Deciphering Covenant Theology (19)

Part Eighteen

Looking Deeper into the Problems with Covenant Theology (4)

4. CT deals with everything it meets in the pages of Scripture using these false covenants.

From my point of view as a non-covenant theologian it is bad enough that the three theological covenants of Covenant Theology share scarcely a scrap of textual warrant between them. What is worse, though, is how much these made-up covenants dictate the rest of what the Bible can and cannot be allowed to teach, particularly when it comes to biblical prophecy. Here are the two main areas where I believe the impact of false covenants ) are most felt:

The Definition of “Covenant”

Perhaps it is well to start with the definition of “covenant” that CT’s slip into. Although decent definitions have been put forth by men like Vos, Horton, and Robertson, many CT’s relax their definitions to allow the theological covenants in. As I have shown, many CT’s reduce the meaning of covenant down to “agreement” and then they’re off to the races. Kevin DeYoung does this in the book Covenant Theology edited by Waters, Reid & Muether, 589. He continues with “A covenant is a commitment that establishes a relationship between two or more parties.” (His emphasis). The trouble here is that one can define a promise or indeed a plain old agreement the same way. The biblical covenants cannot be accurately defined this way because the central oath is so important to them.

A covenant is not just an agreement. As a matter of fact the idea of “agreement” is not a necessary ingredient of a covenant at all! Just think of the unilateral covenants like the Noahic, Abrahamic, Davidic, or New. These covenants are one-sided oaths taken by God to do good to specific parties. For example, Noah didn’t have to agree with God’s pledge never again to flood the earth. Therefore, “agreement” is not a necessary component of a unilateral covenant. In point of fact, “agreement” is not a component of the dubious covenant of grace either!

What a covenant is at least is a solemn, binding oath to do something of importance. It must be clearly stated so as not to cause confusion or misinterpretation – especially with the passage of time. The covenants of redemption, works and grace do not pass this first test. However, once accepted they become more authoritative than the divine covenants which can be identified exegetically. A major effect of this is that whatever those divine covenants promised is made subject to review under the theological covenants; the covenant of grace foremost.

The One People of God

Then there is the position which is demanded by the covenant of grace that there be only one homogenous people of God. This people is the one Church under the covenant. Even when Reformed Baptists differentiate between the OT people of God and the NT people of God they are speaking about the one Church, although its complexion changes from majority Jewish to majority Gentile. But what about these texts?

Thus says the LORD:

‘I will return to Zion,
And dwell in the midst of Jerusalem.
Jerusalem shall be called the City of Truth,
The Mountain of the LORD of hosts,
The Holy Mountain. – Zechariah 8:3.

And it shall come to pass
That just as you were a curse among the nations,
O house of Judah and house of Israel,
So I will save you, and you shall be a blessing.
Do not fear,
Let your hands be strong. – Zechariah 8:13.

Since Jerusalem has never been called “the City of Truth” and the reunited nation of Israel has not been saved to bless the other nations what are we to do with this promise? If there’s one people of God and that people is the mostly Gentile Church under the covenant of grace then something will have to be altered. What will not be permitted is the eschatological manifestation of these prophecies in the future. Therefore, since the future is all the Church and hence there is no need for Jerusalem to be the City of Truth, or for Israel (composed of Israelites in a nation) to be saved and become a blessing to the nations (Gen. 12:3?), one maneuver that can be done is to pass on the details and then not comment on the verses so that the chapter can be made to fit a one-people-of-God eschaton.

The same can be said about passages like Matthew 21:28 or Revelation 21:22-26. The Matthew passage predicts a time when Jesus’ disciples will judge “the twelve tribes of Israel.” This implies an ethnic and national dimension to “Israel” in the kingdom which would distinguish it from other nations. The covenant of grace cannot accommodate such a thing. The end of Revelation 21 very clearly speaks of “the glory and the honor of the nations” being brought into the New Jerusalem (Rev. 21:26). If their are distinguishable nations in the new heavens and new earth then there is no good reason to deny Israel’s covenant promises to it as a nation. But this is what CT does through its one-people-of-God doctrine.

The flip side of all this is Point #5:

5. CT is not open to follow the covenants of God where they lead.

Although I listed this as a separate problem for CT, it does not require much additional comment. The covenant that God made with Noah guarantees the uniformity of nature at least until Christ comes to beautify and reorder it. It also demonstrates the hermeneutical power of covenants. It does this because it is solely on the basis of this covenant that everyone believes that God will not flood the earth again. Unfortunately, CT does not make this covenant a hermeneutical touchstone. Instead, that honor is handed to the theological covenant of grace.

The Mosaic covenant provided clear cultic and moral laws and guidelines which were comprehended even when they weren’t followed. These laws preserved Israel as a people (a remnant) before God. Once Israel accepts the New covenant in Christ these laws will be adapted for the new conditions. The covenant with Phinehas and his descendants (Zadokites) insures that some form of Temple cultus will exist in the Kingdom. This will of necessity be under the New covenant once Israel is redeemed by that covenant. CT has no use for another literal Temple in Jerusalem because of it’s view that the Church is both the true Temple and the true Israel under the covenant of grace.

The Abrahamic and Davidic covenants guarantee land and a monarchy to the twelve tribes of Israel which have yet to be fully realized. The Abrahamic covenant also has a provision of blessing for the nations without that provision obstructing God’s provisions for His people Israel. CT’s often claim that these covenants have found their fulfillments in the death and resurrection of Jesus and the Church that is in Him. Therefore, whatever details in the Abrahamic or Davidic covenants fail to match this view are expanded and transformed so that the original promises are transcended and their typological counterparts are affirmed.

Part 20


10 thoughts on “Deciphering Covenant Theology (19)”

  1. Dr, I agree with you that the covenants are to be fulfilled in the future millennium after Messiah returns, but does not Paul teach in Ephesians 2 that we who were once outside looking in on these promises and. Covenants are now one with these saints in these promises and covenants? Does that not make us one people of God in Christ looking forward to those promises of the covenants?

  2. Jerry,

    As a Christian Ecclesia we are one in Christ, whether Jew or Gentile. This agrees with the third part of the Abrahamic covenant and the New covenant. However, I think the covenants also require a separate future for Israel and the nations. So there is one people of God now. Eschatologically I hold to three peoples (Israel, Church, Nations) but one humanity: a triad of “peoples” to reflect the Trinity.

    1. I appreciate your position, but does it really explain Paul’s teaching on the Olive tree, and the various aspects of salvation for the three persons you describe? For the resurrection of men seemingly from the time of Adam is predicated according to Paul upon man’s having to be in Christ, Or Messiah.
      And then those nations seemingly are not yet saved for from them will come those stated to rebel and go after Satan at the end of the millennium. So, I’m not sure that Scripture teaches a trinity of persons, but rather only one way to the Father, and one new man in Christ. I certainly agree with you that Covenant theology takes away promises contained in the covenants that are stated to be fulfilled during the millennium.
      But is it not also a difficult task when explaining Israel’s salvation to separate her from the body and blood of Christ which constitutes the Ecclesia? Along those lines It seems strange to me how I could be Adopted and grafted into a tree which represented the believing remnant of Israel and yet be separate from that believing remnant, which was obviously not cut off for unbelief, because they were never among those who were cut off for their unbelief.
      And I have also been puzzled as to how we then somehow get cut off from that tree while still in belief, just because the time has come to add the final remnant from the nation Israel back to the tree seemingly containing all of God’s believing people.
      I have no problem with your understanding of the nations as a separate people, because it has always seemed to me that they were not yet saved. They could not have been for when Jesus explains to them why He is letting them into the kingdom, they have no idea of the gospel or of the reason itself, but they merely are told that it is because they met the needs of His brethren when they had no food or drink, or clothes to wear. They have a place in the kingdom, but are yet to hear the gospel. As such they are free to rebel should they so chose. Still mortal and still free will agents.
      So to me it seems clear why Paul teaches as he does, and his teaching aligns with Jesus concerning the sheep. It seems that this fold of which He speaks is Israel, and we are the other sheep of which He speaks: I have other sheep that are not of this fold and them I must bring also that there be one flock and one shepherd over the flock. Paul does not stray from this understanding in his teaching.

  3. I disagree with Jerry’s assertions that believing Gentiles are bo longer part of the nations, and I also disagree with the implied assertion that believers of all ages, as God’s people, are part of The Church.

    1. So do you also disagree with Paul in Ephesians that the gentiles who at one time were on the outside looking in on the covenants and promises are now in Christ, who is Israel’s Messiah, and are one with the Saints and one new man with them? Do you also disagree that we are now grafted in to a tree the Olive tree that obviously Gods people, which included before we were grafted in Israel’s believers, or included as Paul references them: the remnant, which represented Israel’s believers? The answers to these issues by Dispensationalists are very weak when viewing the actual literal scriptures that I just referenced which deal with these questions. So Joel tell me why you disagree? But I didn’t deal with believing Gentiles and the nations yet. Was Jesus mistaken when He shows these Gentiles to lack knowledge of the scripture that He is creating at the time with His very words. He says with these words that that the sheep will not know why He has divided them as He will do when He returns. These sheep when He asks: Lord you know that I believe in you and your word. I prayed to you for forgiveness of my sin. There is no indication that these are believers. They are allowed into the kingdom for one reason only. These mortals will enter because the mortal portion kingdom was prepared for them, and they will be ruled over with a rod of iron. Some will accept that ruler as Savior and will not rebel at the end of the 1000 years, but the nations will rebel. What do you have to show that I am wrong in my use of these scriptures?

      1. I’m not trying to argue with you Joel, my purpose is to cause others to think, I love the as you do I’m sure. I love the word as again you do I’m sure. If I can be shown reasons to believe differently from the word I will live that word as well. We are all being taught by the Hily Spirit in us or else we are unteachable, and I believe you would Agree that that would not be good.

  4. Dearest Dr. Henebury, I am so enjoying these Essays on CT. In Pt 19, you define a covenant, inserted here: “But a covenant is not just an agreement. It is at least a solemn, binding oath to do something of importance. It must be clearly stated so as not to cause confusion or misinterpretation – especially with the passage of time.” And from your other posts I can see how you point out how the CT’s blur the definition. Is there anyway (maybe you have in future posts in this series that I have not read yet), that you can spend more time writing out a more clear definition that removes the confusion that you mention? Maybe deriving a specific working (non-confusing) definition, with rules of condition from the examples of the true Biblical Covenants by which we can see how CT’s Theologically derived and blurry covenants fail the definition specifically.

  5. That’s not a bad idea Steve. I’ll think about it. In the meantime here is the definition I give in my book, ‘The Words of the Covenant’ Vol. 1:

    “A biblical covenant between God and man is a solemnly sealed and explicit declaration of intent and obligation, about a matter of great importance. It binds one or both parties to fulfill the words of the covenant oath. The parties to the covenant cannot be changed out.
    The function of a covenant is to amplify or reinforce the plain terms of the oath between the parties in order to clarify their relationship and clear away ambiguity or
    misinterpretation, thereby insuring a unified understanding of the terms.” – p.42.

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