Thursday, December 27, 2007

Defending the doctrine of Active Obedience against New Covenantal Theologians (part 1)

With the growth in the Reformed Baptist movement, and the corresponding adherance to New Covenantal Theology, problems have started to emerge. One of these is the denial of the imputation of the active obedience of Christ, thus espousing some sort of theory of single imputation only. In this missive, I will briefly address this issue, through a review of the article Examining the Imputation of the Active Obedience of Christ — A Study in Calvinistic Sacred Cow-ism, by Steve Lehrer and Geoff Volker which can be found here, and the Appendix here.

Now, it must first be stated that not all Reformed and Particular Baptists believe in New Covenantal Theology, as distinguished here. Neither is it true that New Covenantal Theologians would necessarily go along with Lehrer and Volker in denying the Imputation of the Active Obedience of Christ to believers. Nevertheless, it is my opinion that such a denial flows naturally from the hermeneutical framework of New Covenantal Theology (NCT), which I will address later, and therefore must be addressed.

The authors in this article of theirs argued against the concept of the active obedience of Christ, stating that it is unnecessary and superfluous. Along the way, they deny the Covenant of Works, with such a denial being one of the NCT distinctives anyway.

Now, it must first be acknowledged that the authors have posted a disclaimer to deflect criticism that they have jettisoned the Gospel. Although they reject the imputation of Christ's active obedience to our account, they maintain their belief in the pasive obedience of Christ upon the Cross. This doctrine of single imputation, while abberant, is not heretical and therefore we must not think that they have thrown out the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ altogether, although they have truly thrown out something important.

Unlike the approach of the authors, who approach the issue first from various isolated texts and then to the paradigm of Scripture, I think it is much better to approach the topic from the broader perspective of the overall paradigm of Scripture first. This is because the biblical grammatico-historical method of interpretation of the Scriptures is to interpret the entirety of Scripture by itself. Therefore, interpretation should be done using the whole 'picture' painted by the whole of Scripture, and this 'whole picture' would thus constitute the governing paradigm of Scripture. Therefore, the method of interpretation of Scripture is first to discern the overarching metanarrative or governing paradigm of Scripture, before looking at individual texts, especially when it comes to finer theological issues such as the ones currently under discussion.

And therefore, the first issue to be looked at is the doctrine of the Covenant of Works, which is a much broader theological issue than the doctrine of active obedience. The authors of the article have stated their belief that the proof texts and exegetical work supporting this theological doctrine of the Covenant of Works to be sparse, and strongly believe that Scripture is being used as a prop to hold up the system, instead of the system being derived from Scripture itself. In other words, the authors believe that Covenant Theology (of which the Covenant of Works is an important distinctive) is a Tradition (with a capital T) which functions as colored glases coloring the interpretation of Scripture of Covenantal Theologians to make it say what it does not actually say. However, is such a charge actually valid?

Before we look any further, we should look deeper and analyze the hermeneutical method utilized by the authors in particular, and New Covenantal Theologians in general.


The hermeneutical method utilized in this article has various errors in it. If such a method is indeed the hallmark of NCT, then this is indeed very troubling. We have already mentioned one which is to interpret individual verses without a functional Scriptural paradigm and then utilizing insights supposedly gained from them to attempt to disprove one particular governing paradigm, Covenant Theology. To be fair to the authors, they do not think that there are any valid proof-texts for Covenant Theology as represented by the Covenant of Works, which will be disputed and shown to be false later. Nevertheless, that they move from discussing individual texts to a broader governing principle seems to suggest a violation of the grammatico-historical hermeneutical grid, especially since the texts do not have anything whatsoever to do with the broader governing principle of the Covenant of Works. Also, it is not as if nothing whatsoever has been written about the subject, and Scripture verses have not been utilized by Covenant Theologians to support the theological paradigm of Covenant Theology. Therefore, a failure to interact with even the verses used to support the Covenant of Works (I'm not a stickler for interactions with human works and interpretations, but verses from the Bible? That should be the least required) does not suggest that the authors have at least shown that they have rejected the governing principle of the Covenant of Works by its Scriptural merits or demerits.

The failure to construct or just state any governing paradigm by the authors (important especially since they are critiquing another governing paradigm) also suggests a rather disjointed method of interpreting Scripture, as if Scripture has no one governing paradigm or that if there is, it is non-uniform. This is much more similar to the hermeneutical method of Dispensationalism than it is to Scripture. Of course, the authors can always question whether there is such a thing as ONE governing paradigm, and their statement that "Scripture uses the term [covenant], almost witout exception, to illustrate discontinuity" seems to show that they do deny the existance of ONE governing paradigm of Scripture. We would examine this statement later, but clearly, how can the assertion that there be no ONE governing paradigm stand in the light of Scripture? We can see how the various biblical themes run within the entirety of Scripture, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the theme of salvation, whereby salvation was initiated before the foundation of the world within the Godhead, and historically initiated at the time of the Fall as seen in the proto-Evangel in Gen. 3:15 (which is in the first book of the Bible), and is consumated in the last book of the Bible (Revelation) in the coming of Christ and the new heavens and the new earth. Clearly, there is in some sense a governing paradigm within Scripture. It may of course be objected that the paradigm may be uniform mostly, but discontinuous in the 'minor' or detailed parts, but then there is no Scriptural proof for that, nor for the distinction as to which parts are 'major' and which 'minor'. Using the descriptive narrative to prove which parts are 'minor' by showing discontinuity is just not going to work, in the same way as to why it is wrong to prove God actually repents because the narrative account states Him as doing so (Open Theism).

As one reads the article, one can see the strange manner of how the authors interpret Scripture. They seem to be strict literalists, as they refuse to connect and string various Scriptural truths unless there is explicit mention of such a linkage named and described in Scripture. For example, they believe in the basic concepts of the Covenant of Works but refuse to name it a covenant because they Scripture does not so name it (besides Hosea 6:7 in which they dispute the rendering). In the Q&A section at the end of their article, they wrote:

Q: Do you mean to say that you actually need a specific text from the bible to establish a biblical doctrine or practice?

A Yes. For if by "establish a biblical doctrine or practice" you are saying that this is something God wants me to believe or do, then you must have the clear and unambiguous witness of Scripture to back that up. If you don’t have a text from scripture to establish your view, you have no word from God and therefore no view worth defending.

Such strict literalism leads us to the next error which the authors fall into: the denial of the Scriptural-ness of valid logical deductions from Scripture; the theory of necessary consequence. In fact, this is by far the governing principle of their exegesis, thus leading to believing in specific 'local' doctrines while denying their logical conclusions. Thus, they can say that they believe in the Principle of Works (which comprise the 'local' doctrines in the Covenant of Works without it being termed a covenant ('global'), with all the logical conclusions that follow) but not the Covenant of Works.

To such, I would just state plainly that such a practice is inherently wrong and is in fact anti-Scriptural, though it is perfectly fitted for the irrational times we live in. Christ is the Logos (Jn. 1:1) and to hate logic; misology, in theology is therefore demeaning to Christ. This denial of the theory of Necessary Consequence is thus irrational and unbiblical (as well as against the Wesminster Confession of Faith). That NCT as expressed in the authors' rejection of the Covenant of Works and the Active Obedience of Christ involved such a denial immediately cast a shadow over the entire enterprise, so to speak.

The NCT hermeneutic as seen in this article thus suffers from 3 major errors: 1) Rejection of an overarching theological paradigm by appeal to isolated texts; reversal of interpretive direction, 2) Denial of or ignoring the application of ONE hermeneutical matrix for all of Scripture, and 3) Denial of the theory of Necessary Consequence. Such major faults in hermeneutics would have consequences, which can be seen in the various doctrinal errors in the article by Lehrer and Volker, which we shall now turn to.

[to be continued]

No comments: