In Daniel Schreiderer’s article “Progressive Covenantalists as Reformed Baptists”,[i] he maintained that Progressive Covenantalism (PC) was, more or less, a branch of Reformed Baptist (RB) theology. His argument was based on the commonality of covenant theology found in both theologies.
The summary in this article is concerned with Blake Wade Johnson’s reading of the same relationship between PC and RB. As a PCer, he comes to a, paradoxically, very different, yet very similar, conclusion to Schreiderer. Johnson argues in his Master’s thesis that RB is, to all intents and purposes, a branch of PC.[ii]
Johnson draws attention to the fact that the Second London Baptist Confession of Faith (1677) was essentially based on the Westminster Confession of Faith, but crucially took a credobaptist position. This rich history was lost to Baptist circles until 20 years ago when 1689 Federalists brought it back. Out from this rich, Reformed, Baptistic tradition, PC has emerged in recent years. As a result, PC “has found support from a number of pastors and theologians in the Reformed Baptist world.”
Interaction between groups
Published interaction is limited between both groups. Communication between them has been hampered by misunderstanding on each side. Even so, the “interactions have already produced helpful clarity and dialogue”. Johnson criticizes Wellum’s Kingdom Through Covenant, 2nd ed., for making RB merely a branch of CT. Wellum fails to recognize that oftentimes the RB position is in strong agreement with him. Johnson also criticizes RB for equating PC with NCT. It is time, complains Johnson, that RB acknowledges PC’s own announcement that it has left behind NCT.
The broad principle of a covenantal architecture for the bible’s theology is the most fundamental form of similarity. The second broad principle is that as revelation progresses the biblical covenants develop. Johnson states PC is uncomfortable with CT’s ‘covenant of grace’/’covenant of works’ schema because it undermines the progression of biblical covenants. Yet, Johnson claims that PCers do not deny the categories of a covenant of works and a covenant of grace.
Narrower agreements exist, too. In ecclesiology, both groups maintain that New Covenant (NC) members are exclusively created through spiritual adoption. Physical birth and pedigree play no part. The Old Covenant (OC) was marked with a mixture of believer and unbeliever, as exemplified in the two seeds of Abraham. Not so the NC. Also, the NC assembly is a brand-new community; it does not continue the OT people of God. This is because Christ is the antitype of Israel. Believers in Christ are therefore in continuity with OT saints, but constitute a completely new community to Israel. Johnson approvingly quotes the RB scholar Renihan who, in explanation of the visible and invisible assembly, states that OT saints were “inwardly” the early ‘church’, but that NT believers were the first “outwardly” form of the ‘church’.
Similarly, Johnson quotes PC scholars who, due to biblical typology, assert that, “the church is not so much a replacement for Israel or even a ‘new’ Israel; it is the continuation of ‘Israel’ in the era of fulfillment.” Likewise, the original Abraham promise of the land served as a type of the true goal of restoring the Adamic blessing in the form of a new earth.
Johnson concludes that PC’s and RB’s ecclesiological positions, and their respective views of continuity/discontinuity, are “nearly interchangeable”.
‘Covenant of Grace’
To Johnson, the differences between PC and RB concerning law is more or less about definitions of words, the substance being “sufficiently” the same.
PC rejects Covenant Theology’s (CT) theology of a “covenant of grace”- one major covenant administered through two different dispensations (the OC and the NC)- for it “flattens” the OT covenants, and ignores their development. Even so, PC acknowledges that the Mosaic Covenant is a covenant that “entails grace”. That being said, when comparing PC and RB, Johnson has this to say, “Upon closer reflection, however, this seems to be less a theological objection, and more a terminological hesitation.” [italics his] Johnson then goes on to say:
Wellum suspects that the term may be more misleading than helpful, given the historical baggage it carries:
“In reality, the “covenant of grace” is a comprehensive theological category, not a biblical one. This does not mean that it is illegitimate. . . . If [it] is used to underscore the unity of God’s plan of salvation and the essential spiritual unity of the people of God in all ages, it is certainly helpful and biblical. But if it is used to flatten the relationships and downplay the significant amount of progression between the biblical covenants . . . then it is unhelpful, misleading, and illegitimate. Thus Wellum and Parker object to the accusation that they “deny the covenant of grace.” Their insistence is upon the primacy, in terms of theological method, of biblical theology before systematic theology.” “[iii]
RB, on the other hand, accepts the principle of a covenant of grace, but not as taught by CT. After the Fall, God created the covenant of grace. It was revealed in the Gospel promise given to Adam, further revealed in other covenants, ” “until the full discovery thereof was completed in the New Testament” ” [Second London Baptist Confession, 7:3]
Johnson works with the definition that ‘law’ means two things: 1) the Mosaic Decalogue; 2) the moral imperative that reflects God’s character.
To PC, the Decalogue is ” “absolute commands or prohibitions” “, for they are not for a specific situation. The Decalogue remains, says Johnson, for the NT understands that the Law continues to function as the revelation of God’s moral will. Paul assumes the continuing authority of Decalogue, says PC, when he uses it in Romans 13:8-10, for example. However, PC strongly insists that the eternal moral law is present not only in the Decalogue, but in all of Scripture. The key is to appreciate the particular covenantal context of this absolute moral law. Thus, the Decalogue’s relevance today is not as Law-covenant, but as the application of its moral law for today, as compared to its application for the times of Israel.
Similarly, the Ten Commandments are still applicable under the NC, says RB, but not as they were under the OC. The OC function of the whole of the Law of Moses, including the Decalogue, has been abolished. However, the same Law continues to function under the NC as expressing the eternal moral law.
Open communication fosters objective assessment and agreement, rather than polarization. E.g., Adams agreed with Wellum that God’s righteousness is found only in the NC. Since RB exists to promote Baptistic theology, a move would bring a refreshing upsurge in Biblical and Systematic Theology, rather than polemics. PCers could benefit, too, from aligning themselves with certain strands of historic baptistic theology that remove the ‘new smell’ from their theology.
Another example of dialogue is over the sabbath. In the RB camp, Renihan distinguishes between ‘positive law’ and moral law. The latter is law that is right because of who God is; the former is law only because God commanded it. Positive laws are not binding of NC saints. Moreover, the law functioned differently for Israel than it does for the church through Christ. The non-binding nature of positive law applies to the sabbath. Rather than a seven-day model of sabbath, the NC promotes a first-day structure. Therefore, Renihan is conceding that the Decalogue includes positive law that is not just moral law immune to the developments found in redemptive-history. Similarly, PC believes the Decalogue is still authoritative, and that a sabbath “principle” [italics his] is at play, albeit typologically.
‘Covenant of Grace’…again
RBs contend that the NC is an unconditional covenant not because of confessionalism, but due to its very nature. Renihan partly agrees with PCs critique of the conditional/unconditional method of arranging covenants used by CT. Yet, PCs hesitation over ‘covenant of grace’ should be reconsidered, says Renihan, for Scripture is clear that the first covenant was genuinely cast in terms of works for man, and the latter in terms of God’s covenant grace, with the former being breakable, and the latter unbreakable. It is with the two ‘bookends’ of the covenant of works and the covenant of grace (NC) in mind, that Renihan then says, in similar fashion to Kingdom Through Covenant, that the metanarrative of Scripture locks on to the Adam-Christ typology and the unfolding of the promise of Genesis 3:15. Renihan concludes, “ “ “If this is not the basic structure of the classic covenant of works and covenant of grace biblical metanarrative, then I don’t know what is.” ”[iv]
Subset of PC
It is preferable to think of RB as a subset of PC, because PC stands on its own, so that to put it under ‘covenantalism’ of the Reformed type would be very confusing. Moreover, as “Progressive” covenantally, PC fits more naturally alongside, rather than under, standard covenantalism.
Johnson’s conclusion is exceptionally brief. It draws attention to the substantial “dual matters of Sabbath-application and COG”, stating that they must be reckoned with for advancement. To that end, intramural discussion is necessary.
His view of NCT
Johnson, like Scheiderer, presses down on the issue that PC has been confused with NCT. PC was formerly NCT, but no longer. Johnson writes, “Regarding even the most contentious issue in the debate—the decalogue—Jason Meyer criticizes NCT as “too cold with respect to the law.”[v] Johnson continues, “Even as they acknowledge the name NCT to be an umbrella-term with room for variety within, PC advocates have worked to distance themselves from it.”
As a PCer, Johnson comes to a nigh identical position as Scheiderer. Moreover, both were students at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (SBTS), and both studied under Wellum. Also, Johnson thanks Wellum and Richard Lucas (another PC professor) for their “helpful and thoughtful feedback” concerning his thesis.
All of this suggests that SBTS itself is encouraging- actively or passively, or both- rapprochement between RB and PC. In one sense, this is expected of a Christian organization that specializes in Biblical Theology. Is that not why Gregg R. Allison, a Progressive Dispensationalist, was Johnson’s faculty advisor for his thesis?
Yet, no such rapprochement with NCT within a Biblical Theology setting is mentioned by either Scheiderer or Johnson. In fact, quite the opposite: NCT is invariably critiqued. I never read one positive thing about it from either the RB student or the PC student. If Johnson is to be believed, then STBS’s establishment is actively working to distance itself from NCT, even from a broad ‘umbrella’ understanding of it.
The reader will note Johnson’s repeated mentions of the ‘covenant of grace’. It seems to be ‘the’ issue on his mind. If this is so, it would seem that if both groups- PC and RB- can come to a working relationship over that issue, the door would open for a potential union.
[i] WTJ 82 (2020): 137-152.
[ii] Blake Wade Johnson, One Position, Two Administrations: Exploring the Theological Overlap Between 1689 Federalism and Progressive Covenantalism, Master’s Thesis, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, 2021.
[iii] Johnson cites Stephen Wellum and Brent Parker, eds., Introduction to Progressive Covenantalism: Charting a Course Between Dispensational and Covenant Theologies (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2016), 3n7.
[iv] Johnson cites Renihan, “Kingdom Through Covenant, A Biblical-Theological Understanding of the Covenants, A Review Article,” Journal of the Institute of Reformed Baptist Studies, 2014, 64-165.
[v] Johnson citing Jason Meyer, “Mosaic Law, Theological Systems, and the Glory of Christ,” in Progressive Covenantalism, ed. Stephen Wellum and Brent Parker (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2016), 78-79.