“The Backbone to the Bible’s Storyline”: Stephen Wellum on Progressive Covenantalism

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How do we make sense of the Bible’s story? How does the Bible fit together? To help you answer this question, the L. Russ Bush Center for Faith and Culture and Office of Ph.D. Studies at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary hosted Drs. Craig Blaising and Stephen Wellum for an afternoon lecture on progressive convenantalism and progressive dispensationalism.

In the coming days, we’ll share both sides of the issue via a three-part lecture. Today, we begin with Wellum’s advocacy of progressive covenentalism. Dr. Stephen Wellum is Professor of Christian Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and he’s the Editor of The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology.

Watch the discussion above, or read an excerpt below (edited for clarity).

What is progressive covenentalism?

“What we’re arguing is that Scripture presents a plurality of covenants that progressively reveal our triune God’s one plan for his one people which reaches their fulfillment (its goal, its end, its terminus) ultimately in Christ and the entire New Covenant age — the dawning of the new creation.

“Each biblical covenant contributes to the overall unified plan to comprehend the whole counsel of God. Each covenant must be understood in its own redemptive, historical context — its location, what preceded it, what follows — and putting these pieces together we then understand how God’s plan has unfolded to us. Through the progression of the covenants, we come to know God’s plan. We know not only what the promises are, but how they are brought to fulfillment, how we are to live now where we are in redemptive history in light of all of what has transpired.

“In emphasizing or accenting the covenants, we are arguing that the covenants are more than a unifying theme. They’re not just a theme of Scripture. We’re arguing that the covenants are the Bible’s own structure. It’s the backbone to the Bible’s entire storyline — it’s what drives the entire plan. It’s how God has chosen to make himself known to us. And unlike, say, covenant theology which tends to divide things up into covenant of works and covenant of grace — there may be some merit in that and some truths in all of that — yet we don’t do that. Rather, we talk about God’s one plan unfolding through a plurality of covenants, beginning first in creation in Adam, culminating in Christ. The creation covenant then lays the foundation to all that comes, in terms of all the covenants. It brings fulfillment in Christ. God’s plan moves from creation to new creation, from Adam to consummation in Christ, and it’s unpacked through the covenants.”

What’s the relationship between Israel and the church in progressive covenentalism?

“Now, the Israel-church relationship is where we’ll have some of the differences with progressive dispensationalism. We argue at least two points. First, God has one people, yet there is we would say (this is really more over against some of the covenant theology) there is a redemptive-historical distinction between Israel and the church, tied to their respective covenants. The church is really new. It’s new in a redemptive-historical sense. The church is the community of the New Covenant.

“Second, we must think of the church Christologically. What do I mean by that? Well, as we work through the covenants they come to their fulfillment in Christ. So we must see the church not as directly the new Israel or her replacement, in that sense. So we’re trying to avoid any notion of this replacement theology, as these words get thrown around quite a bit. No, the church isn’t just the replacement of Israel. Rather, in Christ the church is God’s new creation. It is comprised of believing Jews and Gentiles because Jesus is last Adam, true Israel, great Davidic king, the faithful seed of Abraham who inherits all of the promises, who wins all of our inheritance and salvation and work through his person and his work.

“So in union with Christ (and I mean, covenantal union), the church is God’s new covenant community. It’s in continuity with God’s people of all ages. But it’s different from Israel in its nature and structure. So the church is theologically significant. It’s covenantally significant. It’s the people of the new covenant, the people of the new creation that continues forever as those of an international community, Jews and Gentiles, receiving the same promise, the same inheritance, and so on.”

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Center for Faith and Culture

The L. Russ Bush Center for Faith and Culture seeks to engage culture as salt and light, presenting the Christian faith and demonstrating its implications for all areas of human existence.

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