Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The Distinctiveness of Baptist Covenant Theology - A Book Review

"The Distinctiveness of Baptist Covenant Theology" came about as the result of a dissertation by Pascal Denault. He has carefully researched the theological texts of the seventeenth-century, examining the covenantal distinctions between Presbyterians and Baptists. While the two groups have certain similarities, they also have significant divergences. It is a subject of no small importance. Denault writes in his introduction: "We propose that covenant theology is that distinctive between Baptists and paedobaptists and that all divergences that exist between them, both theological and practical, including baptism, stem from their different ways of understanding the biblical covenants. Baptism is, therefore, not the point of origin but the outcome of the differences between paedobaptists and credobaptists" (credobaptist = those who believe in believers baptism). For Baptists the question is not so much a matter of the proper form of baptism but the question of who are the people of God. Who can be baptized? Who is in the covenant? The proper answer to these questions demands having a proper understanding of the framework of covenant theology.

Denault divides his book into four chapters: The Covenant of Works, The Covenant of Grace, The Old Covenant, and The New Covenant. Using these basic heads, he skillfully lays out the distinctions between Presbyterians and Baptists.

The greatest distinction between paedobaptists and Baptists lies in their understanding of the relationship of the Old Covenant and the New Covenant. Presbyterians/paedobaptists see one single Covenant of Grace which runs through both the Old and New Covenants. With this framework they set up a substance/administration hermeneutic. The Old Covenant and New Covenant are the same in substance; they only differ in administration. Baptists, on the other hand, function on a promise/fulfillment hermeneutic; that the Covenant of Grace was promised in the Old Covenant and revealed progressively until it is fulfilled by Christ in the New Covenant. Denault unpacks these opposing concepts throughout this book.

In the chapter on the Covenant of Works the author describes how the paedobaptists and Baptists differ in how they understand the continuity of Covenant of Works. Denault writes, "Since paedobaptists saw the Old Covenant as an administration of the Covenant of Grace in harmony with the New Covenant, according to them the opposition between the law and grace did not mean an opposition between the Old and New Covenants, but rather opposition between the Covenant of Works and the Covenant of Grace" (page 30). In other words, the law which Paul contrasts with the Gospel is the Covenant of Works. While the Baptists did not necessarily refute this, they insisted on a continuity of the Covenant of Works in the Old Covenant, a paradigm the paedobaptists could not accept. Baptists see the Old Covenant as a conditional covenant. For Baptists the law/grace antithesis is an Old/New Covenant antithesis.

Since the Covenant of Grace is the great divide among these two systems of covenant theology, Denault devotes the second chapter to describe the opposing views of paedobaptist and Baptists. The contrasting views focus on continuity/discontinuity between the Biblical covenants. As I stated earlier, the paedobaptists see the Covenant of Grace running throughout both Testaments--the same in substance but different in administration. The Baptists see the Covenant of Grace as only promised in the Old Covenant, but fulfilled in the New Covenant. In other words the Old Covenant is not the Covenant of Grace. It is the "same in substance, different in administration" distinction that allows the Presbyterians to justify a mixed people of God (regenerate and unregenerate) in both the Old Covenant and the New Covenant. As Denault states it, "The external administration of the Covenant of Grace would, therefore, contain the regenerate and non-regenerate, while the internal substance would only contain the regenerate" (page 41). He adds, "The Baptists did not deny the principle of natural posterity under the Old Covenant. However, they considered the importation of this principle under the New Covenant to be a fallacy dependant on an artificial and arbitrary construction of the Covenant of Grace" (page 45). While "the Baptists saw the substance of the Covenant of Grace running from Genesis to Revelation, they did not see the same unity between the Old and New Covenants" (page 58). The Baptist position was that while the Covenant of Grace existed as a promise in the Old Covenant and men were saved through belief in the promise, it did not exist as a covenant until the New Covenant in Christ, which means all who were saved before Christ were saved by virtue of the New Covenant, not the Old.

Denault adds an interesting point to his research. The position of the Presbyterians must allow for the mediation of Christ in such a way that will allow for the inclusion of the unconverted (baptized infants added to the church). "In order to justify the mixed nature of the Church, the paedobaptists had to restrain the efficacy of grace within the covenant. As a result, the one covenant under two administrations model had a direct consequence on the doctrine of expiation. The Baptists compared this restrained efficacy of the death of Christ to a kind of limited Arminianism. This Arminianism extended the reach of the death of Christ to all human beings, but limited its efficacy to believers. Consequently, Presbyterian federalism (covenantalism) was comparable to Arminianism" (pages 91-92).

In order to maintain their one covenant under two administrations model the Presbyterians had to put the Mosaic/Sinaitic Covenant as a part of the Covenant of Grace removing it from being a works/conditional covenant. "If one considered the Sinaitic Covenant as a covenant of works (i.e. conditional), it became impossible to consider the Old Covenant as a cumulative administration of the Covenant of Grace since there would have been incompatibility between the unconditional nature of the Covenant of Grace and the conditional nature of the Sinaitic Covenant" (page 101). To solve this dilemma some paedobaptists radically separated the Abrahamic Covenant from the Sinaitic Covenant. The Baptists, on the other hand saw a distinction between the revelation and conclusion of the Covenant of Grace, thus not all members of the Abrahamic Covenant benefited from the grace of God since the Covenant of Grace was not concluded with members of this covenant. The Covenant of Grace was only revealed to those who believed. They maintained that Abraham had two distinct posterities--a physical, represented by Ishmael, and a spiritual, represented by Isaac (Galatians 4:22-31). Their conclusion was that these two posterities were under two distinct covenants: The Covenant of Grace, and the covenant of circumcision. Denault writes, "Understanding the workings of the dualism of the Abrahamic Covenant is essential for every theological system. We believe that Presbyterian federalism and dispensationalism failed in this task by confusing the promises of the Covenant of Grace with the covenant of circumcision" (page 124).

In the final chapter, The New Covenant, Denault continues to demonstrate the distinct differences between the paedobaptists and the Baptists. The paedobaptists insist that the New Covenant was simply a new administration, not a substantially different covenant. The Baptists argued forcefully that the New Covenant was indeed, a new covenant. Denault gives two ways the New Covenant was new. (1) It was new because it was unconditional, unlike the Old Covenant. It was unconditional because of its Mediator. Denault writes, "If the blessings of the New Covenant were guaranteed by Christ (Heb. 7:22), how could one conceive, as did the Presbyterians, that the New Covenant was just as 'transgressable' as the Old?" (page 150). (2) It was new because ALL of its members would participate in the substance of the Covenant of Grace. The Covenant states, "they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest."

 Denault summarizes the problem with the paedobaptist position in his conclusion. "Presbyterian federalism was an artificial construction developed to justify an end: paedobaptism. . . We do not purport that paedobaptists were dishonest, but, at the very least, that they were profoundly influenced by their tradition."

He concludes: "In no way did the Baptists reject reformed theology; however, they reformed its foundations in order to give the edifice a more solid base and much greater harmony with the doctrines of the grace of God" (page 156).

This book is an excellent synopsis of the differences in the covenantal approaches of paedobaptists and Baptists. It is timely in our day when Baptists are once again rediscovering their reformed heritage. I hope it will have an excellent reception and broad reading.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Oh How I Love Thy Law - Psalm 119:97

Modern Christianity seems plagued by a hatred of God’s law. Sadly, even some of our brothers who love reformed theology insist that God’s moral law, as reflected in the Ten Commandments, no longer exists under the New Covenant. They make a strange distinction between the law of God and the law of Christ, as if there is a change in character between the persons of the Godhead. David’s words, “O how I love Thy law! It is my meditation all the day” (Psalm 119:97) is not even in the realm of their consideration.

One certainly has to ask, what was God’s moral standard in the Old Covenant? Was it not the Ten Commandments? Were these ten words His standard by an arbitrary decree or were they holy because they reflected His holy character? What is the standard by which all men are judged? What is the measure of sin? What was the law Jesus was born under and which He perfectly obeyed? What is the standard of righteousness imputed to us? What is the “My law” written upon the hearts of God’s people in the New Covenant according to Jeremiah 31:33? The same God who wrote His law upon the stone tablets has now written His law upon the hearts of His people—not a different law but the one same law that is forever His standard of righteousness. Did the Ten Commandments have a historical beginning at Mount Sinai and a historical end at the cross? The answer has to clearly be no. The standard by which Cain was judged was the law of God and this same law remains the standard by which all men are judged. 

To declare God’s law obsolete and abrogated is most dangerous. To take God’s command, “remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy” and declare, “that’s not for me” is a bold declaration. We have no authority to dismiss certain of God’s commands. The claim often heard is, "Only the Old Testament laws repeated in the New Testament are binding upon Christians." Richard Barcellos writes in In Defense of the Decalogue, "It is simply not true that only those things from the Old Testament repeated in the New are still binding. Where is the exegetical basis for such a claim? There is none. Where does the New Testament tell us that the absence of Old Testament commands is the death knell of such commands? Unfortunately, many Evangelical Christians adhere to this maxim today. Yet it is simply a hermeneutical presupposition, not based on the exegesis of the text of Scripture, but instead imposed on the Scripture" (p.86).
Some argue, “But love is the fulfilling of the law.” Yes, but this is not to say that love “is” the law or that love has replaced the law. There must be a standard that love obeys. John Murray writes, "When we examine the witness of the Scripture itself as to the origin of the canons of behaviour which the Scripture approves, we do not find that love is allowed to discover or dictate its own standards or patterns of conduct" (Principles of Conduct, p.24). Love for God and our fellow man provides us with motivation for obedience to the law. "That love is its own law and the renewed consciousness its own monitor, is a fantasy which has no warrant from Scripture and runs counter to the witness of the biblical teaching" (Murray, Principles of Conduct, p.26).
It is our duty as Christians to obey God's law. But for us it is not a burden but a delight. We see God in His law and desire to reflect His holy character. His law has become our treasure and we glory in its richness. Charles Bridges wrote, "Oh, Christians! How much more is your portion to you than the miser's treasure! Hide it; watch it; retain it. You need not be afraid of covetousness in spiritual things: rather 'covet earnestly' to increase your store; and by living upon it and living in it, it will grow richer in extent, and more precious in value." Murray Brett writes, "Psalm 119 is the language of a person who is ravished by the moral beauty of God's law and the order and beauty that it brings to his own life as he conforms his heart, mind, and will to it. Delighting in God's law is experiencing personally the moral excellence of His law" (Growing Up in Grace, p.154). Brett adds, "Do you know this perfect complement between duty and delight? Has the boundless generosity of God warmed your cold heart so that you have become a true law-keeper? Is God's moral law your recreation? What a strange idea this is, especially to us Americans who live in a country where we have whatever else our heart could desire for recreation at our fingertips. But the psalmist insists that the law of God drowns out all other delights" (Growing Up in Grace, p.156).