However, I have a many concerns regarding this book's true value in unifying the church with fresh and faithful insights into the Word of God.
A Word of Introduction
In recent years, there seem to be two major developing schools of theology whose aims are to bridge the gap between Covenant Theology and Dispensationalism.(1)
This is a great goal if either of those systems has doctrinal necessities that the other does not, which would mean that a merging of the two would bring about a better, more God-honoring, God-glorifying theology that empowers the church more effectively through the work of the Holy Spirit.(2)
On the other hand, if one of these systems does not have a lack of doctrinal necessities and can gain no refinement or clarity in understanding God's Word by a merging of the two, it would not at all be very helpful to merge the two, or even attempt to do so. Granted, all theological systems are prone to error, and we should continue to live by the Reformation cry of semper reformanda. But this should never be done in a sense where reforming (or rather, refining) our understanding of the Scriptures moves us further away from what the Word of God actually teaches.
So while the efforts of New Covenant Theology (this point forward: NCT) can, to an extent, be praised for perceiving a lack of necessary understanding in both Covenant and Dispensational theologies, if a lack does not really exist in one or the other, then their results ought not be highly considered.
And that is my contention after having read the book. If there is lack in Covenant Theology (or Dispensational Theology, though one gets the feeling the authors have more sympathy for the Dispensational view), they have not sufficiently provided Scriptural support either for that lack, or for the remedy to bridge this gap.
Firstly I have to say that both authors were very congenial in their approach to the topic as well as some of their critics. However, I believe that while they did a good job, as far it goes, in describing and defining NCT, the defending part is not all that adequate. For the most part it was a lot of question-begging. It seemed to be a very confused attempt to assert their position by making their exegesis work for their preconceived (Dispensationaly-minded) ideas, despite their warnings to the contrary and their assertions that both Dispensationalists and Covenant Theologians do the same. Perhaps they do – but NCT is no different in that regard.
Over and over again throughout the book you’ll hear about how Jesus did not come to restore the rightful understanding of the moral law but to give a new law – over against Moses, but with some overlap to be sure. While you’ll hear that repeatedly, you’ll never really see it exegetically (though attempts are made).
There are four chapters in the book devoted to Matthew 5:17-20 and how the historical Reformed and Dispensational understandings of that passage are wrong (though the NCT interpretation leans toward Dispensationalism). There are several intricacies in this section of the book that would be too involved to examine one-by-one in a short review. However, the main take away regarding law is that Jesus fulfilled the whole Mosaic Law in such a sense that, when there is a standard we obey which somehow aligns with the Mosaic law – it’s because Christ has re-introduced that standard Himself, after having fulfilled it (?). Consequently, the ethical standards in NCT are that unless something is repeated in the New Testament, we ought to assume it is null and void.
In four chapters of strained exegesis and theological argument, I was not left convinced of this view that Jesus is somehow giving a brand-new law by which regenerate covenant-children are to live.(3) Jesus certainly got to the heart of the matter to be sure (giving more precise understanding of the original intent of the law). But that does not mean the law as presented in Moses did not have that original intent in the first place.
Despite Zaspel’s attempt to show that the law of Moses (or more broadly the Old Testament) never commanded love toward one’s enemy (neighbor sure, Lev. 19:18; but not enemy), I think we’d be hard pressed not to interpret Exodus 23:4-5 as acts of loving our enemy (commanded straight from the law!), not to mention Proverbs 25:21.
Furthermore, Wells presents a very interesting line of reasoning by going down a narrowing criteria to show that every time the New Covenant is mentioned in the New Testament it’s speaking of discontinuity and not continuity between it and the old.
Very well. But how that means our operating principle should be to assume discontinuity baffles me. Could it not be that the reason why every time the New Covenant is mentioned by a New Testament author or authority, discontinuity is emphasized precisely because the author assumes continuity unless otherwise specified? That surely makes more sense to me, given that we ought not to think God must repeat Himself in order for us to really take Him seriously.
Again, I greatly appreciate the gracious tone of the authors as well as their intentions of trying to understand the Scriptures better and present their findings. However, I’m having a very hard time accepting these arguments as plausible (which is to say Biblical).
From a practical standpoint, they take the most dearly held belief of Dispensationalism (distinction of Israel and the Church) and side with Covenant Theology (so called “replacement theology” as it pertains to this specific doctrine); and at the same time take a hallmark of Covenant Theology (assume continuity unless specified otherwise in further revelation) and side with Dispensationalists (assume discontinuity unless a commandment is repeated in the New Testament). I don’t see how this will bridge the gap at all.
On the Biblical/Theological side, I just find it very hard to accept that in reading Jesus’ words in Matthew 5:17-20 (despite the four chapters devoted to such a unique perspective of interpretation), and in reading Paul, Peter, and John, that any New Testament author or authority somehow held to this kind of thinking. If they really assumed discontinuity, why would they ever (as they so often did) cite Old Testament texts as their authority for what they were saying?
While I appreciate these men and what they’ve done for Christ and His church in other areas, I can’t help but to be completely baffled by the type of hermeneutics presented in this book. When applied consistently, it creates many more questions than it does answers; and it does not, in my understanding of the Word, hold up to Biblical or Theological scrutiny.
Aside from all that, when a system of theology is so dependent for its survival on such a new understanding of one specific passage of Scripture that has somehow been overlooked by virtually everyone else in the roughly 2,000 year history of the church, it should at least raise a red flag or two.
All in all, this book was a good description and definition, as far as it goes, for NCT; and the authors are exemplary in their dealing with other brothers in Christ in matters of doctrinal differences. However, when it comes to a defense of their views, I was not convinced in the least.
They seemingly wrote this book as a rebuttal to Richard Barcello’s In Defense of the Decalogue. For my part I don’t see how they refuted any of his arguments.
But to be sure, you can see a brief reply from him here.
Either way, whatever gap may need to be bridged between Covenant Theology and Dispensational Theology (and I'm not convinced such a gap needs to be bridged more so than complete conversion from one school to the other), NCT does not bridge that gap. If anything, unfortunately, I feel it just adds more confusion to the understanding of God's Word rather than being a helpful resource to the church.
Of course, we can rejoice in that even divisions help mature the church (1 Cor. 11:19). Perhaps this is one of those times.
To put it summarily, I think in regard to NCT, we'd be wise to apply some helpful words of John Frame:
Don't be one of those theologians who get excited about every new trend in politics, culture, hermeneutics, and even theology and who think we have to reconstruct our theology to go along with each trend.... When a theological trend comes along, ask reflexively, "What's wrong with that?" There is always something wrong. It simply is not the case that the newest is the truest. Indeed, many new movements turn out to be false steps entirely.
(1) If you are new to the debate. Progressive Dispensationalism and New Covenant Theology are the two emerging theological schools. And lest you be confused, New Covenant Theology is not "New, Covenant-Theology" but "New-Covenant, Theology." In other words, it is not an attempt to provide a more refined view of Covenant Theology but rather is a system of theology based on a peculiar understanding of the "New Covenant" referenced in the Scriptures.
Despite what an initial hearing of the names may suggest, it's my understanding that both schools of thought have their roots in Dispensational Theology.
(2) This is of course provided that the merging qualities are the ones that are necessary and as of yet neglected by the former two schools of theology. It does no good at all if they merge the bad parts of both (or either) respective theologies.
(3) According to NCT, along with the new covenant comes a new law (but in a different manner from the traditional understanding of this argument in the book of Hebrews). With regard to the Scriptural introduction of the New Covenant (Jeremiah 31:31-34), rather than understanding the law that is written on the believers' hearts to be the moral law already understood in the Jewish mind (generally summarized in the Ten Commandments in Reformed theology), according to the authors of NCT it is a brand new law. Any relevant parts that overlap with the old are to be obeyed only because Christ has re-commanded them.
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