This and the next installment uses material from my article “The Eschatology of Covenant Theology,” originally published in the Journal of Dispensational Theology, 10:30 (Sep 2006).
The Eschatology of Covenant Theology (1)
As well as encompassing the explicit scriptural covenants like the Abrahamic, Mosaic, Davidic, and New Covenants, due to its extensive character, the “Covenant of Grace” basically flattens out these more easily identifiable covenants and merges them into one. This can be seen in the following excerpt, which is one of the more blatant examples of using the Covenant of Grace as an interpretive “cookie-cutter” upon the explicit covenants:
“This one plan was hinted at even as Adam and Eve were driven from the Garden of Eden (Gen. 3:15), and when God covered them with the skins of animals, requiring the shedding of blood to be an adequate coverage (Gen. 3:21), thereby giving a type of Calvary where the blood of Christ was poured out in order to institute the new covenant and make adequate coverage for our sins. However, from man’s perspective, that plan has been unfolded in sections as he was able to grasp it, and these integral parts of God’s eternal whole have been referred to (by accommodation) as the covenant with Abraham, the Mosaic Covenant, the New Covenant (Jer. 31:31), and so forth.” – William E. Cox, Biblical Studies in Final Things, 4–5. (Emphasis added).
Thus, the idea of the Covenant of Grace becomes the modus operandi of progressive revelation.
“The Consciousness of the Covenant”
In order better to comprehend the importance of the Covenant of Grace in this matter, I shall give the observations of some dispensationalist theologians who have concluded that the idea of the covenant, with its soteriological implications, dominates the hermeneutical methodology of covenant theologians.
Referring to the hermeneutics of Willem VanGemeren, dispensationalist Paul S. Karleen paraphrases him thus:
“There is a soteriological unity in the covenant of grace; it joins all God’s people across the testaments; to ask if we are to take the prophets literally is to ask the wrong question; the issue of the interpretation of the prophets is not one of literal versus spiritual/metaphoric/figurative but of the relation of the OT and NT, which is determined by the Covenant of Grace.” – Paul S. Karleen, “Understanding Covenant Theologians,” Grace Theological Journal 10:2 (Fall 1989), 132. Emphasis added.
Karleen goes on to add, “There can be no question that the covenant of grace is the deciding factor in the covenant theologian’s eschatology.” – Ibid, 133. Emphasis added.
This imposition of the all-embracing Covenant of Grace is also noticed by John Feinberg in his excellent treatment of “Systems of Discontinuity” between the Old Testament and the New.
“Ask a covenant theologian to sketch the essence of his system and invariably he will begin with a discussion of the covenant of works, the covenant of grace, and the covenant of redemption. But, of course, all these relate to soteriology; and when they are made the basic categories for understanding Scripture, it becomes obvious why covenantal systems usually emphasize soteriology to the exclusion of other issues.” – John S. Feinberg, “Systems of Discontinuity,” in Continuity and Discontinuity, ed. John S. Feinberg, 344, n.108.
To summarize then, there is no removing the spectacles of the Covenant of Grace from off the noses of Covenant theologians. They believe it is the grand unifying theme of the Old and New Testaments, as well as the great interpretive grid of Scripture. It is a magnificent schema which facilitates the purpose of God in revealing Himself to His people. As Gerhaardus Vos, in one of his best pieces of writing, could say:
“…the leading principle of the covenant…is nothing but the open eye and the clear vision of the Reformed believer for the glorious plan of the grace of God, which arouses in him a consciousness of the covenant and keeps it alive, and which causes him to be so familiar with this scriptural idea and makes this train of thought so natural to him. How else could he receive and reflect the glory of his God, if he were not able to stand in the circle of light, where the beams penetrate to him from all sides? To stand in that circle means to be a party in the covenant, to live out of a consciousness of the covenant and to drink out of the fullness of the covenant.” – Geerhardus Vos, “The Doctrine of the Covenant in Reformed Theology”, in Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation, 256.
To Vos’s mind, the “consciousness of the covenant” dictates the approach to Scripture that he takes. This paradigm inevitably affects his hermeneutical pre-understanding.
Another amillennialist, Anthony Hoekema, writes in a similar vein:
“Amillennialists do not believe that sacred history is to be divided into a series of distinct and disparate dispensations but see a single covenant of grace running through all of that history. This covenant of grace is still in effect today and will culminate in the eternal dwelling together of God and his redeemed people on the new earth.” – Anthony A. Hoekema, “Amillennialism,” in The Meaning of the Millennium: Four Views, ed. Robert G. Clouse, 186.
See how this “single covenant running throughout all history”, and which is “still in effect today” must a priori exclude a comprehensive literal fulfillment of the Abrahamic and Davidic Covenants to Israel.
I am, of course, aware that men like Lewis Sperry Chafer, John Walvoord, and Herman A. Hoyt have held to a unifying covenant of grace. And indeed it is possible to be a dispensationalist and hold to a form of covenant theology (See e.g. Michael A. Harbin, “The Hermeneutics of Covenant Theology,” in Vital Prophetic Issues, (Grand Rapids: Kregel Resources, 1995) ed. Roy B. Zuck, pp.34–35). See also Herman Hoyt’s remarks in The Meaning of the Millennium: Four Views ed. Robert G. Clouse, 197.
While not dismissing it, Chafer said of covenant theology that “If [the Covenants of Works and of Grace] are to be sustained it must be wholly apart from Biblical authority” – Lewis Sperry Chafer, Systematic Theology, 4:156. For an attempt to show that the main difference between dispensationalism and covenant theology is one of emphasis, see Stephen R. Spencer’s article, “Reformed Theology, Covenant Theology, and Dispensationalism,” in Integrity of Heart, Skillfulness of Hands, (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1994), Charles H. Dyer and Roy B. Zuck, eds. In my opinion Spencer is at best only half successful.