Some Problems I Have With Covenant Theology (2)

This is the second in a series of personal reflections on why I cannot embrace Covenant Theology.  Part One can be read here.

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.”

The “Covenant of Grace”, which is often simply called “the covenant” by CT’s, wields tremendous, we might say decisive hermeneutical power over CT’s biblical interpretation (see next post in this series).  But before one gets to use such a potent hermeneutical and theological device, one needs to prove that it is actually Scriptural.

As Herman Witsius defines it,

“The Covenant of grace is a compact or agreement between God and the elect sinner; God on his part declaring his free good-will concerning eternal salvation, and everything relative thereto, freely to be given to those in covenant by, and for the mediator Christ; and man on his part consenting to that good-will by a sincere faith.” – The Economy of the Covenants Between God and Man, 1.165 [Bk. 2. Ch.1.5].

Witsius goes on to make it clear that the covenant insures there is only one people of God (the Church) in both Testaments.  This means, for one thing, that whenever one comes across any passage which seems to point to a separation of, say, OT Israel from the NT Church, this must not be allowed to stand, since the “covenant of grace” does not permit it.  Therefore, CT’s must first demonstrate if it is possible to establish a “Covenant of Grace” from the text of Scripture rather than from human reason, and then they must show that this covenant is the very same covenant as the Noahic, Abrahamic, Davidic, and New Covenants which are very clearly found within the Bible.

So what is the exegetical basis for the Covenant of Grace?  Well, don’t hold your breath!  Even dyed-in-the-wool CT’s like O. Palmer Robertson admit that there is slender exegetical apparatus from which to derive it (he thinks the “covenant of works” fairs better, expending much effort on making Hos. 6:7 refer to a pre-Fall covenant).  In reality i would say there is no exegetical justification at all!

Reformed theologian Robert Reymond, who boldly claims that “The church of Jesus Christ is the present-day expression of the one people of God whose roots go back to Abraham” (New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith, 525f.), does no better in coming up with actual biblical texts which support this extra-biblical covenant.  He, like all CT’s, insists the issue be settled by the Scriptures (528 [though insisting the OT be interpreted via his interpretation of the NT!]), but he begs leave to spiritualize the texts when it suits (511 n.16).  That way he can maintain that the land promises “were never primary and central to the covenant intention” (513 n.19).  Quite how one can read Genesis 12-17 and come away believing that the land was not a primary issue escapes me.  For more on Reymond’s position see my review of his book, especially sub-heading (5).

Following the reasoning of CT’s as they dive in and out of selective passages (often avoiding the referents within the context) can be a mind-numbing experience.  One needs to try to keep in mind what they are attempting to prove: that God has made one covenant with the elect of both Testaments to guarantee that there will be one people of God, the Church, inheriting heavenly promises in Christ.  For example, Robertson says,

“The covenants of God are one.  The recurring summation of the essence of the covenant testifies to this fact… All the dealings of God with man since the fall must be seen as possessing a basic unity…Diversity indeed exists in the various administrations of God’s covenants.  This diversity enriches the wonder of God’s plan for his people.  But the diversity ultimately merges inti a single purpose overarching the ages...The various administrations of the covenant of redemption [i.e. grace] relate organically to one another…” – O. Palmer Robertson, The Christ of the Covenants, 52, 55, 61, 63 (my emphasis).

That may sound okay, but what one has to realize is that this means that anything found in the biblical covenants which does not fit this preconceived picture (e.g. a physical land for the people of Israel, a literal throne of David in Jerusalem), is demoted to an ancillary and temporal place or is transformed into a “type” or “shadow” of a spiritual reality which comports with the requirements of “the covenant.”

If we turn to CT’s own explanations of their system we find a curious dualism of frankness and subterfuge.  I do not use “frankness” in the ethical sense, just in the sense that there is sometimes a willingness to face the text and deal with what it actually says.  By “subterfuge” I am not saying there is an unethical motive in these men, but that they almost instinctively avoid the clear implications of passages which undermine their teaching.  Robertson, for example, when dealing with the inauguration of the Abrahamic covenant, carefully picks his way through Genesis 15 (and 12:1) without mentioning God’s land-promise (Ch. 8).  He first constructs his thesis with the help of certain NT texts, and then deals with the land issue once he has a typological framework to put it in.  He is more “up-front” when he refers to Jeremiah 31, 32 and Ezekiel 34 and 37 on pages 41-42 of his book, but this plain speaking about God’s planting of His people “in this land” to “give them one heart and one way” (41), and his explicitly linking the land promise to Jacob with the Abrahamic covenant (42) does not last for long.  Needless to say the land promise to Israel evaporates under the flame of Reformed typology as the book progresses (Ch. 13), and the Church becomes the “Israel” through its participation in the new covenant (e.g. 289).

In none of this does one find any solid exegetical proof.  Instead, at the crucial moment, in order to get where they want to go, CT’s will rely upon human reasoning (“if this, then that”) to lop off covenanted promises which contravene their theological covenants.  The land promise stated over and over in the Abrahamic covenant (e.g. 12:1, 7; 15:18-21; 17:7-8) and repeated in the prophets (e.g. Isa. 44; Jer. 25:5; 31:31-40; 32:36-41; 33:14-26; Ezek. 36:26-36), is ushered into a room marked “obscurity” by the covenant of grace.  How ironic; the land promise is expressly stated and restated all over the OT, and the covenant of grace never once puts in an appearance!

Another noted CT who exemplifies this phenomena I have been referring to is Michael Horton.  His book God of Promise: Introducing Covenant Theology takes back with one hand what it appears to give with the other.  Placing an enormous burden on Galatians 4:22-31 which it was never supposed to bear, Horton sometimes seems to interpret the covenant passages at face value.  He repeatedly admits that both the Abrahamic and Davidic covenants were unconditional.  He rivals any dispensationalist in his belief in the unilateral nature of these biblical covenants (42, 45, 48-49).  But then he makes the land promise part of the Mosaic covenant (whence it can be safely dispatched).  As he says on page 48,

“The Mosaic (Sinai) covenant is an oath of the people swearing personal performance of the conditions for “living long in the land,” while the Abrahamic covenant is a promise by God himself that he will unilaterally bring about the salvation of his people through the seed of Abraham.”

This is an amazing statement.  Although he is right to say that possession of the land was tied to obedience to the Mosaic covenant (e.g. Lev. 26), even the Mosaic covenant looked forward to a new covenant whereby God would circumcise their heart (Deut. 30:6) so that “in the latter days” they would not be forsaken, but would be remembered because of the Abrahamic covenant (Deut.4:30-31; 30:19-20).

So what happened?  Is the Abrahamic covenant only about salvation as Horton claims?  I invite anyone to read Genesis 12-17, Jeremiah 33 or Ezekiel 36 and demonstrate such a thing.  It is patently false.  In fact, there is no provision for salvation in the Abrahamic covenant itself; although the Seed promise (singular) is there it is developed through the New covenant, not per se the terms of the Abrahamic.  All the talk about typology (Horton’s book is also filled with it) cannot alter these facts.

That God must be gracious to sinners if they are to be saved is not at issue.  What is at issue is whether there is any such thing as the covenant of grace (we have focused on it since it is the support for CT’s interpretations and theology).  We have no qualms in saying it is a figment overlayed on the biblical covenants.  It is what makes CT’s see only the salvation of the church in the covenants.  It is what makes them transform the NT Church into “new Israel”.  It stands behind many of their dogmas.  But it, together with the “covenant of works”, is absent from the Word of God.


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17 comments

  1. Paul, my name is Jim Carmichael. I was a dispensational pastor for 20 years. Prove to me there is a Trinity. Nowhere does the name appear. But it doesn’t take long before you see the three Persons manifested in one way or another. I’m sure you will agree. But nowhere is the word Trinity mentioned. Therefore, according to your reasoning of the covenant of grace, the Trinity doesn’t exist.

    You read Christ of the Covenants. How did Robertson define a covenant? If you believe in eternal security, then you can understand the binding nature of a covenant. See John 6. In the first part of John 6 Jesus feeds the 5000. Then He says, gather up all the fragments so nothing is lost. Are you still w/ me? Then He tries to reason w/ the folks He just fed. They only want Jesus around so He will feed their bellys. Then He speaks about the bread of life that will satisfy our hunger fully. And then He says the will of His Father is that of all the Father has given Him, He lose nothing. If you believe in Jesus has eternal life & be raised on the last day, so that nothing will be lost. Paul, are you still w/ me? That sounds like the definition of a covenant bond to me. Our salvation originated in heaven, & it was decided that it would entail a bloody sacrifice (Heb. 13:20).

    What is grace? It’s God’s free offer of salvation to sinners who don’t deserve anything but death. Adam sins & what does God do? I was taught repeatedly as a dispensationist that God had to come up w/ Plan B. Oh yeah, I’ll kill an animal & shed its blood & apply it to Adam & Woman. Unfortunately, if you check the Dallas Seminary Doct. Statement, Christ was not known at all in the OT. So, Gen. 3:15 really means nothing as a possible reference to Christ. But still, let’s suppose that it does refer to Christ’s atoning sacrifice. (see Jn. 8:56 & remember, consistent literal interp. If Jesus said Abraham said the patriarch saw Jesus’ incarnation & cross, then literally Abraham saw Jesus’ atoning sacrifice, & Adam did too.) It doesn’t matter which covenant we talk about post fall, God initiates it and maintains it on behalf of sinners (I call them elect b/c Scripture does as well.) That sounds like grace to me. Ok?

    Now if we put these two concepts together, God’s binding relationship to rebellious sinners even while they are dead in sin & God haters, & He graciously forgives their sin, which is a concept beginning in Gen. 3 all the way into the NT & even the day He delivered me from His wrath, Has bound Himself to me (I will never leave you nor forsake you), this is really easy to understand Paul. Now if we apply the same standard to the Trinity, a doctrine we cannot under any circumstances prove except by inference of what is in the text, we must conclude that there is such a concept in Scripture as a covenant of Grace.

    Paul, let me let you in on a little secret. I was firmly a dispensationalist like you. I could only reason from an Israel v Church perspective. That was the only theology I knew. Calvinists were always caricatured. Always. But one day, a pastor & Calvinist/Covenant theologian sat down w/ me & explained the soteriological issues Calvin taught & at a particular point, I saw in a way that resembled my salvation experience. Once I was blind, but then I saw. My understanding of Covenant theology was not far behind. Now lest you dismiss me as the lone exception to the rule, let me tell you that I went to seminary w/ a lot of fmr dispensationalists. To a man, each one said their experience was similar to mine. I have yet to meet a fmr Reformed theologian who is now a dispensationalist. I have read a few “testimonies” of men who said they were former Calvinists, but when I read why they left Calvinism/Covenant theology, it becomes quite clear they were Calvinists in name only. Never were covenant theologians in way.

    If you start w/ this dichotomy of Israel & the Church, you will end up in downtown Phoenix. When Elijah says Israel had deserted God, God said He had saved 7000 for Himself. Hello? That would be the remnant. There are two Israels & Paul declares it so, & often. Rom. 2:28-29; 9:6; Phil 3:2, 13; Dt. 30:6; Acts 7:51; Lk. 19:9; Isa. 48:1-2; 49:1-7; 65; Jer. 9:25-26; Hos. 1:8-11; Rev. 3:9.

    I’m an old combat Marine. I’m pulling for you Paul. You better bring your heavy weapons if you are going to convince me. In one sense this is first grade stuff. Cov. of works or life. If Adam keeps the law, if he obeys God, he’s in like flint. It’s that simple. In other words, life is given him if he obeys God fully. In Eden, salvation was by works. Do this & live. In a real sense, all covenants are works oriented. The Mosaic cov. was a works oriented covenant. Do this & live. If you read Rom. 5:12-18, you will understand how to interpret Gen. 2. Where Adam failed, as a man, Christ succeeded as a Man. Ergo, what He kept is imputed to us by faith. His righteousness is imputed to us when we believe. (Gen. 15:6; Rom. 4; Gal. 3) But in another sense, I’m not speaking philosophically, but biblically here. All covenants are unilateral. We can’t keep any of the cov. stipulations, which is the point anyway. A man failed. A Man succeeded. A man failed in the pristine, perfect Garden. A Man succeeded in the wilderness after 40 days of fasting. This Man went so far beyond anything Adam had to face it is mindboggling. If Christ failed in the wilderness temptations, He would have no righteousness to transfer to us who do believe.

    Recap. No one can snatch them out of My had. BOND of the covenant sov. administered. For by grace you have been saved . . . cov. of Grace. Abraham was saved by the cov. of Grace just like you were & I was. You have never been a covenant theologian. I have been both a dispensationalist & cov. theologian w/ 20 years in the former & almost 20 years in the latter system. Until you can say you thoroughly understand covenant theology, which you don’t, I think you might should do a little more study. Ask me. I’m here for you. I’ve thought all the things you have thought & just as trenchantly. Thanks for letting me respond. You are probably confused. Just read it over several times.

    jcarmichael861a@yahoo.com Semper fi!

  2. Jim,

    You ought to have paused long enough to notice that you are talking to a “reluctant dispensationalist”, and hence not a thinly veneered disciple of Clarence Larkin or Tim LaHaye. I went to a Reformed Seminary in the UK and was surrounded by CT’s for many years. I am thoroughly familiar with CT and the writings of Reformed theology. I have also taught Systematic Theology at seminary level for years. Yet you address me like I am some dispy neophyte. And your reasoning is so full of logical holes that I can not begin to critique it. It is full of some of the most obtuse reasoning I have ever encountered.

    I recommend you actually interact with the argument I made above. Further, I suggest you read the posts on “Diagnosing the Dispensational Malaise”; at least Part Four, before responding to me. It is here: https://drreluctant.wordpress.com/2011/02/10/diagnosing-the-dispensational-malaise-an-opinion-pt-4/

    To help you to see that one is not at liberty to read a covenant into Scripture at any juncture you might study Genesis 17:18-23 and notice that a covenant is more than a promise.

    Regards,

    Paul H.

  3. The folly of Covenant Theology is just because one believes in the fall of humanity , that Jesus died for our sins and raised from the dead and that our justification before God in the OT and NT is grace through faith does not equate with what we know as Covenant Theology. You see others besides Covenant Theologians can hold and embrace those concepts and yet not embrace Covenant Theology. Covenant Theology essentially uses those facts started above and try to formulate the ” theological covenants of Works, Grace and Redemption ” . Those theological covenants are really deductions from human reasoning rather than based on any real or serious exegetically based covenants. Whereas in dispensational premillennialism at the very least have as specifically specified covenants of the Abrahamic , Palestinian, Mosaic , Davidic and New Covenant. All while embracing the concepts of the fall of man in Adam , Jesus died on the cross for our sins and raised from the dead and justification by faith. Therefore you citing passages on those truths are not really proof of Covenant Theology in itself. That is why I refered to it as theological covenants rather then biblically specified covenants of Scripture. Those concepts are better properly defined within a dispensational premillennial context. This is why I reject your proof text of Romans 5, Gen 15, Gal 3 and Gen 2 & 3 as teaching Covenant Theology. The basis truths there are improperly being used as to invent theological covenants instead of Biblical ones. If we followed the standard for Covenant Theology for it’s proof then I could be called for holding to Covenant Theology while I am in reality dispensational premillennial and Calvinisic in my soteriology.

    ” Rom. 2:28-29; 9:6;” These passages teaches a true Israelite who one who comes to faith in Jesus. By no means does it refer to believing gentiles as ” Israel ” as many claim.

    “Phil 3:2, 13 ”

    This teaches that the true people of God are those who have a new heart through the work of regeneration. Nothing there of saved gentiles being called Israel or Jews. ” . Vese 13 Paul is refering to his growth in Christ likeness. Hardly proof of anything beyond that .

    ” Dt. 30:6; ”

    IT refers to God in his work of regeneration within the people of Israel. True Israelites are those within them who have faith.

    “Acts 7:51; ”

    That refers to unbelieving Jews who always rejected the messengers of God.

    ” Lk. 19:9; ”

    In context it is refering to the fact Jesus in His first advent came for believing Israelites during his ministry of whom Abraham is their physical and spiritual father.

    “Isa. 48:1-2;”
    It refers to unbelieving Jews .

    “49:1-7; ”

    This refers to God restoring a believing physical Israel. And that they will be a light to the Gentiles one day.

    “65; Jer. 9:25-26;”

    God will punish the lost from the gentile nations there along with unbelieving Israel. This is a preview of God’s judgement in chapters 46-51.

    “Hos. 1:8-11; ”

    In context starting with verse 1 and all the rest of the chapter is dealing with Israel in unbelief will one day be restored. God used evidently in the outline those the wife of Hosea with her adultry and her children as representing God’s dealings with Israel. The children become representative of the judgement of God on something. In yet spite of their unfaithfulness God will save them. God will restore a repentent Israel. Verse 10 is a reaffirmation of the Abrahamic Covenant. Which shows this is an unconditional dealing God has with Israel.

    ” Rev. 3:9. ”

    Those of the synagogue of Satan is refers to unbelieving Jews.

    While we can agree that within physical Israel there are believers and unbelievers it does not provide proof of saved gentiles as being part of or member of ” restored or New Israel ” . Or what is called in Reformed Theology the ” Israel of God ” which they claim consist of believing Jews and gentiles.

    “In Eden, salvation was by works. Do this & live. In a real sense, all covenants are works oriented.The Mosaic cov. was a works oriented covenant. Do this & live.”

    Right there you are expressly teaching another distinct way of salvation. That is the very charge that Covenant Theologians such as the late Dr. John Gerster have made againist ” all dispensationalist ” . Good works or the following of the law of God in any form are never meriterious or causes one to merit salvation. Good works are to be properly viewed as the evidence of faith. Adam was already in a right relationship with God and unfallen and then sinned and hence fell. Adam did not have the attributes of God and therefore was able to fall just like the angels of whom God had created as well. Since Adam was already in a relationship with God it is impossible to have salvaton by works since he had before the fall nothing to be delivered from. Remember salvation is deliverance from the penality of sin, the power of sin and one day the presense of sin. As far as the Mosaic Covenant it provided no means of justification at all but rather was a means of their progressive sanctification.

    You being a claimed ” former dispensationalist ” makes no head way with me. Anyone can be a former something. That does not in itself mean you have special knowledge of anything at all. Many claimed former dispensationalist are like many protestant converts to Roman Catholcism. You being a claimed former dispensationalist does not equate you with having special authority on the matter. Remember no one here knows you and the real knowledge of your own prior beliefs. This is very much like a oneness Pentecostal in discussions with me as claiming to have held to the Trinity yet in discussions I saw for myself such was one this case when the person claimed the Trinity teaches when believe in 3 gods when we hold to only One God existing eternally as Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

  4. I made a typo in my last statement above. It should be read as ” This is very much like a oneness Pentecostal I had a discussion with. He claimed that the Trinity teaches the existance of 3 gods while the doctrine of the Trinity teaches the existance of only one God eternally existing as Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit ” . The modalist never really knew or held to the Trinity by his comments since he either never really held to it and had a bad understanding of it or worst case intentionally misrepresenting it . And tried using his claim of being a prior Trinitiarian in order to make it seem like he is in himself a authority on the subject. That scores my point that anyone can be a former anything.

  5. Nicely summarized Bryan.

    It has also been my observation that many who appeal to a claim of being a “former [insert-X]”, upon further interaction, often reveal a lack of any true grasp of the system or views which they now oppose. This is especially true for former dispensationalists (or former pretribulationalists) who often learned aspects of these views from other people or books, but never really made it their own. Having only ever believed in a straw man, they find it particularly easy to abandon and knock down.

  6. But my dear dispensational friends, don’t you know that I once was as naive and credulous as you. But God opened my eyes to see the wonders of covenant grace! I shall pray He opens your eyes in the same way – so that you too can ignore what the Bible says and construct your own private interpretations and call them spiritual. 😉

  7. Thank you very much Tony. I have had a number of interactions with claimed ” former dispensationalist ” over the years and concluded basically the same thing you have . The best example of a claimed former dispensationalist who openly called dispensationalism ” heretical , a cult and not a branch within Christianity ” was the late Dr. John Gerstner. What I find him in him are often overstated claims, misrepresentation, misquoting of leading dispensationalist in order to leave a bad impression of them being heretics. In my own reading of Wrongly Dividing the Word Of Truth I caught Lewis Sperry Chafer, Charles Ryrie, John Walvoord and Robert Lightner being intentionally misrepresented and several times being misquoted. I caught Gerstner rewriting a claimed quote of what Lewis Sperry Chafer stated on justification in his Systematic Theology to make it look like he taught 2 ways of salvation. When he was only contrasting justication in the eyes of men and justification before God in the chapter called Dubious Evangelicalism. Gerstner claimed that Lewis Sperry Chafer remarked him as writing ” that, in the Old Testament men were justified by the law, while in the New Testament faith was without works and footnoted it in Lewis Sperry Chafer Systematic Theology in vol. 7 page 219. Please compare it and see it for yourself . You will see that is not what Lewis Sperry Chafer wrote as Gerstner had claimed. I caught it while checking the foot notes.

  8. ” But my dear dispensational friends, don’t you know that I once was as naive and credulous as you. But God opened my eyes to see the wonders of covenant grace! I shall pray He opens your eyes in the same way – so that you too can ignore what the Bible says and construct your own private interpretations and call them spiritual. ”

    Hi Paul . That’s very funny ! lol

      1. Luther wasnt all bad. He did start the reformation afterall. Check out some of jordan coopers podcasts on reformed and lutheran theology at justandsinner.com. I actually like where he is at on law and gospel distinction.

    1. Apologies pastor Paul. I was speaking only of myself. I find the lutheran view of law and gospel to be compelling. Perhaps you could showme the errors. Im only an armchair theologian.

      1. No problem John. I think the Lutheran view is too antithetical. It tends to want to say that the Law has no say in the life of the Christian. This seems to be unreasonable, since the NT does refer to the law in connection with the Christian life (e.g. Rom. 15). I recall Luther’s exasperation upon hearing that because congregations were only hearing grace, they were living like pigs!

        Too, although I stand firmly against putting the Christian under the Law as a rule of life, the fact is that, excepting the Sabbath, the other nine commandments are universal in nature.

        Other issues I have with Lutheran theology include consubstantiation, baptism, and their two kingdoms teaching (one sphere for the church the Bible, another for the government).

        Still, I appreciate your input brother.

        God bless you and yours,

        Paul

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