The Suspended Reformation

The Suspended Reformation

The Reformation of the Sixteenth Century was a wonderful work of God.  Little by little, dogma by dogma, the Reformers cast off the chains of medieval Romanism.  It took time.  It did not happen overnight.  There were differences and disagreements among the reformers.  But gradually they rejected such errors as the infallibility of the pope, transubstantiation, prayers to saints, the sale of indulgences, the worship of the Virgin Mary, and so forth.

But then the Reformation ground to a halt in some respects.  There were some Roman errors they were reluctant to abandon.  The leading Reformers brought some baggage with them when they left Rome.  This was partly due to ingrained habit, partly caused by fear, but also partly caused by the wild blunders of reforming extremists.

All down the running centuries there had been individuals and groups who had protested against doctrinal errors and unbiblical behaviour.  Usually such attempts at reform had been suppressed, often with extreme ferocity and cruelty.  The Reformation period was no different in that respect.

In the sixteenth century there were many groups who protested against the errors of the medieval church.  Unfortunately they have often erroneously been lumped together under the opprobrious name, “Anabaptists” because they nearly all recognized that infant baptism was an egregious error and sought to restore the biblical practice of the baptism of believers only.  But these groups differed widely among themselves.  They should never be linked together.

There were at least four distinct groups.  There were the ‘Inspirationists’ who, like some modern charismatics, believed in the direct inspiration of the Holy Spirit for their doctrine and practice.  Then there were the ‘Rationalists’, who held to the supremacy of the human intellect and were the equivalent of modernists and liberal theologians of recent years.  Worst of all were the ‘Revolutionaries’.  These not only fell into many doctrinal and moral errors but also attempted to set up the Kingdom of God by force.  Notable among these latter sectarians was a group located at a town called Munster.  So bad were they that both Roman and Reformed forces attacked them.  Up until this point Martin Luther had been attracted to the truth of believer’s baptism, but the tragedy of the Anabaptist Munsterites so horrified him that he rejected believer’s baptism as associated with extreme error.

There were, however, a group of well-educated and sincere men, some of them priests, who sought to be biblical, balanced and godly.  These gathered around the Swiss priest and reformer, Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531).  One by one they rejected Roman errors and eventually came to baptism.  Zwingli himself came to a position where he realized that infant baptism was wrong, and that believer’s baptism was the correct form according to the New Testament.  He actually wrote, “Nothing grieves me more than that at present I have to baptize children, for I know it ought not to be done.”  However, he was cautious, while the group he led wanted to push ahead.

It is important to remember that all the countries dominated by the pope were “sacral societies.”  That is, church and state were united.  Everyone living in a “Christian” country was expected to conform to the religion of that country.  Israel had been a sacral society of course.  Now the group around Zwingli came to see that union of church and state was unbiblical.  They wanted to separate the church from the domination of the state.  This alarmed Zwingli, who was afraid that if they pushed ahead with this reform it might de-rail the whole Reformation.  Furthermore it was dangerous; as such ideas might be regarded as treason.   Zwingli debated the issue of baptism with his group and at the end of the debate the city council ruled in favour of infant baptism, which conclusion Zwingli, holding to the idea of a sacral society, dutifully accepted.  So he withdrew from the truth of believer’s baptism and cast around for a basis for infant baptism.  He knew that there was no New Testament basis for it, but he hit on the idea of a covenant basis for it.  His idea was that there was one over-arching covenant in the Bible, so just as babies had been circumcised in the Old Covenant, they could be baptized in the New Covenant.  The idea of a parallel between circumcision and baptism had been mooted before, but never on a covenantal basis.  So Covenant Theology was born in order to defend infant baptism.  It was taken up by Bullinger, Zwingli’s successor, and then John Calvin and other reformers took up the idea.  Zwingli’s group, however, went ahead with believer’s baptism and suffered as a result.  At least one was martyred, others were exiled.

So in the teaching of many of the Reformers, infant baptism and the idea of a sacral society lived on.  In that sense, the Reformation was suspended.  The errors of a sacral society and infant baptism have persisted to this day in State Churches, such as the Church of England.

However, there are many believers today, particularly among Baptists and similar denominations, who are awakening to the need to continue the work of Reformation.  They have realised that Covenant Theology, infant baptism and the sacral society are wrong.  They have begun to emphasise the New Covenant.  The main thrust is that the teaching of Christ and his apostles should be accepted and followed, not the half-hearted reformation which partly clings to the Old Covenant with Israel and is expressed in Covenant Theology.  This emphasis, though centuries old, has been called in the last few years, “New Covenant Theology.”  I am not at all sure that giving it that title, though accurate in its meaning, has been entirely helpful.  Let me illustrate that from more recent history.

In the 1970s and 1980s there was a movement in the USA known as the “Shepherding Movement.”  It was led by five outstanding men known as the “Fort Lauderdale Five” since that is where for a time they were located.  They deliberately resisted forming their adherents into a new denomination.  But in a recorded interview, Ern Baxter, one of the five, recalls that ‘some of the denominational people came to us and said, “Look if only you were a denomination then we could attack you – the proper way”.[1]   It seems that being united under a label made them liable to attack.  On one occasion I was preaching in Northern Ireland and in all innocence I mentioned that the word ‘pastor’ in Ephesians 4:11 was the same word translated ‘shepherd’ elsewhere.  Afterwards a leader came to me and said, “Very controversial, very controversial.”  I asked him what was controversial and he told me that I had mentioned the word “shepherd.”  The head of a Christian organization to which he belonged had sent down a fiat that on no account were they to allow the shepherding movement to be mentioned!

More recently a number of widely differing Calvinist ministers have been saddled with the label “The New Calvinists” and have been severely criticised in two books.  Some of them deserve the criticisms, but others are merely counted as guilty because they have appeared on the same platform as some of the more worldly men.

Just so with the men who have accepted certain biblical positions as taught in the New Testament and held by many for centuries.  Since they have now come under the title “New Covenant Theology” they have become vulnerable to attack, often by people quite ignorant of what they believe.  The critics simply do not understand that what is now labelled “New Covenant Theology” is actually simply the teaching of the New Testament.  Some Baptists do not realize that by clinging to the coat tails of the men who framed the Westminster Confession of Faith they have been unwittingly pulled from the path of Reformation.

New Covenant theologians simply hold that the Reformation, which was halted or suspended by such men as Luther, Calvin and Zwingli, should now be continued.  Semper reformanda!

But what is this teaching that some fear and attack so unnecessarily?  Here are some of the main points.

  1. There is no single over-arching covenant in the Bible (though there is one purpose of grace).  Each covenant God made with men is distinct from the others.  Each has a distinct sign and a specific purpose.
    1. The covenant made with Noah  (Gen. 9:8-17).  This covenant was God’s promise that He would never again flood the earth.  The sign was the rainbow, obviously related to the purpose and context of that particular covenant.
    2. The covenant with Abraham (Genesis 15; 17:10, 11, cf. Acts 7:8).  The promise was that Abraham would inherit the land (Ex. 6:4) and have a multitude of descendants.  The sign was circumcision, obviously related to Abraham having many descendants.
    3. The covenant with Israel ( Ex. 19:5; 24:7, 8; 34:10, 27, 28).  The condition was obedience, the sign was the Sabbath (Ex. 31:13, 16, 17; Ezek. 20:12, 20), which would distinguish Israel from all other nations.
    4. The New Covenant, which was prophesied by Jeremiah (Jer. 31:31-34) and proclaimed by Christ (Luke 22:19, 20).  This covenant is made with all who are chosen in Christ and born of His Spirit.  The sign is the cup representing Christ’s shed blood, the blood of the new covenant.  This is the covenant all born again believers, the elect of God, participate in.

It is very important to notice how specifically God’s Word stresses the distinction between the covenants.   The Covenant made at Sinai and the New Covenant are the two major covenants dealt with in Scripture.   They are referred to as the first and second covenant in Hebrews.   In Deuteronomy 5:1-3 Moses states: “The Lord our God made a covenant with us in Horeb.  The Lord did not make this covenant with our fathers, but with us, those who are here today, all of us who are alive.”  In Jeremiah 31:31-34 the Lord says “I will make a new covenant… not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt…”  The Lord Jesus Christ announced this new covenant (Luke 22:19, 20; I Cor. 11:25) and the Epistle to the Hebrews makes it crystal clear that the old covenant was passing away.  The New Covenant is better (Heb. 7:22; 8:6).  The first covenant was faulty (Heb. 8:7), and in Hebrews 8:13 we are told that the first covenant was obsolete, growing old, and ready to vanish away.

In order to bolster up this idea of one over-arching covenant, theologians have coined certain phrases which are then imposed on the Scripture.  It is important to remember that these phrases are not found in the Bible; they are theological contructs imposed upon Scripture.  These are such phrases as ‘the covenant of works’ and ‘the covenant of grace.’  Another error is to refer to Genesis 3:15 as a ‘covenant promise.’  Certainly that verse is the first intimation that Christ would conquer Satan, and has been recognized as such down the centuries.  But it is not a promise, it is a prediction.  It was made not to Adam but to Satan.  The context is not covenant but curse.  Covenant is nowhere mentioned in that whole context.  Those who believe in one covenant become so obsessed with the idea that they read it into passages where it is not found at all.  Here is an example from a commentary on Esther.  It speaks of Mordecai’s instruction of Esther.  Commenting on the book of Esther the author writes “[I]t is a story of a teacher of grace who confronted his student with the crown rights of Jehovah and with the covenant of grace to redeem his people… He taught the content of the covenant in the context of covenant love… he reminded her of her identity as a child of the covenant.” [2]  It need hardly be remarked, to those who have read the Book of Esther, that the very word ‘covenant’ does not occur in the book.  In fact even God is not mentioned!

One final comment: the division of the Old Testament Law into civil, ceremonial and moral, has no foundation in Scripture.  This division was first suggested by the medieval Roman Catholic Theologian, Thomas Aquinas, taken up by John Calvin, and has been assumed by successive Bible students ever since.  But it is not a biblical division.  Jewish Rabbis do not accept such an artificial division.   There are moral laws outside the Ten Commandments within the Old Testament, and plenty within the New Testament. More about law some other time.


[1]  Life on Wings: transcript of a series of interviews with Ern Baxter, p. 85.

[2]  Heirs of the Covenant by Susan Hunt, Crossway Books, pp. 218-222.


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