Merkle, Benjamin L. Discontinuity to Continuity: A Survey of Dispensational and Covenantal Theologies. Bellingham, Wash.: Lexham Press, 2020. x+236 pp.; Pb. $25.99 Link to Lexham Press
In 1980 Daniel P. Fuller published Gospel and Law: Contrast or Continuum? The Hermeneutics of Dispensationalism and Covenant Theology (Eerdmans), which was in part based on his 1957 ThD dissertation on the hermeneutics of dispensationalism. The book was controversial for several reasons, but it began a discussion of whether there is a unity between the Old and New Testaments. Does God have a unified plan and a single people of God? Is that plan better described in terms of a single covenant, or a series of covenants? Fuller contrasted two popular systems of thought, dispensationalism and covenant theology, to answer these questions. He argued for more unity than discontinuity in God’s plan; dispensationalism did not fare well in the book, but covenant theology was not quite right either, in Fuller’s view.
Much has happened in the world of biblical theology in the last fifty years later. Both dispensationalism and covenant theology been in dialogue and have both developed and matured. Biblical theology has blossomed and there are dozens of studies which argue for a unified story of redemption from Genesis to Revelation. Craig G. Bartholomew and Michael W. Goheen’s The Drama of Scripture (Baker Academic, Second Edition 2014) is a popular presentation of the overarching story of Scripture, modifying N. T. Wright’s metaphor of a multi-act play. It is neither covenant theology nor dispensationalism, but both resonate with the plan of God revealed in a series of stages (covenants, dispensations).
In this new book on the hermeneutics of dispensationalism and covenant theology, Benjamin Merkle’s Discontinuity to Continuity cannot simply contrast the two systems. It would be wrong to cite the Scofield Reference Bible as the last word on dispensationalism; the book is now over 100 years old! It would be equally dishonest to cite Caspar Olevian or Johannes Cocceius as examples of current thinking in covenant theology. Merkle divides dispensationalism into three sections, classic, revised and progressive, representing the continuing refinement of the theological system. Covenant theology is also divided into three sections, although the three flavors of Covenant theology are less chronological.
After an introduction and overview of the theological systems of discontinuity and continuity, the next six chapters of the book move from discontinuity (Classic Dispensationalism) to continuity (Christian Reconstruction). Each chapter begins with a chart entitled “Taxonomy of Theological Systems,” with three dispensational variations on the left and three covenant variants on the right. It is perhaps instructive that there is an unlabeled spot for a middle position. Is this where progressive dispensationalism and covenantalism will meet in the future? Another unintended consequence of this arrangement the left side represents a pretribulational rapture and premillennialism, the central views move from historic premillennialism and amillennialism, to the right side represents postmillennialism.
In his three chapters on Dispensationalism, Merkle tracks the development of the system from the classic dispensationalism of the Scofield Reference Bible to the revisions of the SRB made by the faculty of Dallas Theological Seminary in the 1960s (Revised Dispensationalism). Another important text for this period is Charles Ryrie’s Dispensationalism Today (Moody, 1965; Moody dropped “today” in a second edition, 2007). For many dispensationalists, this is still the standard introduction. Beginning in the 1980s, dispensationalists used the national meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society to continue to refine dispensationalism, resulting in several books and essay collections using the term “Progressive Dispensationalism.” This new era in dispensational thinking was in dialogue with covenant theology and sought to bring dispensationalism into the mainstream of biblical theology.
Merkle treats three variations of covenant theology in three chapters. Because it is closest to Progressive Dispensationalist, Merkle treats Progressive Covenantalism before turning to Covenant theology proper. Progressive Covenantalism is recent and is represented by Peter Gentry and Stephen Wellum, Kingdom through Covenant (Second Edition): A Biblical-Theological Understanding of the Covenants (Crossway, 2016) and Stephen J. Wellum and Brent E. Parker, Progressive Covenantalism: Charting a Course between Dispensational and Covenantal Theologies (B&H 2016).
Rather than using historic examples of Covenant Theology, Merkle uses Meredith Kline, O. Palmer Robertson, and Michael Horton, Introducing Covenant Theology (Baker 2006). Merkle uses Christian Reconstruction as representing the most continuity between the testaments. Representing by Rousas Rushdoony, Greg Bahnsen and Gary North. Although this position is associated with Dominion theology, Merkle limits his summary and critique to only the issue of continuity.
One possible omission in Merkle’s taxonomy is Gerald McDermott. He edited a collection of essays, The New Christian Zionism: Fresh Perspectives on Israel and the Land (InterVarsity Press, 2016) and published a popular presentation of his ideas as Israel Matters: Why Christians Must Think Differently about the People and the Land (Brazos, 2017). McDermott rejects replacement theology and argues for a future fulfillment of promises to Israel without any form dispensationalism. I am not sure his views fit well into progressive dispensationalism or covenantalism.
For each of the theological systems, Merkle gives a brief historical sketch and orientation to the chief representatives of the position. He then discusses the basic hermeneutic of each position. First, Merkle asks if the system has a literal or symbolic hermeneutic. Each position claims to use a grammatical-historical method and none would claim allegorizing the text is a legitimate approach. The key hermeneutical issue is the proper role of typology and how the Old Testament restoration processes are fulfilled. Merkle observes that dispensationalists dismiss (or minimize) typology while convent theology uses typology to explain how the Old Testament prophecy can be fulfilled in the church.
Under the heading of the relationship between the covenants, Merkle gives a short synopsis of how the position understands the covenants (or dispensations). For dispensationalism, this is the classic “seven dispensations,” for covenant theology this is the six biblical covenant (Adamic, Noahic, Abrahamic, Mosaic, Davidic and New Covenant). Next, Merkle examines whether the system sees the covenants as conditional or unconditional. He asked how the Old Testament saints were saved. Finally, he describes the approach of each system with respect to the application of the law in the present era. On one side, classic dispensationalism argues for no application, and Reconstructionism argues for the fullest application of the Law. Classic covenant theology uses a three-tiered view of the Law (moral, civil, and ceremonial), focusing primarily on the moral law as the continuity between Israel and the church. In practice, neither is completely consistent since classic dispensationalists find principles in the Law that can be applied today (especially for particular sins) and Reconstructionist do not advocate burning witches or stoning rebellious sons.
Under the relationship between Israel and the church, Merkle examines each position with respect to whether the church replaces, fulfills Israel, or is distinct from Israel. On one side classic dispensationalism makes a sharp distinction between the church and Israel and look for a future fulfillment of Old Testament restoration prophecies, covenant theology finds a typological fulfillment of Israel in the church, or in the more extreme form, the church is new Israel. This leads to a brief sketch at how each position deals with two key passages, Romans 11:26 (“all Israel will be saved”) and Galatians 6:16 (“the Israel of God”). For more on Merkle’s view of Romans 11:26, see his contribution in Compton and Naselli, Three Views on Israel and the Church (Kregel 2019).
With respect to the kingdom of God, he examines how the position understands the kingdom of God. For classic dispensationalists, the kingdom is entirely in the future, for most of covenant theology the kingdom is typologically fulfilled in the Church, although Reconstructionism is postmillennial, so the kingdom is being built by the church. For the progressive forms in the middle of Merkle’s taxonomy, the kingdom is in some ways already present, but not yet fully present. This leads to a discussion of Jesus’s ministry. To what extent did Jesus “bring in the kingdom”? If the kingdom is still in some respect still future, how is the kingdom to be consummated? As Merkle observes, the already/not yet understanding has influenced progressive dispensationalists as well as most forms of covenant theology. George Ladd’s New Testament Theology has influenced many of the scholars in the middle of Merkle’s taxonomy.
Each chapter ends with a few pages of assessment. He points out the strengths of each system along with a few critiques. Merkle is fair in both his summary and critique of each of the systems. There are no straw-man arguments in the book. Merkle does not cite fringe representatives of positions. It would be easy to cite Darby or Bullinger as representatives of dispensationalism, or cherry pick some of the stranger ideas of Reconstructionism. He has chosen legitimate representatives of each position and presents their ideas as fairly as possible.
The last chapter is a helpful summary of the six theological systems covered in the book. Some readers may want to start with this chapter before reading the more detailed descriptions in chapters 2-7.
Something Merkle does not address in this book is the in-family animosity between the three types of dispensational theology and the three types of covenantal theology. Any system self-identifying as “progressive” is asking for trouble from the classic form of the theology. There are many classic dispensationalists who look at recent developments as compromises and defections from “real dispensationalism.” Any progressive form of covenant theology (especially one that leans toward dispensationalism) will raise suspicions of straying too far from assured reformation truth. But as this book demonstrates, theological systems ought to continue to grow and develop.
Conclusion. Benjamin Merkle’s Discontinuity to Continuity: A Survey of Dispensational and Covenantal Theologies is an excellent primer on the various forms of dispensationalism and covenant theology. The book would serve as a textbook for a university or seminary class on hermeneutics, but Merkle writes for anyone reader interest in how the present church relates to Israel and the Old Testament.
NB: Thanks to Lexham Press for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.