Progressive What?

Recently, some publications have been promoting a theological position called progressive covenantalism (PC). Its proponents claim that it offers a middle ground between covenantalism and dispensationalism. [1] Now, I think I know something about dispensationalism, having written on that topic for almost 30 years. I also teach a course at Southwestern Seminary on dispensationalism and covenantalism. While I can affirm that PC certainly varies from traditional covenantalism, I am also certain that that variance is not in the direction of dispensationalism, whether classical or progressive. The simple reason is that PC rejects a national, territorial future for Israel. One does not have to be a dispensationalist to affirm God’s plan for national, territorial Israel. But one cannot be a dispensationalist without affirming it. Any “move toward” dispensationalism would need to recognize the theological force and significance of divinely sworn and prophetically repeated covenant promises on this very issue—promises that are reconfirmed in the New Testament as well.

PC confusion about where they fit on the evangelical theological spectrum appears to be related in part to their own misreading of progressive dispensationalism. I was astounded to read the following description of progressive dispensationalism by Chad Brand, editor of the recent Perspectives on Israel and the Church: Four Views (Nashville: B&H, 2015) and coauthor of the chapter, “The Progressive Covenantal View,” in that same volume:

The third view that has arisen chronologically, the progressive dispensational view, is articulated by Robert Saucy [in his chapter in this same publication] and maintains the land principle of traditional dispensationalism but modifies it by construing it as only lasting though [sic] the millennium, and not as an eternal distinction between Israel and the church. The epochal horizon is thus seen as moving from Israel to the church in the new covenant, but then back to Israel for tribulation and millennium, and then back to a unified people in the eternal state. Promises to Israel in the Old Testament are in some sense fulfilled in Christ but also in another sense still fulfilled in a literal way in the millennium [pp. 14-15, emphasis added].

This is not progressive dispensationalism! On the contrary, progressive dispensationalism affirms the fulfillment of the land promise for national Israel in both the millennium and the eternal state. The everlasting fulfillment of the land promise is necessitated by repeated statements in Scripture that that promise is “everlasting.” The millennial fulfillment is itself an aspect, a phase, of a fulfillment that is only completed in the eternal state. This has been stated clearly in publications on progressive dispensationalism that have been in print for more than 20 years. Consider:

The eschatological kingdom pictured in these passages [NT passages on the theme of the kingdom] is quite compatible with Old Testament hope. And this includes the specific hope of Israel. Much of the New Testament writings concern the extension of present kingdom blessings to Gentile believers as consistent with Old Testament promises about Gentiles. However, the New Testament never presents these events as a replacement of the specific hopes of Israel. Instead, they are argued as compatible or complementary to the hopes of Israel. Some have asked why the New Testament does not stress a return to the land as the Old Testament prophecies do. We must remember, that at the time that the New Testament epistles were written, Jews were living in the land. Although there were still many in the dispersion, nevertheless a sufficient return had taken place to constitute a Jewish political presence in the land of covenant promise. The issue in New Testament writings was not a return to the land (since they were already in the land) but the return of the Messiah and a proper relationship to Him which would guarantee everlasting inheritance in the kingdom of glory which He would establish there, in that land . [2]

The national, territorial future for Israel has always been seen as an aspect of progressive dispensationalism’s view of both the millennium and the everlasting new earth order. Bob Saucy also affirmed this. There is nothing in his chapter in the “Perspectives” book mentioned above that would warrant Brand’s mischaracterization of progressive dispensationalism.

Why would PC misstate this issue?

It seems that by misstating the issue, the illusion is more easily created that PC is somehow a step in the direction of progressive dispensationalism. If progressive dispensationalism dispenses with the land (and national) aspects of covenant promise in the final fulfillment, then perhaps PC can be considered as an approximation of that view when it discards the millennial fulfillment of those promises as well. But this is like shooting first and drawing the target afterward. It simply will not do.

One cannot speculate about individual motivations, but from what has been published, it seems that PC authors recognize that progressive dispensationalism has a valid biblical argument against covenantalism. PC claims to build off of that and present an even “more biblical” position in turn. However, by failing to fully appreciate both hermeneutically and theologically the role and function of ethnic, national and territorial Israel for biblical anthropology and new creationism, PC falls short of a holistic biblical theology—a move, in my opinion, in the direction of a less, not more, biblical view.

[1] See, for example, Peter J. Gentry and Stephen J. Wellum, Kingdom through Covenant: A Biblical-Theological Understanding of the Covenants (Wheaton:  Crossway, 2012); for a critique of this book, see the articles by Darrell, Bock, Michael Grisanti, and Craig Blaising in The Master’s Seminary Journal (March, 2015).
[2] Blaising and Bock, Progressive Dispensationalism (Wheaton: Victor Books, 1993), 267, emphasis added.