A Very Brief History of Covenant Theology (2)

Part One Here

Why Did Covenant Theology Take Hold?

We have already indicated that political expediency may have encouraged the covenant mindset, at least early on.  But theologically speaking, there is one overwhelming reason for its attraction.  The covenant concept, especially the Covenant Of Grace, brings the Old and New Testaments together into one unity (which Dispensationalists like myself would say is a artificial, forced unity).  The Covenant Of Grace provides the continuity that is essential if the Church is to be the one people of God in both Testaments that Reformed theology claims it to be.

Johannes Coccieus (d. 1669) issued in 1648 a book that presented an outline of the scriptural teaching on salvation.  In tracing salvation from the creation of Adam (who was originally under the Covenant of Works) down to the end of time (the elect under the Covenant of Grace), Coccieus had presented his Dutch constituency with a progressive historical outworking of God’s decree[1] (his system included the Millennium).  Herman Witsius’ (d. 1708) scheme differs from that of Coccieus in that it is more concerned with systematic theology and practical living (including Sabbath-keeping) than with a mere outlining of salvation history.  His book, The Economy of the Divine Covenants (1677), issued last in two volumes with a Forward by J. I. Packer, is a wonderfully devout work filled with the kind of robust theology which characterized the best of the Dutch Nadere Reformatie. It is hardly surprising that this work is seen as a premier account of CT.  Continue reading “A Very Brief History of Covenant Theology (2)”

A Very Brief History of Covenant Theology (1)

As an outsider to Covenant Theology (CT), but one who has attended a Seminary that taught it and who appreciates the great men associated with it, I thought I would write a short history of Covenant Theology for those non-CT’s who might like to know a tad more about it.

My purpose in here is not to define what is known as Covenant Theology.  What I wish to do is to provide some of the salient historical backdrop to it and then ask why it has proven itself so durable.

I think a good way to do this is to present four questions which I will then attempt to answer.

Four Questions

  1. How old is Covenant Theology (CT)?
  2. When did it gain prominence?
  3. Why did it take hold?
  4. Summary: What is its status today?

It is not my wish to get technical and sophisticated.  This little presentation is just an overview. Continue reading “A Very Brief History of Covenant Theology (1)”

Answering the 95 Theses Against Dispensationalism (2) – Theses 1-6


1. Contrary to the dispensationalists’ claim that their system is the result of a “plain interpretation” (Charles Ryrie) of Scripture, it is a relatively new innovation in Church history, having emerged only around 1830, and was wholly unknown to Christian scholars for the first eighteen hundred years of the Christian era.

Response: By “plain interpretation” Ryrie simply meant grammatico-historical hermeneutics (G-H) (see his book  Dispensationalism, 79-88).  There is nothing novel about this.  G-H was employed by the Reformers.   The issue is about whether to use G-H consistently across the board.  This, as Ryrie sates, is what sets off Dispensational hermeneutics from other theologies.

That “plain interpretation” only came to light in the 1830’s is an egregious error which any textbook touching upon the subject will rectify.  That it should be employed consistently when interpreting Scripture is more to the point.  But the point is a minor one.  The argument is that if something is “relatively new” it must be refused admittance.  This commits two clear errors:  1. this would have to apply to G-H (or Covenant Theology) circa 1550-1650.  G-H was not the preferred hermeneutic of the “Church” for over a thousand years!  It used to be “a relatively new innovation.”  2. But the main point here is that this abuses the quadrilateral – Scripture, Tradition, Reason, Experience.  One cannot use Tradition to trump Scripture.  Tradition (as Reason and Experience) is subservient to Scripture.  What really matters here is whether Dispensational theology is biblical.  I say it is.  The authors and signatories of the 95 Theses say otherwise.  That is where the matter must be settled.


2. Contrary to the dispensationalist theologians’ frequent claim that “premillennialism is the historic faith of the Church” (Charles Ryrie), the early premillennialist Justin Martyr states that “many who belong to the pure and pious faith, and are true Christians, think otherwise.”  Premillennialist Irenaeus agreed.  A primitive form of each of today’s three main eschatological views existed from the Second Century onward.  (See premillennialist admissions by D. H. Kromminga, Millennium in the Church and Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology).

Response: We are glad that the reader is directed to two books to check out this assertion.  The “quotes” from Ryrie and Justin remind us of a Watchtower magazine.  No way to check them out.  But to get a better idea of Erickson’s opinion I submit the following:

“The first three centuries of the church were probably dominated by what we would today call premillennialism…” (Christian Theology, 1213 cf. 1215).

To this agree John Hannah (Our Legacy: The History of Christian Doctrine, 306), and James Orr (The Progress of Dogma, 345-346).  Orr writes, “So far as the early Churchhad a doctrine of the last things it was prevailingly chiliastic, i.e., millenarian.”  In a footnote he gives Papias, Justin and Irenaeus.  It would not be difficult to find similar statements in most authoritative texts.

This is another incidental matter.  That a minority held differing views on the millennium in the first three centuries may be true.  But premillennialism (though not dispensational) was the popular view. Continue reading “Answering the 95 Theses Against Dispensationalism (2) – Theses 1-6”

Review of “Cornelius Van Til: Reformed Apologist and Churchman”

Cornelius Van Til: Reformed Apologist and Churchman, by John R. Muether, Phillipsburg, PA: P&R, 2008.

Any biographer of a man like Cornelius Van Til needs to assume certain things.  First, Van Til’s thought, though brilliant, is not always easy to divine.  Second, that this is made more  problematical by the coming together of at least two different obstacles: a. Van Til’s sometimes awkward way of putting things, and, b. the difficulty many of us have with obeying the injunction to “bring every thought into captivity to Christ” (2 Cor. 10:5).  Third, one who would write about Van Til must keep in mind that owing in no small part to the foregoing points, the famed Westminster apologist is often not closely or sympathetically read by his opponents, who content themselves too much with the misrepresentations of him which have been handed down as unquestioned truths over the years.  Fourthly, these characterizations help serve the agendas of those conservative Christians who like to flirt with wayward evangelicals who enjoy rubbing shoulders with non-evangelical intellectuals like Barth, Balthasar or Ricoeur.  It is for reasons such as these that the uncompromising thrust of Van Til’s thinking, and its conscious antithetical attitude towards unbiblical opinions must be explained if his important work is to be appreciated, especially by readers who may desire to be introduced to the man and to understand his influence.

Continue reading “Review of “Cornelius Van Til: Reformed Apologist and Churchman””

Review of “A Concise History of Christian Thought” (Tony Lane)

A Concise History of Christian Thought, rev. & exp. by Tony Lane, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006, pbk, 336 pp., $19.99.

This is one of the most accessible histories of Christian doctrine I have seen. The author teaches Historical Theology at London School of Theology and is well regarded in the evangelical community. The method employed in the book is to survey the lives of the eminent theologians from East and West and connect them with the controversies or disputes which oftentimes brought forth their notable works. The book is divided into five parts, covering the early Fathers to AD 500; then the Eastern and Western traditions from AD 500 to the Reformation and the Enlightenment. The last part deals with the Modern world from AD 1800. The influence of Williston Walker’s famous A History of the Christian Church can be traced, especially in Part Four.

The treatment of each thinker is necessarily abbreviated, yet Lane knows what he is doing and therefore makes good use of his space. By viewing Christian thought through the lives of individuals the whole subject becomes less imposing and less abstract; qualities which should recommend this book as a textbook for senior undergraduate and first year graduate students.

Sadly Lane falls into the trap of departing from orthodoxy in giving space to the likes of Barth, Tillich, Bonhoeffer, Urs von Balthasar and others. I suppose this is inevitable in a work such as this, but this should have been redressed more than it is with better coverage of evangelicals such as Gill, Fuller, Darby, Machen, Van Til, Henry, and Lloyd-Jones. There is also a notable dearth of Dutch theologians in the book, both from the Further Reformation (Voetius, Cocceus, Witsius) and the neo-Calvinist movement associated with men like Kuyper, Bavinck and Dooyeweerd. These are important omissions.

But with that said this book does accomplish much and, therefore, deserves our recommendation.

A Brief History of Biblical Interpretation

The history of the interpretation of the Bible is a long and involved one. For many centuries people have approached the Scriptures supposing that it should be interpreted literally whenever possible, or that one ought to look deeper than the surface meaning to find its true spiritual center. Still others have believed that the Old and (to a lesser extent) the New Testament is opened up by means of three or four hermeneutical categories. In this paper we shall try to review the main schools of interpretation, especially throughout the history of the Church.
1. Pointers Within The Bible.

If we take certain statement sin the Bible itself it will help us to see how the Holy Spirit wants us to interpret His Word. “To the law and to the testimony, if they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them.” (Isa.8:20). What is important about this verse is that it implies a standard by which false teaching can be measured. For that standard to have any credence it has to be literally interpreted. Moreover, the reference to “the law and the testimony” (cf.v.16) implies that the whole Old Testament is to be interpreted in its natural, normative sense. In John 21:21-23 the Evangelist seems to want to make a point that what God says must be grasped before we can correctly interpret. Thus, we think there is scriptural warrant for plain or ‘literal’ hermeneutics.

2. The First Two Centuries of the Early Church.

We cannot understand the church of the second and third centuries without knowing something about the difficulties which these early Christians encountered. On the one hand there was the very real threat of persecution from a Roman state not at all sympathetic to the beliefs and aims of these people. And on the other there was the persistent problem of heresy which dogged the early church. These two major issues both played their parts in the formulation of hermeneutics. As a defense against the polemics of the influential Roman writers such as Pliny the Younger, Menander, and Celsus, believers had to produce apologies that could address them, and in particular, their attacks upon the Old Testament, and their misunderstanding of the Christian God. But alongside this the Christians had to respond to the rise of Gnosticism and the proliferation of Gnostic writings throughout the church. To cite two examples, Valentinus (born, c.A.D. 100) was an extremely effective communicator who was perhaps even on the verge of becoming a bishop before his heresies were discovered. It was his followers who first composed commentaries on New Testament books. Secondly, Marcion (active ca. A.D.140-155) taught that the Old Testament was useless as a Christian document. He also severely edited the New Testament, producing one in which only Paul’s epistles were included, together with a condensed version of Luke’s Gospel, carefully purged of any Jewish “contamination.” All the Gnostics held that the God of the Old Testament was another lesser deity than the God of the New.

This, then was the kind of pressure that was being applied to these early saints and their Scriptures. It is hardly surprising then, that the most prominent Christians of the second century were apologists. The main three were Justin Martyr ( c. A.D. 100-163), a converted Platonist who was the first to use the term “Israel” to describe the Church (A.D. 160). Irenaeus (c. A.D. 130-200), Bishop of Lyons in Gaul (modern day France), wrote extensively against the heretics, and in the course of doing so, produced the first formulation for Biblical interpretation; the so-called “Rule of Faith.” This formulation was really a short statement of doctrine. Irenaeus believed that a trinitarian meaning attached to both Testaments. This trinitarian schema was observed in the apostolic witness, which, in turn, placed an emphasis upon the Christological interpretation of the whole Bible.


Hence, the rule of faith gave unity to the Bible. Any interpretation which did not measure up to the rule of faith (such as the teachings of the Gnostics), could therefore be rejected as being contrary to the preaching of the Apostles. The rule of faith also made the interpretation of the Bible a province of the Church, and so, of Church tradition. This side-effect would have serious repercussions later on. It is worth noticing that all the early fathers of the Church were premillennial in their eschatology. Zuck notes that, “From these early church fathers it is obvious that while they started out well, they were soon influenced by allegorizing.” This form of interpretation became the dominant one from the middle of the second century until the Reformation in the sixteenth century. It would therefore be helpful to review this phenomenon before examining the major figures of Jerome and Augustine.

3. Retrospect: The Roots of Allegorical Interpretation.

The word “allegory” is derived from the Greek words “allos” – meaning “other”, and “agoreuein”, “to speak”. So an allegory is a method of giving (or deriving) hidden meanings from a literal text. For this reason many authorities like to define allegory as “an extended metaphor”. It appears that from around the sixth century B.C. some Greek writers became sensitive to the portrayal of Greek gods and heroes (in Homer and Hesiod), as less than upright in their private and inter-personal dealings. The method of allegorizing the poets was invented so as to teach better moral principles while maintaining respect for these great works. “The stories of the gods, and the writing of the poets, were not to be taken literally. Rather underneath is the secret or real meaning (hyponoia)”

By the 2nd century BC, Greek influence was showing itself throughout the Greco-Roman world. By this time, a sizeable number of Jews were living in the city of Alexandria, Egypt. Alexandria had become one of the leading intellectual centers in the world and Greek allegorism was a common method of interpretation. It is thought that a Jew named Aristobulus was the first to incorporate this method into his expositions of the OT. Alexandrian Jews were absorbed in the philosophical tradition of Plato, who taught that there was a difference between the physical and the spiritual. This way of thinking is the basis for seeking spiritual meaning behind literal sentences.

The most famous Jewish allegorist was Philo (d. AD 54). Philo’s whole method was to find the spiritual meaning behind the literal text. Ramm writes, “There were three canons which dictated to the interpreter that a passage of Scripture was to be allegorically interpreted: 1) If the statement says anything unworthy of God; 2) If a statement is contradictory with some other statement or in any other way presents us with a difficulty; 3) If the record itself is allegorical in nature.” The difficulty with these canons was that they were in large part subjective; being determined by the interpreter’s own philosophical predispositions.

4. From The Third to the Fifth Centuries.

It is no coincidence that allegorical interpretations of Scripture filtered into the Christian Church from Alexandria. It was there that Clement (c. A.D. 150-215), and Origen (c, A.D. 185-254), who disdained the more literal interpretation of the Antiochian School, used allegory to find ‘deeper’ meanings in the OT and NT. They particularly found difficulty in assigning OT prophecies about Israel to the Christian Church. By finding a mystical sense to Scripture, they could reassign these troublesome passages and explain away what appeared to them to be incongruities within the Bible. Augustine (A.D. 354-430), who was a native of North Africa, was the greatest theologian-philosopher of the Early Church. It was his endorsement of the allegorical method of interpretation which had the decisive influence upon hermeneutics up until the time of the Reformation. Thus, early Roman Catholic allegorism was given its impetus by the Alexandrian school under Clement and Origen. Origen’s prominence as a Biblical scholar, influenced many interpreters of the Latin church. One of these, the Donatist Tychonius , was the man who would set out the principles of interpretation which the great Augustine would follow. A major premise of Augustine’s interpretation was that the Roman Catholic Church was the city of God – the kingdom. Therefore, Old Testament statements which gave promises to Israel, were to be re-interpreted so that the promises were inherited by Roman Catholicism. He often allegorized Old Testament passages in order to solve its problems. Augustine’s elder contemporary, Jerome (c. A.D. 341-420), was a man of great learning, particularly in Hebrew and Greek. Although his first commentaries followed the allegorical method, later in life he adopted a far more literal hermeneutic. This was due, in the main, to the influence upon him of the Antiochene school. Jerome’s latter Commentary on Daniel “remained strictly within the confines required by the text.”

The school of Antioch in Syria was renowned for its exegetes Lucian (c. A.D. 240), Diodore (d. c. A.D. 394), and Theodore of Mopsuesta (c. 350-428), and for its great preacher John Chrysostom (c. A.D. 354-407), and its greatest theologian, Theodoret (c. A.D. 393-466). All of these men employed a more literal hermeneutic than the Alexandrians, wherein the literal sense was given precedence. But, in the end, it was the spiritualizing of the Alexandrian school that prevailed and which was to hold sway for the next thousand years.

5. Approaching The Reformation.

The Protestant Reformation was probably the most momentous social, political, and intellectual movement in history. As far as hermeneutical methodology goes, it broke the iron grip of allegorism which had made the Bible a book full of confounding meanings, and restored it, in great measure, to the realm of the common man. There had been a few gleams of light in the previous millennium, although their effect was largely unfelt. In the 12th century the Victorines, Hugo, Richard, and Andrew of St. Victor in France took a more plain-sense approach to the Scriptures. The following century saw Nicholas de Lyra (1279-1340) recommend the same approach, and John Wycliffe’s (c.1330-1384) influence was felt far and wide. It was Wycliffe who, while lecturing on the Bible to his students at Oxford, began to see that the allegorism of the Scholastics (Albertus Magnus, Aquinas, Duns Scotus, etc.) obscured the saving message of the Gospel. Lechler observes that, “In teaching the Scriptures to others, he learned the true meaning of them himself.” This led him to insist upon the sufficiency of Scripture alone, to repudiate transubstantiation, to call the Pope “a fallible man”, to insist upon the priesthood of all believers, and to undertake to translate the Latin Vulgate into English. Wycliffe’s writings, although placed on the index of forbidden books, were disseminated all over Europe, where they became a decisive influence on Jerome of Prague and John Huss.

6. The Reformation Breakthrough.

It was Martin Luther who finally overthrew the allegorical interpretations of the Catholic Church. Although he never fully escaped the temptation to allegorize himself, he could see that such a tactic could only deprive Christianity of its God-given message. In characteristic humor, Luther said that some of the Church Father’s would be better called “the church babies.” Luther emphasized the need to go back to the original languages and do exegesis. His commentaries on Romans, Galatians, and the Epistles of Peter, although not so helpful today, set new standards of exposition when they were published. Along with Luther, his Swiss contemporary Ulrich Zwingli used to preach directly out of the original languages to his congregation in Zurich. But it was John Calvin who took Biblical exegesis to new heights. His commentaries, which follow what came to be known as the grammatical-historical hermeneutic, are still respected today, especially the book on the Psalms. he wanted the Scriptures to speak for themselves without being fettered by the prior assumptions of the interpreter. Although he did not always succeed in doing this (especially when dealing with OT prophecy), he nonetheless deserves the plaudits that have been heaped upon him, including that of none other than Jacob Arminius, who said that he considered Calvin to be the best interpreter of Scripture the Church possessed.

The post-reformation period was the time of the Puritans in England and the Protestant scholasticism of Switzerland (e.g. Turretin, Pictet). The new scholastics unfortunately dealt more in dogmatics than exegesis – a problem that was to be addressed by Cocceius in Holland. The Puritans, on the other hand, although they were greatly concerned with what they called “experimental teaching”, their works were usually founded upon good principles of exegesis. The sermons of Thomas Goodwin are fine examples of exegetical preaching, and the Hebrews expositions of John Owen and William Gouge teem with exegetical insights.

It must always be remembered that despite these prodigious works, the interpretation of the prophetic portions of the Bible never kept apace with that of the rest. Although some of the Puritans were Historic Covenant Premillennialists, even they regularly applied OT passages directly to the Church. One reason for this was the increasing dominance of covenant theology on hermeneutics – dominance which continues in the Reformed traditions until the present day.

7. The Enlightenment and its Effects.

The Enlightenment may fairly be described as the reformation of the secularist. It was first a philosophical movement. Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) was perhaps the first philosopher whose work started modern man off in the wrong direction. Hobbes was a materialist who, “found in sense experiences all the answers he needed.” This proud belief made Hobbes reinterpret the supernatural in the Bible and explain it in terms of natural processes. He was followed by a whole host of able thinkers, including Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677), author of a very influential work against miracles. David Hume (1711-1776) threw the viability of the existence and knowability of God into serious doubt with his insistence that belief can never be rational. His work preceded that of Voltaire and Diderot and established Hume in the vanguard of the Enlightenment. It was Hume’s work which “awoke Kant from his philosophical slumbers.” Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), was the man who more than anyone else shifted the emphasis off the propositions of the Word of God, and on to man’s reason. He effectively “walled-off” God behind the unknowable realm of the “noumenal.” Kant argued that we cannot know anything about the noumenal realm, only the phenomenal. He therefore made scientific naturalism the sphere of understanding. From his time on, many who would claim to be Bible scholars would adopt a hermeneutic that would not fall out with Kant’s critique.

One such man was Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834). Schleiermacher was a devotee of Kant. He fully faced up to Kant’s dictum that it was impossible to break through to any knowledge of God. However, that did not deter him from pursuing his own brand of Christianity – a “Christianity” emphasizing “human feelings as the seat of a person’s consciousness of God.” Scheiermacher spoke about the sense of dependence which is the road to consciousness of God. For Schleiermacher it was not enough to know what the original author said. One must seek to experience what the author was experiencing. Hence, he advocated a kind of psychological interpretation, and this has had great influence in many sectors of Christendom. This method was refined by Wilhelm Dilthey (1833-1911) who believed that there was such a thing as “the human experience”, a universal human consciousness. The goal of hermeneutics became to discover, “a universal human nature manifested in every human being past and present so that no radical difference could exist between an author in the past and an interpreter in the present.” It was upon this foundation that Rudolf Bultmann (1884-1976) built in order to preserve meaning in a religion he had demythologized out of all recognition from the faith of the Apostles.

8. The Modern-Day Hermeneutical Quagmire.

Before closing with a review of Dispensational hermeneutics we think it would be helpful to say something about what is happening outside mainstream evangelicalism. This is because what is occurring in non-conservative circles is already having a pronounced effect upon the Church. Our comments will have to be of a general nature. Hans-Georg Gadamer (1900-2002), has been a major voice in modern hermeneutical theory. Borrowing his lead from Schleiermacher and Dilthey, he sought to shift the emphasis of hermeneutics away from the original author (whom he believed was too removed by time to be comprehended), and concentrate on what the text means to the present-day reader (the receptor). In the work of Jacques Derrida, interpretation has been mocked and fatuity has run amok. For Derrida, what a text actually says is not even a starting point (unless it was written by Derrida!). For him language is to be suspected and judged subjectively. One problem which immediately comes to mind is that all ideas are conceived in words. Even pictures have words to which they make reference. This kind of unavoidable truism is what will eventually turn the deconstructionism of Derrida and Foucault into self-destructionism.

9. Dispensational Hermeneutics.

Dispensationalists have always championed a single, plain-sense or literal hermeneutic to be employed in the interpretation of the whole Bible. This is not a novel kind of interpretation, but simply a plea for consistent use of the grammatical-historical hermeneutics of the Reformation. Dispensationalists hold that “if the plain sense makes sense, seek no other sense.” This would appear to be both a logical and a safe way to proceed. For this reason, dispensationalism sees no need to alter this methodology. They believe that it ought to be impervious to (though not ignorant of) the cacophonous voices of the contemporary – in whichever period of history.

However, when that has been said, it must be asserted that dispensationalists must refine and develop their interpretive methodology. Thus, there is work to be done, and as the relativistic post-modern mindset overwhelms evangelicalism as we know it, it becomes imperative that dispensational premillennialists argue their position cogently in the future.

In my personal opinion the best way forward is to stop looking in the direction of the dispensations and instead focus upon the covenants which are so clearly revealed in the Bible.

Yesterday’s Giants – part 3

John Nelson Darby (1800-1882)

J. N. Darby is not as well known today, as he should be. He was a movement leader, a missionary, a scholar, Bible translator, apologist, and, unofficially, “the father of Dispensationalism.” The respected preacher D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones once publicly referred to him as “the great Darby.” He was born in London on the cusp of the 19th Century, a time of spiritual decline in England after the revivals of the previous half- century. Educated at the private Westminster School and then Trinity College, Dublin, where he was the recipient of the gold medal in classics, he spent the next few years practicing law. Around 1824 he abandoned that career and went into the Church of England, spending two years doing pioneer work in southern Ireland.

Increasingly, Darby began to find himself disagreeing with the Anglican Church and became convinced that Christianity had bedecked itself with unbiblical customs. Together with other likeminded individuals he started “breaking bread” and Bible study, first in Dublin, and then in Plymouth in southwest England. From these “assemblies” came a movement known as the Plymouth Brethren. With a simplified view of the Church and emphasis upon the imminent appearing of Christ for the saints at the pretribulational rapture the movement spread rapidly, owing in no small way to the missionary endeavors of Darby, especially in Switzerland, France and Germany. Darby was no “sheep-stealer,” but was very effective as an evangelist and discipler. He also made successful trips to New Zealand, Canada, and the United States.
As “the father of Dispensationalism,” as he is sometimes called, he gave definite form to the teaching (which predated him) that God had dealt differently with man in biblical history (e.g. giving the Law to Israel, the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the Church – Jn. 1:14), teachings which relied upon a plain sense, literal (though not literalistic) interpretation of Bible prophecy. Perhaps his best known work is his five volume Synopsis of the Books of the Bible though his collected works total thirty-four volumes. He also produced accurate translations of the Bible in English, French, and German.