Caterpillars and Butterflies: A Review of New Covenant Theology

The following is a review written almost 10 years ago on a topic still relevant today.

Caterpillars and Butterflies:A Review of New Covenant Theology

By Tom Wells and Fred Zaspel(FrederickMD: New Covenant Media, 2002)

By James M. Renihan

Several years ago, Richard Barcellos published the helpful monograph In Defense of the Decalogue, the first book-length discussion of theological issues related to the development of a movement that has come to be known by the title New Covenant Theology (NCT). Emerging in the late 1970s, NCT has had a somewhat amorphous quality, as its adherents have not yet expressed settled and unified convictions on many positions.  In general terms, it has followed in the stream known historically as “Doctrinal Antinomianism” (in contrast with the more noxious “Practical Antinomianism”), denying in one form or other the existence of a fixed and abiding Moral Law, the identification of the 10 Commandments with the Moral Law, and the continuing validity of the Sabbath principle expressed in the Lord’s Day. Pastor Barcellos sought to address these issues in his book.

In 2002, a response to Barcellos’s book was published by Tom Wells and Fred Zaspel under the title New Covenant Theology: Description, Definition, Defense, the first book-length treatment of the subject by its proponents.  The title of the book serves as something of a double entendre, since it stands as both the name of a fledgling theological movement, as well as an explanation of the matter discussed in the book.  While the authors recognize that the movement is hardly monolithic (one simply has to visit several websites purporting to teach NCT to realize the diversity of views advocated by adherents), they have nonetheless provided the reading public with the first serious attempt at “description, definition” and “defense.”  For this alone we should thank these men.  Throughout the work they maintain a praiseworthy esteem for Holy Scripture, and seek in their words to honor the Lord Jesus Christ, always a commendable virtue in Christian authors.

As a reader committed to the Reformed confessional position, I have a keen interest in the discussion, and recognize that Wells and Zaspel’s book deserves thoughtful consideration.  It is obvious from the beginning that their position is significantly different from my own, and thus provides a challenging grid against which to examine Scripture and theology.  Sadly, much of the book is not new, but rather is an updated version of articles and pamphlets that the authors have published in the past.  Much of the material has been on the internet for years, and thus lacks the fresh articulation one might have expected.  Since the ideas brought together in this book have been expressed in other places in the past, I did not find any new arguments to persuade me to deviate from my established convictions.  Rather, I was fortified in them through interaction with the material.  While advocates of the NCT system may find the arguments convincing, from this reviewer’s perspective they are seriously lacking in theological cogency.

Since space is limited, I will only be able to highlight two areas of concern, exegesis and theology.  Much more could be said.

In the first place, we must make some comments on the exegetical arguments proposed.  Upon close examination, the authors in several cases do not present compelling exegetical arguments in support of their conclusions.  The central text considered in the book serves as a powerful example of this point.  Fred Zaspel recognizes that there are certain texts which serve a crucial function in discussions of continuity and discontinuity.  Perhaps most notable is Matthew 5:17-20, a passage that receives close attention in no less than four of the book’s fifteen chapters.  Zaspel himself states that “the whole N[ew]T[estament] theology of law grows out of this pivotal statement of Jesus” (page 78).  While this may be an overstatement, it does express the central importance that must be placed on this passage.  Jesus’ words here are foundational to the understanding of the relationship between the law of Moses and the law of Jesus.  Zaspel seeks to demonstrate that there is a fundamental difference between the two, but does so by means of an interesting interpretive tactic.  The reader must take note of the fact that Zaspel, following the lead of D.A. Carson, asserts a novel interpretation of Matthew 5:17-20, especially in terms of the sense of “fulfillment” and its relationship to the Law of Moses and Jesus’ words.  In essence, Zaspel asserts that the notion of fulfillment in this text involves eschatological completion: what Moses law anticipated is brought to fruition in the words of Jesus.

Dr. Greg Welty has examined this argument in some detail in a paper that may be found on the internet at  In this critique, Welty demonstrates that the approach used is nothing less than an exegetical novelty, having no basis in any other occurrence of the word “fulfill” in the entire New Testament.  Since much of New Covenant Theology is based on Zaspel’s interpretation of this text, Welty’s critique is devastating.  How can a whole system be based on an interpretation that cannot be substantiated by standard hermeneutical procedures?  Do we have here a case of the tail wagging the dog?  Do NCT conclusions drive the exegesis of the passage?  From all appearances, this is the case.

The exegetical problems of the book do not end here.  Not only is the central thesis of the book based on a novel and faulty exposition of a crucial passage, but the authors avoid exegesis of passages that do not fit into their schema.  Two examples may be noted.  First, Barcellos’s book gave much attention to the exegesis of Jeremiah 31:31-34, establishing that this explicitly new covenant text, given prophetically in an old covenant setting, speaks to the continuity of law between the covenants.  While Tom Wells, in a home-spun sort of way, attempts to interact with Barcellos via an analogy using caterpillars and butterflies, there is neither substantial exegetical critique nor positive explication of the text and its relation to NCT.  Even the analogy is impertinent: though a caterpillar may become a butterfly, is there not a fundamental continuity between the two?  Does the caterpillar’s genetic material become something else in the cocoon?  While there may be change, there is essential continuity.  In fact Wells’ discussion evidences the fact that NCT, as formulated in this book, belongs to the same species of approach to law as dispensationalism in its treatment of the place of law at various stages of redemptive history.  To give a crucial passage such as Jeremiah 31:31-34 (and its New Testament locus, Hebrews 8:7-13) such short shrift is a serious flaw in the exegetical argument.

A second example may be found in the chapters dealing with the Sabbath, and especially Colossians 2:16-17.  According to the book’s index, these two verses are cited (individually or together) 13 different times, and always as proof of the assertions of NCT.  Strangely, the authors do not exegete these verses, but simply cite them as if the meaning of a text may be established simply on the basis of a first reading.  But both of these men know that this is not the case.  While I have never met either of them, I do know enough about them to presume that they are both committed to the Calvinistic doctrine of definite atonement, and if they are not, they are certainly familiar with the careful exegetical treatments of the seemingly universal texts done by many sober exegetes.  The Arminian rebuttal to the doctrine, a simple citation of a text followed by the mantra “all means all” is simply inadequate. If it were, we would all believe in universal redemption.  But we do not, and on the most solid of exegetical grounds, dealing honestly with the text. The same approach needs to be taken here.  Those of us who believe in the abiding validity of the Sabbath principle do not wink our eyes when we read these texts-we know that we must deal with them honestly and straightforwardly, being willing to follow the text wherever it leads us.  In my own desire to be honest with the text, I have been greatly helped by a comment in J.B. Lightfoot’s Commentary on this passage.  He notes that the words used by Paul in Colossians 2:16-17 (festival, new moon, Sabbaths) appear together several times in the Old Testament.  As I have worked through this, I have discovered at least six places where all of these words are used together in the Septuagint (2 Chronicles 2:4, 31:3; Nehemiah 10:33; Isaiah 1:13&14; Hosea 2:11; Ezekiel 45:17), and in every case they refer to the fullness of time-related observances in Israel (note that ‘sabbaths’ is plural, and includes the high Sabbaths associated with the high holy days, and not simply the weekly day).  Knowing this, I am certain that the Apostle Paul, thoroughly trained in the theology of the Old Testament, uses this combination of technical terms in the same way that they are used everywhere else in the Scriptures-to refer to the package of Jewish days.  Along with him I am glad to assert with all possible boldness that every characteristically Jewish day has been abolished, and that the Christian is under no obligation to observe them.  But this in no way undermines the possibility of the obligation of a distinctively Christian day-the Lord’s Day-a memorial of Christ’s work in establishing the new creation, the new exodus, and of his eschatological triumph (Hebrews 3 and 4).  This day has substance in a way that the Old Covenant days never could. This is a serious flaw in the argument of the book.  Incomplete exegesis means incomplete argumentation.  No treatment will carry the consciences of readers unless it handles thoroughly all of the exegetical questions relevant to the subject at hand.  Wells and Zaspel simply have not done so.

In the second place, the authors exhibit a tendency, popular in modern critical treatments of Scripture and among those enamored with “Biblical Theology,” but dangerous in both its approach to the text of Scripture and in the conclusions it produces. By this I speak of the tendency to view Scripture exclusively through the lens of the progress of redemptive history, to the exclusion of a synthetic approach attempting to formulate doctrine, i.e. a rejection of the important role of the analogy of faith.  The former method, highly useful in its proper place, may tend to maximize differences and minimize commonalities, and needs the checks and balances provided by a systematic approach to Scripture.  In the hands of the critics, systematic theology is irrelevant, since the Bible is only the product of men in religious communities.  It has no divine origin.  For Evangelicals who acknowledge inerrancy and inspiration, the exclusive use of this method is problematic, since one would think that they must acknowledge the rightful place of the analogy of faith and a resulting system of doctrine. The Bible’s own testimony concerning “the Faith, sound words, sound doctrine” etc. is everywhere on its pages.  Over and over again, the Word of God testifies to the existence of a body of truth-not to be equated with any one text of Scripture, but reflecting the truth of the entirety of Scripture.  Ministers and exegetes must labor to understand this body of truth, a body that may only be recognized by careful study of the whole of the Bible.  The result of this study is the doctrines we formulate into our Confessions of Faith.  With great care, we labor to ensure that they reflect the fruits of careful exegesis, and that they form a coherent and cohesive system of theology.  Undue stress upon Biblical Theology minimizes the place and importance of Systematic Theology, often with dire consequences.  The checks and balances of the disciplines fail to function properly, and error results.

This is exactly the case at hand.  The conclusions of NCT cannot fit simply into the broader field of systematic theology as it stands defined in the Reformed confessions.  When one abandons, for example, the doctrine that there is a universal, fixed, abiding moral law, as do some NCT proponents, one must also revisit the doctrine of sin, and the doctrine of the atonement.  We might ask, if there is no universal, fixed and abiding law to which men are held as an eternal standard, what law are they guilty of breaking?  What law will condemn unconverted men on the day of judgment?  I once asked a question like this to one of the major proponents of NCT, and his answer was frightening-it was something like this-“whatever law happens to be in force when and where they live.”  I was absolutely astounded.  Do the standards of righteousness and judgment change depending on the fluctuations of culture? Likewise, NCT advocates need to wrestle with the doctrine of the atonement.  What law did Jesus die to satisfy?  What were the righteous demands of his Father, for which he was crushed?

These are serious questions, and there are many more.  When one alters any topic of systematic theology, it often has profound effects on other topics as well.  Have the NCT men grappled with the theological implications of their system?  Are they consonant with all of the doctrines, clearly grounded in Scripture, which we confess?  Recently in the United States, a leader who long ago advocated positions similar to those of NCT, has publicly deviated from the Reformed construction of the doctrine of Justification by Faith alone.  This has not been a surprise to me; in fact it made much sense.  Theological alterations always have consequences.  The men who are promoting NCT need to step back and consider the theological implications of their developing system.  Only time will tell whether the new views will be able to sustain orthodoxy.  I have my doubts about the future.  Safety is found in the old paths.

Much more could be said in evaluation of this book.  In any case, the conclusion of the matter is that it is unsound in its premises and conclusions.  While the authors must be thanked for their diligent effort to explicate their system, in the judgment of this reviewer, they have failed to make a cogent case for their position.