Types and Sacraments

Posted by R. Fowler White

For those following the dialogue between Dr. Scott Clark and Dr. Sam Renihan on covenant theology among Reformed Christians and Particular Baptist Christians, it’s interesting to watch as apparent agreements surface in their efforts to identify and clarify their disagreement. One particular point of their discussion that has caught my eye is the relationship between old covenant types and new covenant antitypes. On the one hand, Clark tells us that “the New Covenant is the new administration of the Abrahamic covenant without the types and shadows.” On the other hand, Renihan tells us that “when the antitype to which they [i.e., the types] point arrives [in Christ and the new covenant], the typical sign[s] and [their] original significance and context are removed, having served their purpose.” In fact, when we read more of what these two advocates say, they seem to agree (applying Renihan’s words) that types point above and beyond themselves to a greater future reality (namely, the antitypical reality found in Christ). There is even apparent agreement that the benefits of Christ were made known to and received by OT believers specifically through shadows and types. Despite the formal agreement on these points, however, material disagreement persists. Clark and Renihan diverge as they apply these considerations to the sacraments. That divergence is worth closer scrutiny to see if we can get more light of the relationship of covenant theology and typology to sacraments.

Distilling the gist of WCF covenant theology on sacraments for the sake of this discussion, Clark cites Ursinus: “The sacraments of the Old and New Testaments differ in their [outward] signs, but agree in the thing signified,” that “thing” being Christ and his benefits. Renihan, by contrast, distills the gist of 1689 Particular Baptist federalism on sacraments by using typology to distinguish OT and NT sacraments. To appreciate Renihan’s appeal here, it’s important to understand that, for him, a discussion of the extent to which types are distinct from their antitypes and the theological implications that follow is a necessary part of accounting for differences between Reformed Christians and Particular Baptist Christians. With that in mind, Renihan doesn’t dispute the claim that the outward signs themselves differ, but he does dispute the claim that the two sets of sacraments agree in the thing signified. Specifically, he urges that, as types, the OT sacraments signified not one thing, but two: they signified both their initial reality as types (i.e., the ‘outward’ benefits God provided before Christ) and the future reality of their antitype (i.e., the ‘greater and other [more-than-outward]’ benefits God provides in Christ). The NT sacraments, by contrast, signify one thing only: the reality of the ‘greater and other’ benefits God provides in Christ. Notably, as Renihan argues it, the NT sacraments do not bring with them the outward benefits (i.e., the external administration) that the OT sacraments did. Now that the NT reality has arrived, the elect no longer have to look above and beyond the NT signs for a ‘greater and other’ reality to come: that reality is here. In Renihan’s own words: “All that remains is the reality, bringing with it its own signs that clearly and directly portray one thing, the antitype, and nothing else” (his emphasis).

So, how might we react to Renihan’s interaction with Clark? I’d suggest that we can accept Renihan’s acknowledgement that “typology deserves and demands a much more detailed treatment” than he can provide in his blog posts. Even so, it’s useful to ask if he has framed the contrast between OT signs and NT signs distinctly enough. We ask this question because at the heart of Renihan’s proposal is his claim that the arrival of the NT antitypical reality brings the end of the OT typical signs and their outward reality. In the broadest context, there is formal agreement between Clark and Renihan on that point, as we suggested in our opening paragraph. A key question remains to be answered for material agreement to emerge, however: what is “the NT antitypical reality” that has arrived? To be sure, it is “Christ and his benefits.” Yet we also know that “Christ and his benefits” is an “already and not yet” reality. Christ and his benefits arrive in two comings, not in either coming alone; they emerge both in this age and in the age to come, not in one age or the other alone. From that consideration, two observations come to mind. First, each NT sacrament signifies this twofold reality. For example, the benefits of death and resurrection with Christ, signified by baptism, are realized in two stages, original conversion-union with Christ in this age and final glorification-conformity to Christ in the age to come. Similarly, the benefit of fellowship with Christ, signified by communion, comes in two phases, at the Lord’s Supper in this world and at the Lamb’s Marriage Supper in the world to come. As such, it is clear that both sets of sacraments share the same already/not yet realization: the OT sacraments were signs of what was and what would be; the NT sacraments are signs of what is and what will be. Moreover, in both sets of sacraments, promises and warnings of the age to come attend their external administration, confirming that the final antitypical reality is not yet all that remains. In that light, a second observation seems justified: the payoff from Renihan’s appeal to typology is over-realized. Though we can join Renihan in his desire to prevent the flattening of types into outward reality alone and to protect the heightening of types in a greater-than-outward reality, we cannot join him as his take on typology prematurely ushers in the age to come. Instead, to avoid over-realization in our appeal to typology, we will calculate the extent to which types are distinct from their antitypes and the theological implications that follow by referring to the “already and not yet” stages of antitypical realization. With those two ages in mind, it seems clear enough that, during this age, the elect still have to look above and beyond the NT signs for the fullness of Christ and his benefits to come. In fact, it appears that the continuing presence of sacraments is itself an indication that NT antitypical reality is not yet all here.

On Interpretive Grids

I have addressed this question before, but I have some further thoughts on the matter I would like to share. In particular, I would like to address this question: what kind of grid do people have who claim to have no grid at all?

My own grid should be evident to long-time readers of the blog: I hold that the Westminster Standards are a wonderful summary of Scripture’s teaching. The church I serve believes that these standards function as the limits of biblical orthodoxy on the central issues. Within this field, there are variations of interpretation, just as there are many issues the Bible talks about that the Westminster Standards don’t address. The grid is not set in stone for eternity, either. It can be changed if sufficient evidence accrues for it to be incorrect on a particular point. It does not possess infallibility. It is correct insofar as it correctly summarizes Scripture. In this regard, it has the same character as preaching. There should therefore be reciprocity between the Scriptures and the Westminster Standards. Most people who hate the Westminster Standards seek to impose a barrier between Scripture and the Westminster Standards, as if it were the case that believing the Westminster Standards are a true summary of the Bible is a certain proof that such a person does not believe the Bible, or that such a person’s views of interpretation are naively limited.

This attitude (which is so widespread among biblical scholars as to be the clear majority position) helps us get at the point I am trying to make. Those who reject churchly summaries of the Bible’s teaching have a grid of their own. That grid, at the very least, involves putting up a wall between Scripture and churchly confessions of Scripture. The implicit assumption is that the church has completely misread the Bible. Therefore, any interpretation of Scripture that even overlaps with a churchly confession must be automatically wrong. This is a grid! Let me repeat that: this idea is itself a grid! To put it more accurately and precisely, it is an anti-grid which functions in the exact same way as a churchly grid does, only as its opposite. The biggest problem with this grid is its nearly complete invisibility. Those who hold to this grid believe that they have no grid at all.

So here is the truth: everyone has a grid by which they judge which interpretations of Scripture have more plausibility than other interpretations. Those who say they don’t are actually the most naive and least self-aware interpreters who are blind to their own assumptions and prejudices. The church, in general, recognizes all of this, which is why churches make confessions of faith. They want to have an agreed upon interpretation of the central issues so that the church can have a recognizable identity. The challenge for biblical scholars is this: why do so many of you despise the church for which Christ died? Why do so many of you assume that the church always has it wrong? Is it because you idolize being able to say something new and different so that people will stroke your ego and remark how brilliant you are? Is it because of the Enlightenment’s rejection of churchly authority? Is it because you have been hurt in the past by overly authoritarian churches? Is it a combination of factors? There is healing for all of these problems in Jesus Christ. But it requires a hefty dose of humility and self-abasement to come to this realization.

What Is Practical?

2 Timothy 3:16 says this: “All Scripture is breathed out by God, and is profitable for teaching, for rebuking, for correcting, for training in righteousness.” Most people focus on the meaning of the first part of the verse, and expound in very helpful and true ways the Warfieldian sense of “breathe out.” However, what I want to focus on in this post is the whole last part of the verse, which gives us various categories (not necessarily exhaustive!) for answering the question of what is practical.

The reason I want to address this issue is that most people’s views on what is practical are much too narrow. They want to know only what is going to help them right that moment, or the next day at the latest. They want to know what is going to help them at Monday morning at 9 AM. What is practical in Scripture is so much broader than this narrow view. The problem is that those with overly narrow views will tend to “practically” cut out of Scripture any passage that doesn’t meet their definition of what is practical. That is, they won’t read that text, meditate upon it, or talk about it. As a result, they cut themselves off from well over half the Bible’s message. Furthermore, it shows that such people are, in fact, rejecting 2 Timothy 3:16. They don’t believe that all Scripture is profitable. They only believe that some Scripture is profitable. We have to expand our categories of practicality if we are going to appreciate all of Scripture and what the entirety of Scripture can do. If we do not do this, then we are omitting Scripture from our walk with God. This is very dangerous territory!

“Profitable” is another way of saying “useful.” The four words that follow (teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training) are four sub-categories of “profitable.” Teaching is profitable. Let that sink in for a moment. Simply teaching the truth is in itself profitable, even if its immediate practical value is not immediately apparent. Let’s contemplate an example of this: teaching the truth about the Trinity may not seem immediately practical in dealing with real-life crises. However, teaching the truth about the Trinity leads to worship, when done and received properly. Since worship is what we were made to do, that should surely count as practical, should it not? Rebuking is more easily seen as practical, though in individual cases, people often reject it, since they do not like to be told they are wrong about anything they do (rebuke is about incorrect behavior, and correcting is about incorrect doctrine). We need to be rebuked when we are straying off the path. Here, simple arrogance is often what gets in the way. We can’t possibly be wrong in anything we do, can we? Well, maybe we’re wrong about that. And maybe one of the reasons we’re wrong about that is that we have cut off over half of Scripture from actually applying itself to us. Training is a word that has as its analogy the world of sports. One doesn’t just try to run a marathon after being a desk jockey for years. That’s a recipe for heart failure and other serious medical problems. One trains. One gradually increases one’s endurance to the point where a marathon is possible. This is similar to the way we are supposed to ingest Scripture. We train. We are patient. We recognize that Scripture is for the long haul, not just for isolated helps here and there.

In addition to the four categories Paul mentions here, there are other ways in which Scripture can be practical. Here is a list: 1. changing our overall perspective on life and the world (this causes us to react better to life’s circumstances instead of being overwhelmed by them). This may not seem like something practical, at first, since it is not usually immediately applicable to immediate circumstances. However, our overall worldview determines how we react to anything, and our reactions most definitely are within the realm of the practical; 2. a delayed reaction application. Again, this can seem like something impractical, since it doesn’t refer to something happening right then and there. However, haven’t almost all Christians found that something they learned many years ago comes back at exactly the right time to help them? Hiding God’s Word in one’s heart does this kind of thing all the time. This is very practical, though it may not seem like it at the time when that Scripture is learned or memorized. 3. an intermittent application. This is a sort of “on again, off again” idea, wherein something may recur with irregularity (and sometimes with regularity!) and the Scriptures may address this recurring-but-not-always-active type of situation. 4. reference to others. This kind of situation occurs often with the marriage texts in Scripture seen by those who are single. The temptation is for the single person to think that such a text does not apply to them. On the contrary! Ephesians 5 tells us that the church’s relationship with Christ is intimately (!) bound up with the marriage relationship of a man to a woman. All the marriage texts have applications for the church and Christ, and hence, also for the single person. In addition, how are single people supposed to know what to pray for, in terms of their married friends, if they don’t know what the Scripture says about marriage? Another example is of believers and unbelievers. If a text of Scripture addresses unbelievers, the believer can be tempted to think it doesn’t apply to them. Usually, however, there is an altered version of the same idea that does apply to the believer. In the parable of the four soils, for example, three of them are of unbelievers. However, a modified version of those soils can be true of the believer’s heart, too.

So, let’s take the hardest kind of literature in the Bible imaginable, in terms of its practicality, the genealogy. How in the world does one read 1 Chronicles 1-9, for example? It is chock full of names, many of which we don’t see in Scripture in other places. Genealogies do several things. Firstly, they provide continuity in the narrative of Scripture. The same God is at work, and He is doing the same types of things. Genealogies point to the faithfulness of God. Secondly, the people of God in the Old Testament are the people of God, our own spiritual ancestors. This is a list of names connected to our story, not detached from us. Thirdly, any time you see a name you recognize, you’re supposed to remember that person’s story. It is a way of reminding us of many, many stories all at once. Given that genealogies are reminders, that fact in itself shows us the practicality of bringing things to our mind that we already know. We are prone to forget, and genealogies help us remember, when read properly. Fourthly, they point us, through that genealogical continuity, to the line of the seed of the woman, which is Christ Jesus, our Lord. That is where the narrative heads. Fifthly, genealogies remind us that there are no unimportant people in God’s eyes. Everyone is important, even the person who is only mentioned once in the Bible. Surely that means for us that we are not so small that God will not listen to us when we pray. Is that not a great encouragement to prayer?

So we must greatly broaden our view of what is practical. It must fit the entire content of the Bible, or it is too narrow. It must fit the entire content of the Bible, or else we are living in denial of 2 Timothy 3:16. It is amazing to me, frankly, how often I have heard, even from ministers who ought to know better, that such and such passage from the Bible just isn’t practical to preach. What nonsense! Every passage from the Scriptures is practical, as long as that practicality is 1. grounded in the meaning of the text first (if it is not, then we are probably mis-applying Scripture); 2. flows out of our understanding of Jesus Christ being the ultimate content of Scripture, via Luke 24 and John 5; and 3. sees the church as the bride of Christ such that application flows from the meaning of the text to the meta meaning of the text (Jesus Christ) to His bride, the church, and to us as members of that church.