Deciphering Covenant Theology (Part 14)

Read the series. This and the previous installment use material from my article “The Eschatology of Covenant Theology,” originally published in the Journal of Dispensational Theology, 10:30 (Sep 2006).

The Eschatology of Covenant Theology (2)

The millennial options available to those who filter their Bible interpretation through the Covenant of Grace are, Amillennialism; Postmillennialism; and, what is sometimes referred to as Covenant (or Historic) Premillennialism. These options will now be reviewed below.

Option One: Amillennialism:

Amillennialism is the eschatological viewpoint which, among other things, insists that there will be no literal thousand-year Messianic kingdom upon earth. Louis Berkhof admitted that the Amillennial point of view was, “as the name indicates, purely negative” (Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 708).  Amillennialists believe the promises made to Israel in the Old Testament are fulfilled spiritually by the New Testament Church. Most place a heavy emphasis upon denying the literalness of Revelation Twenty, especially the first six verses. For them the six-times repeated reference to a “thousand years” is not a thousand years but an extended period of time reaching from the first coming of Christ to His future Second Advent. Thus, the Millennium was inaugurated when Christ came. They stress the symbolic meaning of many (but not all) of the numbers in the Book of Revelation, employing a seemingly arbitrary numerology to secure their interpretations. This is even the case when the passages in view are neither poetic nor “apocalyptic” in genre (e.g. Ezekiel 40–48).

As Covenant Theologians, amillennialists interpret the Scriptures under the rubric of the Covenant of Grace – a covenant that is stated nowhere between the covers of the Bible. This means that amillennialism has to employ two methods of interpretation. The literal method, and the figurative, or, spiritualizing method. This latter method of interpreting Scripture is used in redirecting prophetic portions which would, if allowed to speak literally, overthrow the notion of one Church in both Testaments, (though oftentimes the prophecies concerning the first coming of Christ are assigned a literal meaning).

There are basically two forms of amillennialism: the Augustinian view, and the “Warfieldian” view. Augustinian amillennialism teaches that the thousand-year period mentioned in Revelation Twenty is figurative, and stands for the New Testament era from the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ, through to the last judgment and the creation of the new heavens and new earth. The millennium, then, is what dispensationalists call the Church-age, upon earth. Christ is now reigning on a spiritualized throne of David, over a spiritual Israel, for a spiritualized millennium. The saints on earth are also presently reigning spiritually with Christ.

The second view, which we have called the “Warfieldian” view, affirms everything that is stated above save for the identity of those who are partakers of the first resurrection and the millennium. This view was earlier taught by the German scholar Klieforth, who, in 1874, posited that the martyred saints now in heaven, are reigning in the spiritual millennium. B.B. Warfield popularized this view in the United States. He believed the first resurrection represented “the symbolical description of what has befallen those who while dead yet live in the Lord.” –  Biblical Doctrines, 653.  They were in the “intermediate state” of those who were “saved in principle if not in complete fruition.” – Ibid, 652. All amillennialists posit a spiritual resurrection in Revelation 20:4, but a physical resurrection in Revelation 20:5–6.

Option Two: Postmillennialism:

Postmillennialism was the predominant belief among both the Puritans and the Princeton theologians. It teaches that the Church brings in the kingdom through the preaching of the Gospel to fulfill the Great Commission of Matthew 28:18–20. They cite passages like Psalm 47; 72:1–11; 97:5; Zechariah 9:10; and Matthew 13:31–33 in support of their notion that the world will be successfully evangelized. After the Church-generated millennium (a spiritualized period of time which could conceivably last many millennia), in which the world will be “christianized,” Jesus Christ (who has been reigning invisibly in heaven), will return. The view might well be characterized as “Christian Utopianism.” Postmillennialists like to talk about the “Church-militant,” a phrase meaning to them that the Church will convert the world, or at least subdue it under Christian influence. Believing this as they do, postmillennialists like to point out that their eschatology is optimistic. As an example of postmillennial optimism we reproduce these words of J. Marcellus Kik:

We need not wait for the so-called future millennium. What we do want is peace amongst the nations and less wickedness. But that is promised if we go forth conquering and to conquer in the name of Christ. Let us not be blind to what has already been accomplished and thus rob God of glory. The absence of greater victories is due to our lack of faith, and not because of the absence of millennium blessings.

Besides a too materialistic conception of millennium blessings another difficulty is that we have not paid enough attention to the parables of our Lord which indicate that the millennial blessings will pervade the earth gradually…Both the amil and premil are in error when they maintain that the millennial blessings foretold in the Old Testament must come about by a cataclysmic act at the second coming of Christ. That is not the teaching of the Bible. Both in the Old Testament and in the New it is taught that the Kingdom blessings would come about by an almost imperceptible, gradual growth. (J. Marcellus Kik, An Eschatology of Victory, 206–207)

This quotation reveals the driving mechanism behind postmillennialist optimism. The wondrous blessings of the millennium have already been given to the Church. The only difficulty is in the Church’s realization of those blessings. If only Christians would live up to their high calling the world and its institutions would be claimed for Christ!  Is it any wonder that they often disparage the “pessimistic” view of the end-times advocated by premillennialists?

It is interesting to note how postmillennialism as a belief rises and wanes depending on the attitudes of the times. If the age is progressive and optimistic, if there have been no wars for a time, postmillennialists point to the fact that the world is getting better. Thus they often increase or decrease in numbers according to the drift of current events. It has been noted that this eschatology flourished in the late eighteenth, and the early to late nineteenth centuries, fueled by progress in science, Revivals, and the growth of missions. After the Second World War, there were scarcely any postmillennialists, save for the liberal theologians who believed that man is innately good, and is getting better and better.  But in the last thirty years, a movement has grown in America which is stridently postmillennial. This is the movement once known as Dominion Theology, or, Reconstructionism. This is the name given to the movement within Reformed Theology which seeks to reconstruct society to fit its template of Christian law and ethics. Their great foundational text is Matthew 5:17–19, though they take pains to translate plerosai as “confirm” rather than “fulfill;” an interpretation that is exegetically suspect to say the least. – See the full discussion in H. Wayne House and Thomas Ice, Dominion Theology: Blessing or Curse?, 103–112.

The unofficial founder of this movement is the late Rousas J. Rushdoony, but many of the basic premises of Reconstructionism can be seen in the works of the Swiss Reformer Pierre Viret, as well as among some of the Presbyterian Puritans. It is certain that the recent upsurge in interest in postmillennialism is due in large part to this movement. Postmillennialists generally believe that the “theonomic mandate” demands an optimistic view of the subjugation of the kosmos by the Gospel prior to the Second Advent.

Option Three: Historic Premillennialism:

Historic Premillennialism (also called Covenant Premillennialism) has a long history in the Christian Church. It basically goes along with amillennialism and postmillennialism in holding to two methods of interpretation, but it does see a thousand-year reign of Christ in Revelation Twenty.  Although not all historic premillennialists believe that the thousand years is literal (e.g. George Eldon Ladd), for the most part, they do. Many early premillennialists, who preceded CT, saw a correlation between the six days of creation, with its seventh-day rest, and a six thousand year history of the world followed by a thousand year “sabbath.” Post-Reformation Historic Premillennialism, because it usually accepts covenant theology, does not see different administrations (dispensations) in the history of revelation.

A key difference between Covenant Premillennialism and Dispensationalism is the fact that Dispensationalists hold to a distinction between the Church and Israel, whereas Covenant Premillennialists blur this distinction, believing only that Israel has a future in the plan of God, but not as the head nation among the nations of the world in the Messianic kingdom. All historic premillennarians are post-tribulationists.

Inductive Versus Deductive Eschatologies.

The covenant theologian is implacably devoted to a view of the covenant of grace which prevents him from considering any eschatology that will not bend under its guiding authority. Dispensational Premillennialism, which posits two peoples of God, is just not an option for CT’s. The blinkers are on and they are content to keep them on. For this reason dispensationalists need to be wary of critiques of their system from covenant theologians. This is not to sound superior; DT’s need and appreciate good sound criticism, and there are few better at it than these brethren. But it is the case that any critique from that quarter will inevitably presuppose the single covenant of grace, and that it will form the foundation for their censures. Here, for example, is John Gerstner, in full flourish, expostulating with dispensationalists about this very thing:

Does the Scripture not set forth the idea that God gave His Son to die as a sacrifice for our sins and that, when we accept that sacrifice, we are saved by that grace? When the dispensationalist says that there is no way of salvation in any dispensation except the way of the blood of Jesus Christ, is he not affirming the “all-time covenant of grace”? Is he not therein showing that the covenant of grace is not only not untenable, but is absolutely indispensable? Does the dispensationalist, in other words, have any objection to the covenant of grace except the absence of the very expression itself? ( John H. Gerstner, Wrongly Dividing The Word of Truth, 306)

We may reply to the four questions above by answering, “yes”, “no”, “no”, and, “yes.” Gertsner’s problem is that to him, the covenant of grace is so all-encompassing it blots out the wording of Scripture. The sacrifice of Christ was on the basis of the New Covenant (1 Cor. 11:25).  There simply is no such thing as “the covenant of grace” on the pages of Scripture. All of God’s dealings with sinners are by grace, but there need not be and is not any covenant of grace.

Conclusion

In this installment and the previous one, I have tried to show that the eschatology of Covenant Theology is proscribed by the parameters of the covenant of grace. Although I recognize that this covenant is not the only one which Covenant theologians speak about, it is the covenant which they see as ruling over all the others now that the covenant of works is broken (Gen. 3). I believe that the external stipulations of this theological, but, extra-biblical covenant act as a faulty lens which distorts proper exegesis of the prophetic passages of the Old and New Testaments.

Finally then, joining the chorus of scholars who reject the covenant of grace (in Part 11), I echo the words of Lewis and Demarest who state,

The text [of Genesis 3:15] does not explicitly mention a covenant. Moreover,…no identifiable covenant structure exists: i.e., no explicit promise of eternal life, no condition of faith, and no explicit penalty of death for unbelief. The hypothesis that Genesis 3:15 represents the initial declaration of the covenant of grace likewise appears improbable. Rather, the verse is a prophetic promise of the sufferings of Christ and the defeat of Satan. (Gordon R. Lewis & Bruce A. Demarest, Integrative Theology, Volume 3, 322)

If there is no covenant of grace, there can be no prima facie conclusion that Scripture knows of only a single people of God, with its logical demand that the Bible’s eschatology must produce that single people. Without the covenant of grace one is free to derive biblical eschatology from the Bible instead of reading it into it.

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There are 6 Comments

dgszweda's picture

These have been interesting reads.  One of the challenges I have is that they don't paint the nuances of the positions that people hold.  It is also slanted, but that shouldn't be a surprised.  There are problems with DP Premil positions as well.  The article outlines stretches people must make for the CT views, but none that need to be made for DP Premil views.

Paul Henebury's picture

Well, I believe that I have fairly represented CT, and have certainly read (and quoted) the sources.  I can't entirely agree that I've missed the nuances since I have fetched my materials from the main texts and the way they refer to it.  Is it slanted?  Yes, to the extent that I have been upfront about my disagreement with CT.  But it has not been slanted so as to misrepresent it.  

As for the last sentence, I reply that my goal here is specific.  I have written enough elsewhere on DP views.  

Dr. Paul Henebury

I am Founder of Telos Ministries, and Senior Pastor at Agape Bible Church in N. Ca.

Ed Vasicek's picture

I am just about finished reading Paul's book, The Word of the Covenant, Volume I.  It is amazing, and I have become addicted to his thinking style and clarity, awaiting volume two on the New Covenant..  This article (which will probably appear in that volume, perhaps?) follows in the same Henebury pattern: Scriptural, clear thinking, logically discerning. 

I am going to link this article on our church website.  It is a clear presentation of competing views, with the core of the issue made clear: an invented but widely accepted Covenant of Grace (as Paul H. sees it, and so do I), the misleading lens through which so many interpret Scripture. Although dispensationalists can use their lenses (and have been just as guilty), the type of dispensationalism that is built around the Biblical covenants (as Paul advocates) has a clear and genuinely Biblical paradigm to guide them, in my opinion.  

Thanks for the great article about a truly important issue with implications and tendrils in all directions; this is not just about academia or armchair theology, but affects not only eschatology, but the clarity of Scripture and what the church is and what the church is supposed to do. The issue itself is huge (and this is only a sample of the divide), even if it doesn't directly relate to marriage problems or midlife crisis!

"The Midrash Detective"

Paul Henebury's picture

Very kind remarks.  Thank you.  Actually, I have no plans to include these articles in Vol. 2.  I may try to edit them and publish then as an e-book.  I don't know.   

Dr. Paul Henebury

I am Founder of Telos Ministries, and Senior Pastor at Agape Bible Church in N. Ca.

Paul Henebury's picture

I'm trying to have the first full draft completed by the end of the year.  However, there will be a great deal to do after that.  I wish I could spend more time on it, but it is what it is.  

Dr. Paul Henebury

I am Founder of Telos Ministries, and Senior Pastor at Agape Bible Church in N. Ca.

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