New Covenant Theology

Q – I was wondering if you could clear something up for me.

Jim – It goes with the gig. Fire away.

Q – A while back I was doing some research into Theological systems (trying to see if there was one i actually agreed with 100%) and I came across a very helpful article that compared and contrasted CT (Covenant Theology), DP (Dispensationalism – the ‘Historic’ variety, and the kind that John MacArthur calls ‘Biblical’), and NCT (New Covenant Theology).

Now, I’d already worked out what I disagreed with in CT (quite a lot really), and which forms of DP I thought closest to the truth (or, more precisely, I’d figured out that the one important truth that most forms of DP contain is their highlighting of the differences between the church and Israel) – but NCT was wholly new to me.

Anyhow, in the end I was quite impressed with the number of points of agreement I had with NCT (it’s stance on Mosaic Law, and Christ as New Law-giver rather than just Law-Clarifier, for instance). But here’s where I think I may have been led astray: the author of this essay claimed that NCT supported Replacement Theology and was either A- or Post-Millennial in its eschatology. And the reason I think I may have been led astray is that I’ve now read nearly all the Q&A’s posted on your site and several of the books, though I haven’t yet started the commentaries (and I should say at this point, that I’ve really been enjoying your stuff).

Anyway, after reading all this I get the impression that you subscribe to NCT – yet you are also very clearly NOT a replacement theologian and you also ARE very clearly a premillennialist.

So. was I misled by this one treatise on New Covenant Theology? Because if NCT is opposed to replacement theology and supportive of a futurist eschatology, then I have more agreement with it than I thought (perhaps nearing 100%!) and should probably give it a further look.

Of course, I already have a fairly clear hold on what it is I believe – but when asked, saying, “Oh, I hold to Flanegan’s systematic theology” doesn’t help much. And I’m pretty tired of having to run down the long list of that with which I have in common with Calvinism, that with which I have in common with most Dispensationalists, and that with which I hold in common with whatever other system.

I mean, if NCT is supportive of a correct view of the Church and Israel and allows a premillennial view – then I can stop messing about with all that wordage. (Until, of course, they ask me to explain exactly what it means that I ‘agree with NCT!) ( ^_^ )

Thanks, and in case i didn’t mention it earlier, i really have enjoyed reading through all the articles essays and books you’ve posted on your web-site. Very clear and instructive.

Mercy, Grace, Peace and all that

Jim – I am frequently asked what my position or level of agreement is concerning New Covenant Theology (NCT). I do have a history with that camp. But as the situation stands today, I cannot really endorse NCT and GCA does not promote nor adhere to the teaching and tenets of NCT — despite the fact that (as you noted) we do have several areas of agreement.

One of the leading proponents of New Covenant Theology is a man named John Reisinger. His website and periodical are called “Sound of Grace.” I first met John R. about 17 years ago and he was instrumental in helping me sort out the Law vs. Grace Controversy. During those days he gave me an early manuscript copy of a book he had just written called “Abraham’s Four Seeds.” I had already read his books “But, I Say Unto You…” and “The Tablets of Stone” so I was anxious to read his latest release.

“Abraham’s Four Seeds” was John’s initial foray into what would later be called New Covenant Theology. In that book, John pointed out the inherent weaknesses of both Covenant Theology and Dispensationalism. He argued that a third hermeneutic approach was necessary.

I agreed with John’s basic premise. I have long struggled with both systems and could not comfortably identify wholly with either. While I certainly contend for the distinction between Israel and the Church, I do not agree that history can be broken into seven completely distinct dispensations. The Abrahamic Covenant crosses too many of those supposedly distinct periods of time. But, while I see continuity in the ongoing effects of the Covenant with Abraham, I do not agree with the notion of one covenant of grace formed immediately after Eden with various administrations. The Old Covenant / New Covenant distinctions in Scripture simply do not allow for that. So, I was equally discontent with the either/or choice of Dispensational Theology or Covenantal Theology.

In 1998-99, I participated in the construction of an online commentary series sponsored by Sound of Grace. The idea was that various pastors and theologians would write simultaneously, each covering the same portion of a book of the Bible week-by-week, until we had all completed a commentary on the entire book. The commentaries on Galatians and Hebrews found on the GCA website are the result of that writing project, some portions of which can still be found on the web:

During those days I also participated in SOG’s online chat group and grew increasingly fond of the phrase “New Covenant Theology.” Inasmuch as I consider the New Covenant definitional in our understanding of Biblical soteriology and the theology of salvation by grace without the works of the law, I often referred to myself as a “new covenant theologian.” But, as far as New Covenant Theology was concerned as a genuine hermeneutic system, it was still mostly a matter of pointing at the errors of others and saying, “We’re not that.”

Along with others, I challenged the adherents of the newly-forming NCT to define their position in positive terms. In other words, rather than arguing against the perceived errors and short-fallings of the other systems, I asked them to explain what NCT actually IS in positive, definite terms. I got involved in some pretty heated debates with John R. and others concerning their insistence on equating Israel and the Church, inspiring my book “Is The Church Israel?” — which actually began as a response to a series of articles published in Sound of Grace magazine.

Eventually, I withdrew from SOG to concentrate on other endeavors, hoping all the while that they would successfully formulate a working definition and explanation of NCT. But, as they pursued that goal, certain underlying assumptions that lay at the heart of their system – such as Replacement Theology and Amillennialism — made it impossible for me to align myself with NCT.

One of the key struggles I continue to have with NCT is the simple fact that the two portions of Scripture that spell out the particulars of “the new covenant” (Jeremiah 31 & Hebrews 8) both specifically declare that the recipients of that covenant are “the house of Israel and the house of Judah” — in other words, the very people who were under the old covenant. Only to people who were bound by the old can the new be genuinely, qualitatively new. To me, that’s basic. But, it flies in the face of NCT’s assumptions.

“Behold, the days are coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, though I was a husband to them, says the LORD.” (Jer. 31:31-33)

While the advocates of NCT are comfortable executing the hermeneutical gymnastics necessary to conclude that the Church has replaced Israel in God’s redemptive economy, they are tremendously hard-pressed to explain how the Church has also become “the house of Judah.” The particular designations “house of Israel” and “house of Judah” have such a long history of meaning only one thing and identifying very specific groups of people, that it stretches credulity to think that when Jeremiah — a prophet to Israel — and the author of the book of Hebrews — a Hebrew writing to an audience of Hebrews – employed those designations they expected their audience to understand them to mean “the Church of all the redeemed.” Words lose their meaning when we start interpreting Scripture according to our systems and predetermined outcomes.

So, I find myself looking for a new nomenclature to describe what I teach and believe. I liked the phrase “new covenant theology” because it so perfectly encapsulated my overarching view. In fact, my book “A Guide to New Covenant Giving” briefly explains what I mean by “new covenant” because it is no longer simple and obvious. Now that NCT has usurped that title and defined it in what I believe are unbiblical ways, I can no longer comfortably employ it.

A couple of years ago I was opining the loss of that title and saying that I needed to find a new phrase that had never been used before to identify our theological position. I came up with “A Plank of Wood.” It was simple, had never been used, and was open for definition. During that period in GCA’s history people began threatening to make T-Shirts with slogans like “Plank of Wood Rocks.” It was our “inside joke,” but it made a point. We, the church-world, are so attracted to systems that we can easily lose the meaning and point of the words on the page as we bend them to fit our preconceived notions of what they must say to fit the system. I am more comfortable letting the words of Holy Writ say what they actually say and adjusting my thinking to let them all fit into one God-breathed package. If that means I am not this or that, so be it. If it means I sound like I hold to this or that, fair enough. But, in the end, I’m going to try and be true and consistent with what the Bible says and let the systems fall where they will.

Thanks for taking the time to write. It was good to hear from you.

And remember — plank of wood rocks.

Yours for His sake,

Jim Mc.

For more information:
New Covenant Theology: Questions Answered by Steven Lehrer

Abraham’s Four Seeds  by John G. Reisinger

The New Covenant and the Law of Christ: A Biblical Study Guide. by C. Scarborough

Five views on Law and Gospel – Stickland, Wayne G. (General editor), Contributors: Greg L. Bahnsen, Walter C. Kaiser, Douglas J. Moo, Willem A. VanGemeren

New Covenant Theology: Description, Definition, Defense by Tom Wells and Fred Zaspel