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HISTORICAL DOUBTS CONCERNING ONE "COVENANT OF GRACE"

Part One

by R. K. McGregor Wright, Th.M. Ph.D.

CONTENTS

I. THE PROBLEM

1) The Basic Claim of the Covenant Theologian

2) Implications of the "Covenant Of Grace"

3) Four Methods of Criticism

II. THE BIBLICAL COVENANT DATA

1) The Biblical Covenants Described

2) Covenant(s) of Grace?

III. COVENANTALISM: PRESUPPOSITIONS AND METHODOLOGY

1) An Abstract Methodology

2) A Speculative Unity at the Expense of Biblical Diversity

IV. THE COVENANTALIST USE OF SCRIPTURE

1) The Case of the Adamic Non-Covenant

2) The Case of the Unconditional Abrahamic Elements

3) The Case of the not-very-New Covenant

4) Specific Verses Under One-Covenant Treatment

V. WORLD-VIEWS IN COLLISION

1) Theological Constructs as Exegetical Game-Rules

2) The Assumption of a State Church

3) The Spectre of a Church State

4) Persecution of Baptists Inevitable?

VI. WHO, PRAY TELL, IS TRULY REFORMED?

VII. A DIALOGUE OF ENLIGHTENMENT CONCLUSION

VIII. TWO CONCLUSIONS


I. THE PROBLEM

1) The Basic Claim of the "Covenant Theologian"

Most of us are familiar with the fact that there are many types of theology; Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Calvinist and Methodist theologies differ from each other in their emphases and methods. The Methodists this century (1900’s) developed "personalism" in Boston. The Anglicans evolved a "theology of the Incarnation" from about 1850 to 1950. Catholic theology is "sacramental," while the classical Lutherans evolved a "christocentric" theology in which justification by faith looms large.

One dominant type of Calvinistic theology is structured according to principles by which God is thought to relate to mankind by way of "covenant." There are several distinct types of "covenant theology." But the main idea linking them is that in God's eternal purposes, the persons of the Trinity agreed to administer the drama of redemption out of an eternal, unified "Covenant of Grace" which is then administered in history by way of distinct but progressively-related covenants with individuals or groups. This universal Covenant of Grace is thought to be continuous throughout the drama of redemption. It has an identifiable "essence" in each era or dispensation, which is more fundamental than the details of its particular form of administration in each era.

2) Implications of the Covenant of Grace

Several important results flow from the idea of a universal Covenant, which have produced far-reaching results in Reformed thought. The first is that a broad theological construct or framework is thereby established, within which all of Reformed or Calvinistic theology must thereafter be pursued. The general relationship between God and his creation is called a "covenantal" relationship, God and Man are said to be "covenantally" related, revelation both special and general are said to be in some sense "covenantal;" the Church is "a covenantal people," and so forth.

Secondly, the doctrine of Infant Baptism is thereby supplied with the framework for a new theological proof and justification. Before the Reformation and the subsequent development of the "covenantal principle," the doctrine of Baptismal Regeneration had supplied this justification. Baptism came to be seen as the particular sign of the general covenant, replacing circumcision as the sign under the previous administration. The argument was then developed that just as circumcision was the "sign of the covenant" given to "covenant children" under the former administration, so baptism, as the sign of the covenant under the present administration, must be given to the "covenant children" of the new administration. To reject this argument is to reject "the unity of the Covenant of Grace."

Thirdly, the overwhelming importance given to the universal covenant idea results in a hermeneutic which minimizes or denies both the historic distinctions between, and certain distinctive features of, the specific historical covenants which are actually described in Scripture. Important doctrines having a large place in Scripture are thereby gutted of their textual content, and the symbolic generalizations of covenantalism take their place. The most obvious case of this is the tendency to blur the clear distinctions maintained between the OT predictions of future blessings for a regenerated National Israel and the present blessings predicated of the NT Church in this age, or the fusion of Old Covenant Law with New Covenant Law, with serious implications for the doctrine of sanctification.

There are many other results of covenantalist thinking, but the most pervasive by far is the tendency to reason as if covenant theology were the central organizing principle of the Bible, and to conclude that anybody who does not see Christianity through this grid is not "truly Reformed," and so lacks the spiritual insight for serious theology. Covenantalism is thus given a privileged status by many Calvinists which prejudices them against alternative constructs and approaches to doing theology, Often they find it convenient to speak as if the only alternative to their position were the Dispensationalism of the Scofield type.

3) Four Methods of Criticism

There are usually at least four ways of criticizing an interpretation of anything, whether it be a theory or a religion or a worldview:

a) By questioning the system's presuppositions, the entire structure may be brought into question. Presuppositions, like the rules in the game of Chess, determine what is possible across the board, and the more logically consistent we try to be after accepting false presuppositions, the further we remove ourselves from reality. We will expand on this in Part V below.

b) A system may also be refuted by showing that it is self-contradictory or that while it is being developed, certain conclusions are not warranted by the premises. It is sometimes the case in the more comprehensive types of theological generalization, that conclusions, often of a highly practical nature, are drawn, which do not necessarily follow logically, although it is assumed that they are somehow "required" by the system. Examples of this include, the antinomian conclusions sometimes drawn from the premise of justification by faith alone or from the NT emphasis on Grace over against the Law, or the anti-missionary conclusions thought by some hyper-Calvinists to follow from the doctrine of predestination.

c) Facts are stubborn things, and often must be ignored in order to smooth the way for a theory's acceptance. To show either that facts have been selected or ignored to produce the derived result, or to show that an explanation fails to account for facts unearthed later, is to demonstrate its failure as a comprehensive tool of interpretation. See Part IV below.

d) Once a position has been grasped and accepted as a whole, it must be shown that it is possible to live within its framework. Absurd results should not develop when an attempt is made to apply the system consistently to real-life situations. We will expand on this in Part VI below.

It will be shown in sections III to VI below that covenantalism fails all four of these tests and should therefore be abandoned in the form it usually takes. It is really no wonder that John Murray, formerly of Westminster Seminary, notes laconically at the beginning of a typical account of Covenant Theology, that we should not think of historic covenantalism as if there is no "further need for correction, modification and expansion…. It appears to me that the covenant theology …needs recasting" (The Covenants of Grace: A Biblical Study). He then proceeds to give a highly traditional account of a unified covenantalism in which the individual historical covenants are used primarily as illustrative sources for the "one covenant of grace."

II. THE BIBLICAL COVENANT DATA

1) The Biblical Covenants Described

The best way to get at how a covenant may be Biblically defined is to look at the cases in Scripture. The word occurs often, and is used generally to describe agreements or commitments of men with men, of God with men, and also of agreements between nations. On rare occasions a natural regularity of nature may be called a "covenant" (as in Jer 33:20, 25).

Aside from a general human use of the word for agreements between men or nations, the Bible describes the following historical covenants made between God and man:

a) The Noachic Covenant of Genesis 9

God promises here to continue the race of Adam through Noah and his sons, not to destroy the earth by a flood again, and gives people the right to eat meat as well as vegetables, and the responsibility to exercise the death penalty for murder. The Adamic dominion mandate is repeated and included in the covenant made with Noah, and God gives the rainbow as a sign of his promises. No conditions are required of men; the covenant is purely a divine commitment between God and all his creation, to continue things a certain way, "forever." It is described as an "eternal" covenant, which presumably means that it will never be lifted as long as the earth exists.

b) The Abrabamic Covenant in Genesis 12:1-7

God announced a covenant with Abraham in Genesis 12:1-7, and confirms and enlarges it in 13:14-17, 15:1-21, 17:1-14 and 22:15-18. At least thirteen distinct and identifiable promises are made to Isaac and Jacob (Israel) in almost identical terms to those in which he gave it to Abraham. The covenant is unconditional, in that everything is made to depend on God's sovereignty for its fulfillment. Acceptance of the covenant by the representatives and their descendents is recognized by the sign of circumcision.

c) The Mosaic Covenant in Exodus 19, 20, etc.

This is a specific conditional covenant defining the circumstances under which God will bless the newly constituted nation of Israel in the land of promise. If they fail to keep the Mosaic Law, they will lose their national privileges and be dispersed, and their land will be desolate. These conditions of blessing in the land are defined in the Mosaic Law and were added four hundred years after the Abrahamic promises which, says Paul, they did not disannul (Gal 3).

The Mosaic Covenant was a supplementary covenant of Law which functioned as the constitution of the nation of Israel in the promised land. It had an elaborate system of Laws to which both blessings and curses were attached as sanctions. It was wholly conditional, and even the elect did not fulfill it in detail, until Jesus came and satisfied it fully in his active and passive obedience. Elements of it were repeated in the system of worship predicted for the Millennium, although Ezekiel could never have thought that his system (Ezek 40-48) was the Mosaic system, since it was so different. It is the Mosaic system which is the Law-covenant abolished in the era of the New Covenant according to Hebrews, not Ezekiel's system, which has never been ratified or operational. Its fulfillment is therefore still future.

Elements of the Mosaic system taken up into the yet future system of Ezekiel include a Davidic Prince to represent the people and Levitical Zadokites to officiate in the Temple (Cf. Jer 30:9, 33:17,18,21,22 with Ezek 37:24-28, 40:46, 43:19, 44:15-16; Hosea 3:5, etc.). The New Covenant includes none of this during the present age, which shows that the covenants which provide for it cannot be the present form of the New Covenant.

d) The Palestinian Covenant of Deuteronomy 30:1-10

This covenant is spelled out in detail at the end of Deuteronomy on the eve of entering into the Promised Land. It is called an "eternal covenant" in Ezekiel 16:59-63, and it is again predicted that God will sovereignly fulfill it after the captivity in Babylon. It is unconditional, and depends wholly on the divine sovereignty. That is, it is a covenant strictly of promise and crystallizes certain elements of the Abrahamic Covenant as applying to the land of Palestine. It has never been fulfilled in its final form as provided for by Ezekiel and Zechariah, and cannot be fulfilled in the present Church era.

e) The Davidic Covenant of 2 Samuel 7:12-16

God makes specific promises to David that his son will continue the Kingdom, and build the planned Temple. The Davidic throne will be eternal, Solomon will not lose his throne despite his sins, and David's house, throne, and kingdom will be forever. This covenant is several times referred to in Scripture and adds specific promises within the framework of the basic Abrahamic covenant. See Isa. 9:6-7, Jer. 23:56, 30:8-9, 33:14-17,20-21, Ezek. 37:24-25, Dan. 7:13-14, Hosea 3:4-5, Amos 9:11, Zech. 14:4-9, etc. It may be regarded as a series of codicils [supplements] of promise added to the Abrahamic Covenant and is thus described as "eternal" in 2 Samuel 23:5, Isa. 55:3 and Ezek. 37:25.

f) The New Covenant of Jeremiah 31:31-34

This covenant was the subject of OT prediction and was ratified with his people by Jesus as the new Moses in the Upper Room, and with God on the Cross (Heb. 13:20). It is called "eternal" in Isa. 24:5, 61:8, Jer. 32:40, 50:5 and Hebrews 13:20. It was made with Spiritual Israel, i.e., with the Elect of God in Christ, and contains at least a dozen specific promises to them, including some of the promises of the Abrahamic Covenant. It includes the future regenerate Israel and therefore will later incorporate promises of the Palestinian and Davidic covenants. Its fulfillment rests ultimately on the gracious "I will" of Jehovah himself. It absolutely guarantees the salvation of the elect and includes no one else. It was to be made only with those who "know the Lord," according to Jer. 31:33-34.

This three-part article is continued at:
Historical Doubts Concerning One "Covenant of Grace" - Part Two.

 

Historical Doubts Concerning One "Covenant of Grace" January 1996 R. K. McGregor Wright, Ph.D. for Aquila and Priscilla Study Center.

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The above article was posted on this Web site September 3, 1999.

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