Home > 1689 federalism, John Owen, NCT/Progressive Covenantalism > Critique of Jon Zens’ “Is There A Covenant of Grace?”

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

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.

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  1. joe
    February 7, 2010 at 2:29 pm

    Very helpful article brandon. I have been wrestling with this for some time and Hebrews 8 has been the most compelling passage to me showing the glory of the new covenant. It seems more and more clear to me the more I think through the different arguments. They all shall know Me, from the least to the greatest. Its a spiritual covenant. Its encouraging to see that Owen was very uncomfortable with many of the other Puritans way of understanding the new covenant.

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  2. Donald Ferguson
    February 8, 2010 at 3:14 am

    Thank you Brandon, this is a helpful reminder of the differences within the reformed tradition. I would agree that there are significant problems with flattening out the differences between the New and Old covenants. Similarly, to differentiate so as to eradicate any continuity does not do justice to scripture.

    On a related note, I have posted a link to a set of resources on Justification in RC Sproul’s Ligonier blog. I found this very useful. You can link to it through

    http://dietworms.blogspot.com/

    or go directly to

    http://www.ligonier.org/learn/collections/the-doctrine-of-justification-and-the-new-perspec/

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  3. Richard
    March 14, 2010 at 8:29 am

    Hi, thanks for sharing your thoughts. I find that the above, however, fails to deal with Zens main arguments, being:
    1) The scriptures nowhere identify either a) a covenant of works with Adam b) a “covenant of redemption” between the Father and Son, or c) a “covenant of grace” between the Trinity and the elect. If none of these theological constructs can be found explicitly stated in scripture, why do we insist on imposing these supposed theological “covenants” and ignoring the biblical covenants that the scriptures do identify? The error is essentially the same as imposing dispensations on the scriptures, albeit with different consequences.
    2) All the biblical covenants are revelations of God’s purposes to men in historical time. Since the scriptures nowhere identify the “eternal purpose” of God as a covenant, why should we?
    3) If there is no “covenant of grace variously administered”, as posited by most reformed theologians, then what is the basis of God’s saving purpose with men? The basis is the New Covenant revealed in Jesus Christ. What has become of the Old Covenant? It is “finished”, done away, abolished, abrogated, and fulfilled by Jesus Christ, with all the far reaching implications that follow.
    4) If there is no covenant of grace, there is no basis for the practice of infant baptism.

    While I appreciate Owen’s modified covenant theology, he maintains the unbiblical terminology that brings confusion to this issue. He stood on his own two feet however, and I appreciate his preteristic understanding of the fulfillment of the Old Covenant in the New Covenant in Christ. However, I do not feel that Zens is either illogical or needs to interact with every variety of Covenant theology, especially Owen in particular, in order to call it’s basic presupposition into question. As Zens notes, until we question this, it seems little progress with our Reformed brethren can be expected. Mr Zens article can be found here:
    http://www.searchingtogether.org/articles/zens/covenant.htm
    His article “Crucial Thoughts on Law” here:
    http://www.searchingtogether.org/articles/zens/crucial.htm
    Along the same line of thought is Dr. Gillilan’s excellent essay “Jonathan Edwards on Biblical Hermeneutics and the “Covenant of Grace”. Edwards, like Owen, being thoroughly biblical, could not in reality support the “covenant of grace” concept either, albeit for different reasons.

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    • March 15, 2010 at 6:06 am

      Thanks for your thoughts Richard. Here is a very short response, which I’m sure you’ve already considered.
      1) You’re not being fair to the biblical data. There was a covenant with Adam. There was a covenant between the Father and the Son (on behalf of the elect).

      2) That’s begging the question.

      3) “The basis is the New Covenant revealed in Jesus Christ.” I completely agree. However, I (along with Owen) deny that Abraham, Moses, and David were not members of the New Covenant as well. Both Owen and myself also agree that the Old Covenant is abolished “with all the far reaching implications that follow.”

      4) I agree.

      However, I do not feel that Zens is either illogical or needs to interact with every variety of Covenant theology, especially Owen in particular, in order to call it’s basic presupposition into question

      The critiques offered by Zens in the article I read do not address Owen’s view. Owen was a covenant theologian. Therefore, if Zens wishes to critique covenant theology broadly speaking, then he needs to critique Owen’s view. Critiquing WCF does not apply.

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  4. February 8, 2016 at 6:54 am

    http://www.tdgordon.net/theology/auburntheology.doc David Gordon (Anglican paedobaptist)— You can almost employ, as a litmus test, the term “covenant,” to determine whether a person is Auburn or not. If a person uses the term in the singular, and with the definite article, he is ordinarily an Auburnite. They refer again and again to “the covenant,” as opposed to “a covenant,” “the covenants,” or some particular covenant (e.g. the first Noahic covenant, the Abrahamic covenant, the covenant with the Levites to be priests, the covenant with David to build God’s house, the Sinai covenant, the New Covenant, et al.). I must say that I never know what they are talking about when they say “the covenant.” Do they mean the Sinai covenant, the Abrahamic covenant, the New Covenant? Do they mean the Adamic covenant of works (certainly not)? Do they mean the (confessional-but-not-very-biblical) “covenant of grace?”

    Ironically here, they use language that is neither confessional/traditional nor biblical. The Bible frequently refers to “covenants” in the plural, or to some particular covenant, but never refers to “the covenant,” without an immediate context that delineates the specific covenant being referred to. Why this neologistic reference to some nebulous, unspecified “the covenant?” Because, like their not-too-distant progenitor John Murray, the Auburn theologians are deeply driven by an anti-dispensationalist agenda; and therefore, like their more-proximate progenitors, Norman Shephard and Greg Bahnsen, they shy away from using biblical language either biblically or traditionally, in a manner that candidly recognizes the plurality of biblical covenants. For all the Auburn approval of a kind of biblicist using of biblical terms in a biblical manner, their oft-repeated but lexically unbiblical “the covenant”is a profound exception to their profession. And for all their professed interest in the biblical narrative, they remove from that narrative one of its most important features–that it is the narrative of a succession of different historical covenants that God has made with a variety of different parties, for different proximate purposes, though the same distant end (the redemption of sinners in Christ).

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  5. markmcculley
    March 30, 2016 at 11:53 am

    Let’s call the covenant of grace what Scripture does– the new covenant!

    https://contrast2.wordpress.com/2013/02/24/an-unguarded-paedobaptist/

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