Josh Sommer is a strong advocate of 1689 Baptist covenant theology who has been writing posts replying to my articles on Deciphering Covenant Theology. I am glad that he has decided to challenge my articles, both because it is important to hear what a proponent of CT says to counter a critique of their theology, and because I am sure he will help me to see where my posts might be improved. I cannot address every point Josh raises, just as he cannot address all mine, but I will try to comment on the most salient issues.
Clearly we are not going to see things the same way because we have different starting assumptions. I believe that the Bible is a book that must be read as a book is usually read and that God means what He says – especially when He swears an oath to do it. I do realize that the Bible contains many figures of speech and literary expedients such as hyperbole and typology (although I hold that uninspired typology is not an exegetical tool since it “proves” whatever a person needs it to prove). I do not believe that God’s covenants and prophecies in the OT were couched in non-literal language foreshadowing a plainer reinterpretation in the NT, with the result that approximately three quarters of the Bible means something other than what its words state in their original setting. Such will be the outcome if one insists upon reinterpreting (if you don’t like that word by all means choose another) the OT by one’s understanding of the NT.
Josh predictably tries to associate this approach with Enlightenment interpretation. He even appears to want to connect me with the “literary-scientific method” and “the historical-critical method.” This is supposedly one of my main “starting assumptions.” I have “inadvertently imbibed” Enlightenment skepticism. Except it isn’t and I haven’t. Both Josh and I believe that e.g. the doctrines of creation, fall, flood, the cross, the resurrection, justification, the second coming etc. can be easily found in the Bible by simply turning to the passages and reading what they say. I have written a lot on this matter. For example, here, here, and here.
When a lawyer asked Jesus about what he should do to inherit eternal life, the Lord replied, ““What is written in the law? What is your reading of it?” (Lk. 10:25-26). The lawyer then simply quoted several of the commandments, to which the Lord replied, “You have answered rightly; do this and you will live.” (Lk. 10:28). Were Jesus and the lawyer employing Enlightenment interpretation? Enough said.
With that little bit of self-disclosure done, I want to quote something I said in my first installment:
“This series will attempt to introduce Covenant Theology to the outsiders and uninitiated. I have found that among dispensationalists there is as much ignorance and misunderstanding of CT as there is vice versa. I have thought long and hard about the best way to present this study and the right sources to use. As far as presentation is concerned, I shall describe aspects of CT via quotations and summaries, which I shall then go on to critique. As far as the choice of authorities to employ, I think too many would muddy the waters, and too many quotes from the 16th and 17th centuries would lose half my readers.”
This is very important to keep in mind as my main aim is not to criticize Covenant Theology head-on, but rather to explain it to those who don’t know it. Particularly I have in mind Dispensationalists who have been poorly served when it comes to introductions and critiques of CT from their own stable. Renald Showers’ There Really is a Difference, though helpful, does not try to explain CT to any great extent. That is what I want to do in my series, hence its title, ‘Deciphering Covenant Theology.’ It may be compared somewhat to Vern Poythress’s book Understanding Dispensationalists. For the reason given above I have not ventured into deeper exegesis (as I have done elsewhere on numerous occasions).
I took the decision to forewarn readers that unless they understand how pronounced deduction is in CT they will not come to grips with it. I did not claim that deduction should never be used, (although the Rules of Affinity are a device to track when it is at the forefront of interpretation). CT’s depend upon it, which is why I mentioned it. It comes into play very often when they read Scripture and when they argue their case.
To prove his point about the propriety of deduction he says,
“The whole first chapter of Hebrews is a stunning example of how this is the case. In particular, Hebrews 1:5b directly applies 2 Samuel 7:14 to Christ. Such was a text that itself historically applied immediately to Solomon. But, in light of the finished work of our Lord, the author of Hebrews reads 2 Samuel 7:14 in a Christocentric and Christotelic way, not because the meaning changed (and thus needed re-interpreted), but because the meaning that had always been present was subsequently illumined by the coming of Son of God.”
For a start, 2 Samuel 7 is not as clear as 1 Chronicles 17:11-14 which more clearly brings out the messianic part of the promise. But 2 Samuel 7 can be used because as well as referring to Solomon it sets up a dynasty from which Messiah would come (cf. 2 Sam. 7:25). The Chronicler demonstrates this, as does Psalm 89. I think we basically agree with the presence of messianic purpose here, although 2 Samuel 7/1 Chronicles 17 speak of His throne, of which the author of Hebrews also speaks by use of Psalm 45:6-7 (Heb. 1:8-9). I think Josh and I would disagree about what this throne is.
Moving on, Josh asks if we should follow the interpretive lead of Jesus and the Apostles? Of course we should, but we both must be careful that we do not confuse our interpretations with the inspired ones. We must both try to discover precisely what Jesus and the Apostles mean. And this is where we will have differences.
Briefly, Josh claims that “the fact that “’God-centered’ interpretation must necessarily be correct,” which is a non-sequitur. One can be God-centered and use the wrong hermeneutics and the wrong texts to teach the right doctrines. This wrong hermeneutics what I was pointing out with my quotation of Keele & Brown’s use of Genesis 3:15. Contrary to Josh’s assertion I was not chiding “Brown & Keele for reading Genesis 3:15 in light of Galatians 3,” although now that he mentioned it I might. For starters, because Galatians 3 is not dealing with Genesis 3:15, it’s dealing with Abraham! Galatians 3 is being read into Genesis 3 because something else is operating in the back of their minds. But in actuality, I was demonstrating how they deduced a set of affirmations from a text which says nothing about them, affirmative or negative. It is simply invalid to say “Genesis 3:15 reveals God’s first formation of his church.” Neither Moses nor Paul say any such thing. Paul’s point in Galatians 3:29 is that Christians are “Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise” because of the third part of the Abrahamic covenant, which he cites in Galatians 3:8. (See here for more).
Here is Genesis 3:15:
And I will put enmity
Between you and the woman,
And between your seed and her Seed;
He shall bruise your head,
And you shall bruise His heel.
And here is what Keele & Brown say about Genesis 3:15:
[God] promises to form a community of people for himself whom he will set apart from the offspring of the devil and one day rescue from the latter’s fierce hostility…This community can be traced throughout redemptive history…not by bloodline, but by those who believe in God’s promise. As Paul says to Gentile Christians in Galatians 3:29: “And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.” Thus, Genesis 3:15 reveals God’s first formation of his church. – Sacred Bond: Covenant Theology Explored, 62.
Now how on earth do you get all of that from that verse (even adding Gal. 3:29)? Answer, you infer it from other premises. Here is Josh:
“if God is the single-unifying mind behind the Scriptural narrative at large, given inspiration, then it follows He is the best commentator upon His own Word. When we “read Galatians into Genesis,” we’re not doing violence to Genesis anymore than the biblical authors themselves were.”
Of course he’s right. But not in the way one may think he’s right. You see, for CT’s who interpret the OT via the NT (well, their understanding of the NT) it does not mean that Paul is taking the third aspect of the Abrahamic covenant (which was made thousands of years after Eden) to teach that Christians are “Abraham’s seed.” It means that the Church, the one people of God is the only true Israel who inherit the promises of the covenant (although much of it “transformed”).
Because I said that Genesis 3:15 says “nary a word about sin” (it doesn’t), and that it doesn’t plainly promise a Savior (which again it doesn’t, but there are grounds upon which it is implied) Josh responds with,
“If Genesis 3:15 doesn’t promise a Savior, how could anyone living between Adam and Abraham be saved, e.g., Abel?” If salvation came in any other form than Christ, there would have had to be a different way of salvation for them than there is for us. A startling implication to be sure, and one of the main reasons the hermeneutical commitments undergirding dispensationalism ought to be rejected.”
This is a good example of how many CT’s argue. In effect it is “If this… then that,” or “If not this… how can that?” Deductive mode is engaged at the get-go. Now I am not saying the questions can’t be asked. I am saying that a valid answer to Josh’s question would not be “Oh, I suppose Genesis 3:15 must promise a Savior then.” Of course Adam etc., understood a Savior would come. How much they knew is another thing. Remember that Abraham was justified because he believed God about his descendants (Gen. 15:6). He did not believe that Jesus died on a Roman cross outside Jerusalem. And no, John 8:56 does not say Abraham believed in the crucifixion. It asserts that Abraham foresaw the day (times) of Messiah. Abraham’s salvation was on the basis of what Christ would do at the cross (Heb. 9:27) but he did not believe Paul’s Gospel of 1 Corinthians 15:1-4!
Adam and Abraham didn’t know that the Savior’s name would be Jesus and that He would be born in Bethlehem and hung on a Roman cross, and they certainly did not comprehend what all this meant. Not even Jesus’ disciples comprehended His meaning after He told them bluntly (Lk. 9:44-45; 18:31-34). The rest of Josh’s paragraph about “a different way of salvation” is moot since he misread what I said about Keele & Brown and derived false implications from it. To be clear, Jesus passion is the sole basis of the forgiveness of sins in every age.
I will try to respond to Josh’s second post soon. But this is a start.
2 thoughts on “A First Response to Josh Sommer”
Your point seems well made, but understanding all of what God has done or stated is not the point of Salvation. No man who comes to Christ understands it all. The fact is that Christ was in the picture in God’s own mind and existed as the very Word of God, and no man cometh to the Father except by Him.
Every man who will inherit Abraham’s promises must do it in Christ. This is why the gospel was preached to the dead in paradise before Jesus delivered paradise from the belly of the earth, else how is it that it now resides in Heaven where Paul was caught up into it. Every man in paradise understood Christ’s gospel, before being delivered. Some things need no great explanation they just are, and we either just simply believe them or we don’t. No Systematic theology explains everything. The fact is the prophets longed to see as well as hear all that was revealed in Christ, and about Christ to His apostles, and the implication is that they would see and hear it.
A further fact that you seem to accept is that Christ is the only way of salvation, therefore implying a unity in Christ, and requiring an acceptance of Paul’s teaching that we are one with those saints, implying OT saints, and the oneness that only comes from being in Him, who as implied by these very facts, began His church in Paradise, and added to it on the day of Pentecost.
These facts do not take away the future promises to Israel which we have inherited with these saints that we are one with, but they explain our being in Abraham through his seed, and our being one with these Saints. One new man in Christ. Neither Dispensational nor Covenant Theology fully grasp these understood biblical truths of His premillennial coming but they are Biblical and they are foundational as pure doctrine concerning God’s people all of whom must be in Him.
What do you think of Genesis 48:19, when Jacob pronounces that the seed of Ephraim “will become a multitude of nations”? (LSB “the fullness of nations” (this is the translation I use, basically an updated NASB)) I actually think this is the identity of the multitude of nations in Gen 17:1-6.
There is a theme of the father and his seed being one in the same, like in Gen 12:3 when God says all the nations will be blessed in Abram yet the true fulfillment comes later on in his seed (22:16-18, see also 28:14). With this in mind, you can actually see this promise trickle down the seedline. In 17:16, God says that Sarah will become nations (she wasn’t the mother of Ishmael, so he can’t be in those nations). Then in 28:3, Isaac blesses Jacob “may God make you an assembly of peoples” (see how it trickles down from ch.17, also excluding Esau and the Edomites). Then in 35:11 God blesses Jacob again, saying “a nation and a company of nations will come from you, and kings will come from your body” (see the “kings of peoples” from 17:16). Then it looks like we see the fulfillment of this in 48:19 “in the seed of Ephraim shall be “the fullness of nations” or multitude of nations.”
In my mind this is similar to the prophecy of “Shiloh” in Gen 49:8-12, and how some groundwork is laid earlier on in 22:16-18 and 24:60 among other places before clarity on its realization and timing. I’m really not sure how this lines up with Galatians 3 and Romans 4. Or even how it makes sense from Genesis, when seemingly a nation is a specific land, language and family (10:5f). But I do think this is how the dots connect in those passages and would enjoy your critique. Thanks so much