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.

1 Comment

  1. April 27, 2020 at 1:40 pm

    Fowler,

    I think I agree with this analysis in substance.

    Thanks for your thoughtful analysis.


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