Saturday, February 27, 2016

A rebuttal to some arguments against the Covenant of Works (Part 2)

[continued from here]

The second argument posed by Nichols and Hoeksema is that no mere man could ever merit any special reward from God (p. 332). This argument however confuses ontological distance with covenantal obligations. Just because Man cannot make God owe him something does not imply that God cannot promise a reward to Man in a covenant He Himself initiates, and set the terms by which man is to obey in order to get the reward. In the Abrahamic Covenant, Abraham could legitimately ask God when He was going to provide a son, not because God owed Abraham anything, but because God has promised Abraham an heir from his own body. Likewise, one can even say that in the Covenant of Grace, believers can expect to be saved from hell, not because God owed us salvation, but because God has told us we are saved by faith in Christ. In all these, what God can be called upon to give has nothing to do with whether God "owes" anyone anything, but rather that God will honor His Word and His promises and thus one can hold God to His own covenantal obligations.

In the Covenant of Works therefore, Adam could hold God to His Word of reward. Adam did not strictly merit anything, but rather by fulfilling the terms of the covenant, Adam would have earned his reward according to the terms of the covenant. It is by "works," in the sense that Adam was tested upon his own strength whether he would or would not be obedient. Nichols' and Hoeksema's objection is therefore without basis here as well.

Nichols' and Hoeksema's third objection is that the "supposed promise of heavenly life is 'inconceivable' without violating the design of creation" (p. 332), and thus the giving of the cultural mandate does not makes sense if the Covenant of Works is true. This is however a strange objection from a Kuyperian. From a Kuyperian perspective, if one's cultural works are relevant for the kingdom of God and thus in the New Creation, doesn't that imply that the cultural mandate continues to be applicable in the new creation, and thus the mandate applies regardless of whether Adam has just been created or whether he has passed the test and has been confirmed in righteousness? From a non-Kuyperian perspective, the new creation includes a new earth which imply that a certain aspect of the cultural mandate, of exercising dominion over the [New] creation, would still be in force. There is therefore no contradiction between the Covenant of Works and the Creation Mandate.

Besides these objections, Nichols bring out the old canard that Adam's relation with God was "familial and filial-parental," and thus not the "cold, distant," "impersonal relationship between 'contracting parties.'" (p. 337). The legal is set against the familial, as if the two are necessarily mutually exclusive. But just because something is familial and relational does not mean it cannot be legal and forensic at the same time. Adoption is a legal process, but it is far from being impersonal and legal! And if one rejects the idea of a legal covenant with Adam, then why does one support the idea of a forensic Covenant of Grace wherein God is being supremely personal in adopting each and every of the the elect as His sons? This objection therefore has less than its weight in straw. Similarly, Nichols attempts to pit the "filial framework" against the idea of a "probation," pitting the familial against the forensic. But the traditional idea of a "probation" is meant to be understood merely as a time of trial to see whether Adam as God's son would obey, not whether there was a test of Adam's "suitability" (p. 344).

In conclusion, Nichols failed to disprove the legitimacy of the Covenant of Works. Rather, we have seen how poor the arguments against the Covenant of Works have been, with terrible arguments like pitting the forensic against the familial that should have no place at all in Reformed circles.

A rebuttal to some arguments against the Covenant of Works (Part 1)

It is perhaps not so surprising that Greg Nichols, a Reformed Baptist pastor and professor, would not be amenable to the doctrine of the Covenant of Works. What was surprising was his reliance on Herman Hoeksema to do some of the "heavy lifting," which makes me wonder what the relation between Reformed Baptists like Greg Nichols and Dutch Reformed circles is. I notice that in footnote one of Apppendix 2 on the Adamic Covenant (Greg Nichols, Covenant Theology: A Reformed and Baptistic Perspective on God's Covenats, 322), Nichols cited "ST421" Doctrine of Man Handouts from Calvin Seminary 1977, by Anthony Hoekema. I guess Nichols was exposed to Dutch theologizing through a 1977 class at Calvin Seminary? Regardless, the reasons for denying the Covenant of Works for some "Adamic Covenant" (following Hoeksema) are not convincing and not even well thought of, as we shall show below.

Nichols' first argument against the Covenant of Works, following Hoeksema, is that the covenant of works is based on speculation not Scripture. Thus, "God's threat of death for disobedience does not necessarily imply a promise of immutable life or of heavenly translation." (p. 332). In a certain sense, that is true, IF we did not have the parallelisms between Adam and Christ in Rom. 5:12-19, and the recurrence of the Tree of Life in Revelations 22:2, as well as an allusion to it in Ezekiel 47:12. When we have these biblical texts, then we can make the case that God did not just punish disobedience with death, but positive life was offered for obedience.

The biblical story is a story of creation, fall and redemption. Part of that redemption involves the re-creation of all things (Mat. 19:28, Col. 2:20). This new creation would be of course more glorious than the original creation, but that does not imply that the superiority of the new creation is a superiority of kind rather than of degree, as if there were any defects in the original creation. The new creation is analogous to the current creation, not something entirely different from it.

The parallelism in Romans 5:12-19 parallels Adam's disobedience with Christ's obedience. It is true it does not parallel Adam's hypothetical obedience with Christ's actual obedience, but that is not necessary. What we should be understanding from the parallelism is the notion of federal headship. Adam and Christ are not contrasted because Christ is superior to Adam (although He is), but because there are federal heads of two different covenants. Adam was a federal head and he failed; Christ is a federal head and he succeeded. Adam by his failure earned death for all represented by him, while Christ by his obedience earned life for all represented in him. We must note here that the contrast being made here is between the two of them as federal heads, not between Adam as Man and Jesus as God, so we cannot apply the Creator-creature distinction here. But if the two of them are to be properly contrasted as federal heads, then the rewards and sanctions must apply both ways. For if one were to say, as with Nichols and Hoeksema, that there is no reward for obedience, then what we are comparing is Adam who could not have earned life regardless of what he did with Christ who did earn life. That would be a contrast between God and Man, not between two federal heads per se as the parallelism demands. The parallism only works if it states that Adam failed to earn what Christ earned, not that Adam could not earn what Christ has earned.

The Tree of Life imagery makes the promise of life even more explicit. In Ezekiel 47:12, we are told of the vision of the river flowing from the eschatological temple. The Ezekian temple symbolizes the people of God, the community of the elect that will be made manifest in the Last Days, the New Jerusalem (Rev. 21:10-14). The river that flows is the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit that brings life to all it touches. This river in Ezekiel's vision is mentioned again in Revelations 22:1-2. The Holy Spirit brings us life, and thus the Tree of Life is mentioned here besides the river of life, bringing healing to the nations. The Tree of Life is the sacrament, the sign and seal of the life that the Spirit gives, and thus to partake of the Tree of Life is to partake of the Holy Spirit and live.

If we accept that the Tree of Life, as with the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, are sacraments of the Adamic Covenant, and not possessing magical properties in and of themselves, then we must accept that the Tree of Life actually does bring life in a covenantal fashion. Thus, in contrast to the prohibition not to eat of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, to eat of the Tree of Life is to gain life, eschatological life.

Nichols and Hoeksema are therefore in error when they claim that the reward of life is not found in Scripture. Through the Tree of Life imagery, the reward of life is clearly shown. If there is no reward of life through the Tree of Life, then why is the Tree of Life mentioned in Revelation and alluded to in Ezekiel's vision? Why is it that we are told that the leaves of this Tree of life are for the healing of the nations, unless we are to link getting life with partaking of this tree?

Nichols puts forward an explanation however, saying that the "tree of life symbolized the life Adam already had and stood to lose" (p. 342). But if that was the case, then what life does the tree of life symbolized in the New Jerusalem that the elect already have before the Eschaton which she "stood to lose"? Since at the Eschaton, the elect will then be glorified and given resurrection bodies, it seems that the elect do not have the eschatological life before the Eschaton. The tree of life in the New Jerusalem must symbolize the gaining of life, and therefore it must likewise mean the gaining of a new type of life at Eden.

[to be continued]

Friday, February 26, 2016

Evangelical Obedience in the Mosaic Covenant?

Clearly, the Mosaic covenant called for evangelical obedience founded on gospel conversion (Deut. 30:10). How then is its conditional form consistent with this evangelical nature? ... By walking in gospel obedience they would retain their present inheritance and receive the Messianic inheritance at his coming. This teaches the necessity of gospel obedience unto complete salvation. ...

Thus the Mosaic covenant was not a proclamation of works righteousness, but of gospel sanctification.(Greg Nichols, Covenant Theology: A Reformed and Baptistic Perspective on God's Covenants, 234)

The Mosaic Covenant is clearly conditional. How one deals with the conditionality in the Mosaic Covenant does affect to some extent one's soteriology. Greg Nichols has decided that the conditionality in the Mosaic Covenant refers to the necessity of evangelical obedience for sanctification. However, is that even a plausible interpretation of the Mosaic Covenant?

We note that in the Mosaic economy, blessings come with obedience and curses with disobedience. What is important to notice here is that the sanctions for disobedience in the Mosaic economy include death (Deut. 30:18), and obedience grants life (Deut. 30:20). Leviticus 18:5 states that the way to life is obedience of God's commands, and this verse is cited in the New Testament in Galatians 3:11 as the means of salvation "under the Law," which is contrasted with the way of salvation that is by faith, for "the law is not of faith" (Gal. 3:12). In other words, the Scriptures seem to proclaim that the life promised under the Mosaic Covenant is (1) not of faith, (2) actually merited by obedience unto salvation. We also note that God does not punish with eternal death the misdeeds of His children, but merely chastise them for our good (Heb. 12:3-11). To render death for disobedience is certainly not compatible with the way God treats His wayward children.

What this proves is that the obedience in the Mosaic economy cannot be evangelical obedience, but legal obedience. Yes, we understand the graciousness of the giving of the Mosaic Covenant, but that is different from stating whether the stipulations and conditions IN the Mosaic Covenant are in fact evangelical or not. To predicate life upon obedience and death upon disobedience can never be about evangelical obedience. If, as Nichols put it, this conditionality teaches "the necessity of gospel obedience unto complete salvation," and thus "gospel sanctification," then does this mean that one can lose one's salvation ("death" under the Mosaic system) if one disobeys God? Are Christians in by faith, but stay in by covenantal faithfulness? I would sincerely hope not!

The denial of any type of works principle in the Mosaic Covenant, as Nichols does, results in confusion concerning the Mosaic Covenant, and even introduces confusion into one's soteriology. Our salvation is not conditioned upon our sanctification, for salvation is all by faith in Christ alone. Sanctification is necessary, but it is not a condition for salvation, but rather a condition from salvation. We are saved, therefore we obey; we are not sanctified in order that we might have "complete salvation," whatever that means.

Nichols, by denying the works principle in the Mosaic Covenant and placing the continuity/ discontinuity line of the Mosaic from the New Covenant on the wrong axis, leads his readers to confusion regarding salvation by faith alone. It is hoped that his expressed soteriology is better than his implicit one from his errant covenant theology.

Heart circumcision is a Mosaic reality

Did Moses preach a different heart circumcision than Paul? Did he preach a different conversion to God? In Paul's words, absolutely not! Moses predicted a society marked by heart circumcision. Paul says that very prediction has been fulfilled (Col. 2:11-13) [Greg Nichols, Covenant Theology: A Reformed and Baptistic Perspective on God's Covenants, 231]

“And now, Israel, what does the LORD your God require of you, but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments and statutes of the LORD, which I am commanding you today for your good? Behold, to the LORD your God belong heaven and the heaven of heavens, the earth with all that is in it. Yet the LORD set his heart in love on your fathers and chose their offspring after them, you above all peoples, as you are this day. Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no longer stubborn (Deut. 10:12-16)

It seems a Particular Baptistic Covenant Theology radicalizes the concept of progressive revelation. In Reformed Covenant Theology, the historical covenants are progressive revelations of the one Covenant of Grace. In Nichols' version of Baptistic Covenant Theology, the historical covenants are progressive revelations towards the ultimate expression of the Covenant of Grace. In Reformed theology, each historical covenant do indeed partake of the Covenant of Grace, albeit in a veiled manner. In Nichols' Baptistic Covenant Theology, each progression towards the New Covenant share elements of the Covenant of Grace but each is substantively different from the mature New Covenant. While both hold to progressive revelation, both mean rather different things when they think of progression in God's revelation.

One particular aspect of Nichols' Baptistic Covenant Theology is the view that physical circumcision belongs to physical Israel, and anticipates the heart or spiritual circumcision that marks spiritual Israel, the New Covenant Church. In order for that to be true however, heart circumcision must be future-oriented under the Mosaic economy. It is of course true that Deuteronomy 30:6 shows heart circumcision to be in Israel's future, but is it not also to be a mark of Israel under the Mosaic economy?

Deuteronomy 10:12-16 expresses this command for the Israelites under Moses for their present time. They were to be circumcised in their hearts, which indicates a new disposition towards God, as opposed to being stubborn against Him. Not only were they to be circumcised physically of their foreskins, they were also to be circumcised in their hearts. Their physical circumcisions thus were to be signs of heart circumcisions. Those who have the sign of physical circumcision but not the reality of heart circumcision, as indicated by open rebellion against God and His commands, will to be cut off and excommunicated and exiled from the land (Num. 15:30).

Nichols thus err in locating heart circumcision as a New Covenant reality. In Reformed Covenant Theology, the Old Covenant sign was physical circumcision, signifying heart circumcision. The New Covenant sign is water baptism, signifying Spirit baptism. As Colossians 2:11-13 states, Old Covenant circumcision is replaced with New Covenant baptism. The parallel is not Old Covenant physical circumcision and New Covenant heart circumcision, but Old Covenant physical and heart circumcision, and New Covenant water and Spirit baptism.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Covenant offsprings...

Clearly the covenant of grace displays organic continuity and perpetuity. Wicked men like Cain are Eve's physical children, but they are not her seed. They are neither partakers of this promise, nor parties of the covenant of grace. [Greg Nichols, Covenant Theology: A Reformed and Baptistic Perspective on God's Covenants (Vestavia Hills, AL: Solid Ground Christian Books, 2011), 126]

Cain, Abel and Seth were all Eve's physical children... Abel and Seth were her spiritual children. Cain was the devil's spiritual child. (Ibid., 127)

Greg Nichols' book has been an interesting book from a Reformed Baptist perspective. It is interesting to note how Reformed Baptist Covenant theology is done, and how it differs from traditional Reformed Covenant Theology.

It is slightly disturbing to note in our excerpts that a Reformed Baptist thinks that the federal representation in the Covenant of Grace has to do with who is or isn't Eve's seed. We note that the proto-evangel in Genesis 3:15 concerns Eve's seed (singular) and the serpent's seed (also singular). In other words, this speaks about Jesus Christ, born of a woman, against Satan and his "seed" (the Antichrist). Therefore, to deliberate whether Cain or Abel is or is not Eve's seed is in error, because Eve is not the federal representative of the Covenant of Grace. Christ rather is the federal representative, the Mediator and Surety, of the Covenant of Grace.

The struggle between the seed of the women and the seed of the serpent is the struggle between Christ and the Devil, and thus more broadly of those who follow Christ and those who follow the Devil. Cain manifests himself to be the serpent's seed because he does the works of the devil, which has nothing to do with his parentage. His parentage is of Adam and thus of the broken Covenant of Works, not of the Covenant of Grace. Conversely, Abel and Seth are not Eve's spiritual children, but rather they have Christ as their federal head.

This strange contorted view of the first family fuels Nichols' view of trying to make the Covenant of Grace purely spiritual and not physical. Using this strange view concerning Eve's children, the point is made that it is Eve's spiritual children that are part of the Covenant of Grace, not Eve's physical children. But if we perceive the covenantal representation correctly, then we see that the it is not about whether one's children is "spiritual" that determines whether one is in the Covenant of Grace, but rather whether said children have their federal representation in Christ. Abel and Seth have their federal head in Christ, and are thus part of the Covenant of Grace. Cain has only his federal head in Adam, and thus he dies in his sins.

Friday, February 05, 2016

How the Enlightenment affected theologizing

This change [alteration in method -DHC] revealed itself in (among other things) the following tendencies, which exerted a profound affect on the theology of the Enlightenment.

  1. Theology came to be more or less dependent on philosophy and rational thought. Even in those presentations where the author did not wish to go so far as to replace revelation with natural religion, intending rather to stand fully within the Christian tradition, it was not uncommon to find rational arguments placed alongside revelation on an equal basis. The demand that reason be subjected to the testimony of Scripture was replaced by the firm belief that revelation and rational principles are in complete harmony, plus the desire to legitimize revelation in the presence of reason.

  2. Parallel with theology’s rationalizing was its tendency to moralize. Morality is a more immediate concern than religion to the modern, rational view of life. The promotion of good morals was looked upon as Christianity’s main objective, and ethical content as its very essence.

  3. The idea that religion was based in particular on principles inbedded in human reason supported an individualistic conception: religion became an individual, private matter, its certainty based on a person’s own experiences

  4. A basic characteristic of the theology of the Enlightenment was the tendency to “humanize” Christianity, to accommodate it to an anthropocentric frame. Theology was expected to promote human welfare, and theological truth was expected to harmonize with commonly recognized rational principles. This-worldly goals predominated: earthly happiness and a rational morality were the primary benefits that men expected from religion.

(Bengt Hägglund, History of Theology, 339)

Many of these trends are still with us today, even in supposed "post-modern" circles.

Thursday, February 04, 2016

Lutheran Orthodoxy and the Usus tertius legis

[In Lutheran Orthooxy] Because man is unable to fulfill the Law's demands, it is not a rule for the conduct of his life. Instead, the Law serves to reveal sin, to accuse man, and to condemn all who are not released from the curse of the Law by the grace made available through Christ's atonement. [Bengt Hägglund, History of Theology (4th rev. ed.; trans. Gene J. Lund; St. Louis, MO: Concordia, 1968, 2007), 318]

While Luther believed in the third use of the Law, it seems that Lutheran Orthodoxy does not do so. This should be interesting for those who are interested in Lutheranism, which I am unfortunately not that keen on.

Tuesday, February 02, 2016

WSC Conference 2016: The Holy Spirit in Our Confessions

The 2016 annual conference held by Westminster Seminary California had concluded and the audio and video files have been uploaded to the server. In the second talk, Dr. Fesko spoke about the doctrine of the Holy Spirit in especially the Westminster Confession of Faith, weaving interesting historical facts in the process (and the obligatory Star Wars reference). The talk can be seen here.