Understanding Covenant Theology

Although challenging, I have managed to reduce my discussion of CT to under 2500 words. I apologize for the lack of citation, but the brevity of the article would not permit me to give full citation with commentary. I also understand that I am painting with a broader brush than I would normally desire to use, but once again brevity leaves me with no other option. With apologies aside, I can only hope that this information will be beneficial to my brothers and sisters in Christ.

Covenant theology centers on the foundational idea of continuity concerning the promised redemptive work of God in history. As the nomenclature suggests, this theological system finds its continuity in the covenant idea. Most covenant theologians identify two governing covenants: the covenant of works and the covenant of grace (some covenant theologians propose an additional “covenant of redemption” made in eternity past).
In both covenants, God is the author and man is the agreeing partner. Both covenants are conditional, promissory, and doxological in their aim. The covenant of works was the covenant in operation before the fall of man. In this covenant, God appeared as the Creator, and man appeared as His perfect, created being. These two parties entered into a covenant that was contingent upon the obedience of the created being. After the fall of man, God instituted the covenant of grace. In this covenant, God appears as Savior and man as a sinner. Unlike the covenant of works, the covenant of grace requires a mediator to act in behalf of fallen man. The covenant of grace rests on the merits of this mediator (Jesus Christ) rather than on the actions of man, thus making the covenant of grace a much surer covenant. It is surer because, while man is changeable, the divine mediator is absolute. The covenant of grace did not replace the covenant of works. These two covenants work side by side. Man is born under the covenant of works, whereby he is under condemnation. Through faith in the person and work of Christ one may participate in the covenant of grace, which delivers him from condemnation. The Scriptures reveal and develop the covenant of grace that delivers man from condemnation under the covenant of works. The covenants made to individuals such as Abraham and David must be understood in light of this overarching covenant of grace. In essence, the covenant of grace provides the framework for continuity in this theological system.
An adherence to continuity, however, does not necessitate the rejection of discontinuity. Covenant theology consists of varying administrations whereby God demonstrated this covenant of grace. Covenant theologians identify at least two administrations of the covenant of grace: the Old Testament and the New Testament. Even though covenant theology recognizes different administrations and even refers to them as dispensations, proponents of the system are quick to return to the idea of unity by stressing the unchanging character of the covenant itself. The difference between the two administrations consists of the clarity of revelation and fullness of salvation rather than varying methods of God’s salvific work. For the covenant theologian, it is not a matter of pitting continuity against discontinuity, but rather emphasizing continuity over the idea of discontinuity.

Hermeneutical Features
New Testament Priority. The Old Testament as an administration of the covenant of grace presents the revelation of God in promises, types and ordinances to Israel. The New Testament is that administration of the covenant of grace by which the Old Testament administration is fulfilled. As a result, the covenant theologian tends to seek continuity amid the discontinuity of testaments by following a New Testament priority. New Testament priority means that one seeks the real meaning in the New Testament of a “pictured” meaning found in the Old Testament. The degree to which covenant theologians hold New Testament priority varies greatly. Some hold to a priority that views the New Testament as the absolute finality of fulfillment of the Old Testament (Lester Kuyper, The Scripture Unbroken, 56). Other covenant theologians hold a more open view of Old Testament fulfillment. Loraine Boettner (The Millennium, 4), for instance, allows for the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy to still happen in the future. According to his view there is not only a spiritual but also a political fulfillment of the kingdom promises for His people (Note that these future promises are fulfilled by the church, not Israel. The church inherits the political fulfillment as well. Boettner is postmillennial). There is yet another small group of covenant theologians who have recently rethought the idea of New Testament priority as being an oversimplified way of solving the interpretational tensions presented by the Old and New Testaments. VanGemeren, for instance, states, “The NT is not the finality, fulfillment, or fruition of the Old…. The ‘fruition’ properly belongs to the New Covenant and to Jesus Christ, but that is not the same as the writings of the NT…. Old and New stand together and not over against each other (tota Scriptura)” (“Systems of Continuity,” Continuity and Discontinuity, 54). Despite a plea from this small group of covenant theologians, New Testament priority has been and still is a characteristic of covenant hermeneutics, for it emphasizes continuity most readily.
George Ladd refers to the significance of testament priority in covenant hermeneutics when he writes, “Here is the basic watershed between a dispensational and a nondispensational theology. Dispensationalism forms its eschatology by a literal interpretation of the Old Testament and then fits the New Testament into it. A nondispensational eschatology forms its theology from the explicit teaching of the New Testament. It confesses that it cannot be sure how the Old Testament prophecies of the end are to be fulfilled, for (a) the first coming of Christ was accomplished in terms not foreseen by a literal interpretation of the Old Testament, and (b) there are unavoidable indications that the Old Testament promises to Israel are fulfilled in the Christian church (The Meaning of the Millennium, 27).
Doxological focus through one central theme. Another hermeneutical ramification of covenant theology’s framework of continuity is a focus upon God’s soteriological purpose. Covenant theologians are indeed doxologically focused in their overall theology. Berkhof asserts this clearly in his discussion of the nature of the covenants of works and grace. Both covenants agree as to author, contracting parties, external form, contents of the promise, and “the general aim, which is the glory of God” (Systematic Theology, 272). However, covenant theology focuses upon God’s salvific work as the unifying theme of Scripture. The soteriological focus of Scripture is the means by which one can understand and appreciate the doxological focus of theology. Berkhof goes on to articulate in one sentence this idea of doxological focus of theology in connection with a soteriological focus of revelation. He states, “God reveals His will and the way of salvation to men, in order to glorify Himself in the redemption of sinners” (Systematic Theology, 58).
Summary. Every theologian of any orthodox system claims that he has arrived at his theological conclusions through careful exegesis of the Scripture. This discussion in no way questions the covenant theologian’s pursuit of exegetical accuracy. One must admit, however, that there are strong presuppositions that guide the otherwise objective method of exegesis. Before one interacts with the text, he must make decisions concerning the coherence of Scripture. How one deals with the issue of discontinuity and continuity lays the foundation for later determinations concerning semantic range, literal versus metaphorical meaning, and how literary genre affects that meaning. When a particular system commits itself to the emphasis of continuity or discontinuity, there are major hermeneutical ramifications. Covenant theology’s commitment to the emphasis of continuity has resulted in a hermeneutic that focuses on universal soteriological truths generalized in covenant form within a New Testament priority.

Theological Ramifications
Israel and the Church. The redemptive focus and New Testament priority of covenant theology views the church as spanning both the Old and New Testaments. The church, which is mentioned specifically in the New Testament, is seen implicitly in the Old Testament. The church’s spanning of the testaments, therefore, raises two questions worthy of investigation. What is the relationship between the church and Israel? Similarly, what is the relationship between the church and the kingdom of God?
Typically, covenant theologians identify the church and Israel as essentially the same. The unity of the church and Israel is the logical result of a continuitous system. If the people of God of all ages (Israel and the church included) are one body (the body of Christ), and the body of Christ is the church, then the church and Israel are one. Israel and the church relate to each other in terms of “essential nature” and “external organization” (to use the terms of Berkhof). Other theologians use the terms “spiritual” and “visible” (Mathison). How covenant theologians relate the corresponding visible representatives of God’s people varies. Some covenant theologians hold that the church has replaced Israel fully. The church is seen to have been the fulfillment of Old Testament typology. Practically speaking, then, the future of the external organization of national Israel is fulfilled in the church, thus leaving no future place and purpose for national Israel in God’s redemptive plan.
Due to Israel’s continued existence as a nation, some covenant theologians have begun to rethink the future place of Israel in God’s redemptive plan. Anthony Hoekema voices one of the more popular positions held by covenant theologians today. Hoekema states, “The future of believing Israelites is not to be separated from the future of believing Gentiles. Israel’s hope for the future is exactly the same as that of believing Gentiles: salvation and ultimate glorification through faith in Christ” (The Bible and the Future, 201). Israel’s future, according to Hoekema and many other covenant theologians, is its incorporation into the church. Some covenant theologians, however, are more open to seeing future Israel playing a role in God’s redemptive plan. George Ladd speaks of the salvation of Israel as “bringing a ‘wave of life’ to the whole world…. It may be that in the millennium, for the first time in human history, we will witness a truly Christian nation” (A Theology of the New Testament, 562).
Although covenant theologians present various views on the relationship of the visible people of God manifested through Israel and the church, they agree that there is but one people of God. The people of God in the Old Testament were the body of Christ just as the New Testament church is. Therefore, the church existed within national Israel in the Old Testament, but the church today has its own identity free of national distinction.
The Kingdom of God and the Church. Covenant theologians, to some degree, identify the church with the kingdom of God. For some, the church is virtually the whole of the kingdom of God, and for others, a portion of it. This degree of identification is yet another ramification of one’s testament priority. Those who see the New Testament as the complete fulfillment of the Old Testament will identify the church as virtually the whole kingdom of God. Other theologians who allow for future fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy beyond the time of the New Testament will view the church as a portion of the kingdom. Therefore, testament priority affects church/kingdom relationship, and church/kingdom relationship affects the covenant theologian’s millennial view. Although many theologians may view the church/kingdom relationship as the determining factor of one’s millennial position, it is actually determined by a more foundational hermeneutical principle, namely testament priority.
The amillennialist either denies or ignores the idea of a future earthly kingdom of God. Holding to a New Testament priority, he views the kingdom of God as having already found its prophetic fulfillment in the New Testament. If the kingdom of God is primarily spiritual, then this kingdom and the invisible church are nearly synonymous, for one cannot be a member of one and not the other.
Postmillennial covenant theologians view the church and the kingdom of God as being nearly identical as well. The major difference between postmillennialism and amillennialism lies in the concept of an earthly kingdom. Postmillennialists anticipate the development of an earthly kingdom that is both visible and organized. Amillennialism views the kingdom of God as transcending that of an earthly, organized kingdom, but postmillennialism holds that an earthly, organized kingdom is developing and will continue to strengthen and gain prominence in the earth, thus ushering in the return of Christ. There is a common bond between both millennial positions, however. The overarching hermeneutical principles of continuity and New Testament priority lead to their equation of the kingdom of God and the church although divergent in the specifics of manifestation.
The covenant premillennialist occupies an interesting position within covenant theology. George Eldon Ladd is one of the most prolific writers among covenant premillennialists. He states, “Premillennialism is the doctrine stating that after the Second Coming of Christ, he will reign for a thousand years over the earth before the final consummation of God’s redemptive purpose in the new heavens and the new earth of the Age to Come. This is the natural reading of Revelation 20:1-6” (The Meaning of the Millennium, 17). Such a statement would seem to suggest that this covenant theologian has abandoned his New Testament priority. Ladd, however, remains true to this tenet of covenant theology. He does not come to this premillennial position by means of Old Testament prophecy, for he is not willing to abandon his identification of the church with Israel. Ladd writes that he has been correctly identified “as a nondispensationalist because I do not keep Israel and the church distinct throughout God’s program” (p. 20). He relates his rather anomalous millennial position to his covenant theology when he states, “A nondispensational eschatology forms its theology from the explicit teaching of the New Testament.” Ladd admits that his view of Old Testament prophecy is not unlike that of the amillennialist. He states, “The alert reader will say, ‘This sounds like amillennialism.’ And so it does. I suspect that the amillennial writer will heartily agree with all that has been said thus far” (p. 27) The difference between Ladd and the amillennialist is similar to the difference between postmillennialists and amillennialists. The difference rests upon Ladd’s affirmation of an earthly kingdom. The difference between Ladd and the postmillennialist lies in his very literal interpretation of Revelation 20. He views this earthly kingdom as something to be established in the future, not that it is developing currently or in operation presently. Covenant premillennialism, therefore, identifies the kingdom of God as the rule of God manifested in both spiritual and earthly aspects. Differing from amillennial and postmillennial positions, covenant premillennialism does not identify the church and the kingdom as essentially the same. The church may be the current manifestation of the kingdom of God, but it is only a portion of this broader concept. Unlike those holding other millennial positions, covenant premillennialists are unwilling to equate fully the concepts of the church and the kingdom of God, but the two entities are nonetheless seen to share an intimate relationship.


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