A dialogical battle has raged for over a century between covenant theology (CT) and dispensational theology (DT). The two camps continue to morph and evolve in the midst of the theological fray. Peter Gentry, Professor of Old Testament Interpretation at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and Stephen Wellum, Professor of Christian Theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary attempt to enter into and rise above that fray by offering a via media between the two in Kingdom through Covenant (KtC).
KtC is divided into three parts. Wellum writes parts one and three and Peter part two. In part one, Wellum discusses the importance of the biblical covenants for biblical and systematic theology as well as the nature of both theological disciplines (chapter 1). He sets the stage for KtC by sketching the different varieties of DT and CT, marking out what should be kept and discarded from each system (chapter 2). In addition, Wellum boils down each system to its supposed sin qua non: the Israel church distinction for DT and the genealogical principle for CT. Lastly, Wellum lays out the hermeneutical method appropriated in this volume, its underlying interpretive assumptions, and the various hermeneutical issues that are raised in a discussion of the biblical covenants (chapter 3).
Gentry takes the next twelve chapters which form part two of KtC performing detailed exegesis and thoroughly correlating the covenants on a biblical theological plane. He begins with a discussion on the prevalent understanding of covenants in the ancient Near East (chapter 4). Then, he moves on to discuss the Noahic Covenant (chapter 5) in order to set up the discussion concerning a covenant with creation (chapter 6). Next, Gentry takes two chapters to exegete the Abrahamic covenant and correlate it with the previous covenants (chapters 7 and 8). In these two chapters, Gentry posits that the Abrahamic covenant is not unilateral but bilateral and that the traditional nomenclature of conditional versus unconditional needs an “overhaul.” The next two chapters are utilized to handle the Israelite (Mosaic) covenant as presented in Exodus (chapter 9) and Deuteronomy (chapter 10). Then, Gentry offers a detailed study of the Davidic covenant within its own context and within the larger canonical context (chapter 11). In the next three chapters, he covers the new covenant in Isaiah and Ezekiel (chapter 12), Jeremiah (chapter 13) and in Daniel’s 70 weeks (chapter14). Gentry closes part two with a look at the new covenant as it applies to the life of the covenant community through the lens of Ephesians 4:15. Wellum ties KtC together, in part three, by offering a summary of Gentry’s presentation in part two (chapter 16) and some theological implications for theology proper, Christology, ecclesiology, and eschatology (chapter 17).
KtC is quite unique in its contribution to biblical and theological studies because of its fusing together of biblical and systematic theology in an attempt to bring resolution to a long debated matter. A key element of KtC is the authors’ willingness to layout the their hermeneutical method, interpretive presuppositions, and their understanding of typology which often are paid little attention in a book of this nature. In a well-balanced manner, Gentry demonstrates detailed exegesis and astute biblical-theological correlation of the biblical covenants.
It may be helpful to spotlight features of KtC that make this text an example of thorough biblical scholarship. The first is Gentry’s expertise in lexical, linguistic, and literary matters in the interpretation of the Hebrew bible as it relates to the biblical covenants. His detailed lexical analysis of berît is a distinguishing feature that places this volume above other recent studies on the biblical covenants. Another characteristic aspect is Gentry’s insight into the ancient Near Eastern cultural milieu and his discernment when wading through the various discussions concerning the ancient understanding of covenants. Finally, KtC demonstrates a consistent use of the hermeneutic the authors’ laid out at the outset of the study.
Overall, what Gentry and Wellum have accomplished is a cogent and viable mediating understanding of the biblical covenants. Their work should become a model for future integrative approaches to biblical and systematic theology. In addition, DT and CT will need make KtC a much needed “third-party” interlocutor in any discussion concerning the biblical covenants.
Without trying to diminish the value of this study, a number of weaknesses emerge in this book. First, KtC speaks much of the covenants, but little of the kingdom. A focused discussion on the kingdom is to be expected in a volume of such scope and given the matter’s prominent placement in the title. However, comments concerning the kingdom are mostly made in passing.
Second, KtC does not validate the first of their two claims, namely, that the biblical covenants form the “backbone” of the bible’s narrative plot structure. Instead, they seem to assume its validity throughout the study. I am surprised that there is no discussion of the relation between the bible’s narrative plot structure and the narrative plot structure of individual books, such as, Genesis. It is well attested that the plot structure of Genesis is formed by the narrator’s use of toledot as a structural marker. In addition, it seems to be a gross oversight not to discuss such matters, as the relation between a covenantal structure and a genealogical structure to bible’s narrative plot, given the prominent placement of toledots (genealogies) at the beginning and end of the Hebrew Scriptures (Genesis and Chronicles) and at the beginning of Matthew and Luke. Perhaps, though, space was an issue and the authors chose not to support their claim in detail due to the present size of the volume.
A third weakness comes in the lack of attention paid to the new covenant’s inauguration and enactment in the New Testament. One would think that a study of the new covenant in places such as Hebrews would be handled with the same thoroughness as it was in OT portion of the study; instead, such a discussion is absent. However, the only chapter devoted to handling the new covenant in the NT (Eph 4:15, “speak the truth in love”) is a short 22 pages in length with 9 of those pages devoted to OT background.
In the end, Gentry and Wellum have written a sound and provocative study of the biblical covenants. Their well-crafted integration of biblical and systematic studies hopefully will prove to be a beacon that lights the ways for more cooperative approaches that seek to tackle crucial theological issues. There is no doubt that KtC will play a valuable role in any future discussions between DT and CT in particular and the biblical covenants in general. However, more work will be needed in order to validate certain claims in the book.