Parker, Brent E., and Richard J. Lucas, eds. Covenantal and Dispensational Theologies: Four Views on the Continuity of Scripture. Spectrum Multiview Books. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2022. (266 pp.)
The book is set to release February 8th. You can preorder it now.
I received an advanced copy of this book from the editors in request for a review. In addition, I’ll be publishing some podcast episodes with editors covering the topic of this book. So be on the look out for those as well.
The editors did a great job. Their introduction gives a solid primer of the views and helpfully situates the reader to the primary issues at stake in this debate.
They also picked a top roster to represent each view:
- Covenant Theology – Michael Horton.
- Progressive Covenantalism – Stephen Wellum.
- Progressive Dispensationalism – Darrell Bock.
- Traditional Dispensationalism – Mark Snoeberger.
Darrell Bock might be something of the odd man out, as the lone NT scholar amidst systematicians. Finding a prominent traditional dispensationalist would be admittedly difficult since, at least in the academy, this view receives less eminent scholarly representation. But Mark Snoeberger, although probably less known than the other contributors, is clearly an intelligent writer and represents his view well. There are others who one could well consider for Covenant Theology (for example, I think of Ligon Duncan). But Michael Horton is clearly a top-tier choice.
In short, this is an all-star list of contributors for each of these views, and very likely my top choice for each, if I was to make the selections.
Horton, Covenant Theology
Horton’s contribution gives unique emphasis to the historical development and articulation of the view he’s defending. And, of course, it’s his prerogative to go this route in making his case to the reader for his theological system. He focuses largely on historical theology. However, this sets his chapter off from the approach of his interlocutors, who focus more on Biblical and hermeneutical arguments. This creates some asymmetry when comparing his work to the others. For this reason, I might have preferred his contribution better resembling (at least in terms of disciplinary emphasis and methodology) that of his conversation partners. I also wouldn’t have minded him engaging in more sustained Biblical argumentation.
In terms of his view, I agree that law and gospel are, of course, very helpful and important theological categories for analyzing God’s (covenantal) relationships with humanity across redemptive history, particularly as it comes to understanding the doctrine of justification. However, oversimplified applications of this law/gospel schema to the covenants result in overextending continuity between covenants. And this, I believe, often leads to conclusions that are erroneous (e.g., paedobaptist ecclesiology, based on the scheme that the Abrahamic and new covenants are two administrations of the one covenant of grace). But these differences with Horton are, admittedly, more minor.
Wellum, Progressive Covenantalism
Wellum’s writing is enjoyably clear. He demonstrates a knack for decomplexifying concepts and making them lucid for his reader.
I found his portion on hermeneutics particularly helpful:
First, since Scripture is God’s Word, I expect an overall unity and coherence, despite its diversity. As applied to the covenants, I assume that the covenants are not independent and isolated from each other, but together unfold God’s one plan centered in Christ (Eph 1:9-10).
Second, since Scripture is God’s Word through human authors, we discover God’s intent through the writing(s) of the human authors (by grammatical-historical exegesis), but given the diversity of authors, a canonical reading is necessary to discover God’s ultimate intent. We can even speak about the “fuller sense” (sensus plenior) of Scripture if understood along the lines of G. K. Beale. Beale argues, ‘The Old Testament authors did not exhaustively understand the meaning, implications, and possible applications of all that they wrote,’ yet, as God gives more revelation through later authors, we discover more of God’s intent concerning his plan, and how the parts fit with the whole.
For this reason, the NT’s interpretation of the OT is definitive, since later texts bring greater clarity and understanding. The NT shows us how the OT is fulfilled in Christ. The NT’s interpretation of the OT may expand the OT author’s meaning in the sense of seeing new implications and applications. However, later texts do not contravene the meaning of the earlier texts, “but rather develops them in a way which is consistent with the Old Testament author’s understanding of the way in which God interacts with his people”7 in previous eras of redemptive history. Scripture as an entire canon must interpret Scripture. The later parts must “draw out and explain more clearly the earlier parts,”8 and theological conclusions are determined exegetically from the entire canon. …
Christ is the final and full revelation. There is no reduction of the OT’s authority; rather, the OT is incomplete and intended by God to point beyond itself to God’s full self-disclosure in his Son. In Christ, all of God’s revelation and redemptive purposes culminate.(Wellum, pp. 77-78, citing G. K. Beale, “Did Jesus and His Followers Preach the Right Doctrine from the Wrong Texts?” in The Right Doctrine from the Wrong Texts: Essays on the Use of the Old Testament in the New, ed. G. K. Beale [Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1994], 393).
Bock, Progressive Dispensationalism
I found comparing Bock and Wellum’s views particularly interesting. Unfortunately, I think Bock suffers from some misunderstanding of Wellum’s position. But their respective presentations and exchanges helpfully elucidate some of the hermeneutical differences involved in this debate, specifically—in their cases—as it relates to one’s understanding of typology and how it “works” across redemptive history.
Bock suffers from an odd view of typology where the “shadow” (type) remains a permanent fixture even after its eschatological reality (anti-type) to which it pointed has arrived. In other words, he fails to see the function of typology as essentially anticipatory and promissory in nature. Properly understood, once the actual reality has arrived, the pointer has fulfilled its purpose and is no longer needed. However, for Bock, even after the anti-type has arrived, he wants to smuggle its type back in. His complementary hermeneutic is true, but insufficient. It recognizes development and advancement in revelation, but not a true fulfillment of types as types.
Snoeberger, Traditional Dispensationalism
Snoeberger is a good writer and clearly very intelligent. Unfortunately, however, his contribution suffers from having to defend a (frankly) unviable view for those who take the New Testament’s testimony seriously.
In some ways, I’m actually surprised with how sparing the other writers are with his position. Wellum shoots straight though:
Snoeberger’s application of the ‘Israel-church’ distinction to the covenants results in a canonically indefensible view. … In regard to the Abrahamic, Mosaic, Davidic, and the new covenant, Snoeberger argues that these covenants are only for Israel and not for the church. … [T]he church (a parenthesis in God’s plan) is under no covenant! In Christ’s first coming, the covenants are not fulfilled; they are only fulfilled when Israel is restored as a nation in the millennium and beyond. The promises of the previous covenants do not find their fulfillment in Christ and the church. Why? Because Israel is not the church, and the covenants are for Israel alone.
It is difficult to know where to begin with such a position. It ruthlessly imposes a specific view of “Israel-church” on the biblical texts that results in dismissing OT and NT teaching (cf. Is 1:26; 58:12; 60:14; 62:2, 4, 12; 65:15). Also, the NT clearly applies the new covenant to the church (e.g., Lk 22:20; 2 Cor 3:7-18; Eph 2:11-22; Heb 8–10). … Snoeberger admits that the NT applies OT Davidic texts to Christ (Ps 2; 45; 110; cf. Matt 1:1; Rom 1:3-4; Heb 1:3), but this is not the fulfillment of the Davidic covenant. But the NT teaches that Christ is the Davidic king who is now reigning which goes against this view (Rom 1:3-4; Heb 1:4-14). Only by bifurcating “Israel” and the “church” could such an approach have plausibility.Wellum, pp. 211-12.
Snoeberger’s hermeneutical commitments involve a strict literalism that demands an absolutely fixed (“thin”) meaning of the text that disallows development in accord with the progress of revelation. But in defending such a “literal” interpretative approach to the Old Testament, it ironically means that Snoeberger can’t take the New Testament literally!
[Snoeberger] denies that Israel functions as a God-given type, first fulfilled in Christ and then his people. So what do we do with Galatians 3:29? Snoeberger argues it is only an analogy. Really? What about the church taking on the language of Israel in 1 Peter 2:9-10? Another analogy! Really? Or, if Abraham’s literal seed is Israel, then how is Christ the true “seed” in Galatians 3:16? It is only by implication! Really? Or, how does James apply Amos 9 to the church as the temple in Acts 15? How does one explain how Israel’s restoration promise in Joel 2 is applied to the church in Acts 2? Snoeberger’s explanations are inadequate. The better answer is that the church— elect Jews and Gentiles—equally inherit all of God’s promises in Christ.Wellum, pp. 218
Although written well and clear, Snoeberger’s chapters are unfortunately rather frustrating, as he frequently misunderstands and misrepresents the views of his other contributors. He seems to suffer from interpreting the others through the lens of his own dispensational assumptions.
Snoeberger’s chapter shows little evidence that he has sought to understand the positions he rejects. His chapter reflects sweeping statements about positions that lead to reductionisms and distortions. He also gives the impression that few in church history have understood Scripture except dispensationalists. Given the patristics’ allegorical method, the Reformation’s christological-typological approach, and the ‘dark turn’ of ‘biblical theology,’ we needed dispensationalism to ‘save’ the day so that the church could finally read Scripture properly! How did the church formulate the doctrine of the Trinity and Christology? How did the medieval era grasp so well theology proper? How did the Reformation articulate with such care the doctrine of justification, let alone the contributions of the post- Reformation theologians, Herman Bavinck, Geerhardus Vos, and others? It seems that for Snoeberger it is only his version of dispensationalism (not even the progressive version) that is legitimate. It is hard to know where to start a conversation with such thinking, but I will attempt to do so.Wellum, pp. 210-11
Two points I found especially interesting: First, Snoeberger admits that dispensationalism is as much a product of the modernism it was born to combat (pp. 149-150). (I’ve been saying this for years!)
Second, in both his pieces, Snoeberger repeatedly makes a big deal about the political-theological implications of his view. His view, he says, provides a sound basis for the doctrine of the “spirituality of the church,” meaning the church is to be purely concerned with spiritual matters and is not to get entangled in civil affairs. As a (positive!) example, he references James Hall Brookes, a pastor during the 19th century who refused to take a position in the debates over the Civil War (pp. 150-151).
Snoeberger expresses concern that other evangelical positions give credence to getting entangled in social concerns. Well, if that’s the critique—guilty as charged! Snoeberger’s sentiments ring of a pietism that I’m afraid narrows the Christian vocation.
I would most closely align with Wellum. I’m sympathetic with Bock, I just think he doesn’t go far enough. I’m especially sympathetic with Horton, although, as I mentioned above, I disagree with him on matters related to the newness of the new covenant re ecclesiology and baptism. And I disagree rather strongly with Snoeberger, finding his position frankly untenable.