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Covenant Theology and the Bible
In an article at TableTalk Stephen G. Myers writes,
Covenant theology seeks to use the biblically prominent covenants to inform our knowledge of God and of His work. Specifically, covenant theology contends that God has been working throughout history to gather His people to Himself through covenantal relationship.
There is a problem here. The three theological covenants of CT are not prominent in the Bible. Moreover, the concept of covenantal relationship ,while part of the genius of CT, can and has been explained along separate and arguably more biblically defensible lines. For the rest of the article Myers uses Scripture in service of “covenants” of which Scripture is silent. His article is packed with passages, but when analyzed in context none of them are about the theological covenants of redemption, works, and grace. Indeed, many of them are specifically about the named covenants in the Bible.
John V. Fesko has a three part series on Covenant Theology available at Monergism (and Reformed Theological Seminary). In Fesko’s skillful overview of CT he agrees that Reformed Covenant Theology has historically taught the three covenants of redemption, works, and grace. Fesko claims that these three main covenants “have a lot of other covenants nestled in them…particularly the covenant of grace.” Those covenants nestled in the covenant of grace include the Abrahamic, Davidic and New covenants. (Lecture 1 5.30+ mark). It is passing strange that the Bible never once tells us about this!
He believes the term “covenant” is a difficult thing to define. The biblical evidence is varied. But he does make the point that “fundamental to making a covenant is swearing an oath.” (L1 48.30+ mark). That is true, and an oath from God can be taken to the bank (Heb. 6:17). That oath is not open to novel alterations. It’s meaning is agreed upon and static.
Referencing Isaiah 28:15-18 he interchanges covenant and agreement. He says a covenant is basically an agreement (L1 14.00+). But most agreements do not require an oath, so it would be quite wrong to equate the two. And to add something I wrote elsewhere,
“Agreement” is a necessary part of a conditional covenant such as the “covenant of death” which the leaders of Judah had made in Isaiah 28:15 (which would not be upheld – Isa. 28:.18). But “agreement” is not part of an unconditional covenant such as the New covenant or the Davidic covenant: not unless one thinks that “I agree that you pledged to do this” is what is meant by “agreement”!
The Covenant of Redemption?
After considering Beza’s understanding of diatithemi (translated as “bestow” in Lk. 22:29 NKJV; “granted” in the NASB) as “covenant” he asks when in Christ’s ministry are we told that the Father covenants to the Son a kingdom? (L1 25-00). Here is the verse:
And I bestow upon you a kingdom, just as My Father bestowed one upon Me.
It must perforce be the covenant of redemption. But wait. Why can’t it be the New covenant Kingdom connected with the Abrahamic and Davidic covenants? Zechariah 6:13 and Psalm 2:7 are the most often cited verses for this covenant, and they do concern those very things.
Fesko says that if you took away one pillar of the covenant of redemption it would still stand (L1 25.00+). He places a lot of emphasis on the sending of the Son by the Father in John’s Gospel (L1 34.30+). But I cannot find a biblical pillar upon which to erect the covenant of redemption in the first place. The sending of the son by the Father does not require a pre-creational covenant, which would not make sense anyway, since covenants presuppose the possibility of disagreement or reneging, neither of which can be predicated of the members of the Trinity.
In Psalm 105:8ff (L1 40.20+) Fesko rightly highlights the fact that God’s covenants involve a word of command (which he then links to God’s prohibition to Adam in Gen. 2:16-17). The word “statute” in Psalm 105:10 is, says Fesko, “the same Hebrew term that the Psalmist says for decree” (L1 42.00+). So the question is what covenant? Straightaway he goes back to Luke 22:29, “And I bestow [covenant] upon you a kingdom, just as My Father bestowed [covenanted] one upon Me.” Now in the context of Luke 22, the covenant in question is the Davidic covenant as energized by the New covenant. Likewise, in Psalm 105 the covenant is plainly the Abrahamic covenant. Why do we need to look for another covenant?
After running through all this Fesko asks “does all of this only have roots in the sand of history? (L1 46.05+), and he answers “It has its roots ultimately all the way back here in eternity.” And this root is found in the so-called covenant of redemption. As persuasive as this seems to be coming from such a well versed professor, this is a non sequitur.
The Covenant of Works?
In beginning of his lecture on the covenant of works Fesko introduces the subject of the active obedience of Christ (L2 1.25+). Fesko believes the covenant of works is the ground upon which the cross makes sense, for before Adam sinned he was told to obey. This is where the doctrine of the active obedience of Christ comes up. But whatever one thinks of the application of Christ’s life to the believer no covenant of works is needed to explain it. All that is needed is the concept of the Fall and the Mosaic Law, especially its universal ethic.
Referring to Romans 5:14 he notes correctly that Paul uses two Greek words: “even over those who had not sinned (hamartias) according to the likeness of the transgression (parabasis) of Adam…” The second word, parabasis, can be used for the breaking of a covenant. Hence, Fesko thinks Paul is alluding to the initial breaking of the covenant of works in the Garden in the LXX (L2 37.00+), and he supports this by citing Galatians 3:19; “What purpose then does the law serve? It was added because of transgressions (parabasis) etc.”.
But if the Law was added because of transgressions it cannot be transgressing the covenant of works. The covenant of works was supposedly enacted at least 2,500 years before the Mosaic covenant and its Law (and 2,000 years before the Abrahamic covenant). If Paul in Galatians 3:19 has the breaking of the covenant of works in mind then it has to be admitted that it took God a very very long time to add the Law because of the transgression of the covenant of works! So Paul’s thesis would not make sense.
On Genesis 2:15 Fesko notes that the covenant name Yahweh is used (L2 23.20+). That is true. But it is also true that Yahweh was not the covenant name of God prior to the time of Moses (Exod. 6:3). When we say that Yahweh is God’s covenant name we are not claiming that it has always been synonymous with the covenant concept. It is the name that God instills with covenantal meaning, especially to Israel.
He repairs to 2nd century Jewish works for an Adamic covenant, but he only mentions Sirach 14:17 and Genesis Rabbah (he doesn’t give the reference) which quotes Hosea 6:7 making a comparison between the first man and Israel. Yes, this shows that some Jews believed that there was a covenant with Adam, but it does not show that it was the covenant of works. Moreover, these Jewish interpreters are in the same boat as everyone else when it comes to providing proof for their interpretations, and that proof is far from satisfactory.
The Covenant of Grace?
In his third lecture, which is on the covenant of grace (L3) Fesko begins by quoting the Westminster Confession 7.3. It becomes clear that he grounds this covenant upon the two covenants which supposedly go before it. He looks at Genesis 12:2-3, which says nothing about the covenant of grace. Fesko says here that God has “reversed the covenant of works” (L3 8.00+). This is because there is no longer a command to multiply but a promise that Abraham will be multiplied (L3 23.00+). But this assumes the covenant of works is in Genesis to begin with! He spends quite a long time on Genesis 12 and 15 and says that Paul’s references to these chapters show a covenantal unity in the Bible, which he equates with the unity of the covenant of grace (L3 17.02+). He then cites several New covenant passages and Romans 5:12-21. What follows in the lecture is a lot of deduction from a settled system of theological covenants. It is thin on proof for the covenant of grace.
The big problem is that the Bible presents us with its divine covenants and they are to be explained and understood within the contextual framework which the Bible itself puts forward. Introducing extra-biblical covenants and imposing them over the top of the biblical covenants will do nothing but obscure what God has said in those covenants.
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.