Kingdom Through Covenant: A Review

December 19, 2012

9781433514647

Authors Peter J. Gentry and Stephen J. Wellum are professor of Old Testament Interpretation and Christian theology respectively, at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. In tag team sort of affair, Wellum authored parts 1 and 3 of the Kingdom Through Covenant, while Gentry filled in the gap by authoring part 2. While they speak with a unified voice on the subject they are treating, you can discern differing authorial voices in the sections, something I tried to tease out in my quoting.

However, after a while, I decided it would be best to just give it the formal treatment. I had planned on eventually doing that anyway, but I abandoned the quoting in order to just get down to business, finish reading this massive volume, so I could tell you what I think.

Overview

The first part of the book, authored by Wellum, covers three foundational chapters:

  • The Importance of Covenants in Biblical and Systematic Theology
  • Covenants in Biblical-Theological Systems
  • Hermeneutical Issues in “Putting Together” the Covenants

Right off the bat, Wellum tells us why they wrote Kingdom Through Covenant:

The purpose of this book is to demonstrate two claims. First, we want to show how central the concept of covenant is to the narrative plot structure of the Bible, and secondly, how a number of crucial theological differences within Christian theology, and the resolution of those differences, are directly tied to one’s understanding of how the biblical covenants unfold and relate to each other (21).

In a footnote shortly after, he clarifies their motivation further and the specific claims they are making in this massive book:

[T]he biblical covenants form the backbone of the metanarrative of Scripture, and apart from understanding each biblical covenant in its historical context and then in its relation to the fulfillment of all of the covenants in Christ, we will ultimately misunderstand the overall message of the Bible (21n2).

The rest of chapter 1 then begins the defense of this claim by looking at how important the covenants in Scripture are to both the biblical and systematic theological enterprises. This much is hardly controversial.

However, in chapter 2, Wellum turns to explaining how the covenants are explained within the two major schools of thought. He begins with the dispensational understanding, working through its various phases (classic, revised, and progressive). Then, he turns to covenant theology, which he also notes has varieties, but does not clearly distinguish between them in the same manner as with dispensationalism (i.e. there are not separate headings for variations).

This all sets the stage for chapter 3 where Wellum teases out the issues that surrounding any attempt to synthesize the biblical teaching on the covenants. He closes with this summary statement that explains the procedure for the rest of the book (126):

Each biblical covenant will first be placed in its own immediate context, then understood in terms of what comes before it in redemptive-history, and then finally what comes after it, ultimately in light of what the entire Canon and the coming of Christ. It is only by following this procedure that we take seriously the Old Testament context on its own terms, unpack the intertextual development within the Old Testament, and then discover how all the biblical covenants find their fulfillment in our Lord Jesus Christ.

The baton is then passed to Gentry who takes a meticulous look at the covenants. His initial chapter sets up the notion of covenants both in the Bible and the ancient Near East in general. Here, he tells us that “the thesis of this work is that the covenants constitute the framework of the larger story. They are the backbone of the biblical narrative” (138). He identifies a total of 6 major biblical covenants:

  • The Covenant with Creation (Genesis 1-3)
  • The Covenant with Noah (Genesis 6-9)
  • The Covenant with Abraham (Genesis 12/15/17)
  • The Covenant at Sinai (Ex. 19:3b-8/20-24)
  • The Covenant with David (2 Samuel 7/Psalm 89)
  • The New Covenant (Jeremiah 31-34/Ezekiel 33:29-39:29)

Not surprisingly, a chapter is then devoted to each of these covenants. The twist is that Gentry opts to start with the covenant with Noah in chapter 5. To oversimplify a bit, this tactical move is made to show that the covenant with Noah was a renewal of an existing covenant. Instead of trying to establish the presence of a covenant in Genesis 1-3, Gentry attempts to show that Genesis 6-9 presumes there was already a creation covenant in place that needed to be renewed post-flood. I think this makes the argument smoother, and at this point, tend to agree with the conclusions drawn.

From here, we take an extended exegetical journey through the Old Testament. Rather than a simple one-to-one correspondence between biblical covenants and chapters in the book, the discussion is expanded when needed (but clearly never contracted).Abraham’s covenant gets 2 chatpers (7-8), the Sinai covenant is discussed first in Exodus (9), and then in Deuteronomy (10).

David’s covenant takes a single chapter (11), but when it comes to the New Covenant, we get 4 chapters. First, we look at the New Covenant in Isaiah and Ezekiel (12), then in Jeremiah (13). Looking at Isaiah first helps frame the expectations of the New Covenant better than if Gentry had just jumped headfirst in Jeremiah 31-34. After discussing the New Covenant in the major prophets, Gentry then turns to an extended discussion of Daniel’s 70 Weeks. Interestingly enough, he doesn’t say anything here that I wasn’t taught in my 2nd year Hebrew class at Dallas Seminary of all places. Not to spoil it, but there is no dangling 70th week awaiting fulfillment. To see why, you’ll need to read the book.

As Gentry’s time with readers comes to a close, he offers a chapter on the New Covenant in the New Testament. Centered on Ephesians 4:15 as the paradigm for New Covenant living, Gentry unpack as much as he can in a single chapter what all the New Testament says in support the overall thesis.

And with that, we’re back in Wellum’s hands. The final two chapters offer first an overarching biblical-theological summary of the proposal, and then some theological implications of the study. The book itself closes with an appendix conducting lexical analysis on every instance of the Hebrew word for covenant (berit).

Strengths/Weaknesses

Honestly, there is not much I can do critically in this section without prompting the need for a blog series on this book. I’ve dabbled with the idea of re-reading the book over the course of next year and offering more critical comments on each chapter as I do. But, I don’t necessarily want to commit to that. If there is a big interest on your part, I might. A few things can be said though, some praiseworthy and critical.

First, I would love to see a comparable book written from a dispensational perspective, as well as a covenant perspective. And by comparable, I mean a book similar in scope and structure. I think whether or not you agree with the conclusions of Wellum & Gentry, this book should set the standard for how a book on theological system needs to be written. It is very helpful to have the hermeneutical issues set out in such detail up front, only to be followed by in-depth exegetical study before the actual system itself is summarized. Horton’s book is an attempt, but he is no exegete (by virtue of his own training), and the book is woefully deficient in making its case. Likewise, Blaising and Bock’s Progressive Dispensationalism is a step in the right direction, but still not as extensive as Kingdom Through Covenant.

However, second, this book may just be too extensive. In general, I think the people who are most likely to tackle a theological book like this have probably already made up their mind on this issue and are either in one camp or the other. There are some exceptions, me for instance, who are in neither camp and are exploring options like Kingdom Through Covenant, but I don’t see the average pastor picking this up to read. In that senses, it is a book that begs for scholarly interaction and should be seen as a great conversation starter, but hardly the definitive word on the subject. Especially since it is trying to chart a middle course, it will naturally receive much more criticism, as it has two well developed theological traditions waiting to deconstruct it.

Speaking of deconstruction, though not entirely integral to the case, Gentry repeats a few times (153, 178, 251, 255-256) an error related to covenant rituals. Speaking of covenant making in the ancient Near East (chapter 5), he says:

Animals are slaughtered and sacrificed. Each animal is cut in two and the halves are laid facing or opposite each other. Then the parties of the treaty walk between the halves of the dead animal(s). This action is symbolic. What is being expressed is this: each party is saying, “If I fail to keep my obligation or my promise, may I be cut in two like this dead animal.” The oath or promise, then, involves bringing a curse upon oneself for violating the treaty. This is why the expression “to cut a covenant” is the conventional language for initiating a covenant in the Old Testament (153).

Unfortunately, this is almost entirely wrong. Gentry cites no sources to support that was common ancient Near East practice. That is because it wasn’t, and so there aren’t any. There is no extant evidence that this was practiced, much less that it was common when it came to “cutting” a covenant. Kenneth Mathews points this out, and Gentry is aware of it, but essentially argues that the fact that it happens in the Old Testament is all the evidence we need (“The OId Testament is part of that cultural data even if no other texts from the Near East specifically mention “halving an animal”). He misses Mathews point however, and instead assumes that what is happening in Genesis 15 is a covenant ritual that “attest[s] to age-old cultural data in the ancient Near East” (255). Much of his case amounts to special pleading in the face of scholarship based on actual ancient Near East evidence.

A point worth noting that Gentry completely overlooks on this subject is that people did walk through dead animal carcasses in the ancient Near East, and it was a very well attested practice. However, it wasn’t part of a covenant making ceremony, but part of either a ritual to alleviate childlessness, or as part of a military purification ritual. Thinking about Abram’s questions to Yahweh in the beginning of chapter 15, doesn’t this put an interesting spin on Abraham’s adventure in Genesis 15? Yahweh contextualized a ritual that assured Abraham he would a) have a child as promised, and b) be victorious in battle against the Canaanites and it would depend on Yahweh instead of Abraham because Abraham wasn’t the one who passed through the disjecta membra (i.e. animal pieces, I just wanted to use the fancy words).

Finally, a procedural weakness, in my opinion is Gentry’s penchant for excessive block quoting. He is nothing if not thorough, though extended quotes within extended quotes was annoying to say the least (if not scholastically lazy). In case that’s confusing, I’m saying that very often Gentry will say such-and-such scholar’s argument is worth quoting in full and so he then does so, and for the next page and a half we said quote which includes block quotes within it as well. It’s basically like Inception (this analogy works if you found Inception both confusing and annoying). Had these been reduced and more scholarly arguments summarized rather than reproduced in full, the book would have been shorter and more accessible and probably reached a wider audience.

Conclusion

All that being said, I would still recommend this book to anyone who is interested in reading an extensive and mostly compelling case for a middle way between covenant theology and dispensationalism. I can’t say I stand converted to the system, but it gave me much to think through and process. For the most part, I find myself in agreement as the criticisms the authors bring against dispensationalism and covenant theology are criticisms I would share (in many but not all cases). However, this is not the kind of book you read once and then make up your mind and move on. I really ought to re-read and think through it more.

I would look forward as well to scholarly response from both sides of the debate since it would either a) rebut the criticisms Wellum and Gentry make and/or b) challenge some of the arguments they’ve presented. Either way, this is a very important topic that as a pastor or Bible teacher, you have to have some position on. In the end, you need to commit to the system that you think does the best justice to the overall story line of Scripture. Wellum and Gentry think that Kingdom Through Covenant does this the best, but you’ll have to read it for yourself to decide.


Peter J. Gentry & Stephen J. Wellum, Kingdom Through Covenant: A Biblical-Theological Understanding of The Covenants. Wheaton: Crossway, June, 2012. 848 pp. Hardcover, $45.00.

Buy itAmazon | Westminster

Read an excerpt

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Thanks to Crossway for the review copy!

Nate

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I’m an avid reader, musician, and high school Bible teacher living in central Florida. I have many paperback books and our house smells of rich glade air freshners. If you want to know more, then let’s connect!