The Covenant in Classical Covenant Theology (2)

Part One

If we turn to Covenant theology’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.  Likewise, 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 (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”[10], and his explicitly linking the land promise to Jacob through the Abrahamic covenant[11], does not last for long.  Needless to say the land promise to Israel withers under the flame of Reformed typology as Robertson’s book progresses (Ch. 13), and the Church becomes “Israel” through its participation in the new covenant[12].

In none of this does one find any solid exegetical demonstration.  Instead, at the crucial moment, in order to get where they want to go, CT’s will rely upon human reasoning (e.g. “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” using 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!  But this maneuver can be carried out under the auspices of this brand of theology due to what Gerhaardus Vos called “a consciousness of the covenant”, meaning the covenant of grace.  I might humbly point out that there are other, more perspicuous covenants that ought to have our attention as Bible readers.

Another noted Covenant theologian who exemplifies the phenomena 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 of proof 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[13].  But then he makes the land promise part of the Mosaic covenant, whence it can be safely dispatched.  As he says for example,

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.[14]

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 the heart (Deut. 30:6), so that “in the latter days” they would not be forsaken, but would be remembered because of the existing terms of the Abrahamic covenant (Deut.4:30-31; 30:19-20).

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 single track in regards to the Abrahamic covenant.  It is a patently false reading.  In fact, there is no provision for salvation at all 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 (I have focused on it since it is the main support for CT’s interpretations and theology).  I have no qualms in describing it is a figment overlaid on the biblical covenants.  It is the lens which makes CT’s see only the salvation of the church in the covenants.  It is what encourages them to transform the NT Church into “new Israel”.  It stands behind many of the dogmas of covenant theology.  But the covenant of grace, together with the “covenant of works”, is nonetheless absent from the Word of God.


[10]  O. Palmer Robertson, The Christ of the Covenants, 41

[11] Ibid. 42

[12] E.g. 289

[13] See Michael S. Horton, God of Promise: Introducing Covenant Theology, 42, 45, 48-49

[14] Ibid. 48


The Covenant in Classical Covenant Theology (1)

I think it is fair to say that the whole impetus for the covenants of redemption, works and grace in the Reformed Confessions stems from the assumption that the Old Testament must be read through the lens of the extra light of the New.  If that assumption is flawed, as I believe it certainly is, then the whole project is in serious trouble.

The release of the Westminster Confession of 1647, although it was preceded by over a century of formative thinking about the covenant, stands out as the principal document of what is known as Covenant Theology.[1]  Covenant is employed as a fillip to understand and arrange the “doctrines of grace”, and is central to the Confession’s portrayal of redemption.[2]  This means that the concept takes on a deliberate soteriological hue.  The WCF treats its concept of covenant as principally a gracious relationship; a condescension.  And there is no doubt that in this it is correct.  The Westminster Divines did not lay stress on a pre-creational ‘covenant of redemption’, although their anticipatory language of salvation for the elect in the ‘covenant of grace’ is in tune with it[3], and it is there in WCF 7:3.

Biblical Covenantalism is centered around the twin concepts of God’s words and God’s covenants.  To repeat what has already been stated, the present work calls attention to the relationship between God’s words (therefore thoughts) and His actions, and relates them to the covenant commitments which God makes in the Bible.  The motif of God’s words = God’s actions (the GWGA motif), segues into the covenants which He has made in that these covenants are an amplification of God’s promissory words to those to whom He commits.  Whatever else covenants are, they function as reinforcements of speech.  Thus, when a man marries a woman he does not only say words of promise to her on their wedding day, he enters into a committed relationship of promise with his bride.  The presence of a covenant amplifies and underlines the word of promise and binds them together.  It is the same with the covenant God.  This “binding of God” in covenantal obligation has to be carefully studied and traced out in Scripture.  It is not, please note, a theological “binding” first.  That is, we are not to deduce that God has covenanted with X because we have arrived at certain theological convictions.  Rather, the only way we know that and how and with whom God has entered into covenant is through the clear testimony of God Himself.

To set out this difference more plainly, let us think of the “covenant of grace” of covenant theology.  In Reformed theology this covenant of grace has specific content.

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.  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.[4]

Witsius goes on to make it clear that the covenant insures that 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” will not permit it to stand.  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, 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.

So what is the exegetical basis for the Covenant of Grace?  Well, don’t hold your breath!  Even dyed-in-the-wool Covenant theologians 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!

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”[5], does no better in coming up with actual biblical texts which support this extra-biblical covenant.  He, like all CT’s, insists the issue be settled by the Scriptures[6], but he begs leave to spiritualize the texts whenever it suits[7].  Reymond also insists that the OT be interpreted via (his interpretation of) the NT.  In having things this way he can still maintain that the land promises “were never primary and central to the covenant intention”[8].  Quite how one can read Genesis 12-17 and come away believing that the land was not a primary issue escapes me.

Following the reasoning of CT’s as they dive in and out of selective passages, often avoiding the specific referents within the context ( E.g. land, Canaan, Jerusalem, mountains of Israel, Judah, etc.), 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, 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…[9]

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.”


[1] See Peter Golding, Covenant Theology, 15.  This is an excellent historical account.

[2] Ibid., 60.  Although the ‘covenant of works’ is not redemptive because it deals with man in his innocence, it nevertheless puts forth “life” as something to be achieved or forfeited dependent upon man’s observance of God’s “law”.  See WCF 7:2 & 19:1

[3] See especially the Westminster Longer Catechism 31.

[4] Herman Witsius, The Economy of the Covenants Between God and Man, 1.165 [Bk. 2. Ch.1.5].

[5] Robert L. Reymond, A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith, 525f.

[6] Ibid. 528

[7] Ibid. 511 n.16

[8] Ibid. 513 n.19

[9] O. Palmer Robertson, The Christ of the Covenants, 52, 55, 61, 63 (my emphasis).

Part Two

The Parameters of Meaning – Rule 7

After a ridiculously long delay, I have started to finish off my series on the Parameters of Meaning beginning with this one on Typology.  I believe these guidelines will help Bible students avoid many pitfalls in interpretation by setting limits on what constitutes legitimate hermeneutics.  For those of you interested here are the previous installments:

Parameters of Meaning – Introduction

Parameters of Meaning – Rule 1

Parameters of Meaning – Rule 2 

Parameters of Meaning – Rule 3

Parameters of Meaning – Rule 4a

Parameters of Meaning – Rule 4b

Parameters of Meaning – Rule 5

Parameters of Meaning – Rule 6

Parameters of Meaning – Rule 7: Never draw theological conclusions that are based upon typology.  Types are too uncertain and debatable for doctrines to be formulated with them.

The Bible is given, in large part for Theology.  2 Timothy 3:16 reminds us all that

All Scripture is God-breathed [out] and is profitable for doctrine (didaskalia), for reproof, the correction, for instruction in righteousness…

The Greek word didaskalia means “teaching” and is often, as in the above example, translated as “doctrine.”  This word, “doctrine”, signifies the body of biblical teaching cast in the form of propositional truths and life principles.  For doctrines, and, therefore, Theology to be really biblical, they must be clearly traceable to the text of Scripture, interpreted within its proper context.  Our doctrinal formulations should be derived from clear statements of the truth which are accessible to all people.

As we have tried to show with the Rules of Affinity, every major doctrine of the Christian Faith can be ascertained either from direct statements taken from Bible passages (this is usual), or from inferences drawn from direct statements which lead to one inevitable conclusion.  Hence, God has given mankind the essentials of Christianity on the surface, as it were, of His Word.  This being so, it is scarcely necessary to dive into the murky waters of symbolism to uncover theological truth in Scripture.

The Tricky Business of Identification

But leaving that aside, we must ask what is needed for a type to even gain credence as a type.  To begin with, nearly all the best writers on the subject say that typology is intra-testamental. This means that the type is in the Old Testament while the antitype, the fulfillment of the type, is in the New Testament.  So too Leonard Goppelt, in his Typos (ch.1), saw it as his task to examine how the use of typology by NT authors and the church guided the interpretation of the OT.

A 1997 article, “Typology: A Summary of Present Evangelical Discussion,” by W. Edward Glenny (JETS 40.4), provides three competing evangelical views, while commending a fourth; that of Richard M. Davidson, as a way forward.  Davidson himself surveys a host of contrasting theories of typology from both mainstream and evangelical sources, and concludes that they all fall short because “a solid semasiological and exegetical foundation for understanding the nature of typology is never laid.” – Typology in Scripture, 73.  (“Semasiological” refers to the actual meaning of a word as it is used).

Recently, men like RWL Moberly have proposed a typology within the OT itself independent of the NT (at least for Jewish readers).  However, Christian use of this approach will not permit fixity of types unless the NT is ushered in through the back door.  In point of fact the soil out of which much typology has been built is the view that the NT reinterprets the OT.


as more revelation was given over time…we discover more of God’s plan and where that plan is going.  It is for this reason that the New Testament’s interpretation of the Old Testament becomes definitive in helping us understand the details of the Old Testament…In other words, we must carefully allow the New Testament to show us how the Old Testament is brought to fulfillment in Christ. – Peter J. Gentry & Stephen J. Wellum, Kingdom through Covenant, 85-86 

But it does not follow that later revelation will always work in this way.  One thinks of the Creation account for instance, or the Fall.  And before it can be asserted that the NT has definitive interpretative clout over the OT we must ascertain whether or not the NT is addressing the particular subject the OT text is addressing.  But this brings to light the major problem, which is whether our interpretation(s) of the NT are infused with dogma.  We find such a problem in the above quotation where the authors assume without proof that “the Old Testament is brought to fulfillment in Christ”, by which they mean, the first coming of Christ.  Such a massive presupposition will inevitable color their understanding of typology, since they will be searching for types of first advent “fulfillment.”  This will unavoidably lead them into collision with the many OT texts which place the fulfillments at the second advent.  In fact, the very existence of the collision calls forth their typology to handle it!

Theological Pre-commitment 

To illustrate this idea of frontloaded conclusions again, consider this by covenant theologian Mark L. Karlberg:

The dissolution of the temporal, earthly theocracy coincided with the new covenant’s reign of God in the hearts of his people through the Spirit. In the eschatological age of the Spirit the kingdom of God is a spiritual reality unencumbered by the shadowy, earthly forms (types) characteristic of the ancient theocracy. In the period between the advents of Christ the presence of the kingdom is in anticipation of the realization of the land-promise in the consummation. – ‘The Significance of Israel in Biblical Typology’, JETS 31:3 (September 1988), 268

But it ought to be obvious that such a typological approach can only be sanctioned if the NT is given interpretive priority over the New, which is actually only to say that the interpreter’s own theologically determined conclusions about the NT are read back into the OT!  Typology trumps contextual exegesis whenever a theological commitment predisposes the reader to employ it.  The present writer has tried to show that the new covenant insures the literal fulfillment of OT predictions, not hands them over to be “typologized”. (more…)