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Covenant theology (also known as Covenantalism, Federal theology, or Federalism) is a Calvinist conceptual overview and interpretive framework for understanding the overall flow of the Bible. It uses the theological concept of covenant as an organizing principle for Christian theology. The standard description of covenant theology views the history of God's dealings with mankind, from Creation to Fall to Redemption to Consummation, under the framework of the three overarching theological covenants of redemption, works, and grace.
These three covenants are called theological because they are not explicitly presented as such in the Bible but are thought to be theologically implicit, describing and summarizing the wealth of Scriptural data. Within historical Reformed systems of thought covenant theology is not merely treated as a point of doctrine or a central dogma, but the structure by which the biblical text organizes itself.
As a framework for biblical interpretation, covenant theology stands in contrast to dispensationalism in regard to the relationship between the Old Covenant with national Israel and the New Covenant in Christ's blood. That such a framework exists appears to be at least feasible since from the earliest time of the Church the Jewish Bible has been known as the Old Testament (or Covenant) in contrast to the Christian addition which has been known as the New Testament (or Covenant). Covenant theology is often referred to as "supersessionism," or "replacement theology" by its detractors, due to the perception that it teaches that God has abandoned the promises made to the Jews and has replaced the Jews with Christians as his chosen people in the earth. Covenant theologians deny that God has abandoned his promises to Israel, but see the fulfillment of the promises to Israel in the person and the work of the Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth, who established the church in organic continuity with Israel, not a separate replacement entity.
The nature of God's covenantal relationship with his creation is not considered automatic or of necessity. Rather, God "chooses" to establish the connection as a covenant, wherein the terms of the relationship are set down by God alone according to his own will.
Having created man in His image as a free creature with knowledge, righteousness, and holiness, God entered into a covenant of works whereby the mandate was "do this and live" (Romans 10:5, Galatians 3:12). "Like Adam, they have trespassed the covenant" (Hosea 6:7) is the classic reference to the covenant of works; Hebrews 8:6; 9:15; 12:24 the reference that explains God's work of redemption in the Covenant of Grace.
The covenant of works (Latin: foedus operum), also called the covenant of life, was made in the Garden of Eden between God and Adam who represented all mankind as a federal head. (Romans 5:12-21) It promised life for perfect and perpetual obedience and death for disobedience. Adam, and all mankind in Adam, broke the covenant, thus standing condemned. The covenant of works continues to function after the fall as the moral law.
The term foedus operum was first used by Dudley Fenner in 1585, though Zacharias Ursinus had mentioned a covenant of creation in 1562. The covenant of works became common in Reformed theology by 1590, though it was not adopted by all, and some members of the Westminster Assembly in the 1640s opposed it. While John Calvin had spoken of a probationary period for Adam, a promise of life for obedience, and the federal headship of Adam, he does not speak of a covenant of works.
Though it is not explicitly called a covenant in the opening chapters of Genesis, the comparison of the representative headship of Christ and Adam, as well as passages like Hosea 6:7 have been interpreted to support the idea. It has also been noted that Jeremiah 33:20-26 (cf. 31:35-36) compares the covenant with David to God's covenant with the day and the night and the statutes of heaven and earth which God laid down at creation. This has led some to understand all of creation as covenantal: the decree establishing the natural laws governing heaven and earth. The covenant of works might then be seen as the moral law component of the broader creational covenant. Thus the covenant of works has also been called the covenant of creation, indicating that it is not added but constitutive of the human race; the covenant of nature in recognition of its consonance with the natural law in the human heart; and the covenant of life in regard to the promised reward.
The covenant of grace promises eternal life for all people who have faith in Christ. He also promises the Holy Spirit to the elect to give them willingness and ability to believe. Christ is the substitutionary covenantal representative fulfilling the covenant of works on their behalf, in both the positive requirements of righteousness and its negative penal consequences (commonly described as his active and passive obedience). It is the historical expression of the eternal covenant of redemption. Genesis 3:15, with the promise of a "seed" of the woman who would crush the serpent's head, is usually identified as the historical inauguration for the covenant of grace.
The covenant of grace runs through the Old and New Testaments, and is the same in substance under both the law and gospel, though there is some difference in the administration. Under the law, the sacrifices, prophesies, and other types and ordinances of the Jews signified Christ, and men were justified by their faith in him just as they would be under the gospel. These were done away with the coming of Christ, and replaced with the much simpler sacraments of baptism and the Lord's Supper.
Reformed orthodox theologians taught that the covenant was primarily unilateral or monopleuric (Latin: foedus monopleuron) on the part of God, but also entailed conditions on the part of men. The conditions of the covenant of grace were spoken of as assumptive and confirmatory rather than duties required in order to receive the covenant. The covenant was therefore also bilateral or dipleuric (Latin: foedus dipleuron). Scholars have challenged the notion in contemporary scholarship that Genevan Reformers taught a unilateral and unconditional covenant relationship whilst the Rhineland Reformers taught a bilateral contractual relationship. Mark Jones, Richard Muller, J. Mark Beach, and John Von Rohr have argued that Leonard Trinterud’s identification of the apparent polarisation between Calvin, Olevianus on the one hand and Luther, Bullinger, and the Puritans on the other hand is a faulty reading of history.
The covenant of grace became the basis for all future covenants that God made with mankind such as with Noah (Genesis 6, 9), with Abraham (Genesis 12, 15, 17), with Moses (Exodus 19-24), with David (2 Samuel 7), and finally in the New Covenant founded and fulfilled in Christ. These individual covenants are called the biblical covenants because they are explicitly described in the Bible. Under the covenantal overview of the Bible, submission to God's rule and living in accordance with his moral law (expressed concisely in the Ten Commandments) is a response to grace - never something which can earn God's acceptance (legalism). Even in his giving of the Ten Commandments, God introduces his law by reminding the Israelites that he is the one who brought them out of slavery in Egypt (grace).
The covenant of redemption is the eternal agreement within the Godhead in which the Father appointed the Son to become incarnate, suffer, and die as a federal head of mankind to make an atonement for their sin. In return, the Father promised to raise Christ from the dead, glorify him, and give him a people. Two of the earliest theologians to write about the covenant of redemption were Johannes Cocceius and John Owen, though Caspar Olevian had hinted at the idea before them. This covenant is not mentioned in the Westminster Standards, but the idea of a contractual relationship between the Father and Son is present. Scriptural support for such a covenant may be found in Psalms 2 and 110, Isaiah 53, Philippians 2:5-11 and Revelation 5:9-10. Some covenant theologians have denied the intra-Trinitarian covenant of redemption, or have questioned the notion of the Son's works leading to the reward of gaining a people for God, or have challenged the covenantal nature of this arrangement. Robert Letham has criticized the idea of a covenant between the persons of the trinity as a departure from trinitarian orthodoxy and tending towards tritheism, pointing to the historical fact of tritheistic heresy in Presbyterian circles during the generations immediately following the Westminster Assembly.
Covenant theology first sees a covenant of works administered with Adam in the Garden of Eden. Upon Adam's failure, God established the covenant of grace in the promised seed Genesis 3:15, and shows his redeeming care in clothing Adam and Eve in garments of skin — perhaps picturing the first instance of animal sacrifice. The specific covenants after the fall of Adam are seen as administered under the overarching theological covenant of grace.
The Noahic covenant is found in Genesis 8:20-9:17. Although redemption motifs are prominent as Noah and his family are delivered from the judgment waters, the narrative of the flood plays on the creation motifs of Genesis 1 as de-creation and re-creation. The formal terms of the covenant itself more reflect a reaffirmation of the universal created order, than a particular redemptive promise.
The Abrahamic covenant is found in Genesis chapters 12, 15, and 17. In contrast with the covenants made with Adam or Noah which were universal in scope, this covenant was with a particular people. Abraham is promised a seed and a land, although he would not see its fruition within his own lifetime. The Book of Hebrews explains that he was looking to a better and heavenly land, a city with foundations, whose builder and architect is God (11:8-16). The Apostle Paul writes that the promised seed refers in particular to Christ (Galatians 3:16).
The Abrahamic covenant is
The Mosaic covenant, found in Exodus 19-24 and the book of Deuteronomy, expands on the Abrahamic promise of a people and a land. Repeatedly mentioned is the promise of the Lord, "I will be your God and you will be my people" (cf. Exodus 6:7, Leviticus 26:12), particularly displayed as his glory-presence comes to dwell in the midst of the people. This covenant is the one most in view by the term Old Covenant.
Although it is a gracious covenant beginning with God's redemptive action (cf. Exodus 20:1-2), a layer of law is prominent. Concerning this aspect of the Mosaic Covenant, Charles Hodge makes three points in his Commentary on Second Corinthians: (1) The Law of Moses was in first place a reenactment of the covenant of works; viewed this way, it is the ministration of condemnation and death. (2) It was also a national covenant, giving national blessings based on national obedience; in this way it was purely legal. (3) In the sacrificial system, it points to the Gospel of salvation through a mediator.
The Davidic covenant is found in 2 Samuel 7. The Lord proclaims that he will build a house and lineage for David, establishing his kingdom and throne forever. This covenant is appealed to as God preserves David's descendants despite their wickedness (cf. 1 Kings 11:26-39, 15:1-8; 2 Kings 8:19, 19:32-34), although it did not stop judgment from finally arriving (compare 2 Kings 21:7, 23:26-27; Jeremiah 13:12-14). Among the prophets of the exile, there is hope of restoration under a Davidic king who will bring peace and justice (cf. Book of Ezekiel 37:24-28).
The New Covenant is anticipated with the hopes of the Davidic messiah, and most explicitly predicted by the prophet Jeremiah (Jer. 31:34). At the Last Supper, Jesus alludes to this prophecy, as well as to prophecies such as Isaiah 49:8, when he says that the cup of the Passover meal is "the New Covenant in [his] blood." This use of the Old Testament typology is developed further in the Epistle to the Hebrews (see especially chs. 7-10). Jesus is the last Adam and Israel's hope and consolation: he is the fulfillment of the law and the prophets (Matthew 5:17-18). He is the prophet greater than Jonah (Matt 12:41), and the Son over the house where Moses was a servant (Hebrews 3:5-6), leading his people to the heavenly promised land. He is the high priest greater than Aaron, offering up himself as the perfect sacrifice once for all (Hebrews 9:12, 26). He is the king greater than Solomon (Matthew 12:42), ruling forever on David's throne (Luke 1:32). The term "New Testament" comes from the Latin translation of the Greek New Covenant and is most often used for the collection of books in the Bible, can also refer to the New Covenant as a theological concept.
In Reformed theology, a sacrament is usually defined as a sign and seal of the covenant of grace. Since covenant theology today is mainly Protestant and Reformed in its outlook, proponents view Baptism and the Lord's Supper as the only two sacraments in this sense, which are sometimes called "church ordinances." Along with the preached word, they are identified as an ordinary means of grace for salvation. The benefits of these rites do not occur from participating in the rite itself (ex opere operato), but through the power of the Holy Spirit as they are received by faith.
Sometimes Reformed covenantal theologians define sacrament to include signs and seals of the covenant of works. The Garden of Eden, the tree of life, the tree of knowledge of good and evil, and the Sabbath are commonly considered to be the sacraments of the covenant of works.
The Eucharist or the Lord's Supper was instituted by Jesus at a Passover meal, to which he gave a radical reinterpretation. The festival of Passover commemorates the Israelites' deliverance from Egypt - specifically, how the lamb's blood which God commanded them to place on their door posts caused the Angel of Death to "pass over" their dwellings, so that their firstborn might be spared from the final plague. The New Testament writers understand this event typologically: as the lamb's blood saved the Israelites from the plague, so Jesus' substitutionary death saves God's New Covenant people from being judged for their sins. Calvinism has generally viewed the Eucharist as a mysterious participation in the Real Presence of Christ mediated by the Holy Spirit (that is, real spiritual presence or pneumatic presence). This differs from Roman Catholicism and Lutheranism which believe in the Real Presence as an actual bodily presence of Christ, as well as from the generally Baptist position that the supper is strictly a memorial commemoration.
Paedobaptist Covenant theologians argue that the Abrahamic Covenant is still in force, and that God's covenantal promise "to be your God and the God of your descendants after you" still stands for every believer. The argument that the administration of all (other) Biblical covenants, including the New Covenant, include a principle of familial, corporate inclusion, or "generational succession" is therefore of secondary importance to whether infants should be baptized or not. The familial nature of the Abrahamic covenant is undisputed. Genesis 17 "You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you. 12 For the generations to come every male among you who is eight days old must be circumcised, including those born in your household or bought with money from a foreigner—those who are not your offspring. 13 Whether born in your household or bought with your money, they must be circumcised."
In the Acts of the Apostles 2:38-39, the promise is seen to extend to the children of believers as it always was in the Abrahamic Covenant. The Biblical covenants between God and man include signs and seals that visibly represent the realities behind the covenants. These visible signs and symbols of God's covenant redemption are administered in a corporate manner (for instance, to households — see Acts 16:14-15; 16:31-34), not in an exclusively individualistic manner.
Baptism is considered to be the visible New Testament sign of entrance into the Abrahamic Covenant and therefore may be administered individually to new believers making a public profession of faith. Paedobaptists further believe this extends corporately to the households of believers which typically would include children, or individually to children or infants of believing parents (see Infant baptism). In this view, baptism is thus seen as the functional replacement and sacramental equivalent of the Abrahamic rite of circumcision (see Colossians 2:11-14) and symbolizes the internal cleansing from sin, among other things.
Credobaptist Covenant theologians (such as the Baptists Benjamin Keach, John Gill, and Charles Spurgeon) hold that baptism is only for those who can understand and profess their faith, and they argue that the regulative principle of worship, which many paedobaptists also advocate and which states that elements of worship (including baptism) must be based on explicit commands of Scripture, is violated by infant baptism. Furthermore, because the New Covenant is described in Jeremiah 31:31-34 as a time when all who were members of it would have the law written on their hearts and would know God, Baptist Covenant Theologians believe only those who are born again are members of the New Covenant.
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Concepts foundational to covenant theology can be found in the writings of Church Fathers such as Irenaeus and Augustine. Huldrych Zwingli and Johannes Oecolampadius were among the first reformers to speak of God's salvation economy under the categories of a covenant of works and a covenant of grace. John Calvin (Institutes 2:9-11), like Heinrich Bullinger (A Brief Exposition of the One and Eternal Testament or Covenant of God), focussed on the continuity of the covenant of grace, but taught the substance of what became classic covenant theology in terms of Law and Gospel. Early post-reformation writings, including Zacharius Ursinus (1534–1583) in Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism (published posthumously, 1591), Caspar Olevianus (1536–1587) in Concerning the Substance of the Covenant of Grace between God and the Elect (De substantia foederis gratuiti inter deum et electos, 1585), and Scottish Theologian Robert Rollock (1555–1599) in A Treatise of our Effectual Calling (Tractatus de vocatione efficaci, 1597), developed the covenant of works and covenant of grace scheme along the lines of the law-gospel distinction.
Classical statements of covenant theology can be found in the British Westminster Confession of Faith (particularly chap. 7, 8, 19), as well as in the writings of English theologians such as John Owen (1616–1683), Biblical Theology, and An Exposition of the Epistle to the Hebrews. The classical statements among 17th century continental theologians include Johannes Cocceius (c. 1603-1669) in The Doctrine of the Covenant and Testament of God (Summa doctrinae de foedere et testamento dei, 1648), Francis Turretin (1623–1687) in his Institutes of Elenctic Theology, and Hermann Witsius (1636–1708) in The Economy of the Covenants Between God and Man. It may also be seen in the writings of Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758) in Collected Writings of Jonathan Edwards (Vol 2, Banner of Truth edition, p. 950).
In the United States, the Princeton theologians (Charles Hodge, A. A. Hodge, B. B. Warfield, Geerhardus Vos, and J. Gresham Machen) and, in the Netherlands, Herman Bavinck followed the main lines of the classic view, teaching the Covenant of Redemption, the Covenant of Works (Law), and the Covenant of Grace (Gospel).
Recent well-known covenant theologians in the United States include Michael Horton, J. Ligon Duncan III, Meredith G. Kline, J. I. Packer, Richard L. Pratt, Jr., O. Palmer Robertson and R. C. Sproul. This system is taught at schools such as Covenant Theological Seminary, Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, Knox Theological Seminary, Reformed Theological Seminary, Westminster Theological Seminary, and Westminster Seminary California.
Meredith G. Kline did pioneering work in the field of Biblical studies, in the 1960s and 1970s, building on prior work by George E. Mendenhall, by identifying the form of the covenant with the common Suzerain–Vassal treaties of the Ancient Near East in the 2nd millennium BC. One of the highlights of his work has been the comparison of the Mosaic Covenant with the Hittite Suzerainty Treaty formula. A suggested comparison of the treaty structure with the book of Deuteronomy is as follows:
Kline has argued that comparisons between the suzerainty-vassal treaties and royal grants of the Ancient Near East provide insight in highlighting certain distinctive features of the Mosaic covenant as a law covenant, in contrast with the other historic post-Fall covenants. Many who have embraced Kline's insights have still insisted, however, in accordance with the Westminster Confession of Faith, that the Mosaic covenant was fundamentally an administration of the Covenant of Grace.
A number of major 20th-century covenant theologians including Karl Barth, Klaas Schilder, and John Murray have departed from the traditional recognition of a Covenant of Works to develop a monocovenantal scheme subsuming everything under one Covenant of Grace. The focus of all biblical covenants is then on grace and faith. This has not been developed consistently between the various theologians. For example, Barth, influential in the mainline churches and in certain evangelical circles, conceived of grace as the fundamental reality underlying all of creation. Influential among more conservative Presbyterian and Reformed churches, Murray acknowledged the traditional concept of a works principle as a condition for life with Adam in the Garden of Eden, comparing Adam's works to the works of Christ. He disputed its label as a covenant, however, preferring to call this arrangement the Adamic administration.
At Westminster Theological Seminary in the late 1970s, Norman Shepherd, a professor of systematic theology, was dismissed due to controversy over his teaching on justification. His views involved a reconfiguration of covenant theology that went beyond those of Murray, his predecessor. Shepherd denied any notion of a works or merit principle, leading to a denial of the imputation of Christ's active obedience to the believer. He argued that Jesus' own justification was due to his faith and obedience. In the same way then, the believer must be justified before God by faith and obedience. Shepherd's followers claim that the Covenant of Works between Adam and God in the Garden of Eden was not originally part of covenant theology, following John Murray's observation that a covenant of works at creation does not receive explicit mention in early confessions such as the French Confession (1559), the Scots Confession (1560), the Belgic Confession (1561), the Thirty-Nine Articles (1562), the Heidelberg Catechism (1563), and the Second Helvetic Confession (1566).
Some of Shepherd's critics contend that the concept of a works principle distinct from a Covenant of Grace is evident in the commentaries and dogmatic works of the earliest covenant theologians, particularly in the distinction made between Law and Gospel (for instance, Zacharias Ursinus, Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism). There is also explicit articulation of a Covenant of Works in the writings of those such as Olevianus and Rollock. Additionally, defenders of the merit-based view argue that the concept of this works principle operating in the pre-Fall state in the Garden of Eden as a covenant is present in the early confessions even if the Covenant of Works is not explicitly named. Examples include Belgic Confession, article 14, which speaks of Adam having received and transgressed the "commandment of life"; or Heidelberg Catechism, Question and Answer 6 affirming the goodness of man in creation. The later Westminster Confession of Faith (1646) explicitly names the Covenant of Works which Adam transgressed (7.2; 19.1), and which "continues to be a perfect rule of righteousness" in the form of the moral law (19.2, 3).
In opposition to the modern revisers, Meredith Kline reemphasized the idea of a covenant of works as expressed in the Westminster Confession of Faith 7.2 as a means to protect a gospel of grace. Kline writes:
If meritorious works could not be predicated of Jesus Christ as second Adam, then obviously there would be no meritorious achievement to be imputed to his people as the ground of their justification-approbation. The gospel invitation would turn out to be a mirage. We who have believed on Christ would still be under condemnation. The gospel truth, however, is that Christ has performed the one act of righteousness and by his obedience of the one the many are made righteous (Rom 5:18, 19)…. Underlying Christ's mediatorship of a covenant of grace for the salvation of believers is his earthly fulfillment, through meritorious obedience, of his heavenly covenant of works with the Father.… What begins as a rejection of works ends up as an attack, however unintentional, on the biblical message of saving grace.
Kline, Michael Horton, and others have sought to uphold the distinction of two sorts of covenant traditions: one based on merit, earned by obedience to law (works), and the other on promise (grace). While the consensus in Reformed theology is that works are antithetical to grace as the means of justification, differences emerge in attempts to describe this antithesis.
On the one hand, Reformed theologians more in line with Kline tend to say that works are ultimately the basis for grace, since God requires perfect upholding of the law for heavenly reward. Since this is understood to be an impossible task for the corrupted sinner, it is Christ who perfectly obeyed the law in fulfillment of the covenant of works. Jesus, earning the reward, graciously bestows it to his people (cf. Luke 22:29). For example, R. C. Sproul writes, "Man's relationship to God in creation was based on works. What Adam failed to achieve, Christ, the second Adam, succeeded in achieving. Ultimately the only way one can be justified is by works." The sinner is thus saved by Christ's works and not his own. Right standing before God is then due to an alien or imputed righteousness received by faith, not by personal faithfulness which is the fruition of salvation and not its ground.
On the other hand, Reformed theologians more in line with Murray tend to say that works were never meant to be the basis for grace, but that grace precedes the call for obedience. Consequently, works are the necessary response to grace and not the precondition for it. For example, Michael Williams writes, "The function of law within Scripture is the maintenance of relationship, not the creation of relationship. Legal obligation is not the precondition for life and relationship. Rather, life and relationship form the necessary environment for obligation." While this view still affirms the necessity of the merit of Christ, it departs from Kline’s construal of merit as a fundamental principle of the covenant of works.