Reviewing Jeffrey Johnson’s The Fatal Flaw, Part 5 (Section 2)

In this final installment of our review of Jeffrey Johnson’s The Fatal Flaw, we take up the book’s second division, consisting of eight brief essays devoted to a systematic presentation of the relationships between the Abrahamic, old, Davidic, and new covenants. (For good measure, Johnson also offers an appendix on how the law of Moses relates to the law of Christ. “In short,” he concludes, “the Law of Christ is nothing less than the Law of Moses fulfilled in the life of Christ” [p. 253].) Overall, his stated goal in the second section is “to explain the continuity and discontinuity of the old and new covenants by revealing the dichotomous nature of the Abrahamic Covenant” (p. 207, emphasis original). That dichotomy (i.e., “dual nature”) refers to the two distinct dimensions (i.e., “sides”) of God’s one covenant with Abraham: the natural-earthly-conditional side and the spiritual-heavenly-unconditional side. For Johnson, this dualism is the key to understanding the continuity and discontinuity of God’s covenants. Let’s summarize his main points.

As for Abraham, God pledged to give the patriarch seed and land (among other things), and He fulfills those promises in two forms. There was a provisional fulfillment in the form of a natural seed and an earthly land. These were shadows and types of the permanent fulfillment to come in the form of a spiritual seed and a heavenly land. Significantly, the fulfillments differed as to their basis. The provisional fulfillment for Abraham’s natural seed was conditioned on their faithfulness to God; the permanent fulfillment for Abraham and his spiritual seed was not conditioned on their faithfulness to God, but on God’s faithfulness to them. In light of these factors, says Johnson, God’s covenant with Abraham had a dual nature: it was both conditional and unconditional.

So, how does the Abrahamic covenant relate to the old and new covenants? The old and new covenants are the two sides of the Abrahamic covenant enacted consecutively in two separate covenants. Specifically, the old covenant was an extension of the conditional side of God’s covenant with Abraham, elaborating the works God required to fulfill His promises. The new covenant, on the other hand, is an extension of the unconditional side of God’s covenant with Abraham, elaborating the grace God provides to fulfill His promises. Going on to relate the old covenant to the new covenant, Johnson argues that the old covenant was the conditional covenant of works that had to be satisfied so that the new unconditional covenant of grace might be fulfilled. In light of all this, Johnson says, we understand better how the Abrahamic and old covenants relate to Christ. That is, the conditional side of the Abrahamic covenant, and its extension in the old covenant, were a covenant of works that Christ had to satisfy in order to become the mediator of the unconditional side of the Abrahamic covenant, namely, the new covenant of grace. Thus, the dichotomous Abrahamic covenant, the conditional old covenant, and the unconditional new covenant are all fulfilled because of Christ’s faithfulness.

For the sake of completeness, Johnson also has us ask how the Abrahamic covenant related to the Davidic covenant. Johnson’s answer: the Davidic covenant had the same dual nature as the Abrahamic. God promised David seed and throne, and He fulfills those promises in two forms. There was a provisional form of a natural seed and an earthly throne, the fulfillment of which was conditioned on the faithfulness of David’s natural seed to God. That form foreshadowed the future permanent form of a miraculous seed and a heavenly throne, the fulfillment of which was conditioned on God’s faithfulness to David and that miraculous seed. In this way, Johnson urges us to see that the conditional side of the Davidic covenant, elaborated in the old covenant, was a covenant of works that Christ had to satisfy in order to ascend the heavenly throne and fulfill the new covenant of grace, which is the unconditional side of the Davidic covenant.

In response to Section 2 of Johnson’s book, three (more or less) quick observations. First, it’s hard not to read these essays without wondering if they should have appeared much earlier in the book so that the reader could see better the whole picture into which Johnson fits the pieces of his argumentation. Second, Johnson needs to explain more thoroughly how the historical covenants are an outworking of the eternal covenant between the Father and the Son. For many, that exercise helps to clarify how individual election is a narrower circle within the broader circle of the covenant community polity that has been in effect from the beginning. Third and last, there is profit in Johnson’s comments on the dual nature of God’s covenant with Abraham when he says that to fulfill His promises, the old covenant elaborates the works God requires, while the new covenant elaborates the grace He provides. Johnson is mistaken, however, when he posits that the two sides of the Abrahamic covenant were enacted separately and consecutively in, respectively, the old covenant of works and the new covenant of grace. Rather, they are both administrations of the two sides of the one dichotomous covenant of grace. Yes, we can agree that the old covenant was continuous with the covenant of works (with Adam) in that it effectively (and no doubt more elaborately) republished the demands and sanctions of the first covenant of works. The old covenant, however, was not merely continuous with that covenant of works; it was not merely a reissuance or a republication of that covenant. It was also discontinuous with that covenant in a key way that points to a crucial flaw in Johnson’s thesis: it was discontinuous in that it also republished the promises of the Surety who would satisfy the covenant of works. Significantly, those promises, introduced only after the fall (Gen 3.15), were themselves formalized and elaborated in subsequent administrations of the one covenant of grace, not least in the various prophecies, shadows, and types of the old covenant. In the old covenant, then, along with the Abrahamic, the Davidic, and the new covenants, God has consistently discipled His people, teaching them both about the works He requires and about the grace He provides in the Surety. That being the case, old covenant discipleship was covenant-of-grace discipleship, instructing and building up the elect in their faith in Christ, so that the salvation received under the old covenant was the same in all respects as that received under the new covenant.

Posted by R. Fowler White

3 Comments

  1. johntjeffery said,

    November 21, 2019 at 9:14 pm

    FYI: Here is R. Fowler White’s 5th and final post in his extended review of Jeffrey Johnson’s The Fatal Flaw. Refer to my email of 17 NOV for the 4 previous posts. My complete file is attached with this post added to what was sent in the previous email.

    John T. Jeffery

  2. brandonadams said,

    December 8, 2019 at 12:39 pm

    Dr. White, thank you for taking the time to engage this topic. It has been probably about 10 years since I read the book, so I would have to double check it to see how well this series engages the various points specifically.

    However, I want to provide a little bit of further context for the work. In your first post you place Johnson’s work in the context of New Covenant Theology (Wells, Zaspel, Long). Johnson is not working from that perspective. Rather, Johnson is (mostly) working from the older 17th century particular baptist covenant theology. Long story short, calvinist/reformed baptists went dormant in the 20th century. They spontaneously re-emerged in the mid-20th century. They largely had to re-learn their theology from the ground up and WTS (Murray in particular) were very formative towards that end. But the result was they developed a covenant theology that was not quite the same as what had been historically held by their tradition.

    Not everyone was satisfied with the covenant theology they developed. Eventually more 17th century baptist works became available. RBAP reprinted Nehemiah Coxe’s “A Discourse on the Covenants…” which helped give baptists another perspective on covenant theology. Johnson’s “Fatal Flaw” was the first work written after that point. He incorporated some important insights from that work and it was very helpful at the time. However, subsequent works unpacked the insights more fully, painting a more precise and robust picture.

    Pascal Denault’s “The Distinctiveness of 17th Century Particular Baptist Covenant Theology” is a very helpful comparison between the 17th century baptist view and the 17th century paedobaptist (Westminster) view.

    Samuel Renihan’s dissertation “From Shadow to Substance” is a very robust work in historical theology. https://pettyfrance.wordpress.com/2018/03/15/from-shadow-to-substance/ It is very pertinent to the objections and push for greater precision that you request in your review here. In particular, Renihan does an excellent job of contextualizing the subservient covenant tradition (Cameron, Bolton, Goodwin, Petto, Owen, etc) as an alternative to the majority view (Calvin, Ball, Westminster) as developed in the 16th and 17th centuries. Notably he explains how the typology of subservient covenant theology answers the question of “administration” differently than Westminster. The Old Covenant was not the Covenant of Grace. It was separate from it, though subservient to it. It was “self-standing” on its own at the typological level (a typological covenant of works made with the nation of Israel governing life and blessing in the land of Canaan). Circumcision and the sacrificial system had a primary meaning within this context. They functioned on an Old Covenant level distinct from any additional revelatory purpose they served, pointing to Christ and the New Covenant. Importantly, this revelatory function was not sufficient to make the Old Covenant the Covenant of Grace. Also importantly, the Old Covenant was not the Adamic Covenant of Works. This tradition recognized that there are more than just 2 covenants in Scripture. The post-fall covenants do not need to be shoe-horned into either the Adamic Covenant or the Covenant of Grace. They can (and do) exist and function on their own, though revealing various aspects of both the Adamic Cov and the Cov of Grace (see the recent OPC Report on Republication for brief acknowledgment of this tradition and its difference with Westminster regarding typology/sacramentology – though the Report does not quite get everything right regarding the view).

    Renihan works through the 17th century baptist literature, showing in detail how they applied the same logic to the Abrahamic Covenant.

    More recently, Renihan has published a work developing and applying these insights to our modern context, interacting with modern scholarship on typology, biblical, and covenant theology (The Mystery of Christ, His Covenant, and His Kingdom, 2019).

    These works from Renihan would be the ones to engage with. I think you will find them complementary to your essay in “By Faith” as well as a challenge to the logical consequences of the ideas presented in that essay.

    You can find a variety of material related to this tradition at http://www.1689federalism.com

  3. rfwhite said,

    December 9, 2019 at 10:41 am

    2 brandonadams: Thanks for the note, especially for calling attention to Samuel Renihan’s dissertation. Let me say too that I can see why you thought I was placing Johnson in the context of NCT. I agree with your comment. To clarify, my intent was not to put Johnson in that context, but just to recognize that he was one of several sovereign grace baptists publishing on covenant theology in roughly the same timeframe. Again, thanks for checking in.


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