Thursday, January 31, 2019

Christ and Covenant Theology by Cornelis P. Venema

P&R Publishing, 2017, 462pp

For my next trick, I, a convinced Baptist will review a book on covenant theology. Maybe that seems a bit like a strict teetotaler venturing a view on the finest vintage port, when never a drop has touched their lips. Or a Vegan discussing the best cuts of beef, when all they know is nut roasts and cabbage. Covenant theology and Baptists? Er,  no.

Well, it's a yes, actually. Covenant theology isn't the preserve of Presbyterians and other paedobaptist types. Baptists get a look in too. After all, we believe the Bible and there's a lot of covenanty stuff in there. The thing is, what's the nature of the various biblical covenants, and how do they relate to each other?

For starters, did the relationship between God and Adam take the form of a covenant, and if so, what kind of covenant was it? Important, this one. What we make of the Adamic administration will help to shape our view of subsequent covenant dispensations. Venema argues convincingly that the arrangement between God and Adam in the Eden took the form of a covenant. That applies, even though the word berith isn't used in Genesis 1-3, or elsewhere in Scripture to describe the arrangement, with the possible exception of Hosea 6:7. Venema cautions against word/matter fallacy insisting, De vocabulo dubitetur, so salva ("the word may be in doubt, but the matter is certain"), p. 422. In other words, if it walks like a duck, swims like a duck and quacks like a duck, it's not exactly a pigeon, is it? 

The essential elements of a covenant being present, Reformed theologians have variously labelled the relationship that obtained between God and Adam as a "covenant of works/nature/life". If Adam had obeyed the terms of the covenant, his reward from God would have been eternal life and blessedness for himself and all humanity in him. The penalty for breaking the covenant was death for Adam and all humanity. 

Scholars following the lead of Meredith Kline hold that the "covenant of works" was established on the basis of strict merit. Adam's obedience would have earned him and all men in him eternal life in fellowship with God. Venema begs to differ. The promised blessings far exceed Adam's just deserts. Perfect obedience was simply God's due and in itself merited no reward. The Westminster Confession of Faith speaks of "some voluntary condescension on God's part" by which the Creator covenanted to reward Adam's obedience. If there is merit here, it is "covenanted merit", not strict merit. 

A nifty Tabular Comparison of the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF) and the Second London Baptist Confession (SLBC) shows that Baptists followed the Presbyterians in regarding the arrangement between God and Adam in covenantal terms. See Chapter VII. The wording of point 1 of this chapter is virtually the same in both confessions. For some reason the Baptists dropped the clarifying statement in WCF VII.2. Not sure why. Would anyone notice if I popped it back in?  Greg Nichols has a helpful treatment of the Adamic Covenant in Appendix 2 of his Covenant Theology: A Reformed and Baptistic Perspective on God's Covenants (Solid Ground Christian Books, 2014, p. 321-358). He agrees with Venema that while the "covenant of works" demanded perfect obedience from Adam, it operated on the basis of God's undeserved favour, not strict merit in terms of the immeasurable reward offered. 

Adam failed to win the blessings of life eternal for humanity under the "covenant of works". But all was not lost. Both the WCF and SLBC state that, the Lord was pleased to make a "covenant of grace, wherein he freely offereth unto sinners life and salvation by Jesus Christ" (WCF VII. 3 SLBC VII. 2). Christ is the covenant head of God's new humanity, as Adam was the covenant head of sin-ruined humanity. According to Reformed expositors, this covenantal understanding of Adam and Christ is borne out by Romans 5:12-21 and 1 Corinthians 15:20-22, 42-49. 

From Adam to Moses. A dispute has arisen in the Reformed world as to whether the Mosaic covenant was a republication of the "covenant of works". Kline and those who follow his line insist that the Sinaiatic dispensation promised blessing in return for strict obedience. Although Venema makes no reference to him here, the Puritan John Owen also advocated the republication view, which proved influential among early Particular Baptists. Given the emphasis on law in the Mosaic covenant and the link between blessing and obedience/curse and disobedience in Leviticus and Deuteronomy, the Owen/Kline view seems to have something going for it. Leviticus 18:5 seems to bear this out. 

Venema gives a fair summary of the views of Reformed theologians who argue that the Moasic covenant was in some sense a republication of the covenant of works. He then proceeds to pick that position apart. In terms of Reformed Orthodoxy, the WCF sets the Mosaic economy in the context of the covenant of grace (VII.5). The SLBC omits this material, as the Particular Baptists tended to hold that the old covenant was  a covenant of works that was subservient to the covenant of grace. Be that as it may, the decider on this issue isn't historical theology, but Scripture. 

The author gives special attention to the republication lot's trump card, Leviticus 18:5. The apostle Paul for one seems to say that the text in question promised life as a reward for obedience, which is a bit covenant of worksy, to say the least. See Galatians 3:12 and Romans 10:5. Venema places Leviticus 18:5 within the context of the Mosaic covenant as a whole, where it was addressed to God's chosen and redeemed people to whom the law was given as a rule of life. Only when divorced from the covenant of grace does the law become a demand that damns. That was the problem with which Paul was confronted in the form of legalistic Judaism. Hence his concern to contrast Leviticus 18:5 understood as meritorious demand with the opposing principle of justification by faith apart from the works of the law. Baptist theologian Greg Nichols concurs, 
Thus the Mosaic covenant did not promote legalism. It did not teach sinners get right with God by the works of the law. It was not a republication of the pre-fall covenant of works. It called Israel as a society to gospel obedience. God built the Mosaic covenant on the foundation of the need for regeneration and justification by faith. (Covenant Theology, p. 232). 
Things get a bit more controversial from a Baptist point of view in the chapters that follow on covenant and election. The sticking point is whether the children of believers are included among God's people under the new covenant as they were under the old. Venema, upholding the WCF tradition says, 'yes', me, a 1689er says, 'no'. But there are points of agreement too.  The covenant of grace is the historical outworking of the covenant of redemption between the persons of the Trinity in eternity. There is therefore a relationship between election and the covenant of grace. Agreed. With this thought in mind Venema deals sensitively  with the issue of Election and the Salvation of Children of Believers Who Die in Infancy (Chapter 6). Baptists do not regard their children as members of the covenant people of God until they profess faith in Christ, but with the WCF the SLBC holds, "Elect infants dying in infancy are regenerated and saved by Christ through the Spirit" (X.3 - both confessions). 

Now to points of disagreement from a Baptist perspective. Under the old covenant not every member of the people of Israel was personally elected to salvation through faith in the promises. Paul makes that clear in Romans 9:6-18.  The circle of the covenant community was  wider than the circle of the elect. In fact, among the circumcised descendants of Abraham there was only a "remnant chosen by grace" (Romans 11:6). Membership by natural descent was precisely the weakness of the old covenant, which made it ripe for abolition, Jeremiah 31:31-34. Under the new covenant belonging is not based on birth, but belief in Christ, Galatians 3:26-29. That is why the sign and seal of the new covenant is not circumcision, but baptism on profession of faith. One of the ways in which the new covenant is superior to the old is that the godly are no longer a remnant within a largely apostate covenant community, as was often the case with Israel. The church is a gathering of visible saints, more closely corresponding to the elect than was the case under the old covenant. Paedobaptism undermines this, sometimes muddying the waters quite badly. (No baptismal pun interned). 

Acts 2:38-39 isn't the clincher for Paedobaptism that Venema claims. The children of Peter's hearers "and all who are far off" would only receive forgiveness of sin and the promised Holy Spirit on repentance from sin and faith in Christ, sealed by baptism. Unless Venema is willing to allow that "all who are far off" are eligible for baptism before they come to faith in Christ, as well as the children of believers. No? Well, then. That said, Paedobaptism notwithstanding, the WCF exhibits a much richer understanding of Baptism and the Lord's Supper as signs and seals of the covenant of grace than the SLBC (compare WFC XXVII with SLBC XXVIII - scroll down the Tabular thing a bit). In Baptist circles baptism can be reduced to a rather damp way of publicly professing one's faith, rather than a means of grace. 

Next up Venema devotes three chapters to discussing Federal Vision teaching, which involves a pile of wrongheaded ideas that have been influential in American Reformed Presbyterian circles. FV holds that every church member and their children must be assumed to be elect, even though some may fall away. Infant baptism is regenerative, although again, some who were baptised as infants may turn away from the faith. Justification is merely forgiveness, with no imputation of Christ's righteousness. The works believers perform as an outworking of their faith have a role in their final justification. Venema refutes these notions with his customary thoroughness. I couldn't help thinking that freaky FV notions wouldn't have developed within a framework of Reformed Baptist theology. For me reading these chapters was a bit like eavesdropping on two people arguing. One you think is a bit wrong (Venema in his Presbyterianism), but the other you reckon is totally off the scale (the FVs). 

I wish less attention had been given to FV nonsense and more to the subject of the final chapter, Covenant and Justification in N. T. Wright's Interpretation of Romans 5:12-21. Wright's views certainly have more of a global reach than the rather domestic FV controversy. Here is Venema at his best. He states Wright's position with fairness and clarity, and then shows how his understanding falls short both in terms of exegesis and theological reasoning. Wright claims that his biblical studies approach to Romans 5:12-21 avoids importing later theological concerns into his reading of the text. But systematic theology has something to offer when it comes to setting individual passages of Scripture in the context of the whole counsel of God, and showing how various biblical doctrines fit together as an interconnected whole. As in Adam all stand condemned, so all who are in Christ are constituted righteous, justified by faith alone. The broken symmetry of the Adam/Christ relationship in Romans 5:12-21 is best understood in covenantal and forensic terms. Wright's focus on identifying who belongs to the people of God doesn't quite cut it. 

Christ and Covenant Theology is a big read that demands careful thought and attention. Baptists may not always agree with his conclusions, but will find in Venema a stimulating dialogue partner as they seek to develop a distinctively Baptistic covenant theology. The writer's emphasis on the central importance of Christ in the covenant of grace is surely welcome,
Christ is the Alpha and Omega, the origin and end of God's loving and gracious purpose to dwell in everlasting communion with his covenant people...All the ways of God find their beginning and fulfillment in and through the work of Christ, and this is most powerfully testified through the history of the covenants. (p. 434).  
* A boiled down version of this review will be published in the Banner of Truth Magazine at some point. 

Tuesday, January 08, 2019

12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos by Jordan B. Peterson

Like many people, at least in the UK, I first came across Jordan Peterson when his interview with Channel 4's Cathy Newman went viral. See here if you've been living on another planet of late and haven't yet seen it. I was impressed with Peterson's ability to hold to his own under sustained onslaught from Newman with her liberal bias against conservative views. He refused to be misrepresented when she repeatedly took his arguments to their illogical conclusion. At one point Newman was lost for words. 

Jordan Peterson is a clinical psychologist and a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, Canada. He rose to public prominence when he refused to comply with his University's policy of enforcing staff and students to refer to transgender people by their chosen pronouns. He regarded the guidance as intellectually dishonest and a violation of free speech. Angry protests followed.

Peterson's 12 Rules for Life has sold over two million copies. His lecture tours have attracted huge crowds across the world. Young men especially have fastened onto his message of personal responsibility. The professor often appeals to the Christian faith when articulating his views, drawing upon biblical stories to illustrate his points. I was intrigued and wanted to find out more; following him on Twitter (@jordanbpeterson) and watching interviews and talks online. When Audible offered me a free download as a trial offer, I chose 12 Rules for Life

Audiobooks aren't really my thing. I'm a pretty fast reader, so having a book read to me seemed like a ponderously slow process. When reading a book I feel like I'm working, but sitting and listening I'm tempted to start doing other things rather than concentrating on what I'm hearing. Anyway, in fits and starts stretching out over several months I finally made it to the end. 

Others have offered reviews in which they work their way systematically through each of the '12 Rules'*. I'm not going to do that. In case you're wondering what they are, you'll find them listed at the bottom of this post. What I propose to do is reflect on some of the big themes Peterson touches upon in his book and subject them to theological analysis. You see, although the writer is happy to mine the Bible for parables and principles, he gets a bit cagey when pressed on his own personal faith position. Peterson recommends we live as though God existed because the Nietzschean alternative is too awful to contemplate. For the Christian God is not a hypothesis invented to make life bearable. He is the one who makes life both possible and meaningful. 


Many people on nodding acquaintance with the Bible say they find the God disclosed in the pages of the New Testament more appealing than the one revealed in the Old. The ancient heresy of Marcion persists. Yahweh is a jealous God of wrath and rage. How different is the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. But there is only one God according to Christian belief. Both covenants testify to his mercy and justice. The supreme demonstration of which divine attributes is seen in the love-placarding, sin-bearing, wrath-averting death of Christ at Calvary. 

Unusually, in a kind of reverse Marcionism, Peterson prefers the God of Moses to the God of Jesus. A God of wrath seems somehow more fitting, given the state of our sin-ruined, suffering existence. The problem of evil weighs heavily in 12 Rules of Life. Peterson does not shy away from the reality of sin in the human heart and the suffering it causes. It can be a struggle to resists the nihilistic pull of hatred for the world and chose life. Hence the injunction of Rule 1 'Stand up straight with your shoulders back'. Don't be cowed by what life throws at you. Adopt a confident posture and begin a journey of self-improvement one step at a time. 


There is a lot of good practical wisdom to be found here. You can see why Peterson's message is proving so popular, particularly among men, who have long been told they are either dangerously 'toxic', or totally useless. It's great that millions of his readers are being taken to the Bible as a source of truth and insight, whether that's the story of Cain and Abel, or Jesus' teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. This is not to say that Peterson has grasped the gospel, however. In a coda at the end of 12 Rules for Life he quotes Matthew 6:33, "But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you." He takes the text as a cue for us to pursue the highest priorities in life in terms of our self-development, career and relationships. Husbands should honour their wives as Mothers of God, fathers treat their sons as Sons of God, men should look out for their daughters, adult children care for their parents. 

Rules or redemption?

Fine sentiments indeed. But this is not the gospel. Such is the nature of sin-ruined humanity that 12 Rules for Life isn't going to set us straight. Not even the Ten Commandments could do that. What we need isn't rules, but redemption. The Son of God had to be born of his virgin mother, suffer and die on the cross for ours sins, and be raised bodily from the grave. In Christ the believer has died to the old life under the reign of sin and been raised to a new one under the reign of grace. We need the power of the Holy Spirit to transform our lives from within that we may walk in the way of God's rules for life. The message of the Bible is not one of self-help, but grace. 

The great Puritan divine John Owen wrote pithily, 'A Socinian Christ for a Pelagian man'. In other words, a Pelagian message of self-improvement does not require God the Son to die for our sins. With the appropriate teaching and the aid of good examples, we can find the right path. The trouble is, as Owen knew, 'A Chalcedonian Christ is needed for an Augustinian man'. Peterson's conception of human nature might seem gloomy, but it is nowhere near gloomy enough. Human beings are made in the image of God. That is what gives us our value, dignity and moral responsibility. But we are fallen creatures, totally depraved and ruined by sin. The 'chaos' for which Peterson's Rules are the prescribed antidote has its roots in the fall of human beings in rebellion against their Creator; "sin is lawlessness [anomia]", 1 John 3:4. Augustine understood that sin warps our love, causing us to turn away from God and in upon ourselves. That way lies ruin and eternal loss. Only by grace can our track record of failure be forgiven. Only by grace can we be rightly ordered to love God and others above self. 


But the church does have something to learn from Jordan Peterson. He is unafraid to voice and defend his socially conservative views in public and will not allow the hostile media to misrepresent his position. All too often the church had buckled under pressure when it comes to upholding biblical marriage, and so on.  Peterson works hard to apply his teachings to his readers and listeners lives in helpful ways. This has made a real difference to people who have acted upon his guidance. Preachers also need to 'state, illustrate and apply'. Yes, our imperatives must be based on the indicatives of the gospel, but transformational imperatives there must be. Let's not forget that the aim of preaching is to equip believers to play their roles in the drama of redemption in which evil is defeated and God's good purposes prevail. Peterson's success also shows that there is an audience out there for a message that addresses what it means to live a purposeful life in a broken world. The church should have something to say about that, right? 

12 Rules for Life 

  1. Stand up straight with your shoulders back
  2. Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping
  3. Make friends with people who want the best for you
  4. Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today
  5. Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them
  6. Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world
  7. Pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient)
  8. Tell the truth – or, at least, don't lie
  9. Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don't
  10. Be precise in your speech
  11. Do not bother children when they are skateboarding
  12. Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street

*Other reviews: 

Monday, January 07, 2019

Called? Pastoral Guidance for the Divine Call to Gospel Ministry by Michael A. Milton

Christian Focus, 2018, 231 pp 

It is a momentous thing for a man to feel that the Lord is calling him to gospel ministry. Michael A. Milton sets out to guide his readers though the various stages of responding to the Lord’s call. His work is full of practical hints and tips, often drawn from Milton’s own experience. A theology of calling is sketched out. Several chapters are devoted to choosing a seminary (may I recommend London Seminary) and the privileges and pitfalls of seminary life. Attention is given to the early phase of gospel service after training has been completed. Then there is the matter of persevering in the work over the long haul. 

While there's good stuff here for budding pastors, the work has some flaws that mar its usefulness. The present title is a reworking of previously published material with the aim of making it more relevant to the global church. For all that, it is still very much a product of American Presbyterianism. Talk of the role of denominations in recognising and training ministers and of ‘parish ministry’ will be alien to large swathes of Evangelicalism in the United Kingdom and beyond. The author’s attempts at humour don’t always translate well. In explaining a theology of calling to the ministry Milton refers to Old Testament prophets and New Testament apostles, but 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 on the appointment of elders/overseers barely get a look in. The book is a little ‘bitty’. Some chapters are based on sermons preached by the author. A letter and hymn penned by him are thrown in for good measure. This makes the work seem more like a selection of occasional writings than a book-length discussion of what it means to be called to gospel ministry. 

Of course, the blurbs at the front commend the book in glowing terms, "compelling", "marvellous", "a treasure". This is overly generous. Sorry to sound so critical, but the job of a reviewer is to give potential readers the benefit of his honest opinion. That said, anyone seeking to discern whether the Lord may be calling them to gospel ministry will derive some benefit from Milton’s down-to-earth pastoral guidance. Men aspiring to pastoral ministry should also take a look at Lectures to My Students by C. H. Spurgeon, Preaching and Preachers by D. M. Lloyd-Jones, and Preaching Pure and Simple by Stuart Olyott. 

* A version of this review will be published in Evangelical Times

Friday, January 04, 2019

Facing the Future with Hope

Standing at the threshold of a new year is exciting and daunting for the same reason. None of us has got a clue what’s going to happen in the next twelve months. If we knew exactly what lay ahead of us, life would lack surprises. Where would be the fun in that? That we don’t know what lies ahead of us means that we may well be in for some nasty shocks. That’s the daunting bit. For some fear of the future becomes so crippling that they can’t get on with life. Telling such people, ‘Don’t worry, it might never happen’ won’t cut it, because it might. What then?

But it really is no use worrying. It changes nothing, only our ability to cope with the things that life has in store for us. Someone once said, “Worrying is carrying tomorrow's load with today's strength - carrying two days at once. It is moving into tomorrow ahead of time. Worrying doesn't empty tomorrow of its sorrow, it empties today of its strength.” That someone was Corrie ten Boon (1892-1983). We might think that her sentiments are fine if a person has had a carefree life. That certainly wasn’t the case with Corrie. Her father gave Jewish families shelter during the German occupation of Holland in World War Two. Their activities were discovered by the Gestapo. Corrie’s father died after nine days imprisonment in Scheveningen Prison. Corrie and her sister Betsie were sent to Ravensbrück concentration camp, where Betsie passed away.

Corrie survived. Inspired by her Christian faith she devoted her life to helping people in need, setting up shelters to care for fellow concentration camp survivors. During her time in Ravensbrück Corrie had to learn to trust in the Lord one day at a time. Jesus said, “And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life?” He assured his followers that their heavenly Father knew the things they needed and would provide for them. With faith in our hearts we can face down our fears. As the apostle Paul reasoned, “If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?”

Yes, the future is unknown. Who knows what 2019 will bring in terms of global events, Brexit, or our personal circumstances? But the Lord  has these reassuring words for those who trust in him, “I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for peace and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.”

Happy New Year!

*For Trinity, Dilton Marsh parish magazine