Covenant Theology

The Ascension of our Lord: A Brief Introduction

The Church celebrates the Ascension of our Lord this Thursday. Since most churches are not able to have Thursday services, traditionally many of them celebrate Ascension on Sunday.

The Ascension of Jesus is barely mentioned in the evangelical vocabulary. We make room for his birth, death, and resurrection, but we tend to put a period where God puts a comma.

If the resurrection was the beginning of Jesus’ enthronement, then the ascension is the establishment of his enthronement. The Ascension activates Christ’s victory in history. The Great Commission is only relevant because of the Ascension. Without the Ascension the call to baptize and disciple would be meaningless. It is on the basis of Jesus’ enthronement at the right-hand of the Father, that we image-bearers can de-throne rulers through the power and authority of our Great Ruler, Jesus Christ.

The Ascension then is a joyful event, because it is the genesis of the Church’s triumph over the world. Further, it defines us as a people of glory and power, not of weakness and shame. As Jesus is ascended, we too enter into his ascension glory (Col. 3:1) This glory exhorts us to embrace full joy. As Alexander Schmemann once wrote:

“The Church was victorious over the world through joy…and she will lose the world when she loses its joy… Of all accusations against Christians, the most terrible one was uttered by Nietzsche when he said that Christians had no joy.”[1]

But this joy is given to us by a bodily Lord.

We know that Jesus is at the right hand of the Father. He is ruling and reigning from his heavenly throne. He has given the Father the kingdom, and now he is preserving, progressing, and perfecting his kingdom. He is bringing all things under subjection.

We know that when he was raised from the dead, Jesus was raised bodily. But Gnostic thinking would have us assume that since Jesus is in heaven he longer needs a physical body. But the same Father who raised Jesus physically, also has his Son sitting beside him in a physical body.  As one author observed:

Jesus has gone before us in a way we may follow through the Holy Spirit whom he has sent, because the way is in his flesh, in his humanity.[1]

Our Lord is in his incarnation body at the right hand of the Father. This has all sorts of implications for us in worship. We are worshipping a God/Man; one who descended in human flesh and who ascended in human flesh. He is not a disembodied spirit. He is truly God and truly man.

As we consider and celebrate the Ascension of our blessed Lord, remember that you are worshiping the One who understands your needs, because he has a body just like you; he understands your joy because he has a body just like you.

[1] Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World. Paraphrased

[2] Gerrit Dawson, see http://apologus.wordpress.com/2012/05/16/ascension-and-jesus-humanity/

One Additional Thought on Paedocommunion

Children belong at the table. I have argued for a decade that children of the covenant are recipients of all the covenant benefits. One significant benefit is the means of grace we call the Eucharist, or the Lord’s Supper. Baptism opens the ecclesiastical doors to the Lord’s Table.

I have for so long agreed with those simple statements that the more I interact with Reformation-minded Christians on this issue, the stranger and stranger it becomes. Yes, there are those confessional issues at hand, and there is the most famous Pauline passage in I Corinthians 11:17-34 that is used as an argument for opposing paedocommunion, but if the Reformed paedobaptist is open to considering the Bible afresh without his preconceived notions of what Paul meant, or allowing the text to take precedence over our cherished confessions, then I believe there is an opportunity to re-consider this important matter. As Tim Gallant observes, “no tradition and no confession may be treated as irreformable.”

I do not wish here to elaborate on the many exegetical issues involved. Some books like Tim Gallant’s Feed my Lambs and Strawbridge’s The Case for Covenant Communion do a fine job elaborating on the more technical discussions surrounding the issue at hand. My desire is to add just one theological point about the inclusion of children in the Psalter.

The Paedocommunionist position argues that children are to be not only included in the worship of the saints, but also that they are to be participants in the worship of the saints. And part of this participation means eating and drinking at the Lord’s Table with the body. To be in the body means to partake of the body. The Paedocommunion position is the natural consequence of paedobaptism. In fact, many come to paedocommunion by considering the logical necessities of paedobaptism.

The Psalter makes a fine case for the inclusion of little children in the ecclesiastical community of the Old Testament. Those of us who wish to apply a covenantal hermeneutic consistently conclude that they are to be also included in the New Covenant promises. If the New Covenant is more glorious and greater, then the NC continues to show favor to children of believers, and not take away that favor. Assuming that to be the case (and certainly this is a limited discussion among paedobaptists), then it is safe to conclude that the Psalter establishes a model of inclusion and not exclusion.

One text that is often overlooked in this discussion is Psalm 148. Psalm 148 is a doxological description of the celestial and earthly praise. God designs creation to display His excellencies and glory. But this glory can only be complete if children are in the picture. Children are also part of this great choir. Children, then, are involved participants in this cosmic refrain of praise. Creation is also involved and is sacramentally nourished by the hands of God. Far from an uninterested and uninvolved God, our God is deeply invested in the affairs of creation and so He sustains them with every good thing.

But at the heart of this chorus are old men and children (na`ar). Man plays a pivotal role in this worship scene. He is the homo adorans (worshiping being). 

We can then conclude that the Psalmist engages all sorts of people in the responsibility of praise. And if children are called to praise (Psalm 8:2-3), then they are called to be nourished as participants in that praise. In the Bible everyone who praises eats at some time. I am arguing that those who praise eat very early. When? At the moment they can eat and drink at their earthly father’s table, they should be able to eat at their heavenly father’s table. Simple in my estimation.

Introduction to Covenant Theology

Is Covenant Theology merely theologizing, or are there practical implications to this doctrine? How does God deal with history, and how does he relate to his people? These and other questions are discussed in this series by Gregg Strawbridge. This eight-part series is free.

The Parent/Child Relationship

“The Bible teaches that one of the features of the New Covenant was to be the restoration of the covenantal parent/child relationship, not the dissolution of the covenantal parent/child relationship” (To a Thousand Generations, p. 15).

Covenantal Continuity

Bill DeJong writes:

Paul’s argument in 1 Corinthians 10 is that Christian baptism does not guarantee our eternal security regardless of how we live. For proof, Paul appeals to the baptism of the Israelites. They were baptized folk just as we are baptized folk. They had the covenant promise just as we have the covenant promise. But covenant promises must be “mixed with faith” (Hebrews 4). Because the Israelites were unbelieving and disobedient their bodies are scattered in the wilderness. Therefore we baptized folk must be believing and obedient unlike the wilderness Israelites. If we stand, we must take heed, lest we fall.

This passage makes sense only if we grant substantial continuity between old and new covenants.

Adam’s Infidelity

Wedgeworth writes:

John Calvin writes of Adam’s condition prior to the Fall.  Rather than only contrasting Adam’s task and duty with our own after the fall, Calvin draws a fairly close parallel:

We must, therefore, look deeper than sensual intemperance. The prohibition to touch the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was a trial of obedience, that Adam, by observing it, might prove his willing submission to the command of God. For the very term shows the end of the precept to have been to keep him contented with his lot, and not allow him arrogantly to aspire beyond it. The promise, which gave him hope of eternal life as long as he should eat of the tree of life, and, on the other hand, the fearful denunciation of death the moment he should taste of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, were meant to prove and exercise his faith.

~ Institutes 2.1.4

Calvin certainly mentions obedience, but we must notice that this obedience is directly tied to the exercising of Adam’s faith.  Adam was not to attempt to work his way beyond the initial state, but rather to trust in God’s provision.  More

Grace in the so-called “Covenant of Works”

Joel Garver writes:

I was skimming T.F. Torrance’s Scottish Theology (T&T Clark 1996) and ran across the mid-17th century biblical theologian Hugh Binning who writes, in regard to the covenant of works, that “there was some in-breakings of grace and free condescendency of God; for it was no less of free grace and undeserved favour, to promise life to [Adam’s] obedience, than now to promise life to our faith.”

Probably not how Shepherd or Schilder or Holwerda would word things, but nonetheless an early intimation of the kinds of questions to which Reformed covenant theology would eventually give rise.

Covenant Theology and Trinitarian Relationship

Covenant Theology is the apex of calvinistic theology. You cannot have a view of Calvinism that excludes a covenantal understanding of redemptive history. But what is a covenant? The most helpful definition of covenant theology comes from the uniqueness of Trinitarian relationship. Van Til himself acknowledged this relationship when he wrote:

The three persons of the Trinity have exhaustively personal relationship with one another. And the idea of exhaustive personal relationship is the idea of the covenant.[1]

Hence, a covenant is a relationship; man cannot escape his covenantal existence. God has structured human history on the basis of His own intra-trinitarian relationship.[2]


[1] Karlberg, p. 105. Quotation come from an article by Van Til on “Covenant Theology” in The New Twentieth Century Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge.

[2] Thanks to Ralph Smith for his excellent insights.

Infant Baptism Debate: White vs. Strawbridge–Thoughts and Theological Considerations

Editor’s note: I have updated this post to add a few more thoughts on the debate (11-10-07).

strawbridge_case.jpg

I have just heard the debate between Baptist author/apologist James White vs. Presbyterian minister and author Rev. Gregg Strawbridge. Throughout my theological life, I have been influenced in many ways by both men. Gregg’s passionate exposition of the Scriptures has been a source of theological maturity for me. On the other hand, Dr. White has also played a role in my thinking, though in the last few years I have distanced myself in many ways from his theology. Nevertheless, White’s commitment to offer a Biblical apologetic against Islam, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Mormons have been a helpful resource in my apologetic library.

Their debate a few nights ago demonstrates what the Van Tillian tradition of apologetics has so long proved: ideas have consequences. Presuppositions and notions about hermeneutics affect the beginning statement and closing statements of a debate. Interestingly, the debate ended just as it began: the nature of the covenant. White argued persistently that the New Covenant provided only blessings–since it was only for the elect; while Strawbridge’s commitment to covenantal thinking and continuation led him to conclude that the New Covenant is not different from the Old with regards to recipients and structure, but only in regards to efficacy and eschatological intervention through Christ.

Though presuppositions determine all things, I would like to affirm that Strawbridge’s presuppositions is more consistent and faithful to the Biblical text. I do not make that statement simply because of my predisposition towards paedobaptism. I should note that when Sproul debated John McArthur many years ago, he (Sproul) suffered greatly to present a coherent covenantal model, and thus failing to persuade us why Credo-Baptism was erroneous. Nevertheless, however one may think of these types of ideas/exchanges, my conclusion is that White failed to give credence to a fundamental Biblical component of hermeneutics–that is, Biblical typology. In Biblical typology, the author connects ideas, which at first seem invisible. Indeed, this is the duty of the exegete: to bring together God’s revelation into one coherent message.

James White’s main point of contention in every discussion on baptism is that his Presbyterian brothers just did not separate themselves enough from Catholicism in the 16th century, and if Calvin would just have seen a little more light we would all be Credo-Baptists today. White threw out the “T” word to let everyone know that “Tradition” is the worst of all evils and he (White) has no heritage, no tradition influencing his interpretive scheme. White, however, appears unaware of just how much his tradition affects him. For instance, Strawbridge argues rightly that Hebrews establishes that the New Covenant includes believers and unbelievers. As an excellent reference he quotes Hebrews 10:29-30 which reads:

How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has spurned the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace? For we know him who said, “Vengeance is mine; I will repay.” And again, “The Lord will judge his people.”

According to verse 29, “one” and “he” are two different people. Here is where White’s tradition enters the game. White argues, following John Owen (a historical figure; a respected man in White’s tradition) that the “he” in verse 29 refers to Christ and not to an individual. Grammatically however, notice that in verse 30 it is God’s people that is in mind in verse 29, not Christ. The text says that the Lord will judge “his” people. White never mentioned verse 30, which in my estimation confirms Strawbridge’s assertion about verse 29. If White would only abandon his tradition, he would see the simplicity of the text. In the end, the New Covenant maintains the structure of the Old Covenant, that is, a covenant made with believers and unbelievers. The radical change that White argues is non-existent. Once again, let us place the “radical” where radical belongs: in the person of Christ; that is what is radical about the New Covenant.

Strawbridge’s greatest strength is his ability to tie together New Covenantal language with its intended Old Covenant background. Reformed exegetes understand that New Testament writers did not write unaware of their Jewish context. They were not robots, rather their personalities and backgrounds played a deep role in writing what would become our New Testament canon. Their knowledge of Old Covenant language was always influencing their writing. This is the conspicuous reason there are so many Old Testament quotations in the New; there was an unspoken reliance on the Old Covenant canon because the Old Covenant was part of their identity as New Covenant writers.

White, on the other hand, unaware– or better yet,– unwilling to ever engage in this form of argumentation, lost sight of Gregg’s main point: the Children of Christian parents belong to the Lord because this was God’s purpose from the beginning. Of such is the kingdom of heaven; to such belong the kingdom. This is Biblical pattern–not merely a temporary pattern,– but one that would continue to all generations before and after Messiah would come.

More

The God who relents and Federal Vision Theology

The topic of the “immutability” of God has gone through various adjustments and disputations in these last 20 years in the church. In the past, older commentators seemed to close their theological eyes to such difficult passages (God “repented,” “relented,” “changed His mind”) by relegating it to the category of “anthropomorphism.” When something is anthropomorphic, it means that the Bible stoops down to convey a clear message to humanity using human terms. By adopting this response, what interpreters are saying is: this can’t be God, because my decretal God could never think twice about changing His mind–He only has a plan A. However, what would you say if I told you God has a plan A,B,C, and sometimes even D? If you do not believe that is the case, think of how many times He could have destroyed us because of our miserable sins. I am here referring to the covenantal sense. It would be theologically dangerous to assert that God’s eternal plans can be changed or altered on the basis of human actions. But through the lenses of covenant, we see that God is willing to change His judgment (Nineveh , as an example) on the basis of covenant fidelity from His people. In His kindness, benevolence, He relented from doing so. In fact, relenting is part of His gracious character. If He were not a relenting God we would be doomed.

In Exodus 32:12, 14 and 1 Samuel 15:29 and Jonah 3:10, we find multiple examples of this reality. On the condition (see also Exodus 19) that God’s people maintained and kept themselves loyal to their covenant promises, God would give them a great Land–flowing with milk and honey. If they break the covenant promise, God would then punish them accordingly.

Exodus 32 is a marvelous example of this human imploring by Moses. God threatens, but then relents. In fact, this is a clear pattern throughout Scriptures. God threatens, so that,–as Greg Bahnsen would say–there would be ethical readjustments in people’s behavior. If God never threatened, there would be no change. It is through His threatening, that people renew their covenants with God and nations repent of their sins. This is why in times of great natural disasters in early American history, the presidents called for a day of repentance and humiliation.

This is where Federal Vision theology makes Reformed Theology plausible and Biblical. Our beloved Confession (and I mean it when I say this) focuses largely on God’s decretal plans; that is, from before the foundations of the world. The decretal plans of God are unalterable, unchangeable, and immutable. Am I clear? However, what the Confession does NOT place much emphases is on the Covenantal plans of God. By this I mean, the earthly, tangible, physical manifestation of God’s plans. When we speak of God as a personal God, we are referring to this covenantal relationship between God and His people. To make this even clearer: God’s decretal plans work harmoniously with His Covenantal plans. However, His covenantal plans are different than His decretal plan. For instance, through my repentance I can personally communicate my sins to God, without expecting that God is wholly other, but rather expecting that He is wholly near; knowing that He hears my repentance and acts based on my repentance (If you love me keep my commandments).

The secret things (decretal plans) belong to Him alone. It is not for us to speculate or assume; but everything else is revealed to us and our children. This is where we should concern ourselves: with our response to God and to others.

Federal Vision theology has restored this Biblical imperative. Let us petition to our God for He listens to us and acts accordingly to our responses and His holy character.