Baptists have long differed with Reformed theology about how to explain the various biblical covenants in relation to the progress of redemptive history. In this regard, one of the newer developments is “progressive covenantalism,” which is a baptistic paradigm in biblical theology for emphasizing the covenants while maintaining a distinct understanding of the new covenant to preserve Baptist ecclesiology. The principal work in this paradigm is Kingdom Through Covenant by Stephen Wellum and Peter Gentry, a massive outline of their view of the covenants (which I have previously reviewed). Another contribution to this paradigm, however, is a collection of essays, Progressive Covenantalism: Charting a Course between Dispensational and Covenant Theologies, edited by Stephen Wellum and Brent Parker. The purpose of this particular essay is to interact with one specific chapter in this collection, Ardel B. Caneday’s “Covenantal Life with God from Eden to Holy City.”
Although the chapter’s title might suggest that it is about a biblical theology of the new creation, protology, and eschatology, its focus is actually on the conditions for having covenantal life with God. Although most of this collection’s essays highlight expected topics arguing for a distinctly Baptist view on the relationship of the covenants (including some that argue against Dispensational readings as well), Caneday’s contribution is unique in that it addresses an issue that should indeed unite Baptist and Reformed Christians in agreement, yet his take is troubling.
Caneday’s main argument is to undermine the law-gospel distinction. In his words, “This chapter disavows the notion that all of Scripture consists of two isolatable messages: law, consisting of God’s demands, and gospel, composed of God’s gracious giving. Instead, it argues that the formulation of covenant stipulations remain the same while the content of stipulations changes.” (pg. 103; italics original). Apart from the vague imprecision of calling law and gospel “two isolatable messages,” it is notable that in his view that both before and after Adam’s Fall, “the term [conditional] refers to the covenantal stipulations placed upon humans with whom God enters covenant and which do not jeopardize fulfillment of any of God’s covenants. God obligates humans to obey what he stipulates in his covenants, and all whom he desires to enable do obey.” (pg. 102; italics original) Although the covenant “provision,” is Christ’s death for salvation, “At issue are covenant stipulations that identify who receives access to the tree of life and to the holy city, the access Adam surrendered by disobedience.” (pg. 102) In terms of Caneday’s structure of enabled obedience, Christ’s death is the foundation that enables someone to obey, but then a believers obedience decisively marks them as heirs of God’s kingdom. As he stated,
Inheriting God’s promises is always conditional, for he grants his covenant blessings to those who, by his own grace, observe stipulations that require persevering, obedient belief. From Adam’s habitation of the Edenic garden with access to the tree of life to inheritance of our eternal habitation, God’s holy city, with free access to the tree of life, covenantal life with God always entails stipulations expressed as commands or conditionals. (pg. 105)
Within these introductory remarks, Caneday clearly set out his rejection of the law-gospel distinction and his view that everlasting life is conditional upon believers’ obedience.
The first section further outlines Caneday’s rejection of the law-gospel distinction. He criticizes Reformed, Lutheran, and Dispensational theology for not giving works a true role in salvation. Rejecting the Reformation doctrine that works are fruits and evidences, as Westminster Confession 16.2 puts it, he wrote, “Consequently, they interpret exhortations and warnings that issue in either salvation or condemnation as retrospective tests of faith’s genuineness.” (pg. 105) Rather, than requiring evidence of true faith, “the gospel threatens believers with eternal perdition” (pg. 106).
This section is fraught with imprecision and confusion. This problem is obvious even on the surface since, although law is clearly understood as the covenant stipulations, Caneday never explains what he understands the gospel to be. The content of his arguments suggest that this is not an incidental problem but one inherent in his theology. After all, what does it mean that the gospel threatens perdition to believers? It is hard to imagine how Christ’s life, death, and resurrection are warnings that all who trust in Jesus may go to hell. I struggle to think of a passage that makes this particular point. Perhaps Caneday uses “gospel” to refer to the whole body of New Testament teaching (unlikely but possible). Still, the specific point that believers are threatened with hell is an overstated interpretation of even the most intense warning passages.
Further confusion resides in the appeal to the probationary law given to Adam to support the rejection of the law-gospel distinction. First, confessional Reformed theology hardly debates whether Adam’s access to the tree of life was based on his works. Indeed, this is the whole point of the covenant of works but proving that the law grounded Adam’s relationship with God before the Fall hardly proves that there is no law-gospel contrast after the Fall. Second, this confusion deepens as Caneday argues that God’s covenant with Adam being “gracious” makes his point about the law-gospel distinction. The structure of his argument is then that Adam received grace and then obtained access to the tree of life by keep the law, and this pattern of grace enabling works that obtain everlasting life remains true for sinners after the Fall. This pattern of grace enabling someone – notably before and after the Fall—to perform works that warrant everlasting life is precisely part of the medieval tradition that Protestants rejected at the Reformation.1
In the next sections, Caneday’s redemptive-historical arguments do not clarify the problems. It is certainly not clear why he thinks his argument for continuity between the Mosaic covenant and the new covenant helps his case in the slightest, since Reformed theology affirms, in contrast to Baptist and “progressive covenantal theology,” that the substance of the covenant of grace, namely Christ and his benefits (Westminster Confession 8.6), was and is administered in both covenants. His point here seems to undermine the whole paradigm he is meant to be clarifying.
More than that his discussion of the differences between the old and new covenant is highly convoluted. He argued,
Concerning their content, new covenant stipulations of repentance, faith, obedience, or doing good are distinctively different from old covenant stipulations. The new, with the law engraved upon the heart, stipulates obeying Christ Jesus as Lord; the old, etched in stone tablets, stipulates obeying God’s covenant commandments that feature a panoply of heavenly shadows and copies. Though the content of stipulations differs, their form does not, for both new and old covenants employ variously formatted stipulations, including imperatives and conditionals: “If you obey, then I will bless you” or “Do this, and you will live.” (pg. 111)
This passage contains numerous problems. First, it is fully untenable to claim that the new covenant’s stipulations of repentance, faith, new obedience are distinctly different from the old covenant. Paul repeatedly appealed to Abraham as the one who was justified by faith (Gal. 3:6; Rom. 4:1–5), since Abraham was “the man of faith” (Gal. 3:9). Paul also named David as one justified by faith (Rom. 4:6–8). Hebrews 11 names ten examples, including the whole people (v. 29), who followed God by faith. The New Testament is emphatic that faith in Christ is the only way to salvation, which applied equally to old covenant believers. Caneday’s first claim withers under even a brief consideration of Scripture.
Second, Caneday claimed that the stipulations of the old and new covenants were vastly different but then explained both in terms of obedience. Specifically, the new “stipulates obeying Christ Jesus as Lord” and the old “stipulates obeying God’s covenant commandments.” He suggests that the content of the commands have changed from old to new but the primary difference in Caneday’s phrasing seems to be the two objects of obedience: Christ and God. This distinction is massively problematic theologically and biblically. Theologically, to distinguish Christ and God as the object of obedience suggests that they are not both the one God. Perhaps this is a poor choice of phrasing, but one that is potentially redolent of very serious Christological error, if not heresy.
Biblically, Caneday’s distinction crumbles with the consideration of a few passages. Jude 5 says, “Now I want to remind you, although you once fully knew it, that Jesus, who saved a people out of the land of Egypt, afterward destroyed those who did not believe.” Notice that it was Jesus who saved the Israelites out of Egypt. Further, it was Jesus who destroyed the unbelievers among them. So, following Christ as Lord explicitly was a feature of the old covenant. Moreover, in reference to Caneday’s preference for the Scripture’s threats over assurance, Christ did not destroy unfaithful believers but overtly “those who did not believe.” So, his claim that the gospel threatens believers with hell—as he repeats in this context “Hebrews emphatically presents the gospel as threatening us with perdition unless we persevere in loyalty to Christ” (pg. 112)—is undermined. In 1 Corinthians 10:1–6, Paul made the same point about the Israelites in the wilderness that the spiritual Rock that followed them in the wilderness was Christ. In sum, Caneday has proposed that the conditions of the old and new covenants differ mainly in whom the people are to obey and how the old covenant does not have the summons to faith, repentance, and new obedience. Since Caneday himself argued that Christ’s death is the foundation enabling obedience, it seems that the old covenant without Christ as Lord lacks that enabling, leaving the people to earn access to the new creation without even Christ’s death as the foundation. This is a hard covenant.
Certainly, that fits with the third problem in this passage that Caneday says the “do this and live” formula is how believers obtain everlasting life. Paul explicitly rejected this premise. In Galatians 3:11–12, he wrote,
Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith.” But the law is not of faith, rather “The one who does them shall live by them.”
Paul cited Caneday’s exact quotation of Leviticus 18:5 and said that it contrasts with the righteousness had by faith. Clearly, he also said that no one can be justified in that way. Jesus’ citation of this phrase in Luke 10:28 should be read in light of Paul, namely showing that someone who fulfills the law perfectly obtains life, but this contrasts with righteousness by faith. Caneday concluded, “Thus, to claim that the stipulations of the new covenant are different formulations structurally – “Do this because you are blessed” versus “Do this in order to be blessed” is not accurate and does not address the new covenant’s true superiority over the old (Heb. 8:8–12).” (pg. 111–12). Caneday thinks rather that the old and new covenant differ only in the content of the law and in obeying Christ rather than God’s commandments.
In the end, Caneday does promote a salvation by works. He states,
Warnings do not call for retrospective review of faith’s authenticity but for prospective laying hold of the inheritance of salvation in Christ. They warn lest we follow a course that irrevocably leads to perdition. They urgently juxtapose salvation as the assured blessing for heeding the gospel’s warning antithetically to perdition as the unalterable curse for ignoring the gospel’s threat. (pg. 113)
In other words, warnings do not ask us to examine if our faith is genuine, since genuine faith is assumed. Rather, biblical warnings call us to ask if we have been faithful enough to avoid hell. He applies this point to reject the traditional Reformed distinction between antecedent and consequent conditions, which differentiates between something necessary in order to obtain salvation and something necessary because we have been saved (pg. 115–17). Rather, it seems that even if Christ’s death may be a foundation, works are the antecedent conditions, not as evidence of faith, but for believers to warrant everlasting life. Caneday’s attempt to mitigate the moralistic force of these arguments is to assert that the law requires simply heartfelt rather than perfect obedience and that God’s commands are always preceded by grace (pg. 117–22). Still, this differs little from medieval structures of congruent merit that Protestants rejected at the Reformation.
Strikingly, even in his closing reflections, Caneday never unpacks God’s promises and blessings in the gospel but throughout has emphasized really only that he thinks the gospel threatens. It is hard to see what Caneday thinks the gospel is other than a call to obey the law imperfectly so that we might warrant everlasting life. There is no emphasis on trusting Christ. There is a one sentence concession that we can obey only with the Spirit in us (pg. 125). Caneday’s closing words fittingly capture his message:
And so it is that if we obey God’s stipulations proclaimed in and through his new covenant in Christ Jesus, God’s Word assures us that we shall have access to the tree of life in God’s Holy City. But if we do not heed God’s threatening stipulations, we will be cast outside, and our share in the tree of life and in the Holy City will be taken from us. (pg. 126)
Caneday has emphasized the gospel as a threat rather than a promise, noting how works contribute as a condition—essentially and antecedent condition—to entering everlasting life. Based on this essay, his Christ is a hard master whose burden is heavy and his understanding of covenant conditions is a turn away from Protestant soteriology. And before the criticisms come for charity and graciousness, that is the gracious assessment.
It follows that Caneday’s view needs to be considered in regard to the wider project of progressive covenantalism. Caneday’s argument relates to that wider project in respect to the paradigm’s rejection of the distinction between conditional and unconditional covenants. In some ways, this rejection as such is vague in not specifying what sort of conditions are meant. The Reformed are quick to assert that faith is the condition of the covenant of grace (Westminster Confession 7.3). Likewise, everyone agrees that Christ’s atoning death is a condition for believers to receive salvation (Westminster Confession 7.4). So, to reject the idea of an unconditional covenant is not very clear nor controversial. Progressive covenantalism needs to be clear about what sort of conditions it says are bound to the covenants. I raised this issue in my earlier review of Kingdom Through Covenant:
On the other hand, the dismissal of the distinction between conditional and unconditional covenants is more provocative. Even here though, questions remain for those holding traditional covenant theology. What sort of conditions? This has never been specifically defined. The condition of faith, works, or a mix? That answer could make their view very contentious. Further, Reformed theology has long distinguished antecedent and consequent conditions. Which does Wellum have in view?
When adherents to the paradigm reject the distinction between conditional and unconditional covenants because they believe that every covenant arrangement demands perfect obedience, namely a perfectly obedience son, a lack of clarity remains. Is this demand typological, pointing to the need for Christ to provide imputed righteousness for his people’s everlasting life? Or, on the other hand, is this demand real for every individual, requiring that even believers must supply this obedience for themselves? How one answers these questions affects some of the most fundamental aspects of how we explain the gospel.
Although other proponents of progressive covenantalism have said to me that they maintain the law-gospel distinction, which could be consistent with a typological account of each covenant’s demand for perfect obedience, Caneday’s essay explains progressive covenantalism’s understanding of covenantal conditions, not as typology, but as a true collapse of the law-gospel distinction. Caneday’s is perhaps not the progressive covenantalism view, as individual adherents to any paradigm can explain various features in differing ways. Still, it is worrying that a volume attempting to answer follow up questions about the paradigm includes this essay. For progressive covenantalism to have greater prospect to continue dialogue with Reformed theology, they need to propose a differing solution for how to explain the relation of each believer to covenantal conditions.
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1. John Duns Scotus, Ordinatio I.17.1.1–2 in Opera Omnia, 21 vol. (Vatican City: Vatican Press, 1950–2013), 5:202–3; Bonaventure, Breviloquium, 5.2; in A.C. Peltier (ed.), S. R. E Cardinalis S. Bonaventure…Opera Omnia, 15 vol. (Paris: Ludovicus Vivès, 1864–71), 7:297; Christopher M. Cullen, Bonaventure. Great Medieval Thinkers (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 153–64; even St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, trans. by Fathers of the English Dominican Province, 5 vols. (New York, NY: Benziger Bros., 1948; repr. Notre Dame, IN: Christian Classics, 1981), 1a2ae.109.5; 1.12.4; 1.62.1; 1a2ae.91.4.