Read the series.
Looking Deeper into the Problems with Covenant Theology (2)
1. CT is a mainly deductive approach to reading the Bible.
I started out in this series by making this point and I believe it has been established. When one reflects on the main assumptions of Covenant Theology it becomes clear that the entire edifice is constructed, not upon what the Bible really says, but upon pious but still autonomous inferences. These inferences are deductive in character, and provide the cast into which the mind of CT approaches the text of the Bible. As already documented, Vos called this “the consciousness of the covenant” and what Packer called “a hermeneutic.” To quote Packer again:
The story that forms [the] backbone of the Bible has to do with man’s covenant relationship with God first ruined and then restored. (Introduction: Covenant Theology in Herman Witsius, The Economy of the Covenants Between God and Man I. vii)
Packer then goes on to claim that the covenant “story” includes the covenants of works and grace (although he doesn’t use the latter term). He further states that,
Covenant theologians insist that every book of the Bible in effect asks to be read in terms of these unities [i.e. the one cov. of grace, the one mediator of the cov. of grace, the one people of God, and the one pattern of cov. piety], and as contributing to the exposition of them, and is actually misunderstood if it is not so read. (Ibid, viii)
If the whole Bible is to be understood in light of covenants that aren’t even in the Bible it may fairly be asked what makes the approach legitimate, never mind mandatory? Surely God would have expressly stated the actuality of these theological covenants in the pages of Scripture if He wanted it to be read according to their stipulations and ramifications? When one studies the Bible it is easy to come across the covenants God made with representatives like Noah (Gen. 9), Abraham (Gen. 15 – 22), Moses (Exod. 19 -24), Phinehas (Num. 25), and David (Psa. 89). It is also easy to appreciate that the Mosaic covenant is to be replaced by a New covenant (Jer. 31). But the covenants of works and grace? not a dickie-bird! What lends these covenants which cannot be found in the Bible interpretive authority over the ones that God explicitly made in the Bible?
I am not here questioning the genius of the idea, and certainly not the piety of those who hold to it. I am questioning its right to be called properly biblical. It rather looks like man’s default setting of independence has become spiritual and has foisted independent themes on the words of God. If the covenants of redemption, works and grace do not exist in the Bible then every teaching influenced by them becomes suspect and definitely ought not to be maintained self-referentially on those covenants. Packer says that the covenant between God and man involves the fall and restoration of man; but there is not a sign of a covenant or any covenant oath in the chapters of Genesis that Packer is implicating. And we are supposed to expound every book of the Bible on this basis? Why? On whose authority? God’s?
Packer asserts that if we fail to allow the theological covenants – more particularly the covenant of grace, to be the lens through which all of Scripture is to be comprehended the result will be to misunderstand the Bible. Again I ask, on what authority does that statement rest, divine or human?
The fact of the matter is that not only do the theological covenants have no exegetical warrant from Scripture, they in reality obscure the covenants that God did make! Those covenants, being recorded in Scripture for all to read have far greater hermeneutical and theological clout than the main covenants of Covenant Theology. The text of Scripture and that alone furnishes us with the words which our theological systems must heed and respect. For all their ingenuity, the theological covenants and their consequences are but a layer of pious traditions that are the product of independent thinking rather than thinking subordinated to the actual words and covenants of God.
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.