The Fundamentals of New Covenant Theology – Part 1: NCT Defined (I)


Introductory Note:

The following blog series attempts to define, describe, and explain the fundamental tenets of what is commonly known as New Covenant Theology (some also refer to New Covenant Theology as progressive covenantalism). The source text for this series is Dr. Gary Long’s article on the subject which can be found on the PTS website at the following link: http://www.ptsco.org/NCT%20Brochoure%20Text%202013.pdf.

 


 

 The Fundamentals of New Covenant Theology

 

Part 1: NCT Defined (I)

  

“NCT [New Covenant Theology] may be defined broadly as God’s eternal purpose progressively revealed in the commandments and promises of the biblical covenants of the OT and fulfilled in the New Covenant (NC) of Jesus Christ.” (Long, New Covenant Theology, NCT Defined [http://www.ptsco.org/NCT%20Brochoure%20Text%202013.pdf])

 

Explanation:

Many have rightly described New Covenant Theology as a via media, that is to say, a middle way between the two theological paradigms which dominate evangelical Protestantism: Dispensational Theology and Covenant Theology. Advocates of New Covenant Theology ardently maintain that Covenant Theology overemphasizes the continuity of Scripture, while Dispensational Theology overemphasizes the discontinuity of Scripture. In contradistinction, New Covenant Theology strives to maintain the ‘continuity-discontinuity’ tension which significantly pervades the Scriptures by means of both Christocentric hermeneutics and a biblical theology.

 

New Covenant Theology acknowledges that God has one overarching redemptive purpose. For example, Ephesians 1:11 declares that the elect were “predestined according to His [God’s] purpose who works all things after the counsel of His will.” Furthermore, the Apostle Paul states that the Church reveals God’s manifold wisdom and that this revelation “was in accordance with the eternal purpose which He carried out in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Ephesians 3:10-11). Elsewhere, Paul teaches that the Lord saved His people and called them “with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to His own purpose and grace which was granted us in Christ Jesus from all eternity” (2 Timothy 1:9). Unlike Covenant Theology, however, New Covenant Theology ardently affirms that God’s eternal purpose is not to be understood as a covenant (e.g. the over-arching covenant of grace of Covenant Theology). Proponents of New Covenant Theology assert that Covenant Theology’s covenant of grace is an unnecessary theological deduction, as Scripture does not describe God’s eternal purpose (Greek: prothesis; Eph. 1:10, 3:10-11; 2 Tim. 1:9) as a covenant (diathēkē). Many supporters of New Covenant Theology also refer to God’s eternal purpose as ‘God’s kingdom purpose’, referencing Matthew 6:10: “Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” As is to be expected, New Covenant Theology differs with Dispensational Theology’s two redemptive plans for the Church and Israel.

 

New Covenant Theology maintains that God’s eternal purpose is not only worked out progressively in the biblical covenants of the Old Testament but also ultimately fulfilled in the Lord Jesus Christ and the New Covenant. In essence, these covenants furnish the redemptive-historical framework through which the biblical narrative is steadily advanced. The covenants of Scripture realize their telos (i.e. the end, goal) in Christ Jesus and the covenant of which He is the mediator – namely, the New Covenant. It is worth noting that the biblical covenants distinctly manifest the Scriptural ‘continuity-discontinuity’ tension – particularly, with regard to how they are to be understood in light of one another.

 

6 Comments

  1. Manfred

    I look forward to reading this series. One thing that continues to scratch at me – although it is very understandable – is the consistent neglect, on the part of NCT guys, of a Baptist view of Covenant Theology which recognizes the discontinuity of the Old and New, holds to the amillennial view, and does not cling to Thomas Aquinas’ view of the moral law or the Decalogue (reflected in the 1689 LBC). As NCT is clarified and refined, I pray there is a recognition that not all who call themselves Covenant Theology guys subscribe to the mainstream paedo-baptist view.

    1. zmaxcey (Post author)

      Thanks for the comment. In my own experience, there is recognition (at least I do and those who taught me at PTS) that not all adherents of Covenant Theology are paedobaptistic and that not all adherents of a baptistic Covenant Theology hold uniformly to the 1689 2LBC. It is not the intent of this blog series to imply or argue that all proponents of Covenant Theology (CT) or Dispensational Theology (DT) are theologically monolithic; of course, there are myriad eclectic variations within both systems. That being said, it is much easier to compare / contrast New Covenant Theology with the more widespread (historically speaking) versions of CT and DT.

      1. brandonadams

        zmaxcey,

        What Manfred is referring to is that confessional 1689 Federalism (the covenant theology of 17th century particular baptists) AGREES with NCT when you say “Unlike Covenant Theology, however, New Covenant Theology ardently affirms that God’s eternal purpose is not to be understood as a covenant (e.g. the over-arching covenant of grace of Covenant Theology).”

        They AGREE that the OT covenants were primarily about the coming of the Messiah in the flesh. They would also say that the Old Covenant created a typological people and gave them a typological land. These men likewise rejected the “over-arching” covenant of grace consisting of multiple administrations (the biblical covenants). They taught that the New Covenant was separate from these covenants, not a continuation of them. They also taught that the Old Covenant was abolished.

        That said, it’s important to recognize that only very recently have Reformed Baptists come to understand the covenant theology of the confession. Most of the modern Reformed Baptist works that have been written on covenant theology have adopted Westminster Federalism while modifying it for credobaptism. This was not what the Second London Baptist Confession did.

        While it’s true that covenant theology is not monolithic, Manfred’s point is that 1689 Federalism agrees with your FOUNDATIONAL disagreement with classic covenant theology. Since NCT is primarily distinguishing itself from Confessional Baptist theology, NCT needs to make sure they understand 1689 Federalism and how it differs from WCF and “20th Century Reformed Baptists”.

        Please see http://www.1689federalism.com

        1. zmaxcey (Post author)

          Brandon, thank you for your comments. I readily acknowledge the vast amount of common ground that NCT has with ‘Confessional Baptist Theology’ including, but certainly not limited to, the following: (1) the Doctrines of Sovereign Grace; (2) the Protestant Solas; and (3) believer’s baptism. Like Nehemiah Coxe, who sought to emphasize the common ground which he (as well as other English Particular Baptists) had with paedobaptistic Covenant Theology, so should we (i.e. 1689 Federalists, Reformed Baptists (in general), and advocates of NCT) emphasize the common ground we have. Truly, there is a great deal we have in common.

          While you are correct in saying that “NCT is primarily distinguishing itself from Confessional Baptist theology” as a historical theological movement, that is not the purpose of this blog series per se. The purpose of this particular series, “The Fundamentals of NCT,” is to serve as a general overview of NCT. That being said, this series will touch at times on theological points that distinguish NCT from 1689 Federalism and other versions of Reformed Baptist Theology.

          In reference to your statement that “1689 Federalism agrees with [our] FOUNDATIONAL disagreement with classic covenant theology,” such agreement is partial at best. True, 1689 Federalism rejects the WCF understanding of the foedus gratiae, i.e., that the Covenant of Grace is one over-arching covenant with multiple historical administrations – a concept which NCT likewise rejects. Rather, 1689 Federalism retains the foedus gratiae, albeit significantly redefining it – as highlighted by Chapter 7 of the 1689 Second London Baptist Confession. In this version of Covenant Theology, the foedus gratiae is understood as being “revealed in the Gospel; first of all to Adam in the promise of salvation by the seed of the woman [Gen. 3:15 – the protoevangelium], and afterwards by farther steps, until the full discovery thereof was completed in the New Testament.” In the words of Pascal Denault, “For the Baptists, there was only one covenant of grace which was revealed from the Fall in a progressive way until its full revelation and conclusion in the New Covenant” (Denault, The Distinctiveness of Baptist Covenant Theology, 61). And again, “The Baptists believed that before the arrival of the New Covenant, the covenant of grace was not formally given, but only announced and promised (revealed). This distinction is fundamental to the federalism of the 1689” (Ibid., 62). In truth, by means of this particular distinctive, 1689 Federalism is able to more faithfully preserve and articulate the continuity-discontinuity relationships of the biblical covenants than traditional Covenant Theology.

          So why do I assert ‘such agreement is partial at best? Although 1689 Federalism rejects the WCF formulation of the foedus gratiae (to its credit), its own unique understanding of the covenant of grace is still problematic (at least for advocates of New Covenant Theology) for several reasons. First, 1689 Federalism retains the term covenant of grace, terminology which NCT rejects as it is a loaded term which can be easily misunderstood. Second, 1689 Federalism’s understanding of the foedus gratiae is problematic as it tends to the irrational. For example, as explained by Denault, the covenant of grace is a covenant that (1) is not a covenant in the sense of being a formally ratified, (2) is essentially the protoevangelium promise of Genesis 3:15 revealed to Adam, (3) is progressively revealed and advanced through the other biblical covenants, (4) is the New Covenant in terms of its essential substance, and (5) the consummation of which is realized in the establishment of the New Covenant in the death, burial, resurrection of Christ. In other words, the foedus gratiae of 1689 Federalism is a covenant that is not a covenant in the fullest sense. Further still, the covenant of grace, in its practical substance, is the New Covenant yet still distinct from it. In my opinion, such reasoning is self-contradictory, tending to the irrational. I would argue that this particular theological position, though a positive development within Covenant Theology, is a mediating position between that of the first-generation English Particular Baptists (as evidenced in the 1646 First London Baptist Confession) and that of paedobaptistic Covenant Theology. This theological via media was driven by two principal factors: (1) the second-generation English Particular Baptists sought to identify themselves as fellow descendants of the Reformed tradition (with the paedobaptistic Covenant Theologians) – thus distancing themselves from Socinian Theology, Arminian Theology, and the radical wings of the Anabaptist movement; and (2) the intense persecution (1660-1688) that the English Particular Baptists and other ‘dissenting’ groups suffered at the hands of the English monarchy and Anglican Church (see B.R. White, The English Baptists and Lumpkin, Baptist Confessions of Faith).

          Third, though you stated that 1689 Federalism agrees with NCT that “God’s eternal purpose is not to be understood as a covenant,” at least one (and perhaps others) of the signers of the 1689 Baptist Confession appears to have understand God’s eternal purpose as a covenant – albeit, not in a sense identical to paedobaptistic Covenant Theology. For example, Denault writes: “Benjamin Keach, one of the main Baptist theologians of the seventeenth century, ratifies this view of the Covenant of Grace when he describes its four sequences: 1. It was first decreed in past eternity, 2. It was secondly revealed to man after the Fall of Adam and Eve, 3. It was executed and confirmed in his death and resurrection, 4. It becomes effective for its members when they are joined to Christ through faith” (Denault, The Distinctiveness of Baptist Covenant Theology, 66). Thus, Keach appears to have held a view of God’s eternal purpose in salvation as a conflation of the pactum salutis (i.e. the inter-Trinitarian Covenant of Redemption), the protoevangelium promise of Genesis 3:15, and the New Covenant. Why not simply refer to God’s eternal purpose of salvation as such and not a covenant (in any sense)? Why the need to refer to it as a covenant? Such language is ambiguous.

          Fourth (and finally), though 1689 Federalism rejects traditional Covenant Theology’s ‘mixed-multitude’ understanding of the Church, and paedobaptism, it still retains other distinctives with which NCT does not affirm: (1) it understands the Church, not simply God’s elect (as NCT does), as existing in the Old Testament [NCT affirms the church as the body of Christ did not come into existence in the unfolding of the God’s plan of redemption until Pentecost]; (2) 1689 Federalism (as stated by the Confession) promotes not only the tripartite division of the Mosaic Law but also the transcovenantal nature of the Ten Commandments [NCT rejects this position]; (3) Sunday as a Christian Sabbath (exemplified in the 1689 Confession) [NCT rejects this position]. Each of these distinctives was historically deduced from traditional Covenant Theology’s covenant of grace which 1689 Federalism rejects; (4) 1689 Federalism holds to the pre-fall Covenant of Works [Although the majority of NCT proponents do not accept a pre-fall covenant with Adam, there are some who do (e.g. Providence Theological Seminary). That being said, the latter do not define a pre-fall covenant as Covenant Theology does]. This naturally begs the question as to why one should retain theological distinctives historically derived from traditional Covenant Theology’s understanding covenant of grace, when one rejects the theological concept from which they were derived, i.e., traditional Covenant Theology’s covenant of grace. In conclusion, any agreement between 1689 Federalism and NCT as to our “FOUNDATIONAL disagreement with classic covenant theology” is partial at best.

          1. brandonadams

            Second, 1689 Federalism’s understanding of the foedus gratiae is problematic as it tends to the irrational… Further still, the covenant of grace, in its practical substance, is the New Covenant yet still distinct from it. In my opinion, such reasoning is self-contradictory, tending to the irrational.

            Brother, you may be misunderstanding the position. The Covenant of Grace is not distinct from the New Covenant. There is nothing self-contradictory or irrational about distinguishing between the covenant of grace revealed/promised and the covenant of grace formally established. You may disagree with the distinction, but there is nothing self-contradictory about it. Give Owen’s long explanation of this point a read if you have not had time to do so. http://www.prayermeetings.org/files/John_Owen/Hebrews_8.1-10.39.pdf (p. 78)

            Berkhof:

            1. The first revelation of the covenant. The first revelation of the covenant is found in the protevangel, Gen. 3:15. Some deny that this has any reference to the covenant; and it certainly does not refer to any formal establishment of a covenant. The revelation of such an establishment could only follow after the covenant idea had been developed in history. At the same time Gen. 3:15 certainly contains a revelation of the essence of the covenant…

            Up to the time of Abraham there was no formal establishment of the covenant of grace. While Gen. 3:15 already contains the elements of this covenant, it does not record a formal transaction by which the covenant was established. It does not even speak explicitly of a covenant. The establishment of the covenant with Abraham marked the beginning of an institutional Church.

            Excerpt From: Louis Berkhof. “Systematic Theology.” iBooks.

            We simply disagree with reformed paedobaptists that the Abrahamic covenant was the formal establishment. We say the New Covenant was, and that the revelation of the promise was sufficient & efficacious to save the OT saints.
            https://contrast2.wordpress.com/2015/06/02/the-promise-was-sufficient-efficacious/

            As for your claim regarding 1689 Federalism as a supposd “via media” see my comments to you here http://nct-blog.ptsco.org/2014/08/24/the-fundamentals-of-new-covenant-theology-part-8-nct-described-ii/#comment-9246

            To your third point, I misunderstood what you originally meant. “Why the need to refer to it as a covenant?” Because it was a covenant. Christ saves his people as mediator of the New Covenant. There’s nothing ambiguous about that.

            To your last points
            (1) 1689 Federalism believes the institutional (visible) church was not established until the New Covenant (Pentecost). Israel was not the church. The invisible church (the elect) were part of the body of Christ in the OT.

            Thanks for the comment.

          2. zmaxcey (Post author)

            Brother Brandon,

            I appreciate your comments and continued clarification of the 1689 view of the Covenant of Grace.

            At the start of my comments, I do agree with you that God forged both a pre-fall covenant with Adam as well as a post-fall covenant. However, it is fair to say that we differ as to how we precisely define these covenants. You define them respectively as the Covenant of Works and Covenant of Grace (single administration, of course), whereas I do not. That being said, I again agree with you that the protoevangelium constituted the heart of the aforementioned post-fall covenant.

            In my previous response, I wrote: “Why not simply refer to God’s eternal purpose of salvation as such and not a covenant (in any sense)? Why the need to refer to it as a covenant?” In your last response, you wrote: “Because it was a covenant. Christ saves his people as mediator of the New Covenant. There’s nothing ambiguous about that.” So, do you agree that that God’s eternal purpose of salvation is a covenant? Granted, my original post stated: “Unlike Covenant Theology, however, New Covenant Theology ardently affirms that God’s eternal purpose is not to be understood as a covenant (e.g. the over-arching covenant of grace of Covenant Theology).” However, New Covenant Theology also declines to define God’s eternal purpose of salvation as the pactum salutis (i.e., the inter-Trinitarian Covenant of Redemption) or as the 1689 Federalism’s view of the Covenant of Grace. Just looking for clarification. Plus, I agree with you that “Christ saves his people as mediator of the New Covenant. There’s nothing ambiguous about that.” Truly, nothing is ambiguous about that. Please re-read my response. What I was referring to as ambiguous was Benjamin Keach’s conflation of the protoevangelium, pactum salutis, and foederus gratiae – not the elect’s salvation in Christ, nor His role as Mediator of the New Covenant.

            In your last response, you wrote: “Brother, you may be misunderstanding the position. The Covenant of Grace is not distinct from the New Covenant. There is nothing self-contradictory or irrational about distinguishing between the covenant of grace revealed/promised and the covenant of grace formally established. You may disagree with the distinction, but there is nothing self-contradictory about it.” Your comments here are helpful in clarifying the 1689 position. My assessment of the 1689 view being self-contradictory did mischaracterize the position, resulting from an overly & unnecessarily reductionistic view of the 1689 understanding. Thank you for the clarification. That being said, I would still submit that this distinction between “the covenant of grace revealed/promised and the covenant of grace formally established” is a theological one, not a Scriptural one. By that, I strictly mean that the biblical text is not driving this distinction; rather, it is the theology of 1689 Federalism. The understanding of Genesis 3:15 as the first revelation of Covenant Theology’s foederus gratiae is being inserted into the text.

            Genesis 3:15 promises neither the Covenant of Grace nor the New Covenant. Rather, the text promises that God would raise up a Deliverer – the ‘Seed of the woman’, His Champion, who by His own death would destroy Satan. True, this promise is ultimately realized in the coming of Christ and the establishment of the New Covenant. However, that does not justify identifying the protoevangelium as the foederus gratiae (promised) and subsequently identifying the New Covenant as the foederus gratiae (established). Why? The ‘Seed’ promise is advanced through all the biblical covenants – all of which culminate in the New Covenant. Covenantal fulfillment, let alone covenantal advancement, does not justify covenantal equivalence. If it does, one might as well embrace, for the sake of theological consistency, Westminster Federalism’s understanding of the foederus gratiae (or something akin to it) – i.e., one covenant, multiple administrations. If it does, all the biblical covenants are encapsulated in the Covenant of Grace.

            Whether or not a pre-fall covenant and a post-fall covenant exists is ultimately a disputable matter of the faith. Therefore, I ask, why interpret the protoevangelium as a covenant at all and not simply as God’s promise of redemption? Or if one insists on understanding the protoevangelium as the heart of covenant, why not understand said covenant as one that ultimately anticipated the New Covenant yet was wholly distinct from it? I hold the latter, and I do not take issue with anyone who holds the former. I find nothing in the text which logically mandates, compels, or even suggests 1689 Federalism’s theological interpretation of Genesis 3:15, let alone the New Covenant, as the foederus gratiae. If one chooses to hold the 1689 view, he or she is more than welcome to do so. However, I am not convinced that Scripture teaches this ‘distinction’.

            1689 Federalism’s equivalence of the foederus gratiae with the New Covenant also flattens redemptive history. Why? The New Covenant was not explicitly promised until the time of Isaiah and the exilic prophets (e.g. Jeremiah, Ezekiel, etc.). In brief, the New Covenant was not promised in Genesis 3:15. To argue that the New Covenant is the foederus gratiae ‘established’ fast-forwards through centuries of biblical revelation and history for the sake of theology. It flattens the redemptive historical distinctions of the other biblical periods, covenants, etc. This constitutes a reason why New Covenant Theology holds that Covenant Theology (whether Westminster Federalism or 1689 Federalism) flattens redemptive history in its view of the covenants. Furthermore, if 1689 Federalism is correct, how is the New Covenant truly ‘new’? It cannot be in the sense that it’s the foederus gratiae ‘established’ – the divine remedy to the first covenant – the Covenant of Works. Rather, the New Covenant is ‘new’, biblically & strictly speaking, in the sense that’s a newer and better covenant than the Old Covenant.

            A significant example of how 1689 Federalism’s equation of the foederus gratiae with the New Covenant flattens redemptive history can be seen in its teaching that all Old Testament saints were indwelt by the Holy Spirit. New Covenant Theology holds that this 1689 teaching flattens the redemptive-historical distinctions of the biblical covenants in that it appropriates for all Old Testament saints (prior to Christ’s death, resurrection, ascension, and enthronement) the New Covenant promise of the indwelling Holy Spirit. Why, then, may I ask does the author of Hebrews write the following in Hebrews 11:39-40: “And these all [i.e. the Old Testament saints – including those explicitly mentioned earlier in the same chapter], having obtained a good report through faith, received not the promise: God having provided some better thing for us [i.e. New Testament saints], that they without us should not be made perfect.” Certainly, what was promised would include the promises made to individual Old Testament saints (i.e. Abraham, David, etc.) but also corporately to Israel. Such promises would certainly include the coming, ministry, death, burial, resurrection, and heavenly enthronement of Jesus the Messiah, not to mention the promise of the indwelling Holy Spirit (Ezek. 36:25-27). Hebrews 11:39-40 plainly declares that the Old Testament saints did not receive the promises, so that apart from New Testament saints they “should not be made perfect.” Proponents of New Covenant Theology assert that 1689 Federalism’s position is at odds with such Scriptures as Ezekiel 36:25-27, John 7:38-39, John 14:16-17, John 20:22, and Acts 1:4-8. If 1689 Federalism is correct in its view that all Old Testament saints were indwelt with the Holy Spirit prior to Pentecost, why did Jesus breathe on His disciples (who were Old Testament saints prior to the establishment of the New Covenant) so that they might receive the Holy Spirit in John 20:22? If 1689 Federalism is correct, why did Jesus teach His disciples that after His own departure the Holy Spirit will (future tense) be in them (John 14:15-18)? If 1689 Federalism is correct, why does John 7:38-39 teach that “the Spirit was not yet given, because Jesus was not yet glorified?” Bottom line: theological consistency is driving this particular teaching of 1689 Federalism, not the biblical text. Thus, 1689 Federalism’s position that all OT saints were indwelt by the Holy Spirit aptly demonstrates that it as a theological system still ‘flattens’ the redemptive-historical distinctions of the biblical covenants – though significantly less than Westminster Federalism. See also my comments at: http://nct-blog.ptsco.org/2014/09/09/the-fundamentals-of-new-covenant-theology-part-10-nct-described-iv/.

            Permit me to inquire as to 1689 Federalism’s interpretation of Isaiah 42:6 and 49:8.

            Isaiah 42:6 – “I the LORD have called thee in righteousness, and will hold thine hand, and will keep thee, and give thee for a covenant of the people, for a light of the Gentiles.”

            Isaiah 49:8 – “Thus saith the LORD, ‘In an acceptable time have I heard thee, and in a day of salvation have I helped thee: and I will preserve thee, and give thee for a covenant of the people, to establish the earth, to cause to inherit the desolate heritages.’”

            These passages declare that Yahweh will give His Servant, i.e., Servant of the Lord, as a covenant. So, what covenant is in view here? Does 1689 Federalism believe that this text teaches that Christ is being given as the foederus gratiae? Or that Christ is being given as the New Covenant? Or both? If the first, 1689 Federalism is inserting its theology into the text. If the third, 1689 Federalism is still inserting its theology into the text. Furthermore, raising the ‘distinction’ that the Genesis 3:15 is the foederus gratiae promised while the New Covenant is the foederus gratiae established does not avoid the issue. These interpretations go against the context of the passage, let alone that of the Book of Isaiah itself. A theological construct, namely the Covenant of Grace, is being read into the text with the first and third options. The New Covenant is clearly and exclusively in view here: Christ is the New Covenant in the sense that He is the Mediator, Ratifier, Lawgiver, and Surety of the New Covenant. Thanks again for your comments.

            In Christ,

            Zach

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