Friday, June 10, 2005

Covenant theology 101

1.The governing principle in covenant theology is that, in addition to dealing with human beings on a one-to-one basis, God also, or even primarily, deals with human beings on a one-to-many basis.

2.This generates a triadic relationship. On the one side is God. On the other side is a federal head (e.g., Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, Christ), who is, in turn, the representative for a larger people-group (e.g., Adamites, Israelites, Christians).


3.And this, in turn, generates another set of distinctions and internal relations. How, exactly, are the many related to their one federal head? And how is he related to God? What conditions must be met to establish and sustain membership in the covenant community? What are the consequences, for good or ill, weal or woe, that flow from this relationship?

How are OT covenants related to each other? And how are they related to the New Covenant?

1.For example, Reformed theology speaks of a covenant of grace. This is a theological construct. It is not identical with any particular covenant in Scripture, but a number of Biblical covenants exemplify the covenant of grace, to one degree or another.

Covenant of grace>historic covenants (e.g., Abrahamic, Mosaic, New Covenant)

The parties to the covenant of grace are Christ and Christians.

2.Traditionally, Reformed theology also distinguishes a covenant of redemption. The parties to the covenant of redemption are the persons of the godhead (Father, Son, & Spirit).

The covenant of grace is logically embedded in the covenant of redemption. Christ dies for the elect, and the work of Christ merits the work of the Spirit in the renewal of the elect. The covenant of redemption is, in effect, the Father’s commissioning of Christ and the Spirit in the work of redemption (Jn 10; 14-17).

Covenant of redemption>covenant of grace

It is also important not to make the mistake, to which infras are prone, of treating the covenant of grace as Plan B after Plan A (the covenant of works) falls through.

3.Customarily, Reformed theology also distinguishes a covenant of works. This, indeed, has attained confessional status (e.g., WCF 7:2). It is identified with an implicit covenant between God and unfallen Adam (cf. Gen 2:16-17; 3:22; Rom 5:12-14; Gal 3:10-12).

Despite its confessional status, this designation has become rather controversial. At issue is not whether God had a covenant with unfallen Adam, but whether this can be characterized as a covenant of works. On the one hand, it can be regarded as a covenant of works insofar as Adam could (and did) fail to comply with the terms of the covenant, whereas the members of covenant of grace cannot fall away.

On the other hand, the term “works” is, in the conflict with Rome, identified with meritorious, supererogatory works, and the idea that Adam could merit the Lord’s blessing is rightly regarded as improperly synergistic.

The Mosaic covenant is sometimes described as a covenant of works, but this is grossly simplistic.

Every Calvinist must subscribe to the following elements of covenant theology:

1.God deals with human beings, not only as individual units, but as social units, under the headship of his appointed representatives.

God>federal head>covenant community

2.God is the principal party: God initiates the covenant, stipulates its conditions and consequences, and ensures the satisfaction of those conditions and attendant consequences in the case of the elect.

This general schema does not prejudge the answer to many detailed questions. And it is these open questions in Reformed theology which are answered differently by the Baptist and Presbyterian strands of the Reformed tradition.

Depending on the particular strand, there are ascending degrees of discontinuity between the OT and the NT:

Theonomic Pres>non-theonomic Pres>non-NCT RB>NCT RB

There are even some Christians with a Reformed soteriology, but a “progressive” dispensational eschatology (e.g., the late S. Lewis Johnson).

Hence, none of the Reformed traditions has a monopoly on covenant continuity. For example, a non-theonomic Presbyterian accentuates Intertestamental continuity when positioning himself in relation to a Reformed Baptist, but accentuates Intertestamental discontinuity when positioning himself in relation to a theonomist.

On the role of the Mosaic law in the life of the church, I’ve expressed myself on that score in my essays on “The 4-Door Labyrinth” and “Four forms of Christian ethics.”

Much of the debate swirls around the question of whether children are automatically party to this one-to-many relation. In Presbyterian theology, you have a kind of two-tiered system of federal headship, where a believing mother or father is the federal head of the child, while the mediator of the covenant (e.g., Abraham, Moses, Christ) is the head of the mother or father:

Federal head>parent>child

It is analogous to the concentric social structure of a tribal culture, where the husband is the head-of-household, but the chieftain is the head of clan, in which the husband is a clansman.

This understanding introduces a further distinction into the covenant of grace—a distinction between external and internal membership:

“The covenant of grace was made with Christ as the second Adam, and in him with all the elect as his seed” (WLC 31).

“Infants descending from parents, either both, or but one of them, professing faith in Christ, and obedience to him, are in that respect within the covenant, and to be baptized” (WLC 166).

Whether this is a principled distinction or a merely makeshift distinction to ground infant baptism is, of course, one of the points of dispute between Reformed Baptists and Presbyterians.

That distinction is, in turn, analogous to the difference between the visible and invisible church. Both Baptists and Presbyterians grant such a distinction, although it is, for Baptists, a necessary evil.

In Reformed Baptist theology, you don’t have a two-tiered system of federal headship. Elect children and elect adults alike have Christ as their only federal head. The parent is not a surrogate federal head:

i) Federal head>elect parent

ii) Federal head>elect child

The New Covenant has two covenant signs: (i) baptism (the sign of incorporation into the body of Christ), and (ii) communion (the sign of covenant renewal). Some Calvinists add Sabbath-keeping as another covenant sign.

Regeneration is not, itself, a sign. A sign is a visible thing. That’s what makes it a “sign.”

Baptism is often regarded as a sign of regeneration. Even if it signified regeneration, that does not, of itself, make it a means of grace. And this, too ranges along an ascending spectrum of sacramental intensity:

An “ordinance, but not a means of grace (Zwingli/Bullinger; RBs)
>a sacramental means of grace for the elect only (Calvin)
>an ex opere operato means of grace (Lutheranism; Catholicism; Anglo-Catholicism; Orthodoxy)

The case for baptismal regeneration also assumes that Johannine imagery (Jn 3-4,7) is allusive of Christian baptism, yet it is arguable that the imagery is allusive, instead, of the water-from-the-rock motif--which would signify the work of Christ rather than the work of the Spirit. Even if the Spirit is the agent, what is signified is the work of Christ.

Circumcision is to baptism as the Passover is to communion. Both Baptists and Presbyterians grant that comparison, although they differ over the degree of contrast or disanalogy inherent in this analogy.

Presbyterians argue from infant circumcision to infant baptism, as well as the wider and deeper principle of federal headship.

Contrariwise, Reformed Baptists argue that circumcision was a type of Christ’s circumcision, as the seed of promise, which is why it was discontinued with the coming of Christ--while baptism is a type of Christ’s baptism. Circumcision is prospective, while baptism is retrospective.

I’d add those who identify communion with the “real presence” are implicitly drawing a quite different parallel. On this view, communion is the analogue, not of the Passover, but of the temple/tabernacle—as the “tent of meeting,” where we enter into the divine presence. Yet this association is clearly a mismatch.

In terms of eschatology, theonomic postmils regard the benedictory/maledictory scheme of the Mosaic Law as applicable to nations today: covenant-keeping nations will be blessed while covenant-breaking nations will be cursed. This carries with it the extension of Exod 20:5-6 to contemporary church/state relations.

There is no official view within Calvinism on the fate of all those who die in infancy. All elect infants who die in infancy are saved, but the question is whether all infants who die are, in fact, elect.

Within the Reformed tradition, Warfield identifies no fewer than five different schools of thought on this sensitive issue (cf. Works, 9:431-34).

It’s a particular problem for the sacramentalist. The traditional reason for infant baptism was to wash away the guilt of original sin, without which a baby would die in a state of mortal sin and thereby be damned.

Over the centuries, Catholicism has tried to soften this consequence by postulating a baptism of desire (only applicable to adults) or an exempt class of unbelievers through no fault of their own. This, however, cuts against the grain of the whole sacerdotal system.

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