Deciphering Covenant Theology (Pt.8)

Part Seven

I ended the last post talking about how CT reduces the nation of Israel down to Jesus Christ and then interprets the Church in Him to be the “True Israel.” There is more to say about that, but first I think a little more orientation is required. I want to begin this installment with a definition of Covenant Theology from one of its major contemporary practitioners, Ligon Duncan:

“Covenant theology is an approach to biblical interpretation that appreciates the importance of the covenants for understanding the divine-human relationship and the unfolding of redemptive history in Scripture. Blending insights from systematic and biblical theology, covenant theology explains the economic Trinity, communion with God, the person and work of Christ, the sacraments, justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, the role of obedience in the Christian life, the believer’s assurance of salvation, the unity and progress of redemptive history, and more, in light of the Bible’s teaching on the divine covenants.” – “Covenant Theology: An Essay,” available at https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/essay/covenant-theology/

I want to interact with Duncan’s article because it both explains and obfuscates what CT actually is. Duncan’s essay does not enter into the way CT deals with the biblical text. It doesn’t walk us through its requirement of a single people of God (the Church), or that the Church is the “True Israel.” Neither does it highlight or allude to the prevalence of spiritualization of prophetic passages, including the biblical covenants. Finally, it does not tell the reader that the “theological covenants” (and I’m glad that Duncan uses that description) are given hermeneutical preference over the biblical covenants – especially the covenant of grace. Actually, he downplays the theological covenants and their strategic influence, which though perhaps unintentional, appears to me to be a strategic ploy.

Duncan on what Covenant Theology is

Duncan does state that the theological covenants of redemption, works, and grace are important to CT. He rightly says that “The Bible is a covenant book, and to be read well it needs to be read covenantally.” But he does not indicate that the covenant of grace takes precedence over the Abrahamic, Mosaic, Davidic, or New covenants; being overlaid on top of them, thus dictating what they can and cannot mean.

The essay has a very good section where the author describes and illustrates five ways that the Bible uses the word “covenant.” It is well worth studying. But one thing that is missing is a statement that God’s covenants, save for the Mosaic covenant, are unconditional as to the terms of their oaths. But that isn’t the main problem. The main issue here is that the theological covenants are not mentioned in this section (other than the hopeful inclusion of Genesis 1 – 3 in different arrangements, and Hosea 6:7 snuck in once or twice to back them up). The reason for this is easy: there is no exegetical or textual support for these theological covenants! No credible mainline scholar that I am aware of maintains that there are covenants in the first three chapters of Genesis (e.g., Nicholson, Barr, Mendenhall, Freedman, McCarthy, Rendtorff, or Hillers), and no scholarly evangelical dictionary article on “Covenant” I know sees the theological covenants present in Scripture.

Duncan also tells us that many people “get nervous about admitting the legitimacy of theological covenants, like the Covenants of Redemption, Works and Grace.” From my studies in CT this is very understandable. But it is the hermeneutical and theological clout afforded these theological covenants that must be appreciated by those who want to understand Covenant Theology. Duncan avoids addressing this, but he does at least admit that the foundation of CT is not solely exegetical biblical theology:

“Covenant theology is informed by exegetical, biblical and systematic theology: recognizing that the redemptive history revealed in Scripture is explicitly articulated through a succession of covenants (Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, and New), thus providing a fundamental architectonic or organizing principle for biblical theology (the study of Scripture from the standpoint of redemptive history).”

To be clear, Duncan is saying that although exegesis is involved in CT, it is not the only piece of the puzzle. Systematic theology and biblical theology play a part. Notice though that it is biblical theology conformed to an already decided overall theme; the theme is, “redemptive history revealed in Scripture is explicitly articulated through a succession of covenants (Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, and New)” drives it. Which is to say, the controlling mechanisms of CT’s approach to exegesis and biblical theology are already in place. Notice, “redemptive history” is said to be “explicitly articulated” in the biblical covenants (I exclude “Adam” since that non-covenant is snuck in alongside the actual ones of Scripture). But when one examines the biblical covenants themselves “redemption” in any form is absent from the Abrahamic and Davidic covenants, and is only present in terms of physical deliverance in the Noahic covenant. The Mosaic Law was not a way of salvation, which is why the sacrificial system obtained. Only when we reach the New covenant do we find explicit language of soul-redemption. Hence, the biblical covenants are being read through the wrong lens.

In actual fact, as myself and others (e.g., M. Vlach; M. Snoeberger, L. Pettegrew) have said, “redemptive history” views the story of Scripture from man’s point of view rather than God’s. The lens does not allow us to see enough.  

Duncan’s Confusions

I am going to call Duncan’s statements on the biblical covenants “confusions” although I suspect that they are deliberate obfuscations or false flags. Coming as it does at the start of his article, and throughout the article, but before the theological covenants are mentioned, Duncan’s statement about the importance of the Noahic, Abrahamic, Mosaic, Davidic, and New covenants to CT (he omits the covenant with Phinehas in Num. 25), are a little misleading. Since CT’s believe that the biblical covenants are to be interpreted, not on their own terms, but through the covenant of grace, the unwary reader may be lulled into thinking that these biblical covenants are going to be given their own voice. But that simply is not going to be the case. In actual fact the covenants with Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, and through Christ are all viewed as progressive revelations of the covenant of grace. Duncan sidesteps this crucial detail in his paper. The closest he comes to this is in the penultimate paragraph where he refers to Robert Reymond’s work (and Reymond’s exegetical defense of the covenant of grace in his New Systematic Theology is hardly convincing!).

Duncan also equivocates on the Old and New Testaments being “covenants.” This is a common fallacy that I probably should write more on, although I have written one piece about it. The fact that our Bible’s are divided into two “Testaments” is fine just so long as it is understood that this is not how the Bible refers to itself. “Testament” was the word Irenaeus and Melito employed to delineate the two unequal halves of the Bible. But it ought to be clear to anyone who thinks about it that the Hebrew and Greek Bibles (our OT and NT) are not themselves covenant documents but rather are the historical records of the covenants. The fallacy here is to assign the same significance to non-inspired but well meaning second century designations as the actual inspired covenants of Scripture. Duncan, as many CT’s, does just this.

Finally, in his Recommended Reading list Duncan says that Richard Belcher’s The Fulfillment of the Promises of God “is now the introduction to covenant theology…[and] is now the starting point for those looking for a confessional Reformed presentation.” An opinion to which I am in complete agreement.

5 thoughts on “Deciphering Covenant Theology (Pt.8)”

  1. I am enjoying this series very much. One of the things that I find most appealing about covenant theology is that it provides a framework for understanding and organizing Christian worship. You see this in Michael Horton’s “A Better Way: Rediscovering the Drama of God-Centered Worship,” and many other Reformed books on worship. The covenant leads one to the use of the Psalms as the covenant hymnal and provides a framework for understanding preaching and the Lord’s Supper, as well as the Benediction. I’ve never been in a Dispensational church, but I am guessing that this covenantal approach to worship that I have experienced in Reformed churches is not an emphasis?

    1. There is a wide range of worship understanding in dispensational circles ranging from whether it is Independent Fundamental Baptist (anything from the 1930s to 1960 but not before or after), to Brethren (identical to campus Evangelical-Reformed), to Pentecostal (it id a rehash of Jesus Movement greats to Hillsong), to messianic Jewish music (I have a friend in local ministry who composes worship music for messianic congregations, and her understanding on worship from OT is more literal without the CT assumptions. She and her husband were part of Josh Harris’s church for many years, so they are aware at the popular level the Reformed worship concepts, but yet still reject them). My own feeling is a very different from Reformed, but serious theology of worship has begun to be articulated among thoughtful dispensationslists – I know Paul Miles have some publications on his site, – thoughtful, have addressed covenantal Reformed developments, yet distinctly dispensational that are loyal to the plain meaning of the OT and NT texts. But among general lay persons in diepensationalists, my feeling is just like most lay believers from Reformed circles, all such talks are too far “out there”.

  2. This is an astute observation Michael. My background is more with British Sovereign Grace Churches (1689), o I don’t have the same experience as you record, but I do know what you mean. I intend to address something of this later.

    1. Glad you’re going to address this, Paul. Looking forward to it. I echo some of Michael’s thoughts.

  3. Anglican here, so the Reformed Anglican concept of worship can range from the Reformed covenant conception that was referred to above, to an outright borrowing of Mosaic Law Israel conception of worship that we inherited from the medieval Catholic Church. From what I see here, the CT has a very coherent conception of theology of worship, but any thinking dispensationalists will look with horror at the supercessionist assumptions behind such idea of worship. (I am aware of and know thoughtful dispensationalists say “that particular covenantal theology of worship is bad because it is based on replacement theology”. I think being Anglican means we are more receptive to a wide range of Christendom traditions of worship, and leave everything else to charity [in understanding].

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