I said in my last post on Continuity and Discontinity that the book focuses on issues broader than Covenant Theology and Dispensational Theology. However, these first two chapters present forms of CT and DT respectively, by introducing the reader to two systems of continuity and discontinuity.
Continuity and Discontinuity
Chapter 2: System of Continuity
VanGemeren represents the Covenantal system. His thesis is as follows:
“What is ‘Covenant’ Theology? What are its strengths and weaknesses? How did Covenant Theology (Federalism) develop? What is the relationship between Calvin and Covenant Theology?” (p37)
VanGemeren begins with Calvin and his foundational contributions to the position. He then shows how it was clarified and developed throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries as a theological position. VanGemeren shows the important influence of more modern scholars Geerhardus Vos and John Murray to grounding the position in exegesis of Scripture and Biblical Theology. In the midst of this historical summary VanGemeren also explains some of the key emphases of Covenant Theology.
Next VanGemeren argues for an approach towards interpretation that “encourages the furtherance of the continuity perspective, integration of the results of biblical studies with systematic theology, dialogue, and Christian living” (p51, emphasis his). Here VanGemeren is responding to his earlier claims throughout his chapter that Covenant Theology has at times been weak exegetically. That is, proponents often simply take the system for granted and don’t seek to show how it is revealed in Scripture. He very candidly reflects on the weaknesses in his own tradition, but argues for a way forward.
The content of the chapter itself was quite hard to follow in places, which is reflected by my vague summary! Rather than an introduction to Covenant Theology, it had the feeling of a brief historical summary followed by an exhortation to Covenant theologians to articulate their system from a grounding in the Scriptures. I think this chapter would leave the uninitiated confused about what Covenant Theology really is. VanGemeren’s thesis began with “What is ‘Covenant Theology’?”, but he never really set forth the distinctives and unique emphases of Covenant Theology. I’ve read some on Covenant Theology, but only in a few places did I feel that VanGemeren actually presented anything unique to that system. For example, he argues for the centrality of Christ in God’s plan of salvation being essential to Covenant Theology, and I can’t imagine anyone disagreeing with this! This is where a responses section would have been helpful as it would have clarified some of VanGemeren’s implications that perhaps I missed and drawn out some of the disagreements that others have.
Chapter 3: System of Discontinuity
The late John S. Feinberg, in contrast, was incredibly easy to follow. His thesis is clear and to the point:
“…I shall specify elements which seem to unite systems of discontinuity. […] I intend to note those elements which are at the essence of any dispensational system.” (p64)
Feinberg begins by summarising various approaches to the relationship between the OT and NT in church history and then moves to the heart of the chapter, distinctives in Dispensationalism.
Beforehand, Feinberg notes that many criticise Dispensationalism based some of the applications of the system, not the foundational principles. Despite this book being released in 1986 this is still a timely word as I commonly hear Dispensationalism dismissed merely as “Left Behind” theology, even among otherwise excellent and careful scholars. This doesn’t really get to the heart of the position, rather Left Behind is an example of a set of applications of the system and must not be confused with the system itself.
For the rest of the chapter Feinberg lists six items “which appear to be both distinctive to Dispensationalism and at its core” (p71).
- Allowing for multiple sense of terms like “Jew”, “Seed of Abraham”. A distinction between Israel and the church.
- Hermeneutics. Feinberg argues that ‘literal’ hermeneutics is too simplistic, but the issue lies in what one considers to be literal hermeneutics.
- Covenant promises to Israel require double fulfilment (one for Israel and one for the church)
- Distinctive future for ethnic Israel vs all other eschatological viewpoints. “Only Dispensationalism clearly sees a distinctive future for ethnic Israel as a nation” (p83)
- The church as a distinctive organism. The church began at Pentecost.
- Philosophy of history. Nondispensationalists see history as salvation history, but Dispensationalists see it as the “outworking of the kingdom of God” (p85)
This chapter was an example of Dispensationalist scholarship that must be taken seriously. Feinberg did an excellent job here. He was fair to his opponents and often disagreed with those in his own camp (mostly Ryrie and sometimes Walvoord) to push for more clarity on the core issues in Dispensationalism. Feinberg was very clear and stayed on task describing the essentials of Dispensationalism. His misunderstandings of Dispensationalism were excellently handled. I could have done without his introduction on views in the history of liberal scholarship if he had replaced it with a brief history of Dispensationalism.
I was very surprised with Feinberg’s claim in section 6. Perhaps this was an issue at the time of writing, but in my experience if anything it’s the opposite. I don’t think his claim would stand today as it’s a hot topic in Evangelicalism, but in most of my upbringing in strong Dispensationalism (Calvary Chapel) the Kingdom of God was never really clearly articulated.
I would be curious to see how those holding to Progressive Covenantalism (Wellum, for example) would respond to some of this chapter. I think they would agree with much of Feinberg’s statements in sections 1, 5 and 6 but probably not with sections 2, 3 and 4. I couldn’t help but think this in some way confirms Wellum and Gentry’s claim that Kingdom Through Covenant is truly presenting a via media between Dispensationalism and Covenant Theology!
Lastly, his comments on typology seemed odd to me. He says, “Nondispensational systems stress that the type is shadow and the antitype is reality; therefore, the meaning of the antitype supersedes and cancels the meaning of the type in its own context” (p78) and that a proper typology, “does not allow us to ignore or cancel the meaning of the type or substitute the meaning of the antitype for it” (p78). Whether or not this was the case in his time, this seem doesn’t reflect what I’ve seen presented in Nondispensational typology today.
For example, Adam is a type of Christ (Romans 5) and I find it hard to believe that any would see him as ‘canceled’ now that Christ has come, rather Adam remains theologically significant for the entire human race! However, Christ has superseded Adam in the sense that Christ is the obedient second Adam and those who are in Christ are no longer in Adam. In that sense, the old is done away with. Likewise, the OT sacrificial system was a type of which Christ is the antitype. Christ fulfilled the system but it didn’t lose its foreshadowing meaning nor was it immediately cancelled (i.e. unbelieving Jews continued to make sacrifices until God’s judgment in AD70). However, Christians are certainly called to reject the Levitical shadows in place of Christ!
Perhaps these claims about typology are used to uphold his suggestion earlier that Israel is a type of the church (p72, a claim that I suspect some traditional Dispensationalsts would be uncomfortable with!) without losing the continuing distinctiveness and role of Israel that he later argues for. However, this seems to backfire. If Adam and the OT sacrificial system are fulfilled by Christ and therefore one should return neither to Adam (Col 3:9) or the OT sacrifices (Hebrews), then wouldn’t Feinberg have to say that likewise since the church fulfils Israel as its antitype one must not look back to Israel, the type, as being a place of God’s continuing purpose? Of course this is at the heart of Dispensationalism, so I’d like to see this fleshed out more. This is a short section in the book, so perhaps I am misunderstanding Feinberg here. I am interested in seeing if/how typology is addressed in the Hermeneutics section.
All in all unfortunately VanGemeren didn’t seem to get to the nitty gritty as Feinberg did, so it was hard to compare the views. Feinberg’s chapter was excellent and I would highly recommend it to anyone curious about the essentials of Dispensationalism.
I hope this has been interesting. Comments are encouraged! Next up is Hermeneutics