On Evangelism in the Old Testament

I just finished reading this slim volume, hot off the press, written by a minister attending the congregation I serve. It is a commonplace belief that claims there is little to nothing that the Old Testament contributes towards the idea of evangelism. Dr. Norm De Jong begs to differ. Some key insights: 1. Evangelism might have a larger purview than we thought before; 2. God is a direct evangelist in the OT; 3. The sovereignty of God is so far from being any kind of obstacle to evangelism that it actually accomplishes evangelism. 4. Any book that helps us connect the OT and NT together is worthy of our attention, and this is the only lay-person oriented book to take up this subject.

Engaging with Aimee Byrd’s Recent Book: Selected Points (#5: Removing Wallpaper)

Posted by R. Fowler White

Discussions of biblical topics and texts like those in Aimee Byrd’s new book are inevitably and decisively influenced by existing commitments and larger frameworks of understanding. Efforts to identify and address those controlling factors are a challenging but necessary and profitable way to sort out differences and to work toward consensus. With this in mind, we return to the place where we began our interaction with Byrd’s book, namely, to the adage that “a woman may do anything in church that an unordained man may do.” No doubt Byrd, like many others, is happy to affirm that this adage is the framework from which she argues for the reciprocal coactivity of laywomen and laymen in the same capacities.

By contrast, without ignoring the aforementioned adage, our engagement with Byrd has taken up selected issues that she raises about the relationship and service of women and men within God’s household, and we have applied to those points the added framework provided by the general and special offices, the elements of worship, and the family-church analogy. So, what happens when we apply that additional background to the issues that Byrd raises? Perhaps this is best summarized in a set of affirmations. From the points we’ve studied in Parts 1, 2, 3, and 4, we would believe and teach:

1. that all believers, men and women, should pursue discipleship, with Christlikeness as its goal, the church’s historic doctrines and practices as its focus, and the local church and the home as its two primary, yet distinct settings mentioned in Scripture;

2. that, when believers come together in church, laymen and laywomen may be coactive in all elements of public worship except those elements, such as the ministry of God’s word to His household,[i] that are reserved to those men who serve in the special teaching office;[ii]

3. that, when believers come together at home, laymen and laywomen should find there a setting where they may be coactive in teaching and learning according to their ability and maturity; and

4. that, whether believers come together in church or at home, they should seek to become examples of maturity; men to be respected as “fathers” in God’s household, among whom are some whose calling is to teach and govern God’s household in the special office of elder, and women to be honored as “mothers” in God’s household whose calling is to teach the younger women.

Whatever else the preceding affirmations may say, it seems clear that we must reevaluate the adage that “a woman may do anything in church that an unordained man may do.” Certainly, the adage rightly reminds us that all believers serve in the general teaching office and may take part in all elements of worship not reserved for those men who serve in the office of elder. Yet our considerations have exposed the adage for what it is: it is itself a yellow wallpaper that hides an important truth. We need to peel back even this covering to reveal the truth of the family-church analogy.

That truth is that the relationship and service of women and men are not just about shared capacities; they are also about distinctive callings. Nor are they just about our shared siblingship; they are also about our different stewardships. Let’s put it another way. Both men and women may become exemplary teachers (Titus 2:3-4; 1 Tim 3:2; Heb 5:12) and exemplary household managers (1 Tim 5:14; 1 Tim 3:4-5). It remains, however, that, in a human family, a woman, as gifted and mature as she may be, can never become a father; a man, as gifted and mature as he may be, can never become a mother. Just as the callings of women and men are not interchangeable in the human family, so they are not in the church family. The adage, then, does not express and should not be allowed to eclipse Paul’s family-church analogy with its bearing on relationships and service in God’s household. In fact, the adage, well intentioned though it may be, is really not much more than another expression of extrabiblical suppositions that stereotype church members, in this case as interchangeable siblings to be treated the same and slotted to serve in the same capacities. The analogy, on the other hand, presents church members as fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, to be appreciated for their differences, not least in calling.

Following the analogy, then, we will affirm that men and women may do anything in church that is in keeping with their callings. Moreover, we will press ourselves to work more carefully at honoring women who devote themselves to becoming and contributing as “mothers” in God’s household, along with men who devote themselves to becoming and contributing as “fathers” in God’s household. We will also press ourselves to work more carefully to comply with those rules in God’s word that are always to be observed, those principles that should govern the full assimilation and deployment of men and women in our churches as required by the family-church analogy, the elements of worship, and the general and special offices.

[i] The public ministry of God’s word would include both its reading and its preaching (as in 1 Tim 4:13).

[ii] To be sure, in a more complete discussion, we would explain that, just as men and women should not be coactive in the ministry of God’s word, so they should not be coactive in the ministry of the sacraments.

Engaging with Aimee Byrd’s Recent Book: Selected Points (#4: Family/Church Analogy)

Posted by R. Fowler White

From our discussion of selected points in Aimee Byrd’s recent book in Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 of our review, we are hopefully clarifying the points on which we can agree and disagree about the results that she sees coming from an equal investment in the discipleship of women and men. We have urged that Byrd’s book is strongest when she calls for a reemphasis on Christlikeness and the church’s historic doctrines and practices as the proper goal and focus of discipleship. We do differ with her, however, when she contends that discipleship will produce laywomen and laymen who serve God’s household in the same capacities. Alternatively, we see discipleship producing laywomen and laymen who are indeed coactive and reciprocal in some capacities that are the same, but in others that are different. In other words, we see discipleship producing women and men whose capacities to serve are correlated with the general and special offices and with the elements of worship. Of course, this correlation is precisely the point at which our visions of discipleship and its results may clash. It is also the point at which it was vital for Paul to elaborate on love of others (1 Cor 12:31–14:1) as the standard that should shape relationships and service in God’s household. To his elaboration of this standard we want to call attention in this post.

As we said in Part 3, according to 1 Cor 14:26-40, love of others requires that during the public ministry of God’s word in its various forms (14:26), those who give and receive that ministry must do all things in a fitting and orderly way, following “the Lord’s command” through the Apostle (14:36-38; 11:16). To get readers to feel the weight of those directives, Paul attaches them to two anchors. One of those anchors is the practices taught and instituted in all the churches (14:33b; 11:2, 16). This connection tells us that, beyond what Byrd and her sources suppose, there is more at stake here than a special rule for a special situation in a specific local church, namely, a rule to stop the disruptive chatting of distracted women during the public ministry of God’s word. No, what is at stake is a standing rule (cf. 7:17b) in all the churches (14:33b), a rule that, during the public ministry of God’s word to His household, the women should not speak but should subject themselves (like the laymen) to those men who aspire to and qualify for service in that special public ministry (14:34; cf. 14:37-38). This is not to say that discipleship between women and men should never be coactive and mutual; it is to say that the appropriate venue for that reciprocal coactivity is the home, not the church’s public meetings (14:35; cf. Acts 18:24-26). The point at stake, then, is that the love of others should constrain a local church not to put its men and women at odds (11:16) with the traditions delivered to all the churches (11:2) when it comes to the public ministry of God’s word.[1]

In addition to those universally binding practices, Paul also appeals in 1 Cor 14:34 to the Law as one of the anchors of his directions. To understand what he means by the Law, it is most helpful to use “the proper hermeneutical lens” through which Byrd, following her sources, wants us to view 1 Corinthians 11–14. With that lens, we see that those four chapters are an essay in which Paul addresses disorders that were occurring when the church came together. Therein, 1 Cor 11:2-16 and 1 Cor 14:33b-40 are bookends that mirror one another, with the intervening sections also mirroring one another in reverse order as they lead to and from the essay’s center point in chapter 13.[2] For our purposes, it is most important to notice that if those bookends do indeed mirror each other, then it is more than reasonable to conclude that the Law in 1 Cor 14:34 is Paul’s shorthand for Genesis 1-3 to which he refers in 1 Cor 11:7-9, 11-12. Seeing, then, this connection between Genesis 1-3 and 1 Corinthians 11 and 14, the chain-link logic in his reasoning comes into view. And, of course, the significance of Genesis 1-3 is that there Paul finds not just the beginnings of man and woman and the family dynamics of their relationship, but also the analogy that those beginnings provide for the relationship between women and men in the church. Thus, we see that, like the apostolic traditions, the Law also forms an anchor for Paul’s explanation of how men and women are to relate and serve in love in God’s household.

Bringing the preceding points together, we see that in 1 Corinthians Paul gets readers to feel the weight of his directives about the public ministry of God’s word from two anchors: the universally binding apostolic traditions and the family-church analogy in Genesis 1-3. But 1 Corinthians is not the only place where the Apostle links his logic to the family-church analogy: we find it again in 1 Timothy. In fact, in 1 Corinthians 11–14 and 1 Timothy 2–5, we have the earliest and latest uses of this reasoning (thus providing us an indication that Paul’s directions for the churches were consistent over the entire course of his ministry). In those chapters, it is really interesting to notice Paul’s recurring interests in the same issues: in gender-appropriate apparel for public worship (1 Cor 11:4-7; 1 Tim 2:9-10), in the elements of public worship (1 Cor 11:4-5; 11:23-26; 14:15-19, 26; 1 Tim 2:1–3:7; 4:13), and in the standards that define and govern relationships between women and men (1 Cor 11:8-9, 11-12, 16; 14:34-38; 1 Tim 2:13-15; 3:4-5, 15; 5:1-2). That Paul repeats himself in these chapters ought to make his reasoning all the more valuable to people struggling to sort out relationships between men and women.

Pointedly, in Paul’s presentation, church standards of relationship and service are a carryover from family standards. As a result, he would have church members, out of love for one another, take into account whether their fellow members are male or female, younger or older (1 Tim 5:1-2). In addition, lest we think that the analogy is only a matter of age and sex, Paul takes it beyond those criteria and applies it to spiritual growth and calling (cf. Eph 4:12-16; Rom 12:2; Eph 5:8-10; Col 1:9-10; see also 2 Pet 3:18; Heb 5:12-14). Thus, he would have men become examples of maturity (cf. 1 Tim 4:12; Titus 2:7), respected as “fathers” in God’s household (cf. 1 Cor 4:15; 11:1; Phlm 10), among whom are some whose calling is to teach and govern God’s household in the special office of elder (Jas 3:1; 1 Tim 3:1-7; cf. 1 Cor 4:15; 11:1; Phlm 10; cf. 1 Pet 5:3). Similarly, he would have women too become examples of maturity, honored as “mothers” in God’s household whose calling is to teach the younger women in God’s household as their “daughters” (Titus 2:3-5; 1 Tim 5:9-10, 14 [with 3:11?]; see also 1 Pet 3:6b; cf. 2 Tim 1:5 with 3:14-15). All things considered, the bottom line of Paul’s family-church analogy is that love of others requires us to oppose any suppositions that a local church is a homogeneous assemblage of interchangeable persons (even siblings) who are to be treated the same and to serve in the same capacities. Instead, Paul bids us to look in love on a local church as a heterogeneous household of fathers, mothers, brothers, and sisters who are to be treated with the honor due to them on account of their differences in sex, age, maturity, and calling.[3]

To draw to a close this series of posts on selected points of Aimee Byrd’s new book, we will look in Part 5 at the adage that “a woman may do anything in church that an unordained man may do” in the light of Paul’s family-church analogy.

[i] Cf. A. C. Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians: A Commentary on the Greek Text (New International Greek Testament Commentary; Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000), 1155.

[ii] The structure of 1 Cor 11:2–14:40 would look approximately like this: A: gender-appropriate apparel in worship, 11:2-16; B: disorder in the ministry of the Lord’s Supper, 11:17-34; C: gifts and the unity of the body, 12:1-30; X: the standard of conduct (love), 12:31-13:13; C´: gifts and the priorities of the body, 14:1-25; B´: disorder in the ministry of God’s word, 14:26-33a; A´: gender-appropriate speech in worship, 14:33b-40.

[iii] The content of this paragraph paraphrases and reapplies observations found in V. S. Poythress, The Church as Family (1990) and in the report submitted by the Committee on Women in Church Office to the Fifty-fifth (1988) General Assembly of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.

Engaging with Aimee Byrd’s Recent Book: Selected Points (#3: Prophesying)

Posted by R. Fowler White

In Part 1 and Part 2 of our interaction with selected themes in Aimee Byrd’s new book, we reviewed 1 Tim 2:12 and Acts 18:24-28 and Col 3:16 (with others) as representative passages related to teaching in the special and general offices. From those texts we gleaned that laymen and laywomen were exhorted to be coactive in the general teaching office, but that the special teaching office was limited to qualified men. From our interaction with Byrd to this point, then, we gather that, since reciprocal coactivity in teaching was not a mark of the special office or of the public meetings of the church, the coactive teaching of those in the general office need not diminish or undermine those in the special office.

Along with texts related to teaching, however, there are also texts related to prophesying, and from them Byrd and many others (including denominational study committees) have argued that women were permitted to prophesy in the church’s public assemblies. As plausible and as widely accepted as this view is, it is pertinent to ask this question: how is it that, when the NT churches gathered in their public meetings, only men were teaching but both women and men were prophesying? To answer this question, it is worth asking if the premise of the question was true: were men and women in fact coactive in prophesying in church? Or was it the case that the same standards regulated teaching and prophesying? Before we comment further on the question of standards, let’s examine the observation that both women and men prophesied when the churches came together.

First, to the extent that Scripture speaks of the prophethood of all believers, we should grant that men and women both did prophesy in church. For instance, in Acts 2:17-18 Peter declares that, insofar as Christ pours out His Spirit on all believers, they all share the prophetic anointing and thus all “prophesy.” That being the case, they all occupy the general prophetic office (e.g., 1 Cor 12:13; 1 John 2:20-27). In this light, the focus of our attention has to shift. Now we must ask, what did the activity of the general prophetic office look like?[1] With Peter’s citation of Joel as an interpretive backdrop for his readers, Luke portrays general prophesying throughout his narrative in Acts as a coactivity of household members, regardless of their sex, age, class, or race. But his narrative pushes us to be more specific. Indeed, Luke describes that activity almost exactly as the Chronicler describes the liturgical prophesying of selected male and female Levites under David (e.g., 1 Chron 25:1-7). That is, those Levitical liturgists are said to have “prophesied” according to their assignments in certain (not all) elements of public worship,[2] namely, as they offered intercession, thanks, or praise (1 Chron 6:31-48; 16:4-7). Interestingly, in Acts we see that under David’s greater Son, male and female believers are said to have “prophesied” as they offered prayer, thanks, or praise. Specifically, as we follow Luke’s narrative, we are struck by the fact that, wherever Christ poured out His Spirit (in Jerusalem [Acts 1:14; 2:11], in Caesarea [Acts 10:44-46], in Ephesus [Acts 19:6], in Corinth [1 Cor 12:13], and beyond), the coactivity of men and women in many acts of public worship bore witness to their fellowship in the prophethood of all believers that the Spirit of Christ was forming.

Second, in addition to the general prophetic anointing of all believers, Scripture describes the special prophetic ministry of some believers (1 Cor 12:28-30; Eph 4:11). Upon closer examination of the prophetic activity in 1 Corinthians 11–14, it becomes clearer that, as they prophesied, men and women were coactive in certain elements of public worship, but not in all. For example, remembering that the Chronicler and Luke tell us that men and women “prophesied” as they were offering intercession, thanks, or praise, we need not be surprised when Paul tells us in 1 Cor 11:4-5 and 14:15-19 that men and women “prophesied” in those very same acts of worship. Other elements of worship, however, come into view in 1 Cor 11:2–14:26 (cf. Acts 2:42; 1 Tim 2:1-15; 3:14-15; 4:13). From this wider context, we realize that Paul’s overriding concern is to see all elements of public worship regulated by love of others (1 Cor 12:31–14:1). Strikingly, according to 1 Cor 14:26-40, love requires that during the public ministry of God’s word (14:26), anyone contributing to that ministry must follow the Apostle’s directives (14:36-38) on when to speak and when to be silent (14:27-35). In fact, in light of the question of whether prophesying was regulated by the same standards as teaching, it is critical to notice that the Apostle’s directives applied whether God’s word was brought in the form of “a psalm, … a teaching, … a revelation, … a tongue, … [or] an interpretation” (1 Cor 14:26b NASB95). Clearly, insofar as teaching and prophesying contributed to the public ministry of God’s word, Paul regulated them both by the same standards. Thus, 1 Cor 14:34-35 is an awfully close parallel to 1 Tim 2:11-15 (we will have more to say about this parallel in Part 4). In that light, it is remarkable to notice that, consistent with the distinction we saw between the general and special teaching offices, we also see a distinction between the general prophetic anointing and the special prophetic ministry. By all appearances, when God’s household came together (1 Cor 14:26a), men and women were expected to be coactive in the general prophetic office (e.g., 1 Cor 11:4-5; 14:15-19), but the special prophetic ministry of God’s word, like the special teaching ministry of God’s word, was limited to men (1 Cor 14:34-35). In other words, contrary to what Byrd and many others have argued, the Apostle’s policy on prophesying was, in “all the churches of the saints” (1 Cor 14:33b), coordinated with the general prophetic anointing of all and the special prophetic ministry of some: that is, Paul limited that element of worship devoted to the special prophetic ministry of God’s word to men; and, consistent with the general prophetic anointing of all, he approved of women and men being coactive in prophesying during those other elements of worship not devoted the ministry of God’s word. In short, in all the congregations of Christ’s church, the principles that regulated teaching and prophesying were the same.

In what has preceded, we have sought to show how Paul correlates the coactivity of women and men in prophesying and in teaching with the general and special offices. We have also sought to highlight that the Apostle cites love as the standard that shapes his directives for participation in the elements of public worship. We can understand even better, however, where Paul anchors his policy on women and men in teaching by taking one more step. We’ll take that step in Part 4.

[1] The trajectory of the following comments was first suggested to me by Dr. R. Laird Harris. Recently, essentially the same trajectory has been suggested independently by Iain M. Duguid, “What Kind of Prophecy Continues? Defining the Differences between Continuationism and Cessationism,” in Redeeming the Life of the Mind: Essays in Honor of Vern Poythress, ed. John Frame, Wayne Grudem, and John Hughes (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2017), 112–28.

[2] By “elements of worship” we mean reading and preaching God’s word, singing psalms and hymns, offering prayer, presenting offerings, confessing the faith, and administering Baptism and the Lord’s Supper.

Engaging with Aimee Byrd’s Recent Book: Selected Points (#2: Acts 18:24-28; Col 3:16)

Posted by R. Fowler White

In Engaging with Aimee Byrd’s Recent Book: Selected Points (Part 1), we urged that in 1 Tim 2:12 the Apostle Paul sets out a policy for the churches that limits the public teaching (and governing) of God’s household to men who aspire to and qualify for eldership. Apart from that conclusion, we readily acknowledge with Byrd that there are certainly other NT texts where laywomen and laymen are coactive in teaching one another. Acts 18:24-28 and Col 3:16 are two of those texts. In this installment of our interaction with Byrd, we’ll look more carefully at these passages.

When we turn to Acts 18:24-28, we find Luke’s review of an episode in which a married Jewish couple, coworkers with Paul in his Gentile mission (Rom 16:3), teach a well-spoken, well-versed Jewish preacher of the OT Scriptures. Intent on highlighting the discretion of Priscilla and Aquila as they approached Apollos to instruct him, Luke draws the reader’s attention, with some evident care, to the contrast between his actions in the public eye and their actions out of it. After Apollos is said to have spoken boldly “in the synagogue” (18:26; cf. “in public,” 18:28), Priscilla and Aquila are reported to have “invited him to their home” for a private tutorial (18:26, NIV; cf. “took him aside,” ESV, NASB95, CSB, and NKJV). In addition, Luke describes the explanation that Priscilla and Aquila gave to Apollos, not as an individual effort of either spouse, but as a joint effort of both spouses. Given the particulars of this episode, we might wonder if or how Luke’s narrative harmonizes with Paul’s directive in 1 Tim 2:12. Noticeably, Luke’s account depicts a woman, alongside her husband, instructing a man while they all met in a private location, perhaps the couple’s residence. This coactivity of Priscilla and Aquila was not a function of the special teaching office and did not occur in a public meeting of the church (or synagogue), but it did yield a great harvest of gospel grace when Apollos emerged from his lesson with Priscilla and Aquila and went on to “water” where Paul had “planted” among those in Achaia (Acts 18:27-28 with 1 Cor 3:6). Luke’s description in Acts 18, then, harmonizes with Paul’s prescription in 1 Timothy 2 in that Luke portrays a laywoman and a layman, not in the public teaching of God’s household or in the special teaching office, but in the general teaching office, coactively teaching another man in private as the couple worked with Paul in his apostolic mission to the Gentiles.

Turning to Col 3:16, it’s apparent that Paul is exhorting church members to teach and admonish one another, but we can elaborate on the words there. Granted the teaching envisioned in this text relates especially (though not exclusively) to the doctrinal content of the songs we sing, the expression “teaching and admonishing” recalls the Apostle’s description of his own ministry in Col 1:28 and effectively reminds readers that “everyone when fully trained will be like his teacher” (Luke 6:40; cf. Eph 4:12). The phrase in Col 3:16 also mimics Paul’s description in Rom 15:14 of the reciprocal instruction of which members of the church in Rome were capable. More remarkable still is the expectation expressed by the writer of Hebrews about his readers in 5:12: by this time you ought to be teachers. To be sure, through the discipleship process, some in God’s household would distinguish themselves as examples worthy of emulation (Heb 5:14), and certain of those examples would be men who aspired to and qualified for eldership (Heb 13:7, 17; 1 Pet 5:3). Yet we are not to think that in 5:12 the writer of Hebrews presents the special teaching office as the only fruit of discipleship ministry. No, as Byrd might remind us, while texts like Col 3:16, Rom 15:14, and Heb 5:12-14 are general enough to include what qualified men do in the special teaching office, they also provide the basis for laywomen and laymen to do what Priscilla and Aquila did in the general teaching office. That is, because every believer has Spirit-given ability to understand and communicate truth (1 Cor 2:6-16; 1 John 2:20-27) and so occupies the general teaching office, we take it that in Col 3:16 and similar passages Paul is exhorting church members to teach each another, even as they allow for differences of ability and maturity (Heb 5:12-14). In other words, such texts should cause us to see that reciprocal coactivity in the general teaching office is also the fruit of discipleship properly embraced. In this light, we can see how Paul’s exhortation in Col 3:16 and in comparable texts squares with his regulation in 1 Tim 2:12.

To this point in our interaction with Byrd’s book, we’ve pulled together representative passages related to teaching the church in its public meetings, and we’ve found that the fruit of discipleship is seen in both the general and the special teaching offices. Though the task of teaching the church in its public meetings is fulfilled only by men aspiring to and qualified for the special teaching office, Scripture clearly expects laywomen and laymen to be coactive in the general teaching office according to their ability and maturity. As Byrd points out, however, good and relevant questions about these conclusions do understandably arise when we compare Paul’s regulations for teaching with his regulations for prophesying. His statements oblige us to deal with the question, was it the case or not that, when the church came together, women and men were both prophesying and only men were teaching? We plan to take up that topic in our next post (Part 3).

Engaging with Aimee Byrd’s Recent Book: Selected Points (#1: 1 Tim 2:12)

Posted by R. Fowler White

As Lane acknowledged in his first post on Aimee Byrd’s new book, certain statements in a book stand out to some reviewers as controlling or recurring factors in its argumentation. To other reviewers, more incidental statements get their attention because to their eyes those assertions are as conspicuous as missed paint strokes on the dining room wall. Despite our differences in approach to Byrd’s work, however, Lane and I have a common interest in giving it a respectful, rigorous, and vigorous hearing. For my part, I take it that Aimee Byrd is a serious-minded disciple of Christ, a member-in-good-standing of a Reformed congregation of Christ’s church. In my view, she has posed fair and important questions to which pastors and teachers should give thoughtful answers, and she has made serious pleas to which careful responses are required. From all I can see, she desires and anticipates that her research, interpretations, and theological reasoning will be seriously weighed. For what my thoughts may be worth, I’ll focus on selected points in her presentation.

Before getting to those points, let me orient the reader to my stance by summarizing what I understand to be the overall strength and weakness of Byrd’s three-part book. From where I sit, the book is strongest when, in part 2, she points out errors in certain complementarian teaching and calls for a reemphasis on the proper goal (i.e., Christlikeness) and focus (i.e., the church’s historic confessions) of discipleship, a reemphasis marked by an equal investment in the discipleship of women and men with that goal and focus in mind. On the other hand, however, the book is weakest when, in parts 1 and 3, she identifies the fruit of that discipleship as laywomen and laymen serving in the same capacities in God’s household. In the end, I believe the book’s weakness has made and will make it harder for its strength to be appreciated in certain circles.

With that orientation, let’s begin this interaction with Byrd’s book by noticing that the adage that “a woman may do anything in church that an unordained man may do” is now commonplace in discussions (including Byrd’s) of women and speaking gifts in Reformed circles and elsewhere. This is especially the case when the adage is set over against the concept of “authoritative teaching” in conversations about church ministry. Meanwhile, denominational study committee reports (like those in the OPC and PCA) and new books (like Byrd’s) continue to be published on women and men in church ministry. It seems appropriate, then, to focus again on the activity of men and women in the ministry of teaching in God’s household as it is represented in Scripture. Admittedly, in this series of posts,[i] we will not be able to cover all facets of this topic. We will offer, instead, a succession of posts on selected points as key components for any broader consideration.

Given our focus on teaching, it would be a good preliminary step to clarify what is meant by authoritative and non-authoritative teaching. Basically, the difference is this: “authoritative teaching” is “official teaching,” teaching done while holding the office of elder; “non-authoritative teaching” is “non-official teaching,” teaching done while not holding the office of elder but having the approval of elders. In large measure, the description overlaps with the historic Reformed distinction between teaching in the special office (held by elders ordained to it) and in the general office (granted to all believers). We’ll make use of the special/general distinction later. For now, without disputing the official/non-official distinction, let’s ask, what is its exegetical basis in Scripture? Granted that the verb “teach” and its cognates, used without qualification, mean “instruct according to the apostolic traditions” (e.g., Acts 2:42; 1 Tim 1:3; 4:11; 6:2b-5; 2 Tim 2:2; Rom 16:17; 1 Cor 4:17; Col 1:28; 2:7; 2 Thess 2:15), the exegetical basis of the official/non-official distinction in recent discussion has most frequently involved the claim that in 1 Tim 2:12 Paul refers not to teaching, on the one hand, and exercising authority, on the other; rather, he refers to “teaching from a position or an office of authority” and thus to “teaching authoritatively, teaching officially.” What can we say about this interpretation of 1 Tim 2:12?

First, a brief word about context. The immediate context of 1 Tim 2:12 (i.e., 2:1–3:15) is devoted to regulations for the public activity of men and women as it relates to prayer, apparel, discipleship, and officers in God’s household. Thus, it is clear enough that the activity in view here takes place in the church’s public meetings. Second, as for limiting the instruction in 1 Tim 2:12 to the concept of “authoritative teaching,” there is scant evidence to support the claim that in fact that text refers only to “teaching authoritatively or officially.” That is, the syntactical construction does not tell us that the two infinitives conjoined in 1 Tim 2:12—“to teach or to exercise authority”—express one idea (such that the second infinitive modifies the first, thus expressing the one idea “teach authoritatively”). Instead, the two infinitives are conjoined to express two related but distinct ideas. The point is, the syntax of 1 Tim 2:12 strongly favors the view that Paul has two activities in mind, not one.[ii] Well, so what? What’s the payoff of the “two-activities” interpretation of 1 Tim 2:12 for the coactivity of men and women in teaching the church?

The “two-activities” interpretation constrains us to conclude, in contrast to Byrd’s argument that the reciprocal coactivity of men and women in God’s household is the fruit of discipleship, that the Apostle does not permit men and women to be coactive in teaching the church in its public meetings. In fact, Paul’s references to teaching and governing in 1 Tim 2:12 reappear in the qualifications of men who aspire to the church’s eldership (see 1 Tim 3:1; teaching, 1 Tim 3:2 and 5:17b; governing, 1 Tim 3:5 and 5:17a). Seeing, then, that Paul addresses restrictions on two public activities of women and men in 1 Tim 2:12, there is sufficiently explicit biblical basis to conclude that the Apostle limits the public teaching and governing of God’s household to men who aspire to and qualify for eldership (the bases of this policy in the creation and fall of the first man and woman have been discussed elsewhere). That being the case, this text makes a decisive, even controlling contribution to the discussion that Byrd rightly wants us to have. Believing, however, that her affirmations of male-only ordination are enough to satisfy us on this text or its implications, she chooses not to discuss it. This choice, in my judgment, is a major miscalculation, since it raises doubts about the advisability of publishing a book that does not address the texts that pose, at least ostensibly, the most obvious and serious challenges to her proposals. Even so, she is right to put forward other biblical texts on men and women in teaching for us to consider. We’ll turn to some of those passages in subsequent posts.

[i] This series of posts represents the content of a complete rewriting of an article of mine that appeared in Ordained Servant, a publication of the Committee on Christian Education of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Vol. 10, No. 1 (January 2001), pp. 10-13.
[ii] For more on this point, see A. J. Köstenberger, “A Complex Sentence Structure in 1 Timothy 2:12,” in A. J. Köstenberger and T. R. Schreiner, eds., Women in the Church: An Interpretation and Application of 1 Timothy 2:9-15 (3rd. ed.; Baker, 2016), pp. 117-162.

The Introduction to Aimee Byrd’s Recent Book

Fowler and I decided that we needed to address in depth the contents of Aimee Byrd’s recent book Recovering from Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. We are both aware of several of the other critiques on offer. Some of them are on target, some of them have problems, and none of them are able to go into the kind of depth we intend. We are also aware of the Genevan Commons situation. Fowler and I both repudiate the personalized comments on that website concerning Aimee Byrd, though it also appears that innocent people have been smeared by some of the “discernment blogs.” We have no intention of wading into that brouhaha, only to note that it happened, and that we are aware of it. Our critique of the book will keep personalities completely out of the equation. Aimee Byrd wrote a theological book for laypeople. It is on that level that our critique will rest. Also, it should be firmly kept in mind that Fowler and I both reject the position of some theologians who argue for female submission on the basis of the heretical assertion that the second person of the Trinity is eternally subordinate to the first. These caveats seem necessary due to the unusual situation in which this book has come to publication and been received. That being said, our critiques will differ from each other. Mine will be more comprehensive and detailed. As such, it will not be synthetic. Some criticisms will therefore seem out of proportion to the totality of what Byrd is trying to accomplish. That is only because some issues will take longer to untangle than others. Those that do take longer may not be as central to Byrd’s argument. Fowler wants to address selected issues in a more synthetic direction. It should not be assumed that he and I agree on every point.

The introduction explains the metaphor of the yellow wallpaper. Based on a short story by Charlotte Gilman, Byrd uses the metaphor to mean a layer of blindness in church culture due to traditional patriarchal structures (17). What she wants to do in this book is to alert readers to the existence of this wallpaper, and then encourage people to do something about it (19). To put it more clearly, she believes that cultural stereotypes of how men and women should act are the wallpaper (21).

One of her aims, though by no means the only one, is to dismantle the problematic elements of the book Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, the volume edited by John Piper and Wayne Grudem (hence the title of Byrd’s book). As we will see, a large impetus for Byrd’s critiques comes from the 2016 controversy on the eternal subordination of the Son (ESS, abbr.).

Another of her main aims is to promote communal fellowship in the church, which she believes has been hampered by the yellow wallpaper. This communion is also hampered by an individualism (27) that works against both Byrd’s vision and against the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW, the organization that promoted and published the above mentioned book). Byrd believes that a narrow focus on the issues CBMW raises has resulted in a corresponding lack of concern for Christlikeness (26). What Byrd hopes to accomplish is a recovery of the beauty of the church (28).

This is a somewhat brief summary of where Byrd is going in the introduction. What follows is evaluation. As has been mentioned, I agree with Byrd that ESS is heresy. I can also agree, in principle, that an overly narrow focus on one issue can certainly make higher priorities fuzzy. I further agree wholeheartedly that “Men and women are not androgynous. Gender is not fluid” (19). I agree that individualism has run amok in America, such that people are afraid to commit to the church at all. This is definitely an obstacle to fellowship in the body of Christ. I further agree with some of her critiques of CBMW’s volume. Indeed, if complementarianism be defined by ESS and by the particulars Piper lays out, I would not be one. However, there are several places in the introduction where I must register dissent. A minor issue is her assertion that the ancient Greeks are the basis for supposing women’s brains to be inferior to men’s brains. She offers no sources for this claim. She might very well be correct in this assertion. However, it should be argued and sourced, given the importance of the claim.

Secondly, she asserts, in connection with Gilman’s short story, “Since women weren’t even given the right to vote until 1920, poor Charlotte Perkins Gilman didn’t have much of a voice when it came to her own diagnosis and treatment” (14-15). The suffrage of women (and men!) is far more complicated than certain narratives suppose. Wyoming gave the right to vote to women in 1869, Utah in 1870, Colorado in 1893, Idaho in 1896, and all the Western states had women’s suffrage before the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920. Furthermore, poor white men did not have the vote, in some cases, until well after 1920. The reader assumes that Byrd is using the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment to assert that someone like Gilman would not have had the ability or the right to say anything about her own medical treatment. It is difficult to see a connection, however, between suffrage and medical treatment. It would need, at least, to be argued rather than asserted. Is Byrd implying that women had no voice whatsoever in America before 1920? To broaden the point, Byrd seems to be appropriating a reading of history that is debatable without any acknowledgement that it is debatable.

Thirdly, in Byrd’s summary of the story of the yellow wallpaper, it becomes clear that motherhood is seen as a lesser profession (15-16). When combined with what Byrd says on page 17, what emerges is that if a woman wants to go to work, but is “forced” into the lesser profession of motherhood, then she is being oppressed by the “traditional patriarchal structures” (17). Viewing motherhood as a lesser profession is a tenet of feminism, not something the Bible teaches. The Bible praises motherhood in many places, not least in the fifth commandment.

Fourthly, Byrd notes the story’s critique of John’s treatment of Jane, treating her “more like a fragile child than his wife” (17). No doubt that is how the story runs. I want to bring up a point about feminism here, which also treats women as fragile, though in different ways. Feminism tends to assert that feminists should never have to endure any patriarchal behavior from anyone, and that they should never have to be offended by anyone. Doesn’t that treat women as fragile? I am not saying that Byrd believes this tenet of feminism. I am merely complementing (pun intended) Byrd’s observation about treating women as fragile with a parallel observation that feminism treats women as fragile in some ways, too. The feminist fragility is much more invisible today than the fragility Byrd descries. A book cannot address everything. But, as we will see, the blind spots of feminism(s) are not things that Byrd sees in the book. I am not calling Byrd a feminist. She doesn’t in the book. Feminists themselves have a huge variety of opinions on many things, such that the label is not particularly helpful anymore.

Fifthly, and as something we will see several times in the book, Byrd speaks of cultural stereotypes as if patriarchal ones are the only stereotypes in play, and that they are still somehow all-controlling. She says, “Like John and Jane, we want to do what is right but often get sucked into cultural stereotypes that confine us without our even noticing it” (18). The stereotypes she has in mind are undoubtedly the often-bashed 1950’s stereotypes about a woman’s place and a man’s place. However, the question that can quite legitimately be raised at this point is this: what about the feminist stereotypes for what a woman ought to be? Throughout the book, in my opinion, Byrd over-estimates the power of the 1950’s stereotypes and under-estimates the power of feminist stereotypes. I think, in fact, that it is quite impossible to engage in 1950’s stereotypical behavior in such an invisible fashion as Byrd describes. It would be swimming against the grain of approximately 99% of today’s culture. If anyone is going to behave like a 1950’s family, they are going to stick out like a very sore thumb.

Sixthly, when she quotes John Piper’s definition of femininity, she summarizes it in this way, “These definitions appear to say that all men lead all women” (22). Is this summary something that Piper would agree is a fair summary of his position? This is unlikely, given what Piper says on page 50 of the same article: “But she will affirm and receive and nurture the strength and leadership of men in some form in all her relationships with men. This is true even though she may find herself in roles that put some men in a subordinate role to her” (50). He then lists twelve possible occupations that could have such relationships, where indeed, a woman would be leading a man. Whether Piper is correct in his analysis (50-51 of Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood) of these relationships is beside the point. The point is I doubt Piper would think Byrd accurately summarized his position. On the rest of Byrd’s page, she only references the “yellow wallpaper” examples, without acknowledging the qualifications inherent in the very definition Piper offers, and in the rest of Piper’s article. The qualifications in the definition itself are revealing: the word “worthy” needs to be emphasized, as does the phrase “in ways appropriate to a woman’s differing relationships.” The former qualification is the more important one, as it cuts out all possible feminine submission to unworthy men. This word alone makes Byrd’s summary a distortion. The second qualifier recognizes that being feminine is going to look quite different in different relationships, including those in which women may wind up being the leader. Therefore, I conclude that Byrd’s summary is a distortion of Piper’s position, not what Piper believes.

Seventhly and lastly, she asserts that aiming for biblical manhood and womanhood in the method CBMW advocates misses “the bigger picture of Christlikeness to which we are called” (26). She almost seems to be asserting that CBMW’s viewpoint on manhood and womanhood actually prevents people from being Christlike. She does not use any qualifier here like “may” or “could.” She asserts that it simply does. I doubt CBMW would agree. CBMW would argue that the biblical descriptions of womanhood and manhood are ways to pursue Christlikeness (and I would add that some of their authors accomplish this better than others). If Byrd is correct in her assessment, then no one in the history of the church who had any view of manhood and womanhood similar to CBMW’s would be Christlike at all. Is Byrd really willing to disenfranchise such a huge number of Christians of the past? This would be a sectarian position. I doubt Byrd had this problem in mind when she wrote that assertion. However, it is a legitimate question to raise.

I will conclude with this question: did Byrd give the manuscript of this book to anyone who fundamentally disagrees with her positions? She says, for example, that the book “isn’t a man-bashing book” (19). Undoubtedly Byrd thinks, from her perspective, that the book doesn’t bash men, nor does she intend to. Readers can believe that she means what she says. However, did she also run this book by someone who might see things in ways she doesn’t, such that unintentional bashing of men could also be averted? It does not seem so.

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

Posted by R. Fowler White

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.

Reviewing Jeffrey Johnson’s The Fatal Flaw, Part 4 (Chs. 12-16)

Posted by R. Fowler White

We turn now to part 4 of our review of Jeffrey Johnson’s The Fatal Flaw (2010), looking at chs. 12-16. Together these chapters conclude the first division of Johnson’s treatment of the covenantal framework in which paedobaptism is rooted. (He’ll devote the second division to what he calls “Covenantal Dichotomism.” In it he’ll discuss the relationships between the Abrahamic, old, Davidic, and new covenants.) The focus here is on a) four key differences between the old and new covenants, b) the nature of the new covenant, c) the meaning of circumcision, and d) the error of integrating the flesh and the spirit. From this brief summary, the reader will sense some intentional repetition in Johnson’s presentation, as he collates and, to a degree, sharpens his lines of argument.

In chs. 12-13 Johnson reminds us that the old and new covenants differ as to their participants, substance, duration, and efficacy. First, he insists once more that the new covenant guarantees the salvation of all its participants, whereas the old covenant did not (as OT history shows). In response, we emphasize once again that his claim is predicated on the false premise that, even before judgment day, the new covenant is meant to separate the elect from the reprobate and to define the community formed under it as coextensive with individual election. Historical covenant and individual election, however, are not coextensive. Second, Johnson moves on to represent paedobaptists as mixing old covenant shadows with new covenant realities by connecting infant circumcision with baptism. No, it isn’t old covenant shadows to which we cling; instead we cling to the creation ordinances of family and parental authority that have been constitutive of covenant polity from the beginning. Third, despite Johnson’s odd claim to the contrary (p. 158), paedobaptists don’t deny that the old covenant is obsolete (cf. Heb 8.13). What we deny is that the covenants’ difference in duration annuls their sameness in substance: both covenants set forth the gospel of the promised Surety, the old in types, the new in antitypes. Fourth, Johnson repeats his claim that, unlike the old covenant, the new covenant is effectual for justifying, regenerating, and sanctifying all who are brought into its membership. We can agree that the two covenants differ in power, but Johnson’s claim about all new covenant members does not follow unless he can show 1) that the new covenant is only an administration of salvation to the elect, and 2) that the people brought into its membership, before judgment day, are only the elect in Christ. This he has not done.

Moving on to ch. 14, Johnson again discusses the nature of the new covenant, restating his position that the old covenant principles of parental headship, theocracy, racial distinctiveness, and racial perpetuity don’t apply in the new covenant. Though we agree that certain old covenant principles that preserved Christ’s lineage have ended, we cannot agree with Johnson’s assertions, quoting Jer 31.29-30, that “under the Mosaic Covenant children were not viewed independently” of their parents’ headship and that parents’ headship over their children “would be completely eradicated” under the new covenant (pp. 175-76). Both assertions are demonstrably false. On the one hand, under the old covenant, children were in fact “viewed independently” of their parents’ headship (Jer 31.30 echoes Deut 24.16). On the other hand, under the new covenant, it’s not that parental headship ends; rather it’s that, as people confess that each person suffers for his own sins, they stop complaining that “innocent children” (present generations) suffer unjustly for the sins of their “fathers” (past generations). Far from being eradicated under Christ’s new covenant lordship, parental headship continues to be constitutive of covenant polity.

In ch. 15, Johnson revisits the topic of circumcision, this time to debunk the paedobaptist teaching that circumcision was a sign of the covenant of grace for all of Abraham’s biological seed just as it was for Abraham. Johnson contends that, according to Rom 4.11, circumcision was a sign of the covenant of grace only for Abraham and for those who shared his faith, but it was a sign of the (old) covenant of works for those who received circumcision without or before faith. Here again, Johnson begs the question of what counts as a covenant of grace, presuming that the covenant of grace is only an administration of guaranteed blessing and thus that circumcision is only an index of faith. This construct, however, misses the two sides of circumcision in the context of the two-sided covenant of grace. As we’ve been saying, the covenant of grace is not just a guarantee of blessing, but is an administration of both curse (Gen 12.3b; 17.14) and blessing (Gen 12.2-3; 17.4-8). Within that context, circumcision presented both sanctions to sinners. To be sure, circumcision signified the blessing of justification (Rom 4.11) to sinners who by faith (Gen 15.6) found righteousness in the covenant’s Surety, Abraham’s true Heir, who would obey God’s demands (Gen 17.1b). Yet circumcision also signified the curse of judgment to sinners who would (and could) not obey God’s demands (Gen 17.1b, 9-14), and to them circumcision became uncircumcision (Rom 2.25). Overall, it’s not, as Johnson claims, that circumcision was a sign of the covenant of grace to those who received it in faith but a sign of the covenant of works to those who received it without or before faith; rather it’s that circumcision was the two-sided sign of God’s two-sided covenant of grace, signifying to sinners—parents and their children alike—especially His promises of justification and life and also His threats of judgment and death.

In ch. 16, Johnson turns his attention to discrediting the paedobaptist teaching on the genealogical principle, of which Gen 17.10-13 is a key expression. To realize his aim, Johnson evaluates what he identifies as three paedobaptist beliefs: 1) what was true of Abraham’s seed must be equally true of every new covenant believer’s seed; 2) what was true of the covenants before the new covenant must be true of the new covenant; and 3) what was true of covenant households before the new covenant must be true of new covenant households. In these claims, Johnson says, paedobaptists persist in combining, as the covenants before the new covenant did, what the new covenant requires them to separate: flesh and spirit (the physical/natural and the spiritual/supernatural). Sounding like a broken record, we point out once more that Johnson again presumes that, before judgment day, the new covenant is intended to separate spirit from flesh and to identify all members gathered under it as siblings reborn of the Spirit. Though we join Johnson in his desire not to depreciate the progress of covenant history, we can’t join him as he falls for the opposite error of prematurely ushering in the world to come. That is, by arguing for baptism and the covenant of grace as he does, he would have the final separation of flesh and spirit already being realized, even while the member-branches of Abraham’s covenant family tree are still weighing the kindness and the severity of God (Rom 11.17-22).

Reviewing Jeffrey Johnson’s The Fatal Flaw, Part 3 (Chs. 7-11)

Posted by R. Fowler White

Continuing with part 3 of our review of Jeffrey’s Johnson’s The Fatal Flaw, we come to chs. 7-11 where Johnson carries on with what he calls his “direct and pointed attack on the covenantal framework in which paedobaptism is rooted” (p. 21). Our focus here is on his arguments devoted to the problems of conditions and covenant breakers (i.e., apostates) in paedobaptist covenant theology (chs. 7-9) and to the deficiencies and purpose of the old covenant (chs. 10-11).

As Johnson discusses in chs. 7-9 paedobaptist attempts to solve the problems posed by integrating conditions and apostates in the covenant of grace, his aim is to put a challenge to paedobaptists as follows: they should just admit that their every attempt to integrate conditions and apostasy into the covenant of grace (as they conceive it) destroys the grace of that covenant. Any covenant of grace worthy of the name must secure the grace needed to bring all its members in and keep them in, else membership in it is meaningless. With that challenge to paedobaptist covenant theology in mind, Johnson takes up the deficiencies and purpose of the old covenant. He tells us in ch. 10 that the deficiencies of the old covenant at fulfilling God’s promises were evident in that the bulk of its heirs were merely carnal, its blessings merely this-earthly, and its duration merely temporary. Having presented in ch. 10 what God’s purpose for the old covenant was not, Johnson explains in ch. 11 what His purpose was. That purpose was fourfold: 1) to expose the guilt and inability of sinners; 2) to point sinners to Christ; 3) to foster the nation’s political, moral, and genealogical security and purity; and 4) to reassert the standard to be satisfied for the ungodly to be justified (true heirs of Abraham).

In response to Johnson’s arguments in these chapters, let’s take the content of chs. 10-11 first. His treatment of God’s purpose in giving the old covenant is useful, especially in ch. 11. Even so, his primary interest is to show that, because God’s purpose in giving the old covenant was not to fulfill His eternal and spiritual promises, it cannot be a covenant of grace. This conclusion does not follow, however. We can agree that God’s purpose in giving the old covenant was not to fulfill His eternal and spiritual promises in their full and final form. We can agree that the old covenant was not intended to produce the true Heir of God’s promises: that Heir would not come through the old covenant tribe and order of Levi, but through Judah’s tribe and Melchizedek’s order. We can agree the old covenant was not intended to produce the true heirs of God’s promises: those heirs would look beyond Sinai and follow in the footsteps of father Abraham’s faith to find a righteousness better than their own and an inheritance better than Canaan. We cannot agree, however, that God’s purpose did not fulfill His promises in a temporary and physical form that instructed and built up the remnant in faith in the eternal and spiritual form available through the Surety to come. In other words, God’s purpose in giving the old covenant was to fulfill His promises in shadow and type, their deficiencies notwithstanding. For that reason, we can affirm that the justification of believers under the old and new covenants was one and the same, and that the old covenant was a covenant of grace sufficient and efficacious, through the Spirit’s work, to administer God’s eternal and spiritual promises to the remnant.

Turning back to chs. 7-9, is Johnson correct to say that paedobaptists should admit that their attempts to integrate conditions and apostates into the covenant of grace (as paedobaptists conceive it) destroy the grace of that covenant? As I see it, Johnson’s analysis is incorrect, and for reasons that he himself discusses. Focusing first on the issue of conditions, conditions are compatible with the grace of the covenant of grace because, but only because, both envision the true Heir of Abraham, the Surety of the covenant. Under both the old and the new covenants, it is the Surety’s obedience to the law’s conditions that guarantees justification for those of Abraham’s faith. Moreover, true believers in that Surety are not under the law as a covenant of works by which they are justified or condemned. In other words, the law is for believers a rule of life—the law (yoke) of liberty—training them in the holy character and conduct that are inseparable from justification as the fruits and evidences of justifying faith. In sum, then, because the Surety of the covenant of grace satisfies the law’s conditions and thus secures justification for believers in Him, conditions do not destroy the grace of the covenant.

Well, is Johnson correct to argue that any covenant of grace worthy of the name must secure the grace of justification and perseverance for all its participants, else participation in it is meaningless? Again, in my opinion, Johnson is incorrect. For him, what counts as a covenant of grace is only that which ensures the salvation of all its participants. We have to ask, however, from where does he get this definition? Not unexpectedly, time and again, Johnson appeals to Jer 31.31-34 (Heb 8.8-12). That text is certainly relevant to a discussion of the new covenant, but Jeremiah’s focus is on the promises of the new covenant. Elsewhere, the threats of the new covenant come into view. For example, in Rev 2-3, Christ addresses His church(es) with threats of judgment for apostasy as well as promises of salvation for perseverance. In Matt 7.21-23, He declares His intent on judgment day to disavow disciples of His who confessed His name as Lord but despised His law. In Rom 11.17-22 (cf. John 15.1-8), Christ’s apostle warns the church that all unnatural Gentile member-branches who fail to persevere will be broken off from Abraham’s covenant family tree, just as all natural Israelite member-branches who failed to persevere were broken off. In all this, the point is not, as Johnson alleges, that apostates, as portrayed by paedobaptists, cause Christ to suffer reproach as a poor federal head. Instead, the point is that, according to the new covenant, Christ is Judge of apostates as well as Head of the elect in His church. Yes, by their defection, apostates do bring reproach on Christ’s name. They will not, however, have the last word. Rather, in keeping with the retributive principle of the covenant, Christ will bring reproach, in final measure, on their names. Nor is the point, as Johnson claims, that the covenant itself, as conceived by paedobaptists, is faulty. Instead, the point is that the covenant of grace is not to be reduced to its proper purpose of grace, nor are the people gathered under Christ’s lordship to be reduced, before judgment day, to the elect given to Him by oath. Yes, salvation is the new covenant’s proper purpose. Before judgment day, however, the new covenant, like all other administrations of the covenant of grace, does not ensure the salvation of all in the covenant community. (That distinctive applies to the eternal covenant transaction between the Father and the Son.) The new covenant does, however, gather a community under Christ’s lordship for discipleship according to His promises of salvation and His warnings of judgment. In the experience of the historical, visible church, His promises are not always embraced; His warnings are not always heeded. Despite the faith some confess at the beginning, and despite the blessings they have in common with the remnant in the meantime, they prove in the end to have an evil, unbelieving heart and fail to persevere in faith (Luke 8.13; 1 Tim 1.19-20; 4.1; 1 John 2.19). So, even though the new covenant does not guarantee the salvation of all in the covenant community, it does afford them all the blessings of discipleship under Christ.

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