A Book Review
If we possessed all the satisfying answers, what would we talk about and ponder? I was recently listening to a podcast, on which the two hosts were talking about their shared obsession with Twin Peaks. The show is over 20 years old and it ran for two seasons, and yet fans still love to discuss Twin Peaks and what it all means. I wonder if we couldn’t say something about the historical revelation of God’s plan found in God’s Word. There are different views on how it unfolds and will culminate. Christians are far from united on their conclusions. But this gives us the great opportunity to discuss and ponder the majesty and wonder of God. Furthermore, most of us know something about our own position and much less of the alternatives. It’s constructive to evaluate our own position and recognize areas we have given little consideration.
So how does the Word of God fit together into one coherent story? Covenantal and Dispensational Theologies: Four Views on the Continuity of Scripture, edited by Brent Parker and Richard Lucas, presents four popular views on the spectrum of theological systems. The book’s format allows each of the four contributing authors one chapter to defend their position and another to respond to the other authors. The reader benefits from expert explanations on covenant theology, progressive covenantalism, progressive dispensationalism, and dispensationalism along with a clear sense of where and why they disagree.
Below you will find a summary of each author’s contribution followed by my conclusions.
Michael Horton: Covenantalism
According to Horton, the keys to classic covenant theology are a continuous covenant of grace that runs through Scripture, a law/gospel classification for each of the covenants, and the eternal covenant of redemption.
This chapter explains why the law/gospel distinction is so important covenantalism, most notably because of their distinction between a covenant of works and a covenant of grace. Covenant theology grants hermeneutical priority to the New Testament and traces the church back to Adam and Eve. Horton clearly explains the implications of his interpretation with these words:
The church is not a parenthesis in God’s plan with the nation of Israel as the main event but vice versa. Israel is no longer identified with a nation or an ethnic people but with Christ as the head of his body—“one new man,” ending even the distinction between Jew and Gentile in his kingdom (Eph. 2:14-16; cf. Gal. 3:28).
Stephen Wellum: Progressive Covenantalism
Progressive covenantalism draws attention to the progression from one covenant to the next. They form “the backbone to Scripture’s entire storyline” (75). According to this view, all of God’s promises, including the land one, find their fulfillment in Christ. Two other traits important to this position are typology and recognizing the conditional/unconditional (law/gospel) nature of each of the covenants. And while this system recognizes more of an Israel-church than covenant theology, the end result is similar minus the paedobaptism element and “mixed community” idea.
This position is the one I was most unfamiliar with, so I appreciate Wellum’s thoughtful explanation and defense. Recognizing the biblical covenants as the backbone of the biblical story makes good sense. Tracing the historical development of God’s revelation through the covenants explicitly revealed in Scripture. But at the end of the day, this system feels like an improved version of covenant theology.
Darrell Bock: Progressive Dispensationalism
Progressive dispensationalism argues that God’s plan has unfolded through a series of stewardships (“dispensations”). What distinguishes this system from the traditional variety is an “already/not yet” view of the kingdom and disagreement over ethnic Israel’s future in God’s plan. It offers a lighter version of dispensationalism, adapted to some of the questions and criticisms raised by covenant theology.
Most helpful in this chapter is Bock’s explanation of the complementary hermeneutic, which he defines as “what the NT reveals complements and completes what the OT reveals without losing what was originally declared, provided that the OT expression is still affirmed either by explicit NT declaration, by an allusion back to what was said in the past, or through explicit nullification language” (126).
Mark Snoeberger: Traditional Dispensationalism
Snoeberger explains why Thomas Brookes, a Civil War-era Presbyterian pastor, refused to take sides in the Civil War based on the doctrine of the spirituality of the church. It was not because Brookes did not have a biblically-shaped position on the conflict, but that God’s purpose for the church was advancing the Great Commission and not civil government affairs. From this, Snoeberger argues that dispensationalism values understanding how all of Scripture fits together and the spirituality of the church, namely that it is not Israel or kingdom.
Key points addressed are dispensationalism’s “originalist” hermeneutic and theological center (or mitte), which “views Scripture as a history of the rule of God (for which the term reichgeschicte may be coined) as God’s primary plan for achieving his own glory” (164).
In this section, each author responds to the other three views to point out weaknesses of the other systems and defend their own. These constructive exchanges are helpful overall. I would say that Wellum seems to forget the book’s overall purpose when he sarcastically faults Snoeberger for believing only his position is the legitimate one (211). His liberal inclusion of exclamation points (no fewer than ten—all responding to the dispensational contributors) and claims that Snoeberger and Bock don’t understand his view (see 210, 215) undermine his rhetorical efforts.
What I appreciate most about this book is its length and choice of contributors. The 35(ish)-page position chapters, in addition to a useful introduction, offer detailed coverage on each system. And the selected writers are among the most able representatives to defend their respective positions. Disagreements exist—pretty big disagreements, but there is still remarkable agreement on the gospel message and core beliefs of the Christian faith. Believers can hold to any one of these four views. This book allows readers to see that their brothers and sisters in Christ holding to different theological systems aren’t crazy. Each system attempts to answer difficult questions about the continuity and discontinuity of Scripture. And I’m thankful so many of us want to understand God’s overarching plan.
Apart from Wellum and his derisive tone towards his dispensational brothers, I found the tenor positive and charitable. This is a book for pastors and theological students who want to better understand how theologians understand God’s overarching plan and purpose as revealed in Scripture.
Special thanks to IVP Academic for providing a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for an unbiased review.