Book Review: Kingdom through Covenant by Gentry and Wellum

Peter J .Gentry and Stephen J. Wellum, Kingdom through Covenant: A Biblical-Theological Understanding of the Covenants (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 848 pages

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“The idea of covenant is fundamental to the Bible’s story” (p. 21)—with this statement Peter J. Gentry and Stephen J. Wellum (GW) open up their extensive work on the metanarrative of Scripture. Integrating exegetical, biblical-theological, and systematic-theological insights, the authors seek to reconsider the nature of and the relationship between the different biblical covenants. On the basis of the assumption that both dominant theological strands—i.e., Covenant theology and Dispensationalism—ground their conclusions on inadequate convictions about the covenant(s), the co-authors set out to present an alternative reading, mediating between these two traditions. This “via media” proposal, labeled as “progressive covenantalism”, stresses “the unity of God’s plan” by tracing “God’s redemptive work through the biblical covenants” (p. 24). God’s kingdom is established through the covenants, which are climaxing in Christ. In this overarching divine plot both the prophetic nature of typology and the culminating role of Christ’s new covenant work as the fulfillment and telos of all the preceding covenant promises are central to understanding the development and function of the new covenant realities.

In order to accomplish their objectives and substantiate their thesis, the authors subdivide their work into three parts. While part I and III are written by Wellum, focusing more on the hermeneutical facets and theological integration of the project, the core of the book, i.e., part II, is composed by Gentry, consisting of the exegetical and biblical-theological analysis of all the biblical covenants. In part I, Wellum, a systematic theologian at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, gives a short overview about the key features of each theological system, pointing out their different emphases. While Dispensationalism focuses on the land principle for Israel, Covenant theology concentrates on the genealogical principle of Abraham and his descendants. This has implications for their views on the relationship between the Testaments, their understanding of the covenant of grace, consisting of the community of believers, and their position on the (un)conditionality of the covenants. Contra these two schools, the authors seek to merge both emphases in a typological and christological way.

In part II, Gentry, an Old Testament professor at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, begins to unfold their alternative reading of the covenants by commenting on each of the existing biblical covenants (covenants with Noah/creation, Abraham, Israel [Moses], and David, and the New Covenant). He introduces the notion of covenant and connects the biblical concept to its ancient Near Eastern parallel(s), working with Hugenberger’s definition: “A covenant, in its normal sense, is an elected, as opposed to natural, relationship of obligation under oath” (p. 132) “At the heart of covenant, then, is a relationship between parties characterised by faithfulness and loyalty in love” (p. 141). On the basis of the distinction between “cutting” and “establishing” a covenant—the former referring to the initiation of a covenant while the latter implying the presence of an already existing covenant which is now being reaffirmed—Gentry makes a case for a covenant with creation, in which Gen 1:26 initiates both a covenant relationship between God and man (sonship) and between man and the earth (servant kingship). Adam, however, as well as his covenant successor Noah, failed in their faithfulness to the mission God gave them.

This, then, leads to another new start, the covenant with Abraham. By blessing Abraham and his descendants, “the broken relationship between God and all the nations of the world will be reconciled and healed” (p. 245). Israel constitutes a new creation and inherited an Adamic role. In fact, Israel is to be seen as the last Adam, mediating between God and the world. Through Abraham’s descendants and the promised land, God establishes his rule over all creation. But in order to enjoy the blessings God has prepared for his kingdom of priests, Israel needs to be completely devoted to God, demonstrated in two ways: “(1) identifying with his ethics and morality, and (2) sharing his concern for the broken in the community”  (p. 325). In this regard, describing the covenants as either conditional or unconditional is too simplified, artificially imposed, and inaccurate, since every covenant consists of both elements remaining in an ongoing tension.

With king David the divine narrative moves on in various ways. In his paradigmatic faithfulness, David was commissioned to administer the Mosaic covenant and to prevent any further covenant failures of God’s people. By designating one of David’s descendants as the future fulfiller of the Abrahamic promises, God not only narrows down his redemptive plans but also institutes and strengthens his own rule among his people.

In the next three chapters, Gentry works through the New Covenant passages in Isaiah, Ezekiel, Jeremiah and Daniel. With their prophetic voices, they announce the fulfillment of the various promises from earlier covenants. Here, the inauguration of God’s completely new covenant relationship with Israel, the establishment of an eternal Davidic king who will deliver God’s people, the restoration of the temple, and the integration of the Gentiles are key features of this new Covenant. While the basis, the purpose, the initiation (blood), and the character of divine instruction are the same in both old and new Covenants, the latter involves a better mediator (without sin), a better sacrifice, a better provision (the Holy Spirit), and a better promise (p. 513). The new covenant community established through Christ’s work, is now characterized by “social justice and faithful loyal love” (p. 582) as Eph. 4:15 demonstrates.

The two final chapters first summarize the extensive material presented in part II in a biblical-theological way and then conclude the book by reflecting on the systematic theological implications of their progressive covenantalism, focusing on four main dogmatic loci. 1) Theology proper: The triune God is a covenant Lord, reaching out to create a community of believers. 2) Christology: Jesus, the great high priest, is the mediator of the new covenant, accomplishing God’s redemptive plan through his death on the cross. 3) Ecclesiology: the new covenant community experiences a redemptive-historical shift in both their nature and structure, initiated by Christ’s covenant fulfillment on the cross and by the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Here, faith, and not nationality, is the means of entering the community, so that paedobaptism cannot be accepted as a church practice. 4) Eschatology: The inheritance of the land is fulfilled by Jesus whose work on the cross inaugurates the new creation.

Without doubt, this book makes a great contribution to biblical and theological scholarship, specifically to the discussion between Dispensationalism and Covenant theology. By proposing an alternative understanding of the covenants, GW invite every reader to be flexible in their theological reflection and to reevaluate long-held dogmatic views. Their hermeneutical sensitivity, exegetical detail, and theological integration offer some holistic and enriching insights that will certainly be part of the conversation for several years.

There are, however, a few shortcomings in their overall achievement. First of all, the biggest disappointment of their fine work is the lack of a detailed treatment of New Testament passages. In fact, only Ephesians 4:15 is analyzed as a whole chapter, while actually contributing little to the key argument. Fundamentally important pericopes about the new covenant as presented in the New Testament or about the continuing role of Israel, however, are completely missing in their proposal. Although the Old Testament covenants are absolutely vital for understanding the unfolding of God’s redemptive plan, they cannot and should not be interpreted in isolation. Passages like Romans 9–11, Revelation 19–20, or the book of Hebrews need to be considered before drawing conclusions about a central biblical-theological subject matter like the covenants. Even their high christological emphasis does not account for or balance out this absence of New Testament interaction.

Secondly, at times, GW overstate the uniqueness of their proposal. Their claim that they present a middle way between two “extremes” does injustice to the already multifaceted discussion between Covenant theology and Dispensationalism. Many proponents of either side find themselves in a position that both agrees and disagrees with (the details of) their basic theological paradigm. That is to say that many of GW’s conclusions are often already equally held by both factions. In addition to that, it is not always clear whether their way of compromise, i.e. either the “both-and” or the “pick-and-choose” approach, actually lead to theological propositions that are compatible with each other.

Thirdly, even though there is certainly a tension between conditional and unconditional elements in each covenant, readers should not overlook the different emphasis each covenant puts on them. The mere existence of divine laws as part of the covenant life is not necessarily a clear indicator for the conditionality of a covenant. Here, the important distinction between the initiation and the administration of the covenants could have been a helpful key to unlock the existing tensions. Also, a detailed discussion of apostasy, especially in the new covenant, would have been an enlightening source in this consideration.

Lastly, while nobody would question that the theme of “covenant” is a foundational paradigm for biblical theology, GW fail to make a case for making it the structuring element and center of the biblical narrative. Admittedly, they never clearly state this at any point in the book but it is fairly clear that this is their underlining assumption. However, if this is the case, a simple reference about the importance of the covenants in the beginning of their treatment does not suffice to build a complete theological system on this foundation.

All in all, whether one agrees with their basic arguments, their view of the covenants, or their typological-christological hermeneutics, GW offer an excellent biblical-theological resource for both the academy and pastoral ministry. Every reader can be enriched by their exegetical detail and theological insight and it is without question that the conversation around Covenant theology and Dispensationalism will be enriched by their great contribution.

Special thanks to Crossway for providing the review copy.

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About Eva Dittmann

I am a third year PhD Student at Wheaton College studying under Richard L. Schultz. My dissertation focuses on communication ethics in the book of Proverbs. While I am finishing my work here, I am hired in an Institute for ethics in Germany.
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