Deciphering Covenant Theology (Pt.1)

This series is bound to annoy covenant theologians who stop by to read it. To them I want to say that my purpose here is certainly not to irritate anyone. If a CT has any problem with what is asserted in these posts he is very welcome to challenge it (giving proof where necessary).

For those readers who want a quick historical intro to CT perhaps my “A Very Brief History of Covenant Theology” will help.

First Things First

I have been reading covenant theology (CT) for many years; close to thirty.  In that time, I have read numerous Systematic Theologies by covenant theologians, including Hodge, Dabney, Bavinck, Frame, Horton, Reymond, as well as expositions of CT by the likes of Warfield, Packer, Horton, Vos, Witsius, Owen, Turretin, and Robertson.  I attended a staunchly Reformed CT seminary in England.  I went to several churches where CT was preached for extensive periods.  By far the majority of books I have read in the last thirty years have been written by covenant theologians.  I know covenant theology. 

                But even though I am well acquainted with CT, I do not agree with it.  I have been sympathetic for a long time to Dispensationalism (DT), and from there to construct Biblical Covenantalism.  But Biblical Covenantalism could not have come into existence without CT and its emphasis upon teleology or purpose.  I do respect CT and admire many of its adherents.  At the real risk of losing many dispensational readers, I think CT is superior to DT is several respects: it is more Christological, more teleological, more cohesive, and more prescriptive.  Because of all these things CT is theologically richer and deeper than DT.  

I shall have more to say about that controversial statement further on.  However, I want to go on record to say that if it had not been for the teleological (i.e., purpose-focused) genius of Covenant Theology I would never have come up with Biblical Covenantalism, for I would not have the perspective I needed to see things the way I needed to see them, nor know the question that needed asking.       

                This series will attempt to introduce Covenant Theology to the outsiders and uninitiated.  I have found that among dispensationalists there is as much ignorance and misunderstanding of CT as there is vice versa.  I have thought long and hard about the best way to present this study and the right sources to use.  As far as presentation is concerned, I shall describe aspects of CT via quotations and summaries, which I shall then go on to critique.  As far as the choice of authorities to employ, I think too many would muddy the waters, and too many quotes from the 16th and 17th centuries would lose half my readers.  I have therefore decided to interact with five sources while adding material from elsewhere wherever necessary.  My main sources are these:

O. Palmer Robertson – The Christ of the Covenants

Richard P. Belcher, Jr. – The Fulfillment of the Promise of God: An Explanation of Covenant Theology

Guy P. Waters, J. Nicholas Reid & John H. Muether, eds., Covenant Theology: Biblical, Historical and Theological Perspectives.

Michael Brown & Zach Keele – Sacred Bond: Covenant Theology Explored

Herman Witsius, The Economy of the Covenants Between God and Man.

                All these are relatively recent yet authoritative texts on CT.  Of course, in the case of Baptist CT these books will have to be supplemented.  For that purpose, I will repair to the excellent work of Pascal Denault, The Distinctiveness of Baptist Covenant Theology, and also to Greg Nichols’ Covenant Theology: A Reformed and Baptistic Perspective on God’s Covenants.

                My procedure will be to provide an accurate statement of the aspect under discussion (e.g., covenant of redemption, covenant of grace, infant baptism, federalism, Israel and the Church) before giving a more in-depth description supplemented with quotations.

                CT is usually tied to Calvinist Reformed Theology (indeed, R.C. Sproul said that Covenant Theology is Reformed theology[1]), but that is not quite true.  Jacob Arminius was a covenant theologian as anyone familiar with his works is aware.  But in the main Sproul’s conviction is correct.   

In the First Place – Watch for Deductions!

                Before moving into the first descriptive part of this study, I feel the need to make something clear.  A person will not understand CT unless they grasp two basic things.  Firstly, CT reads the OT through the lens of the NT.  Actually, that is not quite right.  I should say that CT reads the OT through its own understanding of the NT.  Which brings me to the second matter.  To understand CT, one must comprehend the reasoning.  CT is heavily deductive in its approach to Scripture and Theology.  Let me explain what I mean.

                Covenant theologians tell “stories.”  The stories are persuasive because they are God-centered, Christological, NT oriented, and coherent (at least apparently).  But they are stories, nonetheless.  Often bits of the story get interpolated into the exegesis and explanations, so that at one moment you are reading something from Genesis, and the next a theology of Calvary via Paul is freighted in.  it is difficult to many to see but there is a theological agenda always running in the background.  Occasionally the veil slips a little and the background assumption can be seen.  When this happens, one must pay special attention.  Certain things are being taken for granted.  One of the best places to see this is when CT’s are dealing with the actual covenants of God mentioned in the Bible; the Abrahamic, the Davidic, and the New particularly.  Covenant theologians major on “theological interpretation.”  For example, in reference to Genesis 3:15 Brown & Keele say,

[God] promises to form a community of people for himself whom he will set apart from the offspring of the devil and one day rescue from the latter’s fierce hostility…This community can be traced throughout redemptive history…not by bloodline, but by those who believe in God’s promise.  As Paul says to Gentile Christians in Galatians 3:29: “And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.”  Thus, Genesis 3:15 reveals God’s first formation of his church.[2]

There are all kinds of assumptions inserted into this story.  There is the assumption (based upon debatable exegesis) that the so-called “godly line” (which they will identify with the line of Seth), is set apart for God.  There is the assumption that this “community of people,” though clearly a bloodline in Genesis, will become a community not based upon bloodlines, but is the same community, nonetheless.  Then there is the drafting into the picture Paul’s words addressed to the churches of Galatia.  Finally, there is the assumption that the church can, and indeed must exist prior to the resurrection of Jesus. 

But let us remind ourselves of Genesis 3:15:

And I will put enmity
Between you and the woman,
And between your seed and her Seed;
He shall bruise your head,
And you shall bruise His heel.

                I realize that this “proto-evangelium” is supposed to promise a Savior, but does it?  The remarks are addressed to the serpent and imply his doom.  There is nary a word about redemption from sin.  Satan’s conqueror will not be unscathed, but Satan will be destroyed.  In the quotation from Brown & Keele above what is being woven into the fabric of Genesis 3:15 from the outside?  Well, as a matter of fact, everything!  There is not one assertion in the above quote which matches what is being stated in Genesis 3:15.  The statement is setting you up for the story.   Two groups are being set forth, a godly line and an ungodly line, the plan of “redemptive history” which the story will rely on is mentioned.  Then the apostle Paul’s reference to Abraham in Galatians 3:29 is introduced and voila! the church is equated with the godly line of Genesis 3:15 and therefore “Genesis 3:15 reveals God’s first formation of his church.”   

                I have not begun to describe what Covenant Theology is, but I believe it necessary to put this “warning” before the reader’s eyes before doing even that.  You will not be able to comprehend CT if you fail to grasp the deductive nature of its pronouncements. 

One more thing: a look through systematic theologies by CT’s will reveal how important their theological covenants are to that discipline as well as biblical theology. he same cannot be said of the role of dispensations to Dispensational systematics! Think about that a while.           


[1] R. C. Sproul, What Is Reformed Theology?: Understanding the Basics, 117f.,  

[2] Michael Brown & Zach Keele – Sacred Bond: Covenant Theology Explored, 62.

6 thoughts on “Deciphering Covenant Theology (Pt.1)”

  1. Thanks very much Paul. This will be an interesting series.
    I note you say “I realize that this “proto-evangelium” is supposed to promise a Savior, but does it? The remarks are addressed to the serpent and imply his doom. There is nary a word about redemption from sin”. I’ve always been puzzled about how Gen 3:15 is made to say much more than it does.
    But the quote from Brown and Keele takes the cake. I’ve never seen such elaborate thinking drawn from these few verses before. If this is but one example to be found in the literature obviously I haven’t been getting around enough!

  2. Quote: “I do respect CT and admire many of its adherents. At the real risk of losing many dispensational readers, I think CT is superior to DT is several respects: it is more Christological, more teleological, more cohesive, and more prescriptive. Because of all these things CT is theologically richer and deeper than DT.”

    I agree. And I hope you discuss this further, Paul.

  3. […] I have been reading covenant theology (CT) for many years; close to thirty. In that time, I have read numerous Systematic Theologies by covenant theologians, including Hodge, Dabney, Bavinck, Frame, Horton, Reymond, as well as expositions of CT by the likes of Warfield, Packer, Horton, Vos, Witsius, Owen, Turretin, and Robertson. I attended a staunchly Reformed CT seminary in England. I went to several churches where CT was preached for extensive periods. By far the majority of books I have read in the last thirty years have been written by covenant theologians. I know covenant theology…continue reading […]

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