Ask Steve: Covenant Theology







Question: Steve, I want to know what are your thoughts on Covenant Theology? What are its strengths and weaknesses? Do you ultimately agree or disagree with the view?

Answer: Covenant theology is a system popular among the Reformed branch of Christianity, such as the Presbyterian denomination. It interprets all of Scripture on the basis of two or three covenants, although there is disagreement among theologians on the validity of the third covenant category. However, all covenant theologians agree on the indisputable two: covenant of works and covenant of grace. But for the sake of being comprehensive in this response, I will cover all three covenants, which are: the covenant that God made with Adam in the Garden of Eden (covenant of works, or Edenic covenant), the covenant that the Father made with Christ in eternity (covenant of redemption), and the covenant that God made with man in the New Testament era (covenant of grace). This covenantal system reflects the Triune God’s relationship to mankind throughout history and how we interpret Scripture, both Old and New Testament. In a more simplistic and practical explanation, covenant theology, and even dispensational theology, reflects how we are to understand the similarity and distinction between Israel and the church, and God’s role for each of them, throughout history and into the future. 

In analyzing the pros of covenant theology, we observe that there are some strengths to this theory. First of all, it is not flat out heresy. It does not contradict the clear New Testament teaching concerning the nature of salvation or even many of the core doctrines of the Christian faith. The three, or even two, stage model presented by this system is in line with the teaching of Scripture concerning the gospel message: that men are to be perfect but failed to keep the law (Ezekiel 18:20; Matthew 5:48); the Son willingly sacrificed His own life to redeem sinners from the curse of the law (Phil 2:7; Gal 3:13); and sinful men can be saved if they respond in faith to the New Covenant (Matt 26:28; Heb 9:15). Covenant theology also accommodates the reality that both OT and NT believers are saved because of not works, but by a righteousness that was reckoned to them by faith in Yahweh (Genesis 15:6; Heb 11). This certainly gives the appearance that the covenant of grace was operative throughout even the OT period, although in different stages with the people ofIsraelas God’s “church” at the time.

As it relates to Scriptural support for covenant theology, there are some interesting references. The Covenant Theology camp point to verses like Hosea 6:7 to argue for the truth of the covenant of works with Adam, since it mentions that “like Adam they have transgressed the covenant…” Here, the theologians say that the “covenant” mentioned in Hosea 6:7 most likely references the covenant that God made with Adam in the Garden of Eden until Adam transgressed it by his act of disobedience, which mankind en masse followed thereafter. Covenant theologians also analyze passages like Romans 5:12-21 to make the case that since both Adam and Christ are representative heads, Adam must also have been in some sort of a real covenant with the Lord much like Christ was (if Christ was in one to begin with). Many of the covenants spoken of in the Old Testament, including the Noahic, Abrahamic, Davidic, and New, have elements of God’s favor and grace for His people Israel, which can possibly support the idea of a running thread underneath it all, which is the covenant of grace.

A powerful testimony of the Covenant theory is its strong identification with the Protestant Reformation. Many reformers, including Ulrich Zwingli, favor this theological system and consider it to be truth, which gives tremendous weight to its influence and interpretation of Scripture. Another advantage is that it is very flexible when it comes to the millennial issue and can lead to many possible avenues of interpreting the millennium, and to some degree, the book of Revelation.

As intriguing as some of the Covenant views are, there are stronger weaknesses for this theory, which is why I ultimately disagree with this system. First of all, the concept of “covenant” as the driving force, system, and lens for interpreting all of Scripture is questionable, because the theme of the kingdom appears to be a more prominent one in the Bible. Regardless of what covenant theologians says, there is really no scriptural evidence that God established such a three fold model. There is no clear cut text in Scripture that states God established a covenant of works with Adam in the Garden of Eden. Even if God had done this in history, it is something that the Lord had not revealed to us in writing, so it is purely conjecture at this point. Another problem with the covenant of works is the idea that God made such a covenant of works with Adam to begin with, even for a probation period. The idea that runs throughout Scripture is that both salvation and sanctification is granted onto the believer by God’s grace through the working of the Holy Spirit, or unmerited favor (Eph 2:10; Gal 5:22-23). Thus the covenant of works would be promoting a form of salvation by works, in which man would be given the glory for his accomplishments if he were to somehow pass the test during the probation period. This does not correlate with the general theme of the entire Bible, which exhorts us to depend on God’s grace, and all things ultimately go to His glory.

The theory of the covenant of grace also has some issues as well. Although grace is one of God’s divine attributes and is a theme that runs throughout Scripture, this does not mean that there is a covenant of grace that is already in force that must be the center of interpretation of the other covenants in the Bible. For this to be the case, there must be an explicitly stated reference of this in the Old Testament. Yet there is none! Therefore, it cannot be the grounds to interpret the Noahic, the Abrahamic, or the Davidic Covenant. Although the New Covenant that God established with the nation of Israel (Jer 31:31-34) indicated the future forgiveness of sins by God’s grace through faith, one cannot go so far as to speculate that the New Covenant theme of grace was evident even before this New Covenant was in place. The NT does not reinterpret OT history, therefore we must be careful not to ignore what the OT meant to the original readers.

Finally, the covenant of redemption is not clearly mentioned in Scripture as well. Although the NT does mention the fact that the Father arranged with the Son to save sinners before the foundation of the world, to which the Son willingly submitted Himself to (John 6:37-40; Phil 2:5-11), Scripture does not explicitly detail a covenant of redemption established between the Father and the Son, in response to the covenant of works between God and Adam, to which the Father and the Son will allow man to be saved by his response to the covenant of grace that God will establish with His elect.

Covenant theology is not a result of biblical exegesis, but more a product of Protestant tradition in line with New Testament soteriological teachings. A theological system, whether covenant or dispensational, should never be used to influence and inform one’s interpretation of Scripture. Rather, exegesis based on grammatical-historical hermeneutics must be the basis for deriving Scripture’s meaning, for this is what gives our theology integrity, and ultimately, truth.