Thursday, December 10, 2015

Covenants Defined IX - Defense of the Subjective Interpretation

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Because I didn't want the objective view of covenants to be right, I put it to the community to help me figure out where my analysis was faulty. Here’s what they had to say.

Federalist Argument

Premise 1: According to Romans 5:17-19 there are only two mutually exclusive Federal heads that a person can be under: Adam or Christ.
Premise 2: To be in covenant with someone is to be under their headship.
Premise 3: Those who are still in their sin are under Adams headship.
Conclusion: a covenant cannot be defined in the objective terms, only in the subjective sense.

This is interesting in that it might explain the rise of the Baptist view point out of a pretty well universal sea of infant baptism. When the divines began experimenting with federalism this argument emerged to establish the Baptist stance. (Although I haven’t studied the reasons for it so I’m just speculating here).

Broadly speaking there are only two options, either you are in Christ, or you are in Adam. Either you are saved or you are damned. But this is a sleight of hand since we're not talking about the broad sweep of human destiny but about covenants.
That aside there are two big problems with this argument that makes me shy away from it.
The first is the amount of weight being placed on premise one, a statement that amounts to nothing more than a bare assertion. Where does the Bible speak of Adam as my federal head? Where does it say he was my spokesman, acting on my behalf? Where does it say I authorized or approved of his behavior? Since none of this is in the Bible, why do I need federalism as a model? It doesn’t seem to actually add any explanatory power to the text and would therefore not qualify as a necessary inference.

Likewise, premise three presupposes the thing being discussed. “A covenant is salvation.” It says. “Those who are in the new covenant are saved. Therefore if you are in the new covenant you are saved.” But that’s just the thing I’m trying to figure out. Can you be under the new covenant and be unsaved, just like you could under all the other previous ones?
For this reason the argument doesn’t hold up very well.


The Lack of Evidence Argument

P1: This covenant features promises of regeneration, forgiveness of sin, and salvation to the people, not Christ.
P2: A covenant cannot be about what is not mentioned.
C: Because Christ is not mentioned here; we should not infer His presence. The subjective argument is sufficient to explain the text.

Once again this is an argument for the subjective view that first depends on adopting the subjective view. “If you adopt our side, then you will see that it’s right!” No doubt. But can you prove it to be right when I don’t adopt those first principles?

Look, we’re agreed that the promise is given to Israel. We’re also agreed that under the new Covenant the people are going to be saved because they keep the law. What I’m having trouble figuring out is if that’s because Christ is going to do the law keeping for them, or because they are going to be empowered to keep the law better this time. An argument that says the second is valid and the first is not—because it’s just not dangit—is a non-starter.

I mean, I’m sympathetic to the subjective view, I really am. I’ve held it all my life. I even think there might be something in this line of reasoning that can get me back on stable ground. But let’s be fair here, this isn’t it. Christ has been the subject of every covenant thus far, and with Him, His work. Even granting the subjective reading is the right one (which I don’t) the conclusion doesn’t follow. There may be a perfectly good reason for the covenant to be given in these terms. Perhaps it’s because the final reconciliation between God and sinful man is the greatest measure of the work of Christ. Perhaps just as the temple in Ezekiel under the new covenant was given as a really awesome new version of the temple they’d had, so too may God be couching the language of reconciliation in existing experiences. Perhaps there’s a third or fourth option on why the new covenant is spelled out that way. I don't know anymore. Convince me.


High or Hyper Calvinists Argument

P1: The New Covenant is in Christ’s blood.
P2: That blood, unlike the blood of animals, actually saves. Christ has already accomplished redemption.
C: There is no room to speak of a covenant in the objective sense. The work of Christ was expressly and effectually for the elect.

This argument delights me a great deal for its cleverness. The first premise looks like it’s going to make a pull for the objective reading, but then premise two comes along and equates covenant to salvation and bam! Case closed. It also has the hallmark of simplicity and straightforwardness to it, a natural elegance to it that frankly impresses me. It also explains why high or hyper Calvinism is so strong in Baptist circles, and why Baptists tend to drift toward Owen rather than Dabney. That’s a question that’s always bothered me—why do the Baptists tend to drift “upward” but Presbyterians “downward”? Why have I seen this “five point Calvinism” business held much more strictly amongst the Baptists? This would be the answer.

As for being true however it leaves something to be desired. There is an objective work of Christ toward an offended God. There is common grace. God does desire that everyone repent. Jesus removed their legal obstacles, so now anyone can come to Him if they but have faith. That’s why He died as a man, paying the equivalent, but not the exact punishment of sin. He was the second Adam, not the second Abraham. At His death Jesus propitiates the wrath of a very angry, and very holy God, making Him both willing and able to forgive sinners. Which sinners? Any.

To assert that Christ’s blood is so powerful that it automatically saves does eliminate the need to believe in an objective element to His work, and does neatly rule out the Presbyterian idea of a covenant. However it also means the elect are eternally justified. And if that’s the case then why do I need to do anything about anything? Baptize or not, what does it matter? Believe or not believe—who cares? What difference does any of it make? You can’t really back out into a distinction between redemption accomplished and redemption applied either since according to this view redemption accomplished is sufficient for salvation.
So I’ll just have to rule this one out as a valid answer on the grounds that it over proves its point


The Equality Argument

P1: The objective view makes the New Covenant the same as the Old.
P2: ?
C: The objective understanding is therefore unsuitable.

I’m honestly not sure what the missing premise is here. For that reason I’m going to have to just skip this one. 


Paul Doesn’t Agree

Here’s a good one that Benjamin Ledford brought forward.
P1: In the Objective view, being in covenant happens logically prior to salvation, since our union with Christ flows from a proper response to it.
P2: Galatians 3:27 doesn’t allow this since it says those who have been baptized have put on Christ (indicating oneness with Him).
C: Union with Christ is the result of covenant, not one of two possible outcome of being in covenant.

Let me think about this for a minute. The first premise is probably right. For sure it’s true that a kid who grows up in the church is under the covenant before they’re saved. For an adult who hears the truth about Christ and believes…well it’s more likely than not, although I can imagine a scenario where upon first hearing the truth about who Christ is and what He’s done the man believes and is united to Christ by faith. But let’s grant it though. Just as regeneration logically precedes faith, so too does being under the covenant logically precede being united to Christ. Covenant is to union what knowledge is to faith. Does that get us anywhere?

I’m not sure. It seems like Paul would also need to be talking about putting on Christ in a salvific sense rather than putting Him on in a covenantal sense in premise two. Given the context of how the church desired to be under the Mosaic or old law I’m not sure that’s a sure thing either. Paul might be saying, “Those of you who have accepted the revelation of Christ as the perfect law keeper, the perfect law giver, the God-man, have demonstrated your faith in him through baptism. Why are you trying to go back to keeping the law yourself? If you accept the revelation of Christ as the fulfillment then what need of you for this?”
In that case, bringing in salvation to this text isn’t necessary. The interpretation holds up fairly consistently without it.

If however it is valid and Paul is talking about salvation then it would need to be the case that baptism and union happen together for the conclusion to follow. That is, it cannot be the case that you are united by faith and later baptized. And like the last argument, that proves too much.


Further Evidence for Subjective View

P1: The focus of the New Covenant elsewhere in the Bible is on the people themselves.
Jer 31:32 says the covenant is not going to be like the one at Sinai where the people were deficient and broke the covenant. The thrust is on the people themselves, as Heb 8:8 says, “He found fault with them...”
Ezek 34:25 speak to God giving the people a covenant of peace, which would cause them to dwell in safety. This is obviously the New Covenant. Connected to it is the promise that God would sprinkle pure water on the people and cause them to keep His statues, Ezek 36:25-27. This is obviously regeneration. Therefore the emphasis in both times is on the regeneration of the people.
Rom 2:28-29, Phil 3:3, call those men Jews who were Jews inwardly, indicating that regeneration was is the key issue.
C: Therefore the subjective understanding of covenants is correct.

This one is very similar to the lack of evidence argument above, but it does appeal to other places in the Bible, and for that I’m grateful. However, here again it doesn’t seem to me that the conclusion follows from the premise. Just because the New Covenant will make for a superior people doesn’t mean that the New Covenant is about the people. Just because the New Covenant won’t be broken doesn’t mean that it’s because the people are keeping it better. You try to grab at this one and it's like a cloud, it goes right through your fingers.
I’m also not sure those two New Testament verses belong in the evidence pile either. Attacking the notion that the old Covenant was a mixed community is a plan that’s just not going anywhere. The Old Covenant was clearly made with a people who were made up of both believers and non-believers.

Further, even granting all this, it doesn’t change the fact that there’s still is no response to those five reasons the objective explanation looks stronger. All this does is amount to asserting again that the new covenant is about a people, not a priest.

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