Wednesday, July 08, 2020

Review of Discontinuity to Continuity by Benjamin J Merkle

I’ve been fascinated by the relationship between the Old and New Testaments, since I was given this topic as a First Year assignment at Kenmore Christian College, Queensland over forty years ago. Twenty-five years later I read The S. Lewis Johnson festschrift Continuity and Discontinuity: Perspectives on the Relationship Between the Old and New Testaments, and continued to think about questions like
1. Are Christians are expected to obey the ten commandments and other Old Testament laws? 2. How are the church and Israel related?
3. Is the bride of Christ the new Israel?
4. How should we interpret the Old Testament? If we try to do this literally, what do you mean by “literally?”

I think these topics are worth all Christians pondering. So when I came across Benjamin J. Merkle’s Discontinuity To Continuity: A Survey of Dispensational and Covenant Theologies, I was eager to read it and explore these important areas once again.
In this book, Merkle says he wants to help us to know what we believe, appreciate the views of others, recognize that our own theological system is not perfect, and strive to be a person whose views are derived from the Bible.

He subdivides Dispensationalism into Classic [Scofield, Darby, Chafer], Revised [Ryrie, Walvoord, Pentecost] and Progressive branches [Blaising, Bock, Saucy]. Covenantalism is further sorted into Progressive Covenantalism [Gentry, Wellum, Reisinger, Zaspel], Covenant Theology [Kline, Palmer Robertson, Horton], and Christian Reconstructionism [Rushdoony, Bahnsen and North] subgroups.
He then seeks to answer four key questions about each group, based on the writings of its own exponents:
1. What is the basic hermeneutic?
2. What is the relationship between the covenants?
3. What is the relationship between Israel and the Church?
4. What is the kingdom of God?
At the end of each chapter, he gives an assessment of positive and negative points about each of these ways of interpreting the Bible. Dr Merkle says he has tried to describe each theological system and silence his own opinion.

He has produced a useful handbook, which employs the Logos Bible Software engine well. You can quickly jump from one system to another, making comparison easy. The use of the one framework for each chapter helps the reader to see how the systems differ. But that also makes the book predictable and not a gripping read!

The way the book is structured makes Classical Dispensationalism and Christian Reconstructionism appear to be extreme, and Progressive Dispensationalism and Progressive Covenantalism to be the middle ground views. The treatment of the various views seems to be reasonably even-handed, and the author has enlisted the help of folk who adhere to each system to ensure that he has dealt with their preferred interpretations fairly. But he seems a lot more critical of Dispensational views and Recontructionism than of the other views.

One valuable feature of the book is its articulation of Progressive Covenantalism. This view was being promoted at the turn of this century in books such as Tom Wells and Fred Zaspel’s New Covenant Theology. Stephen Wellum and Peter Gentry have written or, edited several books about this recent expression of an important aspect of biblical theology, but settled on this present term because they were dissatisfied by some statements by promoters of “New Covenant Theology.” Their somewhat ugly term Progressive Covenantalism seeks to “underscore the unfolding nature of God’s revelation over time,” while emphasising that “God’s plan unfolds through the covenants and that all of the covenants find their fulfillment, telos, and terminus in Christ.”
Merkle would appear to have distilled the hundreds of pages written about this new way of looking at the relationship between Israel and the Church, between the Old and New Testaments, and between the various covenants into a handy and useful summary. The advantage of Progressive Covenantalism is that it embraces some of the good ingredients in Dispensationalism and Covenant Theology, providing a middle way that also seems to be much more clearly derived from the Bible itself, and not imposed on it.

I received this book in Logos Bible Software format free of charge, but was not required to give a positive review.

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