Progressive Covenantalism | Stephen J. WellumOctober 19, 2023
Stephen J. Wellum
All Christians agree that the idea of covenant is fundamental to the Bible’s story. At its heart, covenant speaks of God entering into relationship with his creation and specifically his people—“I will be your God and you will be my people.” All Christians also agree that God’s redemptive plan is progressive, namely, it has occurred over time, and that the fulfillment of God’s redemptive plan is in Christ. As such, all Christians acknowledge some form of redemptive epochs or dispensations across history demarcated by the biblical covenants, and that the fulfillment of God’s saving purposes in Christ has brought some kind of change or discontinuity from past eras.
Christians differ, however, on the exact relationships between the covenants. This is not a new debate. In the early church, the apostles grappled with the implications of Christ’s new covenant work, especially in contrast to the errors of the Judaizers (Acts 15; Gal 3–4). In fact, many NT authors wrestled with how the covenants relate especially the old and the new, and to Jew-Gentile relationships (Acts 10–11; Rom 9–11; Eph 2:11–22; 3:1–13). Today, there are still disagreements on these issues such as debates on the newness of what Christ has achieved; how the law applies today in Sabbath observance; how previous promises are fulfilled; and the larger discussion of the Israel-church relationship and the role of national Israel in God’s plan.
Within evangelical theology, people tend to answer these questions from either the view of covenant or dispensational theology. I will argue for a third view: “progressive covenantalism.” Before I outline my view, it is vital to remember that in central gospel issues, we agree on more than we disagree, yet significant disagreements remain that require resolution. With that in mind, let me outline my view before I develop it further.1
Progressive covenantalism argues that the Bible presents a plurality of covenants that progressively reveal our triune God’s one redemptive plan for his one people, which reach their fulfillment, telos, and terminus in Christ and the new covenant. Each biblical covenant, then, contributes to God’s unified plan, and to comprehend the “whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27), we must understand each covenant in its own context by locating that covenant in relation to what precedes and follows it. Through the progression of the covenants, we come to know God’s glorious plan, how all of God’s promises are fulfilled in Christ (Heb 1:1–3; cf. Eph 1:9–10), and how we are to live as God’s new covenant people.
In accentuating the covenants, we argue that covenants are more than a unifying theme of Scripture but the backbone to Scripture’s entire storyline, the relational reality that moves history forward according to God’s design and final plan for humanity and all creation, similar to covenant theology. However, unlike covenant theology, the biblical covenants are not divided into two categories: “the covenant of works” or “the covenant of grace.” Rather, God’s one plan unfolds through a plurality of covenants, first starting with Adam and creation and culminating in Christ. The creation covenant is viewed as laying the foundation that continues in all the covenants and is fulfilled in Christ and his obedient work. God’s plan, then, moves from creation in Adam to consummation in Christ.
Concerning the Israel-church relationship, I argue two points. First, God has one people, yet there is an Israel-church distinction due to their respective covenants. The church is new in a redemptive-historical sense precisely because it is the community of the new covenant. Second, we must think of the Israel-church relationship christologically. The church is not directly the “new Israel” or her replacement. Rather, in Christ, the church is God’s new creation, composed of believing Jews and Gentiles, because Jesus is the last Adam and true Israel, the faithful seed of Abraham who inherits the promises by his work. Thus, in union with Christ, the church is God’s new covenant people in continuity with the elect in all ages, but different from Israel in its nature and structure.
This way of viewing Israel-Christ-church differs from dispensational and covenant theology in two areas. First, unlike dispensationalism, Jesus is the antitypical fulfillment of Israel and Adam, and in him, all of God’s promises are fulfilled for his people, including the land promise realized in the new creation (Rom 4:13; Eph 6:3; Heb 11:10, 16; cf. Matt 5:5). Second, from covenant theology, Jesus’ new covenant people are different from Israel. Under the old covenant, Israel, in its nature and structure, was a mixed community of believers and unbelievers (Rom 9:6). Yet the church is constituted by people who are united to Christ by faith and partakers of the blessings of the new covenant, which minimally includes the forgiveness of sin, the gift of the Spirit, and heart circumcision. Thus, in contrast to Israel, the church is constituted as a believing, regenerate people.2 For this reason, baptism, the sign of the new covenant, is only applied to those who profess faith, and circumcision and baptism do not signify the same realities due to their respective covenantal differences.3
How do I draw these conclusions? Let me proceed in three steps. First, I will outline my basic hermeneutical assumptions. Second, I will sketch my view of the progression of the biblical covenants. Third, I will address how the biblical covenants are fulfilled in Christ Jesus and the new covenant.
HERMENEUTICAL ASSUMPTIONS: READING SCRIPTURE AND DOING THEOLOGY
At the heart of Christian theology is the attempt to “take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Cor 10:5). How, then, do we exegete biblical texts, draw theological conclusions, and know that our theological proposals are biblically warranted? This question is not new, and it is not as easy to answer as many assume. All of us have experienced diversity of views in the church, even among those who affirm Scripture’s full authority. In theological debates, adjudication between views is often complicated since theological positions involve more than appealing to one or two texts; entire positions operate with assumptions of how texts are to be read, how these texts relate to other texts, and how they fit in the canon. How do I approach Scripture and draw theological conclusions from it? Four points will summarize my overall hermeneutical approach.4
Scripture is interpreted according to its own claim to be God’s Word written through the agency of human authors. My purpose is not to defend this claim; rather I give two hermeneutical implications that follow. First, since Scripture is God’s Word, I expect an overall unity and coherence, despite its diversity. As applied to the covenants, I assume that the covenants are not independent and isolated from each other, but together unfold God’s one plan centered in Christ (Eph 1:9–10).
Second, since Scripture is God’s Word through human authors, we discover God’s intent through the writing(s) of the human authors (by grammatical-historical exegesis), but given the diversity of authors, a canonical reading is necessary to discover God’s ultimate intent.5 We can even speak about the “fuller sense” (sensus plenior) of Scripture if understood along the lines of G. K. Beale. Beale argues, “The Old Testament authors did not exhaustively understand the meaning, implications, and possible applications of all that they wrote,”6 yet, as God gives more revelation through later authors, we discover more of God’s intent concerning his plan, and how the parts fit with the whole.
For this reason, the NT’s interpretation of the OT is definitive, since later texts bring greater clarity and understanding. The NT shows us how the OT is fulfilled in Christ. The NT’s interpretation of the OT may expand the OT author’s meaning in the sense of seeing new implications and applications. However, later texts do not contravene the meaning of the earlier texts, “but rather develops them in a way which is consistent with the Old Testament author’s understanding of the way in which God interacts with his people”7 in previous eras of redemptive history. Scripture as an entire canon must interpret Scripture. The later parts must “draw out and explain more clearly the earlier parts,”8 and theological conclusions are determined exegetically from the entire canon.
Scripture is interpreted according to what it is, namely, a progressive revelation. Revelation, alongside redemption, occurs progressively and is largely demarcated by the biblical covenants, which reach their telos in Christ. Hebrews 1:1–3 teaches this truth. “Long ago,” the author says, “God spoke to our fathers by the prophets,” and he did so “at many times and in many ways.” God’s Word-act revelation took place over time, and it pointed beyond itself to something more to come. In fact, the author makes this point by the expression “at many times and in many ways,” that is, not only was the OT revelation repetitive, it was also incomplete. In the progress of revelation, God’s plan was unveiled, pointing forward and culminating in Christ. But now, “in [the] Son” (ἐν υἱῷ [en huiō] v. 2), the last days, which the OT predicted, are here, underscoring the truth that Christ is the final and full revelation. There is no reduction of the OT’s authority; rather, the OT is incomplete and intended by God to point beyond itself to God’s full self-disclosure in his Son. In Christ, all of God’s revelation and redemptive purposes culminate.
What hermeneutical implication results from progressive revelation? We interpret Scripture by tracing God’s unfolding plan—the task of “biblical theology.”9 Biblical theology is the exegetical and theological discipline that attempts to “put together” the entire canon in terms of its redemptive-historical progression. Scripture consists of many literary forms that require careful interpretation, but what unites biblical books is an underlying storyline that unfolds God’s redemptive plan, beginning in creation and culminating in the new creation. Our task is to read Scripture according to the Bible’s own presentation (“on its own terms”), which is tied to the progression of the covenants.
Scripture is interpreted according to three horizons or contexts. Scripture unfolds God’s plan over time, so Scripture must tell us how the parts fit with the whole, and what theological conclusions are warranted by the entire canon. In this regard, Richard Lints suggests that we think of biblical interpretation in terms of three horizons or contexts: textual, epochal, and canonical.10
First, the textual or immediate context starts with any text in its context, which we interpret by grammatical/literary-historical exegesis. Second, the epochal context reads the text by locating it in God’s unfolding plan. Texts do not exist in a vacuum; they are embedded in a larger context of what precedes them. As God communicates through authors, there is a unity in his plan but also development, which preserves the balance between continuity and discontinuity in Scripture. Also, locating texts in God’s unfolding plan helps illuminate inter‑biblical links between earlier and later revelation. As later authors refer to earlier texts, they build on them, not only in terms of greater understanding, but also by identifying God-given patterns between earlier and later events, persons, and institutions (“typology”). By this means, but not limited to it, God’s plan unfolds and reaches its telos in Christ. As later authors draw out these God-given types, they do not arbitrarily make connections; rather, they develop these patterns according to God’s intent, which does not contravene earlier texts. We begin to grasp God’s unfolding plan as we read texts in their textual and epochal context.
How do we determine Scripture’s epochal points? This is a major debate within biblical theology.11 Scripture divides redemptive history in a number of ways. For example, in Romans 5:12–21, Paul divides all of human history under two heads: Adam and Christ. Under these two heads, Paul further subdivides history by the following epochs: Adam (vv. 12–13), from Adam to Moses (vv. 14–17), from Moses and the giving of the law-covenant to Christ (vv. 18–21). Or, in Acts 7:1–53, Stephen identifies three distinct periods: the age of the patriarchs (vv. 2–16), the Mosaic age, which included within it the time of the exodus and conquest of the Promised Land (vv. 17–45a), and the age of the monarchy (vv. 45b–53). Or, in the genealogy in Matthew 1, Matthew divides redemptive history into three distinct periods: Abraham to David (vv. 2–6a); Solomon to the exile (vv. 6b–11); and the exile to Christ (vv. 12–17). What is vital to note is that most of Scripture’s epochal divisions follow the unfolding of the covenants, thus my contention that covenantal progression is true to the Bible’s own internal structure.
Does placing texts in their epochal/covenantal context matter? Yes. In Romans 4, for example, Paul argues that Abraham is the paradigm of how God justifies us by faith alone for Jews and Gentiles. Warrant for this claim comes from Genesis 15:6, where God declares Abraham righteous by faith before he was circumcised (Gen 17). What does this prove? Against the Judaizers, Paul argues that Abraham’s justification was not tied to circumcision, as important as circumcision was as a covenant sign under the Abrahamic and Law-covenant. This is why Abraham is the paradigm for Jews and Gentiles. Paul’s argument against the Judaizers is that they have misread Scripture. To claim that Gentiles must be circumcised to know God, first is not true of Abraham, and second, it fails to grasp how circumcision pointed forward to our need for a circumcised heart.12 Now that Christ has come, circumcision’s role in the previous covenants is now fulfilled (1 Cor. 7:19). Paul’s argument, however, only works if he draws theological conclusions from texts in terms of what comes before and after them.
Galatians 3, a significant covenant text, illustrates this same point. Paul counters the Judaizers who, like many conservative Jews, “saw in the law given at Sinai not only a body of instruction but a hermeneutical key to the rest of Scripture.”13 The Judaizers viewed the law-covenant as permanent and not as a temporary means to bring us to Christ and the new covenant. This is why they insisted that for Gentiles to become Christians, they had to obey the law by circumcision. Paul rejects the Judaizers because they misunderstand Scripture. Paul argues that Christians are not under the law as a covenant.14 Rather, Jews and Gentiles are united to Christ by faith apart from the Mosaic law (vv. 1–6). Paul warrants his argument from Scripture. He first appeals to Genesis 15:6 to demonstrate that Abraham was justified by grace through faith (vv. 6–9). True children of Abraham are all who have faith in Christ, regardless of their nationality. Also, Jews and Gentiles now receive all the promised blessings of Abraham because of Christ, who is Abraham’s promised singular seed (v. 16).15 Furthermore, God’s declaring Abraham righteous was before the law-covenant (vv. 15–29). From this, Paul draws two further conclusions. First, the Mosaic law’s coming after Abraham did not nullify the previous promise that Abraham’s true offspring, identified as believing Jews and Gentiles, inherit the promised blessings via Christ. Second, given the placement of the law-covenant in God’s plan, God never intended for it to save. What, then, was the law’s purpose? Multiple answers are possible, but Paul focuses on one: the law functioned as a guardian over Israel until Christ came (vv. 21–24). Now that Christ has come, the law, as a covenant, is fulfilled, and in Christ the Abrahamic promise is given to believing Jews and Gentiles together as heirs (vv. 25–29).16
These two texts illustrate how important it is to “put together” God’s plan by locating each covenant in relation to what preceded and followed it. We risk theological error if we do not carefully think about texts in their epochal/covenantal location.17
Our interpretation of Scripture, however, does not end here. We must also read texts in terms of what comes after them, namely, the canonical context. Scripture is God’s unified revelation so texts must be interpreted canonically, which entails a grammatical/literary-historical-canonical method of interpretation.18
Theological conclusions are made from Scripture by reading the entire canon in context and unpacking the progression of the covenants. All of Scripture is for our instruction (2 Tim 3:15–17), yet we must carefully read and apply it. Central to biblical interpretation is thinking through the progression of the covenants. Although Scripture refers to many covenants, my focus is on the six main covenants: Creation, Noahic, Abrahamic, Mosaic, Davidic, and the New. Before I summarize how the Bible’s storyline is unpacked through the covenants, I offer four hermeneutical points about the covenants.
First, God’s one eternal plan is unveiled through a plurality of covenants (e.g., Gal 4:24; Eph 2:12; Heb 8:7–13), and it is important to let each covenant contribute to the unfolding of that one plan. For this reason, progressive covenantalism does not deny the theological concept of “the covenant of grace” if one merely means “the one plan of God.” However, it contends that covenant theology too quickly subsumes the biblical covenants under the larger category of “the covenant of grace,” which results in a failure to account for both the continuity of God’s plan over time and significant covenantal differences, especially in the new covenant. Starting in creation and culminating in Christ, the covenants unveil God’s eternal plan for us and the creation, and it is crucial to let each biblical covenant contribute its part to God’s unified plan.19
Second, the progression of the covenants is the primary means by which God’s promises and typological patterns unfold and are fulfilled in Christ and his people. The promise-fulfillment motif is central to how Scripture glues the diverse epochs of redemptive history together. Yet, it is difficult to think of God’s promises apart from the covenants. By covenantal progression, the biblical authors speak of the continuity of God’s plan (tied to his promises) and its discontinuity (how fulfillment brings about God-intended changes). Furthermore, one way that the promise-fulfillment theme is developed is via typology, which also is unpacked by covenantal progression. Given disputes over what typology is, let me outline my view of the nature and importance of typology, which is important in the entire discussion.
A brief discussion of typology. Richard Davidson’s definition of typology will be employed, which is based on his study of typos in the NT (Rom 5:14; 1 Cor 10:6, 11; 1 Pet 3:21; Heb 8:5; 9:24). Typology is the study of the OT redemptive-historical realities or “types” (persons, events, institutions) which God has specifically designed to correspond to, and predictively prefigure, their intensified antitypical fulfillment aspects (inaugurated, appropriated, and consummated) in NT redemptive history.20 Three further points will develop this basic definition.
- Typology is a feature of divine revelation rooted in history and the text. It involves an organic relation between “persons, events, and institutions” in one epoch (“type”) and their counterparts in later epochs (“antitype”).
- Typology is prophetic and predictive. Typology is a subset of predictive prophecy, not in the sense of direct verbal predictions, but more indirectly in the sense of predictions built on models/patterns that God intends, that become unveiled as later texts reinforce those patterns, with the goal of anticipating its fulfillment in Christ. As indirect prophecy, typology corresponds well to the Pauline sense of “mystery” (see e.g., Eph 1:9–10; 3:1–10).21 Given typology’s indirectness, it requires careful exegesis in its immediate context, and it may not be fully recognized as a type until later authors pick up the pattern. Yet, typology is in the text, exegetically discovered, and we come to know types as God-intended patterns as later OT authors repeat the pattern, before it reaches its fulfillment in Christ and his people.22
- How does typology work? There is a threefold character to it. The first aspect of typology is repetition of a person, event, or institution so that types are repeated in later persons, events, or institutions, thus allowing us to discover a pattern. However, ultimately the types reach their antitypical fulfillment first in Christ and then his people.23
For example, Adam is a type of Christ (Rom 5:14; 1 Cor 15:21–49), the covenant head of the old creation. In God’s plan, Adam anticipates the coming of Jesus, the last Adam, and the head of the new creation. How do we know this? In the immediate context of Genesis 1–3, there are exegetical clues that speak of Adam’s significance and through the covenants “other Adams” appear who take on Adam’s role (e.g., Noah, Abraham, Israel, and David). Yet, none of these “Adams” are the ultimate fulfillment, though they “predict” the last Adam to come. Furthermore, in Christ (the last Adam) and his work, we, as his people, are restored to our Adamic role as image-sons in relation to God and the creation (Heb 2:5–18). Thus, through the covenants, Adam, as a type, takes on greater definition until the last Adam comes.
Or think of the nation of Israel. As God’s son (Ex 4:22–23), Israel not only takes on Adam’s role in the world, but anticipates the coming of the true Son, the true Israel/servant/vine, namely, Christ (see, e.g., Is 5:1–7; Hos 11:1; Mt 2:15; Jn 15:1–17). Furthermore, in union with Christ, God’s people participate in the typological pattern. Thus, in the case of Israel, Christ is first the “true Israel,” and in him we are the eschatological people of God. The church is not the antitypical fulfillment of Israel in the first sense; Christ is. Yet in Christ, the true Son/Israel, we become adopted sons (Gal 3:26–4:7), the “Israel of God” (Gal 6:16), Abraham’s spiritual offspring (Gal 3:29), restored to what God created us to be (Eph 4:20–24). In this way, the new covenant promise given to the “house of Israel/Judah” (Jer 31:31) is applied to the church.
A second feature of typology is its “lesser to greater” (a fortiori) character as the type is fulfilled in the antitype. For example, through covenantal progression, as one moves from Adam or David, to the prophets, priests, and kings, to the last Adam, the true Davidic king, the great high priest, the antitype is always greater than the previous types. Yet, escalation across time does not occur incrementally from the original type to each installment and then to Christ, as if there is a straight line of increase. Rather escalation fully occurs with Christ’s coming. For example, Adam is a type of Christ, and “other Adams” arise, yet these “Adams” fail; there is really no increase, but they all anticipate the last Adam, who perfectly obeys. What is true of Adam is also true of other typological patterns whether they are various persons (Moses, Israel, David, prophets, priests, and kings), events (the exodus), or institutions (sacrificial system, tabernacle/temple). Is the a fortiori quality of typology important? Yes. By it, Scripture presents Christ’s unique identity and warrants the “newness” of the new covenant. In Christ, although his work involves an important “already-not yet” sense, major changes result, directly tied to his coming and the dawn of the new creation.
A third feature of typology is that it develops through covenantal progression. In fact, to think through the development of typological patterns is to walk through the covenants. For example, Adam and “other Adams” are associated with the covenants of creation, Noah, Abraham, Israel, and David. In these covenant heads, Adam’s role continues, and each one anticipates Christ, who by his obedience secures our redemption.24 Or think of the promise to Abraham regarding his “seed.” As the seed promise unfolds it does so in Isaac, Israel, the Davidic king, and ultimately in Christ, and then to the church as Abraham’s spiritual offspring.25 Or think of how Moses, who is foundational for the institution of prophets and who inaugurates the priestly role under the old covenant, is developed in terms of an entire institution of prophets and priests which ultimately culminates in Christ.26 More examples could be given: David and his sons, the entire tabernacle-temple structure, the exodus event that eventually anticipates a greater exodus to come, and so on. All of these types are tied to the covenants; one cannot think of them apart from wrestling with how the covenants relate to each other and how the covenants are fulfilled in Christ and the new covenant. In this way, OT history is truly prophetic and anticipates Christ’s coming and work (e.g., Matt 5:17–18; 11:11–15; Rom 3:21).
Returning to our discussion of the covenants, there is a third hermeneutical point. To categorize the covenants as either unconditional/unilateral (royal grant) or conditional/bilateral (suzerain-vassal) is inadequate.27 By this distinction, some argue that the Abrahamic, Davidic, and new covenants are unconditional, while the “covenant of works” and Mosaic law are conditional. Or some draw law-gospel contrasts so that the “covenant of works” and the old covenant are “law” (bilateral), while the Abrahamic,Davidic, and the new covenant are “gospel” (unilateral). This way of distinguishing the covenants is problematic since each covenant contains both elements. In fact, it is due to this blend that there is a deliberate tension within the covenants—a tension that heightens as God’s plan unfolds—and is only resolved in Christ.28
On the one hand, the covenants gloriously reveal our triune Creator-covenant Lord who makes and keeps his promises. As God initiates covenant relationships with his creatures, he is always the faithful partner—true to his own character and promises (Heb 6:17–18). Regardless of our unfaithfulness, God’s promises, commencing in Genesis 3:15, are certain. Yet God demands from us full devotion and obedience. In this sense, there is a bilateral aspect to the covenants. However, as the covenants progress, a tension grows between God’s faithfulness to his promises and our disobedience. Obedience is not an option for us. God is holy and just; he is the moral standard of the universe, but we have sinned against him. And in light of Genesis 3:15, God’s promises are tied to the provision of an obedient son, who will undo Adam’s disastrous choice. But where is such a son who fully obeys and meets God’s moral demands? How can God remain in relationship with us unless our sin is removed? It is through the covenants that this tension increases, and it is through the covenants that the answer is given: God himself—our covenant-maker and keeper—must unilaterally act to keep his own promise by the provision of an obedient covenant partner.
It is only by maintaining the dual emphasis of unilateral/bilateral in the covenants, leading us to their fulfillment in the unbreakable new covenant in Christ, that we appreciate Scripture’s glorious christological focus. The storyline of Scripture as told by the covenants leads us to him. Jesus alone, who is God the Son incarnate and our great prophet, priest, and king, can secure our salvation. In Christ alone, the covenants are fulfilled, and this built-in tension is resolved.29
Fourth, the new covenant is the fulfillment and telos of the biblical covenants. Since all of the covenants are part of God’s one plan, no covenant is unrelated to what preceded it, and no covenant makes sense apart from its fulfillment in Christ. No doubt, new covenant fulfillment involves an “already-not yet” aspect to it. Yet, what the previous covenants revealed, anticipated, and predicted through various patterns and instruction, is now “already” here. That is why Jesus is the last Adam and head of the new creation; the true seed and offspring of Abraham who brings blessings to the nations; the true Israel fulfilling all that it failed to be; and David’s greater son who rules the nations and the entire creation as king and Lord. In fulfilling the previous covenants, this does not entail that the earlier covenants have no value for us today or that we can jettison the OT from our Bibles. The previous covenants are forever part of Scripture, which is for our instruction and growth (2 Tim 3:16–17). Yet now that Christ has come, Christians are no longer under the previous covenants as covenants (other than the creation and Noahic until the consummation). This entails that we, as the church, obey all of Scripture, but now in light of the fulfillment in Christ and the new covenant we live under (1 Cor 9:19–21).30
THE BIBLICAL COVENANTS: FROM CREATION TO THE PROMISE OF THE NEW COVENANT
Through covenantal progression, the larger truth of “kingdom through covenant” emerges, which unites the Bible’s metanarrative from creation to consummation. Let me first introduce kingdom before I relate it to my overall understanding of covenants.
Kingdom through covenant. Graeme Goldsworthy argues, “The idea of the rule of God over creation, over all creatures, over the kingdoms of the world, and in a unique and special way, over his chosen and redeemed people, is the very heart of the message of the Hebrew scriptures.”31 Yet as Tom Schreiner demonstrates, God’s kingdom is not only central to the OT but also “of prime importance in New Testament theology.”32 I offer three initial points regarding kingdom.
First, Scripture begins with the declaration that God, as Creator and triune Lord, is the king of the universe (Gen 1–2; Ps 103:19; Dan 4:34–35; Acts 17:24–25). God’s creation work is the outworking of his eternal plan in time (Eph 1:11; Rev 4:11), which he directs to a specific eschatological telos. As history unfolds, God’s plan is unpacked vis-à-vis specific covenantal relationships, which all lead to a christological telos (cf. Col 1:15–20). Although the wording “kingdom of God” comes later in Scripture, the idea is taught in its first chapters.
Second, our triune God is the king, but the fall brings change. Before the fall, everything is “very good” (Gen 1:31), but now, in light of human sin, God’s rule over creation is rejected by his creatures. Sin is essentially rebellion against the king—moral autonomy—and now we stand under God’s condemnation and death (Gen 2:16–17; Rom 3:23; 6:23). Given the fall, the OT distinguishes between God’s sovereign rule over creation and his coming saving reign to make all things right. For God to save, he must act, which sets the stage for the Bible’s story of a coming Redeemer to set creation right and to usher in a new creation.33
Third, how does God’s saving kingdom come? It comes through the covenants in a twofold way. First, it comes through the covenant relationship God establishes with his image-bearers, that is, his priest-kings. Through this relationship, God’s rule is extended in his people and to the creation. Yet, sadly, we have failed in our calling. Second, God’s saving rule comes through the biblical covenants over time. Following the loss of Eden, redemption is linked to a promised human (Gen 3:15), which is given greater definition through Noah, Abraham, Israel, and the Davidic kings. Through the covenants, God reveals how his image-bearers ought to live and how he will establish his saving reign and restore creation through a promised, obedient Son.
Kingdom through covenant. Scripture organically ties kingdom and covenant together: it is through the covenants that God’s saving reign comes in Christ. Let me summarize the biblical covenants with the goal of showing how their progression culminates in Christ, and some theological implications that result.34
The creation covenant. Covenant theology refers to the covenant in Genesis 1–2 as the “covenant of works,” and dispensational theology rarely speaks of a covenant with creation, or at least it does not factor much into their theological system. For covenant theology, the “covenant of works” is made with Adam as the head/representative of the human race. To him and his entire posterity, eternal life is promised upon the condition of perfect obedience to God’s law. But due to his disobedience, Adam, along with all humanity, was plunged into a state of sin, death, and condemnation. God graciously did not leave humans in this condition but instead gave a saving promise, wherein he offered to sinners life and salvation through Christ as the last Adam.
Although this formulation is standard for covenant theology, some have questioned the validity of a “covenant of works” or any covenant in creation due to the absence of the word “covenant” (תיִרְבּ [bĕrît]) in Genesis 1–2 and the idea of Adam working to gain favor with God. One must demonstrate caution regarding the notion of works in this context, yet there is ample reason to contend for a “covenant of creation” with Adam serving as the covenant mediator for three reasons.
First, the absence of the word “covenant” in Genesis 1–2 does not entail that there is no covenant; context and later Scripture are decisive (e.g., Hos 6:7; Gen 2:19–25 [marriage]). Exegetically, there is a distinction between the words to “cut” (for the first time) and “establish” (continue) a covenant.35 In Genesis 6:17–18 and 9:8–17, God “establishes” (Gen 6:18; 9:9, 11, 17) a covenant with Noah, which implies a preexisting covenant relationship that can only be found in Adam and rooted in creation. Later Scripture confirms this point (e.g., Hos 6:7).
Second, contextually, not only are covenantal elements present such as the Lord/vassal relationship, the obedience-disobedience motif (Gen 2:16–17), but also God identifies himself by his covenant name: Yahweh (Gen 2:4, 5, 7, 8; Ex 3:13–15). God creates Adam as God’s image-bearer and son (Lk 3:38), which are covenantal terms and assume a covenant relationship.
Third, the canonical context reveals that the Bible’s storyline divides humanity under the headship of two individuals, Adam and Christ (Rom 5:12–21). Yet the new covenant headship of Christ as the last Adam makes little sense without the covenant headship of the first Adam. Adam represents the “old creation” and “this present age,” characterized by sin, death, and judgment. Christ represents the “new creation,” which, from the perspective of the OT prophets, is identified with the “age to come” of salvation, life, and restoration. As God’s royal priest-king (and son), Adam is given the mandate to rule over God’s creation, to put all things under his feet (cf. Ps 8), and to establish the pattern of God’s kingdom in this world. But, sadly, Adam disobeys, and the entire human race and the created order are affected. In Adam, unless God acts in grace and power, the original creation stands under divine judgment.
Starting with a “creation covenant” for understanding the Bible’s storyline is imperative for at least two reasons. First, the creation covenant is foundational for all future covenants since all subsequent covenants unpack Adam’s role in the world. Adam, and all humanity, is created as God’s image-son, a priest-king to rule over creation. Adam is created in relationship with God as he mediates God’s rule to the world; he does not need to merit favor before God. Yet God, as holy and just, demands perfect obedience from his covenant partner. All subsequent covenant heads will function as subsets of Adam, who, in God’s plan, will point forward to Christ. Even though the amount of space devoted to Adam is small, his role as the representative head of creation defines what comes after him and the entire work of Christ (Heb 2:5–18).
Second, the creation covenant is foundational for establishing various typological patterns that eventually reach their telos in Christ and the new covenant (e.g., the rest of the seventh day in Sabbath [Gen 2:1–3; Ex 20:8–11] and salvation rest in Christ [Heb 3:7–4:13]; Eden as a temple sanctuary which is fulfilled in Christ as the new temple; and marriage which points to a greater reality, viz., Christ’s relationship to his people [Gen 2:24–25; Eph 5:32]). All of these patterns will eschatologically be fulfilled in Christ and God’s new covenant people.
One last point: the “covenant with creation” must also discuss sin’s entrance into the world and God’s first redemption promise, a promise that receives clarification and expansion in subsequent covenants. Genesis 3 describes how, in history, sin entered the human race, which God alone can remedy. Humans, created to know God and to rule, now end in death—physically and spiritually (Gen 2:17; Rom 6:23). As the text unfolds, God’s punishment of our sin is swift, leading to God’s expulsion of Adam from Eden, and God blocking entrance to the Tree of Life, signifying that we are no longer in life-giving fellowship with the Lord. As God’s plan unfolds, we learn that the only way back to Eden is through God’s provision of the tabernacle/temple, and ultimately the one who fulfills it, Messiah Jesus (see Jn 2:19–21; cf. Rev 21–22), which subsequent covenants reveal in instruction and type.
Genesis 3 is also crucial in establishing God’s first redemption promise. Sin’s effects are disastrous, but God speaks a word of promise (Gen 3:15). Before God, sin creates a covenantal tension. Covenants allow God to be present with his people, and his people to enjoy rest. Yet how can sinners dwell in his presence? How can God be just and the justifier of the ungodly (Rom 3:25–26)? Scripture’s answer is glorious: God himself must save us—he must act in perfect justice and manifest his grace. And he must do so by providing a “seed,” yet a greater Adam and Son, who as God the Son incarnate, will perfectly obey even unto death, and thus pay for our sin, and reverse the alienating effects of sin by a new covenant (Phil 2:5–11; Heb 2:5–18).
The Noahic covenant. The word “covenant” first appears with Noah (Gen 6:18; cf. 9:9–11), but this covenant is a continuation of the prior creation covenant demonstrating God’s commitment to creation, especially in light of human sin. Given sin, humans and creation are threatened, but given God’s promise in Genesis 3:15 and now his promise as “the earth remains” (8:22), this covenant re-enforces God’s intention that humans will fulfill their role as image-bearers in creation. The “seed of the woman” will now come through Noah, the covenant mediator and his family, and it is he who will reverse the effects of sin and usher in a “new creation.” Noah is “another Adam” (Gen 9:1–7; cf. 1:26–30), and the universal scope of the covenant reminds us that God’s purposes encompass not just one people but all nations and the entire creation.
The Noahic covenant establishes two further points. First, Noah’s disobedience (Gen 9:18–28) demonstrates that our heart problem remains (see Gen 6:5–7 with 8:21–22), and that he is not the promised one. What we need is a greater heart transformation by the Spirit, tied to the forgiveness of sin, so humans will complete their role as image-bearers. Second, the Noahic covenant explains why fallen humanity simultaneously exists alongside God’s people until the consummation. In fact, given the Noahic promise, while Christ has already inaugurated the future age, the creation order and fallen humanity continue until the end.
The Abrahamic covenant. Given its textual-epochal context, the Abrahamic covenant comes after Genesis 1–11. Similar to the Noahic covenant, the Abrahamic presents anew the plan of creation over against God’s judgments on human sin (Gen 11). For this reason elements from the creation covenant are repeated in the blessing to Abraham: God’s promise of a great name and seed, the multiplication of progeny, the promise of the land, reconciled relations between God and humans, and blessing to the nations, and the restoration of the nations (Gen 12:1–3; cf. 15:4–5; 17:1–8; 18:18–19; 22:16–18). Yet, unlike with Noah, God does not destroy the human race. Instead, God allows the nations to exist and then calls Abraham out of the nations to become a great nation (יוֹג [gôy]), that is, a world political community, indeed a kingdom. God’s intent is to work through the covenant mediator, Abraham and his seed, to bring blessing to the nations by making him a great nation.
It is best to view the Abrahamic covenant as the means by which God will fulfill his promises for humanity, especially in light of Genesis 3:15 (cf. Gal 3:16). Abraham and his family constitute “another Adam,” a calling into existence of something new, parallel to creation, but in this case a “new creation” (Rom 4:17). The Abrahamic covenant functions as a subset of the “covenant with creation,” yet narrowed through one family/nation. In Abraham and his seed, first in Isaac, then in Israel, and then the Davidic king, all of God’s promises for the human race will be enacted—promises that God unilaterally keeps, as beautifully portrayed in the covenant inauguration ceremony in Genesis 15.
Within the Abrahamic narrative there is a hint that over time the fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant will occur in two stages: first, in the nation of Israel who will live in the Promised Land and serve as a kingdom of priests under the Mosaic covenant (Ex 19:4–6; Deut 4:5–8). Second, in Christ, Abraham’s royal, singular seed will bless all nations (Gen 17:4–6; cf. 22:17b–18; 49:8, 10; Is 9:6). Even in Genesis, Abraham’s “fatherhood” is expanded “beyond ethnic Israelites to include the nations.”36 This seems to entail not only the promise of a global inheritance but also an expansion of the Promised Land “to include the planet and its numerous people (Gen 1:28; Mt 5:5; Rom 4:13; cf. Eph 6:2–3; Heb 11:13–16).”37 As Jason DeRouchie notes, “This kind of expansion is suggested in Gen 22:17b–18 where we are told that the unique, male deliverer will not only bless ‘all the nations of the earth’ but will also possess ‘the gate of his enemies,’ claiming once-enemy territory, his kingdom expanding to fill the earth (cf. Gen 24:60).”38 This makes perfect sense since, in covenantal progression, the Abrahamic covenant is the means by which God will fulfill his promises for humanity (Gen 3:15).
Two other elements of the Abrahamic covenant are important. First, it is multifaceted. It not only encompasses spiritual aspects that link it ultimately to the new covenant, but it also consists of national and typological elements that must be carefully unpacked through the covenants. Second, it also consists of unilateral/bilateral elements. God’s action in Genesis 15 is unilateral, yet God also demands full obedience from his covenant partner for the covenant to continue (Gen 17:1; 18:19; 22:16–18). And like Adam and Noah, Abraham fails to meet this demand. This growing tension between God unilaterally keeping his promises and demanding an obedient covenant partner is only resolved in the true seed of Abraham, Messiah Jesus (Gal 3:16).
The Mosaic covenant. In the OT, the amount of space devoted to the Mosaic covenant (or “old covenant”) is vast, yet Scripture teaches that it is a means to an end, not an end in itself. Scripture views the “old covenant” as temporary in God’s plan, and thus when Christ comes, it is fulfilled as an entire covenant package, and Christians are no longer under it as a covenant (Gal 3:15–4:7). What, then, is its purpose? The answer is diverse, but at its heart it revealed and intensified sin and prepared God’s people for Christ’s coming (Rom 5:20–21; 7:13; Gal 4:4). Additionally, three points are important in summarizing the nature of the old covenant and its place in God’s redemptive plan.
First, given its epochal/covenantal context, God calls Moses to deliver Israel from Egypt and establishes a covenant with them because of his promises to Abraham (Ex 3:6; cf. 2:24–25; Deut 4:36–38). God chose Israel because of his love for them (Deut 7:7) and his covenant loyalty to Abraham (Ex 19:4; Deut 7:8). Also, the old covenant, in relation to the previous covenants, reveals with greater clarity how Abraham’s “seed” is narrowed to the nation of Israel. Israel, as a nation (יוֹג [gôy]) (Ex 19:5–6), is “another Adam” and fulfills that role to the nations. It is through Israel that God fulfills his promise (Gen 3:15) to undo Adam’s sin. Further proof of this truth is that Israel, as a nation, is called God’s “son” (Ex 4:22–23). The “Father-son” relationship hearkens back to Adam and forward to the Davidic kings, tying the covenants together. Israel, as a nation, is called to serve as God’s son-priest-image. They were to reveal what it looked like to be God’s image-son, and through them to bring blessing to the world.
Second, the old covenant is an entire package. Scripture does not partition the law-covenant into moral, civil, and ceremonial laws; rather, it is a unit that governed Israel’s life, and now, in Christ, it is fulfilled.39 Also, as a package, the old covenant develops in greater detail a number of typological patterns that find their antitypical fulfillment in Christ and his people. For example, within the law-covenant, Israel, as a kingdom of priests, needs Levitical priests to represent them before God. In fact, one cannot think of the old covenant apart from its grounding in the priesthood (Heb 7:11), signifying the need for the forgiveness of sin. Related to the priesthood is the entire tabernacle-temple-sacrificial system, which not only served as a means by which Israel dwelt in God’s presence, but also pointed to their antitypical fulfillment in Christ and the full forgiveness of sin (Jn 2:19–22; Is 52–53; Heb 5:1–10; 7–10). The same is true of the role of the prophet and the anticipation of the king, two other offices that are fulfilled in Christ.40 Or think of the event of the Passover and exodus, which first establishes Israel in covenant relationship with God. Through the covenants, the Passover and exodus become patterns of a greater, new exodus/redemption to come, all of which is fulfilled by Christ.41
Third, although the old covenant is predominantly bilateral and God rightly demands an obedient covenant partner, it is more than this. As with all the covenants, God unilaterally keeps his promises, yet Israel is to be an obedient son. And like Adam, they failed. The old covenant heightens the tension in how God’s kingdom comes through fallen people. God will keep his promise to bring forth the offspring of Abraham, now through an Israelite. And yet, Israel cannot produce the son and faithful covenant partner that God demands. For this reason, the OT prophets anticipate a permanent, unbreakable new covenant to solve this dilemma (Jer 31:31–34). In numerous ways, the law-covenant was prophetic (Mt 11:13) since it pointed forward to God’s provision of salvation, but in the end, God’s righteousness comes apart from the law-covenant in Christ Jesus (Rom 3:21–31).
The Davidic covenant. The Davidic covenant is the epitome of the OT covenants; it brings the previous covenants to a climax in the king. There are two main parts to it: (1) God’s promises about the establishment of David’s house forever (2 Sam 7:12–16), and (2) the promises concerning the “Father-son” relationship between God and the Davidic king (2 Sam 7:14; cf. Ps 2; 89:26–27). The meaning of this “sonship” is twofold. First, it inextricably ties the Davidic covenant to the previous covenants, and second, it anticipates in type the greater Sonship of Christ. Regarding the former, the sonship applied to corporate Israel (Ex 4:22–23; cf. Hos 11:1) is now applied to the individual Davidic king, who, in himself, is “true Israel.” He becomes the administrator/mediator of the covenant thus representing God’s rule to the people and representing the people as a whole (2 Sam 7:22–24). This