Horton, the Mosaic Covenant, and the WCF

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R. Scott Clark

Puritan Board Senior
Kevin,

I'm not sure I understand your answers at all, but if I'm close, then I think we're talking past one another.

Could you elaborate?

Maybe these propositions will help advance the discussion?

I understand that the national covenant in Israel was added (Gal 3) to the Mosaic as a distinct, temporary entity.

I understand the Abrahamic covenant continued unabated and was administered during the Mosaic via types and shadows.

I understand that the temporary Mosaic national covenant functioned on multiple levels simultaneously and that the land tenure promises were conditional in a way the Abrahamic covenant could never be.

rsc

Prof. Clark,

I think it's a mistake to divorce the entity from the interwoven purpose of the entity, and how it applies to the covenanted parties of the entity, within the function of national, corporate Israel.
 

timmopussycat

Puritan Board Junior
Theonomy and the Mosaic Covenant

One of the more important conclusions from this doctrine is one that our 17th century forefathers did not recognize very clearly is that the idea of a national covenant is defunct. God doesn't enter into national covenants with any national entity since the crucifixion. Christ's kingdom, expressed in his visible, institutional church through the preaching of the gospel, the adminstration of the sacraments, and the exercise of discipline, knows no national boundaries (Gal 3:28; Col 3:11; Eph 2). The dividing wall (the civil and ceremonial laws, circumcision) has been broken down in the body of Jesus, the true Israel of God. After the expiration of the national covenant, the kingdom of God has no civil administration. Attempts to resurrect the Mosaic civil administration whether in theocracy or theonomy are fundamentally misguided. It is a puzzle how we can see so clearly that the Roman attempt to resurrect the ceremonial aspect of the Mosaic covenant is wrong but some cannot see how wrong it is to try to resurrect the Mosaic civil administration?


Tim comments -One of the problems in the Theonomy debate has been that people on both sides are talking past one another on key points. We must understand their reasons for doing what they do before we criticize them. Modern theonomists are not trying to resurrect the Mosaic civil administration: they are trying to get us to see that Divinely unamended Mosaic stipulations are an integral part of the New Covenant administration for one or both of the following reasons:

1) That Christ in Matt. 5:17,18 specifically included the Mosaic judicials within the new covenant. This is based on the belief popularized by Bahnsen in "Theonomy in Christian Ethics" that Christ was teachig that he had come to "confirm" every least detail of the ethical stipulations of the law until the end of the church age.

2) That all Divinely unamended Mosaic civil laws and punishments are included in the WCF 19:4's phrase "general equity may require."

These are the reasons why Theonomists want to establish Mosaic civil laws.

Understanding why someone is doing what he does, however, does not require us to conclude that the other person is always right. There are a number of problems with both justifications for the theonomic endeavour. These are:

1) The belief that Christ was teaching what theonomists think he taught in Matt. 5:17, 18 is open to serious exegetical challenge. I wrote an extended paper addressing this question and here is the summary of the section dealing with Bahnsen's view of v. 17. (Please contact me at [email protected] for the complete paper. I'd post here but it is over the size limit.)

At the beginning of this chapter we saw that Bahnsen's view of Mathew 5:17 would depend on whether at least four of five key premises could be established. Having examined each of Bahnsen's attempts to show that his chosen alternatives are either the only possible meaning of the words in question or are superior to all other relevant options, we now can evaluate his argument as a whole.

Bahnsen's first premise, that Christ meant His hearers to understand "the law or the prophets" as referring to "the ethical stipulations of the law," has been shown to be flawed by a number of methodological errors, including insufficient supporting arguments and a notable failure to check the original languages and the standard reference tools at key points. When we draw the logical conclusion and wonder why Christ bothered to add “or the prophets” at all, Bahnsen’s explanations are unsatisfactory. And Bahnsen does all this, in spite of Christ’s deliberate use of "or", (the meaning of which Bahnsen, by misquoting a source! misrepresents), which makes his reduction of the meaning of “the Law or the Prophets” from the entire Mosaic covenant administration to its “ethical stipulations” less likely. In addition, Bahnsen's refutation of the more likely meaning of the phrase "the law or the prophets," i.e. the Mosaic covenant, has been shown to be inadequate on two of his three grounds, and the third will be shortly be shown to be equally flawed. Thus Bahnsen's first premise, already highly unlikely, presently hangs by a thread shortly to be cut off.

Bahnsen's second premise, that kataloosai must mean "annul" here is clearly incorrect: Bahnsen failed to discuss why kataloo which certainly took the meaning “destroy” rather than “annul,” when used of the law in Gal. 2:18 cannot mean the same thing in Matt. 5:17, a particularly significant omission given that the KJV translators thought “destroy” was a better fit in that context. In addition, even if kataloosai was intended to mean "annul" here, "alla", as Bahnsen himself later recognized, does not always force a meaning of total contradiction on the words it separates, and thus Bahnsen's required third premise, that kataloosai must force the translation of pleroosai as "confirm" also collapses.

Bahnsen's next error is his rejection, without sufficient discussion, of four known and decidedly relevant meanings of “fulfill” for pleroo despite the substantial Scriptural support that they enjoy, and their demonstrable relevance that each has in the context of Matthew 5:17. Instead, he opts for the uncertain translational possibility “confirm” in the sense of "establish the ongoing validity of," a possibility made considerably weaker by the lack of solid evidence that either the Hebrew mla or the Greek pleroo ever took the meaning "confirm" in that sense in the New Testament era. This lack of evidence destroys the fourth premise that plhrwsai meant "confirm" in that sense. Finally, the now essential fifth premise: that "confirm" in the sense of "establish the ongoing applicability of commands" is a logical and legitimate implication of translating plhrw by "fulfill" has been demonstrated to be both illogical and false to the Scriptures.

Finally, Bahnsen makes Christ out to have made a massive error in His choice of words by using the misleading pleroosai to mean “confirm,” rather than the far more fitting istemi (“confirm/establish”) or apokathistemi (“confirm / restore”) both of which were well known, available to Him, and would have established the Theonomic thesis beyond any possibility of doubt. In short, by inserting the meaning “confirm” for pleroo with no real lexical grounds for doing so, it is Bahnsen, not Poythress who is “…overlook[ing] the obvious…” and “…importing preconceived ideas into the text, rather than reading them out of the text” and doing violence to the context. Of Bahnsen's five premises, his first now hangs by a thread, his failed second premise has been made irrelevant by the failure of his third, and both of his last two premises have been shown to be insupportable.

Since Bahnsen has misunderstood the subject of Christ's thought, the relationship between the two verbs brought about by the conjunction, and the meanings of both of the key verbs in this verse, it is clear that his exegetical case for the Theonomic thesis has not met the burden of proof. At this point it is clear that Bahnsen’s Theonomy is one thesis Christ is not teaching in these verses.

2) That the Theonomists also misunderstand the extent the Wetminster Divines gave to "general equity may require" is easily demonstrated simply by showing how individual Westminster divines did not require all Mosaic stipulations to be followed or amended them without authorization. A good example of the latter is Gillespie who permitted the magistrate not to inflict the death penalty for heresy in particular circumstances. Gillespie wrote

…the fifth and last is that kind of toleration whereby the Magistrate when it is in the power of his hand to punish and extirpate, yet having to do with such of whom there is good hope either of reducing them by convincing their judgments, or of uniting them to the Church by a safe accommodation of differences, he grants them a supersedeas [forbearance]; or though there be no such ground of hope concerning them, yet while he might crush them with the foot of power, in Christian piety and moderation, he forbears so far as may not be destructive to the peace and right government of the Church, using his coercive power with such a mixture of mercy as creates no mischief to the rest of the Church.
I speak not only of bearing with those who are weak in faith (Rom. 15:1), but of sparing even those who have perverted the faith, so far as the word of God and rules of Christian moderation would have severity tempered with mercy: that is (as has been said) so far as is not destructive to the Church's peace, nor shakes the foundations of the established form of church government, and no further…
Gillespie, George "Wholesome Severity Reconciled with Christian Liberty," London, 1644, now online at http://www.naphtali.com/severity.htm

Here Gillespie allows the magistrate to do something not allowed by the Mosaic judicials. The relevant statues were not explicitly amended in the NT nor do we find any NT teaching from which we can derive Gillespie's conclusion by good and necessary consequence. Gillespie clearly does not follow Bahnsen's hermeneutical axiom:

In all of its minute detail, (every jot and tittle) the law of God down to its least significant provision should be reckoned to have an abiding validity- until and unless the Lawgiver reveals otherwise.
(Greg Bahnsen, "The Theonomic Position" in God and Politics, Four Views on the Reformation of Civil Government ed. Gary Scott Smith, Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co. 1989, pp. 40, 41.)

Since the two men disagree at the level of basic principle, we can be certain that Gillespie was no Theonomist.
 

Catechist

Puritan Board Freshman
Kevin,

Could you elaborate?

I understand that the national covenant in Israel was added (Gal 3) to the Mosaic as a distinct, temporary entity.

True, but I would also conclude that gentile nations, which become visible churches in the NT, no longer under age as in OT Israel, may also covenant nationally. Not based in judicals (I'm not a theonomist) but based on national church status. So Rutherford argues, such should not be scoffed at, and supplies many good arguments from the same.

I understand the Abrahamic covenant continued unabated and was administered during the Mosaic via types and shadows.

True.

I understand that the temporary Mosaic national covenant functioned on multiple levels simultaneously and that the land tenure promises were conditional in a way the Abrahamic covenant could never be.

True, but I distinguish between the premise and function of national covenants. The Mosaic national covenant was premised upon many conditional law functions which are now abrogated, ceremonial and judical. NT national covenants are premised upon the moral law, both tables. Which when a nation becomes a national established church, they must function based upon the moral law, and implement moral laws based upon the general equity of the judical law, which laws may take on various forms in various nations, with no requirement to exact the judicals of the OT.
 

R. Scott Clark

Puritan Board Senior
Can we, for the purpose of discussion, divide the question?

Let's set aside whether there can be post-canonical national covenants and focus on whether God may be said to have made a national covenant with Israel and in what way it was conditional.

Could you elaborate on the ways in which the Israelite national covenant was conditional?

rsc
 

Catechist

Puritan Board Freshman
Can we, for the purpose of discussion, divide the question?

Let's set aside whether there can be post-canonical national covenants and focus on whether God may be said to have made a national covenant with Israel and in what way it was conditional.

Could you elaborate on the ways in which the Israelite national covenant was conditional?

rsc

I'm not sure I can divide the question and speak to the covenant of the law for the Jew only? For what's conditional for national covenants are mere circumstances of the esssential frame of the church, whether it be under age or no. The conditions of the Israelite national covenant were not in oppostion to the New Covenant.

"A good example of the different application of the law-gospel antithesis is seen in comparing Bullinger with Luther on Gen. 17. Luther’s law-gospel hermeneutic forces him into a form of Dispensationalism, where Gen. 17 is a covenant of law for the Jew only, in opposition to the New Covenant. In contrast, Bullinger and the Reformed understood Gen. 17 to be a covenant for the church for all ages, consistent with the coming of Christ, and therefore part of the covenant of grace."

I have found the above stated here, http://thomasgoodwin.wordpress.com/2007/05/08/samuel-petto-on-sinai-an-introductory-essay/ which is a fuller explanation of our topic under discussion.

I'm attempting to answer your question as directly as possible, please pardon my inability break down the Israelite national covenant conditions separately.
 

MW

Puritanboard Amanuensis
Prof. Clark,

Having read your article in the Confessional Presbyterian, it seems that you acknowledge the internal/external distinction in traditional reformed covenant theology, and that the covenant of grace as externally administered under the New Testament is conditional. I applaud you for faithfully expounding the reformed view in opposition to FV misconceptions. But to be consistent, this means the conditionality of the "covenant of law" does not render it a covenant of works. Rather, as the WCF clearly teaches, this is the covenant of grace administered under the law in contrast to its administration under the gospel.
 

Calvibaptist

Dallas Cowboys' #1 Fan
I realize I am bringing up a very old thread, but I have a question from a very different perspective regarding Horton's book.

I am a recovering ex-Dispensationalist. It is all I have ever known. I am slowly having the scales removed from my eyes, but it is a long process. Not long to give up dispieness, just long to figure out where I belong and how it all fits together.

Anyway, my question regards Horton's view of land promises belonging specifically to the Mosaic Covenant. I agree with him that the Mosaic Covenant was conditional and temporary. No problem there. But then he traces Dispensationalists error to the fact that they take the land promises of the Mosaic Covenant and make them permanent.

In discussing the Mosaic covenant, he says, "Dispensationalism and the so-called two-covenant theory currently popular in mainline theology both treat the land promise as eternal and irrevocable, even to the extent that there can be a difference between Israel and the church in God's plan. Bot interpretations, however, fail to recognize that the Hebrew Scriptures themselves qualify this national covenant in strictly conditional terms." (Horton, pg 47)

While I agree with him about the problem concerning the separation of Israel and the church, I disagree with him about where Dispensationalists get their view of the land promises. They trace the land promises not to the Mosaic Covenant, but to the Abrahamic Covenant.

Genesis 12:6-7 Abram passed through the land to the place of Shechem, as far as the terebinth tree of Moreh. And the Canaanites were then in the land. 7 Then the LORD appeared to Abram and said, "To your descendants I will give this land."

And, more specifically (with no requirements from Abram)

Genesis 15:18-21 On the same day the LORD made a covenant with Abram, saying: "To your descendants I have given this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the River Euphrates -- 19 "the Kenites, the Kenezzites, the Kadmonites, 20 "the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, 21 "the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites, and the Jebusites."

Genesis 17:7-8 And I will establish My covenant between Me and you and your descendants after you in their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and your descendants after you. 8 "Also I give to you and your descendants after you the land in which you are a stranger, all the land of Canaan, as an everlasting possession; and I will be their God."

Does Covenant Theology see this as a conditional promise? I recognize that the Mosaic realization was conditional, but is the Abrahamic? What do we do with this description of land?

Help!
 
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