Aimee Byrd’s Book, Chapter 1

Byrd’s book is divided into three main parts. The first main part is called “Recovering the Way We Read Scripture.” This part deals primarily with hermeneutical issues. As someone who claims the Reformed tradition as her own, it is a question why she should feel the need to recover the way we read Scripture. Does she believe that we have lost something earlier generations had? It is not entirely clear what she means by this, but we will simply note this and move on.

Chapter 1 is entitled “Why Men and Women Don’t Read Separate Bibles.” I agree with much of what is in this chapter, starting with her rejection of the idea that men and women need separate Bibles. Her scathing denunciation of reading the Bible “in pink and blue” culminates in this zinger: “If the aesthetics are good, then our sanctification must be on point” (33). Against many feminist scholars, she rejects the idea that the Bible is patriarchal (42). There are many important female voices in the Bible, some of which she points out (Huldah in this chapter, Ruth in the next), and others exist like Hannah and Mary. Whether all the conclusions she draws from them are justified is another question. At the moment, however, I am listing the areas of agreement. Also, and I agree with her, she laments the poor state of theological education for women. The “Bible” studies that are on offer for women are generally hideous. Maybe publishers think that women can’t handle theology. But why would any great theologian of all church history be inaccessible or irrelevant to women? Byrd elsewhere acknowledges her debt to the great theologians, and that they continue to inform her.

There are several points that need to be examined closely for their implications. Not all of these implications have been mentioned before. First, she says that “the books written before the establishment of Christian trade publishers had an androcentric, or male-centered, perspective” (34). She immediately qualifies this statement by suggesting that this does not mean an inherently wrong perspective, but rather an incomplete perspective. This raises a question in my mind, one which I am not sure Byrd ever answers. Firstly, what does she mean by “androcentric” in this context? Does Byrd see linguistic markers like generic “he” as evidence of androcentrism? Does she see something like covenantal headship, via Ephesians 5, as androcentric? Her words here appear to be a critique, but then she pulls her punch a bit.

Next, the historical situation of Anne Hutchinson is fraught with complications. On Byrd’s reading, she was not taken seriously by her pastors/elders (36). Byrd seems to believe that if the church had invested time and energy into teaching her, the story might have been different. That is possible. However, she was given a rather good education back in England (including religious education), being taught by her learned father, Francis Marbury. It is not clear in the record how much of her theology was already in place before she came over to the colonies. Byrd seems to be claiming that the supposed neglect of Hutchinson was the main contributing factor to her later problems. It is possible that such neglect could be a contributing factor. But Byrd seems to be hinting that no blame for the situation accrues to Hutchinson herself. Any pastor, however, would be disturbed by a group meeting in someone’s house for the express purpose of critiquing the pastor’s sermon. That has “clique” written all over it! Byrd might reply by saying that Hutchinson had no other options available to her. I find that difficult to believe. She didn’t have to form a group. She could discuss the sermon informally with other people. If she had any differences with the pastor, she had a responsibility to bring those to the pastor, and him only, not spread discord by critiquing him behind his back. That is on her.

The most disturbing part of the chapter is the section entitled “Revealing a Woman’s Work” (45-6). If her conclusions are correct, and women formed part of the authenticating of Scripture, then there can be no theological objection to female ministers. If they have the greater, they can have the lesser. She describes Huldah as “authenticating the Word of God largely accepted as the heart of the book of Deuteronomy” (46, referencing Christa McKirkland). She quotes with obvious agreement McKirkland’s claim that Huldah might have been “The first person to authenticate the written Word.” Authenticating the Word of God is not how the Bible describes what she did. All the text says is that she passed on the word of the Lord that came to her, which included this statement from the Lord: “all the words of the book that the king of Judah has read.” It is not at all clear that Josiah wanted it confirmed as to whether the book that was found was the Word of God. His words in 2 Kings 22:13 refer rather to his fear that the things written in the book would come true. Huldah confirms that they would, but with qualifications mentioned in 19-20. Huldah was a true prophetess. There doesn’t seem to be any reason to doubt this, nor for Deborah, whose words came true. Some opponents of feminism have tried to argue that the consulting of Deborah and Huldah indicate the failure of male leadership. At least in Huldah’s case, this is not so, since Jeremiah started his prophecies about five years before the consultation with Huldah (thirteenth year of the reign of Josiah, putting the beginning of his prophecy around 626 B.C., and the consultation of Huldah about 621 B.C.). The objection could work with Deborah’s case, but not with Huldah. Most scholars I consulted on this passage addressed the question of why Josiah did not consult with Jeremiah by answering that Jeremiah was probably in Anathoth, whereas Huldah was right there in Jerusalem. In any case, there is no indication that Huldah authenticated God’s Word (who does that anyway? The Reformers always said we receive God’s Word, not authenticate it. God’s Word is self-authenticating). In addition, Josiah’s response to the word even before the consultation indicates that he believed it was already authoritative. What he did in consulting Huldah was to ask how the curses would work out (a point I owe to Fowler). Huldah’s gifts of prophecy are certainly genuine but she does not appear in Scripture as one who had the same public ministry of speaking and writing that her contemporaries Jeremiah or Zephaniah had. Rather, she appears as one who delivered oracles in a private consultation with five members of the royal court. Our conclusions about the exact nature of her ministry or that of other men or women have to depend on other passages and considerations. For more, see Thomas Schreiner’s essay in RBMW. I would need to do more research to see what I thought about this claim, though it seems to have at least some initial plausibility.

The Nature of the Surprise

There is no doubt that the disciples were surprised to learn that Jesus’ death and resurrection was the point of the Old Testament. In Matthew 26:54-56, it was immediately after Jesus says THIS (His arrest and death) was to fulfill Scriptures that the disciples left Him. Let no one therefore think the interpretation of the Old Testament to be a matter of indifference.

It is commonly debated today, however, why the disciples were surprised. If one compares this passage in Matthew with Luke 24, for example, we come across a bit of a puzzle. How can Jesus reproach the two disciples for being slow to believe all that the prophets had spoken? And in 1 Peter, why did the Old Testament writers search so eagerly in their own writings? It must be because they knew that there was something more in what they wrote than what they themselves had thought. They understood that they had written the Word of God and that God had further things to say than they, the authors, had intended.

How then, can we account for these two clear things: 1. the disciples were surprised; and 2. Jesus says they shouldn’t have been surprised? It has been a commonplace in scholarship to deny that the Old Testament has anything intrinsic to say about Jesus Christ. It is only the rabbinic, Midrashic exegesis of the New Testament that reads into the Old Testament something that wasn’t originally there. One has to achieve this on a supposed second reading.

I propose a different solution to this problem. The surprise is due to sin and a corresponding veil over the eyes of readers, not to a supposed intrinsic absence of Jesus from the Old Testament. Paul talks about this veil in 2 Corinthians 3:14. The problem is in the reader, not the text. In John 5, Jesus very clearly claims Moses wrote about Him. This suggests that even in the intention of Moses, there is something there about the promised one. There is more in the text than the intention of the human author, contrary to what many scholars think today.

So why were the disciples surprised? They were surprised because they had a veil over their eyes that was suddenly and unpleasantly ripped away. Matthew 26 is not telling us that the Old Testament is inherently Christless. It is telling us that the disciples did not understand. They didn’t really understand until Pentecost. That is when God took away their veil entirely. We need to pray that God takes away our veils so that we can understand the Old Testament and God fulfills all His promises in the New Testament.

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.

A Response to Tom Hicks on the Question of the Proper Subjects of Baptism, Part 3

Part 1, Part 2.

In part 3, I will address the section of Tom Hick’s piece entitled “Hermeneutics.” In this section, Hick’s main point is that he believes paedobaptists are inconsistent in their application of hermeneutics. If the New Testament is the key to understanding the Old Testament, then Reformed Baptists apply the principle consistently, whereas paedobaptists do not. I am not sure he understands the Reformed paedo hermeneutic on this, however. It is not the case that we say “The NT is the key to understanding the OT” with that being understood as basically everything we would want to say about it. The entire biblical revelation is an organic, unfolding whole, which means that each part of the Bible mutually informs every other part, directly or indirectly. The key to understanding the symbolism of Revelation, for instance, consists in tracking down the given symbol in the Old Testament. While it is true that the New Testament gives us the ultimate key in Jesus Christ (via Luke 24 and John 5), there is a lot more to it than that.

Additionally, I am not sure that positing huge disagreement among paedos by citing the theonomy debate is a very fair charge. Theonomy was a thing in the 1970’s and 1980’s, but there are very few of them left. Generally speaking, the majority of the Reformed world has rejected theonomic views.

Hicks’s third point in this section is that he holds paedos to have rejected “NT priority” when it comes to Galatians 3. Hicks is misleading in describing the paedo position at this point. He says, “Paedobaptists, like Dispensationalists, believe that the promise of a physical seed in the OT ought to govern our exegesis of the NT, rather than the other way around.” This over-simplifies the paedo position. One does not have to be a child of Abraham to be in Christ. Nor do we believe in two peoples of God, contra dispensationalists. It is most unhelpful to lump paedos with dispies at this point, since this is precisely where the greatest area of disagreement between paedos and dispies lies. A dispy will say that God’s people is Israel, and the church is a parenthesis. The paedos believe there is only one family of God. The problem with Hicks’s statement is that it implies paedos believe that Abrahamic descent is the key to understanding the way that covenant applies to believers today. The principle is covenantal continuity, which works in families, not in Abrahamic descent. Now, Hicks did not say “Abrahamic descent” in painting the paedo position. However, by lumping paedos with dispies, he creates a highly misleading situation. He seemingly implies that the hermeneutic of paedos and dispies are similar on this point.

On the point of circumcision, Hicks again caricatures the paedo position. He says, “Paedobaptists, on the other hand, hold that the meaning of the sign of circumcision is determinative of the meaning of the sign of baptism, rather than allowing the NT to determine the meaning of baptism and the fulfillment of circumcision.” Not only is this not how paedos argue, he also creates a false dichotomy that assumes the discontinuity between OT and NT. Why is it “either” circumcision “or” the NT that determines the meaning of baptism? Does not Romans 4 join the two together? In addition, the actual paedo position is that circumcision points to salvation in Christ. Baptism points to salvation in Christ. They point to the same thing: Christ’s work on the cross. Paedos believe that the whole Bible, understood in an organic, unfolding way determines what both mean. Hicks is going to have a really hard time with 1 Corinthians 10, isn’t he, that posits baptism in the OT, a baptism that included infants, incidentally.

The governing basis for the Reformed hermeneutic is Christ in all of the Scriptures. Christ is portrayed from vague shadowy forms to a clearer and clearer light. But Hicks’s hermeneutic is that the OT has absolutely nothing to say about how we understand the NT. There is no reciprocity whatsoever between OT and NT hermeneutically. This is “hermeneutical dispensationalism.”

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.

Reviewing Jeffrey Johnson’s The Fatal Flaw, Part 2 (Chs. 3-6)

Posted by R. Fowler White

In part 1 of our series of posts reviewing Jeffrey Johnson’s The Fatal Flaw, we covered his introductory survey and the two subsequent chapters on the absence of a NT command to baptize infants and on the analogy between circumcision and baptism. In this post—part 2—we’ll cover chs. 3-6, in which Johnson begins to present, in deliberately crafted increments, his exposé of the fundamental flaw of paedobaptist covenant theology. The four chapters of our present focus are devoted respectively to the continuity between the old and new covenants and to the nature of the old covenant.

Chapters 3-4 set the course for chs. 5-6 (and, in fact, the rest of part one of Johnson’s book). So, in chs. 3-4, we find Johnson intent on showing that the legitimacy of infant baptism hangs especially on the continuity between the old and new covenants: that is, it hangs on the belief that the covenants and the communities formed under those covenants remain essentially the same. Johnson identifies the principles that governed membership under the old covenant as 1) racial distinction, 2) national affiliation, 3) racial perpetuity, and 4) the federal headship of parents—all signified by circumcision. Throughout his discussion, however, Johnson emphasizes that something even more fundamental than those principles is at work: the old covenant did not secure (guarantee) a saving relationship with God to anyone participating under its terms (p. 63; cf. pp. 63-64). In that emphasis we get our most explicit clue into what Johnson believes is the trait that distinguishes the old covenant from a covenant of grace (i.e., that differentiates it from an administration of the covenant of grace). Any covenant that does not guarantee salvation for all its members is no covenant of grace. With that trait in mind, Johnson goes on in chs. 5-6 to offer observations to support his conclusion that the old covenant was a covenant of [based on] works and not of grace. In ch. 5 he lays out four such points: the old covenant 1) made its promised blessings contingent on Israel’s obedience; 2) threatened Israel with curses for their disobedience; 3) was breakable and broken by Israel; and 4) is described in Scripture with terms that identify it as a covenant of works (e.g., law, commandments, ministry of death). To close out his argument in ch. 5, Johnson anticipates the objection that, if the old covenant made its promises contingent on Israel’s obedience, then their identity as God’s elect people must also have been contingent on their obedience. Johnson answers the objection by urging that election applies only to a remnant within the nation, and the ground of the remnant’s election was according to grace. Capping off his contention that the old covenant was a covenant of works and not grace, Johnson devotes ch. 6 to a consideration of Gal 4.21-31. In that passage he finds what he calls a ‘singular refutation’ of the paedobaptist claim that the old and new covenants were each covenants of grace (i.e., were essentially the same covenant). No, says Johnson, in Gal 4 Paul denies the continuity between the old and new covenants and thus denies the continuity of the communities formed under them.

What can we say about Johnson’s arguments in chs. 3-6? First, with regard to chs. 3-4, Johnson’s point that covenant continuity is foundational for infant baptism is certainly relevant. Even so, Johnson’s agenda is driven fundamentally by the fact that the old covenant did not secure salvation for all its participants and so is no covenant of grace. In response, we have to observe that no covenant before the new covenant (as Johnson defines it) guaranteed salvation for all its participants, and no covenant community before the new covenant was coextensive with the elect in Christ. Hence, on Johnson’s terms, no covenant before the new covenant qualified as a covenant of grace. Observations such as these highlight a key question for us to answer: when, if ever, are we to reduce divine covenant to an administration of election in Christ and guarantees of salvation? More specifically, are we to identify the new covenant (i.e., the new covenant administration of the covenant of grace) with God’s eternal purpose in Christ (i.e., the covenant of redemption), or are we to distinguish the two? Once more: are we to identify the new covenant community with the elect in Christ or to distinguish the two? Briefly, in my view, the argument of Heb 7.20-22, 28; 8.6 is decisively in favor of distinguishing the two. Since the new covenant has been enacted on the oath-promises of the Father to the Son—since the oath is the basis of the new covenant, we must distinguish the one from the other. In addition, we must also distinguish the people given to the Son by oath (Ps 110.3; Isa 53.10; John 6.37, 39) from the community formed under the new covenant. Thus, the new covenant is not reducible to an administration of salvation to the elect; the new covenant is also an administration of judgment to the reprobate. In other words, Christ, as Lord of the new covenant church, is both its Savior and its Judge. We’ll have occasion to come back to this topic, but for now it looks to me that in all preconsummate historical covenants (i.e., administrations of the covenant of grace), covenant is broader than individual election according to grace.

Second, respecting chs. 5-6, Johnson’s attempt to support his conclusion that the old covenant was a covenant of works and not of grace fails to convince. It does so because he omits from consideration the role of God’s designated sureties of grace in the election of both the nation and the remnant under the old covenant. To God’s designation of sureties, even those born under the old covenant, Scripture gives careful attention, as when God gave certain of His servants as sureties in the promises, prophecies, ordinances, and other types (“shadows”) of the old covenant, especially those related to the messianic-mediatorial offices. This is not to say that the pre-Christ designees were sufficient and efficacious to prevent the nation’s loss of election and temporal blessing for its disobedience, much less to secure the nation’s election to eternal blessing with their exemplary obedience. To the contrary, their failings made the nation’s election revocable. The remnant’s election to eternal blessing was a different matter, however. It was irrevocable because of the perfections of the Surety to come. In fact, God’s designation of sureties under the old covenant was sufficient and efficacious, through the work of the Spirit, to instruct and build up the remnant in faith in the promised Surety. Thus, Johnson is mistaken not to recognize that by setting forth the promised Surety in shadow and type, the old covenant was a covenant of grace. This is not to deny that the old covenant spoke of conditions, curses, and covenant-breakers. Nor is it to deny the discontinuity between the old and new covenants. It is to say that the folly of the Galatian churches (Gal 3.1) was to consider the works of the law apart from God’s promises of a Surety. In doing so they would have to regard their own works as adequate to qualify them (or their children) as true heirs of Abraham, as adequate to secure their justification and eternal salvation. In doing so members of the Galatian churches would fail to listen to the law, would break its conditions, and would subject themselves to God’s curse, all because they had severed themselves from the Surety God had promised.

Covington High School Situation, a Few Thoughts

The most ridiculous news story I have seen in a while took place over last weekend. It was ridiculous because it really shouldn’t have even been a story. No one got hurt, only words were exchanged. That didn’t stop the main-stream media (hereinafter MSM) from blowing the story so out of proportion that Salvator Dali would have to bow in defeat.

I have some thoughts. Firstly, MSM is completely and utterly incapable of telling unbiased news. Conservatives have known this for a long time. MSM allowed prejudice to blind them to the fundamental fact of interpretation: context is king. Context makes things more complex than first glances can fathom. MSM reporters are obviously either not being trained in elementary interpretation, or they are forgetting what they were taught. It doesn’t matter at this point whether the boys were perfect in their behavior. They almost certainly were not. Why, however, are the MSM and all those spewing out hate speech against these boys forgetting that these are teenage boys? Considering the fact that a hate group was spewing out filth against them, I thought they behaved with rather admirable restraint. When I was a teenager I had all the emotional empathy of a wooden block. While these boys may not have done the most admirable thing (but what would that have been, do pray tell?), they certainly did nothing worthy of the hate speech that has been spewed against them by intolerant, prejudiced MSM and others. If we were in the position of the boys, what would we have done? The boys couldn’t flee, since they were waiting for a bus. They didn’t want to hear the hate speech, so they started chanting their school song. They made no moves of physical aggression against anyone. All in all, pretty good discipline for teenage boys! Maybe one or two of them committed a micro-aggression. Why is that worse than what some of the people in the video were doing to them?

The MSM have forgotten (for a long time now) that there is always more than one side to a story. Since conservatives are no longer human, no longer to be given the benefit of human treatment, the conservative side of any story is ignored in the MSM. I don’t care about the MSM. I haven’t watched it in years. But I do care about the boys at Covington. And I do care about civil discourse in the nation. And the MSM still have the power to ruin people’s lives because they simply don’t care. More than that, they are guilty of far more hatred than Covington High School boys are.

I pity the MSM, actually. As the saying goes, there is no one so blind but the blind person who thinks he sees. And if there is any group of people who thinks it sees today, that group is MSM. If there is any group that simply does not see how much it is contributing to the hate in America, it is the MSM.

« Older entries