03 August 2003

modern reformation

The latest issue of Modern Reformation magazine (July/August 2003) is largely on the issue of postmodernism. I wish I had been able to pick up a copy prior to my recent lectures on the topic, but I'm not a subscriber and hadn't had the opportunity to get to the church bookstore.

On the whole I wasn't as disappointed with this issue of the magazine as I thought I might be, given that my expectations had been signficantly lowered from reading a previous issue that had discussed the new perspectives on second temple Judaism. I plan on blogging about several of the postmodernism articles--both good and bad--over the next several days.

Before turning to MR's discussion of postmodernism, however, I can't help but comment briefly upon J. Ligon Duncan's editorial "Covenant Confusion" (page 44). I have no real problems with his positive exposition of covenant theology as contained in that brief article, minimal as it is. What troubled me was the opening two paragraphs in which he targets what he terms "mono-covenantalism."

Duncan attributes the supposed current popularity of "mono-covenantal" approaches (which he attributes to Barth, Hoeksema, and Schilder) to "ignorance of historic covenant theology" and "lack of familiarity with the more robust historic Reformed tradition" pertaining to the topic. I find this claim disingenuous.

On one hand, Duncan's claim seems empirically false. Niether Barth, Hoeksema, or Schilder, nor their prominent followers are people who are ignorant of historic Reformed covenant theology. Some significant proponents of so-called "mono-covenantalism" (and the referent here is not all of a piece) have quite a bit of background in historical theology and are quite conversant in the traditional categories. Ignorance and lack of familiarity are not the cause of the popularity of these views, it seems to me, but quite the opposite: some theologians--rightly or wrongly--have found the historically dominant "bicovenantalism" unsatisfactory biblically and theologically and are groping for an alternative.

On the other hand, Duncan's claim is odd and a bit troubling. Why should these "mono-covenantal" views be attributed to ignorance rather than simply seen a theological difference of opinion, whether as a matter of exegesis, temperament, or what have you? What motivates his claim that ignorance is causative here? Is it an inability to believe that another honest theologian and exegete in the Reformed tradition, acting in good faith, could come to a different conclusion? Or it is a fear that the biblical evidence might actually be plausibly construed in another manner than the tradition dictates? Or it is some other factor? What is at stake here and for whom? I'm not sure of the answer, but the way in which the claim is stated raises the questions.

A couple of further comments are in order. First, contrary to Duncan's assertion, it isn't clear to me that the historic Reformed taxonomy that sharply distinguishes the "covenant of works" with Adam from the subsequent "covenant of grace" really does anything to bring Reformed theology any closer to the Lutheran law-gospel hermeneutic. As far as I understand Lutheran theology, it is capable of speaking of the situation of the pre-lapsarian Adam without recourse to a "covenant of works."

Second, it won't do to simply assert that "mono-covenantal" schemes uniformly fail to "fully appreciate the fundamental difference between God's dealings with man pre- and post-Fall." Perhaps some do (Barth comes to mind), but is that a necessary feature of rejecting the "bicovenantal" template or a product of the wider theology of some of those who do? The latter possibility strikes me as more prima facie plausible. If we want to make such broad claims, I could just as easily assert that "bicovenantalism" produces the very kinds of nature-grace dichotomies that Reformed people have criticized in Roman Catholic theology. I recognize though that, given his limited space, Duncan could hardly prove his point. Yet, why then bring it up?

Finally, a note about history and terminology. Regarding history, while Duncan is quite right that "bicovenantalism" is the dominant, historic Reformed view (who could deny that?), it would be wrong to give the impression that the Reformed tradition does not also contain a long (albeit minority) stream of critics of that tradition, from some early Scottish divines to the likes of Herman Bavinck or John Murray.

Regarding terminology, I wonder to what degree "bicovenantalism" emerged from the categories of once dominant Ramist logic that treated all things as either univocal or equivocal and as existing in pairs? Duncan's brief discussion seems to betray such assumptions, insofar as it appears incapable of conceiving another possibility than a "bicovenantal" view that posits two distinct covenants or a "mono-covenantal" view that univocally flattens all distinctions.

If, instead, the various biblical covenants are seen as related analogically, perhaps in relation to the eternal intra-trinitarian life of God, then both difference and similarity can be simultaneously retained and the abstract opposition between "bi" and "mono" undone. I don't think that the purported "mono-covenantalists" should concede the terminology here to their opponents.

I want it be clear that I hold no grudge against Duncan and very much appreciate and respect his academic and pastoral endeavours over the years. But his editorial is typical of a number of discussions I have come across and, until such rhetoric is toned down, I'm not sure how much progress and mutual understanding will occur on the topic.