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The Genius of Covenant Theology
Now that I have given sufficient coverage of the main tenets of Covenant Theology and have inserted some critiques, I want to pause to appreciate the comprehensiveness of this approach. This comprehensiveness adds substantially to its appeal. Here then are my thoughts on what makes Covenant Theology so formidable and attractive. I divide my observations into four braid categories which consider its coherence, its teleology, its Christ-centeredness, and finally, its ability to address different important aspects of Christian discipleship and teaching.
Here then are my personal thoughts regarding the genius of Covenant Theology. I do not agree with it, but I do respect it.
The first thing that I want to call attention to is the coherence of the system. Starting as it does with the NT and the cross CT has a powerful leverage point for its exploration of the Bible Story. From this position it can venture into all areas of Scripture looking for foreshadowings of Christ and the “reign” that is envisaged to be operating today. This view of the reign aims to exalt Jesus after His passion and serves to define us as under His divine rule as we live out our lives with purpose in the here and now.
By linking the cross with the concept of covenant (albeit loosely defined) and referring us to passages such as 1 Peter 1:20, Ephesians 1:4, and Revelation 13:8 CT can pull together the past and the present into a harmonized Christological plan for the one people of God; the elect. Hence, making all of the saved the people of the single covenant of grace draws the Old and New Testaments into the same orbit—the orbit of redemption through history.
Meanwhile, Christ’s active obedience in meriting eternal life through His incarnated time on earth both fulfils the covenant of works for His saints and adds that value to the atonement achieved at the cross through His passive obedience. Thus, there is always a redemptive theme, either through analogy, typology, allusion, or direct reference, within reach of the preacher, whose main theme will always be redemptive-historical.
But further, the redemptive relationship between the covenantal scheme of creation and its outworking through the covenant of grace not only places Christ on the throne of David now but it results in an eschatological vision wherein this present evil world will segue into the eternal realm without the “confusion” of an interim thousand-year reign on earth.
Closely associated with the coherence of CT is its goal-driven principle. The movement from eternal decrees to the Church in the world to the Church Triumphant is one steady movement until it is consummated at Christ’s return. The Church is and always has been the people of God and any notion of splitting God’s attention between Israel and the Church is both unwelcome and unnecessary. There is one people and one plan for those people, full stop.
The plan is to save the elect of God and use them as the instrument of blessing and the savor of judgment to the world. This world is either the vehicle for that redemptive plan (as earlier understandings of eschatology taught), or the theater for re-creation and eternal blessings. The heavy lifting has been done at the first advent, and so the OT prophecies have been routed through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. This teleology is where the true genius of CT resides.
Linked in indissoluble union with the above is the Christ-centeredness of CT’s teleology. Though I might have included it under the previous heading I think this facet needs to be highlighted. I recall a long time ago the wife of a well-known prophecy teacher asking why young people were attracted to Covenant Theology and not Dispensationalism. My answer was in the form of another question: “Who is more attractive? the Lord’s Christ or the antichrist?” I got a confused look, so I explained that CT is about what Jesus Christ has done at the cross and His present reign over the Church, whereas DT often seems more preoccupied with identifying the antichrist and related topics (often with covers featuring an eclipse of some sort!). Quite frankly, DT doesn’t have a central dominant place for Christ in its system. CT places Him front and center.
The fact that CT employs redemptive-historical hermeneutics within its covenant story lends to it a robust Christocentric focus and direction. The frankly disorganized treatment of many (not all) DT’s concerning the New covenant, when contrasted to the solid understanding of the New covenant in CT sticks out like a sore thumb. In CT the New covenant is the covenant of grace come to its own. In DT it hangs around as an appendage in the dispensation of the Church or it resides in the back pocket of DT till it is required for Israel after the second coming.
Finally, and (naturally) connected to what has already been said, CT is prescriptive and not merely descriptive. You can do something with CT. It’s self-understanding furnishes a pastoral approach that can be applied to biblical counseling; especially via Van Til’s writings, and to preaching—since every text has a potential Christocentric yield through redemptive typology. Too, because of its conception of Christ’s kingdom now it is alert to its purpose in the world (as it sees it) far more than is DT. Dispensational theology tends to be descriptive; the administrations and their failure are described. They have little concrete to offer us for our present dispensational responsibilities. This is also why worldview thinking comes more naturally to CT’s than to Dispensationalists.
Turning again to the coherence of the system, the work of the Godhead in its trinitarian economies both bolsters the redemptive foci as well as encouraging; indeed almost insisting upon systematization in some form. Need I say that DT’s usual limitation of its remit to the areas of eschatology, ecclesiology, and (in some cases) soteriology does not encourage thinking in terms of holistic Systematic Theology.
As I say, I do not agree with Covenant Theology, but I do believe that it is superior to Dispensationalism in these spheres—which are not negligible. I may get a bit of flak for saying this, but I stand by it. If DT is to gain respect and good health it needs to put a lot of thought into the genius of its main competitor.
Enter “Biblical Covenantalism.”
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.