teaching about God and his relations to the world on its own terms, maintaining sight of the Bible's overarching narrative and Christocentric focus." In this definition, Rosner emphasizes some important points crucial to the nature and task of biblical theology. Biblical theology is concerned with the overall message of the whole Bible. It seeks to understand the parts in relation to the whole. As an exegetical method, it is sensitive to the literary, historical, and theological dimensions of Scripture, as well as to the interrelationships between earlier and later texts in Scripture. Furthermore, biblical theology is interested not merely in words and word studies but also in concepts and themes as it traces out the Bible's own storyline, on the Bible's own terms, as the plotline reaches its culmination in Christ. In a similar way, D. A. Carson speaks of biblical theology as an inductive, exegetical discipline which works from biblical texts, in all of their literary diversity, to the entire Canon — hence the notion ofintertextuality. In making connections between texts, biblical theology also attempts to let the biblical text set the agenda. This is what we mean by saying that we are to read Scripture on its own terms, i.e., intratextually. Scripture is to be interpreted in light of its own categories and presentation, since Scripture comes to us as divinely given, coherent, and unified. In fact, it is our contention that if one asks the most basic questions — How has God given Scripture to us? What are the Bible's own internal structures? How ought those structures shape our doing of biblical theology? — working through the biblical covenants is the Bible's own way of presenting its internal structures and learning how to read Scripture as God intended it to be read.
With these ideas in mind, let us now summarize what we believe biblical theology is. Simply stated, it is the hermeneutical discipline that seeks to do justice to what Scripture claims to be and what it actually is. In regard to its claim, Scripture claims to be God's Word written, and as such, it is a unified revelation of his gracious plan of redemption. In regard to what Scripture actually is, it is a progressive unfolding of God's plan, rooted in history and developed along a specific storyline primarily demarcated by the biblical covenants. Biblical theology as a hermeneutical discipline attempts to exegete texts in their own context and then, in light of the entire Canon, to examine the unfolding nature of God's plan and carefully think through the relationship between before and after in that plan, which culminates in Christ. In so doing, biblical theology provides the basis for understanding how texts in one part of the Bible relate to all other texts, according to God's intention, which is discovered through human authors but ultimately at the canonical level. In the end, biblical theology is the attempt to think through the "whole counsel of God," and it provides the basis and underpinning for all theologizing.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "God's Kingdom through God's Covenants"
Copyright © 2015 Peter J. Gentry and Stephen J. Wellum.
Excerpted by permission of Good News Publishers.
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Table of Contents
Part 1 Introduction
1 The Importance of Covenants in Grasping the Bible's Story 17
Part 2 Exposition Of The Biblical Covenants
2 Covenants in the Bible and the Ancient Near East 47
3 The Covenant with Noah 57
4 The Covenant with Creation in Genesis 1?3 69
5 The Covenant with Abraham (I) 93
6 The Covenant with Abraham (II) 107
7 The Mosaic Covenant?Exodus/Sinai 133
8 The Mosaic Covenant?Deuteronomy/Moab 169
9 The Davidic Covenant 187
10 The New Covenant 207
Part 3 Theological Integration
11 "Kingdom through Covenant": Biblical-Theological Summary 243
General Index 273
Scripture Index 287
What People are Saying About This
“Gentry and Wellum offer a third way, a via media, between covenant theology and dispensationalism, arguing that both of these theological systems are not informed sufficiently by biblical theology. Certainly we cannot understand the Scriptures without comprehending ‘the whole counsel of God,’ and here we find incisive exegesis and biblical theology at its best. This book is a must-read and will be part of the conversation for many years to come.”
Thomas R. Schreiner, James Buchanan Harrison Professor of New Testament Interpretation, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary
“God’s Kingdom through God’s Covenants is hermeneutically sensitive, exegetically rigorous, and theologically richa first-rate biblical theology that addresses both the message and the structure of the whole Bible from the ground up. Gentry and Wellum have produced what will become one of the standard texts in the field. For anyone who wishes to tread the path of biblical revelation, this text is a faithful guide.”
Miles V. Van Pelt, Alan Belcher Professor of Old Testament and Biblical Languages and Academic Dean, Reformed Theological Seminary, Jackson, Mississippi
“This is not the first volume that has attempted to mediate the dispensational/covenant theology divide, but it may be the culminating presentation of that discussionjust as Bach was not the first Baroque composer but its highest moment. God’s Kingdom through God’s Covenants should be read by all parties, but I won’t be surprised to learn in twenty years that this volume provided the foundation for how a generation of anyone who advocates regenerate church membership puts their Bible together.”
Jonathan Leeman, Editorial Director, 9Marks; author,The Rule of Love
“Gentry and Wellum have provided a welcome addition to the current number of books on biblical theology. What makes their contribution unique is the marriage of historical exegesis, biblical theology, and systematic theology. God’s Kingdom through God’s Covenants brims with exegetical insights, biblical theological drama, and sound systematic theological conclusions. Particularly important is the viable alternative they offer to the covenantal and dispensational hermeneutical frameworks. I enthusiastically recommend this book!”
Stephen G. Dempster, Professor of Religious Studies, Crandall University
“The relationship between the covenants of Scripture is rightly considered to be central to the interpretation of the Bible. That there is some degree of continuity is obvious, for it is the same Godthe God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as well as the Father of our Lord Jesus Christwho has revealed himself and his will in the covenants. That there is, however, also significant discontinuity also seems patent since Scripture itself talks about a new covenant, with the old one passing away. What has changed and what has not? Utterly vital questions to which this new book by Gentry and Wellum give satisfying and sound answers. Because of the importance of this subject and the exegetical and theological skill of the authors, their answers deserve a wide hearing. Highly recommended!”
Michael A. G. Haykin, Professor of Church History and Biblical Spirituality, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary
“God’s Kingdom through God’s Covenants is directly applicable to a pastor faithfully seeking understanding of God’s Word as it reveals the structure that supports the narrative of God’s message. The study of the covenants provides a framework for understanding and applying the message of the Bible to life in the new covenant community. I have found this study enriching for pastoral ministry.”
Joseph Lumbrix, Pastor, Mount Olivet Baptist Church, Willisburg, Kentucky