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.