Deciphering Covenant Theology (Part 19)

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Looking Deeper into the Problems with Covenant Theology (4)

4. CT deals with everything it meets in the pages of Scripture using these false covenants.

From my point of view as a non-covenant theologian it is bad enough that the three theological covenants of Covenant Theology share scarcely a scrap of textual warrant between them. What is worse, though, is how much these made-up covenants dictate the rest of what the Bible can and cannot be allowed to teach, particularly when it comes to biblical prophecy. Here are the two main areas where I believe the impact of false covenants ) are most felt:

The Definition of “Covenant”

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Deciphering Covenant Theology (Part 18)

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Looking Deeper into the Problems with Covenant Theology (3)

3. CT relies upon covenants found nowhere in Holy Writ.

If I were to challenge you to locate the covenants with Noah, Abraham, Phinehas, Moses, and David it would not take you very long. But what if I issued a challenge to find the covenants of redemption, works, or grace? And what if I told you that you could not run to any passage where the covenants to do with Noah, Abraham, Phinehas, Moses, and David were in view? How would you fair?

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Deciphering Covenant Theology (Part 17)

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Looking Deeper into the Problems with Covenant Theology (3)

2. CT starts its reading of the Bible in the wrong place.

In Part Two of this series I said that for CT’s having the NT to interpret the OT is like the introduction of color televisions to replace the old black and white screens. Whereas for people like myself it is better compared to a deconstructionist interpretation of a classic novel which all but ignores what the novel says and its way of saying it.

Some may think that the second comparison is unfair. I do not want to be unfair so I shall need to elaborate a bit. I have pinpointed the way CT’s view the Bible Story as a history of redemption. That is what it is all about. Certainly, redemption is a very important part of what the Bible is about, but it is not the whole story. There is, for example, a major theme that transcends the problem of human sin and that is the “cosmic drama” being played out between God and Satan, and between God’s plans and Satan’s plans. Not that this is an equal conflict. If God was not upholding Satan and his demons in existence from moment to moment they would cease to exist (Heb. 1:3). And of course, that would also be true of every other being or thing in creation. But this conflict does not of itself have anything to do with redemption. Satan and his host are not to be redeemed. They are to be judged.

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Is Narrative Normative?

A recent forum discussion raised the question of what role the narrative portions of Scripture have for establishing Christian doctrine. The question had two parts: “What is sound doctrine concerning the doctrinal importance of narratives in Scripture? Who decides what is the correct view and what is not?”

I remember hearing a lot of bad preaching from narrative, growing up. I also heard a lot of good preaching from narrative. One lesson learned: If we don’t respect what narrative is, we can easily miss what God intended and even abuse the Scriptures.

As for “Who decides…”? I hope to show here that nobody special is required. We can all see that there are challenges involved in using narrative properly.

I’ll explore the topic briefly here in Q & A format.

1. Can biblical narrative establish doctrine?

It can! Consider the first few chapters of Genesis. Our doctrines of creation and the fall are clear (though not complete) from Genesis alone.

Both Jesus (Matt 19:4-6) and the apostles (1 Tim 2:13-14, 2 Cor 11:3, 1 John 3:12, 1 Pet 3:20) referenced portions of Genesis as support for doctrines they taught.

Still, narrative almost never stands alone as a basis for doctrine (more on why later).

2. Can biblical narrative show us how to behave?

The popular answer that “narrative is descriptive, not prescriptive” is an overgeneralization.

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Deciphering Covenant Theology (Part 16)

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Looking Deeper into the Problems with Covenant Theology (2)

1. CT is a mainly deductive approach to reading the Bible.

I started out in this series by making this point and I believe it has been established. When one reflects on the main assumptions of Covenant Theology it becomes clear that the entire edifice is constructed, not upon what the Bible really says, but upon pious but still autonomous inferences. These inferences are deductive in character, and provide the cast into which the mind of CT approaches the text of the Bible. As already documented, Vos called this “the consciousness of the covenant” and what Packer called “a hermeneutic.” To quote Packer again:

The story that forms [the] backbone of the Bible has to do with man’s covenant relationship with God first ruined and then restored. (Introduction: Covenant Theology in Herman Witsius, The Economy of the Covenants Between God and Man I. vii)

Packer then goes on to claim that the covenant “story” includes the covenants of works and grace (although he doesn’t use the latter term). He further states that,

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Deciphering Covenant Theology (Part 15)

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Looking Deeper into the Problems with Covenant Theology (1)

We have arrived now at the point where I can turn my attention to a full-on critique of Covenant Theology. In doing so I want to remind my reader of what I wrote in Part Twelve of this series, where I recorded my very real appreciation for CT even as a dissenter from its tenets. But we are in a position now to record that dissent more plainly and categorically.

Before beginning, however, I will provide Vos’s summary quotation.:

…the leading principle of the covenant…is nothing but the open eye and the clear vision of the Reformed believer for the glorious plan of the grace of God, which arouses in him a consciousness of the covenant and keeps it alive, and which causes him to be so familiar with this scriptural idea and makes this train of thought so natural to him. How else could he receive and reflect the glory of his God, if he were not able to stand in the circle of light, where the beams penetrate to him from all sides? To stand in that circle means to be a party in the covenant, to live out of a consciousness of the covenant and to drink out of the fullness of the covenant. (Geerhardus Vos, “The Doctrine of the Covenant in Reformed Theology”, in Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation, 256)

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