Deciphering Covenant Theology (Part 28): Summation (2)
Read the series.
In this post I want to share some thoughts about the mindset of CT’s. I do not at all say anything here in disrespect of CT’s. This is only some observations of my own. It is important to go back and read what I have already reported about the deductive nature of CT. You may be helped by my critique of Baptist CT Josh Somner to get some illustration of this.
The Bible and Logical Inference
I have stated several times that Covenant Theology as a system relies to a great extent on deductive reasoning from premises which may or may not be derived from Scripture—from the covenants of redemption, works and grace, to the idea of Federalism, to the reduction of the definition of a biblical covenant to an “agreement,” to the one people of God concept, to the hermeneutical switcheroos that are performed to prevent the prophetic witness of the Bible from declaring what it seems to be at pains to declare. In all of this a way of thinking is involved.
Only the Bible is the Word of God. Only its words were premeditated by God and presented to us, His creature, for us to heed and work through. This means that in order to depend upon those words, one must know what those words mean; what their intent was. In order to do that (I believe) there must be a close correspondence between the inspired text and the interpretation thereof. If I may illustrate it roughly, one should read what God says and then seek to formulate ones doctrine step by step (as it were). If the inspired text is represented as a _ hyphen, and theological formulation is represented by a – hyphen, the process of building a theology ought to look like this: _-_-_-_-_-. Or if we replace the hyphens with arrows, the upward arrows represent formulations made from the text (I don’t know how to do this on WordPress). Hence, one would see a series of upward arrows in a line.
Now, if we add a horizontal arrow left to right across the tops of the upward arrows we would represent an approach in which doctrines are derived from the text discretely and drawn together after the fact. What CT does is to introduce downward arrows. These would stand for having a doctrine in-hand and then going (down) to the Bible for a proof-text to try to establish it in the Bible. This is somewhat of a broad-brush statement, but what CT theology does is to get a doctrinal premise and then join it to another premise and then go and look for a text or two to back them up. One sees a “If this, then that” process. The doctrine is already there before the search is made. This is rooted in our most basic operational autonomy.
The Default Setting of Sinners: Independence
I have stated before my belief that the Fall of man installed within us all a strong penchant for independent thinking. I have written in another place:
Since that day humanity has been locked into a state of creaturely independence, and our eyes have taken in and we have “known” all the false knowledge which comes with the autonomy of reason. The rest of the Bible will display it on a continual loop, but the early chapters of Genesis present the classic examples: Cain’s murder of his brother and his attempt to deceive God (Gen. 4:9); Lamech’s boast (Gen. 4:23-24); the humanism of Babel (Gen. 11:3-4); Abram’s attempt to get an heir through Hagar (Gen. 16:1-3), etc. Caiaphas’s rationalizing of Jesus’ death is another good example (Jn. 11:50; 18:14), as is the disciples’ wrong interpretation of Jesus’ words about John the Disciple in John 21:21-23. When we reason independently, we will often see what we want to see, and what we want to see is not always friends with the truth… Why stop to notice this? Because it has everything to do with how we interpret the Bible. My contention is that there is safety only when we seek to reduce the number of theological inferences we have to make as we listen to the text; especially those inferences which have no plain and clear scriptural statements behind them. The greatest hindrance to correct interpretation is “myself.” I need to constantly retrain myself to ask “what does this passage say in its context?” (The Words of the Covenant: Old Testament Expectation, 103)
So a CT may reason that as God is triune the agreements between the three Persons may be said to be covenantal. As what God does in time concerns His creatures then any decree of God is perforce covenantal. The words of instruction spoken to Adam in Eden are construed as a covenant, as are the words after the Fall. Since the post-Fall covenant is the instantiation of God’s pre-creative decree (covenant) then that covenant – the covenant of grace – covers all God’s predetermined elect resulting in one people of God. The actual divine covenants in the OT can be subsumed within the larger category of the covenant of grace. Any prophetic language which appears to contradict this can be dealt with in one of two ways:
- the function of a prophet can be altered so that his main role is not to predict the future but to preach to his contemporaries.
- the prophecies which endanger the one-people-of-God concept can be handled by making them types and shadows of the real which is revealed properly later in the NT.
If any NT prophecies threaten to upset the apple cart they can be managed by a first coming hermeneutic which reduces those predictions down to spiritual realities. It is all held together by rigorous logic, story-telling, and proof-texts treated with a special hermeneutic – the hermeneutic of Covenant Theology.
The Wrong Questions
I’m going to get in the weeds here for a bit, but I hope it is worth it. Although certainly not limited to CT’s, it is worth studying the way they often argue with those who disagree with them. You will notice if you engage these brethren long enough (and I have attended CT-teaching schools, churches and conferences aplenty) that they argue not by direct appeal to the Scriptures, but by a certain mode of questioning: “Do you mean to say…?”, “But wouldn’t that deny the doctrine of…?”, “What if…?”
There is nothing wrong with this form of questioning, unless it is used to bring the conversation away from the text of Scripture and onto the level of common reasoning. When this is done it is relatively easy to undermine a scriptural argument with a logical one. “Ah,” I hear you say, “isn’t he saying that Scripture and logic are at odds?” Of course that is not what I just said. I am claiming that orienting an argument about the Bible and Theology around logic without reference to what the Bible says is a good way to never settle that discussion with the Bible.
No lesser person than Cornelius Van Til, a CT himself, has warned us about the independent use of our reason. Although he was usually referring to the way unsaved people think, he stated that the apparatus of reasoning may function well, but it was always set wrong, and so would never produce the right result; the unsaved reason would not submit itself to the revelation of God. But Van Til also believed that there were forms of Christian thinking which did the same thing. Hence, my theory of creaturely independence relies on Van Til’s insight. But let my point not get lost. I am saying that CT is a mainly deductive inferential system (and, by way, this spills over into certain Reformed formulations of, e.g., limited atonement). The logic is guided by the requirements of the system itself. It can be brilliant, but is it really representative of what the Bible is saying?
Paul Henebury Bio
Paul Martin Henebury is a native of Manchester, England and a graduate of London Theological Seminary and Tyndale Theological Seminary (MDiv, PhD). He has been a Church-planter, pastor and a professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics. He was also editor of the Conservative Theological Journal (suggesting its new name, Journal of Dispensational Theology, prior to leaving that post). He is now the President of Telos School of Theology.
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