Deciphering Covenant Theology (Part 3)

Read the series.

In my introductory comments on Covenant Theology I have called attention to what I call its storytelling, its strongly deductive nature, and its adamant belief that the NT, understood especially as the fulcrum of the cross and resurrection, drives the approach. But drives it where? I might answer that question in a few different ways depending whether I choose to emphasize eschatology or soteriology, but in terms of the latter it means “redemptive history.” Redemptive history, or “the history of redemption” is the main overarching framework that CT is concerned with. The goal of the Bible’s storyline is the salvation of the elect.

Now without any doubt the salvation-historical motifs of Scripture are fundamental to its story. Whether or not it gives a wide enough perspective to fit all the important themes within it is another matter. CT’s also believe that there can be only one people of God. Older CT’s like Francis Turretin, John Owen, David Dickson, and Herman Witsius make it clear that they identity this one people of God with the church. As with a number of other things, modern CT’s tend to be less forthcoming, but a writer from the last generation puts it clearly:

Let us here insist that there was a Church in Old Testament times; and that the Old Testament and New Testament believers form one Church – the same olive tree (Romans 11). (W. J. Grier, The Momentous Event, 33)

I will return to this subject later because it raises some questions about baptism and the sign of “the covenant” in both Testaments. But now we must take time to understand the main covenants of CT; the covenant of redemption, the covenant of works, and the all-important covenant of grace (confusingly called the cov. of redemption by O. Palmer Robertson). Now not all CT’s see the need of a covenant of redemption (e.g., Richard Belcher), and not all CT’s are comfortable with a covenant of works (e.g., John Murray), but it is necessary to describe each of them.

Before I do that I have another thing that I want to insert. I have already stated that CT is heavily deductive (“if this… then that”). There is a good reason for this (although I know that CT’s themselves will dispute it). The reason that CT is so deductive is because of its method of reading Scripture. Briefly put its method is to formulate doctrine from – to put it in the language of the Westminster Confession 1.6 – “good and necessary consequences,” and then go in search of texts which appear to back up those consequences. This is then called “exegesis” (although CT’s do exegete passages in the usual way too). So, for instance, in their Introduction to the impressive book Covenant Theology: Biblical, Theological, and Historical Perspectives, the editors, Guy Prentiss Waters, J. Nicholas Reid and John R. Muether, we have a sub-heading which reads, “Covenant Theology is Exegetical” (Covenant Theology, 32). In a big book of well over 600 pages one would expect a lot of exegetical proof for the covenants of redemption, works, and grace. Is that what we get? Sadly, no. Where there is direct scriptural proof presented it concerns passages about the biblical covenants with Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, and the New covenant, which are said to be instances or “republications” of the single covenant of grace! But saying that these identifiable covenants are just instances of the covenant of grace does not make them so. So let’s look at the covenants of redemption, works, and grace, beginning with the pre-temporal “covenant.”

The Covenant of Redemption (Pre-Creation)

What is the covenant of redemption? According to Guy Richard in the Waters, Read & Muether book mentioned above this covenant may be “the most questionable element of historical federal theology” (43). It is said to be “a pretemporal agreement between the persons of the Trinity to plan and carry out the redemption of the elect” (ibid). Some CT’s tell us that the agreement was between the Father and the Son, but the aim is the same. The recent book by Richard Belcher, The Fulfillment of the Promises of God: An Explanation of Covenant Theology actually skips over this covenant, simply noting that if there was one “then the Covenant of Grace is the historical outworking of the Covenant of Redemption.” (45). R. Scott Clark includes it within the covenant of grace (Recovering the Reformed Confession, 200-201), while O. Palmer Robertson admits to “a sense of artificiality” to any pre-creation covenant, even going so far as to say that,

To speak concretely of an intratrinitarian “covenant” with terms and conditions between Father and Son mutually endorsed before the foundation of the world is to extend the bounds of scriptural evidence beyond propriety. (The Christ of the Covenants, 54)

We’re not exactly off to a good start. Two things ought to be noted: the first is that if there is controversy around whether there even was a covenant of redemption before creation got underway, there can hardly be a great expectation of finding exegetical foundations for it in Scripture. Otherwise there would be no dispute. The second thing to notice is the name Richard gives to CT; he calls it “federal theology.” That is important for our understanding of the covenants of CT and their redemptive-historical way of reading the Bible. I shall have more to say about it later in the series.

Now, of course there was intra-trinitarian communication about man and his salvation before creation. That is beyond dispute or rational objection. But was it covenantal? No says Robertson, and I entirely agree.

Scriptural Support?

There are other writers who are more confident about the covenant of redemption, so it is well to see where they go to argue for it. Relying on 17th century Scottish minister David Dickson’s work, Guy Richard first says that Scripture “regularly speaks of the salvation of the elect in terms of buying and selling (e.g., Acts 20:28; 1 Cor. 6:20; Eph. 1:7; 1 Pet. 1:18)” (Covenant Theology, 46). Since this requires prior deliberation we may say that happened before creation. Fair enough. Also, that Christ is made a “propitiation” points to a prior agreement; so too Christ refers to His mission from the Father which implies such a pretemporal agreement. Now the boon is lowered.

Patrick Gillespie argued that agreement is the essential ingredient of all covenants… (Ibid.)

Do you see what is going on here? Inference built upon inference. We will have to constantly watch for this! Additionally, the fact that all covenants contain agreements as an essential aspect does not mean that all agreements are covenants! If we both agree that 1 +1 = 2 have we struck a solemn covenant? Of course not. Why would the Father need to make a solemn oath to perform something for the Son and the Son need to swear an oath to do something for the Father? This is an uncomfortable notion at best.

Richard notes that Dickson (and co-author James Durham) “even cited John 6:37 on the title page of their treatise as the main text on which their subject matter would be grounded…” (Ibid, 47). John 6:37 says, “All that the Father gives Me will come to Me, and the one who comes to Me I will by no means cast out.” Is there any hint of a covenant in the verse?

Psalm 2 is another favorite of those who believe in the covenant of redemption. The psalm does not speak of a covenant, but it does speak of a decree in verse 7. That’s enough if you need to find a “covenant of redemption somewhere. Is the decree pretemporal? And is every decree covenantal? An affirmative to those questions reflects guesswork and wishful thinking respectively. Still, while the decree may plausibly be traced to the “eternal counsels” that does not make it covenantal. Richard cites OT scholar Peter Craigie’s view that the decree in question might refer to a document handed to the king at his coronation as a kind of renewal of the Davidic covenant (Ibid, 55). But what good is this? We are not proving the Davidic covenant here but the supposed covenant of redemption.

Ah, but the covenant of redemption (as will shall see) is instantiated in time as the covenant of grace, and the Davidic covenant is one republication of the covenant of grace so… Now I do grant that this piecing together of ones deductions with disparate scripture passages has its appeal to a certain mindset. But we are dealing with God’s words here, and they must be permitted to say what they say even if what they say does not fit our preferences well.

Another NT example of this is how Ephesians 1:4 and 2 Timothy 1:9 are combined to produce the required result. In the first text the apostle asserts that God “chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before Him in love,” predestinating our adoption (see Eph. 1:5). In 2 Timothy 1 we are told that God saved us “according to His own purpose and grace which was given to us in Christ Jesus before time began.”

Here are two pretemporal selections. The first concerns our sanctification “in Christ.” The verse is interpreted as saying God chose us “to be in Christ” but that is not what Paul says. That may or may not be true but it is not what Ephesians 1:4-5 is about, so it should not be used as a proof-text for a pactum salutis. The second passage asserts that before creation we were included within God’s “purpose and grace.” But whether Paul has redemption itself in mind or our subsequent holy walk is debatable. Whichever it is, no covenant of redemption is to be seen.

But enough. What ought to be clear here is that the covenant of redemption depends upon assumptions about the salvation of the elect as the one people of God. These assumptions were already in place before the search was made to piece together verses to support it via inferences. If one wishes to see this played out in full, J. V. Fesko has written The Trinity and the Covenant of Redemption in which the second part of the book appeals to Zechariah 6:13; Psalm 2:7 and Psalm 110, and Ephesians 1 with 2 Timothy 1:9-10 for “exegetical foundations.” Such a hermeneutics is utterly foreign to my way of reading, being injected with assumptions about CT rather than listening to the text itself. A study of Zechariah 6:12-13 shows that the hermeneutics and methodology of CT is a million miles away from DT or Biblical Covenantalism; and they cannot be brought into agreement!

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There are 3 Comments

josh p's picture

Paul this has been a great series. It's really helping me to think through the way theology/hermeneutics is done. One possible typo. 
I assume this: 

"Why would the Father to make a solemn oath to perform something for the Son and the Son need to swear an oath to do something for the Father?"

should read "Why would the Father need...". 

Paul Henebury's picture

Thanks for catching the mistake Josh. 

Dr. Paul Henebury

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

dcbii's picture


Paul Henebury wrote:

Thanks for catching the mistake Josh. 


Dave Barnhart

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