Deciphering Covenant Theology (20)

Part Nineteen

6. By assuming, without sufficient warrant, that the New Testament must be used to [re]interpret the Old Testament, CT in practice denies to the OT its own perspicuity, its own integrity as inspired revelation, and creates a “canon within a canon.”  To paraphrase George Orwell, in CT “all Scripture is inspired, but some Scripture [the NT] is more inspired than others [the OT]”.

The actual covenants of God which are recorded in the Old Testament dictate, or ought to dictate, the course of the prophetic narrative. This covenant story raises definite expectations which build to a crescendo by the close of the OT canon. The momentum that has been built up requires us to look very carefully at the NT for signs of continuation of covenant themes. This is something we get, especially in the Synoptic Gospels.

But Covenant Theology is one of those approaches to reading the Bible that effectively negates the covenant expectation that was accumulated in the OT. Instead, CT begins its understanding of Scripture in the NT. I have commented that the NT themes that are concentrated on by CT are the cross and resurrection. But I need to qualify that statement. CT emphasizes the cross and resurrection mainly as they are expounded in Paul. Paul’s theological explanation of these joint themes and their application to the Christian Church is the main thing. This in turn is done by use of the Adam or Christ dichotomy of e.g., Romans 5:12-21 and 1 Corinthians 15:22. Either you are in Christ in the covenant of grace or in Adam and under the covenant of works; the cross and resurrection making the transition possible. From this starting point everything in the OT must be passed through this NT grid.

“Both Reformed Baptists and Presbyterians believe that the New Testament takes priority in how the Old Testament is fulfilled in it.” – Richard P. Belcher, Jr., The Fulfillment of the Promises of God, 208.

“[T]he one problem we have in the interpretation of the Bible is the failure to interpret the texts by the definitive event of the gospel.  This has its outworking in both directions.  What went before Christ in the Old Testament, as well as what comes after him, thus finding its meaning in him.  So the Old Testament must be understood in its relationship to the gospel event.  What that relationship is can only be determined from the witness of the New Testament itself.” – Graeme Goldsworthy, According to Plan, 50.

I must stress a most important matter here. The priority that is given to the NT is not what many interpreters would say is the correct interpretation of the NT. So what is happening is that a certain view of the NT is being foisted on the OT and the OT covenant expectation is not permitted to have a say in how the picture is to look. When that is done it becomes easy to say things such as this:

“[E]arlier expressions point to things beyond themselves that are greater than the meaning that would have been perceived by those receiving these earlier expressions.” – Ibid, 123.

If we return to the Belcher quotation above we can see how this plays out. Belcher says that “the New Testament takes priority in how the Old Testament is fulfilled in it.” But I want to straight away challenge that statement. For instance, what if the OT is not being fulfilled in the NT but is yet to be fulfilled? Well, if that “yet to be fulfilled” happens to cut across what CT will permit then it will usually be made to be “fulfilled” in the NT. So CT Kevin DeYoung asks, ““Without a systematic theology how can you begin to know what to do with the eschatology of Ezekiel…?” And I answer,

‘Your systematic theology, which includes your eschatology, must be constructed from reading Ezekiel, along with all the other books of the Bible to see what it says. The eschatology of Ezekiel cannot be ascertained from outside of Ezekiel, but one can compare what Ezekiel writes with what other Prophets write and you will see a covenantally patterned eschatology emerge. Moreover, that eschatology will be arrived at before the NT is consulted. Why? Because, quite simply, Ezekiel is found in the OT!’

The problem a “a canon within the canon” may arise in different settings. In Theology a canon within the canon refers to the prioritizing of certain books above other books for doctrinal or interpretive purposes. While all Scripture is equally inspired it is not all equally treated. CT’s insistence that the NT (well, especially the Pauline Writings) are necessary for understanding “how the Old Testament is fulfilled” creates a canon within the canon. And this in turn logically places the OT, which is three quarters of the Bible, at a lower level of authority than the NT. “Authority” is muted when the speaker’s words are not taken at face value but reinterpreted on the basis of another authority. Again, I must qualify that statement because whenever portions of the NT, like the Infancy Narratives or the Olivet Discourse or the Book of Revelation link up with the covenant expectations of the OT they too are reinterpreted to agree with what Paul (chiefly) is thought to be teaching, which is “Covenant Theology.”

It ought to dawn upon people that if the OT cannot be properly understood on its own terms that it must therefore be unclear in some important sense. Full clarity can be given to the OT only by the NT, it is not something that the OT itself possesses as an inherent property. Thus, the greater portion of the Holy Scriptures, especially the covenants and prophecies, do not possess the virtue of perspicuity. Not only that, but some large sections of the NT seemingly don’t possess it either! This is not to say that the NT does not clarify certain things written in the OT with further revelation. It is to say that any further revelation given by the NT will not force the OT to be reinterpreted so that the original words are given meanings that they just do not bear.

I could go on to speak about how the NT writers’ appealing to the OT for authority is thereby torpedoed but I will leave that for my reader to ponder.

Finally, it should not go unnoticed that the title of DeYoung’s article (cited above) is tellingly “Your Theological System Should Tell You How To Exegete.” That confirms my contention throughout these posts that CT is fundamentally a deductive way of interpreting Scripture. It is also why Dispensationalists should not adopt the position that they can simply worry about eschatology and ecclesiology and fetch their doctrines of God, man, and salvation from the Reformed CT camp. The methodology of CT does not comport with Dispensationalist hermeneutics. Hence, if Dispensationalists want to arrive where CT’s arrive on systematic theology they will have to get there by using a method which better comports with what they claim to be doing when interpreting the Bible, not using a method which deduces its interpretations from its theology.

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.

Deciphering Covenant Theology (18)

Part Seventeen

Looking Deeper into the Problems with Covenant Theology (3)

3. CT relies upon covenants found nowhere in Holy Writ.

If I were to challenge you to locate the covenants with Noah, Abraham, Phinehas, Moses, and David it would not take you very long. But what if I issued a challenge to find the covenants of redemption, works, or grace? And what if I told you that you could not run to any passage where the covenants to do with Noah, Abraham, Phinehas, Moses, and David were in view? How would you fair?

If you were a Covenant Theologian, one thing that you would have to do is to dilute the definition of “covenant” so that it simply meant something like “agreement.” You might begin by talking about “oaths and bonds” (Horton), but you would make sure to leave those open so that they could be filled with your preferred meanings further on down the line. Then you would have to talk about the “covenantal structure” of Genesis 1 – 3 and provide the kind of “oath” that is mysteriously missing in those chapters. After this you would run to passages such as John 17:24; Ephesians 1:4; Hebrews 4:3, and Revelation 13:8 and 17:8 to try to prove that God’s plan of salvation was an intra-trinitarian covenant (with covenant stripped down to read “agreement” or “decree”). After all this you would have to tell a story around your covenants of redemption, works, and grace, being careful to promote the covenant of grace to the position of arch-covenant, making sure that the Bible’s actual covenants you had easily identified in the initial challenge were subsumed beneath it.

I realize that putting things this way is a bit “cute,” but I think it makes my point. CT’s like to claim that they have exegetical warrant for their theological covenants, but where is it? I want to begin with a quotation from Herman Bavinck:

“The development of the doctrine of the pactum salutis [the intratrinitarian pact of salvation] among the Reformed was not free of scholastic subtlety. The classic text (Zech. 6:13) cited in support of this doctrine does not support prove anything and only states that the Messiah, who unites in his person both the kingship and the priesthood, will consider and promote the peace of his people (Keil).

From Job 17:3; Isaiah 38:14; and Psalm 119:122 (none of which refer to the Messiah), and from Hebrews 7:22 (where we are told only that Christ, because he lives forever, is the guarantee that the new covenant will continue forever), it was inferred that in the pact of salvation Christ had from all eternity become the guarantor, not of God to us…(for God, being trustworthy, needed no guarantor), but of us before God…” – Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics: Volume Three, Sin and Salvation in Christ, 213.

A close reading of this quote should demonstrate the strongly deductive nature of CT. Notice how states that the “pact of salvation” was “inferred.” Bavinck continues on the next page by claiming, with the linkage of many assorted passages, that “the pact of salvation” (by which he means the covenant of redemption) “is rooted in a scriptural idea.” But none of the passages he adduces refer to such a covenant. The “covenant” is just his (and CT’s) way of relating the texts. The trinitarian God is said to be covenantal in His being, but how and why this is so is not explained. As such, even a theological titan like Bavinck offers no exegetical defense of the covenant of redemption. It is clear when reading historical accounts of CT that the theological covenants were all arrived by this process of linking disparate passages into a theological narrative or story using “covenant” as the unifying concept.

As I said in Part Three of this series, Guy Richard asserts that the word “decree” can be basically synonymous with the word “covenant” (in Psalm 2:7). This despite my not being able to find any authority to back it up. And as I asked there, “Is the decree pretemporal? And is every decree covenantal?… Still, while the decree may plausibly be traced to the “eternal counsels” that does not make it covenantal.” With proofs like this there is a lot more work to be done if people like me are going to be persuaded of the scriptural credentials of these theological covenants. Remember, these covenants govern the whole Bible Story; they are it’s hermeneutic – especially the covenant of grace.

Speaking of the covenant of grace, John Currid writes of its commencement in Covenant Theology: Biblical, Theological, and Historical Perspectives (edited by Waters, Reid, and Meuther), 102-109. There is some good exegesis in his chapter, but none of it goes to establishing the scriptural pedigree of the covenant of grace. Instead, Currid blankly states concerning Genesis 3:14-19 that “God makes a covenantal oath.” He then takes us to the Westminster Confession 7.3 (102-103). This is precisely what Kevin DeYoung does on pages 591-592 of the same volume. But where is any covenantal oath in Genesis 3?

Okay, so where do CT’s prove by exegesis the existence of these “covenants” outside of their own reasoning? You tell me. If it is in Covenant Theology: Biblical, Theological, and Historical Perspectives I can’t find it. It is not enough to string together a group of texts. One must demonstrate that they have anything to do with the theological covenants of CT and not with the biblical covenants or with non-covenantal teachings.

Finally, if this cannot be done, what authorizes us to proceed to interpret the rest of the Bible; and in so doing eliminating the eschatological meaning of many prophecies tied to the Abrahamic, Davidic, or New covenants along the way? We need more than a cleverly contrived narrative and heaps of typology. We need proof.

A Second Response to Josh Sommer

First Response

In Part Two of his reply to my articles on Deciphering Covenant Theology Josh wants to focus on three paragraphs in my second article. These paragraphs to be precise:

What I want to point out is that there are two assertions here not one. The first assertion is that without the NT the OT “would remain largely veiled to us.” The second is that “we would see Christ only dimly.”

While there is no doubt that the second assertion is spot on, what about the first opinion? Notice that the whole OT is basically being boiled down to the figure of Christ. But although Christ is certainly crucial to the OT, isn’t it true that the Hebrew Bible is about more than Him? What about the covenants that God pledges to Israel and His election of them? What about Jerusalem and the temple? What about David’s throne in Jerusalem? Aren’t these perfectly clear as given by the OT? According to CT (and NCT’s) the answer is No! How come?

I think Brown & Keele answer this question well from a CT perspective. The thing to keep in mind, they tell us, is that there are in fact two distinct stages of fulfillment. The first level of fulfillment is what could be expected from the words God chose to use in the original contexts. But the second level of fulfillment is different.

Josh then says,

“In my lengthy quotation of Henebury above, he takes aim at the covenant theologian’s assumption that the Old Testament is reducible to the “figure of Christ,” at least as it regards understanding the significance thereof. But what if the New Testament itself invites us to make such an assumption? For example, in 2 Corinthians 3:14, Paul writes, “But their minds were blinded. For until this day the same veil remains unlifted in the reading of the Old Testament, because the veil is taken away in Christ.” Required to understand the Old Testament is repentance and faith in Christ, “when one turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away.” (v. 16)”

Since the point at issue here is intramural between saved interpreters of the Bible how is 2 Cor. 3:14 relevant? Hold on. He then states:

Henebury implies Brown & Keele deny that the Old Testament concerns covenants other than the gospel, the nation of Israel, David’s throne, etc. But even if they did elsewhere, that is not what Brown & Keele say in the section Henebury interacts with. Instead, they insinuate Christ as the interpretive key to a full understanding of the Old Testament. There is nothing substantially different in what they say and what the apostle Paul says in 1 Corinthians (sic). 

Of course, Josh has misread me. Nowhere do I imply any such thing regarding Brown & Keele (please read my second paragraph above to see what I actually said). My concern was their assertion that without the NT “the Old Testament would remain largely veiled to us.” Now he is misusing 2 Cor. 3:14, which is about how Israel, because of their rejection of Christ, cannot see the New covenant in Him when they read their OT. When they turn to Him “the veil is taken away” (2 Cor. 3:16).

Josh, along with most CT’s, employs 2 Cor. 3:14 to try to prove that you need the NT Christ to comprehend the OT, which is not what Paul is talking about there. Paul is not saying that the whole OT cannot be understood unless one receives Jesus. When he refers to the “old covenant” he is referring to the Mosaic covenant, which he is contrasting with the New covenant in the chapter. He is not speaking of the whole New Testament, which wasn’t in existence when he wrote 2 Corinthians! This is a common category mistake that I have written about here. Brown & Keele conflate the Mosaic covenant with the entire OT on page 102 of their book where they assert, “The very name Old Testament means the old covenant of Sinai compared to the new covenant.” They are tricky here because they make the Mosaic covenant a synecdoche (a part representing the whole) for the whole Hebrew Bible. Paul’s meaning is that the Jews were clinging to the Mosaic covenant and thus were missing the New covenant Gospel (see also Rom. 10:1-5). One enters into the New covenant through Christ (2 Cor. 3:14, 16).

But let’s follow Josh’s logic here. If he, along with Brown & Keele and CT’s generally, holds that without the NT “the Old Testament would remain largely veiled to us,” then it follows that until believers had the NT they could hardly understand the OT. But Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for this very thing:

You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; it is these that testify about Me; and you are unwilling to come to Me so that you may have life. – John 5:39-40.

In other words, they were rebuked because they didn’t see Christ in the OT. He wasn’t veiled. It was their stubborn refusal to believe the OT witness that condemned them. In my first response to Josh I cited Luke 10:25-28 which would make no sense at all if Brown & Keele are right. The OT was the Bible of the Jesus and the Apostles. They appealed to it. And as I write elsewhere: “Since the OT was the Bible of the Early Christians it would mean no one could be sure they had correctly interpreted the OT until they had the NT. In many cases this deficit would last for a good three centuries after the first coming of Jesus Christ.”

Other Stuff

Josh misinterpreted 2 Corinthians 3:14 because he was looking for a proof-text to validate his position that the NT has interpretive priority over the OT. He continues in this vein in the second half of his post:

The controversy resides in what to do with all the other stuff: Israel, the Davidic throne, the promised land of Canaan, future promises revealed in the Old Testament for Israel, etc. How do we account for these things?…they themselves could only be understood properly in light of Christ. If we try to understand them on the Old Testament’s own terms, neglecting the fuller revelation of God in the New Testament, we essentially try to read the Old Testament as the unconverted Jew does, practically rejecting the significance of the new covenant.  

This “other stuff” is rooted in God’s unilateral covenants. Covenants must be hermeneutically fixed and not open to reinterpretation (E.g., a marriage covenant). But in CT these covenants could not be understood in their OT contexts says Josh. They needed to wait until they could be interpreted “in light of Christ” (by which he essentially means the cross and resurrection). If we, like all those unfortunate OT saints, try to actually take God at His oath, we might as well be unconverted interpreters! That is what Josh believes. Read his quote again. He’s not saying that we are not saved, but he is saying we are interpreting the OT as if we were unsaved.

Enter the equivocating god! This is a god who requires faith in what he says even when what he says creates false expectations which will only be ironed out to make sense hundreds of years after those who believe it are dead. On this view, the covenants obviously are in need of reinterpretation by the NT. They cannot be understood as they stand.

Josh thinks my “method of understanding the Old Testament revelation strictly according to the Old Testament’s own terms would seemingly lead to a systemic rejection of any interpretive import from the New Testament.” No, it would only mean that I reject CT’s interpretation of the NT because it requires that the OT cannot be understood on its own terms.

He asks concerning Isaiah 53: “How would one see the full sense of Isaiah 53 apart from the New Testament?” He wouldn’t of course. But this does not require us to reinterpret Isaiah 53 by the NT. It would only require us to connect it to Jesus. This is just what the Ethiopian eunuch did in Acts 8:25-38. The official understood Isaiah 53. He just didn’t know who it was about. Note, he was not born-again until he believed the connection that Philip made. Therefore, contrary to Josh’s misunderstanding of 2 Corinthians 3:14 he did not need to first exercise “repentance and faith in Christ” to comprehend Isaiah 53, or the rest of the OT. He exercised faith and repentance once he understood the connection. So Paul says, “whenever a person turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away” (2 Cor. 3:16). When is the veil removed? According to the Apostle it is when (henika) the person has turned to the Lord. How many of us understood that we were entering the New covenant when we accepted Christ? Very very few I’ll warrant.

The Land Promise

Joshua 21:43, Josh claims, “is a significant problem for those who make the claim that the land promise was never fulfilled in the Old Testament. It obviously was.” Well, we need to check again. As I said in another place,

“[A]ny reflection on Joshua 23:11-12 and Judges 1 and 3 shows that the [CT] interpretation fails to take the wider historical context into consideration.

As Chisholm explains, “The land belonged to Israel, by title deed if not in fact.”  To all intents and purposes, the land belonged to Israel, and possession of the remaining territory was contingent upon covenant faithfulness to Yahweh.

Yet there is a sense in which the land-grant of Genesis 15 must also be seen eschatologically.  The extent of that land promise still awaits final fulfillment.  In light of this it is best to interpret Joshua 21:43-45 as a statement of God’s fulfilled promise in terms of His covenant faithfulness to a yet disobedient, willful and sometimes feckless people.  The land was now “Israel”, though not the promised Kingdom.”

  Moreover, the CT position on Joshua 21:43 also fails to explain the high note of expectation regarding the promised land running through all the Prophets. I cite page 361 of my The Words of the Covenant: Old Testament Expectation:

“The literal physical descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are entitled to the land of “Palestine” on the basis of the ratified unconditional promises of God (Gen. 15; 17; 22). In fact, their eventual entitlement will be considerably larger in extent than Palestine (Gen. 15:18-21).7 This covenant promise regarding the land is repeated throughout Old Testament history (e.g. Gen. 12:7; 15:7-21; 17:7-8; 22:15-24; 24:7; 28:13-15; Exod. 12:25; 33:1; Deut. 1:8; Isa. 5:25-26; 11:11-12; Jer. 12:14-17; 23:5-8; 30:18; 31:27-40; 33:10-13, 18-21; Ezek. 34:11-31; 37:1-14; Hos. 13:9-14:9; Mic. 2:12; Zeph. 2:19-20; Zech. 12:10-11; 14:16-21).8 This land was to be perpetually theirs once the nation repents and receives Jesus as Messiah (e.g. Deut. 4:29-31; 28:40-41, 44-45; 30:1-2, 10; Jer. 16:14-15; Ezek. 11:14-20; Amos 9:14-15). Also, like it or not, the Old Testament teaches that Israel will become the head of the nations (e.g. Deut. 15:6; 28:1,13; Isa. 60:10-13; 62:1-12; Zeph. 3:20).”

Before ending I feel I must respond to this paragraph from Josh:

“However, given my above thesis, that the New Testament itself requires we read the Old Testament in light of it, the land of Canaan, like the acorn, was certainly destined for a higher purpose. Its purpose was to grow into something greater. I believe this can be seen in the Old Testament, such as in Isaiah 57:13, where the land is given by faith, which was not how the land was originally given to the descendants of Abraham. Those descendants were required to be circumcised and keep the Mosaic law inherently implied by circumcision following the Sinaitic covenant. (Gal. 5:3) Nevertheless, it is the New Testament that unfolds the original purpose and significance of both the law and the land, “But now they desire a better, that is, a heavenly country. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for He has prepared a city for them.” (Heb. 11:16).”

Here are a few clipped observations:

  1. In the first sentence Josh means that the NT requires we read the OT in light of the way CT’s interpret it. But we don’t agree with how CT’s interpret the NT oftentimes; especially the prophetic portions. So, e.g., the Book of Revelation is not really a prophecy but is turned into what I would call an “idealist allegory.” Hence, the problem of interpretation doesn’t stop with the OT.
  2. Notice the storyline. The land of Canaan “was destined…to grow into something greater.” Where does the NT teach that? (I see a misuse of Romans 4:13 on the horizon). This is added storyline freighted into the Bible.
  3. Isa. 57:13 is supposed to support this. Actually he uses only the last part (“But he who puts his trust in Me shall possess the land, and shall inherit My holy mountain.”). But the “land” and the “holy mountain” there is Israel and Zion (notice the offerings in v. 6). It is not some expanded heavenly land as envisaged by Josh. God is denouncing their idolatry. But Josh’s point about the need for faith here is surprising. Does he really think faith is not important in inheriting the land? Has he not read e.g., Leviticus 26? What is making him misread Isaiah 57?
  4. Josh claims “the New Testament… unfolds the original purpose and significance of both the law and the land.” So the original purpose of God for the land was not what the OT said it was! God was speaking in code when on multiple occasions He promised a specific land to Israel and backed it by a solemn oath? That is where one comes out when CT’s deductive hermeneutics is followed, where the meaning of OT texts is deduced from ones preferred reading of the NT.
  5. Josh appeals to Hebrews 11:16, which he uses to teach that the “original purpose” of the land promise was heaven (Why then did God not simply say that?). Josh says “The heavenly country in Hebrews 11:16 isn’t the land of Canaan, per se.” Actually, it wasn’t the land of Canaan in any way, shape or form. Why would God take an oath like He did in Gen. 15:12-21, which was echoed unchanged by the psalmist a thousand years later (Psa. 105:6-11) if He had heaven in mind all along? Of course, Abraham knew he wouldn’t inherit the land (Gen. 15:13), and the OT saints were waiting for Messiah, so they knew they would die before the predicted kingdom would come. The text tells us they expected to go to heaven.
  6. But Josh then takes us to Hebrews 12:18-24. He utilizes it to teach that we all go to the “kingdom” (Heb. 12:28) in heaven which is our permanent home. This is to misread the passage. I cannot write a commentary here, but Hebrews 12:18-24 is referring to the New covenant as represented by the things in verses 22-24 as opposed to the old covenant which is represented by the things in verses 18-21. He fails to discern the application in verses 25-29 which refer to the created order, not to God’s dwelling place. (See e.g., F. F. Bruce, Hebrews, 383). Josh is looking for proof-texts. He is not reading the passages in context.

Deciphering Covenant Theology (17)

Part Sixteen

Looking Deeper into the Problems with Covenant Theology (3)

2. CT starts its reading of the Bible in the wrong place.

In Part Two of this series I said that for CT’s having the NT to interpret the OT is like the introduction of color televisions to replace the old black and white screens. Whereas for people like myself it is better compared to a deconstructionist interpretation of a classic novel which all but ignores what the novel says and its way of saying it.

Some may think that the second comparison is unfair. I do not want to be unfair so I shall need to elaborate a bit. I have pinpointed the way CT’s view the Bible Story as a history of redemption. That is what it is all about. Certainly, redemption is a very important part of what the Bible is about, but it is not the whole story. There is, for example, a major theme that transcends the problem of human sin and that is the “cosmic drama” being played out between God and Satan, and between God’s plans and Satan’s plans. Not that this is an equal conflict. If God was not upholding Satan and his demons in existence from moment to moment they would cease to exist (Heb. 1:3). And of course, that would also be true of every other being or thing in creation. But this conflict does not of itself have anything to do with redemption. Satan and his host are not to be redeemed. They are to be judged.

Another important theme is the creation itself, blighted not only by sin but also by the curse that the Lord uttered over it. While I agree that redemption overlaps with this theme because man’s salvation will impact earth’s transformation and creation’s eventual freedom from the curse (in the new heavens and new earth), it is also true that the cosmos, however one conceives of it, as well as the spiritual realm, was designed for Jesus Christ to rule over for God the Father. Hence, this created realm has its own intrinsic value and purpose – creation is an unfinished project.

Now it is easy to see how interconnected all this is. But still, if one is going to see the whole of the Bible’s storyline it is critical to “pan-out” far enough to get everything in. And centering on redemption-history is just not a wide enough angle. Important considerations get left out. Furthermore, the history of redemption lens fosters an attitude man-centeredness because it looks at things from our perspective. On the other hand, once we “pan out” to include the cosmic drama and the creation project (of which the former is part of the latter), things become more God-centered.

When reading any book it is not a good idea to start two-thirds in. Along with this reduction of the Big Story to redemption-history comes a hermeneutic which stems from the cross. The problem I see with this is that it pre-determines outcomes. For one thing, the cross occurred at the first coming, and therefore those who begin at Calvary tend to interpret biblical prophecy from a first advent vantage-point. When this happens it is a foregone conclusion that any prophecies which don’t fit the first coming (other than the very clearest second coming passages) must be made to fit the first coming. Whole swathes of OT prophecy will have to be reinterpreted and transformed to be “fulfilled” in Christ and the Church.

A knock-on effect of this will be the revision of what it means to be a prophet. Instead of being a foreteller prophets are turned into moral preachers to their contemporaries. Again, there is some truth to the forth-teller description, but that is not what defines a prophet; a prophet is defined as one who speaks for God about the future (Deut. 18:21-22; Amos 3:7). This test of a prophet is all but forgotten among those who hold a first coming hermeneutic.

Another casualty of CT hermeneutics is progressive revelation. For CT the “progress” isn’t really trackable back into the OT, at least not without a truckload of typological gymnastics, which, coincidentally, mainly finds fulfillment at the first coming! In CT (as well as NCT) typology is the essential tool which makes the covenants oaths of God amenable to being understood from the foot of the cross. A more suitable moniker for progressive revelation as dished up by CT is “supercessive revelation,” since the plain meaning of earlier texts gets replaced by new meanings further on. This is because, as I have said before, in CT (and NCT) progressive revelation “only refers at best to the completed revelation, but not the process of revelation.” Consider this statement from G. K. Beale:

“Perhaps one of the most striking features of Jesus’ kingdom is that it appears not to be the kind of kingdom prophesied in the OT and expected by Judaism” – A New Testament Biblical Theology, 431 (my emphasis), 

This statement can only be made if revelation is not progressive but supercessive. If all the steps towards fulfillment can be transformed out of recognition right at the end then “progressive” is simply the wrong word to use. Only if the plain meaning is maintained all along the line of progress does the adjective apply.

Then there is the influence of the approach upon NT prophecy, especially when NT passages begin to look like they are picking up on OT covenants and interpreting them literally. Redemptive-historical hermeneutics, which is first coming hermeneutics, cannot allow this. This means that the Olivet Discourse, or the Olive Tree metaphor in Romans 11, or the mention of the twelve tribes in Matthew 19:28 or Acts 26:7, or Revelation 21:12 must undergo corrective hermeneutical surgery. Also going under the knife will be mentions of a future temple in Matthew 24 or 2 Thessalonians 2 or Revelation 11. In fact, the entire Book of Revelation must have radical plastic surgery to look like a first coming book and not a second coming book.

Finally, a redemptive framework which circles around the cross and resurrection will tempt the interpreter to neglect what was promised in the OT, particularly to the nation of Israel, and it will blunt the force of the covenant promises that God must deliver on which were sworn before Calvary, and it will treat the NT Church is if it were the promised Kingdom which the prophets envisaged.

If we return to my illustrations for a minute, CT’s believe the transformations of OT covenants and prophecies into “fulfillments” which no OT believer could have dreamed up are like the introduction of color TV’s when people were used to black and white pictures. People like myself though believe that this transmogrifying of the prophets is what is demanded by Covenant Theology, not what is demanded by the inspired writers. Hence, it is more like tampering with what the Book is actually saying and not at all like switching to color.

Deciphering Covenant Theology (16)

Part Fifteen

Looking Deeper into the Problems with Covenant Theology (2)

  1. CT is a mainly deductive approach to reading the Bible.

I started out in this series by making this point and I believe it has been established. When one reflects on the main assumptions of Covenant Theology it becomes clear that the entire edifice is constructed, not upon what the Bible really says, but upon pious but still autonomous inferences. These inferences are deductive in character, and provide the cast into which the mind of CT approaches the text of the Bible. As already documented, Vos called this “the consciousness of the covenant” and what Packer called “a hermeneutic.” To quote Packer again:

“The story that forms [the] backbone of the Bible has to do with man’s covenant relationship with God first ruined and then restored.” – Introduction: Covenant Theology in Herman Witsius, The Economy of the Covenants Between God and Man I. vii.

Packer then goes on to claim that the covenant “story” includes the covenants of works and grace (although he doesn’t use the latter term). He further states that,

“Covenant theologians insist that every book of the Bible in effect asks to be read in terms of these unities [i.e. the one cov. of grace, the one mediator of the cov. of grace, the one people of God, and the one pattern of cov. piety], and as contributing to the exposition of them, and is actually misunderstood if it is not so read.” – Ibid, viii.

If the whole Bible is to be understood in light of covenants that aren’t even in the Bible it may fairly be asked what makes the approach legitimate, never mind mandatory? Surely God would have expressly stated the actuality of these theological covenants in the pages of Scripture if He wanted it to be read according to their stipulations and ramifications? When one studies the Bible it is easy to come across the covenants God made with representatives like Noah (Gen. 9), Abraham (Gen. 15 – 22), Moses (Exod. 19 -24), Phinehas (Num. 25), and David (Psa. 89). It is also easy to appreciate that the Mosaic covenant is to be replaced by a New covenant (Jer. 31). But the covenants of works and grace? not a dickie-bird! What lends these covenants which cannot be found in the Bible interpretive authority over the ones that God explicitly made in the Bible?

I am not here questioning the genius of the idea, and certainly not the piety of those who hold to it, I am questioning its right to be called properly biblical. It rather looks like man’s default setting of independence has become spiritual and has foisted independent themes on the words of God. If the covenants of redemption, works and grace do not exist in the Bible then every teaching influenced by them becomes suspect and definitely ought not to be maintained self-referentially on those covenants. Packer says that the covenant between God and man involves the fall and restoration of man; but there is not a sign of a covenant or any covenant oath in the chapters of Genesis that Packer is implicating. And we are supposed to expound every book of the Bible on this basis? Why? On whose authority? God’s?

Packer asserts that if we fail to allow the theological covenants – more particularly the covenant of grace, to be the lens through which all of Scripture is to be comprehended the result will be to misunderstand the Bible. Again I ask, on what authority does that statement rest, divine or human?

The fact of the matter is that not only do the theological covenants have no exegetical warrant from Scripture, they in reality obscure the covenants that God did make! Those covenants, being recorded in Scripture for all to read have far greater hermeneutical and theological clout than the main covenants of Covenant Theology. The text of Scripture and that alone furnishes us with the words which our theological systems must heed and respect. For all their ingenuity, the theological covenants and their consequences are but a layer of pious traditions that are the product of independent thinking rather than thinking subordinated to the actual words and covenants of God.

Covenant Connections in Paul (8)

Part Seven

The Return of Christ in Paul

            The earliest letters of Paul are the Epistle to the Galatians and the two Epistles to the Thessalonians (c. A.D. 48-50).  Every attentive reader knows that the theme of the second coming is found in every chapter but one of 1 and 2 Thessalonians.  The teaching also features strongly in 1 Corinthians 3 and 15; Philippians 3:20; the letter to Titus, and 1 and 2 Timothy.  Different verbs are used for the event, but the same idea is in view.  To this we may add Romans 8:19.  These passages do not serve only as anticipations of a great event; they speak of the culmination of something.  (After this there is the Bema Seat – 2 Cor. 5:10). 

            If we take the Thessalonian Epistles as our starting point, we can see the different uses the apostle puts the doctrine of Christ’s second advent to.  First there is the aspect of patient waiting (1 Thess. 1:9-10).  The coming of Christ “delivers us from the wrath to come.” (1 Thess. 1:10).  What this wrath (orge) is we are not told.  It may be the wrath of the second coming or the “revealing” (apokalypsis) itself as per 2 Thessalonians 1:5-9, or it may more generally be “the Day of the Lord” (1 Thess. 5:1-3, 9).  It may also denote the Tribulation if one allows that Paul might have had that in mind.

            Paul also relates the coming (parousia)[1] of Christ to our sanctification (1 Thess. 3:13; 5:23).  In 1 Thessalonians 2:19 he writes,

For what is our hope, or joy, or crown of rejoicing? Is it not even you in the presence of our Lord Jesus Christ at His coming (parousia)?

            As I understand the passage Paul is saying that the saint’s fellowship in the presence of the Lord will be ample reward for their endeavors, when they all participate in Christ’s “kingdom and glory” (1 Thess. 2:12; 2 Thess. 2:14). 

            I Thessalonians 4:13-18 is a little unusual amid the other references.  For one thing there seems to be a difference between 1 Thessalonians 4:13 and 5:1-2.  In the latter text the saints are well aware of the doctrine Paul is referring to, but in chapter 4 they seem to be being told something new (“I do not want you to be ignorant…”).  It seems best to look at this text separately therefore.

            Paul wrote about the return of Jesus as the great hope of the saint (Tit. 2:13).  But he also saw it as the great hope of the earth.  These two things are brought together in Romans 8 where he envisages a transformation of the saints that triggers environmental changes, thus bringing the believer’s hope into the realm of the larger Creation Project:

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.  For the earnest expectation of the creation eagerly waits for the revealing of the sons of God. – Romans 8:18-19.

            Here the apostle is contrasting the troubles of life with “the glory which shall be revealed in us.”  He personifies the created order as straining in expectation for something he calls “the revealing of the sons of God.” (Rom. 8:19).  So, Paul says that the humanity which in Adam originally came from the earth (Gen. 2:7), becomes the hope of the earth’s chances of regeneration. Creation’s regeneration hinges on the glorification of saved humanity.[2] 

For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it in hope; because the creation itself also will be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God.  For we know that the whole creation groans and labors with birth pangs together until now.  Not only that, but we also who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, eagerly waiting for the adoption, the redemption of our body.  – Romans 8:20-23.

            Paul’s reasoning here is “that the creation was subjected to futility” as a consequence of the Fall.  When one looks at Genesis 1 it becomes clear that the first five days of creation and the first half of the sixth day were all preparation for the creation of man in Genesis 1:26-27.  What God does next brings home to us the connection that Paul refers to in Romans 8 between human glorification and the world’s regeneration. God explicitly puts the responsibility for creation into the hands of man as His image in Genesis 1:28-30.  Therefore, the fact that the fortunes of man and those of his natural environment are still intertwined at the second coming is important to notice.  But someone might ask, “where is the second coming in Romans 8:20-23?”  It is found in the doctrine of “the redemption of the body” (Rom. 8:23).  To see this more clearly consider two texts from 1 Corinthians 15:

But each one in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, afterward those who are Christ’s at His coming. – 1 Corinthians 15:23.

The first man was of the earth, made of dust; the second Man is the Lord from heaven.  As was the man of dust, so also are those who are made of dust; and as is the heavenly Man, so also are those who are heavenly.  And as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly Man. – 1 Corinthians 15:47-49.  

            The context concerns the resurrection body.  In 1 Corinthians 15:23 we are told that we shall receive a body similar to Christ’s resurrection body “at His [second] coming.”  Hence, “the glory which shall be revealed in us” and  “the revealing of the sons of God” which Romans 8:18-19 speaks about occurs when Jesus returns.  Many read 1 Corinthians 15:47 as a reference to the first coming, but eschatological note is unmistakable.  We “shall…bear the image” of the resurrected Jesus.

Again Philippians 3:20-21 says,

For our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body that it may be conformed to His glorious body, according to the working by which He is able even to subdue all things to Himself.

            The Christian has been born into “this present evil world” (Gal.1:4), but they no longer belong to it.  They possess the right to enter heaven; a right bought for them by Jesus Christ.  And according to Philippians 3:21 it is Christ who will “transform our lowly body” by glorifying it.  The apostle John will echo this truth later in the first century (1 Jn. 3:2).

            We do well to take stock of the importance that Paul places on Christ’s second coming.  He pins all of our hopes upon it.  Therefore, it is simply untrue to assert that for Paul “the linchpin of Paul’s eschatology is the proclamation of Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah,”[3]  if this identification does not place great emphasis on His return. This is borne out by the preceding passages and the weight of hope they bear. 


[1] From Paul’s usage of the two verbs here I believe the “revealing” and the “coming” of Christ are the same event. 

[2] This earthly regeneration is guaranteed by its connection with the glorification of believers, which is locked-in by the decree of God.  See Romans 8:30.   

[3] L. J. Kreitzer, “Eschatology,” in Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, edited by Gerald F. Hawthorne and Ralph P. Martin, Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1993, 256.

Deciphering Covenant Theology (Pt. 14)

Part Thirteen

The Eschatology of Covenant Theology (2)

The millennial options available to those who filter their Bible interpretation through the Covenant of Grace are, Amillennialism; Postmillennialism; and, what is sometimes referred to as Covenant (or Historic) Premillennialism. These options will now be reviewed below.

Option One: Amillennialism:

Amillennialism is the eschatological viewpoint which, among other things, insists that there will be no literal thousand-year Messianic kingdom upon earth. Louis Berkhof admitted that the Amillennial point of view was, “as the name indicates, purely negative.” – Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 708.  Amillennialists believe the promises made to Israel in the Old Testament are fulfilled spiritually by the New Testament Church. Most place a heavy emphasis upon denying the literalness of Revelation Twenty, especially the first six verses. For them the six-times repeated reference to a “thousand years” is not a thousand years but an extended period of time reaching from the first coming of Christ to His future Second Advent. Thus, the Millennium was inaugurated when Christ came. They stress the symbolic meaning of many (but not all) of the numbers in the Book of Revelation, employing a seemingly arbitrary numerology to secure their interpretations. This is even the case when the passages in view are neither poetic nor “apocalyptic” in genre (e.g. Ezekiel 40–48).

As Covenant Theologians, amillennialists interpret the Scriptures under the rubric of the Covenant of Grace – a covenant that is stated nowhere between the covers of the Bible. This means that amillennialism has to employ two methods of interpretation. The literal method, and the figurative, or, spiritualizing method. This latter method of interpreting Scripture is used in redirecting prophetic portions which would, if allowed to speak literally, overthrow the notion of one Church in both Testaments, (though oftentimes the prophecies concerning the first coming of Christ are assigned a literal meaning).

There are basically two forms of amillennialism: the Augustinian view, and the “Warfieldian” view. Augustinian amillennialism teaches that the thousand-year period mentioned in Revelation Twenty is figurative, and stands for the New Testament era from the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ, through to the last judgment and the creation of the new heavens and new earth. The millennium, then, is what dispensationalists call the Church-age, upon earth. Christ is now reigning on a spiritualized throne of David, over a spiritual Israel, for a spiritualized millennium. The saints on earth are also presently reigning spiritually with Christ.

The second view, which we have called the “Warfieldian” view, affirms everything that is stated above save for the identity of those who are partakers of the first resurrection and the millennium. This view was earlier taught by the German scholar Klieforth, who, in 1874, posited that the martyred saints now in heaven, are reigning in the spiritual millennium. B.B. Warfield popularized this view in the United States. He believed the first resurrection represented “the symbolical description of what has befallen those who while dead yet live in the Lord.” –  Biblical Doctrines, 653.  They were in the “intermediate state” of those who were “saved in principle if not in complete fruition.” – Ibid, 652. All amillennialists posit a spiritual resurrection in Revelation 20:4, but a physical resurrection in Revelation 20:5–6.

Option Two: Postmillennialism:

Postmillennialism was the predominant belief among both the Puritans and the Princeton theologians. It teaches that the Church brings in the kingdom through the preaching of the Gospel to fulfill the Great Commission of Matthew 28:18–20. They cite passages like Psalm 47; 72:1–11; 97:5; Zechariah 9:10; and Matthew 13:31–33 in support of their notion that the world will be successfully evangelized. After the Church-generated millennium (a spiritualized period of time which could conceivably last many millennia), in which the world will be “christianized,” Jesus Christ (who has been reigning invisibly in heaven), will return. The view might well be characterized as “Christian Utopianism.” Postmillennialists like to talk about the “Church-militant,” a phrase meaning to them that the Church will convert the world, or at least subdue it under Christian influence. Believing this as they do, postmillennialists like to point out that their eschatology is optimistic. As an example of postmillennial optimism we reproduce these words of J. Marcellus Kik:

“We need not wait for the so-called future millennium. What we do want is peace amongst the nations and less wickedness. But that is promised if we go forth conquering and to conquer in the name of Christ. Let us not be blind to what has already been accomplished and thus rob God of glory. The absence of greater victories is due to our lack of faith, and not because of the absence of millennium blessings.

Besides a too materialistic conception of millennium blessings another difficulty is that we have not paid enough attention to the parables of our Lord which indicate that the millennial blessings will pervade the earth gradually…Both the amil and premil are in error when they maintain that the millennial blessings foretold in the Old Testament must come about by a cataclysmic act at the second coming of Christ. That is not the teaching of the Bible. Both in the Old Testament and in the New it is taught that the Kingdom blessings would come about by an almost imperceptible, gradual growth.” – J. Marcellus Kik, An Eschatology of Victory, 206–207.

This quotation reveals the driving mechanism behind postmillennialist optimism. The wondrous blessings of the millennium have already been given to the Church. The only difficulty is in the Church’s realization of those blessings. If only Christians would live up to their high calling the world and its institutions would be claimed for Christ!  Is it any wonder that they often disparage the “pessimistic” view of the end-times advocated by premillennialists?

It is interesting to note how postmillennialism as a belief rises and wanes depending on the attitudes of the times. If the age is progressive and optimistic, if there have been no wars for a time, postmillennialists point to the fact that the world is getting better. Thus they often increase or decrease in numbers according to the drift of current events. It has been noted that this eschatology flourished in the late eighteenth, and the early to late nineteenth centuries, fueled by progress in science, Revivals, and the growth of missions. After the Second World War, there were scarcely any postmillennialists, save for the liberal theologians who believed that man is innately good, and is getting better and better.  But in the last thirty years, a movement has grown in America which is stridently postmillennial. This is the movement once known as Dominion Theology, or, Reconstructionism. This is the name given to the movement within Reformed Theology which seeks to reconstruct society to fit its template of Christian law and ethics. Their great foundational text is Matthew 5:17–19, though they take pains to translate plerosai as “confirm” rather than “fulfill;” an interpretation that is exegetically suspect to say the least. – See the full discussion in H. Wayne House and Thomas Ice, Dominion Theology: Blessing or Curse?, 103–112.

The unofficial founder of this movement is the late Rousas J. Rushdoony, but many of the basic premises of Reconstructionism can be seen in the works of the Swiss Reformer Pierre Viret, as well as among some of the Presbyterian Puritans. It is certain that the recent upsurge in interest in postmillennialism is due in large part to this movement. Postmillennialists generally believe that the “theonomic mandate” demands an optimistic view of the subjugation of the kosmos by the Gospel prior to the Second Advent.

Option Three: Historic Premillennialism:

Historic Premillennialism (also called Covenant Premillennialism) has a long history in the Christian Church. It basically goes along with amillennialism and postmillennialism in holding to two methods of interpretation, but it does see a thousand-year reign of Christ in Revelation Twenty.  Although not all historic premillennialists believe that the thousand years is literal (e.g. George Eldon Ladd), for the most part, they do. Many early premillennialists, who preceded CT, saw a correlation between the six days of creation, with its seventh-day rest, and a six thousand year history of the world followed by a thousand year “sabbath.” Post-Reformation Historic Premillennialism, because it usually accepts covenant theology, does not see different administrations (dispensations) in the history of revelation.

A key difference between Covenant Premillennialism and Dispensationalism is the fact that Dispensationalists hold to a distinction between the Church and Israel, whereas Covenant Premillennialists blur this distinction, believing only that Israel has a future in the plan of God, but not as the head nation among the nations of the world in the Messianic kingdom. All historic premillennarians are post-tribulationists.

Inductive Versus Deductive Eschatologies.

The covenant theologian is implacably devoted to a view of the covenant of grace which prevents him from considering any eschatology that will not bend under its guiding authority. Dispensational Premillennialism, which posits two peoples of God, is just not an option for CT’s. The blinkers are on and they are content to keep them on. For this reason dispensationalists need to be wary of critiques of their system from covenant theologians. This is not to sound superior; DT’s need and appreciate good sound criticism, and there are few better at it than these brethren. But it is the case that any critique from that quarter will inevitably presuppose the single covenant of grace, and that it will form the foundation for their censures. Here, for example, is John Gerstner, in full flourish, expostulating with dispensationalists about this very thing:

“Does the Scripture not set forth the idea that God gave His Son to die as a sacrifice for our sins and that, when we accept that sacrifice, we are saved by that grace? When the dispensationalist says that there is no way of salvation in any dispensation except the way of the blood of Jesus Christ, is he not affirming the “all-time covenant of grace”? Is he not therein showing that the covenant of grace is not only not untenable, but is absolutely indispensable? Does the dispensationalist, in other words, have any objection to the covenant of grace except the absence of the very expression itself?” – John H. Gerstner, Wrongly Dividing The Word of Truth, 306.

We may reply to the four questions above by answering, “yes”, “no”, “no”, and, “yes.” Gertsner’s problem is that to him, the covenant of grace is so all-encompassing it blots out the wording of Scripture. The sacrifice of Christ was on the basis of the New Covenant (1 Cor. 11:25).  There simply is no such thing as “the covenant of grace” on the pages of Scripture. All of God’s dealings with sinners are by grace, but there need not be and is not any covenant of grace.


In this installment and the previous one, I have tried to show that the eschatology of Covenant Theology is proscribed by the parameters of the covenant of grace. Although I recognize that this covenant is not the only one which Covenant theologians speak about, it is the covenant which they see as ruling over all the others now that the covenant of works is broken (Gen. 3). I believe that the external stipulations of this theological, but, extra-biblical covenant act as a faulty lens which distorts proper exegesis of the prophetic passages of the Old and New Testaments.

Finally then, joining the chorus of scholars who reject the covenant of grace (in Part 11), I echo the words of Lewis and Demarest who state,

“The text [of Genesis 3:15] does not explicitly mention a covenant. Moreover,…no identifiable covenant structure exists: i.e., no explicit promise of eternal life, no condition of faith, and no explicit penalty of death for unbelief. The hypothesis that Genesis 3:15 represents the initial declaration of the covenant of grace likewise appears improbable. Rather, the verse is a prophetic promise of the sufferings of Christ and the defeat of Satan.” – Gordon R. Lewis & Bruce A. Demarest, Integrative Theology, Volume 3, 322.

If there is no covenant of grace, there can be no prima facie conclusion that Scripture knows of only a single people of God, with its logical demand that the Bible’s eschatology must produce that single people. Without the covenant of grace one is free to derive biblical eschatology from the Bible instead of reading it into it.

Deciphering Covenant Theology (13)

Part Twelve

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.

Covenant Connections in Paul (7)

Part Six

When Christ Delivers Up the Kingdom to the Father  

            There is a strategic passage in 1 Corinthians which bears upon both the eschatology and teleology of the Bible.  That text is found in 1 Corinthians 15:20-28 and requires a little time to think through, although I will confess at the outset that the passage may act as an exemplar of the influence of theological predispositions in hermeneutics.[1]  Because the thought is condensed it is easy to jump to conclusions about what each verse means.  It starts with a theological preamble:

But now Christ is risen from the dead, and has become the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.  For since by man came death, by Man also came the resurrection of the dead.  For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive. – 1 Corinthians 15:20-22.

            Paul tells us that the resurrected Christ is only the first to rise among a host of others who have met death, euphemistically termed “fallen asleep.”  The OT idea of “firstfruits” was the first and best of the crop which was given to God the Provider.  It signaled the quality and abundance of what was to come.  Death is linked to Adam while resurrection life is linked to Jesus.  All that are in Adam will die and remain in death.  All who are counted in Christ will be “made alive.”  A saint may be connected physically to Adam and the curse, but because they are counted righteous in Christ death cannot keep them.  It is crucial to the Christian Gospel as well as to the whole Creation Project that the resurrection of the dead, procured as it is by the sufferings on Calvary’s cross, be accomplished by a man.  Jesus was and is the Christ, but the Christ is a man for men.  Despite His eternal provenance and His spectacular accomplishments, which go far beyond anything done by Abraham or Moses or David or Elijah, this Man died cruelly, detested by the powerful, misunderstood or else feared or even ignored by the majority, yet by Him (and Him only) comes the resurrection of the dead.  I shall look more deeply into the cosmic implications of the resurrection further on, but I want to note here how death through a man (Adam) is reversed and augmented (by glorification) through a Man.

But each one in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, afterward those who are Christ’s at His coming. – 1 Corinthians 15:23.

            Paul speaks about a resurrection order (tagma).[2]  Jesus Christ is first and His resurrection, although it happened many centuries ago, prefigures ours.  The OT concept of the “firstfruits” of the crop is used by the apostle here.  The firstfruits is, “the first sheaf of the harvest which guarantees that there will be more to come.”[3]  Thus, the health of the firstfruits signals the health of the whole crop to come.  As Paul will go on to elaborate at the end of the chapter, the glory that comes to the saints upon their resurrection reflects directly upon the glory that was Christ’s when He was raised.[4]  This translates into the sort of status befitting sons of God (however unworthy).  Paul declares; “we shall…bear (phoreo) the image of the heavenly Man.” (1 Cor. 15:49).  This “bearing” refers to a new way of existence; the eschatological real us!  The complete saint!   

            Then we get a mention of the “end” which is qualified by the way of instrumentation:

Then comes the end, when He delivers the kingdom to God the Father, when He puts an end to all rule and all authority and power.  For He must reign till He has put all enemies under His feet. – 1 Corinthians 15:24-25.  

            Christ’s giving up the kingdom to His Father occurs after He has reigned and “put all enemies under His feet.”  I take this to include not only Death, but the great archenemy of God, Satan.

Now the real question is about the kingdom.  Is Paul saying that Jesus is ruling now?  That is the interpretation of most exegetes.  In fact, Fee dogmatically claims the passage proves that Christ is reigning now.[5]  But is such confidence justified?  Verse 25 says “He must reign till.”  There is an imperative here.  It is essential for Christ to reign.  The reason Paul gives here is that He must bring all His enemies (here actual persons or beings) into submission.  The allusion is to Psalm 110:1-2:

The LORD said to my Lord, sit at My right hand, till I make Your enemies Your footstool.  The LORD shall send the rod of Your strength out of Zion.  Rule in the midst of Your enemies!

Notice how the Psalm locates the place of Christ’s rule: “Zion” or Jerusalem.  This ought to cause us to pause and ask some questions:

  1. Can “Zion” mean the right hand of God in Heaven?
  2. Does the OT indicate that Christ will rule in the midst of His enemies and does Paul negate it?
  3. What kind of reign is Christ involved in now if the world is just as evil and messed up as ever, with none of His enemies being defeated for two millennia?

The majority of commentators teach that Christ is indeed reigning in heaven right now and has done since His ascension.[6]  As so often in amillennial and postmillennial interpretation the little details are brushed aside.  “Zion” on earth cannot be the place of His rule even though numerous prophecies tell us quite the opposite (e.g., Psa. 2:6; 48:1-14; 50:2; 102:13-21; Isa. 2:3; 12:6; Joel 3:16-21; Mic. 4:1-7).  “Zion” does not appear to be a synonym for Heaven.  Furthermore, the “reign” of Christ in Heaven as envisaged by those who believe He is ruling now is of a rather unusual variety.  It is very unlike the reign predicted in the Hebrew Scriptures, or indeed asked about by the disciples in Acts 1:6.  In fact, it seems to differ imperceptibly from God’s ongoing providential care of creation.  Certainly, there has been a marked absence of anything that might resemble what normally would count for a kingly reign: the crushing of the weak under the heel of the ungodly mighty; the elevation of pride and vanity, the suffering of God’s people, and the fact that Satan is still styled “the god of this world” in 2 Corinthians 4:4, who “walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour.” (1 Pet. 5:8)!  Let us be frank, if Jesus is reigning over the world, and has been for nigh on two thousand years, it has been a singularly ineffective “hands-off” approach!

            Added to all this is the way Psalm 110 is employed in other places in the NT.  Michael Vlach notes that,

“In reference to Psalm 110:1, the author of Hebrews says Jesus is “waiting” at the right hand of the Father (see Heb. 10:12-13).  When the heavenly session is over, God installs His Messiah on the earth to reign over it.  From our current historical perspective, Jesus is currently at the right hand of God the Father, but this will be followed by a reign upon the earth.  Thus, Jesus “must” reign from earth because Psalm 110 says this must happen.  In Acts 3:21, Peter also uses “must” in regard to Jesus and His heavenly session before He returns to earth to restore everything.”[7]  

            And he adds,

“Jesus the Son and Messiah must have a sustained reign in the realm where the first Adam failed (see Gen. 1:26, 28; 1 Cor. 15:45).”[8]                           

            The last enemy that will be destroyed is death. – 1 Corinthians 15:26.

            Satan is not the last enemy, Death is.  We know that the future reign of Christ will have death in it, for Isaiah 65:20b says,

For the child shall die one hundred years old, but the sinner being one hundred years old shall be accursed.

If it aloud to stand without being manipulated via typology or spiritualization, then Zechariah 14:16-19 speaks of Yahweh meeting out punishments against nations who refuse to honor Him in Jerusalem.  And Zechariah 8:3-5 should be recalled because it refers to old and young in the streets of Zion at a time when “Jerusalem shall be called the City of Truth.” (Zech. 8:3).

These facts, uncomfortable as they are for amillennialists and postmillennialists alike, demand either that we morph these OT texts to fit the way we think they ought to be, or we leave space in our systems for the insertion of a future kingdom where Jesus Christ will reign, but where sin and death are still present, and where He must rule with a rod of iron (Psa. 2:6-9; Rev. 2:27; 12:5; 19:15). 

So, 1 Corinthians 15:24-25 fit with the view that the new heavens and earth, where Christ delivers up the kingdom to His Father, and wherein there shall be no more curse (Rev. 22:3), will be preceded by a “millennial kingdom” where Christ must reign until He has dealt with every enemy, Death being the last one.

For “He has put all things under His feet.” But when He says “all things are put under Him,” it is evident that He who put all things under Him is excepted. – 1 Corinthians 15:27.

            It must not be forgotten that Jesus in both his first and second advents, not to mention His coming rule, is the Servant of Yahweh.[9]  The whole Creation Project is predicated on His willingness to humble Himself and come into His own creation to suffer and die in it and to bring it under His dominion.  Here the apostle quotes from Psalm 8 and lends it a Christological interpretation; one that it does not appear to support in its original setting.  But the interpretive move is justified on account of the Incarnation.  The man Christ Jesus (1 Tim. 2:5) is the key to the Creation Project, and I have tried to show that He accomplishes it covenantally.      

Now when all things are made subject to Him, then the Son Himself will also be subject to Him who put all things under Him, that God may be all in all. – 1 Corinthians 15:28.

            If I understand this right, Paul teaches here that Jesus cannot assume the role of absolute Sovereign of creation until He has delivered everything up to the Father.  But is Paul saying that the Son, will forever be subject to the Father?  I think we must tread carefully here.  This cannot be an ontological submission of the Son to the Father since that would mean there is an eternal ontic superiority within the Trinity.  The only way an eternal hierarchical order within the Godhead is possible is in the loving relationship between the three Persons; something that cannot be exactly duplicated in human relationships, but which the best Father-Son relationships represent.

            How might I summarize my understanding of 1 Corinthians 15:20-28?  If I have caught the gist of the great apostle’s mind here, the verses express the marvelous truth that the resurrection of Jesus on behalf of His saints is the first installment in the full reconciliation of all things to God (cf. Col. 1:19-20).  This process is drawn out over several thousand years.  Christ rose and ascended two thousand years ago and His return will begin (not continue) His reign on this earth; an earth that has relentlessly gone its own way in defiance of God.  Christ’s initial rule (which I believe will last a thousand years – Rev. 20), is for the purpose of bringing His creatures to heel and to order and beautify the world so that it is fit to be presented back to His Father as fallen yet redeemed.  It will also justify God’s righteous dealing with fallen man because, as we shall see, given the most perfect political situation in a serene environment, and with Satan under lock and key, humanity will still chafe under the beneficent rule of King Jesus, and will finally rejoin the briefly emancipated Satan to seek His overthrow.  If I may supplement this portrait with more NT data, the rationale for the dissolution of the present heaven and earth and the bringing into being the New Heavens and Earth is that only in the new Creation will there be no more sin (Rev. 22:3), and hence no more Death. 

[1] Exegesis is not an exact science.  This statement may easily be tested against any number of passages as they are interpreted by an equal number of scholars.  In this case, I am using Gordon Fee and N.T. Wright as “counter exegetes” to my position.  In doing this I am well aware that where I differ from them (and them from me) I am encouraged in my line of thinking by my adoption of a certain premillennial eschatology.  The best I can do therefore, is to provide exegetical reasons for my interpretation of the passage.  I cannot be too dogmatic.  That will settle nothing.    

[2] For a good premillennial exposition of the passage, I recommend Michael J. Vlach, He Will Reign Forever, 436-444.  I do not believe there is an iron clad argument for a three-stage interpretation of 1 Cor. 15:20-28 that wins the day for premillennialists, but it does mean that the passage fits into the larger premillennial outlook very well.  There exists a strong reciprocal relationship between our interpretation of this text and many other passages in the Old and New Testaments. 

[3] N. T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, 333.

[4] It is understood that this glory differs among the saints, doubtless depending on their service, but all glory is glory indeed, and if it is connected with the glory of the risen Jesus it will far excel our expectations.

[5] Gordon D. Fee, Pauline Christology: An Exegetical – Theological Study, Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2007, 109-112.

[6] On this subject see below

7] Michael J. Vlach, He Will Reign Forever, 441.

[8] Ibid, 442.

[9] As a side note, although it is common nowadays to think of Jesus as a Servant-Leader, it would be more accurate to think of Him as a Servant-Ruler.  He is our undisputed Lord and Master.