What is covenant theology? And why the question can be misleading

Today, a friend asked me to explain what is covenant theology. I get the question and it’s one I would have asked years ago at the mere mention of the name. In fact, when I first heard the term several years ago, my immediate frame of thinking was this: it is a system of thought imposed on Scripture especially when terms like covenant of works and covenant of grace are used to describe it. Unfortunately, unless you’re immersed in Reformed and particularly Presbyterian circles, this idea of imposition can cause a spurning of sorts as if somehow this is contrasted with the just reading the Bible. In simple terms, covenant theology can be rejected because of an erroneous belief that it is doctrine imposed on Scripture and wholly separate from a biblical theology derived from simply reading Scripture.

In reality, covenant theology is not an imposition on Scripture at all but rather an extraction from Scripture. In other words, covenant theology is essentially derived from a holistic rendering of Scripture and considers the anchor that holds the 66 books together: that is God’s gracious actions towards his creation based on covenant which is embedded throughout the biblical narrative. Covenant theology looks at the whole picture and asks ‘what is God doing?’ from Genesis to Revelation. So terms like covenant of works (or more appropriately life-the foundation for his creation) and covenant of grace (his rescue of a fallen creation from the kernel promise of Gen. 3:15) are essentially capturing God’s redemptive action towards his creation based on this whole picture.

Through my many years as a Christian, I have found the way the Bible is approached leads to a segmentation and bifurcation of it’s parts and hinder a consideration of the big picture. But when you steps back and takes a 20,000 foot view of sorts, you can’t help but see the beauty of the interlocking parts culminated in God’s redemption through his Son. In his Intro to Covenant Theology, J.I. Packer says this;

God’s covenant of grace in Scripture is one of those things that are too big to be easily seen, particularly when one’s mind is programmed to look at something smaller. If you are hunting on a map of the Pacific for a particular Polynesian island, your eye will catch dozens of island names, however small they are printed, but the chances are you will never notice the large letters spelling PACIFIC OCEAN that straddle the map completely. Similarly, we may, and I think often do, study such realities as God’s promises; faith: the plan of salvation; Jesus Christ the God-man, our prophet, priest and king; the church in both testaments, along with circumcision, passover, baptism, the Lord’s Supper, the intricacies of Old Testament worship and the simplicities of its New Testament counterpart; the work of the Holy Spirit in believers; the nature and standards of Christian obedience in holiness and neighbour-love; prayer and communion with God: and many more such themes, without noticing that these relational realities are all covenantal in their very essence. As each Polynesian island is anchored in the Pacific, so each of the matters just mentioned is anchored in God’s resolve to relate to his human creatures, and have us relate to him, in covenant — which means, in the final analysis, a way for man to relate to God that reflects facets of the fellowship of the Son and the Spirit with the Father in the unity of the Godhead. From this, perhaps, we can begin to see how big and significant a thing the covenantal category is both in biblical teaching and in real life.

I think he is right. I think our general tendency is to see the microscopic aspects of Scripture and focus on a verse or passage here and there. It doesn’t help that so much preaching and teaching is oriented towards pragmatism that lends to a disjointed treatment of Scripture. But covenant theology considers the whole picture.

Here Packer gets to the heart of it;

Covenant theology offers a total view, which it is ready to validate from Scripture itself if challenged, as to how the various parts of the Bible stand related to each other. The essence of the view is as follows. The biblical revelation, which is the written Word of God, centers upon a God-given narrative of how successive and cumulative revelations of God’s covenant purpose and provision were given and responded to at key points in history. The backbone of the Bible, to which all the expository, homiletical, moral, liturgical, and devotional material relates, is the unfolding in space and time of God’s unchanging intention of having a people on earth to whom he would relate covenantally for his and their joy. The contents of Scripture cohere into a single consistent body of truth about God and mankind, by which every Christian — indeed, every human being — in every generation is called to live. The Bible in one sense, like Jesus Christ in another, is God’s word to the world.

The story that forms this backbone of the Bible has to do with man’s covenant relationship with God first ruined and then restored. The original covenantal arrangement, usually called the Covenant of Works, was one whereby God undertook to prolong and augment for all subsequent humanity the happy state in which he had made the first human pair — provided that the man observed, as part of the humble obedience that was then natural to him, one prohibition, specified in the narrative as not eating a forbidden fruit. The devil, presented as a serpent, seduced Adam and Eve into disobeying, so that they fell under the penal sanctions of the Covenant of Works (loss of good, and corruption of nature). But God at once revealed to them in embryo a redemptive economy that had in it both the covering of sin, and a prospective victory for the woman’s seed (a human Savior) over the serpent and his malice. The redemptive purpose of this new arrangement became clearer as God called Abraham, made a nation from his descendants, saved them from slavery, named himself not only their God but also their King and Father, taught them his law (the family code), drilled them in sacrificial liturgies, disciplined their disobedience, and sent messengers to hold up before them his holiness and his promise of a SaviorKing and a saving kingdom; which in due course became reality.

And that’s why I think the question of what is covenant theology can provoke a misleading mindset, one that looks at a system rather than Scripture itself. So asking the question: what is covenant theology is really ‘What is the cohesive story of Scripture?’ While not an Intro to Covenant Theology per se, Far as the Curse is Found: the Covenant Story of Redemption by Michael D Williams, a book I’ve mentioned in previous posts, provides an excellent treatment of the Bible based on a covenantal framework. Christ of the Covenants by O. Palmer Robertson is another work that helped me tremendously.

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About Lisa Robinson

Servant of Christ, DTS Grad, member of Town North Presbyterian Church (PCA), non-profit professional, anti-poverty advocate, writer, thinker, explorer of ethnic food, lover of good coffee and a good laugh.
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