Deciphering Covenant Theology (10)

Part Nine

Credo-baptism and the Covenant of Grace

I have taken a quick look at the way paedo-baptist covenant theologians understand baptism as a sign of the New covenant aspect of the covenant of grace, but of course many Baptists are Reformed yet they reject the baptism of infants as unbiblical. Baptists see the covenant of grace as incorporating the regenerate only, not the so-called “historical elect” – those who have been sprinkled as babies but have yet to express a personal faith in Christ. From the paedo-baptist point of view the mixed nature of the Mosaic [old] covenant continues with the New covenant. That is why they baptize infants. That is also why the Puritan John Ball claimed that “the Pharisees were in the Covenant of Grace all the while being excluded from its substance.” – Pascal Denault, The Distinctiveness of Baptist Covenant Theology, 48. But this is not the case with credo-baptists. As the name suggests, these Reformed Baptists believe that a person must be born-again through personal trust in the Gospel to be included in the covenant.

What results from this difference is two “federalisms” or two approaches to covenant headship. As Denault notes in his excellent book on the subject, the issue is the question of who make up the people of God (7). For Baptists the New covenant is the covenant of grace and the old covenant is not. In fact, the old covenant is the covenant of works! This means that for Reformed Baptists the new covenant is not an administration of the covenant of grace like it is for Presbyterians and Dutch Reformed, but the two are the same covenant. Therefore, there is no mixed company of saved and unsaved in the covenant of grace cum new covenant (Ibid, 32).

The concept of the covenant of grace then is at the center of the disagreements between paedo- and credo-baptists. They both agree on the main thing. For example:

“Reformed orthodoxy recognized only one Covenant of Grace within which only one Gospel and one redeemed people were found.” – Ibid, 36.

However, paedo-baptists believe that the promise was made with the whole seed of Abraham, whereas credo-baptists tend to see the promise as made with the Seed, Jesus Christ (see, Philip D. R. Griffiths, Covenant Theology: a Reformed Baptist Perspective, 55). OT believers had faith in Christ and were part of the covenant of grace/new covenant, although they had less light than NT believers.

Tom Hicks of Founder’s Ministries provides a good summation of the difference of approach as well as the similarities,

“Baptist covenant theologians… believe they are more consistent than their paedobaptist brothers with respect to covenant theology’s own hermeneutic of New Testament priority. According to the New Testament, the Old Testament promise to “you and your seed” was ultimately made to Christ, the true seed (Gal 3:16). Abraham’s physical children were a type of Christ, but Christ Himself is the reality. The physical descendants were included in the old covenant, not because they are all children of the promise, but because God was preserving the line of promise, until Christ, the true seed, came. Now that Christ has come, there is no longer any reason to preserve a physical line. Rather, only those who believe in Jesus are sons of Abraham, true Israelites, members of the new covenant, and the church of the Lord Jesus (Gal 3:7). In both the Old and New Testaments, the “new covenant” is revealed to be a covenant of believers only, who are forgiven of their sins, and have God’s law written on their hearts (Heb 8:10-12).” – Tom Hicks, “What is a Reformed Baptist?” (Point 2: Covenant Theology).

The acceptance of only true believers who have requested baptism as church members rather than believers and their children effects ecclesiology as well as soteriology, but I shall not pursue that issue here. Suffice it to say that there is a lot of agreement between Reformed paedo-baptists and Reformed credo-baptists, but there is divergence on their understanding particularly of the covenant of grace.

To sum up, in the Reformed Baptist position all the believers and only believers are included within the one covenant of grace. This covenant of grace is identical with the new covenant. However, “the external aspects of the covenant” do not impinge upon “its internal substance.” (Denault, 146). That is to say, the new covenant qua covenant of grace was doing its work internally before it was revealed externally as the new covenant. As this is true the old covenant cannot be the covenant of grace in a former administration. The promise of a “seed” to Abraham does not include his natural seed so much as his spiritual seed in Christ.

Covenant Connections in Paul (6)

Part Five

Paul Before the Areopagus

I want to shift gears a bit and take a look at the “twins” which comprise the Creation Project and that drive it through the instrumentality of the covenants.  Those twins being Eschatology and Teleology which I spoke about in the first volume.  A good place to start is Paul’s defense at Mars Hill in Acts 17.  He is addressing pagan Greeks who have no familiarity with the Scriptures.  There would have been fruitless to attempt to introduce these scholars to the concept of a Jewish Messiah, or to impress them with a recital of OT prophetic expectation.  What these Greeks needed was a direct challenge to their worldview.  Paul begins his address by checking their metaphysics.  That is to say, he notices that there is an openness to religious/superstitious phenomena.  He is not speaking to a group of atheist materialists.[1]  Whether Epicureans or Stoics or something else, if Paul was going to refer to gods and such he would not be despised on that account.  These people worshiped (Acts 17:23).  Since they acknowledged there may be an unknown god to whom worship is due, they are covering themselves with an altar to “the Unknown God” (Acts 17:23).  This positions him to introduce the one true God to the Athenians (Acts 17:24f.). 

When I say “introduce” what I mean is closer to “remind” because as Paul says in Romans 1:18-23 God Himself is an inescapable fact, but sin and pride obscure the truth.  F. F. Bruce has said that “parallels to Paul’s argument can be adduced from Greek literature and philosophy.”[2]  Anyhow, Yahweh God is brought into the conversation front and center as the creator of both heaven and earth and everything in it (Acts 17:24).  That kicks the whole pantheon to the curb in a single verse!  The real God does not depend on His creatures for anything (Acts 17:25), which distinguishes Him from the general run of gods the Greeks would have been familiar with.  Moreover, God is the Lord of all living things and of all men throughout history (Acts 17:25-26).  Paul also slipped into his description the fact, insulting to Greco-Roman ears, that all men are of one race (Acts 17:26). 

Paul’s next pronouncement is interesting for a number of reasons.  He avers that God’s placement of humans; His “determination” (horizo) and “preappointment” (protasso) of them, had to do with the hope of their searching for Him.  As he puts it, “so that they should seek the Lord, in the hope that they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us…” (Acts 17:27).  This is a hard verse to comprehend.  If God wanted people to find Him, why did He make them “grope after” (pselaphao) Him?  I believe the answer must be joined to Paul’s proclamation of salvation in Jesus and should not be extended throughout time.  The Athenians were “groping” after the Divine and now they can find Him. 

What comes next is a surprise.  Paul the apostle quotes well known Greek writers to further his argument.  Not because he agreed with their philosophy, but because the truth about the world creeps in even when the reality of the Creator is suppressed.  Cornelius Van Til explored this area perhaps more than anyone else[3], and to my mind it is foundational to the articulation of Theology.  Sin has caused blindness in the unsaved to the program of God.  Scripture lights the way ahead (Psa. 119:105).  The Spirit of God opens the spiritual eyes.  Through what is often called ”common grace” but is better referred to general revelation those estranged from God can yet perceive snatches of reality.  Hence, the Apostle to the Gentiles finds vestiges of God’s truth in pagan writers and uses them to build a bridge to the pagan audience.  He has started by claiming that there is one God and that He is supremely in control of everything, and that everything is His creation (we might, for sake of ease, think of Plato’s forms, although the apostle’s doctrine brings them into this world).  He has then quoted two of their scholars (the philosopher Epimenides of Crete[4] and Aratus, a poet) to show that his teaching is partially known via general revelation.[5] 

Paul concludes the first part of his argument by showing that his God cannot be represented by human innovation and artifice (Acts 17:29).  Then in two verses he comes to the point:

Truly, these times of ignorance God overlooked, but now commands all men everywhere to repent, because He has appointed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by the Man whom He has ordained. He has given assurance of this to all by raising Him from the dead.” – Acts 17:30-31.

            Paul had been requested to defend his teaching about “Jesus and the resurrection” (Acts 17:18-21) before the Areopagus.  He bears down now on the great event that has brought him to Athens.  In light of this event a change of outlook (metanoia) is demanded.  A day of reckoning has been appointed, and one Man (Jesus) has been chosen to judge the world.  That Jesus is the Appointed One has been proven by His being raised from the dead. 

            Now Paul may have wanted to say more but this seems to be as far as he got.  It may be noted here that by referring to Jesus as “ordained” (horizo) Paul has included the concept of Him being God’s anointed.  Paul has moved from creation to judgment in a few verses.  Since God is controlling history, this means that the world is on a teleological (purposeful) and eschatological trajectory. 

[1] This is not to say that what the apostle declares is without real value for speaking to atheists. 

[2] F. F. Bruce, The Book of the Acts, 357.

[3] See especially Cornelius Van Til, A Survey of Christian Epistemology, Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1980.  This work really needs to be republished. 

[4] Paul also quotes from Epimenides in Titus 1:12.  In fact he cites the same quatrain!

[5] See also Acts 14:15-17.

Deciphering Covenant Theology (Pt. 9)

Part Eight

Federal Theology and the Baptism of Infants

“[W{hen Reformed people speak of “the covenant,” we are speaking of the one covenant of grace that runs from its seed-promise in Genesis 3:15, was expanded in detail to Abraham in Genesis 15, fulfilled in Christ, and continues throughout time until the consummation. Anyone who has or will ever be saved – in any period of human history – is a member of the covenant of grace.” – Michael G. Brown and Zach Keele, Sacred Bond, 95.

When dealing with the subject of baptism we are still dealing with the covenant of grace; Covenant Theology’s main lens. As I’m treating infant baptism (paedo-baptism) here it is important to note that Reformed Baptists who hold to CT approach the subject differently. I will treat that separately.

The term “federal” comes from the Latin foedus which means “treaty” or “pact,” but has come to mean “covenant,” although the Reformers like Calvin and Beza were not dogmatic on the point. But the covenant in view is not any covenant that can be easily found in the Bible. As the quotation above shows it is the dominant covenant of grace that is dictating doctrine. Hence, it is not the biblical covenants that drive the theology of baptism and headship in CT.

It will help to cite a leading covenant theologian on the matter:

“In the first place, remember, humanity is not an aggregate of individuals but an organic unity, one race, one family…The law of solidarity does not explain the covenant (of works or grace) but is based on it and harks back to it…” Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics: Vol. 3, Sin and Salvation in Christ, 102, 105.

Bavinck indicates that the solidarity of the human race is covenantally bound. It is bound either to the covenant of works (meaning that the unsaved or non-elect are under it) or the covenant of grace (meaning that the saved or elect – or “historical elect” are under it). This grouping of all the elect into one category in the covenant of grace is the epitome of Federal Theology.

Solidarity of Federalism

Concentrating on the elect (or the children of the elect) in the covenant of grace one needs to appreciate the fact that there is no room within this federal view for more than one people of God. This of course means that the prophecies concerning national Israel and its Davidic kingdom emanating from Jerusalem (Isa. 2:1-4; 9:6-7; 11:1-10; 46:13, etc.), and covering all the territory God pledged to Abraham in Genesis 15:17-21 cannot be literally fulfilled (this land will all be Israel, not simply Israeli held territory). That would mean that national Israel would be separate from elect Gentiles and thus there would be at least two peoples of God; Israel and the Church. Federal solidarity does not permit such a thing. Remember that the covenant of grace dictates the hermeneutics of CT. Therefore, the one-people-of-God requirement demands that the prophecies about Israel’s restoration be reinterpreted to produce the needed unity.

The Sign of the Covenant of Grace

CT’s believe that the covenant of grace had as its sign or token the circumcision of eight-day old boys under its Mosaic aspect. But the elect after the cross is greatly extended to include Gentiles; or rather, “Israel” is extended to include a Gentile super-majority. This “New Israel” or “True Israel” as it is often called, cannot have the same token as under the Mosaic economy, so a change in the sign had to happen under the auspices of the New covenant iteration of the covenant of grace (See e.g., O. Palmer Robertson, The Christ of the Covenants, 280.). After the cross the sign is changed to infant baptism, usually by sprinkling. as a replacement for male circumcision. As Belcher says, “Circumcision is an outward sign pointing to an inward, spiritual need.” (Richard Belcher, The Fulfillment of the Promises of God, 252). Sprinkling babies is thought to be a biblical way to show the same (cf. e.g., Gerald Bray, God Is Love: A Biblical and Systematic Theology, 635).

“With the permanence of the Abrahamic covenant, why is the sign of the covenant no longer circumcision in the New Testament? The simple answer is that the New Testament reveals that baptism replaces circumcision in the new covenant era (Col. 2:8-12).” – Michael G. McKelvey, “The New Covenant as Promised in the Major Prophets,” in Covenant Theology, edited by Guy Prentiss Waters, et al, 194 n. 8.

It should be noted that the “baptism” in Colossians 2:12 cannot in the first place be sprinkling, and in the second place it is almost certainly not water baptism but the baptism of the Spirit (1 Cor. 12:13) which is in Paul’s mind.

This replacement of the sign of the covenant and the change of “Israel” from a super-majority of Hebrew Jews to a super-majority of Gentiles does not (in the minds of many contemporary CT’s) involve a replacement of one Israel with the “New Israel.” But I shall address this question in another installment.

Obviously, because infants are involved, and they are not able to understand the Gospel, the paedo-baptist approach entails the inclusion of non-regenerate people within the covenant as well as believers (though amazingly, some Reformed theologians think these babies may be regenerate!). However, though they may be “in the covenant” these non-regenerate people are not viewed as “full members” of the covenant community. Their inclusion is in the basis of what are called the “genealogical principle” and the “representative principle.” The genealogical principle says that the children of the elect will (or are expected to) come to faith, whereas the representative principle has them under the headship of Christ. Further, as Christ is seen as “Israel” those “in Him” (i.e., in the covenant of grace) are “Israel” represented by Him.

Some Recommended Books on Covenant Theology

I am not a covenant theologian. However, I am very familiar with it in both its pedo- and credo-baptist forms. While my ongoing series critiquing CT shows that I am in disagreement with many of its major hermeneutical tenets, I want my readers to know that I have a long-standing admiration for CT for its comprehensiveness and its ability to address many areas of Theology and Apologetics. Later in the series I am writing (of which this is an interlude), I will express my appreciation of CT along those lines. But I had the thought today that I should perhaps write something about books about Covenant Theology for those not acquainted with it who may wish to dive in.

This list is not meant to be comprehensive.

Cornelius Van TilAn Introduction to Systematic Theology

An outstanding work which features Van Til’s robust approach to the doctrine of God and trinitarian perspectives. Not for the faint of heart but a book that relates Van Til’s apologetic understanding to his Reformed theology more directly than most of his other books, showing how one relates to the other. While I do not believe presuppositionalism requires CT (contra Scott Oliphint) I do agree that it requires something like CT’s teleology.

Cornelius Van TilA Christian Theory of Knowledge

Ought to be reprinted. A wonderful exploration of the sufficiency of Scripture among other things. This is what opened my eyes to the relative barrenness of Dispensational theology (DT) and made me ask the question “Why?” Short answer: because DT is not teleological.

John FrameCornelius Van Til’: An Analysis of His Thought

My first encounter (other than a dip here and there) with Van Til’s thought. I include it here because it gives an idea of the range of his revelational epistemology, which he roots in CT. N.B. Not all CT’s agree with Van Til (e.g., John Gerstner, R. C. Sproul). Recently John V. Fesko has written a critique of Van Til which repeats the old misrepresentations of his work.

Peter GoldingCovenant Theology

A Congregational minister who wrote a fine historical overview of CT. This book doesn’t get the appreciation it deserves. Traces the development of CT as well as providing a decent introduction.

Pascal DenaultThe Distinctiveness of Baptist Covenant Theology

To my mind if you want to know the difference between Baptist and Presbyterian approaches to CT this is the book to study. Denault both lets the authorities from both sides speak and provides helpful and readable commentary. Indispensable.

Greg Nichols Covenant Theology : A Reformed and Baptistic Perspective on God’s Covenants

A very full Baptist approach which goes its own way on occasion. The benefit of this work is its interaction with major North American pedo-baptist systematicians and Nichols’ attempts to find scriptural supports for his doctrines.

Herman BavinckReformed Dogmatics, Vol. 3: Sin and Salvation in Christ

For a long time writers such as Vos and Van Til were our only access into the Dogmatics of Bavinck. The translation of his four volumes was long overdue. This volume includes the most detailed chapter on the Covenant of Grace I have read.

Richard GambleThe Whole Counsel of God

The first two volumes deal with the OT and NT. There is a lot to admire in this work. As far as CT goes it is important because it shows how CT mixes with Systematics.

Richard Belcher The Fulfillment of the Promises of God

This is the best articulation of CT in print as far as I am concerned. A must-have.

Michael Brown & Zach KeeleSacred Bond: Covenant Theology Explained

Now in a second edition, this book is worth reading because it successfully sets out CT while also (to my eyes) showing how the theological covenants force interpretations.

Guy Prentiss Waters, et al., EditorsCovenant Theology: Biblical, Theological, and Historical Perspectives

A recent very large book with some excellent discussions. Again, I am far from persuaded by the arguments in the first and third sections, but this is the book to have if one needs an up-to-date resource.

Herman Witsius The Economy of the Covenants Between God and Man

A seminal work in two volumes. Witsius is pious and irenic and his concern is pastoral (although not the namby-pamby nonsense that passes for pastoralia today). I don’t think he is at his best when setting out the existence of the theological covenants, but he excels in explaining how they “work” with the Bible.

Robert ReymondA New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith

Reymond’s prolegomena is terrific. It’s Van Tillian without the author wanting to be Van Tillian! I include this work because I love its seriousness (he reminds me of John Murray), and because he argues in-depth for the scriptural (and even exegetical!) support for the theological covenants.

O. Palmer RobertsonThe Christ of the Covenants

There would be howls of protest if I didn’t include this one. Personally I can’t really get on with it. I’m not sure why. Maybe it is because it so self-consciously works through the biblical covenants while warping them in service of the theological covenants? Maybe it’s his style? Maybe it’s his too easy dismissal of the land-promise to Israel? Whatever, this is an important book. There is a valuable excursus chapter which contrasts CT with DT as structural systems.

John Brown of HaddingtonSystematic Theology

Brown is a legendary figure. Very pious, humble, but powerful in his writing. He reminds me of Thomas Boston, but is more concise. This book demonstrates how the theological covenants are joined to Scripture once the assumptions of the Westminster Confession are held.

Edward Fisher with notes by Thomas BostonThe Marrow of Modern Divinity

I have not read this famous book, but it is recommended frequently and Boston’s Memoirs and his Human Nature in Its Fourfold State both had an influence upon me so I include it here. In dialogical format (which I do not enjoy), its main purpose was to offset legalism. A recent “simplified” version by Andy Wilson is available.

Deciphering Covenant Theology (Pt.8)

Part Seven

I ended the last post talking about how CT reduces the nation of Israel down to Jesus Christ and then interprets the Church in Him to be the “True Israel.” There is more to say about that, but first I think a little more orientation is required. I want to begin this installment with a definition of Covenant Theology from one of its major contemporary practitioners, Ligon Duncan:

“Covenant theology is an approach to biblical interpretation that appreciates the importance of the covenants for understanding the divine-human relationship and the unfolding of redemptive history in Scripture. Blending insights from systematic and biblical theology, covenant theology explains the economic Trinity, communion with God, the person and work of Christ, the sacraments, justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, the role of obedience in the Christian life, the believer’s assurance of salvation, the unity and progress of redemptive history, and more, in light of the Bible’s teaching on the divine covenants.” – “Covenant Theology: An Essay,” available at

I want to interact with Duncan’s article because it both explains and obfuscates what CT actually is. Duncan’s essay does not enter into the way CT deals with the biblical text. It doesn’t walk us through its requirement of a single people of God (the Church), or that the Church is the “True Israel.” Neither does it highlight or allude to the prevalence of spiritualization of prophetic passages, including the biblical covenants. Finally, it does not tell the reader that the “theological covenants” (and I’m glad that Duncan uses that description) are given hermeneutical preference over the biblical covenants – especially the covenant of grace. Actually, he downplays the theological covenants and their strategic influence, which though perhaps unintentional, appears to me to be a strategic ploy.

Duncan on what Covenant Theology is

Duncan does state that the theological covenants of redemption, works, and grace are important to CT. He rightly says that “The Bible is a covenant book, and to be read well it needs to be read covenantally.” But he does not indicate that the covenant of grace takes precedence over the Abrahamic, Mosaic, Davidic, or New covenants; being overlaid on top of them, thus dictating what they can and cannot mean.

The essay has a very good section where the author describes and illustrates five ways that the Bible uses the word “covenant.” It is well worth studying. But one thing that is missing is a statement that God’s covenants, save for the Mosaic covenant, are unconditional as to the terms of their oaths. But that isn’t the main problem. The main issue here is that the theological covenants are not mentioned in this section (other than the hopeful inclusion of Genesis 1 – 3 in different arrangements, and Hosea 6:7 snuck in once or twice to back them up). The reason for this is easy: there is no exegetical or textual support for these theological covenants! No credible mainline scholar that I am aware of maintains that there are covenants in the first three chapters of Genesis (e.g., Nicholson, Barr, Mendenhall, Freedman, McCarthy, Rendtorff, or Hillers), and no scholarly evangelical dictionary article on “Covenant” I know sees the theological covenants present in Scripture.

Duncan also tells us that many people “get nervous about admitting the legitimacy of theological covenants, like the Covenants of Redemption, Works and Grace.” From my studies in CT this is very understandable. But it is the hermeneutical and theological clout afforded these theological covenants that must be appreciated by those who want to understand Covenant Theology. Duncan avoids addressing this, but he does at least admit that the foundation of CT is not solely exegetical biblical theology:

“Covenant theology is informed by exegetical, biblical and systematic theology: recognizing that the redemptive history revealed in Scripture is explicitly articulated through a succession of covenants (Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, and New), thus providing a fundamental architectonic or organizing principle for biblical theology (the study of Scripture from the standpoint of redemptive history).”

To be clear, Duncan is saying that although exegesis is involved in CT, it is not the only piece of the puzzle. Systematic theology and biblical theology play a part. Notice though that it is biblical theology conformed to an already decided overall theme; the theme is, “redemptive history revealed in Scripture is explicitly articulated through a succession of covenants (Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, and New)” drives it. Which is to say, the controlling mechanisms of CT’s approach to exegesis and biblical theology are already in place. Notice, “redemptive history” is said to be “explicitly articulated” in the biblical covenants (I exclude “Adam” since that non-covenant is snuck in alongside the actual ones of Scripture). But when one examines the biblical covenants themselves “redemption” in any form is absent from the Abrahamic and Davidic covenants, and is only present in terms of physical deliverance in the Noahic covenant. The Mosaic Law was not a way of salvation, which is why the sacrificial system obtained. Only when we reach the New covenant do we find explicit language of soul-redemption. Hence, the biblical covenants are being read through the wrong lens.

In actual fact, as myself and others (e.g., M. Vlach; M. Snoeberger, L. Pettegrew) have said, “redemptive history” views the story of Scripture from man’s point of view rather than God’s. The lens does not allow us to see enough.  

Duncan’s Confusions

I am going to call Duncan’s statements on the biblical covenants “confusions” although I suspect that they are deliberate obfuscations or false flags. Coming as it does at the start of his article, and throughout the article, but before the theological covenants are mentioned, Duncan’s statement about the importance of the Noahic, Abrahamic, Mosaic, Davidic, and New covenants to CT (he omits the covenant with Phinehas in Num. 25), are a little misleading. Since CT’s believe that the biblical covenants are to be interpreted, not on their own terms, but through the covenant of grace, the unwary reader may be lulled into thinking that these biblical covenants are going to be given their own voice. But that simply is not going to be the case. In actual fact the covenants with Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, and through Christ are all viewed as progressive revelations of the covenant of grace. Duncan sidesteps this crucial detail in his paper. The closest he comes to this is in the penultimate paragraph where he refers to Robert Reymond’s work (and Reymond’s exegetical defense of the covenant of grace in his New Systematic Theology is hardly convincing!).

Duncan also equivocates on the Old and New Testaments being “covenants.” This is a common fallacy that I probably should write more on, although I have written one piece about it. The fact that our Bible’s are divided into two “Testaments” is fine just so long as it is understood that this is not how the Bible refers to itself. “Testament” was the word Irenaeus and Melito employed to delineate the two unequal halves of the Bible. But it ought to be clear to anyone who thinks about it that the Hebrew and Greek Bibles (our OT and NT) are not themselves covenant documents but rather are the historical records of the covenants. The fallacy here is to assign the same significance to non-inspired but well meaning second century designations as the actual inspired covenants of Scripture. Duncan, as many CT’s, does just this.

Finally, in his Recommended Reading list Duncan says that Richard Belcher’s The Fulfillment of the Promises of God “is now the introduction to covenant theology…[and] is now the starting point for those looking for a confessional Reformed presentation.” An opinion to which I am in complete agreement.

Deciphering Covenant Theology (Pt. 7)

Part Six

The Covenant of Grace (2)

It is almost impossible to overstate the importance of “the covenant of grace” to Reformed theology. When one reads of “the covenant” in the writings of CT’s the implication is that it is the covenant of grace. When it comes to CT’s comprehending the Bible as a “redemptive-historical” book, the thing that is powering this is the covenant of grace. Hence,

“The covenant of grace tells us that the whole Bible is about one thing: God redeeming a people for himself through Jesus Christ.” – Michael G. Brown and Zach Keele, Sacred Bond, 69.

The covenant of grace is the appearance in time of the Covenant of Redemption. As this is the case it could be said that the covenant of grace furnishes the ground of redemptive history. While both the covenant of works and the covenant of grace promised eternal life (R. Belcher, The Fulfillment of the Promises of God, 41), it is the covenant of grace which is superior in both its ability to give salvation and in its primal intent as God’s chosen way of salvation for sinners.

Then too, the covenants of CT; in particular the covenant of grace, sets the hermeneutical agenda for how the Bible is to be read. J. I. Packer wrote,

“What is covenant theology? The straightforward, if provocative answer to that question is that it is what is nowadays called a hermeneutic- that is, a way of reading the whole Bible that is itself part of the overall interpretation of the Bible that it undergirds. – “Introduction to Covenant Theology” in Herman Witsius, The Economy of the Covenants Between God and Man, I. (1. no page number).

This is a very revealing quote, for it shows that CT is not merely an extended exegesis of the Bible. In fact it is more accurate to say that CT exegesis of Scripture is to a great extent governed by the requirements of the covenantal system: i.e., especially the requirements of the single covenant of grace. Packer thinks CT is obvious to the attentive reader (Ibid, I.[2]), but thinks for instance, that the covenant of grace may be missed because it is “too big to be easily seen.” (Ibid). This “covenant”, absent much if any exegetical warrant, is the lens through which the Scriptures are to be seen for what they are.

On a tangent, one quite often comes across dispensationalists who claim that “Dispensationalism is a hermeneutic.” I think this is a mistake because one cannot equate “plain-sense” interpretation with Dispensationalism. Why not? Because I do not think that most of the dispensations themselves can be arrived at via the plain sense without deductive inferences. But I digress.

Of the covenant of grace Witsius himself says,

“We therefore maintain, agreeable to the sacred writings, that to all the Elect, living in any period of time, 1st. One and the same eternal life was promised. 2dly. That Jesus Christ was held forth as the one and the same author and bestower of salvation. 3dly. That they could not become partakers of it in any other way, but by a true and lively faith in him.” – Ibid, I. 292.

The Dutch scholar says that he will prove the three premises above, but in reading on through the next twenty plus pages I failed to see the premises substantiated in an acceptable way. It is not enough to state that we know OT saints were saved or to cite Acts 15 to prove that OT saints were saved by believing on Jesus crucified. It will not do. Genesis 15:4-6 clearly says that Abraham believed what Yahweh said about a son coming from his body without adoption and the descendants who would come through him. That faith is what God reckoned to Abraham for righteousness according to Moses and Paul (Rom. 4:2-3). Abraham did not believe that Jesus would die on a Roman cross and be raised the third day. However, Abraham did believe that the promised Deliverer would one day come (Jn. 8:56), and it is on the basis of what Christ did on the cross that Abraham’s sins were expiated. But CT cannot accept this because they view the “gospel” as being the same throughout history.

The Covenants of Scripture Are Actually Only Instances of the Covenant of Grace

This can be shown from any CT work, but here is a full example of it from Francis Roberts (1609-1675). Though long I think this quotations says it well:

After the Fall God deales with his Church and People also by way of Covenant; and that the COVENANT of FAITH [i.e. Grace] in Iesus Christ the last Adam. This is very observable in several eminent Intervals or Periods of time, wherein God Revealed his Covenant more and more clearly by degrees, till it came to a full and compleat discovery in these daies of the New Testament. As, God dealt by way of COVENANT, 1. With Adam presently after the Fall, and with the Fathers before the Flood till the time of Noah: Promising the Seed of the woman, to bruise the Serpents head. 2. With Noah, establishing his Covenant with him, to save him, and his family, and a seed of the Creatures, in the Ark, from perishing by the waters of the Flood, when the whole world should be drowned. Under these two dispensations of the Covenant, together with the Promises and other Appurtenances thereof, did the Fathers and Church live till the daies of Abraham. 3. With Abraham and his seed, Covenanting and Promising to be a God to them, to give them the land of Canaan, and make them heirs of the world, and in his seed to make all the Nations and families of the Earth blessed; … 4. With Israel; led and brought by the hand out of the land of Egypt, At Mount Sinai in the daies of Moses;… Under this and the former Administrations of the Covenant, the Church was nurtured up, till the time of David. 5. With David and his Seed God made an everlasting Covenant ordered in all things and Sure, Promising with an Oath, To establish his seed for ever, and build up his Throne to all generations, &c. which Covenant had its fullest accomplishment in Christ, of the Seed of David, and in his Spiritual Kingdom… 6. With the people of the Iews under the Babylonish Captivity, God Covenanted to return their Captivity and restore them into their own land, the land of Canaan; to take away their stony heart, and to give them an heart of flesh; To cleanse them from all their filthiness and Idols, &c. promising that they shall be his people, and he will be their God. And under this, with the foregoing ministrations of the Covenant, The Church of God was nursed up from the time of the Babylonish Captivity, till the very coming of Christ in our flesh. 7. Finally, with the Church and people of God under the New Testament, after Christs Incarnation, God makes a New Covenant in Christ: New, not so much for substance, as for Circumstance and manner of Administration (all the former Ministrations being laid aside as waxing old and wearing away;) And New, for Continuation, in that this dispensation of the Covenant should not wax old as did all the former, but should continue still fresh New and unaltered to the very end of the world. And under this Covenant, the Promises and Appendixes thereof, the Church of Christ is and shall be continued, built up, and perfected, From the First till the Second coming of Jesus Christ.” – Francis Roberts, The Mystery and Marrow of the Bible, 5-6. (Available at;view=fulltext).*

Here we can see in this quote how the one covenant of grace (which Roberts calls the Covenant of Faith) is seen in different instantiations through biblical history until the first coming of Christ. After the Passion, the New covenant becomes the final and unalterable instance of the covenant of grace until Christ returns and all the elect are gathered together. So when CT’s expound for example, the covenants with Noah, Abraham, David, and the New covenant, they are expounding them as progressive revelations of the one covenant of grace. This recalls Packer’s point about CT being a hermeneutic!

But for all the excellence of Roberts’ explanation there is one thing missing. Here is Michael Horton:

“The covenant of grace…is announced after the fall and develops from Seth and his line, leading to Abraham and the messianic Seed, in whom “all the nations will be blessed.” That covenantal line is persecuted from within and without and narrows progressively until it is reduced to a single individual: Jesus Christ. In his wake, it widens again to become even broader than before, embracing people “from every tribe and language and people and nation (Rev. 5:9)” – Michael S. Horton, Covenant and Eschatology, 166-167 (my emphasis).

Central to the eschatological outlook of Covenant Theology is that Israel reduces down to Jesus, and those who are in Him comprise the “New” or “True” Israel. The hermeneutical wheels are turning.

  • My thanks to JJ. Weissman for telling me about Roberts’ work and providing the link.

Deciphering Covenant Theology (Pt.6)

Part Five

Some of this post reuses material from a previous article.

The Covenant of Grace (1)

Covenant theology depends for its credibility upon theological covenants with virtually no exegetical proof.  This is especially the case with the “Covenant of Grace.” 

“[N]ot only do covenant theologians speak of the one people of God in both Testaments, they also affirm that the church existed in the Old Testament.  One key linchpin for seeing continuity between the covenants revolves around the centrality of the covenant of grace.  Because God is working out his unified plan to redeem humanity through this covenant, all historical covenants fall under this larger covenant and thus are expressions of it.” – Benjamin L. Merkle, Discontinuity to Continuity: A Survey of Dispensational & Covenantal Theologies, 139 (Merkle is a CT). 

The “Covenant of Grace”, which is often simply called “the covenant” by CT’s, wields tremendous, we might say decisive hermeneutical power over CT’s biblical interpretation.  Again, Merkle says “Covenant theology understands all the biblical covenants as different expressions of the one covenant of grace.” (Ibid, 15).  But before one gets to use such a potent hermeneutical and theological device, one needs to prove that it is actually Scriptural.

As Herman Witsius defines it,

“The Covenant of grace is a compact or agreement between God and the elect sinner; God on his part declaring his free good-will concerning eternal salvation, and everything relative thereto, freely to be given to those in covenant by, and for the mediator Christ; and man on his part consenting to that good-will by a sincere faith.” – The Economy of the Covenants Between God and Man, 1.165 [Bk. 2. Ch.1.5].

Witsius goes on to make it clear that the covenant insures there is only one people of God (the Church) in both Testaments.  This means, for one thing, that whenever one comes across any passage which seems to point to a separation of, say, OT Israel from the NT Church, this must not be allowed to stand, since the “covenant of grace” does not permit it.  Therefore, CT’s must first demonstrate if it is possible to establish a “Covenant of Grace” from the text of Scripture rather than from human reason alone, and then they must show that this covenant is the very same covenant as the Noahic, Abrahamic, Davidic, and New Covenants which are very clearly found within the Bible.

What then is the exegetical basis for the Covenant of Grace?  Well, don’t hold your breath!  Even dyed-in-the-wool CT’s like O. Palmer Robertson admit that there is slender exegetical apparatus from which to derive it (he thinks the “covenant of works” fairs better, expending much effort on making Hosea 6:7 refer to a pre-Fall covenant).  In reality, I would say there is no exegetical justification at all!  This impression is only confirmed the more expositions of the Covenant of Grace one examines.  What you will find is that passages patently referring to the Noahic, Abrahamic covenants, etc., are used as proof-texts.  Brown and Keele spend six pages of their book Sacred Bond trying to make Genesis 3:15-24 into the Covenant of Grace.  The way they begin their investigation is telling:

“While the covenant of grace is more fully revealed in Genesis 12, 15, and 17 with God’s covenant to Abraham, which is then fulfilled it two stages, the old (Mosaic) and the new covenants, its “mother” or “seed” promise is in the protevangelium of Genesis 3:15.” (Ibid, 60-61).”

They also seem to believe that Satan tried and succeeded to get Adam and Eve “to enter into league with himself.” (Ibid, 61).  Are we then to believe that there are three covenants in Genesis 1 – 3, even though there is no clear textual evidence for one?  In fact, what one will find when reading these authors is how quickly they repair to their Confessions of Faith.  The Confessions present the story which the Bible is fitted into.         

Reformed theologian Robert Reymond, who boldly claims that “The church of Jesus Christ is the present-day expression of the one people of God whose roots go back to Abraham” (A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith, 525f.), does no better in coming up with actual biblical texts which support the Covenant of Grace.  He, like all CT’s, insists the issue be settled by the Scriptures (Ibid, 528).  What this turns out to be is insisting that the OT be interpreted via his interpretation of the NT!  Naturally, the NT never speaks about a Covenant of Grace, and he begs leave to spiritualize the texts whenever it suits him (Ibid, 511 n.16), that way he can maintain that the land promises “were never primary and central to the covenant intention” (Ibid, 513 n.19).  Quite how one can read Genesis 12-17 and come away believing that the land was not a primary issue escapes me.  According to many scholars, the land is a very prominent feature of the OT covenants.    

Following the reasoning of CT’s as they dive in and out of selective passages (often avoiding the important referents within the context) can be a mind-numbing experience.  One needs to try to keep in mind what they are attempting to prove: that God has made one covenant with the elect of both Testaments to guarantee that there will be one people of God, the Church, inheriting heavenly promises in Christ.  For example, Robertson says,

“The covenants of God are one.  The recurring summation of the essence of the covenant testifies to this fact… All the dealings of God with man since the fall must be seen as possessing a basic unity…Diversity indeed exists in the various administrations of God’s covenants.  This diversity enriches the wonder of God’s plan for his people.  But the diversity ultimately merges inti a single purpose overarching the ages...The various administrations of the covenant of redemption [i.e., grace] relate organically to one another…” – O. Palmer Robertson, The Christ of the Covenants, 52, 55, 61, 63 (my emphasis).

That may sound okay, but what one has to realize is that this means that anything found in the biblical covenants which does not fit this preconceived picture (e.g. a physical land for the people of Israel, a literal throne of David in Jerusalem), is demoted to an ancillary and temporal place or is transformed into a “type” or “shadow” of a spiritual reality which comports with the requirements of “the covenant.”

If we turn to CT’s own explanations of their system, we find a curious dualism of frankness and subterfuge.  I do not use “frankness” in the ethical sense, just in the sense that there is sometimes a willingness to face the text and deal with what it actually says.  By “subterfuge” I am not saying there is an unethical motive in these men, but that they almost instinctively avoid the clear implications of passages which undermine their teaching.  Robertson, for example, when dealing with the inauguration of the Abrahamic covenant, carefully picks his way through Genesis 15 (and 12:1) without mentioning God’s land-promise (Ibid, Ch. 8).  He first constructs his thesis with the help of certain NT texts, and then deals with the land issue once he has a typological framework to put it in.  He is more “up-front” when he refers to Jeremiah 31, 32 and Ezekiel 34 and 37 on pages 41-42 of his book, but this plain speaking about God’s planting of His people “in this land” to “give them one heart and one way” (Ibid, 41), and his explicitly linking the land promise to Jacob with the Abrahamic covenant (Ibid, 42) does not last for long.  Needless to say, the land promise to Israel evaporates under the flame of Reformed typology as the book progresses (Ibid, Ch. 13), and the Church becomes the “Israel” through its participation in the new covenant (e.g. 289).

In none of this does one find any solid exegetical proof.  Instead, at the crucial moment, in order to get where they want to go, CT’s will rely upon human reasoning (“if this, then that”) to lop off covenanted promises which contravene their theological covenants.  The land promise stated over and over in the Abrahamic covenant (e.g. 12:1, 7; 15:18-21; 17:7-8) and repeated in the prophets (e.g. Isa. 44; Jer. 25:5; 31:31-40; 32:36-41; 33:14-26; Ezek. 36:26-36), is ushered into a room marked “obscurity” by the covenant of grace.  How ironic; the land promise is expressly stated and restated all over the OT, and the covenant of grace never once puts in an appearance!

Another noted CT who exemplifies this phenomenon I have been referring to is Michael Horton.  His book God of Promise: Introducing Covenant Theology takes back with one hand what it appears to give with the other.  Placing an enormous burden on Galatians 4:22-31 which it was never supposed to bear, Horton sometimes seems to interpret the covenant passages at face value.  He repeatedly admits that both the Abrahamic and Davidic covenants were unconditional.  He rivals any dispensationalist in his belief in the unilateral nature of these biblical covenants (Ibid, 42, 45, 48-49).  But then he makes the land promise part of the Mosaic covenant (whence it can be safely dispatched).  He states,

“The Mosaic (Sinai) covenant is an oath of the people swearing personal performance of the conditions for “living long in the land,” while the Abrahamic covenant is a promise by God himself that he will unilaterally bring about the salvation of his people through the seed of Abraham.” – Michael S. Horton, God of Promise, 48.

This is an amazing statement.  Although he is right to say that possession of the land was tied to obedience to the Mosaic covenant (e.g., Lev. 26), even the Mosaic covenant looked forward to a new covenant whereby God would circumcise their heart (Deut. 30:6) so that “in the latter days” they would not be forsaken, but would be remembered because of the Abrahamic covenant (Deut.4:30-31; 30:19-20).

So, what happened?  Is the Abrahamic covenant only about salvation as Horton claims?  I invite anyone to read Genesis 12-17, Jeremiah 33 or Ezekiel 36 and demonstrate such a thing.  It is patently false.  In fact, there is no provision for salvation in the Abrahamic covenant itself; although the Seed promise (singular) is there it is developed through the New covenant, not per se the terms of the Abrahamic.  All the talk about typology (Horton’s book is also filled with it) cannot alter these facts.

That God must be gracious to sinners if they are to be saved is not at issue.  What is at issue is whether there is any such thing as the covenant of grace (we have focused on it since it is the support for CT’s interpretations and theology).  We have no qualms in saying it is a figment overlaid on the biblical covenants.  It is what makes CT’s see only the salvation of the church in the covenants.  It is what makes them transform the NT Church into “new Israel”.  It stands behind many of their dogmas.  But the Covenant of Grace, together with the “Covenant of Works”, is curiously absent from the Word of God. 

Deciphering Covenant Theology (Pt.5)

Part Four

The Covenant of Works (2)

According to covenant theologians the Covenant of Works was what Adam and Eve were under in the Garden of Eden. As it was a covenant of “works” this means that they were under obligation to maintain “perfect obedience” (Witsius, The Economy of the Covenants Between God and Man, I. 158; cf. Robertson, The Christ of the Covenants, 85). For the CT this is necessary because it is to be paralleled by Christ’s perfect obedience; an obedience which as “active obedience” is accrued to us alongside of Christ’s work on the cross.

In my view the biblical doctrine of the atonement does not require a doctrine of Christ’s “active obedience.” The fact of the matter is that the Bible does not say that Christ’s perfect life atones in any way for either Adam’s sin or for our failure to live righteously. Furthermore, I do not see how there could be a substitutionary aspect to Christ’s “active obedience.” I do admit that there may well be a representative aspect, but this is not the same thing.

The question that comes up is whether the Covenant of Works is deemed to be in place today or whether it was abolished. Certainly, if what is written above about the importance and value of Christ’s “active obedience,” from the CT point of view it would seem a “good and necessary consequence” for this “covenant” to be in force still. As well as this, if it is claimed the Covenant of Works has been removed then that would leave unsaved men under no covenant at all in this approach. This would be problematic because CT’s conflate the requirements of the Covenant of Works with the Law, and CT’s represent unbelievers as law-breakers; or in the words of Cornelius Van Til “covenant-breakers.”

And indeed, the writings of CT’s reveal that they hold this covenant to indeed be in force. Belcher says

“When Adam broke the covenant, the probationary test came to an end, but the obligation to perfectly fulfill the terms of the covenant remained…Human beings are held accountable to God and subject to death on the basis of the terms of the original covenant…The descendants of Adam are held accountable by God for what Adam did because of the special relationship that Adam had as a representative of his descendants in the Covenant of Works.” – The Fulfillment of the Promises of God, 33.

Notice here the role of Adam as our representative. That is the basis of our “special relationship” to Adam (although some CT’s believe we have a seminal link to Adam which is important). This is the teaching called “Federalism” which I shall go into in a later post. But federalism needs the Covenant of Works (and the Covenant of Grace).

Still, there is a sense in which the Covenant of Works has been abrogated. Herman Witsius says that the Covenant of Works does not now operate as a means to obtain eternal life as it did in Paradise (Witsius I. 158-159). This is important for non-covenant theologians to grasp because I have come across some misunderstanding here. One example is the book Forsaking Israel, 182 n. 29, where a short quotation of Witsius implies that he thought that the Covenant of Works is not ongoing. This misreads Witsius as a reading of the above references would show (overall the treatment of the Covenant of Works in this book is very good, although it does appear to make the Covenant of Works the most “dominant” of the three theological covenants, which is not the case – Ibid, 176ff.).

As for the biblical merits of the Covenant of Works it has to be said that they are slim. The arguments that are constructed for it out of Scripture and reason are all propounded on the basis of eisegesis. That is to say, the texts of Scripture are not being expounded to see what they say in the places where they say it, but are being located and dug-out of their contexts (which are often clearly pointing to biblical covenants like the Mosaic and the Davidic) and are being seconded to function in a way that is foreign to their original contexts. One well-known example is Hosea 6:7. To quote from The Words of the Covenant: Old Testament Expectation,

“As far as the famous covenant passage in Hosea 6:7 is concerned I have already addressed the
issue in chapter seven of this work. In summary, (a) the standard interpretation of covenant and new
covenant theologians that the prophet is referring to the biblical Adam and some covenant in Eden is both question-begging and indeterminate. Even if Hosea was speaking of such a covenant, the impossibility of locating the terms of the oath, make it a vain effort to follow this view. (b) It is the opinion of many that the town of Adam (Josh. 3:16) is being referred to. This would require some historical defection at Adam to which Hosea is alluding. In that case the covenant he speaks of is the Mosaic covenant (as per Hos. 8:1). (c) The third explanation is to translate adam as “dirt” and interpret the prophet as saying that the people have treated the (Mosaic) covenant like dirt. (d) The fourth view translates the Hebrew phrase as “like men” and interprets it as referring to the sinful human bent to transgress God’s Law. Hence, in three of the four views the identity of the covenant in Hosea 6:7 is the Mosaic covenant, or at least its universal aspects (which predate it). The notion that it looks back to a nebulous covenant in Eden seems as unnecessary as it is indeterminable and fruitless.” (235-236).

I also included a footnote which is worth reproducing here:

“Here in Hosea [berit] “covenant” appears only for the second time. In 2:20 [in the context of marriage] the term denoted the future universal covenant. In the present passage the Mosaic covenant is clearly at issue.” – Douglas Stuart, Hosea – Jonah, 111.

Here again we have an example of deductive reasoning being smuggled in as exegesis.

Brief Review of Copenhaver & Arthurs’ “Colossians and Philemon”

A Review of Adam Copenhaver and Jeffrey D. Arthurs, Colossians and Philemon: A Commentary for Biblical Preaching and Teaching, Kerux Commentaries, Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2022, 335 pages, hdbk.

This is the first time I have set my eyes on a Kerux commentary. The series is designed to give exegetical, theological, and homiletical help for the expositor and preacher. This approach is nothing new, although it has not been seen for some time. These kinds of commentaries were quite popular in the 19th century (e.g., Pulpit Commentary; Lange’s Commentary). With odd exceptions, I never got anything out of the homiletic portions of these works. But what about this one? It is written by two authors, Copenhaver being the exegete and theologian with Arthurs taking the homiletic portions (9).

Layout and Introduction

This book is very nicely put together and the large two-column pages hold clear type and headings. The first section (13-26) is an “overview of all preaching passages.” This breakdown is a good idea, although the “preaching pointers” outweigh the exegetical and theological previews by a lot.

When we get to the Introduction we find that Colossians and Philemon considered together; a nice idea which I was not expecting. I would normally prefer separate introductions but I think this was an intriguing choice. The introduction is very well done, with black and white maps and photographs included. I believe Copenhaver wrote this part.


Copenhaver’s exegesis of the epistles is impressive. He knows his way around the letters, and he shows good judgments in his handling of the text. I must say that I have little to quibble about here. Copenhaver has written a very fine commentary on both letters from the exegetical perspective. He does not even fight shy of telling it like it is on a passage like Colossians 3:18 (“Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands…”). He is one to watch. In fact, Copenhaver’s work is worth the price of the book!

An editorial quibble: The exegesis sections (which include word studies and exegetical panels) are well done, but I was surprised that the Greek was left untranslated. In a commentary such as this it would have been good to include transliterations along with the original. I’m alright, but I don’t understand the decision to leave them in the Greek without an accompanying transliteration.

Theological Focus

I don’t have a lot to say about the theological sections other than that they are competent. They follow on logically from the exegetical sections that go before and they add something to the book.

Preaching and Teaching Strategies

Jeffrey Arthurs writes the homiletical sections, and to be honest, I could have done without them. While there is some good stuff here and there (e.g., a list of ‘Ten Ways Parents Provoke Their Children,’ 239, or the warning about social media, 162), on the whole these parts of the book are a failure. For starter’s, they are seeker-sensitive and not really honed to take advantage of the solid exegetical sections before them.

I found that the more sections by Arthurs I read the more annoyed I became. My idea of preaching and teaching the Word of God is not to change clothes like a ham actor to illustrate Col. 3:9, or to play a film clip in the middle of a sermon (109). Arthurs commends the methods of Willow Creek (160), and recommends biographies for Col. 1:9-14 on Mike Pence, Bono (!), and Jim Caviezel. His advice on “Spiritual Disciplines” from the inset on page 161 is gathered from mystics Richard Foster and Ken Shigematsu (interestingly, the exegetical section of Colossians 3:16 has an inset which cites James K. A. Smith’s more solid advice on spiritual formation in the church – 212). On page 239 one is advised to “Align your soul and body” on a busy work day.

I have no use for such things. They are a distraction from the eternal Word which is being expounded. My advice, for what it is worth, is to consider the commentary because of Copenhaver’s excellent contribution. It’s such a shame it is coupled with such superficial “preaching and teaching” hints, which I for one would not recommend.

This is a Bible commentary, so indices would be nice. But this is Kregel!

Deciphering Covenant Theology (Pt.4)

Part Three

In the first volume of his impressive work The Whole Counsel of God, CT Richard Gamble identifies four covenant types in Scripture. I have no qualm with the first three, but Gamble’s fourth variety of covenant is “one among the three persons of the Godhead.” (I.284). He sees a “hint” of this in the words “Let us make man in our image” in Genesis 1:26, but points to a “clearer example” in Genesis 8:21-22. In this instance “God was not speaking to Noah, but was in fact making a covenant with himself.” (I.285).

I have a high regard for Gamble and his book, but the fact that he has to resort to such examples to find an intra-trinitarian covenant is surely telling. As we saw last time, the “covenant of redemption” is not even confidently asserted by many covenant theologians, and it is not found in any passage of the Bible; it is inferred from what CT’s call “good and necessary consequences.” What makes them necessary? In my opinion what makes the consequences “necessary” is the necessity of finding support for Covenant Theology. As I have said previously and will repeat hereafter the theological covenants are deduced from CT’s operating from the position that the rest of Scripture must be interpreted from the cross and its presumed consequences. One of those consequences is that there must be only one people of God.

The Covenant of Works (1)

The covenant of works also has its detractors in the Reformed community. John Murray is the best known of these. His criticism comes in his essay “The Adamic Administration” which is in his Collected Writings, Vol. 2. Meredith Kline and O. Palmer Robertson change out the names for the covenants of works and grace for “creation” and “redemption.” For more on this dissent concerning this covenant see Peter Golding, Covenant Theology, 105-109, and Robert Letham, Systematic Theology, 349-352. Granting this intramural issue, I will continue on the assumption that the covenant of works is essentialist CT. Let us start with a definition:

“God’s commitment to give Adam, and his posterity in him, eternal life for obedience or eternal death for disobedience.” – Michael G. Brown and Zach Keele, Sacred Bond, 45.

Or again,

“The creation bond between God and man may be discussed in terms of its general and its focal aspects. The general aspect of the covenant of creation [aka “works”] relates to the broader responsibilities of man to his Creator. The focal aspect of the covenant…relates to the more specific responsibility of man arising from the special point of probation or testing instituted by God.” – O. Palmer Robertson, The Christ of the Covenants, 67.

CT’s are usually ready to admit that the covenant of works is not discoverable from the plain text of Scripture. But “good and necessary consequence” is on hand to help. Leading Puritan theologian Anthony Burgess said that the covenant of works “must only be gathered by deductions and consequence,” while Beeke and Jones are clear that this means “inference.” (Joel R. Beeke & Mark Jones, A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life, 218-219).

I have no problem with the notion that a collection of passages can be arranged so as to arrive at a conclusion about a doctrinal tenet. For myself and Dispensationalists the “rapture” teaching is one such example. One combines the relevant texts and tries to come to “an inference to the best explanation”; one with the best explanatory value and the fewest problems. This is what I call a Category 3 formulation in the Rules of Affinity.

So where does one gather together the texts which cumulatively argue for a prelapsarian covenant of works? You will perhaps not be surprised to learn that the interpretation of the passages from which the covenant of works is given a scriptural appearance are themselves a product of “good and necessary consequences”! Here are a few:

  1. God made a covenant with Adam in Eden before there was any sin in the world.
  2. This “covenant’s” terms are supposedly found in the prohibition of God for Adam not to eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil in Genesis 2:16-17.
  3. This tree, as well as the Tree of Life, was a sacramental tree which held value as symbols of the covenant of works (along with the Sabbath and perhaps paradise itself).

It ought to be clear that to arrive at the three conclusions above even more “good and necessary consequences” need to get involved. But I pass on. Since the covenant of works was supposed to be apiece with the original creation there has been debate among CT’s whether Adam was made in the covenant of works of for it. Beeke & Jones put it like this:

“whether one believed that Adam was created in a covenant, by virtue of the law being written on his heart, or created for a covenant, once the terms had been set forth by positive institution, all were were agreed that the presence of these two trees, which represented life and death, promises and threats, confirmed Adam in a covenant of works.” – Joel R. Beeke & Mark Jones, A Puritan Theology, 224.

The arrangement between God and Adam is claimed to be that his probation would be ended and he would have been given a glorified body and eternal life had he kept faithful. The “covenant” was the test (See Richard P. Belcher, Jr., The Fulfillment of the Promises of God, 26 n. 5, 33).

One of the conjectures that CT has handed down to us is that if Adam had just kept obeying for the right amount of time God would have confirmed him in righteousness and granted him inherent eternal life. This grant would still have been gracious because the “work” Adam did could never earn the reward that God “promised.” A search of Genesis 1 – 3 will show that God prohibited Adam and Eve from eating of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, but it will equally demonstrate that there was no word of promise about eternal life after a period of testing. That again is inferred.

Belcher is correct to state that “covenants operate on the basis of a representative principle” which includes descendants (Ibid, 26), but it must be noted firstly that this “seed principle” is part of the biblical covenants, and second, that it need not cover all descendants. The Abrahamic and Davidic covenants are instances of this. As there are zero examples of oaths taken in respect to the covenants of redemption, works, or grace in Scripture, what we have is yet another inference taken from reading the biblical covenants (Noahic, Abrahamic, Mosaic, Priestly, Davidic, and New) and supposing that the “covenants” of CT do the same thing as those clear covenants stipulate.

I shall continue next time by looking more at what CT’s say about the covenant of works before looking at what the Bible has to say about it.