Covenant Theology

Deciphering Covenant Theology (Part 27): Summation (1)

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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.

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Deciphering Covenant Theology (Part 26)

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Looking Deeper into the Problems with Covenant Theology

12. CT is implicitly supercessionist in its eschatology.

This final problem with Covenant Theology is vehemently denied by more and more who adopt its ideas. They will feel aggrieved by the accusation that CT teaches replacement theology. That is, CT’s today will object strongly when they are characterized as teaching that the Church has taken over the covenant blessings God gave to the nation of Israel. According to Sam Storms,

Replacement theology would assert that God has uprooted and eternally cast aside the olive tree which is Israel and has planted, in its place, an entirely new one, the Church.  All the promises given to the former have been transferred to the latter. (Sam Storms, Kingdom Come, 195)

And here is Greg Beale:

The notion of Christians being part of God’s Israelite family is expressed well in Galatians…Paul views Christ to be the summation of the true Israel and understands all, whether Jew or gentile, whom Jesus represents to be true Israel… The identification in Gal. 3:29 that both believing “Jew and Greek” (3:28) are “Abraham’s seed” is, then, a reference to them as the continuation of true Israel. (G. K. Beale, A New Testament Biblical Theology, 671)

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Deciphering Covenant Theology (Part 25)

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Looking Deeper into the Problems with Covenant Theology

11. CT interprets the Bible from an anthropocentric rather than a Theocentric point of view.

From what has been said before about CT’s redemptive-historical hermeneutic based upon the primacy of the covenant of grace it becomes clear that although it seeks to glorify God in its overall approach, CT comes from a perspective which is man-centered. Because it casts its net around the salvation of the elect and not around God’s broader concerns with creation the point of view tends to be from the ground up, not from heaven down to earth. Although the Bible is written from our earthly starting point, it is a revelation from above and concerns the whole Plan of God in relation to His created sphere.

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Deciphering Covenant Theology (Part 24)

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Looking Deeper into the Problems with Covenant Theology

10. CT reads Christ into passages where He is plainly not in view and employs Him (particularly His first coming) as the lens through which Scripture must be understood.

Covenant Theology is grounded in an overarching approach to reading Scripture as a redemptive-historical story. This entails reading the OT in light of the NT, and especially in light of the Gospel. Because of this procedure the OT is often used as a typological palette from which Christ is portrayed. What ends up happening is the OT is often treated not as a story in its own right, but as a series of types and foreshadowings of Christ. This is achieved in several ways:

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Deciphering Covenant Theology (Part 23)

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Looking Deeper into the Problems with Covenant Theology

9. Though they would consciously deny the charge, it is undeniable that CT ‘s way of reading the Bible (as above) creates a major problem philosophically in that it strongly implies that God equivocates. More seriously still, the manner of equivocation means that equivocation belongs to the essential nature of the Godhead.

Imagine that several years back I promised you in writing that once I turned sixty you could have all sixty of my volumes of Systematic Theology. I have Calvin and Berkhof and Chafer and Hodge. I have Bavinck’s 4 volumes and Oden’s 3 volumes. Dabney, Griffith-Thomas, Reymond, Frame, Garrett, Horton, Ryrie, Geisler, Pannenberg, Migliore, Lewis & Demarest, Letham, McCune; you name it, I’ve probably got it. Who knows, you say to yourself, he might even throw in his sets of Berkouwer, and Barth, and Brunner, and Warfield, and Murray! Great, you think, I’ll borrow a truck.

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Deciphering Covenant Theology (Part 22)

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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:

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Deciphering Covenant Theology (Part 21)

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Looking Deeper into the Problems with Covenant Theology

7. By allowing their interpretations of the NT to have veto over the plain sense of the OT this outlook creates massive discontinuities between the wording of the two Testaments. This is all done for the sake of a contrived continuity demanded by the one-people of God concept of the Covenant of Grace.

It has been common for both Covenant Theologians and Dispensationalists to categorize the former as a continuity system and the latter as a discontinuity system. And to some extent this is so. Dispensationalism can be seen as a discontinuity system in the sense that it claims that the Church of the NT is not Israel. CT teaches that the Church and Israel, at least believing Israel, are the same group under the umbrella of the covenant of grace. There is one people of God; ergo, there is continuity in the saints of the two Testaments.

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Deciphering Covenant Theology (Part 20)

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6. By assuming, without sufficient warrant, that the New Testament must be used to [re]interpret the Old Testament, CT in practice denies to the OT its own perspicuity, its own integrity as inspired revelation, and creates a “canon within a canon.” To paraphrase George Orwell, in CT “all Scripture is inspired, but some Scripture [the NT] is more inspired than others [the OT]”.

The actual covenants of God which are recorded in the Old Testament dictate, or ought to dictate, the course of the prophetic narrative. This covenant story raises definite expectations which build to a crescendo by the close of the OT canon. The momentum that has been built up requires us to look very carefully at the NT for signs of continuation of covenant themes. This is something we get, especially in the Synoptic Gospels.

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