Question:What is progressive covenantalism? (Male, 18-30, Oceania, Christian)
(A note to readers: I [Evan Plante] also serve at Got Questions Ministries as a question responder, but I usually rewrite these articles so that does not show. In this case, that ministry’s involvement is part of the answer, so this stands largely as originally written.)
Answer: Greetings friend. We cannot understand Progressive Covenantalism (PC) without first understanding the other hermeneutical principles (or ways of interpreting Scripture) with which it interacts and/or competes, because it sometimes overlaps with and sometimes differentiates from these other interpretive templates. So, before you go any further, please review our article that explains New Covenant theology — and perhaps even the ones on Covenant Theology and Dispensationalism — which are all linked below.
Progressive Covenantalism is (sort of) a sub-set of New Covenant Theology — but its most well-known advocates, Peter J. Gentry and Stephen J. Wellum, understand the differences to be significant enough to give it a new name — and in their defense, this name accurately describes the methodology that differentiates them. For this reason I agree with the strategy to develop and talk about PC under its own title.
Gentry and Wellum introduced PC with their book Kingdom through Covenant (Wheaton: Crossway, 2012) (… and mercifully published a condensed version in 2015.) Then Wellum and Brent E. Parker advanced the discussion by editing Progressive Covenantalism: Charting a Course between Dispensational and Covenantal Theologies (B& H Academic, 2016) — which is the work of ten authors who each write on a PC-related issue. But the latter title works to answer your question — because it tells what PC is. Progressive Covenantalism is an interpretive template for the Bible that positions itself between Dispensationalism and Covenant Theology.
In a world where hermeneutical models are centuries old, Progressive Covenantalism is a “new” idea. As such, it will be vetted by scholars, clergy and laymen alike. So the collective response will naturally take some time (and consensus even longer!). But I think that Gentry and Wellum have connected with a critical mass of people like me who grew up under Dispensationalism… and who tried to prop it up for decades… but who finally fled its literal and disconnective requirements in favor of a more reader-friendly “God has one people — and all of God’s people are going to the same new creation” overview. Needless to say, I am personally excited that this idea is out there for critical review.
(Note 1: Got Questions Ministries remains Dispensational. One of this ministry’s strengths is that it is hearty enough to work with people like me who believe differently on secondary issues. Note 2: I am speaking in broad terms about Covenant Theology, New Covenant Theology, Dispensationalism, etc. They each have variants and nuances that are beyond the scope of this question.)
What makes PC different? A key difference is its treatment of the Dispensational/Covenantal time periods. Where Dispensationalism sees God using seven unique and discrete dispensations to manage his creation(s), and where classical Covenant Theology sees three covenants that are overarching throughout the creation(s), PC understands God’s revelation as unfolding (therefore progressive) and manifested in six unique covenants. So, it is easy to see where this system might be seen as middle ground.
By way of comparison, Dispensationalism sees God working through seven “dispensations” (or periods), namely, Innocence, Conscience, Human Government, Promise, Law, Grace and the Millennial Kingdom. Compared to other systems, these periods are strictly encapsulated — almost as on God’s plate where the peas are not allowed to touch the carrots. It assumes that today’s is the age of Grace — and this age is usually understood to be parenthetical in God’s purposes.
To say that this system is Israel-centric would be an understatement. Dispensationalists see Israel as God’s focus. They also see God as treating Israel separately from all other entities (and especially the Church) all through the Bible and forever. This is a cardinal distinction.
Also by way of comparison, classical Covenant Theology sees God working in the two covenants of Works and Grace (although a third, the Covenant of Redemption, is logically prior). These covenants are conceptually discrete, but they are overarching in effect and in time. Without crisp borders between its covenants, you can see where Covenant Theology fits well to an amillennial viewpoint — which is the polar opposite of Dispensational eschatology.
Progressive Covenantalism identifies the six covenants as that of Creation, the Noahic, the Abrahamic, that of Israel, the Davidic and the New Covenant. What differentiates PC is that it sees these six covenants as unfolding… but connected and in order… to reveal God’s one plan.
With Dispensationalism, God has more than one plan because he has more than one people. He has separate plans for Israel and the Church. With PC, all the covenants are fulfilled in Christ in the new creation (which has begun already with the believers, not with the geography)… and this includes Israel… but because there is now no Israel; the progression of the covenants is such that all believers are now the Church — and this is a position I also take.
Please note also that these three systems agree that God uses covenants — and that there are more covenants mentioned in the Bible than those used by these covenantal systems (e.g. the Palestinian Covenant, Deut. 30:1 – 10). Covenant theologians see these as minor covenants which are subsumed into the greater covenants. But I find it interesting that Dispensationalists — although not covenantal per se — are very invested in the Palestinian Covenant. They need this one to be literal and eternally efficacious. Dispensationalists are committed to an eternally separate Israel, whereas Covenant theologians see God having one people into the eschaton — a view I share.
I am not familiar enough with PC to make a judgment as to how discrete their six covenants are, but I will venture to say that, compared to Covenant Theology, they are discrete. Indeed, their orderly unfolding speaks to discretion, and that is a necessary part of the system. And I will also say that, compared to Dispensationalism, these covenants are organically connected whereas the dispensations are astringently encapsulated. One gets the feeling of the dispensations that they cannot touch. But it is a tenet of PC that each covenant must touch the previous — because revelation cannot progress contextually without the previous understanding — and I also take this view.
In my many years of answering Bible questions I’ve noticed that people are very prone to connecting everything in the Bible with everything else — sort of willy-nilly — just because it’s in the Bible. But that is not the way to proceed — ever! — and Progressive Covenantalism would cure that. You see, PC insists that God has one story, that he told it in order, that its parts necessarily connect in order and that the whole story should be understood before making theological judgments. That is the definition of synergy… which is one of the drums I beat.
Since I agree with so many of PC’s tenets and methodologies, let me make a few disclaimers: first, this is a new to me — and I am in no way settled in my personal opinions concerning PC. I hope I have spoken about it enough and given you a few reasonable references to continue an investigation if you so desire. Second, my readers should note that my personal theological bents require a robust and libertarian free-will for human beings — and no self-respecting covenantal theologian would let me through the door. It’s just that at this time I am a disciple of Jesus Christ, a Bible student, a subscriber to the inerrancy of Scripture — but I am also one who has… well… left behind a certain unsustainable eschatology, and Progressive Covenantalism scratches that itch.
In closing, let me show you why I like PC by developing a scenario and asking some questions. Let’s say that there is a literate natural theist… one who has not been exposed to Christians, Scripture — or any related commentary… and he has found and read a Bible. But he did so with enough care that he placed his faith in Christ during the first reading — and so received the indwelling Holy Spirit. Let’s also say that he was so zealous for God’s truth that he read the Bible through cover-to-cover ten times in a row, and at a reader’s pace. Would he discover Dispensationalism in those pages? How about Covenant Theology? I say neither (… although I’m not convinced that he’d ever find Dispensationalism)… but I think that he would find PC…and that’s what commends it. When we read a book a story should unfold — because whatever else you think of it — the word Bible means “book”… and I’m sure that God knew that too. Yet Christians continue to force the natural narrative into their hermeneutical templates.
I’ve always had this feeling that the same God who created us to process language — if that God were to write a book — that he would design it to make more ready sense than some of the hermeneutical systems would have us believe. But he would also ensure that that ready sense would not be overturned as we gathered more data and applied it to our studies. To that point, I see Progressive Covenantalism as doing a great job.
Here is a link to a seven minute video of Stephen Wellum explaining PC.