“Everlasting” and “Forever”

People will sometimes argue that the Abrahamic Covenant must be the Covenant of Grace because Scripture refers to it as “everlasting.”

And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. And I will give to you and to your offspring after you the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession, and I will be their God.

Genesis 17:7-8

Of course, Dispensationalists also appeal to the same passage to argue that Abraham’s carnal offspring have claim to the land of Canaan forever into eternity. However, the word is also used to described various aspects of the Old Covenant that the New Testament teaches have ended.

You shall command the people of Israel that they bring to you pure beaten olive oil for the light, that a lamp may regularly be set up to burn. In the tent of meeting, outside the veil that is before the testimony, Aaron and his sons shall tend it from evening to morning before the Lord. It shall be a statute forever to be observed throughout their generations by the people of Israel.

Exodus 27:20-21

“For Aaron’s sons you shall make coats and sashes and caps. You shall make them for glory and beauty. And you shall put them on Aaron your brother, and on his sons with him, and shall anoint them and ordain them and consecrate them, that they may serve me as priests. You shall make for them linen undergarments to cover their naked flesh. They shall reach from the hips to the thighs; and they shall be on Aaron and on his sons when they go into the tent of meeting or when they come near the altar to minister in the Holy Place, lest they bear guilt and die. This shall be a statute forever for him and for his offspring after him.

Exodus 28:40-43

Then you shall bring his sons and put coats on them, and you shall gird Aaron and his sons with sashes and bind caps on them. And the priesthood shall be theirs by a statute forever. Thus you shall ordain Aaron and his sons.

Exodus 29:8-9

When they go into the tent of meeting, or when they come near the altar to minister, to burn a food offering to the Lord, they shall wash with water, so that they may not die. They shall wash their hands and their feet, so that they may not die. It shall be a statute forever to them, even to him and to his offspring throughout their generations.

Exodus 30:20-21

You shall bring his sons also and put coats on them, and anoint them, as you anointed their father, that they may serve me as priests. And their anointing shall admit them to a perpetual priesthood throughout their generations.”

Exodus 40:14-15

He shall make atonement for the holy sanctuary, and he shall make atonement for the tent of meeting and for the altar, and he shall make atonement for the priests and for all the people of the assembly. And this shall be a statute forever for you, that atonement may be made for the people of Israel once in the year because of all their sins.” And Aaron did as the Lord commanded Moses.

Leviticus 16:33-34

And the Lord said to Moses, “Phinehas the son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the priest, has turned back my wrath from the people of Israel, in that he was jealous with my jealousy among them, so that I did not consume the people of Israel in my jealousy. Therefore say, ‘Behold, I give to him my covenant of peace, and it shall be to him and to his descendants after him the covenant of a perpetual priesthood, because he was jealous for his God and made atonement for the people of Israel.’”

Numbers 25:10-13

Scripture teaches that this priesthood and its functions has in fact ceased, despite the language of “everlasting,” “forever,” and “perpetual.”

Now if perfection had been attainable through the Levitical priesthood (for under it the people received the law), what further need would there have been for another priest to arise after the order of Melchizedek, rather than one named after the order of Aaron? For when there is a change in the priesthood, there is necessarily a change in the law as well… For on the one hand, a former commandment is set aside because of its weakness and uselessness (for the law made nothing perfect); but on the other hand, a better hope is introduced, through which we draw near to God… In speaking of a new covenant, he makes the first one obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away.

Hebrews 7:11-12, 18-19; 8:13

Jews have appealed to the above passages to argue that Old Covenant ceremonies continue to be obligatory today. Bullinger replied

But however the Jews do even at this day abide in their wilful stubbornness, the Lord did from heaven declare openly enough, that he is no longer delighted with the ceremonial rites, because he destroyed all the instruments belonging to that ancient kind of worship; and made the very shop of that old religion, I meant the temple and city of Hierusalem, level with the ground…

It is a very slender, or rather no defence at all for the Jews to allege the words in the law, which are many times rehearsed, where the ceremonies are described: “Ye shall keep it for an everlasting ordinance.” For in this sense everlasting is taken for long lasting and unchangeable, so far forth as it hath respect unto the will or authority of mankind. For the Lord did with threatening of grievous punishments forbid that mankind’s unadvisedness should change or abrogate the holy ceremonies. And yet, since he did ordain those ceremonies until the time of amendment, he doth neither sin, nor yet incur the crime of unconstancy, when he doth change or take away the ceremonies according to the determinate purpose which he intended from the beginning.

The Decades of Henry Bullinger, Volume 8, 261-2

Commenting on Hebrews 7:24 “but he holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever,” John Owen said

And this “for ever” answers unto the “for ever” under the law, each of them being commensurate unto the dispensation of that covenant which they do respect; for absolute eternity belongs not unto these things. The “for ever” of the old testament was the duration of the dispensation of the old covenant. And this “for ever” respects the new covenant, which is to continue unto the consummation of all things, no change therein being any way intimated or promised, or consistent with the wisdom and faithfulness of God; all which were otherwise under the law.

The point is that “everlasting,” “forever,” “perpetual” must be understood in context. The word alone cannot decide the matter. The Covenant of Circumcision cannot be said to be the Covenant of Grace (continuing in force today) because it is called everlasting any more than the Phinehastic Covenant can be. Nehemiah Coxe said

Now it is evident that they have for many ages been disinherited of it [the land of Canaan – recall Gen 17:8]. But the solution to this doubt will be easy to him who consults the use of these terms in other texts, and the necessary restriction of their sense when applied to the state or interests of Abraham’s seed in the land of Canaan. For the priesthood of Levi is called an everlasting priesthood (Numbers 25:13) and the gates of the temple, everlasting doors (Psalm 24:5). This is the same sense that Canaan is said to be an everlasting inheritance. No more is intended than the continuance of these for a long time, that is, throughout the Old Testament economy until the days of the Messiah, commonly spoken of by the Jews under the notion of the world to come. In this a new state of things was to be expected when their old covenant right and privilege was to expire, its proper end and design being fully accomplished.

87

Its description as “everlasting” was also applied to other temporary institutions. The word translated “everlasting” in Genesis 17:8, literally means, “until the distant future.” Often it does signify forever and ever (Deut. 33:27; Ps. 90:2), but not always. Context must determine its duration. Scripture uses this very word to describe the duration of the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16:34) and of the Aaronic priesthood (Exod. 29:28, 40:15). Scripture indicates explicitly that these other old covenant institutions terminate with the coming of Messiah. His coming is their vanishing point, the end of the age. Similarly, in Genesis 17:8, עולם signifies “until the distant future, throughout the entire era of Hebrew Israel’s theocracy.” That era lasted a very long time, some fifteen-hundred years, until the promised Messiah came to institute the new covenant.

Greg Nichols. Covenant Theology: A Reformed and Baptistic Perspective on God’s Covenants. Pelham: Solid Ground Books, 2011. pp. 191-192.

The Covenant of Circumcision was not the Covenant of Grace. It consisted of historia salutis promises, not ordo salutis promises. And because it consisted of historia salutis promises, it is now ended, having been fulfilled.

Podcast: Responding to Reformed Forum on 2LBC 8.6 @ The Particular Baptist

Daniel Vincent and Sean Cheetham at the Particular Baptist Podcast invited me on to respond to an episode of Reformed Forum from a few months ago. In that episode, titled Typology and Covenant Membership, Jeremy Boothby argued that the author of Hebrews’ particular understanding of typology necessarily entails that the Old Covenant was (an administration of) the Covenant of Grace. He said he could not understand how baptists could reject WCF 7.5-6 but affirm 8.6 and asked for those who hold to 1689 Federalism to explain. So that was our primary goal in this episode. It has become a recurring objection so I’m glad I had the opportunity to address it. The episode went really long (which should not surprise readers of this blog) but Daniel and Sean graciously let me ramble on to make my point. I hope you find it useful. Please let me know your thoughts in the comments below!

Here are my notes/outline for the show, if it helps.

Related Posts and Mentioned Posts:

Re: Gaffin on Hebrews 8

This is an old video (2012), but I watched it again recently.

At 50:00 Dr. Gaffin argues that Jer 31/Heb 8 is making a redemptive historical/historia salutis point “using ordo salutis language.”

No, rather, the text makes an ordo salutis point with historia salutis implications. The New Covenant saves. Therefore the Old Covenant, which did not save and which merely pointed forward to the New Covenant, is obsolete.

Gaffin points to the experience of Abraham, Moses, and David in order to argue that ordo salutis benefits, namely regeneration, were provided by the Old Covenant. However, this is an invalid argument. The conclusion that the Old Covenant includes ordo salutis promises/benefits – including all those listed in Heb 8 – does not follow from the premise that OT saints were regenerate. I believe a correct exegesis of Heb 8 leads to the minor premise that the ordo salutis benefits are unique to the New Covenant (“better promises,” “not like the Old Covenant”).

P1 OT saints were regenerate
P2 The New Covenant alone regenerates
C OT saints were regenerated by the New Covenant

Before one objects that this is fanciful baptist eisegesis, consider that Gaffin said

The ordo salutis reality… Abraham being a man of faith, a regenerate person of faith which is dependent upon the work of Christ still to come in the future for its efficacy.

Bucey likewise said

[T]he grace that is administered to these Old Testament saints – really what they’re receiving are the same spiritual benefits the same grace the same substantial grace coming from the same work of Christ – they’re just receiving it in anticipation of the work he would come to do.

And in a separate episode, Tipton said

Even prior to His advent, His incarnation, His life and death and resurrection, prior to that the virtue, benefits, and efficacy of his atoning sacrifice and resurrection and ascension are retrospectively applied to saints in the Old Testament order by the supernatural agency of the Spirit.

What the author of Hebrews argues at great length is that this work of Christ and the benefits it entails are exclusive to the New Covenant. According to the author of Hebrews, the New Covenant is different from the Old Covenant in that it regenerates and justifies (8:6-12). The author of Hebrews contrasts the blood of the Old Covenant (bulls and goats) with the blood of the New Covenant (Christ). He argues there is an ordo salutis difference between the two, not merely an historia salutis difference. “[I]t is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.” (10:4) “Therefore he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, since a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions committed under the first covenant.” (9:15) As Owen has correctly remarked

The greatest and utmost mercies that God ever intended to communicate unto the church, and to bless it withal, were enclosed in the new covenant. Nor doth the efficacy of the mediation of Christ extend itself beyond the verge and compass thereof; for he is only the mediator and surety of this covenant.

Calvin was confronted with the truth of this logic in his effort to exegete Hebrews 8, particularly verse 10. He concluded

[W]hatever spiritual gifts the fathers obtained, they were accidental as it were to their age; for it was necessary for them to direct their eyes to Christ in order to become possessed of them… There is yet no reason why God should not have extended the grace of the new covenant to the fathers. This is the true solution of the question.

This was actually the dominant view (as far as I can tell) prior to the reformation. It was Augustine’s view, echoed in Aquinas (who is quoted in Catholic Catechism 1964 on this point). See Joshua Moon’s “An ‘Augustinian’ Reading of Jeremiah 31:31-34 in Dialogue with the Christian Tradition.” Many others, such as John Frame and Michael Horton, have also recognized this truth.

Once we have this correct foundation, then we can discuss how types relate to OT saints’ understanding of and belief in the gospel, as well as how we are to understand the issue of apostasy and the warning passages.

Promise, Law, Faith – A Review Article (JIRBS 20)

The 2020 edition of the Journal of the Institute of Reformed Baptist Studies has just been published. It includes a lengthy (46 page) review of T. David Gordon’s “Promise, Law, Faith: Covenant-Historical Reasoning in Galatians.” The review incorporates various points I have made on this blog, builds upon them, and adds to them. Readers of this blog will most likely find it worth reading.

It also includes a brief review of Richard P. Belcher Jr.’s new book on covenant theology by Sam Renihan.

The Reformed Baptist Academic Press website is undergoing construction so the journal is not available through the site currently. Instead, you have two options:

  • Email rb@rbap.net to order with name, address, phone number, quantity. $10 plus s/h. Paid via Paypal.
  • Amazon

There are a couple of things I came across after writing the review that I would have added. On page 88 I note the NET translation of Gal. 3:18. I should have also noted the CSB translation. Also, in fn29 I would add Aquinas’ statements on the New Covenant.

If you read the review, let me know your thoughts in the comments below.

Aquinas’ Distinction Between Membership in the New Covenant and the era of the New Covenant

I have previously mentioned Joshua Moon’s dissertation “Jeremiah’s New Covenant: An Augustinian Reading.” I do not agree with everything he has to say, but I highly recommend reading it (PDF) as he explains Augustine’s view of Jeremiah 31, as well as how that Augustinian reading was held down through church history up until the Reformation. Below is an excerpt (66-74 PDF) of his account of Aquinas’ Augustinian reading of Jeremiah 31 (see my previous Aquinas’ Retroactive New Covenant).


In summary form the lex nova for Thomas is the grace of God through the Holy Spirit.64 Thomas identifies the lex nova with the Law of the novum testamentum (‘lex nova est lex novi testamenti’), and defines the new law as the grace of the Holy Spirit:

‘Each thing appears to be that which is foremost in it,’ as the Philosopher states (Ethic., ix). That which is foremost in the Law of the novum testamentum, and in which all its power consists, is the grace of the Holy Spirit, which is given through faith in Christ. Consequently the lex nova is principally the grace itself of the Holy Spirit, which is given to those who believe in Christ.65

To establish his position he cites Jer 31:31,33, followed by two citations of Augustine from the De spiritu, the second of which reads: ‘What else are the Divine laws written by God Himself on our hearts, but the very presence of his Holy Spirit?’ From Augustine, Thomas reads the contrast in Jer 31 as between an old law without further power, and the ‘new’ work of the Spirit in those who believe.

The consequences of this for Jer 31 are then spelled out by an objection now somewhat familiar: what of those prior to the nova lex? If the new law is the Spirit’s work by which people are made friends of God, and if the ancient faithful had that Spirit’s work, then you have the novum testamentum in the era of the vetus. Thus, the objection runs, the new law cannot be defined this way:

The Law of the Gospel is proper to those who are in the state of the novum testamentum. But the Law that is inscribed [on the heart] is common both to those who are in the novum testamentum and those who are in the vetus testamentum. For it is said in Wisdom 7[:27]: ‘Divine wisdom conveys herself through the nations into holy souls; she establishes the friends of God and the prophets.’ Therefore the lex nova is not the Law inscribed.66

Thomas answers by appeal to an implicit distinction between membership in the novum testamentum and the ‘state (or era) of the novum testamentum:

No one ever possessed the grace of the Holy Spirit except through faith in Christ, explicit or implicit. Through faith in Christ a man belongs to the novum testamentum. Thus whoever had the Law of grace infused, accordingly belonged to the novum testamentum

At first glance it does not appear that Thomas answers the objection. He solves the dilemma by agreeing that there have always been those who had the Law of grace and belonged to the novum testamentum. The implicit point, however, is that Thomas does not see ‘belonging to the novum testamentum’ as the same as being in the statu novi testamenti – otherwise the reply would not at all address the objection. Thomas thus drives a distinction between two realities, that of the era of the Gospel or the statu novi testamenti, and that of
membership within the novum testamentum. And Jer 31:33-34 is addressed to the latter. Thus, in article 4 of the same question he asserts that the state of the new law succeeds the state of the old law (‘successit enim status novae legis statui veteris legis’), a claim he finds consistent with the novum testamentum existing during the state of the old law.

Matthew Levering summarizes the distinction being made this way: ‘The state of the new law begins after the Incarnation, while the new law itself, as the grace of the Holy Spirit, is found in all places and times.’68 Or more fully is Colman O’Neill:

the new law exists as the mystery of salvation at work in the world from the time of the restoration of man to grace. Yet, though the new law thus transcends historical periods, the state of the new law does not. For the state of the new law is precisely that third state of revelation and faith which was initiated in the Incarnation and in the mysteries of Christ.69

That Thomas owes this position to Augustine is clear: Augustine is cited no fewer than 8 times in answer to this one question. One can speak two different ways of the vetus and novum testamentum (or lex): either to a ‘state’ or era, or with respect to the thing itself. If the former, then one can speak of the economical differences. But if the latter, then any view of temporal succession is impossible. And Jeremiah is speaking of the latter. The lex nova, spoken of in Jer 31:33-34, is available throughout all ages and without the possession of it, one’s happiness (proper end) is unattainable – for that which is outside of a person cannot justify. The virtue of being just before God cannot be acquired unless given by God, and clearly those faithful of the ancient era were just. Thus ‘in all times there have been some belonging to the novum testamentum’, even if the statu novi testamenti awaited the coming of Christ.70

This point is made concrete in Thomas’ treatment of David in Psalm 51 (Vg. 50) and Thomas’ view of David as having the Holy Spirit (i.e. the lex nova):

The reason for this manifestation [of guilt (culpa) being wiped clean] is a divine mercy; for the manifestation of righteousness (iustis) is useful so that we do not presume on his righteousness (iustitia). For if David sins – after all of his victories, after the gift of the Holy Spirit, after all his familiarity with God and prophecy – how much more ought we to fear how weak and sinful we are?71

If Jeremiah’s prophecy of the new covenant is a prophecy of the lex nova, which is contained fundamentally in the giving of the Holy Spirit, then David is here explicitly counted as a member of the new covenant. The exhortation even hinges upon an a fortiori privileging of the place of David: if even David can sin, how much more should we fear? There is only one way by which anyone is made right with God, and that is through the novum testamentum or the lex nova, which is the grace of the Holy Spirit given to those who believe. This is true for Augustine and Thomas regardless of era, and this right standing before God is the substance of Jeremiah’s new covenant.72

Re: James White’s “Newness of the New Covenant”

In 2004 (part 2 2005), James White wrote The Newness Of The New Covenant: Better Covenant, Better Mediator, Better Sacrifice, Better Ministry, Better Hope, Better Promises in defense of credobaptism. He wrote from the perspective of one covenant of grace differently administered and sought to answer the question “Exactly what is the nature of the covenant in the blood of Christ (Lk. 22:20; Heb. 13:20), and how does it differ from other administrations of the covenant of grace?”

His answer was that the difference between the Old and the New is that only some of the members of the Old covenant were saved, while all of the members of the New covenant are.

[T]hat which the New Covenant provides in perfection the Old only provided in part or in picture… [W]here something is found in both covenants, it will be seen to be partial and incomplete in the Old, finished, total, and perfect in the New…

The Old Covenant was, by nature, breakable. Why? Because it did not, in and of itself, effect the change in the heart and mind of each member thereof that would cause them to “continue” therein…

While there were those who knew the Lord and followed his statutes, they were the remnant, not the norm…

All those with whom he makes this covenant experience what the remnant experienced under the old: true internal conversion resulting in a love for God’s law and a true relationship with him. Quite simply, there is no “remnant” in the New Covenant, and all those with whom God makes this covenant experience its fulfillment. This is why it is better, and hence proves the author’s apologetic presentation of the supremacy of Christ over the old ways…

The contrast drawn here between the old “faulted” covenant and the new faultless one is simple: the New Covenant brings salvific knowledge and relationship to all who are in it, “from the least to the greatest of them.”

…Reformed credobaptists have asserted that if this passage teaches that the New Covenant differs from the Old in the matter of the extensiveness of the work of grace in the lives of the members (i.e., the New Covenant is not a mixed covenant of regenerate and unregenerate, elect and non-elect), then the most needed element of the paedobaptist argument regarding the continuity of the covenants and the covenant sign is disrupted at its most vital point. The “continuity” of the Covenant of Grace is seen in the expansion of God’s work of grace, so that the New Covenant in the blood of the Son encompasses all of God’s elect, with the older administration’s ceremonies pointing forward to the perfection that would come in Christ…

We must agree that considered individually, each of the elements of the New Covenant listed in Heb. 8:10-12 can be found, in particular individuals in the Old Covenant…

if some in the Old Covenant experienced these divine works of grace, but most did not, what then is to be concluded? That the newness of the New Covenant is seen in the extensiveness of the expression of God’s grace to all in it…

We are not saying there were none who experienced God’s grace under the Old Covenant, but that the Old Covenant, in and of itself, did not guarantee that those who partook of it were, in fact, heirs of grace. The newness of the New Covenant in the blood of Christ is found in the reality that the better mediator, better hope, better sacrifices, mean that all, from the least to the greatest of them, know the Lord savingly. This is its glory, for it reflects the power of the blood in which it is sealed. Hence, when we read, “God’s law, the transcript of his holiness and his expectations for his people, was already on the hearts of his people, and so is not new in the new covenant,”11 we respond by saying it is not the mere existence of the gracious act of God writing His law on the heart that is new, but it is the extensiveness of that work that is new. While some in the Old Covenant experienced this, all in the New Covenant do so.

While White is correct that all in the New Covenant receive new hearts and the forgiveness of sins (they are saved) while only some members of the Old Covenant did, he is ambiguous as to how exactly those members of the Old Covenant were saved. Were they saved by the Old Covenant? Numerous statements by White seem to deny that.

[The author of Hebrews’] view of the New Covenant as “better” must be seen in light of the perfection of Christ’s work of mediation…

Is this ministry simply of the same kind as the ministry of the old priests, only, in some fashion, “more excellent”? Or is the point of the passage that the Messiah’s ministry, the covenant in his blood, and the promises upon which the covenant stands – all these things are substantially different, better, than that which came before?…

Surely, at this point there can be no argument that the betterness of the sacrifice of Christ is qualitatively superior to that of the animal sacrifices of the Old Covenant. His death is not just more effective or in some fashion greater than the sacrifice of a lamb or a bull. That sacrifice differs on a fundamental, foundational level. It is better by nature and definition...

As a result of the permanence of his priestly position, Christ has an ability the old priests did not possess. He is able to save

Christ is the mediator of a better covenant, based upon better sacrifices, with a more excellent ministry, based upon better promises, which include, he will later assert, the very promise of the eternal inheritance for those in the New Covenant (9:15)…

What the Old Covenant had only pictured and hinted at, but failed to produce in them, God fulfills in the better covenant with the better sacrifices and better promises and better mediator…

These repetitive sacrifices lack the power or ability to take away sins…

The text presents an apologetic argument that unlike the Old Covenant, where “they did not continue in My covenant” (v. 9), the New Covenant presents a perfect, full work of God which includes the internal renovation of the heart, salvific knowledge of God, and the forgiveness of sins…

We must further note that the contrast in Heb. 10 is between the repetitive sacrifices of the Old Covenant, which could never take away sins, and the singular sacrifice of the New, which not only can but in reality does do so for those who are in the covenant (Heb. 10:10-18)!

There appears to be some unresolved tension in White’s argument. On the one hand, he argues that the New covenant is qualitatively better than the Old because it does what the Old could not: give a new heart and take away sins. Yet on the other hand he argues that the difference is quantitative because the Old covenant did give a new heart and take away sins, just not for all in the covenant (“it is not the mere existence of the gracious act of God writing His law on the heart that is new, but it is the extensiveness of that work that is new”).

I believe the logic of White’s argumentation throughout the two essays requires him to modify his conclusion. If Christ’s mediation of a better covenant means simply that more members of the covenant are saved, does that mean that some members of the Old covenant were saved apart from his mediation and sacrifice? On the other hand, if Christ’s mediation of a better covenant means “Christ has an ability the old priests did not possess. He is able to save” then perhaps those in the Old Covenant who were in fact saved were saved by Christ’s better New covenant. Perhaps the “Newness of the New Covenant” is that it is able to save! As White himself says

The writer plainly sees in these words a prophetic proclamation of what Christ, the one high priest, would accomplish through his better sacrifice so as to initiate a better covenant based upon better promises leading to a better hope. The singular offering of Christ (Heb. 7:27) and the acceptance of that offering pictured in his entrance into the Holy Place and his being seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens (Heb. 8:1) has made it possible for God to be merciful to the iniquities of those for whom the High Priest now intercedes (Heb. 7:24-35).

Note Owen’s observation on the same text.

Wherefore we must grant two distinct covenants, rather than a twofold administration of the same covenant merely, to be intended… If reconciliation and salvation by Christ were to be obtained not only under the old covenant, but by virtue thereof, 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… [T]herefore I have showed in what sense the covenant of grace is called “the new covenant,” in this distinction and opposition… The greatest and utmost mercies that God ever intended to communicate unto the church, and to bless it withal, were enclosed in the new covenant. Nor doth the efficacy of the mediation of Christ extend itself beyond the verge and compass thereof; for he is only the mediator and surety of this covenant.

Covenant Theology from Adam to Christ, p. 187-8, 241

Aquinas’ Retroactive New Covenant

I have previously shown at length how very similar Augustine’s understanding of the New and Old Covenants is to 1689 Federalism. He limits the Old Covenant to temporal, earthly promises and argues that OT saints were saved by the New Covenant.

[T]he happy persons, who even in that early age [the Old Testament] were by the grace of God taught to understand the distinction now set forth, were thereby made the children of promise, and were accounted in the secret purpose of God as heirs of the New Testament; although they continued with perfect fitness to administer the Old Testament to the ancient people of God

Augustine: Proto-1689 Federalist

Aquinas followed Augustine on this point, citing him several times in Summa Theologica I-II, 106-107 (Old “Law” = Old Covenant; New “Law” = New Covenant).

[T]he Old Law, which was given to men who were imperfect, that is, who had not yet received spiritual grace, was called the “law of fear,” inasmuch as it induced men to observe its commandments by threatening them with penalties; and is spoken of as containing temporal promises…

the New Law which derives its pre-eminence from the spiritual grace instilled into our hearts, is called the “Law of love”: and it is described as containing spiritual and eternal promises…

although the Old Law contained precepts of charity, nevertheless it did not confer the Holy Ghost…

the New Law is chiefly the grace itself of the Holy Ghost, which is given to those who believe in Christ…

Nevertheless there were some in the state of the Old Testament who, having charity and the grace of the Holy Ghost, looked chiefly to spiritual and eternal promises: and in this respect they belonged to the New Law…

As to those under the Old Testament who through faith were acceptable to God, in this respect they belonged to the New Testament: for they were not justified except through faith in Christ, Who is the Author of the New Testament…

No man ever had the grace of the Holy Ghost except through faith in Christ either explicit or implicit: and by faith in Christ man belongs to the New Testament. Consequently whoever had the law of grace instilled into them belonged to the New Testament…

at all times there have been some persons belonging to the New Testament, as stated above.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church specifically quotes Aquinas on this point (1964).

There were . . . under the regimen of the Old Covenant, people who possessed the charity and grace of the Holy Spirit and longed above all for the spiritual and eternal promises by which they were associated with the New Law… [E]ven though the Old Law prescribed charity, it did not give the Holy Spirit, through whom “God’s charity has been poured into our hearts.

I mention all of this simply to re-iterate the historicity of the concept. It is not an idea invented by baptists in response to paedobaptism. It is drawn from Scripture itself and has been recognized by various traditions for a very long time.

Theonomy?

Summary

Theonomy rightly believes that political theory must be deduced from Scripture, but it misinterprets Scripture – namely the law given to Israel and covenant theology as a whole.

Operating Definition

Theonomy is the starting presumption that the Old Covenant judicial laws given to Israel have not been abrogated therefore all civil governments are morally obligated to enforce them (including the specific penalties) and furthermore that all civil governments must refrain from coercion in areas where Scripture has not prescribed their intervention (the “regulative principle of the state”).

Defining Our Terms

Etymologically, theonomy simply means “God’s law.” However, the phrase was used by Greg Bahnsen in the 1970s to describe his presuppositional political philosophy in contrast to “autonomy” (man’s reason independent of God’s revelation). This post addresses theonomy as defined and defended by Bahnsen. (If you think theonomy has a broader definition, that is a separate discussion we can have. For the purposes of this post, theonomy is being defined according to Bahnsen’s theonomic thesis). Bahnsen argued that

[T]heonomy teaches that civil rulers are morally obligated to enforce those laws of Christ, found throughout the Scriptures, which are addressed to magistrates (as well as to refrain from coercion in areas where God has not prescribed their intervention)… Political codes today ought to incorporate the moral requirements which were culturally illustrated in the God-given, judicial laws of Old Testament Israel… “He who was punishable by death under the judicial law is punishable by death still.”

What Is “Theonomy”? PE180 New Horizons (April, 1994)

Likewise, Brian Schwertley summarizes

The core teaching of the modern theonomy movement on the law (we will not defend all the side issues) is basic and easy to defend. All the Old Testament laws that are moral in content, that were given as a standard of personal or social ethics, are binding on all men (both Jews and Gentiles) for all time (both the Old and New Covenant administrations).

Therefore, not only the Ten Commandments are obligatory but also the moral case laws that are extensions, explanations and applications of the commandments (e.g., homosexuality, incest, bestiality, fornication, fraud, burglary, assault, attempted murder, manslaughter, etc.). In addition, the civil penalties attached to the moral case laws are declared by God Himself to be just and superior to the best laws of the heathen nations and thus are not mere suggestions but are required as well.

That being said, theonomists do not always agree with each other regarding particular Old Covenant judicial laws. Bahnsen therefore clarified that even when they do not agree, there is still nonetheless a distinct, definable view called “theonomy.”

Theonomic ethics is a definable and distinct school of thought. That school of thought is unified by certain fundamental principles of Biblical reasoning about ethics (“ethical hermeneutics or meta-ethics,” if you will) — rather than by unanimity in the particular application of those principles to concrete issues or cases… There certainly is a commonly held set of distinctive doctrines which are known as the theonomic viewpoint…

Close Resemblances: Is Everyone a Theonomist After All?

[T]here is an objective and precise difference viz., all theonomists affirm (while non-theonomists deny) that we should presume that Old Testament criminal and penal commands for Israel as a nation (not specially revealed earlier) are a standard for all nations of the earth… The theonomic principle is objective and Biblical in character. Its policy for Old Testament interpretation and for application of the laws found there is that the moral standards revealed by God are all beneficial and continue to be binding unless further revelation teaches otherwise (Deut. 42; 10:13; Ps. 119:160; Matt. 5:19; 2 Tim. 3:16-17)… As a result, the theonomist concludes that most of the judicial laws of the Old Testament, having not been modified or canceled by Scripture later, continue to be binding according to the principle which they teach or illustrate.

Chapter 2 “A Recognizable, Distinct Position,” in No Other Standard

Theonomy’s strength is its commitment to presuppositionalism – the belief that political philosophy and civil law must be deduced from Scripture. Its weakness is its actual exegesis of Scripture. While I agree that Scripture must be the source of our political philosophy, I believe that theonomy has misinterpreted Scripture on two foundational points. (Note: Bahnsen was a very gifted logician and I respect him enough to interpret and critique him according to his systematic understanding of theonomy.)

The Law(s) of God

Theonomy rejects the distinction between moral law (a transcript of God’s nature that applies at all times) and positive law (law that is created and abrogated at God’s will for certain times). Instead, it holds to a mononomism that sees all biblical law as an unchanging transcript of God’s nature. Bahnsen argued “Does God have a holiness, a standard of ethics, of perfection that is changing?… Jesus says every jot and tittle and he doesn’t allow us to draw lines and seams and divide God’s law up into what we’ll accept and what we won’t.”

I agree with the historic threefold division of Mosaic law: moral, ceremonial, and civil. Moral law transcends and predates Mosaic law and applies to all image bearers. Ceremonial and civil law are positive laws created for Israel under the Old Covenant and have been abrogated. Theonomy teaches a different two-fold division of Mosaic law.

The most fundamental distinction to be drawn between Old Testament laws is between moral laws and ceremonial laws. (Two subdivisions within each category will be mentioned subsequently.) This is not an arbitrary or ad hoc division, for it manifests an underlying rationale or principle. Moral laws reflect the absolute righteousness and judgment of God, guiding man’s life into the paths of righteousness; such laws define holiness and sin, restrain evil through punishment of infractions, and drive the sinner to Christ for salvation. On the other hand, ceremonial laws–or redemptive provisions–reflect the mercy of God in saving those who have violated His moral standards; such laws define the way of redemption, typify Christ’s saving economy, and maintain the holiness (or “separation”) of the redeemed community.

(By This Standard, 97)

The important point is that due to a mistaken exegesis of Matthew 5, theonomy has no category for positive law that may be abrogated. Not only moral (which includes judicial) law, but even “restorative” law continues (though the way we observe it changes).

It’s the thesis of my book [Theonomy in Christian Ethics] and I think it’s the way the bible would have us break down the commandments of the Old Testament – I’m suggesting that we have moral and ceremonial law, moral and restorative law and that all laws of God are binding today… I do not believe the restorative law has been abrogated.”

Has God Changed His Mind? (Lecture 2 of 6)

Covenant Theology

The reformed law/gospel distinction refers to two different ways of obtaining eternal life: through obedience to the law and through faith in Jesus Christ. It is rooted in the distinction between the Adamic Covenant of Works and the Messianic Covenant of Grace. While Bahnsen held a law/gospel antithesis with regards to salvation through faith in Christ (even having a better interpretation of Matt 5:20 than many reformed theologians), he was influenced by his thesis advisor Norman Shepherd with regards to covenant theology.

Shepherd left WTS under controversy for teaching that we are justified through faith and works. He rejected the Adamic Covenant of Works and emphasized the unity of the Covenant of God. RJ Rushdoony likewise said

[T]his idea of a covenant of works that is the problem in the confession and of course this doctrine has led to Dispensationalism and a great many other problems. It is a deadly error to believe that any covenant that God makes with man can be anything other than a covenant of grace. Precisely because He is God the only kind of covenant He can enter into with man involves free grace on His part. It is at the same time a covenant of law but every covenant is a law relationship… [T]he covenant of God with man is at one and the same time a covenant of grace and a covenant of law. [B]asic to the making of a covenant with God was the invoking of curses and blessings, Deuteronomy 27 and 28 give us that very, very clearly.

106. Systematic Theology – Covenant: 01 The Covenant and 02 Is There A Covenant Of Works

Following these men, Bahnsen said

The New Testament and Covenant continue the same demand for obedience… Continued blessing for Adam in paradise, Israel in the promised land, and the Christian in the kingdom has been seen to be dependent upon persevering obedience to God’s will as expressed in His law. There is complete covenantal unity with reference to the law of God as the standard of moral obligation throughout the diverse ages of human history.

Theonomy in Christian Ethics (201-2)

I reject this monocovenantalism. I affirm the Adamic Covenant of Works as distinct from the Messianic Covenant of Grace. Furthermore, I recognize a typological element to the blessings and curses of the Mosaic Covenant. Those blessings typified the blessings Christ earned for us through his perfect obedience to the moral law while the curses typified the judgment that we all deserve (and those outside of Christ will receive) for breaking God’s moral law. Theonomy’s commitment to monocovenantalism and mononomism, and its subsequent understanding of Mosaic blessing and curse, prevents it from affirming this understanding.

Stoning as Typological (Cherem) Curse

After responding to every known criticism offered against his thesis, Bahnsen held out the theoretical possibility of one remaining criticism that would be a valid objection.

[I]t must be argued by somebody who feels the penal sanctions were not given to anybody but Israel that there is a very strong distinction within the law itself between stipulation and sanction. That God stipulates this kind of behavior and then he lays down a punishment if you don’t follow that stipulation, and that the fact that a law binds Israel as well as the Gentiles with respect to stipulations does not therefore mean that the law with respect to sanctions binds Israel and the Gentiles. You see, the premise then is that there is a difference between stipulation and sanction. Now, is there exegetical evidence for this distinction?… Well, we haven’t been given evidence of that distinction.

It is precisely this distinction that I affirm and give evidence for (see links below – notably this one). The stipulations in question are part of God’s unchanging moral law for all image bearers. Violation of this unchanging moral law warrants eternal death at the final judgment. However, at the fall God delayed this final judgment, beginning a post-fall world restructured in subservience to the work of Christ. The death penalty instituted under the typological Old Covenant for violation of the moral law was not itself part of the moral law. It was a typological, positive law addition to the moral law given by way of covenant. The shedding of blood by man for violation of the moral law was specifically a typological curse.

“Yet the law is not of faith, but ‘the man who does them shall live by them.'” (Gal. 3:12)

Commenting on Gal. 3:12 (Lev. 18:5) Augustine said “Now those who were living by these works undoubtedly feared that if they did not do them, they would suffer stoning or crucifixion or something of this kind.”

“‘Cursed be anyone who does not confirm the words of this law by doing them.’ And all the people shall say, ‘Amen.’” (Deut 27:26, cited in Gal 3:10).

“And if a man has committed a crime punishable by death and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, his body shall not remain all night on the tree, but you shall bury him the same day, for a hanged man is cursed by God. You shall not defile your land that the LORD your God is giving you for an inheritance.” (Deut 21:22-23, cited in Gal 3:13)

It is specifically this principle of curse for violation of the law that Christ died on the cross for (Gal 3:13). Christians are not under the decalogue as a means to earn their life or lose it. Christ has earned our life and saved us from the curse. Theonomists who believe Christians should enforce Mosaic curses for violation of the moral law are putting Christians under a typological covenant of works that we are free from (Gal 5:1; Acts 15:10).

In A Consuming Fire: The Holy of Holies in Biblical Law, Joel McDurmon notes “some laws were just based upon the eye-for-an-eye rule; others were just based upon God’s immediate judgment under cherem.” He notes “These laws were typological.”

The general equity of those typological Old Covenant curses is not execution by modern government, but the moral law that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God (1 Cor 6:9-11) and the positive law that unrepentant sinners must therefore be purged from the visible church through excommunication (1 Cor 5:13 quoting Deut 22:21).

Conclusion

While theonomy presents an appealingly simple answer to the question of political philosophy and civil law, our presupposition must be Scripture properly interpreted.

Further Reading

by me:

by others:

Tabletalk’s Retroactive New Covenant

H/T @flyoverliberta1

The June issue of Ligonier Ministries’ Tabletalk magazine features a daily study through Hebrews, starting with ch. 8 on June 1. I don’t know who wrote the study, but they make some very good points, quoting Owen several times.

June 2 – The Necessity of Christ’s Heavenly Priesthood

8:4 is saying that because Christ is a member of the superior priesthood, His work cannot be done on earth. To engage in priestly ministry on earth is the province of the inferior Levitical priesthood, which is exercised according to the Mosaic law, the law that cannot perfect anyone.

June 3 – Better Promises for a Better Covenant

John Owen says these better promises are the new covenant promises of Jeremiah 31:33–34 that God will write His law on the hearts of His people and remember their sin no more, that is, finally and fully forgive them. These promises were not fulfilled by the old covenant mediated by Moses. After all, the repeated sacrifices of the Mosaic law mean that the old covenant could not provide full and final forgiveness. They, and the old covenant of which they were a part, could only remind people of sin, not remove it (Heb. 10:1–18). Furthermore, the law demonstrates that the old covenant cannot be the means by which God writes His commandments on the hearts of His people. Deuteronomy 31:14–29 foresees that Israel as a nation would be so corrupt as to break the old covenant. The people would need a new heart, a heart that would come only after the nation of Israel broke the old covenant and suffered the curse of exile (30:1–10).

Nevertheless, the reality of the new covenant promises belonged to the old covenant saints. After all, David, an old covenant believer, enjoyed the complete and final forgiveness of sins in his justification (Rom. 4:5–8). No one is saved except through Christ and His new covenant, which is the ultimate expression of the one covenant of grace between God and His people (John 14:6). The old covenant saints belonged also to the one covenant of grace, though they lived prior to the inauguration of the new covenant. They, no less than us, were redeemed by Jesus alone, though their understanding of this was less full than is ours as new covenant believers.

June 4 – The Promised New Covenant

The new covenant is necessary, Hebrews 8:8 tells us, because God found fault with the people. Our Creator never intended the old covenant to bring the blessings we have under the new covenant, though the old covenant saints possessed the benefits of the new covenant, albeit to a lesser degree than we do…

In and through the new covenant, we get what the subcovenants of the covenant of grace hoped for. The new covenant, Hebrews 8:10 reveals, is the means by which God’s promise to be God to Abraham is accomplished (see Gen. 17:7). 

While disagreeing with the author’s interpretation of Gen 17:7 (see here), he correctly notes that Abraham was saved by the new covenant. Abraham, and all other Old Testament saints, received the promises/blessings of the new covenant in advance of its formal establishment.

Further Reading

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.