Deciphering Covenant Theology (20)

Part Nineteen

6. By assuming, without sufficient warrant, that the New Testament must be used to [re]interpret the Old Testament, CT in practice denies to the OT its own perspicuity, its own integrity as inspired revelation, and creates a “canon within a canon.”  To paraphrase George Orwell, in CT “all Scripture is inspired, but some Scripture [the NT] is more inspired than others [the OT]”.

The actual covenants of God which are recorded in the Old Testament dictate, or ought to dictate, the course of the prophetic narrative. This covenant story raises definite expectations which build to a crescendo by the close of the OT canon. The momentum that has been built up requires us to look very carefully at the NT for signs of continuation of covenant themes. This is something we get, especially in the Synoptic Gospels.

But Covenant Theology is one of those approaches to reading the Bible that effectively negates the covenant expectation that was accumulated in the OT. Instead, CT begins its understanding of Scripture in the NT. I have commented that the NT themes that are concentrated on by CT are the cross and resurrection. But I need to qualify that statement. CT emphasizes the cross and resurrection mainly as they are expounded in Paul. Paul’s theological explanation of these joint themes and their application to the Christian Church is the main thing. This in turn is done by use of the Adam or Christ dichotomy of e.g., Romans 5:12-21 and 1 Corinthians 15:22. Either you are in Christ in the covenant of grace or in Adam and under the covenant of works; the cross and resurrection making the transition possible. From this starting point everything in the OT must be passed through this NT grid.

“Both Reformed Baptists and Presbyterians believe that the New Testament takes priority in how the Old Testament is fulfilled in it.” – Richard P. Belcher, Jr., The Fulfillment of the Promises of God, 208.

“[T]he one problem we have in the interpretation of the Bible is the failure to interpret the texts by the definitive event of the gospel.  This has its outworking in both directions.  What went before Christ in the Old Testament, as well as what comes after him, thus finding its meaning in him.  So the Old Testament must be understood in its relationship to the gospel event.  What that relationship is can only be determined from the witness of the New Testament itself.” – Graeme Goldsworthy, According to Plan, 50.

I must stress a most important matter here. The priority that is given to the NT is not what many interpreters would say is the correct interpretation of the NT. So what is happening is that a certain view of the NT is being foisted on the OT and the OT covenant expectation is not permitted to have a say in how the picture is to look. When that is done it becomes easy to say things such as this:

“[E]arlier expressions point to things beyond themselves that are greater than the meaning that would have been perceived by those receiving these earlier expressions.” – Ibid, 123.

If we return to the Belcher quotation above we can see how this plays out. Belcher says that “the New Testament takes priority in how the Old Testament is fulfilled in it.” But I want to straight away challenge that statement. For instance, what if the OT is not being fulfilled in the NT but is yet to be fulfilled? Well, if that “yet to be fulfilled” happens to cut across what CT will permit then it will usually be made to be “fulfilled” in the NT. So CT Kevin DeYoung asks, ““Without a systematic theology how can you begin to know what to do with the eschatology of Ezekiel…?” And I answer,

‘Your systematic theology, which includes your eschatology, must be constructed from reading Ezekiel, along with all the other books of the Bible to see what it says. The eschatology of Ezekiel cannot be ascertained from outside of Ezekiel, but one can compare what Ezekiel writes with what other Prophets write and you will see a covenantally patterned eschatology emerge. Moreover, that eschatology will be arrived at before the NT is consulted. Why? Because, quite simply, Ezekiel is found in the OT!’

The problem a “a canon within the canon” may arise in different settings. In Theology a canon within the canon refers to the prioritizing of certain books above other books for doctrinal or interpretive purposes. While all Scripture is equally inspired it is not all equally treated. CT’s insistence that the NT (well, especially the Pauline Writings) are necessary for understanding “how the Old Testament is fulfilled” creates a canon within the canon. And this in turn logically places the OT, which is three quarters of the Bible, at a lower level of authority than the NT. “Authority” is muted when the speaker’s words are not taken at face value but reinterpreted on the basis of another authority. Again, I must qualify that statement because whenever portions of the NT, like the Infancy Narratives or the Olivet Discourse or the Book of Revelation link up with the covenant expectations of the OT they too are reinterpreted to agree with what Paul (chiefly) is thought to be teaching, which is “Covenant Theology.”

It ought to dawn upon people that if the OT cannot be properly understood on its own terms that it must therefore be unclear in some important sense. Full clarity can be given to the OT only by the NT, it is not something that the OT itself possesses as an inherent property. Thus, the greater portion of the Holy Scriptures, especially the covenants and prophecies, do not possess the virtue of perspicuity. Not only that, but some large sections of the NT seemingly don’t possess it either! This is not to say that the NT does not clarify certain things written in the OT with further revelation. It is to say that any further revelation given by the NT will not force the OT to be reinterpreted so that the original words are given meanings that they just do not bear.

I could go on to speak about how the NT writers’ appealing to the OT for authority is thereby torpedoed but I will leave that for my reader to ponder.

Finally, it should not go unnoticed that the title of DeYoung’s article (cited above) is tellingly “Your Theological System Should Tell You How To Exegete.” That confirms my contention throughout these posts that CT is fundamentally a deductive way of interpreting Scripture. It is also why Dispensationalists should not adopt the position that they can simply worry about eschatology and ecclesiology and fetch their doctrines of God, man, and salvation from the Reformed CT camp. The methodology of CT does not comport with Dispensationalist hermeneutics. Hence, if Dispensationalists want to arrive where CT’s arrive on systematic theology they will have to get there by using a method which better comports with what they claim to be doing when interpreting the Bible, not using a method which deduces its interpretations from its theology.

A Third Response to Josh Sommer

Part Two

In his third critique of my series on Deciphering Covenant Theology Josh seeks to redress some issues with my treatment of the covenant of redemption. Of my views on the covenant of redemption Josh has this to say:

“That the covenant of redemption depends upon assumptions is a conclusion that does not follow from the available premises throughout the article. He never actually defines what these assumptions are, much less does he show those assumptions to be false through rational demonstration. He just asserts their presence and opines their insufficiency.”

Josh thinks that I do not prove my assertion that the theological covenants are based upon assumptions. Well, if he or anyone else could simply show me where these covenants are to be found on the pages of Scripture I will be happy to take it back. I’m not going to hold my breath. So then, as they have shall we say “slight” exegetical claims these covenants: redemption, works, and grace must perforce be assumed from other premises. I gave those premises in Parts One & Two and here too. For example, in Part three I wrote,

“The reason that CT is so deductive is because of its method of reading Scripture. Briefly put its method is to formulate doctrine from – to put it in the language of the Westminster Confession 1.6 – “good and necessary consequences”, and then go in search of texts which appear to back up those consequences. This is then called ‘exegesis.'”

You will see Josh deducing these covenants from certain questions he asks and then seeking proof-texts for his own answers.

Josh also accuses me of citing “very little from his interlocutors.” Well, in Part Three I cite seven sources a total of ten times. In Part Two I cite one source three times, including nine lines of text. In Part One I cite two sources, including a block quotation of six lines of text. My concern is not to provide a compendium of CT quotations, but to accurately portray their views with the help of references and quotes from the literature.

One People of God?

Josh thinks that the NT s explicit that there is and can be only one people of God. He says it “stands to reason that every Christian should be willing to confess a single people of God.” Ephesians 4:4 is brought out to prove this. But Ephesians is written to the Church. The Church is created “one new man” according to Ephesians 2:15. The Church has to be new because it is connected to Christ’s death and resurrection (Rom. 6:3-11). We were baptized into the one Body (the Church) by the Spirit (1 Cor. 12:12-13). The Spirit was not given until after Christ was raised (Jn. 6:37; 16:7; Rom. 8:11). This means that Ephesians 4 has no relevance to OT saints, unless it can be shown that the Body of Christ existed in the OT or that the dead saints were added to the Church in heaven. Hebrews 11:39 does not say that OT saints are members of the Church. It says that OT saints did not obtain the promise. What promise? Heaven? Who would teach that OT saints aren’t in heaven? The completed Church then? Verse 40 states “that they should not be made perfect apart from us.” To what does that refer? Josh thinks it refers to all the saints from every age being one in the Church, but Hebrews does not say that. I do not want to get off on a tangent here but the “us” in Hebrews are Hebrews! Hebrew Christians you say. Well, Hebrews does not say that. Whatever “the promise” is in Hebrews 11 it is not the Church.

Josh commits what James Barr called “illegitimate totality transfer” when he says that “the Septuagint (LXX) translates the Hebrew references to Israel as an assembly to ἐκκλησίαν on several occasions.” The use of a term in one setting does not mean that it means the same as it does in another setting. Josh also fails to observe the context for Genesis 17:14 which is to Abraham’s descendants through Isaac not Ishmael (see Gen. 17:18-19). Ishmael’s seed could have been circumcised and it would have made no difference; they were outside the covenant. I will leave it there.

What About the Covenant of Redemption?

Josh thinks that in simply my pointing out that many covenant theologians question the covenant of redemption is somehow wrong. That it does not disprove whether there is one. Correct. and I never said it did. But it is worth noting that the covenant of redemption is queried even by CT’s. Then Josh says “Henebury doesn’t actually engage his interlocutors on their exegetical defense in favor of the covenant of redemption.”

As anyone who reads Part Three can see I do engage the texts which Guy Richards brings forth to prove the covenant of redemption. I shall, however, say more about his list of verses here.

Richard’s first proof-text for claiming “buying and selling” language that he will utilize to support the covenant of redemption is Acts 20:28 which refers to the Church bought by God’s (i.e. Christ’s) blood. Since that is New covenant blood according to Jesus Himself (Lk. 22:20) it has nothing to do with the covenant of redemption, works, or grace which are not spoken of in the Bible. Ditto 1 Corinthians 6:20; Ephesians 1:7, and 1 Peter 1:18. These verses which Richard tries to tie to the theological covenants are concerned with Jesus’ blood, which is New covenant blood. That is why I didn’t really interact with Richard’s “exegesis.” There isn’t any. Richard is taking a part of a New covenant doctrine and ripping it out of context to try to stick it onto the covenant of redemption. Added to this is him citing Patrick Gillespie that a covenant is essentially an agreement, which isn’t true! As I said, ” Covenant theologians tell stories.” These are assertions made without any contextual validation. Josh thinks that since I did not detain the reader with Gillespie’s misuse of Isaiah 28:15 I somehow wasn’t playing fair.

But as Josh himself shows, Richard uses Gillespie, not the Bible, as an authority for making “covenant” and “agreement” synonymous. They aren’t; especially not where it matters. “Agreement” is a necessary part of a conditional covenant such as the “covenant of death” which the leaders of Judah had made in Isaiah 28:15 (which would not be upheld – Isa. 28:.18). But “agreement” is not part of an unconditional covenant such as the New covenant or the Davidic covenant: not unless one thinks that “I agree that you pledged to do this” is what is meant by “agreement”! Gillespie is just wrong. Josh riffs off this like a point has been proven. Moreover, according to CT’s view of the theological covenants of redemption and grace, they are unconditional; which means that defining covenant as simply agreement doesn’t give the result that is needed.

Josh then takes aim at me for asking what John 6:37 has to do with a covenant. Here it is:

All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will by no means cast out.

He says I am guilty of the word/concept fallacy because I deny what David Dickson and Guy Richard wish to assert. But the burden of proof is not on me. I am not the one making the claim that John 6:37 is a proof for a pre-creational covenant in the Godhead! The Father gives people to the Son, and they therefore will come to the Son. Okay. Who needs a covenant? And why would the persons of the Trinity need to covenant with each other? Oh wait, a covenant is only an agreement! CT’s generally dilute the definition of covenant so that it can be used to support their covenants. I demur.

In trying to rebuff my position on Psalm 2:7 Josh resorts to typological hermeneutics. Now I agree that David is a type of Christ in some ways, but many of my readers know that I am a severe critic of typological hermeneutics because it is an the habit of choosing a typology that suits its conclusions and rejecting typologies which don’t. Josh joins Guy Richard in fishing around Psalm 2 i an attempt to link it to the covenant of redemption. He believes that Psalm 2:8 (“Ask of Me, and I will give You The nations for Your inheritance, And the ends of the earth for Your possession.) refers to Christ’s “sending and mission.” It doesn’t. It refers to His coming reign over the earth from Zion (Psa. 2:6, 9 cf. Rev. 19:15). He comments:

“It is this mission of Christ that warrants the language of “decretal agreement” or “covenant of redemption,” due to the sending and giving of the Son by the Father for that definitive work of salvation.”

So having concocted a pre-temporal salvation covenant out of nothing but a few verses out of context, none of which refer to a covenant, and diluting the definition of covenant down to the vapid idea of “agreement” we are now supposed to believe that the nations being given to Christ as His inheritance (see Rev. 11:15) is actually not His future earthly reign but His “mission” through the Church! And that warrants the language of the covenant of grace! Remember my quotation of myself above:

“Briefly put its method is to formulate doctrine from – to put it in the language of the Westminster Confession 1.6 – “good and necessary consequences”, and then go in search of texts which appear to back up those consequences.”

That is what Josh and his CT scholars do above. I see no exegesis in service of their theological covenants. Lastly, Josh thinks “Henebury has not allowed for an impartial presentation of covenant theology by its adherents.” Well, he is entitled to his opinion, but I do not see any proof for CT in his rebuttals. Rather, I see examples of the very deductive theologizing I warned readers of at the beginning of the series.

Deciphering Covenant Theology (19)

Part Eighteen

Looking Deeper into the Problems with Covenant Theology (4)

4. CT deals with everything it meets in the pages of Scripture using these false covenants.

From my point of view as a non-covenant theologian it is bad enough that the three theological covenants of Covenant Theology share scarcely a scrap of textual warrant between them. What is worse, though, is how much these made-up covenants dictate the rest of what the Bible can and cannot be allowed to teach, particularly when it comes to biblical prophecy. Here are the two main areas where I believe the impact of false covenants ) are most felt:

The Definition of “Covenant”

Perhaps it is well to start with the definition of “covenant” that CT’s slip into. Although decent definitions have been put forth by men like Vos, Horton, and Robertson, many CT’s relax their definitions to allow the theological covenants in. As I have shown, many CT’s reduce the meaning of covenant down to “agreement” and then they’re off to the races. Kevin DeYoung does this in the book Covenant Theology edited by Waters, Reid & Muether, 589. He continues with “A covenant is a commitment that establishes a relationship between two or more parties.” (His emphasis). The trouble here is that one can define a promise or indeed a plain old agreement the same way. The biblical covenants cannot be accurately defined this way because the central oath is so important to them.

A covenant is not just an agreement. As a matter of fact the idea of “agreement” is not a necessary ingredient of a covenant at all! Just think of the unilateral covenants like the Noahic, Abrahamic, Davidic, or New. These covenants are one-sided oaths taken by God to do good to specific parties. For example, Noah didn’t have to agree with God’s pledge never again to flood the earth. Therefore, “agreement” is not a necessary component of a unilateral covenant. In point of fact, “agreement” is not a component of the dubious covenant of grace either!

What a covenant is at least is a solemn, binding oath to do something of importance. It must be clearly stated so as not to cause confusion or misinterpretation – especially with the passage of time. The covenants of redemption, works and grace do not pass this first test. However, once accepted they become more authoritative than the divine covenants which can be identified exegetically. A major effect of this is that whatever those divine covenants promised is made subject to review under the theological covenants; the covenant of grace foremost.

The One People of God

Then there is the position which is demanded by the covenant of grace that there be only one homogenous people of God. This people is the one Church under the covenant. Even when Reformed Baptists differentiate between the OT people of God and the NT people of God they are speaking about the one Church, although its complexion changes from majority Jewish to majority Gentile. But what about these texts?

Thus says the LORD:

‘I will return to Zion,
And dwell in the midst of Jerusalem.
Jerusalem shall be called the City of Truth,
The Mountain of the LORD of hosts,
The Holy Mountain. – Zechariah 8:3.

And it shall come to pass
That just as you were a curse among the nations,
O house of Judah and house of Israel,
So I will save you, and you shall be a blessing.
Do not fear,
Let your hands be strong. – Zechariah 8:13.

Since Jerusalem has never been called “the City of Truth” and the reunited nation of Israel has not been saved to bless the other nations what are we to do with this promise? If there’s one people of God and that people is the mostly Gentile Church under the covenant of grace then something will have to be altered. What will not be permitted is the eschatological manifestation of these prophecies in the future. Therefore, since the future is all the Church and hence there is no need for Jerusalem to be the City of Truth, or for Israel (composed of Israelites in a nation) to be saved and become a blessing to the nations (Gen. 12:3?), one maneuver that can be done is to pass on the details and then not comment on the verses so that the chapter can be made to fit a one-people-of-God eschaton.

The same can be said about passages like Matthew 21:28 or Revelation 21:22-26. The Matthew passage predicts a time when Jesus’ disciples will judge “the twelve tribes of Israel.” This implies an ethnic and national dimension to “Israel” in the kingdom which would distinguish it from other nations. The covenant of grace cannot accommodate such a thing. The end of Revelation 21 very clearly speaks of “the glory and the honor of the nations” being brought into the New Jerusalem (Rev. 21:26). If their are distinguishable nations in the new heavens and new earth then there is no good reason to deny Israel’s covenant promises to it as a nation. But this is what CT does through its one-people-of-God doctrine.

The flip side of all this is Point #5:

5. CT is not open to follow the covenants of God where they lead.

Although I listed this as a separate problem for CT, it does not require much additional comment. The covenant that God made with Noah guarantees the uniformity of nature at least until Christ comes to beautify and reorder it. It also demonstrates the hermeneutical power of covenants. It does this because it is solely on the basis of this covenant that everyone believes that God will not flood the earth again. Unfortunately, CT does not make this covenant a hermeneutical touchstone. Instead, that honor is handed to the theological covenant of grace.

The Mosaic covenant provided clear cultic and moral laws and guidelines which were comprehended even when they weren’t followed. These laws preserved Israel as a people (a remnant) before God. Once Israel accepts the New covenant in Christ these laws will be adapted for the new conditions. The covenant with Phinehas and his descendants (Zadokites) insures that some form of Temple cultus will exist in the Kingdom. This will of necessity be under the New covenant once Israel is redeemed by that covenant. CT has no use for another literal Temple in Jerusalem because of it’s view that the Church is both the true Temple and the true Israel under the covenant of grace.

The Abrahamic and Davidic covenants guarantee land and a monarchy to the twelve tribes of Israel which have yet to be fully realized. The Abrahamic covenant also has a provision of blessing for the nations without that provision obstructing God’s provisions for His people Israel. CT’s often claim that these covenants have found their fulfillments in the death and resurrection of Jesus and the Church that is in Him. Therefore, whatever details in the Abrahamic or Davidic covenants fail to match this view are expanded and transformed so that the original promises are transcended and their typological counterparts are affirmed.

Brief Review of ’40 Questions About Prayer’

A review of Joseph C. Harrod, 40 Questions About Prayer. Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2022, 292 pages, pbk.

Over the many years that I have been a Christian I have read many books about prayer. I have also written about it on several occasions. Prayer is at one and the same time one of the easiest and one of the most difficult subjects in Christian Theology. Most of the books on prayer that I have read are either too simplistic, or else they veer too far from the Scriptures and the view of reality that it presents.

With that in mind I picked up Joseph Harrod’s book with some skepticism, although I was hopeful being that he had written his dissertation on Samuel Davies. Still, I play the cynic well. Was it going to be a wafer-thin book on how much God wants to answer every felt need? Was it going to be written like a long motivational speech, egging us on to pray because prayer is so great? Would the author keep his feet on the ground?

The first thing to do is to see how the author defines prayer. Straight away I was won over. Harrod went to John Bunyan. Since I think Bunyan’s definition (which I will not reproduce here) is one of the best breakdowns of the essence of prayer I was very pleased to find that Harrod agreed. (As an aside, Bunyan’s work on Prayer is available from Banner of Truth).

Harrod’s book is a very good exploration of what prayer is and why it should be prioritized. Harrod divides the subject under five headings: 1. General Questions, 2. Prayer and Theology, 3. Prayer in Scripture, 4. Prayer in Practice, and 5. Prayer in Historical Context. While the first four sections were to be expected I thought the fifth was an excellent choice. My only criticism is that it was not long enough. He covers the early and medieval Church and the Puritans. All good! But I do wish he would have gone into the 18th and 19th centuries at least. There are so many spiritual giants in those eras (e.g., Wesley, Whitefield, Payson, Simeon, Spurgeon, Ryle, etc.). My only other criticism of the book is that it does not tackle the matter of prayer for things that would seem to be God’s will that receive no clear answers. This aspect of prayer – it’s mystery – requires a careful modern treatment.

Nevertheless, the chapters on Theology and Scripture were solid and helpful. The chapters on the Practice of prayer even better. For instance, Question 26 on the Spiritual Disciplines was terrific. Harrod has thought much on this subject.

40 Questions About Prayer is a very good book and is well worth the money.

Deciphering Covenant Theology (18)

Part Seventeen

Looking Deeper into the Problems with Covenant Theology (3)

3. CT relies upon covenants found nowhere in Holy Writ.

If I were to challenge you to locate the covenants with Noah, Abraham, Phinehas, Moses, and David it would not take you very long. But what if I issued a challenge to find the covenants of redemption, works, or grace? And what if I told you that you could not run to any passage where the covenants to do with Noah, Abraham, Phinehas, Moses, and David were in view? How would you fair?

If you were a Covenant Theologian, one thing that you would have to do is to dilute the definition of “covenant” so that it simply meant something like “agreement.” You might begin by talking about “oaths and bonds” (Horton), but you would make sure to leave those open so that they could be filled with your preferred meanings further on down the line. Then you would have to talk about the “covenantal structure” of Genesis 1 – 3 and provide the kind of “oath” that is mysteriously missing in those chapters. After this you would run to passages such as John 17:24; Ephesians 1:4; Hebrews 4:3, and Revelation 13:8 and 17:8 to try to prove that God’s plan of salvation was an intra-trinitarian covenant (with covenant stripped down to read “agreement” or “decree”). After all this you would have to tell a story around your covenants of redemption, works, and grace, being careful to promote the covenant of grace to the position of arch-covenant, making sure that the Bible’s actual covenants you had easily identified in the initial challenge were subsumed beneath it.

I realize that putting things this way is a bit “cute,” but I think it makes my point. CT’s like to claim that they have exegetical warrant for their theological covenants, but where is it? I want to begin with a quotation from Herman Bavinck:

“The development of the doctrine of the pactum salutis [the intratrinitarian pact of salvation] among the Reformed was not free of scholastic subtlety. The classic text (Zech. 6:13) cited in support of this doctrine does not support prove anything and only states that the Messiah, who unites in his person both the kingship and the priesthood, will consider and promote the peace of his people (Keil).

From Job 17:3; Isaiah 38:14; and Psalm 119:122 (none of which refer to the Messiah), and from Hebrews 7:22 (where we are told only that Christ, because he lives forever, is the guarantee that the new covenant will continue forever), it was inferred that in the pact of salvation Christ had from all eternity become the guarantor, not of God to us…(for God, being trustworthy, needed no guarantor), but of us before God…” – Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics: Volume Three, Sin and Salvation in Christ, 213.

A close reading of this quote should demonstrate the strongly deductive nature of CT. Notice how states that the “pact of salvation” was “inferred.” Bavinck continues on the next page by claiming, with the linkage of many assorted passages, that “the pact of salvation” (by which he means the covenant of redemption) “is rooted in a scriptural idea.” But none of the passages he adduces refer to such a covenant. The “covenant” is just his (and CT’s) way of relating the texts. The trinitarian God is said to be covenantal in His being, but how and why this is so is not explained. As such, even a theological titan like Bavinck offers no exegetical defense of the covenant of redemption. It is clear when reading historical accounts of CT that the theological covenants were all arrived by this process of linking disparate passages into a theological narrative or story using “covenant” as the unifying concept.

As I said in Part Three of this series, Guy Richard asserts that the word “decree” can be basically synonymous with the word “covenant” (in Psalm 2:7). This despite my not being able to find any authority to back it up. And as I asked there, “Is the decree pretemporal? And is every decree covenantal?… Still, while the decree may plausibly be traced to the “eternal counsels” that does not make it covenantal.” With proofs like this there is a lot more work to be done if people like me are going to be persuaded of the scriptural credentials of these theological covenants. Remember, these covenants govern the whole Bible Story; they are it’s hermeneutic – especially the covenant of grace.

Speaking of the covenant of grace, John Currid writes of its commencement in Covenant Theology: Biblical, Theological, and Historical Perspectives (edited by Waters, Reid, and Meuther), 102-109. There is some good exegesis in his chapter, but none of it goes to establishing the scriptural pedigree of the covenant of grace. Instead, Currid blankly states concerning Genesis 3:14-19 that “God makes a covenantal oath.” He then takes us to the Westminster Confession 7.3 (102-103). This is precisely what Kevin DeYoung does on pages 591-592 of the same volume. But where is any covenantal oath in Genesis 3?

Okay, so where do CT’s prove by exegesis the existence of these “covenants” outside of their own reasoning? You tell me. If it is in Covenant Theology: Biblical, Theological, and Historical Perspectives I can’t find it. It is not enough to string together a group of texts. One must demonstrate that they have anything to do with the theological covenants of CT and not with the biblical covenants or with non-covenantal teachings.

Finally, if this cannot be done, what authorizes us to proceed to interpret the rest of the Bible; and in so doing eliminating the eschatological meaning of many prophecies tied to the Abrahamic, Davidic, or New covenants along the way? We need more than a cleverly contrived narrative and heaps of typology. We need proof.

A Second Response to Josh Sommer

First Response

In Part Two of his reply to my articles on Deciphering Covenant Theology Josh wants to focus on three paragraphs in my second article. These paragraphs to be precise:

What I want to point out is that there are two assertions here not one. The first assertion is that without the NT the OT “would remain largely veiled to us.” The second is that “we would see Christ only dimly.”

While there is no doubt that the second assertion is spot on, what about the first opinion? Notice that the whole OT is basically being boiled down to the figure of Christ. But although Christ is certainly crucial to the OT, isn’t it true that the Hebrew Bible is about more than Him? What about the covenants that God pledges to Israel and His election of them? What about Jerusalem and the temple? What about David’s throne in Jerusalem? Aren’t these perfectly clear as given by the OT? According to CT (and NCT’s) the answer is No! How come?

I think Brown & Keele answer this question well from a CT perspective. The thing to keep in mind, they tell us, is that there are in fact two distinct stages of fulfillment. The first level of fulfillment is what could be expected from the words God chose to use in the original contexts. But the second level of fulfillment is different.

Josh then says,

“In my lengthy quotation of Henebury above, he takes aim at the covenant theologian’s assumption that the Old Testament is reducible to the “figure of Christ,” at least as it regards understanding the significance thereof. But what if the New Testament itself invites us to make such an assumption? For example, in 2 Corinthians 3:14, Paul writes, “But their minds were blinded. For until this day the same veil remains unlifted in the reading of the Old Testament, because the veil is taken away in Christ.” Required to understand the Old Testament is repentance and faith in Christ, “when one turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away.” (v. 16)”

Since the point at issue here is intramural between saved interpreters of the Bible how is 2 Cor. 3:14 relevant? Hold on. He then states:

Henebury implies Brown & Keele deny that the Old Testament concerns covenants other than the gospel, the nation of Israel, David’s throne, etc. But even if they did elsewhere, that is not what Brown & Keele say in the section Henebury interacts with. Instead, they insinuate Christ as the interpretive key to a full understanding of the Old Testament. There is nothing substantially different in what they say and what the apostle Paul says in 1 Corinthians (sic). 

Of course, Josh has misread me. Nowhere do I imply any such thing regarding Brown & Keele (please read my second paragraph above to see what I actually said). My concern was their assertion that without the NT “the Old Testament would remain largely veiled to us.” Now he is misusing 2 Cor. 3:14, which is about how Israel, because of their rejection of Christ, cannot see the New covenant in Him when they read their OT. When they turn to Him “the veil is taken away” (2 Cor. 3:16).

Josh, along with most CT’s, employs 2 Cor. 3:14 to try to prove that you need the NT Christ to comprehend the OT, which is not what Paul is talking about there. Paul is not saying that the whole OT cannot be understood unless one receives Jesus. When he refers to the “old covenant” he is referring to the Mosaic covenant, which he is contrasting with the New covenant in the chapter. He is not speaking of the whole New Testament, which wasn’t in existence when he wrote 2 Corinthians! This is a common category mistake that I have written about here. Brown & Keele conflate the Mosaic covenant with the entire OT on page 102 of their book where they assert, “The very name Old Testament means the old covenant of Sinai compared to the new covenant.” They are tricky here because they make the Mosaic covenant a synecdoche (a part representing the whole) for the whole Hebrew Bible. Paul’s meaning is that the Jews were clinging to the Mosaic covenant and thus were missing the New covenant Gospel (see also Rom. 10:1-5). One enters into the New covenant through Christ (2 Cor. 3:14, 16).

But let’s follow Josh’s logic here. If he, along with Brown & Keele and CT’s generally, holds that without the NT “the Old Testament would remain largely veiled to us,” then it follows that until believers had the NT they could hardly understand the OT. But Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for this very thing:

You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; it is these that testify about Me; and you are unwilling to come to Me so that you may have life. – John 5:39-40.

In other words, they were rebuked because they didn’t see Christ in the OT. He wasn’t veiled. It was their stubborn refusal to believe the OT witness that condemned them. In my first response to Josh I cited Luke 10:25-28 which would make no sense at all if Brown & Keele are right. The OT was the Bible of the Jesus and the Apostles. They appealed to it. And as I write elsewhere: “Since the OT was the Bible of the Early Christians it would mean no one could be sure they had correctly interpreted the OT until they had the NT. In many cases this deficit would last for a good three centuries after the first coming of Jesus Christ.”

Other Stuff

Josh misinterpreted 2 Corinthians 3:14 because he was looking for a proof-text to validate his position that the NT has interpretive priority over the OT. He continues in this vein in the second half of his post:

The controversy resides in what to do with all the other stuff: Israel, the Davidic throne, the promised land of Canaan, future promises revealed in the Old Testament for Israel, etc. How do we account for these things?…they themselves could only be understood properly in light of Christ. If we try to understand them on the Old Testament’s own terms, neglecting the fuller revelation of God in the New Testament, we essentially try to read the Old Testament as the unconverted Jew does, practically rejecting the significance of the new covenant.  

This “other stuff” is rooted in God’s unilateral covenants. Covenants must be hermeneutically fixed and not open to reinterpretation (E.g., a marriage covenant). But in CT these covenants could not be understood in their OT contexts says Josh. They needed to wait until they could be interpreted “in light of Christ” (by which he essentially means the cross and resurrection). If we, like all those unfortunate OT saints, try to actually take God at His oath, we might as well be unconverted interpreters! That is what Josh believes. Read his quote again. He’s not saying that we are not saved, but he is saying we are interpreting the OT as if we were unsaved.

Enter the equivocating god! This is a god who requires faith in what he says even when what he says creates false expectations which will only be ironed out to make sense hundreds of years after those who believe it are dead. On this view, the covenants obviously are in need of reinterpretation by the NT. They cannot be understood as they stand.

Josh thinks my “method of understanding the Old Testament revelation strictly according to the Old Testament’s own terms would seemingly lead to a systemic rejection of any interpretive import from the New Testament.” No, it would only mean that I reject CT’s interpretation of the NT because it requires that the OT cannot be understood on its own terms.

He asks concerning Isaiah 53: “How would one see the full sense of Isaiah 53 apart from the New Testament?” He wouldn’t of course. But this does not require us to reinterpret Isaiah 53 by the NT. It would only require us to connect it to Jesus. This is just what the Ethiopian eunuch did in Acts 8:25-38. The official understood Isaiah 53. He just didn’t know who it was about. Note, he was not born-again until he believed the connection that Philip made. Therefore, contrary to Josh’s misunderstanding of 2 Corinthians 3:14 he did not need to first exercise “repentance and faith in Christ” to comprehend Isaiah 53, or the rest of the OT. He exercised faith and repentance once he understood the connection. So Paul says, “whenever a person turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away” (2 Cor. 3:16). When is the veil removed? According to the Apostle it is when (henika) the person has turned to the Lord. How many of us understood that we were entering the New covenant when we accepted Christ? Very very few I’ll warrant.

The Land Promise

Joshua 21:43, Josh claims, “is a significant problem for those who make the claim that the land promise was never fulfilled in the Old Testament. It obviously was.” Well, we need to check again. As I said in another place,

“[A]ny reflection on Joshua 23:11-12 and Judges 1 and 3 shows that the [CT] interpretation fails to take the wider historical context into consideration.

As Chisholm explains, “The land belonged to Israel, by title deed if not in fact.”  To all intents and purposes, the land belonged to Israel, and possession of the remaining territory was contingent upon covenant faithfulness to Yahweh.

Yet there is a sense in which the land-grant of Genesis 15 must also be seen eschatologically.  The extent of that land promise still awaits final fulfillment.  In light of this it is best to interpret Joshua 21:43-45 as a statement of God’s fulfilled promise in terms of His covenant faithfulness to a yet disobedient, willful and sometimes feckless people.  The land was now “Israel”, though not the promised Kingdom.”

  Moreover, the CT position on Joshua 21:43 also fails to explain the high note of expectation regarding the promised land running through all the Prophets. I cite page 361 of my The Words of the Covenant: Old Testament Expectation:

“The literal physical descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are entitled to the land of “Palestine” on the basis of the ratified unconditional promises of God (Gen. 15; 17; 22). In fact, their eventual entitlement will be considerably larger in extent than Palestine (Gen. 15:18-21).7 This covenant promise regarding the land is repeated throughout Old Testament history (e.g. Gen. 12:7; 15:7-21; 17:7-8; 22:15-24; 24:7; 28:13-15; Exod. 12:25; 33:1; Deut. 1:8; Isa. 5:25-26; 11:11-12; Jer. 12:14-17; 23:5-8; 30:18; 31:27-40; 33:10-13, 18-21; Ezek. 34:11-31; 37:1-14; Hos. 13:9-14:9; Mic. 2:12; Zeph. 2:19-20; Zech. 12:10-11; 14:16-21).8 This land was to be perpetually theirs once the nation repents and receives Jesus as Messiah (e.g. Deut. 4:29-31; 28:40-41, 44-45; 30:1-2, 10; Jer. 16:14-15; Ezek. 11:14-20; Amos 9:14-15). Also, like it or not, the Old Testament teaches that Israel will become the head of the nations (e.g. Deut. 15:6; 28:1,13; Isa. 60:10-13; 62:1-12; Zeph. 3:20).”

Before ending I feel I must respond to this paragraph from Josh:

“However, given my above thesis, that the New Testament itself requires we read the Old Testament in light of it, the land of Canaan, like the acorn, was certainly destined for a higher purpose. Its purpose was to grow into something greater. I believe this can be seen in the Old Testament, such as in Isaiah 57:13, where the land is given by faith, which was not how the land was originally given to the descendants of Abraham. Those descendants were required to be circumcised and keep the Mosaic law inherently implied by circumcision following the Sinaitic covenant. (Gal. 5:3) Nevertheless, it is the New Testament that unfolds the original purpose and significance of both the law and the land, “But now they desire a better, that is, a heavenly country. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for He has prepared a city for them.” (Heb. 11:16).”

Here are a few clipped observations:

  1. In the first sentence Josh means that the NT requires we read the OT in light of the way CT’s interpret it. But we don’t agree with how CT’s interpret the NT oftentimes; especially the prophetic portions. So, e.g., the Book of Revelation is not really a prophecy but is turned into what I would call an “idealist allegory.” Hence, the problem of interpretation doesn’t stop with the OT.
  2. Notice the storyline. The land of Canaan “was destined…to grow into something greater.” Where does the NT teach that? (I see a misuse of Romans 4:13 on the horizon). This is added storyline freighted into the Bible.
  3. Isa. 57:13 is supposed to support this. Actually he uses only the last part (“But he who puts his trust in Me shall possess the land, and shall inherit My holy mountain.”). But the “land” and the “holy mountain” there is Israel and Zion (notice the offerings in v. 6). It is not some expanded heavenly land as envisaged by Josh. God is denouncing their idolatry. But Josh’s point about the need for faith here is surprising. Does he really think faith is not important in inheriting the land? Has he not read e.g., Leviticus 26? What is making him misread Isaiah 57?
  4. Josh claims “the New Testament… unfolds the original purpose and significance of both the law and the land.” So the original purpose of God for the land was not what the OT said it was! God was speaking in code when on multiple occasions He promised a specific land to Israel and backed it by a solemn oath? That is where one comes out when CT’s deductive hermeneutics is followed, where the meaning of OT texts is deduced from ones preferred reading of the NT.
  5. Josh appeals to Hebrews 11:16, which he uses to teach that the “original purpose” of the land promise was heaven (Why then did God not simply say that?). Josh says “The heavenly country in Hebrews 11:16 isn’t the land of Canaan, per se.” Actually, it wasn’t the land of Canaan in any way, shape or form. Why would God take an oath like He did in Gen. 15:12-21, which was echoed unchanged by the psalmist a thousand years later (Psa. 105:6-11) if He had heaven in mind all along? Of course, Abraham knew he wouldn’t inherit the land (Gen. 15:13), and the OT saints were waiting for Messiah, so they knew they would die before the predicted kingdom would come. The text tells us they expected to go to heaven.
  6. But Josh then takes us to Hebrews 12:18-24. He utilizes it to teach that we all go to the “kingdom” (Heb. 12:28) in heaven which is our permanent home. This is to misread the passage. I cannot write a commentary here, but Hebrews 12:18-24 is referring to the New covenant as represented by the things in verses 22-24 as opposed to the old covenant which is represented by the things in verses 18-21. He fails to discern the application in verses 25-29 which refer to the created order, not to God’s dwelling place. (See e.g., F. F. Bruce, Hebrews, 383). Josh is looking for proof-texts. He is not reading the passages in context.

A First Response to Josh Sommer

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.

Enlightenment Hermeneutics?

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).

On Deduction

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.



Deciphering Covenant Theology (17)

Part Sixteen

Looking Deeper into the Problems with Covenant Theology (3)

2. CT starts its reading of the Bible in the wrong place.

In Part Two of this series I said that for CT’s having the NT to interpret the OT is like the introduction of color televisions to replace the old black and white screens. Whereas for people like myself it is better compared to a deconstructionist interpretation of a classic novel which all but ignores what the novel says and its way of saying it.

Some may think that the second comparison is unfair. I do not want to be unfair so I shall need to elaborate a bit. I have pinpointed the way CT’s view the Bible Story as a history of redemption. That is what it is all about. Certainly, redemption is a very important part of what the Bible is about, but it is not the whole story. There is, for example, a major theme that transcends the problem of human sin and that is the “cosmic drama” being played out between God and Satan, and between God’s plans and Satan’s plans. Not that this is an equal conflict. If God was not upholding Satan and his demons in existence from moment to moment they would cease to exist (Heb. 1:3). And of course, that would also be true of every other being or thing in creation. But this conflict does not of itself have anything to do with redemption. Satan and his host are not to be redeemed. They are to be judged.

Another important theme is the creation itself, blighted not only by sin but also by the curse that the Lord uttered over it. While I agree that redemption overlaps with this theme because man’s salvation will impact earth’s transformation and creation’s eventual freedom from the curse (in the new heavens and new earth), it is also true that the cosmos, however one conceives of it, as well as the spiritual realm, was designed for Jesus Christ to rule over for God the Father. Hence, this created realm has its own intrinsic value and purpose – creation is an unfinished project.

Now it is easy to see how interconnected all this is. But still, if one is going to see the whole of the Bible’s storyline it is critical to “pan-out” far enough to get everything in. And centering on redemption-history is just not a wide enough angle. Important considerations get left out. Furthermore, the history of redemption lens fosters an attitude man-centeredness because it looks at things from our perspective. On the other hand, once we “pan out” to include the cosmic drama and the creation project (of which the former is part of the latter), things become more God-centered.

When reading any book it is not a good idea to start two-thirds in. Along with this reduction of the Big Story to redemption-history comes a hermeneutic which stems from the cross. The problem I see with this is that it pre-determines outcomes. For one thing, the cross occurred at the first coming, and therefore those who begin at Calvary tend to interpret biblical prophecy from a first advent vantage-point. When this happens it is a foregone conclusion that any prophecies which don’t fit the first coming (other than the very clearest second coming passages) must be made to fit the first coming. Whole swathes of OT prophecy will have to be reinterpreted and transformed to be “fulfilled” in Christ and the Church.

A knock-on effect of this will be the revision of what it means to be a prophet. Instead of being a foreteller prophets are turned into moral preachers to their contemporaries. Again, there is some truth to the forth-teller description, but that is not what defines a prophet; a prophet is defined as one who speaks for God about the future (Deut. 18:21-22; Amos 3:7). This test of a prophet is all but forgotten among those who hold a first coming hermeneutic.

Another casualty of CT hermeneutics is progressive revelation. For CT the “progress” isn’t really trackable back into the OT, at least not without a truckload of typological gymnastics, which, coincidentally, mainly finds fulfillment at the first coming! In CT (as well as NCT) typology is the essential tool which makes the covenants oaths of God amenable to being understood from the foot of the cross. A more suitable moniker for progressive revelation as dished up by CT is “supercessive revelation,” since the plain meaning of earlier texts gets replaced by new meanings further on. This is because, as I have said before, in CT (and NCT) progressive revelation “only refers at best to the completed revelation, but not the process of revelation.” Consider this statement from G. K. Beale:

“Perhaps one of the most striking features of Jesus’ kingdom is that it appears not to be the kind of kingdom prophesied in the OT and expected by Judaism” – A New Testament Biblical Theology, 431 (my emphasis), 

This statement can only be made if revelation is not progressive but supercessive. If all the steps towards fulfillment can be transformed out of recognition right at the end then “progressive” is simply the wrong word to use. Only if the plain meaning is maintained all along the line of progress does the adjective apply.

Then there is the influence of the approach upon NT prophecy, especially when NT passages begin to look like they are picking up on OT covenants and interpreting them literally. Redemptive-historical hermeneutics, which is first coming hermeneutics, cannot allow this. This means that the Olivet Discourse, or the Olive Tree metaphor in Romans 11, or the mention of the twelve tribes in Matthew 19:28 or Acts 26:7, or Revelation 21:12 must undergo corrective hermeneutical surgery. Also going under the knife will be mentions of a future temple in Matthew 24 or 2 Thessalonians 2 or Revelation 11. In fact, the entire Book of Revelation must have radical plastic surgery to look like a first coming book and not a second coming book.

Finally, a redemptive framework which circles around the cross and resurrection will tempt the interpreter to neglect what was promised in the OT, particularly to the nation of Israel, and it will blunt the force of the covenant promises that God must deliver on which were sworn before Calvary, and it will treat the NT Church is if it were the promised Kingdom which the prophets envisaged.

If we return to my illustrations for a minute, CT’s believe the transformations of OT covenants and prophecies into “fulfillments” which no OT believer could have dreamed up are like the introduction of color TV’s when people were used to black and white pictures. People like myself though believe that this transmogrifying of the prophets is what is demanded by Covenant Theology, not what is demanded by the inspired writers. Hence, it is more like tampering with what the Book is actually saying and not at all like switching to color.

Deciphering Covenant Theology (16)

Part Fifteen

Looking Deeper into the Problems with Covenant Theology (2)

  1. CT is a mainly deductive approach to reading the Bible.

I started out in this series by making this point and I believe it has been established. When one reflects on the main assumptions of Covenant Theology it becomes clear that the entire edifice is constructed, not upon what the Bible really says, but upon pious but still autonomous inferences. These inferences are deductive in character, and provide the cast into which the mind of CT approaches the text of the Bible. As already documented, Vos called this “the consciousness of the covenant” and what Packer called “a hermeneutic.” To quote Packer again:

“The story that forms [the] backbone of the Bible has to do with man’s covenant relationship with God first ruined and then restored.” – Introduction: Covenant Theology in Herman Witsius, The Economy of the Covenants Between God and Man I. vii.

Packer then goes on to claim that the covenant “story” includes the covenants of works and grace (although he doesn’t use the latter term). He further states that,

“Covenant theologians insist that every book of the Bible in effect asks to be read in terms of these unities [i.e. the one cov. of grace, the one mediator of the cov. of grace, the one people of God, and the one pattern of cov. piety], and as contributing to the exposition of them, and is actually misunderstood if it is not so read.” – Ibid, viii.

If the whole Bible is to be understood in light of covenants that aren’t even in the Bible it may fairly be asked what makes the approach legitimate, never mind mandatory? Surely God would have expressly stated the actuality of these theological covenants in the pages of Scripture if He wanted it to be read according to their stipulations and ramifications? When one studies the Bible it is easy to come across the covenants God made with representatives like Noah (Gen. 9), Abraham (Gen. 15 – 22), Moses (Exod. 19 -24), Phinehas (Num. 25), and David (Psa. 89). It is also easy to appreciate that the Mosaic covenant is to be replaced by a New covenant (Jer. 31). But the covenants of works and grace? not a dickie-bird! What lends these covenants which cannot be found in the Bible interpretive authority over the ones that God explicitly made in the Bible?

I am not here questioning the genius of the idea, and certainly not the piety of those who hold to it, I am questioning its right to be called properly biblical. It rather looks like man’s default setting of independence has become spiritual and has foisted independent themes on the words of God. If the covenants of redemption, works and grace do not exist in the Bible then every teaching influenced by them becomes suspect and definitely ought not to be maintained self-referentially on those covenants. Packer says that the covenant between God and man involves the fall and restoration of man; but there is not a sign of a covenant or any covenant oath in the chapters of Genesis that Packer is implicating. And we are supposed to expound every book of the Bible on this basis? Why? On whose authority? God’s?

Packer asserts that if we fail to allow the theological covenants – more particularly the covenant of grace, to be the lens through which all of Scripture is to be comprehended the result will be to misunderstand the Bible. Again I ask, on what authority does that statement rest, divine or human?

The fact of the matter is that not only do the theological covenants have no exegetical warrant from Scripture, they in reality obscure the covenants that God did make! Those covenants, being recorded in Scripture for all to read have far greater hermeneutical and theological clout than the main covenants of Covenant Theology. The text of Scripture and that alone furnishes us with the words which our theological systems must heed and respect. For all their ingenuity, the theological covenants and their consequences are but a layer of pious traditions that are the product of independent thinking rather than thinking subordinated to the actual words and covenants of God.

Deciphering Covenant Theology (15)

Part Fourteen

Looking Deeper into the Problems with Covenant Theology (1)

We have arrived now at the point where I can turn my attention to a full-on critique of Covenant Theology. In doing so I want to remind my reader of what I wrote in Part Twelve of this series, where I recorded my very real appreciation for CT even as a dissenter from its tenets. But we are in a position now to record that dissent more plainly and categorically.

Before beginning, however, I will provide Vos’s summary quotation.:

“…the leading principle of the covenant…is nothing but the open eye and the clear vision of the Reformed believer for the glorious plan of the grace of God, which arouses in him a consciousness of the covenant and keeps it alive, and which causes him to be so familiar with this scriptural idea and makes this train of thought so natural to him. How else could he receive and reflect the glory of his God, if he were not able to stand in the circle of light, where the beams penetrate to him from all sides? To stand in that circle means to be a party in the covenant, to live out of a consciousness of the covenant and to drink out of the fullness of the covenant.” – Geerhardus Vos, “The Doctrine of the Covenant in Reformed Theology”, in Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation, 256.

It is always quite difficult to find a single quote from a covenant theologian that actually defines it accurately without giving the impression that CT emphasizes the covenants as we find them in the Bible. It doesn’t. It stresses made-up covenants that are imposed upon the covenants of Scripture. The trouble is that what Vos called “the consciousness of the covenant” acts upon the covenant theologian so that when he comes across, say, the Abrahamic covenant, he cannot see it without also seeing the covenant of grace. Hence, many CT’s define their system by referring to the covenants of the Bible without bringing up the theological covenants that drive the whole system. This leads the uninitiated to believe that Covenant Theology will even-handedly expound the Noahic, Abrahamic, Mosaic, Priestly, Davidic, and New covenants and see where they lead. As I have shown, that is just not the case.

I do not put this false definition down to disingenuousness. As Packer well said, CT is a hermeneutic; a way of reading Scripture. And before it is a hermeneutic it is a mindset, exactly as Vos indicates above. With that said then, let me proceed to list my main reasons for rejecting Covenant Theology as a properly biblical understanding of God’s Word. I shall then examine each reason in turn:

  1. CT is a mainly deductive approach to reading the Bible.
  2. CT starts its reading of the Bible in the wrong place.
  3. CT relies upon covenants found nowhere in Holy Writ.
  4. CT deals with everything it meets in the pages of Scripture using these false covenants.
  5. CT is not open to follow the covenants of God where they lead.
  6. By assuming, without sufficient warrant, that the New Testament must be used to [re]interpret the Old Testament, CT in practice denies to the OT its own perspicuity, its own integrity as inspired revelation, and creates a “canon within a canon.”  To paraphrase George Orwell, in CT “all Scripture is inspired, but some Scripture [the NT] is more inspired than others [the OT]”.
  7. By allowing their interpretations of the NT to have veto over the plain sense of the OT this outlook creates massive discontinuities between the wording of the two Testaments.  This is all done for the sake of a contrived continuity demanded by the one-people of God concept of the Covenant of Grace.
  8. CT thus interprets the Bible with different rules of hermeneutics depending on the presuppositions above.
  9. Though they would consciously deny the  charge, it is undeniable that CT ‘s way of reading the Bible (as above) creates a major problem philosophically in that it strongly implies that God equivocates.  More seriously still, the manner of equivocation means that equivocation belongs to the essential nature of  the Godhead.
  10. CT reads Christ into passages where He is plainly not in view.
  11. CT interprets the Bible from an anthropocentric rather than a Theocentric point of view.
  12. CT is implicitly supercessionist in its eschatology.