A Very Brief History of Covenant Theology (1)

As an outsider to Covenant Theology (CT), but one who has attended a Seminary that taught it and who appreciates the great men associated with it, I thought I would write a short history of Covenant Theology for those non-CT’s who might like to know a tad more about it.

My purpose in here is not to define what is known as Covenant Theology.  What I wish to do is to provide some of the salient historical backdrop to it and then ask why it has proven itself so durable.

I think a good way to do this is to present four questions which I will then attempt to answer.

Four Questions

  1. How old is Covenant Theology (CT)?
  2. When did it gain prominence?
  3. Why did it take hold?
  4. Summary: What is its status today?

It is not my wish to get technical and sophisticated.  This little presentation is just an overview.

1. How Old Is Covenant Theology?

According to the sources, CT comes out of the Reformation, was elevated to foundational status by the 17th Century Puritans in England and Scotland, and on the European continent in Holland and Germany, and was developed in the 19th and 20th Centuries, particularly in Holland and America.  The “covenant” idea in CT is a way of resolving the tension between God’s justice and God’s mercy, and it lends CT its strongly soteriological bent.[1] The early advocates of CT saw it as a way of bringing the whole of life, whether Church, Government, or private life, under one “theological umbrella.”

Perhaps the first Reformer to bring forward a covenantal idea was the second generation Zurich preacher Heinrich Bullinger (d. 1575).  In Bullinger the covenant is not given large emphasis, and is certainly not the unifying principle it would become a century later.[2] A more conspicuous use of the covenant motif is found in the work of the German writer Caspar Olevianus (d. 1587).  Together with Zachary Ursinus he drafted the Heidelberg Catechism in 1563.  This elegantly written work included the teaching that God had enacted a covenant with believers to save them and to instruct them in their Christian walk.

2. When Did It Come To Prominence?

It did not take long for Reformed Protestants to start seeing more and more uses for the covenant idea in both doctrinal and practical theology.  The world of the Reformation and its aftermath was vulnerable both politically and economically.  It was inevitable that theological concerns would be married to political concerns.

For example, in the 1520’s Zwingli had taught that the Church and State ought to be one baptized community.  In his skirmishes with the Anabaptists Zwingli saw that infant baptism had powerful political and social dimensions, and that, therefore, capitulation to the theology of believers baptism carried with it the risky overtones of independent thinking and maverick preaching (which, in the case of not a few Anabaptists, it did).

In England, where Henry VIII had established a state-sponsored Church, CT was seen as a way to bring further reform through the imposition of theology upon social structures.[3]

In the theology of the Scotsman Robert Rollock we find explicit teaching on the Covenant of Works (1596) whereby unregenerate men were said to be covenantally obliged to do what they could not do; i.e. keep the law of God with a pure heart.  I think it could be compellingly argued that the formulation of the Covenant of Works gave CT its impetus to become the theology of Reformed Christians.  It carries within it an implicit impetus to re-structure self and society according to what is thought to be the requirements of God for the new humanity, the Church

Not that all CT’s hold to the Covenant of Works.  John Murray points out that it is not found in the first Reformed Confessions of the Reformation, and, even today there are those who reject it (Baptists especially).

The work that really gave CT its status was, without doubt, the Westminster Confession of 1646 (adopted first in Scotland in Aug. 1647).[4] This is the Confession of the traditional Presbyterian Churches, and the plain covenant motif within the Confession ensures that CT will have an official standing in the Reformed community.  This was even more the case because the Synod of Dordt of 1618-1619, in its revision of the Heidelberg Catechism, had given the covenant a more decisive role; one that Dutch theologians Johannes Coccieus and Herman Witsius would capitalize on in their development of CT in the mid to late 17th Century.

Part Two

[1] Robert G. Clouse, “Covenant Theology,” in Gen. ed., J. D. Douglas, The New International Dictionary of the Christian Church, (Grand Rapids; Zondervan, 1978), 267.

[2] John Murray, “Covenant Theology,” in Collected Writings of John Murray, (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1982), Volume 4, 217.  This is the best one-stop treatment of CT that this writer has seen.

[3] This is what the Presbyterian Party wanted at least.  It is not by accident that the Directory of Worship for the Westminster Confession denies freedom of conscience.

[4] It should be noted that Scotland was prepared for the Confession by men like David Dickson, who in 1638 expounded the covenant scheme before Scotland’s ministers at the Glasgow Assembly. – John MacLeod, Scottish Theology, (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1974), 85.  Earlier still, William Perkins had spoken of the Covs. Of Works & Grace in his book, A Golden Chaine (1608), 70-71.

4 thoughts on “A Very Brief History of Covenant Theology (1)”

  1. And to think: in those two hundred years (WCF – Darby), all the truth that could be mined out of the Bible was completely tapped-out!

    Ah, to have lived in the days when there was still gold in them thar hills.

  2. You doubtless already know this, but when Jude wrote about “the faith once for all committed to the saints,” he was referring to the Westminster Standards!

    For all that, the reluctant dispensationalist on my shoulder wants me to say that save one or two blessed exceptions, dispensationalists have not distinguished themselves on the “mining” front in the last fifty years.

  3. Individuals have, but as a movement, no. I would still insist that the should-be-intuitive position that “Israel” means (hel-lo?) Israel, and that the same careful, believing exegesis by which Reformed guys glean such wonderful truth from Paul should be applied to Isaiah and Daniel, is itself a gold nugget.

    Though I wouldn’t currently agree that dispensationalism should a whole separate theology in every way. You are probably better-read and more current in the literature than I, hence my qualification. But I think dispensationalism arises from a certain hermeneutic which, if consistently applied, would bring a result that in vast swaths is the same as what CTs come up with and dispensational distinctives.

    A friend checked out a Reformed institute, and noticed that they put dogmatics in the first years, and don’t get to hermeneutics until far down the line. I think that’d equally be a mistake if done by dispies or CTs.

    Your counter?

  4. It is hard to respond to you without writing a kind of “New Dispensationalist Manifesto.” If I pick it up with your identification of “a certain hermeneutic…consistently applied” (with which I agree) then I believe we are duty bound to take a good look at every area of theology and see how this works itself out.

    In many cases our doctrines will be very similar to CTs: God’s absolute sovereignty; man’s total depravity with its corresponding noetic effects; the vicarious nature of the atonement; individual unconditional election and such such like. But our formulations based upon our hermeneutics would require a more subordinate place for reason than in CT. This would prevent dispies (and I don’t like the name) from erecting what I think are rationalistic bridges between the doctrines of Scripture and producing certain pet formulations (and here you might want to take a sharp intake of breath and prepare for battle :)).

    Take three examples of such CT deductive bridges – and i’ll up the ante as I proceed. 1. Infant baptism as a necessary corollary to OT circumcision. 2. limited (particular) atonement as a result of construing election from the vantage point of the eternal decrees. 3. Regeneration prior to faith to lock-in this (initially) deductive view of election with the work of the Triune God in salvation. Don’t leave….

    With our mandate to construct a Dispensational theology from the ground up based on our adoption of a consistent hermeneutics, Bridge 1 is (I think) impossible without reason vieing with Scripture for a theological veto. Bridge 2 (Particular atonement) is much more difficult to hold, although, like Shedd, one could (should) hold to a particularism in the application of the atonement. Bridge 3 if dissolved on the ground that our hermeneutics could not support it, would, of course, be the nemesis of Bridge 2. Would this introduce horrors like libertarian freewill or sneak in a synergistic soteriology? I am persuaded it would not! But it would make us scrutinize e.g. the relationships between Jn. 3:3,5 and John 3:36, 1:12-13, 5:24 and 6:37,44 (and Acts 10) to arrive at a monergism which identifies the beginnings of our transformation not with regeneration, but with the efficacious drawing of God in conviction and illumination (including the gifts of faith and repentance). This would require a soft compatibilism but would ward off those objectors who would say that we arrived where we did only by using a wax nose hermeneutics.

    You might want to disagree sharply. And that is just fine because our shared commitment is to interpreting Scripture on the basis of our shared hermeneutics. I could be wrong and you might show me a better way. Regardless of whether I’ve got it right here, at least we’d be doing theology within a “Dispensational” (I really don’t like that name) frame of reference!

    Now my MAIN point: Our hermeneutical predisposition would relieve us of the yoke of the dispensations and would redirect us to the Creation mandate and God’s disclosures in the biblical covenants. This way of proceeding would transform “Dispensationalism” from an ill fitting Reformed appendage into a full-orbed systemsatic theology and world and life view!

    This is a lot to take in and were you to reply to it you would need an e-zine. What I am saying though is that it is possible and desirable to develop dispensational theology this way. Again, please don’t let what I have said about Bridges 2 & 3 stop you from seeing the main argument. You may be able to retain them as is via inductive exegesis, but you would I think be obliged to hold your theological deductions in check until you had given full reign to your chosen hermeneutics.

    What do you think?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s