Progressive Covenantalism: An Overview

I recently finished reading Progressive Covenantalism, a new volume edited by Steve Wellum and Brent Parker. I thoroughly enjoyed the book, and I found it to be a worthy contribution to the field of biblical theology. It inspired me to write down a few thoughts that I will share in the next few posts.

This post is not so much about the book itself as it is about the movement in biblical theology that goes by the name “Progressive Covenantalism.” This movement affirms, with covenant theology, the unity of God’s plan of redemption, which entails one people of God throughout history. But it also affirms, with dispensationalism, that this plan unfolds through distinct covenants rather than through a single covenant of grace. Like progressive dispensationalism, it stands between covenant theology and traditional dispensationalism, but it distinguishes itself even from progressive dispensationalism by affirming that national Israel was a type that has now reached its fulfillment in Christ and the church, even if there remains a future mass conversion of ethnic Israel, which will incorporate Israel into the church (a question that the movement leaves open, though I would guess most of its proponents affirm). With dispensationalism, it is a baptistic theology, fitting the covenants together in such a way that leaves no place for an ongoing genealogical principle in the new covenant. But with covenant theology, it follows a hermeneutic that is not woodenly “literal,” but more open to typological fulfillment of Old Testament promises and prophecies. As the subtitle of the Wellum/Parker volume says, the movement is indeed charting a course between dispensational and covenant theologies.

As a movement in biblical theology, progressive covenantalism’s birthplace and now childhood home is the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville. I remember a doctoral seminar I had with Steve Wellum there back in 2006 in which he told us that the one question that has driven one of his own mentors, Kevin Vanhoozer, in the search for a sound theological method is this: what does it mean to biblical in one’s theology? Dr. Wellum has let that question drive him as well, and it has led him to the conclusion that a truly biblical theology is one that is driven by Scripture’s own internal categories, as opposed to one that imposes categories from outside of Scripture onto the text. As Dr. Wellum has attempted to let the Bible interpret itself, so to speak, it has led him to fit the various covenants of Scripture together in a particular way that neither flattens them into a single covenant of grace (as in covenant theology) nor divides Israel and the church into two distinct peoples of God (as in dispensationalism), but finds a middle ground between both views.

The real public beginning of progressive covenantalism, I would argue, was in 2006 with the publication of Wellum’s article “Baptism and the Relationship between the Covenants” in the volume Believer’s Baptism: Sign of the New Covenant in Christ, edited by Tom Schreiner and Shawn Wright. Although the subject of Wellum’s chapter is believer’s baptism, the method by which he argues for it is by fitting the covenants of Scripture together according to the internal categories of Scripture itself. It is a biblical-theological approach to the subject of baptism.

In 2012, Dr. Wellum delivered his faculty address to the Southern Seminary community, where he posed the question, “What does the extent of the atonement have to do with Baptist ecclesiology?” Demonstrating once again his desire to allow the Bible to provide its own categories for systematic theology–in this case with regard to the question of the extent of the atonement–Wellum argued that the work of Christ must be understood in light of his priesthood, which is necessarily tied to a particular people within a covenant. This address later became a chapter in From Heaven He Came and Sought Her, edited by David Gibson and Jonathan Gibson.

If Steve Wellum has laid out the big picture for the movement, Peter Gentry has done the detailed work of thorough, meticulous biblical exegesis in support of it. 2012 was also the year that Wellum and Gentry released the book that has become the foundational text for progressive covenantalism: Kingdom through Covenant. This book is a feast of biblical-theological insight, opening with Wellum’s chapters on biblical theology and hermeneutics, followed by Gentry’s chapters unpacking the covenants of Scripture one-by-one, and then concluding with Wellum’s summary reflections and application of his theological method to particular loci of theology. However, the massive size of the book, its detailed interaction with Hebrew (and occasionally Greek), and its inclusion of several chapters not central to the overall thesis made it inaccessible to some readers. The 2015 revision, God’s Kingdom through God’s Covenants represents, not only a condensed version of the argument, but also a number of improvements over the previous volume, as Wellum and Gentry showed that they had heard and taken seriously some of the criticisms they had received.

The Wellum/Parker volume, Progressive Covenantalism (released this year), has now expanded the movement in a number of directions, addressing a range of subjects from the meaning of circumcision to the role of the law in Christian ethics. Scholars from a number of places contributed to the volume, but almost all of them (if not every single one, I’m not entirely sure) have been connected to Southern Seminary at some point.

One other publication of which I am aware also comes from a former Southern Seminary theology professor, Chad Brand, who co-authored the chapter “The Progressive Covenantal View” in the book Perspectives on Israel and the Church: 4 Views, also edited by Chad Brand.

It is exciting to see a movement forming before our eyes, especially one coming out of my alma mater and involving the works of a number of people that I studied under or studied with during my years in seminary. But even more exciting for me is the genuine insight that I believe progressive covenantalism offers to the field of biblical theology, which in turn produces richer fruit for systematic theology. Whether the movement will stick around, mature, and develop, or perhaps be absorbed into a larger category that has been known as “new covenant theology” remains to be seen. But whatever the case, I am thankful for the work that has been done, and I am quite confident we have not heard the last word in this conversation.

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