Kingdom Through Covenant

Jonathan Brack
Peter J. Gentry and Stephen J. Wellum, Kingdom Through Covenant: A Biblical-Theological Understanding of the Covenants (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012) 848pp.

The new volume by Gentry and Wellum, Kingdom Through Covenant (KtC), has gained high praise among many Reformed Baptists. This is due in part to the paucity of works on covenant theology from a Baptist perspective. Thus, not only is its presence welcome, but also its content. Even more, with dispensationalism being attacked as hermeneutically truncated and incongruous, KtC is like a breath of fresh air for many Reformed Baptists. And so we are led to ask, "Does this book represent a step towards a new harmony between Reformed Presbyterians and Reformed Baptists concerning covenant theology and baptism in particular?" Will the term "new covenant theology" as opposed to either "classical covenant theology" or "progressive dispensationalism" achieve a new synthesis (via media) between covenant theology and dispensational theology? Will this "new covenant theology" serve to ameliorate the debates over baptism within "young, restless, and reformed" circles? 

After reading this volume, any answer in the affirmative is doubtful. With good reason, Reformed Presbyterians will be thrilled to see their Baptist brothers engaging in a redemptive-historical hermeneutical model that understands Scripture to be progressive and organically unified. Nevertheless, they will be perturbed by some of the holes in Gentry and Wellum's treatments of such crucial topics as the doctrines of the church, protology ("first things"), and the Holy Spirit. And although Wellum and Gentry challenge the paedobaptist position, many will view their arguments as failing to engage the deep structures of classical covenant theology. 

Instead of an exhaustive "play by play" of the book, this review will focus on one key disagreement covenant theologians in the Presbyterian and Dutch Calvinist camps will have with the "new covenant theology" outlined in KtC. This main disagreement was chosen not only because it is central to the ongoing discussion, but also because it seemed to be passed over in the three reviews offered through The Gospel Coalition (which also, understandably, were not exhaustive). 

Ordo/Historia: Distinction or Confusion?

In Presbyterian and Dutch Calvinist circles, there is a clear distinction between ordo salutis and historia salutis. The ordo salutis is the application of salvation to believers; the historia salutis is the once and for all accomplishment of salvation by Jesus in history. This basic distinction between ordo and historia salutis is important for understanding why Paul can say that Abraham was justified (ordo) even though when Abraham believed, Christ had not yet been raised for our justification (historia) (Galatians 3:6). This is also why the writer of Hebrews can speak of Moses as one who "considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking to the reward," even though Christ had not yet been "reproached" in history when Moses believed these things (Hebrews 11:26). Do Wellum and Gentry hold to this clear distinction?

Wellum argues, "covenant theology tends to read new covenant realities back into the Old Testament and vice versa" (113). Which realities, exactly? He names two: "the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, and even union with Christ" (113 n.73). A few pages later, Wellum writes about covenant theologians that, "their continuity of the covenant of grace tends to flatten the covenant differences and thus misconstrue the nature of the new covenant community" (125, emphasis added). 

Much later in the volume, Wellum begins to fill out these differences. He writes on page 684, "with the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ, all of the previous covenants have reached their fulfillment, so that the salvation realities that Jesus achieves and applies to his people are not exactly the same as under the old covenant" (emphasis added). According to Gentry and Wellum, the salvific elements applied to the O.T. saints were, "regeneration, salvation by grace, knowledge of the Lord, forgiveness of sins," (684 n.70) but they lack the "experiences" (133 n.74, 684 n.70) of the indwelling of the Spirit, union with Christ, and the same access to God. 

In light of both the ordo/historia distinction, and Gentry and Wellum's claim that "salvation realties" pertaining to the ordo salutis benefits are said to be absent in the OT (such as the indwelling of the Spirit or union with Christ), we must ask, "How was one regenerated apart from the inward work of the Holy Spirit?" and even more foundationally, "How is one forgiven of their sins in the OT apart from union with Christ?" The answer to both questions must be that one isn't; regeneration apart from the Spirit and forgiveness without union is impossible. We could certainly agree that the experiences of individual believers (in the sense of unique biography) differ from one redemptive-historical epoch to another. Certainly my experience differs from an ancient Israelite's, from the Apostle Paul's or even John Calvin's. 

But is this what Gentry and Wellum are saying? No, in fact they qualify their statements in strictly "soteriological" categories, writing that "we are thinking in the area of soteriology." (113 n.74) A difference in salvation experience (unique biography) is only one of degree, not of kind. In other words, the nature or the essence of salvation is the same from Genesis 3 onwards: "the righteous shall live by faith" (Hab. 2:4). Or to put it another way, Moses and David are saved in the exact same way that anyone else who was born under Adam would be saved: union with Christ through Spirit-wrought faith. To say that OT saints, such as Moses and David, have justification without the indwelling of the Spirit or sanctification without union with Christ is to separate artificially the benefits from the Benefactor. For "in Christ is every spiritual blessing" (Eph 1:3) such that no one can have one benefit apart from the others. No one can have forgiveness of sins, regeneration, and justification on the one hand, but lack the work of the Spirit or union with Christ on the other. 

But if everyone is saved by the same salvation from Genesis 3 onwards, one might wonder if the Reformed Presbyterians and Dutch Calvinists believe in any newness of the new covenant. The answer is yes, but the newness lies in distinctly historia categories, not ordo categories. This means the nature and essence of the salvation applied in Christ does not change, while the achievement of salvation by Christ actually happens in history (historia) and therefore has a real, temporal before and after. There is a genuine transition from condemnation on the cross to justification in the resurrection of the life experience of Jesus Christ. Yet, at the same time, it is also true that the OT elect received (ordo) the benefits of this accomplishment before it occurred in history (historia). It is not as if no one was saved by grace (the grace we receive by Christ's work) or born of the Spirit (the Spirit poured out after Christ's resurrection) until Jesus actually accomplished salvation in history. In fact, Jesus chastised Nicodemus for failing to recognize that the new birth (of the Spirit) he proclaimed was as much an OT reality as it was an NT reality: "Are you the teacher of Israel and yet you do not understand these things?" (John 3:10). In other words, salvation by the sovereign agency of the Spirit is a trans-testamental activity, which is as equally operative in the OT as in the NT

So again, what exactly is new? First, the accomplishment of salvation that inaugurates a new age in redemptive history (historia) has occurred in Christ's humiliation and exaltation. Thus we, unlike our OT brothers, can look at this accomplishment with greater clarity. The work of Christ is a thing they, along with the angels, longed to see (1 Peter 1:12). Secondly, we have moved beyond the epoch of shrouded types and sacrifices. The ceremonial and civil aspects have become obsolete (Heb. 8:13) because Christ has fulfilled and surpassed the Old Testament's typical aspects. Thirdly, there is an expansive movement in history, from Israel to all the nations, which has been realized in terms of to whom the promises of redemption are made (Acts 2:39). 

The Westminster Confession of Faith 20.1 is a timely example of a document that maintains this ordo/historia distinction with great clarity: the benefits of salvation related to union with Christ (ordo) "were common also to believers under the law." Second, the distinction is maintained by recognizing the newness of the age of the Spirit (historia): in the post-resurrection context, "the liberty of Christians is further enlarged, in their freedom from the yoke of the ceremonial law, to which the Jewish Church was subjected; and in greater boldness of access to the throne of grace, and in fuller communications of the free Spirit of God, than believers under the law did ordinarily partake of." 

By way of contrast, Gentry and Wellum allow the progressive historical accomplishments of salvation to impinge upon the application of salvation itself, and thus render a truncated ordo salutis for the OT saints. In short, they seem to identify or confuse ordo categories with historia categories. Until this identification/confusion has been reckoned with, they cannot allow any pre-Pentecost indwelling of the Spirit or any Spirit-wrought union with Christ in the OT. In fact, one wonders how any benefit (such as justification or regeneration) could be applied to the OT saints if the reason for the lack of the benefit is based on the argument that Christ's work has not yet occurred in history. Once again, how was Abraham justified if Christ had not yet been raised for his justification? 

Why focus on only this single point of contention? Though this area of concern may seem insignificant given the entire scope of KtC, it is a foundational concern. More so, wouldn't a challenge to the basic structure of redemption applied (ordo) warrant an entire chapter or two from the authors? I am also focusing on this basic confusion of ordo and historia salutis because I believe it lies at the heart of other, more visible disagreements such as ecclesiology, the administration of sacraments (as Michael Horton has already demonstrated), and our ability to reckon with the apostasy passages in the New Testament. Although there are many helpful points in the book (land principles, typological significance, ANE comparisons, etc.), someone in the Presbyterian/Dutch Calvinist camp can't help but notice this most basic confusion, thus making the desired "via media" ineffective. Until the ordo/historia distinction is clearly made and employed properly, there will be an inescapable confusion about how ordo and historia categories relate to areas such as "kingdom" or "covenant." 

Jonathan Brack is a ThM. student and Director of Admissions at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia.