Before I begin writing about this, I want to acknowledge a few things. First, New Covenant Theology (NCT) is not a monolith. This makes it incredibly difficult to critique. Granted that NCT is not a confessional position, there’s no one organized statement as to what NCT is, or what NCT adherents believe about NCT. The only thing us outsiders can do at this point is interact with the rather large body of work that has been produced over the last decade or so, and then come to some conclusions about what distinguishes NCT from other perspectives like dispensationalism or covenant theology.
Second, I have studied under NCT professors (e.g. Owen Strachan) and though I did not exhaust their knowledge on the topic, I have learned that they often neglect to interact with historical Baptist Covenant Theology. This is a real problem, especially since NCT is being taught at Baptist seminaries. It is presented as the Baptist version of covenant theology.
It is not, and below are some reasons why it’s different.
A Key New Covenant Theology Distinctive
An important distinctive of NCT is discontinuity between the Old and New Covenants. In an article enumerating NCT distinctives, titled ‘A Short Primer on New Covenant Theology Essentials’, A. Blake White writes, “The law of Christ can be defined as those prescriptive principles drawn from the example and teaching of Jesus and his apostles (the central demand being love), which are meant to be worked out in specific situations by the guiding influence and empowerment of the Holy Spirit.”
Thus, not only does the New Testament interpret the Old (this is a great interpretive principle, to be sure), but commandments from the Old Testament do not carry over into the New Testament unless the New Testament restates those particular laws or commandments.
For example, if the Old Testament prescribes (A) but the New Testament fails to reaffirm (A), then (A) is no longer binding upon New Covenant people. Conversely, if (A) is reaffirmed in the New Testament, by Jesus or His apostles, then it continues to bind the consciences of God’s people to one extent or the other.
Among all the differences between confessional Baptists and NCT Christians, the above tenant should most certainly stand out. The method we use for Scriptural interpretation is key in a discussion such as this one, especially between 1689’ers and NCT Christians.
Differentiating New Covenant Theology from Historical Baptist Covenant Theology
We’ve just seen above that New Covenant Theology approaches the Bible in a certain way that leads them toward various conclusions. As I said above, the way in which we come to Scripture is important on many different fronts. Here, the importance lies in the applicability of God’s Word as a whole, and even in the formulation of the Christian life en toto. Our approach in reference to this issue affects how we apply the very Word of God to our lives as God’s people.
In the 2nd London Baptist Confession of Faith there is said to be a tripartite distinction within God’s law (moral, civil, ceremonial), a feature that is alien to NCT. White writes:
While we see how some commandments could be classified as moral in nature, as opposed to civil or ceremonial, NCT denies this “tripartite” division of the law because the writers of Scripture do not make such distinctions (e.g., skim through Lev. 19 and try to classify the commandments).
One reason for the NCT rejection of the classical division of the law is that they do not see where the law is divided into manifold parts in Scripture. Again, this has much to do with how we come to the Bible in terms of interpretational method. The rejection of the tripartite division allows NCT to rework the significance of the Moral Law (the Ten Commandments).
For NCT, the Ten Commandments are not so much a codification of natural law so much as it is covenantal conditions. While they are right about the Ten Commandments being the Mosaic Covenant conditions, this should not preclude them being a revelation of natural law, which is coextensive with creation itself––no part of which will ever be abrogated.
Therefore, because the New Covenant is new it must be the case, it is thought, that it contains different stipulations, different conditions so to speak. Thus, whatever is not positively restated as a matter of fact in the New Testament is no longer binding. 1689 Baptists would push back against that supposition by pointing out how the Ten Commandments were in force before they were formally given at Horeb. For example, God deluged the world because of the wickedness of men in Genesis 6. Moreover, in Exodus 16, a man is executed for violating the Sabbath. I could say much more on this if the present article were intended for such.
Particular (1689) Baptists would also point out that the demand for positive reaffirmation in the New Covenant, rather than explicit or necessary abrogation, is an untenable way to approach the exercise of biblical interpretation. While NCT theologians look for positive reaffirmations as to what laws remain for New Covenant people, we would say we ought to look for explicit or necessary abrogations of certain Old Testament laws or commandments. Here is a quick reason as to why:
The New Testament is couched within a particular historical context. There are a lot of assumptions made in the words of Jesus and the apostolic letters. Sexual immorality is one example. What is sexual immorality? The New Testament never exposits this beyond the very assumed use of the term adultery. Paul also mentions orgies and associates that type of activity with sexual immorality. But, what about beastiality? That’s never brought up in the New Testament.
We all know in our heart of hearts that beastiality is dead wrong, but remember the standard of NCT! For a law to remain binding, it must be positively restated. Does this automatically mean beastiality is perfectly legal in the sight of God? Of course not! And no NCT Christian I know would say such a ridiculous thing. But this is just one example of an inconsistency I think exists in NCT. There simply is no way to properly define sexual immorality using only the New Testament. Paul is importing Old Testament law into the New Testament in order to instruct the people of God.
Finally, we would ask the question, “What is the authority whereby positive reaffirmation is necessary to consider a law as binding in the New Covenant?” In other words, where do NCT adherents get that interpretational standard? Is it a biblically supported method? We would not think so, primarily because Jesus Himself grounds His very own teachings in the prior words of the Old Testament (Matt. 4:4; Mk. 7:6; Lk. 4:8).
Nowhere do we have a biblical example of reaffirmation only. However, there are things from the Old Testament which the New Testament says are no longer effective. Take the epistle to the Hebrews in reference to the Levitical Priesthood, for example. How about Jesus, in Mark 7:19, where He declared all foods clean?
While we do not have examples of a reaffirmation principle being put to use in either the Old or New Testaments, we do have examples of explicit or necessary abrogation of certain Old Testament laws (which is also why we see a necessary exegetical tripartite division in God’s law).
An Unfortunate Reality
The information presented above is only a very brief survey of our differences. There are certainly more differences, and those discussed above could be better exposited. But the unfortunate reality is this: in most NCT writings, there is close to no interaction (if any) with 1689 Baptist Covenant Theology. There is some said about paedobaptist Covenant Theology and some said concerning Dispensationalism, but next to nothing is said about the 1689 position.
I hope this article sparks more interaction and discussion between NCT Christians and 1689 Christians. It would be nice to see NCT writers interact with our position more!