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Progressive Covenantalism: Charting a Course between Dispensational and Covenantal Theologies Paperback – April 15, 2016
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Brent E. Parker is a PhD candidate in systematic theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and assistant editor of The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology.
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What is Progressive Covenantalism (PC)? It is progressive in seeking to “underscore the unfolding nature of God’s revelation over time”, and is covenantal by emphasizing that “God’s plan unfolds through the covenants and that all of the covenants find their fulfillment, telos, and terminus in Christ” (p2). Progressive Covenantalism unfolds logically over ten chapters, arranged in relationship to the CT/DT binary.
In chapter 1, Jason DeRouchie holds that by tracing the development of Abraham’s seed across the two testaments, particularly in Isaianic passages, one must reject both CT’s and DT’s views of new covenant ecclesiology and hold a more nuanced and biblical ecclesiology.
A key question in the debate is the relationship between Israel and the church, and in chapter 2 Brent Parker enters the ring by arguing that both positions are incorrect. For Parker, CT incorrectly blurs the distinction between the two, while DT pulls them apart. Where CT may present the relationship as = and DT as ≠, PC sees a relationship of typological development from Israel to Christ to church.
Chapter 3 finds Jason Meyer contrasting PC with DT and CT in the various understandings of the Mosaic law and its role for the Christian.
Ardel Caneday in Chapter 4 attempts to undermine the division of covenants into either being entirely unconditional or conditional. Such a simplistic distinction does not hold; instead, covenant fidelity is always required from both parties, and recognizing this reinforces Christ’s faithfulness.
A particular relationship between circumcision and baptism undergirds CT’s case for infant baptism, but in chapter 5 John Meade comes to another conclusion by tracing the development of circumcision and heart circumcision across the testaments with fresh historical work.
In chapter 6, Tom Schreiner lays out the purpose of Sabbath and its transformation in light of fulfillment by Christ, concluding that Sabbath observance is not required in the New Covenant.
Chris Cowan in chapter 7 defends the regeneration of all New Covenant believers by responding to CT’s insistence that the warning passages reveal a mixed covenant body of believers and unbelievers.
Important for CT is the tripartite division of the law (moral, civil, ceremonial) and that believers are under at least the moral elements of the Mosaic law. In chapter 8, Stephen Wellum rejects the tripartite division while upholding that the entire Bible is the believers’ ethical standard.
In chapter 9, Richard Lucas challenges dispensational use of Romans 11 that argue for a restoration and particular role for national Israel in the millennium. Whether one holds to a future mass salvation of Jews in Rom 11, DT overloads the passage with expectations of national restoration not found in the text.
Closing off the book with chapter 10, Oren Martin places the Abrahamic land promise in the larger Biblical narrative of Eden to new creation, revealing that the land promise is broadened and fulfilled in the new creation.
Overall, the chapters in Progressive Covenantalism are provocative and move the discussion forward. In particular, DeRouchie, Caneday, Meade, and Wellum all present fresh and rigorous thought in their respective topics. Although less constructive, Schreiner, Martin, Parker and Lucas’ chapters all provide helpful responses to key distinctives of DT and CT. Parker’s chapter was thankfully a far superior presentation of PC’s view on the Israel/church relationship than seen in the recent four-views book on Israel and the church; that said, I found DeRouchie’s chapter more stimulating, exegetically driven and compelling than Parker’s. In fact, DeRouchie’s was possibly the best chapter in the book.
However, there were a few shortfalls. Meyer’s chapter was a little aimless compared to his work on the Law elsewhere. Also, while Chris Cowan’s chapter was a strong presentation of the “means of perseverance” view of warning passages, it was largely a re-presentation of Schreiner and Caneday’s work elsewhere.
If one does not hold to PC, the issues in these chapters are still important. Even if for this reason alone, Progressive Covenantalism deserves to be read. It presents a comprehensive, theological, and exegetical approach to answering these difficult questions. In doing so, Progressive Covenantalism establishes itself as a valid and fresh contender among the old dogs and deserves a place at the table. I eagerly await future development and critiques of the system. The fresh insights and arguments from Progressive Covenantalism will require responses and hopefully provoke fresh work from both CT and DT.
Many thanks to B&H Academic for providing a review copy in exchange for an unbiased review.
“Progressive seeks to underscore the unfolding nature of God’s revelation over time, while covenantalism emphasizes that God’s plan unfolds through the covenants and that all of the covenants find their fulfillment … and terminus in Christ” (2). The way to properly determine how God’s plan is fulfilled in Christ is to place each covenant “in its own covenantal location … in terms of what covenant(s) preceded it and follow it” (2).
As massive as KTC is, one volume can’t cover everything. Progressive Covenantalism was written to unpack certain points that weren’t given much space (if any at all). Those specific points will briefly be laid out below.
The essays in chs 1–4 develop topics usually brought up in discussions between DT and CT.
In chapter 1, Jason DeRouchie provides exegetical warrant for NCT in the OT by examining texts that deal with the “seed” of Abraham. His descendants are those who physically come through his line, but his true descendants are those who place their loyalty in Christ.
In chapter 2, Brent Parker examines “how Jesus typologically fulfills Israel and how the Church, through Christ, inherits the promises of Israel” (47). Israel is not displaced by the Church. Rather, Parker puts forth that the church is the “new covenant community that Israel looked forward to” (47).
In chapter 3, Jason Meyer, who wrote The End of the Law, works through how DT and CT influence the way we think about the Mosaic law, how PC understands the Mosaic law, saying that “love for neighbor is the primary lens through which the Christian views the law of Moses” (87). The lens every Christian should read the Mosaic covenant through is love because the varied instructions given to us in the law give concrete examples of what love should look like.
In chapter 4, Ardel Caneday disagrees with the idea put forth that the Bible is split between law (“God’s commands”) and gospel (“God’s gracious giving”). Instead, covenant stipulations remain the same across covenants while the content of those stipulations change. While God unconditionally established his covenants with people, “each covenant entails provisions with stipulations that both promise blessings to all who obey … and announce curses upon the disobedient” (103).
The essays in chs 5–8 target issues that arise in CT.
In chapter 5, John Meade examines circumcision of the flesh to that of the heart. After briefly looking at the Ancient Near Eastern view of circumcision, he explains the development of circumcision through the Bible as it moves from external circumcision to “internal heart (un)circumcision” and its relation to baptism (128).
In chapter 6, Tom Schreiner looks at the Sabbath in the OT and NT and it’s place in the believers’ life.
In chapter 7, Chris Cowan presents an “alternate … paradigm for understanding the warning passages” that are given to the NC community in Hebrews and responds to some objections to this view from those in the DT and CT camps.
In chapter 8, Stephen Wellum asks, “How should Christians apply the whole Bible as our ethical standard?” He says that “the entire OT, including the law covenant, functions for us as the basis for our doctrine and ethics. Although the Christians are not ‘under the law’ as a covenant, it still functions as Scripture and demands our complete obedience” (217). Wellum ends his chapter with a few illustrations on ethics under the New Covenant with the whole Bible.
The essays in chs 9–10 target issues that arise in PD.
In chapter 9, Richard Lucas argues against the dispensational understanding that Israel will be “restored” in the millennium as a nation which is separate and distinct from Gentiles. Lucas argues that these “implications” are not found in Romans 11:26–27, especially when viewed within the larger canon of Scripture.
In chapter 10, Oren Martin, having written Bound for the Promised Land, looks through the OT and NT and shows, contra to DT and CT, how PC says the OT land promises will be fulfilled in Christ.
As a whole, this is a fantastic resource that draws out the implications of the larger work of KTC (see also the concise work God’s Kingdom Through God’s Covenants). No chapter is worthless; they all take on issues that arise between CT and DT, although the best chapter in my opinion was that by Jason DeRouchie. DeRouchie (along with the end of Meade’s chapter) argues exegetically against the long-standing and widely held belief of infant baptism. Those who disagree will have to work closely through his chapter to disprove his exegesis of Scriptures.
Unfortunately, Cowen’s chapter didn’t add much more to the discussion of the warning passages in Hebrews besides what Schreiner and Caneday (and many others before them) have argued before. And while much of Martin’s chapter could be found in his book, he brings out many good points (such the use of Psalm 37.3, 9, 11 and more in Matthew 5.5) and gives those readers who haven’t read his book a taste of how the land promise is fulfilled in Christ.
Why does this matter? Why nitpick so much? We should never become stagnant in our faith and think that we now know enough. God is infinite, and his Word has more depth than we can ever plumb. A book that seeks to tie Scripture together is worth reading, especially for the student and the pastor, and you can use this (and KTC) so show the glory of God’s plan in Christ to your people. When it comes to ethics, as Wellum says, “Most Christians, regardless of their commitment to covenant or dispensational theology, will arrive at similar conclusions. But, as noted above, where the important difference lies is in how we get there” (233). Our doctrines and beliefs have consequences. They have meaning. They affect how we will. Because we have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, let us strive to know him more that we may be like him and awaiting Christ’s return when we will be transformed.
—Andy Naselli, assistant professor of New Testament and theology, Bethlehem College & Seminary in Minneapolis; elder, Bethlehem Baptist Church