Deciphering Covenant Theology (Part 18)

Read the series.

Looking Deeper into the Problems with Covenant Theology (3)

3. CT relies upon covenants found nowhere in Holy Writ.

If I were to challenge you to locate the covenants with Noah, Abraham, Phinehas, Moses, and David it would not take you very long. But what if I issued a challenge to find the covenants of redemption, works, or grace? And what if I told you that you could not run to any passage where the covenants to do with Noah, Abraham, Phinehas, Moses, and David were in view? How would you fair?

If you were a Covenant Theologian, one thing that you would have to do is to dilute the definition of “covenant” so that it simply meant something like “agreement.” You might begin by talking about “oaths and bonds” (Horton), but you would make sure to leave those open so that they could be filled with your preferred meanings further on down the line. Then you would have to talk about the “covenantal structure” of Genesis 1 – 3 and provide the kind of “oath” that is mysteriously missing in those chapters. After this you would run to passages such as John 17:24, Ephesians 1:4, Hebrews 4:3, and Revelation 13:8 and 17:8 to try to prove that God’s plan of salvation was an intra-trinitarian covenant (with covenant stripped down to read “agreement” or “decree”). After all this you would have to tell a story around your covenants of redemption, works, and grace, being careful to promote the covenant of grace to the position of arch-covenant, making sure that the Bible’s actual covenants you had easily identified in the initial challenge were subsumed beneath it.

I realize that putting things this way is a bit “cute,” but I think it makes my point. CT’s like to claim that they have exegetical warrant for their theological covenants, but where is it? I want to begin with a quotation from Herman Bavinck:

The development of the doctrine of the pactum salutis [the intratrinitarian pact of salvation] among the Reformed was not free of scholastic subtlety. The classic text (Zech. 6:13) cited in support of this doctrine does not support prove anything and only states that the Messiah, who unites in his person both the kingship and the priesthood, will consider and promote the peace of his people (Keil).

From Job 17:3; Isaiah 38:14; and Psalm 119:122 (none of which refer to the Messiah), and from Hebrews 7:22 (where we are told only that Christ, because he lives forever, is the guarantee that the new covenant will continue forever), it was inferred that in the pact of salvation Christ had from all eternity become the guarantor, not of God to us…(for God, being trustworthy, needed no guarantor), but of us before God….
(Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics: Volume Three, Sin and Salvation in Christ, 213)

A close reading of this quote should demonstrate the strongly deductive nature of CT. Notice how states that the “pact of salvation” was “inferred.” Bavinck continues on the next page by claiming, with the linkage of many assorted passages, that “the pact of salvation” (by which he means the covenant of redemption) “is rooted in a scriptural idea.” But none of the passages he adduces refer to such a covenant. The “covenant” is just his (and CT’s) way of relating the texts. The trinitarian God is said to be covenantal in His being, but how and why this is so is not explained. As such, even a theological titan like Bavinck offers no exegetical defense of the covenant of redemption. It is clear when reading historical accounts of CT that the theological covenants were all arrived by this process of linking disparate passages into a theological narrative or story using “covenant” as the unifying concept.

As I said in Part Three of this series, Guy Richard asserts that the word “decree” can be basically synonymous with the word “covenant” (in Psalm 2:7). This despite my not being able to find any authority to back it up. And as I asked there, “Is the decree pretemporal? And is every decree covenantal?… Still, while the decree may plausibly be traced to the “eternal counsels” that does not make it covenantal.” With proofs like this there is a lot more work to be done if people like me are going to be persuaded of the scriptural credentials of these theological covenants. Remember, these covenants govern the whole Bible Story; they are it’s hermeneutic — especially the covenant of grace.

Speaking of the covenant of grace, John Currid writes of its commencement in Covenant Theology: Biblical, Theological, and Historical Perspectives (edited by Waters, Reid, and Meuther), 102-109. There is some good exegesis in his chapter, but none of it goes to establishing the scriptural pedigree of the covenant of grace. Instead, Currid blankly states concerning Genesis 3:14-19 that “God makes a covenantal oath.” He then takes us to the Westminster Confession 7.3 (102-103). This is precisely what Kevin DeYoung does on pages 591-592 of the same volume. But where is any covenantal oath in Genesis 3?

Okay, so where do CT’s prove by exegesis the existence of these “covenants” outside of their own reasoning? You tell me. If it is in Covenant Theology: Biblical, Theological, and Historical Perspectives I can’t find it. It is not enough to string together a group of texts. One must demonstrate that they have anything to do with the theological covenants of CT and not with the biblical covenants or with non-covenantal teachings.

Finally, if this cannot be done, what authorizes us to proceed to interpret the rest of the Bible—and in so doing eliminating the eschatological meaning of many prophecies tied to the Abrahamic, Davidic, or New covenants along the way? We need more than a cleverly contrived narrative and heaps of typology. We need proof.

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