Christ and Covenant Theology

Christ and Covenant Theology,: Essays on Election, Republication, and the Covenants,  by Cornelis Venema ★★★★

This a very thought-provoking set of essays, written and compiled by Cornelis Venema, the president of the mid-America Reformed Seminary. In defense of what Venema identifies as the historic Reformed faith, Venema tackles the issues of Republication, the association of the Covenants with the doctrine of election, infant baptism, the Federal Vision movement, and new thinking on righteousness and justification as presented by NT Wright. I will discuss each of them separately.

Republication

Republication is the idea that the covenant of the law was reproduced (republished) with the Mosaic law, forming (though he doesn’t use the term) a hybrid of the covenant of works (as found in the prelapsarian period) with the covenant of grace. The covenant of works is a misnomer (and identified as such by Venema) of the covenant that God had with Adam before the fall, and though found in the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF), has been questioned by theologians as notable as John Murray. The “covenant” with Adam is noted in Gen 2:16,17, with orders to not eat the fruit of a particular tree in the garden or he would die. Perhaps the so-called creation mandate to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it would also be a part of that works covenant? In the discussion of the covenant of works, Reformed Theologians evoke a counterfactual, arguing what would have eventually happened had Adam NOT committed sin. Insistence of God’s design and rule throughout history does not allow for a counterfactual. We can not ask what might have happened if Adam remained sinless. It would do violence to my thinking of predestination, foreordination, and election to imagine that the fall came as a surprise or as a two-branch option for God. 

Venema continues his argument to maintain that grace was NOT present in the infralapsarian period, a thought I find misguided and troubling. Venema does this through a sleight of hand, stating that “grace” is defined as “God’s unmerited favor to sinners”, rather than the more obvious definition as simply “God’s unmerited favor”. Grace was abundant before the fall, as Adam and Eve did not earn the right to live in the garden, and did not earn the right to have the blessings of an unblemished (perfect) paradise. The obligation to live a holy life was as strong in the prelapsarian period as in the postlapsarian period. Seriously, it is idle thinking to claim that the covenant of “works” was “republished” conjointly with the Mosaic covenant of grace. Are Christians in the NT epoch now relieved of this “covenant of works”? Is the law now written in our hearts, to the extent that we don’t need a written law? Have we all just become Quakers? What about the period between the fall and Moses? If the law wasn’t “republished” in the preMosaic epoch, was there no guidance or obligation as to right and wrong? How did Enoch or Noah do it? Was it purely natural law in that period? I don’t believe so, yet the Scriptures are entirely silent on this issue, and so should we. How contemporary Reformed theologians formulate the covenant of works vs. grace is bothersome to me, and leaves more questions than answers!

There is a similar movement, either tacitly assumed or overtly stated, to diminish the idea of moral obligations of the covenant of grace. It is thought that to stress our obligations as sinners saved by grace does violence to the sola fide/sola gratia doctrine. Most notably, a thoughtful but definitely slightly misguided move against preaching “the law” can be found in the Redemptive-Historical preaching movement. I encourage those who have read my review thus far to stop for a moment and read a well-stated argument about Redemptive-historical preaching as found on the Banner of Truth website. (https://banneroftruth.org/us/resources/articles/2018/redemptive-historical-preaching-and-the-decline-of-the-preaching-of-repentance/). Those in the Redemptive-Historical camp may claim to not be antinomian, but their preaching certainly denies that claim; perhaps they should be titled neo-antinomians. Venema comes dangerously close to neo-antinomianism by confusing our covenantal obligation to live holy with that of a works righteousness. Of course, he will deny that claim. Venema puts in great effort to attest that OT and NT saints are similarly saved, yet remains silent as to why the preaching and writings in the OT, in the ministry of Christ, and in much of the NT  are so “law” oriented. Why in the world would John write in Rev. 20:12 “And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is the Book of Life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done.”? Why in the Sam Hill did John not take the time to read Paul’s Romans letter before writing this “ridiculous” statement? Indeed, theologians have formed a new type of thinking, calling it either neo-Marcionism or neo-antinomianism, but the latest Reformed thinkers have chased themselves down a rabbit hole in not thinking the entire counsel of God regarding this matter. As many Reformed theologians (including Venema and Bavinck) have noted, this covenant entails both gracious, unmerited promises, as well as obligations. While those obligations are obeyed by us out of gratefulness (as noted in both the Heidelberg Catechism as well as the WCF), to make those obligations nothing but a sign of our gratefulness does travesty to the meaning of an obligation. It would be best to call them the 10 Suggestions on how to please God. 

Several contemporary theologians provide a better answer to this dilemma. JI Packer, in his wonderful treatise on the covenants (An Introduction to Covenant Theology, found on Amazon.com) was reviewed by me a few years ago. In this, Packer wisely avoids the covenantal “clash” by insisting that covenantal theology should be viewed as a hermeneutical principle in understanding how God deals with man. Was there one covenant (Murray), 3 covenants (works, grace, and redemption: Venema), 6-10 covenants (Dispensationalists), or what? The escape from this morass is to view the covenants as nothing more than how God deals with his people; God interacts always with us in a covenantal fashion.

Robert S. Rayburn in his masterful text The Truth in Both Extremes provides a second solution to the grace-works problem, a solution that can also be found in Packer’s writings, as well as that of many Puritan Divines. This provides that Scripture has a tension between grace and works, both must be held true, and both must not be confused or placed in competition with each other. Rayburn’s text allows for the reality that we are entirely predestined creatures, yet from a human perspective, we make free choices in life. It does NOT deny the bondage of the will or the fact that all events in life are foreordained by God, but offers an explanation as to why we can believe in two seemingly opposite truths, that we are foreordained and yet must make choices in life and have moral responsibility for our actions. There is no Quietistic “let go and let God” type of thinking in Rayburn (or Packer), or a sense that Christ’s obedience (imputed active obedience of Christ) relieves us of strong moral obligations to obey God’s law. 

In summary, republication reflects confusion as to the nature of God’s covenantal interactions with man. We should not fight over the number and nature of the covenants but rather focus on the beauty of the covenantal nature of God. I highly advise the reader to read Packer’s treatise on covenant theology for the best understanding of the nature of the covenant!

Covenants and Election

The writings of a few contemporary cavalier theologians suggest the necessary connection between covenants and election. Make no mistake, all theology is necessarily and logically connected in one manner or another. But, to force the idea that someone who is a member of the covenant is necessarily also elect, an election which could be undone, is (in my opinion) wrong thinking. One only need to remind themselves that the OT Israelite community was covenantal yet not all those within the covenant were elect. 

This section has two divisions, the first entailing two chapters reviewing Herman Bavinck’s thinking about the covenants in his Reformed Dogmatics, and the second related to the issue of paedobaptism. The section of Bavinck’s theology of the covenants gets no disagreement from me and attests to Bavinck’s brilliance as a theologian. The paedobaptism question did not seem to be a contentious issue with me, as I transitioned from adhering to the adult baptism belief to the paedobaptistic belief many years ago, so I won’t belabor the issue. Sadly, so many theologians and pseudo-theologians try to resolve the baptism issue in debates, which is a terrible way to resolve theological doctrines. 

Venema ventures slightly upon the issue of paedocommunion, for which he is less consistent. At stake in this debate is the meaning and significance of the sacraments. Those of us in the Reformed faith recite thoughtlessly that the sacraments are signs and seals of the covenant. We easily attest to both baptism and the eucharist as being a sign of our covenantal status with God. When we speak of the sacraments as being a “seal”, our thinking tends towards muddiness. If the sacrament of baptism is nothing but a sign of the covenant, then those who adhere to the believer’s baptism are most correct. We like to think of something more important as occurring in the sacrament. When we partake of baptism or communion, we hold that Christ is actually present in the sacrament, something that John Calvin (and even Martin Luther) would heartily agree to. Venema discourages the idea that we can use our baptism as the assurance of our salvation. Yet, my baptism was most assuredly that, even though I absolutely do NOT feel that baptism saved me! If baptism doesn’t provide assurance, then the sacraments of both baptism and the Lord’s supper lose meaning and become nothing but good suggestions on how to make God happy. When we speak of the sacraments as also being a seal of the covenant, many Reformed theologians remain inconsistent in their thinking. I hold the sacraments are also a means of grace, that is, something else is happening when I partake of the bread and wine or experience baptism. The exact nature of that means of grace and how we are sealed in the covenant are legitimate topics of discussion. I have no opinion as to paedocommunion, but wish that church leaders would be more consistent in their thinking. So many pastors in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) are adamant against paedocommunion but offer only a confused argument in their defense. I am neither for nor against paedocommunion, as I defer to other minds to decide that, only wishing that church leaders would cast their personalities aside and think clearly on this issue. The argument in this book against paedocommunion is that the partaker needs to be able to search themselves. This is a weak argument, as I’m still learning how to really search myself. Perhaps the Lutheran or Catholic approach of confirmation at age 12/13 when a child can demonstrate a solid grasp of the faith is a better approach?

Federal Vision

I first sought illumination on the Federal Vision (FV) movement in the book edited by Gary Johnson and Guy Waters titled By Faith Alone: Answering the Challenges to the Doctrine of Justification. Those of us in the Reformed Faith feel that the doctrine of sola fide is the foundation for our faith. Yet, Johnson and Water’s book left me more confused than enlightened. It was then that I felt that I was experiencing a gaggle of theologians suffering from theological constipation. They were the ones that were supposed to bring sense to “false” doctrines, rather than vomiting simple rants that FV adherents were denying the doctrine of sola fide. 

Venema provides a clearer account of the FV movement, and actually discusses doctrinal issues at stake with the FV movement, and thus is greatly appreciated. Before I started reading this text, I was not a FV adherent, and after completing this book I remain against the FV movement, though I see strengths in FV thinking; I will not throw out the baby with the bathwater. It is cruel and misguided to call FV thinking a heresy. Many moons ago, I took systematic theology from JI Packer, and when discussing the theology of the Holy Spirit, Packer mentioned that the Pentecostals were a gadfly to force mainline theologians to think more clearly about Holy Spirit doctrines. He would never disparage the Pentecostals or accuse them of heresy. I feel the same about the FV movement. The FV folk bring up some important issues, and rather than reacting strongly against them, theologians need to welcome their thinking as a guide for resolving sticky issues in the Reformed and WCF doctrines of the faith. Among those issues include thinking better about the nature and extent of God’s covenant with man, thinking more clearly about the nature and significance of the sacraments,  and thinking more clearly about exactly about the imputation of Christ’s righteousness (most notably, the meaning of the imputation of Christ’s active righteousness). I’ve had brothers in the faith tell me that FV denies the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, which is something that FV certainly does NOT do. Yet I’ve had other brothers tell me that we don’t need to keep parts of the law (like the Sabbath) since Christ kept the law for us and that Christ’s obedience has been imputed to us. Venema (and Johnson/Waters) tempts me to read some FV writings to discover what they actually are saying since I’m having trouble trusting their bias. Don’t worry, as my interest in the FV controversy has already waned sufficiently to defer the matter to younger and brighter folk. 

NT Wright

My introduction to NT Wright came from a few of audio lectures by DA Carson regarding the new perspectives movement. The New Perspectives on Paul (NPP) thinking seemed odd to me, and Venema’s discussion of Wright maintained that impression. Carson’s arguments stemmed from linguistic studies of the Greek and Hebrew words for “righteousness” as found in the Scripture. Neither knowing Greek nor Hebrew, I simply had to defer to his research, which was quite massive. NT Wright possesses much wisdom, and apparently, he and Carson are close friends who have studied together, so, I don’t think Carson’s attack on the New Perspectives is personal. I am troubled that some are graduating from Covenant Seminary with an affection for the NPP. The arguments for and against  NPP are beyond my reach. I don’t see any patristic literature in support of an NPP version of righteousness and justification. I’m left with thinking that Augustine, Luther, Calvin, and the bevy of Catholic, Lutheran, and Reformed scholars perhaps had it right. I’m forced to leave the discussion at that. Again, NT Wright raises questions about the exegesis of Rom 5:12-21. The passage in Romans can be confusing regardless as to how you read it, and the doctrine of Universalism is the easiest misguided reading of that passage. I don’t need NPP thinkers to add to that confusion.

Venema ends his text with a chapter summarizing the preceding essays. I commend Venema for an excellent text, that should be thought-provoking to anybody who is thinking deeply about his faith. This is not milk-of-the-word teaching. As you can tell, I had sufficient objections to where Venema was going to hope that theologians in like vein would produce clearer answers to the doctrine of sola fide and sola gratia that account for both God and man’s perspectives on the nature of the covenant we have with God. 

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