Thursday, September 27, 2012

Progressive covenantalism

I already did a little post on Kingdom through Covenant:


But this book has proven to be unexpectedly controversial, so I’m going to spend more time interacting with some of the arguments.

The book has even been boycotted in some quarters. I think that’s unnecessary. The position of the authors is a respectable position. And they make a case for their position. So even if you disagree with them (as I do), their argument ought to be taken seriously.

The authors label the old covenant as the “covenant with Israel” (635). The implication of this designation is that the new covenant is not a covenant with Israel. Yet their OT prooftexts for the new covenant consist of passages in which God is speaking to Israel. Where God is making promises to Israel. For instance, Ezk 36:22-36 is explicitly and specifically addressed to Israel. In terms of the historic setting, moreover, God is addressing the Jewish exiles in Babylon. God is evidently referring to their postexilic restoration.


As noted above, the old covenant has a built-in tension. God demands obedience from Israel, yet they disobey. The law holds out life, but due to sin it cannot ultimately save. There is nothing in the law-covenant that changes the human heart, which is what the people desperately need (639).

But don’t we see the same tension in the NT church? Don’t many NT epistles bear witness to a similar tension?

Isn’t this tension inevitable in a fallen world? In inaugurated eschatology, we have a foot in both the fallen world order and the new world order.


In the New Testament, it is clear that the new covenant texts are applied to Christ and the church (cf. Lk 22:20; 2 Cor 3; Hebrews 8, 10). Even though the new covenant is made with the “house of Israel and with the house of Judah” (Jer 31:31)…the NT applies it to the church through the mediatorial work of Jesus Christ (645-46).

i) The authors spend a lot of time exegeting the OT. But they need to show how their application arises from their OT prooftexts.

ii) It’s one thing to say their OT prooftexts apply to the church, quite another to say their OT prooftexts include the church to the exclusion of Israel, even when their OT prooftexts have specific reference to Israel. How can they use their OT passages to erect an antithetical contrast between Israel and the church despite the setting and the wording of the very passages they adduce? Even if you say Israel typifies the church, those are not polar opposites. And from a Presbyterian standpoint, “the church” is another phase in the history of the God’s people.

Their OT prooftexts don’t single out the church to the exclusion of Israel. It wasn’t given as a promise to the church rather than Israel. At least, that’s not something you can derive from the OT passages on their own terms.

iii) The mediatorial work of Christ can apply to Israel as well as the church. That’s not a differential factor that uniquely selects for the church. Jesus is Israel’s Messiah, as well as the Savior of the nations.

iv) They appeal to Heb 8-10, but that’s arguably a Jewish church. A messianic congregation. That’s how many scholars and commentators classify the audience. Because the members of that church were messianic Jews, they were tempted to revert to Judaism (i.e. the Mosaic covenant) in the face of persecution. Unlike Christianity, Judaism was a religio licita.

It’s counterintuitive to invoke Heb 8-10 as a way of contrasting Israel to the church when that very letter was addressed to Jewish Christians.


[The new covenant] will indeed have a (human) covenant mediator, namely Jesus Christ, who is prophet, priest, and king in one person. In the old covenant community, these covenant mediators sinned and the community suffered because of faulty mediators. In the new covenant, however, our covenant mediator is without sin and as a result, the community will never suffer because of a faulty mediator (510).

i) But this fails to distinguish the Baptist position from the Presbyterian position (e.g. WCF).  Presbyterians can draw the same distinction.

ii) In addition, this distinction can stand on its own. It doesn’t need to be grounded in a theory of immediate revelation.


Under the new covenant all will know the Lord, not in a mediate but in an immediate fashion, and all will have the law written on their hearts and will experience the full forgiveness of sin (649).

It’s unclear what the authors mean by this:

i) Christians don’t enjoy innate knowledge of the gospel. Knowledge of the Gospel is mediated by the written word (i.e. the NT). And that’s something the new covenant shares in common with the old covenant.

Indeed, why to the authors spend so much time prooftexting their position from Scripture if the Holy Spirit gives Christians direct knowledge of the gospel? Their methodology contradicts their argument.

ii) Inscribing the law on the heart is a picturesque metaphor. They seem to think it denotes regeneration (649). Does that mean they think regeneration was mediate under the old covenant, but immediate under the new covenant? Surely they don’t believe Levitical priests mediated regeneration.


Therefore in the new covenant community there will no longer be a situation where some members urge other members to know the Lord (510).

Really? Christian parents shouldn’t urge their kids to know the Lord? A pastor shouldn’t urge his parishioners to know the Lord? We can just take that for granted?


The newness of the new covenant, at its heart, is found in the promise of complete forgiveness of sin (650).

That’s unclear. Weren’t OT saints completely forgiven? Are the authors suggesting the old covenant only offered partial forgiveness whereas the new covenant offers full forgiveness? If OT saints weren’t completely forgiven, did they go to hell when they died?

Fact is, the sacrificial system didn’t actually confer forgiveness–not even partial forgiveness. Rather, it symbolized forgiveness, and prefigured forgiveness. It’s not a difference of degree. OT saints were fully forgiven through the retroactive merits of Christ.


The church, unlike Israel, is new because she is comprised of a regenerate, believing people rather than a “mixed” group. The true members of the new covenant community are only those who have professed that they have entered into union with Christ by repentance and faith… (685).

i) Profession, regeneration, and faith are not mutually inclusive. It’s possible to be regenerate, yet lack conscious faith. It’s possible to have conscious faith, yet lack profession. Consider infants, the retarded, or the senile.

ii) How does their claim operate at a concrete level? As a rule, families form the core constituency of churches. Nuclear families or extended families. “Tribal groupings.” This is no less true in Baptist churches than in Presbyterian churches. And it’s often the case that some family members are pious while other members are impious. This gives rise to a distinction between the invisible church and the visible church.

There are ways of finessing this distinction in practice. A church can reserve communicant membership for those who make a credible profession of faith.

iii) It’s unclear how our authors define membership. Do they mean formal church membership? A public rite of initiation (e.g. baptism)? Or do they mean what God does to constitute members of the covenant community, irrespective of what we do by way of membership ceremonies?


Under the new covenant, what was true of the remnant (elect) within Israel will now be true of the entire covenant community and in greater ways (688).

Remnant themes aren’t confined to the OT. The same themes are sounded in the NT. Cf. G. Hasel, “Remnant,” ISBE 4:134; M. Elliot, “Remnant,” New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, 725.


First, the “mixed” community interpretation of the warning passages assumes that the nature of Israel and the church is basically the same, but this begs the question (692).

i) It doesn’t require that assumption. For passages like Heb 6:4-6 & 10:26-39 have reference to the church. That doesn’t necessitate comparing the church to Israel. Rather, that stands on its own two feet.

ii) But as a matter of fact, the author of Hebrews does compare NT apostates to OT apostates. He begins with OT apostates (Heb 3-4), then draws a parallel with NT apostates. So the old covenant community and new covenant community are analogous in that respect. It supplies an ominous precedent.

To the extent that they differ, it’s a difference of degree, not of kind. NT apostates are even more culpable than OT apostates.


Second, this interpretation contradicts biblical teaching regarding the nature of the new covenant church (692).

That rejoinder begs the question. The nature of the new covenant church is the very issue under review. And the apostasy passages are part of the evidence we use in defining the nature of the new covenant community.

No one disputes the fact that apostasy takes place in the new covenant age. What is at dispute is the status of those apostates. Should they be viewed as “new covenant breakers” (assuming they were once full covenant members) or, as those who professed faith, who identified with the church, but who, by their rejection of the gospel, demonstrated that they were never one with us? (692-93).

i) That’s a false dichotomy.

ii) Doesn’t the author of Hebrews describe the would-be apostates as covenant members on the brink of becoming covenant-breakers (e.g. Heb 6:1-5; 10:26,29)? If that’s not the language of covenant incorporation, what terminology would he use to describe covenant incorporation?


When apostasy takes place, we reevaluate the person’s former profession and thus their covenant status (693).

Why bundle those together? Certainly we reevaluate their former profession, but must we also reevaluate their covenant status? The authors assume what they need to prove.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Post a Comment