Tuesday, September 08, 2020

The Mystery of Christ: His Covenant & His Kingdom by Samuel Renihan (review part 1)

Founders Press, 2019, 217pp

In his earlier title, From Shadow to Substance: The Federal Theology of the English Particular Baptists (1642-1704), Samuel Renihan set out to demonstrate that the federal theology of the seventeenth English Particular Baptists was a legitimate strain within Reformed covenant theology. A work of historical theology, in it the author compared and contrasted the views of Nehemiah Coxe and others with mainline Orthodox Reformed thought. The Mystery of Christ: His Kingdom & His Covenant is a fresh and original study in its own right. The focus here is on how the twin themes of covenant and kingdom disclose the 'mystery of Christ' as they unfold in biblical revelation. 


Renihan begins by clearing the ground, dealing with matters of methodology and defining key terms. He makes an important distinction between our obligation to God by virtue of creation and covenant-based relationships. As God's creatures, human beings are subject to 'natural law'. Keeping the law in that sense would not merit a reward, for God is due our entire obedience. In a covenant relationship, however, God may be pleased of his own free goodness to reward obedience with the promise of life. Covenants often involve 'positive laws' that go beyond the universal moral standards of natural law. The command that Adam should not eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil is an example of positive law, as is the command that the descendants of Abraham should be circumcised. Positive laws are contingent on specific covenant relationships. They cannot of necessity be carried forward into different covenant dispensations. The positive rules and regulations of the old covenant no longer apply in new covenant era, as in Christ we have the substance to which they pointed. 

Another important distinction is made between the law and the gospel. In a stark sense law and gospel are polar opposites. The former demands perfect obedience to God's commands, the latter offers Christ's perfect imputed righteousness to the believing sinner. But in terms of the historic biblical covenants, law and gospel are both present. While the old covenant is often described as 'the law', it also held out the promise of life in Christ. While the new covenant underscores that salvation is by faith alone, the law is written on the hearts of believers and its righteous requirements are fulfilled in those who walk not according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit. As Robert Letham points out, all the biblical covenants are based on grace, yet regulated by law. (Systematic Theology, Robert Letham, Crossway, 2019, p. 364-365). 

The old covenant bore witness to Christ though it's types and shadows, but the full revelation of Messiah and his work was not yet made known. That is why Paul refers to the 'mystery of Christ' (Ephesians 3:4, Colossians 4:3). Biblical revelation is progressive. Covenant theology should be sensitive to history and mystery and not try to flatten the upward curve of God's self-disclosure in Christ. 

Renihan sees an intimate connection between the themes of covenant and kingdom. A covenant is a guaranteed commitment between two parties. Promises are attached to the fulfilment of covenant obligations. Sanctions or threats give the covenant arrangement legal sanction. In terms of the biblical covenants God promises blessing to those who are faithful to his covenant and threatens judgement upon those who break its terms. Remarkably, the Lord took the sanctions upon himself when formalising his covenant with Abraham, Genesis 15:9-10, 17-20. 

Three Kingdoms 

God contracts his covenants with federal heads, or representative figures. That was certainly the case with the covenants associated with Adam, Noah, David and Christ. Blessings or sanctions flow from the federal heads to those who belong to them. "Covenants function as the legal basis upon which God interacts with man in a given kingdom." (p. 54). This applies to the three kingdoms God established, each governed by their own specific covenants. The Lord governs the Kingdom of Creation by means of the Covenant of Works and the Noahic Covenant. The Kingdom of Israel is constituted by the Abrahamic, Mosaic and Davidic Covenants. Finally the Kingdom of Christ is the realisation of the Covenant of Redemption and Covenant of Grace. 

The Kingdom of Creation 
Although the word 'covenant' may not be used of God's relationship with humanity in Adam (but see Hosea 6:7), all the essential elements of a biblical covenant are present. By virtue of his creation, Adam was obligated to obey God, both in terms of 'natural law' and also his God-given task of exercising dominion over the creation. But beyond that, Adam was the recipient of covenantal promises and sanctions. He was promised access to the tree of life and the reward of entering God's rest once his work of subduing creation had been completed. He was threatened with the sanction of death and expulsion from the garden sanctuary of Eden if he disobeyed God by eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. 

Adam did not deserve the blessings of life and rest. In his goodness God condescended to bestow these rewards upon him on the condition of obedience, This was a covenant of works. That Adam was the federal head of the covenant of works is evident from the fact that all humanity fell with him into sin and death according to the Genesis account. This is further spelt out in Romans 5:12-21 and 1 Corinthians 15:21-22.

The covenant of works has now been abrogated. There is no way back to Eden, no second chance to keep its command to refrain from eating of the forbidden tree. Humanity remains under the curse of this broken covenant, however. Sin reigns in death over all people in Adam. The moral law continues to demand obedience to God, but sinners cannot live up to its requirements and so attract God's condemnation and wrath for their transgressions. 

The promise of salvation through a deliverer immediately after the fall was the first revelation of the covenant of grace, Genesis 3:15. It was only by means of this covenant that the protology of the covenant of works would be brought to its eschatological fulfilment in Christ. As Isaac Watts sang, 'In him the tribes of Adam boast/more blessings than their father lost." 

Under the Noahic covenant, after the judgement of the flood the Lord promised to preserve the 'common kingdom' of sin-ruined creation until Christ came to make all things new. "The mystery of Christ will unfold in this theatre of preservation." (p. 82).

The Kingdom of Israel 
In common with the Particular Baptist tradition Renihan links the Abrahamic, Mosaic and Davidic covenants as variegated expressions of the old covenant. These covenants flowed from God's grace towards Israel, but they are not in themselves administrations of the covenant of grace. They were intended to serve as 'covenants of promise' through which Messiah would be born into the world and bring blessing to Israel and all peoples. While the promise of Messiah though the seed of Abraham entailed a further revelation of the covenant of grace, life in the Promised Land was conditional upon Israel fulfilling her covenant obligations. In that sense the old covenant was a covenant of works, but that does not mean it was a republication of the Adamic covenant. 

The laws associated with the Mosaic covenant elaborated upon the covenant obligations that the Lord imposed upon Abraham, Genesis 17:1, 9-11. But the people of Israel were not saved by keeping those laws. Rather, like Abraham, salvation was for those who believed the promise of blessing through Messiah, Genesis 15:6 cf. Romans 4. Not all of Abraham's descendants believed the promise that was revealed to them through the types and shadows of the old covenant, Romans 9. The law had no power to compel obedience. Israel was often wayward and rebellious. Their covenant breaking led to Israel being expelled from the Promised Land. 

The kings in the line of David acted as federal heads of the whole nation. The kingdom of Israel rose or fell according to the faithfulness of their earthly rulers, 2 Samuel 7, Psalm 89. 

The people of Israel were in a highly privileged position. From the descendants of Abraham and David would come the longed for Christ. But Israel broke the terms of the old covenant. Her kingdom lay in ruins. A new covenant and kingdom was therefore needed, Jeremiah 31:31-34. 

I think I'll leave it there for now. In part 2 of the review we will look at what Renihan has to say about the Kingdom of Christ and then move from an attempt to summarise his thesis to constructive appraisal. One critical point that I would make is that The Mystery of Christ isn't available in the UK, or can only be ordered if you are willing to pay a handsome price for p&p. Mine is a review copy courtesy  of Founders Press. I hope they soon are able to sort out a UK distribution deal. 

See here for part 2 and part 3 of this review series. 

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