Some Problems I Have With Covenant Theology (Pt.1)

In this post I want to record what I see as some of the major problems of Covenant Theology (CT).  I know many very fine and godly people hold and have held to this position.  Therefore, any particular conflict I may have with the theology should certainly not be viewed as a lack of sincere respect and even admiration of many CT’s.

Let me also say that I don’t believe I am overly concerned to defend Dispensational Theology (DT).  I try to do theology based on certain presuppositions, all of which are derived, I think, from the Bible.  It is because of a conflict between these biblical assumptions and the teachings resting on them, and CT that I cannot see how CT is faithful to “the whole counsel of God” and so rightly represents what God has revealed to men.  In this post I shall set forth what I hold to be the most significant errors of CT.  I  shall develop these points in other posts.  This set of posts will overlap somewhat with another group of articles where I outline what I call “The Parameters of Meaning”: i.e. the limits within which an interpreter must keep if he or she is to not step outside the Word of God.

Not all will agree with me, and I have no theologian’s ‘golden touch’, but I hope to stimulate a bit of thinking hither and thither.

The Biggest Problems With Covenant Theology

1. Covenant theology depends for its credibility upon theological covenants with virtually no exegetical proof.  This is especially the case with the “Covenant of Grace”

2. However, the “Covenant of Grace”(C of G), which is really a theological inference rather than a teaching from Scripture, wields such excessive interpretative authority upon the text of Scripture that the wording of Scripture is often obscured behind the constructions demanded by this “covenant.”

3. The “Covenant of Grace” becomes the hermeneutical lens through which much of the rest of Scripture is interpreted.  Thus interpretations filtered through the C of G are often constructed upon the same  inferential base as the C of G.  This means that some of the most important doctrines of CT are in actuality, inferences built upon other inferences.

4. By assuming, without sufficient warrant, that the New Testament must be used to [re]interpret the Old Testament, CT in practice denies to the OT its own perspicuity, its own integrity as inspired revelation, and creates a “canon within a canon.”  To paraphrase George Orwell, in CT “all Scripture is inspired, but some Scripture [the NT] is more inspired than others [the OT]”.

5. By allowing their interpretations of the NT to have veto over the plain sense of the OT this outlook creates massive discontinuities between the wording of the two Testaments.  This is all done for the sake of a contrived continuity demanded by the one-people of God concept of the C of G.

6. CT thus interprets the Bible with different rules of hermeneutics depending on the presuppositions above.

7. Though they would consciously deny the  charge, it is undeniable that CT ‘s way of reading the Bible (as above) creates a major problem philosophically in that it strongly implies that God equivocates.  More seriously still, the manner of equivocation means that equivocation belongs to the essential nature of  the Godhead.

These are my main objections to Covenant Theology, and I think they are serious.  Perhaps they can be addressed?  My experience, however, is that the specifics of these charges are evaded or else simply denied without argument.

Let it be noted that objections to CT are not arguments necessarily in favor of Dispensationalism.  Thus, it will not do to reply to these issues by arguing against DT.

Lord willing, I shall expand on these observations in the New Year.

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9 comments

  1. In my own humble opinion, I believe there are elements of truth in both philosophies. I also believe this to be the case with so many of the frequently debated Christian doctrines.

    There is nothing new under the sun. Doctrine has been debated for centuries and there is very little originality that we can add to the debate at this point.

    But, what’s the fun in that? We love to study, analyze, debate and – most of all 0 be “right”.

    Since God knows the way we are, and He have us a Bible that is the way it is, perhaps the never-ending discussion is all part of God’s perfect plan.

  2. I like the spirit of this remark, and I agree that “either/or” strategies can lurch too far one way or another. Still, I am trying here to present some clear difficulties with the method of CT’s. Perhaps one or two will address my concerns? 🙂

  3. “Perhaps the never-ending discussion is all part of God’s perfect plan.”

    I do believe that parts of God’s Word are purposefully set forth such that they demand greater engagement on our part in order to come to terms with them as individuals.

    Since new individuals are constantly being born (and born again), this process — which may seem arduous or maybe even hopeless when viewed from a long-term historical perspective — still would seem to have value as an important element in the process of producing individual disciples.

    As to elements which might be true in both philosophies: this may sound reassuring on the surface, as if we need not be too concerned to ferret out the truth from the mix. However, a simple combining of favorite elements that we might like from each is unlikely to do justice to the truth. This is because it seems that doctrines will always “ride in posse.” That is, ideas that are accepted in one area are then determinative of other ideas in order to form a compatible framework of understanding because we hold that a core attribute of truth is lack of contradiction. To adopt pieces from each philosophy would form an “unstable theology” which could not stand still, but would be in tension until it resolved itself by movement in one direction of another to minimize self-contradiction. This it seems, leads to unavoidable polarization where doctrinal beliefs stand or fall in cohesive relation.

    This is why some have quipped that in order to determine a person’s views on numerous issues, all one has to do is ask for their interpretation of one of several ‘litmus test’ passages. The way they understand such passages (e.g., Rev. 20) will then tell you where they are almost certain to stand on many other issues — because it is a requirement for their theological framework to be self-compatible. If it were not, they would be constantly shifting in their opinion.

    Thankfully, this is also one reason why the post-modern embrace of alternative (incompatible) truths should prove to be both bankrupt and short-lived.

  4. I think this is addressed in comments from another of your posts, but the Master’s Seminary grads tend to be Dispensational ( i live near Houston, and I think one of our pastors (both are from Masters) was at the conference you mentioned 🙂 ).
    My pastor actually said the same thing as you, that people who are in the Covenantal camp will try to make the ‘dispies’ look bad by putting us alongside a lot of modern prophecy folks (which in my opinion isn’t THAT bad) to try to discredit or marginalize the theology.
    I believe if people would truly look at the flow of thought in books, evaluating the book in its historical and grammatical context — who wrote it, who did they write it to, why did they write it — then they will arrive at the correct conclusions (albeit though no two Christians will agree on everything).
    I’m still mystified how Covenantal folks can gloss over the prophecies in Ezekiel and Zechariah, for example. Thanks for this blog and your postings, I’ve learned a lot here.

  5. oh, and i’m in the ‘younger’ group (under 40 – i’m 35),
    but it seems to me that many of my generation that would be in the conservative circles tend to be reading Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology or Duncan or others. The trend to modern reformed circles among the young people in my generation, if I compare it to my dad’s generation in the 70’s, where people studied prophecy and were excited about what God would do to fulfill prophecy in Israel, etc, seems to be almost a fulfillment of prophecy. Anti-Israelism is something that seems very subtle but the
    rejection of (or complete misinterpretation of) of Romans 11 and the need/jealousy to be the ‘only special people’ (don’t know how else to put this) seems to be a revival of the Reformation-era thought which, in light of all the developments with Israel, would seem to indicate that men’s hearts will continue to grow harder toward Israel (even saved ones) and that it will lead toward the fulfillment of prophecy as outlined in Scripture.

  6. Thanks Matt,

    I hope you understand I am not claiming any inside track in these posts. But I see a big problem and I want to address it from both angles. This post and the ones to follow will try to show what I think CT is doing wrong. I may be able to throw some light on your mystification regarding their use of Ezekiel and Zechariah 🙂

    I think your comment about Grudem’s book is insightful. It has been hugely influential and continues to be so. I believe it is the best organized Systematic Theology and I refer to it quite often, but there are some real problems with it. E.g. Grudem’s stance on the Holy spirit and prophecy is very unsatisfactory; he often fights straw-men when dealing with opposing views – like arguments against definite atonement.

    Thanks for your comments.

    Your brother,

    Paul

  7. I had some thoughts that I thought I would provide underneath your major points.

    1. Covenant theology depends for its credibility upon theological covenants with virtually no exegetical proof. This is especially the case with the “Covenant of Grace”.

    It seems to me that the “Covenant of Grace” phrase obscures a general understanding of God’s purpose for creating the world. The New Testament seems to promote a view that God always intended to send His Son into the world to die for the world. There are a bunch of passages in the Old Testament that the New Testament writers used, written through inspiration and applied by inspiration, to authenticate God’s Son and His intended mission. Inspiration would certainly coincide with God’s attribute of being omniscient. God, being omniscient, should know all things, not just what he perfectly knows now, but what He has always perfectly known. The exegetical proof for covenants may not be in scripture. The exegetical proof that God has always had a plan that He carried out through Adam and His Son, Jesus, is difficult to dispute unless one dismantles God’s attribute of perfect omniscience and God’s sovereignty.

    2. However, the “Covenant of Grace”(C of G), which is really a theological inference rather than a teaching from Scripture, wields such excessive interpretative authority upon the text of Scripture that the wording of Scripture is often obscured behind the constructions demanded by this “covenant.”

    This problem probably does have merit in some cases. When the Apostle John described in Revelation a lamb standing as if slain, it would be difficult to say that this lamb that John sees is not Jesus, and that this lamb is not representative of a Passover lamb described in Exodus. The vision alone doesn’t tell us that, but the Gospels allude to it. It follows then that the story of the exodus is a temporal type that describes a spiritual reality in Christ. This example shows that the method of interpretation is more than a theological inference. But, it is clear that the method of interpretation should not be based solely on the ideas of an interpreter. The interpretation should intend to interpret the passage the way that the author of the book intended for the passage to be interpreted. I am certain that in some cases, if the author of the book were asked, the author would not always agree with a particular interpretation offered by an interpreter.

    3. The “Covenant of Grace” becomes the hermeneutical lens through which much of the rest of Scripture is interpreted. Thus interpretations filtered through the C of G are often constructed upon the same inferential base as the C of G. This means that some of the most important doctrines of CT are in actuality, inferences built upon other inferences.

    Was it wrong to say that the exodus should be interpreted in light of the New Testament? Doesn’t the story reflect that the offering of blood is required for salvation from death? Wasn’t John’s description of a slain lamb intended to make this connection? This particular example is not an inference built upon an inference. This was an author’s intended inference. The issue then is not whether there is an inference that can be derived, but whether the author of the book intended for an inference to be derived.

    4. By assuming, without sufficient warrant, that the New Testament must be used to [re]interpret the Old Testament, CT in practice denies to the OT its own perspicuity, its own integrity as inspired revelation, and creates a “canon within a canon.” To paraphrase George Orwell, in CT “all Scripture is inspired, but some Scripture [the NT] is more inspired than others [the OT]”.

    This problem does have merit in some cases. Perspicuity is a word that deserves some examination. Perspicuity is defined as the quality that describes verbal or written statements as being clearly understandable. A good example to illustrate how a clear understanding may not be so clear is with respect to the prophecy in Malachi that states that Elijah will come before the day of the Lord. Jesus reinterpreted this passage by basically saying that John the Baptist fulfilled this promise by coming in the spirit of Elijah. Clearly, this passage in the Old Testament was not clearly understood without insight from Jesus. In some sense, what I have shown by this illustration is that when the New Testament and the Old Testament do not seem to agree with a given interpretation, then the New Testament should take precedence. A more argumentative example would be the description of Elijah’s temple and how it applies to the future. It is untenable to accept a view that the Old Testament promotes an idea that animal sacrifices will again be instituted by God when the book of Hebrews promotes Jesus as the better sacrifice and the only sacrifice. This untenable interpretation requires reinterpretation because in its current form it cannot coexist with New Testament doctrine. There are cases, therefore, in which the New Testament cannot allow an untenable interpretation of Old Testament scripture, and it is for that reason, and only for that reason, that reinterpretation is required. I would argue though that if a reason doesn’t exist to reinterpret scripture, reinterpretation should be avoided.

    5. By allowing their interpretations of the NT to have veto over the plain sense of the OT this outlook creates massive discontinuities between the wording of the two Testaments. This is all done for the sake of a contrived continuity demanded by the one-people of God concept of the C of G.

    I think I just argued, contrary to your problem statement, that taking the plain sense of the Old Testament in some cases creates the massive discontinuities, and this is why reinterpretation is necessary. The reinterpretation, then, is not for the sake of maintaining a contrived continuity. Instead, the reinterpretation is for the sake of alleviating an actual discontinuity. Examples of an actual discontinuity that require reinterpretation are the two I mentioned in the previous problem response. In one case, Jesus reinterpreted the actual discontinuity. In the other case, God left it up to us to reinterpret the actual discontinuity.

    6. CT thus interprets the Bible with different rules of hermeneutics depending on the presuppositions above.

    The presupposition of primary importance is the presupposition that scripture may have apparent contradictions, but there are no actual contradictions. The hermeneutical rules that I have described so far that apply this central presupposition are not far from yours. They are the application of the following ideas: God is sovereign. God is omniscient. Jesus and the Apostles have the right to reinterpret the Old Testament. Contradiction must be corrected. One additional hermeneutical rule deserves some attention. This rule is that the New Testament provides progressive revelation. An example of progressive revelation found in the New Testament comes from Paul’s statement in Galatians 4:26 that there is a Jerusalem above. Should the rules of hermeneutics account for Paul’s statement that implies that some of the Old Testament prophecies concerning Jerusalem may be referring to the city of Jerusalem that is above rather the city of Jerusalem that is here on earth? Based on the rule that the New Testament provides progressive revelation, certainly Paul’s statement should be considered as a deviation from the clear reading of Old Testament scripture.

    7. Though they would consciously deny the charge, it is undeniable that CT ‘s way of reading the Bible (as above) creates a major problem philosophically in that it strongly implies that God equivocates. More seriously still, the manner of equivocation means that equivocation belongs to the essential nature of the Godhead.

    To equivocate is to use ambiguous language so as to conceal the truth. One of the passages that I think about after defining the word equivocate is a passage in Zechariah that refers to 30 pieces of silver. Mathew applies this passage as prophecy of a specific historical occurrence in the life of Jesus. Certainly, if God intended for the Apostles to pull out passages that are similar to this one to realize that the Old Testament spoke of Jesus, the truth was in many ways concealed. Paul used the word “mystery” to describe concealed truth (Romans 16:25, Ephesians 3:3-5). It does actually appear that God equivocates. If it is true that God equivocates, then it makes a huge amount of sense to interpret the Old Testament based on the New Testament. To say that God equivocates is not to say that God is nefarious.

    1. Steve,

      Thank you for your interaction with my post. Let me offer here just a few responses:

      Firstly, your first three points do nothing to disprove my contention that the covenant of grace is exegetically unjustified. You repair to the Paschal Lamb being a type of Christ, but that has nothing to do with a covenant of grace in Gen. 3 or 12. Further, you speak about the lamb being a temporal type of a spiritual reality, but that is too nebulous. The lamb was a real sacrifice without which Israel could not keep in covenant (i.e. the Mosaic). Christ was sacrificed as the Lamb of God to establish, as Hebrews says, a better covenant. But the sacrifice did not cease until the temple was destroyed and it seems the early Jewish Christians had no problem with that. Was there a typology? Yes, but one clearly indicated in Scripture. But this does nothing in regard to a covenant of grace at all. The covenants of which these sacrifices speak are the Mosaic and New covenants respectively. One cannot go to Exodus to give an inferential argument for a supposed covenant in Genesis. Further, offering an inferential argument is not the same thing as giving an exegetical one – which is what I complained against.

      Secondly, I reject your insistence that the sacrifice of Christ abrogates temple sacrifices in the future. Hebrews says that Christ’s once-for-all sacrifice deals with the sin question (as it puts it, the problem of consciousness of sins) forever. Fine, but Hebrews also says that the blood of bulls and goats never could take away sin (Heb. 10:4). Since they could not take away sin before the cross there is no prima facie problem with their continuance after the cross. Moreover, the Book of Hebrews mostly concerns itself, not with Passover, but with the Day of Atonement. But if you read Ezekiel 40-48 you will see that there will be no Day of Atonement! Hence, what I believe happens here is a misreading of Hebrews to make it say that all animal sacrifices have been curtailed because of the cross – when it does not say that at all.

      You also read Matt. 11:14 as if it says that John the Baptist IS Elijah. But Jesus is careful to qualify His meaning: “if you are willing to receive it” He says. This qualification is important because in John 1:21 (cf. 1:25) John frankly denies that he is Elijah. The solution is found in the offer of Jesus as Messiah who would be rejected by His people (God’s foreknowledge and predetermination of all things assured this as you intimated). Since Elijah is scheduled to come at what we call the second coming (Mal. 4:5) and Jesus was rejected when He first came there had to be a man who would come “in the spirit and power of Elijah” to make the offer bona fide without it actually being Elijah. There is no contradiction and there is no need to reinterpret Malachi. Your statement that there are cases where the NT cannot allow an untenable interpretation of the OT comes from your method of interpretation, not that of the NT. The problem of interpretation lies elsewhere. Elijah shall come exactly as Malachi says. This deals with your fifth assertion about discontinuities needing reinterpretation.

      Thirdly, your understanding of progressive revelation is defective if you are going to rely on what is very clearly said to be an allegory (Gal. 4:24 allegorio). Paul’s use of allegory in one place to illustrate one thing no more teaches that all the OT prophecies refer to Jerusalem above rather than Jerusalem on earth than it can be used to reinterpret the whole book of Galatians. I’m pretty stunned at this example. I shall only say that I have addressed progressive revelation at length here.

      Finally, Zechariah 11:13 declares that God was priced at 30 pieces of silver. When Jesus was priced at that amount and the money was thrown to the Potters Field no reinterpretation was occurring. That IS progressive revelation. You admit that God (in your outlook) equivocates, but your example is not one of equivocation. Moreover, a God who can make a covenant oath which raises specific expectations and then alters the meaning of the words to something other than what those words led people to expect is not simply concealing facts, he is being disingenuous.

      So Steve, although I thank you for your thoughts and their tone I think you have a lot of work to do to make any of your points stick.

      God bless you and yours,

      Paul H.

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