Thursday, December 08, 2005

Whose covenant theology?


Steve, I think that somewhere in the back-and-forth castigations a worthwhile question has been dropped. In the quote from Michael, it's hidden in the "this" in reference to "the heart of Josh's argument." I wonder if you'd care to respond to the "this"; namely, the divergent views of the sacraments held by the Reformed and the RBs. It is my understanding that RBs do not have them. In my experience in mixed company, when the various Reformed confessions speak of the sacraments as "means of grace," the RBs in the room clear their throats through clenched teeth. Why do RBs reject the sacraments as means of grace and yet think of themselves as Reformed in the tradition of Calvin, the Westminster divines, et al?

Furthermore, as others have pointed out, covenant theology decisively frames Reformed doctrine and practice. Reducing Reformed doctrine down to tulip is like reducing Eastern Orthodox theosis down to the Eucharist. They're certainly related to one another, but the specific sense of tulip (and the Orthodox eucharist) is given by the overarching theological framework. It sounds really strange to hear or read expositions on tulip as if it can be dehistoricized from its theological context; or put another way, RB theology seems both eclectic and anachronistic. It seems odd to someone confessionally Reformed like me (as well as certain truculent Lutherans) that RBs think of themselves as Reformed since RBs explicitly reject the framing theology and the accompanying sacramentology and ecclesiology that follow from it.

What is the point of doing apologetics as an RB if there's nary a trickle of refutations of Calvinism, presbyterians, Heidelberg confessors, etc? It seems that the very things that make RBs distinctive are the very things that they don't talk about. Why is that? The only blogger I've read that makes the effort to earnestly defend these distinctives is ct. She does a fine job of making it quite clear that the Reformed and Lutherans and ... corrupt biblical doctrine and practice with their theology of the sacraments and the church. Do not RBs share this view, generally speaking?

I don't know if you are RB, Steve, but would you care to explicate what exactly is Reformed about RBs? Further (so as not to leave Josh out), what is reformational about RBs? I think it would make an enlightening discussion to address the substance of Josh's original broadside.

# posted by notsoelder : 12/08/2005 2:08 AM


This is a perfectly reasonable request.

1.For the record, I’m not an RB. I regard the French, Dutch-Reformed, Presbyterian, Welsh Calvinist Methodist, and Anglican confessional traditions as equally valid expressions of the Reformed tradition, and I move between these very freely myself.

(When I refer to the Anglican tradition as Reformed, I have reference to the Thirty-Nine Articles and the Lambeth Articles. In practice, the Anglican tradition has not been consistently Reformed, to put it mildly.)

2.Every theological tradition is, to some extent, a historical accident. As with any historical phenomenon in the history of ideas, the Reformed tradition is rather fluid, with somewhat fuzzy boundaries in time, space, and content. The doctrinal package is, in some measure, eclectic.

3.There are different ways of identifying the Reformed tradition.

a) You might take certain representative credal statements as your point of reference (e.g. the Westminster Confession; Three Forms of Unity). Creeds are consensus documents, so they express mainstream opinion.

b) You might take certain representative theologians as your point of reference (e.g. Bavinck, Calvin, Cunningham, Edwards, Gill, Hodge, Murray, Owen, Turretin, Warfield).

c) You might take the inner logic of certain doctrinal matrices as your point of reference (e.g. TULIP).

d) You might take any or all of these as your proximate point of reference, but test them against Scripture as your ultimate point of reference.

4.As with any faith-community, the question of who’s in and who’s out is a consensus question. You cannot have community without a certain measure of unity. If enough people can’t agree on enough things, they can’t function at a communal level. But there’s no abstract, uniform answer for where to draw the line.

5.There is no one version of covenant theology. Stephen Strehle has documented the diversity of federal formulations in historical Reformed theology. Cf. Calvinism, federalism, and scholasticism: a study of the reformed doctrine of covenant (Peter Lang 1988).

6.In the 20C there have been a number of competing versions of covenant theology put forward by the likes of Beckwith, Hoeksema, Kline, McComiskey, Murray, Robertson, and Rushdoony.

Of these, O. Palmer Robertson’s may be the most mainstream or widely accepted.

The current contention over the Federal Vision is another case in point.

7.Traditionally, Reformed Baptists do affirm covenant theology. Here’s a representative statement from the 1689 edition of the London Baptist Confession of Faith:

I. The distance between God and the creature is so great, that although reasonable creatures do owe obedience to him as their creator, yet they could never have attained the reward of life but by some voluntary condescension on God's part, which he hath been pleased to express by way of covenant.
(Luke 17:10; Job 35:7,8)

II. Moreover, man having brought himself under the curse of the law by his fall, it pleased the Lord to make a covenant of grace, wherein he freely offereth unto sinners life and salvation by Jesus Christ, requiring of them faith in him, that they may be saved; and promising to give unto all those that are ordained unto eternal life, his Holy Spirit, to make them willing and able to believe.
(Genesis 2:17; Galatians 3:10; Romans 3:20, 21; Romans 8:3; Mark 16:15, 16; John 3:16; Ezekiel 36:26, 27; John 6:44, 45; Psalms 110:3 )

III. This covenant is revealed in the gospel; first of all to Adam in the promise of salvation by the seed of the woman, and afterwards by farther steps, until the full discovery thereof was completed in the New Testament; and it is founded in that eternal covenant transaction that was between the Father and the Son about the redemption of the elect; and it is alone by the grace of this covenant that all the posterity of fallen Adam that ever were saved did obtain life and blessed immortality, man being now utterly incapable of acceptance with God upon those terms on which Adam stood in his state of innocency.
(Genesis 3:15; Hebrews 1:1; 2 Timothy 1:9; Titus 1:2; Hebrews 11;6, 13; Romans 4:1, 2, &c.; Acts 4:12; John 8:56 )

8.While we’re on the subject, if you want a representative statement of what Reformed Baptists believe, it would be one or another editions of the London Baptist Confession of Faith (1644; 1677; 1689).

9.Just as you have intramural battles going on within Presbyterian circles over covenant theology, the same is occurring within Reformed Baptist circles. See Welty on NCT:

10.RBs are Reformational because they uphold the five Reformation soli.

For that matter, the Anabaptists are Reformational without being Reformed.

11.With regard to the efficacy of the sacraments as a means of grace, or the denial thereof, RBs take the same position as Zwingli and Bullinger. In terms of historical theology, that qualifies both as Reformed and Reformational.

For a representative statement of RB ecclesiology and sacramentology, consult the LBCF, to which I’ve already referred.

12. Historically, adherence to the Westminster Standards included adherence to the Westminster Directory of Worship. This is a Puritan document which prohibits hymns, organs, choirs, crosses, holidays, stained glass, &c.

Is this an essential mark of Reformed identity? The OPC and PCA say no. But there are Calvinists who regard these denominations as apostate because they reject the Westminster Directory of Worship.

Incidentally, this would also commit one to the terms of the Solemn League & Covenant.

Because the Westminster Confession identifies the papacy with the Antichrist, this would logically commit an adherent to the historicist school of prophetic fulfillment.

The OPC and PCA have dropped this article from their edition of the Westminster Confession. Again, there are some Calvinists who regard that deletion as another evidence of their apostate status.


  1. An excellent summary Steve, where do you find the time?

  2. You've got to be kidding. Here, let this 'crypto-theonomist' (hat tip: centuri0n) put on his ecumenical cap for a moment and demonstrate to the rabble how RBs are well within the mainstream of the Reformed tradition.

    The 1689 LBCF *explicitly* affirms the covenant of works, the covenant of grace, and the covenant of redemption. (Heck, you can't find that kind of clarity in the Three Forms of Unity, except for a few brief references to the covenant of grace in the Canons of Dordt.) The 1689 LBCF affirms the perpetuity of the moral law, as summarized in the Ten Commandments. Indeed, it agrees with the WCF on 95% of its doctrines, verbatim.

    Re: the Lord's Supper, RBs hold that Christ instituted it, in part, for the "confirmation of the faith of believers in all the benefits thereof, their spiritual nourishment, and growth in him." Yep, according to them it's a means of grace, in *some* significant sense, and not a mere memorial.

    And let's be honest. Infant baptism is not a Reformed distinctive. Roman Catholics believe that. Baptism as a means of grace is not a Reformed distinctive. Roman Catholics believe that. The 'covenantal efficacy of baptism' is not a Reformed distinctive. Roman Catholics believe that. The denial of the autonomy of the local church, and the consequent affirmation of authoritative bodies over and above the local church, is not a Reformed distinctive. Roman Catholics believe that.

    RBs hold to every *Reformed distinctive*. If someone can name a Reformed distinctive to which RBs do not hold, I'd like to see it.

    The idea that RBs are just a bunch of TULIP-guys is insane. As I understand it, the latter are Sovereign Grace Baptists, not Reformed Baptists. SGBs can deny covenant theology and the perpetuity of the moral law. Not so for RBs.

    Of course, I don't have a dog in this fight. I'm happy to extend the 'Reformed' label even to SGBs, since in charity I think that anyone who subscribes to the five solas of the Reformation deserve to be called 'Reformed' in some meaningful sense.

  3. "SGBs can deny covenant theology and the perpetuity of the moral law."

    That may explain the position of a certain blogger on another site whose insistance that Christians are somehow immune to and not a part of the covenants left me somewhat amazed. I had not run into that before and I am struggling with how a person could study scripture and arrive at that conclusion. But apparently it can be done.

    I read a quote recently that went something like this:

    "there are two types of Christians in the world today. Catholics and protesting catholics."

    From where I stand that seems about right. Your post at least confirms the degree confusion.

  4. Doesn't also the fact that such an iconic figure such as John Bunyan being a Baptist and very much a Calvinist lend some - or alot - of legitimacy and credibility, if that's needed, to Baptists being able to be Calvinists? (rhetorical question)

    Ah, you misunderstand the opposition. If these critics are so clueless as to think that RBs "reduce Reformed doctrine down to tulip," why do you think reference to Bunyan would make a dent? :-)

  5. BTW, some guy involved with the Founders movement (which I guess is connected with the SBC?), has an interesting FAQ on the RB view of baptism. Check out q. 6. It looks pretty clear to me that even on RB theology, baptism is a means of grace. Hooray! :-)

  6. jus divinum, I attempted to turn a useless (if somewhat humorous) exchange of diatribes into a discussion that might go somewhere informative. How that warrants a response with the colorful descriptors "rabble," "insane," and "clueless" escapes me. Moving on...

    I was asking what was distinctive about RBs and why they don't expend more apologetical effort against calvinists. Your paragraph about "infant baptism" makes my point. There's nothing distinctive about the RB, RC, lutheran and calvinist views on the nature of Christ the God-man and the Trinity. When it comes to baptism, however, I would find it interesting to hear an RB argument against the calvinist view. There's a reason we call it covenant baptism. It's because we believe that God faithfully keeps His covenant word to act savingly by means of (instrumentally through) the sacrament. According to Calvin, God acts effectively in applying grace through the mediating means He has determined to use: the Supper and Baptism.

    "baptism is...a true and effectual sealing of the promise, a pledge of sacred union with Christ, it is justly said to be the entrance and reception into the Church. And as the instruments of the Holy Spirit are not dead, God truly performs and effects by baptism what He figures."

    The key word in this quote and in the WCF is "seal." According to the Reformed, the sacraments are not only signs, they are seals. WCF 27 says that there is a sacramental union between the sign and the thing signified. The Holy Spirit actually confers grace through the sacraments rightly used. So I agree with you about this: baptizing infants is not the sole provenance of the Reformed. The Reformed have their own theological take on it, but the outward form is not distinctive. But that wasn't the point. The point was that the Reformed view of baptism is decidedly distinct from the RB view. Was your point that it is the RBs that have the proper Reformed understanding of baptism, church government, etc? If so, then you have your finger on just the issue that has been driving this dispute. The argument appears to go like this:

    (1) The RCC is in theological error regarding x, y and z.
    (2) Various Protestants, including the Reformed, have not distinguished themselves from the RCC regarding x, y and z.
    (3) Therefore, the Reformed are in theological error regarding x, y and z.
    (4) The correct interpretation of ____________ (the Bible?) (the ecumenical creeds?) (the 5 soli?) (all of the above?) inferentially lead to the RB position on x, y and z.
    (5) Therefore, the RBs have the proper and true understanding of the biblical, reformed faith.

    I think statement 3 is a weak inference that can be exposed with the obvious counterexamples I mentioned above. But the real question I have is the warrant RBs hold for #4. Until Steve had provided the link to the paper by Welty, I had never read or heard an attempt to defend the RB view and practice of the sacraments in contradistinction to the Reformed. Now I have. I found it unpersuasive from the standpoint of the typical (?) Reformed understanding of the covenant. But at least it's a start. When will the RB bloggers attempt to make a persuasive case for #4? Until they establish that, it seems unwarranted and perhaps myopic to hold #5.

    Steve, the quotation from Ch 7 of the LBCF really highlights the difference between the RB understanding of the covenant and the Reformed (cf. WCF 7.5 and 7.6).

    The spectrum of views on the covenant was informative. I suppose it is safe to say that all Jews and Christians have some form of covenant theology. BXVI wrote a small book on covenant theology.

    As to your point #10, I think that's (part of) the rub. You claimed that the RBs are reformational because they uphold the 5 soli. Let's pick sola gratia. Given the Reformed view of actual applied grace through the means of the sacraments (WCF 27), how can we and the RBs be talking about the same sola? From the Reformed covenantal perspective, sovereign grace and mediated grace are of a piece. The denial of this by RBs is precisely what appears to me to be (one of) their distinctives and what would have endangered their lives had they lived in Geneva or Zurich.

    So jus may be satisfied that the Lord's Supper is a means of grace in some vague and undefined "significant sense," but if I were an RB and wanted to claim that I had an authentic reformational understanding of sola gratia, I'd want quite a bit more substance to my theology of the sacraments than that. Or, I could try to make the case that the calvinists, dutch reformed, presbyterians, anglicans, etc. are off the reservation when it comes to (at least one of) the five soli. Absent that engagement, I can understand the confusion of both interested and disinterested observers over why RBs consider themselves Reformed. Is the preference for the name "Particular Baptist" an admission of that or are there intra-baptist reasons for that?

  7. See here for a colour-coded side-by-side comparison of the 1646 WCF and 1689 LBCF.

  8. I noticed this morning that this commenter over at Josh S's site makes many of the assertions that are implied by my questions here.

    I, too, was brought up as a Baptist by parents who believed tulip. Jus divinum, you can scoff all you like; I have direct experience that "calvinistic" baptists believed nothing about calvinism per se; the only, and I do mean only area of agreement was on the subject of regeneration: monergism. No monergist would deny that that's extremely important. But it ain't the sum total of what it means to be Reformed, certainly not reformational, certainly not catholic. It isn't even nearly exhaustive of what it means to confess a Reformed soteriology (getting back again to the sacraments). I was raised a tulipy baptist and am familiar with a lot of the tulipy baptist stars (Spurgeon, duh). Reformed covenant theology was as foreign to that system as prayers for the dead. Considering the sacraments as means of grace was an abomination before the Lord. Even using the word 'sacrament' to describe baptism and the Lord's Supper was like uttering profanity. The 5 soli? Sure, but all that did was distinguish Protestants from the RCC. Is there anything else to talk about besides tulip? Church life and practice? Discipleship? ...

    So, Steve, when I hear you saying this: "Lutherans like McCain put their faith, not directly in the Savior, but in the sacraments. They are not looking to Jesus, but to the wafer and the font. By contrast, Reformed Baptists do trust in Jesus alone," I just have to scratch my head. RBs are more authentic confessors of solus christus than lutherans (and by implication, anyone else who views the sacraments as a means of grace)? Wha---? If RBs really believe that, more's the pity. But you said you move freely between the different versions of the calvinistic tradition. You seem theologically knowledgeable. Do you believe your confession is closer to the RBs than the Lutherans? If so, I'm just dumbfounded. Jus is probably right: I'm "clueless."

    I think it is inaccurate to describe polemical RBs as the "Truly Reformed" (that's a term I first heard in the context of the PCA, where it makes some sense), or, for that matter for RBs to describe themselves as Reformed. It would be more accurate to describe polemical RBs as the "Truly Baptist." The theological debates internal to, say, the SBC make perfect sense in this respect.

    It still seems obvious to me that RBs (shall we opt for MBs: Monergistic Baptists?), with regeneration excepted, share next to no doctrinal agreement with other monergists, including the puritans from which they are descended. I'd be glad to hear more on this subject to incline me otherwise, but it seems that that we can rapidly exhaust this matter to a pointless dead horse. I'm certainly doing my part to that end!

  9. For those interested, I've responded to notsoelder's comments, here.