Covenant Theology

After demolishing dispensationalism, I heard a great Bible teacher say that covenant theology was the answer to the problem. This guy was such a great Bible teacher that I was intrigued. I recently spent a good amount of time looking into Covenant theology and I have a few things to say about it.

First, covenant theology is NOT just a listing of the covenants in the Bible. Covenant theology is a theory about a relationship of all of the covenants into a overarching structure of covenants. Normally these three covenants are the covenant of redemption, covenant of works, and the covenant of grace. The covenants in the Bible are categorized or placed into this overarching scheme. Therefore, when we are talking about covenant theology what we are really talking about is a view of redemptive history. The fact that there a series of covenants in the Bible, no one can dispute. The issue is in what way do they relate to one another, to specific eras, and to the overall history of humanity?

Secondly, although this is considered a “classic” position, there is much disagreement and variety with the viewpoint. If you start reading in the topic, you do not end up just reading one “definitive” statement and many sub-views, you end up reading about a series of thinkers, many of whom were not Puritans, but were Reformed thinkers on the Continent. Modern renovators of covenant theology have even more disagreement among themselves.

The basically outline of Covenant theology is as follows:

  1. The Covenant of Redemption. This is an agreement within the trinity to save mankind.  This is invented to deal with Calvinist problem of “decrees.”
  2. The Covenant of Works. This is when God gives man a covenant which he must obey in order to live.   Most covenant theologians only look at the relationship with Adam in the garden as being a Covenant of Works.  Some call it the “covenant of life” pointing out that eternal life, even in the Garden was not by works, it was simply there for the offering, and Adam blew it (J. Rodman Williams).   Others call it the “covenant of creation” (Michael Horton).
  3. The Covenant of Grace. Since man failed in the covenant of works, God followed up with a series of grace-based covenants begininning with Noah, and ending with the New Covenant set up by Christ.

There is disagreement over what to do with the Sinai Covenant. Herman Witsius, one of the classic Reformation covenant thinkers said it was a “mixed” covenant, because it had both elements of grace and of works. Obviously then arguments could be made for it being a works or a grace based relationship.

The advantage of covenant theology as a view of redemptive history is that it promotes a sense of continuity between the testaments and therefore helps us understand and apply the Old Testament. The disadvantage is the same — the tendency is so much in the direction of unity that Charles Hodge actually intimates that the Old Testament believers really did believe in Christ — even though He is not talked about in the Old Testament, there are other things which the pharisees knew that aren’t in the OT, and therefore it must have just been commonly understood. This is what I might call “radical continuity.” This kind of “radical continuity” forms a rationale for theonomists and other classic Puritans who bring the Old Testament directly into the present.

For the past century dispensationalism has been the alternative to covenant theology. It proposes a kind of “radical discontinuity.” God deals with man in different eras. This leads quickly to us looking at the Old Testament and saying”why read it, it was for another people at another time.” Or if we do read it, we have to figure out how to read it by using statements like “well they were under law.” This also fails. What is needed is an approach which promotes integration between the Testaments without confusing them.

An interesting observation in this area is that the terms “Old Testament” and “New Testament” are misleading.  The word “testament” is a synonym for “covenant” but the Old Covenant spoken of by Paul was not that made with Adam, Noah, Abraham, or David. It is specifically the covenant made with Moses. Paul reaffirms the promises made to Abraham. The book of Genesis then is not really in the Old Testament 🙂 By the same token, Jesus performed his ministry under the Old Covenant, so the gospels are not really part of the New Testament.  Chew on that!

Covenant theology also makes an interesting reversal.   Instead of asking “Why the Gentiles” you end up asking “Why Israel”?  In other words, why interrupt the plan of redemption with 1500 years of law, symbols and types to lead to Christ?   Why not just send Christ to the world?  It’s a fascinating question which I cannot answer yet (I heard Wayne Grudem say on a tape that he couldn’t either so I’m not feeling too bad about it), but I think it’s a valid one.

My wife complains that the covenant theology system is to Aristotlean.  That is, it is too much of an imposition of a system on the text. I see her point.  If they can’t figure out what the Sinai Covenant is — grace or works — that’s a pretty big piece of data to not be able to interpret. And you can also see how Reformation salvation concerns are read into the scheme — Works vs. Grace.

Yet at the same time, the continuity promoted by the basic covenant approach has merit. The “covenant of works” for example, I find a much better way of explaining the guilt of man than “Adam blew it for you.” Instead, we can say that Adam was in a covenant, and he failed in that covenant, which is still in force down until now. You cannot go back into the garden and re-make the choice, but Jesus did. He took the penalty for Adam’s eating of the wrong tree, and became a “tree of life” that you can partake of. Christianity is the second garden.

The point of covenant theology then stands. How you relate the covenants to one another is the key to redemptive history. Not relating them as in dispenationalism has been tried and found wanting. The traditional scheme has insights but seems to also have issues too. What is needed is an enhanced or modified version that addresses and explains the progressive nature of each of the covenants, this includes a satisfying explanation of “why Israel” and a basis for a healthy relationship between the old and the new. The concept of works and grace I think is a valid one and part of the answer, but maybe not “the answer” itself.

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  1. Do you have a favorite “Systematic Theology” work?
    What do you know of/think of: J. Rodman William’s ‘Renewal Theology’ and French Arrington’s 3-vol ‘Christian Doctrine: A Pentecostal Perspective’?

    1. Jerry — As of right now my favorite Systematic Theology is actually Grudem. I think this is because it doesn’t waste time arguing with liberal perspectives, explains in balanced way all major orthodox perspectives on a wide array of issues, is highly readable, and references the other theologies if I want to dig deeper. Just a very well conceived work. So although I disagree on a couple of major issues (he’s Calvinist and Pre-mil) his is probably the best “all around” Systematic Theology.

      I also have J. Rodman Williams. His actual theology is probably closer to mine overall. but the format is not so great. It’s two column 3-books in one format is not easy to access. I use it when I want to read more on a subject after I looked at Grudem.

      I have a list of all of the non-Calvinist Systematic Theologies here: Many of them take a governmental view of the atonment, however, which I view to be sub-orthodox at best. Geisler’s Theology is nice because he does more “historical theology” in looking at a doctrine’s history than others usually do. I looked at Arrington in a library once, but it didn’t really strike me one way or the other. For all I know it may be great. You might also want to look at Horton, Menzies, and Pearlman or perhaps Oden’s summary of Wesley

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