Dr. Arnold interviews Dr. Stephen Wellum, professor of Christian Theology at Southern Seminary, about how to make sense of the Bible’s overarching story.
Conversation topics include:
- How not to read the Bible.
- The Bible’s 6 major covenants and how they fit together from Adam to Christ.
- The role of Israel and the church in God’s story.
- How the way you read the Bible influences your Christian life and practice of the faith.
Episode 2: How Does the Bible Fit Together?
Introduction: (00:00) Welcome to Faith Seeking Understanding—a podcast from Phoenix Seminary helping Christians grow in their understanding of the faith, hosted by Dr. Brian Arnold, president of Phoenix Seminary.
Brian Arnold: (00:16) My senior year in high school, I began to take my faith a lot more seriously, and I was challenged by some of my friends in high school to start reading the Bible.
But to be quite honest, I had no idea where to begin. For many people, opening up the Bible can feel like a really daunting task. So, I opened it up and even began to read through Genesis, and that went fine. And when I got to Leviticus, I started getting somewhat confused. By the time I got to the prophets, I was really confused.
I had no idea how all these stories fit together in the broader understanding of Israel’s history. Of course, I knew that the Old Testament was God’s dealing with the Israelite people as they awaited the Messiah. And the New Testament was about that Messiah, Jesus Christ, coming and then the beginning of the church.
But it took me a while before I figured out how all these books of the Bible fit together—before I understood the story. That’s going to be our big question today:” How does the Bible fit together?” And to help us with that question, we have professor and author Dr. Stephen Wellum with us. Dr. Wellum holds a Ph.D. from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and he has taught at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary since 1999.
He’s written several books on the person of Christ, and he is currently working on a systematic theology. He’s the co-author of a very important book called Kingdom Through Covenant: A Biblical-Theological Understanding of the Covenants, which is going to help us understand the answer to this question.
Dr. Wellum, welcome.
Stephen Wellum: (01:39) Glad to be with you, Brian.
Brian Arnold: (01:41) One of my biggest regrets personally from my time at Southern Seminary was that I never actually got to have you as a professor. All the students you had loved you and walked away understanding the Bible and theology really well.
Stephen Wellum: (01:55)Well, you’ll have to come back.
Brian Arnold: (01:58) My seminary education wasn’t complete. Is that what you’re saying?
Stephen Wellum: (02:02) No, I’m sure you’ve got a very fine education.
Brian Arnold: (02:05) I did. I’m very thankful for my time there, and it helped me prepare to be doing what I’m doing now.
So our big question today is “How Does the Bible Fit Together?” But before we get there, I’m curious, what are some common mistakes you see with how Christians approach this question?
Stephen Wellum: (02:24) Yeah. I think one of the common mistakes is they don’t start with the assumption that the Bible does fit together. They read it in too much of a piecemeal or divided sense. So they get into their devotions, and they look at a specific text, and they’re not even tying it to the entire book or then asking, “how does this fit with the whole counsel of God in terms of the entirety of Scripture?”
So if you read in a fragmented sense, you’ll never get the sense of how it does fit together. You’ll just be getting parts—sort of looking at the trees instead of understanding the forest.
Brian Arnold: (03:02) That’s right. And so it’s kind of backward, actually. We should be able to see the whole forest and then be able to understand those different parts.
I know a lot of Christians look in the back glossary or index, if you will, of the Bible, thinking, “I need a verse on faith.” They flip to that—not understanding the context of the book of the Bible, the Testament they’re in, or even how that particular verse fits into the whole.
Stephen Wellum: (03:24) That’s exactly right. They’re thinking too small in terms of looking at a text and not putting it in its larger, immediate context, and then the entire context of the Bible. And so then, of course, inevitably, they don’t see how it fits together, and they inevitably will make mistakes if they’re not careful.
Brian Arnold: (3:42) Absolutely. So one of the things that have really helped me put the Bible together, and I did take many classes with your co-author, Dr. Peter Gentry. You guys argued that the Bible fits together through a series of covenants. So first, can you define a covenant for us and then help us walk through the six major covenants that you see in scripture?
Stephen Wellum: (04:03) Yeah. At the heart of a covenant, which we want to distinguish from a contemporary contract, where you’re entering into some legal relationship, is a relationship between two parties. Two parties enter into a covenant relationship, they make promises to one another to fulfill the obligations of the covenant, and generally, with a covenant, there are consequences if we don’t keep our promises. If we don’t, there will then be what is known as the curses of the covenant or judgments or penalties that result. A covenant is a commitment to one another to fulfill the promises to one another. And of course, in the covenants of Scripture, we have all kinds of covenants. Marriage is a covenant, and we have other covenants between Israel and the Gibeonites, and so on.
But the major covenants, when we talk about the 6 covenants, would be the relations of God to us— to his people. The covenants are so important in making sense of the Bible and how it fits together, because, in many ways, they’re unfolding God’s plan. So God has a plan from eternity to bring his own glory to pass in the creation of the world and ultimately in its redemption in Christ and in the saving of a people. And the covenants unfold that plan for us in history.
So the covenants begin with creation, and then that’s where the Bible begins. It starts with God who has made the heavens and the earth, and God makes Adam a representative of us. So Adam functions not only as the first biological man but as a covenant head, and he represents us, and there are promises made to him, and there are obligations that he takes on that we see in Genesis 2 and so on. Yet there is sin that enters the world, and Adam, by his disobedience, brings sin and death into the world. And then we have God’s plan of redemption. That is outlined for us in Genesis 3:15, where there’s a kind of embryonic or a seed-form nature of that promise that God will take the initiative to provide a seed of the woman. So a human is coming who will undo Adam’s work. And as you work through the covenants, we then have the development of who this person will be that God will provide. And that development comes through the Noahic covenant, the Abrahamic covenant, through the Mosaic (or what we call now old covenant, or the Torah covenant, Law covenant, or Israel’s covenant) to the Davidic, and then the promise of the new covenant, which now is fulfilled in the Lord, Jesus Christ.
And as you think of how the covenants work together, they ultimately go from Adam to Christ. And that’s the big structure of the Bible, of how the Bible is fitting together. Adam, as a covenant head, represents us in his sin, brings sin and death into the world. And as God’s plan unfolds through the progression of the covenants, we get a greater sense of the development of God’s plan and how that is brought to fulfillment in the Lord Jesus. And that’s how you connect Old Testament with New and see how Christ is at the center of God’s plan. So, the triune God, the Father sends the Son, the Son accomplishes our redemption and applies that by the Spirit, we have now a unified revelation centered in Christ, the coming of the new covenant, and all the benefits that we receive as the people of God as we await the new creation. And so we go from Genesis with creation all the way to Revelation with the new creation.
And that’s one way, and there’s more we can develop from there, but that’s sort of the big sense of how the covenants unfold the plan and how the Bible fits together from Genesis to Revelation.
Brian Arnold: (08:01) That’s really helpful. Thinking even from first Adam to second Adam, and how the Bible itself is picking up on this theme and building on these covenants.
The position that you hold is progressive covenantalism. I think a lot of people put the Bible together as a big narrative, but they’ve never heard some of these categories before. Some of the classic ways that this has been talked about in theology is dispensationalism and covenant theology. You and Dr. Gentry take a via media middle approach to this. Can you set out for us the dispensational position and the covenant theology position and why you guys think that the position you should hold is in the middle?
Stephen Wellum: (08:45) Yeah. All Christians, whether it’s on a dispensational side (and I’ll define that in a moment) or the covenant theology side, are trying to understand God’s plan from creation to Christ to the new creation. Everyone is working with the same Bible and the same basic understanding of how God is unfolding his plan.
Now, when you start getting into the details, that’s where some of the differences lie. So what we’re saying, and then I’ll set that over against the other positions, is. . . Progressive covenantalism is just simply saying that God’s plan, his eternal plan, unfolds in history through the progress of the covenants. And progress simply means the unfolding of the covenants. God didn’t give us all of his redemptive plan at once; it happens over time. And the covenants now are revelatory, and they’re guiding people’s lives. In real history, they guide Adam, they guide Noah and his family, Abraham, Israel, and David, and so on. But they’re also revelatory, pointing forward to the coming of the Lord Jesus, what he will accomplish, and the anticipation of the coming new creation when he comes again.
So the progress of the covenants reveals that plan step-by-step. The covenants are building on one another; they’re related to one another. They are organically tied to one another. So the covenant that comes after Noah is building on creation, but there is a difference because it’s now a fallen world.
Abraham is the solution to the fall in Genesis 3. Israel is the nation that comes out of the Abrahamic covenant. David is the true Israel, the son of God who ultimately fulfills the role of Adam, the role of Israel, and that leads us to Christ. So that’s our position, and it’s really very Christological in the sense that from Adam to Christ is how the Bible fits together.
Adam has sinned and disobeyed and failed, and now there’s the coming of the Redeemer, the Messiah who is the Lord Jesus, who is human, but also the Lord who is God, the Son who now brings all of God’s promises to pass.
Now, in some sense, know that all Christians agree with that. I mean, Christians all say basically what I’ve said, but dispensationalism, while agreeing with many of those points, what they do is they really work on the distinction between the nation of Israel and the church.
And so they go back to the promises to Abraham of a nation, of a land. And as they work through the Bible, they see the nation of Israel as not only an ethnic community, but a national entity and complete nation that is given many promises from Abraham to the Mosaic promises that they will have a future Davidic king.
And they see that not as being realized in Christ’s first coming. The nation of Israel turned from their Messiah and so now God is working through the church, the Gentiles that he’s bringing them together. So, in one sense, there is one people of God, but there’s still a distinction between the national form of Israel that will be restored in the future in a millennial age and ultimately in the new heavens and new earth. . . There will be the nation of Israel, and there’ll be Gentile nations that will be coexisting. They’re all Christians. Yet, there will be national distinctions and privileges that are different. And that’s how they see things in terms of the overall picture. And we disagree with that, in the sense that Israel is very important in the plan of God, but Israel has to be tied back to Adam’s role.
Israel points forward to the ultimate Davidic king who is the true Israel, Christ, who [in his first coming] takes that role and then establishes a church that goes on forever. That’s not a nation per se. We are a kingdom of priests and nation in that sense, but it’s an international people that is the forever people of God.
So we view Israel and the church differently, and it affects then how we understand the unfolding of the covenants, what the nation of Israel is in the plan, and how it ultimately looks to the future in terms of the millennial age, Christ’s coming again, and the new heavens and new earth.
Brian Arnold: (13:24) Let me hop in right there. I have often said it feels like the default position of many evangelical Christians in America is dispensationalism. So even as you’re talking about this, it might resonate with a lot of people who see a lot of those strong ties to ethnic Israel, the future of Israel, the rebuilding of the temple, getting the land, the significance of a year like 1948.
How did all of that come to be so that in the last 150 years or so that it’s a pretty dominant view among evangelicals?
Stephen Wellum: (13:58) Well, you’d have to go back and look at the rise of the history of dispensationalism. I mean, I think most would acknowledge that it really takes off in the late 19th century. Some of it is a response to some of the challenges of the day of liberalism. They’re wanting to read the Bible in what they’re calling a literal fashion, which has to be carefully defined. And then out of that comes prophecy conferences and a return to an emphasis on eschatology or the second coming of Christ and what’s happening there.
And I think it takes off because many of the dispensationalists were a part of the Bible church movement, and those churches were rejecting a larger liberalism in the seminaries and universities. And it took off through the ministry of a number of key leaders—from Scofield to Moody in this country and then Moody and certain institutions, Moody Bible Institute, and then Dallas Theological Seminary. And Biola University and Talbot and so on. And it created a lot of influence in the larger believing church movement where people were trying to do Bible exposition and so on.
So it took off, and they saw it as a real response to some of the trends that were moving away from the highest authority of Scripture and a confidence that when you read the book of Revelation [Revelation 20] that the millennium that’s discussed there is really a thousand years and you can’t make this figurative or symbolic.
And so all of that is part of the mix of why it took off in our churches and fit very well with many of our believing Bible churches.
Brian Arnold: (15:45) That’s right. That’s really helpful. I know that when I was growing up, my parents had the Ryrie Study Bible that they always found really helpful. One of my favorite parts of the dispensational movement is their seriousness about the Word of God and holding that line during some really dark periods of the last century.
Stephen Wellum: (16:03) Yeah. And dispensationalism, to be fair, has changed its views over the years, as it has sought to bring its thoughts before Scripture and correct it in terms of Scripture. And we give a lot of thanks to our many dispensational forefathers and who did believe the Bible. They wanted to stand for the gospel and the truth of God’s Word.
I, myself, just disagree with how they understand the role of Israel and how Israel’s role is tied to the covenants. I think the major problem here is our Bible doesn’t start in Genesis 12 with the Abrahamic covenant and the promises given there to Abraham and Israel. Abraham must be put in the context of Genesis 1–11.
Abraham is the solution—through Abraham will come the seed of the woman that will bring now a universal salvation in the sense that it will be for an international people. It’s not universalism, but it will bring Jew and Gentile together. So, the nation of Israel is the right means by which Jesus comes. But then Jesus comes to establish a church.
“I will build my church,” Jesus says, and the church isn’t just a phase now awaiting the end where the nation of Israel is reestablished. It is the end-time community. It is the new creation community living itself now and forever as we await the second coming. So, there are some differences there in how we understand the covenant, how Christ is the fulfillment of the covenant, and the role of Israel and the church.
Brian Arnold: (17:39) That’s really helpful. So on the covenant side, the other side of the issue, could you quickly summarize that position?
Stephen Wellum: (17:48) Yeah. Covenant theology, by its very term covenant, would be much closer to what we would be saying, because we’re arguing for the progression of the covenants. But covenant theology has this old pedigree back into the ancient church, the Reformation particularly, and the time after the Reformation. And it speaks of not only an eternal plan, which they call the covenant of redemption, but in history there’s also a covenant of works that is tied to Adam, which would be very similar to what we would say with creation. And then there’s the covenant of grace, which starts for them in Genesis 3:15. It includes all of the Old Testament covenants. So Noah, Mosaic, Abrahamic, the Davidic, and the new covenant are all under the one covenant of grace. The tendency in covenant theology is to believe in all the historic covenants, but they tend to make them so unified that the church, for instance, under the new covenant is really not that much different from Israel of old.
So here, the Israel and church distinction is not as separate as in dispensationalism. But, rather, tied to the Abrahamic covenant and the nation of Israel, you now come into the covenant by circumcising your children, and then in the church, you baptize infants.
And, so, you had that connection between circumcision and baptism. That under the Abrahamic and Old Covenant, Israel had a believing remnant within it, but it also had many who were unbelievers, right? “Not all Israel is Israel,” Paul says in Romans 9, and they think this continues for the church until Christ comes again.
So we have the visible church made up of believers, their children, and maybe not all believers in that sense. And then we have the invisible church, the true believers, and that invisible church won’t really be seen until Christ comes again. Over against that, I would say no, no, no, no. The Abrahamic covenant is to certain people, the national covenant of Israel to certain people. Yes, those covenants had a remnant within them with believers and unbelievers within it. But as you move through the covenants, as fulfillment comes in Christ, he is the one who is calling a people to himself who are born of the Spirit in union with him by faith in him. Those people are believing people. You cannot be in Christ and not be a believer.
You have to be born of the Spirit, united to him, forgiven of your sins. And so the church now is not constituted like Israel of old in terms of believers and unbelievers, what we call a mixed group, but it’s a believing entity though still awaiting our glorification. We still have to grow in grace and so on, but we come into the church by faith in Jesus Christ, by professing that faith. And baptism signifies that one is a believer or at least that one is professing that that’s the case, which is different than the covenant view of what baptism is doing.
Brian Arnold: (21:03) Absolutely. I think it’s really helpful for people to have an example, like baptism, to understand how this plays out practically for the Christian life when different churches hold these different positions. What are some other practical things that a listener might be confused about? All these new words for them: dispensationalism, covenant theology, progressive covenantalism. Where does this thing really get to the practical-level issues in their local church?
Stephen Wellum: (21:34) Some of the practical issues would be, first of all, what is the church? I would argue in contrast to a covenant view that the church is a believing entity, so that will affect how we understand people taking membership and who we apply baptism to. The nature of church discipline of those who profess to be in the faith, and how we then hold them accountable. There’re some practical issues just on the nature of the church itself.
Dispensationalism would have a similar view of the church. So, on that point, there wouldn’t be as many differences, because they hold to a believing church. But also, I think understanding practically how the covenants work, the nature of the new covenant, and each of the biblical covenants, we would want to argue has God’s promise undergirding all of the covenants all the way from Adam to Noah, to Abraham, and so on. God will keep his promises. There’s that unilateral determination for him to save. There’s also in each of the covenants what God demands from us as creatures: obedience. Under the Old Testament covenants, obedience is never fully rendered. God forgives our sin, but we don’t keep the covenant as we should.
And that, of course, there are demands in the new covenant that in the coming of the Lord Jesus, he obeys for us as our covenant head. His obedience now is imputed to us. This is what we mean by justification: he has paid for our sins fully in his death and resurrection. And I think it helps clarify the nature of the gospel, the nature of what it means to have him as our Lord and Savior, what God demands from us as his creatures, and how he has met our every demand.
So I think it brings clarity to the gospel. I think it makes us understand better Christ’s person and work, and those are some practical issues as well.
Brian Arnold: (23:36) I think that’s really fantastic to see all the different ways that this makes its way, not only into the life of the church and the structure of the church but also into the life of the believer and their understanding of the gospel.
That from Genesis 1 to Revelation 22, there’s a constant story being told from first Adam to second Adam, first creation to new creation, and the way that interplays with the believer’s life.
I was wondering, as we wind down, what are some resources you could point people to, maybe at the most basic level, all the way up to somebody who really wants to research this out?
Stephen Wellum: (24:12) Well, of course, you could give resources on a variety of sides of things. In terms of what I’m trying to do, the book I co-authored with a former student of mine in terms of Christ from Beginning to End published by Zondervan is a very popular way of thinking through the whole Bible and how to read the Bible. Graham Goldsworthy’s According to Plan is an excellent book that puts the whole Bible together as well.
And then, at a more detailed level, you would have what Dr. Gentry and I did with Kingdom through Covenant. It works through the covenants and shows how the Bible fits together.
So those would be some good resources from the popular to the more academic.
Brian Arnold: (24:56) Dr. Wellum, that is fantastic. And thank you so much for joining us today on Faith Seeking Understanding.
Stephen Wellum: (25:02) Well, it’s been my pleasure. Thank you for having me.
Outro: (25:04) Thank you for listening to the Faith Seeking Understanding podcast. If you want to grow more in your understanding of the faith, consider studying at Phoenix seminary, where men and women are trained for Christ-centered ministry for the building up of healthy churches in Phoenix and throughout the world. Learn more at ps.edu