Timothy R. Ashley, The Book of Numbers. Second Edition (NICOT)

Ashley, Timothy R. The Book of Numbers. Second Edition. New International Commentary on the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2022. xxxix+660 pp. Hb; $60.00   Link to Eerdmans

This second edition of Timothy Ashley’s 1993 NICOT commentary on Numbers is far more than a cosmetic upgrade. Ashley observes in the preface to the second edition, “I still agree with a good deal of what I wrote,” but there are some changes. He noticed that his earlier commentary tended to argue with the so-called documentary hypothesis. On the one hand, he appreciates the work of scholars looking for sources. However, fewer scholarly readers are asking the questions that those studies answered. For this reason, he has eliminated or reduced apologetic concerns, which took up space in the first edition. On the first page of the commentary itself, he deleted the phrase “so-called documentary hypothesis” and reference to Wellhausen (page 43 of the 1993 commentary, page 1 of the second edition). The second edition of this commentary “attempts to pull the reader into the final form of the Book of Numbers” which likely dates to the sixth or early fifth century BCE.

Ashley, Numbers NICOTNevertheless, the introduction includes an expanded and updated section on “authorship, composition, and the interpretation of the text.” He still begins with a summary of Wellhausen and form critical studies, but adds reference to Israel Knohl, The Sanctuary of Silence: The Priestly Torah and the Holiness School (Fortress, 1995, reprint, Eisenbrauns, 2007) as a major challenge to the documentary hypothesis. Several recent commentaries examine the literary features Numbers and argue for the “cogency of the final form of the text” (7). Ashley uses this approach as a model for the commentary.

Ashley thinks there is no reason to deny that the final form of the book was edited and re-edited until the post-exilic period. For example, Numbers presupposes a time later than the conquest, especially after chapter 22. The book certainly has a “more complex history of transmission than is recoverable” (9). Ashley has little doubt that there were sources, but also it is reasonable and practical to approach the final form of the narratives that probably “depended on a historical remembrance” (9).

As with any second edition, Ashely updated footnotes and bibliography to include many works on Numbers and the Pentateuch written in the last thirty years. However, he admits he has not attempted to be comprehensive. In addition, the indices for the commentary have re-compiled (only six pages in the 1993 edition, now seventeen pages). The select bibliography in the 1993 edition spanned 22 pages, in the second edition it appears on pages xxvii-l (28 pages). The commentary now conforms to the current NICOT style, including a smaller font size. Given these changes in pagination and font size, the new edition is 606 pages total, about 60 pages less that the first edition.

Conclusion. Ashley’s NICOT commentary on Numbers joins Baruch A. Levine’s Anchor Bible commentary (2 vols., Yale, 1993, 2000) as a top English scholarly commentary on Numbers.

As with any second edition of a commentary, someone might ask if it is necessary to replace the 1993 edition. Does the second edition include enough new material to merit the investment? Yes, if only for a shift in focus away from the discussion of the documentary hypothesis to the final form of the book. Ashley’s 2022 commentary reflects a mature understanding of the literary nature of the Book of Numbers. A second question, should you keep your 1993 edition? The 1993 edition does indeed enter a dialogue with the documentary hypothesis; if that is your interest, then the earlier edition will continue to have value.

Eerdworld has a sixty-five-page preview of the commentary.

NB: Thanks to Eerdmans for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.


Other Commentaries in the NICOT Series:


Michael J. Ovey, The Feasts of Repentance

Ovey, Michael J. The Feasts of Repentance: From Luke-Acts to Systematic and Pastoral Theology. NSBT 49; Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2019. 173 pp. Pb; $25.  Link to IVP Academic

Michael J. Ovey (1958–2017) served as the principal of Oak Hill College, London, from 2007 until his death. He delivered an early version of this book at the annual Moore Theological College lectures and continued editing the book until his sudden death in 2017.

Ovey argues repentance is a critical element of the proclamation of the gospel, and it is too often overlooked in modern preaching. His theological context is global Anglicanism, but a lack of emphasis on repentance is certainly true for most forms of Christianity. He cites N. T. Wright, who defines the Gospel as the proclamation of Jesus as Lord. This stands in contrast to John Calvin, who held the sum of the gospel comprises repentance and forgiveness of sin (2). More than this, how does repentance work for post-conversion Christian life? For many, an emphasis on living a repentant life leads to a joyless, guilt-ridden Christian life.

RepentanceThis book moves from a biblical theology of repentance (as demonstrated in Like-Acts) to systematic theology (is repentance a necessary component of salvation?) to pastoral theology (is repentance a necessary component of the Christian life?) For Ovey, repentance is a formal necessity and not a “optional extra.”

The biblical theology section (chs. 2-3) examines the preaching of John the Baptist, followed by several examples of Jesus’s feasting with sinners (hence the title of the book). He briefly touches on the repentant thief and the important summary of the gospel and conclusion to the book of Luke in 24:46-48. Luke includes “repentance for the forgiveness of sins” at the heart of Jesus’s post resurrection instruction on what the scriptures said. Repentance is clear in apostolic preaching to both Jews and Gentiles and Paul’s understanding of his own mission. Luke universalizes repentance. Everyone needs to repent of sin before receiving forgiveness.

Chapters 4-6 move into systematic theology. What is the relationship between faith and repentance in the ordo salutus (order of salvation)? For Ovey, if a call to faith omits repentance, it is a defective faith (130). “Repentance, apart from anything else, is needed to Orient us in relationship to the claims of Christ” (130). In Acts especially, Paul calls on gentiles to repent specifically from the sin of idolatry. Ovey defines idolatry “as a perversion or distortion of the relation that exists between creature and creator” (75). Idolatry is a parody of the real relationship humans ought to have with God. In fact, Ovey suggests idolatry is not just one sin among many, but rather it is the sin.

Chapter 7 moves to pastoral theology. If the biblical material universalizes repentance and systematic theology shows it is necessary for genuine faith, what about the unrepentant? Here, he examines two examples from Luke’s gospel. First, the Pharisees are self-righteous and prideful, both in their relationship to God and to each other. They simply do not need to repent. But Jesus sometimes refers to them as hypocrites. A hypocrite knows the truth but is self-deceived. Still, there is no need for repentance. The repentant, on the other hand, demonstrate humility toward God and that leads to repentance. Ovey uses the contrast between the two sons in Luke 15. He draws a connection between forgiveness and justice. There is an obligation for those who repent to show mercy towards those who have not yet repented (Luk6 6:36; 11:4; 17:3-4). Ovey points out how countercultural this is in a (modern) rights-based culture (154). We want our rights vindicated! An obligation to forgive involves a preparedness and willingness to forgive others and demands we forego what we deserve.

Conclusion. Ovey is correct. There is a lack of interest in repentance in modern preaching. Ovey is not interested in this book on the cultural factors, and he is writing from a different perspective than mine. Although it is certainly true modern evangelicals have trouble identifying their own sin and need for repentance, they seem to have little trouble in identifying when other people need to repent! Ovey’s description of the Pharisees is appropriate here. This book is therefore a valuable contribution to an overlooked yet important theological and biblical teaching of Scripture.


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.

Samuel Emadi, From Prisoner to Prince: The Joseph Story in Biblical Theology

Emadi, Samuel. From Prisoner to Prince: The Joseph Story in Biblical Theology. NSBT 59; Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2022. 188 pp. Pb; $24.  Link to IVP Academic

Samuel Emadi (PhD, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) serves as the senior pastor at Hunsinger Lane Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky and is an editor at 9Marks. This book is based on his dissertation, “Covenant, Typology, and the Story of Joseph: A Literary-Canonical Examination of Genesis 37-50” (2016) under the supervision of James Hamilton.  Hamilton wrote an article, “Was Joseph a Type of the Messiah? Tracing the Typological Identification between Joseph, David, and Jesus,” SBJT 12.4 (2008).

The story of Joseph is the climax of Genesis, yet Joseph is hardly mentioned in the rest of Scripture. Many Christians have turned toward typology as a plausible answer: Joseph “a type of the Messiah.” But virtually all studies which claim Joseph is a type of Christ lack methodological rigor. Emadi argues in this book that Joseph “passes the typological test” (3). He says, “Moses links the story of Joseph to the eschatological expectations established in Genesis (such as royal seed) and specifically to the hope of an eschatological king” (4).

Joseph Type of ChristKing and (royal) seed are the two key themes for Emadi’s argument. In order to make this work, he has to argue that kingship is an essential element in the Abrahamic covenant and that Joseph was instrumental to the fulfillment of the Abrahamic seed and land promise. To begin, he follows T. Desmond Alexander’s argument that Adam was given a royal and priestly commission in Genesis 2. This royal priesthood has an eschatological character, after Adam’s failure, genesis develops a hope for a royal restoration genesis 3: 15, and there are several royal- seed promises typologically fulfilled through characters who emerge as “new Adams” (46-47). He then traces how genesis develops Joseph as Abraham’s royal seed. He argues genesis regularly describes Joseph with royal imagery and at least foreshadow his future royal position. “Although Joseph may not have been a king, Moses describes him with royal attributes” (55).

Important to his argument that Joseph’s story ought to be read typologically is Jacob’s prophecy in Genesis 49:8-10. This passage does indeed connect a son of Jacob to the future royal line, but it is “Judah’s son who will be a Joseph redivivus” (63). Using what he calls inner Bible biblical exegesis in numbers 24, he argues Balaam’s prophecy identifies the king of Genesis 49:8-12 with the “enigmatic serpent-crushing seed of Genesis 3:15,” a person who “embodies the Abrahamic covenant who will conquer Israel’s enemies “making the people of God an Edenic paradise” (63-64).

The next section of the book traces Joseph through the rest of the biblical canon. First, chapter 7 surveys the nine other occurrences of the story in the rest of the Old Testament. Exodus only mentions since the people of Israel bought the brought the bones of Moses up out of Egypt when they left. Psalm 105:17-25 briefly summarizes Joseph’s story. To develop additional allusions to the Joseph story, he draws the parallel between Joseph and Daniel. Although he avoids describing Joseph and Daniel as the genre of “court tale” or wisdom literature. Daniel is an example of an exalted Jew in a foreign court, such as Nehemiah, Mordechai or Esther. James Hamilton made a similar argument in With the Clouds of Heaven (IVP Academic, 2014, reviewed here).

Chapter 8 deals with the two passages that mention Joseph in the New Testament: Acts 7:7-16 and Hebrews 11:21. For Emadi, Stephen’s speech in Acts 7, Joseph’s story is “not part of Israel’s story, in some sense it is Israel’s story” (133). He claims Stephen sees Joseph as a type of Christ” (133) and the Apostolic community “interpreted Joseph’s narrative as a miniature betrayal of Israel’s history, culminating in the rejection of Jesus. They saw “in Joseph a prophetic forecasting of the life of the Messiah” (137). This is a minority opinion among interpreters of the book of Acts and seems tangential to the argument of Stephen’s speech.

Although there are several remotely possible allusions to Joseph suggested by scholars in the New Testament, Emadi limits his discussion to the most probable, the Parable of the Tenants (examining the form found in Matthew 21:33-46). He argues this parable is a creative retelling of Israel’s history in order to undermine the present leadership’s understanding of their national identity. Emadi properly recognizes Isaiah 5 as the main Old Testament background. He also understands the citation of Psalm 118:22-23 as a celebration of God’s deliverance of his people from foreign oppressors. However, he does not examine Rabbinic parallels to this parable (see, for example Craig Evans, Mark 8:27-16:20 in the WBC series) or the word play using the Aramaic of stone/son as a reference to David as the stone the builders rejected. The original son that was rejected was David. Jesus is the son of David who is about to be killed outside the city.

Emadi’s focus is on the phrase “he sent his son” (ἀπέστειλεν πρὸς αὐτοὺς τὸν υἱὸν αὐτοῦ in Matt 21:37; but ἀποστείλω σε πρὸς αὐτούς in Gen 37:13, compare LXX Psalm 104:16: ἀπέστειλεν ἔμπροσθεν αὐτῶν ἄνθρωπον). In Genesis 37:13, Jacob sent his son Joseph to his brothers, and he suffered because of their jealousy. The son in the parable likewise suffers because of the jealousy of the tenants. He therefore makes the connection between Jesus and Joseph. Emadi concludes: “Jesus is, in fact, suggesting a typological reading of the Joseph story” (144). Maybe. A serious problem is the lack of verbal parallels between the parable and the LXX version of the Joseph story. It is close, but is it close enough to establish an allusion? I am thinking here of Richard Hays’s criteria for detecting allusions. In addition, there are other (more likely) readings of the Parable of the Tenants which do not interpret the son as an allusion to Joseph. The parable and the citation of Psalm 118 see clear, the son is Jesus! To find an allusion to Genesis 37 seems less like typology and more like allegorizing.

The argument could be improved with some attention to the intertestamental literature. For example, the book of Joseph and Asenath answers many questions Second Temple. Judaism had about Joseph’s time in Egypt, and in this Jewish romance novel an author describes Joseph in language which led David Aune to suggest the description of Christ in Revelation 1 alludes to Joseph and Asenath (Aune, Revelation 1-5, 72). The account of Asenath’s conversion is rich with possible messianic allusions. This Jewish text provides a data point on which a trajectory might be traced from a canonical Joseph story to a Jewish messianic interpretation. This is not typology, however, and may be the reason the intertestamental literature does not appear in this study. So too the Testament of Joseph, which does describe Joseph as a protomartyr, a book “of interest for the early church, since Joseph goes joyfully to his persecution and possible martyrdom. Joseph is a model of how to be a good Christian martyr.”

Conclusion. If you like typology, then you will love this book. Emadi is correct, popular preaching employs typology indiscriminately and does not have any methodological rigor. And Emadi is correct, Joseph “is an example of faith in covenantal promises in the face of death” (121) and “a faith worthy of imitation” (145). But this does not mean the author of Genesis intentionally foreshadowed the messiah in Genesis 37-50. It might be the case that authorial intention is not an important part of a typological method.


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.

Dean Flemming, Foretaste of the Future: Reading Revelation in Light of God’s Mission

Flemming, Dean. Foretaste of the Future: Reading Revelation in Light of God’s Mission. Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2022. 244 pp. Pb; $28.  Link to IVP Academic

Dean Flemming (PhD, University of Aberdeen) is professor emeritus of New Testament and missions at MidAmerica Nazarene University (Olathe, Kansas) and has served as a missionary educator in Asia and Europe. Flemming has published several works on the mission God, including Why Mission? (Reframing New Testament Theology) (Abingdon, 2015) and several academic articles and chapters on missio dei and contextualization of the Gospel.

A missional reading of the Apocalypse leads us to explore the book’s understanding of what God is up to in the world (God’s mission) and how God’s people, both in John’s time and our own, are called to be part of that mission (our mission), in our various global settings” (208). He defines the mission of God at various points in the book, but for a more detailed discussion of what Flemming means by this phrase, see his Recovering the Full Mission of God (IVP, 2013). For many readers, Revelation is not about mission at all, but predictions of future events at the end of the world. Flemming strenuously disagrees: “Revelation is not about scripting future events but revealing God’s great purpose to redeem and restore the whole of creation, including people, through the mission of the slain lamb. At the same time, Revelation seeks to shape Christian communities to take part in God’s saving purpose by living as a foretaste of God’s coming new creation, through their lips and through their lives” (3). This approach grounds Revelation in the social context of the first century Greco-Roman world, but his view is always on how the present church takes part in the mission of God today.

Reading Revelation Missionally Chapters 2-4 deal with the major characters of Revelation, God, the Lamb, and the Church. Flemming contextualizes Revelation in the culture of first century Asia Minor. This includes the imperial cult and the claims of the empire. For Flemming, “the greatest threat was not persecution as such but rather the temptation to cozy up to the ways of the dominant Roman culture, perhaps to avoid persecution” (39). Revelation must also be set into the context of the whole Old Testament. Revelation extensively uses the Old Testament, John “wallpapers Revelation with biblical echoes and allusions…John re-contextualizes and adapts them” for his theological and pastoral purposes (31). By setting Revelation in the proper context, there are many points in the book where Flemming expresses an anti-imperial reading of Revelation. But this is passive resistance to the Roman Empire. He cites Richard Hays, “A work that places a slaughtered lamb that was slaughtered at the center of its praises and worship can hardly be used to validate violence and coercion” (63).

Focusing on the seven churches in Revelation 2-3, Flemming rightly observes Revelation turns out to be one of the most important sources for ecclesiology in the New Testament. He observes several implications for missional reading of Revelation in these chapters. First, God’s people are to be priests and rulers, with echoes of the exodus. Second, God’s people are sealed and redeemed (Revelation 7:1-8; 14:1-5). Third, God’s people are universal and uncountable. This speaks to the wide ethnic diversity of God’s people. Revelation tells the church of any age and any location, “despite present setbacks or pushbacks, your faithful witness will produce a rich harvest in the end” (93).

The next unit of the book treats major themes of Revelation. First, Revelation describes mission as witness (ch. 5). Revelation has a clear theme of being a faithful witness in the face of suffering (the faithful witness of Antipas; 2:13; cf., 17:6). A faithful testimony of Jesus is “an act of countercultural resistance” (102). For Flemming, the two witnesses symbolize the church (105). The two witnesses are, therefore, “like a parable for the witnessing church in every generation” (110). The fire in Revelation 11:4 is not a literal consuming fire but a symbol of the powerful testimony of the church (109). He does not explain how causing droughts, turning the waters to blood, and striking people with every kind of plague relate to the preaching of the gospel (11:6).

Chapter six deals with reading Revelation missionally and the judgements described in the book. The earth’s inhabitants “must decide either repent and give glory to the maker of everything or continue in your pigheaded pursuit of the worshiping of the beast” (125). John’s descriptions of destruction in Revelation are “symbols of God’s complete victory over sin and evil, and not literal descriptions of how that happens” (132). However, I wonder. The models which John uses from the Old Testament were actual, literal destruction. John models his descriptions on the Exodus, for example, and possibly the great slaughter of the Assyrian armies in 2 Kings 19:35–36. Although Flemming is certainly correct, Revelation does not provide a code for predicting current and near future events. Jewish apocalyptic literature (whether canonical or non-) usually expects real persecution of God’s people and a spectacular slaughter of God’s enemies.

A key theme in Revelation is mission and worship (ch.7). Commentators often observe that worship is an important Revelation; nearly every chapter includes a worship scene. As Flemming says, Revelation “is peppered with ritual acts” (141). Worship in Revelation announces God’s saving purpose. But worship also confronts the world as it is. This takes a political turn: Revelation asks, “who is worthy of worship? God or empire?” Imperial worship served as a social contract for maintaining a stable empire. Revelation is clear: worship of the beast needs to be resisted even if this leads to persecution or death. Christians resist Rome’s claims by non-participation in public liturgical practice” (154).

This leads to mission in politics chapter eight. How can politics be missional? He argues that a missional reading of scripture is always profoundly political (185). Flemming focuses this chapter on Revelation 13. The beast is an anti-imperial parody of the lamb (cf. Revelation 17, the whore of Babylon) Flemming argues that the name of the beast refers to Caesar. This is an excellent opportunity to discuss civil religion in a contemporary context. For Flemming, nationalism is idolatry. Revelation describes Babylon as economically exploitive, arrogant, violent, and dehumanizing of outsiders. He draws clear analogies to contemporary American political discourse. What is Revelation’s solution? Leave Babylon! Get out of the empire by rejecting greed and re-humanizing outsiders such as the poor and refugees. (Essentially, return to Old Testament prophetic social ethics, or the Jesus oriented social ethics found in the Sermon on the Mount, although Flemming does not make the point this way).

He briefly discusses the problem of reconciling Romans 13 with Revelation 13. Flemming says this is a classic example of contextualizing the gospel (171). Paul and John are addressing much different situations. This post on Reading Revelation as anti-imperial cult.

Chapter 9 discusses the new heaven and new earth. Even the new Jerusalem can be read in the context of mission. The new Jerusalem “drenches the whole earth in God’s presence” (190). Therefore, the aim of the church now should be shaped by this goal. Local churches ought to live as a preview and, the real presence of the new world which is to come. Finally, chapter 10 provides a helpful summary of a missional reading of Revelation with thirteen points of application drawn from the theology of the book. Flemming could expand each of these points into another book!

The book is illustrated with images drawn from ancient manuscripts and text boxes with salient quotes from scholars and other literature. Flemming writes for a wide range of readers, often referring to pop-culture (including a reference to Joni Mitchell’s Woodstock when describing the New Jerusalem, something I regularly do in my classes!)

One word of critique. Throughout the book, Flemming is clear that he has no time for any future predictions in the Book of Revelation. This is a common view in scholarship and one with which I do not completely disagree. However, I think he overplays dispensationalism’s view of the Rapture. For example, very few contemporary dispensationalists think Revelation 4:1 is about the Rapture. Quoting musician Larry Norman as a representative of dispensational theology is not at all fair (see page 4, for example). There are dispensational commentaries on Revelation by legitimate dispensational scholars, which would better serve Flemming’s argument. Describing a dispensationalist approach to Revelation as “pie-in-the-sky” by quoting novels and fifty-year-old popular songs is a strawman argument.

Conclusion. Flemming is correct: Revelation is more about unmasking the present than unveiling the future. Throughout the book, his application of Revelation’s symbols to first century world is clear and on point. His application to contemporary culture is challenging for readers in both America and throughout the world.


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.


Brent E. Parker and Richard J. Lucas, eds. Covenantal and Dispensational Theologies: Four Views

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.

Covenantal and DispensationalLet 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.