Call To Die

Then [Jesus] said to them all, "If anyone wants to come with Me, he must deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow Me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life because of Me will save it. (Luke 9:23-24, HCSB)

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Follower of Christ, husband of Abby, member of Kosmosdale Baptist Church, and tutor/staff member at Sayers Classical Academy.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Progressive Covenantalism: A Reformed Baptist Reflection

This Saturday, May 15, I finished reading Progressive Covenantalism, a new collection of essays edited by Stephen Wellum and Brent Parker. (Thanks to my brother in Christ, Daniel Scheiderer, who let me borrow his copy.) There was much that I appreciated about this work, though I also have a few concerns. What follows in not a formal review, but some initial thoughts as I evaluate the book from the position of 1689 Federalism.


1. Abraham as the father of Jews and Gentiles. I appreciated Jason DeRouchie's discussion of Abraham's "seed" in Chapter 1. I believe that much of what he wrote is exactly what Reformed Baptists have been saying on this subject. I think it would be profitable to compare his discussion on this Abraham's "seed" with Reformed Baptist works on the same topic (for example, in Jeff Johnson's The Fatal Flaw of the Theology Behind Infant Baptism). I believe that, starting from a point of basic agreement, discussions about Abraham's "seed" between Reformed Baptists and Progressive Covenantalists could lead both groups toward an even more precise articulation of the biblical teaching on this topic.

2. Typology. The most helpful feature of this book was its discussion and application of biblical typology. Brent Parker's chapter on the Israel-Christ-Church relationship was especially insightful. I do think that Reformed Baptists could benefit from Parker's work in this regard. Some language I've heard from fellow Reformed Baptists tends to follow our paedobaptist brethren in too readily equating Israel with the Church; we have not always consistently considered the typological development of Israel as fulfilled in Christ. The Church partakes in the promises made to Israel only as we are united to Christ, who is the true Israelite. (I doubt that any of my fellow Reformed Baptists would disagree with this statement, but Parker points out the typological relationships in a particularly clear manner.)

3. Warning Passages. I believe that Ardel Caneday's chapter on the "warning passages" in Hebrews is well-thought-out and biblical. Caneday's position is that the warning passages are effective means by which God prompts His people to perseverance. This is the only chapter that gives any positive attention to Historical Theology. Caneday mentions several Reformed pastors/teachers (I believe John Owen and Charles Spurgeon are mentioned) who have held his view.

4. Land Promises. The final chapter of the book, focused on the Old Testament land promises, is another specific example of applied biblical typology. Consideration of how God fulfills the land promises is crucial to a right understanding of a major scriptural theme. This chapter, written by Oren Martin, is useful in answering a key claim of Dispensationalists. Understanding how Scripture presents the fulfillment of land promises helps us in our worship, as we see how God is faithful to His Word and how He will magnify His glory throughout creation.


1. False Advertising. In both on the cover of the book and several times within the book, the authors/editors claim that they are "charting a course between dispensational and covenant theologies". There is even a diagram in the book depicting Progressive Covenantalism in the center of a line, with Dispensationalism on one side and Covenant Theology on the other. It is obvious that the authors/editors want an audience both from those who identify as Dispensationalists and those who identify as Covenantal.

HOWEVER, I'm certain that, both through a careful examination of what the authors write (in this book and its precursor Kingdom Through Covenant) as well as personal conversations I've had with a couple of the authors, the contributors to the book owe much more to Covenant Theology than to Dispensationalism. Along with Covenant Theology, Progressive Covenantalism believes that there is one way of salvation in Scripture and that Scripture is structured by covenants. Dr. Wellum believes that it is proper to speak of the Covenant of Redemption and a covenant with Adam.

When it comes to Dispensationalism, Progressive Covenantalism is at odds with the foundational Dispensational claim that Israel and the Church are everlastingly distinct groups. In its typological reflections, Progressive Covenantalism runs counter to the Dispensationalists' overly literalistic hermeneutic. The single point of overlap between Progressive Covenantalism and Dispensationalism is that both hold to more discontinuity between the old and new covenants than what is recognized in [paedobaptist] Covenant Theology. It is deceptive, therefore, to suggest that Progressive Covenantalism is equally close to Dispensationalism and Covenant Theology. In my view, Progressive Covenantalism is both an attempt to modify [paedobaptist] Covenant Theology and an outright rejection of Dispensationalism.

2. Lack of Historical Theology. Progressive Covenantalists view themselves as articulating a framework of how the covenants fit together that is more consistent with Baptist faith and practice than either Dispensationalism or Covenant Theology. (This is one reason that Progressive Covenantalism was published by Broadman and Holman Academic, an imprint of LifeWay, which is directly affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention.) In this regard, it would seem that those holding to Progressive Covenantalism would want to make a diligent study into how previous generations of Particular/Reformed Baptists have understood the relationship of God's covenants. Sadly, this book lacks any interaction with Historical Theology within Baptist life AT ALL. With the exception of the chapter on the warning passages of Hebrews, the authors of Progressive Covenantalism seem startlingly unaware that previous generations of Baptists have wrestled through the same questions and have come to some of the same conclusions. Progressive Covenantalists could benefit from the insights of their Baptist forbears and possibly avoid some errors. At worst, this neglect of Historical Theology among Progressive Covenantalists may be seen as violating the spirit of the fifth commandment.

3. The Law. Speaking of the ten commandments, the great systematic theological weakness of Progressive Covenantalism is in its view of the Law. There is an almost flippant rejection of the three-fold distinction of the Law. Important works on this subject (for example: From the Finger of God by Philip Ross and In Defense of the Decalogue by Richard Barcellos) are entirely unmentioned. Also unmentioned: the foundational distinction between moral law (law that is everlasting, flowing from the character of God) and positive law (law that God institutes at specific times for specific purposes). The authors of Progressive Covenantalism would have us believe that the original audience to the Books of Moses couldn't have possibly recognized the prohibition against murder, the institution of the Levitical priesthood, and the injunction to build a parapet around the roof of one's house as three distinct categories of laws. Furthermore, the authors of Progressive Covenantalism give inadequate systematic reflection to why the New Testament authors apply different laws in radically different ways (compare: Gal 5:3, 1 Cor 9:9-10, and Eph 6:1-3).


I think that Progressive Covenantalism is a valuable book and that Progressive Covenantalists are valuable conversation partners with whom Reformed Baptists should engage. I hope that those holding to Progressive Covenantalism will begin to learn from their Particular/Reformed Baptist forbears, that they will not continue to ignore the writings of contemporary Reformed Baptists, and that they will reconsider their view of the Law. I pray that Reformed Baptists and Progressive Covenantalists can attain greater unity in the truth.



Blogger Rich Barcellos said...

I plan on interacting with this book in my new book interacting with NCT. Since PC is relatively new, I chose to focus on typical NCT authors.

12:19 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks Andrew. Good thoughts! I look forward to reading the book. I have been able to read Wellum's chapter so far. I offered some analysis of it here

1:03 PM  
Blogger Tyler Cox said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

11:21 AM  

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