How to Interpret the Covenants and the Nature of Typology: A Companion Article


In my description of Progressive Covenantalism, I noted some basic yet important hermeneutical points central to the overall view. One of the points which I could not fully discuss was this: to make theological conclusions properly from Scripture, we must do so by reading the entire canon of Scripture and carefully think through the progression of the covenants. Since all of Scripture is for our instruction (2 Tim. 3:15–17), we must not only draw theological conclusions from all of it, we must also do so on the Bible’s own terms which means that we must carefully unpack Scripture’s covenantal progression. This requires that we think carefully about the nature of the biblical covenants, how they unfold in redemptive history from Adam to Christ, and how various typological structures are revealed in and through the covenantal unfolding.

Although Scripture refers to many covenants, the most significant covenants for our purpose are the six main covenants between God and us: Creation, Noahic, Abrahamic, Mosaic (which includes the important Levitical covenant),[1] Davidic, and the New. In what follows I offer four hermeneutical points about how progressive covenantalism interprets the biblical covenants and understands how all the covenants ultimately reach their fulfillment in Christ.

1. The Levitical covenant (Mal. 2:4–9) is an important part of the unfolding of the Mosaic covenant, and as such, it deserves a separate treatment on its own. Later this month, David Schrock will address this important covenant and its relationship to the other six.

Hermeneutical Points 1–2: Plurality and Progression of Covenants

First, Scripture teaches that God’s one eternal plan is unveiled through a plurality of covenants (e.g., Gal. 4:24; Eph. 2:12; Heb. 8:7–13). For this reason, progressive covenantalism rejects covenant theology’s subsuming all the post-fall covenants under the theological category of “the covenant of grace.” God has one plan but it is crucial that in our reading of Scripture we let each covenant contribute to the unfolding of that one plan. By doing so, we are able to grasp both the continuity of God’s plan and avoid minimizing significant covenantal differences, which is a problem for covenant theology that views all post-fall covenants under one larger covenant.

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 the church. 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 progression of the covenants from Adam to Christ. In fact, by Scripture’s 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). Additionally, one way that the promise-fulfillment theme is developed is by the use of typology, which also is unpacked through the progressions of the covenants. Given disputes over what typology is and how to interpret it, I will briefly describe my view.

A Brief Discussion of Typology

Typology is the study of the Old Testament 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 New Testament redemptive history.[2] Three points will develop this definition.

2. See Richard Davidson, Typology in Scripture: A Study of Hermeneutical TUPOS Structures (Berrien Springs, MI: Andrews University, 1981), 397–408.
  1. Typology is a feature of divine revelation rooted in history and most significantly the text. It involves an organic relation between “persons, events, and institutions” in one epoch (“type”) and their counterparts in later epochs (“antitype,” namely, what the type anticipates or predicts).
  2. Typology is prophetic and predictive. It is not prophetic as a direct verbal prediction such as Micah 5:2 that directly predicts a ruler arising out of Bethlehem. Instead, it is more indirect in the sense of predictions or prophecies built on models-patterns that God intends but which become unveiled as later texts reinforce those patterns, and which reach their fulfillment in Christ. 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 Old Testament authors repeat the pattern, before it reaches its fulfillment in Christ.
  3. How does typology work? Three points will answer this question.

    First, typology involves repetition of a person, event, or institution so that types are repeated in later persons, events, or institutions. This is how we discover the pattern. Ultimately, however, the types reach their fulfillment first in Christ and then his people, the church.

    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” take on Adam’s role (e.g., Noah, Abraham, Israel, and David). But none of these “Adams” are the fulfillment, despite the fact that they “predict” the last Adam to come. Also, in Christ, we, as his people, are restored to our Adamic role as image-sons in relation to God and the creation (Heb. 2:5–18).

    Or, think of the nation of Israel. As God’s son (Exod. 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, i.e., Christ (see, e.g., Isa. 5:1–7; Hos. 11:1; Matt. 2:15; John 15:1–17). But also 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). This is how the new covenant promise given to the “house of Israel/Judah” (Jer. 31:31) is applied to the church.

    Second, typology has a “lesser to greater” or a fortiori character as the type is fulfilled in the antitype. For example, 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. Adam is a type of Christ, and “other Adams” arise, yet these “Adams” disobey, and thus anticipate the last Adam, who will not disobey but perfectly obey. What is true of Adam is also true of other typological patterns such as various people (Moses, Israel, David, prophets, priests, kings), events (exodus), or institutions (sacrificial system, tabernacle/temple).

    Third, typology is developed through the unfolding of the covenants. For example, Adam and “other Adam’s” 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.[3] 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.[4] More examples could be given: Moses, David and his sons, the entire tabernacle-temple structure, the exodus-event that eventually anticipates a greater exodus to come. 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. This is why Old Testament history is prophetic and how in God’s plan it anticipates Christ’s coming and work (e.g., Matt. 5:17–18; 11:11–15; Rom. 3:21).
3. See Gen. 1–3; 5:1–2; 9:1–17; 12:1–3; Exod. 4:22–23; 2 Sam. 7:5–16; Ps. 8; Rom. 5:12–21; Heb. 2:5–18.

Hermeneutical Points 3–4: Nature of the Covenants and Their Fulfillment in the New Covenant

4. See Gen. 12:1–3; 17:1–22; Exod. 1:1–7; 2 Sam. 7:5–16; Gal. 3:16, 29.

With these points in place regarding typology, let us now offer our third and fourth hermeneutical points regarding the nature of the covenants and how rightly to interpret them.

Third, to categorize the covenants as either unconditional/unilateral (i.e., royal grant) or conditional/bilateral (i.e., suzerain-vassal) is inadequate and reductionistic. Why? Because the truth is that each post-fall covenant contains both aspects, even though it is true that some of the covenants emphasize one aspect more than the other. For example, the Mosaic covenant is strongly bilateral. In fact, one of its main purposes is to reveal the disastrous nature of sin far greater than any previous covenant (see Gal. 3:19). This is why Paul sets it over against the Abrahamic covenant, which he characterizes as a covenant of promise (Gal. 3–4). However, one cannot understand the Mosaic covenant apart from God’s grace, first in election (Deut. 7:7–11), and second in terms of its gracious provision of a sacrificial system that prophetically anticipated the provision of the Redeemer to come. Or, think of the Abrahamic covenant. It is strongly unilateral; especially in its covenant ratification ceremony where God is the only party who walks through the pieces thus taking the entire covenant obligation on himself (Gen. 15:8–21). Yet, God also continues to demand perfect obedience from Abraham, which reveals that the covenant includes bilateral elements as well (Gen. 17:9–14; 22:15–18).

In fact, it is due to this combination of unilateral and bilateral in each post-fall covenant that a deliberate tension within the covenants is revealed—a tension that heightens as God’s plan unfolds—and is only resolved in Christ. Let me explain.

On the one hand, the post-fall covenants reveal our triune covenant Lord who makes and keeps his promises. As God initiates covenant relationships with his creatures, he is always the faithful partner (Heb. 6:17–18). Regardless of our unfaithfulness, commencing in Genesis 3:15, God’s promises are certain. On the other hand, God demands from us perfect obedience, thus the bilateral aspect of the covenants. Yet 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, 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 do we find such a son who fully obeys and meets God’s moral demands? And 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—will unilaterally act to keep his own promise by the provision of an obedient covenant partner, namely our Lord Jesus Christ.

Fourth, the new covenant is the fulfillment of all of the previous 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 is “already” here. This 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 she failed to be; and David’s greater son who rules the entire creation as Lord. In fulfilling the previous covenants, the earlier covenants continue to have value for us today since they are forever part of Scripture, which is for our instruction and growth (2 Tim. 3:16–17). But now that Christ has come, Christians are no longer directly under the previous covenants as covenants (other than the Noahic until the consummation). As the church, we obey all of Scripture, but now in light of the fulfillment in Christ and the new covenant (1 Cor. 9:19–21), which has important implications for how we apply the Old Testament to our lives today.


Interpreting the covenants properly is at the heart of reading Scripture correctly and drawing accurate theological conclusions. Many of the disagreements between theological viewpoints such as dispensational and covenant theology center on how we understand the nature of the covenants and how we view their fulfillment in Christ. In this article, I have discussed four hermeneutical points regarding the covenants central to why progressive covenantalism argues that in Christ that all of God’s covenantal promises are “Yes” and “Amen” (2 Cor. 1:20) and why the new covenant is the fulfillment of all the previous covenants, to God’s glory and the eternal benefit of the church.



  • Stephen Wellum

    Stephen Wellum is professor of Christian theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. He received his MDiv and PhD from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He is the author of numerous essays, articles, and books. He is also the co-author with Peter Gentry of Kingdom through Covenant, 2nd edition (Crossway, 2012, 2018) and the author of God the Son Incarnate: The Doctrine of the Person of Christ (Crossway, 2016).

Stephen Wellum

Stephen Wellum

Stephen Wellum is professor of Christian theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. He received his MDiv and PhD from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He is the author of numerous essays, articles, and books. He is also the co-author with Peter Gentry of Kingdom through Covenant, 2nd edition (Crossway, 2012, 2018) and the author of God the Son Incarnate: The Doctrine of the Person of Christ (Crossway, 2016).