Deciphering Covenant Theology (Pt.2)

Part One

I am still writing some introductory remarks about Covenant Theology. I still think that we need to say something more about how to orient oneself to CT thinking. If I just move to outline the three basic covenants of CT I will obscure an important truth that should be out in the open right at the start. That important truth is this: Covenant theologians do not begin their thinking with the OT. They do not start at Genesis 1. They start at the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Okay, can we move on now? No. You see, CT doesn’t simply get going at the cross and empty tomb, it ends up there too! The cross and the resurrection are the hub of the whole system. The theological covenants which we shall look at are a logical outgrowth of this starting and ending point. Of course, this shouts circularity, but we ought to note the fact that all reasoning in a circle is not necessarily fallacious, just so long as you have selected the correct circle (i.e., not a vicious circle); a circle which can incorporate all the data and present it coherently. I am not a covenant theologian. Therefore, I do not think CT’s have chosen the correct circle to reason in.

That said, I do want to say that CT represents an ingenious theological grid of interpretation. It is comprehensive, teleological, and Christ-centered. It is so well put together that it is able to present a formidable biblical worldview and epistemology, although I will have to come back to that statement and qualify it later on by saying that the teleology or goal-oriented approach of CT is what produces the worldview, not so much the hermeneutic. It is certainly a coherent system. Whether or not it is a proper representation of the Bible’s storyline is another question.

Two Illustrations

Let me give a couple of illustrations; one of how CT’s look at their system; the other how people like yours truly see it. Pay attention not so much to the details of the examples but more to the vantage-points or way of seeing things.

I’m dating myself here, but for the CT starting with the NT and the first coming of Christ may be likened to the first time color TV sets were introduced into the home. People had been watching everything in black and white and they were used to it. When color TV’s were brought home they brought so much life to the screen. It was a new world. People were seeing the actors and their backgrounds and their cars in a brand new and vibrant ways. You could see better! That is similar to the way CT’s understand the way the NT changes the way we look at what had come before it. Now that we see things in so much detail why would we think to go back to the old way of “seeing”? Why would we ignore the blessing of looking at the Bible’s story from the “color” provided by the NT, especially the death and resurrection of Jesus?

That is why CT’s begin where they do, with the NT revelation; the “Full Revelation of God” as Richard Gamble’s second volume of his The Whole Counsel of God puts it in its subtitle.

But here is another illustration. This one tries to illustrate how ‘opponents’ of CT see it. Suppose that somebody recommended that you read a classic book, say Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo. However, before you read Dumas you pick up a literary interpretation of the book by a radical liberal critic who reads it as though it were a covert chauvinist piece demeaning women and promoting the male status quo. It really isn’t what it appears to be; a story about Edmond Dantes’ revenge through an alter ego who is only revealed to his enemies at the time of their disgrace, but is instead a power story about male superiority. The interpretation is providing the lenses through which you are being guided to view the book. And you might think to yourself, “But it doesn’t say that.” The only way to break away from it is to discard the interpretation and read Dumas’ book from start to finish. Then perhaps the outside interpretation will be seen, but perhaps it won’t. In the same way (although the interpreters are conservative Christians not radicals) CT is providing the lenses through which the Bible is being interpreted. You might look at what the Bible is saying and compare it with the interpretation given by CT and think to yourself, “But it doesn’t say that.”

Now please do not misunderstand me here. These illustrations are purely to show how either side of the divide, covenant theologians on the one hand and more literal interpreters like, say, dispensationalists (DT’s) on the other see Covenant Theology. CT’s think it is like a color television, bringing new detail and splendor to the Bible. DT’s see it more as an intrusion of an outside view upon the plain text of Scripture.

How it Begins to Play Out

I have quoted Brown & Keele’s book Sacred Bond: Covenant Theology Explored in Part One. Let me stick with them to give an idea of what kind of statements are produced by CT. I am not at this time concerned with asking whether the statements are correct. I only wish to place some conclusions of CT before the reader. We shall see how these conclusions are reached in the following weeks.

Now I do realize that one does not have to be an advocate of CT to believe in NT priority. New Covenant Theology/Progressive Covenantalism does this too. But CT was there first.

First then, to show that the NT is seen as having priority over the OT:

Of course, there are plenty of good reasons for our preoccupation with the New Testament. If the Bible were a building, the New Testament would be the penthouse suite; it reveals in glory and clarity Jesus Christ, our only Lord and Savior. The gospel in all its simple sweetness graces the pages of the Greek portion of Holy Scripture. Without it, the Old Testament would remain largely veiled to us, and we would see Christ only dimly. – Sacred Bond: Covenant Theology Explored, 101-102.

I think my illustration of the color TV matches quite well with this opinion. The NT provides so much greater clarity than the OT (which as far as Jesus is concerned is perfectly true). One should also not miss the pious language, well meant no doubt, that couches the opinion. But I want to call attention in particular to the last sentence about the NT: “Without it, the Old Testament would remain largely veiled to us, and we would see Christ only dimly.”

What I want to point out is that there are two assertions here not one. The first assertion is that without the NT the OT “would remain largely veiled to us.” The second is that “we would see Christ only dimly.”

While there is no doubt that the second assertion is spot on, what about the first opinion? Notice that the whole OT is basically being boiled down to the figure of Christ. But although Christ is certainly crucial to the OT, isn’t it true that the Hebrew Bible is about more than Him? What about the covenants that God pledges to Israel and His election of them? What about Jerusalem and the temple? What about David’s throne in Jerusalem? Aren’t these perfectly clear as given by the OT? According to CT (and NCT’s) the answer is No! How come?

I think Brown and Keele answer this question well from a CT perspective. The thing to keep in mind, they tell us, is that there are in fact two distinct stages of fulfillment. The first level of fulfillment is what could be expected from the words God chose to use in the original contexts. But the second level of fulfillment is different. Here is their explanation:

As marvelous as these fulfilled promises were, however, they were only the first level of fulfillment. The nation and the land of Canaan were only pictures and foreshadows of a far greater fulfillment revealed in the New Testament. This fulfillment was the result of Christ’s person and work. – Ibid, 93.

According to this “levels of fulfillment” view the covenant promises of God about seed and land were fulfilled in OT times. Brown and Keele, following many CT’s, say that the land promise was fulfilled at the time of Joshua (see Joshua 21:21:43-45, Ibid, 92). Having placed the land promise in the past the next stage of fulfillment can be given all the attention. In CT God ‘s fulfillment of the land promise to Israel, having occurred already, can be made into a foreshadowing of something else; something greater. And this “something greater” is realized at the first advent as a result of “Christ’s person and work.”

I shall of course come back to all this, but I think we can now begin to look at the framework that produces these and many other ideas, the theological covenants of Covenant Theology themselves.

7 thoughts on “Deciphering Covenant Theology (Pt.2)”

  1. This is very, very good. The two illustrations are spot-on. I’m really looking forward the rest of what you have to share on this. I know of no one else who is better equipped to write on this topic, with as even-handed and extensive background in both CT and DT.

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