What is a Biblical Covenant? – Part One

In previous assorted posts I have now and then called attention to the fact that as “plain-sense” readers of Scripture, we are concerned more with the covenants in the Bible than with the dispensations.  Hence I coined the term “Biblical Covenantalist” in preference to “dispensationalist” to describe myself.

But it is a fact that Christians do not always have the same thing in view when speaking about the covenants of Scripture.  For one thing, those calling themselves “Covenant Theologians” (CT’s) do not place much emphasis upon the literal covenants with Noah, Abraham, David, etc.  Instead they focus on theological covenants – those of Redemption, Works, and Grace. 

Indeed, it is a common occurrence in their writings to simply come across references to “the covenant,” by which they mean their “Covenant of Grace.”  This is a covenant that was supposedly made between God and His elect to guarantee their redemption and salvation.  It is often derived in part (not wholly) from the wording of the covenant that God made with Abraham and his seed in Genesis.  I say in part because the Abrahamic Covenant is interpreted in terms of their understanding of the New Testament and not first on its own terms and in its own context.

It is not my purpose here to enter into all the debates between covenant theology and dispensationalism.  But I do want to clarify matters for the reader.  For it is not unfair to state that one cannot read a covenant theologian on the biblical covenants who does not quickly subsume them within the theological Covenant of Grace.  Here, for example, is O. Palmer Robertson in his book, The Christ of the Covenants.

The primary covenants in Scripture are those made with Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, and the new covenant.  In addition, strong evidence favors viewing the original creation relationship between God and man [what CT’s call “the Covenant of Works], as well as the first bond established by God with man after the fall [usually designated “the Covenant of Grace], as covenantal…Particular details of the covenants may vary.  A definite line of progress may be noted.  Yet the covenants of God are one. (pp.27-28. Emphasis added).

From then on Robertson will continually appeal to this supposed single “covenant” throughout his book.  This one covenant turns out to be, as we have noted, the Covenant of Grace (or “Redemption” as Robertson rather confusingly calls it).

In contrast to this approach, dispensational theologians allow the biblical covenants to say everything they say, even if in saying it one can not always put the covenants together in a precise theological framework.  This is just to say that adopting an artificial grid like the Covenant of Grace and imposing it upon the wording of say the Abrahamic Covenant (e.g. Gen. 15) or Davidic Covenant (e.g. Jer. 33:15ff.) and by it actually changing the contextual wording of those contracts, is a precarious way to find unity between the Old and New Testaments.

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