A Very Brief History of Covenant Theology (2)

Part One Here

Why Did Covenant Theology Take Hold?

We have already indicated that political expediency may have encouraged the covenant mindset, at least early on.  But theologically speaking, there is one overwhelming reason for its attraction.  The covenant concept, especially the Covenant Of Grace, brings the Old and New Testaments together into one unity (which Dispensationalists like myself would say is a artificial, forced unity).  The Covenant Of Grace provides the continuity that is essential if the Church is to be the one people of God in both Testaments that Reformed theology claims it to be.

Johannes Coccieus (d. 1669) issued in 1648 a book that presented an outline of the scriptural teaching on salvation.  In tracing salvation from the creation of Adam (who was originally under the Covenant of Works) down to the end of time (the elect under the Covenant of Grace), Coccieus had presented his Dutch constituency with a progressive historical outworking of God’s decree[1] (his system included the Millennium).  Herman Witsius’ (d. 1708) scheme differs from that of Coccieus in that it is more concerned with systematic theology and practical living (including Sabbath-keeping) than with a mere outlining of salvation history.  His book, The Economy of the Divine Covenants (1677), issued last in two volumes with a Forward by J. I. Packer, is a wonderfully devout work filled with the kind of robust theology which characterized the best of the Dutch Nadere Reformatie. It is hardly surprising that this work is seen as a premier account of CT. 

Incidentally, Packer admits in his Forward to Witsius’s book that the Covenant of Grace has the status of a hermeneutic!  This fact, so often overlooked by those on both sides of the argument, is crucial for any coherent appreciation of the place of “the covenant” in CT.  It has determinative hermeneutical authority and all Scripture must yield to its insistance on soteriological and eschatological conformity.  Which is why dispensational premillennialism is at odds with the demand of the single Covenant of Grace.

We see, then, that owing to the fact that CT is included in the Confessional documents of the Presbyterian and Dutch Reformed Churches; together with its ability to unify the two Testaments, and its scholarly and pious development in late 17th Century literature, CT has an in-built perpetuity and authority – at least until these Confessions are abandoned.

Whether this authority is justifiable biblically is another question.  The Covenants of Works and Grace have meager exegetical credentials, as a survey of the relevant literature will show.  James Orr, while noticing some positive contributions of CT, criticized it for failing “to seize the true idea of development.”  He accuses it of fabricating “an artificial system of typology, and [an] allegorizing interpretation” whereby the NT is read back into the Old.”[2]

Notwithstanding, as one of its latest protagonists explains:

We were not just created and then given a covenant; we were created as covenant creatures… [Therefore] whenever Reformed theologians attempt to explore and explain the riches of Scripture, they are always thinking covenantally about every topic they take up.[3]

What Is Its Present Status?

Despite being linked to the major Confessions, there has been development since the 17th Century, especially in the work of Kuyper, Vos, Van Til, Kline and others.  Although CT generally fell out of favor until the second half of the 19th Century, great theologians like Charles and A. A. Hodge at Princeton and Herman Bavinck in Amsterdam wrote significant theologies which stressed the role of “the covenant.”  Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics, which has just recently been translated into English, contains in it the most intellectually persuasive account of Reformed theology this writer has read.  In its four volumes the immense contribution of CT to evangelical thought is in full view.  And this contribution should be appreciated by those whose theological commitments lay elsewhere.

In Britain, Reformed theology was scarcely preached in the first years of the 20th Century.  It was as a result of the labors of D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones and others that young people began to search out the writings of Puritans like John Owen, Thomas Goodwin, and  Jonathan Edwards, and Princetonians like B. B. Warfield.  In the U.S. it was the presence of Westminster Seminary and its outstanding faculty that kept CT on the roadmap.[4]

It is this dual attraction of intellectual strength and spiritual vigor that will insure CT a future.  Although it is possible that some recent Reformed Baptists (Piper, Grudem et al) with their more charismatic version of Calvinism, may produce a crop of followers who are ‘Reformed’ without adhering closely to all the tenets of CT, the traditional wing appears strong.  We shall have to see what happens.

One thing is for sure, Covenant Theology is “in” and Dispensational Theology is “out.”  Hopefully, Dispensationalists will be encouraged to develop their theology in ever more robust and vital ways to show that it has a crucial part to play in the propagation of Christian truth.  But for now, CT is where it’s at.


[1] James Orr notes that with Coccieus the idea of covenant is given a “systematic development which raised it to a place of importance it had not formerly possessed.  It not only is made by him the leading idea of his system… but in his treatment the whole development of sacred history is governed by this thought.” – James Orr, The Progress of Dogma, (New York: A. C. Armstrong & Son, 1907), 302-303.

[2] Ibid, 303.

[3] Michael S. Horton, The God of Promise, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006), 10, 14.

[4] I remember Jay Adams saying that in the first half of the last century things were at a low-ebb for CT.  The situation was turned around because of a conviction that Reformed thought was intellectually satisfying and spiritually mature.

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17 comments

  1. Is numbe 1 of the article on “A brief history of covenant theology” available I greatly appreciate number 2. jgr

  2. Very sorry brother. My computer access is minimal at the moment so I missed your comment. You should be able to read the first installment now, although it is not meant to be anything but a brief look.

    God bless you and yours.

    Paul

  3. Hi Paul,

    Was there some sort of theological desire, or sentiment, behind/driving the ‘Church is the one people of God in both Testaments’ claim?

    Blessings,

    Sam

    1. Ah, that is a question!

      Here’s my opinion, based, if I may say so< on many years of reading and interaction with supercessionism:

      1. Hermeneutically – the problem is treating the NT as if it is more the Word of God than the OT. Arising from this is that the NT is read into the OT. BUT – the NT is interpreted according to a theological program.

      2. Theologically, then – the problem is the presupposition that what makes sense to the individual is the rule of thumb. That is, human reasoning is allowed to determine (and in cases to overrule) the wording of the text. This feeds the hermeneutical program above, so is self-referential. Classic places to test this hypothesis are Gen. 1; Gen. 7:17-24; Exod. 20:11; Jer. 33:14-26; Ezek. 40-48; Zech. 12-14; Acts 1:3, 6-7; Rom. 11:23ff.; Rev. 7:1-8; 20:1-10. See also what I call the Rules of Affinity

      3. Emotionally – it is just a fact that replacement theologians, by and large, don’t much care for Israel. Imagine walking into a Ligonier Conference and asking about God’s promises to His favored people Israel. Is it coincidence that many (not all) of these brethren are pro-Palestinian (e.g. Knox Seminary)? Paul Wilkinson and Ronald Diprose have documented this issue quite well.

      Hope this helps a bit.

      God bless you and yours,

      Paul H.

      1. Paul sorry to butt into you guys conversation, I can attest from bring an inside witness to the Reformed circle that yes, any mention of ethnic Israel’s national future to God’s plan is going to provoke quite a violent reaction. I know people personally who are stridently anti-Israel and those who speak up front about the Arab-Israeli conflict unsurprisingly take the pro-Palestinian position. BTW these people are not theological liberals, they are just as evangelical as you and I when it comes to the gospel!

        In addition, I notice they will never subscribe to the idea that the Jewish people is still surviving as a national entity as one of the strongest apologetics point about God’s existence. I can guarantee that this point is bound to be controversial if you dare raise it.

        But there needs to be a balance: there is not one singular attitude to the issue of Jewish people among the Covenant Theologians and their churches. And even the most hardline replacement theologians I know personally have no issues with Jews getting saved. They have no troubles with the ministries of Jews for Jesus which only deal with the gospel – not even Stephen Sizer. So it’s not right to say that Covenant Theologians just want Jews die unsaved and be gone – barring some very extreme anti-Semitic examples that I know on a second hand basis from messianic Jewish teachers. The trouble comes when you start openly supporting ministries that teach Israel’s national restoration in the future – for example, Chosen People Ministries is probably where many replacement theologians would consider you to have crossed the line in their circle. And saying you actively support ministries that are politically active in supporting the State of Israel today – such as Friends of Israel Gospel Ministry – is a big no no in the Covenant Theology circles. I personally find myself having to be cautious in conversation with Christians who don’t know my dispensational belief if the topic of Mideast Peace comes up and whether Nethanyahu or the PLO is right.

        I think as a result, you won’t find many Jewish missions operating with a Calvinist/sovereignist understanding of God, perhaps because of the latent anti-Zionist and even occasionally anti-Semitic sentiment they have suffered from those from the Protestant circles that emphasise God’s sovereignty in bringing man’s salvation the most (Reformed and Lutheran). I know FOI is decidedly Arminian while Chosen People would be quite far from Calvinism.

        Also one thing I also need to point out: the more Calvinist a circle is, the less likely they will agree to the present day outworking of God on the Jewish people collectively and Israel as a nation. Barry Horner and Calvin Smith would probably cringe at the pro-Israel activism coming out of FOI or IFCJ (International Fellowship of Christians and Jews), their pro-Israel beliefs resting at a more “God will somehow work with them again in the future in the apocalyptic times ourt of covenantal faithfulness, not those American evangelicals who can think nothing but apocalyptic stuff…”.

  4. Sorry Paul, a bit more. Do you think the reasoning employed to ‘make sense’ of the text, is significantly shaped/coloured by the coherency (and logical consistency?) of CT as a system (I think you’ve referred to this as the “intellectual strength” of CT)?

    Sam

    1. Certainly Sam,

      As J. I. Packer has said in his introduction to Witsius’s “Economy of the Divine Covenants,” covenant theology is the hermeneutics.

      Spot the vicious circle 🙂

      P

  5. @Joel – butt away brother 🙂
    Your insights are appreciated. I’m just trying to learn a bit more about CT as I get into Biblical Covenantalism.

    Sam

    1. Sam, if you don’t mind here are other tidbits I have noticed from the Reformed Covenantal/NCT circle that strikes this dispensationalist:

      1. There is an obsession with the single meaning of the Bible. Take Genesis for example, we take the Genesis creation account and a dispensationalist is concerned with what the text plainly says and how that shows creation has no excuse that Jehovah is the God and Creator of the whole world. The CT brothers and sisters look at the creation account differently: they say that yes God created the world, and what is the theme of this? In other words they are obsessed with meaning of creation in God’s grand scheme of plan. I think this is why a majority of Reformed are comfortable with day age creation and even theistic creation (before those Reformed screams a lot of covenantal folks are six day creationists, let me say that the six day creationists are minority, and those I have encountered say “It doesn’t really matter to the gospel at all, even if I hold to 6 day creation…”).

      2. Following on from 1 I find CT read the Bible very much in the angle that they are very hard to look at things themematically from the perspective of God saving sinners through Jesus, even though some sub-tribes in the Reformed world such as evangelical Anglicans esp Sydney try hard to look at the Scriptures within the context. Dispensationalists don’t look at the text in the same way: the text is God’s revelation to mankind and Christians ask what does this passage really mean in its original context, and how are the other subsequent books build on it?

      3. A consequence of 2 is that many Christians may know about why the Scriptures are to be read literally historically grammtically but they have no idea as to why. Many are attracted to CT because it seems to tell us the overarching theme of the Bible. But they forget that the theme, as Paul said, is a theological presupposition that actually ended up driving how we are reading the Bible. Paul tries to remedy by coming up with a more biblical understanding of biblical theology.

      4. Another difference is that the Reformed world is very insistent on Jesus’s one role as the Lord and Saviour of mankind. They don’t know, don’t care, or deny that Jesus’s specific role as the Messiah of Israel according to the OT. I picked this up from my friend Paul Cohen, a messianic Jew from Sydney Australia and heads Ariel Australia. Cohen also pointed out Reformed theology has the faulty way of reading the Bible by reading the NT back to the OT, that I covered in point 3 above. Have a look at the Paul Cohen interview on youtube here:

      Because of their insistence, everything must be shoehorned into the big narrative of Jesus saving man’s sins. This is why a big group of amillennialists would point out the world passes ways in the upcoming New Kingdom and New earth so this world (creation) is not important and we are to wait for the NHANE. Another big group of amillennialists insists the earth will be renewed to the NHANE but because they don’t believe God’s stewardship changes according to revealed covenants/dispensations, ended up supporting social gospel. (Don’t believe the Reformed narratives that only the Arminians have liberal social gospel. The Reformed have their own liberalism and social gospel as well, often they are just as virulent)

      5. My personal experience is that the OT expositions in the Reformed camp are very light and unsatisfying. It is not uncommon to witness the contexts of specific OT books are ignored unlike NT expositions, and you normally find that in a CT church a OT sermon may take 4 chapters while you will find NT sermon probably only covers half a paragraph. There is a trend to shoehorn all the promises to Israel’s restoration to Jesus’ First Coming. And you will find that in general even an so-so dispensational teacher have a more thorough exposition of the OT texts. For example, I heard a sermon series on the Book of Nahum a couple years back at perhaps one of the best Reformed-leaning churches from this part of the world. The minister is generally very good and he is less-RT than others I have encountered. But even he was saying that God’s love for Israel and restore Israel at the end of judgment of Nahum isn’t literally fulfilled after the Babylonian exile and won’t be fulfilled in the future in our time, but fulfilled “by Jesus when He came the first time”. I was scratching my head over that theology.

      6. There are normally a lot of scientific type people there, and I can say that Genesis especially anything before Abraham are understood in naturalistic way provided their liberal understanding does not touch “Adam and Eve are there and they sinned and introduced sin into the world” anything goes. There is so much justification and twisting of the Scriptures from a majority in this camp that I think ultimately this is one big reason that stopped me from going fullblown Reformed.

      7. There is a section in the Reformed camp that understands God’s present workings on individual believers very wrong. Many think that God only works through the laws of science as part of His sovereign work, and deny that God can allow anything contrary to the laws of science to happen (such as miracles) and our prayers are only to make us feel better. This is not standard Reformed teaching but rather Reformed-sounding naturalistic/liberal theology espoused by people like William Barclay, if you ask J.I. Packer, Phillip Jensen, Al Mohler, John MacArthur, Kevin DeYoung, Gary DeMar, they will deny this is Calvinism but rather liberal theology. Nonetheless this is a very very widespread held belief among lay believers in the Reformed circle – I think it is the naturalistic presupposition that sustain some CT believers working this way as well. I have even heard some ministers teach something that sounds like this.

      Hope these helps. Others may fill up on other areas they have witnessed.

      1. Correction to point 2: “Following on from 1 I find CT read the Bible very much in the angle that they are [trying] very hard to look at things themematically from the perspective of God saving sinners through Jesus, even though some sub-tribes in the Reformed world such as evangelical Anglicans esp Sydney try hard to look at the Scriptures within the context. “

      2. Probably another two additional points:

        1. The CT/NCT crowd has a big problem in understanding Jesus’ role in relation to the Creation. On one hand, they understand rightly about significance in salvation throuhg Jesus shedding the blood for us. On the other hand, they either will have a classical Sam Storms/majority Sydney Anglican understanding that creation is not really the role in Jesus’ salvation, or like Gary DeMar/Tim Keller/Anthony Hoekema that thinks there is a continuity between the present world and NHANE that Jesus’ death has redeemed the world so we are now to be socially active, “environmentally responsible” which reads like a laundry list of contemporary progressive environmentalist agenda. You may notice that the Reformed crowd contain a lot of very left-leaning though perfectly evangelical believers even though they have their own shares of intellectual conservatives (politically) as well.

        What both don’t see is that Jesus must reign on this world so exercise the dominion on the earth and partially restore the Eden condition. Because He must reign until sin has been conquered (2 Cor), it means the first group errs by failing to note that Jesus’ death in relation to salvation of Creation and reversal of the curse, and the second group errs by failing to note that this restoration of man’s dominion must have Jesus ruling on earth directly as King for this to happen. i.e. the only biblically plausible way to explain this is there must be an intermediate period with Jesus ruling on earth while death and curse are not completely reversed.

        And then we have the “thorny” issue of Israel’s specific role of God’s program as the light [of God] to the nations! This has never been completely fulfilled by the nation at Zion over the world. It must await the Servant to rule over Zion for this to happen. So all amillennialists and postmillennialists err greatly over ignoring Israel.

        2. The most frustrating thing for me to read Reformed quips on dispensationalists is always these excuses when we present our objection to amillennialism, “fulfilled theology”, or whatever you call it:

        “You are so obsessed with the millennium/rapture/apocalyptic stuff”

        “You are just those Jew/Israel worshipper!”

        No, my concern is 1. God’s Word must stand, it’s not really prophecy, but the integrity of His specifica revelation of His Word. Every dispensationalist would voice that the integrity of the Bible is their ultimate justification in upholding disp beliefs whether they are Dan Phillips from one end of the spectrum to Bill Salus on the otehr extreme end, and 2. God’s general revelatioon in the world has revealed the continuing survival of Israel/Jewish people as an entity. If God’s sovereign plans does not involve Israel becoming a nation again, He could have frustrated the unbelieving Jews’ attempt to keep their nation/group distinct. History has recorded how historical attempts to rebuild the Temple post-AD70 destruction were met with supernatural/providence obstacles.

  6. “History has recorded how historical attempts to rebuild the Temple post-AD70 destruction were met with supernatural/providence obstacles.”
    It sounds very interesting. Could you give some examples? And maybe sources to verify this?

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