Progressive Covenantalism: Charting a Course between Dispensational and Covenant Theologies
In recent decades, Evangelicals have exhibited renewed interest in the task of biblical theology (henceforth: BT). Scores of books and journal articles examining BT as a discipline or some feature of BT (such as the NT use of the OT) have been published just in the last few years. This renewed sense of enthusiasm for BT is fueled, at least in part, by the centrality and indispensability of BT to the church’s other theological tasks. Exegesis, systematic theology, and even preaching cannot be divorced from BT and are inescapably influenced by it.
Despite common misconceptions, BT is more than simply developing themes through redemptive history. Rather, BT is an attempt to understand the logic of Scripture’s unfolding drama and make sense of how each part fits into the whole. In other words, BT tries to understand how the whole Bible fits together.
Among Protestants, covenant theology, in one form or another, has been the reigning biblical-theological paradigm since the Reformation. In the last two centuries, however, dispensationalism has become the most dominant biblical-theological system, particularly among Baptists. Dissatisfied with both paradigms, Stephen Wellum and Brent Parker advocate a mediating position known as progressive covenantalism (henceforth: PC)—a “subset” of what scholars often call New Covenant Theology. Wellum and Parker explain, “Progressive seeks to underscore the unfolding nature of God’s revelation over time, while covenantalism emphasizes that God’s plan unfolds through the covenants and that all of the covenants find their fulfillment, telos, and terminus in Christ” (2). Thus, PC seeks to avoid the overemphasis on continuity between the two testaments found in covenant theology and the radical discontinuity found in dispensationalism.
The term “progressive covenantalism” was originally coined in Stephen Wellum and Peter Gentry’s Kingdom through Covenant, a more systematic presentation of this biblical-theological paradigm. Wellum and Parker explain that Progressive Covenantalism is primarily a “continuation” of that earlier volume, addressing issues more topically so as to “unpack some of the points left underdeveloped or not discussed” by Kingdom through Covenant (4). Wellum and Parker divide the book into three major sections. The first section consists of “general essays that discuss various topics crucial to putting together the biblical covenants” (4).
In chapter 1, Jason DeRouchie considers “the OT roots to New Covenant ecclesiology” (9) by examining how the theme of “Abraham’s seed” develops across the canon. DeRouchie shows how the biblical data challenges dispensationalism’s insistence on seeing “Abraham’s seed” along purely ethnic lines and covenant theology’s understanding of the Abrahamic covenant as supporting the inclusion of believers’ children in the covenant.
In chapter 2, Brent Parker examines the typological relationship between Israel, Christ, and the church. Parker draws out the ecclesiological implications of the Israel-Christ typology and shows how it challenges dispensational convictions concerning a future for ethnic Israel and covenant theology’s insistence on a mixed new covenant community.
Chapters 3 and 4 deal with progressive covenantalism’s understanding of the Mosaic Law. In chapter 3, Jason Meyer surveys how different theological systems view the Law, while also arguing that Christians should no longer see themselves under the Law of Moses but under the law of Christ. In chapter 4, Ardel Caneday shows that categorizing the covenants simply as conditional or unconditional does not do justice to how each covenant is presented. He posits an alternative way forward that does not force such a stark separation between law and gospel.
Section 2 focuses on issues where progressive covenantalism differs from traditional covenant theology. In chapter 5, John Meade explores a biblical theology of circumcision and argues that “circumcision of the flesh marked one out for service to God but that in the OT this sign did not truly equal the thing signified in the life of the old covenant people of God” (156–57). Meade concludes that circumcision was a type that foreshadowed “heart circumcision” (not baptism), which characterizes all the members of the new covenant.
In chapter 6, Tom Schreiner traces Scripture’s teachings on the Sabbath, arguing that Christians are no longer obligated to keep the Sabbath since it has been fulfilled in Christ. In chapter 7, Christopher Cowan addresses the warning passages of Hebrews. Cowan argues that these warnings do not teach that unregenerate members of the covenant can fall away (as is the case in covenant theology), but that warnings are a means of salvation which God uses to secure the perseverance of his people. The final chapter of this section, by Stephen Wellum, explores how progressive covenantalists “do ethics.” As Wellum explains, this chapter outlines five foundational theological steps for progressive covenantalists as they seek to “establish God’s moral norms… as those who now live under the new covenant” (216).
The final section focuses on issues where progressive covenantalism differs from dispensationalism. In chapter 11, Richard Lucas responds to the dispensationalist interpretation of Romans 11, which posits that ethnic Israel will be restored as God’s people in the millennial kingdom and will mediate blessing to the Gentile nations. Finally, in the last chapter, Oren Martin argues that the land promise given to Abraham is ultimately fulfilled in the new heavens and the new earth, rather than in ethnic Israel’s occupation of the land in the millennial kingdom, as dispensationalists argue.
Progressive Covenantalism explores many controversial and complicated theological topics with both forceful argumentation and an irenic spirit. Many edited volumes suffer from lack of cohesion or too much dissimilarity between the quality of the articles. In this volume, however, each contributor has made a compelling case for some part of the progressive covenantal system. Furthermore, the editors should be credited for soliciting chapters that touch on the very heart of the debate between these biblical-theological systems.
Of course, even those convinced of progressive covenantalism (as I am) will find points with which to quibble. As the editors and contributors themselves note, they do not agree with one another on every point. This fact, however, does at least prove that progressive covenantalism is broad enough to include varying viewpoints on a number of exegetical matters—such as how one treats Romans 11:26.
What value does this book hold for the global church? First, the church’s most fundamental theological task is understanding how the Bible fits together. All theological convictions are a function of our understanding of how the covenants build on one another and how the two testaments relate. Progressive Covenantalism offers an instructive and biblical approach to putting the Bible together. Furthermore, this resource will be particularly helpful to pastors who need to understand the contours of biblical theology in order to authentically preach Christ from all of Scripture (especially OT narrative).
Second, dispensationalism dominates churches not only in the West but in Eastern contexts as well. The contributors of this volume, however, show that dispensationalism as a hermeneutical system is not without some faults. Progressive covenantalism offers a fruitful, persuasive, and historically rooted approach to biblical theology. This book’s presentation of the progressive covenantal system and its potent critiques of dispensationalism will hopefully challenge Christians and churches to reevaluate their own hermeneutic in light of Scripture.
Third, many thorny theological issues facing the global church are helpfully addressed by Wellum and Parker’s Progressive Covenantalism. For instance, issues like circumcision, Sabbath, or the proper application of the Mosaic Law are much more contentious and prominent in some global churches than they are in the West. On each of these topics, the contributors offer a clear, biblical, and pastoral way forward.
Finally, while the particular emphases of systematic theology may change from culture to culture, biblical theology, like exegesis, should be uniformly articulated in all times and cultures. To put it another way, BT and exegesis are a universal theological language in a way that systematic theology is not. As a collection of biblical theological essays, Progressive Covenantalism is more readily accessible and useful in any number of global contexts.
Ultimately, Wellum and Parker’s book is a compelling presentation of progressive covenantalism. This volume is an insightful sequel to Kingdom through Covenant and a needed resource unfolding this fresh interpretive perspective. Even those unconvinced by the editors’ proposal will be challenged in ways that will only deepen their grasp of Scripture and understanding of the biblical storyline.
 Peter J. Gentry and Stephen J. Wellum, Kingdom through Covenant: A Biblical-Theological Understanding of the Covenants (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012).