Riddlebarger was recently interviewed on Christ the Center. Talking about dispensationalism, he made the following statement that stood out to me:
…the problem with that is, when you’re using a Christ-centered hermeneutic, you don’t start with Genesis 12 and look at the promise God made to Abraham and then insist that that reading of the promise overrides everything that comes subsequent to that. So for example the land promise in Genesis 12 – and it’s repeated throughout 15, 18, 22, on and on and on – when that land promise is repeated, dispenationalists say “See, that must mean Israel means Israel and that God is going to save Israel again to fulfill the land promise at the end of the age.” Whereas I would look at that and say, “How do Jesus and the Apostles look at the land promise? How do Jesus and the Apostles look at the Abrahamic Covenant?” And that is at the heart of this entire debate.
In reading reformed amillenial critiques of dispensationalism, I can’t help but notice that their best arguments against dispensationalism are two-edged swords that cut equally against their own paedobaptist hermeneutic. For example, in a recent post I quoted Poythress at length in his discussion of the typology of Israel:
Since the existence of Israel itself has symbolic and heavenly overtones from the beginning, the fulfillment of prophecy encompasses these same overtones. The eschatological time is the time when the symbolic overtones in the very nature of Israel itself are transformed into reality… Eschatological prophecy may indeed have the same two dimensions: the dimension of the symbol in itself, and the dimension of what the symbol symbolizes. But the time of fulfillment of the eschatological prophecy is the time of climactic revelation. Hence, it may well be that, at that future time, the symbol is superseded by the reality, and no longer needs a separate historical realization along side the reality.
In my opinion, that is an excellent way of explaining how the nation of Israel was a shadow of the kingdom of God, a nation that is not of this world – as well as how Abraham’s physical offspring, in the way they benefited from God’s promise to Abraham (Ex 6:5; 32:13, etc), were a shadow of Abraham’s spiritual offspring – a distinction that was not clearly made until the New Covenant age of fulfillment. And so Poythress’ extended argument that the symbolic overtones in the very nature of Israel itself are transformed at the coming of Christ cuts against dispensationalism, but also against his paedobaptism – leaving him without a defense against the baptist argument that the nation of Israel was only a shadow of the church, not the church itself.
The same is true of Riddlebarger’s statement. It too is a double-edged sword. Allow me to simply re-state his argument:
…the problem with paedobaptism is, when you’re using a Christ-centered hermeneutic, you don’t start with Genesis 17 and look at the promise God made to Abraham and then insist that that reading of the promise overrides everything that comes subsequent to that. So for example the offspring promise in Genesis 17 – and it’s repeated throughout 12, 15, 22, on and on and on – when that offspring promise is repeated, paedobaptists say “See, that must mean offspring means offspring and that God included physical offspring in the church and never took them out.” Whereas I would look at that and say, “How do Jesus and the Apostles look at the offspring promise? How do Jesus and the Apostles look at the Abrahamic Covenant?” And that is at the heart of this entire debate.
Here is an outline summary of Cornelis P. Venema’s review of The Law is Not of Faith in Volume 21 of the Mid-America Journal of Theology. I’ll be posting some comments about his review later
Update: Venema’s article can now be found online at https://sites.google.com/site/mosaiccovenant/overture/reading
1. Helpful summaries/survey of the historical, biblical, and theological sections of the book
2. Critical assessment:
a) An accommodated reading of the sources
i) John Calvin “…When the law is viewed in isolation from its evangelical setting (Mosaic Covenant), it can only condemn fallen sinners who are incapable of doing what it requires. Contrary to Fesko’s reading of Calvin, there is no basis for interpreting Calvin to teach that the Mosaic administration included at some level a kind of “legal” covenant that republished the prelapsarian covenant of works.”
ii) Francis Turretin is surveyed by Venema because “Not only does Turretin offer his own conception of the unique place of the Mosaic administration within the broader history of the covenant of grace, but he also identifies the diversity of viewpoints among leading Reformed theologians of the period…Turretin affirms affirms that the law, narrowly considered, remind Israel of the requirements and consequences of obedience, and thereby closes the door to justification and life by the works of the law. In this respect, the law reiterates the demands of the covenant of works and shows why the promise of life and blessing cannot be obtained through the law. However, in doing so the law serves the gospel of God’s grace in Christ, demonstrating that the covenant of works has been wholly abrogated as an instrument for obtaining life… To view the law as though it were given covenantally as a means for obtaining the blessing of life and justification would be to “abstract” the law from the promises of grace that are an integral part of the Mosaic economy. [And this abstraction is the error of the legalists whom Paul opposes]”
iii) Herman Witsius “When Witsius describes the law of Moses as both a covenant of works and a covenant of grace, he seems to favor the second view that Turretin identifies, namely, that the Mosaic economy was an admixture of the covenant of works and grace. However, much of Witsius’ treatment of the question corresponds to the themes that we have seen previously in Calvin and Turretin, and cumulatively support the view that Witsius regarded the Mosaic covenant as substantially an administration of the covenant of grace. Among the writers we have considered, Witsius’ position does seem to anticipate some of the emphases of authors of “The Law is Not of Faith”, particularly the idea that the Mosaic economy includes in some sense a formal republication of the covenant works at the level of Israel’s corporate or national life. But in this respect Witsius differs from the views of Calvin and Turretin, and in a way that is more confusing than is clarifying.”
iv) WCF “It is difficult to see what basis the authors of TLNF have for appealing to these articles in Chapter 19 of the WCF… As a matter of fact, the Confession expressly denies that the law was given through Moses “as a covenant of works.”
v) Summary of historical “…the law is not given through Moses or under any of the administrations of the CoG as an instrument for obtaining the inheritance of life and blessing.”
b) Assessment of the Biblical Arguments
i) Paul’s use of Lev 18:5 – “When Paul adduces Lev 18:5 against his opponents, he is not offering a complete account of the law within the framework of the Mosaic covenant… In the Old Testament economy of redemption, Leviticus 18:5 does not appear in a context ‘that deals with legal righteousness as opposed to that of faith’ (quoting Murray). Rather, Lev 18:5 seems to present the law in the same way as it is presented in Ex 20, Deut 5, and in many other passages in the Pentateuch, namely, as a rule of gratitude that norms the conduct of a redeemed people in their life-fellowship with the Lord… When Paul adduces Lev 18:5 to expose the futility of any effort to obtain justification upon the basis of the works of the law, he does not thereby deny the legitimacy of an appeal to Lev 18:5 in support of a sincere and grateful obedience to the law of God. Nor does he deny the sense in which such sincere obedience is the way of life and blessing for the redeemed people of God.”
ii) Gal 3:6-14 and the Mosaic Administration – Venema appeals to Ridderbos to essentially make the same point made about Lev 18:5 above, adding that Paul’s argument is ad hominem, showing the legalists from the law itself what they must do if they abstract the law as a means of justification (they must do it all).
iii)Typology in the Mosaic Covenant – “In the usual view of Reformed covenant theology, however, the temporal blessings promised Israel are regarded typologically as a foreshadowing of the full spiritual blessing of fellowship with God in a renewed creation… In Kline’s view of the typology of the Mosaic covenant, two radically opposed inheritance principles are posited, each of which is said to operate at a distinct level of Israel’s life, the earthly and the spiritual… The problem with this conception is that the typology of the Mosaic economy does not foreshadow or prefigure, at least at the level of Israel’s existence as a nation in the land of promise, the blessings that are granted freely and graciously to the new covenant people of God. The blessings are different in kind; and the principles for inheritance of these blessings are radically different. To put the matter differently, because the Mosaic administration actually consists of two levels of covenant administration, one of works and the other of grace, it cannot function at both levels as a typological promise of the new covenant, which is essentially and exclusively a covenant of grace… The promises and demands of the Mosaic economy are “typical” of the promises and demands of the new covenant economy. The redemption promised in the covenant of grace always requires the response of faith and sincere, albeit imperfect, obedience on the part of the people of the covenant. As it was in the covenant administration of Moses, so it is in the covenant administration of Christ.”
c) Theological Ambiguities or Problems
i) One in Substance, Diverse in Mode of Administration – “Though the authors of the volume profess their adherence to the historic Reformed theology of the covenants, they offer an account of the Mosaic economy that seems at odds with the classic Reformed position that there are only two covenants, a prelapsarian covenant of works and a postlapsarian covenant of grace, of which the Mosaic covenant is a particular administration. The traditional formula of Reformed covenant theology, that the covenant of grace is one in substance though diverse in administration, entails that the Mosaic covenant was substantially a covenant of grace and only accidentally distinct from other administrations of the covenant of grace. This means that the distinctive features of the covenant of grace, which distinguish it in substance from the covenant of works, characterize the Mosaic administration in its entirety. It also means that whatever features of the Mosaic administration distinguish it from other administrations of the covenant of grace belong to the category of adjuncts or accidents, which do not materially affect its nature or character.
The theological problem posed by the republication thesis can be stated rather simply. If what belongs to the substance of the covenant of works does not belong to the substance of the covenant of grace in any of its administrations, it is semantically and theologically problematic to denominate the Mosaic administration as in any sense a covenant of works.”
ii) The Covenant of Works, Voluntary Condescension, and the Covenant of Law – “the tendency of some authors to equate the moral law of God as such with the covenant of works… There is little evidence that many covenant theologians in the orthodox period simply identified the covenant of works with man’s creation in God’s image and subjection to the moral law of God… on this as well as a number of other features of TLNF, the authors tend to accommodate their reading of the history of Reformed theology to contemporary theological concerns, especially the distinctive formulations of Meredith Kline.”
iii) The Abiding Validity of the Moral Law (Uses of the Law) – “Because the authors of TLNF view the moral law of GOd to express necessarily the “works principle” of the covenant of works, they do not have a stable theological basis for affirming the abiding validity of the moral law as a rule of gratitude. The argument of the authors seems to be something like the following: because the moral law of God, rooted as it is in God’s holy and righteous character, always requires perfect obedience, and because God’s moral government requires that obedience be rewarded and disobedience be punished – the moral law is essentially a covenant of works. For this reason, VanDrunen seems compelled to conclude that the moral law of God is no longer the rule of conduct for believers in relationship to each other within the “spiritual kingdom” of the church of Jesus Christ. VanDrunen even goes so far as to suggest that the law that is “written upon the heart” of the new covenant people of God is not substantially the same moral law that was promulgated in the Decalogue through Moses.”
3) Concluding observations
i) “Viewed against the background of the history of Reformed covenant theology, the particular question of the distinctiveness of the Mosaic administration posed by the authors of TLNF is a legitimate one, and one with a long pedigree in the history of Reformed theology. That some contemporary Reformed theologians find the question itself to be puzzling or problematic does reflect, as the editors of TLNF observe, a loss of historical awareness and appreciation for the complex history of Reformed reflection on the covenant.”
ii) Though my review of TLNF offers a number of criticisms of the authors’ arguments, I fully concur with the authors’ aim to uphold and teach the doctrine of justification by grace alone through faith alone upon the basis of the righteousness of Christ alone. As I put it in my description of TLNF on the book jacket, the “authors ably refute recent attacks upon the classic Reformed understanding of the grace of free justification on the basis of the entire obedience and sacrifice of Christ alone.” [I’m not sure how he can say this in light of the fact that he criticizes the foundational arguments they make in this respect]
iii) “While I recognize the manifest diversity of opinion on the question of the distinctive nature of the Mosaic economy in the history of Reformed theology, my primary objection to the arguments of the authors of TLNF is to what I have termed an “accommodated” reading of the sources… Though it is difficult to determine the pedigree of the version of the republication thesis with which the authors of TLNF identify, it seems to be a view that finds its origins more in the recent writings of Meredith Kline than in the writings of theologians of the orthodox period.”
iv) “In my critical assessment of the republication thesis of TLNF, I have intimated that the historic Reformed distinction between the “three uses” of the law provides a better answer to the complex question that this thesis aims to resolve.”
v) “The tendency to identify the holy law of God with the covenant of works or what the authors of TLNF term the “works principle” of covenant inheritance, creates an instability with respect to the Reformed view of the third use of the law.” [primarily has VanDrunen in mind here]
In looking for a good article critiquing antinomianism, I came across Lee Irons’ short piece “Not Under the Law But Under Grace”
I think its the most helpful introductory article I have found to give to someone struggling to understand what it means to not be under the law, but under grace.
In Petto’s The Great Mystery of the Covenant of Grace, he spends several pages discussing whether or not the covenant of grace is conditional or unconditional. He does so in his chapter “Of the Differences between the Old and the New Covenant; and the Excellency of the latter above the former.” which notes the following:
- 1. The new covenant presupposes obedience unto life to be performed already by Jesus Christ, and so is better than the Old (Sinai), which requires an after performance of it… Hence in opposition to that Sinai law, which ran upon those terms, do and live, under the dispensation of the new, we hear so often of Believe and be saved, and he which believeth hath everlasting life, Mark xvi. 16. John iii. 16, 36…
- The new covenant represents the Lord as dealing with his people universally in a way of promise; and so is better than the old, which represents him as treating them in a way of threatening…
- The new covenant consists of absolute promises, and therefore is better than the old Sinai covenant, which ran upon conditional promises, indeed, had works as its condition… The apostle, in the text (Heb vii. 10-13), is purposely putting a difference between these; and, seeing the old covenant was unquestionably conditional, and the new here in opposition to it, or distinction from it, is as undoubtedly absolute; must it not needs be concluded, that herein stand much of the excellence of the new above the old?…
…And whereas some argue for conditions from the nature of a covenant, against that it is asserted to be a last will or testament, which may bequeath legacies without any condition.
There is a vast difference between the way of Jesus Christ his acting in the work of his mediation before and since his incarnation, and the latter is much more glorious than the former. Before, he might plead, Father, thou hast promised me, upon my obedience, hereafter to be performed, that those souls with I have undertaken for, should enjoy such blessings: There was a mutual trust between them, and so he might plead it in point of faithfulness. But now, he hath actually performed the condition of the covenant, and may plead it in point of justice. Christ being actually exhibited as a propitiation, upon that, God is said, Rom iii. 25, 26, to declare at this time his righteousness, &c.: in opposition to the time of the old testament, he says, at this time; that is, at the time of the new testament, wherein the blood of Jesus Christ is truly shed: Now God declares his righteousness in the justifying him that believes in Jesus. It is an act of grace to those who attain the remission of sin, but an act of righteousness to Jesus Christ. He may plead, Father, I have made satisfaction to the full for the sin of these souls, now declare your righteousness in pardoning of them: it is that which I have purchased for them, I have finished the work thou gavest me to do, John xvii. 4. I have paid the full price of their redemption, now let them have what I have procured for them. Thus he appears in heaven in our nature, not as a mere intercessor, but as an advocate, 1 John ii. 1: to plead that, in law, in right we are to be discharged. And this puts a great excellence upon the new covenant, that it is in itself, and to Jesus Christ, thus absolute.
And note, if some privileges of the covenant were dispensed out properly in a conditional way (as suppose justification were afforded upon faith as a condition, or temporal mercies upon obedience), yet this would be far from proving any thing to be the condition of the promise, or of the covenant itself. Indeed even faith is a particular blessing of it, and therefore cannot be the condition of the whole covenant; for what shall be the condition of faith? And there is no such special covenant now extant, as the old was, for temporal mercies; they are indefinitely promised, and sovereign grace is the determining rule of dispensing out these to the saints when they are wanted, for time and measure, as it is most for the glory of God and their good, Mat. vi. 32, 33. Nothing performed by us, then, is conditio faederis, the condition of the covenant itself; Jesus Christ has performed all required that way.
But whether any thing be conditio faederatorum is now to be considered.
Object. Is the new covenant absolute to us, or conditional?
Are there not conditional promises therein to us, as there were in the old unto Israel? Can we expect any mercy, but upon our performing some condition it is promised to?
If condition be taken improperly, for that which is only a connex action, or, medium fruitionis, a necessary duty, way, or means, in order to the enjoyment of promised mercies. In this sense, I acknowledge, there are some promises belonging to the new covenant which are conditional; and thus are many scriptures to be taken which are urged this way. That this might not be a strife of words, I could wish men would state the question thus, Whether some evangelical duties be required of, and graces wrought by Jesus Christ in, all the persons that are actually interested in the new covenant? I should answer yes; for, in the very covenant itself, it is promised that he will write his laws on their hearts, Heb viii. 10., and that implies faith, repentance, and every gracious frame; and those that have the Lord for their God are his people. If the accusation be, that there is a want of interest in Jesus Christ, they need not plead that they have fulfilled the condition of the covenant; but, that the covenant itself, in some promise of it, (which uses to be distinct from its condition,) has its accomplishment upon them therein. And those that are altogether without those precious graces, are stranger to the covenant, Eph. ii. 12.; they cannot lay claim to the blessings of it. It is our duty earnestly to be seeking after what is promised, and one blessing may be sought as a means to another; as, the spirit as a means of faith, and faith as a means to obedience, Gal. v. 6. Believing is a great duty in connexion with, and a means of, salvation; he that believes shall be saved, Mark xvi. 16. John ii. 36. Eph ii. 8. 1 Pet. i. 5, 9. There is an order in giving forth these blessings to us, and that by divine appointment; so as the neglecting to seek them therein, is highly displeasing to God. This is our privilege that divine promises are so conjoined and twisted together, for the encouragement of souls in seeking after them, that if one be taken, many more go along with it; like many links in a chain that are closed into each other. The means and the end must not be severed.
Where there is such a connexion of duties, graces, and blessings the matters may be sometimes expressed in a conditional form, with an if, as, Rom. x. 9. If thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thy heart, thou shalt be saved, Such ifs note the verity of such propositions in their connexion; they affirm this or that to be a certain truth, as that, he which believes shall undoubtedly be saved, yet that grace is not properly the condition of salvation; for, even believing is absolutely promised, so as nothing shall intervene to hinder it, Isa. liii. 10, 11. Heb vii. 10. In that improper sense, some scriptures seem to speak of conditions, viz. they intimate a connexion between covenant blessings; some are conjoined as means and end, yet the promises are really absolute for their performance.
There is a vast difference between the way of the Lord in the dispensation of covenant blessings, and the tenor of the covenant. Or, between the new covenant itself, and the means which the Lord uses for its execution and accomplishment.
The covenant itself is an absolute grant, not only to Jesus Christ, but in him to the house of Israel and Judah, Heb. viii. Yet what the Lord has absolutely promised, and is determined and resolved upon to guarantee to them, may be conditionally propounded as a quickening means to souls seeking a participation of it. As, it was absolutely determined, yea, and declared by the Lord, that those very persons which were in the ship should be preserved, Acts xxvii. 22. There shall not be a loss of any man’s life, and verse 25. I believe God, that it shall be even as it was told me. Yet, as a means to their preservation, he speaks to them conditionally, verse 31. Except these abide in the ship, ye cannot be saved. So although the salvation of all the elect, and also the causing them to believe, is absolutely intended; yet, as a means that he may urge the duty upon souls with greater vehemence and earnestness, the Lord may speak in a conditional way, if ye believe ye shall be saved, when it is certain they shall believe.
There is no such condition of the new covenant to us, as there was in the old to Israel. For, the apostle comparing them together; and, in opposition to the old, he gives the new altogether in absolute promises, and that to Israel, Heb. viii.; and, showing that the new is not according to the old, he discovers wherein the difference lay, verse 9. Because they continued not in my covenant, and I regarded them not; saith the Lord; and, Jer. xxxi. 32. which covenant they broke, &c.
This argues that the condition of the old was such as the performance of it did give them assurance of the temporal mercies promised, and a right to them, and such as failed in, left them at uncertainties whether they should enjoy them or not; so as it was not only in itself and its own nature uncertain, but even as to the event, I regarded them not, saith the Lord.
If their performing the condition had been as absolutely promised, as the blessings of the new covenant are, then Israel would have continued in it (which they did not), and could not have forfeited what was promised thereupon, as diverse times they did, and were excluded out of Canaan upon that account. – Jurists say, a condition is a rate, manner, or law, annexed to men’s acts, staying or suspending the same, and making them uncertain, whether they shall take effect or not. And thus condition is opposed to absolute.
That there is no such condition in the new covenant to be performed by us, giving right and title to the blessings of it, and leaving at uncertainties and liability to missing of them, as there was in the old to be fulfilled by Israel, may appear,
1._ If there be any, it must either be an antecedent or a subsequent condition; but neither. There can be no such antecedent condition, by the performance of which we get and gain entrance or admittance into covenant; for, till we be in it, no act put forth by us can find any acception with God, Heb. xi. 6. Without faith, it is impossible to please God. And our being, in covenant is, in order of nature, (though not of time,) before faith; because it is a privilege or benefit of the covenant, a part of the new heart, a fruit of the spirit; and so the spirit (which is the worker of it, and another blessing of the covenant,) is given first in order before it. Jesus Christ is the first saving gift, Rom vii. 32., and with him he freely giveth all things. Men ought to be in the use of means; but it is the act of God that gives admission into the covenant, Ezek. xvi. 8. I entered into covenant with thee, saith the Lord God, and thou becamest mine. Immediately before, they were polluted in their blood, verse 6.; in an utter incapacity for acting in any pleasing way, so as to get into covenant. Neither is there any subsequent condition to be fulfilled by us: the use of that is, for the continuation of a right, and upon failing thereof, all is forfeited, as in the case of Adam. – Whereas there is no act of ours whereby our right to covenant blessings is continued unto us, upon failing whereof they may be forfeited. Our right, and the ground of our, claim, is upon a higher account than any act of our own; it is even the purchase of Jesus Christ; and they are the sure mercies of David, Isa. lv. 3. Sure to all the seed, Rom. iv. 16. And when they are become believers, eternal life is absolutely promised, John iii. 16, 36. 1 John v. 10, 11, 12., but conditionally, promised to them.
2._ The Lord has given assurance that there shall never be an utter violation of the new covenant, and therefore it has no such condition as was annexed to the old; for, the Lord declares that they had broken his covenant, Jer xi. 3, 4, 10. Jer xxxi. 32. But the new covenant is secured from such a violation: it cannot be disannulled so as the persons interested in it should be deprived of the great blessings promised therein, Jer. xxxii. 40. I will make an everlasting covenant with them. But may there not be such a condition of it as they may come short of all its blessings? No: I will not turn away from them to do them good, but I will put my fear in their hearts, that they shall not depart from me. If there were any danger of forfeiting and losing these, it must be either on God’s part, by his leaving of them, or on their part, by their departing from him; and here the Lord has undertaken to secure against both these, and so the matter is out of question; it was not thus in the old covenant.
Indeed what the Lord hath absolutely promised, yet he has appointed means in order to the attaining of it, internal as faith, and external as ordinances; and commands utmost attendance upon him ordinarily in the use thereof; this is necessary as a duty, and sin arises upon neglect of it. Thus the Lord is unalterably determined to guarantee a frame of obedience, Ezek. xxxvi. 25-30. Yet obedience is to be performed by us; we are to be the agents, and we may sin about the means in the way to the enjoyment of such mercy, as is laid up in absolute promises – Faith is to be exercised in these, (else what use are they of?) and we may be faulty in not attending to it.
3._ If there be any such condition of the new covenant, it were most like to be precious faith; but that is not…
4._ Our obedience, though evangelical, is no such condition of the new covenant, as there was of the old unto Israel.
Summary and Comparison
Petto goes on to argue several other points at length and list other differences between the new and old covenants besides their conditionality. To summarize his point, we can say that the new covenant is not like the old covenant because the old covenant could be broken, but the new cannot. Everything required of us in the new covenant is also a blessing of the new covenant. Apostasy from the new covenant is impossible.
Compare Petto’s view with standard Reformed thinking today, such as the PCA Book of Order:
By virtue of being children of believing parents they are, because of God’s covenant ordinance, made members of the Church, but this is not sufficient to make them continue members of the Church. When they have reached the age of discretion, they become subject to obligations of the covenant: faith, repentance and obedience. They then make public confession of their faith in Christ, or become covenant breakers, and subject to the discipline of the Church.
PCA Book of Order 56-4.j
Paedobaptism (or at least the reasoning of 98% of Reformed paedobaptists) is founded upon a faulty understanding of the New Covenant. It is not possible for someone to be a new covenant breaker.
This difference between Petto and the majority Reformed position is precisely why I find Mark Jones’ comments in the forward to Petto’s book so unhelpful.
The history of Reformed covenant theology has not always been well understood. Richard Greaves refers to Petto, as well as Owen, Goodwin, and Ussher, as “strict Calvinists” who belong to one of three different groups in the covenant tradition. Greaves mistakenly posits a tension between the Calvin-Perkins-Ames tradition, which supposedly distinguished itself by promulgating an unconditional character to the covenant of grace, and the Zwingli-Bullinger-Tyndale tradition, which is characterized by the conditional nature of the covenant of grace. Graves is wrong to place these two groups in tension with one another. The truth is that both ‘groups’ understood the covenant of grace as having conditions; namely, faith and obedience. However, because the faith and obedience that is required in the covenant of grace is the “gift of God” it may also be said that the covenant of grace is some sense unconditional. These nuances have often been missing in the twentieth-century historiography.
Per my reading, Jones attempts to obliterate the distinction Petto labors to carefully establish between his view and the view of those who believe one can break the new covenant by arguing there really is no difference.
I may be a bit late to the ballgame (published in 1987), but I just finished Vern Poythress’ Understanding Dispensationalists and I really enjoyed it. Poythress took a sabbatical to study dispensationalism in depth and this book is the result. I have heard it mentioned in many other places as a breakthrough in covenant-dispensational dialogue.
For someone who has never studied dispensationalism directly, he provides a very helpful overview and analysis of the theology. I could see more clearly precisely what it means to be a “dispensationalist”. An important point that Poythress makes is that “dispensational” is not the best label because, as dispensationalists like to point out, everyone believes God deals differently with men at different points in redemptive history. “The salient point is what the D-theologians say about these dispensations, not the fact that they exist. (12)” He then more accurate labels:
The debate is not over whether there are dispensations. Of course there are. Nor is the debate over the number of dispensations. You can make as many as you wish by introducing finer distinctions. Hence, properly speaking, “dispensationalism” is an inaccurate and confusing label for the distinctiveness of D-theologians. But some terminology is needed to talk about the distinctiveness of D-theologians. For the sake of clarity, their distinctive theology might perhaps be called “Darbyism” (after its first proponent), “dual destinationism” (after one of its principal tenets concerning the separate destinies of Israel and the church), or “addressee bifurcationism” (after the principle of hermeneutical separation between meaning for Israel and significance for the church). However, history has left us stuck with the term “dispensationalism” and “dispensationalist.” (12)
Grammatical-Historical Interpretation and Typology
I do want to note one important point. The chapter Interpretive Viewpoint in Old Testament Israel was particularly helpful. Poythress, very succinctly and cogently, argues that seeing typology (symbolism) in Old Testament prophecy is not opposed to a commitment to the grammatical-historical hermeneutic. Typology is not just something that we can look back on and see now that Christ has come, but it was something that could be understood by Israelites in the Old Testament (though not in full detail).
His basic argument is that the nation of Israel, from day one, was told that what was happening on earth, in Palestine, and among them, was a copy and shadow of the heavenly reality (Heb 8:5). They were to understand that God’s presence amongst Israel and the “new Eden” of Canaan was only a shadow of the eschaton, the new heavens and new earth where God will dwell fully. Here is a lengthy quote (I encourage you to read the whole chapter):
Israel’s existence as a kingdom of priests therefore possessed symbolic significance. This does not at all mean that Israel’s priesthood was “merely” symbolic or “merely” something of illustrative or pedagogical value. It was not “merely” an illusion, reflecting the “real” priestly reality in heaven. No, it was substantial, it was “real”–on the level that the Israelites could take it, and on the level appropriate to the preliminary character of God’s deliverance and his revelation at this point. The true God, not merely a surrogate for God, was really present with Israel. And his presence meant their consecration as priests. Yet God was not present in the way and with the intensity that he is present at the coming of Jesus Christ. His presence with Israel was preliminary and “shadowy” in comparison to that.
The latter days mentioned in the prophets are that broad eschatological era when the glory of God is revealed on earth (Isa 40:5, 60:2-3, Zech 2:5). The glory of God was formerly confined to heaven, and subordinately appeared in order to fill the holy and holies in the tabernacle and the temple. But eschatologically God will come to earth in his majesty. In those days the heavenly reality with supersede the earthly symbolic reflection. The heavenly original will fill and transform what was shadow. Hence those days imply a revision also in Aaronic priesthood (Ps 110:4), and by implication a revision of the law, which is bound up with the priesthood (Heb 7:12). But more than that, they imply a revision in the existence of Israel itself, since Israel itself is constituted as a kingdom of priests (cf. Isa 66:18-24). Since the existence of Israel itself has symbolic and heavenly overtones from the beginning, the fulfillment of prophecy encompasses these same overtones. The eschatological time is the time when the symbolic overtones in the very nature of Israel itself are transformed into reality.
Consider now what this meant for Israel’s perception of the nature of the land of Palestine. The land belonged to God (Lev 25:23). It was not to be desecrated by unclean practices (Deut 21:23, Lev 20:22-24). In an extended sense, the land itself was holy, the dwelling place of God. As a holy land, it was modeled after God’s rule over his heavenly dwelling. But it also illustrated what God would do to all the earth in the latter days. God’s kingdom would come to earth as it was (in OT times ) in heaven. The land of Palestine was also analogous to Eden (Isa 51:3). It pointed back to what Adam failed to do. Adam’s dominion over Eden (the starting point for rule over the whole earth) was ruined by the fall. Israel was granted dominion over a “new Eden.” This dominion over Palestine in turn anticipated the full dominion that was to be restored by the “seed of the woman,” one born to be the “last Adam” (1 Cor 15:45).
All this means that it is a violation of grammatical-historical interpretation to read prophecy flat. It is even a violation to read Israel’s history flat. The history of Israel has some symbolic overtones derived from the symbolic dimension in Israel’s own existence as kingdom of priests. But eschatological prophecy is the point at which these symbolic overtones are bound to be emphasized and come out into the open, since that is the time of transition from the preliminary to the final.
These symbolic overtones include almost everything that has in the past been classified as typology, and more besides. In fact, Israel’s existence was so saturated with incipient typology that it is hard for us, who live in the light of the fulfillment, to appreciate the Israelite situation. In a certain sense, it is impossible. We cannot forget what we have learned of Christ. But I would say this: Israel could on the one hand know much through a dim sense of symbolic overtones. And simultaneously it could know little because the shadows did not provide all the depth and the richness which the reality provides. A good deal would be known tacitly rather than by explicit, rationally articulated means.1
Now one more point should be observed about the eschatological expectations of OT Israel. The “latter days,” but not before, is the decisive time when the heavenly reality of God in his glory comes to earth. Therefore, prophetic predictions with regard to the near future have a character distinct from predictions about the “latter days.” In the near future, the organized political and social community of Israel continues in more or less a straight line. Predictions, even when they use symbolic and allusive language, can expect to find fulfillment on the symbolic level on which Israel then exists. But fulfillment in the “latter days” (eschatological fulfillment in the broad sense of eschatology) is a different matter. There the symbol is superseded by the reality, and hence straight-line reckoning about fulfillments is no longer possible. Pre-eschatological prophetic fulfillments have a hermeneutically different character than do eschatological fulfillments. (102-105)
When Jesus comes the “latter days” are inaugurated. In particular Jesus at his death inaugurates the new covenant by his blood (Matt 26:28 and parallels)… With whom is the new covenant made? It is made with Israel and Judah. Hence it is made with Christians by virtue of Christ the Israelite. Thus one might say that Israel and Judah themselves undergo a transformation at the first coming of Christ, because Christ is the final, supremely faithful Israelite. Around him all true Israel gathers. (106)
Eschatological prophecy may indeed have the same two dimensions: the dimension of the symbol in itself, and the dimension of what the symbol symbolizes. But the time of fulfillment of the eschatological prophecy is the time of climactic revelation. Hence, it may well be that, at that future time, the symbol is superseded by the reality, and no longer needs a separate historical realization along side the reality. (114)
Consider now the type of fulfillment that takes place in the NT. In the NT era, do we now need a second dimension of symbolism, a temple of material stones? In the OT there were two dimensions, “literal” (temple of stone) and typological-spiritual (the spiritual reality of God’s communing with human beings, now realized in the resurrection and the sending of the Holy Spirit). If there were two dimensions then, shouldn’t there be two dimensions now? But that reaction overlooks the theme of the book of Hebrews. According to Hebrews, that which is shadowy (temple of stone) can be “abolished” when it is superseded by the perfect (Heb 10:9). (115)
In the course of the chapter, Poythress makes a very compelling case that seeing the body of Christ as fulfillment (or at least participating in fulfillment) of Old Testament prophecy is not “allegorically spiritualizing” OT texts, but is instead interpreting them according to their gramatical-historical intended meaning.
I claim that there is sound, solid grammatical-historical ground for interpreting eschatological fulfillments of prophecy on a different basis than pre-eschatological fulfillments… What I am calling for, then, is an increased sense for the fact that, in the original (grammatical-historical) context, eschatologically-oriented prophecy has built into it extra potential. With respect to eschatology, people in the OT were not in the same position as they were for short-range prophecy. Eschatological prophecy had an open-ended suggestiveness. The exact manner of fulfillment frequently could not be pinned down until the fulfillment came. (106-107)
ince grammatical-historical interpretation will find the same symbolic, typological significance within prophecy, it shows how prophecy also has an organically unified relation to NT believers. Typological relations cannot merely be dismissed as a secondary application. The major weakness of classic dispensationalist interpretive theory, at this point, has been to have neglected the integration of typological interpretation with grammatical-historical interpretation. (115)
One more difficulty arises in relation to typology. It is this. As I argued in the previous chapter, the significance of a type is not fully discernible until the time of fulfillment. The type means a good deal at the time. But it is open-ended. One cannot anticipate in a vague, general way how fulfillment might come. But the details remain in obscurity. When the fulfillment does come, it throws additional light on the significance of the original symbolism.
In other words, one must compare later Scripture to earlier Scripture to understand everything. Such comparison, though it should not undermine or contradict grammatical-historical interpretation, goes beyond its bounds. It takes account of information not available in the original historical and cultural context. Hence, grammatical-historical interpretation is not enough. It is not all there is to interpretation. True, grammatical-historical interpretation exercises a vital role in bringing controls and refinements to our understanding particular texts. But we must also undertake to relate those texts forward to further revelation which they anticipate and prepare for. (115-116)
Gordon Clark on the baptism of great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great–great-great-great-great-great-grandchildren
In his book Santification, Gordon H Clark takes time to discuss the issue of infant baptism:
“The other subdivision of the question is a more difficult one: Whose children should be baptized? It is not at all difficult to show that a child of two believing parents should be baptized, nor even that a child of only one believing parent should be. 1 Corinthians 7:14 is sufficient. The difficulty arises when one considers the case of a child whose parents were perhaps baptized in infancy, who attend church services with some regularity, and who want their child baptized, even though they themselves have never become communicant members. Today in the United States the very large majority who are in regular attendance are communicant members. But it so happens that regular attendants who are not communicant members want their children baptized. Should the church acquiesce?
In Europe and in early America the children of baptized but non-communicant members were regularly baptized. Robert Ellis Thompson, in ‘A History of the Presbyterian Churches in the United States’ (1895, p. 14) reports: “The absence of regularly constituted sessions for the administration of church discipline, and the refusal of baptism to the children of baptized person who were not communicants, marked the local congregation as un-Presbyterian.” That is, communicant membership was not essential for the parents of infants to be baptized; and the author notes this was the rule in all the Reformed churches.
The argument was that there is a visible and an invisible Church. The members of the latter are precisely God’s elect; but many members of the former are not. Ishmael and Esau were both circumcised. Furthermore, since the promise of covenant extend to a thousand generations, the visible church today may and ought to baptize infants of unbelieving parents who want them baptized, on the basis of their ancestors’ faith. Surely not every Israelite, at any period of its disappointing history, was regenerate; yet no priest would have hesitated to circumcise the children of such parents…
[At this point, Clark briefly pauses to consider the inference that the Lord’s Supper may be admitted to unregenerates, concludes Presbyterians generally follow the opinion of Edwards and Mather that it should not be so admitted, and then returns to the subject.]
Now, even if it be granted that baptism may properly be administered to children of non-professing parents, the inference to a similar stance on the Lord’s Supper is fallacious…
[Here he distinguishes baptism from the Lord’s Supper, offering some reasons as to why the Lord’s Supper ought not be administered to open unbelievers.]
But now, beyond admission for the sake of argument, what must be said on the substantial question? Does the Bible require or prohibit baptisms to the thousandth generation? If it does, and if a generation is roughly thirty years, a thousand generation from the time of Christ would include just about everybody in the western world. Then the church should have baptized the child of an intensely Talmudic Jew whose ancestor in 50 B.C. was piously looking for the Messiah. Or, George Whitefield should have baptized Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and Tom Paine, as children, because one of their ancestors played a small role in the Reformation. Strange as this may seem to many, it ought to have been done if the Bible so teaches.
[He now notes that “some very eminent theologians have so held,” and devotes a page to historical theology before continuing. One important statement he makes: “The view that only the children of professing parents should be baptized seems to have been the result of colonel revivalism,” and Clark is clearly sympathetic towards those ministers who had to put up with the strictness of these revivalists with respect to the recipients of baptism. He says that these standards were understandable, given that “Their pietism and evangelistic zeal led them to place great emphasis on conversion as a traumatic experience.” After a bit more historical theology, he continues:]
This emotional pietism, as it demanded a particular type of experience for regeneration, tended to view the ideal church as consisting entirely of regenerate persons sharing such an experience. The logical result is the Baptist position; but in Presbyterianism it stopped short at requiring the faith of the parents who wanted their children baptized. But if it did not result in Baptists practices, it involved a change in the theology of baptism.
[And thus he concludes his answer to the question posited at the beginning, proceeding to ask the meaning and accomplishments of baptism.]”
– Sanctification, pgs. 62-65
A similar view can be found in a letter Calvin wrote to Knox about baptizing grandchildren: http://www.baylyblog.com/2006/09/godfathers_calv.html