Covenant Theology

I was listening to one of my favorite podcasts, Covenant Radio, today and feeling rather baffled.

The hosts, both Presbyterians, were interviewing a Reformed Baptist, Dr. Thomas Schreiner. They were engaging him in regard to a recent book of his called Believer’s Baptism that contended a position contrary to their own Presbyterian position. Not being Presbyterian, or even Reformed for that matter, I have had to read between the lines to discern the hot issues in the Presbyterian community from these hosts’ discussions with major Presbyterian ministers.

Now, as I understand it, there is a major rift in the Presbyterian denominations concerning Covenant: one side equates Covenant with salvation, and the other claims that, just as in the Mosaic system, there are participants in and beneficiaries of the Covenant who themselves are not of the elect.

These latter, of whom the hosts of this podcast are representatives, believe that there are by-products of the Covenant that even those who are damned may enjoy. The privileges of the Covenant, although not exhaustively or explicitly elucidated in the podcasts I’ve heard, ostensibly include such things as divine protection and blessing. So a damned child growing up in a household of elect can benefit from his participation in the New Covenant; this view tends to view the sacraments such as baptism (including, most argue, paedobaptism) and communion as ways for these non-elect to remain under the blessing and protection of the Covenant.

Dr. Schreiner sides with the other camp of Presbyterians and argues for believer’s baptism only, for the same reason that only believers are supposed to partake in communion – they heap (additional?) damnation onto themselves by unworthily participating. He views Hebrews 6 and the other warning passages not as directed toward any non-elect Covenant members (a concept he rejects) but toward the elect. He attempts to defend his view against those like me who say that the multitude of warning passages throughout the Bible, if directed toward the eternally secure elect, are merely empty threats, since it is impossible for them to become apostate. He argues that the teaching of Hebrews 6, “The elect who fall away are damned”, is a completely true statement — only it never actually has the occasion to be realized. In other words, it’s not an empty threat, but a theoretical statement of an impossibility expressed as though it were a possibility. I fail to see how the nonsense factor is mitigated by this spin.

On the other side of the debate were the hosts of this podcast, Jeff and Bill. A major selling point for their “Covenant Theology” view is that the so-called “warning passages” such as Hebrews 6 do not make sense as genuine warnings for believers, whom Calvin taught were incapable of falling away (“the perseverance of the saints”). They argue rather that those tasting of the heavenly gift are those whose good behavior, like dogs under the table, is rewarded by their being allowed to eat the crumbs from the children’s table. These damned “with benefits” are usually claimed to include those who exorcize demons and heal the sick to whom Christ nevertheless says, “Depart from me; I never knew you.” An obvious problem comes in with taking those who “have been made partakers of the Holy Spirit” (Heb 6.5) as the unredeemed. How can an unregenerate person actually be made a partaker in the Holy Spirit? The Holy Spirit was a gift to believers, and it’s hard to imagine how that could actually translate into the experience of damned unbelievers. Not only that, but what a hollow promise/threat it would be: “All right, mind your P’s and Q’s if you want to receive a few drops of cold water in the years you’ve got left before your eternity of suffering begins. Might as well make your time as pleasant as possible before your endless agony begins.”

Does anyone else see a way out of this?

Those who were falling away were those not persisting until the end. This is roughly parallel to the Parable of the Ten Virgins, in which all ten were there, but they weren’t all there to last. They were the seeds that did spring up, but were not in good soil. Many places in the NT there are clear imperatives reinforcing the notion, “those who endure to the end will be saved”. These weren’t empty threats, and weren’t directed toward those who had a shot at temporary bliss before inevitable ultimate damnation. At the end of those troubling times, in which people like Ananias and Sapphira were so harshly and irrevocably judged for backsliding, those left standing who did not deny Christ received “completion”. They won the race.

The author of Hebrews just got finished telling his audience in chapter 6 to hold on and persevere until “completion”, moving away from the “elementary principles”. I think that by chapter 8, we’re beginning to see what that “completion” looks like. As a preterist, I view the finish line as the judgment on Old Covenant Israel manifested in the destruction of Jerusalem accompanied by the passing away of the Old Covenant and the vindication and full establishment of the “better covenant” mediated by Christ (Heb 8.6-13).

Is this view not the most logical all around? What does it mean for today? Well, let’s look at some of the “better promises” from Jeremiah 31:34-34:

“Look, the days are coming, says the Lord, when I will complete a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah.

“It will not be like the covenant that I made with their fathers, on the day when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they did not continue in my covenant and I had no regard for them, says the Lord.

“For this is the covenant that I will establish with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord. I will put my laws in their minds and I will inscribe them on their hearts. And I will be their God and they will be my people.

“And there will be no need at all for each one to teach his countryman or each one to teach his brother saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ since they will all know me, from the least to the greatest.

“For I will be merciful toward their evil deeds, and their sins I will remember no longer.”

This, as Dr. Schreiner actually mentioned in passing, is the most devastating passage for the “Covenant Theology” view. All the participants in the New Covenant, unlike those in the Old Covenant (cf. Ro 9:16: “not all those who are of Israel are Israel”), are redeemed. All of us know the Lord; God forgives the sins of everyone with whom Christ has made covenant. A better covenant, indeed!

I’m not sure how this could be clearer. Let me know what you think.

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