Tuesday, May 06, 2014

Covenant and conditionality

In his book The Call of Grace, Norman Shepherd promotes the idea that all covenants have conditions which Man has to fulfill in order to partake of the promises of the covenant. Shepherd's monocovenantalism entails the total confusion of grace and works. In the name of navigating a third way between legalism and antinomianism (pp. 8-9), Shepherd creates a monstrosity where one is saved by grace, but then one has to persevere in order to remain in grace. One wonders whether Shepherd realizes that this is the Roman Catholic position. Rome has never once taught that one is saved by works, but she has always taught that one is saved by grace AND faith "formed by love," the performing of works in accordance with one's faith.

I would like to look at this issue of "conditionality" as to how Shepherd has totally muddled the issue. The PRCA (Protestant Reformed Churches of America) of course think that this issue of "conditionality" is basically the problem with the Federal Vision: the "heresy of conditional covenant," while totally ignoring the fact that in some sense, faith must be a condition. The PRCA are irrational in their idiosyncratic doctrines, and ideas that one can have an absolutely "unconditional" covenant and faith are contradictory to basic reason.

The concept of conditions merely signifies that they are necessary and/or sufficient for the consequent(s) to occur. For a sufficient condition, if "condition x," then "result y." For a necessary condition, no "condition x," no "result y." It does not say in what sense it is necessary or sufficient. Faith for example we have said is the instrumental condition for salvation. It is not the grounds for salvation, but the manner of how salvation comes about. This drawing of distinctions is necessary, because as we shall see with Shepherd, the failure to draw distinctions result in heresy.

Shepherd treats "conditions" as something that Man must do, as basically "human responsibility" (p. 9). Immediately here we see that that is the wrong definition. Just because something is a condition does not mean that Man is responsible for it. If I say that it is a necessary condition that the Holy Spirit regenerates the elect, in order that they may be saved, is there anything humans have to do in the entire process? Of course not! Shepherd starts off with the wrong idea of "condition," and things just go south from there.

In his discussion of the Abrahamic Covenant, Shepherd claims that there are 5 requirements which had to be met in order for God to fulfill His promises to Abraham. The first requirement is that circumcision is necessary. Furthermore, since circumcision is not meant to be "merely outward and physical" (p. 15), the requirement of circumcision means God was "requiring the full scope of covenant loyalty and obedience all along the line" (p. 15). Right off, the extension of circumcision to the full scope of covenant obedience is just a total confusion of sign and the thing signified. Even worse than that is Shepherd doesn't even seem to realize that the inward circumcision is not obedience but regeneration, as the correspondence between circumcision and baptism in Col. 2: 13 show. What else does "God made us alive" mean except the act of regeneration? Circumcision and baptism both are supposed to function as the sign of regeneration or inward circumcision, and thus Shepherd is in error even if we admit that circumcision is a "Shepherdite-condition."

Circumcision however is not a Shepherdite-condition. Rather, it is a requirement in the sense that it is a sign of something required, i.e. regeneration. Just as baptism does not save, but rather what it signifies, regeneration, saves, so likewise this requirement of circumcision is not a requirement for salvation, but a requirement that logically (not necessarily temporally) follows regeneration. It is an a posteriori condition, not an a priori condition, just like good works. An a posteriori condition merely means it is the necessary consequent of faith. A person breathes if he is alive, thus he does not "fulfill the condition" of breathing in order to be alive, but that he is alive so he therefore breathes. The failure to breathe evidences that the person is dead, not alive. Likewise, in this sense refusal to circumcise does not mean that a person is not regenerated, but rather that it evidences an unregenerate heart.

The other Shepherdite-conditions are that Abraham needs to have faith, he needs to have a "living and obedience faith," and he needs "to walk before the Lord and be blameless" (pp. 15-6), and the fulfillment of the promises of the land promise for example depended upon the obedience of the Israelites. Regarding faith, Shepherd refuses to distinguish between instrument and ground. The next two "requirements" Abraham has to do are a posteriori conditions. The last requirement shows the conflation of the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants. The Abrahamic promise of land refers to the promised land of Canaan as a type of heaven, while the physical land itself is a typological fulfillment in the Mosaic Covenant, and thus not the same.

This is just a sample of the problems with this book. Shepherd routinely refuses to make distinctions and he conflates issues together, and in so doing creates heresy. All covenants have conditions, that's true. But not all conditions are conditions. And most certainly conditions are not always indications of human responsibility. Conditionality is merely a logical function, and says nothing about who and how the conditions are supposed to be met.

9 comments:

Larry said...

Might there be a couple typos?

1. (near the end) "But not all conditions are conditions" to "But not all conditions are a priori conditions.

2. (near the beginning) "and ideas that one can have an absolutely 'unconditional' covenant and faith is contrary ..." to "are contrary," to match "ideas," plural.

Loved this post, you bring up what very few people have thought through, including the very-seldom-discussed distinction between sufficiency and necessariness.

However, "a posteriori conditions" I think would better be called predictions. Neither are they effects, because in one of the cases you mention, they do not occur automatically or mechanistically. Also, effects imply immediacy, whereas Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac, which completed his faith, was not immediate, but decades later.

Great point also about inward circumcision being the regeneration of the person.

Thanks for this post. You may certainly leave or delete it in whole or in part.

PuritanReformed said...

@Larry

Thanks. The first example is not a typo though, as it is meant to be such for rhetorical effect.

I don't know whether "predictions" is a better term. I think it is better to preserve the terminology, strange though it might sound.

brandon said...

Thank you for your post Daniel. I have listened to Shepherd lectures, but have not had a chance to read his book, so I can't comment directly on his discussion of conditionality.

However, I think one thing missing from your analysis is the concept of covenant breakers. That's really what the discussion is about. The PRCA's unconditional covenant is specifically a response to the teaching that some are in covenant, yet break that covenant and are cut off. I think there are very significant problems with the PRCA's covenant theology, but I don't think their discussion of unconditionality is one of them. (Btw, I'd love to get your thoughts on my analysis of their covenant theology http://contrast2.wordpress.com/2013/07/07/problems-with-prca-covenant-theology/ )

You said the PRCA "totally ignor[e] the fact that in some sense, faith must be a condition" yet Engelsma writes "The teaching that the covenant is unconditional does not overlook, or minimize, faith. The doctrine of the unconditional covenant recognizes full well that faith is necessary for the covenant and its enjoyment." http://www.prca.org/pamphlets/pamphlet_88.html

As you acknowledge in your other post "The main issue at hand is what do we mean by the term "condition"?" In that sense I fear you are talking past the PRCA because you're ignoring their definition of the terms they use. Rather than your term "necessary condition" they simply refer to faith as "necessary", but they intend the same meaning. Therefore they are not commenting on the logical necessity of faith for salvation. They mean something different by the term "condition":

"That the covenant is conditional means that the effectual and lasting establishment of the covenant with a man, a man’s enjoyment of the saving intention, power, and blessings of the covenant, and a man’s finally receiving everlasting salvation in and by the covenant depend on something he himself must do. The covenant depends on a condition. Traditionally, those who have argued for this covenant doctrine have identified the condition as faith. The modern defenders of a conditional covenant agree, but add, as another condition, the good works that faith performs.
According to the conditional covenant, God on His part initially establishes His covenant with many more than only those who are finally saved. He establishes it by a gracious, but conditional, promise to all."

Engelsma is clear that what he is talking about is membership in the covenant of grace and the concept of covenant breakers. He is not commenting on the logical necessity of faith for salvation.
He is saying the same thing as Samuel Petto and John Owen.

brandon said...

Owen:
And this is the great ground of them who absolutely deny the covenant of grace to be conditional ; namely, that the first grace is absolutely promised, whereon and its exercise the whole of it doth depend.

(6.) Unto a full and complete interest in all the promises of the
covenant, faith on our part, from which evangelical repentance is
inseparable, is required. But whereas these also are wrought in us
by virtue of that promise and grace of the covenant which are absolute, it is a mere strife about words to contend whether they may be called conditions or no. Let it be granted on the one band, that we cannot have an actual participation of the relative grace of this covenant in adoption and justification, without faith or believing; and on the other, that this faith is wrought in us, given unto us, bestowed upon us, by that grace of the covenant which depends on no condition in us as unto its discriminating administration, and I shall not concern myself what men will call it.

Commentary on Heb 8:10

Petto:

Object. Is the new covenant absolute to us, or conditional?
Are there not conditional promises therein to us, as there were in the old unto Israel? Can we expect any mercy, but upon our performing some condition it is promised to?
Ans. 1.
If condition be taken improperly, for that which is only a connex action, or, medium fruitionis, a necessary duty, way, or means, in order to the enjoyment of promised mercies. In this sense, I acknowledge, there are some promises belonging to the new covenant which are conditional; and thus are many scriptures to be taken which are urged this way. That this might not be a strife of words, I could wish men would state the question thus, Whether some evangelical duties be required of, and graces wrought by Jesus Christ in, all the persons that are actually interested in the new covenant? I should answer yes...
...Answer. 2.
There is no such condition of the new covenant to us, as there was in the old to Israel. For, the apostle comparing them together; and, in opposition to the old, he gives the new altogether in absolute promises, and that to Israel, Heb. viii.; and, showing that the new is not according to the old, he discovers wherein the difference lay, verse 9.Because they continued not in my covenant, and I regarded them not; saith the Lord;and, Jer. xxxi. 32. which covenant they broke, &c...
…2._ The Lord has given assurance that there shall never be an utter violation of the new covenant, and therefore it has no such condition as was annexed to the old; for, the Lord declares that they had broken his covenant, Jer xi. 3, 4, 10. Jer xxxi. 32. But the new covenant is secured from such a violation: it cannot be disannulled so as the persons interested in it should be deprived of the great blessings promised therein, Jer. xxxii. 40.
…4._ Our obedience, though evangelical, is no such condition of the new covenant, as there was of the old unto Israel.
See full quote here http://contrast2.wordpress.com/2010/11/13/petto-conditional-new-covenant/ (Note PRCA would not agree with Answer 2)

brandon said...

Thus your discussion of the Abrahamic Covenant and circumcision needs to address the concept of covenant breakers. John Murray is a perfect example of what the PRCA is objecting to:
1. "By breaking the covenant what is broken is not the condition of bestowal but the condition of consummated fruition"
2. "Without question the blessings of the covenant and the relation which the covenant entails cannot be enjoyed or maintained apart from the fulfilment of certain conditions on the part of the beneficiaries"
3. "The obedience of Abraham is represented as the condition upon which the fulfilment of the promise given to him was contingent and the obedience of Abraham’s seed is represented as the means through which the promise given to Abraham would be accomplished. There is undoubtedly the fulfilment of certain conditions"
4. "At the outset we must remember that the idea of conditional fulfilment is not something peculiar to the Mosaic covenant. We have been faced quite poignantly with this very question in connection with the Abrahamic covenant. And since this feature is there patent, it does not of itself provide us with any reason for construing the Mosaic covenant in terms different from those of the Abrahamic"
http://www.the-highway.com/Covenant_Murray.html

I agree with Murray's last statement, your Abrahamic/Mosaic comment notwithstanding. As far as I can tell, your a priori/a posteriori discussion does not address the question of covenant breakers, which is the point of Gen 17:14. Can you comment?

PRCA:
"The reference in Reformed circles is especially to baptized children. The teaching of a conditional covenant maintains that God makes His covenant with all the children of godly parents alike, graciously promising His covenant and its salvation to them all. But promise, covenant, and covenant salvation are conditional. The child must perform the works of believing and obeying."

PuritanReformed said...

@Brandon,

for sure, covenant breakers is where the rubber meets the road. For if we say that believers are saved by grace alone not of their own works, then how can we account for the fact that some professed believers fall away from the faith, even from solid reformed churches? That is the question. Shepherd's other main concern is a perceived neglect of the law in Reformed circles, a fear that continues to this day.


I do know that the PRCA say that faith is necessary. But they refuse to call it a "condition." That is where they have decided that they can come up with their own idiosyncratic definitions and theology divorced from the Christian and Reformed theological tradition. Worse of all is that they refuse to listen when other point out what "condition" mean, but instead insist that everyone use their definition in order to be deemed orthodox by them.

So, yes, the PRCA agree that faith is "necessary," but they will deny that faith is a "condition," even though the two propositions mean exactly the same thing. As I have said, this is totally idiosyncratic and, when combined with their strong rhetoric against "conditions," absolutely ridiculous!

PuritanReformed said...

As to John Murray, Murray has a view of the covenant which has historically served as a bridge (whether he intended it or not) to Norman Shepherd and then to FV. I disagree with Murray and agree with my professors at WSCAL on this issue. The Mosaic Covenant is a republication of the Covenant of Works, although it is still materially part of the Covenant of Grace.

PuritanReformed said...

Gen. 17:14 was raised by Shepherd, and I think I have already addressed it in the post. Here is the relevant section:

=========
In his discussion of the Abrahamic Covenant, Shepherd claims that there are 5 requirements which had to be met in order for God to fulfill His promises to Abraham. The first requirement is that circumcision is necessary. Furthermore, since circumcision is not meant to be "merely outward and physical" (p. 15), the requirement of circumcision means God was "requiring the full scope of covenant loyalty and obedience all along the line" (p. 15). Right off, the extension of circumcision to the full scope of covenant obedience is just a total confusion of sign and the thing signified. Even worse than that is Shepherd doesn't even seem to realize that the inward circumcision is not obedience but regeneration, as the correspondence between circumcision and baptism in Col. 2: 13 show. What else does "God made us alive" mean except the act of regeneration? Circumcision and baptism both are supposed to function as the sign of regeneration or inward circumcision, and thus Shepherd is in error even if we admit that circumcision is a "Shepherdite-condition."

Circumcision however is not a Shepherdite-condition. Rather, it is a requirement in the sense that it is a sign of something required, i.e. regeneration. Just as baptism does not save, but rather what it signifies, regeneration, saves, so likewise this requirement of circumcision is not a requirement for salvation, but a requirement that logically (not necessarily temporally) follows regeneration. It is an a posteriori condition, not an a priori condition, just like good works. An a posteriori condition merely means it is the necessary consequent of faith. A person breathes if he is alive, thus he does not "fulfill the condition" of breathing in order to be alive, but that he is alive so he therefore breathes. The failure to breathe evidences that the person is dead, not alive. Likewise, in this sense refusal to circumcise does not mean that a person is not regenerated, but rather that it evidences an unregenerate heart.
======

PuritanReformed said...

As to your analysis of the PRA view of the covenant, you did point out certain problems with their view. However, it has no bearing on historic Covenant Theology.