Deciphering Covenant Theology (Part 20)

Read the series.

6. By assuming, without sufficient warrant, that the New Testament must be used to [re]interpret the Old Testament, CT in practice denies to the OT its own perspicuity, its own integrity as inspired revelation, and creates a “canon within a canon.” To paraphrase George Orwell, in CT “all Scripture is inspired, but some Scripture [the NT] is more inspired than others [the OT]”.

The actual covenants of God which are recorded in the Old Testament dictate, or ought to dictate, the course of the prophetic narrative. This covenant story raises definite expectations which build to a crescendo by the close of the OT canon. The momentum that has been built up requires us to look very carefully at the NT for signs of continuation of covenant themes. This is something we get, especially in the Synoptic Gospels.

But Covenant Theology is one of those approaches to reading the Bible that effectively negates the covenant expectation that was accumulated in the OT. Instead, CT begins its understanding of Scripture in the NT. I have commented that the NT themes that are concentrated on by CT are the cross and resurrection. But I need to qualify that statement. CT emphasizes the cross and resurrection mainly as they are expounded in Paul. Paul’s theological explanation of these joint themes and their application to the Christian Church is the main thing. This in turn is done by use of the Adam or Christ dichotomy of e.g., Romans 5:12-21 and 1 Corinthians 15:22. Either you are in Christ in the covenant of grace or in Adam and under the covenant of works; the cross and resurrection making the transition possible. From this starting point everything in the OT must be passed through this NT grid.

Both Reformed Baptists and Presbyterians believe that the New Testament takes priority in how the Old Testament is fulfilled in it. ”(Richard P. Belcher, Jr., The Fulfillment of the Promises of God, 208)

[T]he one problem we have in the interpretation of the Bible is the failure to interpret the texts by the definitive event of the gospel. This has its outworking in both directions. What went before Christ in the Old Testament, as well as what comes after him, thus finding its meaning in him. So the Old Testament must be understood in its relationship to the gospel event. What that relationship is can only be determined from the witness of the New Testament itself. (Graeme Goldsworthy, According to Plan, 50)

I must stress a most important matter here. The priority that is given to the NT is not what many interpreters would say is the correct interpretation of the NT. So what is happening is that a certain view of the NT is being foisted on the OT and the OT covenant expectation is not permitted to have a say in how the picture is to look. When that is done it becomes easy to say things such as this:

[E]arlier expressions point to things beyond themselves that are greater than the meaning that would have been perceived by those receiving these earlier expressions. (Ibid, 123)

If we return to the Belcher quotation above we can see how this plays out. Belcher says that “the New Testament takes priority in how the Old Testament is fulfilled in it.” But I want to straight away challenge that statement. For instance, what if the OT is not being fulfilled in the NT but is yet to be fulfilled? Well, if that “yet to be fulfilled” happens to cut across what CT will permit then it will usually be made to be “fulfilled” in the NT. So CT Kevin DeYoung asks, “Without a systematic theology how can you begin to know what to do with the eschatology of Ezekiel…?” And I answer,

‘Your systematic theology, which includes your eschatology, must be constructed from reading Ezekiel, along with all the other books of the Bible to see what it says. The eschatology of Ezekiel cannot be ascertained from outside of Ezekiel, but one can compare what Ezekiel writes with what other Prophets write and you will see a covenantally patterned eschatology emerge. Moreover, that eschatology will be arrived at before the NT is consulted. Why? Because, quite simply, Ezekiel is found in the OT!’

The problem a “a canon within the canon” may arise in different settings. In Theology a canon within the canon refers to the prioritizing of certain books above other books for doctrinal or interpretive purposes. While all Scripture is equally inspired it is not all equally treated. CT’s insistence that the NT (well, especially the Pauline Writings) are necessary for understanding “how the Old Testament is fulfilled” creates a canon within the canon. And this in turn logically places the OT, which is three quarters of the Bible, at a lower level of authority than the NT. “Authority” is muted when the speaker’s words are not taken at face value but reinterpreted on the basis of another authority. Again, I must qualify that statement because whenever portions of the NT, like the Infancy Narratives or the Olivet Discourse or the Book of Revelation link up with the covenant expectations of the OT they too are reinterpreted to agree with what Paul (chiefly) is thought to be teaching, which is “Covenant Theology.”

It ought to dawn upon people that if the OT cannot be properly understood on its own terms that it must therefore be unclear in some important sense. Full clarity can be given to the OT only by the NT, it is not something that the OT itself possesses as an inherent property. Thus, the greater portion of the Holy Scriptures, especially the covenants and prophecies, do not possess the virtue of perspicuity. Not only that, but some large sections of the NT seemingly don’t possess it either! This is not to say that the NT does not clarify certain things written in the OT with further revelation. It is to say that any further revelation given by the NT will not force the OT to be reinterpreted so that the original words are given meanings that they just do not bear.

I could go on to speak about how the NT writers’ appealing to the OT for authority is thereby torpedoed but I will leave that for my reader to ponder.

Finally, it should not go unnoticed that the title of DeYoung’s article (cited above) is tellingly “Your Theological System Should Tell You How To Exegete.” That confirms my contention throughout these posts that CT is fundamentally a deductive way of interpreting Scripture. It is also why Dispensationalists should not adopt the position that they can simply worry about eschatology and ecclesiology and fetch their doctrines of God, man, and salvation from the Reformed CT camp. The methodology of CT does not comport with Dispensationalist hermeneutics. Hence, if Dispensationalists want to arrive where CT’s arrive on systematic theology they will have to get there by using a method which better comports with what they claim to be doing when interpreting the Bible, not using a method which deduces its interpretations from its theology.

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