What is Progressive Covenantalism? Part 1


All Christians agree that covenants are fundamental to the Bible’s story and that God’s eternal plan unfolds over time reaching its fulfillment in Christ. Furthermore, all Christians accept some form of epochs or dispensations across redemptive-history demarcated by the covenants, and that the fulfillment of God’s saving purposes in Christ has resulted in change from past eras. However, Christians disagree on the exact relationships between the covenants. This is not a new debate. In the early church, the apostles wrestled with the implications of Christ’s new covenant work (see Acts 10–11, 15; Gal. 3–4; Eph. 2:11–22). Today, Christians still disagree on the newness of what Christ has achieved, especially regarding the larger Israel-Church relationship, along with the specific ongoing application of the Old Testament to the church.

Within evangelical theology, people tend to think about these issues within the larger views of covenant or dispensational theology. Progressive covenantalism serves as a mediating view. I will outline the view in four steps: (1) describe some of its distinctive points; (2) sketch some of its hermeneutical assumptions; (3) summarize its view of the progression of the covenants; and (4) encapsulate its view of how the covenants are fulfilled in Christ, thus highlighting how progressive covenantalism thinks of continuity and discontinuity across the biblical covenants.[1] Here in Part 1, we will begin to discuss these four areas and conclude our discussion in Part 2 later this month.

1. For a detailed exposition of progressive covenantalism, see Peter J. Gentry and Stephen J. Wellum, Kingdom through Covenant: A Biblical-Theological Understanding of the Covenants, 2nd edition (Wheaton: Crossway, 2018).

1. Distinctive Points

Progressive covenantalism argues that the Bible presents a plurality of covenants that progressively reveal God’s one redemptive plan for his one people which reaches its fulfillment in Christ and the new covenant. Each biblical covenant contributes to God’s unified plan of redemption, and to know the entire plan, we must understand each covenant in its own biblical context by locating that covenant in relation to what precedes and follows it. By the progression of the covenants, we come to know God’s 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.

Similar to covenant theology, progressive covenantalism contends that the covenants are more than a unifying theme of Scripture; instead they serve as the backbone to Scripture’s story. But unlike covenant theology, the covenants are not subsumed under the bi-covenantal structure of what is commonly identified as “the covenant of works” and “the covenant of grace.” Rather, God’s one redemptive plan unfolds through a plurality of covenants, first starting with Adam and culminating in Christ. The creation covenant lays the foundation that continues in all the covenants and which is fulfilled in Christ. God’s plan, then, moves from creation in Adam to consummation in Christ.

Concerning the Israel-church relationship, two points are stressed. First, God has one people, yet there is an Israel-church distinction due to their respective covenants. The church is new in history since she is the new covenant community. 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, comprised 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 (see Figure A). First, in contrast to dispensationalism, Jesus is the antitypical fulfillment of Israel and Adam and in him, all of God’s promises are fulfilled for the church, including the land promise realized in the new creation (Rom. 4:13; Eph. 6:3; Heb. 11:10, 16; cf. Matt. 5:5). Second, in contrast to covenant theology, Jesus’s new covenant people are different from Israel. Under the old covenant, Israel, by its very nature was a mixed community of believers and unbelievers (Rom. 9:6). The church, however, is constituted by people who are united to Christ by faith, which minimally includes heart circumcision, the forgiveness of sin, and the gift of the Spirit. In contrast to Israel, the church is constituted as a believing, regenerate people. This is why the sign of the new covenant (baptism) is only applied to those who profess faith, and why circumcision and baptism do not signify the same realities due to their respective covenantal differences.

Figure A: Some Differences between Dispensationalism,
Progressive Covenantalism, and Covenant Theology


Progressive Dispensationalism[2]

Progressive Covenantalism

Covenant Theology

Organizing Principle of Scripture


The progression of biblical covenants

The covenant of works & the covenant of grace

The land Promise to Israel

Fulfilled in the future believing nation of Israel living in their land in the new creation

Fulfilled in Christ and the new creation and shared with the church

Either forfeited by Israel under the Mosaic covenant or fulfilled in Christ and the new creation and shared with the church

New Covenant People

Now in the church as an international, regenerate people, and in the future in the nation of Israel as a believing nation

The church as a regenerate, believing, international people (which also includes OT saints)

Presently a mixed people constituted by believers and their children, and in the future a regenerate, believing, international people


Only for believers

Only for believers

Believers and their children

2. Given differences within Dispensationalism, this chart will not describe all its versions; instead, it will describe the most common academic version of it known as Progressive Dispensationalism.

2. Hermeneutical Assumptions

How does progressive covenantalism interpret biblical texts and draw theological conclusions? Questions on hermeneutics are not new or easy to answer. In theological debates, adjudication between views is often complicated since theological positions involve more than appealing to one or two texts. This is why it is important to state how one interprets and applies Scripture. Three points summarize my overall hermeneutical approach.

First, Scripture is interpreted according to its own claim to be God’s Word written through the agency of human authors over time.

My purpose is not to defend this commonly-held evangelical claim. Instead, I simply state two hermeneutical implications that follow. First, since Scripture is God’s Word, despite its diversity, it is unified and coherent. As applied to the covenants, this means that the covenants are not isolated from each other; instead, they 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/literary-historical exegesis. But given the diversity of authors, a canonical reading—a reading that is sensitive to God’s unfolding revelation across sixty-six books—is necessary to discover God’s ultimate intent. This entails that the New Testament’s interpretation of the Old is definitive because later texts give greater clarity and understanding. The New Testament shows us how the Old Testament is fulfilled in Christ. New Testament authors may expand the Old Testament author’s meaning in the sense of seeing new implications and applications. But later texts do not contravene the meaning of the earlier texts; they only develop them in ways consistent with God’s unfolding revelation in the Old Testament.

Second, Scripture is interpreted according to three 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. This entails that we think of biblical interpretation in terms of three contexts: textual, epochal, and canonical.[3]

3. See Richard Lints, The Fabric of Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), 259–311.

First, the textual or immediate context is starting with any text in its book context, which we interpret by grammatical/literary-historical exegesis. Second, the epochal context is reading the text/book by locating it in God’s unfolding plan. Texts are not written 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. By locating texts in God’s unfolding plan, this helps us see intertextual links between earlier and later revelation in Scripture. Thus, 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—what is known as typology. In this way God’s plan unfolds and reaches its fulfillment in Christ.

How do we determine Scripture’s epochal divisions? This is not an easy question to answer. Scripture divides history in a number of ways (e.g., Matt. 1:1–17; Rom. 5:12–21), but Scripture’s epochal divisions are best discerned by the unfolding of the biblical covenants. Does placing texts in their epochal/covenantal context matter? Yes. For proof of this see the arguments made in Galatians 3–4 and Hebrews 2:5–18; 3:7–4:11; 7–8. All of these texts make arguments from the unfolding of biblical revelation, thereby illustrating how important it is to “put together” God’s plan in terms of the three contexts.

But ultimately our interpretation of Scripture must read texts in terms of what comes after them, namely, the canonical context. Scripture is God’s unified speech so texts must be interpreted canonically, which entails a grammatical/literary-historical-canonical method of interpretation.

Third, theological conclusions are made from Scripture by reading the entire canon 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 unpacking the Bible’s covenantal progression. Given the space constraints of this article and significant issues to discuss under this point, see the companion article that develops this point in more detail.

3. How God’s Plan unfolds through the Covenants from Creation to Christ

By covenantal progression, the truth of “kingdom through covenant” emerges, which unites the Bible’s metanarrative from creation to consummation. Let us unpack this truth a bit more.

Kingdom through Covenant

Graeme Goldsworthy argues that, “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.”[4] Likewise, Tom Schreiner notes, God’s kingdom is not only central to the Old Testament, it is also “of prime importance in New Testament theology.”[5] But what exactly do I mean by kingdom? I offer three points to explain.

4. Graeme Goldsworthy, “Kingdom of God,” in New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, ed. T. Desmond Alexander and Brian S. Rosner (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2000), 618.

5. Thomas R. Schreiner, New Testament Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008), 41.

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 in time of his eternal plan (Eph. 1:11; Rev. 4:11), which he directs to a specific telos. As history unfolds, God’s plan is unpacked vis-à-vis specific covenantal relationships, which all lead to a Christological telos (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 due to human sin, God’s rule over creation is rejected by mankind. Sin is rebellion against the King, which results in our death (Gen. 2:16–17; Rom. 3:23; 6:23). Given the fall, the Old Testament 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.

Third, how does God’s saving kingdom come? It comes through the covenants. Following the loss of Eden, redemption is linked to a promised human (Gen. 3:15)—who will be more than human—but 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

Kingdom and covenant are organically linked: it is through the covenants that God’s saving reign comes in Christ. This relationship between these two biblical ideas is what Peter Gentry and I unpack in our two books Kingdom through Covenant and God’s Kingdom through God’s Covenants. Here, I will simply summarize how the covenants unfold God’s plan leading us to Christ, which in turn helps us see the continuity and discontinuity of God’s plan over time.

The Creation Covenant

Covenant theology affirms a covenant in Genesis 1–2, but the vast majority of dispensationalism rejects such a covenant. For covenant theology, the “covenant of works” or what progressive covenantalism calls the “covenant with creation” is made with Adam subsequent to creation as the head/representative of all humans. To him and his entire posterity, eternal life is promised upon the condition of perfect obedience to God’s law. Thus, by the means of God’s condescension to enter into covenant relationship with us, Adam is able to move from his good but non-glorified state to a glorified state. But due to his disobedience, Adam, along with all humanity, was plunged into a state of sin, death, and condemnation. But God graciously did not leave us in this condition; instead he gave a saving promise that is ultimately fulfilled in Christ.

Progressive covenantalism agrees with this articulation of the creation covenant, but many evangelicals have questioned such a covenant in Genesis 1–2 due to the absence of the word “covenant.” Yet, this skepticism is unwarranted for at least three reasons.

First, the absence of the word “covenant” does not entail that there is no covenant; context and later Scripture are decisive (e.g., Gen. 2:19–25 [marriage]; 2 Sam. 7:14; cf. Hos. 6:7). Second, contextually, not only are covenantal elements—the Lord/vassal relationship and the obedience-disobedience motif (Gen. 2:16–17)—present, but also God identifies himself by his covenant name: Yahweh (Gen. 2:4, 5, 7, 8; Exod. 3:13–15). Moreover, God creates Adam as God’s image-bearer and son (Luke 3:38), which are covenantal terms and assumes a covenant relationship. Third, the canonical context reveals that the Bible’s story divides humanity under the headship of two individuals, Adam and Christ (Rom. 5:12–21). The new covenant headship of Christ as the last Adam makes little sense without the covenant headship of the first Adam.

Starting with a creation covenant is also crucial for two reasons. First, although one must distinguish between a pre-fall and post-fall world, the creation covenant is foundational for all future covenants since all subsequent covenants unpack Adam’s role in the world, which ultimately reach their fulfillment in Christ and the new covenant. Adam, and all humanity, is created as God’s image-son, a priest-king to rule over creation. Adam is created in relationship to God as he mediates God’s rule to the world. Yet, God demands perfect obedience from his covenant partner, which, sadly, Adam fails to render. In the post-fall redemptive promise (Gen. 3:15), all subsequent covenant heads will function as subsets of Adam, who, in God’s plan, will point forward to Christ, but who never are the promised seed that undo Adam’s disobedience and reverses the effects of sin and death. Instead, it is only in Christ, the true seed of the woman, the last Adam, the divine Son who assumes our humanity in order to render perfect covenant obedience for us that our sins are paid for, and that we stand before God justified, reconciled, and restored to the purpose of our creation as God’s covenant people. In this way, Adam’s role as the representative head of creation defines what comes after him, and due to Adam’s sin, it also defines what our Lord Jesus Christ must do to undo it (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. For example, the rest of the seventh day (Gen. 2:1–3; Exod. 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, namely, Christ’s relationship to his people (Gen. 2:24–25; Eph. 5:32) are all typological patterns that emerge from the creation covenant. All of these patterns will also eschatologically terminate in Christ and God’s new covenant people, the church.

One last point: although already alluded to, we must discuss further sin’s entrance into the world and God’s first redemption promise—a promise that receives expansion in subsequent covenants (Gen. 3:15). Genesis 3 describes how sin entered the human realm. It requires that we distinguish the world between pre-fall under Adam and post-fall redemptive promise in Christ. Humans, created to know God and to rule, now end in death (Gen. 2:17; Rom. 6:23). Sin’s effects are disastrous, but God graciously speaks a word of promise. Before God, sin creates a covenantal tension. Covenants allow God to be present with his people. But how can sinners dwell in his holy presence? How can God be just and the justifier of the ungodly (Rom. 3:25–26)? Scripture’s answer is staggering: God himself will save us by his Son (“seed”) who will perfectly obey unto death thus reversing the effects of sin and ratifying a new covenant (Phil. 2:5–11; Heb. 2:5–18). This truth is revealed by the progression of the post-fall covenants which all culminate in Christ and the new covenant.

This formulation differs slightly from covenant theology. Covenant theology divides redemptive history into two covenants: the covenant of creation/works (“law”) and the covenant of grace (“gospel”), and then subsumes all post-fall covenants under the latter covenant. No doubt, there is truth in this formulation since the theological categories of “law” and “gospel” are true, but they are not derived simply by covenant theology’s bi-covenantal structure. In Genesis 2, after creation God establishes a covenant relationship with Adam that allows Adam to move from a probation state to a glorified state, but as a result of his disobedience, God graciously promises redemption through Christ to undo what Adam did (Gen. 3:15). Post-fall, salvation is by grace through faith in Christ alone. Yet, Genesis 3:15 is not the initiation of “the covenant of grace;” instead it is a gracious promise that is unfolded through the post-fall covenants which all reach their fulfillment in the new covenant. Although similar to covenant theology, this formulation better reflects how Scripture describes God’s plan revealed through a plurality of covenants (Eph. 2:12) culminating in Christ. It is true that the Bible’s metanarrative is subsumed under two covenant heads: Adam and Christ. But post-fall, and due to God’s salvific promise, it is best to think of God’s plan unfolding through multiple covenants which all progressively reveal the new covenant.

Also, this way of stating it allows for each covenant to contribute to God’s unfolding plan; it does not subsume all of the post-fall Old Testament covenants under the “covenant of grace” and then draw lines of continuity too quickly from old to new, especially regarding circumcision-baptism and the “mixed” nature of Israel-church. After Genesis 3, all humans are born “in Adam,” while God’s elect experience grace, thus creating two humanities. Those who believe the promise are “in Christ” (in the sense that they look forward to him and the dawning of the new covenant). But as subsequent covenants are cut, a clearer delineation is made between these two humanities. In the Old Testament covenants (Abrahamic, Mosaic, and Davidic), they remain “mixed,” and it is not until the new covenant that “in Christ” entails a regenerate people. This understanding better explains why and how the new covenant is new and how all the covenants reach their fulfillment in it.

The Noahic Covenant

The word “covenant” first appears with Noah (Gen. 6:18; 9:9–11). This covenant is a continuation of the creation covenant demonstrating God’s commitment to creation, but now in a post-fall context. Given sin, humans and creation are threatened, but given God’s initial promise (Gen. 3:15) now unfolded through Noah, this covenant that re-enforces God’s intention that humans will fulfill their role as image-bearers in creation since it remains in force as long as the “earth remains” (Gen. 8:22). Thus, the “seed of the woman” will come through Noah, the covenant mediator and his family. In this sense, 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 people from every nation along with the entire creation.

The Noahic covenant establishes two other points. First, Noah’s disobedience (Gen. 9:18–28) demonstrates that our heart problem remains (see Gen. 6:5–7 with Gen. 8:21–22), and that he is not the “last Adam” to come. What we need is a greater heart transformation by the Spirit so that we will fulfill our role as image-bearers. Second, the Noahic covenant explains why fallen humanity simultaneously exists alongside God’s people until the consummation. While Christ has already inaugurated the future age, the fallen creation order will continue until the end. When Christ returns the new creation will be consummated in its fullness, but until then, there is an overlap of the ages, as the church carries out her mission to call all people to faith in our Lord Jesus Christ and to live as God’s new covenant people in the midst of a fallen world.

The Abrahamic Covenant

Given its location in Scripture, the Abrahamic covenant stands in contrast to the judgments of God on human sin, and presents anew the plan of creation. Important elements in the creation of humans are repeated in the blessing to Abraham: God’s promise of a great name and seed, the multiplication of humans, the provision of the land, a peaceful relationship between God and humanity, 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 humanity. Instead, God allows the nations to exist and then calls Abraham out of the nations to become a great nation (gôy), namely, 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.

The Abrahamic covenant is the means by which God will fulfill his promises for humanity (Gen. 3:15; Gal. 3:16). Abraham and his family constitute “another Adam.” The Abrahamic covenant functions as a subset of the “creation covenant” in a post-fall context, yet narrowed through one family and nation. In Abraham and his seed, first in Isaac, then in Israel, and then the Davidic king, all of God’s promises for humanity will be enacted—promises that God unilaterally keeps, as beautifully portrayed in the covenant inauguration ceremony in Genesis 15.

In the text, there is also 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 old covenant (Exod. 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; Isa. 9:6). Even in Genesis, Abraham’s “fatherhood” is expanded to include the nations. This entails not only the promise of a global inheritance, but also an expansion of the promised land (Gen. 1:28; Matt. 5:5; Rom. 4:13; cf. Eph. 6:2-3; Heb. 11:13-16). This expansion is suggested in Genesis 22:17b-18. The male deliverer will bless all nations and possess “the gate of his enemies,” which implies that his kingdom expands to fill the earth (cf. Gen. 24:60). This makes perfect sense since 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, 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 keeping his promises and demanding an obedient covenant-partner is only resolved in the true seed of Abraham, Messiah Jesus (Gal. 3:16).

To be Continued

In this article, we have begun to describe what progressive covenantalism is. In the next article in mid September, we will continue to describe how God’s plan is unfolded through the biblical covenants and how all of God’s promises and covenants find their fulfillment in Christ to the 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).