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?”
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”, 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″
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.”
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.