As we saw in last month’s “Thinking Biblically,” covenant theology (a view we plan to delve into over the next few months) is an important distinctive of Reformed Baptists from most other Baptists in contemporary America. Many think that a Calvinistic view of salvation is what separates us, but that is not necessarily true. Many are Calvinistic Baptists but are not Reformed Baptists. A distinctive of Reformed Baptists is covenant theology.
All Baptists in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries held to covenant theology. The same was true throughout almost all of the nineteenth century. Charles Spurgeon, the renowned Baptist pastor of London’s Metropolitan Tabernacle, began a sermon entitled “The Wondrous Covenant” with these words: “The doctrine of the divine covenant lies at the root of all true theology. It has been said that he who well understands the distinction between the covenant of works and the covenant of grace is a master of divinity. I am persuaded that most of the mistakes which men make concerning the doctrines of Scripture are based upon fundamental errors with regard to the covenants of law and of grace. May God grant us now the power to instruct, and you the grace to receive instruction on this vital subject” (Charles H. Spurgeon, Spurgeon’s Sermons, electronic ed., vol. 58 [Albany, OR: Ages Software, 1998]).
While covenant theology was universal among Baptists throughout most of the 1800s, dispensationalism, especially its understanding of eschatology [the study of last things], became increasingly attractive among evangelicals, including Baptists during the twentieth century. As a theological system, dispensationalism is relatively new in the Christian era, having come on the scene through the efforts of John Nelson Darby around 1830.
An understanding of premillennialism, the belief that Christ would return and institute a thousand-year period of peace, existed during the early centuries of the Christian era but fell out of favor around the fourth century. Darby, however, developed a radically new understanding of premillennialism, termed “dispensational premillennialism,” as opposed to the early church doctrine of premillennialism, “historic premillennialism.” Darby rejected covenant theology and began teaching dispensational theology, dividing history into seven dispensations: Paradise, Noah, Abraham, Israel, Gentiles, the Spirit, and the Millennium. Darby also separated the people of God into two groups: the ethnic people of Israel and the Church. For a helpful summary of Darby and dispensationalism, see www.christianitytoday.com/history/people/pastorsandpreachers/john-nelson-darby.html.
In American Christianity today, dispensational eschatology is dominant among fundamentalists and may very well be the majority view of conservative evangelicals. Many who do not know what dispensationalism means probably hold somewhat to that understanding of the end times. If one believes in a secret rapture of Christians (the coming of Jesus for the church) followed by seven years of tribulation, then the coming of Jesus to Earth with his church to put down the enemies of God and establish a literal thousand year period of peace, a final uprising orchestrated by a loosed Satan, the final battle against evil, the last judgment, and finally the new heaven and new earth, one is following dispensational eschatology, an end-time scheme that has existed in the church for less than two centuries.
Reformed Baptists, however, are covenantalists and reject dispensationalism, and we do so because of our understanding of biblical hermeneutics. “Hermeneutics” is the science of interpretation, and for Christians it is comprised of principles for properly interpreting the Scriptures. While covenantalists and dispensationalists agree on most hermeneutical principles, one area where we disagree is in how to interpret Old Testament prophecy.
For instance, dispensationalists typically believe that there will be a millennial temple in Jerusalem and animal sacrifices will be renewed. Dispensationalists insist upon a literal interpretation of Old Testament prophecy, and they point to the detailed instructions found in such passages as Ezekiel 43:18-27 and Zechariah 14:16–21 to support their belief in a millennial temple and the renewal of animal sacrifices. In his book Things to Come, Dwight Pentecost states their reasoning: “The glorious vision of Ezekiel reveals that it is impossible to locate its fulfillment in any past temple or system which Israel has known, but it must await a future fulfillment after the second advent of Christ when the millennium is instituted. The sacrificial system is not a reinstituted Judaism, but the establishment of a new order that has as its purpose the remembrance of the work of Christ on which all salvation rests. The literal fulfillment of Ezekiel’s prophecy will be the means of God’s glorification and man’s blessing in the millennium” (Things to Come [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010], 531).
Dispensationalists teach that these animal sacrifices will not be for the forgiveness of sins but as a remembrance of Jesus’ sacrifice. Reformed Baptists, as well as all covenantalists, reject this teaching. We hold that such passages cannot be interpreted literally. Doing so would do violence to the clear teaching of the New Testament. As Reformed Baptist Fred Malone points out, it is the New Testament that reveals the meaning of the Old Testament and how it is fulfilled in the New Testament (see Covenant Theology: A Baptist Distinctive [Pelham, Alabama: Solid Ground Christian Books, 2013], 75-77).
The book of Hebrews clearly makes the case that the sacrificial system of the Old Testament pointed to the final sacrifice of Jesus. Christians are not to return to such a system or reimagine it in a Christian context. The New Testament provides an ordinance that remembers Jesus’ sacrifice: the Lord’s Supper. While space does not allow a full explanation of more historical views of Ezekiel 43 and Zechariah 14, the fact that the New Testament makes no mention or suggestion of a new temple in a future millennial age with literal animal sacrifices suggests that such Old Testament prophecies should not be interpreted literally.
It is the New Testament which provides clarity to the Old Testament, not the other way around. For instance, Hosea 11:1 states, “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.” How many Christians would have seen Christ in that verse had it not been for Matthew 2:14-15: “And [Joseph] rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed to Egypt and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I called my son’”? This prophecy was fulfilled figuratively by Jesus.
To be fair, Reformed Baptists do not all agree on eschatology. Some hold to historic premillennialism, a few hold to postmillennialism, and it seems the majority hold to amillennialism. Reformed Baptists, however, uniformly reject dispensational premillennialism.
Reformed Baptists are covenantalists and reject dispensationalism, just as Reformed Baptists hold to believer’s baptism and reject infant baptism. While we have points of disagreement with both dispensationalists and paedobaptists [those who practice infant baptism], we esteem both in Christian fellowship and appreciate their work in God’s kingdom. A Baptist may indeed hold to dispensational eschatology, but we would be hard pressed to find a Reformed Baptist pastor or theologian who does.