Several people asked me to write on “covenant theology.” I’m happy to take a crack at it, but I must make several confessions, up front, without much qualification. First, I am no expert in covenant theology. Second, I find myself agreeing more with 1689 Federalism (Baptist covenant theology), but my purpose is not to argue for or against it. I’d merely like to compare and contrast Baptist covenant theology vs. Presbyterian covenant theology to see the points at which they differ. Hopefully, you will gain a greater appreciation of both schools of thought. Finally, I’m probably the least qualified person to write on this topic. I’ve read only two books on the subject.1The two books are: (1) Pascal DeNault, The Distinctives of Baptist Covenant Theology (Birmingham, AL: Solid Ground Christian Books, 2013); and (2) Nehemiah Coxe, “A Discourse of the … Continue reading
My aim, largely, is to follow those two books, interacting with them along the way. I’m certain many (from both sides) will recommend other books I should read on the subject. I’m happy to try, but it may be a decade or two before I can get to them. I already have stacks of books others want me to read first. I’m way behind, and I’m a rather slow reader, unfortunately.
A Confusing Topic
Let’s all admit this is a complex and confusing topic. A couple of years ago, a caller asked James White about 1689 Federalism. White gave a helpful answer before, ultimately, concluding:
Obviously, a lot of it [the covenant theology debate] has to do with, “What was the nature of circumcision? Circumcision is a part of ‘what’ covenant? How do the covenant promises map on top of each other? How do they become fulfilled in Christ?” It’s incredibly complicated . . .2 See James White, “Dividing Line,” podcast (date not listed); accessible online: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6IcZ-GOnPu8.See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6IcZ-GOnPu8
Uh-oh! If James White says this is “incredibly complicated,” and I’ve already confessed my ignorance, then you may want to stop reading now. If you want to struggle through this with me, though, then let’s keep going.
My Personal Journey
Several unremarkable occurrences in my life led me to think more deeply on the covenants. First, whenever I was asked, “Are you a covenant theologian?,” I never knew exactly how to answer that because I wasn’t sure what “covenant theology” was. I knew I didn’t want to impose a theological system onto Scripture texts (eisegesis). Walt Kaiser summed up how I was processing this issue:
While a unifying structure is extremely important, it should not be seen as a grid placed over the Bible or one that was imposed from the outside. It must be a structure and plan that springs from within the successive Old Testament texts themselves.3 Walt Kaiser, Jr., Preaching and Teaching from the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2003), 32–33.
I heard what he was saying. The canonical center of the Bible must emerge from the text rather than from the reader’s logic and reason. As such, Kaiser proposed that unifying theme as follows:
[T]he plan of God can be defined as a word or declaration from God that he would form a nation and out of that nation he would bring the one through whom salvation would come to all nations.4 Walter Kaiser, Jr., Preaching and Teaching from the Old Testament, 32.
I saw how that unifying theme emerged, quite organically, from Holy Scripture. It was stated explicitly to Abram in Genesis 12, but the first 11 chapters of Genesis set the stage for its public declaration.
Further, I began to see how every paragraph of Scripture feeds into that unifying theme and—in some way—served to advance God’s glorious promise-plan. I later discovered that promise-plan was a “covenant,” and therefore, I must be a covenant theologian.
Second (and totally unrelated), I started a project. I rewrote the 1689 Second London Baptist Confession (2LBC) in updated language so my preteen children could understand it. As I worked through that Confession, I noticed it was laced with “covenant theology.” I began researching the drafters of that 1689 Confession. Nehemiah Coxe is considered by many as one of the “ghost writers” (along with his fellow elder, William Collins), though Coxe died before actually signing it. Coxe wrote a reasoned and developed view of covenant theology. So I read it.
Finally, a Presbyterian family visited our (Baptist) congregation since our service times are different. Some covenant language must have come out in my sermon and made its way back the Presbyterian minister in town, who happens to be a good friend. He texted me later that day, “Heard you’ve been studying up on the covenants lately. Be careful or you guys might become the 2nd Presbyterian church in Springville!” That led to some healthy back-and-forth regarding covenant theology’s different views.
The Key Question
I’ll stop here for now, but let me mention the key question which separates Baptists and Presbyterians on this issue:
Does the Covenant of Grace include both the regenerate and unregenerate descendants of Abraham (Presbyterians)? Or, does it include only the regenerate descendants of Abraham (Baptists)?
The answer to that question, as we shall see, has massive implications on practical ecclesiological considerations. Namely, who can be baptized (infants?)? Who can take the Lord’s Supper? Or, even, “Who can reserve the congregation’s Family Life Center or other facilities: any covenant member (whether they show fruits of repentance or not), or only those covenant members who show genuine fruits of repentance?”
Perhaps I’ve oversimplified the issue, but I really do think it all comes back to that single question.
To that, we shall turn next.
|1||The two books are: (1) Pascal DeNault, The Distinctives of Baptist Covenant Theology (Birmingham, AL: Solid Ground Christian Books, 2013); and (2) Nehemiah Coxe, “A Discourse of the Covenants that God Made with Men Before the Law,” in Covenant Theology: From Adam to Christ, eds. Ronald D. Miller, James M. Renihan, Francisco Orozco (Palmdale, CA: Reformed Baptist Academic Press, 2005).|
|2||See James White, “Dividing Line,” podcast (date not listed); accessible online: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6IcZ-GOnPu8.|
|3||Walt Kaiser, Jr., Preaching and Teaching from the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2003), 32–33.|
|4||Walter Kaiser, Jr., Preaching and Teaching from the Old Testament, 32.|