This will be the first installment within a series of a number of posts. It will be in partial response to Paul Martin Henebury, who calls himself “Dr. Reluctant”—being what he terms a “reluctant dispensationalist.” He is the innovator of a position called “biblical covenantalism,” which appears to be a relatively new project aimed at synthesizing(?) elements of covenant theology with dispensational theology. He wrote a lengthy post series critical of covenant theology per se, usually poking at the Westminster brand represented by men like Guy Waters and Geerhardus Vos. I will be responding to this post series as a Baptist, disagreeing with both Henebury and his main interlocutors—the Presbyterians—as I go along.
The other purpose of this “counter series” will be to hopefully clarify the confessional Baptist position, and to show that, without it, there is no such thing as Baptist theology, let alone Particular Baptist theology. I, of course, do not mean that every Baptist holds to Baptist covenant theology (henceforth, 1689 federalism). But many Baptists want the conclusions of Baptist distinctives without the exegetical-theological assumptions that actually get them there. Dispensationalism and its hermeneutic, though popularly held in Baptist circles, is not a Baptist system, originating with John Nelson Darby of the Plymouth Brethren. That said, its assumptions cannot consistently bring one to a conviction of Baptist polity, the law/gospel distinction, or baptism.
In this first post, I only want to summarily define my own position and address some of Henebury’s starting assumptions.
When I say “1689 federalism,” I mean the view of the biblical covenants set forth by the 1677/89 Second London Baptist Confession of Faith and its framers. In that confession, readers will pick up on a few relevant terms: the covenant of redemption which the confession alludes to as a “covenant made between them both,” i.e., Father and Son, appearing in chs. 7 & 8; the “covenant of works,” mentioned in chs. 19-20; and the “covenant of grace,” mentioned in chs. 7, 14, 15, and 17. It should be noted that there are multiple covenants of works in addition to the Adamic covenant in the garden found throughout the Old Testament, each obliging the vassal party to some kind of obedience in view of a reward with curses in the event of disobedience. A few of these are the covenant of circumcision, the Mosaic covenant, and the Davidic covenant. The only free grace covenant is the covenant cut in the blood of Christ—the new covenant/covenant of grace. These covenants of works serve, but are not themselves, the new covenant. Historically, Baptists have made these distinctions in order to preserve believing church membership and the integrity of the free offer of the gospel, both of which concerns arise from the nature of the new covenant itself.
Looking now at the language of the confession, the “covenant made between them both,” refers to what has been called the pactum salutis, or the covenant of redemption. This has typically been characterized as a “covenant transaction” (cf. ch. 7) occurring eternally in the past amongst the members of the Godhead—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Our modern notions of “transaction” need to be qualified. The confession is not intimating a give and take dynamic between Father, Son, and Spirit. We consider transactions this way because, as creatures, to transact we must undergo a process. Since process is altogether removed from God, given His immutability, we are pressed to understand transactionary language, as applied to the Godhead, as a creaturely way of speaking about the plan of redemption as it exists eternally and incomprehensibly in God’s decree. The sending of the Son, the obligation of the Son to fulfill what He was sent to do, and the reward the Son receives as the outcome together warrant the language of covenant. Though all these things terminate upon the human nature of Christ in time, they reflect something of the timeless decretal plan of God which, as it unfolds in the economy, is covenantal in nature.
The “covenant of works” is, broadly, any covenant in which one’s participation requires an act of obedience on his or her part. Adam, for example, was obligated to obey God. Upon his failure to do so, he was estranged from the terms of the original agreement. This may be called a covenant. Though the word “covenant” is not present, the essential ingredients are. For the 1689 federalist, the covenant of works first appears in the garden. There is also a covenant of works made between God and Abraham’s descendants in Genesis 15 and 17. Presbyterians deny that the Abrahamic covenant was a covenant of works, instead seeing it as a covenant of grace. But Baptists have always been keen to point out the violable nature of the Abrahamic covenant apparent in Genesis 17:14, i.e., the possibility of being “cut off.” A covenant from which a person can be cut off is, by definition, not a covenant given by free grace.
The “covenant of grace,” for the 1689 federalist, is synonymous with the new covenant. The new covenant is the covenant of grace because it is neither entered into nor sustained by means of the participant’s obedience. For the 1689 federalist, the new covenant is the only saving covenant. And though it had not yet been established in the Old Testament, it was nevertheless revealed and served as the object of faith for Old Testament saints. Christ and His shed blood, which just is the new covenant (cf. Is. 49:8), affects the salvation of all those in Him, regardless of whether they lived under the Abrahamic and/or Mosaic covenants.
The above is a brief overview of my position. I’m sure questions remain. However, more details will hopefully be brought forth and clarified in my interaction with Henebury.
Henebury’s Starting Assumptions
First, and most importantly, Henebury begins by implying his rejection of deductive interpretation. The deeper assumption at play here is that of methodical naturalism, which, as applied to biblical hermeneutics, treats the Bible as any other document in terms of deciphering its subject-matter. As long as the literary-scientific method is applied properly, it will yield the correct exegetical conclusions… or so it is thought. Unfortunately, this is the method taken for granted at University, Seminary, and even in most churches. It rolls downhill from the 18th century Enlightenment, a time foreboding of supernatural assumptions and allergic to the application of faith to any contingent phenomena, including the Bible. Intertextuality is only observed, never employed as an exegetical informant. On this view, Bible readers should not follow Christ or the apostles in how they interpret the text. They must, instead, foist their own methodological assumptions upon it in the form of the exclusive employment of the historical-critical method.
To cut through these bad assumptions, we might simply ask whether or not such assumptions are exemplified by the biblical authors themselves. The answer, of course, would be clearly negatory upon final analysis. For example, let’s take Henebury’s claim, “If these covenants have good biblical standing and are not superimposed upon the Bible via a deductive system of theology then they will surely put in an appearance in the scholarly literature of all kinds of interpreters.” The implication here is that deduction, or beginning with a concept from which may be deduced further implications, is something to be shunned by the Bible interpreter. Ironically, there is nothing in Scripture itself forbidding deductive interpretation in principle. And there are countless examples of the biblical authors making deductions from Old Testament texts in light of the finished work of Jesus Christ.
The whole first chapter of Hebrews is a stunning example of how this is the case. In particular, Hebrews 1:5b directly applies 2 Samuel 7:14 to Christ. Such was a text that itself historically applied immediately to Solomon. But, in light of the finished work of our Lord, the author of Hebrews reads 2 Samuel 7:14 in a Christocentric and Christotelic way, not because the meaning changed (and thus needed re-interpreted), but because the meaning that had always been present was subsequently illumined by the coming of Son of God. The several formula quotations in the gospel according to Matthew are another such example of reading the Old Testament in light of the coming of Christ, that is, deductively.
The first move in response to the above might be an appeal to the doctrine of inspiration. The author of Hebrews was inspired, therefore, he could make such verbose interpretive conclusions. But such implies that, given inspiration, the author of Hebrews could perceive a meaning no one else could have seen. Talk about “hidden meaning”! Furthermore, such an appeal to inspiration virtually neuters the concepts of Christologic and apostolic examples. Is Jesus our example? If so, isn’t Jesus’ method of interpretation our example as well? Are the apostles our example? If so, should we not then follow their interpretive practice? Who else’s example do we have, after all?
Henebury may have a point if by “deduction” he referred to extra-biblical concepts read into the text which would do harm to the meaning of the text itself. But he’s not using the term in this way. Instead, he chides Brown & Keele for reading Genesis 3:15 in light of Galatians 3. The Enlightenment skepticism Henebury has inadvertently imbibed and worked into his own biblical exegesis causes him to doubt the traditionally accepted reading of Genesis 3:15, the protoevangelium. Henebury writes, “I realize that this ‘proto-evangelium’ is supposed to promise a Savior, but does it? The remarks are addressed to the serpent and imply his doom. There is nary a word about redemption from sin.” The obvious question, of course, is, “If Genesis 3:15 doesn’t promise a Savior, how could anyone living between Adam and Abraham be saved, e.g., Abel?” If salvation came in any other form than Christ, there would have had to be a different way of salvation for them than there is for us. A startling implication to be sure, and one of the main reasons the hermeneutical commitments undergirding dispensationalism ought to be rejected.
Furthermore, if God is the single-unifying mind behind the Scriptural narrative at large, given inspiration, then it follows He is the best commentator upon His own Word. When we “read Galatians into Genesis,” we’re not doing violence to Genesis anymore than the biblical authors themselves were. We’re reading Genesis in light of what else the Supreme Author of Genesis has said in relation to the topic at hand, which, in this case, is the gospel itself.
The second thing Henebury does in his first post is allege that covenant theologians are “storytellers.” He says, “Covenant theologians tell ‘stories.’ The stories are persuasive because they are God-centered, Christological, NT oriented, and coherent (at least apparently).” Leaving aside the fact that “God-centered” interpretation must necessarily be correct, this only works to form a bias in the mind of his readers against covenant theology at the outset of his prolonged series. It muddies the waters and makes it seem as if Henebury lacks objectivity in the evaluation of his interlocutors.
Furthermore, given the limited extent to which he actually interacts with the relevant source material throughout his series, he is unable to demonstrate the truth of this statement to any sufficient degree. Of course, if by “story” he means the Bible’s own intertextual nature, then he would once again be hard pressed to demonstrate that such a “story” is, in fact, unbiblical. All 66 books of the Bible are related to one another and work toward a central and climatic goal at the beckon call of its Divine Author. This means something for our interpretation, especially as we observe how subsequent revelation regularly and directly clarifies and explains antecedent revelation. More on this as we continue.
At the outset of his criticism, Henebury made two mistakes that will affect his own later critique and the objectivity of his readers. His first mistake is the unequivocal rejection of deductive interpretation. At this point, he has not even tried to demonstrate why deductive interpretation is wrong. And I do not think he could successfully do so while assuming his own hermeneutical pre-commitments. Leaving aside the fact that deduction, at some level, is necessary, there is neither biblical command nor example against deduction per se in Scripture. And, in fact, there is ample instruction and example in the other direction, that is, deducing Old Testament meaning in light of the illumination offered by the incarnation, sufferings, and glory of our Lord. (cf. Lk. 24:27)
Furthermore, Henebury unfortunately characterizes his interlocutors as “storytellers.” This muddies the waters by poorly characterizing those with whom he’s interacting. It makes it sound as if we prefer our stories rather than the biblical text. As someone who was once a dispensationalist and is now a 1689 federalist, I can confidently say that I would not have reached this position if I thought it had been crafted upon conjectural stories. The main reason I left dispensationalism was precisely because its hermeneutical principles could not keep up with that of Scripture’s own self-interpretation. The method of dispensationalism is not the method of the Bible. We must interpret the Bible as the Bible teaches us to interpret the Bible.
Samuel Renihan, From Shadow to Substance: The Federal Theology of the English Particular Baptists (1642-1704), (Oxford: Center for Baptist History and Heritage Studies, 2018).
Samuel Renihan, The Mystery of Christ, His Covenant, and His Kingdom, (Cape Coral: Founders Press, 2020).
Nehemiah Coxe & John Owen, Covenant Theology: From Adam to Christ, (Reformed Baptist Academic Press, 2005).