Category Archives: Covenant theology

Mission and Reformed Covenant Theology

I don’t normally review multi-author collections of essays and this isn’t going to be an exception to that. I just want to draw your attention to this volume published in 2020 by P & R and Westminster Seminary Press, A Covenantal Vision for Global Mission. It’s a collection of academic papers that were delivered at a Reformed missions conference in South Africa in 2015. According to the Foreword, the papers “seek to ground the growing interest in the missional character of Christian outreach in the classic biblical and historic Reformed theological understanding of God’s covenantal relationship with mankind.”

The reason I don’t write reviews of multi-author volumes is because they tend to be a mixed bag. This one is no different. Some of the contributions are stellar. Chapter 7, “Christ’s Dominion over Creation and Spiritual Warfare in Mission” by Henk Stoker stands out — it’s a great critique of ideas like territorial spirits and spiritual mapping. Flip Buys contributed two papers that are also worthwhile, “Mission and Gathering God’s New Covenant People” (ch. 4), and “Missions in the Fear of God’ (ch.6). Some of the other contributions are good, some mediocre, and a couple are disappointing. But overall, I do think the book is worth a read if you’ve got an interest in mission and missiology. There’s a lot of thought-provoking missiological reflection related to covenant theology — and I’m not sure anything like it has yet been published in English (in Dutch there is Barend Wielenga’s dissertation Verbond en zending).

I end with a few choice quotes to pique your interest:

“The Reformed faith is missional, or it is not Reformed.” (from A Missions Declaration, p.xi)

“I believe that a revitalization of our understanding of the concepts of the covenant of redemption…and the covenant of grace is vital for developing a Reformed approach to global missions…” (Flip Buys, quoted on pp.14-15)

“When a missionary does not really do his work in the fear of God, converts are trained to depend on him, rather than becoming responsible to Christ.” (Flip Buys, p.142)

“The new-wave thinking concerning territorial spirits and their power over areas takes the focus away from the victory of Christ…” (Henk Stoker, p.157)

“Reformed theology has tended to have the best product, but the worst sales technique, and it is too often pushed by intellectually arrogant representatives.” (Paul Wells, p.291)

“The source and origin of world missions is the pactum salutis, God’s own covenant with himself.” (Kent Hughes, p.307)

“To be Reformed was, and is, to have a missionary heart.” (Kent Hughes, p.315)


Book Review: Children at the Lord’s Table?

NOTEI originally wrote this review in 2009.  However, ten years later, I’ve been hearing more about paedocommunion again.  This book remains a valuable resource for combating this error.

Children at the Lord’s Table?  Assessing the Case for Paedocommunion, Cornelis P. Venema, Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2009.  Hardcover, 199 pages, $25.00 USD.

Paedocommunion is a word that we’re hearing more often these days, mostly because of its connection with many of the figures associated with the Federal Vision movement.  A few years back, one of those figures pointed out to me that no one has ever really written a book presenting a solid case against admitting children to the Lord’s Supper.  He may have been right then, but I don’t believe he’s right any longer.

Cornelis Venema is well-known as a professor at Mid-America Reformed Seminary and a United Reformed minister.  In this book, he first outlines the arguments of Tim Gallant and others like him for the practice of paedocommunion.  These arguments are primarily from Scripture, but there are also historical considerations.

In the chapters following, Venema considers these arguments.  He examines the historical evidence and finds it to be inconclusive at best.  He also adds a chapter looking at “Paedocommunion and the Reformed Confessions.”  Several years ago, there was a case in the United Reformed Churches dealing with whether the Three Forms of Unity allow the teaching of paedocommunion.  The answer was negative.  Although Venema does not mention that particular case, he affirms the answer.  However, most important of all is the Scriptural evidence.  Venema examines the relationship between the Passover and the Lord’s Supper and points out that it is not as straightforward as many have made it out to be.  In fact, there is a stronger connection between the Lord’s Supper and the covenant renewal meal in Exodus 24.  Venema also gives an entire chapter to the crucial passage of 1 Corinthians 11:17-34, concluding that the Biblical way to the Lord’s Table is through public profession of faith.

In the last chapter, the author also considers the relationship between covenant theology and paedocommunion, especially in view of the Federal Vision movement.  Given these current issues, this is a helpful discussion.  Equally helpful is the appendix dealing with covenant theology and baptism.  Venema correctly outlines the promise and obligations of the covenant.  Like Klaas Schilder, he distinguishes between two different aspects of the covenant of grace.  There’s also a good section on whether the covenant is conditional or unconditional – though  I do think that more explicit reference to union with Christ could have sharpened the argument here.

This is an excellent and timely book dealing with an important issue.  It would be worthwhile to have it on hand in family and church libraries for when questions arise about paedocommunion.  It’s also highly recommended for those who need to have a good understanding of this issue, i.e. pastors and elders.


Book Review: Visual Theology

Visual Theology: Seeing and Understanding the Truth about God, Tim Challies and Josh Byers, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2016.  Paperback, 155 pages.

I’ve read and reviewed several systematic theologies.  These books were geared towards pastors, theologians, or theological students.  They follow the same basic structure and, because they’re Reformed, they tend to say the same things in mostly the same way.   Visual Theology has “theology” in the title, and it generally steers in the Reformed direction, but that’s where the similarities end.

Visual Theology is decidedly not directed at the ivory tower – though scholars will certainly reap spiritual benefits if they read it.  Instead, it’s for regular people in the pew.  It also recognizes that some of those regular people are more visual in their learning style.  So, Tim Challies delivers clear prose and Josh Byers illumines with effective infographics.  All up, it’s not only a beautiful book, but also pedagogically powerful.

Conventional systematic theologies cover such topics as God, creation, salvation, and the last things.  Visual Theology is different; it has four parts:  grow close to Christ, understand the work of Christ, become like Christ, live for Christ.  It’s Christ-centered and relationally oriented.  It’s theology that, as Challies says, “is about growing in godliness” (p.12).  You can only grow in godliness in a healthy relationship with Christ.  Visual Theology shows why and how.  I found valuable insights new to me (especially in the third section on hating and fighting sin), but also many familiar truths expressed or illustrated freshly.

As I mentioned, generally this book leans Reformed.  For example, the use of creeds is affirmed (p.85); the Westminster Shorter Catechism’s definition of sin is quoted (p.94); the real spiritual presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper is affirmed (p.27); and justification is properly defined as a declaration of righteousness (p.33).  Commendably, Visual Theology teaches a monergistic view of salvation which includes unconditional election.

By the authors’ own admission, the book “is not a thorough introduction to Christian doctrine” (p.79).  Some readers will detect gaps.  Allowing for the intent of the authors, but also for full disclosure to readers of this review, let me mention two.  Visual Theology is almost completely positive in its presentation of biblical teachings.  That means there’s not much, if anything, in the way of exposure or addressing of errors.  Next, its relational framework is a plus, but it is surprising that the biblical framework for a healthy relationship between God and humanity is missing.  There’s no explicit mention of the covenant of grace.

I have one noteworthy concern:  the authors are Baptists and this becomes evident in the description of baptism:  “The water of baptism represents the washing away of sin, while going into the water and coming back out represents death and new life” (p.27).  The first part of that sentence is true, and the second part can be true, but more needs to be said.  The authors assume immersion of the believer as the norm for baptism.  As one would expect from Baptists, the sprinkling of babies is not even in the picture, nor is the relationship between baptism and the covenant of grace.  However, this is one short paragraph in an otherwise great book and it is far from being a polemic for the Baptist position.  Discerning readers should be able to chew the rest of the meat while spitting out this bone.

This book could be useful as edifying reading for a Sunday afternoon.  Perhaps it could also be used as a textbook for an adult education class.  For those who might use it in an educational setting, there’s also a website with the infographics available as PowerPoint slides and moreVisual Theology is innovative in its approach, almost entirely reliable in its content, and attractive in its presentation.  You’ll find it both enjoyable and edifying!


Four Essential Pictures

I’m currently reading Tim Challies’ book Visual Theology.  This book presents many theological basics not only with text, but also with infographics.  This kind of approach aims to help those who learn best with visual helps.  I’m appreciating the book in many respects and will probably write a review in the near future.

As good books do, this one got me to thinking, particularly about the place of pictures in Reformed theology.  While we don’t believe it’s lawful to make images of God, this doesn’t rule out diagrams or other visual helps.  In fact, embedded in our theology are several essential pictures.  Even apart from an actual picture, these doctrines come across to us via some particular image we’re to hold in our minds.  Let’s look at four important doctrines and the associated pictures.

Covenant

In Scripture, the covenant of grace is portrayed in terms of a relationship.  When you think “covenant of grace,” you should immediately picture a relationship.  In Ezekiel 16 and Hosea 1 (and elsewhere), God speaks in terms of a marriage relationship with his people.  In the New Testament, this is taken over into the relationship of Christ (the groom) and his church (the bride).  While there may be contractual elements in the covenant of grace, the essence of it is a relationship.

Regeneration

The Bible gives several pictures of regeneration and one of those is a heart transplant.   When you think “regeneration,” you can picture someone receiving a new heart.  The Holy Spirit uses this picture in Ezekiel 11:19, “…I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh…”  This one picture does not exhaust everything the Bible says about regeneration, but it is one helpful conceptual peg on which to hang the doctrine in your mind’s eye.

Justification

Whenever you think about justification, you need to think “courtroom.”  The courtroom image is essential to this doctrine.  One of the key ways that people often get justification wrong is by saying that it is God making us right with himself.  However, justification is, in its very nature, a judicial matter.  It involves a judge making a declaration, issuing a verdict.  This is why Romans 1-3 describes man’s condition before God as a judge.  For example, Romans 2:2, “We know that the judgment of God rightly falls on those who practice such things.”  Starting at the end of Romans 3, the Spirit explains how a negative judgment can be averted through Jesus Christ.  After all that, we get Romans 8:1, “There is therefore no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”  Condemnation is what we would receive from the Judge if we did not have Christ.  In its essence, therefore, justification involves the picture of a courtroom.

Adoption

Adoption is a beautiful word that pictures family.  Having been purchased by Christ, having been justified by him, we are now included in God’s family as his dearly loved children.  God is no longer our Judge, but our Father and we relate to him as such.  Nowhere is this stated more explicitly than Romans 8:15, “For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!'”  We’ve gone from the courtroom (justification) to the family room (adoption), and that’s a wonderful place to be!

To summarize:

Covenant —> Relationship

Regeneration —> Heart transplant

Justification —> Courtroom

Adoption —> Family

Reformed theology has more pictures, but those four are crucial to understand.  When you get those, you grasp several basics of the Christian faith.


Klaas Schilder’s Christ and Culture — Some Notes

Way back in the day (I mean way back — even before university), I got it into my head to take a Dutch course.  The greatest part of my motivation was the desire to read famous Dutch theologians like Klaas Schilder in the original.  So off I went, me and a good buddy, to study Dutch at an evening course offered by the adult education department of Edmonton Public Schools.  After finishing the course, I got my hands on some books by old KS.  One of them was a slim little volume entitled Christus en cultuur.  Unfortunately, my Dutch skills were not up to snuff.  I could make little sense of it.  I gave up soon after beginning.

A few years later, I managed to get my own copy of an English translation of this book.  Translated by Rev. G. VanRongen and Dr. W. Helder, it was published by Premier in 1976.  I got more out of the English translation than I did from the Dutch, but there were large swathes that remained impenetrable.  After reading some other stuff from Schilder, I reached the conclusion that either he was the most brilliantly flawed communicator in the world or I was one of the densest readers.  He could have moments of profound insight, but it was like wading through thick brambles to access that beautiful little trout stream.

I recently discovered a new edition of Christ and Culture.  It was published in 2016 by Lucerna, the publishing arm of the Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary.  It is a new and much-improved translation by William Helder (who was involved with the first English translation) and Albert H. Oosterhoff.  It also includes helpful explanatory notes, both from the translators and from a recent Dutch edition by Jochem Douma.  As a result, many of the literary brambles have been cleared away and the insights of Schilder are more accessible.

Having read through this new edition, let me make a few notes, both of appreciation and criticism.

It is well-known that Schilder was an outspoken critic of Abraham Kuyper.  Christ and Culture allows English readers access to some of his criticisms and their rationale.  For example, in chapter 4, he critiques Kuyper’s concept of sphere sovereignty:

…Kuyper himself was not able to explain clearly what exactly those “sovereigns” in all those “spheres” might be.  One single Sovereign — that is something we can accept and understand.  But as soon as one begins to speak about “sovereigns” in the plural, each of them in his own sphere, things become vague.  (16)

Chapters 18 and 26 feature Schilder’s critique of Kuyper’s teaching on common grace.  When “the gifts of creation blossom and expand,” Schilder argues that it is not a matter of grace, but of nature.  Cultural activity in itself does not involve grace, but godly cultural activity does.  He agrees that there is a restraining of sin, but there is also a restraining of grace.  Schilder’s critique is worth considering.

In the last number of years, Schilder’s name has been bandied about in connection with the Federal Vision controversy.  In relation to that, it’s worth noting that chapter 14 finds Schilder affirming the active obedience of Christ.  In chapter 16, some might be surprised to find KS appear to be speaking of a pre-fall covenant as something distinct from the covenant of grace.  He even uses the common expression “covenant of works,” but places quotation marks around it — a device which indicates his discomfort with the “works” part of that expression.  Unfortunately, the annotation of Douma gives the impression here that Schilder regarded the “covenant of works” as something essentially distinct from the later covenant of grace.  In reality, Schilder elsewhere clearly regarded the covenant of grace as a continuation of the “covenant of works,” or another phase in the history of the one covenant (see here, for example).  While I wish Douma’s note was the whole story, we do have to honestly acknowledge the facts.

While generally appreciative, there are a number of places where I’ve placed question marks in this book.  In chapter 26, against Kuyper, KS argues that Calvinism should develop its own unique artistic style.  That we don’t do this is a sign of weakness, he insists.  What he means is that Dutch Calvinists should develop their own artistic style.  He has no conception of what it might look like for an African-American Calvinist to develop his own artistic style, or an Australian aboriginal, or a Calvinist from whatever other culture in the world.  This entire book, in fact, is quite insular — it was written for Dutch Reformed readers living in the 1950s who had no to little multicultural exposure.   The book is a product of its time and thus the author can’t be held too culpable for this.  When we think about Christ and culture today, however, we do need to reckon with a multicultural world.

Schilder appears to believe that the only worthwhile cultural endeavours result in educational outcomes.  So, for example, he is rather critical of movies (he’s writing in the 1950s!) because though they exhibit technical excellence, they do not educate people.  Hence, they are breaking down, rather than building up (page 119).  But why is a pedagogical purpose the defining feature of what builds up?  Why can’t a cleverly told story (whether on the screen or in a book) that’s written to delight not also be a worthwhile cultural endeavour?  Is there no place for simple delight and enjoyment in a Christian conception of culture, or must everything have an educational purpose? I’m not convinced by Schilder here.

Though easier than before, this book is still not accessible reading for average church-goers.  Sometimes I write about books and I get people asking me, “Should we buy this for our church library?”  Umm….no, sorry.  Even with all the helpful annotations, this remains rather thick theology.  As such it’s best-suited for pastors, theologians, and academics.  They’ll be challenged and enriched by its contents.  I’m glad that we have this new improved edition and I commend CRTS for getting behind it.