Some Problems I Have with Covenant Theology, Especially the Covenant of Grace

This is a repost of a piece I wrote years ago. I give it another lease of life because I am planning a lengthy series on ‘Deciphering Covenant Theology’ which will offer an explanation of CT and a critique.

In this post I want to record briefly 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 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.  This post overlaps 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.  Here I shall only interact with Point 1. 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.

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.  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 alone, 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 whenever 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 overlaid 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.

4 thoughts on “Some Problems I Have with Covenant Theology, Especially the Covenant of Grace”

  1. Based on the context of “the land” in a plain sense reading of Deuteronomy 11, I get no other sense than that there is much emphasis on “the land”. It is a literal “land“ that is being spoken of here. I see similarity to circumstances today where there is “drought“ going on throughout the United States, especially in California, a “land” where I used to live. A “land” which needs water for people to survive. A land that physically exists in time and space within creation.
    In Deuteronomy 11 God plain and simply tells the people of Israel, if you will obey I will give you rain. If you don’t obey I will not give you rain. This is a literal rain so that literal crops can grow and people and animals can live; in a literal “land” which the Lord is GIVING them. This is a physical “land” here on earth.
    Again, in Deuteronomy 28 (esp.vs.s 12&24) as Israel is coming in to possess “the land“ these are the conditions that God is speaking to them. If you want to stay in “the land” then obey. I see no type or shadow here. I see an, OK here we go let’s trust God and go into “the land”… (aka…faith). The exciting saga continues with much anticipation in the “creation project” as Israel gets ready to enter “the land” which has been unilaterally covenanted to Israel as explained in the post.
    If this is not a literal “land“ then what else is it? There is otherwise no plain sense reading of these texts? It would also mean that God didn’t really mean what He said to Israel and that He’s a double talker Who can’t be trusted… how did the original audience, the people of Israel understand this? Read in a plain since manner there is no “covenant of grace” here to be later discovered in the New Testament.

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