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Questioning the Progress in Progressive Covenantalism

Two years ago in 2012, Peter Gentry and Stephen Wellum dropped Kingdom Through Covenant (KTC) onto the theological scene—800+ pages arguing for a “progressive covenantalism” as the middle way between dispensationalism and Presbyterian covenant theology. A scholarly book that critiques sweeping theological systems like dispensationalism and covenant theology deserves attention, so in the fall of 2012 Jonathan Brack and I took a directed reading/independent study course at WTS that focused on KTC and covenant theology. From that course, we produced papers that touched on particular theological topics addressed in KTC such as typology, hermeneutics, ecclesiology, soteriology, and baptism. The Westminster Theological Journal review article below is a (heavily edited) version of those papers. After two years, there are some things I would change about the article, though I think the pillars of the paper still stand. But see for yourself.

Jonathan M. Brack & Jared S. Oliphint, Questioning the Progress in Progressive Covenantalism

Used with permission. Jonathan M. Brack and Jared S. Oliphint, “Questioning the Progress of Progressive Covenantalism,” Westminster Theological Journal 76 (2014): 189–217.

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Mark G

5 years ago

Thank you. This is not only a good critical review but helpful in understanding the variety of views and approaches to biblical theology & covenants.

Rick Myers

5 years ago

I’m getting a 404 Error on the link.

Camden Bucey

5 years ago

Rick,

Thanks for mentioning this. Try it now.

Camden

Michial Brown

5 years ago

Question, could not the apostasy passages of Heb and Rom 11 also pertain to those, like the Hebrews audience, made “profession” of faith and were tempted to forsake Christ for Mosaic shadows, or any other works system? Why must the formal/vital distinction include children? It seems In Matt 13 Christ said of the tares they were planted not by covenant succession, but by the Enemy. Can one not retain the visible/invisible, formal/vital, substance/administration of the covenant of grace solely along the lines many merely “profess” Christ while not “possessing” Christ?

Could not there be merit from a redemptive historical progression, that while circumcison and baptism are indeed signs and seals of the same spiritual reality, that the administration of those signs have progressed from physical birthright to a re-birth “right”. In the Abrahamic God told Abraham His covenant would not be with Ishmael, yet the sign of regeneration was given to him. Likewise it was given to every single physical descendant of Abraham irrespective of any profession of faith, granted Gentiles who desired to join Israel were to profess. Thus there was built into the Abrahamic from the get go a mixed administration.

The mixed nature of the Abrahamic covenant created a prophetic call for heart circumcison that is strangely absent in New Testament revelation. Notice throughout the OT Canon the prophets call for the Israelites to circumcise the foreskins of their hearts. That is because a profession of faith was not required before the sign was administered. However, all of the data surrounding baptism carries with it the assumption only those who received it made a “profession” of faith.Notice I am not naive to argue a regenerate church. That is impossible in the not yet. But it is not beyond reason to see the New Testament argues for a “professor only” community. Nowhere in the NT canon do we see verses stating “You who were water baptized Be baptized in your heart” “You who were baptized BE saved.” No. Its always As many of “us” as were baptized were clothed with Christ. Who is the us. Context declares its those who are sons of God by faith. Granted that may be a mere profession, but its the context of “us”. Rom 6 says the us who are buried in baptism are those who were already declared just in the previous chapter. An important error is also avoided here. We do not with sacramentalists give a surface reading to these texts assuming every person is saved via baptism. No it is in context speaking of those already justified by faith. Paul could not have scores of unregenerate formal covenant children in mind and direct these statements of being clothed in Christ to them in a congregation because the revelation provided in the NT seems to assume only “professors” received the sign. Again mere professors of faith fits the formal, visible side of the covenant that the apostasy passages declare, yet without the sign being given. The redemptive historical progression isn’t that the signs are different, nor that the gospel is different, but that the sign of initiation is now given only to those who profess faith. We see it from the declarations in the nt about the recipient professors and the lack of a prophetic call for recipients to receive regeneration post baptism. We see calls to reckon as already true(yes by profession, leaving room for apostasy in false profession) what the sign points to.

These are just thoughts I am mulling about.

Michial Brown

5 years ago

Id love a reply to my thoughts above. The thing that still bothers me and must bother all honest baptists is that there is a covenantal unity of the gospel of grace and the people/church of God. Paul even tells gentile Corinthians that Moses and the Israelites are their fathers in the faith and to not fall away like some did. There is so much continuity between circumcision and baptism and apparent household/familial solidarity that is difficult for me to see fitting into a baptistic framework.

My issue is the variance of views on the childs status and what we consequently tell the children. If there is a continuity with circumcision it seems most consistent if we take our position from that. All views of our children are born christians denies original sin. All views of presumptive regeneration denies election. All views of treating our kids as though they were christians disregards how Jesus had no trouble telling Nicodemus he must be born again, and can lead to an attitude of I don’t need to evangelize my child. Kline is right when he says the promise isn’t for all because of the numerous examples Ishmael, Esau etc, so we should assume God promised all children of believers are children of promise, but the administration rests on command and family solidarity. The pharisees had a presumptive attitude”We are Abrahams children”it seems we should follow Kline here and treat our kids as though they still need to be born again. Give them the sign of rebirth and tell them when you believe your sins will be washed by Christ’s blood just as you were washed with water in your baptism.

Id love feedback.

Jared Oliphint

5 years ago

Michial,

It’s difficult to know how to respond because you’re tossing dozens of topics out there without much of a structural connection between them. I appreciate that these are your raw thoughts on the matter; just know that if you don’t do the work of sorting through them in your mind and *then* putting them into a cohesive form, any response will be limited in value.

That said, there are a couple points that might help. First, examples in Scripture of “profession of faith, THEN baptism” is never a defeater for paedobaptism. Just like when the old covenant had begun there were many adults who were given the new covenant sign, so in the NT when the new covenant began there are many adults given the new covenant sign. The problem is when a biblical hermeneutic takes those examples to then *exclude* children from the covenant sign simply because 1) they see examples that include adults, and 2) they don’t see any explicit examples of children being baptized. The lack of examples of children being baptized would be a problem for the paedobaptist if there wasn’t abundant principle evidence throughout the NT (but there is).

Second, credobaptists assume the new covenant is exclusively soteriological. They of course acknowledge that there are unsaved church members and so in some sense must make an invisible/visible distinction that is highly qualified. On the apostasy passages, I don’t see any way around Hebrews 10:19f. The author refers to someone in the church who
1) receives the knowledge of truth
2) was sanctified, but
3) has profaned the blood of the covenant

I can’t see how someone who was sanctified and was in the covenant is merely someone who professes. The ‘profession’ option isn’t logically impossible, but there is no indication anywhere that a false profession/true profession distinction drives covenant categories.

Coupled with that, 1 Cor. 7:12-16 illustrates this same principle. This passage assumes a non-soteriological category of holiness and being in the covenant. The passage says nothing about whether the children or unbelieving spouse profess anything, but both parties are holy by virtue of the believing covenant member.

The arguments on either side have no silver-bullet answers, which is why they keep being debated. It’s a cumulative case involving consistent categories and a consistent hermeneutic. That also means that because you’re interested in this topic, the answers you’re looking for will be on the other side of a lot of reading (which you’re probably already doing). Thanks for engaging on here, and hope these brief comments were helpful.

Michial

5 years ago

Thanks Jared,
Can you elaborate on why the writer to the Hebrews cannot have false professors alone in mind. Folks who were baptized, partake of the Supper and hear the word and yet are not really saved. They show they are not saved by leaving the New Covenant for the Mosaic, or any other works system. In leaving the New Covenant they spurn Christ and go where there is no other sacrifice for sin and face wrath. Cannot those be covenant breakers? Isn’t that the context of the book of Hebrews. It was addressing professing Hebrew Christians who were considering going back to the Mosaic Covenant for their justification. So the writer shows the superiority of Christ over Moses. Why cannot this be a valid way to look at the apostasy passages? They are in fact apostasizing from their profession of Christ and partaking of New Covenant realities in word and sacraments.

Jonathan

5 years ago

Michial,

Good question and thanks for pressing the issue. To answer your question ,”Yes.” It is logically possible that the author of Hebrews is speaking to only “professing” members. Nevertheless, the theological rub is what are these “professing” people are “members” of…the people of God in vs.30 quoting Psalm 50. Who are the people being judged in Psalm 50?… those who made a covenant with God, Israel. So we are back to square one in defining the church… as vital/formal. But be careful to not assume that the paedo position is that children are only baptized into the “formal” covenant. They are baptized into the visible covenant, just like adults. But children and adults (just like Israel) are both given covenant warnings, and covenant warnings demand a vital/formal distinction.

The vital/formal distinction, as Jared said earlier, is not the silver bullet for children being baptized as much as it is the silver bullet that takes aim at the Baptist understanding of “covenant” and “church” in relation to the OT people of God. Hence Jared saying, “I can’t see how someone who was sanctified and was in the covenant is merely someone who professes. The ‘profession’ option isn’t logically impossible, but there is no indication anywhere that a false profession/true profession distinction drives covenant categories.”

Hope that helps.

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