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McMahon’s Misrepresentation of John Owen

September 20, 2010 22 comments

Dr. C. Matthew McMahon, owner of APuritansMind.com and PuritanBoard.com has an article on his website titled John Owen and the Covenant of Redemption.

Though he doesn’t mention us by name, the article is an attempted rebuke of Covenantal Baptists (note that the article is filed under his “baptism” category even though nothing in the article mentions anything about baptism) who have stated their affinity for John Owen’s covenant theology, specifically his view of the New Covenant. McMahon states:

It is often the case through church history that people want to “own” the foremost theologians of the church in their system of theology; our day is no different… Owen, though he is dead, still needs to be rescued from those who obscure his theological views surrounding Covenant Theology… There is a wave of theological error purporting that the New Covenant, or Covenant of Grace fully expressed in the New Testament, was a “brand new,” or as some parrot Hebrews, “better” covenant, but translate this theologically as “wholly different.”…consideration should taken to rightly exemplify Owen’s position in any theological writing on the covenants.

McMahon explains Owen taught that the Covenant of Redemption was a covenant of works between the Father and the Son. Quoting Owen:

“The will of the Father appointing and designing the Son to be the head, husband, deliverer, and redeemer of his elect, his church, his people, whom he did foreknow, with the will of the Son voluntarily, freely undertaking that work and all that was required thereunto, is that compact (for in that form it is proposed in the Scripture) that we treat of.” (12:496)

McMahon explains that this supports all of God’s work in time with the elect. “It is the foundation for everything that God will do in time in redeeming His bride for Himself.” God applies the benefits of the Covenant of Redemption to the elect by means of the Covenant of Grace. He elaborates:

It would be correct, in Owen’s mind, to say that salvation is coextensive for the elect in the Covenant of Grace by the blessings imparted by the Covenant of Redemption. But, it would also be correct, in Owen’s mind, to say that salvation is not coextensive in the Covenant of Grace for those who are not elect, that is why Owen had no problem admitting infants in the Covenant of Grace in any administration of it.

McMahon chastises baptists by explaining that Owen simply held the standard reformed formulation of the Covenant of Grace as consisting of numerous administrations, of which the New Covenant was only the most recent. According to McMahon, Owen taught that the New Covenant was merely a renewal of the previous administrations of the Covenant of Grace. McMahon states:

“By the new covenant, not the new covenant absolutely and originally, as given in the first promise, is intended; but in its complete gospel administration, when it was actually established by the death of Christ, as administered in and by the ordinances of the new testament. This, with the covenant of Sinai, were, as most say, but different administrations of the same covenant.” (6:70, Emphasis mine.) Owen then spends another page outlining why it is different administrations of the same covenant. (cf. 6:71ff)

He sums this up in saying, “The judgment of most reformed divines is, that the church under the old testament had the same promise of Christ, the same interest in him by faith, remission of sins, reconciliation with God, justification and salvation by the same way and means, that believers have under the new. And whereas the essence and the substance of the covenant consists in these things, they are not to be said to be under another covenant, but only a different administration of it. But this was so different from that which is established in the gospel after the coming of Christ, that it hath the appearance and name of another covenant.” (6:71)

The Problem

The problem with McMahon’s essay is two-fold:

  1. McMahon jumps all over the prolific work of Owen. He quotes from numerous different writings as it fits his argument. The problem is that McMahon fails to account for growth/change in Owen’s thought over the 40 years that he wrote. Therefore what Owen may have said in one place is not necessarily consistent with what he may have said later or earlier in his life. Jeffrey D. Johnson in his recent book The Fatal Flaw in the Theology Behind Infant Baptism notes this change when specifically comparing Owen’s work “Biblical Theology” with his Hebrews commentary.
  2. McMahon very blatantly and inexcusably misreads Owen’s commentary on Hebrews, his most mature stating of his views on the subject.

Two Covenants or One?

The previous quotation from McMahon (and Owen) suggests that in his commentary on Hebrews 8:6-13, Owen said the new covenant is simply a different administration of the same covenant as Sinai. The egregious error is that the section McMahon quotes from Owen is actually the section where Owen is summarizing the view he disagrees with! (See Brenton Ferry’s criticism of Jeong Koo Jeon for making the exact same error in Ferry’s chapter of The Law is Not of Faith)

Here is what Owen states:

Preliminary Clarifications
On this consideration it is said by some, that the two covenants mentioned, the new and the old, were not indeed two distinct covenants, in their essence and substance, but only different administrations of the same covenant, called two covenants from some different outward solemnities and duties of worship attending them. To clearly discuss this with the minimum of unnecessary difficulty the following clarifications should be observed and noted, —

1. That by the old covenant, the original covenant of works, made with Adam and all mankind in him, is not intended; for this is undoubtedly a covenant different in its essence and substance from the new.

[[[2. By the new covenant, not the new covenant absolutely and originally, as given in the first promise, is intended; but in its complete gospel administration, when it was actually established by the death of Christ, as administered in and by the ordinances of the new testament. This, with the covenant of Sinai, were, as most say, but different administrations of the same covenant.]]] This latter being the point to be examined.

As on the other hand, there is such express mention made, not only in this, but in several other places in the Scriptures, of two distinct covenants, or testaments, and such different natures, properties, and effects, ascribed to them, as seem to constitute two distinct covenants. This, therefore, we must inquire into;

Exposition of the Book of Hebrews 8:6

So Owen states that the precise point of this part of his commentary is to decide if the old and the new are two different covenants, or just two different administrations of the same covenant. He starts by summarizing the One Covenant View. This summary is what McMahon erroneously claims is Owen stating his own view.

The Plausibility of the One Covenant View
…[[[The judgment of most reformed divines is, that the church under the old testament had the same promise of Christ, the same interest in him by faith, remission of sins, reconciliation with God, justification and salvation by the same way and means, that believers have under the new. And whereas the essence and the substance of the covenant consists in these things, they are not to be said to be under another covenant, but only a different administration of it. But this was so different from that which is established in the gospel after the coming of Christ, that it has the appearance and name of another covenant.]]]

After summarizing and explaining the One Covenant View under the heading “The Plausibility of the One Covenant View” Owen goes on to describe the alternative view:

The Lutheran Insistence on Two Distinct Covenants
The Lutherans, on the other side, insist on two arguments to prove that there is not  a twofold administration of the same covenant, but that there are substantially distinct covenants  and that this is intended in this discourse of the apostle.

Their arguments are

1. Because in the Scripture they are often so called (separate covenants), and compared with one another, and sometimes opposed to one another; the first and the last, the new and the old.

2. Because the covenant of grace in Christ is eternal, immutable, always the same, subject to no alteration, no change or abrogation; neither can these things be said of it with respect to any administration of it as they are of the old covenant.

So then which view does Owen side with?

THE TWO COVENANTS ARE DISTINCT COVENANTS
…5. Wherefore we must grant two distinct covenants, rather than merely a twofold administration of the same covenant, to be intended. We must do so, provided always that the way of reconciliation and salvation was the same under both. But it will be said, —and with great pretence of reason, for it is the sole foundation of all who allow only a twofold administration of the same covenant, —’That this being the principal end of a divine covenant, if the way of reconciliation and salvation is the same under both, then indeed they are the same for the substance of them is but one.’ And I grant that this would inevitably follow, if it were so equally by virtue of them both. If reconciliation and salvation by Christ were to be obtained not only under the old covenant, but by virtue of it, then it must be the same for substance with the new. But this is not so; for no reconciliation with God nor salvation could be obtained by virtue of the old covenant, or the administration of it, as our apostle disputes at large, though all believers were reconciled, justified, and saved, by virtue of the promise, while they were under the old covenant.

Having shown in what sense the covenant of grace is called “the new covenant,” in this distinction and opposition to the old covenant, so I shall propose several things which relate to the nature of the first covenant, which manifest it to have been a distinct covenant, and not a mere administration of the covenant of grace:

Could Owen be any clearer? I don’t think so. McMahon misunderstands every quotation he supplies from Owen’s commentary on Hebrews 8. I honestly do not know how McMahon could so severely blunder his reading of Owen. It seems the only options are he intentionally misrepresents Owen, or he read Owen’s commentary so quickly as to not read what Owen actually said. I know he is a very busy person, and I don’t want to charge McMahon with the former, so it must have been the latter. Either way, it makes him an unreliable guide on this matter. This error alone renders McMahon’s entire essay faulty.

The Newness of the New Covenant

In keeping with this error, McMahon says “After stating that the new is not ‘brand new’, Owen describes how the new is different than the old” and then goes on to list 5 points of difference. The problem is that McMahon is once again quoting Owen’s summary of the reformed view! He is listing the 5 ways in which the reformed divines say there is a difference.

Owen saves his view of the differences for later when he lists 17 particular differences!

“Do This And Live” Foundation for All Covenants?

Central to his thesis is McMahon’s attempt to make Owen say that every covenant, including the Covenant of Grace is founded upon the principle “Do this and live.” McMahon states:

What is a covenant? According to Owen, the Covenant of Works subsists in the foundation or template for all covenants. He says, “The whole entire nature of the covenant of works consisted in this, — that upon our personal obedience, according unto the law and rule of it, we should be accepted with God, and rewarded with him. Herein the essence of it did consist; and whatever covenant proceeds on these terms, or has the nature of them in it, however it may be varied with additions or alterations, is the same covenant still, and not another. As in the renovation of the promise wherein the essence of the covenant of grace was contained, God did ofttimes make other additions unto it (as unto Abraham and David), yet was it still the same covenant for the substance of it, and not another; so whatever variations may be made in, or additions unto, the dispensation of the first covenant, so long as this rule is retained, “Do this, and live,” it is still the same covenant for the substance and essence of it.” (5:275, Emphasis Mine) This is striking in that Owen templates the structure of “covenant” in “do this and live.”

This is a very serious misreading of Owen. (The same misreading is found in this essay by Anglican Priest Steve Griffith http://www.johnowen.org/media/griffiths_owen_federal_theology.pdf. It appears that the misreading of both of these authors may have its roots in Sinclair Ferguson, but I don’t have a copy of his book to compare.) McMahon argues that Owen is teaching that the Covenant of Grace is the same covenant for substance and essence as the Covenant of Works! McMahon claims that the substance of the Covenant of Grace is “Do this, and live.” But is that what Owen actually said?

XIII. The nature of justification proved from the difference of the covenants
The difference between the two covenants stated–Argument from thence
That which we plead in the third place unto our purpose is, the difference between the two covenants. And herein it may be observed,- -

1. That by the two covenants I understand those which were absolutely given unto the whole church, and were all to bring it “eis teleioteta”,–unto a complete and perfect state; that is, the covenant of works, or the law of our creation as it was given unto us, with promises and threatening, or rewards and punishments, annexed unto it; and the covenant of grace, revealed and proposed in the first promise. As unto the covenant of Sinai, and the new testament as actually confirmed in the death of Christ, with all the spiritual privileges thence emerging, and the differences between them, they belong not unto our present argument.

2. The whole entire nature of the covenant of works consisted in this,–that upon our personal obedience, according unto the law and rule of it, we should be accepted with God, and rewarded with him. Herein the essence of it did consist; and whatever covenant proceeds on these terms, or has the nature of them in it, however it may be varied with additions or alterations, is the same covenant still, and not another. As in the renovation of the promise wherein the essence of the covenant of grace was contained, God did ofttimes make other additions unto it (as unto Abraham and David), yet was it still the same covenant for the substance of it, and not another; so whatever variations may be made in, or additions unto, the dispensation of the first covenant, so long as this rule is retained, “Do this, and live,” it is still the same covenant for the substance and essence of it.

3. Hence two things belonged unto this covenant:–First, That all things were transacted immediately between God and man. There was no mediator in it, no one to undertake any thing, either on the part of God or man, between them; for the whole depending on every one’s personal obedience, there was no place for a mediator. Secondly, That nothing but perfect, sinless obedience would be accepted with God, or preserve the covenant in its primitive state and condition. There was nothing in it as to pardon of sin, no provision for any defect in personal obedience.

4. Wherefore, this covenant being once established between God and man, there could be no new covenant made, unless the essential form of it were of another nature,–namely, that our own personal obedience be not the rule and cause of our acceptation and justification before God; for whilst this is so, as was before observed, the covenant is still the same, however the dispensation of it may be reformed or reduced to suit unto our present state and condition. What grace soever might be introduced into it, that could not be so which excluded all works from being the cause of our justification. But if a new covenant be made, such grace must be provided as is absolutely inconsistent with any works of ours, as unto the first ends of the covenant; as the apostle declares, Rom.11:6.

5. Wherefore, the covenant of grace, supposing it a new, real, absolute covenant, and not a reformation of the dispensation of the old, or a reduction of it unto the use of our present condition (as some imagine it to be), must differ, in the essence, substance, and nature of it, from that first covenant of works. And this it cannot do if we are to be justified before God on our personal obedience; wherein the essence of the first covenant consisted. If, then, the righteousness wherewith we are justified before God be our own, our own personal righteousness, we are yet under the first covenant, and no other.

6. But things in the new covenant are indeed quite otherwise; for,- -First, It is of grace, which wholly excludes works; that is, so of grace, as that our own works are not the means of justification before God; as in the places before alleged. Secondly, It has a mediator and surety; which is built alone on this supposition, that what we cannot do in ourselves which was originally required of us, and what the law of the first covenant cannot enable us to perform, that should be performed for us by our mediator and surety. And if this be not included in the very first notion of a mediator and surety, yet it is in that of a mediator or surety that does voluntarily interpose himself, upon an open acknowledgment that those for whom he undertakes were utterly insufficient to perform

http://www.iclnet.org/pub/resources/text/ipb-e/epl-02/ownjs-25.txt

It is quite inexplicable how McMahon could misread Owen so severely yet again. The very title of this section makes it clear that Owen is articulating a contrast, a difference between the Covenant of Works and the Covenant of Grace, not their similarity!

Is the New Covenant Conditional?

The entire thrust of McMahon’s essay is to demonstrate that Owen taught that the New Covenant/Covenant of Grace had conditions that could be broken by its members. He desires to show that Owen taught both elect and non-elect individuals are members of the Covenant of Grace, but only the elect have the power/grace to fulfill the conditions of it by means of the Covenant of Redemption. McMahon states:

Owen has absolutely no problem in stating that in every covenant made, there are conditions to be met. In the external administration of the Covenant of Grace, that which pertains to the New Covenant in the New Testament as well as its expression in the Old Testament, men must meet specific requirements in order to be saved. But they cannot. God must then “take up both sides.” This is why the Covenant of Redemption is so important in Owen’s overall view of Covenant Theology. Jesus Christ, as Mediator, places all the responsibility, in time, under the law, on Himself, for all those for whom He will live and die. Men, then, by virtue of Christ’s work, are graciously saved and regenerated. That does not mean that only the regenerate live and move in the Covenant of Grace. Abraham and his seed are covenanted with God. But it certainly means, by Owen’s own definition, that only the elect participate in the fruits of the Covenant of Redemption.

…The Covenant of Grace is the sphere in which God works, handling both believers and unbelievers in that context upon condition of their obedience.

The quotations McMahon provides in this section of his essay are all from Volume XI of Owen’s Works: “The Doctrine of the Saints’ Perseverance Explained and Confirmed” which was written in 1654. I have not read the work so I cannot comment on the accuracy of his quotes.

However, here are the words of Owen 26 years later, speaking of the New Covenant in Hebrews 8:10

A covenant properly is a compact or agreement on certain terms mutually stipulated by two or more parties. As promises are the foundation and rise of it, as it is between God and man, so it compriseth also precepts, or laws of obedience, which are prescribed unto man on his part to be observed. But in the description of the covenant here annexed, there is no mention of any condition on the part of man, of any terms of obedience prescribed unto him, but the whole consists in free, gratuitous promises, as we shall see in the explication of it…

…(3.) It is evident that there can be no condition previously required, unto our entering into or participation of the benefits of this covenant, antecedent unto the making of it with us. For none think there are any such with respect unto its original constitution; nor can there be so in respect of its making with us, or our entering into it. For, — [1.] This would render the covenant inferior in a way of grace unto that which God made with the people at Horeb. For he declares that there was not any thing in them that moved him either to make that covenant, or to take them into it with himself. Everywhere he asserts this to be an act of his mere grace and favor. Yea, he frequently declares, that he took them into covenant, not only without respect unto any thing of good in them, but although they were evil and stubborn. See Deuteronomy 7:7,8, 9:4, 5. [2.] It is contrary unto the nature, ends, and express properties of this covenant. For there is nothing that can be thought or supposed to be such a condition, but it is comprehended in the promise of the covenant itself; for all that God requireth in us is proposed as that which himself will effect by virtue of this covenant.

…(5.) It is evident that the first grace of the covenant, or God’s putting his law in our hearts, can depend on no condition on our part. For whatever is antecedent thereunto, being only a work or act of corrupted nature, can be no condition whereon the dispensation of spiritual grace is superadded. And this is the great ground of them who absolutely deny the covenant of grace to be conditional; namely, that the first grace is absolutely promised, whereon and its exercise the whole of it doth depend.

(6.) Unto a full and complete interest in all the promises of the covenant, faith on our part, from which evangelical repentance is inseparable, is required. But whereas these also are wrought in us by virtue of that promise and grace of the covenant which are absolute, it is a mere strife about words to contend whether they may be called conditions or no. Let it be granted on the one hand, that we cannot have an actual participation of the relative grace of this covenant in adoption and justification, without faith or believing; and on the other, that this faith is wrought in us, given unto us, bestowed upon us, by that grace of the covenant which depends on no condition in us as unto its discriminating administration, and I shall not concern myself what men will call it.

…(9.) Although diaqh>kh, the word here used, may signify and be rightly rendered a “covenant,” in the same manner as tyriB] doth, yet that which is intended is properly a “testament,” or a “testamentary disposition” of good things. It is the will of God in and by Jesus Christ, his death and bloodshedding, to give freely unto us the whole inheritance of grace and glory. And under this notion the covenant hath no condition, nor are any such either expressed or intimated in this place.

Exposition of the Book of Hebrews 8:10

And so we see once again that Owen argues at length against the position McMahon attributes to him. This is the foundation of McMahon’s thesis, and it is shown to be faulty as well.

Covenant of Grace Made with Non-Elect?

In line with the previous point is McMahon’s contention that Owen taught the Covenant of Grace is made with both the elect and non-elect.

The Covenant of Grace, for the elect, cannot be broken because it logically flows from the Covenant of Redemption. However, those “covenanted” with God, who are not regenerate, something Owen contends for, will always break the covenant and enact the threatenings held in the sign placed upon them. (16:258ff)

This is seen to be false according to the previous quote from Owen regarding conditions in the New Covenant.

…Part of the confusion here is due to the fact that many make the Covenant of Grace too restrictive. They do not allow for Owen’s “covenant” definition, and therefore concluded that the Covenant of Grace is something brand “new”, not a renewal of anything former, and made internally, without any external portions, only with the elect.

…This is where Owen emphatically disagrees, even if only on the basis of the Covenant of Redemption, with those who would “simply” equate the Covenant of Grace with salvation; i.e. that the Covenant of Grace only contains inward and no outward expressions, or it only provides a context for the regenerate and not unbelievers.

First, we already demonstrated that what McMahon claims is “Owen’s ‘covenant’ definition” is in fact not. Second, compare McMahon’s summary of Owen with Owen’s own words:

The covenant of grace in Christ is made only with the Israel of God, the church of the elect. For by the making of this covenant with any, the effectual communication of the grace of it to them is principally intended. Nor can that covenant be said to be made absolutely with any but those whose sins are pardoned by virtue of it, and in whose hearts the law of God is written; which are the express promises of it. And it was with respect to those of this sort among that people that the covenant was promised to be made with them. See Rom 9:27-33; 11:7. But in respect of the outward dispensation of the covenant, it is extended beyond the effectual communication of the grace of it. And in respect to that did the privilege of the carnal seed of Abraham lie.

Exposition of the Book of Hebrews 8:8 Obs. X

(By outward dispensation of the covenant of grace, Owen has in mind the preaching of the Word, etc – this is not the same thing as the “external administration/membership” that you hear other reformed writers, like McMahon, talk about)

Abrahamic and New Covenant the Same?

One final note needs to be made regarding the relationship of the Abrahamic Covenant to the New Covenant in Owen’s mind. McMahon states:

with Owen, the Abrahamic and New Covenant are the same

And yet, if we once again allow Owen to speak for himself, we will hear just the opposite:

When we speak of the “new covenant,” we do not intend the covenant of grace absolutely, as though it were not before in existence and effect, before the introduction of that which is promised here. For it was always the same, substantially, from the beginning. It passed through the whole dispensation of times before the law, and under the law, of the same nature and effectiveness, unalterable, “everlasting, ordered in all things, and sure.” All who contend about these things, the Socinians only excepted, grant that the covenant of grace, considered absolutely, — that is, the promise of grace in and by Jesus Christ, —was the only way and means of salvation to the church, from the first entrance of sin.

But for two reasons, it is not expressly called a covenant, without respect to any other things, nor was it called a covenant under the old testament. When God renewed the promise of it to Abraham, he is said to make a covenant with him; and he did so, but this covenant with Abraham was with respect to other things, especially the proceeding of the promised Seed from his loins. But absolutely, under the old testament, the covenant of grace consisted only in a promise; and as such only is proposed in the Scripture,

Exposition of the Book of Hebrews 8:6

Conclusion

McMahon labored over this essay to warn Christians not to misread and therefore misrepresent Owen’s view of God’s covenants, and yet he has egregiously misread Owen himself. The irony would be quite humorous if the arrogant disdain from men like McMahon for baptists was not so aggravating. In conclusion, do not be intimidated and misled. Read the sources yourself.

It is often the case through church history that people want to “own” the foremost theologians of the church in their system of theology; our day is no different… Owen, though he is dead, still needs to be rescued from those who obscure his theological views surrounding Covenant Theology… consideration should be taken to rightly exemplify Owen’s position in any theological writing on the covenants.

Kerux vs TLNF

July 26, 2010 10 comments

I’ve been slowly working my way through TLNF one chapter at a time. I’m about half way through. I really enjoy the book. There is a lot of great material – particularly Brenton C Ferry’s Taxonomy and Bryan D Estelle’s chapter on Leviticus 18:5 and Deuteronomy 30:1-14. However, I have been concerned from the outset that the book is handicapped by fear.

While I find much biblical merit for what they say, I have become rather convinced that their position is contrary to the WCF. That doesn’t matter for me, cause I’m just an ignorant 1689 babtist. But it does mean I’m sensitive to how the thesis and arguments of TLNF are muddied because of their desire to remain within the bounds of the WCF.

One example is the almost absolute silence about John Owen. Owen has written perhaps the very best articulation and defense of republication in his commentary on Hebrews 8:6-13. Owen’s argument is thorough (150 pages on those 7 verses) and very convincing. So why not rely upon him in TLNF? Because in the course of his argument he rejected the opinion of the “reformed divines” and WCF 7.6, saying “Having noted these things, we may consider that the Scripture does plainly and expressly make mention of two testaments, or covenants, and distinguish between them in such a way as can hardly be accommodated by a twofold administration of the same covenant.”

So Owen provides an excellent argument for republication, but in a book devoted to republication, he is silenced because he believes republication is contrary to WCF 7.6. So clarity is sacrificed for tradition.

Fesko on Calvin

All this is simply a preface to what I want to comment on. A very lengthy 150 page review of TLNF was published in the Kerux journal. Apparently there is all kinds of history I should be aware of regarding Kerux, as R. Scott Clark’s blog series “Consider the Source” implies (and I’m sure he’s probably right). He asserts quite strongly that no one should waste their time reading the review, saying “After re-reading ONLY the first breathless page of the review I do not and cannot repent of anything I said earlier. Indeed, the review is more poorly written, more amateur, and more shoddy than I remembered. There is so much that is objectionable on the first page of the review alone, I stop there.” And he refers to it as an “ill-begotten waste of time passing itself off as a review.”

Now, to be clear, I agree with the idea of republication – but that doesn’t mean I can’t learn from the Kerux review, and it doesn’t mean the Kerux review can’t be right in its critique of TLNF. I approached Patrick Ramsey’s essay in WTJ and his blog posts in the same way, and learned a lot by doing so http://contrast2.wordpress.com/2010/02/11/confusing-law-and-gospel-and-the-wcf/

I was working on another blog post after reading W. Gary Crampton’s “From Paedobaptism to Credobaptism” where he references a passage of Calvin’s Institutes (2.11.10). I read the passage and others around it, which I had read before – but something seemed different from what I had remembered about it. I went back and looked at Fesko’s chapter from TLNF where he references a similar passage (2.11.4) and was immediately struck by how inaccurate Fesko’s representation of Calvin was and how confusing he had made a rather clear statement from Calvin.

Here is what Calvin said:

…For through animal sacrifices it could neither blot out sins nor bring about true sanctification. He therefore concludes that there was in the law “the shadow of good things to come,” not “the living likeness of the things themselves” [Heb 10:1]. Therefore its sole function was to be an introduction to the better hope that is manifested in the gospel [Heb 7:19; and Ps. 110:4; Heb 7:11; 9:9; 10:1].

Here we are to observe how the covenant of the law compares with the covenant of the gospel, the ministry of Christ with that of Moses. For if the comparison had reference to the substance of the promises, then there would be great disagreement between the Testaments. But since the trend of the argument leads us in another direction, we must follow it to find the truth. Let us then set forth the covenant that he once established as eternal and never-perishing. Its fulfillment, by which it is finally confirmed and ratified, is Christ. While such confirmation was awaited, the Lord appointed, through Moses, ceremonies that were, so to speak, solemn symbols of that confirmation. A controversy arose over whether or not the ceremonies that had been ordained in the law ought to give way to Christ. Now these were only the accidental properties of the covenant, or additions and appendages, and in common parlance, accessories of it. Yet because they were means of administering it, they bear the name “covenant,” just as is customary in the case of other sacraments. To sum up then, in this passage “Old Testament” means the solemn manner of confirming the covenant, comprised in ceremonies and sacrifices.

Because nothing substantial underlies this unless we go beyond it, the apostle contends that it ought to be terminated and abrogated, to give place to Christ, the Sponsor and Mediator of a better covenant [cf. Heb 7:22]; whereby he imparts eternal sanctifications once and for all to the elect, blotting out their transgressions, which remained under the law. Or, if you prefer, understand it thus: the Old Testament of the Lord was that covenant wrapped up in the shadowy and ineffectual observance of ceremonies and delivered to the Jews; it was temporary because it remained, as it were, in suspense until it might rest upon a firm and substantial confirmation. It became new and eternal only after it was consecrated and established by the blood of Christ. Hence Christ in the Supper calls the cup that he gives to his disciples “the cup of the New Testament in my blood” [Luke 22:20]. By this he means that the Testament of God attained its truth when sealed by his blood, and thereby becomes new and eternal.

2.11.4

So Calvin is talking about the two administrations of the single eternal covenant [of grace]. He calls one administration (Moses) the covenant of the law and he calls the other administration (Christ) the covenant of the gospel. He insists that the difference between the two is only accidental (meaning non-essential appearances), and not in the “substance of the promises.” Finally, he says the covenant of the law and the covenant of the gospel are successive, not concurrent.

Now, is this what we find in Fesko’s summary of Calvin’s teaching on the covenant of law and the covenant of the gospel?

Given Calvin’s explanation of soteriology in the OT, one has a framework in which to understand the place and function of the Mosaic covenant in his theology. Calvin explains that with the dispensation of the Mosaic covenant there are two separate covenants, the foedus legale and the foedus evangelicum, the ministries of Moses and Christ (2.11.4). There is a sense in which Calvin sees these two covenants in an antithetical relationship to one another, as the law functions within the foedus legale only “to enjoin what is right, to forbid what is wicked; to promise a reward to the keepers of righteousness, and threaten transgressors with punishment” (2.11.7). In other words, Calvin is not afraid to say that the Mosaic administration of the law sets forth a covenant governed by a works principle, namely, eternal life through obedience: “We cannot gainsay that the reward of eternal salvation awaits complete obedience to the law, as the Lord has promised” (2.7.3). The problem, however, with this covenant of obedience is, because of man’s sinfulness, “righteousness is taught in vain by the commandments until Christ confers it by free imputation and by the Spirit of regeneration” (2.7.2). Calvin, therefore, sees the Mosaic covenant characterized by the promise of eternal life which can be obtained by Israel’s obedience, yet because of her sin, Israel is unable to fulfill the requirements of the covenant – only Christ was able to do this.

In this sense, then, the foedus legale and the foedus evangelicum are antithetical, in that they both extend the promise of salvation, the former through obedience and the latter through faith in Christ.

Wow. Was that anything close to what we just read from Calvin? No. Fesko misrepresents Calvin to make Calvin say exactly what the entire volume of TLNF is attempting to argue. How convenient. Fesko first twists Calvin’s words regarding a foedus legale and a foedus evangelicum to say they were two different covenants both operating during the Mosaic dispensation. Calvin nowhere says that. He says they are two successive administrations of the one covenant. Fesko then moves out of Calvin’s 2.11.4 passage where Calvin uses the term “covenant of law” and uses quotes where Calvin is talking about the moral law narrowly and apart from the Mosaic covenant. All this in an attempt to make Calvin say the Mosaic covenant operated on a works principle. Note Fesko’s “in other words” because he can’t find any actual words from Calvin to say what he wants Calvin to say.

This was a very disappointing realization for me as I have really enjoyed Fesko’s “Justification: Understanding the Classic Reformed Doctrine” and I must now question everything I have read in that book. The authors of the Kerux review were spot on in their critique of Fesko on this point:

What then, does Fesko say is Calvin’s view of the Mosaic covenant? According to him, “Calvin explains that in the dispensation of the Mosaic covenant there are two separate covenants” (30). What evidence does Fesko provide to support this view? He appeals to Calvin’s linguistic distinction between a foedus legale and a foedus evangelicum, arguing that there is “a sense in which Calvin sees these two covenants in an antithetical relationship to one another” (30). The primary difference, for Fesko, is that the foedus legale “sets forth a covenant governed by a works principle, namely, eternal life through obedience” (30).

However, there is a problem with Fesko’s analysis. The terms foedus legale and foedus evangelicum are almost always (for Calvin) terms used to describe the various administrations of the covenant of grace, not a “separate covenant,” characterized by a “works principle” operative in the Mosaic administration. This is clearly the case in 2.11.4 of the Institutes (which Fesko cites to defend his analysis), where Calvin writes (commenting on Heb. 7-10):

Here we are to observe how the covenant of the law (legale) compares with the covenant of the gospel (evangelicum), the ministry of Christ with that of Moses. For if the comparison had reference to the substance of the promises, there would be great disagreement between the Testaments. But since the trend of argument leads us in another direction, we must follow it to find the truth.

For Calvin, the foedus legale and foedus evangelicum are not “two separate covenants” as Fesko states, but they are in fact two names for two different administrations of the same covenant. The comparison between the foedus legale and the foedus evangelicum does not refer to the “substance” of the covenants. Rather as Calvin goes on to explain in the same section, the two terms only refer to a twofold way of administering the same covenant:

Let us then set forth the covenant that he once established as eternal and never-perishing. Its fulfillment, by which it is finally confirmed and ratified, is Christ. While such con- firmation was awaited, the Lord appointed, through Moses, ceremonies that were, so to speak, solemn symbols of that confirmation. A controversy arose over whether or not the ceremonies that had been ordained in the law ought to give way to Christ. Now these were only the accidental proper- ties of the covenant, or additions and appendages, and in common parlance, accessories of it. Yet, because they were means of administering it, they bear the name “covenant,” just as is customary in the case of the other sacraments. To sum up, then, in this passage “Old Testament” means the solemn manner of confirming the covenant, comprised in ceremonies and sacrifices (2.11.4).

In 2.11.4, Calvin is not teaching that the Mosaic covenant should be viewed as a “separate covenant” governed by a works-principle. In fact, Calvin makes the opposite point in this very passage, namely, that the Mosaic covenant is essentially a covenant of grace, though differently administered.

Fesko also appeals to Calvin’s Institutes 2.11.7 to support his interpretation of the foedus legale. The reader should note the jump: the first quote comes from 2.11.4, while the second comes three sections later. The two are then woven together in a way that makes them appear like a seamless garment. But in 2.11.7, Calvin is not speaking of a “separate covenant” during the Mosaic administration, but rather of “the mere nature of the law” abstracted from that covenant. Calvin is analyzing the words of Hebrews and Jeremiah, whom he says “consider nothing in law, but what properly belongs to it.” As the very next section (2.11.8) clearly demonstrates, Calvin understands Jeremiah to be speaking simply of the moral law itself, not of a “separate covenant” operative in the Mosaic administration: “Indeed, Jeremiah even calls the moral law a weak and fragile covenant [Jer. 31:32].” In other words, Fesko’s error is that he applies what Calvin says about the moral law to a separate covenant in the Mosaic administration. This is very strange, considering that he himself had told us at the start of the article that—“When one explores Calvin’s understanding of the function of the law, he must therefore carefully distinguish whether he has the moral law or the law as the Mosaic covenant in mind” (28). Well said. But when it comes to one of the most crucial points in his reading of Calvin, he chooses to ignore that distinction and applies what Calvin says about the moral law to the Mosaic covenant itself.

The significance of this mistake cannot be underestimated. It is the only primary document evidence that Fesko gives to support this key aspect of his thesis. On page 33, he summarizes in six points his thesis regarding Calvin’s view of the Mosaic covenant. To points 1-4, we say “Amen.” But for the reasons outlined above we cannot agree with points 5-6.

(5) The Mosaic administration of the law is specifically a foedus legale in contrast to the foedus evangelicum, the re- spective ministries of Moses and Christ; and (6) the foedus legale is based upon a works principle but no one is able to fulfill its obligations except Christ (33).

What Fesko should have said is that for Calvin, the moral law, narrowly considered, promises eternal life for perfect obedience. To say that the “Mosaic covenant is characterized by a works principle” (32) is only to confuse what Calvin keeps clear. The moral law itself may promise life for perfect obedience, but Calvin does not speak this way about the Mosaic covenant or the foedus legale.

December 2009 issue of Kerux: The Journal of Northwest Theological Seminary (PDF, 1.03 MB)

If the Kerux review is a “poorly written, amateur, and shoddy ill-begotten waste of time” then what is TLNF?

Fesko states: “Calvin uses the distinction between form and substance to explain that the Mosaic covenant, as to its substance, is part of the spirituale foedus, but as to its form, its administratio is a foedus legale.” This is accurate, but the problem is that Fesko misrepresents (or perhaps misunderstands) what “substance” means. As already noted, Calvin says precisely the opposite of Fesko. Fesko claims “Calvin is not afraid to say that the Mosaic administration of the law sets forth a covenant governed by a works principle, namely, eternal life through obedience.” And yet Calvin argues the exact opposite, saying “if the comparison had reference to the substance of the promises, then there would be great disagreement between the Testaments.”

Saying that one covenant promises eternal life upon personal obedience, and the other promises life upon faith in Christ is to say that they differ in substance – according to Calvin (and everyone else who used the term). And this is precisely the point of dispute regarding the entire TLNF volume. Fesko has muddied the waters in an already confusing debate. For the sake of tradition, he has forsaken clarity. I agree with the Kerux review when it says:

Fesko misinterprets and misrepresents Calvin’s position by suppressing the above-mentioned aspects of his teaching. In so doing, Fesko makes Calvin sound more like one of his (and the other authors) favorite contemporary covenant theologians: Meredith G. Kline. In fact, in our opinion, he appears to be doing nothing more than Mark Karlberg did before him: reading a form of Kline’s view onto Calvin. Kline taught that in the Mosaic administration there were two separate covenants: one of works, and one of grace. The former was superimposed upon the underlying substratum of the Abrahamic covenant of grace. Again, Fesko’s interest in vindicating his own view (Kline’s) of the Mosaic covenant seems to have created a roadblock in his efforts for an “accurate contextualized historical theology.”

Personally, I think that Kline’s formulation is more biblical than Calvin’s. But we shouldn’t be afraid to say it is different.

P.S. (This does not mean Kerux is correct in everything it says or that R. Scott Clark is wrong in all he said in response to it)

Iron Can’t Sharpen Iron Without Honesty

March 31, 2010 5 comments

John Owen had a somewhat unique view of the Mosaic covenant (at least compared to the “Reformed divines”). You can read about it here: http://contrast2.wordpress.com/2010/02/15/john-owens-commentary-on-the-old-and-new-covenants-outline/

He presents a very compelling argument for his view, particularly his view of republication. He would be a strong ally for those today who argue for republication, but he is hardly ever mentioned, and never discussed. This might seem strange, but it’s not that strange when you realize Owen rejected WCF’s formulation. So I can understand why those who want to argue republication is compatible with WCF ignore Owen.

However, occasionally people do mention Owen. Take, for example, Michael Brown’s series of posts “The Mosaic Covenant in Reformed Orthodoxy.” Here is Michael’s particular post on Owen’s view of the Mosaic Covenant. He seems to accurately summarize Owen’s view, but I asked him in the comments section why he included Owen in an overview of “Reformed Orthodoxy” when Owen rejected WCF. The debate current in Reformed circles over the doctrine of republication has to do with whether or not it is consistent with the WCF. So why would he present Owen as someone who defended the Reformed Orthodoxy of WCF in regards to the Mosaic covenant?

Not only did he not respond to my comment, but he deleted it altogether.

In his concluding post, Some Concluding Thoughts on the Mosaic Covenant in Reformed Orthodoxy, someone truly searching for answers asked a great question:

I hope you don’t mind me posing a question I’ve had for quite a long time: is it fair to say that Owen and Bolton (and the others that held similar positions, whom you listed above) held views that contradict WCF 7.5, which identifies the old covenant with the covenant of grace?

This is someone who has been looking for an answer for “quite a long time.” He’s just looking for some help in sorting out this difficult issue. Michael responded:

I don’t think that Owen and Bolton would consider their views as contradicting the WCF. Bolton, as I am sure you know, was a member of the Westminster Assembly. And Owen, while not a member of the WA (he was a little too young at the time) was the chief arcitect of the Savoy Declaration, which was a modified version of the WCF. The Savoy maintained the exact language of WCF 7.5. Owen simply believed that the Mosaic covenant was superimposed upon the covenant of grace (see Owen’s Works, Vol 22, pp70-113). Like Bolton, he saw the Mosaic as subservient to the covenant of grace, as well as a republication of teh covt of works through its commands, sanctions, and reward for obedience.

So, I think there is more than one way to understand the Mosaic covenant as “an administration of the covenant of grace.” That is very broad language upon which many writers holding different views could agree. It allows for different nuances about the Mosaic in its more strict sense.

Michael’s answer is wrong and is significantly misleading to anyone trying to reach an understanding of the Mosaic covenant..

  1. Savoy 7.5 did not maintain the exact language of WCF 7.5, as can very easily be seen by just reading it http://www.proginosko.com/docs/wcf_sdfo_lbcf.html#LBCF7
  2. Michael tries to imply Owen viewed the Mosaic covenant as an administration of the covenant of grace, just like the WCF. And yet that is EXACTLY what Owen argues against. In his commentary he explains the view of the “reformed divines” and then politely disagrees with them: “Having noted these things, we may consider that the Scripture does plainly and expressly make mention of two testaments, or covenants, and distinguish between them in such a way as can hardly be accommodated by a twofold administration of the same covenant…Wherefore we must grant two distinct covenants, rather than merely a twofold administration of the same covenant, to be intended.” And, so as to prevent any wiggle room for Michael, Owen also says “Having shown in what sense the covenant of grace is called “the new covenant,” in this distinction and opposition to the old covenant, so I shall propose several things which relate to the nature of the first covenant, which manifest it to have been a distinct covenant, and not a mere administration of the covenant of grace.”

So an honest answer to the original question would be, “Yes, Owen’s view contradicts and expressly rejects WCF 7.5 and the identification of the old covenant with the covenant of grace.” I proceeded to point this out in the comments section. Michael, again, never responded. Instead, I received the following response from someone named David:

Brandon, I went to your site to see what you were talking about. What you said about Owen and thus about Mr. Brown’s research just sounded ‘off’. At your site I read this opening passage:

“Owen rejected the formulation of the Westminster Confession (one covenant, two administrations) and held that the new and the old were two distinct covenants with two different mediators and everything else that follows.”

Brandon, the above is a nonsense statement.

I replied with the following quote from Owen and told David he needed to ask forgiveness for his accusation:

The Scripture’s Doctrine on the Difference Between the Covenants Expounded on 17 Particulars:

#4  In Their Mediators:

They differ in their mediators. The mediator of the first covenant was Moses. “It was ordained by angels in the hand of a mediator,”  Galatians 3:19. And this was no other than Moses, who was a servant in the house of God,  Hebrews 3:5. And he was a mediator, by God’s design, chosen by the people, following the dread that befell them on the terrible promulgation of the law.  For they saw that they could no way bear the immediate presence of God, nor deal with him in their own persons. Wherefore they desired that there might be a go-between, a mediator between God and them, and that Moses might be the person,  Deuteronomy 5:24-27.

24 And ye said, Behold, the LORD our God hath shewed us his glory and his greatness, and we have heard his voice out of the midst of the fire: we have seen this day that God doth talk with man, and he liveth. 25 Now therefore why should we die? for this great fire will consume us: if we hear the voice of the LORD our God any more, then we shall die. 26 For who is there of all flesh, that hath heard the voice of the living God speaking out of the midst of the fire, as we have, and lived? 27 Go thou near, and hear all that the LORD our God shall say: and speak thou unto us all that the LORD our God shall speak unto thee; and we will hear it, and do it.

But the mediator of the new covenant is the Son of God himself. For “there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus; who gave himself a ransom for all,”  1 Timothy 2:5. He who is the Son, and the Lord over his own house, graciously undertook in his own person to be the mediator of this covenant; and in this the new covenant is unspeakably superior to the old covenant.

What was the response? None, because Michael deleted my comment. I wrote a new comment asking why my comment was deleted. That comment was subsequently deleted. I emailed Michael to ask him why my comment was deleted. I wanted to revise my comment and re-post it if I had violated some terms or if he found my comments offensive. He has not replied to my email.

How can we ever hope to understand what the Bible teaches about these issues if we can’t be honest with one another in our discussions?

*[Update] Michael responded to my email and let me know why he deleted my comments. You’ll have to ask him yourself if you want to know why, as he said I don’t have permission to tell anyone. Just be warned he may not hear you all the way up in his ivory tower.

*[Update 2] Not sure what the deal is, but it seems Michael has removed all comments from the relevant posts on his blog now, not just mine.

John Owen’s Commentary on the Old and New Covenants (Outline)

February 15, 2010 20 comments

In talking with a number of well read people, I have been surprised how many of them are completely unaware of John Owen’s contribution to covenant theology. I had one person ridicule baptists for rejecting “Reformed orthodoxy” in the Westminster Standards because of our view of covenant theology. He then informed me he would “stick with Witsius, Owen, Petto, and Colquhoun.” This man was completely unaware that John Owen rejected the “Reformed orthodoxy” of the Westminster Standards.

Owen rejected the formulation of the Westminster Confession (one covenant, two administrations) and held that the new and the old were two distinct covenants with two different mediators and everything else that follows. I believe he provides a valuable contribution to current debate over covenant theology and everyone who is interested should read him. However, I also know not everyone has time to read through his 150 pages on Hebrews 8:6-13, so I have created a summary outline of Owen’s argumentation. I created it in a collapsible format to make it easier to follow the progress of his arguments. Hopefully this will interest people in reading Owen, which will hopefully lead to a better understanding of covenant theology for us all.

Please let me know if you see any typos, errors, or poor summaries/misrepresentations of Owen in the outline by commenting on this post below.

Owen on Hebrews 8:6-13 (Collapsible Outline)

Here are a couple of quotes to give you a taste:

The judgment of most reformed divines is, that the church under the old testament had the same promise of Christ, the same interest in him by faith, remission of sins, reconciliation with God, justification and salvation by the same way and means, that believers have under the new… The Lutherans, on the other side, insist on two arguments to prove that there is not a twofold administration of the same covenant, but that there are substantially distinct covenants and that this is intended in this discourse of the apostle…

…Having noted these things, we may consider that the Scripture does plainly and expressly make mention of two testaments, or covenants, and distinguish between them in such a way as can hardly be accommodated by a twofold administration of the same covenant…Wherefore we must grant two distinct covenants, rather than merely a twofold administration of the same covenant, to be intended. We must do so, provided always that the way of reconciliation and salvation was the same under both. But it will be said, and with great pretence of reason, for it is the sole foundation of all who allow only a twofold administration of the same covenant, ’That this being the principal end of a divine covenant, if the way of reconciliation and salvation is the same under both, then indeed they are the same for the substance of them is but one.’ And I grant that this would inevitably follow, if it were so equally by virtue of them both. If reconciliation and salvation by Christ were to be obtained not only under the old covenant, but by virtue of it, then it must be the same for substance with the new. But this is not so; for no reconciliation with God nor salvation could be obtained by virtue of the old covenant, or the administration of it, as our apostle disputes at large, though all believers were reconciled, justified, and saved, by virtue of the promise, while they were under the old covenant.

Having shown in what sense the covenant of grace is called “the new covenant,” in this distinction and opposition to the old covenant, so I shall propose several things which relate to the nature of the first covenant, which manifest it to have been a distinct covenant, and not a mere administration of the covenant of grace.

-

This covenant [Sinai] thus made, with these ends and promises, did never save nor condemn any man eternally. All that lived under the administration of it did attain eternal life, or perished for ever, but not by virtue of this covenant as formally such. It did, indeed, revive the commanding power and sanction of the first covenant of works; and therein, as the apostle speaks, was “the ministry of condemnation,” 2 Cor. iii. 9; for “by the deeds of the law can no flesh be justified.” And on the other hand, it directed also unto the promise, which was the instrument of life and salvation unto all that did believe. But as unto what it had of its own, it was confined unto things temporal. Believers were saved under it, but not by virtue of it. Sinners perished eternally under it, but by the curse of the original law of works.

-

No man was ever saved but by virtue of the new covenant, and the mediation of Christ in that respect.

Confusing Law and Gospel (and the WCF)

February 11, 2010 10 comments

Patrick Ramsey recently posted some comments regarding the doctrine of republication and its compatibility with the Westminster Confession of Faith. I have found Ramsey’s comments on this whole issue to be very clearheaded, direct, and helpful. That is not to say I agree with him though. Mark Karlberg, a vehement opponent of neonomians, Richard Gaffin in particular, notes:

Through the penmanship of Patrick Ramsey in the essay “In Defense of Moses: A Confessional Critique of Kline and Karlberg” Gaffin attempts to undermine Kline’s theology, viewing it as contrary to the teaching of Reformed orthodoxy as formulated in the Westminster standards… Ramsey’s critique of Kline and Karlberg and his interpretation of the Reformed tradition regarding the doctrine of the Mosaic covenant are analogous in substance (if not in detail) to that of Gaffin.

Federalism and the Westminster Confession :  Mark Karlberg, p 52

This may or may not be an accurate characterization of Ramsey’s views. I encourage you to read Ramsey’s WTJ article. Here is another short post from Ramsey to give you some perspective on his view: Good Works and Salvation (and he also recently made a post about Romans 2 that I would strongly disagree with regarding our works and the judgment, quoting Thomas Schreiner, but it looks like he removed it.)

Karlberg (as well as Kline) has been very outspoken in his criticism of Westminster Philadelphia. He wrote “The Changing of the Guard” and is a friend of the Trinity Foundation. So why would I say that Ramsey’s comments critiquing Karlberg have been helpful? Well, because I think they’re true. I think Karlberg has a better understanding of the Mosaic covenant (the fact that it was works based), but I think Ramsey has a better understanding of the consequences of Karlberg’s view. Ramsey, in an effort to defend the distinction between law and gospel, has been very clear in arguing that if the Mosaic covenant is based on works, it cannot be an administration of the covenant of grace. In his recent post, he notes:

I understand how a gracious covenant that administers the gospel through types/shadows (land which is a type of the new heavens and new earth is promised and received by faith, etc.) can be an administration of the covenant of grace.

I can also see how a law covenant could serve (or be “subservient” to use an older term) the covenant of grace by exposing sin.

But how can the gospel be administered by a law/works/meritorious covenant? How does “do this and live” administer the gospel: “believe and you shall be saved”?  Undoubtedly, the answer will be by typology.  The problem with this answer is that the law covenant itself does not administer grace to the covenant member.  It simply demonstrates through typology how eternal life is achieved.  It is not itself an administration of grace.  After all, it is a law/works/meritorious covenant.  And only a gracious covenant can administer grace.  A works covenant cannot administer grace.  Hence, it seems to me that to call a law covenant an administration of the covenant of grace is to misuse the language of the Confession and to confuse law and gospel.

To quote Inigo Montoya of the classic movie The Princess Bride: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means, what you think it means.”

Ramsey is absolutely right. The law is not of faith. However, his conclusion that the Mosaic covenant is not works based is wrong. The Mosaic covenant is a law/works/meritorious covenant.

How then do we resolve this tension? John Owen did it by removing the Mosaic covenant from the covenant of grace. And he was right to do so.

Critique of Jon Zens’ “Is There A Covenant of Grace?”

February 6, 2010 6 comments

I was recently directed to Jon Zens’ article “Is There a Covenant of Grace?” as an outline and defense of NCT’s rejection of covenant theology.  There is much to appreciate in Zens’ article.  I think the majority of his criticism is very good and needs to be heard, particularly the tensions in covenantal paedobaptism and the lack of sensitivity to the progress of revelation.  However, the article suffers from a couple of key problems.  The first is Zens’ handling of the law.  His comparison between the law of Moses and the law of Christ is inadequate and misleading.  Interacting with this point is beyond the scope of this post, suffice it to say the contrast in 2 Cor 3 is between the law written outward on stone and the law written inward on hearts.  The difference is not the content of the law.

But Zens’ other problem, and one that is even more foundational to the entire thesis of his article, is that he fails to distinguish different strains of covenant theology. He is guilty of lumping them all together and then dismissing them all by critiquing only one. Zens’ statement

While Dispensationalism stresses the diversity of God’s dealings with men in different eras of history, Covenant Theology has emphasized “one” covenant of grace. The historical covenants are seen as just different administrations of the “covenant of grace.” Are these two approaches the only two alternatives? Historically, during the last hundred years, the answer has been “Yes”

is historically false.  Zens appears to be ignorant of the history of covenant theology, particularly

  1. the version(s) of covenant theology rejected by WCF (see In Defense of Moses)
  2. Owen’s, and thus Savoy’s, explicit rejection of the “two administrations, one covenant” view
  3. the LBC’s adoption and further reform of Savoy’s Ch 7 (see a tabular comparison of these confessions here)

I do not entirely blame Zens for not being aware of the important differences amongst covenant theology.  Many Reformed Baptists seem unaware of the history of their own confession as well.  Because Sam Waldron’s Exposition of the LBC is the only one in print, many look to such a book for an explanation of Ch 7 of the LBC .  However, Waldron personally disagrees with Owen’s formulation of covenant theology (though he does not acknowledge it is Owen he is disagreeing with) and instead adopts a slightly modified version of John Murray’s covenant theology (ie one covenant, various administrations).  Waldron is not the only one who espouses his view and his book is certainly not the only reason other Reformed Baptists hold this view, but I can’t help but think his book, and others written by Reformed Baptists, have led to some confusion regarding historic debate over covenant theology, and the progress that the LBC represents in that debate.

At some later point I hope to write a post interacting with Waldron’s chapter and showing an alternative understanding. But for now I hope to simply demonstrate that the view Zens has critiqued is not the only view of covenant theology and that the “two administrations, one covenant” is not a necessary consequence of covenant theology.

One of the best treatments of this issue, in my opinion, is John Owen’s commentary on Hebrews 8:6-13 (which has been made available from RBAP, along with Nehemiah Coxe’s work, in the volume “Covenant Theology: From Adam to Christ” and is also available online here and here).  Believe it or not, Owen makes some of the same arguments that Zens does.  Owen rejects the “two administrations, one covenant” view as unbiblical. Here is the way he put it:

The judgment of most reformed divines is, that the church under the old testament had the same promise of Christ, the same interest in him by faith, remission of sins, reconciliation with God, justification and salvation by the same way and means, that believers have under the new… The Lutherans, on the other side, insist on two arguments to prove that there is not a twofold administration of the same covenant, but that there are substantially distinct covenants and that this is intended in this discourse of the apostle…

…Having noted these things, we may consider that the Scripture does plainly and expressly make mention of two testaments, or covenants, and distinguish between them in such a way as can hardly be accommodated by a twofold administration of the same covenant…Wherefore we must grant two distinct covenants, rather than merely a twofold administration of the same covenant, to be intended. We must do so, provided always that the way of reconciliation and salvation was the same under both. But it will be said, and with great pretence of reason, for it is the sole foundation of all who allow only a twofold administration of the same covenant, ’That this being the principal end of a divine covenant, if the way of reconciliation and salvation is the same under both, then indeed they are the same for the substance of them is but one.’ And I grant that this would inevitably follow, if it were so equally by virtue of them both. If reconciliation and salvation by Christ were to be obtained not only under the old covenant, but by virtue of it, then it must be the same for substance with the new. But this is not so; for no reconciliation with God nor salvation could be obtained by virtue of the old covenant, or the administration of it, as our apostle disputes at large, though all believers were reconciled, justified, and saved, by virtue of the promise, while they were under the old covenant.

Having shown in what sense the covenant of grace is called “the new covenant,” in this distinction and opposition to the old covenant, so I shall propose several things which relate to the nature of the first covenant, which manifest it to have been a distinct covenant, and not a mere administration of the covenant of grace.

I highly encourage everyone to read Owen’s work. It is a wonderful 150 page exercise in applying deductive reasoning to the axiom of Scripture (btw, logic is something NCT needs to become more acquainted with). I’m in the process of writing an interactive outline of his argumentation that I will hopefully be able to provide online. In my opinion, I see no reason to entertain NCT until its advocates deal honestly and adequately with the history of covenant theology, particularly John Owen.

Linking Owen’s development to the LBC is a helpful forward to the Coxe/Owen volume. In it, James Renihan comments:

The reader will notice that Coxe, in the preface to his Discourse, indicates that he was preparing materials for a subsequent volume to be written on the Mosaic Covenant and the New Covenant, but was “happily prevented” by the publication of Owen’s volume on Hebrews chapter 8. So far as the Baptist Nehemiah Coxe was concerned, John Owen’s work on this part of Hebrews clearly articulated the things that Coxe himself would have said (and he recognized that Owen said them better as well). This does not mean Coxe endorsed every jot and tittle of Owen’s work, but simply indicates the massive agreement between the two. Owen, for his own part, exegetically demonstrates that the New Covenant is profoundly different from the Old – it is characteristically new. For Coxe (it must be remembered that he is the most likely candidate to have served as editor of the Second London Baptist Confession of 1677/1689 [he died shortly before it was signed]), and confessional Reformed Baptists who agree with his theology, Owen’s emphasis on the newness of the New Covenant is a helpful step forward in the discussion.

see http://www.reformedbaptistinstitute.org/?p=93

So, again, until NCT interacts competently and adequately with John Owen, I see no reason to entertain their rejection of covenant theology.

John Owen – Overcoming Temptation and Sin

November 28, 2007 Leave a comment

I’ve been reading the newly revised and edited version of John Owen’s “Overcoming Temptation and Sin” (1656) and thought I would share a few passages.

For info on Owen: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Owen_%28theologian%29

Romans 8:13 “For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” (ESV)

“For if ye live after the flesh, ye shall die: but if ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live.” (KJV)

“Mortification from a self-strength, carried on by ways of self-invention, unto the end of a self-righteousness, is the soul and substance of all false religion in the world.”

“If, then, sin will be always acting, if we be not always mortifying, we are lost creatures. He that stands still and suffers his enemies to double blows upon him without resistance will undoubtedly be conquered in the issue. If sin be subtle, watchful, strong, and always at work in the business of killing our souls, and we be slothful, negligent, foolish, in proceeding to the ruin thereof, can we expect a comfortable event? There is not a day but sin foils or is foiled, prevails or is prevailed on; and it will be so while we live in this world”

“There is not the best saint in the world but, if he should give over this duty, would fall into as many cursed sin as ever did any of his kind.”

“It is our participation of the divine nature that gives us an escape from the pollutions that are in the world through lust; and, Rom. vii. 23, there is a law of the mind, as well as a law of the members. Now this is, first, the most unjust and unreasonable thing in the world, when two combatants are engaged, to bind one and keep him up from doing his utmost, and to leave the other at liberty to wound him at his pleasure; and, secondly, the foolishest thing in the world to bind him who fights for our eternal condition, [salvation?] and to let him alone who seeks and violently attempts our everlasting ruin. The contest is for our lives and souls. Not to be daily employing the Spirit and new nature for the mortifying of sin, is to neglect that excellent succour which God hath given us against our greatest enemy. If we neglect to make use of what we have received, God may justly hold his hand from giving us more. His graces, as well as his gifts, are bestowed on us to use, exercise, and trade with. Not to be daily mortifying sin, is to sin against the goodness, kindness, wisdom, grace, and love of God, who hath furnished us with a principle of doing it.”

“yet sin does so remain, so act and work in the best of believers, while they live in this world, that the constant daily mortification of it is all their days incumbent on them.”

“The root of an unmortified course is the digestion of sin without bitterness in the heart. When a man hath confirmed his imagination to such an apprehension of grace and mercy as to be able, without bitterness, to swallow and digest daily sins, that man is at the very brink of turning the grace of God into lasciviousness, and being hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.”

“If the Spirit alone mortifies sin, why are we exhorted to mortify it?… It is no otherwise the work of the Spirit but as all graces and good works which are in us are his… He does not so work our mortification in us as not to keep it still an act of our obedience… He works upon our understandings, wills, consciences, and affections, agreeably to their own natures; he works in us and with us, not against us and without us; so that his assistance is an encouragement as to the facilitating of the work, and no occasion of neglect as to the work itself.”

“An unmortified lust will drink up the spirit, and all the vigour of the soul, and weaken it for all duties. For, —

1st. It untunes and unframes the heart itself, by entangling its affections. It diverts the heart from the spiritual frame that is required for vigorous communion with God; it lays hold on the affections, rendering its object beloved and desirable, so expelling the love of the Father, 1 John. ii. 15, iii 17; so that the soul cannot say uprightly and truly to God, “Thou art my portion,” having something else that it loves.”

“(re: sin) It breaks out and actually hinders duty. The ambitious man must be studying, and the worldling must be working or contriving, and the sensual, vain person providing himself for vanity, when they should be engaged in the worship of God.”

“As sin weakens, so it darkens the soul. It is a cloud, a thick cloud, that spreads itself over the face of the soul, and intercepts all the beams of God’s love and favour. It takes away all sense of the privilege of our adoption; and if the soul begins to gather up thoughts of consolation, sin quickly scatters them”

“Mortification prunes all the graces of God, and makes room for them in our hearts to grow. The life and vigour of our spiritual lives consists in the vigour and flourishing of the plants of grace in our hearts. Now, as you may see in a garden, let there be a precious herb planted, and let the ground be untilled, and weeds grow about it, perhaps it will live still, but be a poor, withering, unuseful thing. You must look and search for it, and sometimes can scarce find it; and when you do, you can scarce know it, whether it be the plant you look for or no; and suppose it be, you can make no use of it at all. When, let another of the same kind be set in the ground, naturally as barren and bad as the other, but let it be well weeded, and every thing that is noxious and hurtful removed from it, — it flourishes and thrives; you may see it at first look into the garden, and have it for your use when you please. So it is with the graces of the Spirit that are planted in our hearts.”

“Mortification prunes all the graces of God, and makes room for them in our hearts to grow. The life and vigour of our spiritual lives consists in the vigour and flourishing of the plants of grace in our hearts. Now, as you may see in a garden, let there be a precious herb planted, and let the ground be untilled, and weeds grow about it, perhaps it will live still, but be a poor, withering, unuseful thing. You must look and search for it, and sometimes can scarce find it; and when you do, you can scarce know it, whether it be the plant you look for or no; and suppose it be, you can make no use of it at all. When, let another of the same kind be set in the ground, naturally as barren and bad as the other, but let it be well weeded, and every thing that is noxious and hurtful removed from it, — it flourishes and thrives; you may see it at first look into the garden, and have it for your use when you please. So it is with the graces of the Spirit that are planted in our hearts.”

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