Book Review: Kingdom through Covenant (ch 2)

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Disclaimer: First off, you should know I've had no "official classroom" training on these topics. It's interesting cause the more I read, the more I'm able to "place" where I'm at—where my upbringing has established me—given all the categories that are made up to classify people and their beliefs. Yet still, I'm not sure where I lay: I lean towards and away from both covenant and dispensational thoughts. Secondly, the following content doesn't are mainly stated as facts, reflecting these two models of theology, not as opinions or assumptions that I share (unless I say otherwise).

Here is a simple chart I drew up to help get this conversation going. Take a peak, then we'll discuss some of these in more detail, below.

Dispensational

Covenant

Israel and the Church

Two completely different    entities

One and the same

Baptism

A sign of the new covenant reserved for believers (the elect) to choose to experience

A sign of the covenant that replaces circumcision, and is thus ok for babies to experience (paedobaptism)

The Land

The promise of land is timeless and irrevocable: Israel will receive her land in the millenial reign of Christ

The promise of land has been forfeited since it was originally contingent upon obediance; yet the land has been re-envisioned in Christ

Ecclessiological identity

The church is exclusively represented by those who are elect

The church is wider than the elect and includes non-elect members

Covenant fulfillment

Stresses the literal (e.g. Israel will get their land)

Stresses the spiritual (e.g. Jesus is the land

Dispensational Theology

The post-Christ-collective of people called “the church” is a whole different entity entirely from the pre-Christ-collective group of people called Israel. Both groups still exist independentlly of one another into the current era. This distinction anticipates a necessary distinction in how these two peoples relate to the various covenants mentioned in the Bible (42).

God interacts with these two groups of people in two different manners. With the church, a new covenant has been inaugurated that stipulates a different type of relationship that God shares with this group of people, compared to the Abrahamic covenant (and other OT covenants, i.e. Mosaic) that regulates the relationship he has with Israel.

Various strands of Dispensational Theology regard the relationship between these covenants between the church and Israel differently, but of supreme importance to note is that dispensationalists all believe that “the Abrahamic covenant, in all of its diverse dimensions, national and spiritual, is foundational to all the biblical covenants” (52)—not the Adamic (45).

As such, the promise of a physical inheritance and possession of land is strongly adhered to by all proponents of this viewpoint, and thus it is believed that in the future—when God sets things right—that Israel[1] will have full possession of the land that was promised to them in the Old Testament.

For dispensationalism, God’s promise to Israel as an ehtnic, national entity involves a “literal” alnd promise which is fulfilled only by God giving to this nation a specific land in the millenial age and beyond. For covenant theology, given their view that there is much more continuity between Israel and the church, i.e., Israel is the church and the church is the new Israel, the promise of land to Israel is also a promise of land to the church, which is now fulfilled either spiritually in terms of our eternal inheritiance, or more commonly today, typologically in the new creation, which is now “already” here in Christ, but which still awaits the “not yet”. (49)

Out of the three stands of dispensationalism (classic, revised, and progressive), (51) Personally, I sympathize with progressive dispensationalism the most. Contrarily, however, I just don’t think that land must still be controlled by God’s OT people (partly, because I think that people group does not exist anymore; and largely, because I think God wrecked-shop on that whole idea of physical inheritance and subsumed this mode of theology with a new creation, a new rest, that is found in him through his son).

Covenant Theology

This paradigm of biblical theology sees the idea of covenant as being so central to Scripture that they would say it is impossible to read it without seeing the message through the lens of a particular (or multiple) covenant in play (57). As such, there are three major covenants which compromise the backbone of the Bible: the covenant of redemption, of works, and of grace—the latter of which permeates all of Scripture, though it manifest itself in different ways (58).

It is because of this stream of continuity that covenant theologians see running through Scripture—this underlying current of the covenant of grace—that the Israel-Church distinction carried in a dispensational’s mind is washed away, leaving a verdict that Israel and the Church are one and the same.

If one asks the question, “When did the church begin?” dispensational and covenant theology answer differently. For dispensational thought, the church is new in redemptive-history and thus begins at Pentecost. For covenant theology, the church begins immediately after God’s first promise of redemption in Genesis 3.15 (58).

Thus, the modern day church may consist of believers and non-believers, while the former are considered the elect and the latter are viewed simply as covenant members, viz., this reflects a similar reality drawn from the Old Testament covenant community: there were covenant-keepers (the elect) and covenant-breakers (just members) (57 and 67).

…all covenant theologians acknowledge, not everyone in the covenant of grace is elect (67)[2]

Going back to the permeating covenant of grace, this theology understands there to be only one covenant of grace within the Old and New Testament, which “differ[s] in substance but [is] essentially the same across the ages” (62). The difference may simply be characterized as a type of “promise-fulfillment”—in which case the so-called “new” covenant simply expands on the old, adding new depth and new dimensions (63-64).

This has significant consequences for how a covenant theologian understands Israel’s relation to their promised land, and really sets this branch apart from the dispensational perspective. For one, covenant theology does not see the promised land as something that should still be expected from Israel since its reception was conditional in the first place (being tied to the covenant at Sinai). Secondly, God does not completely do away with the notion of a promise land but simply re-envisions it as the new creation that is ushered in through the victory of Jesus over the powers that have enslaved the old creation (63).

As a part of the first point, previously mentioned, regarding the conditionality of the land promise, an important distinction between dispensational and covenant theology is that the former understands the Abrahamic covenant to be unconditional, while the latter sees it as conditional. Similarly, while covenant theology affirms and holds the unconditionality of the new covenant in one hand, in the other some are quick to speak to the conditionality of it as well, viz. namely that 1) the blessings of the new covenant are contingent upon the work of Christ, and 2) that to benefit of these blessings one must not simply do nothing but must repent, have faith, and live obediently (66). Thus, in the big-picture, it would seem that dispensational thought leans more towards the unconditional, while covenant theology leans the other way towards the conditional.

As a final note, I should point out that Wellum dedicated a significant portion of the chapter to discussing the reasoning behind a doctrine of paedobaptism. He mentions how the understanding of covenant theology that covenant members are believers and non-believers, and because baptism is (assumed to be) the replacement for circumcision (77), that because infants were circumcised to show they were covenant members like their parents, so too should infants be baptized (and circumcised) to demonstrate that they too are covenant members of the new expanded covenant inaugurated and fulfilled in Jesus.[3]

Conclusion

Central to this recap of the various theological paradigms is the fact that both differ in how they piece the biblical covenants together. Gentry and Wellum seek to show a middle way between these two fighting elephants in the room, and suggest that “kingdom through covenant” is the way to do it.

PS I nice succinct review of the entire book (though the post centers around Wellum's discussion of these two central theologies) can be found here.


[1] And by “Israel” a dispensionalist (I think) means modern day Israel, since they do not see a distinction between the Israel of the past and the Israel of the present.

[2] Ok, I’ll admit. This was a shocking thought to me. I’ve never heard this distinction before, and after reading the rest of the chapter I saw how semi-founded it could be in Scripture. Though I have to be honest, it’s still a hard thought for me to swallow. So I might not. I think I’ll just keep chewing for now…

[3] Personally, I think this line of rationale is faulty, and largely due to covenant theology’s tendency to conflate the covenants of the Bible to stress their continuity. Two very simple but helpful arguments on both sides can be found here for paedobaptism and here for against it.