Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Reconciling Covenant Theology and Rejecting New Covenant Theology

This post is in response to this blog post by an old friend I served with at a PCA church several years ago. In it, he attempts to challenge an established Reformed Biblical framework commonly known as Covenant Theology (CT) with a comparatively recent framework, New Covenant Theology (or at least his interpretation of it). Per his request. I intend to address his objections and defend the Reformed position, as I understand it, concerning CT. 


In order to try and keep a consistent thread, I will be using the framework he lays out in his post. 


I pray that my responses are gracious in tone and manner. 


“*” indicates later large edits or additions.


For a very in-depth study of CT, visit here. 


The Introduction: 


This section is basically laying out his thesis and general objection to CT as having “inconsistencies and statements I found that were in conflict with Scripture”. He goes on to say that he resonates with New Covenant Theology (NCT), but is “not meant to necessarily be in lock step with the views of the leaders of this theology.” (This feels a little bit like solo Scriptura vs sola Scriptura, to me.) He then goes on to say that he will be basing his objections to CT “as explained by Louis Berkhof in chapter 13 of his book, A Summary of Christian Doctrine and, in particular, objections to the idea of a Covenant of Grace (CoG). 


Note: I am not sure why Berkhof is his primary source, but I came to an understanding of CT through the reading of God’s Word, the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF), preaching/teaching of trusted authorities. and general study of a variety of Reformed documents and scholars available on the Internet, including: 


 
A. Covenant of grace defined 


Here, he offers Berkof’s summary definition of the CoG as a core premise of CT and accurately describes it as the overarching covenant under which the other temporal sub-covenants of the Bible fall. This framework of the meta-covenant is the idea to which he objects, saying that “Scripture does not mention” a CoG and calling it "entirely a theologically deduced covenant.” 


And thus, we come to Objection 1: What is the problem with an “entirely theologically deduced” principle or doctrine? He does not go into it, but seems to think that the idea of what the WCF calls “good and necessary consequence” (GNC) is somehow invalid. One of the prime examples of GNC is the doctrine of the Trinity, a foundational teaching for orthodox Christianity. That is, the word “trinity” is never explicitly mentioned in Scripture. In the same manner, the CoG is never explicitly mentioned in Scripture, but the principle, just like the Trinity, is proclaimed throughout Scripture in how God graciously deals with Man. Both are “entirely theologically deduced” concepts. 


Objection 2: He also tries to introduce the “gospel of grace” as the replacement meta-principle covering all of redemptive history. Sadly, he fails to understand that the “good news” (gospel) of grace is the story of the Covenant of Grace! 


B. Parties of the Covenant 


Objection 3: The quote by Berkhof in this section is intended to introduce an element of uncertainty associated with CT in order to invalidate it. An effective ploy when building a strawman, but not very effective against a system that embraces nuance and appropriate complexity. I don’t think I can say it any better than A.A. Hodge as he presents the 3 Reformed views of the CoG: 

 
1st. The first view regards the Covenant of Grace as made by God with elect sinners. God promising to save sinners as such on the condition of faith, they, when converted, promising faith and obedience. Christ in this view is not one of the parties to the covenant, but its Mediator in behalf of his elect, and their surety; i.e., he guarantees that all the conditions demanded of them shall be fulfilled by them through his grace.   


2nd. The second view supposes two covenants, the first, called the Covenant of Redemption, formed from eternity between the Father and the Son as parties. The Son promising to obey and suffer, the Father promising to give him a people and to grant them in him all spiritual blessings and eternal life. The second, called the Covenant of Grace, formed by God with the elect as parties, Christ being mediator and surety in behalf of his people.  


3rd. As there are two Adams set forth in the Scripture, the one representing the entire race in an economy of nature, and the other representing the whole body of the elect in an economy of grace, it appears more simple to regard as the foundation of all God’s dealings with mankind, of whatever class, only the two great contrasted Covenants of works and of grace. The former made by God at the creation of the world with Adam, as the federal head and representative of all his posterity. The latter or Covenant of Grace, formed in the counsels of eternity between the Father and the Son as contracting parties, the Son therein contracting as the Second Adam, representing all his people as their mediator and surety, assuming their place and undertaking all their obligations, under the unsatisfied Covenant of Works, and undertaking to apply to them all the benefits secured by this eternal Covenant of Grace, and to secure the performance upon their part of all those duties which are involved therein. Thus, in one aspect this Covenant may be viewed as contracted with the head for the salvation of the members, and in another as contracted with the members in their head and sponsor. For that which is a grace from God is a duty upon our part, as St. Augustine prayed, "Da quod tubes, et tubes quod vis;" (Give what You command and command what You will - oddXian) and hence results this complex view of the Covenant. 


I subscribe to this 3rd view because, as A.A. Hodge points out, Scripture only compares and contrasts the Old with the New, as well represented in the book of Hebrews. And all agree that the parties ultimately and eternally benefitting are the elect. That being said, I also believe that the unsaved members of the visible church (2 Peter 2:20. Heb 6:4-8) and, in some sense, all mankind benefits from the CoG (I.e., “common grace”), but we’ll address that another time. 


C. Promises of the Covenant 


Objection 4: This section should have been titled “People of the Covenant” because it really concerns nuances (or lack thereof) concerning covenant membership. The author points out what he believes is a contradiction in Berkhof’s theology, I.e., that there are members of the covenant that do not ultimately receive the benefits of the covenant. Again, very useful to build a strawman, but not useful when one understands the nature of the visible vs invisible church. 


Scripture is replete with examples, both OT (Ishamael, Esau, etc.) and NT (2 Peter 2, Acts 20:28-30, Mat 18:15-17, Heb 6:4-8, 1 Jn. 2:19-20, Matthew 7:21-23) of people who were acknowledged members of the visible church that were not members of the invisible church. 

There is no doubt that there are those who persevere and are indeed the true eternal beneficiaries of the NC as well as those that don’t. Invalid converts, while they may benefit from visible church membership, are ultimately revealed as false sheep, doers of iniquity, and ravenous wolves, justly deserving their condemnation. 


Here is a good Biblical treatment of the visible vs invisible church. 


D. Requirements of the Covenant 


Objection 5: I am not sure what the author is confused about here. Ephesians 2:8-10 is pretty clear that God initiates the covenant relationship by both graciously gifting faith and the ability to meet the conditions. See St Augustine quote above. It is fully monergistic. 


E. Characteristics of the Covenant 


(1) This should be in section C, so I’ll refer you to Objection 5. 


(2) Objection 6: This is a simple misunderstanding/misapplication of the Covenant of Works vs the CoG, which is described as better, new, and eternal, particularly in Hebrews. The key being the CoG spans over the Old Covenant and is activated and applied retroactively, all the way to the Fall, at the death of Christ (Heb 9:15). In other words, the Covenant of Works is what the physical Kingdom of Israel experienced in history during the Old Covenant, all the while the CoG was there in the spiritual sense, preserving and saving the remnant through the gracious gift of faith in the promise of Christ! (Gen 3:15, 12: 3, 17:19, 28:14, 2 Sam 7:12-13, Isaiah 53, Daniel 7:13-14, 9:24, Jer 31:31, etc.) 


Covenant Theology in a Nutshell

(Click image for larger view)


F.  Membership in the Covenant 


(1) See Objection 5 - this is simply an invalid premise. 


(2) Objection 7: Here the author objects to infant baptism as a sign and seal of covenant promise to children of believing families. He claims Hebrews 8 disproves it, although he gives no substantiating evidence of how Hebrews 8 does this. He then claims that Romans 9:8 confirms his premise: 


“This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring.” (ESV) 


His premise completely ignores the fact that the “children of flesh” still received the sign of the covenant as physical Kingdom members. 


No one argues that those receiving the physical sign are guaranteed spiritual covenant membership, infant or adult - they are not. It is a sign of hope in the New Covenant promise of redemption and regeneration by the Holy Spirit, which Peter clearly states is valid for households: 


Acts 2:38–39 

And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” (ESV) 


Again, I lean on A.A. Hodge from his Outlines of Theology, Chapter 42 - Baptism: 


The bearing of this argument upon the question of infant baptism is direct and conclusive.  


1st. Baptism now occupies the same relation to the covenant and the church which circumcision did. 

(1) Both rites represent the same spiritual grace, namely, regeneration. ––Deuteronomy 30:6; Colossians 2:11; Romans 6:3,4.  

(2) Baptism is now what circumcision was, the seal, or confirming sign, of the Abrahamic covenant. Peter says, "be baptized FOR the PROMISE is to you and to your children."—Acts 2:38,39. Paul says explicitly that baptism is the sign of that covenant, "for as many as have been baptized into Christ are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise," Galatians 3:27,29; and that baptism is the circumcision of Christ.––Colossians 2:10,11.  

(3) Both rites are the appointed forms, in successive eras, of initiation into the church, which we have proved to be the same church under both dispensations. 

 

2nd. Since the church is the same, in the absence of all explicit command to the contrary, the members are the same. Children of believers were members then. They ought to be recognized as members now, and receive the initiatory rite. This the apostles took for granted as self–evident, and universally admitted; an explicit command to baptize would have implied doubt in the ancient church rights of infants. 

 

3rd. Since the covenant, with its promise to be "a God to the believer and his seed," is expressly declared to stand firm under the gospel, the believer’s seed have a right to the seal of that promise. ––Dr. John M. Mason’s "Essays on the Church." 


(I highly recommend reading his full section on baptism, it is enlightening.)  


Receiving a sign of a covenant means that person is in and bound by that covenant until proven otherwise. It is a sign of hope that those blessings outlined  as covenant blessings will be made clear and manifested in the life of a true covenant member. It is this sign of hope and privilege that the parents of believers claim, just as parents of the Old Covenant claimed. This sign of hope and privilege was never abrogated, even though the form of the sign was. Now we give our children the “circumcision of Christ”, water baptism.


Covenant parents also claim the hope of the promise in Acts 2:39


[39] For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.”


We substantiate this through the acts of Christ when dealing with children, see Matthew 19:14-15


[14] but Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.” [15] And he laid his hands on them and went away.


The burden of proof is on the NCT/credo Baptist is to prove that the New Covenant explicitly removes infants from receiving the sign of the visible Kingdom, nullifying the correlation of OC circumcision to NC baptism, deprecating the kindly disposition Jesus (representing the character of God) felt for little children, invalidating the household baptisms recorded in Scripture, and tossing out the historic practice of the visible church, founded by the apostles and their disciples. A mighty work, indeed!*


G. Different dispensations of the Covenant 


Hold your breath, because I don’t really have any objections to this section. I feel like Berkhof, while trying to show the dual presence of the CoW and CoG in the Mosaic covenant, seems to get a little off-message. I have read this section (source here) several times. I get what he is trying to do, I just don’t think it is clear in how he lays it out. 


I think Charles Hodge in his Systematic Theology (Vol 2, pg 375) gives a more accurate summary (emphasis mine): 


Besides this evangelical character which unquestionably belongs to the Mosaic covenant, it is presented in two other aspects in the Word of God. First, it was a national covenant with the Hebrew people. In this view the parties were God and the people of Israel; the promise was national security and prosperity; the condition was the obedience of the people as a nation to the Mosaic law; and the mediator was Moses. In this aspect it was a legal covenant. It said. “Do this and live.” Secondly, it contained, as does also the New Testament, a renewed proclamation of the original covenant of works. It is as true now as in the days of Adam, it always has been and always must be true, that rational creatures who perfectly obey the law of God are blessed in the enjoyment of his favour; and that those who sin are subject to his wrath and curse. Our Lord assured the young man who came to Him for instruction that if he kept the commandments he should live. And Paul says (Rom. ii. 6) that God will render to every man according to his deeds; tribulation and anguish upon every soul of man that doeth evil; but glory, honour, and peace to every man who worketh good. This arises from the relation of intelligent creatures to God. It is in fact nothing but a declaration of the eternal and immutable principles of justice. If a man rejects or neglects the gospel, these are the principles, as Paul teaches in the opening chapters of his Epistle to the Romans, according to which he will be judged. If he will not be under grace, if he will not accede to the method of salvation by grace, he is of necessity under the law. 

These different aspects under which the Mosaic economy is presented account for the apparently inconsistent way in which it in spoken of in the New Testament.  

(1.) When viewed in relation to the people of God before the advent, it is represented as divine and obligatory. 

(2.) When viewed in relation to the state of the Church after the advent, it is declared to be obsolete. It is represented as the lifeless husk from which the living kernel and germ have been extracted, a body from which the soul has departed.  

(3.) When viewed according to its true import and design as a preparatory dispensation of the covenant of grace, it is spoken of as teaching the same gospel, the same method of salvation as that which the Apostles themselves preached. 

(4.) When viewed, in the light in which it was regarded by those who rejected the gospel, as a mere legal system, it was declared to be a ministration of death and condemnation. (2 Cor. iii. 6-18.)  

(5.) And when contrasted with the new or Christian economy, as a different mode of revealing the same covenant, it is spoken of as a state of tutelage and bondage, far different from the freedom and filial spirit of the dispensation under which we now live. 


H. Covenant breakers 


Objection 8: At this point, we see that the author’s stance is still contingent on the premise that the NC and CoG is entirely spiritual in nature and there are no physical “types and shadows” that exist to point to it. Factually, communion, baptism and the temporal church are all physical components of the NC that point to spiritual realities. Also, while the OC is abolished, it is still embedded within the NC (see quote from C. Hodges, above), so in some sense, there is one, eternal Covenant of Grace. 


Summary 


Well, we have come to the end of this particular journey. Based on experience, I doubt my response will change the author’s position, but I do hope it leads him to do some additional study of Reformed Theology, particularly Covenant Theology, with a broader base of theologians. As in all things, there will be some slight disagreement concerning some of the nuances of RT & CT, but in general, you’ll see a very harmonized way of viewing God’s plan of redemption for Man and glorification of Christ. NCT is a novel perspective and we know the perils of the novel in terms of orthodoxy 😊. 


Inasmuch as I disagree with his current NCT position, I do admire and commend his commitment to Scriptural authority. I think it is foundational, but should not exclude the teachings of the church fathers, appropriate tradition, historical practice and other faithful theologians. 


Ultimately, I believe both our objectives is “iron sharpens iron” and I have to give him credit for making me reexamine and dive more deeply into my own theological position. 


Wayne, I hope this meets your expectations and I appreciate and love you as my brother in Christ! 


Soli Deo gloria! 

-JD 



P.S.: as with all of my work, I reserve the right to tweak and tune, so the content may slightly change as I consider it :)


Other thoughts:

A core tenet of NCT is that there is no physical aspect of the New Covenant (NC). It is purely spiritual only and is therefore composed of only the elect.


2 typical components of covenant are 1) a sign to seal it with 2) blessings and curses as consequences.

Both the elect and reprobate take on the physical sign of the NC, so both fall under the blessings and curses of the covenant.

For the elect, the physical blessings of the NC (e.g., Gal 5:22-23) and eternal communion with God.

For the reprobate, the physical blessings of the NC (e.g., Heb 6:4-6) but the curse of eternal damnation, because they are ultimately covenant breakers (e.g., Heb 10:29-30, Matt 7:22).

Thus, the NC is mixed and NCT has a fundamental flaw. 

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