CFC Lecture

Not Your Grandfather’s Dispensationalism or Covenantalism: A Dialogue Between Craig Blaising and Stephen Wellum

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Jesus began his ministry by announcing, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 4:17). His original Jewish audience, chafing under Roman rule, would have received this as electrifying news. They were looking for a military messiah who would deliver them by setting up a new political dynasty. Was this the type of kingdom that Jesus offered? If not, what type was it? Did it arrive? The nature of the kingdom was a major point of discussion in the dialogue between Craig Blaising of Southwestern Seminary and Stephen Wellum of Southern Seminary, at a recent event sponsored by Bush Center for Faith and Culture.

So what is the kingdom of God? A couple of inadequate views should be noted. First, the classic liberal theologian such as Adolf von Harnack of the 19th century believed that the kingdom did fully arrive, but he had a pale and diminished concept of the kingdom. Classic liberalism understood Jesus’ offer of a kingdom to be simply the offer of a new ethical system, epitomized by the Sermon on the Mount. We manifest the kingdom, its proponents taught, by embracing the universal fatherhood of God and brotherhood of man.

Then at the beginning of the 20th century, Albert Schweitzer demonstrated the inadequacy of the liberal vision of the kingdom in his influential book, The Quest for the Historical Jesus. He argued that classic theological liberalism had it all wrong. Jesus was not merely a moralist. But Schweitzer was no conservative himself. He contended that Jesus had indeed offered a political kingdom, but failed to deliver on his promise. Schweitzer understood Jesus to be a revolutionary who got himself killed. Both classic liberalism and Schweitzer’s revolutionary model fail to do justice with what the four Gospels actually say about the kingdom.

Evangelicals generally agree that the Bible presents a narrative with four major points: Creation, Fall, Redemption and Consummation. Christ accomplished our redemption through his sinless life, vicarious death and bodily resurrection. The consummation will occur when he returns the second time. We live “between the times”—between Redemption and Consummation. What, then, of the kingdom that Jesus promised? Typically evangelicals have held to one of two positions—Covenantalism and Dispensationalism. Covenant theologians argued that the kingdom arrived fully in a spiritual sense, with the Church becoming the new Israel. Dispensationalist theologians contended that the kingdom is still entirely future. This present Church age is a parenthesis, a pause, until Christ returns to set up an earthly kingdom with ethnic Israel. Covenantalism and Dispensationalism appeared to be two competing, irreconcilable eschatologies with little possibility of rapport. Then, primarily though the work of George Eldon Ladd, the concept of “inaugurated eschatology” begin to gain traction.

Through careful exegesis, Ladd demonstrated that the New Testament presents the kingdom of God in inaugurated form. Inaugurated eschatology argues for a “now, but not yet” (or an “already, but not yet”) understanding of the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God began in the earthly ministry of Jesus Christ, but it did not fully arrive. The kingdom has been inaugurated, but it has not been fully realized. As Russell Moore explains in his book, The Kingdom of Christ,

[Ladd] found both the dispensationalist premillennialists and the covenantal amillennialists to be in error….Ladd posited his proposal: the kingdom has arrived ‘already’ in the person of Jesus and awaits a ’not yet’ consummation in the millennial kingdom and in the eternal state (p. 32).

Moore goes on to show that most Dispensationalists and Covenantalists came to embrace inaugurated eschatology and attempted to incorporate the concept into their respective systems. This incorporation has had a modifying effect on both systems, so much so that new labels are used. Adherents now speak of “Progressive Dispensationalism” and “Progressive Covenantalism.”

The videos linked to below present the two leading proponents of Progressive Dispensationalism and Progressive Covenantalism, Craig Blaising and Stephen Wellum respectively. Without minimizing their differences, one cannot help but notice that their positions have significant areas of agreement. One thing is clear: this is not your grandfather’s Dispensationalism or Covenantalism.

If you are interested in studying the issues further, you should look at Moore’s The Kingdom of Christ, Blaising’s Progressive Dispensationalism and Dispensationalism, Israel and the Church (both along with Darrell Block) and Wellum’s Progressive Covenantalism and Kingdom through Covenant (along with Peter Gentry).

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  • CFC Lecture
  • theology
Ken Keathley

Senior Professor of Theology and the Jesse Hendley Chair of Theology

Ken Keathley is Senior Professor of Theology and the Jesse Hendley Chair of Theology at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina where he has been teaching since 2006. He also directs the L. Russ Bush Center for Faith and Culture. He is the co-author of '40 Questions About Creation and Evolution' (Kregel, November 2014). Ken and his wife Penny have been married since 1980, live in Wake Forest, NC and are members of North Wake Church. They have a son and daughter, both married, and four grandchildren.

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