Brief Comments/Clarifications on the T4G Covenant Theology Panel

Yesterday, Ligon Duncan, Mark Dever, and Al Mohler discussed Covenant Theology as part of a T4G conference panel. The panel was meant as a starting point for viewers to dip their toes into the deep waters of covenant theology. I was very glad to see the topic brought up. I just have a couple of brief comments.

Was 1689 Federalism represented?

Al Mohler helpfully noted “The very first Baptists were explicitly committed to a covenant theology—so much so, that they used the word repeatedly in the most important Baptist confession.” Dever and Mohler rightly commended both the Covenant of Redemption and the Adamic Covenant of Works, as affirmed by those baptists – as well as the recognition that salvation during the Old Testament was the same as salvation during the New Testament. However, was the particular view of covenant theology held by the majority of those men represented in the panel discussion? Here are some distinctives of that view:

  • The New Covenant alone is the Covenant of Grace
  • The Old Covenant was a typological covenant of works for temporal life and blessing in the land of Canaan (note: it was not The Covenant of Works)
  • Israel according to the flesh (Abraham’s carnal offspring, the nation) was a type of Israel according to the Spirit (Abraham’s spiritual offspring, the church)

I don’t think this view was represented (if it was, I missed it).

“Everlasting Covenant” in Gen 17 = CoR?

Dever said that we need

to have a sufficient recognition of discontinuities and yet of this underlying continuity such that God could speak to to Abraham in Genesis 17 of an everlasting covenant… this the pre-temporal inter-Trinitarian Covenant of Redemption and it’s what God is clearly talking about to Abraham in Genesis 17.

I would love to hear Dever elaborate more on this point. I will simply note that 1689 Federalism does not understand the “everlasting covenant” of Genesis 17 to refer to the Covenant of Redemption or the Covenant of Grace. It refers to the Covenant of Circumcision, made with Abraham and his offspring according to the flesh that they would multiply and inherit the land of Canaan and that the Messiah would be born from them. “Everlasting” must be understood in context. For example, the Levitcal priesthood is described as everlasting (Ex 29:28) as well as “annulled” (Heb 7:12, 18), and “obsolete” (Heb 8:13).

For more on how 1689 Federalism understands Genesis 17:7, see the these selections from various representatives of the view.

Was the Mosaic Covenant part of the Covenant of Grace or the Covenant of Works?

Dever asked “Was the Mosaic covenant a part of the Covenant of Grace or the Covenant of Works?” I don’t know what Dever’s own opinion is, but this binary way of thinking about the biblical covenants is representative of Westminster’s view (every covenant must be one or the other), but it was rejected by the particular baptists who insisted that there are more than two covenants in the Bible. The Mosaic Covenant was neither the Covenant of Works or the Covenant of Grace. It was distinct from both and must be understood on its own terms as a unique typological covenant. On this point they were standing in the stream of the reformed “subservient covenant” view of men like James Cameron, Samuel Bolton, and John Owen. The baptists carried this same logic over to the Abrahamic Covenant as well, noting that it was neither the Covenant of Works nor the Covenant of Grace.

Israel and the Church

On the question of how covenant relates to church, Duncan offered 3 primary views:

  • Classic Dispensationalism: the Church is not in the OT; the church in no way supplants or replaces Israel; two parallel purposes of God
  • Classic Baptist Covenant Theology: (Spurgeon) church is in the OT as a part of one body, one people that God has been bringing into being since Gen 3:15. But Spurgeon would say the nature of the people of God in the New Covenant is different than the form that it existed in from the time of Abraham
  • Classic Presbyterianism: church in the OT and NT; promise to believers and their children continues today

What Duncan describes as the “Classic Baptist” view is actually more like the modern view developed in the 20th century by baptists who were heavily influenced by John Murray. The Abrahamic Covenant was the Covenant of Grace and it included his children, but the administration of the Covenant Grace changes under the New Covenant so-as to no longer include children.

The older view (known as “1689 Federalism” for convenience) did a better job of articulating that although believers in the Old Testament were united to Christ and thus part of the body of Christ, the nation of Israel (Abraham’s carnal offspring) was not itself the church in the Old Testament. It was a distinct entity and it was, in fact, a type of the church. Thus 1689 Federalism agrees with Classic Presbyterianism over against Dispensationalism that there is only one eternal people and purpose of God, not two parallel eternal peoples. However, it agrees with Dispensationalism that the nation of Israel was not the church.

Conclusion

I’m very thankful for these men and for their gracious, edifying conversation with one another on this complex topic. I encourage those who were intrigued by the panel to study 1689 Federalism. I believe it substantially moves the conversation forward beyond merely arguing over “more continuity” or “more discontinuity.” What these men recognized was “new” about the New Covenant was that it saved! No other covenant saved men. The better promise of the New Covenant was the law written on the heart (regeneration) and the forgiveness of sins (justification). Abraham was not saved by the Abrahamic Covenant. He was saved by the New Covenant.

If you would like to learn more, please see the videos, lectures, and recommended reading list at http://www.1689federalism.com You can also find numerous posts, organized by topic, on my Welcome page.

*Note: the label “1689 Federalism” is not intended to mean that it is the only view permitted by the 2nd London Baptist Confession. The confession was written broadly enough to embrace a multitude of views. However, 1689 Federalism was the actual covenant theology held to the majority of baptists of that day and it helps explain the changes that they did make to the confession on this point.

A. W. Pink the “Rationalist”

[This post originally appeared at Scripturalism.com]

The following quote from A.W. Pink is representative of Christianity down through the ages. Sadly, many today (even reformed) reject this view as “rationalism.”

The exposition made of any verse in Holy Writ must be in entire agreement with the Analogy of Faith, or that system of truth which God has made known unto His people. That, of course, calls for a comprehensive knowledge of the contents of the Bible—sure proof that no novice qualified to preach to or attempt to teach others. Such comprehensive knowledge can be obtained only by a systematic and constant reading of the Word itself—and only then is any man fitted to weigh the writings of others! Since all Scripture is given by inspiration of God, there are no contradictions therein; thus it obviously follows that any explanation given of a passage which clashes with the plain teaching of other verses is manifestly erroneous. In order for any interpretation to be valid, it must be in perfect keeping with the scheme of Divine Truth. One part of the Truth is mutually related to and dependent upon others, and therefore there is full accord between them. As Bengel said of the books of Scripture, “They indicate together one beautiful, harmonious and gloriously connected system of Truth.”

Interpretation of the Scriptures (HT: Reformedontheweb)

The same belief is found in Owen as well:

We have seen that there are some difficult passages in the Bible, occurring frequently but irregularly throughout the Scriptures, and so there are some apparent contradictions scattered therein which are to be diligently searched into and reconciled—something which can only be achieved by legitimate interpretation.

(Biblical Theology, p. 814).

Commenting on this, Jeffrey T. Riddle notes:

Indeed, the path of pre-critical interpreters was to seek rationally satisfying harmonization in the face of “apparent contradictions.”  For Owen solutions can only come through diligent and faithful interpretation.

This is the approach of the ARBCA Theological Committee paper on Divine Impassibility:

1. We affirm the unity and analogy of Scripture, which states that unclear, difficult, or ambiguous passages are to be interpreted with clear and unambiguous passages that touch upon the same teaching or event (2LCF 1.9). We deny that the purported meaning of any text may be pressed in isolation or contradiction to other passages of Scripture.

2. We affirm the unity of Scripture and the analogy of faith, which states, “the true and full sense of any Scripture” (2LCF 1.9) must be interpreted in a manner consistent with the system of doctrine “necessarily contained” (2LCF 1.6) in the whole of Scripture. We deny that the purported meaning of any text may be pressed in isolation or contradiction to systematic theological considerations and that which is necessarily contained in the whole of Scripture.

Compare with Robert Reymond’s section on “Paradox as a Hermeneutical Category”

Let no one conclude from this rejection of paradox (as Marston has defined it) as a legitimate hermeneutical category that I am urging a Cartesian rationalism that presupposes the autonomy of human reason and freedom from divine revelation, a rationalism which asserts that it must begin with itself in the build-up of knowledge. But make no mistake: I am calling for a Christian rationalism that forthrightly affirms that the divine revelation which it gladly owns and makes the bedrock of all its intellectual efforts is internally self-consistent, that is, noncontradictory. Christians believe that their God is rational, that is, that he is logical. This means that he thinks and speaks in a way that indicates that the laws of logic—the law of identity (A is A), the law of noncontradiction (A is not non-A), and the law of excluded middle (A is either A or non-A)—are laws of thought original with and intrinsic to himself. This means that his knowledge is self-consistent. And because he is a God of truth he will not, indeed, he cannot lie (see Tit. 1:2; Heb. 6:18). Accordingly, just because God is rational, self-consistent, and always and necessarily truthful, we should assume that his inscripturated propositional revelation to us—the Holy Scripture—is of necessity also rational, self-consistent, and true. That this view of Holy Scripture is a common Christian conviction is borne out, I would suggest, in the consentient willingness by Christians everywhere to affirm that there are no contradictions in Scripture. The church worldwide has properly seen that the rational character of the one living and true God would of necessity have to be reflected in any propositional self-revelation which he determined to give to human beings, and accordingly has confessed the entire truthfulness (inerrancy) and noncontradictory character of the Word of God. Not to set the goal of quarrying from Scripture a harmonious theology devoid of paradoxes is to sound the death knell not only to systematic theology but also to all theology that would commend itself to men as the truth of the one living and rational God.

Reymond, Robert L. (1998-08-09). A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith: 2nd Edition – Revised and Updated (Kindle Locations 2338-2353). Thomas Nelson. Kindle Edition.

Finally, consider John Piper:

But as a matter of fact the only time Paul ever tells people to keep their mouth shut is when they are boasting. If our hearts and our minds pant like a hart after the water-brook of God’s deep mind, it may not be pride, it may be worship. There is not one sentence that I know of in the New Testament which tells us the limits of what we can know of God and his ways… one can only pity the poor souls who, for fear of finding out too much, never approach the sacred mountains but stand off and chirp ironically about how one should preserve and appreciate mystery.

A Response to J.I. Packer on the So-Called Antinomy Between the Sovereignty of God and Human Responsibility

Does Christ Speak Authoritatively Through Preaching?

[This post originally appeared at Scripturalism.com]

Perhaps you have heard a reformed pastor claim that when he stands behind the pulpit and preaches, you must listen because Christ is speaking through him. I have. I find it a bit of an odd claim because they imply there is something unique about their office and their function within the corporate gathering that grants them this authority. For example, in a brief article discussing the difference between preaching and teaching, Barry York says

Speaking for Christ versus speaking of him. Perhaps the most daunting aspect of preaching is that the minister is speaking on behalf of the Lord. Paul makes that clear when he says this of preaching:

How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent?” (Romans 10:14-15)

James Boice has pointed out that the word “of” in the statement “And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard?” is not there in the original. Rather, it should read “And how are they to believe in him whom they have never heard?” As men are sent out to preach, Christ through his Spirit is speaking through them. As Paul said elsewhere, “We also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers” (1 Thes. 2:13). Teaching can tell wonderful things about Christ, and every Sunday school class should do so. Yet only duly ordained ministers in preaching can make the authoritative claim that they represent the Lord.

This certainly does not follow from either Romans 10 or 1 Thes. 2. There is nothing about the office of elder that grants them an exclusive claim to be speaking for Christ.

And yet, it is true that Christ speaks authoritatively through preaching. Benjamin Keach said

That which by a just a necessary consequence is deduced from Scripture, is as much the mind of Christ, as what is contained in the express words of Scripture.

The Rector Rectified, 33

Note Owen on Hebrews 1:5.

That it is lawful to draw consequences from Scripture assertions; and such consequences, rightly deduced, are infallibly true and “de fide.” Thus from the name given unto Christ, the apostle deduceth by just consequence his exaltation and pre-eminence above angels. Nothing will rightly follow from truth but what is so also, and that of the same nature with the truth from whence it is derived. So that whatever by just consequence is drawn from the Word of God, is itself also the Word of God, and truth infallible. And to deprive the church of this liberty in the interpretation of the Word, is to deprive it of the chiefest benefit intended by it. This is that on which the whole ordinance of preaching is founded; which makes that which is derived out of the Word to have the power, authority, and efficacy of the Word accompanying it. Thus, though it be the proper work and effect of the Word of God to quicken, regenerate, sanctify and purify the elect, — and the Word primarily and directly is only that which is written in the Scriptures, — yet we find all these effects produced in and by the preaching of the Word, when perhaps not one sentence of the Scripture is verbatim repeated. And the reason hereof is, because whatsoever is directly deduced and delivered according to the mind and appointment of God from the Word is the Word of God, and hath the power, authority, and efficacy of the Word accompanying it.

It is not the office that determines the authority of preaching, but whether or not the preacher makes correct deductions from Scripture. And this same authority is true anytime anyone makes a statement that is correctly deduced from Scripture, whether they are ordained or not, whether it is in the corporate gathering or not. Thus, contrary to York, teaching can speak for Christ just as much as preaching can. Note Augustine “Yes it is I who admonish, I who order, I who command, it is the bishop who teaches. But it is Christ who commands through me.” “The preacher explains the text; if he says what is true, it is Christ speaking.”

The New Covenant of Grace was a Present Reality for OT Saints

R. Scott Clark recently wrote another post trying to explain where reformed paedobaptist covenant theology differs from 1689 Federalism. I’m glad that it offers an opportunity to continue discussing the topic. Regretfully, however, Dr. Clark continues to misunderstand our position. He misunderstands what we mean when we say that the New Covenant alone is the Covenant of Grace. He mistakenly thinks we mean that the Covenant of Grace was not a present reality for OT saints.

Clark claims that 1689 Federalism believes “God the Son is not actually present” in the salvation of saints prior to His incarnation. He says that we deny the Covenant of Grace “was actually present” prior to His incarnation. He says “in the PB view, the covenant of grace is entirely future,” which is in contrast to the reformed view that “It was not merely a future (New Covenant) reality but it was a present reality.” Clark says “The Son did not take up his place de novo at the top of the mountain in the new covenant. He has always been the Mediator,” implying that we deny that Christ was Mediator to the elect prior to his incarnation. He claims that our position is that New Covenant grace was not actually conveyed to the elect prior to Christ’s incarnation. He says “The Old Testament saints were not merely anticipating Christ. They were members of Christ through faith,” implying that we deny this. He says we deny that “Old Testament saints were united to Christ by the Spirit.” In his conclusion, Clark says “When the Particular Baptists speak of the benefit of Christ being communicated, it seems as if they mean that a future reality was revealed to the Old Testament saints, which they anticipated but which was not actually present for them.”

All of that is incorrect. Clark has misunderstood our position.

We affirm that that the benefits of Christ were a present reality for OT saints, which they received through a present union with Christ, which is the Covenant of Grace (a present reality for OT saints, not something entirely future) making them present members of Christ.

Our disagreement with Clark is not whether the Covenant of Grace was present and active during the Old Testament period. Our disagreement with Clark is the way in which the Covenant of Grace was present and active during the Old Testament period.

Why are we being misunderstood? I suspect in part because he has misunderstood what we mean by “retroactive.” But more fundamentally, I suspect it is because of an unstated premise that Clark holds.

  • P1 If the Covenant of Grace was present during the Old Testament period, then the Old Covenant was the Covenant of Grace.
  • P2 The Covenant of Grace was present during the Old Testament period.
  • C Therefore the Old Covenant was the Covenant of Grace.

Because we deny the conclusion, Clark thinks we deny P2. That is not the case. We deny P1. P1 is the point of disagreement and where we should focus our discussion, not P2.

When we say “The New Covenant alone is the Covenant of Grace” Clark hears “The Covenant of Grace was not present during the Old Testament.” But that is not what we said. When we say “The New Covenant alone is the Covenant of Grace,” we also say “The New Covenant was present during the Old Testament.”

There are various other points that Clark makes in his post that might be points of disagreement and are worth discussing. But we cannot have that discussion until this fundamental misunderstanding is resolved. When we say that the New Covenant alone is the Covenant of Grace, we do not deny that New Covenant grace was a present reality for OT saints. You might think that is totally crazy. Nevertheless, it is what we believe.

Coxe

Since Clark quoted Coxe to make his case, here are some quotes from Coxe affirming what I just said.

There is no explicit mention of a covenant of grace before
Abraham’s time and yet the thing is certain and clearly revealed in
Scripture, namely, that all who were saved before his time were
interested in such a covenant and saved only by its grace. (48)

[A]ll the blessings of this covenant redound on believers by means of their union and communion with the Lord Jesus Christ, who is both the Head and Root of the new covenant, and the Fountain from which all its blessings are derived to us. Since these blessings were entirely purchased by him, so are they entirely applied to all that are in him and to none other… [N]one are at any time justified before God except those whom Christ has loved and washed from their sins in his own blood (Revelation 1:5). None are washed by him but those that are in him as the second Adam. It is by union to him as the root of the new covenant that the free gift comes on them to the justification of life (Rom 5:14ff). And none can have union to him but by the indwelling of his Holy Spirit. Wherever the Spirit of God applies the blood of Christ for the remission of sins he does it also for the purging of the conscience from dead works to serve the living God. As certainly as any derive a new covenant right from Christ for pardon, they also receive a vital influence from him for the renovation of their natures and conforming their souls to his own image. (81-82)

The grace and blessings of the new covenant were given and ensured to Abraham for himself. (75)

During the time of the law… [t]he children of God after the Spirit (though as underage children they were subject to the pedagogy of the law, yet) as to their spiritual and eternal state, walked before God and found acceptance with him on terms of the covenant of grace… this spiritual relationship to God [was] according to the terms of the new covenant which the truly godly then had[.] (133)

Note also 2LBCF 7.3 “it is alone by the grace of this covenant that all the posterity of fallen Adam that ever were saved did obtain life and blessed immortality…” Among its references on this particular statement are Hebrews 11:6, 13 “And without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him… by faith Noah… by faith Abraham… All these died in faith, without receiving the promises, but having seen them and having welcomed them from a distance, and having confessed that they were strangers and exiles on the earth.” Rom 4:1, 2, &cWhat then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh, has found? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.'” and John 8:56 “Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw it and was glad.” Thus when we identify the Covenant of Grace with the New Covenant alone, we do not exclude those who lived before the establishment of the New Covenant – notably Abraham – from “the grace of this covenant.” Nor do we believe that they waited to receive this grace until the death of Christ. In sum, this New Covenant of Grace was extant and effectual under the Old Testament, so as the church was saved by virtue thereof.

See also the FAQ page at 1689Federalism.com: Did the Covenant of Grace Exist During the Old Testament? as well as Samuel Renihan’s two replies to Clark Typology and Communication in 2LCF 8.6 and Typology: Signs and the Things Signified.