The Fundamentals of New Covenant Theology – Part 9: NCT Described (III)

 

The Fundamentals of New Covenant Theology

 Part 9: NCT Described (III)

“NCT challenges the theological presuppositions of the one overarching covenant of grace teaching of CT, including its understanding of the “moral law” of God and the nature of the Church.” (Long, New Covenant Theology, NCT Described [http://www.ptsco.org/NCT%20Brochoure%20Text%202013.pdf])

 

Explanation:

This blog post will focus upon Covenant Theology’s understanding of the law of God, an understanding which wholly depends on the theologically-constructed covenant of grace. Recall that Covenant Theology teaches that the covenant of grace overarches and subsequently unites all the biblical covenants of the Old Testament. Since all the biblical covenants are outworkings of this one covenant (according to Covenant Theology), certain covenantal characteristics are understood to be common to multiple, if not all, biblical covenants. Put differently, these particular aspects are transcovenantal.

Proponents of Covenant Theology generally teach that the Ten Commandments (i.e. the Decalogue) are transcovenantal. In other words, the Ten Commandments are covenantally authoritative for God’s people regardless of the time period in which they lived and regardless by which covenant they related to Yahweh. For example, the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF) teaches that the Ten Commandments, the precepts delivered to Israel at Mount Sinai on tablets of stone, were delivered to Adam prior to the Fall (WCF, XIX).

Adherents of Covenant Theology typically divide the Law of Moses into three categories: the ceremonial law (i.e. the sacrificial system, offerings, etc.), the civil law (i.e. the gubernatorial aspects of national Israel, etc.), and the moral law (i.e. the Decalogue or Ten Commandments).[1] Covenant Theology generally teaches that the ceremonial law and the civil law were effectively fulfilled (and hence abrogated) with the coming of Christ in the first century A.D. However, this same theological system stresses that the Ten Commandments constitute the transcovenantal ‘moral law’, and thus they are still binding upon the New Covenant believer.[2] In other words, Covenant Theologians excise the Decalogue from the Mosaic Law and pull it over into the arena of New Covenant ethics.

New Covenant Theology significantly disagrees with such an understanding of the law of God. First, biblical revelation clearly presents the Law of Moses as a singleunit. Although the tripartite distinction is helpful (as far as categories of law are concerned), Scripture never divides the Law of Moses in such a fashion. For the Old Testament Israelite, the entire Law of Moses was moral from the Levitical sacrifices, to the Ten Commandments, to the dietary commands, to the commands regarding the proper wear of their beards, to the prohibition from wearing garments made of two different textiles (Lev. 19:19b), to the prohibition against sowing two types of seed in a single field (Lev. 19:19a). As a result, the Old Testament believer was obligated to follow all of it perfectly. James 2:10 proclaims: “For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all.” Moreover, the Apostle Paul declares: “For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse: for it is written, ‘Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them.’” Consider also Galatians 5:3 and Matthew 5:17-18. In summary, Scripture clearly understands the Law of Moses as a single unit. Old Testament Israel, the covenantal recipient of the Mosaic Law, was obligated to keep it in its entirety. Simply put. the entire Law of Moses was moral for the Israelite.

Second, God’s written Word clearly identifies the Ten Commandments as the summary statement of the Law of Moses. Consider Exodus 24:12: “And the LORD said unto Moses, ‘Come up to me into the mount, and be there: and I will give thee tables of stone, and a law, and commandments which I have written; that thou mayest teach them.’” At first glance, Exodus 24:12 appears to declare that God is going to apportion Moses three things atop Mount Sinai: 1) tables of stone, 2) a law, and 3) commandments. The key phrase which proves that these are all refer to the Ten Commandments is “which I (i.e. Yahweh) have written.” Consider this verse in light of Exodus 31:18 and Deuteronomy 9:10:

 Exodus 31:18- “And He [i.e. Yahweh] gave unto Moses, when he had made an end of communing with him upon Mount Sinai, two tables of testimony, tables of stone, written with the finger of God.”

Deuteronomy 9:10- “And the LORD delivered unto me two tables of stone written with the finger of God; and on them was written according to all the words, which the LORD spake with you in the mount out of the midst of the fire in the day of the assembly.” 

In other words, the Ten Commandments were “written with the finger of God” (Exodus 31:18). In light of this truth, it is clear that the “tables of stone, and a law, and commandments” in Exodus 24:12 all refer summarily to the exact same thing – the Decalogue.

Third, Scripture equates the Law of Moses (including the Ten Commandments) with the Old Covenant. Exodus 34:28 describes the Ten Commandments as “the words of the covenant” (cf. Deut. 9:9). Deuteronomy 4:13 is especially instructive: “And He declared unto you his covenant, which he commanded you to perform, even ten commandments; and he wrote them upon two tables of stone.” Moreover, Leviticus 26:15 equates the commands of the Mosaic Covenant with the covenant itself: “And if ye shall despise my statutes, or if your soul abhor my judgments, so that ye will not do all my commandments, but that ye break my covenant.” Clearly, the Old Testament Scriptures equate Law of Moses (including the Ten Commandments) with the Old Covenant.

 

[1]The tripartite division of the Law of Moses was first propagated by Thomas Aquinas in the 12th century and was later advocated by John Calvin in the 16th century.

[2]Put differently, Covenant Theology teaches that the Ten Commandments are transcovenantal in that they apply to everyone who has ever lived, from Adam in the Garden of Eden, to the Old Testament Israelite, to the New Covenant believer – no matter under which covenant an individual may have lived.

2 Comments

  1. brandonadams

    1) As I affirmed in a previous post in this series, 1689 Federalism agrees that the Mosaic law is a whole unit and when the Mosaic covenant was abolished, so was the Mosaic law. This, however, does not mean that unchanging law that precedes and transcends the Mosaic law (what you call “absolute law”) was abolished.

    2) “For the Old Testament Israelite, the entire Law of Moses was moral” You have misunderstood what “moral” means in distinction from ceremonial and civil. Calvin:

    We must attend to the well known division which distributes the whole law of God, as promulgated by Moses, into the moral, the ceremonial, and the judicial law, and we must attend to each of these parts, in order to understand how far they do, or do not, pertain to us. Meanwhile, let no one be moved by the thought that the judicial and ceremonial laws relate to morals. For the ancients who adopted this division, though they were not unaware that the two latter classes had to do with morals, did not give them the name of moral, because they might be changed and abrogated without affecting morals. They give this name specially to the first class, without which, true holiness of life and an immutable rule of conduct cannot exist.
    http://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/institutes.vi.xxi.html

    3) You believe that part of the Mosaic overlaps with “absolute” law that applies in all times and places – are you therefore guilty of dividing the Mosaic law and not treating it as a unit? Or can you treat it as a unit while acknowledging that there is overlap that exists between the Mosaic law and unchanging law? (See Romans 2)

    4) I don’t understand what you’re trying to prove with your second point. Can you clarify? Yes Ex 24:12 refers to the decalogue that God wrote with his finger in stone. As you said, v12 refers to what God has written. This is in distinction from what Moses wrote (v4).

    5) Yes, God gave to Israel the decalogue as a covenant of works.

    1. zmaxcey (Post author)

      Brandon, again thanks for your comments. I will organize my responsive to address the specific points which you addressed.

      (1) 1689 Federalism only agrees in part with NCT that “the Mosaic law is a whole unit and when the Mosaic covenant was abolished, so was the Mosaic law.” NCT defines the Law of Moses in the following manner: the covenantal outworking of God’s absolute law under the Old Covenant – the exhaustive, indivisible (Jas. 2:10; Gal. 5:3) legal code, summed up in the Ten Commandments (Exod. 34:28), covenantally binding upon the nation of Israel (Exod. 19:5-6; 24:3), temporary in its duration (Heb. 7:11-12; Col. 2:14), and fulfilled in Jesus Christ (Rom. 10:4; Matt. 5:17-18; Col. 2:16-17). This is distinctively different from 1689 Federalism’s view of the Law of Moses. The key difference is 1689 Federalism’s understanding of “unchanging law that precedes and transcends the Mosaic law” which I conclude (from the 1689 Confession as well as your comments) is the Ten Commandments. The 1689 Confession, like the WCF, understands the Ten Commandments as being transcovenantal (Chapter 19, Sections 1-5) – or, as you say, the “unchanging law that precedes and transcends the Mosaic law” – being written on the heart of man at creation. In contrast, NCT understands the Ten Commandments to be the summary statement of the Law of Moses (see Exod. 34:28). As a result, the Ten Commandments are synonymous with the Law of Moses, not to mention the Old Covenant itself. As such, the Ten Commandments cannot be extricated, extracted, or excised in any sense from the Law of Moses. Thus, when the Old Covenant was abolished (Heb. 8:13) so was the Law of Moses along with the Ten Commandments. Unlike 1689 Federalism, NCT holds to this view.

      On a different note, while 1689 Federalism (in my estimation) understands the “unchanging law that precedes and transcends the Mosaic law” to be the Ten Commandments, this is not how NCT defines the absolute law of God. Rather, NCT defines the absolute law of God in the following manner: the two greatest commandments – love of God and neighbor (Matt. 22:36-40) – constitute God’s absolute or innate law, which is righteous, unchanging, and instinctively known by man (Rom. 2:14-15) created in God’s image (Gen. 1:27), and of which each system of covenantal law is a temporary, historical outworking (Heb. 7:12) in accordance with God’s eternal purpose (Eph. 1:11; 3:11; 2 Tim. 1:9). What Scriptural basis does NCT have for this understanding? Notice in Matthew 22:36-40 that the Lord Jesus Christ clearly declares that “the whole Law and the Prophets” depend (i.e. or hang) “on these two greatest commandments” – that is to say, the two greatest commandments, not the Ten Commandments. The Law of Moses (including the Ten Commandments) constitute a temporary covenantal outworking of the two greatest commandments, i.e., love of God and love of neighbor. In conclusion, NCT defines the absolute law of God – or as you say, the “unchanging law that precedes and transcends the Mosaic law” as the two greatest commandments. This is precisely why NCT asserts that Covenant Theology, in both its WCF Federal and 1689 Federal iterations, is inconsistent with its understanding of the unity and abolishment of the Mosaic Law.

      [At this particular juncture, I want to preemptively head off the charges of antinomianism which have at times been leveled against NCT. In accordance with 1 Corinthians 9:20-21, proponents of NCT argue that the members of the New Covenant are “not without the law of God,” as they are covenantally obligated to obey the Law of Christ, not the Law of Moses (including the Ten Commandments) as system of law. Providence Theological Seminary, as a NCT institution, defines the Law of Christ the following manner: the covenantal outworking of God’s absolute law under the New Covenant – the gracious law of the New Covenant (Rom. 6:14), which is covenantally binding upon the Church (1 Cor. 9:20-21) and consists of the law of love (Matt. 5:44; Gal. 6:2; Jas. 2:8; Rom. 13:8-10), the example of the Lord Jesus Christ (John 13:34; Phil. 2:4-12), Christ’s commands and teaching (Matt. 28:20; 2 Pet. 3:2), the commands and teachings of the New Testament (2 Pet. 3:2; Eph. 2:20; Jude 1:17; 1 John 5:3), and all Scripture interpreted in light of Jesus Christ (Matt. 5:17-18; Luke 24:27,44; 2 Tim. 3:16-17). In view of this, charges of antinomianism against NCT are unjust and unfounded. Therefore, let us refrain from pejorative epithets such as antinomian or legalist – as they do not advance a friendly, Christian discussion.]

      (2) You assert that I have “misunderstood what ‘moral’ means in distinction from ceremonial and civil.” I respectfully assure that I am familiar with Calvin’s understanding of ‘moral law’. As I stated in the above blog post, NCT affirms that the tripartite distinction can be helpful – strictly as far as the internal legal categories of the Law of Moses are concerned. However, this is not what Covenant Theology (in both its WCF Federal and 1689 Federal iterations) seeks to convey in toto, as you quotation of Calvin’s Institutes readily reveals: “For the ancients who adopted this division, though they were not unaware that the two latter classes had to do with morals, did not give them the name of moral, because they might be changed and abrogated without affecting morals. They give this name specially to the first class, without which, true holiness of life and an immutable rule of conduct cannot exist[emphasis mine]. In other words, the ‘moral law’ as defined by Covenant Theology (in all its forms), not to mention the above quote by John Calvin, cannot be changed or abrogated (unlike the civil and ceremonial law), and is indispensable to “true holiness of life and an immutable rule of conduct.” This definition directly reflects Covenant Theology’s understanding of the ‘moral law’ (i.e. the Ten Commandments) as being transcovenantal and unchanging. This is precisely why NCT emphasizes that “for the Old Testament Israelite, the entire Law of Moses was moral” – i.e. it views the Law of Moses (to include the Ten Commandments) as an exhaustive, indivisible (Jas. 2:10; Gal. 5:3) legal code. Let us not identify informed disagreement with uninformed misunderstanding.

      (3) The key issue in determining whether someone is “guilty of dividing the Mosaic law and not treating as a unit” or treating “it as a unit while acknowledging that there is overlap that exists between the Mosaic law and unchanging law” is accurately identifying the absolute, unchanging law of God. In short, the unchanging law is not the ‘moral law’ (i.e. the Ten Commandments) as defined by 1689 Federalism. Consider Exodus 34:28: “…he wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant, the Ten Commandments.” In short, the Ten Commandments are “the words” of the Old Covenant; they stand and fall with the Old Covenant. The New Testament testifies to this fact as only 9 of the Ten Commandments are reissued in the Law of Christ – with the Sabbath Commandment conspicuously missing. Why is the Sabbath Commandment not binding upon New Covenant believers? The Sabbath was the covenantal sign of the Old Covenant. Consider Exodus 31:15-17:

      “For six days work may be done, but on the seventh day there is a sabbath of complete rest, holy to the LORD; whoever does any work on the sabbath day shall surely be put to death. (16) So the sons of Israel shall observe the sabbath, to celebrate the sabbath throughout their generations as a perpetual covenant. (17) It is a sign between Me and the sons of Israel forever; for in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, but on the seventh day He ceased from labor, and was refreshed.”

      If the Ten Commandments are the absolute, unchanging law of God, why are only 9 of the Ten Commandments repeated in the New Testament? [As a brief aside, NCT also disagrees with 1689 Federalism’s view (as defined in the 1689 Confession) that the Sabbath was issued as a creation ordinance (written on the heart of Adam) for a variety of reasons: (1) as just previously stated, the Sabbath is the only commandment of the Ten Commandments not repeated in the New Testament for Christians to obey; (2) Romans 14 clearly indicates that it is a matter of conscious as to whether one keeps it – (NCT also rejects the understanding that Paul only has the special Sabbaths, as opposed to the weekly Sabbath, in view in Romans 14 and Colossians 2); (3) Exodus 31:15-17 clearly indicates that the Sabbath was the sign of the Old Covenant – which has been abolished; (4) NCT holds that the Sabbath is typologically fulfilled in Christ as He is our rest from our spiritual labors (Heb. 4:9-10; Col. 2:16-17); (5) if the Sabbath is a creation ordinance (as a component of the ‘moral law’ written upon the heart of man at creation) for all men to obey, the first people to whom the command is revealed and who we observe keeping the Sabbath in Scripture is Israel at Sinai; and (6) 1689 Federalism (as well as WCF Federalism) changes the day (seventh day to the first day), the manner (the stringent commands relating to Sabbath observance, e.g., the distance one could travel), the penalty for breaking the Sabbath (the death penalty), and the reason for its observance (the sign of the Old Covenant & replication of God’s pattern at creation shifts to the week day of Christ’s resurrection). This is another reason why NCT asserts that 1689 Federalism still ‘flattens’ the redemptive-historical distinctions of the biblical covenants – though significantly less than traditional Covenant Theology.]

      If the Ten Commandments do not constitute the absolute, unchanging law of God, as NCT ardently affirms, one must look elsewhere. NCT believes that Matthew 22:36-40 identifies the absolute, unchanging law of God. In this passage, Lord Jesus Christ clearly declares that “the whole Law and the Prophets” depend (i.e. or hang) “on these two greatest commandments” – that is to say, love of God and love of neighbor. He does not say that the Law and the Prophets depend upon the Ten Commandments; rather, He states that the Law and the Prophets (which includes the Ten Commandments) depends upon the two greatest commandments. This view clearly identifies the two greatest commandments, not the Ten Commandments, as transcending the Law and the Prophets. Thus, it is these two commandments, not the Ten Commandments, which constitute the absolute, unchanging law of God. Accordingly, Providence Theological Seminary defines the absolute law of God in the following manner: the two greatest commandments – love of God and neighbor (Matt. 22:36-40) – constitute God’s absolute or innate law, which is righteous, unchanging, and instinctively known by man (Rom. 2:14-15) created in God’s image (Gen. 1:27), and of which each system of covenantal law is a temporary, historical outworking (Heb. 7:12) in accordance with God’s eternal purpose (Eph. 1:11; 3:11; 2 Tim. 1:9).

      The cause for ‘overlap’, as you say, results from the fact that covenantal law is a covenantal outworking of the two greatest commandments. In other words, the Law of Moses (including the Ten Commandments) is the covenantal outworking of the two greatest commandments under the Old Covenant, and the Law of Christ is the covenantal outworking of the two greatest commandments under the New Covenant. This is why 9 of the Ten Commandments do appear the Law of Christ, because all covenantal law is derived from the two greatest commandments.

      (4) In short, my second point is this: the Ten Commandments are the summary statement of the Law of Moses, and summarily synonymous with it – as well as the Old covenant (cf. 2 Cor. 3-4, where Paul contrasts the Old and New Covenants – with the Ten Commandments symbolizing the Old Covenant (as well as the Law of Moses). In Exodus 24:12, the “tables of stone, a law, and commandments which I have written” all refer to the same thing: the Ten Commandments. Hence, one cannot simply designate the Ten Commandments ‘moral law’ and insert them throughout redemptive history as the transcovenantal law of God.

      (5) You wrote: “Yes, God gave to Israel the decalogue as a covenant of works.” Although 1689 Federalism may agree that Scripture equates the Law of Moses (including the Ten Commandments) with the Old Covenant (Exod. 34:28; Deut. 9:9; 4:13; Lev. 26:15), such agreement is partial at best – as evidenced by the disparate conclusions which both systems draw from such a statement. As stated above, NCT argues that the Ten Commandments not only are the summary statement of the Law of Moses but also do not constitute the absolute, unchanging law of God. Hence, when the Old Covenant was abolished (Heb. 8:13),the Law of Moses, along with the Ten Commandments (its summary statement), was abolished as well. As far as I understand, 1689 Federalism does not agree with this. Thus, my statement that “such agreement is partial at best.” Again, I repeat Providence Theological Seminary’s definition of the Law of Moses: the covenantal outworking of God’s absolute law under the Old Covenant – the exhaustive, indivisible (Jas. 2:10; Gal. 5:3) legal code, summed up in the Ten Commandments (Exod. 34:28), covenantally binding upon the nation of Israel (Exod. 19:5-6; 24:3), temporary in its duration (Heb. 7:11-12; Col. 2:14), and fulfilled in Jesus Christ (Rom. 10:4; Matt. 5:17-18; Col. 2:16-17).

      [Again, let us refrain from pejorative epithets such as antinomian or legalist – as they do not advance a friendly, Christian discussion. If 1689 Federalism wants to gain a fair hearing among advocates of NCT, they must refrain from charging NCT with antinomianism. If NCT wants to gain a fair hearing among advocates of 1689 Federalism, they must likewise refrain from charging 1689 Federalism with legalism. Such behavior does not advance a friendly, Christian discussion among Christian brethren.]

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