Read the series.
The Scholars Versus the Theological Covenants
So far I have tried to set out what Covenant Theology teaches in regards to its three major theological covenants. I have shown that variance exists, and have demonstrated how the covenant of grace is the grand operative in the system. We also saw that there are of necessity paedo-baptist and credo-baptist opinions about who is in the covenant of grace and about “Federalism” as well as about whether it is a republication of the old covenant or has always been one and the same with the new covenant. There are, of course, those who diverge even from these categories, but on the whole we now have a decent lay of the land.
Although I have pointed out that the theological covenants do not bear exegetical scrutiny well, I have not brought in the opinions of biblical scholarship on the Covenants of Scripture to see what they have to say on the merits of the covenants of redemption, works, and grace. In a previous post I said “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.” I think it is important to back up that claim.
If these covenants have good biblical standing and are not superimposed upon the Bible via a deductive system of theology then they will surely put in an appearance in the scholarly literature of all kinds of interpreters. If they only show up in the writings of covenant theologians then there is reason to doubt their scriptural pedigree. (I might add here that the seven administrations of traditional Dispensationalism and the four epochs of Progressive Dispensationalism should be treated the same way, since they play a major role in those approaches—particularly the former).
Mainline Biblical Scholarship
After extensive study I wrote in my book,
It is a fact that more liberal scholars with less of a theological agenda to prosecute, have no problem with saying the first covenant is the Noahic covenant. Any search of the works of W. Eichrodt, G. Von Rad, G. N. Mendenhall, D. N. Freedman, B. S. Childs, D. Hillers, D. J. McCarthy, E. W. Nicholson, B. W. Anderson, J. Goldingay, etc., will reveal this fact. They are joined by a raft of evangelical scholars like H. C. Leupold, W. C. Kaiser, C. H. H. Scobie, A. P. Ross, J. H. Sailhamer, and P. R. Williamson to name just a few. Some things are just obvious once an agenda is taken out of the way. (The Words of the Covenant: Volume 1, Old Testament Expectation, 110 n. 46)
I could expand this list by adding names of scholars liberal and evangelical.
If you look at the entries on “Covenant” in the IVP Dictionaries you will not find anything about the covenants of redemption, works, or grace. The same is the case with the Anchor Bible Dictionary or the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia or the Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible. This is because the best arguments for the theological covenants are not good enough to employ convincing exegesis. When the passages used to teach the covenants of redemption, works, and grace are examined it quickly becomes apparent that eisegesis is given the upper hand. Therefore, no self-respecting scholar is going to try to write a scholarly article on “Covenant” and include “covenants” derived from theological presuppositions.
Paul R. Williamson is an Australian OT scholar who has written an important book on the biblical covenants in the “New Studies in Biblical Theology” series called Sealed with an Oath: Covenant in God’s Unfolding Purpose. This book is essential for anyone studying the covenants of Scripture, even though his eschatology does lead to him morphing the oaths he talks about.
Williamson outlines the covenant scheme of Covenant Theology in a similar way to the way I have set it out here, although he is much briefer (30). It is clear that he is uncomfortable with the claims made for the three theological covenants and he examines and calls into question these theological covenants on pages 54-58 of his book. He observes that “it is now widely acknowledged that an oath was indeed an indispensable aspect in the ratification of a covenant.” (39). He goes so far as to call the oath “the sine qua non of a covenant” (39). It is “the key aspect without which it cannot be described as a berith” (43).
This insight is of critical importance because it effectively does away with any covenants so-called where an oath cannot be identified and the scholar’s imaginative powers fill in the details. Out go the theological covenants of Covenant Theology. Along with them go the specious “Edenic” and “Adamic” covenants held to by some Dispensationalists (who must abandon their vaunted hermeneutics to maintain them). Out too must go the “Creation covenant” of New Covenant Theology and Progressive Covenantalists (see below). Williamson says that “the vast majority of contemporary Old Testament scholars totally dismiss any idea of an Adamic covenant.” Citing the scholar John Day he continues: “Attempts to discern an implicit covenant either with Wellhausen in Genesis 1:12-2:4 or with federal theologians in the wider context are thus forthrightly rejected as having ‘no basis in scripture’” (55).
Block has recently written a big book on the covenants of the Bible. His book is called Covenant: The Framework of God’s Grand Plan of Redemption. He refers to the world before the flood as “the precovenant world” (3), since “the notion of covenant is absent in Genesis 1 – 3” (16). Because the relationship in Eden prior to the Fall was what God wanted, Block points out that “a covenant would have been unnecessary and superfluous in the scenes of Genesis 1 – 2” (15). He further states that, “Even though Genesis 1 – 2 casts Adam [i.e. humanity] in the role of “vassal” vis-a-vis God, the divine “Suzerain,” this does not make the relationship covenantal” (15. cf. 24). When addressing Genesis 3 he declares that “there is no need to seek a covenant either in this environment or in the texts of Genesis 1 – 2” (53. cf. 46).
What Block is saying here is very important. Just as an oath does not necessarily mean a covenant is made, so a “covenantal structure” does not lead to the assumption that a covenant is present. “Covenant structure” does not automatically a covenant make.
I may as well include the work of another OT scholar here because he argues that the theological covenants of redemption, works, and grace cannot be found in Genesis. In the book Kingdom Through Covenant, by Peter Gentry and Stephen Wellum there is an important argument for accepting the covenant mentioned in Genesis 6:18:
But I will establish My covenant with you; and you shall go into the ark—you, your sons, your wife, and your sons’ wives with you.
When it says that God will “establish” His covenant the verb employed is heqim which Gentry argues refers to a previously arranged covenant. At first glance this looks convincing. But a little more digging shows it to be quite weak. Block asserts,
although heqim berit usually involves the confirmation of a pre-existent covenant, the Hebrew Bible is not consistent in keeping the distinction between karat berit, “to cut a covenant,” and heqim berit, “to establish /confirm a covenant.” Ezekiel freely interchanged these idioms in Ezekiel 16:60, 62…and 34:25; 37:26…” Deuteronomy 29:1…uses “to cut a covenant” of both YHWH’ establishment of his covenant with Israel at Horeb and Moses’ renewal of that covenant with the new generation on the plains of Moab. (Covenant, 46)
Furthermore, if one allows Gentry to have his way all one is left with is a empty “covenant.” Here are my thoughts about this from my review of their book:
While pursuing an exchange with Paul Williamson, Gentry traces out the difference between the phrase “to cut a covenant” (karat berith), and “to uphold an existing covenant” (heqim berith). And he makes a reasonable circumstantial case for tying in the Noahic covenant, which adopts the language of “upholding a covenant”, with a previously existing “Creation covenant” (155-156, 217-221). On a personal note, a Creation covenant would support my own theological project considerably. Still, when all the pages about the imago Dei and ANE parallels are covered, the actual proof for a Creation covenant is, I think, unimpressive. Even if we grant its existence, the problem is one of definition. Supposing one can prove such a covenant. What, precisely, did it say? Where are its clearly drawn terms? If we cannot determine with any solid confidence the wording of the original covenant, how can we say anything about it which will be theologically productive?
Hence, although Gentry adds his weight to those who find no basis for the theological covenants of Covenant Theology he fails to locate any other covenant prior to Genesis 6 and 9 – the Noahic covenant.
While these scholars may use differing nomenclature, and some may divide the Noahic and Abrahamic covenants into two covenants each, the fact is that they all agree on the basic identification of what have been traditionally called the Noahic, Abrahamic, Mosaic, Davidic, and New covenants. Men like Gentry (and Eugene Merrill) argue for some sort of Creation covenant, but without being able to produce a solid exegetical basis for doing so; nor can they point to any oath that is sworn. But allowing for the differences, none of these scholars find the theological covenants of Covenant Theology in the early chapters of Genesis (or anywhere else in Scripture). One of the reasons for the development of New Covenant Theology was the threadbare materials from which CT’s spun their theological covenants. It is very ironic that the system calling itself Covenant Theology downplays the biblical covenants while interposing non-biblical “covenants” borne of their theological precommitments.
Paul Martin Henebury is a native of Manchester, England and a graduate of London Theological Seminary and Tyndale Theological Seminary (MDiv, PhD). He has been a Church-planter, pastor and a professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics. He was also editor of the Conservative Theological Journal (suggesting its new name, Journal of Dispensational Theology, prior to leaving that post). He is now the President of Telos School of Theology.