Stephen J. Wellum and Brent E. Parker, editors.
Wellum, Stephen J., and Brent E. Parker. Progressive Covenantalism: Charting a Course between Dispensational and Covenant Theologies . Nashville, TN: B&H, 2016. 300 pp. $32.99
There is an argument to be made that the debate between Covenant and Dispensational theology within the evangelical is one of the most significant hermeneutical discussions to have. At the same time, there is an argument to be made that it is a topic that most evangelicals are ill-informed.
The reality is, the majority of evangelicals know little to nothing about the ins and outs of Covenant or Dispensational theology, yet hold beliefs regarding Scripture that are rooted in one of these theological systems. This is holds true for many seminary graduates as well. While they may be more knowledgeable of terminology and key points, few are able to articulate a full-fledged system with all its implications. This is complicated further because the beliefs of many do not fit nicely into either Covenant or Dispensational theology.
Stephen J. Wellum and Brent E. Parker seek to address this deficiency with their recent work, Progressive Covenantalism: Charting a Course between Dispensational and Covenant Theologies. The goal of Wellum and Parker in this edited work is clear and simple. It is to “continue the conversation” between Covenant and Dispensational theology, with the hope of “resolving the differences” that separate each (6). Per the book title, the resolution comes through what the authors term as Progressive Covenantalism (PC).
The book serves more as a “what would PC say about this question or issue,” than a systematic argument for Progressive Covenantalism. This is by design, as the editors’ previous work, Kingdom Through Covenant, is their foundational work that serves as the exegetical and theological articulation of PC. This book, therefore, is intended to be a continuation of their previous work as it addresses several questions left unaddressed or unresolved in their previous work (4).
The framework of the book provides ten chapters by ten different authors, each addressing a different question from the framework of PC. While the chapters do not necessarily follow any logical progression, they are arranged thematically. The opening four chapters deal more with the broad question of the relationship between the various biblical covenants and how PC answers this question in relation to Covenant and Dispensational theology.
The next four chapters address specific areas where PC would differ from Covenant theology. John Meade provides a case for holding to the significance of circumcision in the Old Testament without necessitating it being replaced or fulfilled in baptism, as Covenant theology has historically required. Thomas Scheiner supplies the argument for the place of the Sabbath in PC, while Christopher W. Cowan addresses the difficulty of a mixed (regenerate and unregenerate) church in Covenant theology from the perspective of the warning passages in Hebrews. In the final chapter of this section Wellum sets forth the framework for understanding the law and ethics in PC.
The final two chapters interact with major differences existing in PC and Dispensationalism. Richard J. Lucas addresses the question of Israel’s future salvation from Romans 11, while Oren R. Martin deals with the land question in the book’s final chapter.
The book is a worthwhile read in its entirety, but this format allows for the work to also serve as a reference, as specific questions and answers can be located and read in each chapter.
Benefit for Pastoral Ministry
The best case for the benefit of this work for pastoral ministry is made by the editors in the opening paragraph of the introduction. Here they write, “it is impossible to understand many of the early church’s struggles apart from covenantal debates” (1). Examples include Jew-Gentile relationships in the church, the false covenant theology of the Judaizers, the Jerusalem Council of Acts 15, and the relationship of the Mosaic law to the Gentile church. As the editors point out, “these debates are simply the wrestling with the larger debate regarding the relationship between the covenants, specifically the old and new covenants” (1).
When one considers the current landscape within evangelicalism, there is not a consistent and clear message related the questions above. No doubt most pastors have preached sermons addressing in some form or fashion several, if not all, of the previously mentioned debates. However, odds are it was done with little consideration to the larger question of the relationship between the old and new covenants.
The previous generation in Baptist life was overwhelmingly dispensational. However, that is not the case today. Many Southern Baptist pastors, for instance, would not align themselves with classic Dispensationalism, nor would they embrace Covenant theology fully. This leaves them somewhere in the middle.
Often, it is easy to say what one doesn’t believe as it relates to Covenant and Dispensational theology, yet more difficult to articulate what one actually believes. For those in this position, this book provides the framework for articulating the middle ground position.
While Progressive Covenantalism is likely too technical of work for the average layperson, it does serve as an excellent resource for the pastor. This holds true to the pastor who is already well-informed on the debate and the one who is not as familiar with the specifics of the arguments between the different ways of understanding and applying the biblical covenants.
We all preach and teach from specific theological systems and frameworks. This is unavoidable. Progressive Covenantalism serves the pastor by helping make sure you are aware of your framework as it relates to the biblical covenants.
Essential Recommended Helpful Pass It By
We all preach and teach from specific theological systems and frameworks. Progressive Covenantalism serves the pastor by helping make sure you are aware of your framework as it relates to the biblical covenants and provides an argument for a middle ground between Covenant and Dispensational theology.