Reformed Definitions and Progressive Covenantalism

R. Scott Clark and D. G. Hart have been hammering home for years that the term “Reformed” must derive from the confessions of the Reformed churches. This matters because if the definition of Reformed becomes muddied, then those in the “old” Reformed world are less likely to appropriately scrutinize those who in the “new” who apply the label to themselves.

I was thinking about this definitional struggle when I read this article by Stephen Wellum, professor at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, “3 Reasons Sunday Is Not the Christian Sabbath.” Wellum is a proponent of “progressive covenantalism” and “new covenant theology”, a hermeneutic on which he recently wrote a large book. Progressive covenantalism essentially divides the administration of God’s mercy into two eras: old covenant and new covenant, the old covenant encompassing the entirety of the Old Testament. The old covenant prefigures and anticipates the new, and never shall the twain meet. In contrast, Reformed, covenant theology holds that God’s covenant of grace is one throughout postlapsarian history, only administered differently in different eras.

Wellum’s article underscores this difference significantly: He rejects that the Sabbath is a creation ordinance, holds that the Mosaic administration of the Sabbath is a uniquely old covenant relic, and that Christ’s fulfillment of the Sabbath means that requirements of its observance are now abolished. All of these things are contrary to the Reformed confessions, the divergence springing from the difference in hermeneutics. What is notable is not that a Baptist is making the case for a non-Reformed understanding of the Sabbath, but that recently the president of Indianapolis Theological Seminary, which employs Wellum as an adjunct professor to teach hermeneutics, insisted to me that he is “basically” a covenant theologian and is soundly Reformed. This is an example of definitional slippage, and why “Reformed” ought to mean “confessional.” Otherwise you end up thinking that you are being educated in Reformed hermeneutics, only to discover later that in reality you were trained in a different traditions masquerading as your own.