New Covenant Theology (NCT) is criticized at times for purportedly promoting a monolithic view of both Dispensational Theology (DT) and Covenant Theology (CT). In other words, when NCT contrasts itself with the other two theological paradigms, the perception is that NCT ignores the fact that there are myriad eclectic variations within both systems. For example, all proponents of CT, it is argued, are assumed to be paedobaptistic, or all baptistic Covenant Theologians are assumed to uniformly agree with the 1689 Second London Baptist Confession. Along the same lines, the perception is that NCT assumes that all advocates of DT unvaryingly subscribe to Classical Dispensationalism. However, this particular criticism of NCT is without foundation and results from a misunderstanding of NCT’s methodology in defining itself.
NCT readily recognizes that numerous variations exist within both DT and CT. Within each of these theological systems, there are two principal branches out of which emerge various eclectic offshoots. For example, the two main divisions of CT are Westminster Federalism (as defined in the Westminster Confession of Faith) and 1689 Federalism (as defined in the 1689 Second London Baptist Confession). Comparatively, DT essentially divides into Classical Dispensationalism and Progressive Dispensationalism. To be fair, proponents of NCT have contributed to this misperception in that when they defines NCT in a negative sense – that is to say, how NCT differs from DT and CT as a theological system – they primarily contrast NCT with Classical Dispensationalism and Westminster Federalism. As a result, NCT is often criticized by advocates of Progressive Dispensationalism and 1689 Federalists for not addressing or not understanding their respective theological variations.
In this author’s estimation, NCT advocates have primarily focused on contrasting NCT with Classical Dispensationalism and Westminster Federalism for at least four reasons. First, Classical Dispensationalism and Westminster Federalism represent the chief historical exemplars of their respective theological systems. Second, given that NCT has even more in common theologically-speaking with both Progressive Dispensationalism and 1689 Federalism, it is much easier, not to mention efficient, to highlight how NCT differs from Classical Dispensationalism and Westminster Federalism. Third, it is very often beyond the purpose and scope of many NCT messages, discourses, or treatises to compare / contrast NCT with multiple variations of DT and CT. That being said, as NCT continues to develop as a theological system, its proponents will do well to fairly and accurately demonstrate how NCT differs from other versions of DT and CT. Fourth, if NCT can effectively rebut the sine qua non of both DT and CT, the respective internal variations of both systems matter little. In other words, if NCT can successfully refute the essential theological distinctives that are common to all variations of DT or CT, the various internal variations stand negated as well.
Although comparing/contrasting is a valid method for defining NCT as a theological system, NCT adherents must strive for balance. In short, we must define NCT not only in a negative sense (i.e. what it is not) but also in a positive sense (i.e. what it actually is). NCT must be defined primarily by Scripture and secondarily by comparing/contrasting it with CT and DT. Admittedly, in attempting to address the principal misconceptions surrounding New Covenant Theology via this series, NCT is being defined in a negative sense (i.e. what it is not).
See Michael J. Vlach, “New Covenant Theology Compared with Covenantalism,” TMSJ 18/1 (Fall 2007): 202. Vlach, a Dispensational theologian, notes that NCT has principally focused on defining itself in contrast to CT as opposed to DT.
It is always important to accurately assess the purpose and scope of any theological message, treatise, or discourse to determine why it may or may not address a particular topic or detail.
See the comparison charts on the PTS Blog (http://nct-blog.ptsco.org/comparison-charts/) that depict the principal commonalities and differences between NCT (as defined by Providence Theological Seminary), CT (as defined by its two major branches – WCF Federalism and 1689 Federalism), and DT (as defined by its two major branches – Classical Dispensationalism and Progressive Dispensationalism).
Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines sine qua non in the following manner: “something absolutely indispensable or essential.” Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 10th ed. (Springfield: Merriam Webster, 1993), 1095.
What is the sine qua non of DT? Charles C. Ryrie is particularly helpful: “The essence of Dispensationalism, then, is the distinction between Israel and the church. This grows out of the dispensationalist’s consistent employment of normal or plain or historical-grammatical interpretation, and it reflects an understanding of the basic purpose of God in all His dealings with mankind as that of glorifying Himself through salvation and other purposes as well.” Charles C. Ryrie, Dispensationalism (Chicago, IL: Moody 1966; reprint 1995, 2007), 46-8. See also Michael J. Vlach who holds to a six-fold sine qua non of Dispensationalism: “At this point, I would like to offer what I believe are the core essential beliefs of Dispensationalism. By “essential” I mean foundational beliefs of Dispensationalism that are central and unique to the system, beliefs upon which the system stands or falls….1. Progressive revelation from the New Testament does not interpret or reinterpret Old Testament passages in a way that changes or cancels the original meaning of the Old Testament writers as determined by historical-grammatical hermeneutics….2. Types exist but national Israel is not a type that is superseded by the church….3. Israel and the church are distinct, thus, the church cannot be identified as the new or true Israel….4. There is both spiritual unity in salvation between Jews and Gentiles and a future role for Israel as a nation….5. The nation Israel will be both saved and restored with a unique identity and function in a future millennial kingdom upon the earth….6. There are multiple senses of “seed of Abraham,” thus, the church’s identification as “seed of Abraham” does not cancel God’s promises to the believing Jewish “seed of Abraham.” Michael J. Vlach, Dispensationalism: Essential Beliefs and Common Myths (Los Angeles, Theological Studies Press, 2008), 18-30.
What is the sine qua non of CT? It is the covenantal superstructure, that is to say, the theological framework through which CT, generally speaking, understands redemptive history: pactum salutis (the Covenant of Redemption), foedus operum (the Covenant of Works), and foedus gratiae (the Covenant of Grace). It is necessary to note there are significant differences regarding the covenantal superstructure between the two main branches of Covenant Theology: Westminster Federalism and 1689 Federalism. R.C. Sproul exemplifies the Westminster Federalist understanding of the covenantal superstructure: “1. God entered into a covenant of works with Adam and Eve. 2. All humans are inescapably related to God’s covenant of works. 3. All human beings are violators of the covenant of works. 4. Jesus fulfilled the covenant of works. 5. The covenant of grace provides us with the merits of Christ by which the terms of the covenant of works are satisfied.” Robert C. Sproul, Essential Truths of the Christian Faith (Carol Stream: Tyndale House, 1992), 73. Westminster Federalism teaches that the covenantal superstructure theologically buttresses the following doctrinal distinctives: (1) infant baptism; (2) the transcovenantal nature of the Decalogue; (3) the Church existing in the Old Testament; and (4) Sunday as the New Covenant equivalent of the Old Covenant Sabbath. Although 1689 Federalists generally agree with Westminster Federalists regarding the existence and nature of the pactum salutis and foedus operum, they overwhelmingly reject the Westminster Confession’s presentation of the ‘covenant of grace’ as one covenant with multiple administrations. Instead, modern 1689 Federalists assert that the foedus gratiae to be the New Covenant (in substance). See Pascal Denault, The Distinctiveness of Baptist Covenant Theology: A Comparison Between Seventeenth-Century Particular Baptist and Paedobaptist Federalism (Birmingham, AL: Solid Ground Christian Books, 2013), 64-65, 77, 82. Admittedly, 1689 Federalism’s view of the foedus gratiae is far closer to NCT than that of Westminster Federalism. Nevertheless, proponents of NCT reject this understanding of the foedus gratiae. Although modern 1689 Federalists identify the foedus gratiae as the New Covenant, they also teach that it was revealed to Adam in the protoevangelium of Genesis 3:15. If the New Covenant was not established until Christ Jesus’ first coming and if the foedus gratiae was revealed to Adam in the protoevangelium as an informal covenant, how can the foedus gratiae be the New Covenant in substance? Such reasoning is self-contradictory, tending to the irrational. 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? Furthermore, 1689 Federalism’s understanding of the foedus gratiae still flattens the redemptive-historical distinctions of the biblical covenants, though considerably less than Westminster Federalism. For example, 1689 Federalism teaches that all Old Testament saints received the indwelling Holy Spirit prior to Pentecost, in light of such texts as John 7:38-39; 14:16-17; Luke 24:49; and Acts 1:4-5,8. By identifying the protoevangelium of Gen. 3:15 as the foedus gratiae which in substance is the New Covenant, 1689 Federalists apply the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, a promise unique to the New Covenant age, prior to Pentecost to the Old Testament saints. Thus, the redemptive-historical distinctions of the biblical covenants are ‘flattened’.