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.

Review of ’40 Questions About Arminianism’ by J. Matthew Pinson.

A Review of 40 Questions About Arminianism by J. Matthew Pinson, Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2022, 395 pages, paperback.

Kregel’s “40 Questions About…” series has produced a number of notable books. I myself have reviewed 40 Questions About Biblical Theology and 40 Questions About Heaven and Hell. This book on Arminianism, or more accurately, Classical Arminianism, is written by the President of Welch College, a Freewill Baptist college in Tennessee. J. Matthew Pinson has degrees from Yale and Vanderbilt and is thoroughly evangelical. His book is a very welcome addition to the set and has been well reviewed.

The present reviewer is not Arminian. Neither is he a thorough Calvinist (much to the chagrin of writers like Roger Olsen who believe one must be either/or). If I may take a moment to explain; my studies of hermeneutics and theological method have left me dissatisfied with Calvinist formulations and defenses. They are simply too deductive for my taste. On the other hand, I do believe that some process of selection, conviction, and saving grace is supplied to meet the needs of some sinners and not others, yet never is the sinner’s responsibility undercut by the philosophical casuistry that is compatibilism, nor are passages like John 3:16-17, 36; 1 Timothy 2:4, 6; 4:10; 2 Peter 2:1; 3:9; and 1 John 2:2 to be given unnatural readings to make them say what they plainly do not say. I see no reason to pick sides on the issue since I believe neither of them fully represents the data satisfactorily.

That said, I have known for many years that classic Arminianism is often terribly misrepresented by Calvinists, many of whom it is clear have never read it. Moreover, certain Arminian depictions of Calvinism are very unnuanced. To the one I recommend actually reading Arminius’s Declaration of Sentiments or his Reply to Perkins. Both will persuade the reader of his strong positions on original sin and the impossibility of any sinner choosing Christ without Divine aid. To the latter I might recommend bypassing the doctrinaire work of A. W. Pink (or even John Piper) and instead reading someone like Elijah Coles or Charles Hodge. When all is said and done, Pinson is correct to say that the real issue between Calvinism and Arminianism is how one defines the sovereignty of God (175-177). One’s conception of “freewill” and the rest will have to fall in-line with that formal definition of sovereignty.

So what about this book? Is it worth the money? The answer is a resounding yes! Pinson has provided us with a theologically astute, irenic, and engaging work. As I have said, the book is about “Classical” Arminianism – a view that broadly encompasses both Arminius himself, but also John Wesley, Thomas Helwys, Thomas Oden, Roger Olsen, and Leroy Forlines, among many others. It is a view that feels at ease with the early Reformed Confessions like the Heidelberg Catechism and the Belgic Confession (13, 77-79), but becomes uncomfortable once the net is tightened in the Canons of Dordt and the Westminster Confession of Faith. Hence, Arminianism in Pinson’s presentation has much overlap with the theology of many Calvinists.

When it comes to the atonement Pinson admits that many Arminians have preferred the “governmental theory” of Grotius and John Goodwin, wherein God acts as a Governor who accepts Christ’s sacrifice and pardons the sinner sovereignly without the need for a satisfaction to be made (90-92). Pinson, as Arminius, Wesley and I. Howard Marshall, rejected this view in favor of substitutionary atonement. This shows that the substitutionary view is not foreign to many Arminians as is sometimes thought.

When it comes to the question of whether Christ died for everyone (Q. 12 & 13) the author brings up the distinction between God’s antecedent will and His consequent will; a position first set out by John of Damascus in the 7th Century (111, 179). God’s antecedent will is that which comes from God’s character, whereas His consequent will is what God allows that flows from us. All Arminians agree that God sent Christ to die for the sins of everyone, and that He wants all sinners to be saved.

Having answered that Pinson turns to Calvinism and asks whether Calvinists are inconsistent by offering the Gospel to everyone even though they (five-pointers at least) hold that Christ did not die for everyone. His answer is in the affirmative. Arminians believe that the consistent Calvinists position with its necessary doctrine of two wills in God is unscriptural (129-136). I say “consistent Calvinism” because the author agrees with five-point Calvinists that four-pointers are inconsistent Calvinists because in that view God provides satisfaction for the sins of all but He is sparing on the dispensation of his grace (120-121).

Then we finally arrive at the question of freewill (Part 3). For most people this is where the rubber hits the road. Has God made man with a will to decide for something other than his “strongest impulse,” or is our will fixed by our strongest desire? In the first their is a power of contrary choice (libertarian freewill), while in the second there can be no contrary choice (compatibilist freedom). It is not too difficult to show that until the later Augustine every church father held to a form of libertarian freewill (see my review of Ken Wilson’s The Foundation of Augustinian-Calvinism). This does not necessarily make it biblical, but it needs to be on the record. A libertarianism which takes seriously man’s concupiscence is set out and defended.

But isn’t Arminianism synergistic? Arminius himself, and many who follow him, Pinson included, would answer “No.” Since Classical Arminians have a robust doctrine of human depravity (Q. 15) they are insistent that it is impossible for a sinner to come to Christ without divine grace. The author cites Leroy Forlines: “regeneration is solely the work of God.” (146). He also commends Richard Cross’s “ambulatory model” wherein “the sinner is like an unconscious person who is rescued by EMT’s and wakes up in an ambulance and does not resist the EMT’s medical actions to save his life.” (147). This is a form of monergism, as even Calvinists like Oliver Crisp admit, although it differs from the Calvinist position wherein the sinner is like a corpse that must first be regenerated.

Question 16 (151-158) is a careful elaboration of the Arminian view of freewill. It is followed by a well-written critique of compatibilism (Q. 17, 155-166). Among the problems Arminians see in Calvinistic determinism are its redefining of “freewill,” that it is unfalsifiable, and that it is self-contradictory. Pinson believes that libertarian freedom does not detract from the glory of God, so long as one does not include evil in ones idea of divine glory (168-169). If evil is included in the definition and compatibilism is held on to then it becomes impossible to conclude anything other than that God is the ultimate cause of evil (170-173).

There are other matters which are well addressed in the book, such as passages like Ephesians 1:4-11; Romans 8:28-30, and 9:6-23. Pinson also has a section on perseverance and apostasy that includes some very impressive chapters. But before closing I want to visit the matter of “prevenient grace” which is addressed in Questions 21 to 26. I think there is a lot of misunderstanding of this doctrine from all sides, so I wondered how the author defined it. The term itself is not a problem. Pinson is correct to assert that all orthodox Christians hold to a form of it. It is simply the grace that God gives to draw sinner’s to Himself (191). However, Arminians believe that grace is universal and resistible (192, Q. 24), not particular and irresistible. I confess that I especially struggle with the universal aspect of prevenient grace, and I don’t think Pinson allayed my concerns here.

At the end of the day, although I did not agree with everything in the book, I did find it an edifying and educational read. Before reading this work I would have recommended Olsen’s Arminian Theology: Myths & Realities, but now 40 Questions About Arminiansm will be the one I point people to first. It is essential reading for any serious student of Systematic Theology.

Covenant Connections in Paul (8)

Part Seven

The Return of Christ in Paul

            The earliest letters of Paul are the Epistle to the Galatians and the two Epistles to the Thessalonians (c. A.D. 48-50).  Every attentive reader knows that the theme of the second coming is found in every chapter but one of 1 and 2 Thessalonians.  The teaching also features strongly in 1 Corinthians 3 and 15; Philippians 3:20; the letter to Titus, and 1 and 2 Timothy.  Different verbs are used for the event, but the same idea is in view.  To this we may add Romans 8:19.  These passages do not serve only as anticipations of a great event; they speak of the culmination of something.  (After this there is the Bema Seat – 2 Cor. 5:10). 

            If we take the Thessalonian Epistles as our starting point, we can see the different uses the apostle puts the doctrine of Christ’s second advent to.  First there is the aspect of patient waiting (1 Thess. 1:9-10).  The coming of Christ “delivers us from the wrath to come.” (1 Thess. 1:10).  What this wrath (orge) is we are not told.  It may be the wrath of the second coming or the “revealing” (apokalypsis) itself as per 2 Thessalonians 1:5-9, or it may more generally be “the Day of the Lord” (1 Thess. 5:1-3, 9).  It may also denote the Tribulation if one allows that Paul might have had that in mind.

            Paul also relates the coming (parousia)[1] of Christ to our sanctification (1 Thess. 3:13; 5:23).  In 1 Thessalonians 2:19 he writes,

For what is our hope, or joy, or crown of rejoicing? Is it not even you in the presence of our Lord Jesus Christ at His coming (parousia)?

            As I understand the passage Paul is saying that the saint’s fellowship in the presence of the Lord will be ample reward for their endeavors, when they all participate in Christ’s “kingdom and glory” (1 Thess. 2:12; 2 Thess. 2:14). 

            I Thessalonians 4:13-18 is a little unusual amid the other references.  For one thing there seems to be a difference between 1 Thessalonians 4:13 and 5:1-2.  In the latter text the saints are well aware of the doctrine Paul is referring to, but in chapter 4 they seem to be being told something new (“I do not want you to be ignorant…”).  It seems best to look at this text separately therefore.

            Paul wrote about the return of Jesus as the great hope of the saint (Tit. 2:13).  But he also saw it as the great hope of the earth.  These two things are brought together in Romans 8 where he envisages a transformation of the saints that triggers environmental changes, thus bringing the believer’s hope into the realm of the larger Creation Project:

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.  For the earnest expectation of the creation eagerly waits for the revealing of the sons of God. – Romans 8:18-19.

            Here the apostle is contrasting the troubles of life with “the glory which shall be revealed in us.”  He personifies the created order as straining in expectation for something he calls “the revealing of the sons of God.” (Rom. 8:19).  So, Paul says that the humanity which in Adam originally came from the earth (Gen. 2:7), becomes the hope of the earth’s chances of regeneration. Creation’s regeneration hinges on the glorification of saved humanity.[2] 

For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God.  For we know that the whole creation groans and labors with birth pangs together until now.  Not only that, but we also who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, eagerly waiting for the adoption, the redemption of our body.  – Romans 8:20-23.

            Paul’s reasoning here is “that the creation was subjected to futility” as a consequence of the Fall.  When one looks at Genesis 1 it becomes clear that the first five days of creation and the first half of the sixth day were all preparation for the creation of man in Genesis 1:26-27.  What God does next brings home to us the connection that Paul refers to in Romans 8 between human glorification and the world’s regeneration. God explicitly puts the responsibility for creation into the hands of man as His image in Genesis 1:28-30.  Therefore, the fact that the fortunes of man and those of his natural environment are still intertwined at the second coming is important to notice.  But someone might ask, “where is the second coming in Romans 8:20-23?”  It is found in the doctrine of “the redemption of the body” (Rom. 8:23).  To see this more clearly consider two texts from 1 Corinthians 15:

But each one in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, afterward those who are Christ’s at His coming. – 1 Corinthians 15:23.

The first man was of the earth, made of dust; the second Man is the Lord from heaven.  As was the man of dust, so also are those who are made of dust; and as is the heavenly Man, so also are those who are heavenly.  And as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly Man. – 1 Corinthians 15:47-49.  

            The context concerns the resurrection body.  In 1 Corinthians 15:23 we are told that we shall receive a body similar to Christ’s resurrection body “at His [second] coming.”  Hence, “the glory which shall be revealed in us” and  “the revealing of the sons of God” which Romans 8:18-19 speaks about occurs when Jesus returns.  Many read 1 Corinthians 15:47 as a reference to the first coming, but eschatological note is unmistakable.  We “shall…bear the image” of the resurrected Jesus.

Again Philippians 3:20-21 says,

For our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body that it may be conformed to His glorious body, according to the working by which He is able even to subdue all things to Himself.

            The Christian has been born into “this present evil world” (Gal.1:4), but they no longer belong to it.  They possess the right to enter heaven; a right bought for them by Jesus Christ.  And according to Philippians 3:21 it is Christ who will “transform our lowly body” by glorifying it.  The apostle John will echo this truth later in the first century (1 Jn. 3:2).

            We do well to take stock of the importance that Paul places on Christ’s second coming.  He pins all of our hopes upon it.  Therefore, it is simply untrue to assert that for Paul “the linchpin of Paul’s eschatology is the proclamation of Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah,”[3]  if this identification does not place great emphasis on His return. This is borne out by the preceding passages and the weight of hope they bear. 

           


[1] From Paul’s usage of the two verbs here I believe the “revealing” and the “coming” of Christ are the same event. 

[2] This earthly regeneration is guaranteed by its connection with the glorification of believers, which is locked-in by the decree of God.  See Romans 8:30.   

[3] L. J. Kreitzer, “Eschatology,” in Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, edited by Gerald F. Hawthorne and Ralph P. Martin, Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1993, 256.

Deciphering Covenant Theology (Pt. 14)

Part Thirteen

The Eschatology of Covenant Theology (2)

The millennial options available to those who filter their Bible interpretation through the Covenant of Grace are, Amillennialism; Postmillennialism; and, what is sometimes referred to as Covenant (or Historic) Premillennialism. These options will now be reviewed below.

Option One: Amillennialism:

Amillennialism is the eschatological viewpoint which, among other things, insists that there will be no literal thousand-year Messianic kingdom upon earth. Louis Berkhof admitted that the Amillennial point of view was, “as the name indicates, purely negative.” – Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 708.  Amillennialists believe the promises made to Israel in the Old Testament are fulfilled spiritually by the New Testament Church. Most place a heavy emphasis upon denying the literalness of Revelation Twenty, especially the first six verses. For them the six-times repeated reference to a “thousand years” is not a thousand years but an extended period of time reaching from the first coming of Christ to His future Second Advent. Thus, the Millennium was inaugurated when Christ came. They stress the symbolic meaning of many (but not all) of the numbers in the Book of Revelation, employing a seemingly arbitrary numerology to secure their interpretations. This is even the case when the passages in view are neither poetic nor “apocalyptic” in genre (e.g. Ezekiel 40–48).

As Covenant Theologians, amillennialists interpret the Scriptures under the rubric of the Covenant of Grace – a covenant that is stated nowhere between the covers of the Bible. This means that amillennialism has to employ two methods of interpretation. The literal method, and the figurative, or, spiritualizing method. This latter method of interpreting Scripture is used in redirecting prophetic portions which would, if allowed to speak literally, overthrow the notion of one Church in both Testaments, (though oftentimes the prophecies concerning the first coming of Christ are assigned a literal meaning).

There are basically two forms of amillennialism: the Augustinian view, and the “Warfieldian” view. Augustinian amillennialism teaches that the thousand-year period mentioned in Revelation Twenty is figurative, and stands for the New Testament era from the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ, through to the last judgment and the creation of the new heavens and new earth. The millennium, then, is what dispensationalists call the Church-age, upon earth. Christ is now reigning on a spiritualized throne of David, over a spiritual Israel, for a spiritualized millennium. The saints on earth are also presently reigning spiritually with Christ.

The second view, which we have called the “Warfieldian” view, affirms everything that is stated above save for the identity of those who are partakers of the first resurrection and the millennium. This view was earlier taught by the German scholar Klieforth, who, in 1874, posited that the martyred saints now in heaven, are reigning in the spiritual millennium. B.B. Warfield popularized this view in the United States. He believed the first resurrection represented “the symbolical description of what has befallen those who while dead yet live in the Lord.” –  Biblical Doctrines, 653.  They were in the “intermediate state” of those who were “saved in principle if not in complete fruition.” – Ibid, 652. All amillennialists posit a spiritual resurrection in Revelation 20:4, but a physical resurrection in Revelation 20:5–6.

Option Two: Postmillennialism:

Postmillennialism was the predominant belief among both the Puritans and the Princeton theologians. It teaches that the Church brings in the kingdom through the preaching of the Gospel to fulfill the Great Commission of Matthew 28:18–20. They cite passages like Psalm 47; 72:1–11; 97:5; Zechariah 9:10; and Matthew 13:31–33 in support of their notion that the world will be successfully evangelized. After the Church-generated millennium (a spiritualized period of time which could conceivably last many millennia), in which the world will be “christianized,” Jesus Christ (who has been reigning invisibly in heaven), will return. The view might well be characterized as “Christian Utopianism.” Postmillennialists like to talk about the “Church-militant,” a phrase meaning to them that the Church will convert the world, or at least subdue it under Christian influence. Believing this as they do, postmillennialists like to point out that their eschatology is optimistic. As an example of postmillennial optimism we reproduce these words of J. Marcellus Kik:

“We need not wait for the so-called future millennium. What we do want is peace amongst the nations and less wickedness. But that is promised if we go forth conquering and to conquer in the name of Christ. Let us not be blind to what has already been accomplished and thus rob God of glory. The absence of greater victories is due to our lack of faith, and not because of the absence of millennium blessings.

Besides a too materialistic conception of millennium blessings another difficulty is that we have not paid enough attention to the parables of our Lord which indicate that the millennial blessings will pervade the earth gradually…Both the amil and premil are in error when they maintain that the millennial blessings foretold in the Old Testament must come about by a cataclysmic act at the second coming of Christ. That is not the teaching of the Bible. Both in the Old Testament and in the New it is taught that the Kingdom blessings would come about by an almost imperceptible, gradual growth.” – J. Marcellus Kik, An Eschatology of Victory, 206–207.

This quotation reveals the driving mechanism behind postmillennialist optimism. The wondrous blessings of the millennium have already been given to the Church. The only difficulty is in the Church’s realization of those blessings. If only Christians would live up to their high calling the world and its institutions would be claimed for Christ!  Is it any wonder that they often disparage the “pessimistic” view of the end-times advocated by premillennialists?

It is interesting to note how postmillennialism as a belief rises and wanes depending on the attitudes of the times. If the age is progressive and optimistic, if there have been no wars for a time, postmillennialists point to the fact that the world is getting better. Thus they often increase or decrease in numbers according to the drift of current events. It has been noted that this eschatology flourished in the late eighteenth, and the early to late nineteenth centuries, fueled by progress in science, Revivals, and the growth of missions. After the Second World War, there were scarcely any postmillennialists, save for the liberal theologians who believed that man is innately good, and is getting better and better.  But in the last thirty years, a movement has grown in America which is stridently postmillennial. This is the movement once known as Dominion Theology, or, Reconstructionism. This is the name given to the movement within Reformed Theology which seeks to reconstruct society to fit its template of Christian law and ethics. Their great foundational text is Matthew 5:17–19, though they take pains to translate plerosai as “confirm” rather than “fulfill;” an interpretation that is exegetically suspect to say the least. – See the full discussion in H. Wayne House and Thomas Ice, Dominion Theology: Blessing or Curse?, 103–112.

The unofficial founder of this movement is the late Rousas J. Rushdoony, but many of the basic premises of Reconstructionism can be seen in the works of the Swiss Reformer Pierre Viret, as well as among some of the Presbyterian Puritans. It is certain that the recent upsurge in interest in postmillennialism is due in large part to this movement. Postmillennialists generally believe that the “theonomic mandate” demands an optimistic view of the subjugation of the kosmos by the Gospel prior to the Second Advent.

Option Three: Historic Premillennialism:

Historic Premillennialism (also called Covenant Premillennialism) has a long history in the Christian Church. It basically goes along with amillennialism and postmillennialism in holding to two methods of interpretation, but it does see a thousand-year reign of Christ in Revelation Twenty.  Although not all historic premillennialists believe that the thousand years is literal (e.g. George Eldon Ladd), for the most part, they do. Many early premillennialists, who preceded CT, saw a correlation between the six days of creation, with its seventh-day rest, and a six thousand year history of the world followed by a thousand year “sabbath.” Post-Reformation Historic Premillennialism, because it usually accepts covenant theology, does not see different administrations (dispensations) in the history of revelation.

A key difference between Covenant Premillennialism and Dispensationalism is the fact that Dispensationalists hold to a distinction between the Church and Israel, whereas Covenant Premillennialists blur this distinction, believing only that Israel has a future in the plan of God, but not as the head nation among the nations of the world in the Messianic kingdom. All historic premillennarians are post-tribulationists.

Inductive Versus Deductive Eschatologies.

The covenant theologian is implacably devoted to a view of the covenant of grace which prevents him from considering any eschatology that will not bend under its guiding authority. Dispensational Premillennialism, which posits two peoples of God, is just not an option for CT’s. The blinkers are on and they are content to keep them on. For this reason dispensationalists need to be wary of critiques of their system from covenant theologians. This is not to sound superior; DT’s need and appreciate good sound criticism, and there are few better at it than these brethren. But it is the case that any critique from that quarter will inevitably presuppose the single covenant of grace, and that it will form the foundation for their censures. Here, for example, is John Gerstner, in full flourish, expostulating with dispensationalists about this very thing:

“Does the Scripture not set forth the idea that God gave His Son to die as a sacrifice for our sins and that, when we accept that sacrifice, we are saved by that grace? When the dispensationalist says that there is no way of salvation in any dispensation except the way of the blood of Jesus Christ, is he not affirming the “all-time covenant of grace”? Is he not therein showing that the covenant of grace is not only not untenable, but is absolutely indispensable? Does the dispensationalist, in other words, have any objection to the covenant of grace except the absence of the very expression itself?” – John H. Gerstner, Wrongly Dividing The Word of Truth, 306.

We may reply to the four questions above by answering, “yes”, “no”, “no”, and, “yes.” Gertsner’s problem is that to him, the covenant of grace is so all-encompassing it blots out the wording of Scripture. The sacrifice of Christ was on the basis of the New Covenant (1 Cor. 11:25).  There simply is no such thing as “the covenant of grace” on the pages of Scripture. All of God’s dealings with sinners are by grace, but there need not be and is not any covenant of grace.

Conclusion.

In this installment and the previous one, I have tried to show that the eschatology of Covenant Theology is proscribed by the parameters of the covenant of grace. Although I recognize that this covenant is not the only one which Covenant theologians speak about, it is the covenant which they see as ruling over all the others now that the covenant of works is broken (Gen. 3). I believe that the external stipulations of this theological, but, extra-biblical covenant act as a faulty lens which distorts proper exegesis of the prophetic passages of the Old and New Testaments.

Finally then, joining the chorus of scholars who reject the covenant of grace (in Part 11), I echo the words of Lewis and Demarest who state,

“The text [of Genesis 3:15] does not explicitly mention a covenant. Moreover,…no identifiable covenant structure exists: i.e., no explicit promise of eternal life, no condition of faith, and no explicit penalty of death for unbelief. The hypothesis that Genesis 3:15 represents the initial declaration of the covenant of grace likewise appears improbable. Rather, the verse is a prophetic promise of the sufferings of Christ and the defeat of Satan.” – Gordon R. Lewis & Bruce A. Demarest, Integrative Theology, Volume 3, 322.

If there is no covenant of grace, there can be no prima facie conclusion that Scripture knows of only a single people of God, with its logical demand that the Bible’s eschatology must produce that single people. Without the covenant of grace one is free to derive biblical eschatology from the Bible instead of reading it into it.

Personal Thoughts About Commentaries (12): The Pastoral Epistles

When it comes to the Pastoral Epistles there is a wealth of good choices. The top four in the following list are all excellent high-level works. I would personally go for Knight and Marshall if money were no object (although Mounce and Towner would be just fine). Some of these scholars dance around Paul’s clear statement preventing women from being preachers and teachers of men. I have marked such with a (w’)

1. George W. Knight III – Good at about everything. Heavy on the Greek but usable by most. Conservative. This has been around for a while but I still think it is unsurpassed.

2. William D. Mounce – Very solid exegesis and exposition. Some people don’t like the format, but Mounce makes the most of it. I have always gotten something from this volume.

3. Philip W. Towner – Impressive and accessible despite its size. An expert on the Pastorals. (w).

4. I. Howard Marshall – Helped by Towner (above), this is the most detailed and theologically nuanced commentary of the bunch. Marshall comments on Titus first because he says it tends to get overlooked – a not unwise decision. Infuriatingly rejects Pauline authorship. Expensive. (w).

5. Gordon D. Fee – I always turn to Fee on the Pastorals because of the way he writes and his ability to bring his exegesis to street level. This is one you should own. (w).

6. Andreas J. Kostenberger – The usual pithy style of the author is on display. Kostenberger is both a good distiller of other scholars and a competent thinker in his own right. Solid.

7. Donald Guthrie – A very fine scholar of the end of the last century, Guthrie is slight but always “in” the text. (w).

8. John Stott – Two small volumes by a great expositor. (w).

9. Patrick Fairbairn – Fairbairn is never easy reading, but everything he wrote is valuable in its way. I can’t say I like the textual emendations via Tischendorf, but the work is valuable. Don’t miss the excellent appendices.

10. William Hendriksen – Hendriksen is forgotten by many today, but his work is pious, scholarly, pastoral, and conservative. This is well worth having in the preacher’s library.

Other works that should be mentioned Robert Yarbrough’s volume, which is highly praised. I haven’t seen it. Had I it would probably be in my top ten. L. T. Johnson’s large scholarly treatment on 1 & 2 Timothy in the Anchor Bible is well regarded. Surprisingly, he argues for Pauline authorship. Jerome Quinn & Grant Wacker on the same is, well, odd. It’s good in places and “meh” in others. I bought it cheap, which is how you should buy it. Of course, do not neglect Calvin here (if you can get his sermons on these books you will be impressed at his conversational preaching style). Lenski is conservative and solid. I put Hendriksen just ahead of him. J. N. D. Kelly is brief but good. Continuing with initials J. D. G. Dunn’s contribution in the NIB (Vol. 11) is bound to be good. Dunn is always thought-provoking. Finally, I suppose I should include the volume edited by Kostenberger and Wilder entitled Entrusted with the Gospel: Paul’s Theology in the Pastoral Epistles. No, I haven’t read it, but it looks good.

Deciphering Covenant Theology (13)

Part Twelve

This and the next installment uses material from my article “The Eschatology of Covenant Theology,” originally published in the Journal of Dispensational Theology, 10:30 (Sep 2006).

The Eschatology of Covenant Theology (1)

As well as encompassing the explicit scriptural covenants like the Abrahamic, Mosaic, Davidic, and New Covenants, due to its extensive character, the “Covenant of Grace” basically flattens out these more easily identifiable covenants and merges them into one. This can be seen in the following excerpt, which is one of the more blatant examples of using the Covenant of Grace as an interpretive “cookie-cutter” upon the explicit covenants:

“This one plan was hinted at even as Adam and Eve were driven from the Garden of Eden (Gen. 3:15), and when God covered them with the skins of animals, requiring the shedding of blood to be an adequate coverage (Gen. 3:21), thereby giving a type of Calvary where the blood of Christ was poured out in order to institute the new covenant and make adequate coverage for our sins. However, from man’s perspective, that plan has been unfolded in sections as he was able to grasp it, and these integral parts of God’s eternal whole have been referred to (by accommodation) as the covenant with Abraham, the Mosaic Covenant, the New Covenant (Jer. 31:31), and so forth.” – William E. Cox, Biblical Studies in Final Things, 4–5. (Emphasis added).

Thus, the idea of the Covenant of Grace becomes the modus operandi of progressive revelation. 

“The Consciousness of the Covenant”

In order better to comprehend the importance of the Covenant of Grace in this matter, I shall give the observations of some dispensationalist theologians who have concluded that the idea of the covenant, with its soteriological implications, dominates the hermeneutical methodology of covenant theologians.

Referring to the hermeneutics of Willem VanGemeren, dispensationalist Paul S. Karleen paraphrases him thus:

“There is a soteriological unity in the covenant of grace; it joins all God’s people across the testaments; to ask if we are to take the prophets literally is to ask the wrong question; the issue of the interpretation of the prophets is not one of literal versus spiritual/metaphoric/figurative but of the relation of the OT and NT, which is determined by the Covenant of Grace.” – Paul S. Karleen, “Understanding Covenant Theologians,” Grace Theological Journal 10:2 (Fall 1989), 132. Emphasis added.

Karleen goes on to add, “There can be no question that the covenant of grace is the deciding factor in the covenant theologian’s eschatology.” – Ibid, 133. Emphasis added.

This imposition of the all-embracing Covenant of Grace is also noticed by John Feinberg in his excellent treatment of “Systems of Discontinuity” between the Old Testament and the New.

“Ask a covenant theologian to sketch the essence of his system and invariably he will begin with a discussion of the covenant of works, the covenant of grace, and the covenant of redemption. But, of course, all these relate to soteriology; and when they are made the basic categories for understanding Scripture, it becomes obvious why covenantal systems usually emphasize soteriology to the exclusion of other issues.” – John S. Feinberg, “Systems of Discontinuity,” in Continuity and Discontinuity, ed. John S. Feinberg, 344, n.108.

To summarize then, there is no removing the spectacles of the Covenant of Grace from off the noses of Covenant theologians. They believe it is the grand unifying theme of the Old and New Testaments, as well as the great interpretive grid of Scripture. It is a magnificent schema which facilitates the purpose of God in revealing Himself to His people. As Gerhaardus Vos, in one of his best pieces of writing, could say:

“…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.

To Vos’s mind, the “consciousness of the covenant” dictates the approach to Scripture that he takes. This paradigm inevitably affects his hermeneutical pre-understanding.

Another amillennialist, Anthony Hoekema, writes in a similar vein:

“Amillennialists do not believe that sacred history is to be divided into a series of distinct and disparate dispensations but see a single covenant of grace running through all of that history. This covenant of grace is still in effect today and will culminate in the eternal dwelling together of God and his redeemed people on the new earth.” – Anthony A. Hoekema, “Amillennialism,” in The Meaning of the Millennium: Four Views, ed. Robert G. Clouse, 186.

See how this “single covenant running throughout all history”, and which is “still in effect today” must a priori exclude a comprehensive literal fulfillment of the Abrahamic and Davidic Covenants to Israel.

I am, of course, aware that men like Lewis Sperry Chafer, John Walvoord, and Herman A. Hoyt have held to a unifying covenant of grace. And indeed it is possible to be a dispensationalist and hold to a form of covenant theology (See e.g. Michael A. Harbin, “The Hermeneutics of Covenant Theology,” in Vital Prophetic Issues, (Grand Rapids: Kregel Resources, 1995) ed. Roy B. Zuck, pp.34–35). See also Herman Hoyt’s remarks in The Meaning of the Millennium: Four Views ed. Robert G. Clouse, 197.

While not dismissing it, Chafer said of covenant theology that “If [the Covenants of Works and of Grace] are to be sustained it must be wholly apart from Biblical authority” – Lewis Sperry Chafer, Systematic Theology, 4:156. For an attempt to show that the main difference between dispensationalism and covenant theology is one of emphasis, see Stephen R. Spencer’s article, “Reformed Theology, Covenant Theology, and Dispensationalism,” in Integrity of Heart, Skillfulness of Hands, (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1994), Charles H. Dyer and Roy B. Zuck, eds. In my opinion Spencer is at best only half successful.

Covenant Connections in Paul (7)

Part Six

When Christ Delivers Up the Kingdom to the Father  

            There is a strategic passage in 1 Corinthians which bears upon both the eschatology and teleology of the Bible.  That text is found in 1 Corinthians 15:20-28 and requires a little time to think through, although I will confess at the outset that the passage may act as an exemplar of the influence of theological predispositions in hermeneutics.[1]  Because the thought is condensed it is easy to jump to conclusions about what each verse means.  It starts with a theological preamble:

But now Christ is risen from the dead, and has become the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.  For since by man came death, by Man also came the resurrection of the dead.  For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive. – 1 Corinthians 15:20-22.

            Paul tells us that the resurrected Christ is only the first to rise among a host of others who have met death, euphemistically termed “fallen asleep.”  The OT idea of “firstfruits” was the first and best of the crop which was given to God the Provider.  It signaled the quality and abundance of what was to come.  Death is linked to Adam while resurrection life is linked to Jesus.  All that are in Adam will die and remain in death.  All who are counted in Christ will be “made alive.”  A saint may be connected physically to Adam and the curse, but because they are counted righteous in Christ death cannot keep them.  It is crucial to the Christian Gospel as well as to the whole Creation Project that the resurrection of the dead, procured as it is by the sufferings on Calvary’s cross, be accomplished by a man.  Jesus was and is the Christ, but the Christ is a man for men.  Despite His eternal provenance and His spectacular accomplishments, which go far beyond anything done by Abraham or Moses or David or Elijah, this Man died cruelly, detested by the powerful, misunderstood or else feared or even ignored by the majority, yet by Him (and Him only) comes the resurrection of the dead.  I shall look more deeply into the cosmic implications of the resurrection further on, but I want to note here how death through a man (Adam) is reversed and augmented (by glorification) through a Man.

But each one in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, afterward those who are Christ’s at His coming. – 1 Corinthians 15:23.

            Paul speaks about a resurrection order (tagma).[2]  Jesus Christ is first and His resurrection, although it happened many centuries ago, prefigures ours.  The OT concept of the “firstfruits” of the crop is used by the apostle here.  The firstfruits is, “the first sheaf of the harvest which guarantees that there will be more to come.”[3]  Thus, the health of the firstfruits signals the health of the whole crop to come.  As Paul will go on to elaborate at the end of the chapter, the glory that comes to the saints upon their resurrection reflects directly upon the glory that was Christ’s when He was raised.[4]  This translates into the sort of status befitting sons of God (however unworthy).  Paul declares; “we shall…bear (phoreo) the image of the heavenly Man.” (1 Cor. 15:49).  This “bearing” refers to a new way of existence; the eschatological real us!  The complete saint!   

            Then we get a mention of the “end” which is qualified by the way of instrumentation:

Then comes the end, when He delivers the kingdom to God the Father, when He puts an end to all rule and all authority and power.  For He must reign till He has put all enemies under His feet. – 1 Corinthians 15:24-25.  

            Christ’s giving up the kingdom to His Father occurs after He has reigned and “put all enemies under His feet.”  I take this to include not only Death, but the great archenemy of God, Satan.

Now the real question is about the kingdom.  Is Paul saying that Jesus is ruling now?  That is the interpretation of most exegetes.  In fact, Fee dogmatically claims the passage proves that Christ is reigning now.[5]  But is such confidence justified?  Verse 25 says “He must reign till.”  There is an imperative here.  It is essential for Christ to reign.  The reason Paul gives here is that He must bring all His enemies (here actual persons or beings) into submission.  The allusion is to Psalm 110:1-2:

The LORD said to my Lord, sit at My right hand, till I make Your enemies Your footstool.  The LORD shall send the rod of Your strength out of Zion.  Rule in the midst of Your enemies!

Notice how the Psalm locates the place of Christ’s rule: “Zion” or Jerusalem.  This ought to cause us to pause and ask some questions:

  1. Can “Zion” mean the right hand of God in Heaven?
  2. Does the OT indicate that Christ will rule in the midst of His enemies and does Paul negate it?
  3. What kind of reign is Christ involved in now if the world is just as evil and messed up as ever, with none of His enemies being defeated for two millennia?

The majority of commentators teach that Christ is indeed reigning in heaven right now and has done since His ascension.[6]  As so often in amillennial and postmillennial interpretation the little details are brushed aside.  “Zion” on earth cannot be the place of His rule even though numerous prophecies tell us quite the opposite (e.g., Psa. 2:6; 48:1-14; 50:2; 102:13-21; Isa. 2:3; 12:6; Joel 3:16-21; Mic. 4:1-7).  “Zion” does not appear to be a synonym for Heaven.  Furthermore, the “reign” of Christ in Heaven as envisaged by those who believe He is ruling now is of a rather unusual variety.  It is very unlike the reign predicted in the Hebrew Scriptures, or indeed asked about by the disciples in Acts 1:6.  In fact, it seems to differ imperceptibly from God’s ongoing providential care of creation.  Certainly, there has been a marked absence of anything that might resemble what normally would count for a kingly reign: the crushing of the weak under the heel of the ungodly mighty; the elevation of pride and vanity, the suffering of God’s people, and the fact that Satan is still styled “the god of this world” in 2 Corinthians 4:4, who “walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour.” (1 Pet. 5:8)!  Let us be frank, if Jesus is reigning over the world, and has been for nigh on two thousand years, it has been a singularly ineffective “hands-off” approach!

            Added to all this is the way Psalm 110 is employed in other places in the NT.  Michael Vlach notes that,

“In reference to Psalm 110:1, the author of Hebrews says Jesus is “waiting” at the right hand of the Father (see Heb. 10:12-13).  When the heavenly session is over, God installs His Messiah on the earth to reign over it.  From our current historical perspective, Jesus is currently at the right hand of God the Father, but this will be followed by a reign upon the earth.  Thus, Jesus “must” reign from earth because Psalm 110 says this must happen.  In Acts 3:21, Peter also uses “must” in regard to Jesus and His heavenly session before He returns to earth to restore everything.”[7]  

            And he adds,

“Jesus the Son and Messiah must have a sustained reign in the realm where the first Adam failed (see Gen. 1:26, 28; 1 Cor. 15:45).”[8]                           

            The last enemy that will be destroyed is death. – 1 Corinthians 15:26.

            Satan is not the last enemy, Death is.  We know that the future reign of Christ will have death in it, for Isaiah 65:20b says,

For the child shall die one hundred years old, but the sinner being one hundred years old shall be accursed.

If it aloud to stand without being manipulated via typology or spiritualization, then Zechariah 14:16-19 speaks of Yahweh meeting out punishments against nations who refuse to honor Him in Jerusalem.  And Zechariah 8:3-5 should be recalled because it refers to old and young in the streets of Zion at a time when “Jerusalem shall be called the City of Truth.” (Zech. 8:3).

These facts, uncomfortable as they are for amillennialists and postmillennialists alike, demand either that we morph these OT texts to fit the way we think they ought to be, or we leave space in our systems for the insertion of a future kingdom where Jesus Christ will reign, but where sin and death are still present, and where He must rule with a rod of iron (Psa. 2:6-9; Rev. 2:27; 12:5; 19:15). 

So, 1 Corinthians 15:24-25 fit with the view that the new heavens and earth, where Christ delivers up the kingdom to His Father, and wherein there shall be no more curse (Rev. 22:3), will be preceded by a “millennial kingdom” where Christ must reign until He has dealt with every enemy, Death being the last one.

For “He has put all things under His feet.” But when He says “all things are put under Him,” it is evident that He who put all things under Him is excepted. – 1 Corinthians 15:27.

            It must not be forgotten that Jesus in both his first and second advents, not to mention His coming rule, is the Servant of Yahweh.[9]  The whole Creation Project is predicated on His willingness to humble Himself and come into His own creation to suffer and die in it and to bring it under His dominion.  Here the apostle quotes from Psalm 8 and lends it a Christological interpretation; one that it does not appear to support in its original setting.  But the interpretive move is justified on account of the Incarnation.  The man Christ Jesus (1 Tim. 2:5) is the key to the Creation Project, and I have tried to show that He accomplishes it covenantally.      

Now when all things are made subject to Him, then the Son Himself will also be subject to Him who put all things under Him, that God may be all in all. – 1 Corinthians 15:28.

            If I understand this right, Paul teaches here that Jesus cannot assume the role of absolute Sovereign of creation until He has delivered everything up to the Father.  But is Paul saying that the Son, will forever be subject to the Father?  I think we must tread carefully here.  This cannot be an ontological submission of the Son to the Father since that would mean there is an eternal ontic superiority within the Trinity.  The only way an eternal hierarchical order within the Godhead is possible is in the loving relationship between the three Persons; something that cannot be exactly duplicated in human relationships, but which the best Father-Son relationships represent.

            How might I summarize my understanding of 1 Corinthians 15:20-28?  If I have caught the gist of the great apostle’s mind here, the verses express the marvelous truth that the resurrection of Jesus on behalf of His saints is the first installment in the full reconciliation of all things to God (cf. Col. 1:19-20).  This process is drawn out over several thousand years.  Christ rose and ascended two thousand years ago and His return will begin (not continue) His reign on this earth; an earth that has relentlessly gone its own way in defiance of God.  Christ’s initial rule (which I believe will last a thousand years – Rev. 20), is for the purpose of bringing His creatures to heel and to order and beautify the world so that it is fit to be presented back to His Father as fallen yet redeemed.  It will also justify God’s righteous dealing with fallen man because, as we shall see, given the most perfect political situation in a serene environment, and with Satan under lock and key, humanity will still chafe under the beneficent rule of King Jesus, and will finally rejoin the briefly emancipated Satan to seek His overthrow.  If I may supplement this portrait with more NT data, the rationale for the dissolution of the present heaven and earth and the bringing into being the New Heavens and Earth is that only in the new Creation will there be no more sin (Rev. 22:3), and hence no more Death. 


[1] Exegesis is not an exact science.  This statement may easily be tested against any number of passages as they are interpreted by an equal number of scholars.  In this case, I am using Gordon Fee and N.T. Wright as “counter exegetes” to my position.  In doing this I am well aware that where I differ from them (and them from me) I am encouraged in my line of thinking by my adoption of a certain premillennial eschatology.  The best I can do therefore, is to provide exegetical reasons for my interpretation of the passage.  I cannot be too dogmatic.  That will settle nothing.    

[2] For a good premillennial exposition of the passage, I recommend Michael J. Vlach, He Will Reign Forever, 436-444.  I do not believe there is an iron clad argument for a three-stage interpretation of 1 Cor. 15:20-28 that wins the day for premillennialists, but it does mean that the passage fits into the larger premillennial outlook very well.  There exists a strong reciprocal relationship between our interpretation of this text and many other passages in the Old and New Testaments. 

[3] N. T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, 333.

[4] It is understood that this glory differs among the saints, doubtless depending on their service, but all glory is glory indeed, and if it is connected with the glory of the risen Jesus it will far excel our expectations.

[5] Gordon D. Fee, Pauline Christology: An Exegetical – Theological Study, Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2007, 109-112.

[6] On this subject see below

7] Michael J. Vlach, He Will Reign Forever, 441.

[8] Ibid, 442.

[9] As a side note, although it is common nowadays to think of Jesus as a Servant-Leader, it would be more accurate to think of Him as a Servant-Ruler.  He is our undisputed Lord and Master. 

Deciphering Covenant Theology (12)

Part Eleven

The Genius of Covenant Theology

Now that I have given sufficient coverage of the main tenets of Covenant Theology and have inserted some critiques, I want to pause to appreciate the comprehensiveness of this approach. This comprehensiveness adds substantially to its appeal. Here then are my thoughts on what makes Covenant Theology so formidable and attractive. I divide my observations into four braid categories which consider its coherence, its teleology, its Christ-centeredness, and finally, its ability to address different important aspects of Christian discipleship and teaching.

Here then are my personal thoughts regarding the genius of Covenant Theology. I do not agree with it, but I do respect it.

Coherence

The first thing that I want to call attention to is the coherence of the system. Starting as it does with the NT and the cross CT has a powerful leverage point for its exploration of the Bible Story. From this position it can venture into all areas of Scripture looking for foreshadowings of Christ and the “reign” that is envisaged to be operating today. This view of the reign aims to exalt Jesus after His passion and serves to define us as under His divine rule as we live out our lives with purpose in the here and now.

By linking the cross with the concept of covenant (albeit loosely defined) and referring us to passages such as 1 Peter 1:20, Ephesians 1:4, and Revelation 13:8 CT can pull together the past and the present into a harmonized Christological plan for the one people of God; the elect. Hence, making all of the saved the people of the single covenant of grace draws the Old and New Testaments into the same orbit – the orbit of redemption through history.

Meanwhile, Christ’s active obedience in meriting eternal life through His incarnated time on earth both fulfils the covenant of works for His saints and adds that value to the atonement achieved at the cross through His passive obedience. Thus, there is always a redemptive theme, either through analogy, typology, allusion, or direct reference, within reach of the preacher, whose main theme will always be redemptive-historical.

But further, the redemptive relationship between the covenantal scheme of creation and its outworking through the covenant of grace not only places Christ on the throne of David now but it results in an eschatological vision wherein this present evil world will segue into the eternal realm without the “confusion” of an interim thousand-year reign on earth.

Teleology

Closely associated with the coherence of CT is its goal-driven principle. The movement from eternal decrees to the Church in the world to the Church Triumphant is one steady movement until it is consummated at Christ’s return. The Church is and always has been the people of God and any notion of splitting God’s attention between Israel and the Church is both unwelcome and unnecessary. There is one people and one plan for those people, full stop.

The plan is to save the elect of God and use them as the instrument of blessing and the savor of judgment to the world. This world is either the vehicle for that redemptive plan (as earlier understandings of eschatology taught), or the theater for re-creation and eternal blessings. The heavy lifting has been done at the first advent, and so the OT prophecies have been routed through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. This teleology is where the true genius of CT resides.

Christocentricity

Linked in indissoluble union with the above is the Christ-centeredness of CT’s teleology. Though I might have included it under the previous heading I think this facet needs to be highlighted. I recall a long time ago the wife of a well-known prophecy teacher asking why young people were attracted to Covenant Theology and not Dispensationalism. My answer was in the form of another question: “Who is more attractive? the Lord’s Christ or the antichrist?” I got a confused look, so I explained that CT is about what Jesus Christ has done at the cross and His present reign over the Church, whereas DT often seems more preoccupied with identifying the antichrist and related topics (often with covers featuring an eclipse of some sort!). Quite frankly, DT doesn’t have a central dominant place for Christ in its system. CT places Him front and center.

The fact that CT employs redemptive-historical hermeneutics within its covenant story lends to it a robust Christocentric focus and direction. The frankly disorganized treatment of many (not all) DT’s concerning the New covenant, when contrasted to the solid understanding of the New covenant in CT sticks out like a sore thumb. In CT the New covenant is the covenant of grace come to its own. In DT it hangs around as an appendage in the dispensation of the Church or it resides in the back pocket of DT till it is required for Israel after the second coming.

Prescriptiveness

Finally, and (naturally) connected to what has already been said, CT is prescriptive and not merely descriptive. You can do something with CT. It’s self-understanding furnishes a pastoral approach that can be applied to biblical counseling; especially via Van Til’s writings, and to preaching – since every text has a potential Christocentric yield through redemptive typology. Too, because of its conception of Christ’s kingdom now it is alert to its purpose in the world (as it sees it) far more than is DT. Dispensational theology tends to be descriptive; the administrations and their failure are described. They have little concrete to offer us for our present dispensational responsibilities. This is also why worldview thinking comes more naturally to CT’s than to Dispensationalists.

Turning again to the coherence of the system, the work of the Godhead in its trinitarian economies both bolsters the redemptive foci as well as encouraging; indeed almost insisting upon systematization in some form. Need I say that DT’s usual limitation of its remit to the areas of eschatology, ecclesiology, and (in some cases) soteriology does not encourage thinking in terms of holistic Systematic Theology.

As I say, I do not agree with Covenant Theology, but I do believe that it is superior to Dispensationalism in these spheres – which are not negligible. I may get a bit of flak for saying this, but I stand by it. If DT is to gain respect and good health it needs to put a lot of thought into the genius of its main competitor.

Enter “Biblical Covenantalism.”

Deciphering Covenant Theology (11)

Part Ten

The Scholars Versus the Theological Covenants

So far I have tried to set out what Covenant Theology teaches in regards to its three major theological covenants. I have shown that variance exists, and have demonstrated how the covenant of grace is the grand operative in the system. We also saw that there are of necessity paedo-baptist and credo-baptist opinions about who is in the covenant of grace and about “Federalism” as well as about whether it is a republication of the old covenant or has always been one and the same with the new covenant. There are, of course, those who diverge even from these categories, but on the whole we now have a decent lay of the land.

Although I have pointed out that the theological covenants do not bear exegetical scrutiny well, I have not brought in the opinions of biblical scholarship on the Covenants of Scripture to see what they have to say on the merits of the covenants of redemption, works, and grace. In a previous post I said “No credible mainline scholar that I am aware of maintains that there are covenants in the first three chapters of Genesis (e.g., Nicholson, Barr, Mendenhall, Freedman, McCarthy, Rendtorff, or Hillers), and no scholarly evangelical dictionary article on “Covenant” I know sees the theological covenants present in Scripture.” I think it is important to back up that claim.

If these covenants have good biblical standing and are not superimposed upon the Bible via a deductive system of theology then they will surely put in an appearance in the scholarly literature of all kinds of interpreters. If they only show up in the writings of covenant theologians then there is reason to doubt their scriptural pedigree. (I might add here that the seven administrations of traditional Dispensationalism and the four epochs of Progressive Dispensationalism should be treated the same way, since they play a major role in those approaches – particularly the former).

Mainline Biblical Scholarship

After extensive study I wrote in my book,

“It is a fact that more liberal scholars with less of a theological agenda to prosecute, have no problem with saying the first covenant is the Noahic covenant. Any search of the works of W. Eichrodt, G. Von Rad, G. N. Mendenhall, D. N. Freedman, B. S. Childs, D. Hillers, D. J. McCarthy, E. W. Nicholson, B. W. Anderson, J. Goldingay, etc., will reveal this fact. They are joined by a raft of evangelical scholars like H. C. Leupold, W. C. Kaiser, C. H. H. Scobie, A. P. Ross, J. H. Sailhamer, and P. R. Williamson to name just a few. Some things are just obvious once an agenda is taken out of the way.” – The Words of the Covenant: Volume 1, Old Testament Expectation, 110 n. 46.

I could expand this list by adding names of scholars liberal and evangelical.

Scholarly Dictionaries

If you look at the entries on “Covenant” in the IVP Dictionaries you will not find anything about the covenants of redemption, works, or grace. The same is the case with the Anchor Bible Dictionary or the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia or the Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible. This is because the best arguments for the theological covenants are not good enough to employ convincing exegesis. When the passages used to teach the covenants of redemption, works, and grace are examined it quickly becomes apparent that eisegesis is given the upper hand. Therefore, no self-respecting scholar is going to try to write a scholarly article on “Covenant” and include “covenants” derived from theological presuppositions.

Paul Williamson

Paul R. Williamson is an Australian OT scholar who has written an important book on the biblical covenants in the “New Studies in Biblical Theology” series called Sealed with an Oath: Covenant in God’s Unfolding Purpose. This book is essential for anyone studying the covenants of Scripture, even though his eschatology does lead to him morphing the oaths he talks about.

Williamson outlines the covenant scheme of Covenant Theology in a similar way to the way I have set it out here, although he is much briefer (30). It is clear that he is uncomfortable with the claims made for the three theological covenants and he examines and calls into question these theological covenants on pages 54-58 of his book. He observes that “it is now widely acknowledged that an oath was indeed an indispensable aspect in the ratification of a covenant.” (39). He goes so far as to call the oath “the sine qua non of a covenant.” (39). It is “the key aspect without which it cannot be described as a berith.” (43).

This insight is of critical importance because it effectively does away with any covenants so-called where an oath cannot be identified and the scholar’s imaginative powers fill in the details. Out go the theological covenants of Covenant Theology. Along with them go the specious “Edenic” and “Adamic” covenants held to by some Dispensationalists (who must abandon their vaunted hermeneutics to maintain them). Out too must go the “Creation covenant” of New Covenant Theology and Progressive Covenantalists (see below). Williamson says that “the vast majority of contemporary Old Testament scholars totally dismiss any idea of an Adamic covenant.” Citing the scholar John Day he continues: “Attempts to discern an implicit covenant either with Wellhausen in Genesis 1:12-2:4 or with federal theologians in the wider context are thus forthrightly rejected as having ‘no basis in scripture.'” (55).

Daniel Block

Block has recently written a big book on the covenants of the Bible. His book is called Covenant: The Framework of God’s Grand Plan of Redemption. He refers to the world before the flood as “the precovenant world” (3), since “the notion of covenant is absent in Genesis 1 – 3.” (16). Because the relationship in Eden prior to the Fall was what God wanted Block points out that “a covenant would have been unnecessary and superfluous in the scenes of Genesis 1 – 2.” (15). He further states that “Even though Genesis 1 – 2 casts Adam [i.e. humanity] in the role of “vassal” vis-a-vis God, the divine “Suzerain,” this does not make the relationship covenantal.” (15. cf. 24). When addressing Genesis 3 he declares that “there is no need to seek a covenant either in this environment or in the texts of Genesis 1 – 2.” (53. cf. 46).

What Block is saying here is very important. Just as an oath does not necessarily mean a covenant is made, so a “covenantal structure” does not lead to the assumption that a covenant is present. “Covenant structure” does not automatically a covenant make.

Peter Gentry

I may as well include the work of another OT scholar here because he argues that the theological covenants of redemption, works, and grace cannot be found in Genesis. In the book Kingdom Through Covenant, by Peter Gentry and Stephen Wellum there is an important argument for accepting the covenant mentioned in Genesis 6:18:

“But I will establish My covenant with you; and you shall go into the ark—you, your sons, your wife, and your sons’ wives with you.”

When it says that God will “establish” His covenant the verb employed is heqim which Gentry argues refers to a previously arranged covenant. At first glance this looks convincing. But a little more digging shows it to be quite weak. Block asserts,

“although heqim berit usually involves the confirmation of a pre-existent covenant, the Hebrew Bible is not consistent in keeping the distinction between karat berit, “to cut a covenant,” and heqim berit, “to establish /confirm a covenant.” Ezekiel freely interchanged these idioms in Ezekiel 16:60, 62…and 34:25; 37:26…” Deuteronomy 29:1…uses “to cut a covenant” of both YHWH’ establishment of his covenant with Israel at Horeb and Moses’ renewal of that covenant with the new generation on the plains of Moab.” – Covenant, 46.

Furthermore, if one allows Gentry to have his way all one is left with is a empty “covenant.” Here are my thoughts about this from my review of their book:

“While pursuing an exchange with Paul Williamson, Gentry traces out the difference between the phrase “to cut a covenant” (karat berith), and “to uphold an existing covenant” (heqim berith).   And he makes a reasonable circumstantial case for tying in the Noahic covenant, which adopts the language of “upholding a covenant”, with a previously existing “Creation covenant” (155-156, 217-221).  On a personal note, a Creation covenant would support my own theological project considerably.  Still, when all the pages about the imago Dei and ANE parallels are covered, the actual proof for a Creation covenant is, I think, unimpressive.  Even if we grant its existence, the problem is one of definition.  Supposing one can prove such a covenant.  What, precisely, did it say?  Where are its clearly drawn terms?  If we cannot determine with any solid confidence the wording of the original covenant, how can we say anything about it which will be theologically productive?”

Hence, although Gentry adds his weight to those who find no basis for the theological covenants of Covenant Theology he fails to locate any other covenant prior to Genesis 6 and 9 – the Noahic covenant.

Conclusion

While these scholars may use differing nomenclature, and some may divide the Noahic and Abrahamic covenants into two covenants each, the fact is that they all agree on the basic identification of what have been traditionally called the Noahic, Abrahamic, Mosaic, Davidic, and New covenants. Men like Gentry (and Eugene Merrill) argue for some sort of Creation covenant, but without being able to produce a solid exegetical basis for doing so; nor can they point to any oath that is sworn. But allowing for the differences, none of these scholars find the theological covenants of Covenant Theology in the early chapters of Genesis (or anywhere else in Scripture). One of the reasons for the development of New Covenant Theology was the threadbare materials from which CT’s spun their theological covenants. It is very ironic that the system calling itself Covenant Theology downplays the biblical covenants while interposing non-biblical “covenants” borne of their theological precommitments.

Quick Review of “James: An Exegetical Guide for Preaching & Teaching”

Review of Herbert W. Bateman & William C. Varner, James: An Exegetical Guide for Preaching and Teaching, Big Greek Idea Series, Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2022, hdbk, 320 pages.

I received this book only recently. It got lost in the post. Because I am required to write the review now I am unable to give a full review.

This attractive book, with its large pages and many tables and charts, is perhaps above the level of the average pastor who has allowed his Greek to slip, but it is an excellent production all the same. Both authors have done fine exegetical work in previous books and Varner is something of a specialist in the Book of James.

The authors have decided to draw attention in particular to the clauses in James (dependent and independent), while highlighting the words within a given passage which mark out those clauses. The independent clauses (whole sentences) are pulled to the left of the page in the Greek text (NA28) with the “structural marker” bolded and a translation underneath. The same is done with the dependent or subordinate clauses, which are placed in the middle of the page. The whole text of James is treated.

By this method attention can be given to both main types of clauses, the main words, and the dependent clause(s) which modify the independent clause. With this breakdown the Grammatical Function, Syntactical Function, and Semantical Function of the important words (structural markers) of the text are given prominence. With each discussion of a clause the Syntactical and Semantical emphases are stressed, being easily located via the two words “Syntactically” and “Semantically” being bolded. Just this arrangement alone is of real value to the busy exegete.

But that is not all. The exegesis is furthered by darkened panels which examine grammatical, semantical, syntactical, lexical, etc., “nuggets” pinpointing colorful use verbs, the many unique word choices of the inspired author, the range of meanings of the word. Guidance as to the intended meaning is provided. Sometimes these “nuggets” (I dislike the term but I can live with it!) feature brief analyses of text-critical, historical, and theological matters. There is a “Nugget Index” at the back of the volume which adds to the value.

The introduction to the book is critical to read, but it may put off some users who want to dive right into the exegesis. I recommend plowing through the introduction and allowing the authors to explain their method. They don’t waste time but they do demand the student’s attention from the get-go. Once one knows what to look for it makes the book more valuable, and the rather daunting feeling at being assailed at the outset by grammatical and syntactical terminology retreats.

This is a very well executed work. I am excited to be able to dive into it frequently over the coming months. It is the first of the Big Greek Idea series that I have encountered and am very impressed! I would have to include this book among any list of recommended titles on James.