Deciphering Covenant Theology (10)

Part Nine

Credo-baptism and the Covenant of Grace

I have taken a quick look at the way paedo-baptist covenant theologians understand baptism as a sign of the New covenant aspect of the covenant of grace, but of course many Baptists are Reformed yet they reject the baptism of infants as unbiblical. Baptists see the covenant of grace as incorporating the regenerate only, not the so-called “historical elect” – those who have been sprinkled as babies but have yet to express a personal faith in Christ. From the paedo-baptist point of view the mixed nature of the Mosaic [old] covenant continues with the New covenant. That is why they baptize infants. That is also why the Puritan John Ball claimed that “the Pharisees were in the Covenant of Grace all the while being excluded from its substance.” – Pascal Denault, The Distinctiveness of Baptist Covenant Theology, 48. But this is not the case with credo-baptists. As the name suggests, these Reformed Baptists believe that a person must be born-again through personal trust in the Gospel to be included in the covenant.

What results from this difference is two “federalisms” or two approaches to covenant headship. As Denault notes in his excellent book on the subject, the issue is the question of who make up the people of God (7). For Baptists the New covenant is the covenant of grace and the old covenant is not. In fact, the old covenant is the covenant of works! This means that for Reformed Baptists the new covenant is not an administration of the covenant of grace like it is for Presbyterians and Dutch Reformed, but the two are the same covenant. Therefore, there is no mixed company of saved and unsaved in the covenant of grace cum new covenant (Ibid, 32).

The concept of the covenant of grace then is at the center of the disagreements between paedo- and credo-baptists. They both agree on the main thing. For example:

“Reformed orthodoxy recognized only one Covenant of Grace within which only one Gospel and one redeemed people were found.” – Ibid, 36.

However, paedo-baptists believe that the promise was made with the whole seed of Abraham, whereas credo-baptists tend to see the promise as made with the Seed, Jesus Christ (see, Philip D. R. Griffiths, Covenant Theology: a Reformed Baptist Perspective, 55). OT believers had faith in Christ and were part of the covenant of grace/new covenant, although they had less light than NT believers.

Tom Hicks of Founder’s Ministries provides a good summation of the difference of approach as well as the similarities,

“Baptist covenant theologians… believe they are more consistent than their paedobaptist brothers with respect to covenant theology’s own hermeneutic of New Testament priority. According to the New Testament, the Old Testament promise to “you and your seed” was ultimately made to Christ, the true seed (Gal 3:16). Abraham’s physical children were a type of Christ, but Christ Himself is the reality. The physical descendants were included in the old covenant, not because they are all children of the promise, but because God was preserving the line of promise, until Christ, the true seed, came. Now that Christ has come, there is no longer any reason to preserve a physical line. Rather, only those who believe in Jesus are sons of Abraham, true Israelites, members of the new covenant, and the church of the Lord Jesus (Gal 3:7). In both the Old and New Testaments, the “new covenant” is revealed to be a covenant of believers only, who are forgiven of their sins, and have God’s law written on their hearts (Heb 8:10-12).” – Tom Hicks, “What is a Reformed Baptist?” (Point 2: Covenant Theology).

The acceptance of only true believers who have requested baptism as church members rather than believers and their children effects ecclesiology as well as soteriology, but I shall not pursue that issue here. Suffice it to say that there is a lot of agreement between Reformed paedo-baptists and Reformed credo-baptists, but there is divergence on their understanding particularly of the covenant of grace.

To sum up, in the Reformed Baptist position all the believers and only believers are included within the one covenant of grace. This covenant of grace is identical with the new covenant. However, “the external aspects of the covenant” do not impinge upon “its internal substance.” (Denault, 146). That is to say, the new covenant qua covenant of grace was doing its work internally before it was revealed externally as the new covenant. As this is true the old covenant cannot be the covenant of grace in a former administration. The promise of a “seed” to Abraham does not include his natural seed so much as his spiritual seed in Christ.

Deciphering Covenant Theology (Pt. 9)

Part Eight

Federal Theology and the Baptism of Infants

“[W{hen Reformed people speak of “the covenant,” we are speaking of the one covenant of grace that runs from its seed-promise in Genesis 3:15, was expanded in detail to Abraham in Genesis 15, fulfilled in Christ, and continues throughout time until the consummation. Anyone who has or will ever be saved – in any period of human history – is a member of the covenant of grace.” – Michael G. Brown and Zach Keele, Sacred Bond, 95.

When dealing with the subject of baptism we are still dealing with the covenant of grace; Covenant Theology’s main lens. As I’m treating infant baptism (paedo-baptism) here it is important to note that Reformed Baptists who hold to CT approach the subject differently. I will treat that separately.

The term “federal” comes from the Latin foedus which means “treaty” or “pact,” but has come to mean “covenant,” although the Reformers like Calvin and Beza were not dogmatic on the point. But the covenant in view is not any covenant that can be easily found in the Bible. As the quotation above shows it is the dominant covenant of grace that is dictating doctrine. Hence, it is not the biblical covenants that drive the theology of baptism and headship in CT.

It will help to cite a leading covenant theologian on the matter:

“In the first place, remember, humanity is not an aggregate of individuals but an organic unity, one race, one family…The law of solidarity does not explain the covenant (of works or grace) but is based on it and harks back to it…” Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics: Vol. 3, Sin and Salvation in Christ, 102, 105.

Bavinck indicates that the solidarity of the human race is covenantally bound. It is bound either to the covenant of works (meaning that the unsaved or non-elect are under it) or the covenant of grace (meaning that the saved or elect – or “historical elect” are under it). This grouping of all the elect into one category in the covenant of grace is the epitome of Federal Theology.

Solidarity of Federalism

Concentrating on the elect (or the children of the elect) in the covenant of grace one needs to appreciate the fact that there is no room within this federal view for more than one people of God. This of course means that the prophecies concerning national Israel and its Davidic kingdom emanating from Jerusalem (Isa. 2:1-4; 9:6-7; 11:1-10; 46:13, etc.), and covering all the territory God pledged to Abraham in Genesis 15:17-21 cannot be literally fulfilled (this land will all be Israel, not simply Israeli held territory). That would mean that national Israel would be separate from elect Gentiles and thus there would be at least two peoples of God; Israel and the Church. Federal solidarity does not permit such a thing. Remember that the covenant of grace dictates the hermeneutics of CT. Therefore, the one-people-of-God requirement demands that the prophecies about Israel’s restoration be reinterpreted to produce the needed unity.

The Sign of the Covenant of Grace

CT’s believe that the covenant of grace had as its sign or token the circumcision of eight-day old boys under its Mosaic aspect. But the elect after the cross is greatly extended to include Gentiles; or rather, “Israel” is extended to include a Gentile super-majority. This “New Israel” or “True Israel” as it is often called, cannot have the same token as under the Mosaic economy, so a change in the sign had to happen under the auspices of the New covenant iteration of the covenant of grace (See e.g., O. Palmer Robertson, The Christ of the Covenants, 280.). After the cross the sign is changed to infant baptism, usually by sprinkling. as a replacement for male circumcision. As Belcher says, “Circumcision is an outward sign pointing to an inward, spiritual need.” (Richard Belcher, The Fulfillment of the Promises of God, 252). Sprinkling babies is thought to be a biblical way to show the same (cf. e.g., Gerald Bray, God Is Love: A Biblical and Systematic Theology, 635).

“With the permanence of the Abrahamic covenant, why is the sign of the covenant no longer circumcision in the New Testament? The simple answer is that the New Testament reveals that baptism replaces circumcision in the new covenant era (Col. 2:8-12).” – Michael G. McKelvey, “The New Covenant as Promised in the Major Prophets,” in Covenant Theology, edited by Guy Prentiss Waters, et al, 194 n. 8.

It should be noted that the “baptism” in Colossians 2:12 cannot in the first place be sprinkling, and in the second place it is almost certainly not water baptism but the baptism of the Spirit (1 Cor. 12:13) which is in Paul’s mind.

This replacement of the sign of the covenant and the change of “Israel” from a super-majority of Hebrew Jews to a super-majority of Gentiles does not (in the minds of many contemporary CT’s) involve a replacement of one Israel with the “New Israel.” But I shall address this question in another installment.

Obviously, because infants are involved, and they are not able to understand the Gospel, the paedo-baptist approach entails the inclusion of non-regenerate people within the covenant as well as believers (though amazingly, some Reformed theologians think these babies may be regenerate!). However, though they may be “in the covenant” these non-regenerate people are not viewed as “full members” of the covenant community. Their inclusion is in the basis of what are called the “genealogical principle” and the “representative principle.” The genealogical principle says that the children of the elect will (or are expected to) come to faith, whereas the representative principle has them under the headship of Christ. Further, as Christ is seen as “Israel” those “in Him” (i.e., in the covenant of grace) are “Israel” represented by Him.

Some Recommended Books on Covenant Theology

I am not a covenant theologian. However, I am very familiar with it in both its pedo- and credo-baptist forms. While my ongoing series critiquing CT shows that I am in disagreement with many of its major hermeneutical tenets, I want my readers to know that I have a long-standing admiration for CT for its comprehensiveness and its ability to address many areas of Theology and Apologetics. Later in the series I am writing (of which this is an interlude), I will express my appreciation of CT along those lines. But I had the thought today that I should perhaps write something about books about Covenant Theology for those not acquainted with it who may wish to dive in.

This list is not meant to be comprehensive.

Cornelius Van TilAn Introduction to Systematic Theology

An outstanding work which features Van Til’s robust approach to the doctrine of God and trinitarian perspectives. Not for the faint of heart but a book that relates Van Til’s apologetic understanding to his Reformed theology more directly than most of his other books, showing how one relates to the other. While I do not believe presuppositionalism requires CT (contra Scott Oliphint) I do agree that it requires something like CT’s teleology.

Cornelius Van TilA Christian Theory of Knowledge

Ought to be reprinted. A wonderful exploration of the sufficiency of Scripture among other things. This is what opened my eyes to the relative barrenness of Dispensational theology (DT) and made me ask the question “Why?” Short answer: because DT is not teleological.

John FrameCornelius Van Til’: An Analysis of His Thought

My first encounter (other than a dip here and there) with Van Til’s thought. I include it here because it gives an idea of the range of his revelational epistemology, which he roots in CT. N.B. Not all CT’s agree with Van Til (e.g., John Gerstner, R. C. Sproul). Recently John V. Fesko has written a critique of Van Til which repeats the old misrepresentations of his work.

Peter GoldingCovenant Theology

A Congregational minister who wrote a fine historical overview of CT. This book doesn’t get the appreciation it deserves. Traces the development of CT as well as providing a decent introduction.

Pascal DenaultThe Distinctiveness of Baptist Covenant Theology

To my mind if you want to know the difference between Baptist and Presbyterian approaches to CT this is the book to study. Denault both lets the authorities from both sides speak and provides helpful and readable commentary. Indispensable.

Greg Nichols Covenant Theology : A Reformed and Baptistic Perspective on God’s Covenants

A very full Baptist approach which goes its own way on occasion. The benefit of this work is its interaction with major North American pedo-baptist systematicians and Nichols’ attempts to find scriptural supports for his doctrines.

Herman BavinckReformed Dogmatics, Vol. 3: Sin and Salvation in Christ

For a long time writers such as Vos and Van Til were our only access into the Dogmatics of Bavinck. The translation of his four volumes was long overdue. This volume includes the most detailed chapter on the Covenant of Grace I have read.

Richard GambleThe Whole Counsel of God

The first two volumes deal with the OT and NT. There is a lot to admire in this work. As far as CT goes it is important because it shows how CT mixes with Systematics.

Richard Belcher The Fulfillment of the Promises of God

This is the best articulation of CT in print as far as I am concerned. A must-have.

Michael Brown & Zach KeeleSacred Bond: Covenant Theology Explained

Now in a second edition, this book is worth reading because it successfully sets out CT while also (to my eyes) showing how the theological covenants force interpretations.

Guy Prentiss Waters, et al., EditorsCovenant Theology: Biblical, Theological, and Historical Perspectives

A recent very large book with some excellent discussions. Again, I am far from persuaded by the arguments in the first and third sections, but this is the book to have if one needs an up-to-date resource.

Herman Witsius The Economy of the Covenants Between God and Man

A seminal work in two volumes. Witsius is pious and irenic and his concern is pastoral (although not the namby-pamby nonsense that passes for pastoralia today). I don’t think he is at his best when setting out the existence of the theological covenants, but he excels in explaining how they “work” with the Bible.

Robert ReymondA New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith

Reymond’s prolegomena is terrific. It’s Van Tillian without the author wanting to be Van Tillian! I include this work because I love its seriousness (he reminds me of John Murray), and because he argues in-depth for the scriptural (and even exegetical!) support for the theological covenants.

O. Palmer RobertsonThe Christ of the Covenants

There would be howls of protest if I didn’t include this one. Personally I can’t really get on with it. I’m not sure why. Maybe it is because it so self-consciously works through the biblical covenants while warping them in service of the theological covenants? Maybe it’s his style? Maybe it’s his too easy dismissal of the land-promise to Israel? Whatever, this is an important book. There is a valuable excursus chapter which contrasts CT with DT as structural systems.

John Brown of HaddingtonSystematic Theology

Brown is a legendary figure. Very pious, humble, but powerful in his writing. He reminds me of Thomas Boston, but is more concise. This book demonstrates how the theological covenants are joined to Scripture once the assumptions of the Westminster Confession are held.

Edward Fisher with notes by Thomas BostonThe Marrow of Modern Divinity

I have not read this famous book, but it is recommended frequently and Boston’s Memoirs and his Human Nature in Its Fourfold State both had an influence upon me so I include it here. In dialogical format (which I do not enjoy), its main purpose was to offset legalism. A recent “simplified” version by Andy Wilson is available.

Deciphering Covenant Theology (Pt.8)

Part Seven

I ended the last post talking about how CT reduces the nation of Israel down to Jesus Christ and then interprets the Church in Him to be the “True Israel.” There is more to say about that, but first I think a little more orientation is required. I want to begin this installment with a definition of Covenant Theology from one of its major contemporary practitioners, Ligon Duncan:

“Covenant theology is an approach to biblical interpretation that appreciates the importance of the covenants for understanding the divine-human relationship and the unfolding of redemptive history in Scripture. Blending insights from systematic and biblical theology, covenant theology explains the economic Trinity, communion with God, the person and work of Christ, the sacraments, justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, the role of obedience in the Christian life, the believer’s assurance of salvation, the unity and progress of redemptive history, and more, in light of the Bible’s teaching on the divine covenants.” – “Covenant Theology: An Essay,” available at https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/essay/covenant-theology/

I want to interact with Duncan’s article because it both explains and obfuscates what CT actually is. Duncan’s essay does not enter into the way CT deals with the biblical text. It doesn’t walk us through its requirement of a single people of God (the Church), or that the Church is the “True Israel.” Neither does it highlight or allude to the prevalence of spiritualization of prophetic passages, including the biblical covenants. Finally, it does not tell the reader that the “theological covenants” (and I’m glad that Duncan uses that description) are given hermeneutical preference over the biblical covenants – especially the covenant of grace. Actually, he downplays the theological covenants and their strategic influence, which though perhaps unintentional, appears to me to be a strategic ploy.

Duncan on what Covenant Theology is

Duncan does state that the theological covenants of redemption, works, and grace are important to CT. He rightly says that “The Bible is a covenant book, and to be read well it needs to be read covenantally.” But he does not indicate that the covenant of grace takes precedence over the Abrahamic, Mosaic, Davidic, or New covenants; being overlaid on top of them, thus dictating what they can and cannot mean.

The essay has a very good section where the author describes and illustrates five ways that the Bible uses the word “covenant.” It is well worth studying. But one thing that is missing is a statement that God’s covenants, save for the Mosaic covenant, are unconditional as to the terms of their oaths. But that isn’t the main problem. The main issue here is that the theological covenants are not mentioned in this section (other than the hopeful inclusion of Genesis 1 – 3 in different arrangements, and Hosea 6:7 snuck in once or twice to back them up). The reason for this is easy: there is no exegetical or textual support for these theological covenants! No credible mainline scholar that I am aware of maintains that there are covenants in the first three chapters of Genesis (e.g., Nicholson, Barr, Mendenhall, Freedman, McCarthy, Rendtorff, or Hillers), and no scholarly evangelical dictionary article on “Covenant” I know sees the theological covenants present in Scripture.

Duncan also tells us that many people “get nervous about admitting the legitimacy of theological covenants, like the Covenants of Redemption, Works and Grace.” From my studies in CT this is very understandable. But it is the hermeneutical and theological clout afforded these theological covenants that must be appreciated by those who want to understand Covenant Theology. Duncan avoids addressing this, but he does at least admit that the foundation of CT is not solely exegetical biblical theology:

“Covenant theology is informed by exegetical, biblical and systematic theology: recognizing that the redemptive history revealed in Scripture is explicitly articulated through a succession of covenants (Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, and New), thus providing a fundamental architectonic or organizing principle for biblical theology (the study of Scripture from the standpoint of redemptive history).”

To be clear, Duncan is saying that although exegesis is involved in CT, it is not the only piece of the puzzle. Systematic theology and biblical theology play a part. Notice though that it is biblical theology conformed to an already decided overall theme; the theme is, “redemptive history revealed in Scripture is explicitly articulated through a succession of covenants (Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, and New)” drives it. Which is to say, the controlling mechanisms of CT’s approach to exegesis and biblical theology are already in place. Notice, “redemptive history” is said to be “explicitly articulated” in the biblical covenants (I exclude “Adam” since that non-covenant is snuck in alongside the actual ones of Scripture). But when one examines the biblical covenants themselves “redemption” in any form is absent from the Abrahamic and Davidic covenants, and is only present in terms of physical deliverance in the Noahic covenant. The Mosaic Law was not a way of salvation, which is why the sacrificial system obtained. Only when we reach the New covenant do we find explicit language of soul-redemption. Hence, the biblical covenants are being read through the wrong lens.

In actual fact, as myself and others (e.g., M. Vlach; M. Snoeberger, L. Pettegrew) have said, “redemptive history” views the story of Scripture from man’s point of view rather than God’s. The lens does not allow us to see enough.  

Duncan’s Confusions

I am going to call Duncan’s statements on the biblical covenants “confusions” although I suspect that they are deliberate obfuscations or false flags. Coming as it does at the start of his article, and throughout the article, but before the theological covenants are mentioned, Duncan’s statement about the importance of the Noahic, Abrahamic, Mosaic, Davidic, and New covenants to CT (he omits the covenant with Phinehas in Num. 25), are a little misleading. Since CT’s believe that the biblical covenants are to be interpreted, not on their own terms, but through the covenant of grace, the unwary reader may be lulled into thinking that these biblical covenants are going to be given their own voice. But that simply is not going to be the case. In actual fact the covenants with Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, and through Christ are all viewed as progressive revelations of the covenant of grace. Duncan sidesteps this crucial detail in his paper. The closest he comes to this is in the penultimate paragraph where he refers to Robert Reymond’s work (and Reymond’s exegetical defense of the covenant of grace in his New Systematic Theology is hardly convincing!).

Duncan also equivocates on the Old and New Testaments being “covenants.” This is a common fallacy that I probably should write more on, although I have written one piece about it. The fact that our Bible’s are divided into two “Testaments” is fine just so long as it is understood that this is not how the Bible refers to itself. “Testament” was the word Irenaeus and Melito employed to delineate the two unequal halves of the Bible. But it ought to be clear to anyone who thinks about it that the Hebrew and Greek Bibles (our OT and NT) are not themselves covenant documents but rather are the historical records of the covenants. The fallacy here is to assign the same significance to non-inspired but well meaning second century designations as the actual inspired covenants of Scripture. Duncan, as many CT’s, does just this.

Finally, in his Recommended Reading list Duncan says that Richard Belcher’s The Fulfillment of the Promises of God “is now the introduction to covenant theology…[and] is now the starting point for those looking for a confessional Reformed presentation.” An opinion to which I am in complete agreement.

Deciphering Covenant Theology (Pt. 7)

Part Six

The Covenant of Grace (2)

It is almost impossible to overstate the importance of “the covenant of grace” to Reformed theology. When one reads of “the covenant” in the writings of CT’s the implication is that it is the covenant of grace. When it comes to CT’s comprehending the Bible as a “redemptive-historical” book, the thing that is powering this is the covenant of grace. Hence,

“The covenant of grace tells us that the whole Bible is about one thing: God redeeming a people for himself through Jesus Christ.” – Michael G. Brown and Zach Keele, Sacred Bond, 69.

The covenant of grace is the appearance in time of the Covenant of Redemption. As this is the case it could be said that the covenant of grace furnishes the ground of redemptive history. While both the covenant of works and the covenant of grace promised eternal life (R. Belcher, The Fulfillment of the Promises of God, 41), it is the covenant of grace which is superior in both its ability to give salvation and in its primal intent as God’s chosen way of salvation for sinners.

Then too, the covenants of CT; in particular the covenant of grace, sets the hermeneutical agenda for how the Bible is to be read. J. I. Packer wrote,

“What is covenant theology? The straightforward, if provocative answer to that question is that it is what is nowadays called a hermeneutic- that is, a way of reading the whole Bible that is itself part of the overall interpretation of the Bible that it undergirds. – “Introduction to Covenant Theology” in Herman Witsius, The Economy of the Covenants Between God and Man, I. (1. no page number).

This is a very revealing quote, for it shows that CT is not merely an extended exegesis of the Bible. In fact it is more accurate to say that CT exegesis of Scripture is to a great extent governed by the requirements of the covenantal system: i.e., especially the requirements of the single covenant of grace. Packer thinks CT is obvious to the attentive reader (Ibid, I.[2]), but thinks for instance, that the covenant of grace may be missed because it is “too big to be easily seen.” (Ibid). This “covenant”, absent much if any exegetical warrant, is the lens through which the Scriptures are to be seen for what they are.

On a tangent, one quite often comes across dispensationalists who claim that “Dispensationalism is a hermeneutic.” I think this is a mistake because one cannot equate “plain-sense” interpretation with Dispensationalism. Why not? Because I do not think that most of the dispensations themselves can be arrived at via the plain sense without deductive inferences. But I digress.

Of the covenant of grace Witsius himself says,

“We therefore maintain, agreeable to the sacred writings, that to all the Elect, living in any period of time, 1st. One and the same eternal life was promised. 2dly. That Jesus Christ was held forth as the one and the same author and bestower of salvation. 3dly. That they could not become partakers of it in any other way, but by a true and lively faith in him.” – Ibid, I. 292.

The Dutch scholar says that he will prove the three premises above, but in reading on through the next twenty plus pages I failed to see the premises substantiated in an acceptable way. It is not enough to state that we know OT saints were saved or to cite Acts 15 to prove that OT saints were saved by believing on Jesus crucified. It will not do. Genesis 15:4-6 clearly says that Abraham believed what Yahweh said about a son coming from his body without adoption and the descendants who would come through him. That faith is what God reckoned to Abraham for righteousness according to Moses and Paul (Rom. 4:2-3). Abraham did not believe that Jesus would die on a Roman cross and be raised the third day. However, Abraham did believe that the promised Deliverer would one day come (Jn. 8:56), and it is on the basis of what Christ did on the cross that Abraham’s sins were expiated. But CT cannot accept this because they view the “gospel” as being the same throughout history.

The Covenants of Scripture Are Actually Only Instances of the Covenant of Grace

This can be shown from any CT work, but here is a full example of it from Francis Roberts (1609-1675). Though long I think this quotations says it well:

After the Fall God deales with his Church and People also by way of Covenant; and that the COVENANT of FAITH [i.e. Grace] in Iesus Christ the last Adam. This is very observable in several eminent Intervals or Periods of time, wherein God Revealed his Covenant more and more clearly by degrees, till it came to a full and compleat discovery in these daies of the New Testament. As, God dealt by way of COVENANT, 1. With Adam presently after the Fall, and with the Fathers before the Flood till the time of Noah: Promising the Seed of the woman, to bruise the Serpents head. 2. With Noah, establishing his Covenant with him, to save him, and his family, and a seed of the Creatures, in the Ark, from perishing by the waters of the Flood, when the whole world should be drowned. Under these two dispensations of the Covenant, together with the Promises and other Appurtenances thereof, did the Fathers and Church live till the daies of Abraham. 3. With Abraham and his seed, Covenanting and Promising to be a God to them, to give them the land of Canaan, and make them heirs of the world, and in his seed to make all the Nations and families of the Earth blessed; … 4. With Israel; led and brought by the hand out of the land of Egypt, At Mount Sinai in the daies of Moses;… Under this and the former Administrations of the Covenant, the Church was nurtured up, till the time of David. 5. With David and his Seed God made an everlasting Covenant ordered in all things and Sure, Promising with an Oath, To establish his seed for ever, and build up his Throne to all generations, &c. which Covenant had its fullest accomplishment in Christ, of the Seed of David, and in his Spiritual Kingdom… 6. With the people of the Iews under the Babylonish Captivity, God Covenanted to return their Captivity and restore them into their own land, the land of Canaan; to take away their stony heart, and to give them an heart of flesh; To cleanse them from all their filthiness and Idols, &c. promising that they shall be his people, and he will be their God. And under this, with the foregoing ministrations of the Covenant, The Church of God was nursed up from the time of the Babylonish Captivity, till the very coming of Christ in our flesh. 7. Finally, with the Church and people of God under the New Testament, after Christs Incarnation, God makes a New Covenant in Christ: New, not so much for substance, as for Circumstance and manner of Administration (all the former Ministrations being laid aside as waxing old and wearing away;) And New, for Continuation, in that this dispensation of the Covenant should not wax old as did all the former, but should continue still fresh New and unaltered to the very end of the world. And under this Covenant, the Promises and Appendixes thereof, the Church of Christ is and shall be continued, built up, and perfected, From the First till the Second coming of Jesus Christ.” – Francis Roberts, The Mystery and Marrow of the Bible, 5-6. (Available at https://quod.lib.umich.edu/e/eebo/A57385.0001.001/1:6?rgn=div1;view=fulltext).*

Here we can see in this quote how the one covenant of grace (which Roberts calls the Covenant of Faith) is seen in different instantiations through biblical history until the first coming of Christ. After the Passion, the New covenant becomes the final and unalterable instance of the covenant of grace until Christ returns and all the elect are gathered together. So when CT’s expound for example, the covenants with Noah, Abraham, David, and the New covenant, they are expounding them as progressive revelations of the one covenant of grace. This recalls Packer’s point about CT being a hermeneutic!

But for all the excellence of Roberts’ explanation there is one thing missing. Here is Michael Horton:

“The covenant of grace…is announced after the fall and develops from Seth and his line, leading to Abraham and the messianic Seed, in whom “all the nations will be blessed.” That covenantal line is persecuted from within and without and narrows progressively until it is reduced to a single individual: Jesus Christ. In his wake, it widens again to become even broader than before, embracing people “from every tribe and language and people and nation (Rev. 5:9)” – Michael S. Horton, Covenant and Eschatology, 166-167 (my emphasis).

Central to the eschatological outlook of Covenant Theology is that Israel reduces down to Jesus, and those who are in Him comprise the “New” or “True” Israel. The hermeneutical wheels are turning.

  • My thanks to JJ. Weissman for telling me about Roberts’ work and providing the link.

Deciphering Covenant Theology (Pt.6)

Part Five

Some of this post reuses material from a previous article.

The Covenant of Grace (1)

Covenant theology depends for its credibility upon theological covenants with virtually no exegetical proof.  This is especially the case with the “Covenant of Grace.” 

“[N]ot only do covenant theologians speak of the one people of God in both Testaments, they also affirm that the church existed in the Old Testament.  One key linchpin for seeing continuity between the covenants revolves around the centrality of the covenant of grace.  Because God is working out his unified plan to redeem humanity through this covenant, all historical covenants fall under this larger covenant and thus are expressions of it.” – Benjamin L. Merkle, Discontinuity to Continuity: A Survey of Dispensational & Covenantal Theologies, 139 (Merkle is a CT). 

The “Covenant of Grace”, which is often simply called “the covenant” by CT’s, wields tremendous, we might say decisive hermeneutical power over CT’s biblical interpretation.  Again, Merkle says “Covenant theology understands all the biblical covenants as different expressions of the one covenant of grace.” (Ibid, 15).  But before one gets to use such a potent hermeneutical and theological device, one needs to prove that it is actually Scriptural.

As Herman Witsius defines it,

“The Covenant of grace is a compact or agreement between God and the elect sinner; God on his part declaring his free good-will concerning eternal salvation, and everything relative thereto, freely to be given to those in covenant by, and for the mediator Christ; and man on his part consenting to that good-will by a sincere faith.” – The Economy of the Covenants Between God and Man, 1.165 [Bk. 2. Ch.1.5].

Witsius goes on to make it clear that the covenant insures there is only one people of God (the Church) in both Testaments.  This means, for one thing, that whenever one comes across any passage which seems to point to a separation of, say, OT Israel from the NT Church, this must not be allowed to stand, since the “covenant of grace” does not permit it.  Therefore, CT’s must first demonstrate if it is possible to establish a “Covenant of Grace” from the text of Scripture rather than from human reason alone, and then they must show that this covenant is the very same covenant as the Noahic, Abrahamic, Davidic, and New Covenants which are very clearly found within the Bible.

What then is the exegetical basis for the Covenant of Grace?  Well, don’t hold your breath!  Even dyed-in-the-wool CT’s like O. Palmer Robertson admit that there is slender exegetical apparatus from which to derive it (he thinks the “covenant of works” fairs better, expending much effort on making Hosea 6:7 refer to a pre-Fall covenant).  In reality, I would say there is no exegetical justification at all!  This impression is only confirmed the more expositions of the Covenant of Grace one examines.  What you will find is that passages patently referring to the Noahic, Abrahamic covenants, etc., are used as proof-texts.  Brown and Keele spend six pages of their book Sacred Bond trying to make Genesis 3:15-24 into the Covenant of Grace.  The way they begin their investigation is telling:

“While the covenant of grace is more fully revealed in Genesis 12, 15, and 17 with God’s covenant to Abraham, which is then fulfilled it two stages, the old (Mosaic) and the new covenants, its “mother” or “seed” promise is in the protevangelium of Genesis 3:15.” (Ibid, 60-61).”

They also seem to believe that Satan tried and succeeded to get Adam and Eve “to enter into league with himself.” (Ibid, 61).  Are we then to believe that there are three covenants in Genesis 1 – 3, even though there is no clear textual evidence for one?  In fact, what one will find when reading these authors is how quickly they repair to their Confessions of Faith.  The Confessions present the story which the Bible is fitted into.         

Reformed theologian Robert Reymond, who boldly claims that “The church of Jesus Christ is the present-day expression of the one people of God whose roots go back to Abraham” (A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith, 525f.), does no better in coming up with actual biblical texts which support the Covenant of Grace.  He, like all CT’s, insists the issue be settled by the Scriptures (Ibid, 528).  What this turns out to be is insisting that the OT be interpreted via his interpretation of the NT!  Naturally, the NT never speaks about a Covenant of Grace, and he begs leave to spiritualize the texts whenever it suits him (Ibid, 511 n.16), that way he can maintain that the land promises “were never primary and central to the covenant intention” (Ibid, 513 n.19).  Quite how one can read Genesis 12-17 and come away believing that the land was not a primary issue escapes me.  According to many scholars, the land is a very prominent feature of the OT covenants.    

Following the reasoning of CT’s as they dive in and out of selective passages (often avoiding the important referents within the context) can be a mind-numbing experience.  One needs to try to keep in mind what they are attempting to prove: that God has made one covenant with the elect of both Testaments to guarantee that there will be one people of God, the Church, inheriting heavenly promises in Christ.  For example, Robertson says,

“The covenants of God are one.  The recurring summation of the essence of the covenant testifies to this fact… All the dealings of God with man since the fall must be seen as possessing a basic unity…Diversity indeed exists in the various administrations of God’s covenants.  This diversity enriches the wonder of God’s plan for his people.  But the diversity ultimately merges inti a single purpose overarching the ages...The various administrations of the covenant of redemption [i.e., grace] relate organically to one another…” – O. Palmer Robertson, The Christ of the Covenants, 52, 55, 61, 63 (my emphasis).

That may sound okay, but what one has to realize is that this means that anything found in the biblical covenants which does not fit this preconceived picture (e.g. a physical land for the people of Israel, a literal throne of David in Jerusalem), is demoted to an ancillary and temporal place or is transformed into a “type” or “shadow” of a spiritual reality which comports with the requirements of “the covenant.”

If we turn to CT’s own explanations of their system, we find a curious dualism of frankness and subterfuge.  I do not use “frankness” in the ethical sense, just in the sense that there is sometimes a willingness to face the text and deal with what it actually says.  By “subterfuge” I am not saying there is an unethical motive in these men, but that they almost instinctively avoid the clear implications of passages which undermine their teaching.  Robertson, for example, when dealing with the inauguration of the Abrahamic covenant, carefully picks his way through Genesis 15 (and 12:1) without mentioning God’s land-promise (Ibid, Ch. 8).  He first constructs his thesis with the help of certain NT texts, and then deals with the land issue once he has a typological framework to put it in.  He is more “up-front” when he refers to Jeremiah 31, 32 and Ezekiel 34 and 37 on pages 41-42 of his book, but this plain speaking about God’s planting of His people “in this land” to “give them one heart and one way” (Ibid, 41), and his explicitly linking the land promise to Jacob with the Abrahamic covenant (Ibid, 42) does not last for long.  Needless to say, the land promise to Israel evaporates under the flame of Reformed typology as the book progresses (Ibid, Ch. 13), and the Church becomes the “Israel” through its participation in the new covenant (e.g. 289).

In none of this does one find any solid exegetical proof.  Instead, at the crucial moment, in order to get where they want to go, CT’s will rely upon human reasoning (“if this, then that”) to lop off covenanted promises which contravene their theological covenants.  The land promise stated over and over in the Abrahamic covenant (e.g. 12:1, 7; 15:18-21; 17:7-8) and repeated in the prophets (e.g. Isa. 44; Jer. 25:5; 31:31-40; 32:36-41; 33:14-26; Ezek. 36:26-36), is ushered into a room marked “obscurity” by the covenant of grace.  How ironic; the land promise is expressly stated and restated all over the OT, and the covenant of grace never once puts in an appearance!

Another noted CT who exemplifies this phenomenon I have been referring to is Michael Horton.  His book God of Promise: Introducing Covenant Theology takes back with one hand what it appears to give with the other.  Placing an enormous burden on Galatians 4:22-31 which it was never supposed to bear, Horton sometimes seems to interpret the covenant passages at face value.  He repeatedly admits that both the Abrahamic and Davidic covenants were unconditional.  He rivals any dispensationalist in his belief in the unilateral nature of these biblical covenants (Ibid, 42, 45, 48-49).  But then he makes the land promise part of the Mosaic covenant (whence it can be safely dispatched).  He states,

“The Mosaic (Sinai) covenant is an oath of the people swearing personal performance of the conditions for “living long in the land,” while the Abrahamic covenant is a promise by God himself that he will unilaterally bring about the salvation of his people through the seed of Abraham.” – Michael S. Horton, God of Promise, 48.

This is an amazing statement.  Although he is right to say that possession of the land was tied to obedience to the Mosaic covenant (e.g., Lev. 26), even the Mosaic covenant looked forward to a new covenant whereby God would circumcise their heart (Deut. 30:6) so that “in the latter days” they would not be forsaken, but would be remembered because of the Abrahamic covenant (Deut.4:30-31; 30:19-20).

So, what happened?  Is the Abrahamic covenant only about salvation as Horton claims?  I invite anyone to read Genesis 12-17, Jeremiah 33 or Ezekiel 36 and demonstrate such a thing.  It is patently false.  In fact, there is no provision for salvation in the Abrahamic covenant itself; although the Seed promise (singular) is there it is developed through the New covenant, not per se the terms of the Abrahamic.  All the talk about typology (Horton’s book is also filled with it) cannot alter these facts.

That God must be gracious to sinners if they are to be saved is not at issue.  What is at issue is whether there is any such thing as the covenant of grace (we have focused on it since it is the support for CT’s interpretations and theology).  We have no qualms in saying it is a figment overlaid on the biblical covenants.  It is what makes CT’s see only the salvation of the church in the covenants.  It is what makes them transform the NT Church into “new Israel”.  It stands behind many of their dogmas.  But the Covenant of Grace, together with the “Covenant of Works”, is curiously absent from the Word of God. 

Deciphering Covenant Theology (Pt.5)

Part Four

The Covenant of Works (2)

According to covenant theologians the Covenant of Works was what Adam and Eve were under in the Garden of Eden. As it was a covenant of “works” this means that they were under obligation to maintain “perfect obedience” (Witsius, The Economy of the Covenants Between God and Man, I. 158; cf. Robertson, The Christ of the Covenants, 85). For the CT this is necessary because it is to be paralleled by Christ’s perfect obedience; an obedience which as “active obedience” is accrued to us alongside of Christ’s work on the cross.

In my view the biblical doctrine of the atonement does not require a doctrine of Christ’s “active obedience.” The fact of the matter is that the Bible does not say that Christ’s perfect life atones in any way for either Adam’s sin or for our failure to live righteously. Furthermore, I do not see how there could be a substitutionary aspect to Christ’s “active obedience.” I do admit that there may well be a representative aspect, but this is not the same thing.

The question that comes up is whether the Covenant of Works is deemed to be in place today or whether it was abolished. Certainly, if what is written above about the importance and value of Christ’s “active obedience,” from the CT point of view it would seem a “good and necessary consequence” for this “covenant” to be in force still. As well as this, if it is claimed the Covenant of Works has been removed then that would leave unsaved men under no covenant at all in this approach. This would be problematic because CT’s conflate the requirements of the Covenant of Works with the Law, and CT’s represent unbelievers as law-breakers; or in the words of Cornelius Van Til “covenant-breakers.”

And indeed, the writings of CT’s reveal that they hold this covenant to indeed be in force. Belcher says

“When Adam broke the covenant, the probationary test came to an end, but the obligation to perfectly fulfill the terms of the covenant remained…Human beings are held accountable to God and subject to death on the basis of the terms of the original covenant…The descendants of Adam are held accountable by God for what Adam did because of the special relationship that Adam had as a representative of his descendants in the Covenant of Works.” – The Fulfillment of the Promises of God, 33.

Notice here the role of Adam as our representative. That is the basis of our “special relationship” to Adam (although some CT’s believe we have a seminal link to Adam which is important). This is the teaching called “Federalism” which I shall go into in a later post. But federalism needs the Covenant of Works (and the Covenant of Grace).

Still, there is a sense in which the Covenant of Works has been abrogated. Herman Witsius says that the Covenant of Works does not now operate as a means to obtain eternal life as it did in Paradise (Witsius I. 158-159). This is important for non-covenant theologians to grasp because I have come across some misunderstanding here. One example is the book Forsaking Israel, 182 n. 29, where a short quotation of Witsius implies that he thought that the Covenant of Works is not ongoing. This misreads Witsius as a reading of the above references would show (overall the treatment of the Covenant of Works in this book is very good, although it does appear to make the Covenant of Works the most “dominant” of the three theological covenants, which is not the case – Ibid, 176ff.).

As for the biblical merits of the Covenant of Works it has to be said that they are slim. The arguments that are constructed for it out of Scripture and reason are all propounded on the basis of eisegesis. That is to say, the texts of Scripture are not being expounded to see what they say in the places where they say it, but are being located and dug-out of their contexts (which are often clearly pointing to biblical covenants like the Mosaic and the Davidic) and are being seconded to function in a way that is foreign to their original contexts. One well-known example is Hosea 6:7. To quote from The Words of the Covenant: Old Testament Expectation,

“As far as the famous covenant passage in Hosea 6:7 is concerned I have already addressed the
issue in chapter seven of this work. In summary, (a) the standard interpretation of covenant and new
covenant theologians that the prophet is referring to the biblical Adam and some covenant in Eden is both question-begging and indeterminate. Even if Hosea was speaking of such a covenant, the impossibility of locating the terms of the oath, make it a vain effort to follow this view. (b) It is the opinion of many that the town of Adam (Josh. 3:16) is being referred to. This would require some historical defection at Adam to which Hosea is alluding. In that case the covenant he speaks of is the Mosaic covenant (as per Hos. 8:1). (c) The third explanation is to translate adam as “dirt” and interpret the prophet as saying that the people have treated the (Mosaic) covenant like dirt. (d) The fourth view translates the Hebrew phrase as “like men” and interprets it as referring to the sinful human bent to transgress God’s Law. Hence, in three of the four views the identity of the covenant in Hosea 6:7 is the Mosaic covenant, or at least its universal aspects (which predate it). The notion that it looks back to a nebulous covenant in Eden seems as unnecessary as it is indeterminable and fruitless.” (235-236).

I also included a footnote which is worth reproducing here:

“Here in Hosea [berit] “covenant” appears only for the second time. In 2:20 [in the context of marriage] the term denoted the future universal covenant. In the present passage the Mosaic covenant is clearly at issue.” – Douglas Stuart, Hosea – Jonah, 111.

Here again we have an example of deductive reasoning being smuggled in as exegesis.

Deciphering Covenant Theology (Pt.4)

Part Three

In the first volume of his impressive work The Whole Counsel of God, CT Richard Gamble identifies four covenant types in Scripture. I have no qualm with the first three, but Gamble’s fourth variety of covenant is “one among the three persons of the Godhead.” (I.284). He sees a “hint” of this in the words “Let us make man in our image” in Genesis 1:26, but points to a “clearer example” in Genesis 8:21-22. In this instance “God was not speaking to Noah, but was in fact making a covenant with himself.” (I.285).

I have a high regard for Gamble and his book, but the fact that he has to resort to such examples to find an intra-trinitarian covenant is surely telling. As we saw last time, the “covenant of redemption” is not even confidently asserted by many covenant theologians, and it is not found in any passage of the Bible; it is inferred from what CT’s call “good and necessary consequences.” What makes them necessary? In my opinion what makes the consequences “necessary” is the necessity of finding support for Covenant Theology. As I have said previously and will repeat hereafter the theological covenants are deduced from CT’s operating from the position that the rest of Scripture must be interpreted from the cross and its presumed consequences. One of those consequences is that there must be only one people of God.

The Covenant of Works (1)

The covenant of works also has its detractors in the Reformed community. John Murray is the best known of these. His criticism comes in his essay “The Adamic Administration” which is in his Collected Writings, Vol. 2. Meredith Kline and O. Palmer Robertson change out the names for the covenants of works and grace for “creation” and “redemption.” For more on this dissent concerning this covenant see Peter Golding, Covenant Theology, 105-109, and Robert Letham, Systematic Theology, 349-352. Granting this intramural issue, I will continue on the assumption that the covenant of works is essentialist CT. Let us start with a definition:

“God’s commitment to give Adam, and his posterity in him, eternal life for obedience or eternal death for disobedience.” – Michael G. Brown and Zach Keele, Sacred Bond, 45.

Or again,

“The creation bond between God and man may be discussed in terms of its general and its focal aspects. The general aspect of the covenant of creation [aka “works”] relates to the broader responsibilities of man to his Creator. The focal aspect of the covenant…relates to the more specific responsibility of man arising from the special point of probation or testing instituted by God.” – O. Palmer Robertson, The Christ of the Covenants, 67.

CT’s are usually ready to admit that the covenant of works is not discoverable from the plain text of Scripture. But “good and necessary consequence” is on hand to help. Leading Puritan theologian Anthony Burgess said that the covenant of works “must only be gathered by deductions and consequence,” while Beeke and Jones are clear that this means “inference.” (Joel R. Beeke & Mark Jones, A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life, 218-219).

I have no problem with the notion that a collection of passages can be arranged so as to arrive at a conclusion about a doctrinal tenet. For myself and Dispensationalists the “rapture” teaching is one such example. One combines the relevant texts and tries to come to “an inference to the best explanation”; one with the best explanatory value and the fewest problems. This is what I call a Category 3 formulation in the Rules of Affinity.

So where does one gather together the texts which cumulatively argue for a prelapsarian covenant of works? You will perhaps not be surprised to learn that the interpretation of the passages from which the covenant of works is given a scriptural appearance are themselves a product of “good and necessary consequences”! Here are a few:

  1. God made a covenant with Adam in Eden before there was any sin in the world.
  2. This “covenant’s” terms are supposedly found in the prohibition of God for Adam not to eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil in Genesis 2:16-17.
  3. This tree, as well as the Tree of Life, was a sacramental tree which held value as symbols of the covenant of works (along with the Sabbath and perhaps paradise itself).

It ought to be clear that to arrive at the three conclusions above even more “good and necessary consequences” need to get involved. But I pass on. Since the covenant of works was supposed to be apiece with the original creation there has been debate among CT’s whether Adam was made in the covenant of works of for it. Beeke & Jones put it like this:

“whether one believed that Adam was created in a covenant, by virtue of the law being written on his heart, or created for a covenant, once the terms had been set forth by positive institution, all were were agreed that the presence of these two trees, which represented life and death, promises and threats, confirmed Adam in a covenant of works.” – Joel R. Beeke & Mark Jones, A Puritan Theology, 224.

The arrangement between God and Adam is claimed to be that his probation would be ended and he would have been given a glorified body and eternal life had he kept faithful. The “covenant” was the test (See Richard P. Belcher, Jr., The Fulfillment of the Promises of God, 26 n. 5, 33).

One of the conjectures that CT has handed down to us is that if Adam had just kept obeying for the right amount of time God would have confirmed him in righteousness and granted him inherent eternal life. This grant would still have been gracious because the “work” Adam did could never earn the reward that God “promised.” A search of Genesis 1 – 3 will show that God prohibited Adam and Eve from eating of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, but it will equally demonstrate that there was no word of promise about eternal life after a period of testing. That again is inferred.

Belcher is correct to state that “covenants operate on the basis of a representative principle” which includes descendants (Ibid, 26), but it must be noted firstly that this “seed principle” is part of the biblical covenants, and second, that it need not cover all descendants. The Abrahamic and Davidic covenants are instances of this. As there are zero examples of oaths taken in respect to the covenants of redemption, works, or grace in Scripture, what we have is yet another inference taken from reading the biblical covenants (Noahic, Abrahamic, Mosaic, Priestly, Davidic, and New) and supposing that the “covenants” of CT do the same thing as those clear covenants stipulate.

I shall continue next time by looking more at what CT’s say about the covenant of works before looking at what the Bible has to say about it.

Deciphering Covenant Theology (Pt.3)

Part Two

In my introductory comments on Covenant Theology I have called attention to what I call its storytelling, its strongly deductive nature, and its adamant belief that the NT, understood especially as the fulcrum of the cross and resurrection, drives the approach. But drives it where? I might answer that question in a few different ways depending whether I choose to emphasize eschatology or soteriology, but in terms of the latter it means “redemptive history.” Redemptive history, or “the history of redemption” is the main overarching framework that CT is concerned with. The goal of the Bible’s storyline is the salvation of the elect.

Now without any doubt the salvation-historical motifs of Scripture are fundamental to its story. Whether or not it gives a wide enough perspective to fit all the important themes within it is another matter. CT’s also believe that there can be only one people of God. Older CT’s like Francis Turretin, John Owen, David Dickson, and Herman Witsius make it clear that they identity this one people of God with the church. As with a number of other things, modern CT’s tend to be less forthcoming, but a writer from the last generation puts it clearly:

“Let us here insist that there was a Church in Old Testament times; and that the Old Testament and New Testament believers form one Church – the same olive tree (Romans 11).” – W. J. Grier, The Momentous Event, 33.

I will return to this subject later because it raises some questions about baptism and the sign of “the covenant” in both Testaments. But now we must take time to understand the main covenants of CT; the covenant of redemption, the covenant of works, and the all-important covenant of grace (confusingly called the cov. of redemption by O. Palmer Robertson). Now not all CT’s see the need of a covenant of redemption (e.g., Richard Belcher), and not all CT’s are comfortable with a covenant of works (e.g., John Murray), but it is necessary to describe each of them.

Before I do that I have another thing that I want to insert. I have already stated that CT is heavily deductive (“if this…, then that”). There is a good reason for this (although I know that CT’s themselves will dispute it). The reason that CT is so deductive is because of its method of reading Scripture. Briefly put its method is to formulate doctrine from – to put it in the language of the Westminster Confession 1.6 – “good and necessary consequences”, and then go in search of texts which appear to back up those consequences. This is then called “exegesis” (although CT’s do exegete passages in the usual way too). So, for instance, in their Introduction to the impressive book Covenant Theology: Biblical, Theological, and Historical Perspectives, the editors, Guy Prentiss Waters, J. Nicholas Reid and John R. Muether, we have a sub-heading which reads, “Covenant Theology is Exegetical” (Covenant Theology, 32). In a big book of well over 600 pages one would expect a lot of exegetical proof for the covenants of redemption, works, and grace. Is that what we get? Sadly, no. Where there is direct scriptural proof presented it concerns passages about the biblical covenants with Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, and the New covenant, which are said to be instances or “republications” of the single covenant of grace! But saying that these identifiable covenants are just instances of the covenant of grace does not make them so. So let’s look at the covenants of redemption, works, and grace, beginning with the pre-temporal “covenant.”

The Covenant of Redemption (Pre-Creation)

What is the covenant of redemption? According to Guy Richard in the Waters, Read & Muether book mentioned above this covenant may be “the most questionable element of historical federal theology” (43). It is said to be “a pretemporal agreement between the persons of the Trinity to plan and carry out the redemption of the elect” (ibid). Some CT’s tell us that the agreement was between the Father and the Son, but the aim is the same. The recent book by Richard Belcher, The Fulfillment of the Promises of God: An Explanation of Covenant Theology actually skips over this covenant, simply noting that if there was one “then the Covenant of Grace is the historical outworking of the Covenant of Redemption.” (45). R. Scott Clark includes it within the covenant of grace (Recovering the Reformed Confession, 200-201), while O. Palmer Robertson admits to “a sense of artificiality” to any pre-creation covenant, even going so far as to say that,

“To speak concretely of an intratrinitarian “covenant” with terms and conditions between Father and Son mutually endorsed before the foundation of the world is to extend the bounds of scriptural evidence beyond propriety.” – The Christ of the Covenants, 54.

We’re not exactly off to a good start. Two things ought to be noted: the first is that if there is controversy around whether there even was a covenant of redemption before creation got underway, there can hardly be a great expectation of finding exegetical foundations for it in Scripture. Otherwise there would be no dispute. The second thing to notice is the name Richard gives to CT; he calls it “federal theology.” That is important for our understanding of the covenants of CT and their redemptive-historical way of reading the Bible. I shall have more to say about it later in the series.

Now, of course there was intra-trinitarian communication about man and his salvation before creation. That is beyond dispute or rational objection. But was it covenantal? No says Robertson, and I entirely agree.

Scriptural Support?

There are other writers who are more confident about the covenant of redemption, so it is well to see where they go to argue for it. Relying on 17th century Scottish minister David Dickson’s work, Guy Richard first says that Scripture “regularly speaks of the salvation of the elect in terms of buying and selling (e.g., Acts 20:28; 1 Cor. 6:20; Eph. 1:7; 1 Pet. 1:18).” (Covenant Theology, 46). Since this requires prior deliberation we may say that happened before creation. Fair enough. Also, that Christ is made a “propitiation” points to a prior agreement; so too Christ refers to His mission from the Father which implies such a pretemporal agreement. Now the boon is lowered.

“Patrick Gillespie argued that agreement is the essential ingredient of all covenants…” (Ibid.).

Do you see what is going on here? Inference built upon inference. We will have to constantly watch for this! Additionally, the fact that all covenants contain agreements as an essential aspect does not mean that all agreements are covenants! If we both agree that 1 +1 =2 have we struck a solemn covenant? Of course not. Why would the Father to make a solemn oath to perform something for the Son and the Son need to swear an oath to do something for the Father? This is an uncomfortable notion at best.

Richard notes that Dickson (and co-author James Durham) “even cited John 6:37 on the title page of their treatise as the main text on which their subject matter would be grounded…” (Ibid, 47). John 6:37 says, “All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will by no means cast out.” Is there any hint of a covenant in the verse?

Psalm 2 is another favorite of those who believe in the covenant of redemption. The psalm does not speak of a covenant, but it does speak of a decree in verse 7. That’s enough if you need to find a “covenant of redemption somewhere. Is the decree pretemporal? And is every decree covenantal? An affirmative to those questions reflects guesswork and wishful thinking respectively. Still, while the decree may plausibly be traced to the “eternal counsels” that does not make it covenantal. Richard cites OT scholar Peter Craigie’s view that the decree in question might refer to a document handed to the king at his coronation as a kind of renewal of the Davidic covenant (Ibid, 55). But what good is this? We are not proving the Davidic covenant here but the supposed covenant of redemption.

Ah, but the covenant of redemption (as will shall see) is instantiated in time as the covenant of grace, and the Davidic covenant is one republication of the covenant of grace so… Now I do grant that this piecing together of ones deductions with disparate scripture passages has its appeal to a certain mindset. But we are dealing with God’s words here, and they must be permitted to say what they say even if what they say does not fit our preferences well.

Another NT example of this is how Ephesians 1:4 and 2 Timothy 1:9 are combined to produce the required result. In the first text the apostle asserts that God “chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before Him in love,” predestinating our adoption (see Eph. 1:5). In 2 Timothy 1 we are told that God saved us “according to His own purpose and grace which was given to us in Christ Jesus before time began.”

Here are two pretemporal selections. The first concerns our sanctification “in Christ.” The verse is interpreted as saying God chose us “to be in Christ” but that is not what Paul says. That may or may not be true but it is not what Ephesians 1:4-5 is about, so it should not be used as a proof-text for a pactum salutis. The second passage asserts that before creation we were included within God’s “purpose and grace.” But whether Paul has redemption itself in mind or our subsequent holy walk is debatable. Whichever it is, no covenant of redemption is to be seen.

But enough. What ought to be clear here is that the covenant of redemption depends upon assumptions about the salvation of the elect as the one people of God. These assumptions were already in place before the search was made to piece together verses to support it via inferences. If one wishes to see this played out in full, J. V. Fesko has written The Trinity and the Covenant of Redemption in which the second part of the book appeals to Zechariah 6:13; Psalm 2:7 and Psalm 110, and Ephesians 1 with 2 Timothy 1:9-10 for “exegetical foundations.” Such a hermeneutics is utterly foreign to my way of reading, being injected with assumptions about CT rather than listening to the text itself. A study of Zechariah 6:12-13 shows that the hermeneutics and methodology of CT is a million miles away from DT or Biblical Covenantalism; and they cannot be brought into agreement!

Deciphering Covenant Theology (Pt.2)

Part One

I am still writing some introductory remarks about Covenant Theology. I still think that we need to say something more about how to orient oneself to CT thinking. If I just move to outline the three basic covenants of CT I will obscure an important truth that should be out in the open right at the start. That important truth is this: Covenant theologians do not begin their thinking with the OT. They do not start at Genesis 1. They start at the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Okay, can we move on now? No. You see, CT doesn’t simply get going at the cross and empty tomb, it ends up there too! The cross and the resurrection are the hub of the whole system. The theological covenants which we shall look at are a logical outgrowth of this starting and ending point. Of course, this shouts circularity, but we ought to note the fact that all reasoning in a circle is not necessarily fallacious, just so long as you have selected the correct circle (i.e., not a vicious circle); a circle which can incorporate all the data and present it coherently. I am not a covenant theologian. Therefore, I do not think CT’s have chosen the correct circle to reason in.

That said, I do want to say that CT represents an ingenious theological grid of interpretation. It is comprehensive, teleological, and Christ-centered. It is so well put together that it is able to present a formidable biblical worldview and epistemology, although I will have to come back to that statement and qualify it later on by saying that the teleology or goal-oriented approach of CT is what produces the worldview, not so much the hermeneutic. It is certainly a coherent system. Whether or not it is a proper representation of the Bible’s storyline is another question.

Two Illustrations

Let me give a couple of illustrations; one of how CT’s look at their system; the other how people like yours truly see it. Pay attention not so much to the details of the examples but more to the vantage-points or way of seeing things.

I’m dating myself here, but for the CT starting with the NT and the first coming of Christ may be likened to the first time color TV sets were introduced into the home. People had been watching everything in black and white and they were used to it. When color TV’s were brought home they brought so much life to the screen. It was a new world. People were seeing the actors and their backgrounds and their cars in a brand new and vibrant ways. You could see better! That is similar to the way CT’s understand the way the NT changes the way we look at what had come before it. Now that we see things in so much detail why would we think to go back to the old way of “seeing”? Why would we ignore the blessing of looking at the Bible’s story from the “color” provided by the NT, especially the death and resurrection of Jesus?

That is why CT’s begin where they do, with the NT revelation; the “Full Revelation of God” as Richard Gamble’s second volume of his The Whole Counsel of God puts it in its subtitle.

But here is another illustration. This one tries to illustrate how ‘opponents’ of CT see it. Suppose that somebody recommended that you read a classic book, say Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo. However, before you read Dumas you pick up a literary interpretation of the book by a radical liberal critic who reads it as though it were a covert chauvinist piece demeaning women and promoting the male status quo. It really isn’t what it appears to be; a story about Edmond Dantes’ revenge through an alter ego who is only revealed to his enemies at the time of their disgrace, but is instead a power story about male superiority. The interpretation is providing the lenses through which you are being guided to view the book. And you might think to yourself, “But it doesn’t say that.” The only way to break away from it is to discard the interpretation and read Dumas’ book from start to finish. Then perhaps the outside interpretation will be seen, but perhaps it won’t. In the same way (although the interpreters are conservative Christians not radicals) CT is providing the lenses through which the Bible is being interpreted. You might look at what the Bible is saying and compare it with the interpretation given by CT and think to yourself, “But it doesn’t say that.”

Now please do not misunderstand me here. These illustrations are purely to show how either side of the divide, covenant theologians on the one hand and more literal interpreters like, say, dispensationalists (DT’s) on the other see Covenant Theology. CT’s think it is like a color television, bringing new detail and splendor to the Bible. DT’s see it more as an intrusion of an outside view upon the plain text of Scripture.

How it Begins to Play Out

I have quoted Brown & Keele’s book Sacred Bond: Covenant Theology Explored in Part One. Let me stick with them to give an idea of what kind of statements are produced by CT. I am not at this time concerned with asking whether the statements are correct. I only wish to place some conclusions of CT before the reader. We shall see how these conclusions are reached in the following weeks.

Now I do realize that one does not have to be an advocate of CT to believe in NT priority. New Covenant Theology/Progressive Covenantalism does this too. But CT was there first.

First then, to show that the NT is seen as having priority over the OT:

Of course, there are plenty of good reasons for our preoccupation with the New Testament. If the Bible were a building, the New Testament would be the penthouse suite; it reveals in glory and clarity Jesus Christ, our only Lord and Savior. The gospel in all its simple sweetness graces the pages of the Greek portion of Holy Scripture. Without it, the Old Testament would remain largely veiled to us, and we would see Christ only dimly. – Sacred Bond: Covenant Theology Explored, 101-102.

I think my illustration of the color TV matches quite well with this opinion. The NT provides so much greater clarity than the OT (which as far as Jesus is concerned is perfectly true). One should also not miss the pious language, well meant no doubt, that couches the opinion. But I want to call attention in particular to the last sentence about the NT: “Without it, the Old Testament would remain largely veiled to us, and we would see Christ only dimly.”

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 and 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. Here is their explanation:

As marvelous as these fulfilled promises were, however, they were only the first level of fulfillment. The nation and the land of Canaan were only pictures and foreshadows of a far greater fulfillment revealed in the New Testament. This fulfillment was the result of Christ’s person and work. – Ibid, 93.

According to this “levels of fulfillment” view the covenant promises of God about seed and land were fulfilled in OT times. Brown and Keele, following many CT’s, say that the land promise was fulfilled at the time of Joshua (see Joshua 21:21:43-45, Ibid, 92). Having placed the land promise in the past the next stage of fulfillment can be given all the attention. In CT God ‘s fulfillment of the land promise to Israel, having occurred already, can be made into a foreshadowing of something else; something greater. And this “something greater” is realized at the first advent as a result of “Christ’s person and work.”

I shall of course come back to all this, but I think we can now begin to look at the framework that produces these and many other ideas, the theological covenants of Covenant Theology themselves.