Sunday, November 27, 2016

The Distinctiveness of Baptist Covenant Theology, A Review, Part II

In part one we dealt with the major problem that Denault comes across as being unwilling to treat Reformed theology charitably. Here in part two we’ll look at the arguments he advances for Baptist theology.

Overall, A Success

Denault's primary goal seemed to be to demonstrate that the Baptist paradigm is a legitimate branch of the Reformation with a long and honorable history. He works pretty hard to show the thinking behind the 1689 London Baptist Confession of faith (specifically section 7.3) and why it diverges from the Westminster confession which it borrows so heavily from. In this I think he does a fine job, and I have no problem seeing Baptist theology as a real part of the federalist family. (For what it's worth, I may be biased considering I was a reformed Baptist until not very long ago).

His secondary goal was to not just get people to see the historic Baptist position, but to agree with it. In this I think Denault only does an okay job, as he fails to do justice to a position that's actually stronger than he communicates. Nevertheless here is how he does it.


Laying the Foundation

The first 40% of TDOBCT is spent establishing the difference between the Reformed and the Baptist approach to understanding the covenants in Scripture. Presbyterianism is one covenant under two administrations with the covenant going into effect immediately, while the Baptist theology is one covenant under one administration with the promise of the covenant being before Christ and the thing taking effect after Christ (loc 939). In framing the discussion this way he sets the stage over which the whole battle is to be fought, for if men received the covenant of grace before Christ then the pattern of bringing children into the new covenant holds, because the New Testament is more revelation, not a different epoch in history.

If on the other hand those who lived during the OT times received the promise of the covenant but not the covenant itself, then the children may or may not be included in the new era. Given  that only true believers are brought into the new covenant, the answer is probably not, since infants cannot believe. (But here again the Baptist presupposition and previous commitment to faith and adult obedience comes into play. Stressing the necessity of faith naturally which excludes infants; stressing grace naturally includes them.)


Building the Structure

The remaining 33% of the book plays out directly from this divide, and because Denault takes the points topically, he obscures the foundation of the Baptist position. I don’t think that’s his intention mind you, merely a side effect of presenting the book the way he did, so to help ameliorate this I’m going to re-arrange his thoughts and cram all the related arguments together.
  1. The capstone for Baptist theology is the New Covenant (as presented in Chapter 4). Because it’s called a new covenant, Denault argues, it must be an entirely separate and unique event in redemptive history, a fresh innovation. The word new indicates a new essence, not merely a new form. That means a new administration is out of the question, as is a new quality, as is a new quantity, clarity, freedom, mode, circumstances, duration, glory as the Presbyterians argue. None of these are good enough. The new covenant must be totally and entirely new in every respect. Stated more succinctly:
    “The New Covenant was radically new since no other formal covenant before it was unconditional” (loc 2268).
    The fact that the scripture speaks of the New Covenant as never being broken is sufficient evidence to establish this point.

    Imagine a bunch of foam blocks lying in a pile between two bins if you will. One bin is labeled “New Testament”, and the other, “Old Testament.” Each block represents a quality or aspect of the covenant—one might be grace, another love, and so on—and it’s our job to sort them into an appropriate bin. Denault is saying the proper way to distribute them is to put all of them into the new and to leave the old empty. Now this is of course my analogy, not his, and for all I know he may not even endorse it, but I think it's helpful to give a mental map of how he sorts it all out.
  2. Therefore, since all of these great things belong exclusively to the New Testament, the covenants in the Old Testament are much less than the Presbyterians make them out to be. The Abrahamic Covenant was a fleshly and physical covenant, a covenant given to preserve the physical lineage of Christ. (You can see how the dispensationalist error is an offshoot of true Baptist theology.
  3. The Mosaic covenant was designed to get men to see their need of the new Covenant. Therefore until the New Covenant came along things like regeneration and forgiveness of sins aren't possible (loc 2344).

Other Sundry Problems for Presbyteriansim

If the covenant of grace is the same as the old covenant (as the Presbyterians argue) then when the old is brought to an end (as Hebrews says) the covenant of grace must also come to an end. But since the covenant of grace doesn’t come to an end, it cannot be the case that a single covenant spans both redemptive eras.

Along with this comes the follow on argument: 

“the paedobaptists, in order to affirm that the covenant of grace contained people who were saved and people who were lost, had to separate the covenant from salvation…thus, one could not say that Christ had saved his church. According to this conception, Christ would have only saved part of His church”  (loc 1452).
Denault's argument is that the paedobaptist has separated the New Covenant from salvation, and has thus denied its fundamental nature. There’s also a side argument here that since Jesus would have to die for the non-elect to give benefits to the people in the covenant (because some people in the Covenant of Grace are not elect), Baptist theology is the only logically coherent theology.

Given (2) above, it must be the case that the Abrahamic covenant came to an end when Jesus was born. 
“Since Abraham’s physical posterity existed by virtue of the covenant of circumcision (the old covenant), when the goal of the covenant was accomplished… the covenant made with Abraham’s natural descendents came to an end. On what basis can one maintain a genealogical succession once the Old Covenant was over?” (Loc 2051). 
To assert, as the Presbyterias do, that the genealogical inclusion principle carries over into the New covenant era is to assert the Abrahamic covenant is in effect today. Which, considering it was designed to produce Christ, is absurd. Men like Petto separated the Abrahamic covenant from the mosaic, and because they liked the Abrahamic better, kept that sign (circumcision) and the practice of circumcising infants, which is why Presbyterians today have
 “An erroneous understanding of the Abrahamic covenant” (Loc 1802).
To this end, Galatians 4:22-31 is clear that God established two words with Abraham. The covenant was a physical, earthly, temporary covenant, resulting in the nation of Israel, and it was to recognize this that He gave the sign of circumcision. The other thing was the promise of the eternal salvific covenant, but it was just that—a promise, not a covenant.
 

Given (3), the Presbyterian cannot have a right understanding of the Mosaic covenant either.
“If the Sinaitic Covenant was conditional and if its promises depend on the obedience of its members, this presented a problem for the one covenant of grace under two administrations paradigm. How could one maintain that Israel as under a covenant of grace all the while considering that the law of Moses was a covenant of works?” (Loc 1747). 
Because the law said “if you obey, then you will be blessed” and the new covenant says “I will bless” the two are not only different, but mutually exclusive. Therefore the new covenant must not be the same substance as the old.

I think that’ll about do it. Denault has more to say on the matter—but not too much more—as this is a pretty fair summarizing. Once you accept the idea that the new covenant is the first of its kind, or is more or less synonymous with salvation the rest falls out naturally. But is this the right way to understand things?

To part III we go

 

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