Sunday, December 9, 2012

Covenant Theology, Dispensationalism, and Stephen Wellum

           In the past couple of years, I have been highly interested in the overall hermeneutic of Scripture. What is a hermeneutic? A hermeneutic, as Webster defines it, is “a method or principle of interpretation.” While evangelical Bible scholars may agree on most of the primary flow of Scripture, there is much disagreement over how to interpret redemption history within itself.
The two dominating biblical hermeneutics are referred to as Covenant Theology and Dispensationalism. First, it needs to be said that these two camps agree on more than on which they disagree, though the disagreements are not inconsequential. Secondly, there disagreements are not as simple and straightforward as people usually think they are. Covenant Theologians break the Bible into dispensations (though not the same ones) and Dispensationalists see covenants as important to the unfolding of Scripture. There primary difference between the two is their views on the church and Israel, but even that difference isn’t quite as glaring in contemporary discussion as many make it out to be.
In the little bit of free reading that I do outside of my school work, I have been picking up whatever I can to help me understand these two systems of thought, only to find myself more perplexed the more I read the Bible. I haven’t been able to settle into either system comfortably. While I’m far more drawn to Covenant theology, I am hesitant to embrace certain elements of is ecclesiology. I see the Dispensationalists’ distinctiveness of Israel as a nation apart from the church (esp. Rom. 9-11), yet there still remains a disunity in their thinking that I cannot embrace (although I understand that Progressive Dispensationalism is beginning to bridge some of those gaps).
A little while ago I read an article by a theologian named Stephen Wellum called “Baptism and the Relationship between the Covenants” in an excellent book called Believer’s Baptism: Sign of the New Covenant in Christ (a must read for those interested in the baptism debate!). In it, Wellum points out that Reformed paedobaptists’ baptismal beliefs ultimately root back to their understanding of the “Covenant of Grace,” a theological category that he believes constrains Scripture in ways that is less than helpful (I think I agree). As Wellum began to explain his understanding of the continuity and, yet, discontinuity of the covenants of Scripture, I found myself nearly standing up and yelling, “Yes! Yes! That makes so much sense!” He was filling gaps in my thinking that I didn’t know how to fill. I had to find what else he has written.

Thanks to my good friend Mark Dickson, I stumbled across a book that he co-authored with Steve Gentry, call Kingdom through Covenant. It is a breakdown of their alternative hermeneutic to the classical dispensational and covenant theologies. I am quite excited to read it!

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