Book Review: Kingdom through Covenant (chapter 1)

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Note: I’ll try and keep these summaries short, only hitting on main points, insightful nuggets, or questions I’d like to share.

Chapter 1: The Importance of Covenants in Biblical and Systematic Theology

In the first chapter of Kingdom through Covenant Wellum lays out what’s to come, commenting that their approach is intended to be understood as an alternative to dicotomous camps, such as ‘dispensationalism’ and ‘covenant theology’. As such, this via media (i.e. middle road) is not an attempt to debunk the entirety of these approaches, but seeks to utilize their strengths and downplay their weakness—all the while, realizing that neither is a model that tells the whole story.

Along these lines, Wellum notes that there is a foundational component that has consistently derailed attempts at canonical Bible readings: this stumbling block being the major biblical covenants and their relationship to one another. This, Wellum argues, is the fault line—recognized or not—that is responsible for so many divergent views.

Accordingly, Wellum and Gentry find this aspect of the Bible to be the place to start if a more fluid and accurate reading is to be secured. In placing so much emphasis on covenant, it is important to note what they (21) are not saying:

…we are not asserting that the covenants are the centre of biblical theology. Instead, we assert that the covenants form the backbone of the metanarrative of Scripture and thus it is essential to “put them together” correctly in order to discern accurately the ‘whole counsel of God’ (Acts 20:27).

As one who has a crooked spine, I’m fully aware of the importance of having a straight one. So, in line with their “backbone” metaphor, Wellum and Gentry set out as corrective care chiropractors with the aim of re-aligning our method of reading the Bible as one big story.

Their prescription is simple: “‘kingdom through covenant’ is our proposal for what is central to the narrative plot structure of the Bible” (24). In other words, understanding the natural progression of the major covenants showcases God’s consistent aim of ushering in his Kingdom on this earth, consistently throughout the Bible. Intrinsic in this claim is that the Biblical text as a whole is 1) unified and 2) that neither covenant theology or despensationalism have got it quite right, so here’s an alternative proposal.

Coming at the Bible with this aim and this hypothesis, Wellum and Gentry each bring their own styles of spine-cracking to the table: Wellum comes as an established systematic-theologian, while Gentry comes in as the biblical theology stud. With these two complementary approaches, they intend to illustrate the pivotal nature of properly understanding the covenants among two major theological systems (i.e. covenant theology and dispensationalism), since these two “(along with their varieties) largely frame how evangelicals put their Bibles together” (25).

Now we’ll talk about what they mean by biblical theology and systematic theology and their “interpersonal” relationship. Let’s start with the former.

Biblical theology is:

We believe this attempt to understand the biblical covenants across redemptive-history and to unpack their relationship to one another and to their ultimate fulfilment in Christ is an exercise in ‘biblical theology’ (27).

… we define “biblical theology” by employing Brian Rosner’s helpful definition: “Biblical theology” is “theological interpretation of Scipture in and for the church. It proceeds with historical and literary sensitivity and seeks to anaylse and synthesize the Bible’s teaching about God and his relations to the world on its own terms, maintaining sight of the Bible’s overarching narrative and Christocentric focus” (31–33).

Simply stated, it is the hermeneutical discipline which seeks to do justice to what Scripture claims to be and what it actually is. In terms of its claim, Scripture is nothing less than God’s Word written, and as such, it is a unified revelation of his gracious plan of redmeption. In terms of what Scripture actually is, it is a progressive unfolding of God’s plan, rooted in history, and unpacked along a specific redemptive-historical plot line primarily demarcated by covenants (2012:33–34).

Wellum then discusses the development of biblical theology as a discipline, and how only recently, as this approach rid itself of foreign assumptions brought on by Enlightenment rationale (or what he [2012:30] refers to as “the Enlightenment straightjacket on Scripture”).

Systematic theology is:

… applying the “whole counsel of God” [deduced from biblical theology] to our lives… is the task of “systematic” theology” (27).

Systematic theology, then, inevitably involves theolgoical construction and doctrinal formulation, grounded in biblical theologyand done in light of historical theology, but which also invlves interacting with all areas of life… In so doing, sysematic theology leads to worldview formation as we seek to set the biblical-theological framework of Scripture over against all other worldviews… In this important way, systematic theology presents a well-thought-out worldview, over against all of its competitors… (35)

So with this said, how to the two disciplines dance together? I think Wellum would be ok with me saying that Mr. Biblical-Theo leads and Mrs. Systematic follows; and that both are necessary for a full-Christian reading and application of Scripture. In this relationship, then, systematic theology “attempts to construct what we ought to believe from Scripture for today” (36) on the basis of biblical theology. One way to think about this complementary interplay is to see biblical theology as being the brush and scapal that uncovers ancient dinasour bones while systematic theology is the mind that puts them together and identifies the behemoth.

Alien fossil

Wellum and Gentry are then arguing that not only has the wrong dinasour been constructed, but the fossils themselves have been misidentified and even some yet to be unearthed.

I want to briefly pose a couple questions, share my heart on some issues, and identify an assumption I think Wellum holds…

Wellum describes systematic theology as a “well-thought-out worldview”—I personally feel like full-blown systematic theology is born out of a love for categorizing and exhibits too much reliance on a human’s intellectual capacity. I also feel like this approach mutes a more rich, fluid, Spirit-led approach that might be characterized by one’s mind being drenched with Scripture in which the Spirit puts together the pieces he wants when he wants—and perhaps there’s more than one dino to find. But why do we need a system to do this? Why not sleep with the text, eat with it, pray it, talk about it and live it—day and night (Ps 1). I guess what I’m getting at is my worry that in systematizing something that is purely relational we lose some of the life within. It just seems like systematic theology is more a product of man than of the Spirit; and if its whole purpose is to bring us closer to God by knowing him more fully, which not just stick with an approach like biblical theology and let the Word of God work its magic? I don’t think it needs a two-step partner.

tip63

 My final question is this: in the quote above, Wellum says that systematic theology “attempts to construct what we ought to believe from Scripture for today”. Inherent within this statement is the assumed premise that Scripture functions as a manual for how we are to live. I know you’ve heard of this:

B.I.B.L.E = Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth

What do you think? Is the Bible a manual for us on how to live a Christian life, waiting to be discovered by various methods like systematic theology? And/or is it something else? Something more?