What We Believe
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Exploring Recent Covenant Theology: A Review Article

David A. Booth

Christ & Covenant Theology: Essays on Election, Republication, and the Covenants, by Cornelis P. Venema. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2017, 462 pages, $24.99, paper.

Old Testament scholarship has experienced a dramatic renewal of interest in covenant theology over the past sixty-five years. In particular, twentieth century scholarship on the relationship between Hittite treaties and the biblical covenants has born a great deal of fruit. Nevertheless, the fact that many of the Old Testament scholars working in this field lacked familiarity or concern with the development of systematic covenant theology in the Reformed churches has led to both confusion and controversy. Regretfully, young men seeking licensure for ministry are now sometimes expected to speak with precision and clarity about a range of these challenges from the Federal Vision, to the New Perspective on Paul, to questions regarding the republication of the covenant of works at a level that many exp erienced pastors would have difficulty articulating. Perhaps even more troubling, such men are frequently expected to choose sides in such controversies before they have attained a solid grasp of the strengths and weaknesses of the various positions. What young and old alike need is a guide for the perplexed. Ideally such a volume would come from someone with mastery in historical, exegetical, and systematic theology who also writes with clarity, balance, and charity. We all owe Cornelis Venema a profound debt of gratitude for providing us with just such a guide.

Venema begins with three essays dealing with the covenant of works. After establishing the propriety of describing the Adamic administration both as a covenant and one that is characterized by the requirement for perfect, personal, and perpetual obedience, Venema turns his focus to whether or not the Mosaic covenant involved a republication of the covenant of works. These essays primarily interact with the followers of Meredith Kline in general, and the essays in The Law is Not of Faith[1] in particular. The aim of these chapters is not to hinder fresh exegesis regarding the distinctive function of the Mosaic covenant in the history of redemption. Rather, Venema seeks to advance our understanding by critically examining the historical and exegetical claims of the book, along with exploring a few of the important theological implications of those claims. Historically, Professor Venema acknowledges the diversity of ways that Reformed theologians have related the Mosaic covenant to the covenant of grace while also credibly asserting that the authors of TLNF have overstated the historical support for their approach through “an accommodated reading of the sources.” (78–105) Exegetically, Professor Venema focuses on Bryan D. Estelle’s treatment of Leviticus 18:5 and Deuteronomy 30:1–14, T. David Gordon’s treatment of Galatians 3:6–14, and S. M. Baugh’s treatment of Galatians 5:1–6.

In my judgment, Venema achieves the modest but important objective of demonstrating that it is not necessary to embrace republication in order to responsibly interpretate these passages. While I largely side with Venema’s critical judgments, further detailed exegesis and debate is required to settle these questions of interpretation more definitively. Theologically, a number of important questions are raised. In particular, since advocates of republication freely acknowledge that Leviticus 18:5 did not require perfect, personal, and perpetual obedience, why should it be identified with the covenant of works rather than with the necessary fruit of saving faith? Like many critics of republication, Venema seems as concerned that the authors of TLNF (as he perceives them) fail to fully affirm the importance of the third use of the moral law in the Christian life as much as he is concerned with what they actually do say regarding exegetical details. A helpful step towards peace and unity within NAPARC churches would be for followers of Kline to make clear, even if they believe that they have already done so, that they fully and joyfully embrace the robust exposition of the moral law which is contained in our Larger Catechism. Those interested in studying the relationship of the Mosaic covenant to the covenant of grace further are encouraged to explore the just released Covenant Theology[2] from the faculty of Reformed Theological Seminary (which contains a diversity of viewpoints on republication) along with the Report of the Committee to Study Republication presented to the Eighty-third (2016) General Assembly of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.   

The next section of the book, “Covenant and Election,” consists of five essays. The first two essays deal with the connection between the doctrines of covenant and election in the theology of Herman Bavinck, and these are followed by two essays, one on the election and salvation of the children of believers who die in infancy and the other on the relationship between covenant theology and the baptism of the children of believers. These are immensely practical essays for every pastor and ruling elder to consider.

Though it is somewhat simplistic to formulate Bavinck’s position in these terms, it might be argued that Bavinck views the doctrine of election to underscore God’s sovereignty in salvation and the doctrine of the covenant to underscore human responsibility and in the conferral of salvation. (211)

Holding both of these truths together leads to preaching that is simultaneously confident of the covenant promises and that calls our covenant youth to appropriate self-examination, recognizing their need for a personal trust in Christ alone for their salvation.

Professor Venema next turns to giving us three essays on covenant, justification, and the federal vision. I strongly recommend that readers not skip directly to this section. Although these essays were originally published separately, the previous chapters in this volume significantly prepare the reader to grapple with the challenge of the Federal Vision within confessionally Reformed churches. Nearly two decades after the Federal Vision first burst onto the scene I continue to see it more as a theological discussion among friends while Professor Venema sees it more as a coherent theological project. One advantage of the former approach is that it reminds us of the danger of defining orthodoxy by drawing a circle around all of our friends and declaring that everyone inside the circle is by definition orthodox. Professor Venema’s interests lie elsewhere.

These essays effectively refute, in summary form, all of the major errors associated with the Federal Vision movement. Those looking for a fuller treatment of paedocommunion will find a valuable guide in Venema’s book Children at the Lord’s Table?[3] It will be helpful for readers to remember that these essays are a revision of the draft report that Venema wrote more than a dozen years ago for the United Reformed Church of North America (URCNA). His chief concern was protecting the URCNA from errors that he saw coming from the men associated with the Federal Vision rather than carefully distinguishing the views of each of the men involved in that movement. This leads Professor Venema, for example, to presenting the claim that the Federal Vision is characterized by “the rejection of the teaching of the imputation of the ‘active obedience’ of Christ as a ground for the believer’s justification” (287) without noting that one of the best known men attached to the Federal Vision, Doug Wilson, both affirmed and affirms this very thing. The original focus of these essays also results in Peter Leithart[4] going unmentioned, even though he has gone on to become arguably the most influential promoter of Federal Vision theology in the world. It can be hoped that Venema would continue these studies by turning his keen mind and lucid pen to giving us a thorough treatment of the distinctive theology of Dr. Leithart.

The last essay of the volume deals with covenant and justification in N. T. Wright’s interpretation of Romans 5:12–21. While appreciative of aspects of Wright’s exegesis, Venema points out a number of shortcomings in Wright’s handling of this passage. Of particular note, Venema shows that Wright does not do justice to how Paul uses the expression the “righteousness of God,” nor does he adequately deal with the union of humanity with Adam. With respect to Paul’s critical argument in Romans 5:14–21, Venema carefully shows that the Reformed tradition is worth following, not because it is Reformed, but because it more fully and faithfully explains what Paul has written than does Wright’s revisionist exegesis.

Venema also includes several helpful pages on Wright’s theological method. Since the central claim of the New Perspective on Paul is that Paul should be understood against his own Jewish background, it would have been valuable if Venema had expanded this section to discuss Paul’s own evaluation of the vast majority of first century Judaism as being dramatically more unfaithful toward God than N. T. Wright and the key proponents of the New Perspective on Paul allow. Methodologies often determine outcomes, and the New Perspective on Paul is no exception to this maxim. E. P. Sanders self-consciously adopts a sociology-of-religions approach in categorizing Second Temple Judaism.[5] In doing so, Sanders carefully catalogs various strands of Judaism without judging any of them. Apparently, the last thing that a post-holocaust liberal Protestant academic would want to do is to claim that any form of Judaism was being unfaithful to God.[6] This tendency is also found in Dunn’s work where he frequently and defensively states that such and such an interpretation is not anti-Semitic. Similarily, N. T. Wright spends 134 heavily footnoted pages in The New Testament and the People of God carefully discussing “First Century Judaism within the Greco-Roman World”[7] without ever considering whether any of these Jews were actually being faithful to God. Whatever merits such an approach might have,[8] it clearly does not reflect the approach that Paul himself takes in his letters. By contrast, Paul insisted that some Jews caused the name of God to be blasphemed[9] because of their behavior. He insisted that “no one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter.”[10] What is striking is that Paul presents only a very small remnant of his contemporaries from Israel as having this inward circumcision of the heart. The irony is that in seeking to move beyond Reformation readings of Paul to read Paul in light of Second Temple Judaism, the leading lights of the New Perspective on Paul refuse to read Paul on his own terms.

Venema concludes his work with a very helpful fourteen-page synthesis that helps readers see that the distinct essays in this volume are part of an integrated biblical system that glorifies God while bringing clarity and comfort to his people. For

when Reformed theology seeks to articulate the doctrine of the covenants upon the basis of biblical teaching, it does so in order to magnify the person and work of Christ in the realization of God’s purpose for human life in fellowship with himself. (432)

Many readers will benefit by reading this concluding chapter before diving into the essays in order to have a roadmap for the journey on which Venema so capably leads us.

Of the many books that I have read on covenant theology, this collection of essays is undoubtedly the best. A world of good would flow from every minister and every candidate for ministry within the Orthodox Presbyterian Church carefully reading this volume. I could not recommend this work more highly.

Endnotes

[1] Bryan D. Estelle, J.V. Fesko, and David VanDrunen, eds. The Law is Not of Faith: Essays on Works and Grace in the Mosaic Covenant (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2009).

[2] Guy Prentiss Waters, J. Nicholas Reid, and John R. Muether, eds. Covenant Theology: Biblical, Theological, and Historical Perspectives (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2020).

[3] Cornelis P. Venema, Children at the Lord’s Table? (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage, 2009).

[4] Peter Leithart currently serves as the President of the Theopolis Institute in Birmingham, Alabama and as a teacher at Trinity Presbyterian Church (CREC) which is also in Birmingham.

[5] E. P. Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism (London: SCM, 1977), 12–24.

[6] James D. G. Dunn, The Partings of the Ways (London: SCM, 1991), 15.

[7] N. T. Wright. The New Testament and the People of God (London: SPCK, 1992), 145–279.

[8] There is nothing in principle wrong with adopting sociological approaches as one perspective in assessing Second Temple Judaism. Dunn is certainly correct when he writes: “In the Second Temple period, therefore, the ‘Jews’ would normally denote a group identified by ethnic origin and religious practice, and as such, distinct from others around” (James D. G. Dunn, The Parting of the Ways, 144). Nevertheless, to solely adopt this method of discussing ancient Judaism is an enormous handicap in understanding Paul’s polemics.

[9] Romans 2:24.

[10] Romans 2:28–29.

David A. Booth is pastor of Merrimack Valley Presbyterian Church (OPC) in North Andover, Massachusetts. Ordained Servant Online, January 2021.

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