Systematic theology can be intimidating. Like every discipline, it comes with its own vocabulary, a complex history, and seemingly endless debates. At first glance, it may appear more problematic than practical, but it would be hard to find any topic discussed in the church today (from the ordination of women to the role of instruments in worship) that doesn’t have its foundation in systematic theology.
Dispensational and covenant theology have enjoyed a long discourse in contemporary theological discussion. Dispensational theology arose in the nineteenth century as a primarily nondenominational and Baptist movement. Using a woodenly literal hermeneutic, dispensationalism emphasizes that Jesus Christ will reign over his future kingdom from the nation of Israel and that God’s Old Testament promises belong to Israel exclusively. This theology was popularized by the Scofield Bible and the founding of Dallas Theological Seminary.
In contrast, covenant theology is structured around God’s Old Testament covenants as they are fulfilled in Jesus Christ and his bride, the church. This concept was standard in church tradition before the Reformation, and it can be loosely described as the systematic working out of God’s different covenants with humanity and their implications on our salvation. Covenant theology reached its zenith in the Westminster Confession of Faith and remains a guiding principle of reformational systematic theology.
While the two concepts (dispensational and covenant theology) do share some common ground on justification by faith alone and the progressive nature of sanctification, the primary difference lies in their respective definitions of the nation of Israel, the church’s fulfillment of Old Testament promises, and eschatology (the study of the end times). In an attempt to establish a middle ground between these two systems, Baptist theologians from the Southern Baptist Convention seminaries have taken what they consider to be the biblical foundations for both dispensational and covenant theologies and are reengaging the discussion on the Abrahamic and new covenants. The result is called “progressive covenantalism.”
In Progressive Covenantalism: Charting a Course between Dispensational and Covenant Theology, edited by Stephen J. Wellum and Brent E. Parker, the reader is introduced to this theological system through its development and current articulations. Wellum and Parker assembled theologians and scholars to describe and defend a variety of scriptural and theological topics (e.g., apostasy, ethics, and ecclesiology) from the progressive covenantal position. In brief, progressive covenantalism affirms that God’s work in Scripture is generally continuous (e.g., Jesus and the church are the fulfillment of the Old Testament) but rejects the idea that God’s work is homogenous (e.g., the sign of circumcision to infants does not correspond to baptism of infants). These two assertions lead progressive covenantalism to reject important principles of both dispensational and covenantal theologies.
By affirming God’s covenant actions in the Scripture, progressive covenantalism affirms that the church is the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham, and it rejects dispensationalism’s doctrine on the nation of Israel. This is seen exegetically in their critique of the dispensationalist interpretation of Romans 11:26 as indicative of the restoration of geopolitical Israel. By asserting that God’s work is not homogenous, progressive covenantal theologians stress a discontinuity between the old covenants and the new covenant in the way God identifies his people and how God’s people are to live out their witness to the world.
For instance, reformational theology has routinely spoken of the three aspects of the Mosaic Law: moral, ceremonial, and civic. Rejecting this as nonnative to the text of Scripture, the progressive covenantal proponents vacillate in their formulation and articulation of how the New Testament changes the ethical responsibility of the church. Though affirming the validity of God’s Scripture, the authors are not consistent in seeing how God’s covenant at Sinai applies to his covenant people (chs. 6 and 8). Progressive covenantalism also rejects covenant theology’s view of the Abrahamic covenant in the covenant of grace. They stress discontinuity in the sign of circumcision/baptism and the mixed company of the covenant people (regenerate and unregenerate members) under the new covenant under Christ. This leads progressive covenantalism to reject infant baptism (ch. 5) and reads warning passages in the book of Hebrews as false warnings, since covenant members cannot apostatize (ch. 7).
Most of the essays in Progressive Covenantalism excel in presenting a large scope, biblical-theological view of each topic while performing dutiful exegesis of specific passages. In their laudable attempt to provide a lay-accessible tone and maintain a reasonable length, however, more than a couple of the essays feel rushed or underdeveloped. Still, every essay highlights the progressive covenantal emphasis on continuity in God’s work while maintaining the discontinuity in the new covenant. Though Baptistic in nature, progressive covenantalism should not be lumped in and discarded with older Baptistic systems (e.g., dispensationalism). Reformed and Lutheran scholars owe these theologians thoughtful responses on God’s covenant with Abraham, the role of heart circumcision in the Old Testament, and apostasy in the book of Hebrews.
Progressive Covenantalism: Charting a Course between Dispensational and Covenant Theology should be seen as an encouraging development in the reforming of biblical studies. Avid students of theology will find the material invigorating and respectful of Scripture, which makes this work a valuable resource for all Christians.
Joshua Torrey lives with his wife, Alaina, and three kids in Austin, Texas. He is a member of Redeemer Presbyterian Church.