One of the thorniest theological dilemmas in my mind concerns two systems of thought, namely, Dispensationalism and Covenant Theology. God found me and saved me by his grace in a Conservative Baptist Church that was heavily influenced by Classical Dispensationalism. With the arrival of the third pastor, I learned the distinction between the church and Israel, various dispensations, two peoples of God, not to mention the so-called carnal Christian theory. These notions particular to Classical Dispensational thought were fairly commonplace at the time and I accepted them uncritically.
My time in a well known Christian University continued to engrain dispensational distinctives into my mind. But in 1988, the theological tides began to shift. It began with the publication of a book by John MacArthur, The Gospel According to Jesus. MacArthur delivered a death nell to the so called “carnal Christian theory” and distanced himself from some of the primary tenets of dispensational theology. At the same time, MacArthur was writing as a committed Dispensationalist, what we refer today as Progressive Dispensationalism. The Gospel According to Jesus not only refuted some of the errors in Classical Dispensationalism; it also introduced readers to the Puritans and spoke in positive terms about Reformed theology – both subjects that were frowned upon by several professors in the Christian University I attended.
Kingdom Through Covenant by Peter Gentry and Stephen Wellum, is in many ways the book that I have been waiting for. The authors strive to forge a path between dispensationalism and covenant theology. Their two-fold purpose is set forth at the beginning of the book: “First, we want to show how central the concept of ‘covenant’ is to the narrative plot structure of the Bible, and secondly, how a number of crucial theological differences within Christian theology, and the resolution of those differences, are directly tied to one’s understanding of how the biblical covenants unfold and relate to each other” (p. 21).
The thesis of Gentry and Wellum is that “the covenants constitute the framework of the larger story. They are the backbone of the biblical narrative” (p. 138). As such, God would sovereignly choose Israel to be his covenant representatives, “a light to the world of what it means to be properly related to God and to treat each other properly according to the dignity of our humanity” (p. 138). But Israel failed. They did not keep the Mosaic Covenant. As a result they were cursed for their disobedience. However, the Scripture speaks of a new covenant; a day when it would be possible to keep the covenant. Jesus fulfilled prophecy and rescued Israel from the curse: “Then as King of Israel, he had to do what the nation as a whole had failed to do: bring blessing to the nations. He accomplished both by dying on the cross” (p. 296).
In presenting the via media between dispensationalism and covenant theology, the authors aim to strike a biblical balance while paying a certain degree of homage to each respective school of thought. In a pivotal moment, the authors appear to strike the necessary balance with a great deal of precision: “Contrary to covenant theology, which has a tendency to speak of God’s one plan of salvation in terms of the ‘covenant of grace,’ or ‘dispensational theology,’ which tends to partition history in terms of dispensations, it is more accurate to think in terms of a plurality of covenants, which are part of the progressive revelation of the one plan of God that is fulfilled in the new covenant” (p. 602). The authors continue add, “In contrast to the other theological views, our proposal of ‘kingdom through covenant’ wants consistently to view and apply the previous covenants through the lens of Jesus’ person and work and the arrival of the new covenant age.”
Kingdom Through Covenant is written by two godly men who are fair-minded in their approach and careful to accurately describe their theological opponents. While their proposal is fresh and bold, they in no way claim to have the final answer on this disputed matter. Rather, this 716 page tome serves as the entry point for meaningful discussion. Their approach is light years away from some of the mean-spirited polemics that took place between the proponents of covenant theology and dispensationalism in the 70-‘s and 80’s. The church should receive the work of Gentry and Wellum as a gracious gift that will spark meaningful discussion for decades to come. A fine work, indeed!