Kingdom Through Covenant: A Review

Below is a review by Harrison Perkins (MDiv) of Peter J. Gentry and Stephen J. Wellum, Kingdom Through Covenant (Wheaton: Crossway, 2012). He grew up in the south and attended college in Alabama. He began to get more involved in the church in college and there grew in his love for the church and desire to help others understand the riches of the Word of God and the gospel of God’s free grace. He is married and lives in the San Diego area. He is a graduate Westminster Seminary California and a PhD student at Queens University, Belfast.

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It is difficult to know what the best way to review such a large book is (778 pages plus bibliography) in way that is useful to readers. There is much ground to cover and it is nearly impossible to do justice to all that the authors argue. The book is much too long to treat point by point. Rather, it seems better to treat this work topically and give a basic overview and response regarding the major issues.

First, there is much to appreciate in this volume for those of us holding to classic Covenant Theology (hereafter CT). This work might well be valuable to have simply as a one-volume commentary on many of the major passages related to CT. Although Reformed CT would not always agree with the exegesis, it can be a useful guide to what many of the issues are in particular texts.

Second, the authors do argue against a separate eschatology for Israel and the church. A wonderful argument is made that the land promises are made to Abraham and his seed, but his true seed are those of his faith (Gal. 3:7). This means that believers, not an ethnic group inherit the land promises. They also argue that there was the promise of expansion beyond the borders of Palestine from the beginning. The land promised to Israel is promised in light of the covenant made at creation. Adam was to tend Eden and fill the earth. The same is true of later land promises: it was meant to fill the earth. These arguments serve well to dispel the Dispensational disjunction between the church and Israel. There is only one people of God.

But what do the authors say about the covenants? Where do they stand in relation to Reformed CT? It is helpful to look at what they say about each major covenant heading. Regarding the covenant of redemption, they do not affirm it by name, but say that it is on the right track (pg. 654–656). They affirm the eternal plan of redemption among the Godhead and also affirm that God in Himself is covenantal, which gives warrant for us to think about all things covenantally.

Regarding the covenant of works, they do not agree with all that CT holds as the covenant of works, but that it is on the right track (pg.610). They do affirm and argue at length for a covenant with Adam (pg. 177–221). What they seem to neglect, however, is that it that covenant was a covenant of works. They affirm, however, the obligations for Adam and that his fulfillment of this covenant arrangement would bring about a further eschatological reality. This shows that there is much that the authors do like about CT’s position on the covenant of works. What they do not seem to like is that it is the covenant of works, i.e. they deny that the other covenants are not also a type of works covenants, as we will see under the covenant of grace section. Thankfully, they do emphasize that Christ did what Adam failed to do and that Christ earned for us redemption. This is an important feature related to CT’s exposition of the covenant of works and covenant of redemption that the authors have affirmed (though I got the impression that they did not fully grasp the issues behind the works covenant between the Father and Son and how that relates to the covenant of works).

Regarding the covenant of grace, they deny that it is legitimate to speak of one covenant. They affirm one “plan of salvation,” but say that we should only speak of the plurality of covenants because the Scripture has a plurality of covenants. There are several reasons why they make this move. First, I am not sure that they understand that in some ways, “one covenant of grace” means one plan of salvation. That is the point of the doctrine. They certainly, however, miss that WCF 7.5-6 speaks of the one covenant administered in diverse ways. CT also speaks of the plurality of covenants, but these covenants are administrations of the one covenant of grace made after the fall (Gn. 3:15). Second, the main reason for dividing the covenant of grace into many pieces is to argue for credobaptism. In many ways, this book is simply a drawn out argument for credobaptism. It becomes clear that the primary reason for posing their hermeneutics under a covenantal scheme is to try and make credobaptism at all plausible for those of us who hold CT. They want to show that there are non-Dispensationalists that hold credobaptism (a claim to be examined below). By not posing one covenant of grace, they leave open the holes they need to make a radical discontinuity between the new covenant and all the others.

Two of the major issues in the concept of the “one plan of salvation” posed in this book are the nature of the covenants and soteriology in regards to the ordo salutis. As far as the nature of the covenants is concerned, the authors deny the distinction that CT traditionally makes between conditional and unconditional (promise) covenants. They say that all the covenants are in some ways conditional and in other ways unconditional. This is the reason they give for the tension between God’s promises and man’s unfaithfulness. God has promised, but He requires a faithful covenant servant. This is the reason they say that the Incarnation was necessary: God had to provide His own faithful covenant servant. However, it seems to me that by denying the distinction between conditional and unconditional covenants, they have made them all conditional. If the unconditional aspects (promises) of a covenant are conditional, then they are not really unconditional. The whole covenant is simply conditional.

This scheme makes all the covenants function the same way. Granted, Wellum and Gentry do a better job of doing justice to redemptive-history in its progress through covenants; they do see the covenants as fulfilling God’s one plan and do acknowledge that later covenants fulfill earlier ones. However, by making all the covenants function the same way (conditionally), they end up posing each covenant as a real potential at fulfilling God’s one plan. If a particular covenant can provide a faithful covenant servant, then it will fulfill God’s promises. It just so happens that this does not happen until the new covenant. This strikes me as Dispensationalism is a covenant suit and tie. The authors have done more to use covenants as the Scripture does, but ultimately they have made each covenant function individually and undermined any attempt at unifying the covenants, which is a major point of Reformed CT.

The other issue is related to soteriology in regards to the ordo salutis. The authors do not seem to pose that OT saints were saved in the same way that NT saints are saved. They state that a flaw of CT is that it poses OT saints as indwelt by the Spirit and united to Christ (pg. 113n74). They do not go as far as classic Dispensationalism and argue that Israelites were saved by keeping the law. However, they do argue for differences in soteriology between the new covenant and the old (this obviously seems to confuse old covenant with OT, but this is a separate issue). They state that OT saints were saved by faith in God’s promises (pg. 684, n.70). They argue that now in the NT the promises of God for salvation are Christologically focused (pg. 685). “In the Old Testament, particularly under the old covenant, the forgiveness of sins is normally granted through the sacrificial system,” (pg.650). This is not the soteriology of Reformed CT, nor is it the biblical soteriology. Christ said no one comes to the Father except through Him (Jn. 14:6) and I do not think that meant only after the NT era began. It was an eternal reality for sinners. When Christ laid down His life for the elect, it was not only the NT elect (Jn. 10). It was the elect from all times. What the authors have posed is a diluted Dispensational soteriology.

More specifically within the covenant of grace, the authors rightly recognize the importance of the Abrahamic covenant, but are mistaken in most of their conclusions about it. They have made it a conditional covenant, just like all the others. This allows them to put it in contrast, rather than continuity, with the new covenant, which is fulfilled by the work of Christ. By setting even the Abrahamic covenant in contrast with the new, they are able to argue that the “genealogical principle” of the Abrahamic covenant is a type of a new covenant reality: the lineage of faith. This forms their argument for the shift in covenantal structure from including infants of believers to not including them. They support this argument by appealing largely to Jeremiah 31:26–40. They put heavy emphasis on the contrast of the new covenant to the old, which they are right to do, but they seem to think that the contrast is mainly about children in the covenant. This places the new covenant in contrast with the whole OT scheme of covenants (which is a Dispensational scheme) but this is not what Jeremiah’s contrast is. He contrasts the new covenant with that made at Sinai (31:32), which is a specific OT administration. Therefore, the authors are mistaken because they miss that the contrast must be between the new covenant and something specific to the Mosaic covenant. The very thing, to which Jeremiah points, is the breakable nature of the covenant at Sinai. The old covenant (Mosaic) was breakable, primarily because it was conditional and rested on the covenant servant to be faithful but the new will be unbreakable (unconditional). It will be fulfilled by God. This not only undermines the authors’ contrast of new covenant with all the OT, but also their denial of the distinction between conditional and unconditional covenants.

More so, the authors have made many of these moves arguing backwards. They know that infants cannot be baptized so they read the OT covenants in a way to support this view rather than listening to the text. They also miss much of the argument of Galatians regarding the AC. Galatians 3:7 poses that the seed of Abraham is those of faith. Paul does not say that this is only true in the NT era. It was always the truth. The same thing is expressed when he argues that the true Jew is the one inwardly (Rom. 2:29). The seed of Abraham was always a spiritual reality. Additionally, Paul calls the Abrahamic covenant the gospel (Gal. 3:8). As hard as the authors work to distance the new covenant and the AC, this runs contrary to Paul’s statements cited here.

Further, the authors argue that the genealogical principle is typological of the principle of faith in the new covenant. They state that the invariable inclusion of all of the physical lineage prefigures the invariable inclusion of all those who have faith. However, this misses much of what happens in the Abrahamic covenant itself regarding the genealogical principle. It should be obvious that not all the physical descendants are true believers (e.g. Esau). This shows that there is certainly a spiritual dimension to the AC, which is the dimension that the NT emphasized most. Some of the physical descendants, however, are also cut off from the covenant (e.g. Ishmael). This shows that whether discussed spiritually or physically, the Abrahamic covenant includes a mixed community in the covenant. Wither way the typology will point forward to a mixed covenant in the church. This runs against the majority of the authors’ arguments for credobaptism in the covenant context.

A few other comments are in order. The major content issues have been addressed, but there are also a few methodological features that should be discussed. First and foremost, the authors do a great job of interacting with Dispensational material. They cite relevant and credible sources and deal fairly with the Dispensational arguments, sometimes at length. The same cannot be said, however, regarding the authors’ interaction with CT. Many times, they do not cite sources for what they claim CT holds. Much of what they claim CT believes, I do not recognize as actual CT. When they do cite sources regarding CT, they are typically shallow or disreputable. Although they cite Michael Horton’s Introducing Covenant Theology (also published as God of Promise) regularly, most of the sources the use for CT are either web searches or Federal Vision writers. The first category is simply not acceptable for academic work. Web pages are helpful for many things, but they are not fit for academic engagement. They authors failed to really wrestle with full-bodied CT, particularly, they did not engage with the primary CT sources at all, even those translated into English. There is no excuse for not including at least one from Witsius, Turretin, Owen, or Hodge in this discussion. They rely on shoddy second hand material, which undermines their attempt at doing any credible academic work on the topic. Regarding the second category, all confessional Reformed CT would have a severe aversion to Federal Vision. To cite Federal Vision authors as representative of orthodox Reformed CT is not only to set up a straw man argument, but is an extreme misrepresentation of the opposing side. If this is an example of being unaware of the controversy, that is totally inexcusable.

Another methodological concern is with Gentry’s exegesis. I should say, it is not with the way he does exegesis per se, but he never makes explicit his exegetical conclusions or the relevance of particular exegesis to the overall topic. The individual chapters on the various covenants hardly ever express a thesis regarding the particular covenant under examination. This makes it difficult to follow the overall argument and frustrating to try and see why he is making the points he is making, Much of the almost 500 pages of exegesis as if it was published simply for the sake of exegesis. A great number of pages does not prove an argument. Conclusions are not only helpful for the reader but necessary for tracing arguments.

In the end, this book is interesting, but it does not really advance the discussion. It is too big and not clear enough for a general audience. On the other hand, academic audiences will see that it has not moved much past a progressive Dispensational position. It rejects a separate future for Israel but still holds a Dispensational-style soteriology and makes the same mistakes regarding what the nature of discontinuity is between the new and old covenants (the major contrast is not about including infants). I enjoyed this book and found much of it helpful. I find, however, claims that this book is “groundbreaking” quite misleading and over stated, unless they refer to the literal effect dropping a book of this size would have on the ground.