From the perspective of Covenant Theology (CT), the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit including all the unique ministries He executes on behalf of new covenant believers was a very nice, yet non-essential addition to an already-functioning old covenant church. That line is not intended to be incendiary, yet it must follow from two theological premises that CT holds dear.
As a disclaimer, theological language must be chosen here with care and I welcome others to sharpen my chosen words in this discussion. Yet even amidst the mine field of tricky terms like people of God, church, change, new [covenant], fulfill, complete, replace, etc. there still lies certain differences and similarities between the realities displayed in the first 39 books and those of the latter 27. But if we emphasize difference, or discontinuity, then we are within the purview of one general system; if we opt for continuity as a guiding motif, then we have landed on the other side of the continental divide ultimately to be shed into distinct theological oceans.
Previously, I introduced this issue as one of CT’s inconsistencies, and in the future, a few more installments will follow (DV) treating other concerns in this category. But immediately, the significance of Pentecost carries serious ramifications for the question of unity of the covenants. The line of thought in this article will deal with the nature of the church in the OT, the arrival of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, and a conclusion that logical consistency requires of these two premises.
Premise 1: The church began in the Old Testament.
According to CT the church must have existed in the OT because of the overall unity of God’s plan expressed as a single people throughout redemptive history. So then, Abraham was most certainly a Christian since the gospel was preached to him (Gal. 3:8). But why stop with Father Abraham? What about Noah, Seth, and Adam? They were all in the covenant as well since they found favor in the eyes of the Lord (Gen. 6:8). If they were in the covenant, then they were members of God’s people. If they were God’s people, then they were church members albeit under a slightly different “administration of the covenant.”
If the church is an entirely new entity in the NT, then CT has lost its most critical distinctive: the unity of the covenant of grace and the singularity of the people of God throughout redemptive history. However, there are ample references to demonstrate that, in fact, theologians of this persuasion do see the church as an OT body. It would surprise me if anyone denied this premise, but if it was doubted, it would not be hard to supply quotations from numerous theologians with impeccable credentials affirming that historically CT has held to an organically unified church finding its genesis in Genesis.
Premise 2: Pentecost represents a vital change.
I will be surprised if anyone questions the first proposition, but also if they denied the second. After the ascension, Christ sent His Spirit to animate the church and permanently dwell within believers in a unique way. The uniqueness of this ministry was owing to the Spirit’s universal coming to all believers, His permanent residency with each of Christ’s sheep, His special gifts of virtue and miracles, and the overwhelming nature of His presence resulting in unprecedented church growth. Furthermore, He testifies to the risen Christ (John 16:13-14) in a way that He previously had not done. The content of His ministry and its goals were thus distinct from a more general God-centered ministry under the OT.
In each of these five areas, the Holy Spirit was given at Pentecost in an essentially different role from that which He had ever occupied in the history of redemption to that point. In other words, the narrative of Acts 2 reveals an essential change in the manner with which God was dealing with those who were in covenant with Him.
To change something essentially is to change it in its foundational attribute. That which is the essence of an idea is the idea in its most basic form. Yet, it is precisely the most basic, foundational, vital attribute of God’s new covenant people that they are all permanently indwelt by His Spirit and specially taught by Him to love the second person of the Godhead. Is this not what it means to enjoy union with Christ? Union with Christ may be helpfully described in other ways, but those descriptions must amount to the same meaning as that which has been presented above.
Whatever the Holy Spirit was doing in the OT, it had to be different from the NT because that is the point of Pentecost: a new era of the Spirit’s ministry began.
Conclusion: Those two premises cannot both be consistently maintained.
If the church began in the OT, then Pentecost had to be something other than essential to its makeup. If it could exist and even thrive (at times) for millennia without the graces ministered so efficiently by the Holy Spirit, then Pentecost was something other than vital. Or, to come in the back door, if the Holy Spirit’s special coming was absolutely critical for the people of God and their union with Christ, then average believers under the old “administration” (we daren’t say dispensation) were lacking something critical for their religion.
Apparently, Pentecost was not the drive train, transmission, engine, or even fuel pump of the vehicle, but something like the air conditioner, a nice, added benefit that really increases the value while not substantially differing from other automobiles in the industry.
If this argument is air-tight, then the classic Covenantal position does not honor the Holy Spirit’s present ministry among the people of God, or if they do, they do so in the face of a necessary contradiction, borrowing capital from another theological system in order to support a high regard for Pentecost and its ongoing effects. CT in debt to dispensationalism? Now, that’s an amusing piece of irony.