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A Brief Overview of Covenant Theology

Written By Victor Stanley Jr.

Though this system is rooted in ancient ideas, it was more fully systematized in the Westminster Confession of 1647. Those responsible for fleshing out the system of Covenant Theology include John Owen (d. 1683), Jonathan Edwards (d. 1758), and many of the other Reformers of the 16th century, and the Puritan theologians of the 17th and 18th centuries.

The most foundational beliefs of this system can be narrowed down to four general concepts. First is that Covenant Theology is rooted in the ancient belief that the Church inherited Israel’s place as God’s chosen people. Second is that Covenant Theology views the Bible with the person and work of Christ as the focal point of all of scripture. Third is Covenant Theology’s treatment of the earthly promises to Israel as spiritual promises to the Church. Finally, Covenant Theology treats more of Israel’s law as applicable to the Church.

These first principles led to the following distinct beliefs regarding salvation, the church, and eschatology. With respect to soteriology Covenant Theology sees a greater role of the moral law in the life of a Christian. Founding principal of the London School of Theology, and scholar on Puritan Theology, Ernest Kevan states:

“The place occupied by the moral law of God is observable in every department of theology… Sin is the transgression of the Law, the death of Christ is the satisfaction of the Law, justification is the verdict of the Law, and sanctification is the believer’s fulfillment of the Law.”[1]

Along with this Covenant Theology has a high view of the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper believing that they take the place of circumcision and the Passover respectively. Thus the sacraments become more essential to fully experiencing the grace given to believers through salvation. Covenant Theology’s view of the Church is very much tied to the idea that the Church is Israel. As a result of seeing the Church as Israel Covenant Theology asserts that Bishops/Pastors assume the role of Old Testament priests.

There is less separation of church and state within this system, which makes sense considering that ancient Israel’s government and religion were inextricably linked. The Church then takes on a national identity, and all of this leads to two eschatological systems commonly held by covenant theologians; these systems are amillennialism and postmillennialism. Both systems believe that God has no distinct plans for national, that is, ethnic, Israel, and that the Jewish Old Testament Covenants have either been fulfilled already, or are forfeited and instead applied to the Church who is spiritual Israel.

Where the two systems differ is on the millennium, with amillennialists believing that the millennium is metaphoric and represents the current church age. In contrast, postmillennialists believe that the Church, through evangelizing the world, will build the millennium by converting the majority of the world to Christianity. It can be seen that much of Covenant Theology’s system is tied to the idea of continuity between the Old and New Testaments with great emphasis on the law and the people of God, that is, Israel and the Church.

Covenant Theology’s structure is built around theological covenants that fall under three headings, each of which has scriptural support. First is the covenant of redemption between the three members of the Godhead. Support for this is found in Hebrews 13:20s mention of the “eternal covenant” God made with Jesus; Titus 1:2 also mentions a covenant involving both God the Father and God the Son. Second is the covenant of works between God and mankind, which finds support in Jesus interaction with the rich young ruler in Matthew 19:17 where Jesus tells him that to enter life he must keep the law, and in Romans 2:6-8, 13 where it is stated that everyone will be judged according to their deeds. Third is the covenant of grace between God and the believer. Romans 4:3 states that Abraham was justified by faith and it was credited to him as righteousness, again Romans 3:22-24 and Ephesians 2:8-9 both state that by grace through faith the believer is justified.

Opponents of Covenant Theology find several issues with the conclusions it draws. One of the most disputed issues revolves around hermeneutics. Covenant Theology requires what dispensationalists call a spiritualized reading of scripture, this is used to mean that covenant theologians view many passages of scripture as having an allegorical meaning. Dispensationalist claim to hold to a literal reading and interpretation of the text, and to only read passages as symbolic or metaphoric when the original author intends it to be metaphoric. It is for this reason the dispensationalists see Israel and the Church as being separate, whereas covenant theologians believe that the Church is spiritual Israel, and that the promises to ethno-political Israel are fulfilled through Christ and the Church.

One interesting thing I learned while studying this topic is that Covenant Theology requires a more allegorical hermeneutic. This is intriguing because the Reformers were very much believers in the historical-grammatical method of hermeneutics, and faulted the Roman Catholic Church for over allegorizing the text. It seems that the Reformers and Puritans struck a balance between the allegorical approach and the historical-grammatical approach. The brevity of this essay prevents a deeper look into Covenant Theology, however, I believe that this general overview provides a good starting point for anyone wanting to do further research.

[1] Joel Beeke and Mark Jones, A Puritan Theology (Grand Rapid: Reformation Heritage Books, 2012), 555.

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