The Church and the World: Early 20th Century Responses to Liberalism

March 3, 2015 4 comments

I am enjoying and learning a lot from ITunes University theological seminary series: first Carl Trueman’s (Westminster Theological Seminary) Reformation History series, and now “The Church and the World” from Reformed Theological Seminary (professor James Anderson). More in-depth and focused than even the best local-church “church history” series (as to be expected from Seminary courses), I especially appreciate the presentation of material that would otherwise be learned (from available online material) only in various fragments and pieces, but here all put together in sequence, to gain the overall perspective as well as how each piece relates to the topic itself.

From my recent listening in the “Church and the World” series, the following highlights:

Though the modernist view began in the 17th century and especially by the late 18th century, its impact really reached the church in the early 20th century, with significant responses to liberal Christianity from about 1910 to 1930, from three different groups:

The Fundamentals was published in 1910, by BIOLA (Bible Institute of Los Angeles): a large collection by many conservative Christian authors, sponsored by two wealthy conservative Christians. This publication drew the line in the sand, pointing out that liberalism is not Christianity, and affirming the important and essential truths of the Christian faith including the Trinity, the virgin birth of Christ (which has major implications for other significant doctrines) and supernaturalism and miracles. Those who sponsored the work, and many of its writers, were of the classic dispensational view — some contributors, such as B.B. Warfield, being notable exceptions. The work itself did not really address issues which later became more identified with “Fundamentalism,” such as its dispensationalism. Later fundamentalism also tended to separatism and anti-intellectualism, again ideas not reflected in The Fundamentals.

J. Gresham Machen: Reformed / Presbyterian Response. Machen was exposed to classic liberal theology in his education, and faced with its challenges, especially in the form of real liberal individuals who really were devout, “pious liberals,” something Machen had not expected. An interesting note regarding parenting here: Machen’s father was supportive, not combative, during Machen’s youth and this time of questions and doubts, and Machen came through that experience, strengthened in his reformed faith – the opposite experience of Friedrich Schleiermacher of the late 18th and early 19th century, another young man faced with the liberal ideas taught at university. Schleiermacher’s father took a very negative, confrontational attitude toward his son during this time – and Schleiermacher became one of the three leading influential figures in 19th century classic liberalism, setting the trend followed by later liberal leaders including Albrecht Ritschl and Adolf Harnack.

Machen later founded Westminster Theological Seminary (1920s) and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church denomination in the 1930s. Though Machen was briefly taught by the same liberal teachers as Karl Barth (below), Machen and Barth did not personally or directly interact – it was for Machen’s successor, Cornelius Van Til, to confront Barth and his errors.

Neo-Orthodox movement (Karl Barth)

Neo-orthodox movement, of which Karl Barth was a well-known influential figure. Barth was trained in classic liberalism, taught by Willhelm Herrmann and Adolf Harnack, and seen as the promising star of the “next generation” of liberalism.  He then rebelled against liberalism, seeing from his pastoral ministry experience that liberal Christianity was empty and did not offer anything to real people in real life; also, his liberal teachers siding with the German state in WWI and German nationalism. Barth was expelled from Germany by Hitler in 1935, for his participation in the 1934 “Barmen Declaration” against Hitler and the national church (Nazi party) movement.

A famous quote from Barth, his response to liberalism:  One cannot speak of God simply by speaking of man in a loud voice.  However, Barth’s ideas were not traditional Reformed Christianity, but more in the area of existentialism and influence from 18th century philosopher Immanuel Kant (discussed in an earlier lecture), emphasizing God as transcendent and unknowable. Barth rejected natural theology and failed to distinguish between the wrong uses of natural theology and the valid use and purpose in common grace.  He rejected inerrancy (claiming that the Bible contained historical errors) and took a subjective view of the “word of God” and God’s revelation. His “Christocentric” view went to excesses in his rejection of the Calvinist understanding of election, and his idea of the atonement — unlimited in both its scope and its effectiveness — left open the door for universalism, which possibility he left open, neither confirming nor denying universalism.

The series continues past these first ten lessons, and I look forward to upcoming lectures.

Premillennialism, the Historical Covenants, and Typology

February 24, 2015 1 comment

A recent article from a progressive dispensational viewpoint lists 12 points regarding the biblical (historical) covenants and how they should be understood. In a few online discussion groups, some people have interacted with the various points, citing their own responses to some of the points or noting areas of agreement and difference. From the question asked in a group for historic (classic) premillennialism, as to how historic premillennialism would agree or disagree with these points, come the following general observations regarding where historic (covenantal) premillennialism differs from this (at least what is stated in this particular post):

  • Difference regarding the “church age” (point 10).  The description here reflects dispensational ideas (contrary to the covenantal view) such as no indwelling of the Holy Spirit before Pentecost; this description implies that the Old Testament age did not have Holy Spirit indwelling or anyone with a new heart, and no Gentiles (non-Jews) ever saved before the “church age.”
  • Understanding of the historical covenants needs to start before the Noahic covenant – going all the way back to Genesis 3:15 (the proto-evangelium) and the basic covenant of works that Adam transgressed (reference Hosea 6:7).

The concluding statement certainly holds true: “Theological covenants should not be imposed on the biblical historical covenants in any way that alters the meaning of the biblical historical covenants.”  The term ‘historical covenants’ is preferred, the term used by teachers including S. Lewis Johnson — to distinguish these from the theological covenants, which also have biblical basis in the same manner as the word ‘Trinity’ is biblical though not explicitly stated as such in scripture.

The 19th century era of covenantal premillennialism certainly included some covenant theologians who used a full replacement “spiritualizing” hermeneutic, as seen in Horatius Bonar’s responses to spiritualizing Patrick Fairbairn.  Yet, as noted by at least a few historians, that era did not put as great of an emphasis on a system of covenants as today (as for instance, today’s paedo-style CT that has every historical covenant as an administration of the Covenant of Grace).  19th century covenantal premillennialists taught that Abraham and other OT saints were part of the church, the one body of Christ, and placed emphasis on other aspects of Covenant Theology, such as sanctification per the Puritan Reformed model (including observance of the fourth commandment, the Christian Sabbath).

The following amillennial response (to the above linked article) is a common generalization and part of a “system” that goes beyond actual scripture and the proper use of typology, reflecting the issue noted above, of theological covenants being imposed in a way that alters the meaning of the historical covenants.

“7. Collectively and individually, the covenants consist of dozens of specific promises including spiritual, national (Israel), international, and material blessings. These elements are all important and intertwined. All elements will be fulfilled literally through two comings of Jesus (no need to typologically interpret or spiritualize the covenants).”

You’re going to be incredibly confused if you don’t recognize typology in the Old Covenant. The material blessings were typological of the spiritual blessings in the New. They do not continue and they will not be fulfilled “literally.”

Here I recall S. Lewis Johnson’s lessons on typology and its definition — which includes specific correspondences between an OT person, event or institution, and a corresponding New Testament fulfillment.

A good example of typology related to the historical and theological covenants will provide specific point-by-point comparisons, instead of a general concept (without specific scripture texts) that “Israel is a type of the church,” therefore “the material blessings… will not be fulfilled ‘literally’.” I conclude with a Spurgeon sermon which illustrates such specific “type” comparisons: recognizing the historicity of the Noahic covenant, yet noting many ways in which it is similar to, a picture or type of, the (Baptist definition) Covenant of Grace:

Genesis 9, Rainbow:

  • reference Revelation 4:3 “rainbow around the throne.”  The rainbow is not a temporary symbol for earth only, but is a symbol of everlasting and heavenly things!
  • and Revelation 10:1, the mighty Angel whose head is crowned with a rainbow: our Lord Jesus Christ, in His mediatorial capacity, wears the symbol of the Covenant about His brow; and in the other passage, our Lord, as King, is represented as sitting upon the Throne, surrounded with the insignia of the Covenant of Grace which encompasses the Throne, so that there are no goings forth of His Majesty and His Power and His Grace, except in a covenant way, and after a covenant sort

The Tenor of the Covenant (features in common to both the Noahic covenant and the Covenant of Grace)

  • Pure grace
  • All of promise
  • Has up to now been faithfully kept
  • Does not depend in any degree upon man
  • An everlasting covenant

 

iTunes University: Theology Courses, Including History and Worldview Lectures

February 12, 2015 5 comments

Having enjoyed Carl Trueman’s Reformation history lectures, I recently learned about the full collections of audio lectures available from many theological seminaries — through iTunes University, a feature of iTunes software. Of particular interest: the available content from Westminster Theological Seminary, as well as Reformed Theological Seminary and Covenant Theological Seminary, cover many interesting topics: various periods of church history, Bible surveys, theology courses and more.

I have now started a “Church and the World” series, offered through Reformed Theological Seminary, with 28 lectures covering a topic I only know bits and pieces about: the history and development of liberal theology over the last few hundred years. The first messages provide general biographical and philosophical detail regarding the major figures of the Enlightenment, beginning with Descartes followed by the more radical David Hume and Immanuel Kant of the 18th century. Later lectures address such ideas as process theology, existentialist theology, liberation theology, as well as post-modernism, liberalism and fundamentalism, and the neo-orthodox reaction to liberalism, and I look forward to future lectures, to help put together more of the pieces concerning recent Christian and worldview history.

A few observations from what I’ve learned so far, and how it applies in current-day online theology discussions.

  • The Pre-Modern world (classic theism): A.D. 312 (the year of Constantine’s “conversion” to Christianity) through the 16th century – a time characterized by a theistic worldview, in which everyone understood and accepted the authority of God (and in extension the authority of the Roman Church) for understanding everything in life
  • The modern world: from 1600 to 1950, a time characterized by “a gradual but seismic shift” in understanding of human knowledge and relationship between humans and God, resulting in a worldview change. Major developments during this time included the 18th century Enlightenment and the 19th century Industrial Revolution.

These are categories we see in hindsight, not clear and sharp yet distinct gradual changes that establish themselves through a period of time. Of note, the 16th century Reformation Leaders held to more medieval-type thinking, at least to a greater extent than later Christian thinkers (here I recall Carl Trueman’s emphasis on this especially in relation to Martin Luther; Trueman saw Calvin and others as more of the then-emerging humanist mindset), and thus the “modern era” starts in the next century, though not in full swing until the 18th century. The modern era brought the ideas of rationalism and empiricism, a fundamental worldview shift in which man’s ideas dominate over the authority of God and His word, and where Christianity (and religion generally) is “proved” or disproved on the basis of man’s rational thoughts and experiences rather than from objective truth outside of ourselves.

This historical background helps in discussions regarding what past believers thought and how they expressed what they believed. As for example, in a recent discussion about the 1689 London Baptist Confession’s wording in chapter 4, regarding creation “in the space of six days,” one person suggested it was somehow of interest and special note that the confession authors “could have” specified more detail and “could have” been more precise and explicitly stated that the days were literal, normal 24 hour days – and therefore, because they did not, therefore that interpretation is left open and we can consider “six days” as meaning something other than really six days.

Such thinking of course reflects the modern and post-modern worldviews, and reading our own way of thinking into 17th century English Puritans. To see such qualifying and specific statements in 17th century documents would be an anachronism. Old-Earth views did not influence Christians until the 19th century, and no one in the 17th century thought in such terms regarding the definition of the days in Genesis 1. John Bunyan’s Genesis commentary (chapters 1 through 11)  indeed shows what Christians of that day were considering about Genesis 1 (chiliasm and the Millennial Week idea) as well as, by its absence, what they did not think about –because such ideas simply did not exist in their world.

Study: The Doctrine of the Trinity, and Its Practical Implications

February 4, 2015 2 comments

Continuing through Arden Hodgins’ exposition of the 1689 London Baptist confession, the “chapter two” content includes a helpful mini-series of 12 lectures on the doctrine of the Trinity: about the Trinitarian teaching itself, as well as implications of our understanding of the triune Godhead.

The early messages set forth the basics, addressing the common heresies of modalism, Arianism (or Unitarianism, Christ is a created being), and polytheism. Several “deep considerations” are next examined, including the truth of the Eternal Generation of the Son (sometimes called ”Eternal Sonship”), as well as the ideas described by two Latin words: filioque and perichoresis. These two points were new to me, and the study here was interesting, with discussion of the different views of the Eastern and Western church. The 1689 confession includes that the Holy Spirit proceeds from both the Father and the Son, referencing this term first referenced in the Nicene creed in the 6th century. The Eastern church rejected this idea, having the Spirit proceed only from the Father. This may not seem all that much of a distinction, until we consider the implications of the Eastern church view: an imbalanced Trinity where the Son and the Spirit are seen as both subordinate to the Father, such that the three are not in equal relationship with each other. The next term, perichoresis, means that each member of the trinity is present in the activities of the others. All were involved in creation. The Holy Spirit is present in us who believe, and also the Father and the Son. Here, the Western church had erred in its over-emphasis on the different roles of each member of the trinity, whereas the Eastern church saw the balancing point that – even though each member of the Godhead has specific roles and activity, we must also see their equality, unity and agreement, that the Father and Son and Spirit are all present and involved in all of God’s activities.

The practical implications are quite interesting, especially as they relate to political government structures, as well as for the family (the biblical understanding of submission, as referenced in this previous post), the corporate church experience, our salvation itself, and our worship. Our God is a relational God, one who has within Himself the perfect balance between individuals and their unity –unity and diversity. In our own fallen world, in human history, we see the continual back-and-forth between two extremes in society: hyper-individualism (what we have in America today) versus hyper-collectivism of totalitarian regimes. Of note here: the history of Athens (hyper-individual) and Sparta (hyper-collective), two cities which clashed to the point of war with each other. In nations, hyper-individualism leads to anarchy, which is replaced by totalitarian rule. The hyper-collective of totalitarian rule leads to revolution.

We also observe Islam as an example of a Unitarian system of belief. The Muslim God is a monad, a solitary being with no relationships with others. The Islamic system acts out the ideas of that type of god, the collectivist/totalitarian mindset, demonstrating (as with so many other non-Christian religions) that people do not rise above the level of the type of deity they worship.

The trinity has implications for family and church structure, such that the healthy family and the healthy church keep proper balance between the needs of the individual and the needs of the community. Unhealthy churches include the hyper-individualism of churches with many and diverse programs for various age groups, different social demographics, the common problem of too many churches that minister to the “felt needs” of individuals. The other extreme church type may be less common, but can be seen in churches that over-emphasize unity such that everyone must believe the same way even on secondary, peripheral ideas. Hodgins provides examples here, of churches that say “home school only,” or churches that are economically based such that everyone here is of the higher social class, or only of a certain generation (only younger people in this church).

The final two lessons return to more directly doctrinal teaching:

  • The Trinity in Salvation – Redemption planned (Father – pactum salutis), Redemption accomplished (Son – historia salutis) and Redemption applied (the Holy Spirit – ordo salutis)
  • The Trinity in Worship: our proper worship of the triune God.

A biblical understanding of the Trinity gives us the correct understanding of the atonement (all members of the Trinity are working together to accomplish particular redemption) and will keep us from a man-centered gospel.

Triune worship includes mainly corporate worship, but private worship also, as we recognize that preaching the Word is part of worship, as well as our private worship of prayer, praises and practical obedience in our daily lives.  The first four commandments of the Decalogue (Ten Commandments) are related to worship.  In closing, some final thoughts from this series regarding the Trinity and our worship:

Even as the Godhead has a perfect balance between the one and the many, we also in our worship have to have that balance. If we emphasize the Holy Spirit so much, we will go wrong, and our Christian lives will suffer for it. If we emphasize Christ to the exclusion of the Father and the Spirit, we will go off track. If we emphasize the Father and forget about the Son and the Spirit, we will also go off track. We need to be balanced in our worship, Trinitarian in our worship, consciously so. Let us delight in the Trinity. It’s not a problem to be solved, it’s a reality to be enjoyed. It’s a truth to be defended and proclaimed. It’s a relationship to be known and cherished.

Reformation History: Confessionalism and Its Relevance Today

January 28, 2015 1 comment

Continuing through Carl Trueman’s Reformation history lectures, later messages provide excellent background and teaching regarding the confessional era and the development in the 16th century of “confessional states” (geographical regions defined by their common confessional belief), as well as the overall historical background of confessions.  As Trueman points out in the introduction to the Heidelberg Catechism (lesson 27), confessions — and catechisms to teach doctrine — really began in early church history (the first few centuries), yet reached a peak during the 1560s with the development of the Heidelberg Catechism (1563) and the Belgic Confession (1561), following the Anglican Church 39 Articles also in the mid-16th century.

This basic historical understanding (and its lack thereof) is very relevant today, as seen even in the Christian blog world recently.  Witness the many recent reviews-of-reviews-of-reviews regarding John Frame’s systematic theology and Frame’s revision of Reformed theology. Tom Chantry’s latest post this week, “Popping Interpretive Bubbles,” provides links to the other relevant posts – including the Triablogue’s rather anti-confessional (and lack of understanding) response to previous reviews of John Frame’s work — noting that “Somewhere in Orlando, John Frame must be chuckling.”

Chantry’s post provides a good synopsis, in written form, of this same background presented in Trueman’s audio lecture series, especially the following two points:

First, I wish confessional critics could understand and appreciate that confessions represent the settled opinion of a community of faith, not the fevered imaginations of any one Christian.

and

Second, recognize that the confessions paid great attention to earlier statements, from the Apostle’s Creed onward, in their summary of Christian doctrine. The Thirty-Nine articles are not original in the ordinary sense of the word; they are mainly a summary (in the English language) of the ancient and catholic teachings of the church. The Westminster Assembly set out to revise those articles because, in good conscience, the Divines could not continue to uphold episcopacy. Nevertheless, the Assembly retained the orthodox language of Anglicanism. The Savoy Declaration and the Second London Confession do not parrot the Westminster Confession because their authors lacked originality, but instead because they eschewed originality! Being conscience-bound to maintain a distinct baptismal practice, Baptists of the generation of 1689 nevertheless maintained the sound pattern of words already in use in the English language to express the catholic faith.

Trueman’s lectures #27 and 28, on the Heidelberg Catechism, provide this basic reference point along with further historical details, such as the beginnings of the Question-Answer catechism format during the High Middle Ages with a Catholic catechism developed in the 11th century and the pedagogical purpose, the very practical purpose that Martin Luther also experienced of needing to teach his young children.  Overall this series provides an in-depth look at society and politics and theology in the 16th century, lessons so needed in our very secular and individualistic culture.

Several posts from Tom Chantry have addressed the problems with the New Calvinism, (see especially the posts from summer 2014) which include the anti-confessionalism of those who disdain church history, its lessons and the importance of having creeds and confessions.  I highly recommend the “New Calvinism” posts also as quite instructive regarding the new Calvinism which puts the Doctrines of Grace in today’s culture of individualism.  As Chantry well observed:

Again we note that the Old Calvinism was serious about both ecclesiastical affiliation and confessional fidelity. Even where Old Calvinist fellowship has taken place across denominational and confessional lines, it has been between men who know both where they stand and who holds them accountable to stand there. It is hard to imagine how the Old Calvinism could have arrived where we are today.

and

The seeds of the newness of the New Calvinism are not, I believe, to be found in Calvinism at all. What has instead happened is that Calvinism has had its resurgence in the midst of an evangelical and secular culture which is profoundly different from that of Geneva or New Haven. Ours is a culture of individualism, and American evangelicalism is an individualistic form of Christianity. … New Calvinism has arisen where Calvin’s soteriology has been adopted without much challenge to the individualism of our age.

Hermeneutics: The More Literal Your Understanding, the More Spiritual Your Condition

January 23, 2015 2 comments

Lately I have been reading through past issues of the Sovereign Grace Advent Testimony’s “Watching and Waiting” quarterly newsletter (back to 2012), and find the following quote very insightful, a concise expression of many truths regarding hermeneutics and our Christian walk:

The antithesis of ‘spiritual’ is ‘natural.’ The antithesis of ‘literal’ is ‘figurative.’ We believe that these are important distinctions which God’s people should understand clearly. We would contend that the more literal you are in your understanding of God’s precious Word, the more spiritual is your state. We have always understood that God means what He says and says what He means. When a person puts a figurative interpretation on the words of Scripture (and calls it a spiritual interpretation) it is possible to make the Bible say anything. That is exactly what the modernist and liberal theologians love. — James Payne; quote in Sovereign Grace Advent Testimony “Watching & Waiting,” (Jul-Sept. 2012)

So well said, a very good point applicable to all biblical teaching – prophecy and many other areas. Certainly in discussion of doctrine with other believers, we can see a scale of relative degrees of literal understanding; many believers are inconsistent in their hermeneutics. Here is a list of several non-salvific doctrines, which some people interpret literally while others spiritualize/allegorize (“a figurative interpretation … and calls it a spiritual interpretation”). This is not an exhaustive list, and certainly it could be expanded to minor doctrines, such as whether one believes Jesus used literal wine – or spiritualized (figurative) to mean a non-alcoholic variation.

  • Creation (the beginning)
  • Eschatology (millennial views)
  • Israel in the purpose of God (including future)
  • The “Sabbath principle” of one day of seven set aside (Lord’s Day Observance)
  • Existence and purpose of Old Testament Israel (spiritualized by NCT that they never were a believing people but only a “type” of New Testament believers)

The quote from Payne notes the scale with a range — “the more literal….” — as well as the logical consequence of non-literal hermeneutics: that it is possible to make the Bible say anything. Here we also see the reason why the literal person is more spiritual: the root of trusting God in His promises, that God really “means what He says and says what He means.”

From my own admittedly small sample, of fellow believers in my daily life, I have observed the outcome of what Payne so well describes, including extreme cases of believers who spiritualize all five doctrines above. Many believers are inconsistent, taking a literal understanding of some doctrines but not of others; the common ground provides a basis for fellowship in that we at least agree upon some teachings. Calvinist dispensationalists typically will affirm four out of five of the above list (excepting the Sabbath principle), though even there some groups, such as the “Institute for Creation Research” also teaches that idea. Though many of today’s confessional Reformed Baptists reject premillennialism and a future purpose for Israel, yet — in keeping with overall Reformed Protestant teaching (only they have forgotten the premillennialism of the original Reformed including many of the Westminster Divines) and in contrast with today’s NCT Calvinist Baptists, affirm three of the five (creation, the Sabbath principle and the basic unity of God’s people: that the Mosaic economy really did include actual believers and that Israel really did receive the covenant promises).

But what about the person who takes a “spiritual” interpretation of all five of the above doctrines? Payne’s analysis seems especially “spot-on,” as it is this person who comes across as being very natural-minded in general life and attitude toward the scriptures. From the sample of people I know in this category: the plagues described in Revelation are the result of man’s technology (nuclear and/or chemical war instead of God’s wrath similar to His mighty acts in the book of Exodus); great reliance on man’s medical science to provide miracle drug cures (a correlation to their equal emphasis on man’s knowledge for old-earth creation ideas); and proclaiming your own doubts and saying that it’s okay to have such doubts — here reflecting the mindset of a person who does not really understand “God means what He says and says what He means.” What does it say about someone (in this category) who quips a reversal on a common saying: “most of us are too earthly minded to be of any heavenly good” (an assertion I would dispute; one may speak for himself, but should not assume that others really think in the same terms and thus conclude that most others are really “too earthly minded”)? Again this correlates to Payne’s observation: those who (in many doctrinal areas, not just one or two) put a figurative interpretation (the opposite of literal) and call it spiritual, are really making the Bible say anything — and showing tendencies toward modernist, liberal theology.

 

The Distinctiveness of Baptist Covenant Theology (Review: Pascal Denault Book)

January 20, 2015 1 comment

Pascal-Denault-book-coverFollowing up on this post, I am now reading through Pascal Denault’s “The Distinctiveness of Baptist Covenant Theology” (now available in Kindle format for $3.99).

As previously noted, from reading Charles Spurgeon I had an idea of Baptist Covenant Theology, particularly the definition of the Covenant of Grace. Pascal Denault’s book provides more details, including a thorough explanation of the Westminster “Covenant of Grace” (with both “substance” and “administration” of the “Covenant of Grace” within the Old Covenant) and a look at the writings of the 17th century Baptists, including Nehemiah Coxe and Benjamin Keach – as well as John Owen, who, though he held to infant baptism, nonetheless viewed the covenant of grace in the same way as did the Baptists (who themselves also referenced Owen’s writings).  Denault has done an excellent job with primary sources, and good presentation including basic charts showing the differences between Westminster CT and “1689 Federalism.”

At the most basic level, the Baptist idea of the Covenant of Grace is that all people throughout history are saved the same way, through faith in Christ and His atonement on the cross; those who believed pre-cross had that (then future) work applied to them. As John Owen observed: “I will take here for granted, that no man was ever saved but by virtue of the New Covenant, and the mediation of Christ in that respect.” So this has been an interesting discovery — a theological term to describe how I have understood this for the last few years, as even the understanding among Calvinist/ Progressive Dispensationalists I have associated with. The “covenant of Grace,” the Baptist definition, is the term to describe the fact that redemption was promised throughout the Old Testament, starting at Genesis 3:15 with further revelation to Abraham and Moses, but still a promise not fulfilled/completed until its ratification in the New Covenant at Calvary.

Specific scriptures in support of this idea:

  • Hebrews 5:17-18
  • Hebrews chapters 7 through 9, with specific texts including Hebrews 8:6
  • Romans 3:25-26: “the time of God’s patience is situated between the fall of man and the death of His son; this is the period where the Covenant of Grace was not formally concluded in the blood of Christ.”
  • Galatians 3:17-18

At least a few Presbyterians did not understand the Baptists’ definition, such as Herman Witsius, who took the Baptist idea to mean that the “writing of the law upon the heart” was only a blessing for New Testament saints – and pointed to Old Testament texts and the life of David as plain examples of this blessing in the Old Testament era. As Denault observes, only radical groups such as the Socinians believed that. The 17th century Baptists “did not claim that the benefits of Christ’s death did not exist before New Testament times, but that they existed by virtue of it.”

It is said that the 1689 confession, and its definition of covenant theology (as contrasted with the Westminster confession and its view), was largely forgotten or “lost” throughout the 20th century, only returning to the notice of scholars within the last few years: apparently in consequence of the “downgrade controversy” of Charles Spurgeon’s later years, followed by the years of divide between evangelicals and fundamentals and the rise of dispensationalism. In agreement with this history, as an example I note that S. Lewis Johnson, in all his years of ministry (the 1960s through the mid-1990s) often mentioned the 17th century confessions, including the Westminster, Savoy, Heidelberg and Canons of Dort, but never once mentioned the 1689 confession. Accordingly he rejected the “covenant of grace,” yet his actual teaching of the basic idea of Christ’s work applied in advance to Old Testament believers, and the ratification of the New Covenant at the time of Christ’s death on the cross, is quite similar to the basic 17th century Baptist construction – the common root of course found in actual scripture teaching.

Given this background, I now dislike even more the teaching of “New Covenant Theology,” especially because presentations of it at local churches have dishonestly presented only one view they disagree with: the Westminster Confession definition of covenant theology.  NCT (at least what I have seen, and others have observed similar) only interacts with the paedobaptist version of CT and never with the historic baptist construction (baptist CT or “1689 federalism”) that had already been developed long before NCT. It turns out that NCT’s “improvement” halfway-point between Westminster-style CT and classic/revised dispensationalism — with sharp division between OT and NT law including that the nation of Israel never was a believing people but only a “type” or “picture” of the “real people of God… in the New Covenant era” – has common history of beliefs not with Protestant Reformed tradition, but with radical groups including the Socinians, embracing the very error that Witsius denounced.

 

 

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