Tuesday, 22 September 2009

New Covenant Theology by Tom Wells and Fred Zaspel

In their book New Covenant Theology, Tom Wells and Fred Zaspel present an exegetical challenge to the traditional Reformed approach to Covenant Theology:
In Reformed circles one often hears of "one covenant with two administrations," language that reflects the Westminster Confession (chap. 7, sec. 5) that says, "This covenant was differently administered in the time of the law, and in the time of the gospel...." Behind this language lies the idea that in redeeming fallen man, God has made a single covenant, "the Covenant of Grace." Arrangements between God and man that come later than the Fall must be thought of as phases ("administrations") of this single covenant. In the words of the Confession (chap 7, sec. 6), "There are not, therefore, two covenants of grace differing in substance, but one and the same under various dispensations." (p44)
While the authors laud the assertion of the unity of God's purpose through the ages, the "covenant" terminology causes many problems.
The reason for this is simple: in the NT the word covenant is almost always used to assert discontinuity. The evidence for this is overwhelming, as well over ninety percent of the occurrences of covenant in the NT are demonstrably used to assert discontinuity. (p45)
Far better, according to the authors, is an approach which comes to the text seeing two covenants as opposed to two administrations. But even then, the new-ness of the New Covenant must not be reduced to contrasts between the New and the Old, "but between the New Covenant and all that preceded it" (p50).

For instance, in contrast to traditional Covenant Theology which sees the church of God spanning both covenants, NCT sees the church as being specifically founded in the NT. There are many texts which point to the fact that the church was founded in the NT. I'll limit this post to 2 texts cited by Wells. First, when Jesus said "I will build my church" (Matt. 16:18) he was using a future tense verb. Second, if the presence of the church is dependent upon the initiatory presence of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 12:13), then a pre-Pentecost church becomes an impossibility.

What should one make of OT Israel? Rather than seeing OT Israel as God's pre-Pentecost church, NCT views Israel as a type of the NT church. And that will bring me to the discussion in the next post, i.e. viewing the NT as the fulfillment of the typologies and promises of the OT.


Stephen said...

Hi Neil,
This raises more questions than it answers, I'm afraid. And I feel at a disadvantage because I have not read the Wells and Zaspel book!

I do not see why either of the verses your penultimate para mean there was no church before Pentecost. Clearly there is a fullness of the Spirit in the NC which was not there before (the fullness, that is), and Paul is addressing this NC reality in 1 Co 12 which now incorporates Jew and Gentile in one body. But it says nothing about what went before.

Also, Jesus' promise (upon which I rest as a church planter!) in Matt 16 cannot imply that there was no church before Pentecost on the grounds that he makes promises about the future. It is a non sequitur.

Finally, to add into the mix, how would you explain Jesus' reference to the "church" in Matt 18:17, where clearly his instruction has immediate application and yet is pre-Pentecost? If there is a Wells and Zaspel answer, I would be interested to read it.


JohnGreenview said...

Stephen, just to note - Neil is really Nick.

I think the best route into discussing the difference between the OT people of God and the NT people of God is from a Kingdom perspective.

It is true that there is but one people of God. Roms 9-11 is surely clear about this.

Nevertheless there are clearly distinctions. At the most fundamental level it is the distinction between the Kingdom anticipated (the people of God up to Pentecost approx) and the Kingdom arrived (the people of God who follow Christ and receive the fulness of the Spirit at Pentecost. This distinction while not a conplete disjunction, nevertheless ought not to be undervalued.

Pentecost was the arrival of the eschatological Kingdom and the eschatological people of the Messiah. OT believers enter this Kingdom in resurrection but we are presently really part of the 'new creation'. They never were.

It is here the distinction between OC and NC must lie too. The realisation of the Kingdom is the realisation of the New Covenant. The people of the OC lived 'in the flesh' for the Law is given to people 'in the flesh' who belong to the old world order. The eschatological people of God already participate in the new age, the age of the Spirit. As such Law in covenantal terms has no bearing on them. It, like sin and death was an authority in the old age, but we as NC believers, have died to the old age and its authorities and we live already in the Age to Come and are subject to its authorities.

Nick Mackison said...

Stephen, I read Matthew 18:17 as instructions for the church age. I don't think they had immediate application.

(Remember too, that Matthew was written after Pentecost and that these words of Christ were inscripturated at a time when applying them was an immediate possiblity.)

John's above comment provides a good outline of my thinking on this.

God bless with your church planting.

JohnGreenview said...

More ruminations.

I think the 'one covenant of grace with different administrations' is mistaken. I have read attempts to argue that the Mosaic covenant was a covenant of grace - it is clearly not. It is a covenant of works (this do and you shall live).

In purely covenantal terms the NC must always stand in contrast/discontinuity to the OC; one is grace (in direct continuity with the Abrahamic)whereas the other is works.

Continuity lies in the fact that what one demanded by works the other supplies by grace.

Yet there is this third observation that you are developing Nick - the prototypical aspect.

In Romans 5 Adam is not merely a parallel to Christ, he is prototypical of Christ - a model of the One 'who is to come'.

The 'natural' or 'creational' was always merely a pointer to the 'spiritual' or 'new creational'.

1Co 15:45-49 So it is written: "The first man Adam became a living being"; the last Adam, a life-giving spirit. The spiritual did not come first, but the natural, and after that the spiritual. The first man was of the dust of the earth, the second man from heaven. As was the earthly man, so are those who are of the earth; and as is the man from heaven, so also are those who are of heaven. And just as we have borne the likeness of the earthly man, so shall we bear the likeness of the man from heaven.

This distinction between the old creation and new creation has, I think, a tendency to be flattened out in some covenant theology, particularly in its older manifestations.

I should perhaps add that while Abraham and the prophets were given some revelation of the coming eschaton, this was mainly in terms of 'this creation' continuity; the full revelation of radical 'new creation' discontinuity belongs to NT revelation through Christ.

This is not to deny that OT faith seemed to strain beyond revelation - Abraham looked for a city whose builder and maker was God, for a better country, that is an heavenly.

Stephen said...

Sorry for getting your name wrong. I don't know what I must have been thinking about!

The MC is not a covenant of grace?! You really do need to listen to Peter Naylor on why it is (get his lecture, Grace in the Old Testament).

Sorry I have not time to interact further. It has been a busy week and still is!

JohnGreenview said...


I've read a number of writers arguing the covenant is gracious. All try to do so by pointing to gracious provisions within the covenant but fail to face up to the basic premise of the covenant - a premise Paul insists on - this do and you shall live. This is unambiguous works. as Paul says more fully in Galatians:

Gal 3:12 The law is not based on faith; on the contrary, "The man who does these things will live by them."

JohnGreenview said...


I should have noted that it is in the typological aspects that the covenant reveals its gracious elements. In being typological it is eschatological, that is it points to fulfilment in Christ (and therefore the New Covenant).

Stephen said...

There are a lot assertions without argument in your statements. For example, I think you need to show that the text you quote from Gal 3:12 (and you need to take care which translation you use!) actually proves your assertions about the covenant in the preceding paragraph. For this you need an understanding of the context (i.e. flow of Paul's wider argument) and from that how he is using the terms in Gal 3:12.

Sorry, still little time...

JohnGreenview said...


You are right there are assertions. The problem is the medium. A blog requires short comments that cannot explore an issue in depth. That being said, I do quote text and think quoting some text is better than quoting no text. In particular I quote the Galatian text that is the crux of Paul's argument re the futility of Law as a means of justification; It is Paul's proof text that the Law is a covenant of works (he is himself quoting a proof text from the OT). Paul's point is not that the Judaizing legalists were twisting the Law to make it legalistic, rather,it was legalistic. The problem lay in the Law per se.

Re translation, I quoted the commonly used NIV. The ESV which you may prefer says the same.

Gal 3:12 But the law is not of faith, rather "The one who does them shall live by them."

Note, it is not Judaism's distortion of the Law that is 'not of faith' but the Law itself. The principle of Law is 'this do and live'; it is a principle of works. Thus Paul regularly refers to 'the works of the Law'.

I recommend reading Douglas Moo's article on the Law in the Counterpoint book 'Five views of the Law'. In fact the article is available somewhere on-line.

A final more general point re quoting texts, which is becoming seriously unfashionable (especially when the text opposes one's position). Quoting texts to back a viewpoint has a time honoured history. Indeed it is a practice learned from the NT itself. The various NT writers regularly quote OT texts. They do so without filling in all of the OT context, assuming that the reader will check they have used the text in a way true to its original context. As I say, this is precisely what Paul does in the text quoted.

Every blessing

Stephen said...

Hi John,
I don't really believe there is a problem with the medium. We bloggers are just not good at taking care! I don't have a problem with quoting texts. It's just that I find people don't look closely enough at them. I fear this may be the case here.

Again, you are making assertions that need to be argued. In your first para you say Gal 3:12 is about "Paul's argument re the futility of Law as a means of justification". Agreed. I think this is the import of the earlier pitting of those "who are of works of law" (v10) against those "who are of faith" (3:7). Paul's argument in the surrounding passage is about the Judaizers tendency to rest on their adherence to the law as a means of justification. (Note there is no suggestion that they are twisting or distorting it - just using it as is, but for the wrong purpose.)

Your next statement I have a problem with: "It is Paul's proof text that the Law is a covenant of works". You have taken a big step there and it needs to be argued. It rather depends on how you think the law should be used. Sure, if you want to use it as a way of seeking justification, as the Judaizers did, it may be considered as a covenant of works. But is is not the only way it may be used. After all, by no means is the law against the promises (3:21).

Let me pick up Gal 3:12 - what do you understand Paul means by "the law" here? Again, Paul has been speaking of "those of the law" in 3:10 i.e. those who depend upon their obedience to the for justification (and remember, Paul's underlying premise is that no one can actually keep the law perfectly, hence he can say that those dependent on their obedience are under a curse, and then tie in Dt 27:26). In 3:11 he speaks justification "by law", by which he means "by works of the law" if his argument is to have coherence. Similarly, in 3:12 "the law" must mean not "the law as written down in the Pentateuch" but rather, "the works of the law as a means of justification". If this is not allowed, then we must observe a contradiction between the the implications of the statement "the law is not of faith"(3:12) (i.e. two antithetical principles: law vs. faith) and "Is the law against the promise? By no means!" (3:21).

My simple point is that you cannot take "the law" in 3:12 as meaning "the Pentateuch" and make sense of Paul's surrounding argument. It must be understood as "the law, when adhered to as a means of justification".

I suggest that this conclusion makes untenable your assertion that the Law was intended as a covenant of works.

JohnGreenview said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
JohnGreenview said...


One thing discussions like this do is keep us on our toes and throw us back on Scripture.

Let me make two general points re assertions. First, it is appropriate to make assertions. Assertions are simply an outline of how one believes the text should be read. This enables the 'audience' to 'read' the text through the writer's eyes and discern whether it is consistent or otherwise.

Second, all teaching works with assertions. You too make a number of assertions. For example, 'Paul's underlying premise is that no one can actually keep the law perfectly, hence he can say that those dependent on their obedience are under a curse'. This is an assertion I agree with but an assertion nonetheless.

On the specifics.

In Gals 3:12, i believe, 'the Law' refers to the Mosaic Covenant not to the Pentateuch. Paul, as I hope you will agree uses the term Law in a variety of ways. Sometimes he means 'The Pentateuch (as in his reference in Roms 3 to 'the Law and the Prophets), sometimes the whole of the OT (Roms 3:19), sometimes an abstract principle (Roms 7:21), sometimes a covenant (Gals 3:12 Cf 2 Cor 3:14), and, to further complicate matters, sometimes he uses two senses within a single verse (Gals 4:21).

However, by far his most common meaning, pretty well universally agreed so far as I am aware, is the Law as the Mosaic Covenant, as an administration. It is used in this sense especially where its principle of administration is juxtaposed with the gospel or grace. It is, I believe, used in this sense in Gal 3:12.

That he is not meaning the Pentateuch seems clear since he considers the Law in covenantal terms within a redemptive-historical framework in ch 3,4. It is a covenant (4:24) from Mount Sinai (4:24) given 430 years after the covenant with Abraham (Gals 3:17) added (3:19)as an interim measure until the coming of 'the Offspring', ie Christ (3:19)and the coming of faith (3:22,23).

More, it is a covenant whose administrative principle (and so outcome) contrasts with the Abrahamic covenant (and the gospel). Let me enlarge.

Paul's argument in Galatians 3,4 is that both Jew and gentile become God's people through God's covenant with Abraham not through Moses. He contrasts the two covenants. The covenant with Abraham (gospel) is a covenant of promise (3:16,18,29. Cf Roms 4:13,14), based on grace, received by faith and in its promise fulfilment, gifts the Spirit. The covenant of Law, by contrast, is not promise (3:18; Cf Roms 4:14) it is not gracious (5:4; Cf Roms 4:16); it is not of faith (3:12,23,24. Cf Roms 4:14); and it is not 'of the Spirit'(3:2,5,14.4:4-6)

The contrasts continue: the Abrahamic covenant blesses (3:8,9) while the Mosaic covenant curses (3:10). Abraham creates sons, Moses creates slaves and so on.

It is true that the Law is not opposed to the promise and Paul explains why in 3:22-4:6 but it is in contrast to the promise as I have argued above.

It is not against the promise (3:21) for two reasons: one, the law is interested in righteousness and life. It offered justification and life to any who kept it (3:21) however, due to the hardness of the human heart none could keep the law; two, justification and life was therefore shut up to the way God always intended - grace through faith in the gospel. The law simply stressed and underlined the reign of sin (3:22) and acted itself as a disciplinarian/Pedagogue such as would restrain children until they reached their majority and received the liberty of true sonship.

Those under the restraint and tutolage of the law were as infants/even slaves (4:1)until the arrival of the gospel gave them freedom from its disciplining regime (4:5).

Indeed in Galatians Paul's criticism of the Law is so strong he dares to refer to it as 'the elementary principles of the world' (4:3)even 'weak and worthless elementary principles of the world' (4:9) addressed to those 'in the flesh' (3:3) not the Spirit.

See next blog.

JohnGreenview said...

(Blog above continued)

It is worth noting too that in 4:3 he uses the first person pronoun 'we'. He is saying that he and other Jews while living under the Mosaic Covenant were in reality 'slaves to elementary principles of the world'. However, in 4:9 he is referring to gentile believers being tempted to embrace the Jewish boundary markers of circumcision, sabbaths etc the Judaizers are pressing them to do. He tells them that to embrace the law is effectively to return to their pagan slavery to 'things that by nature are no gods'(4:8,9).

Criticism of the regime of law could scarely be stronger, or clearer.

All of this to combat any idea that the commands of the law should be imposed on believers as necessary appendage to faith in Christ.

For Paul, to insist on any point of the law (circumcision or whatever) necessarily means to insist on it all (3:10; 5:3). His reasoning being that since law is a covenant you either take the whole covenant or none. You simply cannot pick and choose. Yet another indicator he is thinking of the law in covenantal terms.

Note again, Paul's comments are not about a Judaistic understanding of the law but about the law itself, the law as he understands it. His understanding would shock Judaism, who apparently saw the law as involving grace and faith, for he affirms, the Law is not of grace or faith but has as its principle, 'this do and you shall live', a principle of works.

Stephen, I am sure we both agree that the Law cannot justify. Where we are really likely to differ is on the question of the role of the law in the believer's life today. As a presbyterian you probably see the law as a 'rule of life' for the believer. You may even be of the view, 'the law takes us to Christ for our justification and Christ takes us to the law for our sanctification'. If so then we do differ.

When Paul says we are not under law as a covenant he means we are not under it absolutely. As a new creation, alive in a resurrected Christ, we are beyond the world where the law holds sway. It is an authority only in the old world order to which we have died (Roms 7:1-6). Which is just as well, for law can neither justify, nor sanctify, and if we were still under it we would all be living as Jews, precisely what the false teachers wanted.

Instead we are justified by faith and sanctified as by faith we depend on the leading of the Spirit (Gal 5:5-7,16-18 ). Our principle for godliness is not the rules of the law, but 'faith working through love'(Gal 5:7).

Living with this dependence on the Spirit will produce a life of righteousness, such righteousness is the very life the law desired and so as we live by the Spirit we actually fulfil the law (5:23).

Thus,while we as Christians, the Spirit will teach us lessons from the law, nevertheless we are not bound by its legislation, neither as a means of justification, nor a rule of life.

Paul says in 2:20
'Gal 2:20 I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.'

'The life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God' is in tacit contrast to 'I live by keeping the rules of the law'.

Must go.

Brandon said...

here's something to chew on: