Introduces an alternative to covenant theology and dispensationalism that positions covenant as the key to understanding Scripture’s narrative plot structure.
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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.
Read an Excerpt
THE IMPORTANCE OF COVENANTS IN BIBLICAL AND SYSTEMATIC THEOLOGY
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 two claims. First, we want to show how central the concept of "covenant" is to the narrative plot structure of the Bible, and secondly, how a number of crucial theological differences within Christian theology, and the resolution of those differences, are directly tied to one's understanding of how the biblical covenants unfold and relate to each other. In terms of the first claim, we are not asserting that the covenants are the centre of biblical theology. Instead, we assert that the covenants form the backbone of the metanarrative of Scripture 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 the case, which we contend it is, then apart from properly understanding the nature of the biblical covenants and how they relate to each other, one will not correctly discern the message of the Bible and hence God's self-disclosure which centres and culminates in our Lord Jesus Christ.
Obviously this is not a new insight, especially for those in the Reformed tradition who have written at length about the importance of covenants and have structured their theology around the concept of "covenant." In fact, almost every variety of Christian theology admits that the biblical covenants establish a central framework that holds the story of the Bible together. From the coming of Christ and the beginning of the early church, Christians have wrestled with the relationships between the covenants, particularly the old and new covenants. In fact, it is almost impossible to discern many of the early church's struggles apart from covenantal wrestling and debates. For example, think of how important the Jew-Gentile relationship is 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 centres on covenantal debates (Galatians 2–3), the reason for the calling of the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15), the wrestling with the strong and weak within the church (Romans 14–15), and the implications for the church on how to live vis-à-vis the old covenant now that Christ has come (Matthew 5–7; 15:1–20, par.; Acts 7; Romans 4; Hebrews 7–10). In reality, all of these issues are simply the church wrestling with covenantal shifts — from old covenant to new — and the nature of fulfilment that has occurred in the coming of Christ.
How Christians have understood the relationship between the biblical covenants has differed. This is one of the reasons why we have different theological systems and is probably best exemplified in our contemporary context by dispensationalism and covenant theology, even though it is certainly not limited to these views. Even though they agree on the main issues central to "the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints" (Jude 3), at their heart these two systems differ on many matters which, in the end, are rooted in their different views on the nature of the biblical covenants and how these covenants relate to each other. Thus, beyond our basic agreement that the story of Scripture moves from Adam to Abraham to Sinai, which ultimately issues 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 to "put together" the biblical covenants. This disagreement inevitably spills over to other issues, especially the question of what from the old covenant 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 the state, the application of various moral prohibitions, and many more issues, that we discover significant differences among Christians.
For this reason, correctly "putting together" the biblical covenants is central to the doing of biblical and systematic theology and thus to the theological conclusions we draw from Scripture in many doctrinal areas. If we are going to make progress in resolving disagreements within Christian theology, especially in regard to dispensational and covenant theology, then how we understand the nature of the biblical covenants and their relationship to each other must be faced head on and not simply assumed. It is our conviction that the present ways of unpacking the biblical covenants across the Canon, especially as represented by dispensational and covenant theology (and their varieties), are not quite right. That is why we believe it is time to present an alternative reading which seeks to rethink and mediate these two theological traditions in such a way that we learn from both of them but also provide an alternative — a via media. We are convinced that there is a more accurate way to understand the relationship of the biblical covenants which makes better sense of the overall presentation of Scripture and which, in the end, will help us resolve some of our theological differences. If, as church history warns, that goal is too ambitious, minimally our aim is to help us become more epistemologically self-conscious in how we put our Bible together in relation to the biblical covenants. In so doing, hopefully the discussion among Christians can profitably progress as we compare and contrast our basic theological commitments in a variety of doctrinal areas.
"Kingdom through covenant" is our proposal for what is central to the narrative plot structure of the Bible, which we want to develop in detail in the following chapters. If we were to label our view and to plot it on the map of current evangelical discussion, it would fit broadly under the umbrella of what is called "new covenant theology," or to coin a better term, "progressive covenantalism." Obviously the problem in attaching a label to any view is that we do not completely agree with all the proposals in the category.
In identifying our proposal as "progressive covenantalism," or a species of "new covenant theology," we are stressing two points. First, it is a via media between dispensational and covenant theology. It neither completely fits nor totally disagrees with either system. Second, it stresses the unity of God's plan which is discovered as we trace God's redemptive work through the biblical covenants. It is not our desire to focus on the new covenant to the exclusion of the other covenants; rather we are concerned with each and every biblical covenant. Yet, given the fact that God has progressively revealed his eternal plan to us over time and through the covenants, in order to discern God's plan correctly we must understand each biblical covenant in its own redemptive-historical context by locating that covenant in relationship to what precedes it and what comes after it. When we do this, not only do we unpack God's unfolding plan, but we discover how that one plan comes to fulfilment and culmination in Christ and the inauguration of the new covenant with all of its theological entailments (see Heb. 1:1–3; 7:1–10:18; cf. Eph. 1:9–10). Furthermore, given the fact that we live in light of the achievement of Christ's glorious work, we must apply the entire Scripture to us, including all of the previous covenants, through the lens of the achievement of our Lord and the new covenant realities he inaugurates. Hence the reason for the label "progressive covenantalism" or "new covenant theology." Yet, regardless of the particular label, our intent is to propose an alternative way of understanding the nature of the biblical covenants and their relationship to the new covenant in Christ. We want to begin to spell out some of the implications of this view for various theological loci since one's understanding of the covenants is so foundational to how one "puts together" the entire Bible. In the end, how one approaches the very doing of biblical and systematic theology is greatly affected by one's comprehension of how the biblical covenants unfold and relate to each other in God's one plan of redemption.
Our procedure is to begin this study by establishing the importance of biblical covenants for biblical and systematic theology. There are numerous ways this point could be demonstrated but we will do so by setting our discussion of the covenants in the context of the two dominant theological systems within evangelical theology. Dispensationalism and covenant theology (along with their varieties) largely frame how evangelicals put their Bibles together. Each view attempts to serve as an interpretive grid for how to understand the metanarrative of Scripture. In this way, both systems function as examples of biblical theologies, i.e., "whole-Bible theologies," which then lead to various systematic theological conclusions. Yet, it is well known that each system draws vastly different conclusions — not so much on primary gospel issues — but on significant theological matters which lead to differences among us. Specifically we notice these differences in the doctrinal areas of ecclesiology and eschatology, but it is not limited to these matters, as we will seek to demonstrate. Thus it is helpful to establish the importance of biblical covenants by doing so through the lens of these two theological systems and discerning where they differ from each other especially in their understanding of these covenants. In this way, our proposal is viewed against the backdrop of current views in the church.
Before we turn to that task, in chapter 1 we will first give a brief discussion on how we conceive of the nature of biblical theology and its relation to systematic theology. Since we are viewing dispensational and covenant theology as examples of biblical and systematic theologies it is important to describe our use of these terms, given that there is no unanimous agreement regarding their use.
Chapter 2 will describe the basic views of dispensational and covenant theology, noting variations and debates within each view. As one would expect, each view is not monolithic; however, in our description of these biblical-systematic theologies particular attention will be focused on their respective understanding of the biblical covenants and how it is that each view differs, given their specific way of relating the biblical covenants to each other.
Building on this description of the two theological systems, chapter 3 will conclude the introductory section in two ways. First, we will describe some basic hermeneutical assumptions we will employ in our reading of Scripture and thus describe something of our theological method in doing biblical and systematic theology. Second, we will then resume our discussion of dispensational and covenant theology by outlining some of the hermeneutical similarities and differences between them which need resolution in order to adjudicate these two systems and thus argue for a via media.
Chapters 4–15 will serve as the heart of the book. Here our proposal of "kingdom through covenant" is unpacked in detail as each biblical covenant is described in its own redemptive-historical context and then in its relationship to the dawning of the new covenant in the person and work of our Lord Jesus Christ. Finally, chapters 16–17 will conclude the book by tying the loose ends together in a summary of the proposal and then briefly showing some of the theological ramifications of it which highlight how our understanding of "kingdom through covenant" affects the conclusions drawn from systematic theology for the various doctrinal loci, specifically, but not limited to, Christology, soteriology, ecclesiology, and eschatology.
Let us now turn to a brief discussion of our understanding of the nature of biblical theology and its relation to systematic theology. This will allow us to describe how we are using these terms and to explain why we view dispensational and covenant theology as examples of both biblical and systematic theology, even though we disagree with various aspects of each view.
THE NATURE OF BIBLICAL THEOLOGY
We believe this attempt to understand the biblical covenants across redemptive-history and to unpack their relationship to one another and to their ultimate fulfilment in Christ 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." But given the fact that people mean different things by "biblical" and "systematic" theology, let us explain how we are using these terms and how we conceive of the relationship between them.
At the popular level, for most Christians, when the term "biblical theology" is used it is probably heard as expressing the desire to be "biblical" or "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 last two or three centuries, biblical theology was often identified with systematic theology, even though many in church history practised what we currently call "biblical theology," that is, an attempt to unpack 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 important sense, biblical theology is not entirely new, since the church has always wrestled with how to put the whole Canon together, especially in light of the coming of Christ. Any position, then, that seeks to think through the canon of Scripture 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 the Scripture in more logical and atemporal categories rather than to think carefully through the Bible's developing story line as it was forged across time. 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 systematic theology was identified more with "dogmatic" concerns.
With the rise of the Enlightenment, biblical theology begins to emerge as a distinct discipline. Some have argued, and rightly so, that this is tied to the Enlightenment's "historical consciousness." However, one must carefully distinguish the emergence of biblical theology in the Enlightenment era along two different paths, one path serving as an illustration of an illegitimate approach to biblical theology tied to the Enlightenment's Zeitgeist and the other path a legitimate one seeking to develop previous insights in church history but now in a more precise, detailed, and historically conscious manner, dependent upon the Bible's own internal presentation. Let us first think briefly about the illegitimate development of biblical theology associated with the Enlightenment and classic liberal theology before we discuss what we believe is the legitimate view of biblical theology.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Kingdom through Covenant"
Copyright © 2012 Peter J. Gentry and Stephen J. Wellum.
Excerpted by permission of Good News Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
List of Abbreviations,
PART ONE PROLEGOMENA,
1 The Importance of Covenants in Biblical and Systematic Theology,
2 Covenants in Biblical-Theological Systems: Dispensational and Covenant Theology,
3 Hermeneutical Issues in "Putting Together" the Covenants,
PART TWO EXPOSITION OF THE BIBLICAL COVENANTS,
4 The Notion of Covenant in the Bible and in the Ancient Near East,
5 The Covenant with Noah,
6 The Covenant with Creation in Genesis 1–3,
7 The Covenant with Abraham (I),
8 The Covenant with Abraham (II),
9 The Israelite (Mosaic) Covenant: Exodus,
10 The Israelite (Mosaic) Covenant: Deuteronomy,
11 The Davidic Covenant,
12 The New Covenant: Introduction/Isaiah/Ezekiel,
13 The New Covenant: Jeremiah,
14 The New Covenant in Daniel's Seventy Weeks,
15 Speaking the Truth in Love (Ephesians 4:15): Life in the New Covenant Community,
PART THREE THEOLOGICAL INTEGRATION,
16 "Kingdom through Covenant": A Biblical-Theological Summary,
17 "Kingdom through Covenant": Some Theological Implications,
Appendix: Lexical Analysis of berît ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]),
Bibliography for Parts 1 and 3,
Bibliography for Part 2,
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
“Kingdom through Covenant is hermeneutically sensitive, exegetically rigorous, and theologically richa first rate biblical theology that addresses both the message and 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
“What do you get when you cross a world class Bible scholar and a first rate systematic theologian? You get 800-plus pages of power-packed biblical goodness. You get the forest and quite a few of the trees. 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. Gentry and Wellum’s proposal of Kingdom through Covenant should be read by all parties, but I won’t be surprised to learn in 20 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. Kingdom through Covenant 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 and 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
“Kingdom through Covenant 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 throughout time. 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 personally transforming, and enriching in my teaching ministry.”
Joseph Lumbrix, Pastor, Mount Olivet Baptist Church, Willisburg, Kentucky
“This impressive volume makes a significant contribution to our understanding of the nature of the biblical covenants. Meticulously researched, clearly written, and boldly argued, the ‘progressive covenantalism’ thesisa via media between dispensational and covenantal theologycombines exegetical depth with theological rigor in the service of covenant faithfulness. The result is penetrating reflections on theology proper, Christology, ecclesiology and eschatology. Even at points of disagreement, all who teach the Scriptures to others will find here a rich treasure trove of whole-Bible theological thinking and an invaluable resource to return to again and again.”
David Gibson, Minister, Trinity Church, Aberdeen, Scotland; author, Living Life Backward; coeditor, From Heaven He Came and Sought Her