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McMahon’s Misrepresentation of John Owen

September 20, 2010 24 comments

Dr. C. Matthew McMahon, owner of APuritansMind.com and PuritanBoard.com has an article on his website titled John Owen and the Covenant of Redemption.

Though he doesn’t mention us by name, the article is an attempted rebuke of Covenantal Baptists (note that the article is filed under his “baptism” category even though nothing in the article mentions anything about baptism) who have stated their affinity for John Owen’s covenant theology, specifically his view of the New Covenant. McMahon states:

It is often the case through church history that people want to “own” the foremost theologians of the church in their system of theology; our day is no different… Owen, though he is dead, still needs to be rescued from those who obscure his theological views surrounding Covenant Theology… There is a wave of theological error purporting that the New Covenant, or Covenant of Grace fully expressed in the New Testament, was a “brand new,” or as some parrot Hebrews, “better” covenant, but translate this theologically as “wholly different.”…consideration should taken to rightly exemplify Owen’s position in any theological writing on the covenants.

McMahon explains Owen taught that the Covenant of Redemption was a covenant of works between the Father and the Son. Quoting Owen:

“The will of the Father appointing and designing the Son to be the head, husband, deliverer, and redeemer of his elect, his church, his people, whom he did foreknow, with the will of the Son voluntarily, freely undertaking that work and all that was required thereunto, is that compact (for in that form it is proposed in the Scripture) that we treat of.” (12:496)

McMahon explains that this supports all of God’s work in time with the elect. “It is the foundation for everything that God will do in time in redeeming His bride for Himself.” God applies the benefits of the Covenant of Redemption to the elect by means of the Covenant of Grace. He elaborates:

It would be correct, in Owen’s mind, to say that salvation is coextensive for the elect in the Covenant of Grace by the blessings imparted by the Covenant of Redemption. But, it would also be correct, in Owen’s mind, to say that salvation is not coextensive in the Covenant of Grace for those who are not elect, that is why Owen had no problem admitting infants in the Covenant of Grace in any administration of it.

McMahon chastises baptists by explaining that Owen simply held the standard reformed formulation of the Covenant of Grace as consisting of numerous administrations, of which the New Covenant was only the most recent. According to McMahon, Owen taught that the New Covenant was merely a renewal of the previous administrations of the Covenant of Grace. McMahon states:

“By the new covenant, not the new covenant absolutely and originally, as given in the first promise, is intended; but in its complete gospel administration, when it was actually established by the death of Christ, as administered in and by the ordinances of the new testament. This, with the covenant of Sinai, were, as most say, but different administrations of the same covenant.” (6:70, Emphasis mine.) Owen then spends another page outlining why it is different administrations of the same covenant. (cf. 6:71ff)

He sums this up in saying, “The judgment of most reformed divines is, that the church under the old testament had the same promise of Christ, the same interest in him by faith, remission of sins, reconciliation with God, justification and salvation by the same way and means, that believers have under the new. And whereas the essence and the substance of the covenant consists in these things, they are not to be said to be under another covenant, but only a different administration of it. But this was so different from that which is established in the gospel after the coming of Christ, that it hath the appearance and name of another covenant.” (6:71)

The Problem

The problem with McMahon’s essay is two-fold:

  1. McMahon jumps all over the prolific work of Owen. He quotes from numerous different writings as it fits his argument. The problem is that McMahon fails to account for growth/change in Owen’s thought over the 40 years that he wrote. Therefore what Owen may have said in one place is not necessarily consistent with what he may have said later or earlier in his life. Jeffrey D. Johnson in his recent book The Fatal Flaw in the Theology Behind Infant Baptism notes this change when specifically comparing Owen’s work “Biblical Theology” with his Hebrews commentary.
  2. McMahon very blatantly and inexcusably misreads Owen’s commentary on Hebrews, his most mature stating of his views on the subject.

Two Covenants or One?

The previous quotation from McMahon (and Owen) suggests that in his commentary on Hebrews 8:6-13, Owen said the new covenant is simply a different administration of the same covenant as Sinai. The egregious error is that the section McMahon quotes from Owen is actually the section where Owen is summarizing the view he disagrees with! (See Brenton Ferry’s criticism of Jeong Koo Jeon for making the exact same error in Ferry’s chapter of The Law is Not of Faith)

Here is what Owen states:

Preliminary Clarifications
On this consideration it is said by some, that the two covenants mentioned, the new and the old, were not indeed two distinct covenants, in their essence and substance, but only different administrations of the same covenant, called two covenants from some different outward solemnities and duties of worship attending them. To clearly discuss this with the minimum of unnecessary difficulty the following clarifications should be observed and noted, —

1. That by the old covenant, the original covenant of works, made with Adam and all mankind in him, is not intended; for this is undoubtedly a covenant different in its essence and substance from the new.

[[[2. By the new covenant, not the new covenant absolutely and originally, as given in the first promise, is intended; but in its complete gospel administration, when it was actually established by the death of Christ, as administered in and by the ordinances of the new testament. This, with the covenant of Sinai, were, as most say, but different administrations of the same covenant.]]] This latter being the point to be examined.

As on the other hand, there is such express mention made, not only in this, but in several other places in the Scriptures, of two distinct covenants, or testaments, and such different natures, properties, and effects, ascribed to them, as seem to constitute two distinct covenants. This, therefore, we must inquire into;

Exposition of the Book of Hebrews 8:6

So Owen states that the precise point of this part of his commentary is to decide if the old and the new are two different covenants, or just two different administrations of the same covenant. He starts by summarizing the One Covenant View. This summary is what McMahon erroneously claims is Owen stating his own view.

The Plausibility of the One Covenant View
…[[[The judgment of most reformed divines is, that the church under the old testament had the same promise of Christ, the same interest in him by faith, remission of sins, reconciliation with God, justification and salvation by the same way and means, that believers have under the new. And whereas the essence and the substance of the covenant consists in these things, they are not to be said to be under another covenant, but only a different administration of it. But this was so different from that which is established in the gospel after the coming of Christ, that it has the appearance and name of another covenant.]]]

After summarizing and explaining the One Covenant View under the heading “The Plausibility of the One Covenant View” Owen goes on to describe the alternative view:

The Lutheran Insistence on Two Distinct Covenants
The Lutherans, on the other side, insist on two arguments to prove that there is not  a twofold administration of the same covenant, but that there are substantially distinct covenants  and that this is intended in this discourse of the apostle.

Their arguments are

1. Because in the Scripture they are often so called (separate covenants), and compared with one another, and sometimes opposed to one another; the first and the last, the new and the old.

2. Because the covenant of grace in Christ is eternal, immutable, always the same, subject to no alteration, no change or abrogation; neither can these things be said of it with respect to any administration of it as they are of the old covenant.

So then which view does Owen side with?

THE TWO COVENANTS ARE DISTINCT COVENANTS
…5. Wherefore we must grant two distinct covenants, rather than merely a twofold administration of the same covenant, to be intended. We must do so, provided always that the way of reconciliation and salvation was the same under both. But it will be said, —and with great pretence of reason, for it is the sole foundation of all who allow only a twofold administration of the same covenant, —’That this being the principal end of a divine covenant, if the way of reconciliation and salvation is the same under both, then indeed they are the same for the substance of them is but one.’ And I grant that this would inevitably follow, if it were so equally by virtue of them both. If reconciliation and salvation by Christ were to be obtained not only under the old covenant, but by virtue of it, then it must be the same for substance with the new. But this is not so; for no reconciliation with God nor salvation could be obtained by virtue of the old covenant, or the administration of it, as our apostle disputes at large, though all believers were reconciled, justified, and saved, by virtue of the promise, while they were under the old covenant.

Having shown in what sense the covenant of grace is called “the new covenant,” in this distinction and opposition to the old covenant, so I shall propose several things which relate to the nature of the first covenant, which manifest it to have been a distinct covenant, and not a mere administration of the covenant of grace:

Could Owen be any clearer? I don’t think so. McMahon misunderstands every quotation he supplies from Owen’s commentary on Hebrews 8. I honestly do not know how McMahon could so severely blunder his reading of Owen. It seems the only options are he intentionally misrepresents Owen, or he read Owen’s commentary so quickly as to not read what Owen actually said. I know he is a very busy person, and I don’t want to charge McMahon with the former, so it must have been the latter. Either way, it makes him an unreliable guide on this matter. This error alone renders McMahon’s entire essay faulty.

The Newness of the New Covenant

In keeping with this error, McMahon says “After stating that the new is not ‘brand new’, Owen describes how the new is different than the old” and then goes on to list 5 points of difference. The problem is that McMahon is once again quoting Owen’s summary of the reformed view! He is listing the 5 ways in which the reformed divines say there is a difference.

Owen saves his view of the differences for later when he lists 17 particular differences!

“Do This And Live” Foundation for All Covenants?

Central to his thesis is McMahon’s attempt to make Owen say that every covenant, including the Covenant of Grace is founded upon the principle “Do this and live.” McMahon states:

What is a covenant? According to Owen, the Covenant of Works subsists in the foundation or template for all covenants. He says, “The whole entire nature of the covenant of works consisted in this, — that upon our personal obedience, according unto the law and rule of it, we should be accepted with God, and rewarded with him. Herein the essence of it did consist; and whatever covenant proceeds on these terms, or has the nature of them in it, however it may be varied with additions or alterations, is the same covenant still, and not another. As in the renovation of the promise wherein the essence of the covenant of grace was contained, God did ofttimes make other additions unto it (as unto Abraham and David), yet was it still the same covenant for the substance of it, and not another; so whatever variations may be made in, or additions unto, the dispensation of the first covenant, so long as this rule is retained, “Do this, and live,” it is still the same covenant for the substance and essence of it.” (5:275, Emphasis Mine) This is striking in that Owen templates the structure of “covenant” in “do this and live.”

This is a very serious misreading of Owen. (The same misreading is found in this essay by Anglican Priest Steve Griffith http://www.johnowen.org/media/griffiths_owen_federal_theology.pdf. It appears that the misreading of both of these authors may have its roots in Sinclair Ferguson, but I don’t have a copy of his book to compare.) McMahon argues that Owen is teaching that the Covenant of Grace is the same covenant for substance and essence as the Covenant of Works! McMahon claims that the substance of the Covenant of Grace is “Do this, and live.” But is that what Owen actually said?

XIII. The nature of justification proved from the difference of the covenants
The difference between the two covenants stated–Argument from thence
That which we plead in the third place unto our purpose is, the difference between the two covenants. And herein it may be observed,- –

1. That by the two covenants I understand those which were absolutely given unto the whole church, and were all to bring it “eis teleioteta”,–unto a complete and perfect state; that is, the covenant of works, or the law of our creation as it was given unto us, with promises and threatening, or rewards and punishments, annexed unto it; and the covenant of grace, revealed and proposed in the first promise. As unto the covenant of Sinai, and the new testament as actually confirmed in the death of Christ, with all the spiritual privileges thence emerging, and the differences between them, they belong not unto our present argument.

2. The whole entire nature of the covenant of works consisted in this,–that upon our personal obedience, according unto the law and rule of it, we should be accepted with God, and rewarded with him. Herein the essence of it did consist; and whatever covenant proceeds on these terms, or has the nature of them in it, however it may be varied with additions or alterations, is the same covenant still, and not another. As in the renovation of the promise wherein the essence of the covenant of grace was contained, God did ofttimes make other additions unto it (as unto Abraham and David), yet was it still the same covenant for the substance of it, and not another; so whatever variations may be made in, or additions unto, the dispensation of the first covenant, so long as this rule is retained, “Do this, and live,” it is still the same covenant for the substance and essence of it.

3. Hence two things belonged unto this covenant:–First, That all things were transacted immediately between God and man. There was no mediator in it, no one to undertake any thing, either on the part of God or man, between them; for the whole depending on every one’s personal obedience, there was no place for a mediator. Secondly, That nothing but perfect, sinless obedience would be accepted with God, or preserve the covenant in its primitive state and condition. There was nothing in it as to pardon of sin, no provision for any defect in personal obedience.

4. Wherefore, this covenant being once established between God and man, there could be no new covenant made, unless the essential form of it were of another nature,–namely, that our own personal obedience be not the rule and cause of our acceptation and justification before God; for whilst this is so, as was before observed, the covenant is still the same, however the dispensation of it may be reformed or reduced to suit unto our present state and condition. What grace soever might be introduced into it, that could not be so which excluded all works from being the cause of our justification. But if a new covenant be made, such grace must be provided as is absolutely inconsistent with any works of ours, as unto the first ends of the covenant; as the apostle declares, Rom.11:6.

5. Wherefore, the covenant of grace, supposing it a new, real, absolute covenant, and not a reformation of the dispensation of the old, or a reduction of it unto the use of our present condition (as some imagine it to be), must differ, in the essence, substance, and nature of it, from that first covenant of works. And this it cannot do if we are to be justified before God on our personal obedience; wherein the essence of the first covenant consisted. If, then, the righteousness wherewith we are justified before God be our own, our own personal righteousness, we are yet under the first covenant, and no other.

6. But things in the new covenant are indeed quite otherwise; for,- -First, It is of grace, which wholly excludes works; that is, so of grace, as that our own works are not the means of justification before God; as in the places before alleged. Secondly, It has a mediator and surety; which is built alone on this supposition, that what we cannot do in ourselves which was originally required of us, and what the law of the first covenant cannot enable us to perform, that should be performed for us by our mediator and surety. And if this be not included in the very first notion of a mediator and surety, yet it is in that of a mediator or surety that does voluntarily interpose himself, upon an open acknowledgment that those for whom he undertakes were utterly insufficient to perform

http://www.iclnet.org/pub/resources/text/ipb-e/epl-02/ownjs-25.txt

It is quite inexplicable how McMahon could misread Owen so severely yet again. The very title of this section makes it clear that Owen is articulating a contrast, a difference between the Covenant of Works and the Covenant of Grace, not their similarity!

Is the New Covenant Conditional?

The entire thrust of McMahon’s essay is to demonstrate that Owen taught that the New Covenant/Covenant of Grace had conditions that could be broken by its members. He desires to show that Owen taught both elect and non-elect individuals are members of the Covenant of Grace, but only the elect have the power/grace to fulfill the conditions of it by means of the Covenant of Redemption. McMahon states:

Owen has absolutely no problem in stating that in every covenant made, there are conditions to be met. In the external administration of the Covenant of Grace, that which pertains to the New Covenant in the New Testament as well as its expression in the Old Testament, men must meet specific requirements in order to be saved. But they cannot. God must then “take up both sides.” This is why the Covenant of Redemption is so important in Owen’s overall view of Covenant Theology. Jesus Christ, as Mediator, places all the responsibility, in time, under the law, on Himself, for all those for whom He will live and die. Men, then, by virtue of Christ’s work, are graciously saved and regenerated. That does not mean that only the regenerate live and move in the Covenant of Grace. Abraham and his seed are covenanted with God. But it certainly means, by Owen’s own definition, that only the elect participate in the fruits of the Covenant of Redemption.

…The Covenant of Grace is the sphere in which God works, handling both believers and unbelievers in that context upon condition of their obedience.

The quotations McMahon provides in this section of his essay are all from Volume XI of Owen’s Works: “The Doctrine of the Saints’ Perseverance Explained and Confirmed” which was written in 1654. I have not read the work so I cannot comment on the accuracy of his quotes.

However, here are the words of Owen 26 years later, speaking of the New Covenant in Hebrews 8:10

A covenant properly is a compact or agreement on certain terms mutually stipulated by two or more parties. As promises are the foundation and rise of it, as it is between God and man, so it compriseth also precepts, or laws of obedience, which are prescribed unto man on his part to be observed. But in the description of the covenant here annexed, there is no mention of any condition on the part of man, of any terms of obedience prescribed unto him, but the whole consists in free, gratuitous promises, as we shall see in the explication of it…

…(3.) It is evident that there can be no condition previously required, unto our entering into or participation of the benefits of this covenant, antecedent unto the making of it with us. For none think there are any such with respect unto its original constitution; nor can there be so in respect of its making with us, or our entering into it. For, — [1.] This would render the covenant inferior in a way of grace unto that which God made with the people at Horeb. For he declares that there was not any thing in them that moved him either to make that covenant, or to take them into it with himself. Everywhere he asserts this to be an act of his mere grace and favor. Yea, he frequently declares, that he took them into covenant, not only without respect unto any thing of good in them, but although they were evil and stubborn. See Deuteronomy 7:7,8, 9:4, 5. [2.] It is contrary unto the nature, ends, and express properties of this covenant. For there is nothing that can be thought or supposed to be such a condition, but it is comprehended in the promise of the covenant itself; for all that God requireth in us is proposed as that which himself will effect by virtue of this covenant.

…(5.) It is evident that the first grace of the covenant, or God’s putting his law in our hearts, can depend on no condition on our part. For whatever is antecedent thereunto, being only a work or act of corrupted nature, can be no condition whereon the dispensation of spiritual grace is superadded. And this is the great ground of them who absolutely deny the covenant of grace to be conditional; namely, that the first grace is absolutely promised, whereon and its exercise the whole of it doth depend.

(6.) Unto a full and complete interest in all the promises of the covenant, faith on our part, from which evangelical repentance is inseparable, is required. But whereas these also are wrought in us by virtue of that promise and grace of the covenant which are absolute, it is a mere strife about words to contend whether they may be called conditions or no. Let it be granted on the one hand, that we cannot have an actual participation of the relative grace of this covenant in adoption and justification, without faith or believing; and on the other, that this faith is wrought in us, given unto us, bestowed upon us, by that grace of the covenant which depends on no condition in us as unto its discriminating administration, and I shall not concern myself what men will call it.

…(9.) Although diaqh>kh, the word here used, may signify and be rightly rendered a “covenant,” in the same manner as tyriB] doth, yet that which is intended is properly a “testament,” or a “testamentary disposition” of good things. It is the will of God in and by Jesus Christ, his death and bloodshedding, to give freely unto us the whole inheritance of grace and glory. And under this notion the covenant hath no condition, nor are any such either expressed or intimated in this place.

Exposition of the Book of Hebrews 8:10

And so we see once again that Owen argues at length against the position McMahon attributes to him. This is the foundation of McMahon’s thesis, and it is shown to be faulty as well.

Covenant of Grace Made with Non-Elect?

In line with the previous point is McMahon’s contention that Owen taught the Covenant of Grace is made with both the elect and non-elect.

The Covenant of Grace, for the elect, cannot be broken because it logically flows from the Covenant of Redemption. However, those “covenanted” with God, who are not regenerate, something Owen contends for, will always break the covenant and enact the threatenings held in the sign placed upon them. (16:258ff)

This is seen to be false according to the previous quote from Owen regarding conditions in the New Covenant.

…Part of the confusion here is due to the fact that many make the Covenant of Grace too restrictive. They do not allow for Owen’s “covenant” definition, and therefore concluded that the Covenant of Grace is something brand “new”, not a renewal of anything former, and made internally, without any external portions, only with the elect.

…This is where Owen emphatically disagrees, even if only on the basis of the Covenant of Redemption, with those who would “simply” equate the Covenant of Grace with salvation; i.e. that the Covenant of Grace only contains inward and no outward expressions, or it only provides a context for the regenerate and not unbelievers.

First, we already demonstrated that what McMahon claims is “Owen’s ‘covenant’ definition” is in fact not. Second, compare McMahon’s summary of Owen with Owen’s own words:

The covenant of grace in Christ is made only with the Israel of God, the church of the elect. For by the making of this covenant with any, the effectual communication of the grace of it to them is principally intended. Nor can that covenant be said to be made absolutely with any but those whose sins are pardoned by virtue of it, and in whose hearts the law of God is written; which are the express promises of it. And it was with respect to those of this sort among that people that the covenant was promised to be made with them. See Rom 9:27-33; 11:7. But in respect of the outward dispensation of the covenant, it is extended beyond the effectual communication of the grace of it. And in respect to that did the privilege of the carnal seed of Abraham lie.

Exposition of the Book of Hebrews 8:8 Obs. X

(By outward dispensation of the covenant of grace, Owen has in mind the preaching of the Word, etc – this is not the same thing as the “external administration/membership” that you hear other reformed writers, like McMahon, talk about)

Abrahamic and New Covenant the Same?

One final note needs to be made regarding the relationship of the Abrahamic Covenant to the New Covenant in Owen’s mind. McMahon states:

with Owen, the Abrahamic and New Covenant are the same

And yet, if we once again allow Owen to speak for himself, we will hear just the opposite:

When we speak of the “new covenant,” we do not intend the covenant of grace absolutely, as though it were not before in existence and effect, before the introduction of that which is promised here. For it was always the same, substantially, from the beginning. It passed through the whole dispensation of times before the law, and under the law, of the same nature and effectiveness, unalterable, “everlasting, ordered in all things, and sure.” All who contend about these things, the Socinians only excepted, grant that the covenant of grace, considered absolutely, — that is, the promise of grace in and by Jesus Christ, —was the only way and means of salvation to the church, from the first entrance of sin.

But for two reasons, it is not expressly called a covenant, without respect to any other things, nor was it called a covenant under the old testament. When God renewed the promise of it to Abraham, he is said to make a covenant with him; and he did so, but this covenant with Abraham was with respect to other things, especially the proceeding of the promised Seed from his loins. But absolutely, under the old testament, the covenant of grace consisted only in a promise; and as such only is proposed in the Scripture,

Exposition of the Book of Hebrews 8:6

Conclusion

McMahon labored over this essay to warn Christians not to misread and therefore misrepresent Owen’s view of God’s covenants, and yet he has egregiously misread Owen himself. The irony would be quite humorous if the arrogant disdain from men like McMahon for baptists was not so aggravating. In conclusion, do not be intimidated and misled. Read the sources yourself.

It is often the case through church history that people want to “own” the foremost theologians of the church in their system of theology; our day is no different… Owen, though he is dead, still needs to be rescued from those who obscure his theological views surrounding Covenant Theology… consideration should be taken to rightly exemplify Owen’s position in any theological writing on the covenants.