Deciphering Covenant Theology (Pt.3)

Part Two

In my introductory comments on Covenant Theology I have called attention to what I call its storytelling, its strongly deductive nature, and its adamant belief that the NT, understood especially as the fulcrum of the cross and resurrection, drives the approach. But drives it where? I might answer that question in a few different ways depending whether I choose to emphasize eschatology or soteriology, but in terms of the latter it means “redemptive history.” Redemptive history, or “the history of redemption” is the main overarching framework that CT is concerned with. The goal of the Bible’s storyline is the salvation of the elect.

Now without any doubt the salvation-historical motifs of Scripture are fundamental to its story. Whether or not it gives a wide enough perspective to fit all the important themes within it is another matter. CT’s also believe that there can be only one people of God. Older CT’s like Francis Turretin, John Owen, David Dickson, and Herman Witsius make it clear that they identity this one people of God with the church. As with a number of other things, modern CT’s tend to be less forthcoming, but a writer from the last generation puts it clearly:

“Let us here insist that there was a Church in Old Testament times; and that the Old Testament and New Testament believers form one Church – the same olive tree (Romans 11).” – W. J. Grier, The Momentous Event, 33.

I will return to this subject later because it raises some questions about baptism and the sign of “the covenant” in both Testaments. But now we must take time to understand the main covenants of CT; the covenant of redemption, the covenant of works, and the all-important covenant of grace (confusingly called the cov. of redemption by O. Palmer Robertson). Now not all CT’s see the need of a covenant of redemption (e.g., Richard Belcher), and not all CT’s are comfortable with a covenant of works (e.g., John Murray), but it is necessary to describe each of them.

Before I do that I have another thing that I want to insert. I have already stated that CT is heavily deductive (“if this…, then that”). There is a good reason for this (although I know that CT’s themselves will dispute it). The reason that CT is so deductive is because of its method of reading Scripture. Briefly put its method is to formulate doctrine from – to put it in the language of the Westminster Confession 1.6 – “good and necessary consequences”, and then go in search of texts which appear to back up those consequences. This is then called “exegesis” (although CT’s do exegete passages in the usual way too). So, for instance, in their Introduction to the impressive book Covenant Theology: Biblical, Theological, and Historical Perspectives, the editors, Guy Prentiss Waters, J. Nicholas Reid and John R. Muether, we have a sub-heading which reads, “Covenant Theology is Exegetical” (Covenant Theology, 32). In a big book of well over 600 pages one would expect a lot of exegetical proof for the covenants of redemption, works, and grace. Is that what we get? Sadly, no. Where there is direct scriptural proof presented it concerns passages about the biblical covenants with Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, and the New covenant, which are said to be instances or “republications” of the single covenant of grace! But saying that these identifiable covenants are just instances of the covenant of grace does not make them so. So let’s look at the covenants of redemption, works, and grace, beginning with the pre-temporal “covenant.”

The Covenant of Redemption (Pre-Creation)

What is the covenant of redemption? According to Guy Richard in the Waters, Read & Muether book mentioned above this covenant may be “the most questionable element of historical federal theology” (43). It is said to be “a pretemporal agreement between the persons of the Trinity to plan and carry out the redemption of the elect” (ibid). Some CT’s tell us that the agreement was between the Father and the Son, but the aim is the same. The recent book by Richard Belcher, The Fulfillment of the Promises of God: An Explanation of Covenant Theology actually skips over this covenant, simply noting that if there was one “then the Covenant of Grace is the historical outworking of the Covenant of Redemption.” (45). R. Scott Clark includes it within the covenant of grace (Recovering the Reformed Confession, 200-201), while O. Palmer Robertson admits to “a sense of artificiality” to any pre-creation covenant, even going so far as to say that,

“To speak concretely of an intratrinitarian “covenant” with terms and conditions between Father and Son mutually endorsed before the foundation of the world is to extend the bounds of scriptural evidence beyond propriety.” – The Christ of the Covenants, 54.

We’re not exactly off to a good start. Two things ought to be noted: the first is that if there is controversy around whether there even was a covenant of redemption before creation got underway, there can hardly be a great expectation of finding exegetical foundations for it in Scripture. Otherwise there would be no dispute. The second thing to notice is the name Richard gives to CT; he calls it “federal theology.” That is important for our understanding of the covenants of CT and their redemptive-historical way of reading the Bible. I shall have more to say about it later in the series.

Now, of course there was intra-trinitarian communication about man and his salvation before creation. That is beyond dispute or rational objection. But was it covenantal? No says Robertson, and I entirely agree.

Scriptural Support?

There are other writers who are more confident about the covenant of redemption, so it is well to see where they go to argue for it. Relying on 17th century Scottish minister David Dickson’s work, Guy Richard first says that Scripture “regularly speaks of the salvation of the elect in terms of buying and selling (e.g., Acts 20:28; 1 Cor. 6:20; Eph. 1:7; 1 Pet. 1:18).” (Covenant Theology, 46). Since this requires prior deliberation we may say that happened before creation. Fair enough. Also, that Christ is made a “propitiation” points to a prior agreement; so too Christ refers to His mission from the Father which implies such a pretemporal agreement. Now the boon is lowered.

“Patrick Gillespie argued that agreement is the essential ingredient of all covenants…” (Ibid.).

Do you see what is going on here? Inference built upon inference. We will have to constantly watch for this! Additionally, the fact that all covenants contain agreements as an essential aspect does not mean that all agreements are covenants! If we both agree that 1 +1 =2 have we struck a solemn covenant? Of course not. Why would the Father to make a solemn oath to perform something for the Son and the Son need to swear an oath to do something for the Father? This is an uncomfortable notion at best.

Richard notes that Dickson (and co-author James Durham) “even cited John 6:37 on the title page of their treatise as the main text on which their subject matter would be grounded…” (Ibid, 47). John 6:37 says, “All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will by no means cast out.” Is there any hint of a covenant in the verse?

Psalm 2 is another favorite of those who believe in the covenant of redemption. The psalm does not speak of a covenant, but it does speak of a decree in verse 7. That’s enough if you need to find a “covenant of redemption somewhere. Is the decree pretemporal? And is every decree covenantal? An affirmative to those questions reflects guesswork and wishful thinking respectively. Still, while the decree may plausibly be traced to the “eternal counsels” that does not make it covenantal. Richard cites OT scholar Peter Craigie’s view that the decree in question might refer to a document handed to the king at his coronation as a kind of renewal of the Davidic covenant (Ibid, 55). But what good is this? We are not proving the Davidic covenant here but the supposed covenant of redemption.

Ah, but the covenant of redemption (as will shall see) is instantiated in time as the covenant of grace, and the Davidic covenant is one republication of the covenant of grace so… Now I do grant that this piecing together of ones deductions with disparate scripture passages has its appeal to a certain mindset. But we are dealing with God’s words here, and they must be permitted to say what they say even if what they say does not fit our preferences well.

Another NT example of this is how Ephesians 1:4 and 2 Timothy 1:9 are combined to produce the required result. In the first text the apostle asserts that God “chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before Him in love,” predestinating our adoption (see Eph. 1:5). In 2 Timothy 1 we are told that God saved us “according to His own purpose and grace which was given to us in Christ Jesus before time began.”

Here are two pretemporal selections. The first concerns our sanctification “in Christ.” The verse is interpreted as saying God chose us “to be in Christ” but that is not what Paul says. That may or may not be true but it is not what Ephesians 1:4-5 is about, so it should not be used as a proof-text for a pactum salutis. The second passage asserts that before creation we were included within God’s “purpose and grace.” But whether Paul has redemption itself in mind or our subsequent holy walk is debatable. Whichever it is, no covenant of redemption is to be seen.

But enough. What ought to be clear here is that the covenant of redemption depends upon assumptions about the salvation of the elect as the one people of God. These assumptions were already in place before the search was made to piece together verses to support it via inferences. If one wishes to see this played out in full, J. V. Fesko has written The Trinity and the Covenant of Redemption in which the second part of the book appeals to Zechariah 6:13; Psalm 2:7 and Psalm 110, and Ephesians 1 with 2 Timothy 1:9-10 for “exegetical foundations.” Such a hermeneutics is utterly foreign to my way of reading, being injected with assumptions about CT rather than listening to the text itself. A study of Zechariah 6:12-13 shows that the hermeneutics and methodology of CT is a million miles away from DT or Biblical Covenantalism; and they cannot be brought into agreement!

11 thoughts on “Deciphering Covenant Theology (Pt.3)”

  1. I’m guessing this is an independent series of articles, but this could be an excellent excursus in the upcoming NT volume of your book — if there is room for the additional page count. Or maybe that’s already the plan?

    At any rate: keep it coming!

  2. I was thinking the same thing, Tony. This material is unique and important.

    Perhaps another book, Paul. Just saying.

  3. Sir,

    In your post, you claim: “Briefly put its method is to formulate doctrine from – to put it in the language of the Westminster Confession 1.6 – “good and necessary consequences”, and then go in search of texts which appear to back up those consequences.”

    This is by no means the manner in which Presbyterians formulate doctrine. Rather, we read Scripture as a whole, and use Scripture to interpret Scripture, which is the analogy of faith (Romans 12:6). Good and necessary consequence means that the consequences of Scripture are as authoritative as the bare and plain words themselves. For example, if the Messiah is to be born in Bethlehem, and to be cut off in the 70th week, and to be meek and lowly, and despised by men, etc., then it is clear that Jesus Christ is the Messiah. Christ himself used good and necessary consequences to prove to men that He is the Messiah; he was not using Scripture autolexei, to argue such.

    That is of consequences; so what of the Covenant of Redemption itself?

    The Father covenanted with the Son before creation:

    “In hope of eternal life, which God, that cannot lie, promised before the world began” (Titus 1:2)

    God’s Words setting forth the redemption of his elect was not merely declared, but also promised. If promised, then there was a recipient of the promise – one to whom the promise was made, and one who received it. This is the first part of a covenant, and we read of how the Father called Christ:

    “the Lord have called thee in righteousness, and will hold thine hand, and will keep thee, and give thee for a covenant of the people, for a light of the Gentiles; To open the blind eyes, to bring out the prisoners from the prison, and them that sit in darkness out of the prison house” (Isaiah 42:6-7)

    Christ declared this covenant: “Listen, O isles, unto me; and hearken, ye people, from far; The Lord hath called me from the womb; from the bowels of my mother hath he made mention of my name” (Isaiah 49:1). Indeed, Christ was commanded by his Father: “No man taketh it from me, but I lay it down of myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again. This commandment have I received of my Father” (John 10:17)

    The Father promised Christ victory in this covenant: “Also I will make him my firstborn, higher than the kings of the earth. My mercy will I keep for him for evermore, and my covenant shall stand fast with him. His seed also will I make to endure for ever, and his throne as the days of heaven.” (Psalm 89:27-29), and again, “Yet have I set my king upon my holy hill of Zion. I will declare the decree: the Lord hath said unto me, Thou art my Son; this day have I begotten thee. Ask of me, and I shall give thee the heathen for thine inheritance, and the uttermost parts of the earth for thy possession. Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron; thou shalt dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.” (Psalm 2:6-9)

    Again, these were not merely words spoken, for the one to whom the promise was made, agreed to the terms set forth, in order to accompish redemption. Thus we read that Christ delighted to obey this covenant:
    “Then said I, Lo, I come: in the volume of the book it is written of me, I delight to do thy will, O my God: yea, thy law is within my heart.” (Psalm 40:7-8)

    And we know that Christ’s communication with the Father is from eternity, rather than a certain point in time: “When he gave to the sea his decree, that the waters should not pass his commandment: when he appointed the foundations of the earth: Then I was by him, as one brought up with him: and I was daily his delight, rejoicing always before him; Rejoicing in the habitable part of his earth; and my delights were with the sons of men” (Proverbs 8:29-31)

    We see here that Christ’s delights were with the sons of men, and there was a delight to do the Lord’s will. Were the sons of men yet born? And indeed, we hold that this pact or covenant was made before men were born.

    There are plenty of other arguments set forth by Gillespie, Rutherford, Dickson, and the like, yet these have not been addressed in this post, at least.

    The Covenant of Redemption can reasonably understood from Scripture, which is why myriads of godly reformed men have held to such throughout the ages.

  4. Joseph,

    Thank you for your comment. Without in any way wishing to be disrespectful, your long response proves my point well. Since I shall interact with some of the passages later I will restrict myself here to addressing a few things.
    First, you say that “we read Scripture as a whole, and use Scripture to interpret Scripture, which is the analogy of faith (Romans 12:6).” – I am not sure about reference!
    Well, there is an obvious problem with that. No one can use the whole of Scripture and bring it to bear on a passage unless they can be sure that they have understood every passage in the whole Scripture. Unless this is true what will happen is that one’s theological preferences will be read into the passages under the pseudonym of “the whole Scripture.” This is what you have done. E.g., the word “promise” in Titus 1:2 does not refer to a covenant but simply to an intention to do something. No one disputes that the eternal counsels are indicated, but this is not the same as an oath being taken. A covenant is being deduced by CT’s. .

    Second, Isa. 42 is a prophecy of the coming Servant-Messiah, not a pre-creation pact.

    Third, Psalm 2:6-9 is a prophecy and it does not include the idea of any covenant of redemption. It does allude, of course, to the Davidic covenant, which concerns a kingdom being ruled from David’s throne in Jerusalem (Psa. 2:6 cf. 2:2 & 2:10). Likewise Psalm 89 is about the Davidic covenant. You can’t just assert it is about the protological “cov. of redemption.” That’s reading something into the psalm that is not there.

    I’ll stop there because it shows that before claiming to form doctrine from the whole Scripture one must be sure that one has interpreted the passages of Scripture accurately, which I’m afraid you have not.

    I shall say something about the analogy of faith. Here I need only state that CT’s use it prematurely as part of their hermeneutic rather than a check on their hermeneutic.

    You end with, “The Covenant of Redemption can reasonably understood from Scripture.” I think you mean “deduced.”

  5. Paul,

    In your response you claim:

    ” This is what you have done. E.g., the word “promise” in Titus 1:2 does not refer to a covenant but simply to an intention to do something. No one disputes that the eternal counsels are indicated, but this is not the same as an oath being taken. A covenant is being deduced by CT’s.”

    What difference do you see between a promise and a counsel on the one hand, and an oath, a pact, and a covenant on the other?

    A covenant is simply an agreement between two parties, primarily of a religious nature, in which terms and conditions are set forth, offered, and accepted, with0 one or both parties committing to action in order to fulfil the covenant.

    In that case, what would prevent the agreement and harmony between Father and Son, from being a covenant? If the Father promises an inheritance to Christ and Christ rejoices in this inheritance, and the Son delights to do the Father’s will (as we learn in Psalm 40 and again in Hebrews – a text you did not address in your response), then what is your objection to calling this solemn religious agreement a covenant?

  6. Joseph,

    Although all covenants include promises, not all promises are covenantal. This can be seen in many places, but I like to go to Genesis 17 to illustrate it. Genesis 17:18-21 shows that although Ishmael had promises given to him he was not the recipient of God’s covenant, which would be through Isaac. Moreover, a promise does not require a solemn oath, but a covenant does. Paul Williamson in his ‘Sealed with an Oath’ calls the oath the sine qua non of a covenant. But there is no oath taken by the Father and Son in eternity. And if there had been it would have initiated the covenant. But since no oath is taken and none is necessary (God’s yes is yes) CT’s are reading a covenant where there is none to be found. Your reasoning is question-begging. You have to prove not just a promise but a covenant, and that cannot be done from plain scripture. It has to be inferred from a particular train of thought.

    Your definition of a covenant is incorrect on several levels. Covenants, even in the Bible (and always in ANE) were often not religious in nature. The covenant between Abraham and Abimelech in Gen. 21 is an example. No ANE covenant is known which is made between a god and man. Here is a definition from the Anchor Bible Dictionary:

    ” A “covenant” is an agreement enacted between two parties in which one or both make promises under oath to perform or refrain from certain actions stipulated in advance.” – George E. Mendenhall & Gary A. Herion, “Covenant,” in the Anchor Bible Dictionary, Volume 1 A – C (New York: Doubleday, 1992), David Noel Freedman, Editor-in-Chief, 1179.

    Notice the centrality of an oath! Therefore, your question in your last paragraph is based upon a faulty premise. But again, can you not see your “if this…then that” reasoning is dictating your theology?

    As for Psa. 40, well it is a prophecy. The author Hebrew quotes it in Hebrews 10:5-7 and applies it to the prophesied New covenant in Hebrews 10:15-17. There is no mention of any covenant of redemption in either passage.

    When we take what the Bible is saying and seek to hitch it up to something that it does not say, it is not the Bible that is controlling our views. It is our own independent reasoning.

  7. Hi Paul,

    You say: “But there is no oath taken by the Father and Son in eternity. And if there had been it would have initiated the covenant.” Yet we do see the Lord swearing an oath to Christ in Hebrews 7:20-22.

    We read: “And inasmuch as not without an oath he was made priest: (for those priests were made without an oath; but this with an oath by him that said unto him, The Lord sware and will not repent, Thou art a priest for ever after the order of Melchisedec:) by so much was Jesus made a surety of a better testament.”

    You are looking for plain words; here are plain words. As Matthew Henry writes of God: “He has taken an oath to Christ, which he never did to any of the order of Aaron.”

    In other words, if:

    1. The difference you see between a promise and a covenant is the absence/presence of an oath,
    2. You acknowledge that God made a promise to Christ before the ages,
    3. With that promise, Scripture records plainly that an oath was taken by God to Christ,

    Then surely, by the definition you provided from Archer’s and you attest to, the promises between God and Christ which include an oath, can be rightly described within the doctrine of the Covenant of Redemption.

    Joseph

  8. Joseph,

    You’re tenacious, I’ll say that for you. You now cite Hebrews 7, which itself quotes Psalm 110, and you attempt to make the order of Melchizedek a pre-creational order. But again, Psalm 110:4 must be related to the fulfillment of the Davidic covenant in Psalm 110:1-3. Jesus is a priest-king, but not before creation! The oath you refer to is applied by the author of Hebrews to the order of Melchizedek, which means that Jesus’ priesthood comes AFTER that of Melchizedek!

    Also, Hebrews 7:22 says, “by so much more Jesus has become a surety of a better covenant.” Which covenant is he speaking about? Certainly not any “covenant” enacted between the Father and Son before the world began. Jesus couldn’t be installed a priest after the order of Melchizedek until He was incarnate. And the covenant in verse 22 is plainly the New covenant which he will reference in Hebrews 8. Look at Hebrews 7:28: “but the word of the oath, which came after the law, appoints the Son who has been perfected forever.”

    You are not reading the Bible for what it says, but are doing precisely what I contend CT’s do, viz., you are trying to find a proof text for a teaching that you have already inferred. By the way, not even William Gouge agrees with you here. He states that the oath pertains to “the covenant betwixt God and man” (Commentary on Hebrews, 523 sec. 95.10), not, as you say, “an oath…taken by God to Christ.”

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