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.
[Don’t worry, I’ll return to the 95 Theses very shortly!]
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.
- How old is Covenant Theology (CT)?
- When did it gain prominence?
- Why did it take hold?
- 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. 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. 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.
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). 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.
 Robert G. Clouse, “Covenant Theology,” in Gen. ed., J. D. Douglas, The New International Dictionary of the Christian Church, (Grand Rapids; Zondervan, 1978), 267.
 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.
 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.
 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.