What is “Covenant Theology” (and should we care)?

For many the above subject is in the category of “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.”  In other words, it is of no real value or concern and should be filed away in the “Who Cares” folder.  But for those who want to know what the Bible teaches, the theological system that you embrace is quite foundational and therefore quite important.

One of the emphases that I have made over the years of teaching in the college classroom has been the importance of the biblical covenants.  So to my students, I have early and often talked about the Abrahamic, Davidic, New and Land covenants (and even the Noahic and Mosaic); covenants that God made with Abraham and his descendants through Isaac and Jacob.  A student approached me one day (trying to figure me out, I guess) and said “you must be a covenant theologian”.  I told him that I really was not and explained that “covenant theology” is not derived from the above named biblical covenants.  Rather the covenants of “covenant theology” are theological ones that have been postulated by theologians.  And since that day when that student evidenced some confusion on this subject, it has been my observation that others are a little unclear on this subject as well.  Thus the purpose for this brief article.  This will not be detailed but will give just a summary.

Some in Covenant Theology (CT) believe that there are three covenants while others think there are just two.  These three theological covenants are known as the covenants of works, redemption and grace.  The reason for the difference in the total is that some in CT see the covenant of redemption and the covenant of grace as two phases of one covenant. Anyway, all of the Bible is interpreted on the basis of these three (or two) covenants. CT was formulated in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries and has been refined over the years.

CT teaches that prior to the fall of man, God entered into a covenant relationship with Adam. This is the covenant of works and in it man was promised eternal life for obedience but death for disobedience.  Man failed badly, bringing death into the human experience.  After this failure, God graciously instituted the covenant of grace in order to bring salvation through Jesus Christ. Covenant theologian Louis Berkhof says that this covenant was not made with all of mankind, but was a covenant made between God and the elect sinner.  God promises eternal life and the elect sinner accepts this salvation, promising a life of faith and obedience. This covenant of grace is actually based on the covenant of redemption made in eternity past between the Father and the Son. According to CT, each dispensation or covenant mentioned in the Bible is simply another stage of the progress of revealing the covenant of grace in history, with the result that there is one, and only one, people of God.  In other words, the Church and Israel are not distinct in God’s plan or dealings.

But for those of us who are not in the CT camp, we see a number of serious problems with this theological system.  A very brief list is now given.

(1) COVENANTAL LANGUAGE IS MISSING IN THE THEOLOGICAL COVENANTS.  The biblical covenants are clearly covenants because the two parties are clearly defined and there is language which tells us that a covenant is being made (“the cutting of a covenant”).  The theological covenants lack clear covenant language, sometime borrowing language from the biblical covenants.   For example, CT “borrows” some of the “New Covenant” (Jer. 31, etc.) language and applies it to the covenant of grace. The theological covenants of CT are really logical deductions rather than the products of exegesis of the biblical texts.

(2) CT EMPLOYS SPIRITUALIZATION IN ITS APPROACH TO SCRIPTURE.  Most taught believers know that when spiritualization is used, the interpreter really becomes the final authority instead of the text itself. In order to make the biblical covenants of the Old Testament squeeze into the mold of the all-encompassing “covenant of grace”, CT is forced to leave literal/normal interpretation and allegorize. For example, the promises given to Abraham are spiritualized to apply to the Church instead of national Israel.  Spiritualizing tampers with the promises and provisions of the biblical covenants.

(3) CT DOES NOT ADEQUATELY DEAL WITH THE MANY DISTINCTIONS FOUND IN THE BIBLE.  CT stresses the alleged unifying principle of the covenant of grace, and by so doing fails to deal with the significant differences in the Bible. The “covenant of grace” is said to cover the time from the Fall to the end of the age with no real distinctions made between the different covenants and covenant people. Not to see the many differences between the Abrahamic covenant, the Mosaic covenant and the New covenant will always lead to unclear and invalid interpretations.  The Apostle Paul is so very clear in Galatians 2 and 3 that the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants are different kinds of covenants given for different reasons.  According to Jeremiah 31, the Mosaic covenant and the New covenant are just plain different.  The biblical covenants are not (as CT claims) simply progressive revelations of the “covenant of grace”.  The biblical covenants include many more elements than just the matter of the redeeming of the elect.

(4) THE GOAL OF HISTORY IN CT IS NOT BROAD ENOUGH.  CT has rightly stressed the concept of God’s grace in our salvation. However, though the salvation of the elect is an important part of God’s purpose for history, it is not the whole story.  The story of the Scriptures is a restoring of all that was lost in Eden. In the Bible, God does have varying purposes for the church, Israel, gentiles, the saved, the unsaved, holy angels, fallen angels, and the universe itself. All these cannot be forced into the confines of the theological “covenant of grace.”  Not recognizing the varying purposes of God will often lead to unbiblical eschatological positions, such as that Israel has no future as a national entity.

A much better way to understand the Scriptures is the approach of dispensational theology.  Dispensational theology emerges out of the text of the Bible and relies less on the interpreter and more on the Scriptures themselves.