Deciphering Covenant Theology (Part 6)

Read the series.

Some of this post reuses material from a previous article.

The Covenant of Grace (1)

Covenant theology depends for its credibility upon theological covenants with virtually no exegetical proof. This is especially the case with the “Covenant of Grace.”

[N]ot only do covenant theologians speak of the one people of God in both Testaments, they also affirm that the church existed in the Old Testament. One key linchpin for seeing continuity between the covenants revolves around the centrality of the covenant of grace. Because God is working out his unified plan to redeem humanity through this covenant, all historical covenants fall under this larger covenant and thus are expressions of it. (Benjamin L. Merkle, Discontinuity to Continuity: A Survey of Dispensational & Covenantal Theologies, 139; Merkle is a CT)

The “Covenant of Grace”, which is often simply called “the covenant” by CT’s, wields tremendous, we might say decisive hermeneutical power over CT’s biblical interpretation. Again, Merkle says “Covenant theology understands all the biblical covenants as different expressions of the one covenant of grace.” (Ibid, 15). But before one gets to use such a potent hermeneutical and theological device, one needs to prove that it is actually Scriptural.

As Herman Witsius defines it,

The Covenant of grace is a compact or agreement between God and the elect sinner; God on his part declaring his free good-will concerning eternal salvation, and everything relative thereto, freely to be given to those in covenant by, and for the mediator Christ; and man on his part consenting to that good-will by a sincere faith. (The Economy of the Covenants Between God and Man, 1.165, Bk. 2. Ch.1.5)

Witsius goes on to make it clear that the covenant insures there is only one people of God (the Church) in both Testaments. This means, for one thing, that whenever one comes across any passage which seems to point to a separation of, say, OT Israel from the NT Church, this must not be allowed to stand, since the “covenant of grace” does not permit it. Therefore, CT’s must first demonstrate if it is possible to establish a “Covenant of Grace” from the text of Scripture rather than from human reason alone, and then they must show that this covenant is the very same covenant as the Noahic, Abrahamic, Davidic, and New Covenants which are very clearly found within the Bible.

What then is the exegetical basis for the Covenant of Grace? Well, don’t hold your breath! Even dyed-in-the-wool CT’s like O. Palmer Robertson admit that there is slender exegetical apparatus from which to derive it (he thinks the “covenant of works” fairs better, expending much effort on making Hosea 6:7 refer to a pre-Fall covenant). In reality, I would say there is no exegetical justification at all! This impression is only confirmed the more expositions of the Covenant of Grace one examines. What you will find is that passages patently referring to the Noahic, Abrahamic covenants, etc., are used as proof-texts. Brown and Keele spend six pages of their book Sacred Bond trying to make Genesis 3:15-24 into the Covenant of Grace. The way they begin their investigation is telling:

While the covenant of grace is more fully revealed in Genesis 12, 15, and 17 with God’s covenant to Abraham, which is then fulfilled it two stages, the old (Mosaic) and the new covenants, its “mother” or “seed” promise is in the protevangelium of Genesis 3:15. (Ibid, 60-61)

They also seem to believe that Satan tried and succeeded to get Adam and Eve “to enter into league with himself.” (Ibid, 61). Are we then to believe that there are three covenants in Genesis 1 – 3, even though there is no clear textual evidence for one? In fact, what one will find when reading these authors is how quickly they repair to their Confessions of Faith. The Confessions present the story which the Bible is fitted into.

Reformed theologian Robert Reymond, who boldly claims that “The church of Jesus Christ is the present-day expression of the one people of God whose roots go back to Abraham” (A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith, 525f.), does no better in coming up with actual biblical texts which support the Covenant of Grace. He, like all CT’s, insists the issue be settled by the Scriptures (Ibid, 528). What this turns out to be is insisting that the OT be interpreted via his interpretation of the NT! Naturally, the NT never speaks about a Covenant of Grace, and he begs leave to spiritualize the texts whenever it suits him (Ibid, 511 n.16), that way he can maintain that the land promises “were never primary and central to the covenant intention” (Ibid, 513 n.19). Quite how one can read Genesis 12-17 and come away believing that the land was not a primary issue escapes me. According to many scholars, the land is a very prominent feature of the OT covenants.

Following the reasoning of CT’s as they dive in and out of selective passages (often avoiding the important referents within the context) can be a mind-numbing experience. One needs to try to keep in mind what they are attempting to prove: that God has made one covenant with the elect of both Testaments to guarantee that there will be one people of God, the Church, inheriting heavenly promises in Christ. For example, Robertson says,

The covenants of God are one. The recurring summation of the essence of the covenant testifies to this fact… All the dealings of God with man since the fall must be seen as possessing a basic unity…Diversity indeed exists in the various administrations of God’s covenants. This diversity enriches the wonder of God’s plan for his people. But the diversity ultimately merges inti a single purpose overarching the ages...The various administrations of the covenant of redemption [i.e., grace] relate organically to one another… (O. Palmer Robertson, The Christ of the Covenants, 52, 55, 61, 63; my emphasis)

That may sound okay, but what one has to realize is that this means that anything found in the biblical covenants which does not fit this preconceived picture (e.g. a physical land for the people of Israel, a literal throne of David in Jerusalem), is demoted to an ancillary and temporal place or is transformed into a “type” or “shadow” of a spiritual reality which comports with the requirements of “the covenant.”

If we turn to CT’s own explanations of their system, we find a curious dualism of frankness and subterfuge. I do not use “frankness” in the ethical sense, just in the sense that there is sometimes a willingness to face the text and deal with what it actually says. By “subterfuge” I am not saying there is an unethical motive in these men, but that they almost instinctively avoid the clear implications of passages which undermine their teaching. Robertson, for example, when dealing with the inauguration of the Abrahamic covenant, carefully picks his way through Genesis 15 (and 12:1) without mentioning God’s land-promise (Ibid, Ch. 8). He first constructs his thesis with the help of certain NT texts, and then deals with the land issue once he has a typological framework to put it in. He is more “up-front” when he refers to Jeremiah 31, 32 and Ezekiel 34 and 37 on pages 41-42 of his book, but this plain speaking about God’s planting of His people “in this land” to “give them one heart and one way” (Ibid, 41), and his explicitly linking the land promise to Jacob with the Abrahamic covenant (Ibid, 42) does not last for long. Needless to say, the land promise to Israel evaporates under the flame of Reformed typology as the book progresses (Ibid, Ch. 13), and the Church becomes the “Israel” through its participation in the new covenant (e.g. 289).

In none of this does one find any solid exegetical proof. Instead, at the crucial moment, in order to get where they want to go, CT’s will rely upon human reasoning (“if this, then that”) to lop off covenanted promises which contravene their theological covenants. The land promise stated over and over in the Abrahamic covenant (e.g. 12:1, 7; 15:18-21; 17:7-8) and repeated in the prophets (e.g. Isa. 44; Jer. 25:5; 31:31-40; 32:36-41; 33:14-26; Ezek. 36:26-36), is ushered into a room marked “obscurity” by the covenant of grace. How ironic; the land promise is expressly stated and restated all over the OT, and the covenant of grace never once puts in an appearance!

Another noted CT who exemplifies this phenomenon I have been referring to is Michael Horton. His book God of Promise: Introducing Covenant Theology takes back with one hand what it appears to give with the other. Placing an enormous burden on Galatians 4:22-31 which it was never supposed to bear, Horton sometimes seems to interpret the covenant passages at face value. He repeatedly admits that both the Abrahamic and Davidic covenants were unconditional. He rivals any dispensationalist in his belief in the unilateral nature of these biblical covenants (Ibid, 42, 45, 48-49). But then he makes the land promise part of the Mosaic covenant (whence it can be safely dispatched). He states,

The Mosaic (Sinai) covenant is an oath of the people swearing personal performance of the conditions for “living long in the land,” while the Abrahamic covenant is a promise by God himself that he will unilaterally bring about the salvation of his people through the seed of Abraham. (Michael S. Horton, God of Promise, 48)

This is an amazing statement. Although he is right to say that possession of the land was tied to obedience to the Mosaic covenant (e.g., Lev. 26), even the Mosaic covenant looked forward to a new covenant whereby God would circumcise their heart (Deut. 30:6) so that “in the latter days” they would not be forsaken, but would be remembered because of the Abrahamic covenant (Deut.4:30-31; 30:19-20).

So, what happened? Is the Abrahamic covenant only about salvation as Horton claims? I invite anyone to read Genesis 12-17, Jeremiah 33 or Ezekiel 36 and demonstrate such a thing. It is patently false. In fact, there is no provision for salvation in the Abrahamic covenant itself—although the Seed promise (singular) is there it is developed through the New covenant, not per se the terms of the Abrahamic. All the talk about typology (Horton’s book is also filled with it) cannot alter these facts.

That God must be gracious to sinners if they are to be saved is not at issue. What is at issue is whether there is any such thing as the covenant of grace (we have focused on it since it is the support for CT’s interpretations and theology). We have no qualms in saying it is a figment overlaid on the biblical covenants. It is what makes CT’s see only the salvation of the church in the covenants. It is what makes them transform the NT Church into “new Israel”. It stands behind many of their dogmas. But the Covenant of Grace, together with the “Covenant of Works,” is curiously absent from the Word of God.

1376 reads

There are 10 Comments

dgszweda's picture

I think it is simplistic to state that the Covenant of Grace is curiously absent from the Word of God.  I would argue that the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith, the Westminster Confession of Faith, and the Savoy Declaration all affirm the Covenant of Grace as a bedrock of the Reformation.  While I have my concerns with the Covenant of Grace.  I don't believe the Reformers were inventing something out that was not contained in Scripture.  I and you, may not hold their same conclusion or structure, but having read the same books you noted earlier around Covenant Theology, these were not written by men who ignored or were ignorant of Scripture.  These confessions of faith and creeds were well laid out by principled and well reasoned men who were deep theologians of Scripture.  I am not defending the Covenant of Grace, but I would feel uncomfortable in stating that is absent from Scripture.

Don Johnson's picture

One reason I highly respect Hodge is his frank admission that the so-called Covenant of Grace is nowhere found in Scripture. He did believe there was one, but his belief rested on presuppositions, not Scripture. 

Maranatha!
Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

Paul Henebury's picture

I would be interested to see your substantiation of your paragraph.  I believe I dealt with the assumptions of these good men in previous installments.  

Dr. Paul Henebury

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

dgszweda's picture

Paul Henebury wrote:

I would be interested to see your substantiation of your paragraph.  I believe I dealt with the assumptions of these good men in previous installments.  

Of course a Dispensationalist would view Covenant Theology as a framework that is not based in Scripture.  I would argue that the Westminister Divines did not create a theological framework that they did not believe was laid out in Scripture.  I often find both sides talking past each other.  There are definitely stretches that Covenant Theology has to make.  My concern was how you painted it in your last statement that it was not something that is laid out in Scripture, as the Reformed Covenants were very particular in laying out a framework that was rooted in Scripture.  I just think we need to be careful how we paint each others sides.

Don Johnson's picture

§ 1. God entered into Covenant with Adam

This statement does not rest upon any express declaration of the Scriptures.

Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, vol. 2 (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997), 117.

Hodge believed his view was biblical, founded on Biblical statements. He goes on to say in the next line:

It is, however, a concise and correct mode of asserting a plain Scriptural fact, namely, that God made to Adam a promise suspended upon a condition, and attached to disobedience a certain penalty. This is what in Scriptural language is meant by a covenant, and this is all that is meant by the term as here used.

Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, vol. 2 (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997), 117.

However, God didn't call it a covenant, the Covenant Theologians called it a covenant. That is an assumption, not a Scriptural declaration. It seems a tenuous place to start your system of theology. I'd rather start from things God actually said, not from things that God did not say.

Maranatha!
Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

JNoël's picture

I am thoroughly enjoying this series, and I will continue to read every installment.

But the same conclusion is found every time: CTs approach scripture differently from non-CTs. No argument matters until there can be agreement on the correct way to approach scripture.

How can Spirit-filled Christians come to such extremely different conclusions on the correct way to approach the only thing God gave us to know him and how he wants us to live?

There must be some way to know the correct approach to scripture. We're a couple thousand years into our completed, post-direct-revelation canon, and we still don't know? Instead, we analyze differing positions on divorce, wine, church polity, covenants, and even the atonement - but almost always, the chosen position on all issues comes back to how one approaches scripture.

Can anyone of you point me to some good books written by authors who defend their approach to scripture?

Ashamed of Jesus! of that Friend On whom for heaven my hopes depend! It must not be! be this my shame, That I no more revere His name. -Joseph Grigg (1720-1768)

Paul Henebury's picture

This series is for non-covenant theologians (particularly Dispensationalists but not entirely) who do not grasp CT.  It is an explanation and critique.  My concern is set out what CT's believe and why they believe it.

I accept that as a sort of Dispensationalist I disagree with CT.  I said I disagree with it from the start.  But the statement with which you took issue (I am not sure which one precisely), comes down to there being little or no exegetical basis for the covenant of grace (or redemption, or Works).  The statement is, like it or not, true.  You don't have to be a Dispensationalist to know that.  After I have set out the basic position of CT I shall cite several authorities on this very matter; none of whom are Dispensational!  

You say you are familiar with the Confessions and some of the works I quote.  Well then, show me the exegetical proof for the theological covenants that do not deduce covenants from prior assumptions instead of actual texts, and show me what I have missed.  I am trying to comprehend you, but all I am getting is that good men weren't dummies and they had a reason for their views.  But who is doubting that?  The question is whether their views can be justified exegetically or whether they are not.  E.g., baby-sprinkling derives from belief in the covenant of grace making the Church and Israel the same and then holding that it is the new sign of the new covenant as male circumcision was the sign of the old.  Hence, paedo-baptism is a deduction built on another deduction with no clear scriptural support.  So I don't think your concern is a fair one.  

Dr. Paul Henebury

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

Paul Henebury's picture

I hear you.  But as this series comes to its close (not quite yet) I will conclude that there can be no agreement with CT for reasons given and to be given.  The main reason is because outside of the most fundamental truths built on very clear textual evidence which all sides read the same, there is a divergence from the texts in other areas.  

I cannot recommend myself, but my 'Rules of Affinity', 'Parameters of Meaning,' and the first chapters of the book I wrote set out my hermeneutical approach clearly.  

Dr. Paul Henebury

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

dgszweda's picture

Paul Henebury wrote:

Well then, show me the exegetical proof for the theological covenants that do not deduce covenants from prior assumptions instead of actual texts, and show me what I have missed. 

I am playing a bit of devil's advocate, because I am not a strict adherent to CT.  But I have played on that side for a quite a bit.  The CT side would say that Dispensationalists, have limited proof as well.  They would argue that Darby developed it, and the term Dispensationlism doesn't even appear in Scripture.  I am not going to argue between the two because there are enough books out there, but many of the individuals that fundamentalist would argue are the bedrocks of past Christians were all covenant theologians.  Spurgeon stated,

"The doctrine of the covenant lies at the root of all true theology. It has been said that he who well understand s the distinction between the covenant of works and the covenant of grace, is a master of divinity. I am persuaded that most of the mistakes which men make concerning the doctrines of Scripture, are based upon fundamental errors with regard to the covenant of law and of grace."

Most CT would state Hebrews 7:22 and 8:6 as having a level of foundation to it.  That Luke 22 lays out the covenant that Christ is establishing and that Romans 4 lays out who is in that covenant.  Not the actual seed of Abraham, in fact it was never the seed, but it was those who had faith (as David foretold in Psalm 32), and that new covenant is one of Grace (Romans 4:16).  I am in no way saying that CT is better than Dispensationalism.  And I am not saying there aren't issues with CT.  But to state that there just is no Scriptural proof of CT, would be very much argued on the CT side.  Dispensationalists like to say that, because most Dispensationalists are clueless about CT, and therefore it solidifies their views.  The CT side would argue that Dispensationalists don't have any Scripture and that the false teachings of Darby and Scoffield is what created Dispensationlists.  Spurgeon highlighted many of Darby's and Plymouth Brethren's heresies at the time.  Many of the CT people would point to Hagee as being a typical dispensationalists today (which we would all agree is definitely a flavor out there but not one that we would hold to).

This is why I argue that both sides talk past each other and I am not sure either side has a good grasp of one or the other.

Paul Henebury's picture

You say, "And I am not saying there aren't issues with CT.  But to state that there just is no Scriptural proof of CT, would be very much argued on the CT side."

I agree, which is why I never said such a thing.  I said that the theological covenants of CT are not to be discovered exegetically.  Further, I claimed that CT is a mainly deductive system.  You have said nothing to counter either point.  Most of what you have written is beside the point I'm afraid.  E.g., whether or not Darby invented DT.  

I have also stated plainly that I am writing a description and critique of CT.  I have had CT "commenters" on my blog who have said that I have represented what it teaches accurately.  I do not believe I have misrepresented it at all, since I am very familiar with it.   I am not trying to commend my view ('Biblical Covenantalism') but simply expounding CT for the uninitiated.   

You may not be aware of the fact that that I have been a critic of Dispensationalism too (e.g., here).  You will find a brief criticism of DT's who say that it is a hermeneutic in Part 7.  Hence, your quote from Spurgeon, and what he said about Darby etc are by the bye.  

As for the texts you cite: Hebrews 7:22 & 8:6 both refer to the New covenant, as does Luke 22.  The point at issue is whether the New covenant is a republication or instantiation of the covenant of grace, which is found nowhere in the Bible.  The New covenant is the New covenant.  Romans 4:16 teaches that salvation is and was by grace through faith.  Paul refers to the third aspect of the Abrahamic covenant which deals with the blessing to come upon the families of the earth through him (Gen. 12:3c).  This is why Paul cites Genesis 17:5 in the very next verse.    

I need more substance if I am to benefit from your critique.  

Dr. Paul Henebury

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

Help keep SI’s server humming. A few bucks makes a difference.