Thursday, November 12, 2020

The Mystery of Christ: His Covenant & His Kingdom by Samuel Renihan (review part 3)

Founders Press, 2019, 217pp

See here for part 1 and part 2 of this review series. 

Constructive appraisal 

In The Mystery of Christ: His Covenant and His Kingdom, Samuel Renihan has admirably traced the grand plot line of the Bible in covenantal/kingdom terms. He has done justice both to the continuity and discontinuity of old and new covenants, as the mystery of Christ is progressively revealed. While the  writer draws on the riches of the Particular Baptist theological tradition, this is a fresh study in its own right and yields many valuable insights. That the Davidic kings were in effect the federal heads of the Mosaic covenant is one. The author admirably highlights the eschatological dimensions of Christ's covenant and kingdom. 

His characterisation of the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants as 'covenants of works' is not quite so convincing. Renihan certainly does not take the Meredith Kline view that Sinai was a republication of the Adamic covenant of works based on strict merit (p. 111). But in some sense he holds that the Old Covenant operated as a covenant works, as least as far as appropriating the blessings of life in the Promised Land were concerned. 

If, however, threats of chastening judgement and promises of reward for obedient faithfulness constitute a covenant of works, then the New Covenant could arguably be construed as such. In the New Covenant the covenant of grace comes into its own, yet God's judgements upon Israel are taken as a warning to the church (1 Corinthians 10). Christians may also appropriate Old Testament promises of reward, but stripped of their shadowy form and seen in the light of eternity (Matthew 25:14-30, Ephesians 6:2-3). Note the many threats and promises in the Letters to the Churches in Revelation 2-3. To be clear, under both Old and New covenants, rewards were dispensed graciously by the Lord, rather than earned or merited. 

If the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants were not covenants of works and neither can they be identified with the Covenant of Grace, what are they? Renihan is nearer the mark when he says, 'There is no covenant prior to Christ that reveals His covenant as directly as the Abrahamic Covenant does. The unilateral free gift of the earthly typical promises most clearly demonstrates the unilateral and free gift of the heavenly antitypical promises to the elect.' (p. 100). Further, he writes that 'the covenant of circumcision [made with Abraham] was a covenant of guardianship. It is a covenant that constitutes Abraham's descendants the womb of the Messiah.' (p. 101). 

The giving of the law at Sinai did not compromise the gracious character of the Abrahamic covenant, as Paul makes clear in Galatians 3:15-29. The law functioned as a guardian until Christ came. It 'increased the trespass' (Romans 5:20) by exposing the sinfulness of sin that those who were under the law might seek the righteousness of God by faith in Christ (Romans 10:3-4). 

The Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants were not recognisably covenants of works. They were 'covenants of promise'. Through their shadowy types and figures they spoke of the promised Messiah who would be born of Abraham's line. 'They are Israelites, to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants... and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ, who is God over all, blessed forever.' (Romans 9:4-5). 

This criticism should not detract from the work as a whole. For too long Paedobaptists have cornered the market in covenant theology, while Reformed or Grace Baptists have lagged behind. Renihan's title is an important contribution to covenant theology from a Baptist standpoint.  That said, readers will not find heated polemic here. The author makes his case in a gracious and winsome way, insightfully handling the text of Scripture and ensuring that doctrine leads to doxology before the glorious mystery of Christ. 

I am most grateful to Founders Press for sending me a complimentary review copy of this book. I would urge them to make it available more widely, as importing the title from the USA is prohibitively expensive for readers in the United Kingdom.  

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