Journal of the Institute of Reformed Baptist Studies – Sample of review article on Kingdom through Covenant

JIRBS angle

Kingdom through Covenant: A Biblical-Theological Understanding of the Covenants,

A Review Article*

Samuel Renihan

 

*This is an excerpt from Sam Renihan’s review article which will be published in the Journal of the Institute of Reformed Baptist Studies (JIRBS), 2014. This is an important review article of an important book.

 

Critique

It goes without saying that Gentry and Wellum are to be commended for their detailed, careful, and extensive work. They are also to be commended for a desire to say what God has said in such a way that reflects the way that he has said it. But we must now turn to iron-sharpening and face the giants in the land.

The fundamental argument of Kingdom through Covenant is sound. God does indeed govern his world through dominion delegated by covenant. The overall metanarrative is also sound. There is a great tension/need in the progress of the historical covenants for one who will do perfectly all that God commands. But the authors are operating under a few false dilemmas.

They propose their system as a via media between covenant theology and dispensationalism. From all appearances, covenant theology equals paedobaptism. The only hint to the contrary is the brief mention of Greg Nichols’ book in the preface (12-13). Forasmuch as the authors are weary of the rehearsal of the same arguments from covenant theologians, they would find many an ally among the federal theologians of the seventeenth-century Particular Baptists. A rejection of the idea that the historical covenants are simply “administrations” of the covenant of grace, an appreciation for the progressive nature of God’s covenantal dealings with man, and an insistence that the new covenant is the covenant of grace are arguments that have been brought forward in the past. But these arguments did not entail the same rejection of the covenant of works and covenant of grace as is seen in this book. Thus, it is a false dilemma to see no party besides paedobaptist federal theologians and dispensationalists.

This leads me to a second false dilemma. Gentry and Wellum are critical of the conditional/unconditional framework of standard covenant theology. I cannot help but agree with them, to a degree. When it comes to the Noahic, Abrahamic, Mosaic, and Davidic covenants there is indeed a blend in which God vows to make good on a promise while demanding that the covenant partner perform certain actions as well. They ought not to be reduced too hastily to one or the other without careful consideration. But when it comes to the covenant of works and covenant of grace, we have explicit scriptural warrant for doing so. In passages like Romans 4:4-6; 5:12-21; 11:6 and Galatians 3:18, there is an explicit contrast between wages and gifts, obedience and gifts, grace and works, and law and promise. All of this revolves around justification, a perfect record of righteousness. In such a case, these two are not two ends of a continuum, but two truly mutually exclusive polar opposites. The false dilemma is that if we isolate the covenant of works and covenant of grace from the covenants previously mentioned, and consider them on their own, then they truly are conditional and unconditional in the fullest sense. Nevertheless, that does not change the fact that when dealing with covenants in which perfect eschatological righteousness is not in view there are blends of conditionality.

This in turn leads to a third false dilemma. The covenant of works and covenant of grace metanarrative is pitted against the metanarrative of progressive covenantalism. That is almost like pitting the chapters of a book against the beginning and end of a book. While classic covenant theology may say that the metanarrative hinges on two covenants, as long as we understand that between the two lies a progression of covenants (as the seventeenth-century Particular Baptists argued), such a dilemma is dissolved. The new covenant is progressively revealed in and through the covenants of the Old Testament, but remains distinct from them.

In the biblical-theological summary of the covenants (611-52), reasons are given for the departure from the classic formulation of the covenant of works. While admitting that the classic covenant of works is “on the right track” (610), their disagreements are unhelpfully woven into a defense of the validity of a covenant in Genesis 1-3. There is, they argue, a covenant, but it is not the covenant of works. Yet they agree that Adam played a representative role on behalf of the human race, that there were conditions of obedience, and that there were sanctions connected to that obedience. They even agree that the tree of life symbolized a reward of life and that it served as a probationary test (667). Their reasons for preferring the title “covenant of creation” are unclear.

Regarding the new covenant, the authors view it as being “completely effective…in terms of both provision and application” (681). You cannot break the new covenant. As they proceed, they argue, “Theologically, the entire story line of Scripture is centered on two-foundational individuals–Adam and Christ” (616) and later that “Biblically and theologically, it is difficult to overestimate the importance of the Adam-Christ typological relationship for understanding the story line of Scripture” (616). They continue to argue that “Scripture is clear that all human beings fall under the representative headship of two people: Adam and Christ.” They even assert that the promise of Genesis 3:15 unfolds in “the entire story line of Scripture …through the biblical covenants” (628). If this is not the basic structure of the classic covenant of works and covenant of grace biblical metanarrative, then I don’t know what is.

It’s not hard to conclude why there is fuzziness here. The treatment of the covenant of creation has giant holes in its coverage. There is an inexplicable lack of exegetical attention to Genesis 3. A passing comment states that Paul makes it plain that we are “somehow” involved in Adam’s fall (216). If it is made “plain” by Paul, then we were all involved more than “somehow.” Yet Genesis 3:14-19, the curses of the covenant (and the protevangelium), is not treated at all in the chapter on the covenant of creation. To a defender of the classic covenant of works, it appears quite odd to give no exegetical attention to this part of Genesis 1-3. And if, as stated before, the authors really do believe that Genesis 3:15 is unfolded in the rest of the plot of Scripture through the various covenants, then why does it (and the surrounding curses) receive not even one blot of ink in this chapter? Does not the fallen condition of mankind and the promise of restoration constitute the entire biblical narrative from this point on? It would be one thing to exegete the text and argue against the classic covenant of works, but it is inexcusable to bypass this data completely. It is precisely in these verses that the covenant of works and covenant of grace metanarrative of classic covenant theology is established, and yet it is here that the powerhouse exegetical machines of this book quietly excuse themselves. For those who insist that systematic conclusions be firmly established on exegetical foundations, chapters 16 and 17 assume a great deal of non-existent exegesis in Genesis 3. In fact, given that the conclusions about Genesis 3 in chapter 16 appear so in line with the classic covenant of works, one wonders what that assumed exegesis would look like and how it would change the presentation of the “covenant of creation.”

I understand the authors’ reservations. To embrace the covenant of works, in their minds, is to embrace all of the errors of classic covenant theology. But they are operating under a false dilemma. Along the same lines it would seem their opinion is that covenant theology is equal to the classic formulation of the covenant of grace being one in substance, varying only in administration. They state, “It is more accurate to think in terms of a plurality of covenants, which are part of the progressive revelation of the one plan of God that is fulfilled in the new covenant” (602). Though the model of the covenant of grace passing through multiple administrations may be the dominant paedobaptist portrayal, it is not the dominant portrayal of the history of Baptist federal theology. A good dose of Baptist historical theology might be of great benefit.[1]

Underlying some of these rejections is an inconsistent use of typology. Primarily, their use of typology is prospective. Patterns are established in the Old Testament that find fulfillment in the New Testament. That is true. But the authors also stated that the New Testament holds priority over the Old Testament in terms of definitive interpretation and unpacking of the complete teaching of God’s word (85-86, 607). That means that we must also look at typology retrospectively. In fact, retrospective typology is that which holds priority in interpretation. Why are Ephesians 4:24 and Colossians 3:10 legitimate material for informing our perspective of the divine image, but Romans 5 only makes it clear that “somehow” we were involved in Adam’s actions? If we allowed for more retrospection, would that not put more meat on the bones of the covenant of creation and other theological issues?[2]

A related and larger problem is the lack of attention to the New Testament. The authors’ scope was specific to the covenants of the Old Testament for a variety of reasons. That is not a problem. But as they themselves have stated, the true test of theological accuracy is to ask, “Does it do justice to all of the biblical data” (694)? Thus, to propose a metanarrative that spans the entire Bible, and then to fail to address not only a large portion of data, but the most important set of data in terms of interpretational priority is a fatal flaw. It does not mean that all conclusions are wrong. It simply means that they are incomplete. I have no doubts that the authors would argue that the New Testament supports their initial conclusions, but the reader has the right to remain unconvinced.

The New Testament is certainly not absent from their argumentation, but its authoritative and indispensable voice is sadly lacking. In ways, this is a failure to follow that third step of interpretation advocated by the men themselves, the canonical horizon. The authors are correct in reminding us to appreciate a text in its original and immediate context. In other words, we ought to read the Bible from the beginning forward. However, once we have arrived at Revelation, we realize that it’s time to read the Bible backwards, or at least to start over in light of the New Testament. Thus, while the authors provide excellent exegesis of many texts in their original contexts, and indeed relate them to their epochal horizons and all that preceded them, they lack the voice of the New Testament.

Put another way, we must assert not only that the Old Testament looked forward to Christ, but that Christ was present in the Old Testament. We can assert the former based on the Old Testament itself, but we can assert the latter based only on the New Testament. Because this treatment focuses on the Old Testament, it is unwilling, in ways, to see New Testament realities in the Old Testament. Yet, when the New Testament employs typology, it is to show the Jews what they should have seen from the beginning, whether that was in the wilderness manna, the water-gushing rock, the desert-serpent, the sacrifices, or so much more. Typology is both prospective and retrospective. Prospectively it casts a shadow. Retrospectively, the person casting the shadow steps into the light. Christ was not just portrayed in the Old Testament. He was present in the Old Testament. Thus through typology the new covenant, the covenant of grace, was present in the covenants of the Old Testament while remaining distinct from them.

The irony of this critique is that for all the prospection of progressive covenantalism, the covenant of creation goes second in the exegetical portion of this book. Because Genesis 6:18 indicates the existence of a prior covenant we are justified in returning to Genesis 1-3 to find it. Why stop at Genesis 6:18, or Genesis, or the Pentateuch, or Hosea, etc.? I do not deny those exegetical relations and realities. But a consistent application of such a method would add more of a canonical voice to some of the interpretations of these texts.

 



[1] A good place to start would be Nehemiah Coxe’s “A Discourse of the Covenants,” in Covenant Theology: From Adam to Christ (eds., Ronald D. Miller, James M. Renihan, and Francisco Orozco; Palmdale, CA: Reformed Baptist Academic Press, 2005). Cf. also, Pascal Denault, The Distinctiveness of Baptist Covenant Theology (Vestavia Hills, AL: Solid Ground, 2012). There are many other works that would be worth reading, but few are available in published format.

[2] While not treated in this review article, there are ordo salutis concerns that stem from this inconsistency. Gentry and Wellum affirm that “old covenant believers were regenerated and that they were saved by grace through faith in the promises of God,” (684, n. 70) but they deny the indwelling of the Holy Spirit as well as union with Christ in the Old Testament (113, n. 74). See Jonathan Brack’s review at http://www.reformation21.org/shelf-life/kingdom-through-covenant.php.