Tag Archives: Covenant Theology

The Antiquity of the Covenant of Grace

 

From Charles Spurgeon’s sermon The Blood of the Everlasting Covenant :

But now, in the second place, we come to notice ITS EVERLASTING CHARACTER. It is called an everlasting covenant. And here you observe at once its antiquity. The covenant of grace is the oldest of all things. It is sometimes a subject of great joy to me to think that the covenant of grace is older than the covenant of works. The covenant of works had a beginning, but the covenant of grace had not; and blessed be God the covenant of works has its end, but the covenant of grace shall stand fast when heaven and earth shall pass away.

The antiquity of the covenant of grace demands our grateful attention. It is a truth which tends to elevate the mind. I know of no doctrine more grand than this. It is the very soul and essence of all poetry, and in sitting down and in sitting down and meditating upon it.

I do confess my spirit has sometimes been ravished with delight. Can you conceive the idea that before all things God thought of you? That when as yet he had not made his mountains, he had thought of thee, poor puny worm? Before the magnificent constellations began to shine, and ere the great centre of the world had been fixed, and all the mighty planets and divers worlds had been made to revolve around it, then had God fixed the centre of his covenant, and ordained the number of those lesser stars which should revolve round that blessed centre, and derive light therefrom. Why, when one is taken up with some grand conceptions of the boundless universe, when with the astronomers we fly through space, when with we find it without end, and the starry hosts without number, does it not seem marvelous that God should give poor insignificant man the preference beyond even the whole universe besides?

Oh this cannot make us proud, because it is a divine truth, but it must make us feel happy. Oh believer, you think yourself nothing, but God does not think so of you. Men despise you but God remembered you before he made anything. The covenant of love which he made with his Son on your behalf is older than the hoary ages, and if ye fly back when as yet time had not begun, before those massive rocks that bear the marks of gray old age upon them, had begun to be deposited, he had loved and chosen you, and made a covenant on your behalf. Remember well these ancient things of the eternal hills.

A Survey of the History of Covenant Theology Part IV

 

In the previous post from this series on an overview of covenant theology, its historical developments, including divergent and competing views, we examined the historical development of CT’s most ardent opponent, dispensationalism, particularly its expansion into the United States in the 19th Century.  Also, we saw the growth of dispensationalism into the 20th and 21st centuries, including a brief mention of progressive dispensationalism, as the movement continued to migrate toward a middle ground between classic dispensationalism and Westminster covenant theology, which we examined in PART 1.

With the explosion of dispensationalism in the United States in the 19th and 20th century, covenant theology did not die on the branch altogether.  We must at least give mention to mighty Princeton University as she began her run of staunch conservative, Reformed theology. Such notables as Jonathan Edwards, Archibald Alexander, Charles Hodge, A.A. Hodge, B.B. Warfield, and Geerhardos Vos to name a few, carried the banner of Reformed theological thought into the 19th Century.  While J. Gresham Machen, O.T. Allis, Cornelius Van Til, John Murray, and Ned Stonehouse among others helped to carry the banner of Princeton into the 20th Century until her eventual slide into liberalism.  At that point, a split occurred and J. Gresham Machen left Princeton to establish another seminary to carry on the Reformed Tradition in the vein of Old Princeton.  Westminster Seminary was founded in 1929.  Each of those men listed above eventually followed Machen and Allis to Westminster. Albeit representatives of the paedobaptist variety of covenant theology, their influence on Baptists would be noteworthy in the 20th Century.

Though perhaps not as notable or prolific as their Presbyterian brothers during this time, Baptists had some noteworthy developments of her own.  Men such as Andrew Fuller (1754-1815), William Carey (1761-1834), John L. Dagg (1794-1884), Basil Manly, Sr. (1798-1868), P.H. Mell (1814-1888), James P. Boyce (1827-1888), John Broadus (1827-1895), B.H. Carroll (1843-1914), and R.B.C. Howell (1801-1868) to name a few, made significant contributions in Baptist history.  Howell’s work, The Covenants, is representative of the continuation of Baptist covenant theology developed in the 17th Century and Boyce’s Systematic Theology was the Baptist go to (and should be still), reflecting both a reformed soteriology and a baptistic understanding of the covenants.  However, it would be the influence of the “Prince of Preachers”, Charles Spurgeon (1834-1892), from 19th Century Great Britain that would have its greatest impact on 20th Century America, particularly through the writings of Arthur W. Pink.

While a subscriptionist to the 1689 Second London Baptist Confession himself and authoring sermons that reflected the historic Baptist position on covenant theology, Spurgeon’s influence on Pink must have been felt in his childhood home.  Born in Nottingham, England 1886, Murray suggests the likelihood that the Pink household must have at least in part if not altogether had been recipients of Spurgeon’s widely circulated Sword and Trowel magazine.[1]

A.W. Pink, whom God was delighted to save out of the cult of Theosophy (toward which he had drifted as a young man) in 1908 set sail to America just two years later in order to attend Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, Ill.  Recall that it was Moody who was one of the catalysts for the spread of dispensational premillennialism.  It was under this ministry that Pink would gain his first taste of dispensationalism, as well as the fundamentalist reaction toward the liberalism of the day.

However, Pink’s stay at Moody, like much of his other ministerial positions, would be short-lived.  After just 6-weeks he was compelled to enter the pulpit and would have no more of “wasting my time” at the Moody Bible Institute.[2] Pink’s first pastorate would be in the mountains of Colorado at the Congregational church at Silverton.[3]  He would remain here for less than two years having moved on to other ministerial duties in 1912.

While Pink’s life is perhaps a less than adequate model of faithful, consistent, and balanced ministerial life, his writing legacy lives on through such esteemed works as The Sovereignty of God, Hebrews commentary, and his series Studies in Scripture, among many, many others.  However, it is likely that Pink’s work Dispensationalism, a polemic against the movement, and Divine Covenants are the most relevant for furthering the development of Reformed Baptist Covenant Theology as it has existed since the 17th Century.  Pink’s volume on the covenants stands expressly downstream from those who formulated the 1689 Baptist confession and should be consulted by all those wishing to understand a clearly articulated Baptist understanding of the covenants.  Additionally, his commentary on Hebrews provides a Baptist understanding of typology and continuity/discontinuity of Scriptures and leans heavily on the substantial Hebrews commentary of John Owen.

Pink’s influence was not lost among his contemporaries, most notably the highly esteemed Martyn Lloyd-Jones, though himself a Presbyterian. Similarly, another significant Reformed Baptist would carry Pink’s influence into the middle and latter half of the 20th Century.  That man was Ernest Reisinger.

During one of Pink’s many nomadic wanderings, this time bringing him to Kentucky, he met a man from Swengel, PA named I.C. Herendeen.[4]  Herendeen would become the first publisher of Pink’s works, including The Sovereignty of God through his “one-man publishing house” called “The Bible Truth Depot”.[5]  As Herendeen sought a church near his home in Swengel, he found one pastored by the newly installed John Reisinger.

John, his older brother Ernie, their middle brother Donald and younger sister Grace Esther were born and raised by humble means in Carlisle, PA, largely a Presbyterian town influenced greatly by the newly formed Westminster Seminary, just north of Philadelphia, PA.  After the war (WW2), John and Ernie became construction partners in Carlisle, PA.  Having grown up under Presbyterian influence, their natural affinity was to join a Presbyterian church in their hometown, Second Presbyterian Church.  After leading multiple Bible studies, Ernie was commissioned as a “lay preacher” in 1946 by the Carlisle Presbytery.[6]  Given the slide into liberalism that the Presbyterian Church underwent in the first half of the 20th Century, Ernie Reisinger found it increasingly difficult to remain in the denomination.

On December 9, 1951 a small group of 23 people met in the Carlisle High School Band Hall constituting the first meeting of what would become Grace Baptist Church, Carlisle.[7]  Ernie Reisinger’s doctrinal development would be owed, at least in part, to his younger brother John’s embrace of the Doctrines of Grace while at Lancaster Bible College in Pennsylvania.  He became convinced of the truths of “Calvinism”, not from his coursework, but from a Bible study on the Gospel of John taught by a farmer “in a small country church in Lancaster County”.[8]  The summary lesson may be found in Geoffrey Thomas’ biography of Reisinger and is an excellent explanation of God’s electing grace.

While John Reisinger began working out his own understanding and applications of these truths, in 1953 the aforementioned I.C. Herendeen began sitting under his ministry.  Having heard Reisinger quote Charles Spurgeon, Herendeen gave him copies of Spurgeon’s sermons and autobiographical materials on the doctrines of grace, thereby helping to rectify any final theological difficulties he was having.

On return trips to Carlisle, PA, the younger Reisinger began to share with his brother Ernie the truths that he had encountered.  This eventual return of Baptists to their roots in the Doctrines of Grace is not insignificant but is in fact intimately linked with the resurgence of Reformed Baptists in the 20th century.  Additionally, John introduced Ernie to the publications of Banner of Truth, which, as we will see, would forever alter the publication and distribution of reformed material in the United States.

Ernest Reisinger, now exposed to the doctrines of grace, began to wrestle with his own theological understandings, namely dispensationalism in general and Victorious Christian Living in particular.  The newly formed Grace Chapel, through the influence of Heerenden and the younger Reisinger, developed a voracious appetite for reformed theology and sought to increase their understanding through well-known, historically significant books.  “Grace Baptist’s book table ministry began to purchase select titles from Baker Book House, Eerdmans Publishing Company, Presbyterian & Reformed, Reiner Publications, Sovereign Grace Publishers, Zondervan Publishers, and others.  In one year $10,000 worth of Christian books were sold.”[8]  Thomas notes that none of the congregants were so generous to give out books as Ernie Reisinger, “he developed the widest literature ministry to students, preachers and missionaries.”[9]

As providence would have it, their congregants became exposed to the 1689 Second London Baptist Confession and in 1958 the church adopted the confession and formally became Grace Baptist Church.[10]  Here then in rural Pennsylvania can be found the roots of 20th Century reformed Baptists in America with a tiny, confessionally reformed Baptist church.

As the small church struggled to develop her identity as the lone confessionally reformed Baptist church, Ernie Reisinger sought the help of Ian Murray, from the aforementioned Banner of Truth publishers and a favorite of book ministry of Grace Baptist.  In Murray, he sought help to find resources that would solidify their understanding of Baptist polity.  Though himself a Presbyterian, Reisinger’s personal letter to Murray reflected well their struggle for identity

” I am writing for some guidance concerning a discussion in our local church (independent Calvinist Baptist).  We all seem to lean to the Presbyterian idea of elders and deacons and yet we do not go so far as to outrule all local autonomy.  My reason for writing is to inquire, is there some book or article or source of information that you could recommend that may be helpful.  What I’m trying to say is this.  We are a congregation of Baptists that is almost Presbyterian.  We do not see a strictly congregational rule and yet we do not see the extreme hierarchy type of government.  Would be grateful for any suggestion or help you may have.”[11]

As a result of the correspondence and massive increase in sales of Banner of Truth publications, “in August 1966 Humphrey Mildred, Banner of Truth’s assistant manager from London, visited Carlisle to find out what was happening in this small town that had caused more Banner of Truth books to be sold there than anywhere else outside the British Isles.”[12]  Eventually, Carlisle Pennsylvania would become the center of operations for Banner of Truth in America owing its source to a continually reforming 1950’s reformed Baptist congregation and her generous book loving reformer, Ernest Reisinger.

Reisinger’s circle of influence would soon broaden and help expand the cause of the rejuvenated Reformed Baptist movement.  It’s on this point, the Rise of Reformed Baptists in 20th Century America, that we will pick up the 5th and final post in this series that gives an overview to the history and developments of covenant theology.

[1] Murray, Ian. The Life of Arthur W. Pink, Banner of Truth Trust, 2004, p. 2-3.

[2] Ibid, 18.

[3] Ibid, 18.

[4] Chantry, Tom and David Dykstra, Holding Communion Together. Solid Ground Christian Books, 2014,   p. 15.

[5] Ibid, 16.

[6] Thomas, Geoff. Ernest C. Reisinger: A Biography, Banner of Truth Trust, 2002, p. 52.

[7] Ibid, 54

[8] Ibid, 62

[9] Ibid, 104

[10] Ibid, 104

[11] Chantry,  18.

[12] Thomas, 104-105.

[13] Ibid, 105.

 

 

 

 

A Survey of the History of Covenant Theology Part II

 

In a previous post we surveyed briefly the development of covenant theology in the 16th and 17th century (very generally).  In this post, we’ll pick up where we left off, with a transition out of 17th Century and into the 18th and 19th centuries.

This period in history has had a profound impact, not simply on covenant theology, or Christianity, but on the world as a whole.  It was during the 17th and 18th centuries that the Enlightenment period found her roots, thereby raising the need to question everything, including the revelation of Scripture, and replace it with rationalism.

Additionally other societal upheavals led to somewhat of a doctrinal wasteland; there was the schism in the Church of England by Baptists, Congregationalists, and Quakers, the colonization of America, the French Revolution, and generally speaking times of slumber for the church as a whole, out of which revival and the Awakenings were ushered in.

Getting back to the topic of covenant theology, little advancement took place during this period (for our purposes late 17th/early 18th centuries).  There were of course solid men whose sermons and writings reflect the continuation of covenant thought (Jonathan Edwards, John Gill, Benjamin Keach, and others to be sure), but because of the diversity of doctrinal confusion, rationalism, and doctrinal opposition, primarily to Calvinism and its Arminian response, its understandable that there were “bigger fish to fry” so to speak, than polemics between paedo and creedo baptists.

However, moving out of the 18th and into the 19th century is a different story.  The State Church of England now expanding, America now somewhat stabilized as a new country, the soil became ripe for novelty in the form of theological doctrines.  Central to these developments was the aforementioned French Revolution and the related fervor over the study of prophecy.  Enter on the scene in 19th Century England, Lewis Way, Edward Irving, and John Nelson Darby.

Way (1772-1840) is largely an unknown figure in church history, but his influence should not go unnoticed. Born in England in 1772 and the inheritor of a significant fortune along with vast theological resources, Way joined the fledgling London Society for Promoting Christianity among the Jews in 1809.[1]  After a visit to Devonshire in 1811, he was told of a “grove of trees concerning which the owner had left a will stipulating that ‘these oaks shall remain standing, and the hand of man shall not be raised against them till Israel returns and is restored to the Land of Promise.’”[2]

Sparking his interest in prophecy and an interest in the restoration of Israel, Way sought and found in the London Society an organization that suited his interests. In 1816, Way wrote and published his Letters which “stressed the connection between the return of the Jews to Palestine and their national conversion prior to the return of Christ.”[3]   It becomes clear then that Way’s theological view of the church and Israel would have a profound effect on how he viewed the covenants of Scripture, particularly the Abrahamic Covenant.

Way’s thoughts did not operate in a vacuum and he soon found platforms for the spread of this renewed interest in the Jewish return to Palestine in the form of Conferences, namely the Albury Conferences of the late 1820’s.  Capitalizing on the public fervor over biblical prophecy, Way along with his banker friend Henry Drummond, suggested that a private conference be held to discuss prophetic views.  Among the attenders of these conferences was a man who would wield much more influence than Way, though share in a similar ideology.  Edward Irving (1792-1834) was born in Scotland and raised Presbyterian.  A brilliant thinker and master orator, Irving drank the prophetic kool-aid and through his skill and personality spread it to anyone who would listen.

Irving’s reputation as a polished orator gained him large audiences and the attraction of men who needed a voice to promote their own agendas.  In Irving, a wildcard, men like S.T. Coleridge, who convinced Irving of his own pessimistic views of eschatology and Hatley Frere, who developed a “new scheme of interpretation” based on the present fulfillment of Daniel and Revelation and promoted an “imminent return of Christ”.

Historian Arnold Dallimore notes that Irving promoted allegorizations of the books of Daniel and Revelation with the surety and dogmatism that had established his popularity.  Of Irving he writes,

“One may read through Irving’s entire Works without finding anything that can truly be termed expository preaching. He takes a text, but uses it merely as a peg on which to hang his own numerous ideas, and the work of the true expositor – the study of the words in the original, and the discovery of the meaning of the text on the basis of those words – is virtually nowhere found.”[4]

Scripture aside, however, the most profound influence on Irving’s life would come in 1826 through  a publication that would radically impact his prophetic perspective and further cement the early background for what would become known as dispensational premillennialism.  This publication was written entirely in Spanish by a supposed Jewish convert named Ben Ezra, later identified as a Jesuit priest named Manuel De Lacunza (1731-1801), “a South American Jesuit whose eyes had been opened to the corruption of Rome.”

At the time of the Reformation, many of the Reformers had begun associating the rise of Antichrist with the papacy.  Not any one particular pope mind you, but the papacy in general, thereby applying their historicist view of prophecy, specifically as it related to Revelation.  In response, two Jesuits, Francesco Ribera (1537-1591) and Luis de Alcazar (1554-1613) published detailed studies of Revelation; the former with a futurist perspective and the latter with a more preteristic (fulfilled) perspective.  Both set out designs to “get the monkey of the back” of the pope.

For his part, Lacunza adopted the futurist position of Ribera, though with clearly a different outcome in mind.  His was to stir the priests to study their dusty Bibles and to champion a revival of Antichrist origin from the apostate Roman Church.  He published his scandalous views in The Coming of Messiah in Glory and Majesty, that called for a shift in the way one interpreted prophecy from what had been the more normative historicist view to a more futuristic interpretation. These views so profoundly influenced Edward Irving that he learned Spanish in order to translate Lacunza’s book into English and then appended his own 200-page preface to the work.

Writing on the history of dispensationalism, Mark Sarver notes that the significance of this publication

“lay in its futurism with reference to the interpretation of the book of Revelation (not only regarding the millennium of chapter 20 but also the tribulation of chapters 6 to 19).[5] In his prefatory remarks, Irving had asserted many of his own beliefs including views on the Gentile church, the future Jewish and universal church, and the personal advent of the Lord to destroy the one and build up the other.”[6]

This futurist view of end-time prophecy was virtually unheard of prior to the development and spread of the teaching of Irving, influenced by Jesuit Lacunza himself influenced by the futurist perspective of another Jesuit who had originated his view to remedy the pope-Antichrist connection.  Nearly to a man, the covenant theologians that had formulated their doctrine based on Scripture and expressed it through such monumental confessions as the Westminster and Second London Baptist, held to a historicist view of prophecy out of which their postmillennial views were derived.  Without question this new hermeneutic would profoundly effect how one would view eschatology and its relationship to the biblical covenants for centuries to come.

Continuing to advance his views at conferences, Ian Murray notes that Irving’s influence promoted a theology that was

“practically unknown in earlier Church history…namely, that Christ’s appearing before the millennium is to be in two stages, the first, a secret ‘rapture’ removing the Church before a ‘Great Tribulation’ smites the earth, the second his coming with his saints to set up his kingdom.”[7]

In Irving, we find the advancement of the Jewish return to Palestine and prominence given to Israel in prophecy, a futurist view of prophetic interpretation, the incipient doctrine of a secret rapture, an imminent return of Christ, and a 2-stage return of Christ.  It should also be pointed out that Irving’s influence did not rest in his eschatology alone, but by many accounts he may be called the Father of the Charismatic Movement.

Another prominent figure in the history of dispensationalism, who sat under the teaching and influence of Irving was John Nelson Darby,  referred by many as the Father of Dispensationalism.  Keep in mind through our historical survey and outline of dispensational origins that this doctrine is nearly at the opposite end of the spectrum from the Covenant Theology that was so prominently, dare I say exclusively, held at the time.

Darby gained much of his theological influence through the Powerscourt Conferences, where “the teaching of a pretribulation rapture of the Church took shape.”[8]  The role of Darby amongst a dissenting church group known as the Plymouth Brethren must at least be mentioned because of their influence on views of church membership and ecclesiology in particular.  Their dissatisfaction with the church was at least in part drawn from a publication by Edward Irving entitled, Babylon and Infidelity Foredoomed.

One particular Powerscourt Conference in 1833 was of special significance due to Darby’s advancement of the teaching that “the church as a parenthesis in the prophetic fulfillment between the sixty-ninth and seventieth weeks of Daniel” (Sarver), an obvious outworking of his ecclesiological position and understanding of the church’s pretribulational rapture.  Speaking on the development of this secret rapture teaching, Brethren member S.P. Tregelles wrote,

“It was from that supposed revelation [with Irving] that the modern doctrine [pre-tribulational rapture] and the modern phraseology respecting it arose. It came not from the Holy Scripture, but from that which falsely pretended to be the Spirit of God.”[9]

Commenting on this, Ian Murray writes,

“He (Darby) held that ‘the Church’ is a mystery of which only Paul speaks. She is Christ’s mystic body and will be complete at the ‘rapture’. The Jews and other Gentiles converted thereafter will never be Christ’s bride: ‘I deny that saints before Christ’s first coming, or after his second, are part of the Church.’ With breath-taking dogmatism Darby swept away what had previously been axiomatic in Christian theology.”[10]

Similarly Bass notes:

“Darby taught that the entire Christian church would be raptured, and the witness during the tribulation would be borne by a semi-Christian group, who, though not a part of the church, would be under a form of grace. He distinguished between the church (Pentecost to rapture) and the saints of the Old Testament, asserting that the church had a special glory and that the Old Testament saints had an inferior relationship to God. To explain the witness of the last days, as set forth in the Gospels, he taught that this was given to the apostles, not as the founders of the church, but as the representatives of the faithful remnant in the midst of an apostate Judaism. This involved a different view of the Gospels than was commonly held, and led to the practice of distinguishing certain parts of them as being ‘Jewish’.”[11]

Darby’s views were not met with a warm reception among all the Brethren members, notably B.W. Newton, who opposed what Darby had presented at the 1833 conference.  Regarding Newton’s position, Bass writes,

“Newton, on the other hand, taught that the ‘faithful’ who were to be persecuted were simply members of the church who would be on the earth at the time of the tribulation, and that the Old Testament saints were an integral part of the church, there being no ‘special glory’ for the post-Pentecostal saints.”[12]

Summarizing these views highlights the “dichotomy between Israel and the church [that] was forming in the thought of Darby, growing out of a rigidly applied principle of interpretation,”[13] while Newton’s view represented the common view of the time, i.e. continuity between the Old Testament and New Testament saints (generally held by both streams of Covenant Theology).

The fractured relationship between Darby and Newton, primarily over doctrinal concerns, would never heal. Through the writings and speaking occasions of Darby, Brethrenism would continue to spread throughout Europe, but it wasn’t until he began his international ministry that the course for dispensationalism’s zenith would be charted.

With this overview on the development of an alternative view to covenant theology, previously unknown in church history, brings us to the late 19th/early 20th Century and the spread of Darby’s dispensationalism to the United States.  A transition which would profoundly alter and perhaps forever change how prophecy and the covenants from Scripture would be approached and interpreted.  On this point we will pick up in the next post.

 

*Much of this post is derived, at least in part, from a paper submitted May 2014 to Covenant Baptist Theological Seminary titled “A Survey of the Historical Origins and Doctrinal Formulation of Modern Dispensationlism”

[1] http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/14801-way-lewis (Accessed March 25, 2014).

[2] Mark Sarver, “Dispensationalism”Mark Sarver, http://www.sermonlinks.com/Sermons/Dispensationalism/DP_1.htm (accessed April 5, 2014)

[3] Ibid.

[4] Arnold Dallimore, The Life of Edward Irving: The Fore-runner of the Charismatic Movement (Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1983), 59-60.

[5] Sarver, “Dispensationalism”

[6] Murray, Puritan Hope, 190.

[7] Ibid., 200.

[8] George Eldon Ladd, The Blessed Hope (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1984), 41.

[9] Ibid, 40.

[10] Murray, Puritan, 200.

[11] Clarence Bass, Backgrounds to Dispensationalism: Its Historical Genesis and Ecclesiastical Implications (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1977), 76.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.