Volume 39 - Issue 3

Covenant Theology: A Baptist Distinctive

by Earl M. Blackburn, ed.

Recently within evangelical theology, there has been a fair amount of discussion on the biblical covenants, especially in regard to how the covenants are best interpreted in relation to covenant and dispensational theology. This book is one such example written from a Reformed Baptist viewpoint. Its main purpose is to demonstrate from Scripture and church history that Baptists, at least until recent days, have embraced covenant theology without accepting Reformed theology’s commitment to paedobaptism (pp. 7–8). With the renewed emphasis on the “doctrines of grace” within evangelicalism, the authors are concerned that people will mistakenly think that there are only two options available: either paedobaptist covenant theology or a rejection of covenant theology for some form of dispensationalism. But, as the authors insist, a third alternative is available, namely a Reformed Baptist covenant theology, which this book seeks to describe and promote as the more biblical view.

Given its size, the book is not a complete exposition and defense of their position. Its five chapters and three appendices function more as a primer. It is written primarily for pastors and informed lay Christians, so the depth of discussion on these difficult issues is absent. Originally the chapters and appendices were lectures, articles, and blog posts that have now been compiled into one book in order to commend to a wider audience their specific view.

Chapter 1, “Covenant Theology Simplified,” is written by Earl Blackburn, pastor of Heritage Baptist Church in Shreveport, Louisiana. It overviews the basic tenets of covenant theology, and it nicely describes where Reformed Baptists differ from their paedobaptist brethren. In a summary statement Blackburn argues that covenant theology “is the view of God and redemption that interprets the Holy Scriptures by way of covenants” and that “there is only one way of salvation: by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone” (p. 17). After an introductory discussion, Blackburn gives a review of covenant theology’s understanding of the covenant of redemption, works, and grace. As Blackburn does so, he also seeks to unpack the unity and diversity of the biblical covenants as they culminate in the new covenant. Not surprisingly, a major focus is on how the new covenant is different than the old, especially in regard to children (pp. 50–51), thus highlighting the Baptist distinctive that each member of the new covenant is a professing believer in Christ.

Chapter 2, “Biblical Hermeneutics and Covenant Theology,” is written by Fred Malone, pastor of First Baptist Church of Clinton, Louisiana. As the title suggests, this chapter describes basic hermeneutical principles crucial to a proper interpretation of Scripture. After describing where most evangelicals agree in their interpretation of Scripture, Malone then discusses differences between dispensational and Reformed interpretation before finally addressing the main ecclesiological differences between Reformed Baptists and Reformed paedobaptists. Throughout the chapter, Malone insists that Scripture is best interpreted within the framework of covenant theology by arguing that the OT covenants are best viewed as “progressive covenants of the promise fulfilled in the effectual and unbreakable new covenant” (p. 81).

Chapters 3–5 are written by Walter Chantry, retired pastor of Grace Baptist Church in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and well-known leader in Reformed Baptist circles. Chapter 3, “The Covenants of Works and of Grace,” describes and defends a traditional “covenant of works” and then sets it over against the “covenant of grace.” He contends that preaching must include both the “law and gospel,” which are reflected respectively in the “covenant of works and grace.” In addition, Chantry defends the tripartite division of the old covenant and the abiding demand of the Ten Commandments as the summary of God’s eternal moral law, first written on Adam’s conscience and later rewritten on the believer’s heart. Throughout the chapter, Chantry also argues that covenant theology undergirds a consistent Calvinism while dispensational theology sows the seeds for an embrace of Arminianism (pp. 99–110). In chapter 4, “Imputation of Righteousness and Covenant Theology,” Chantry argues for the imputation of Christ’s righteousness based on the covenant of works-grace framework. In chapter 5, “Baptism and Covenant Theology,” Chantry defends believer’s baptism over against infant baptism and by doing so he seeks to demonstrate that even though Baptists reject paedobaptism they ought to embrace fully covenant theology.

Three appendices conclude the book. Justin Taylor, vice-president of book publishing at Crossway, authors the first one. He answers the question “Was There a Covenant of Works?” in the affirmative. Taylor contends that without it the gospel is ultimately compromised since the basis for the imputation of Adam’s sin and Christ’s righteousness is undercut. Ken Fryer, a staff member at Heritage Baptist Church in Shreveport, Louisiana, writes the second appendix, “Covenant Theology in Baptist Life.” From church history, Fryer does a fine job demonstrating that Baptists have embraced covenant theology despite their rejection of infant baptism. In the third appendix, “How is the New Covenant not like that which has come before?” Kenneth Puls, the editorial director of Founders Press, gives a helpful chart that contrasts the covenants in the OT with the new covenant.

Given the book’s purpose, aim, and audience, the authors provide a helpful introduction to Reformed Baptist theology. If one is looking for a quick read and resource that describes this particular variety of Reformed Baptist theology, this book is a good place to begin. However, at least three weaknesses are evident.

First, as is often the case in this kind of book, the descriptions of contrary positions are mostly unhelpful. This is especially evident when dispensational theology is in the crosshairs. The book predominately assumes that all dispensationalists are of the classic variety (which they are not!). So, we are told, dispensational theology teaches that God operates on the basis of contingency plans (p. 20) since God’s original plan failed for the Jews. Or, dispensationalism denies that Jeremiah’s new covenant applies to the church (p. 76), or that dispensational theology sows the seeds for Arminianism (pp. 99–100). These charges are both unhelpful and false, especially in light of developments within dispensationalism. Straw man arguments ought to be avoided. They do not enhance your position; they only detract from it. Worse yet: they lack charity in theological discussion.

Second, even though this book serves as only a primer, it makes strong assertions on disputed points that require much more defense. For example, one needs to demonstrate the tripartite division of the old covenant (pp. 45–47) or the continuing validity of the Sabbath in the Lord’s Day (p. 30), not simply assert it. To be charitable, given the size limitations and purpose of the book not all of these thorny issues can be discussed. But one would like to see more humility in argumentation, especially on these issues that are widely disputed.

Third, what is lacking in the book is not a description of the biblical covenants, but a sense of how the covenants progressively unfold and how each covenant contributes to the overall plan of God fulfilled in Christ. Blackburn mentions each biblical covenant, but Chantry simply conflates them into the “covenant of grace,” especially when he discusses the OT covenants (pp. 92–98). Chantry argues, “when God makes a covenant it is here to stay!” (p. 100) without ever wrestling with how the new covenant is the telos, terminus, and fulfillment of all of the biblical covenants. What is lacking is the beauty of God’s glorious plan of redemption and how that plan unfolds in its various twists and turns, and ultimately finds its fulfillment in Christ. The biblical covenants indeed are the backbone of the metanarrative of Scripture, and this book tries to capture something of the Bible’s grand story. There is a lot to agree with in this book, and it is at its best in describing its own position, but in the end, it left the reviewer with a lot of unanswered questions and wanting much more.

Stephen J. Wellum

Stephen J. Wellum
The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary
Louisville, Kentucky, USA

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