Progressive Covenantalism and a Potential Pitfall

Although I would argue that progressive covenantalism represents an approach to fitting the Bible together in a way that is, on the whole, faithful to the biblical text itself, and while I am deeply appreciative of the work that has been done by a number of scholars in this field of biblical theology, I do want to offer a word of critique, as well as an expression of hopefulness that future work might rectify what I perceive as a deficiency.

The deficiency is represented somewhat in the Gentry/Wellum volumes Kingdom through Covenant as well as God’s Kingdom through God’s Covenants, but most pointedly in Ardel Caneday’s essay in the Wellum/Parker volume Progressive Covenantalism. These writers, rightly concerned to overcome the false notion (primarily argued by dispensationalists) that some biblical covenants are unconditional and some are conditional, have apparently swung the pendulum too far in the opposite direction by failing to address the Bible’s own teaching about important distinctions in covenant types.

Caneday’s article, for example, rightly notes that both the Mosaic Covenant and the new covenant are conditional, in that both require that certain conditions be met if covenant members are to inherit the ultimate blessings of the respective covenants. But his discussion does not sufficiently nuance covenantal distinctions in order to draw out the important differences between these two covenants, as the apostle Paul does in both Galatians and Romans.

In his argument in Galatians 3 and 4, Paul spells out at great length the difference between relating to God on the basis of promise (the Abrahamic Covenant, now fulfilled in Christ) and on the basis of law (the Mosaic Covenant, which is subservient to the Abrahamic in God’s plan and has now passed away). The fairest reading of Paul’s apparently non-sensical statement and Scripture quotation in Galatians 3:10 is one that sees an inherent presupposition in Paul’s theology, namely, that no one is able to live up to the demands of the law, which requires perfect of obedience (Caneday explicitly denies that this is what the law demands, which also disappointed me). Paul then makes the argument, based on Habakkuk 2:4, that justification cannot be based on the law because the righteous shall live (eschatologically) by faith, which must be a principle of relating to God that is distinct from works. In fact, Paul goes on to affirm exactly that in 3:12 with a quote from Leviticus 18:5: “But the law is not of faith, rather, ‘The one who does them shall live by them.'” He draws a distinction between the principle of doing (which is inherently demanded by a law) vs. the principle of receiving by faith (which is inherently demanded by a promise). The entire argument turns on the fact that the promise to Abraham is a different kind of divine word than the law given to Israel through Moses, and thus demands a different kind of response. Both covenants are conditional, but the Abrahamic Covenant is one in which God assumes the burden of fulfillment (cf. Genesis 15 and the animal carcass ceremony), whereas the Mosaic Covenant is one in which the burden is placed on Israel (note that the Israelites take the oath in Exodus 24).

The same dynamic is apparent in Romans 9:30-10:13, which outlines the difference between pursuing the law “as if it were based on works” vs. pursuing it by faith. To pursue the law by faith does not mean (contra Daniel Fuller’s argument) an obedience to the law that flows from trust in God as opposed to a merely external obedience. That is not the nature of the contrast Paul is drawing. Rather, the pursuit of the law by faith is simply following the law where it leads, namely, to Christ, who is the end/goal of the law (see 10:4). The same kind of contrast is also evident in Romans 4:13-16. The very fact that Paul can say, “For the law brings wrath” (v. 15) with such an apparent universality is an indication that the law covenant is a different kind of covenant than those that chiefly feature God’s promises.

For this reason, I prefer to hold on to terminology that distinguishes the Abrahamic, Davidic, and new covenants in some sense from the Mosaic. Wellum, Gentry, and Caneday are all correct that “unconditional” and “conditional” are not helpful terms here. But I think if we retain the words “unilateral” and “bilateral” as a way of distinguishing covenants in which God assumes the burden of fulfillment vs. covenants in which he imposes that burden on the covenant partner, we will be able to make better sense of the way Paul fits the covenants together and, therefore, be more faithful to the Bible’s own intrasystemic categories. While the traditional Lutheran paradigm that carves all of Scripture into either “law” or “gospel,” doesn’t seem to hit it right, let’s not jettison that distinction altogether, or else we end up with a covenantal nomism that blurs important distinctions in Pauline theology.

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