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 (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.”
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.
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.
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.
 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.
 Ibid, 303.
 Michael S. Horton, The God of Promise, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006), 10, 14.
 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.