Are Adventists Old-Covenant Christians? (part 2)

As mentioned in the last post, Adventism’s understanding of the covenants is not well known either to us, our inquirers or our critics. Some critics even go as far as to suggest that Adventism’s covenant progression is an unheard-of new heresy. Part of the difficulty in responding to these charges is that, while Adventists have historically written on Scripture’s covenant thought, it has tended to be rare. To make matters worse, the few available resources tend to be from an isolationist perspective (from Adventist to Adventist) that does not help a seeker determine where Adventism sits in the continuum of Protestant covenantal thought.

Covenant with the Lord

Image © Lars Justinen from GoodSalt.com

Identifying where Adventism falls in this continuum will be helpful in a number of ways. First, it will enable students of Adventism to see how Adventist covenantal thought fits into the broader historical picture. Second, it will help students identify points of agreement between Adventist theology and other denominations. Third, it will enable us to identify what unique contributions we bring to the table. Fourth, it will enable us to communicate our story in a language that can be understood by other Protestant traditions. And fifth, it will conclusively refute the charge that Adventist covenant thought is both “old-covenant” and an “unheard-of” heresy.

The chart below outlines the major systems of covenantal thought in Protestant Christianity. For the sake of simplicity, I have split the systems into two different categories. As will be demonstrated, the views under the first category embrace the perpetuity of the Law and the Sabbath. This alone shows that Adventists are not the only ones to believe in and uphold these truths, and it severely mitigates against the charge that Adventism is an old-covenant faith. (If this were true we would have to label the vast majority of reformed tradition the same way which is clearly problematic.) The views under the second category reject this perpetuity. As our exploration evolves, this distinction will make more sense.

Category A Category B

Covenantalism

1) Westminster Confession

2) 2nd London Baptist Confession

(Embrace Perpetuity of Law and Sabbath)

Alternate views to Covenantalism

1) Dispensationalism

2) New Covenant Theology

(Reject Perpetuity of Law and Sabbath)

Category A: “Covenantalism”

We begin our exploration of the continuum of Protestant covenantal thought with Covenantalism. Covenantalism is by far the oldest system of covenant thought within Protestantism1. It affirms sola scriptura, the interpretive priority of the NT over the OT (ie. the OT can only be properly interpreted via the NT), Trinitarian doctrine, holds to all the principles of the Protestant Reformation2 and holds to a Calvinist understanding of salvation3. It also contends that the imparted and imputed righteousness of Christ are essential elements of the gospel and that good works are the natural outflow of genuine faith. From there this theological system takes two routes. The first is the view defined by the Westminster Confession (A.D. 1647-49). The second view is defined in the Second London Baptist Confession (A.D. 1689). Below is a brief overview of both.

Westminster Confession 

Salvation

According to the Westminster Confession 4 salvation depends entirely on the sovereignty of God, who in time eternal predestined who would be saved and who would be lost. Thus, at no point in human history has anyone been saved outside of this eternal decree. This includes even those under the Mosaic covenant who were saved, not by works, but only by being predestined to salvation. Due to man’s total depravity in sin, salvation by works has never nor could ever be even remotely possible. This view is essentially a Reformed/ Calvinist understanding of salvation.

Covenant Story

From there the Westminster Confession introduces us to three overarching covenants in all of Scripture. The first is the Covenant of Redemption in which God predestined His elect to salvation before the creation of the world. The second is the Covenant of Works which teaches that man, in an unfallen state (Adam and Eve) were to maintain their relationship with God by obedience to His commands. The third is the Covenant of Grace. According to this view, once man fell into sin, he could only be saved by grace and thus, as soon as the fall took place, there was grace. Every covenant that appears in the OT (Noahic, Abrahamic, Mosaic, Davidic) are all administrations of the Covenant of Grace. Therefore, the Westminster Confession sees all of the OT covenants as the same as the New Covenant, only dressed in ceremonies. By adhering to the ceremonies, the OT saints could be brought into contact with grace and thus a saving relationship with God.

Covenant Continuity/ Discontinuity

Consequently, the Westminster Confession teaches that there are aspects of the OT covenants that are still in effect. The first is the Abrahamic Covenant of circumcision. While the Westminster Confession agrees that circumcision was done away with, they hold that its blessing upon the entire family – including children – remains. Therefore, baptism – the New Covenant circumcision – is also for children. In the same way that children were included in the covenant promises of the Abrahamic Covenant, so they are included in the New Covenant promises via baptism. This view of infant baptism affirms the baptism of infants and children as a continuing reality from the Abrahamic Covenant into the New Covenant. Recall that, in this view, none of the Old Testament Covenants are isolated. They are all administrations of the overarching Covenant of Grace. Therefore we can expect continuity and discontinuity from them.

Another aspect of this is seen in the way in which Covenantalism interprets the Mosaic Covenant. According to the Westminster Confession, the Mosaic Covenant law is divided into three parts. This three part division is proposed to be 1) The moral law, 2) The ceremonial laws, and 3) The civil laws. Because Israel is no longer in covenant with God as a nation (more on this later), its civil laws are abrogated. In addition, the death of Jesus fulfilled the ceremonial laws, all of which pointed to Him as the Savior. However, according to the Westminster Confession, the moral law remains as a perpetual law that cannot be abrogated. This includes all of the Ten Commandments including the Sabbath, which the Westminster Confession identifies with the first day of the week, Sunday. The system goes a step further by affirming that all OT commands are still relevant unless canceled by the NT and identifies the law of Christ as none other than the Ten Commandments.

Those familiar with Seventh-day Adventist theology will see an immediate similarity between this view and the Adventist view, thus demonstrating both harmony with Protestant covenantal thought and mitigating against the idea that the perpetuity of God’s law – including the Sabbath – is somehow legalistic, “un-Protestant,” or a concept present only in Adventist theology. While there are more similarities (and of course differences) these will be explored in part 3. For now, we continue with our exploration.

Israel/ Church Relationship

According to the Westminster Confession the church has always existed. Therefore, the OT version of the church was Israel and the NT version is the church Christ’s apostles established. The Church is, therefore, Israel and always has been. However, national Israel has also met its end as a “people of God” and the Church has effectively continued in its place. As a result, national Israel plays no specific role in end-time events.

Eschatology

Classical proponents of the Westminster Confession were Historicists in their understanding of Bible prophecy. They held to a visible return of Jesus and saw the fulfillment of the Antichrist as the office of the papacy. This system also rejects the end-time scenario of the secret rapture and holds to eternal hell for the reprobate and eternal heaven for the elect. Modern proponents of the Westminster Confession agree with all of these views with exception of the papacy as Antichrist due to abandoning Historicism as a method of interpreting prophecy.

Other Elements 

In closing, here are some brief mentions of other elements inherent to the Westminster Confession. 1) Sign of the New Covenant is baptism. 2) Sprinkling is an acceptable method of baptism. 3) Cessation of spiritual gifts. 4) Church and state are united (state enforces correct theology). 5) Lord’s Supper is an act of remembrance and communion with God.

Second London Baptist Confession 

Salvation 

In keeping with its predecessor, the Westminster Confession, the Second London Baptist Confession 5 also holds to a Reformed/ Calvinist view of salvation.

Covenant Narrative

The Second London Baptist Confession teaches the three overarching covenants of Redemption, Works, and Grace. It also affirms that once man fell into sin, salvation could only ever come by grace and never by works. Thus, Genesis 3:15 introduces the Covenant of Grace which becomes ratified in the New Covenant through Jesus’ death. It also affirms that the OT covenants were means by which God communicated his grace in the OT. However, it differs from the Westminster Confession in that it does not see the OT covenants as iterations of Covenant of Grace “dressed in ceremonies” but as separate and temporary covenants whose only purpose was to progressively reveal the plan of salvation until that plan would be actuated with the death of Jesus. So while the OT covenants pointed the practitioners to, and advanced the Covenant of Grace, they were not the same as the Covenant of Grace. This means that, for the Second London Baptist Confession, none of the OT saints were reconciled to God via the OT covenants. Rather, they were saved in anticipation of the death of Jesus.

Covenant Continuity/ Discontinuity

Because of this, the Second London Baptist Confession teaches that the OT covenants are no longer in effect. Consequently, it rejects infant baptism and instead holds to believers’ baptism which teaches that baptism is only for mature believers who have made an informed decision to follow Christ. While children may have been included in the rite of circumcision, due to the Abrahamic covenant being done away with, we cannot carry this practice into the New Covenant rite of baptism. In short, because the OT covenants were temporary covenants, we are not to expect continuity from them into the New Covenant.

This covenant abrogation view also impacts how the Second London Baptist Confession views the civil, ceremonial, and moral laws of the Mosaic covenant. According to this system even the moral has been abrogated. In other words, the whole law of Moses, as it related to the Old Covenant, has been done away with. However, (and here is a big “however”) this does not mean that the Second London rejects the Ten Commandments. According to this system the Ten commandments are above the covenants because the Law existed prior to them. As a result, while New Covenant believers are not under the Ten Commandments to obey them and relate to them  in the same manner as those under the Mosaic Covenant did, they are still subject to them because they came before the Mosaic Covenant6. As a result, the Second London Confession continues to affirm the Ten Commandments as perpetually binding. This includes the Sabbath which they identify with the resurrection of Jesus on Sunday.

Israel/ Church Relationship

The Second London Baptist Confession affirms that the church was typified by Israel but disagrees with the Westminster Confession in rejecting the notion that they are the same thing. Nevertheless, the Second London Confession agrees that national Israel plays no specific role in end-time events.

Eschatology 

Classical proponents of the Second London Baptist Confession were also Historicists in their understanding of Bible prophecy. They held to a visible return of Jesus and saw the fulfillment of the Antichrist as the office of the papacy. The Second London Confession also rejects the secret rapture and holds to eternal hell for the reprobate and heaven for the elect. Modern proponents of the Second London agree with all of these views with exception to the papacy as Antichrist due to abandoning Historicism as a method of interpreting Bible prophecy.

Other Elements: 

In closing, here are some brief mentions of other elements inherent to the 2nd London Baptist Confession: 1) Sign of the New Covenant is baptism. 2) Immersion is the only acceptable method of baptism. 3) Cessation of spiritual gifts. 4) Separation of church and state. 5) Lord’s Supper is an act of remembrance and communion with God.

Conclusion

As can be clearly seen, there are a considerable number of similarities between Adventist theology and the Protestant covenantal traditions of the Westminster Confession and the Second London Baptist Confession. These similarities will be explored in much more detail in part 4. For now, we can easily identify the Second London Confession as being the Protestant covenant tradition that most closely aligns with Seventh-day Adventism. Our covenant narratives are, by and large, identical, including our views on the Sabbath, the perpetuity of the law of God, the overarching covenants and the Law’s transcendence over the covenants.

While historic Protestants vehemently opposed the seventh-day Sabbath, the theological arguments they use as the foundation for Sunday Sabbatarianism are identical to those used for the seventh day. As a result, many modern-day Protestants no longer consider it problematic to honor the seventh day, even if they don’t personally subscribe to it. After all, the covenant theology they use to defend Sunday Sabbatarianism is identical to the theology used by those who espouse the seventh-day Sabbath (such as the Seventh Day Baptists and Seventh-day Adventist church). As a result, those who accuse the Adventist church of being “Old-Covenant” for honoring the Sabbath unwittingly accuse the vast majority of the Protestant Reformation – the movement which restored the gospel of the New Covenant after decades of papal legalism – as “Old-Covenant” as well. In short, Adventism is no more “Old Covenant” than are the historic Protestant Reformers who also believed in the perpetuity of the Law and Sabbath – positions which are still advocated in contemporary Protestant theology.

In the next post we will turn our attention to Category B and explore the two major covenant systems that present alternate views to those espoused by Covenantalism and which differ quite largely from Adventism. We will then turn our attention entirely to Adventism in part 4 and explore its theology under the framework of covenant theology.


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Source: Daily Sabbath School Lessons