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Looking Deeper into the Problems with Covenant Theology
8. CT thus interprets the Bible with different rules of hermeneutics depending on the aforementioned presuppositions.
Covenant theologians will often display a varied array of hermeneutical practices, sometimes in the same passage. This is because the theological covenants require conformity to their dictates. The conformity includes the OT being interpreted on the basis of a particular understanding of the NT; a first coming hermeneutic when dealing with most prophetic texts; one people of God throughout Scripture; hence no national future for Israel in the kingdom; the covenants of God that can be found easily in Scripture must be subsumed beneath the covenant of grace (particularly); and those same covenants can be morphed out of recognition by their “fulfillment” in the Church.
We should remind ourselves that J. I. Packer said that Covenant Theology is a hermeneutic or way of reading the Bible. Others have said the same, but my focus here is how CT’s understand this (although I might say that Progressive Covenantalists employ the same hermeneutics, more or less, as CT’s do).
Here is a sample:
Jesus came to establish a spiritual kingdom that could be entered immediately by submitting to the rule of Jesus through faith in Him…Jesus defines His kingdom as operating differently than the kingdoms of the world by bearing witness to the truth (Jn. 18:36-37). The present, spiritual reality of the kingdom means, according to the parables, that the kingdom begins small, is hidden in the way it works, and can be rejected by people. Yet Christ reigns now as King as He sits at the right hand of the Father…governing the world for the sake of His people (Eph. 1:22). The promises of the Davidic covenant are fulfilled in Christ… who occupies the throne of David. (Richard P. Belcher, Jr., The Fulfillment of the Promises of God, 130)
I give this as a sample of CT interpretation. CT’s believe that Jesus is reigning right now on David’s throne. His position is helped by his connection with the parables, especially the parables of the kingdom, which include the phrase “the kingdom of heaven is like” (e.g., Matt. 13:24, 31, etc.).
In response I would point out that the NT nowhere states that Jesus is reigning now. Neither does it say that Jesus is sitting on a throne presently. In fact, as Belcher alludes to, the Bible says that Jesus sits at the right hand of the Father in heaven. 1 Peter 3:22 says Christ is “has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God.” Hebrews 12:2 is clearer. It says that Christ is now “at the right hand of the throne of God.” See also Romans 8:34; Ephesians 1:20; Colossians 3:1. These passages all agree that Christ is not seated upon the throne in heaven but at the right hand of the throne. But what about Revelation 3:21? Here it is:
To him who overcomes I will grant to sit with Me on My throne, as I also overcame and sat down with My Father on His throne.
This verse is not saying that Jesus is sitting on the same throne with the Father. It is not a dual throne. If such were true then all the overcomers would also sit on it. It is not a massively multi-seated throne. The last part of the verse is best interpreted as Christ sitting next to God’s throne. But neither is one throne referred to in the verse. There is “My Father’s throne” and there is “My throne.” To fail to admit this is to have interpretive blinkers on. As Robert Thomas says, “to merge them into one is to ignore the obvious.” – Robert L. Thomas, Revelation 1 – 7: An Exegetical Commentary, 325.
The parables of the kingdom and the phrase “the kingdom of heaven is like” must be interpreted in context. In Matthew 13:36-43 the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares is explained. Jesus says that at the end of this age,
The Son of Man will send out His angels, and they will gather out of His kingdom all things that offend, and those who practice lawlessness…Then the righteous will shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears to hear, let him hear! (Matthew 13:41, 43)
It appears that when Jesus returns to set up His kingdom He will first remove the wicked and then the righteous will enter in. This agrees with the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats in Matthew 25:31-46 which begins with the words, “When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the holy angels with Him, then He will sit on the throne of His glory. (Matt. 25:31), which indicates that the sorting does not happen until after Jesus has returned. Hence, Jesus’ own testimony is that He will not sit upon His throne until the second coming! The words “the kingdom of heaven is like” therefore do not refer to the inaugurated kingdom but the progress towards it.
Belcher uses Ephesians 1:22 to claim that Christ as King is reigning now at the right hand of the Father. But no one reigned from beside the throne (i.e. “the right hand of the throne”). They reigned from the throne. Ephesians 1 is speaking about Jesus in relation to the Church, of which He is Head, but it says nothing about the throne of David. Belcher, as CT’s generally, is conflating the data to fit his theology. David’s throne was and will be in Jerusalem, not heaven.
But Belcher provides more support from O. Palmer Robertson.
In a footnote (130 n. 28) Belcher cites Robertson using 1 Chronicles 29:22 (though I think he means v. 23) as proving ” a convergence of the throne of David” with God’s throne:
Then Solomon sat on the throne of the LORD as king instead of David his father, and prospered; and all Israel obeyed him. (1 Chronicles 29:23)
According to O. Palmer Robertson this text shows that the throne of David that Solomon rules from is the throne of Yahweh. But this simply untenable as God’s throne is in heaven (Psa. 11:4; 103:19) not on earth. In 1 Chronicles 29 “the throne of Yahweh” does not refer to God’s own throne but to the throne established by God for the Davidide line. Robertson claims the opposite: “The throne of David’s descendants is nothing more than the throne of God itself.” – The Christ of the Covenants, 250.
Except it isn’t. This is because Robertson also holds that, “David’s line anticipated in shadow-form the eternal character of the eternal reign of Christ,” – Ibid, 249. So Solomon’s throne was called “the throne of Yahweh” for the sake of typology! But not any typology, but a typology which meets the redemptive-historical requirements of CT. CT needs the two thrones, the throne of David and the throne of God to be the same, and 1 Chronicles 29:22-23 is their proof-text.
Returning to Belcher, he believes that 1 Chronicles 29:22 (23) may be linked to Isaiah 9:6. But Isaiah 9:6-7 is a prophesy which includes within it both advents. In the quotation below I have underlined the part of the prophesy that accords with the first coming.
For unto us a Child is born,
Unto us a Son is given;
And the government will be upon His shoulder.
And His name will be called
Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of His government and peace
There will be no end,
Upon the throne of David and over His kingdom,
To order it and establish it with judgment and justice
From that time forward, even forever.
The zeal of the LORD of hosts will perform this. (Isaiah 9:6-7)
Here is a clear prediction in which CT’s want to take the underlined part literally and everything else spiritually, so that it can be incorporated into the first advent “spiritual kingdom” they say is ruling the world now. In other words, they use two hermeneutical methods to interpret a single prophecy. Thus, whatever hermeneutic is needed; literal, spiritual, typological, symbolical, will be employed by CT’s depending on what fits the requirements of the system.
May I add another quick example? In his popular book A Case for Amillennialism Kim Riddlebarger, when wrapping up his chapter on Daniel’s Seventy Weeks declares,
The final three-and-one-half years of the seventieth week as interpreted by John is symbolic of the church on earth during the entire time of its existence. It also is a reference to the tribulation depicted in Daniel. (Kim Riddlebarger, A Case for Amillennialism: Understanding the End Times, 156)
So the great majority of the seventy weeks of years are literal, but the very last three-and-a-half years are nearly two thousand years long and counting? He further believes that the “covenant” that is made “for one week” in Daniel 9:27 is of all things the covenant of grace! One has to wonder what hermeneutical system is making him arrive at these conclusions. What are its rules and where do they come from?
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.