Deciphering Covenant Theology (Part 10)

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Credo-baptism and the Covenant of Grace

I have taken a quick look at the way paedo-baptist covenant theologians understand baptism as a sign of the New covenant aspect of the covenant of grace, but of course many Baptists are Reformed yet they reject the baptism of infants as unbiblical.

Baptists see the covenant of grace as incorporating the regenerate only, not the so-called “historical elect” — those who have been sprinkled as babies but have yet to express a personal faith in Christ. From the paedo-baptist point of view the mixed nature of the Mosaic [old] covenant continues with the New covenant. That is why they baptize infants. That is also why the Puritan John Ball claimed that “the Pharisees were in the Covenant of Grace all the while being excluded from its substance” (Pascal Denault, The Distinctiveness of Baptist Covenant Theology, 48).

But this is not the case with credo-baptists. As the name suggests, these Reformed Baptists believe that a person must be born-again through personal trust in the Gospel to be included in the covenant.

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Deciphering Covenant Theology (Part 9)

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Federal Theology and the Baptism of Infants

[W{hen Reformed people speak of “the covenant,” we are speaking of the one covenant of grace that runs from its seed-promise in Genesis 3:15, was expanded in detail to Abraham in Genesis 15, fulfilled in Christ, and continues throughout time until the consummation. Anyone who has or will ever be saved – in any period of human history – is a member of the covenant of grace. (Michael G. Brown and Zach Keele, Sacred Bond, 95)

When dealing with the subject of baptism we are still dealing with the covenant of grace; Covenant Theology’s main lens. As I’m treating infant baptism (paedo-baptism) here it is important to note that Reformed Baptists who hold to CT approach the subject differently. I will treat that separately.

The term “federal” comes from the Latin foedus which means “treaty” or “pact,” but has come to mean “covenant,” although the Reformers like Calvin and Beza were not dogmatic on the point. But the covenant in view is not any covenant that can be easily found in the Bible. As the quotation above shows it is the dominant covenant of grace that is dictating doctrine. Hence, it is not the biblical covenants that drive the theology of baptism and headship in CT.

It will help to cite a leading covenant theologian on the matter:

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Deciphering Covenant Theology (Part 8)

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I ended the last post talking about how CT reduces the nation of Israel down to Jesus Christ and then interprets the Church in Him to be the “True Israel.” There is more to say about that, but first I think a little more orientation is required. I want to begin this installment with a definition of Covenant Theology from one of its major contemporary practitioners, Ligon Duncan:

Covenant theology is an approach to biblical interpretation that appreciates the importance of the covenants for understanding the divine-human relationship and the unfolding of redemptive history in Scripture. Blending insights from systematic and biblical theology, covenant theology explains the economic Trinity, communion with God, the person and work of Christ, the sacraments, justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, the role of obedience in the Christian life, the believer’s assurance of salvation, the unity and progress of redemptive history, and more, in light of the Bible’s teaching on the divine covenants. (“Covenant Theology: An Essay”)

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Deciphering Covenant Theology (Part 7)

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The Covenant of Grace (2)

It is almost impossible to overstate the importance of “the covenant of grace” to Reformed theology. When one reads of “the covenant” in the writings of CT’s the implication is that it is the covenant of grace. When it comes to CT’s comprehending the Bible as a “redemptive-historical” book, the thing that is powering this is the covenant of grace. Hence,

The covenant of grace tells us that the whole Bible is about one thing: God redeeming a people for himself through Jesus Christ. (Michael G. Brown and Zach Keele, Sacred Bond, 69)

The covenant of grace is the appearance in time of the Covenant of Redemption. As this is the case it could be said that the covenant of grace furnishes the ground of redemptive history. While both the covenant of works and the covenant of grace promised eternal life (R. Belcher, The Fulfillment of the Promises of God, 41), it is the covenant of grace which is superior in both its ability to give salvation and in its primal intent as God’s chosen way of salvation for sinners.

Then too, the covenants of CT; in particular the covenant of grace, sets the hermeneutical agenda for how the Bible is to be read. J. I. Packer wrote,

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Deciphering Covenant Theology (Part 6)

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Some of this post reuses material from a previous article.

The Covenant of Grace (1)

Covenant theology depends for its credibility upon theological covenants with virtually no exegetical proof. This is especially the case with the “Covenant of Grace.”

[N]ot only do covenant theologians speak of the one people of God in both Testaments, they also affirm that the church existed in the Old Testament. One key linchpin for seeing continuity between the covenants revolves around the centrality of the covenant of grace. Because God is working out his unified plan to redeem humanity through this covenant, all historical covenants fall under this larger covenant and thus are expressions of it. (Benjamin L. Merkle, Discontinuity to Continuity: A Survey of Dispensational & Covenantal Theologies, 139; Merkle is a CT)

The “Covenant of Grace”, which is often simply called “the covenant” by CT’s, wields tremendous, we might say decisive hermeneutical power over CT’s biblical interpretation. Again, Merkle says “Covenant theology understands all the biblical covenants as different expressions of the one covenant of grace.” (Ibid, 15). But before one gets to use such a potent hermeneutical and theological device, one needs to prove that it is actually Scriptural.

As Herman Witsius defines it,

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Romans 1 isn't "about" homosexuality

Christian brothers and sisters often read Scripture in very different ways. I suspect it goes back to two things; (1) what theologians call “prolegomena”—how we “do” theology, and (2) what Scripture is—its nature. The latter will often inform the former.

Is Scripture a yet-to-be systematized “code book of theological ordinances?”1 A “store-house of facts”2 or a “transcript from God”3 waiting to be classified by inductive reasoning?  Christian Smith calls this the “handbook model” of interpretation,4 where the Scriptures are a compendium of teachings on an endless array of subjects—romance, politics, the 2nd Amendment, economics, and even dieting.

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Deciphering Covenant Theology (Part 5)

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The Covenant of Works (2)

According to covenant theologians the Covenant of Works was what Adam and Eve were under in the Garden of Eden. As it was a covenant of “works” this means that they were under obligation to maintain “perfect obedience” (Witsius, The Economy of the Covenants Between God and Man, I. 158; cf. Robertson, The Christ of the Covenants, 85). For the CT this is necessary because it is to be paralleled by Christ’s perfect obedience; an obedience which as “active obedience” is accrued to us alongside of Christ’s work on the cross.

In my view the biblical doctrine of the atonement does not require a doctrine of Christ’s “active obedience.” The fact of the matter is that the Bible does not say that Christ’s perfect life atones in any way for either Adam’s sin or for our failure to live righteously. Furthermore, I do not see how there could be a substitutionary aspect to Christ’s “active obedience.” I do admit that there may well be a representative aspect, but this is not the same thing.

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