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Terms and Distinctions: Reformed/Covenant Theology, NCT, and Covenantal Premillennialism

September 16, 2014

Among some Christian circles today, especially Calvinists and dispensationalists, a more superficial understanding of theology persists, and the tendency to think that:

  • anyone who is not “dispensational” adheres to covenant theology
  • anyone who holds to amillennialism believes Covenant theology, and vice versa, AND
  • covenant theology equals “church replacement theology” (amillennial/preterist ideas)

Accordingly, some will use the terms “Calvinist” and “Reformed” interchangeably, though in discussion it becomes clear that what is actually meant is Calvinist soteriology aka the “doctrines of grace.” Yet as I’ve recently come to understand more clearly, 5-point baptistic Calvinism, as popularly seen in the “Sovereign Grace” movement characterized by smaller, non-denominational churches with informal affiliation — and often associated with amillennial or postmillennial eschatology — is but one component of what is included within overall “Reformed/Covenant  Theology.”   Covenant Theology aka Reformed Theology includes not only Calvinist soteriology, but also understanding and adherence to the 16th and 17th century Reformed confessions. The confessions include the teaching of the theological covenants (covenant of works, covenant of grace, and covenant of redemption), and understanding of the Old Testament law as having three parts (moral, civil, ceremonial) and a “third use” of the law (the moral law, the ten commandments), as a guide in sanctification (not salvation) for the believer.

Here I observe that some churches that affirm the “Doctrines of Grace” aka Calvinism and reference the term “sovereign grace,” may also hold to covenant theology.  But more often they actually hold to a “dispensational” understanding of the law, particularly with NCT, New Covenant Theology (which has developed within the last 30 years, about as old as progressive dispensationalism, both of which are more recent than classic or even revised dispensationalism). To add to the name confusion, some churches with “Reformed Baptist” in their name actually teach NCT instead of Reformed Baptist theology. The difference shows up while visiting church websites, that some reformed churches will specifically state their adherence to the 1689 London Baptist Confession (or another of the 17th century confessions, such as the 1644 Baptist one or, for paedo-baptists, the Westminster Confession); some of these will state qualified agreement “generally” or “in large part” while others state full agreement; whereas NCT “Sovereign Grace” churches usually will not explicitly mention their “NCT” belief (which is not one single, confessional belief and likely includes several variations).  With specific churches (as true for all doctrinal views) one must look carefully at the stated versus actual beliefs; in recent church-site searching I came across a few church websites stating agreement with the 1689 London Baptist confession but with sermon content of traditional dispensationalism.  Further: though NCT “Sovereign Grace” churches are also predominantly amillennial/ postmillennial, a few are historic premillennial (for instance Fred Zaspel and a few others), and a few that self-describe as “Sovereign Grace” are of the Calvinist-Dispensational variety.

Another important point regarding Covenant Theology and millennial views: though many who hold to “Covenant Theology” also are amillennial or postmillennial – with variations among themselves on the futurist-idealist-preterist line, CT itself does not at all require an anti-premillennial view, or even an anti-future Israel view.  Though the true history has been largely forgotten by many of today’s CT advocates… ironically enough, as noted in Nathaniel West’s “History of the Premillennial Doctrine” and in my recent “Premillennialism in Church History” series, many if not most of the Westminster Divines were in fact premillennial: a truth that returned soon after the Reformation and held sway throughout the early Protestant years.  Many great theologians of the CT tradition, down through the 18th and 19th centuries, were premillennial, and many of these also affirmed a literal future for regathered ethnic, national Israel.

Covenant theologians (such as Horatius Bonar, also J.C. Ryle and Charles Spurgeon) can well articulate BOTH the tenets of covenant theology and the reformed view of the law (see Horatius Bonar’s God’s Way of Holiness, especially chapter 6), AND affirm historic/classic premillennialism, including future restoration of ethnic, national Israel.

Here I note an example of modern-day CT writing which conflates teaching on the Reformed/Covenantal view of the Law, with eschatology and Israel, in this passing statement near the end of this otherwise helpful article about the third use of the law; but such is the author’s own confusion. The article’s statement – This is one eternally important reason why Israel received the Law in the Mosaic Covenant, with the associated typological promise of blessing and cursing. Christ, the antitype of Israel, takes the antitypical curse for the Covenant people and fulfills the righteous requirement of the Law to give them the antitypical (eternal) blessings by faith in Him. – actually has nothing to do with covenant theology itself, and only shows the author’s own confusion and mixing of unrelated issues with excessive spiritualizing. Perhaps, too, this statement could be taken as an illustration or analogy, yet the primary truth and primary meaning (of literal Israel still experiencing literal curses in this age, to be followed by literal blessings in the future) still remains.

To conclude, a selection from Covenant premillennialist Horatius Bonar:

It seems often taken for granted that those who assert the literal interpretation of the blessings promised to Israel, thereby exclude the spiritual. They do not. They assert the literal blessing, because they believe that God has promised it; but they maintain the superiority and necessity of the spiritual as firmly as do the others. They believe that Israel will be converted, and they rejoice in this as the glorious issue towards which the prophets point. But they believe more; they believe not only that they will be converted, but they will be restored to their own land. But does their literal restoration take from them one single spiritual blessing? Or does it prevent the Gentile nations from enjoying one of those innumerable blessings which are given to them for an inheritance?

  1. September 16, 2014 at 7:30 am

    Reblogged this on Talmidimblogging.

  2. September 16, 2014 at 11:20 am

    FYI: New Covenant Theology became prominent in the 1970s especially with the publication of the following articles by Jon Zens during the latter half of that decade.

    John Zens, “Crucial Thoughts Concerning ‘Law’ in the New Covenant”, Baptist Reformation Review (Spring, 1978) 7:3:7-17, on Searching Together at http://www.searchingtogether.org/articles/zens/crucial.htm [accessed 8 FEB 2012].

    John Zens, “Is There A ‘Covenant Of Grace?’”, Baptist Reformation Review (August, 1977) 6:3:43-53, on Searching Together at http://www.searchingtogether.org/articles/covenant.htm [accessed 8 FEB 2012].

    John Zens, ““This Is My Beloved Son; Hear Him”: A Study of the Development of Law in the History of Redemption”, Baptist Reformation Review (Winter, 1978) 7:4, reprinted in Searching Together (Summer – Winter, 1997), 25:2-4 (Note: See esp. “Introduction”, and Chapter Four); on Restoration Ministries at http://www.restorationgj.com/id171.htm [accessed 8 FEB 2012]; on Granted Ministries at http://resources.grantedministries.org/article/this_is_my_beloved_son_hear_him_j_zens.pdf [accessed 8 FEB 2012]; and on Gospel Pedlar at http://gospelpedlar.com/articles/Christian%20Life/Zens/st.html [accessed 8 FEB 2012].

    Some of Zens’ publications are archived on Searching Together at http://www.searchingtogether.org/issues.htm [accessed 16 SEP 2014].

    Progressive Dispensationalism rose to prominence primarily due to the Dispensational Study Group of the Evangelical Theological Society which began in 1986. See http://www.etsjets.org/puc/puc_dispensationalism [accessed 16 SEP 2014]. See also Dr. Rod Decker’s NT Resources site at http://ntresources.com/blog/?page_id=2489 [accessed 16 SEP 2014].

    • September 16, 2014 at 11:47 am

      Thanks for the clarification, that NCT has been around for 40-something years instead of about 30 years. Which is still relatively recent; and as I understand (from my reading) NCT has had many variations and changes along the way and not something so clearly defined as Reformed/confessional beliefs.

  3. Neil Schoch
    September 16, 2014 at 1:15 pm

    A thought provoking article as usual but one that leaves a sick feeling in my stomach as it simply demonstrates how divided the church has become and continues to become.
    Yes, division was there in the Apostles day but was firmly rebuked as in 1 Corinthians 1:10-13 & 3:3-4. “Is Christ divided” is the question Paul asks. Christ’s Church is splintered, often into warring factions and it is heartbreaking to see. How much more so must it be to the blessed One who gave Himself for her.
    Thankfully He is able, and “He will present her to Himself, a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that she should be holy and without blemish.” Ephesians 5:27.
    While it will be His work at His return, may each one of us as indwelt with the Holy Spirit, throw away the multitude of creeds – denominations – name tags and all such carnal and fleshly things that dishonour the Lord Jesus and His “one body” purchased at such great price.
    We are all members of that one body, simply sinners saved by grace, disciples, followers of the Master, Christians, as first called at Antioch.
    May our goal be to “Walk worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing Him.” Colossians 1:10.

    This is not the remotest criticism of all the excellent people who write and make this such a good site but rather something we all need to practice, starting with me.

    • September 17, 2014 at 6:58 am

      Thanks for your comment, Neil. In an ideal world with perfect, sinless believers, such divisions would not occur. And it is something to look forward to, that when we leave this sinful existence and come home to be with the Lord and the saints who have gone before, we will all have that perfect knowledge and will all agree; the glorified saints have far more understanding than the best of us in this world.

      However, in this life we are to contend for the faith, and throughout history that has meant — even from the earliest years of the church — combating numerous forms of error and even heretical views. Because we as believers are still fallen and not perfected, we are prone to wander even in understanding of God’s word, and even believers often rebel regarding doctrinal understanding, not yet able to understand and accept all of what is in God’s word. In 1 Corinthians (11:19) Paul also noted that “there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized.” Likewise our Lord exhorts those who are true believers at the churches in Revelation 2-3 to continue, while addressing certain errors among some of the believers at those churches. Also Philippians 3:15, “Let those of us who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you.” It is the work of sanctification to bring believers to greater understanding. Further, our Lord set it up this way, as per John 16:13, “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth,” and we have seen that the Holy Spirit has guided the believers and the church down through the centuries. God could just as easily have purposed that believers, at the time of new birth/regeneration would all have full and complete knowledge; but instead He set it up this way, the process of sanctification and gradual learning and understanding of biblical doctrine, also as His way to show who among us are genuine and who have the desire to seek Him, to study His word and to continue in Him.

      Thus it is necessary to make distinctions and clarify terms, because not everyone has the same concept of who God is, who Christ is, and clear understanding of grace, law, justification, sanctification, etc. The “labels” do not completely box in and define all the minor variations even within each “label,” but they are useful for understanding main areas of understanding, and to know in what areas believers differ in their understanding.

  4. Neil Schoch
    September 17, 2014 at 5:35 pm

    Thanks Lynda,
    I don’t disagree with you in what you have said. If I give a very brief glimpse of my background it might help.
    I was raised in the exclusive brethren and was brainwashed into believing that we were the only true church and that only by an extraordinary act of the grace of God might a very few other Christians get into heaven. On leaving I suffered the usual “being treated as dead” routine by all family, but more importantly I had to go back and search the Scriptures alone to find what the truth of God’s Word was. I had no commentary’s etc. to guide me and was somewhat perplexed by all the different groups of Christians saying so many different things.
    As a result of my study of God’s Word I was convicted that I could belong to the body of Christ only and have never been a member of any denomination since, despite having happy fellowship and serving with several churches over the years.

    In 1 Corinthians 11:19 I do not believe Paul was in any way condoning the factions/divisions/sects that had arisen. Indeed he would have been deeply hurt about it as He always stressed the importance of unity in the body. In essence he was saying that ” it is tragic that all this wrong division has come in, but at least the end result is that those who remain true to the Lords desire in John 17 when Jesus prayed ‘Father that they may be one as We’ will ultimately be shown to be those who are obedient to the desires of God. Of course that is only my interpretation.
    Again from many years of observation I would suggest that it is the so called “mature” believers or church leaders who are entrenching the divisions amongst us rather than those who are waiting on the revelation of truth from the Holy Spirit and humbly learning thereby.
    Philippians 2:1-4 is a great standard for all of us to live by as we live out our Christian faith.

    I sincerely and genuinely trust that this in no way comes across as arguementive towards you as that is not my intent. God bless!

  5. September 24, 2014 at 6:12 pm

    Great article.

    Neil, I really have been thinking and praying for you. Thanks for sharing your heart. I have that same desire of being one just as Jesus, the Father, and the Holy Spirit are one.

    Have you read any of GH Lang’s books on the Brethren? That might be very helpful to you since he went in and out of both of those groups. His autobiography really demonstrates his testimony of serving everyone in the body of Christ and really entering into oneness with all believers to the extent he could.

    Also Robert Cleaver Chapman desired this as well. My favorite quote from him regarding B.W. Newton (who mistakenly talking about an issue regarding the deity of Christ) is when Darby was discussing about the time given to repent. Darby “We gave him (Newton) 6 months to repent” Chapman “We would have given him 6 years”.

    If you ever want to chat, here is my email. danielayotte1@gmail.com. Lord Bless!

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