Parker Brent E. and Richard J. Lucas, eds. Covenantal and Dispensational Theologies: Four Views on the Continuity of Scripture. Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2022. 266 pp. Pb; $30. Link to IVP Academic
Part of IVP Academic’s Spectrum Multiview Book Series, this book compares four views on the continuity of scripture. Brent E. Parker (PhD, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is assistant editor of The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology and co-edited (with Stephen Wellum) Progressive Covenantalism (B&H Academic, 2016). Richard J. Lucas (PhD, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is pastor of teaching and reaching at First Baptist Church in Jacksonville, Florida. As is typical of a “four views” books, each invited contributors presents their position in a chapter, answering these questions and the respond to the other three views in shorter concluding chapters. Parker and Lucus offer an introduction to frame the debate and a brief concluding chapter. The introduction includes an overview of each of the four theological systems presented in the book.
Let me make three important observations at the outset to clarify terms to avoid common misunderstandings. First, as Darrell Bock says in his essay, this issue is “very much an in-house, family discussion with evangelicalism” (112). All four views have a high view of Scripture, and all four views employ a grammatical-historical hermeneutic. All four contributors are interested an interpretive framework that favors authorial intent and avoids eisegesis. No one is “allegorizing the text” or being “excessively wooden” in their literal interpretation. Second, even though the word “progressive” is used for the two middle positions, there is no implication progressive covenantalism or dispensationalism are somehow liberal forms of the older, pure theological views. Third, even though two of the views are labeled dispensationalism, this book is not about eschatology. Certainly, there are differences between covenantal and dispensational systems regarding the millennium (a-mil vs. pre-mil, for example), but that is not the burden of this book. In fact, the dispensationalism represented by Bock and Snoeberger is more ecclesiological than eschatological.
As Parker and Lucas explain in their introduction, these essays are not the about the totality of covenantal or dispensational systems of interpretation. The discussion is focused squarely on one’s interpretive approach and hermeneutic for putting together the old and new testaments. The questions addressed by this collection of essays concern the hermeneutical principles which govern the reading of the whole Bible, how various covenants relate to one another and whether the Old Testament covenants are fulfilled in the New Testament. Each approach has a slightly different view on the relationship of the New Testament church and the Old Testament people of God, how Israel’s promises are (or are not) fulfilled in the church, whether there will be a future restoration of Israel and whether the land promises to Israel will be fulfilled.
Michael S. Horton (Gresham Machen Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics, Westminster Seminary California) has written extensively on Covenant Theology, including Covenant and Eschatology (WJKP, 2002) and Introducing Covenant Theology (Baker Academic, 2009). In this essay, Horton begins with by quoting John Hesselink: ‘Reformed theology is simply covenant theology” (36), but this is mostly because reformed theology recognizes two covenants, the Old and the New, uniting nearly all of Scripture from Genesis 3:15 through Revelation. Covenant Theology is, for Horton, the architectural design of Scripture. Covenants like Sinai are administrations on the one Covenant of Grace. The purpose of covenants in the Old Testament is to foreshadow the coming of Christ. A key “The church does not supersede Israel…. rather, the church has always existed since Adam and Eve, but only in Eden and in the land of Canaan has the church ever been fused with a temporal nation-state” (71).
Stephen J. Wellum (professor of Christian theology, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) contributes the chapter on Progressive Covenantalism. Wellum co-wrote Kingdom through Covenant with Peter Gentry (Crossway, 2012; second edition 2018) and co-edited a collection of essays on Progressive Covenantalism (Baker, 2016). Progressive covenantalism argues the Bible presents a plurality of covenants that progressively reveal the triune God’s one redemptive plan. “God has one people, yet there is an Israel-church distinction due to their respective covenants” (75). But what really drives Progressive covenantalism is typology. Following Richard Davidson, Wellum says typology is a feature of divine revelation rooted in history and in the text. It is both prophetic and predictive. In fact, he considers typology a subset of predictive prophecy. So how does typology work? The first aspect of typology is a repetition of a person, event, or institution that is repeated in later persons, events or institutions, allowing readers to see an emerging pattern. The ultimate fulfillment of these types is (first) Christ and then (second) his people (83). The best example is Adam as a type of Christ since Paul specifically mentioned Adam as a type of Christ in Romans 5:14 and 1 Corinthians 15:21-49. Christ is the “last Adam,” but Wellum points out Abraham and Israel can also be described as a type of Adam, anticipating the greater fulfillment in Christ. The types grow from a lesser to greater progressively through the covenants. Regarding the future, Progressive covenantalism adopts an already/not yet inaugurated eschatology, “the present kingdom of Christ will increase unto completion at his return” (101), but there is he does not see Israel receiving their promises in a future millennium (110). Wellum sees the church as the next progressive step in God’s plan. There is only one people of God throughout all time, and the church age is not a parenthesis (contra dispensationalism).
Darrell L. Bock (Senior Research Professor of New Testament Studies, Dallas Theological Seminary) presents the Progressive Dispensational viewpoint. Bock was one of the leading scholars in the mid-1980s involved in revising dispensationalism in dialogue with covenant theology. Along with Craig Blaising, he edited a collection of essays (Dispensationalism, Israel and the Church, Zondervan, 1992) and co-wrote Progressive Dispensationalism (Baker 1993) and has continued to contribute many essays on dispensational issues. See my review of the essay collection, Israel, the Church, and the Middle East. Although the word progressive appears in both the middle positions in this book, a key difference between progressive covenantalism and Progressive dispensationalism is their use of typology. Bock says progressive dispensationalism “does not define progress by appeals to typology or chains of development in new structures that come only from the New Testament. In progressive covenantalism, later typological fulfillments cancel out the earlier types. So, Israel was promised a land, but that promise is fulfilled in the church. Rather than a particular people in a land, God’s people are all people in the entire world. Bock disagrees, pointing to the Abrahamic promise which originally promised the whole world would be blessed (118). This leads to another key distinction is that gentile blessing does not mean the national, territorial Israelite exclusion. This is a pre-millennial, dispensational distinction: Israel will be restored in some real way in a millennial kingdom, a living in a land and experiencing peace promised in the Old Testament (123). But Bock insists this is still a unified people of God rather than a strict church/Israel distinction found in traditional dispensationalism.
Mark A. Snoeberger (professor of systematic theology and apologetics, Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary) represents traditional dispensationalism. One aspect separating traditional dispensationalism from the two forms of covenantalism is an anti-typology. Dispensationalism as Snoeberger presents it “rejects the legitimacy of the typological approach to Scripture observable in the Reformed and progressive covenantal literature” (153). In fact, Snoeberger presents dispensationalism as part of modernisms rejection of allegorical, typological, or spiritual hermeneutics. His principal objection is that typology “obliges readers to see later revelation as altering the meaning plainly intended by the original authors” (154). Wellum said just this: as the typology progresses through the various covenants, the later overrules the earlier. Snoeberger observes that dispensationalism was not born as “a hodgepodge of eschatological whimsy,” rejecting the one true way of salvation, etc. It was born as “an ecclesiological movement deeply committed to a careful reading and harmonization of the whole of Scripture” (151-52).
Rather than a literal, normal or plain hermeneutic (to use Charles Ryrie’s words, he argues for is an “originalist” reading of the Old Testament. For example, the term Israel in Scripture always carries with it an ethnic overtone and there are no biblical uses of the term Israel, which includes gentiles in its scope; he concludes Israel can never mean church (157). Not that Snoeberger denies there are types in Scripture, but he rejects typological interpretation (159, his emphasis). Snoeberger points out another key distinction. Both covenant theology and progressive covenantalism views scripture as a history of redemption. Dispensational theology, he argues, views scripture as a history of the rule of God (163).
Conclusion. As is often observed, the debate between traditional covenant theology and traditional dispensational theology creates a great deal of heat with little light. This is because the two systems are very close: Covenant theology focuses on the larger superstructure of the Covenant of Grace and Dispensational theology focuses on the internal structure (smaller stages) within the plan of God. Ironically, Horton says the Sinai covenant was an administration within the Covenant of Grace, so can it be called a dispensation, and Horton refers to Sinai as a parenthesis in salvation history, a very word traditional dispensationalists often use for the present church age.
What is clear after comparing the four views in Covenantal and Dispensational Theologies is that the key dividing point between the two approaches is their understanding of how typology functions in Scripture and how far to press typology when constructing a theological system. I have been wary about recent evangelical developments which seem to me to take typology too far.
Sometimes in-house family discussions can be the most chaotic. Like Benjamin L. Merkle’s Discontinuity to Continuity: A Survey of Dispensational and Covenantal Theologies, this book is compares the views is a peaceful constructive manner which will facilitate further discussion.
NB: Thanks to IVP Academic for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.