Book Review: Benjamin L. Merkle, Discontinuity to Continuity: A Survey of Dispensational and Covenantal Theologies

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.

Merkle, Discontinuity to ContinuityMuch 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 fulfilment of Old Testament restoration prophecies, covenant theology finds a typological fulfilment 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 dispensationalism and the three types of covenant 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 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.

Book Review: Bingham and Kreider, eds. Eschatology: Biblical, Historical, and Practical Approaches

Bingham, D. Jeffrey and Glenn R. Kreider, Eschatology: Biblical, Historical, and Practical Approaches. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Kregel, 2016. 501 pp. Hb; $36.99.   Link to Kregel

Although the fact is not mentioned on the cover of this book or on the Kregel website, this collection of essays on eschatology is a Festschrift for Craig A. Blaising on the occasion of his sixty-fifth birthday. Steven L. James offers a short biographical sketch and bibliography of Blaising’s publications. Blaising has served as president of the Eschatology-BinghamEvangelical Theological Society in 2005 and was active in the Dispensational Study Group at ETS in the late 1980s. As a result of that study group, he co-edited Dispensationalism, Israel and the Church (Zondervan, 1992) and co-authored Progressive Dispensationalism (Baker, 1993) with Darrell Bock. As the editors point out in their preface, although Blaising is primarily known for his work in dispensationalism and eschatology, he contributed articles and conference talks on theological method, Athanasius of Alexandria, patristic biblical interpretation, and John Wesley.

The twenty-six essays in this collection are divided into four parts. The first section, The Doctrine of the Future and Its Foundation, concern theological method. D. Jeffrey Bingham deals with what he considers the fundamental problem of biblical theology, do the difference between the Old and New Testament involve discontinuity between the testaments? Despite the reputation dispensationalism has for favoring discontinuity, Bingham cites Blaising as arguing Christ gives the dispensations their unity. Stanley Toussaint contributes a biblical theology of hope, concluding that a proper study of prophecy will lead to renewed hope in a sovereign God. Charles Ryrie has a short essay on what he considers the “weakening of prophecy” by preterist interpreters. The article is too brief to engage preterists directly (he only cites R.C. Sproul as an example) and engages in a weak rational defense of prophecy using statistics.

More helpful is an article on predictive prophecy and the doctrine of God by John D. Laing and Stefana Dan Laing. By examining prophecies which were fulfilled within the Old Testament itself, the authors argue messianic prophecies ought to be taken seriously, especially since Jesus himself invited his followers to interpret the “signs of the times” (Matt 16:3) in order to understand God’s redemptive plan. Conservative readers will have no problem with Laing’s Old Testament examples of Daniel’s four kingdoms or Isaiah’s prediction of Cyrus the Great. However anyone holding to a later date for Daniel or Isaiah 40-55 will see these as vaticinium ex eventu, prophecies written after the event, rendering the argument of the essay less sure.

The second section, The Doctrine of the Future in the Bible, collects eight essays to form a biblical theology of the future. Essays cover major sections of the Old Testament, including the Deuteronomy (Daniel I. Block), the Historical Books (Gregory Smith), The Psalms (George Klein), and the Prophets (Mark Rooker). Block’s essay on eschatology in Deuteronomy is the highlight of the book. He argues the book of Deuteronomy anticipates the “first phase” of Israel’s distant future and our past (the exile), but also a “second phase” in our future (restoration from exile). The eschatological vision of Deuteronomy includes not only the preservation of Abraham’s seed among the nations, but also a change in the Lord’s disposition towards them so that he will restore them to the Promised Land (133). Block thinks the return from Babylon was a partial fulfillment of prophecy since those who returned were small in number and only occupied a small portion of the land. More importantly, although they were blessed by God, the restored temple was a shadow of what was expected and doomed to be destroyed again in A.D. 70.

Four essays on the New Testament include the Synoptic Gospels (Darrell Bock), John’s Writings (David Turner), Paul’s Writings (W. Edward Glenny) and Hebrews and the General Epistles (David Allen). Bock’s article is representative of the application an “already-not yet” view of prophecy common in progressive dispensationalism. David Turner’s essay on John’s view of the future must first argue that John’s Gospel has an eschatology, since the Gospel is often dismissed as an example of realized eschatology. Based on his collection of evidence from the Gospel fo John, Turner argues the ‘difference between John and the Synoptic Gospels should not be overly pressed” (225).

The eleven essays in the third section, The Doctrine of the Future in the History of Christian Thought, range from historical theology in the Apostolic fathers (Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Origin, Athenasius, Augustine), the Reformation (Calvin, Anabaptist thought, Jonathan Edwards), and contemporary theology (Baptist, Dispensationalism, Jürgen Moltmann, and “contemporary European theology”). It may seem odd to see Calvin, Anabaptists, Moltmann and Dispensationalism in the same volume, but this is an indication that dispensational idea are found in many different streams of theology (even if the combination of these threads is unique to dispensationalism). Mark Bailey’s essay on the future in Dispensationalism is refreshing since it avoids the kind of wild predictions most people associate with the system.

Finally, the three essays under the heading The Doctrine of the Future and Christian Ministry include pastoral care (J. Denny Autrey), Contemporary Challenges (R. Al Mohler, Jr.) and The Marketplace (Stephen Blaising, Craig’s brother). The first two of these essays are rooted in historical theology. Mohler, for example, uses the model of Augustine’s two cities to argue any doctrine of the future must engage with contemporary culture.

Conclusion. This collection of essays serves as a worthy tribute to Craig Blaising, even if it is marketed as a textbook on Eschatology rather than a Festschrift. Many of the writers either self-identify with dispensationalism or are familiar with the contributions of progressive dispensationalism. This too is overlooked in the marketing of the book, but not unexpected given the current antipathy for dispensational thought in scholarship. But the essays in this collection absolutely do not represent the kind of wild-eyed craziness that passes for dispensationalism today. In fact, most of the essays in the collection which can be fairly pigeon-holed as dispensational are very similar a narrative theology, seeking to find the unity of the whole canon of Scripture via the teaching of the whole Bible on the past, present and future.

The book provides an overview of eschatology from a moderately conservative and vaguely dispensational perspective. Given these constraints, Eschatology: Biblical, Historical, and Practical Approaches would indeed make a good textbook for a Bible college or Seminary classroom, although most of the articles will be valuable to pastors and teachers preparing to teach on the future in their churches.

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

Basics of the New Perspective: Dispensationalism and the NPP

There are a number of other topics which could be included in a discussion of the New Perspective.  The “faithfulness of Christ” or “Christ’s faithfulness” debate is very important although the details are a bit arcane.  Wright’s view of the Exile is important, but not something that is at the heart of the New Perspective on Paul.  Let me close off this series with a few observations why I think that dispensationalism and the New Perspective can be closely allied.  By dispensationalism, I do not mean the quirky stuff (people predicting the end of the world, etc.) The dispensationalism I have in mind here is represented by writers like Darrell Bock, Craig Blaising, Robert Saucy or Dale DeWitt.  There are quite a few ideas in the New Perspective which resonate with dispensationalism.  I do not mean to say that the NPP is dispensational, only that the two are often “on the same page.”  A few examples will suffice.

First, dispensationalism has always had a strong view of progressive revelation which lends itself to a narrative of salvation history.  Scripture is the unfolding story of redemption.  God is working through a series of “steps” or stages to redeem creation from the effects of sin.  Wright has particularly emphasized “story” as a way of understanding Jesus and Paul, often using the analogy of a five act play.  His oft-cited world view questions are important, Paul is answering the question “what time is it?”  Dispensationalism highlights the fact that Paul is describing the current age as distinct from the last.

Second, dispensationalism has never been particularly anti-Semitic and has always done a good job emphasizing the Jewishness of the writers of the New Testament. This is may be a result of dispensationalism’s late development as a system of thought, but it is also true many of the earliest “dispensational” thinkers were interested in Jewish evangelism.  That the New Perspective says Jesus, Paul, Peter and James reflect Second Temple Period Judaism is nothing which should shock a dispensationalist!  I think that there is a great deal more to be learned by studying Paul and Jesus in the light of our growing understanding of the Second Temple Period.

Third, dispensationalism has always emphasized Paul as the central figure for the present age.  He is the “founder of the church” and his letters are usually emphasized over other writers in the New Testament.  Paul claims his revelation is unique, and dispensationalists frequently develop this claim to mean that Paul is the only one to whom God revealed his plan for the current age (Eph 3:1-6, for example). The New Perspective also emphasizes the radicalness of Paul’s message in the context of Second Temple Period Judaism.  For all of his connections to Judaism, Paul says things that would be considered radical within any form of “biblical” Judaism of the first century.

Fourth, with respect to the Justification debate, dispensationalists are a bit confused.  Dispensationalism developed out of the reformed tradition, continuing the reformation in terms of ecclesiology and eschatology.  Dispensationalism is in fact a development of covenant theology whether either side wants to admit it or not.  As such there is a interest in the soteriology of the Reformers, but the anti-denominationalism of dispensationalists prevents them from fully embracing confessions and the like.  As a result, there are dispensationalists who represent all the various “flavors” of the reformation, Calvinist or Arminian.  Soteriology is not the primary motivation for most dispensationalists, so this debate might very well pass them by.

I do think that the New Perspective is correct in their description of justification as one of the many metaphors of salvation and that the reformation stream theologies have elevated it to such an extent that the word “justification” now means “total salvation.”  For me, the fact that Paul uses “in Christ” to describe our salvation far more often makes it a more viable overarching metaphor for salvation.  It also seems to me that the division between justification and sanctification in Systematic theology misses the point that Paul uses the same language for both the beginning of our salvation and our on-going experience of salvation.

Obviously someone like N. T. Wright is not a dispensationalist in any sense of the word, but it is remarkable how many of his basic ideas resonate with dispensationalist foundations.  I think this is why Wright goes out of his way to separate himself from dispensationalism, although he has in mind the goofy popular forms. The New Perspective certainly does not go so far as to separate the church from Israel in the way that dispensationalists do, nor is there any sort similarity in eschatology.  There is much to be learned from reading the New Perspective on Paul.

Interpreting Revelation (Part 4)

Modified Futurism

This position is often listed as a final option which attempts to combine the best of the preterist, idealist and futurist positions.  George Ladd, for example, combines idealism and futurism.  He held that most of Revelation was future, but only after chapter 6.  Chapter 6 is symbolic of the general flow of the church age, similar to the idealist position rather than the historicist. (Eerdmans, 1972).  One finds something very much like this approach in the recent commentary by Grant Osborne (Baker, 2002).

Greg Beale’s commentary attempts to be a “redemptive-historical form of modified idealism.” (Eerdmans, 1999).  He attempts to read the symbols very much like an idealist, but includes a future aspect as well.  The beast of chapter 13, for example, is representative of all the “anti-christs” throughout history, but also points to the ultimate Antichrist of the future.  For Beale, the idealist view is primary, the futurist is secondary.

Grant Osborne concurs with Beale’s approach, but emphasizes the future aspect of the prophecies.  Osborne defines apocalyptic as “the present addressed through parallels with the future” (22)  For example, Osborne feels the three and one half year great tribulation in Revelation serves as a model for all previous tribulations the church has faced.

C. Marvin Pate writes as a contemporary dispensationalist attempting to read Revelation as a book about the future, to be understood as literal, but also to address some of the excesses of the dispensational approach (Four Views, Zondervan, 1998).  The criticism of dispensational futurism have merit; dispensationalism needs to “reinvent itself” in order to deal with the critique from Reformed writers (primarily a-mil and idealist / preterists).  This “re-invention” is modeled along the catchphrase “already / not yet”  as applied to the Kingdom of God in the Gospels by C. H. Dodd and later by George Ladd.  Progressive dispensationalism attempts to see both the presence of God’s kingdom in the present age while also looking for an ultimate fulfillment of the kingdom in the future.

I think that recent commentaries on Revelation (like Beale and Osborne) are less worried about futurist / preterist categories, and I think this is helpful.   While Robert Thomas’s two-volume work published by Moody is an example of a purely futurist commentary, most scholars are coming to the point where they realize Revelation is too complex for a single view.  John certainly was looking at events of his own day (preterism) and did in fact deal with the problem of evil faced by the church in all ages (idealism), and he certainly looks forward to the return of Jesus (futurism).   All three of these are necessary ingredients to a full understanding of Revelation.