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.

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