Series - DecipheringCT

Deciphering Covenant Theology (Part 8)

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I ended the last post talking about how CT reduces the nation of Israel down to Jesus Christ and then interprets the Church in Him to be the “True Israel.” There is more to say about that, but first I think a little more orientation is required. I want to begin this installment with a definition of Covenant Theology from one of its major contemporary practitioners, Ligon Duncan:

Covenant theology is an approach to biblical interpretation that appreciates the importance of the covenants for understanding the divine-human relationship and the unfolding of redemptive history in Scripture. Blending insights from systematic and biblical theology, covenant theology explains the economic Trinity, communion with God, the person and work of Christ, the sacraments, justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, the role of obedience in the Christian life, the believer’s assurance of salvation, the unity and progress of redemptive history, and more, in light of the Bible’s teaching on the divine covenants. (“Covenant Theology: An Essay”)

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Deciphering Covenant Theology (Part 7)

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The Covenant of Grace (2)

It is almost impossible to overstate the importance of “the covenant of grace” to Reformed theology. When one reads of “the covenant” in the writings of CT’s the implication is that it is the covenant of grace. When it comes to CT’s comprehending the Bible as a “redemptive-historical” book, the thing that is powering this is the covenant of grace. Hence,

The covenant of grace tells us that the whole Bible is about one thing: God redeeming a people for himself through Jesus Christ. (Michael G. Brown and Zach Keele, Sacred Bond, 69)

The covenant of grace is the appearance in time of the Covenant of Redemption. As this is the case it could be said that the covenant of grace furnishes the ground of redemptive history. While both the covenant of works and the covenant of grace promised eternal life (R. Belcher, The Fulfillment of the Promises of God, 41), it is the covenant of grace which is superior in both its ability to give salvation and in its primal intent as God’s chosen way of salvation for sinners.

Then too, the covenants of CT; in particular the covenant of grace, sets the hermeneutical agenda for how the Bible is to be read. J. I. Packer wrote,

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Deciphering Covenant Theology (Part 6)

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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,

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Deciphering Covenant Theology (Part 5)

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The Covenant of Works (2)

According to covenant theologians the Covenant of Works was what Adam and Eve were under in the Garden of Eden. As it was a covenant of “works” this means that they were under obligation to maintain “perfect obedience” (Witsius, The Economy of the Covenants Between God and Man, I. 158; cf. Robertson, The Christ of the Covenants, 85). For the CT this is necessary because it is to be paralleled by Christ’s perfect obedience; an obedience which as “active obedience” is accrued to us alongside of Christ’s work on the cross.

In my view the biblical doctrine of the atonement does not require a doctrine of Christ’s “active obedience.” The fact of the matter is that the Bible does not say that Christ’s perfect life atones in any way for either Adam’s sin or for our failure to live righteously. Furthermore, I do not see how there could be a substitutionary aspect to Christ’s “active obedience.” I do admit that there may well be a representative aspect, but this is not the same thing.

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Deciphering Covenant Theology (Part 4)

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In the first volume of his impressive work The Whole Counsel of God, CT Richard Gamble identifies four covenant types in Scripture. I have no qualm with the first three, but Gamble’s fourth variety of covenant is “one among the three persons of the Godhead.” (I.284). He sees a “hint” of this in the words “Let us make man in our image” in Genesis 1:26, but points to a “clearer example” in Genesis 8:21-22. In this instance “God was not speaking to Noah, but was in fact making a covenant with himself.” (I.285).

I have a high regard for Gamble and his book, but the fact that he has to resort to such examples to find an intra-trinitarian covenant is surely telling. As we saw last time, the “covenant of redemption” is not even confidently asserted by many covenant theologians, and it is not found in any passage of the Bible; it is inferred from what CT’s call “good and necessary consequences.” What makes them necessary? In my opinion what makes the consequences “necessary” is the necessity of finding support for Covenant Theology. As I have said previously and will repeat hereafter the theological covenants are deduced from CT’s operating from the position that the rest of Scripture must be interpreted from the cross and its presumed consequences. One of those consequences is that there must be only one people of God.

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Deciphering Covenant Theology (Part 3)

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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)

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Deciphering Covenant Theology (Part 2)

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I am still writing some introductory remarks about Covenant Theology. I still think that we need to say something more about how to orient oneself to CT thinking. If I just move to outline the three basic covenants of CT I will obscure an important truth that should be out in the open right at the start. That important truth is this: Covenant theologians do not begin their thinking with the OT. They do not start at Genesis 1. They start at the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Okay, can we move on now? No. You see, CT doesn’t simply get going at the cross and empty tomb, it ends up there too! The cross and the resurrection are the hub of the whole system. The theological covenants which we shall look at are a logical outgrowth of this starting and ending point. Of course, this shouts circularity, but we ought to note the fact that all reasoning in a circle is not necessarily fallacious, just so long as you have selected the correct circle (i.e., not a vicious circle); a circle which can incorporate all the data and present it coherently. I am not a covenant theologian. Therefore, I do not think CT’s have chosen the correct circle to reason in.

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Deciphering Covenant Theology (Part 1)

This series is bound to annoy covenant theologians who stop by to read it. To them I want to say that my purpose here is certainly not to irritate anyone. If a CT has any problem with what is asserted in these posts he is very welcome to challenge it (giving proof where necessary).

For those readers who want a quick historical intro to CT perhaps my “A Very Brief History of Covenant Theology” will help.

First Things First

I have been reading covenant theology (CT) for many years; close to thirty. In that time, I have read numerous Systematic Theologies by covenant theologians, including Hodge, Dabney, Bavinck, Frame, Horton, Reymond, as well as expositions of CT by the likes of Warfield, Packer, Horton, Vos, Witsius, Owen, Turretin, and Robertson. I attended a staunchly Reformed CT seminary in England. I went to several churches where CT was preached for extensive periods. By far the majority of books I have read in the last thirty years have been written by covenant theologians. I know covenant theology.

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