Saturday, November 5, 2016

Book Review: Covenant Theology

In his book Covenant Theology: A Reformed Baptist Perspective, Phillip D. R. Griffiths' goal is "to explain the Reformed Baptist position in a manner that is easily accessible."  He wants the reader "to see that this is the only covenant theology that is faithful to the teaching of Scripture" and "that it will assist the believer in coming to a greater appreciation of the riches that are his in Christ," (Preface, p. ix).  He also notes that his intention is not "to hurt or insult paedobaptists, but to, in grace, encourage them to, at the very least, rethink their position, and, maybe, even adopt the Reformed Baptist position," (p. 7).  His purpose is "to examine what is often considered to be a difficult topic, and provide something that will encourage Christians to think about their faith," (p. 7).

In his book the author defines the term 'covenant', looks at the Covenant of Works under Adam, the New Covenant under Christ, and then focuses on the differing views of these covenants between Reformed Baptists and Presbyterians.   While the subject matter of this book is needed in today's Christian world, Covenant Theology is unnecessarily cumbersome in many places because the author does not stay within the stated scope of his book.

For example, Mr. Griffiths questions Reformed Baptist Pastor Walter Chantry's position on the Kingdom of God (pp. 35-36), on the Mosaic Covenant (pp.90-92), and on the old and new covenant (pp. 133-134).  His statements against Pastor Chantry are limited and do not help paedobaptist embrace the Reformed Baptist view since the author is highly critical of another pastor within the Reformed Baptist camp.  Surprisingly, the author favorably quotes many Presbyterians (or those sympathetic to paedobaptism) throughout his book, including: Carl Trueman, Michael Horton, A.A. Hodge, O. Palmer Robertson, J.V. Fesko, R.C. Sproul, and Louis Berkhof.  If Mr. Griffiths' motive is to convince paedobaptists to change their position on baptism and covenant theology, then appealing to the authority of paedobaptists is counter-productive.

In addition, in his chapter on the Mosaic Covenant, Mr. Griffiths refers to the book Merit and Moses and admits it "[e]ssentially amounts to nothing more than a regurgitation of the standard Presbyterian contention," (p. 99).  However, he continues to refute the book.  The author realizes that he should limit his comments when he says:  "There is much to say about this book [Merit and Moses], however, space only allows for a glimpse into the way the writers employ what I would refer to as specious arguments...bizarre statements...designed to confuse rather than clarify," (pp. 99, 101).  His comments are muddled in this area because they lack the logical development needed for a clear and complete book review.

Many times the author does not stay focused on the purpose of his book and admits this when he states: "This is questionable, and whilst it would be nice to spend time exploring this [AW Pink's view on obedience to God], the important thing to bear in mind..." (p. 97), and "I will not spend time trying to refute this [Pratt's view on the mixed church], suffice it to say..." (p. 126).  If these points can not be fully developed and disproved, then they are not necessary and lead the author astray from his goal of explaining "the Reformed Baptist position in a manner that is easily accessible."  Because of Mr. Griffiths' inclusion of these, as well as other, unnecessary arguments, the book loses the coherence needed for a concise primer on Reformed Baptist Covenant Theology.

Finally, I do not agree with Mr. Griffiths's contention that "[t]he Reformed Baptist paradigm put forward here, as already said, believes entrance into the new covenant to be a reality before Christ's completed work.  The new covenant, in regard to its blessings, was before the old covenant," (p. 125).  There is no denial that faith in Jesus Christ is how all believers are saved throughout history.  However, the New Covenant did not exist before the incarnation of Christ; therefore, Old Testament saints are not benefactors of all the New Covenant blessings and are not members of the New Covenant, which is supported by many Reformed Baptist scholars.

In his sermon "Redemptive History and the Covenants", Pastor Samuel Renihan does an excellent job of defining the Reformed Baptist view of the biblical covenants and states that: "The New Covenant is the Covenant of Grace in its fullness and fulfillment."  He clearly summarizes the distinction as thus: "In the Old Testament, Christ had not come and the New Covenant had not yet been established; there was no New Covenant.  However, the New Covenant was as good as done because it is part of God's eternal decree.  God revealed the New Covenant in His progressive promises throughout the Old Testament; therefore, the Covenant of Grace is the progressive revelation of the New Covenant."

Unfortunately, Mr. Griffiths goes beyond this biblical understanding of the New Covenant. In his argument against the paedobaptist position (one covenant with two administrations), he pushes his argument too far by forcing the New Covenant back into the Old Testament.  From a more biblical and traditional perspective, in his book The Distinctiveness of Baptist Covenant Theology, Pascal Denault states (emphasis mine): "As a result, all those who were saved since the creation of the world were saved by virtue of the New Covenant which was in effect as a promise even before it was an accomplished covenant," (p. 71).  While Mr. Griffiths does acknowledge that "[a]ll those saints who lived prior to Christ would have believed in the promise as Abraham had done...This was the promise of the new covenant in Christ," (p. 82), he does not consistently and clearly continue the idea of the promise of a Covenant of Grace seen in the Old Testament, but insists that the New Covenant is there.  He agrees with Mr. Denault's statement that the Covenant of Grace was progressively revealed in the Old Covenant, but Mr. Griffiths goes on to say: "I would go further than this, maintaining that Old Testament believers, by believing in the promise were actually in the new covenant," (p. 139).  This is the main problem with Covenant Theology because this is where Mr. Griffiths departs from the commonly held understanding of Reformed Baptist Covenant Theology.

Having read several books on this subject, I do not consider myself a novice.  But in the end, I found myself frequently confused with unnecessary and unclear arguments in Mr. Griffiths' Covenant Theology.  Therefore, I do not recommend reading this book.

Full Disclosure:  I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.