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; Continue reading
Anyone who knows me, knows that I care that doctrinal positions be articulated fairly even if you don’t hold to that position. When we don’t agree with a position, it’s easy for us to make sloppy and sweeping statements or otherwise eliminate distinctions that should be there for a thoughtful discussion. We can tend to paint with broad strokes.
This happens a lot with charges against Dispensationalism, but I won’t go there. No matter whether or how much I move away from Dispensationalism, I will always care that it be treated fairly and will defend correct articulations especially given the modifications that have occurred over time.
So it pains me to raise this charge. One broad stroke, lack-of-distinction statement that I hear made, mainly from Dispensationalists who won’t take the time to understand the church/Israel relationship from a Covenant Theology perspective (there are many thoughtful dispies who do), is that Covenant theology teaches that the church replaces Israel. However, it is certainly not confined to Dispensationalists. In fact, what prompted this post was this article here. I also find that when concepts filter down to a popular level broad strokes and mis-definitions can occur. Even when I more aligned with Dispensationalism, this particular mis-statement made me scream because it does not accurately reflect the difference in positions between replacement and continuity.
Replacement theology advocates for just as it says, that the church replaces Israel because the Jews rejected Christ, they are judged by God. Israel no longer exists. All promises are now transferred over to the church and do not benefit them. It is a minority view and rightly brings up concerns of anti-Semitism.
Covenant theology advocates for continuity between Israel and the church. The church did not replace Israel but is one of the same organism, beginning with Abraham. Under the new covenant it has expanded to include believing Gentiles. According to CT advocates, it is the new Israel. Continue reading
Ask Christians about end times – how will God wrap up this earthly program – and you will get a variety of answers. One answer that I think needs examining is when any response is prefaced with “the Bible clearly says”. I’m going to suggest that such a response ignores the complexities involved in covenant fulfillment, how Old Testament prophecies are related to Christ, Israel and the church, whether Israel and the church are distinct entities, whether there is a literal millennium, how we understand use of the Old Testament in the New Testament, how apocalyptic language is interpreted in relation to covenant fulfillment (however THAT gets interpreted).
We also don’t want to isolate passages and make stringent conclusions without examining how it fits in with the overall fulfillment program. Scott over at Prodigal Thought wrote this piece on the rapture and why he does not believe 1 Thessalonians 4:13 – 5:7 and Matt. 24 speak to a pre-tribulational event. He makes some valid points. But, this passage may get interpreted as a pre-trib rapture depending on how Revelation is interpreted in relation to Old Testament prophecies, depending on how hermeneutics are employed in reading the OT in the NT, depending on how this relates to covenant fulfillment. Craig Blaising has written much on this topic from his progressive dispensationalist perspective and makes good points as well.
I recently took an Old Testament elective, A Theology of Biblical Covenants. Aside from meeting elective requirements for my degree, I was motivated to take the class to assist with the wrestling I’ve been doing related to covenant fulfillment and how Old Testament promises related to Christ and his body. By the time we got to the new covenant this is what the board looked like.
Simple, right? Class discussion and reading, professor’s statements regarding humility in learning and my own wrestling with the text, reinforced the reality that the Bible does not clearly say how all this works together though we can come to some reasonable convictions. I am grateful for good and godly people who have spent years in study and production of literature to help understand this better both from a dispensational and covenantal perspective. They help bring understanding to these complex issues and will spit us out somewhere in either the dispensational or covenant camp.
Although as one stuck in the middle I am warm to progressive covenantalism as an alternate option. I’ve moved towards a more Christo-centric fulfillment in the present and seeing no distinction between Israel and the church in agreement with the Covenant folks but disagree with them related to new covenant continuity and eschatalogical fulfillment (i.e. amillennialsim). That puts me somewhere in historic pre-mill camp but away from dispensationalism.
So I continue to investigate and wrestle. I’m taking the stand expressed by one of my classmates who’s kind of in the same wrestling boat – “I’m a free agent”. I like that because it frees me from being forced to identify with a particular system. I’ve discovered that the more I study and investigate the more complex these relationships are. The one thing we shouldn’t do is to consider these matters superficially or align with camps simply because of identification. That is when we might err in making the statement “the Bible clearly says”. I have found too that hard lines are drawn too hard and too fast, typically because of alignment with one camp or the other and lack of consideration for alternate perspectives. Reading broadly helps.