Category Archives: Church/Ecclesiology

Introducing Covenant Theology

 

There can perhaps be no greater theological deficiency in modern evangelical churches and seminaries than a proper and robust understanding of the biblical covenants. Having been a believer for going on 33 years, I cannot recall a time when the covenants were explained or exposited in sufficient detail from any pulpit I’ve sat under. Generally when the subject of covenant arises in a particular passage, that particular covenant is given a passing mention, but larger unity and diversity of the divine covenants is ignored.

Speaking to the issues of his own day, 19th Century Reformed Baptist R.B.C. Howell writes,

“A perfect knowledge of the Gospel therefore, involves necessarily, a correct comprehension of the covenants. But by whom among us, are these covenants clearly understood? To most men, you need only to speak on this subject, and you at once perceive that “Even unto this day, the vail is upon their heart.” They fail to perceive what the covenants are in themselves, in their relations to each other, and consequently in their bearings upon the designs of God in the Redeemer! This darkness is lamentable in all its aspects, since falling short of the knowledge of these, “the rudiments of the doctrine of Christ,” obscurity must necessarily rest upon the whole Gospel system. How can he who does not perceive “the first principles” of any specified science, ever become a master of that science?”[1]

Additionally, unless required seminary courses have changed within the last year or so, one would be hard pressed to find one, let alone multiple courses which plumb the depths of the study of covenants, also known as covenant theology (Reformed Theological Seminary and some of the smaller schools such as Covenant Baptist Theological Seminary, Reformed Baptist Seminary, et.al. would be some notable exceptions). This is in stark contrast to the following statement by Charles Spurgeon, “The doctrine of the covenant lies at the root of all true theology. It has been said that he who well understands the distinction between the covenant of works and the covenant of grace, is a master of divinity”[2], yet we see student after student conferred with the degree of Master of Divinity with little knowledge of biblical covenants. Personally, I was unaware of the significance of the covenants until 5-6 years ago when confronted head on by their presence in the book of Romans, specifically the relationship of Israel and the Church.   These personal witnesses before us, one is left to wonder why this neglect of the covenants is so prominent.

Perhaps the great neglect of Covenant Theology that may be observed in our day should be laid at the feet of its chief opponent, dispensationalism. One need only observe the harsh sentiments of Lewis Sperry Chafer, founder of Dallas Theological Seminary – for a century or more the heartbeat of dispensational theology – to gain a glimpse of why this is the case. Note the following from Chafer:

“Judaism has its field of theology with its soteriology and its eschatology. That these factors of a system which occupies three-fourths of the Sacred Text are unrecognized and ignored by theologians does not demonstrate their nonexistence, nor does it prove their unimportance. A Covenant Theology engenders the notion that there is but one soteriology and one eschatology, and that ecclesiology, such as it is conceived to be, extends from the Garden of Eden to the great white throne. The insuperable problems in exegesis which such fanciful suppositions engender are easily disposed of by ignoring them. On the other hand, Scripture is harmonized and its message clarified when two divinely appointed systems–Judaism and Christianity–are recognized and their complete and distinctive characters are observed. No matter how orthodox they may be in matters of inspiration, the Deity of Christ, His virgin birth, and the efficacy of His death, Covenant theologians have not been forward in Bible exposition. This great field of service has been and is now occupied by those who distinguish things which differ, who, though giving close attention to all that has been written, are bound by no theological traditions whatever. – Lewis Sperry Chafer Systematic Theology, Vol.4, p.248″[3]

Though a dense statement to be sure, notice the heart of what Chafer is suggesting is that there is not 1 soteriology, that is salvation, but 2; that there is not 1 eschatology, that is God’s redemptive plan unfolding in history culminating in the reign of Christ in the New Heavens and New Earth, but 2; that there is not 1 ecclesiology, that is people of God, but 2; and finally that all this is not unfolded and extended from Genesis to Revelation. With all due respect to Dr. Chafer, whose writings and influence on the Church have been profound, he is wrong and not simply wrong, but dangerously wrong.

When these notions are combined with the widespread influence of the dispensationalism that Chafer helped advance throughout America in the 19th and 20th century, there really should be no surprise that covenant theology lay mostly dormant for decades among Baptists, many of whom saw dispensationalism as a correction on the one hand to liberalism and most certainly on the other hand to infant-baptizing forms of covenant theology. Seemingly, many baptists felt left with only those two extreme options and chose the more moderate line of dispensationalism. However, the middle point between two errors does not place one on the path of truth, as can be witnessed in the quote above from Chafer. Without the torch being carried by our paedobaptist brothers and several 20th Century Reformed Baptists, the covenant theology expressed for so long through the ages of church history, would have been left miring in the “Dark Ages”.

Thankfully, in recent years there has been a resurgence of solid, confessional baptist covenant theology. Likely due to multiple factors, including a resurgence in the Doctrines of Grace and a rejection of the errors of dispensationalism, modern Baptists began exploring their own historical identity and found in the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith a robust and developed covenant theology that ran contra to the idea of infant baptism found in her mother confession, the Westminster Confession of Faith, championed by Presbyterians in the 17th century.

Nehemiah Coxe, likely the chief editor of the 1689 Second London Baptist Confession writes, “…further observe that the holy and wise God has always dealt with the children of men in a way of covenant. The display of infinite goodness has always accompanied the discovery of his infinite glory in his dealing with men. Thus he has not acted toward them to the utmost right of his sovereignty and dominion over them. Had he done so, there never would have been any reward of future blessedness assigned and made due to their obedience, as there has been by covenant.”[4]

Such a strong statement by the Baptist statesman, Coxe highlights the importance placed on covenants by the reformed baptists of his day and ensures that Baptists have a covenantal heritage just as rich as those who have adhered to the Westminster Confession.

The study of covenants can be a particularly difficult subject to approach, not because Scripture is unclear, but because throughout history there has been a multitude of views and beliefs such that it is difficult to find a monolithic, orthodox explanation to help guide one’s efforts. In the coming weeks, I hope to devote some attention to untangling this web of confusion and presenting in clear terms a discussion of covenant theology from the historic baptist perspective.

[1] http://founders.org/library/covenants/

[2] http://www.ccel.org/ccel/spurgeon/sermons58.xliv.html

[3] http://www.dispensationalfriends.org/articles/chafer1.html

[4] Coxe – Owen pg. 38

Doctrine: The Dirty Word of Modern Evangelicals

 

The other morning during my daily commute I was listening to a local Christian radio broadcast and was struck by two consecutive statements regarding Christian’s and doctrine. The first was a commercial from a local car dealership stating something along the lines of “People are not saved by believing a system of doctrine, but through faith in Jesus Christ.” This probably needed qualification, but fair enough…for now.

Immediately after that commercial, the next scheduled program began with an introduction of an anti-doctrinal statement and then the speaker began (the sermon?) with a quote from a questionable book, paraphrased as follows: “I don’t know a lot about doctrine. I’m just not inclined in that direction. But I have been able to take the word of God and apply it to my everyday life and I have had a lot of wonderful experience with God and from that simple, child-like experience with God, I would like to share with you how you can be a happy Christian.”

The speaker reaffirmed this by stating “That’s me!” And goes on to say “I think its sad when all people hear is more and more doctrine and it’s not that I don’t think we need good solid doctrine. You need to know why you believe what you believe. But we have to know how to live. And so, I heard more about the doctrinal side of grace and not the practical side of grace”

And so we have the elevation of experience and feeling above the sound, objective, doctrinal truths of Scripture. It’s this perspective that is so prevalent among believers and churches today. You’ve likely heard it expressed in different ways; perhaps, “Doctrine divides; Christ unites” or from a popular mega-church pastor, “No Creed but Christ,” which is laced with irony because in itself it’s a creedal statement. Too often this artificial chasm between unity and truth is the driving factor for divorcing doctrine from the church.  Martin Luther once famously quipped, “It is better to be divided by truth than united by error.” Can anyone argue that Luther took an anti-doctrinal, pro-unity stance at the expense of standing for the truth? Absolutely not. He fought for doctrinal truth at all costs, even if it cost him his life.

In our day, one could make a strong argument that this anti-doctrinal sentiment is the majority report in much of what calls itself evangelicalism. I know personally that those who hold these particular anti-doctrinal views have sometimes accused me of only wanting to talk about doctrine and I’ve had people counter doctrinal statements by saying they are just a simple Christian who reads the Bible and has no theological education or desire to understand or learn doctrine.

I suppose the majority of those who hold to this stance are largely ignorant of what doctrine is and is blind to the pervasiveness which doctrine is used in Scripture, the doctrinal statements expressed in Scripture, and the summary doctrinal statements about the Scripture. Simply stated, a doctrine is a summary statement or belief about a particular biblical truth.  For instance, stating the Bible is God’s Word is a doctrinal statement. If you believe and say, “The Bible is the Word of God” you’ve just expressed in condensed terms the Doctrine of Inspiration, i.e. that the Bible is the God-breathed Word (2 Timothy 3:16). To divorce oneself from this doctrinal position for the sake of the artificial façade of unity leaves one standing not on the Word of God, but on quicksand.

A second example is the Doctrine of the Trinity. Think that’s not important? As a Christian, please tell me who it is you believe in apart from the Triune God? If you do not explain that the Creator God of all the universe is triune, distinct in person but one in essence as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, it is not doctrine that you’ve abandoned, but orthodoxy, nigh you’re promoting another god.  So we can see in these two brief examples that doctrine is not opposed to faith, unity, or even Christianity, but is indeed integral because it helps summarize and explain what it is that we believe.

Consider the following statement by the Apostle Paul writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, “11 And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, 14 so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. 15 Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 16 from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.” Ephesians 4:11-16

Paul is not contributing to the false chasm between unity and doctrine, instead he is pointing out the theological vacuum that takes place when good doctrine is absent. Notice what he says in this passage:

  1. God has given Apostles, prophets, evangelists, shepherds and teachers for the purpose of:
    1. Equipping the saints
    2. Building up the body of Christ
    3. Leading the body to the unity of faith and the knowledge of the Son of God
    4. To mature manhood
    5. Complete in Christ
    6. To avoid being tossed around by errant doctrine
      1. By human deception
      2. Craftiness
      3. Deceitful schemes
    7. Contrary to this we are to speak the truth in love
  2. This is how the Body of Christ, in all its parts, are built up in love

God has given the Church ministers of the Word and their job is to instruct, teach, exhort, and rebuke. What are they to teach? Doctrine, for the purpose of helping their flock mature and avoid the dangers of false doctrine. Observe what Paul tells his young disciple Timothy at his church:

  • “As I urged you when I was going to Macedonia, remain at Ephesus so that you may charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine, 4 nor to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies, which promote speculations rather than the stewardship from God that is by faith.” 1 Timothy 1:3-4 and 8 Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it lawfully, 9 understanding this, that the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who strike their fathers and mothers, for murderers, 10 the sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality, enslavers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine, 11 in accordance with the gospel of the glory of the blessed God with which I have been entrusted.” 1 Timothy 1:8-11 Paul is not warning Timothy against those who teach doctrine, but those who teach false doctrine and makes explicit mention of the good purposes of sound doctrine.
  •  “Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons, 2 through the insincerity of liars whose consciences are seared, 3 who forbid marriage and require abstinence from foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. 4 For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, 5 for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer. 6 If you put these things before the brothers, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, being trained in the words of the faith and of the good doctrine that you have followed. 7 Have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths. Rather train yourself for godliness” 1 Timothy 4:1-7 Again, Paul has warned Timothy of those who will enter the church teaching false doctrine. He is not speaking against doctrine, but false doctrine. He once again contrasts these various false teachings with the statement that Timothy was trained in good doctrine (vs. 6) that he has followed.
  • “16 Take heed to yourself and to the doctrine. Continue in them, for in doing this you will save both yourself and those who hear you.” 1 Timothy 4:16 NKJV Here, Paul explicitly states that Timothy’s doctrine, i.e. the sound, truthfulness of Scripture, will save both himself and those who hear him.
  • “Let all who are under a yoke as bondservants regard their own masters as worthy of all honor, so that the name of God and the teaching may not be reviled. 2 Those who have believing masters must not be disrespectful on the ground that they are brothers; rather they must serve all the better since those who benefit by their good service are believers and beloved. Teach and urge these things. 3 If anyone teaches a different doctrine and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that accords with godliness, 4 he is puffed up with conceit and understands nothing. He has an unhealthy craving for controversy and for quarrels about words, which produce envy, dissension, slander, evil suspicions, 5 and constant friction among people who are depraved in mind and deprived of the truth, imagining that godliness is a means of gain.” 1 Timothy 6:1-5 Notice here who it is that is creating division and disunity. It’s not those who teach the sound doctrine of Christ, that which accords with godliness. No, it is those who teach a different doctrine, i.e. a false doctrine. Those who teach false doctrine are puffed up with conceit and understand nothing. It is they who desire controversy and quarrel about words. Those who are of sound doctrine are to confront and rebuke these false teachers.

When the Apostle addresses Titus and encourages him in the establishment of his church he writes on the qualifications of elders who “must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.” Titus 1:9 This is precisely consistent with the message given to Timothy, that those who are pastors/elders/shepherds/teachers must teach sound doctrine, “But as for you, teach what accords with sound doctrine” Titus 2:1; not abandoning doctrine; not marginalizing or ostracizing those who teach doctrine; but rebuking those who teach false doctrine. Again, this is a theological vacuum. Abandoning sound doctrine for the sake of anything, even unity, does not simply leave a void. It is always replaced with bad doctrine.

The only anti-doctrinal statements that the Bible makes has to do with false, unsound doctrine, not the avoidance of doctrine altogether. There is no such thing as “No Doctrine”. There is only “Good Doctrine” and “Bad Doctrine”. When good doctrine leaves, bad doctrine inevitably takes its place.

Anti-doctrinal sentiments are the heart of liberalism and no one fought this battle more fiercely than Charles Spurgeon. What was known as “The Downgrade Controversy” was Spurgeon’s all-out assault against the doctrinal decline of the Baptist Union. The Downgrade referred to the slippery slope or “Downgrade” away from “essential evangelical doctrines.”[1] Concerning this, Spurgeon wrote, “We are glad that the article upon ‘The Down Grade’ has excited notice.… Our warfare is with men who are giving up the atoning sacrifice, denying the inspiration of Holy Scripture, and casting slurs upon justification by faith.” When doctrine is abandoned for the sake of anything else, the sure footing of truth turns slippery and the slide naturally ends in apostasy.

In his article on the Downgrade, Erroll Hulse writes, “The emphasis in the churches was on evangelism, missions and practical social work. Doctrine was taken for granted and its importance minimized.”[2] He cites specifically the decline in Calvinism, “a coherent well-knit body of truth” in favor of higher criticism as what led to a theological vacuum. Spurgeon cited the abandonment of three chief doctrines as central to the Downgrade Controversy: 1) Biblical infallibility 2) Substitutionary Atonement 3) The finality of judgment for unbelievers. How could the church expect to stand in the midst of the advance of liberalism apart from a staunch doctrinal defense? Simply put, they couldn’t, nor can they now.

This historical example should serve us well as a caution against the anti-doctrine rhetoric that is so prevalent today. Doctrine is never merely absent; ignore the promotion and advancement of sound doctrine and false doctrine worms its way in. This was as true in the Apostle Paul’s day as it was in Spurgeon’s and certainly ours today. If doctrine had been abandoned the young apostolic church would have had no foundation. If doctrine had been abandoned the early church fathers would have floundered instead of holding fast in the face of such heresies as denying the divinity of Christ or the truthfulness of the Old Testament. If doctrine had been abandoned there would have been no Reformation and Christianity would have remained a slave to Rome. If doctrine had been abandoned, liberalism would have won out the 19th and 20th centuries. If doctrine is abandoned now, we’ll be swallowed up by secularism that seeks to undermine scripture at every turn.

History is a fascinating thing. Someone once said that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” That’s precisely where we are today, once again in need of a Reformation and once again faced with the daunting task of confronting those on the Downgrade within the church who shrink away from teaching sound doctrine.

 

 

[1] http://www.christianitytoday.com/ch/1991/issue29/2931.html

[2] http://www.reformation-today.org/papers/CHS&downgrade.pdf