Best Defense of Reformed Paedobaptist Covenant Theology – Stephen Wellum

Since the incarnation and work of our Lord Jesus Christ, Christians have wrestled with putting together the Bible’s overall metanarrative. Although differences exist among evangelicals, we agree more than we differ. Yet, our disagreements are significant since they lead to different conclusions regarding the newness of the new covenant, how Old Testament promises and typological patterns are fulfilled in Christ, the nature of the church and the sacraments, and the Ten Commandments’s application to us today, especially regarding the Sabbath command. All of these differences are tied to our understanding of how our triune God’s eternal plan unfolds from creation to the new creation through the progression of the biblical covenants.

In Covenant Theology: Biblical, Theological, and Historical Perspectives, the faculty of Reformed Theological Seminary has produced a collection of essays, expounding and defending the theological system of covenant theology as taught in the Westminster Standards. This is now the best contemporary exposition and defense of Reformed paedobaptist covenant theology.

Intramural Debates

The book is a window into debates within covenant theology, even among the faculty of RTS. For example, is “the covenant of works” a grace-based covenant or not? Is the Noahic one or two covenants? Is the Mosaic a republication of “the covenant of works” or an administration of “the covenant of grace”? Meredith Kline and Michael Horton insist on the former, while most in this volume defend the latter. Yet, even if the Mosaic is part of the one covenant of grace, most view its function differently than the other covenants, especially the Abrahamic. The Mosaic is an “inferior and shadowy administration of types and numerous laws” (154). As such, it’s only preparatory, temporary, and different than the Abrahamic (234–39). Kevin DeYoung argues the Abrahamic, like the new covenant, “is immutable and never annulled or abolished” (596). This is why “Jeremiah [31:31–34] is about the removal of the Mosaic covenant, in particular the cultic rites and ceremonies” (596), but not its underlying content, which is the rationale for the continuation of the “mixed” nature of the covenant people from Israel to the church.

There is also disagreement on the classification of the covenants. Many authors appreciate Kline’s work. Kline famously distinguished between “law” (conditional) covenants and “gospel/grace” (unconditional) covenants. The former applied to “the covenant of works” and its republication in the Mosaic (following a suzerain-vassal pattern), while the latter applied to “the covenant of grace” (following a royal-grant pattern as reflected in the Abrahamic, Davidic, and new covenant). However, Nicholas Reid (chap. 21) rightly admits that covenants can’t simply be divided this way since both unconditional and conditional elements are present in all the covenants. Yet, given covenant theology’s bicovenantal structuring of the Bible’s metanarrative—the covenant of works and of grace—it’s not always clear how this distinction is employed, especially regarding the “conditions” of the covenants. Everyone agrees that God’s demand for perfect obedience is the condition in the covenant of works, which Adam did not render. But what about the covenant of grace? For Reid, the Mosaic covenant provides a “covenant of works for Christ” (169) which he obeys for us. But for DeYoung, the condition seems to be “faith” in Christ (593). This reflects ongoing debates over law/gospel and specifically how the covenants track this distinction. In my view, covenant theology’s theological understanding of “law/gospel” is correct, but I’m less convinced that their bicovenantal construction of Scripture is the best way to derive it.

This is now the best contemporary exposition and defense of Reformed paedobaptist covenant theology.

One last observation: for all the book’s discussion of God’s universal “moral law” as given in the Decalogue, there is little discussion regarding the Sabbath. This is a real weakness. Given the authors’ commitment to the tripartite division of the Mosaic covenant as the means to apply the law today, what about the Sabbath command? In theology, there are test-cases that reveal how one puts together the entire canon. The circumcision-baptism relationship is one such test case, but so is the Sabbath. How one applies the Sabbath to Christians today reveals how one determines not only what the “moral law” is, but also how to apply the Old Testament rightly. 

With these initial comments made, I now offer some overall points of agreement and disagreement as we unite in the gospel but continue to discuss differences among us.

Points of Agreement

The first point of agreement is that the progression of the covenants is the backbone of the Bible’s story, which unfolds God’s eternal plan of redemption, starting in creation and fulfilled in Christ. Covenant theology is correct to contend that the Bible’s story begins in creation with Adam and reaches its fulfillment in Christ and the new covenant (Rom. 5:12–21; 1 Cor. 15:21–49).

We also agree that God’s promise, grace, and initiative take priority over all human disobedience. “The covenant of creation/works” is transgressed by humanity in Adam and is fulfilled in Christ, our covenant mediator. By Christ’s active and passive obedience, our redemption is achieved and we’re justified by grace through faith in Christ alone. 

We agree that there is one redemptive plan (the covenant of grace) that unfolds through the covenants, from God’s initial promise (Gen. 3:15) to fulfillment in Christ. As noted, “Each biblical covenant builds on the previous, all foreshadowing the new covenant that becomes the focus of the message of the prophets” (33).

We also agree that God’s “moral law” doesn’t change since it’s grounded in God’s will and character. Ultimately, this moral law is summarized by the Great Commandment, which is first given in creation and then through the covenants. However, we differ on whether we can simply isolate the Decalogue from its covenantal context and apply it to us today without first thinking through how all the Old Testament covenants are fulfilled in Christ and then discerning what exactly applies. Of course, it’s on this point that the Sabbath debate emerges.

Points of Disagreement

I only offer two points that certainly require more discussion between covenant theology and those who disagree with its overall theological construction of the Bible’s story.

First, instead of covenant theology’s bicovenantal structure, which tends to subsume and flatten the Old Testament covenants under the one covenant of grace, it’s better to think of God’s eternal plan revealed through a plurality of covenants (Eph. 2:12), starting in creation with Adam and reaching its fulfillment in Christ and the new covenant. In this way, each covenant contributes to God’s unified plan, and each covenant reaches its fulfillment in Christ. 

Covenant theology is right to subsume all people under two covenant heads: Adam and Christ. In Adam, “law” is established by God’s demand for perfect obedience. Due to Adam’s disobedience, all people are condemned before God (Rom. 3:23). However, God graciously speaks a word of promise—“gospel” (Gen. 3:15)—that ultimately is fulfilled in Christ. All who believe the promise are justified, as they look forward to Christ (Gen. 15:6). Yet is Genesis 3:15 the ratification of a different covenant (“the covenant of grace”), or is it a gracious promise that despite Adam’s sin, God’s purpose for humans and creation will stand, and that God will provide a Redeemer to undo what Adam did? And that through the biblical covenants God’s promise is given greater clarity, as the new covenant is progressively revealed?

Is this simply splitting hairs? No, because although we agree on much, the differences are important. Instead of thinking of God’s plan progressively revealed through the covenants and fulfilled in the new covenant, covenant theology subsumes the Old Testament covenants under one covenant and then draws too quickly direct lines of continuity from old to new, especially in regard to circumcision and the mixed nature of the covenant people. No doubt, they admit that the Mosaic covenant has ended as a covenant, but have not all the Old Testament covenants reached their fulfillment in Christ and the church? Each covenant must be allowed not only to direct the life of those under it, but also reveal and point forward to Christ and the ratification of the new covenant.

On this point, the prophetic and typological structures of the covenants become important. Under the Abrahamic covenant, for example, circumcision is the covenant sign (Gen. 17:9–14). It’s a priestly act, distinguishing Abraham’s family from the nations, eventually constituting Israel as God’s holy, priestly nation (Ex. 19:5–6), ultimately to bring forth Christ (Gal. 3:16). Yet circumcision also revealed the need for a “heart circumcision” (Deut. 30:6), which in the new covenant is applied to the entire people (Ezek. 36:25–27), not merely a remnant within the nation. Circumcision under the Old Testament covenants becomes a type that reveals our need for new hearts, which all those in Christ have experienced. One can’t simply draw direct lines of continuity from circumcision to baptism unless one ignores how each covenant functions in God’s plan and then reaches fulfillment in Christ.

Second, and building on the first point, covenant theology fails to account for the newness in Christ and the new covenant. In fact, it’s in the Israel-church relationship that we see a main consequence of their covenantal construction which results in their “mixed” view of the church, defense of paedobaptism, and specific view of inaugurated eschatology. For covenant theology, in its visible form, the church is the same as Israel: a mixed people (Rom. 9:6–7). They offer a variety of reasons for their view, but the main reason is their appeal to “the one covenant of grace,” and identification of the Abrahamic with the new covenant. This allows for the sign of circumcision to “come over” to baptism. By doing so, however, covenant theology hasn’t sufficiently accounted for how circumcision functions under the Abrahamic covenant, how it’s revelatory of our need for heart circumcision, and how, under the new covenant, baptism signifies something different—namely, our union with Christ. 

This is why I contend that covenant theology hasn’t fully accounted for the newness of the new covenant, since it hasn’t sufficiently allowed each covenant to function in its redemptive-historical context before seeing its fulfillment in Christ and the church. In fact, the prophets anticipated the ratification of a new covenant in which all of God’s people will know God and that every person will be born-empowered-indwelt by the Spirit, and receive the full forgiveness of sin (Jer. 31:31–34). Now, in Christ, the new covenant is here, which entails that the relationship between Christ and his people isn’t exactly the same as under the previous covenants. Now, our entrance into the new covenant isn’t by natural birth but spiritual rebirth. Christ’s people aren’t “you and your biological children” but people who savingly know God. Someone is “in Christ” not by flesh circumcision but by the Spirit’s heart circumcision, which baptism signifies. 

One ‘in Christ’ not by circumcision of the flesh but by the Spirit’s heart circumcision, which baptism signifies.

Although covenant theology agrees that the new covenant is here, it also insists that the regenerate nature of the church is still future, hence the charge that those who differ hold to an “overrealized eschatology” (569). But this simply reveals that covenant theology applies some aspects of the new covenant to the “already” and others to the “not yet,” instead of arguing that what the prophets anticipated is “in principle” here but not yet in its fullness. So, we still await our glorification, but the church now is the eschatological, “gathered” people identified with the “age to come” (Heb. 12:18–29). Christians are now citizens of the new Jerusalem because we’re no longer in Adam but in Christ. The church is the new man (Eph. 2:11–22); the new temple in whom the Spirit dwells (1 Cor. 6:19; Eph. 2:21); the new creation (2 Cor. 5:17); and is presently raised and seated with Christ (Eph. 2:5–6). But one can’t make sense of this description of the church without viewing it as a regenerate people.

Ongoing Debate

I’m sure the debate will continue. Despite our agreement in the central truths of the gospel, we still disagree on other significant points. 

Yet, I’m thankful for this excellent exposition and defense of covenant theology. My prayer is that it will lead to many fruitful conversations that will challenge us anew “to take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5).

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