Getting the Garden Wrong (2): The Word-Concept Fallacy

Getting the Garden Wrong

A Scriptural Critique of

“Getting the Garden Right,” by Richard C. Barcellos

and Other Garden Covenant Arguments

by Chris Fales of  “Conversations From the Porch” Podcast

Part one of this blog series – HERE

Abbreviations used in this article:

NCT – New Covenant Theology/Theologians

CT – Covenant Theology

OT – Old Testament

NT – New Testament

GC – Garden Covenant

I. Pulling the Wild Weeds in the Garden

My intention in this section is to pull some of the planted weeds from the Garden story that do not truly have a place there. Once we have removed the weeds we will be able to properly see the Garden in all of its simplicity and beauty.

A. The Word-Concept Fallacy Fallaciously Applied

Let me be clear from the outset that NCT affirms progressive revelation and agrees with most, if not all, of Richard Barcellos’s chapter on biblical hermeneutics in his Getting the Garden Right. The problem is that we believe Barcellos does not himself stick to that hermeneutic and goes beyond the bounds of Scripture to add in a garden covenant, in concept and label of which the Bible does not speak. He and other Covenant theologians do this by imposing a confessional theological template onto the text which causes an unnecessarily strained interpretation of the Scriptures.

In his book, one of Barcellos’s first arguments against NCT and Garden Covenant deniers is to pin on them the accusation of being guilty of the “word-concept fallacy” (an all too common and misplaced accusation, though). He defines the fallacy like this: it “asserts that if a word is not present, then the concept it embodies is not present.” More specifically, we are accused of not accepting the term “Adamic Covenant,” “Garden Covenant,” or just a “covenant” in regards to the God/man relationship in Eden because the word “covenant” is not used in the text of Gen. 1-3 (1). But that is simply not the full truth. More importantly, we reject a “covenant” in the Garden not just because the word is not there, but the concept is absent as well. Neither word nor concept are present, not only in Gen. 1-3, but in all of the Scriptures (2).  It’s non-existent and we think it best not to play make-believe and give an imagined concept a name or status of “covenant.”

Words are important, especially when they are the words of God. I am surprised that Covenant theologians, who share NCT’s understanding of the vital role of covenants in the story of redemption, would be so apt to label something in the Bible a “covenant” when God has not. Where God has clearly labeled a biblical concept already, we must be very careful not to use that label on a concept where God has not chosen to do so. Such action can lead to confusion at best and at worst, false doctrine.

Barcellos quotes and criticizes Blake White, an NCT author, for stating that “NCT strives to limit itself to using the language of the Bible.” But Barcellos fails to give the context and reason White states for this desire to adhere to biblical terminology when handling the Bible. In the paragraph preceding the sentence quoted, White says,

“The danger with using a theological category that is not found in Scripture is that we may eventually be compelled to distort the Scriptures themselves in order to accommodate it. A person can unintentionally end up twisting the Bible to make it say what fits with their system rather than letting the Bible inform and set the agenda for their system. In my opinion, this is exactly what the ‘covenant of grace’ does.” (3)

Barcellos and all others who hold to the theological system known as 1689 Federalism (4) have fallen into the very pit that White warned about. They use the theological term “Covenant of Grace” to mean the “New Covenant” (the biblical term) instead of referring to it by it’s God- given name. In doing so they use the same theological term to describe that particular covenant as do the Westminster CT brothers when referring to an overarching covenant that was inaugurated at the fall of Adam, had many administrations under Abraham, Moses, etc, and found it’s final stage in Christ’s New Covenant (5).  So, both the 1689 Federalist and the Westminster CT use the same theological term, “Covenant of Grace,” but mean dramatically different things. Because I know that Barcellos and 1689 Federalism have a desire to be faithful to the Word of God, I would encourage them to cut out the confusion and consider taking up what was criticized in several portions of his book. Simply use biblical terminology for a biblical concept and refer to the covenant as the Bible does, the “New Covenant.”

Further, Barcellos attempts to make the claim that NT writers themselves used labels for things referred to in the OT that were not labeled as such in the OT text as support for modern theologians’ license for doing the same (6). The problem we have here is that the NT authors were not writing of their own accord. They were not uninspired theologians seeking to make systematic categorization of the Scriptures. The human authors of both the NT and OT were inspired by the same God and writing his very words. And having read Barcellos’s section in his book on biblical hermeneutics, I am sure he is more than aware of this since he drives home so well that Scripture interprets Scripture, this being comprehensively the work of the Holy Spirit. It is not our job or place to go back after the Holy Spirit and attempt to label things with biblical terms that he has not chosen to label as such. God was not negligent in his wording of his revelation to us and nor should we be. Because we agree that covenants form an essential backbone in the progressive revelation of redemptive history, and because we see where God has clearly established covenants as such (for example, in the Abrahamic and Noahic Covenants), we should be extremely cautious not to impose such a concept where God has not defined it explicitly, either in the Old Testament or later, in the New.

There can indeed be times in the Scriptures where a concept is given and a label not ascribed to it at the time of writing but later labeled by another biblical author. The Davidic Covenant is an example of this. In 2 Samuel 7 and 1 Chronicles 17 we find “no explicit mention . . . Of a sworn promise or oath, arguably the key defining characteristic of any biblical covenant”(7) nor the use of the term “covenant.” However, other texts of Scripture inform us that the word Nathan delivered to David was to indeed be understood as a covenant. The Psalmist under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit reveals this to us plainly when he declares:

“The LORD swore an oath to David, a promise he will not abandon: ‘I will set one of your offspring on your throne. If your sons keep my covenant and my decrees that I will teach them, their sons will also sit on your throne forever.’” (Psalm 132:11-12. See also: 2 Sam. 23:5; 1 kings 23-24; 2 Chr. 7:18; 13:5; Jer. 33:21; Ps 89:3, 28, 34, 39; Isa. 55:3)

This is a clear case of Scripture interpreting Scripture and of progressive revelation. Details that were not given to us in 2 Samuel 7 and 1 Chronicles 17 are given to us in later portions of Scripture. I would submit that NCT does not have a relationship with the infamous “word- concept” fallacy. Rather, we simply believe that the Davidic Covenant is a clear example of a covenant made at one time in Scripture, where it is not labeled as such and lacking covenantal elements, whereas later it is clearly demonstrated to be a covenant by label and concept/elements in another portion of Scripture. By contrast, we do not believe this can be said of the hypothetical Garden Covenant.

Is there a place for theological terms? Yes, indeed there is! Let’s look at the “Trinity argument” to understand this better. Often when an NCT or GC denier states that we prefer to stick to the plain language of the Bible and use biblical terms for biblical concepts, we are then asked, “So, you don’t believe in the Trinity?” However, what they have failed to see is that while we do indeed prefer to use biblical terms for biblicalconcepts we have no problem using theological terms for biblical theological concepts when the Bible does not ascribe a term to that biblical concept. “Trinity” is a theological term for a biblical concept manifestly seen in the Scriptures. Can we point to clear texts that display for us what we mean when we say “Trinity”? Yes, multitudes, but let’s just use one as an example. At the baptism of Jesus, God the Son is physically present, God the Father spoke from heaven, and God the Spirit alights on the Son. We have all three members of the Godhead clearly present. Certainly from this text we can see the three members of the Godhead as individual persons distinctly. However, we look to other texts to tell us more about the relationship and being of the “Three-in-One God.” Is there a biblical term given for this concept?  No.  And in cases like this I believe we can use theological terms.

Let’s go back to that example of the New Covenant. Is there a biblical term for it? Yes. Then there is no need to use a theological term for a concept for which the Bible itself has already ascribe a term. Hence, there is no need to call it the Covenant of Grace and add confusion, and possibly biblical distortion. With all theological terms we must be ready to define that term with clear Scriptural proofs. We should always strive to be more biblical with our theology and this includes being biblical with terminology when able. Words are important because they have meanings. When I say “New Covenant,” the Bible defines the meaning of that term for us very well. When I say “Covenant of Grace” you will have to resort to a theological dictionary or systematic to find out the meaning. And depending on if you’re reading a Westminster CT systematic or a 1689 Federalist systematic, you’re going to get different answers.

Barcellos makes the claim that NCT/GC deniers are guilty of the “word-concept fallacy” and faults us for the desire to use biblical terms for biblical concepts when the Bible provides them and using those terms exclusively for their biblically-defined concept. While I agree with the latter portion of the accusation, I believe the indictment of the “word-concept fallacy” to be fallacious. We reject the GC not simply because the term “covenant” is never applied anywhere in Gen. 1-3 to the pre-Fall relationship between God and Adam, but we also believe the concept of such a GC is lacking in the entirety of the biblical record as well.

Admittedly, everything I have said in this article would be proven false if a biblical text could be produced to support an Adamic Covenant. And Barcellos (along with all who hold to a GC) believes he has a verse that should prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that there was indeed a Garden Covenant.

The next weed to be pulled from the Garden: Hosea’s “Adamic Covenant.”

1  Actually, we don’t see the word “covenant” used until Gen. 6

2  We will discuss the one “explicit” Adamic Covenant proof text, Hosea 6:7, in a future post.

3  A. Blake White, What is New Covenant Theology? (Fredrick, MD: New Covenant Media, 2012), 6.

4  A recently rediscovered system that claims to have uncovered the true way to understand the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith, as opposed to those Reformed Baptists designated as 20th Century Reformed Baptists (whose Covenant Theology has more in common with Westminster CT). To be honest, 1689 Federalism has much more in common with NCT than differences.

5  It is from this theological concept, the Covenant of Grace, that other doctrines arise, such as infant baptism, unregenerate members of the NC, etc., that Barcellos would also reject.

6 Barcellos, 36, 54. Here Barcellos shows Paul using biblical terms to label biblical concepts under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, nothing more and nothing less. This is something NCT affirms.

7 Paul R. Williamson, Sealed with an Oath, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2007), 120.

 

Personal note of thanks to Angela Hogan for helping me with my editing errors.

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