What is Covenant Theology?

Today’s post is by guest-author Matt Hendren. Matt is the husband to a wonderful wife, a member of Immanuel Nashville, and an all around nerd. His interests include comedy, Reformed Theology, and all things stationary. You can find him spreading ecumenical peace on Twitter @mhendren48 talking theology, coffee, and pencils.

Covenant Theology is a hermeneutic that interprets the Bible from within a covenantal framework. It essentially seeks to set forth how God brings about the history of redemption in Christ through covenant(s). 

Covenant Theology, or Federal Theology as it is sometimes termed, is known primarily for its message that the scriptures reveal one revelatory message of salvation and reconciliation of God and man, organically and progressively revealed through an overarching metanarrative. Another aspect of this theological framework is that it is distinctly Christological, seeing Christ as the very center of the Scriptures. 

Brief Historical Background

The history of Covenant Theology is rich but by no means monolithic. Its history is as organic and progressive a development as its theology. It can be seen in seed form, as it were, in the Early Church Fathers, particularly with Augustine and his emphasis on original sin. The federal headship of Adam and Christ can be seen in other fathers as well. 

The subsequent growth and widespread acceptance of the idea of “covenant” as a leading concept is due to the fertile theological soil of the Reformation. The development of the covenant as a hermeneutical concept grew due to the writings of men such as Bullinger, Cocceius, Ames, Ursinus, and Olevianus during the time of the Reformation and thereafter. 

Like most theological positions, the spread is no doubt due to the context of the academy where some of these men held posts. However, it was the polemics against the Anabaptists and others during that time that emerge as chiefly responsible for the germination of what became known as covenant theology. First in Switzerland, Zwingli, Bullinger, and Calvin, though to a much lesser degree, made use of the idea of the covenant contra the Anabaptists. Calvin argued famously for the unity of the covenants as reason to extend the grace of baptism to infants. (Calvin, Institutes IV. 16. 7) Bullinger, following Zwingli in Zurich, wrote perhaps the first comprehensive work on covenant theology, The Decades. Casper Olevianus and Ursinus stand out as examples of covenant theologians in Germany, being the shapers of the Heidelberg Catechism. Olevianus’s work, The Substance of the Covenant of Grace between God and the Elect, is worth mention as well. Building on the work of perhaps all of the aforementioned names, Johannes Cocceius developed a pre-temporal covenant between Father and Son as well as the idea of two different covenants in time— the covenant of works and the covenant of grace. This is of particular importance as it represents the entirety and nucleus of covenant theology: salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.  

The concept of covenant theology did not stay on the continent only. The 1646 Westminster Confession of Faith is perhaps the single most famous work expounding covenant theology, particularly chapters 7 & 8. This did not happen in a vacuum, however. These men were likewise influenced by others in their thinking. In particular, William Ames, John Ball, and Herman Witsius were influential and highly regarded among the Westminster divines. These Puritans saw the doctrine of covenant as so important, they nearly dealt exclusively in terms of covenant theology, bringing the concept of covenant into the forefront of all of their theology. It many ways, it was their guide to life and practice. 

Definition of “Covenant”

A covenant can best be defined as a pact or bond between two parties with stipulations regarding the keeping or breaking of said stipulation(s). The Hebrew word for “covenant“ is “berith”. This term is used in conjunction with the idea of berith-making, or “cutting a covenant” (carat berith), a ritual confirming the agreement. This ritual would involve a physical act; a literal cutting (carat) of animals would take place, signifying what would happen to the party that broke the covenant. In summary it a visible word, as it were, that puts the idiomatic expression into action.

This is strikingly similar to several events we see in the Bible. In Genesis 15, God cuts a covenant with Abraham. Likewise, Abraham himself has an episode where he “cuts” a covenant with Abimelech in Genesis 21. All Israel likewise participates in covenant ceremony when they renew their covenant with God. 

It is important to note that there are two major types of covenants traced back to the ancient world (read the setting of the Old Testament), Royal Grant and Suzerain-Vassal Treaties. The former is a type of treaty, or covenant, wherein the superior (normally a King) makes promises and required only appropriate appreciation and fidelity, signified by an “I will do” approach by the superior; the latter required obedience to stipulations, a “we will do” approach.

Give the above, it should be clear that the covenants in scripture are essentially alike when compared to the form of many Ancient Near Eastern Treaties. The covenant with Abraham looks like a Royal Grant whereas the covenant made with Israel at Sinai appears to be very close to the Suzerain-Vassal Treaty. 

This also is a direct comparison to the first two tenets of covenant theology: the covenant of works and the covenant of grace— one requires perfect personal obedience to live eternally then other requires belief. 

Basic Tenets of Covenant Theology

The majority of Covenant Theologians have historically agreed upon three main points (though the names of these covenants have not always been the same): 

  1. The covenant of works 
  2. The covenant of grace 
  3. The covenant of redemption

There has not been unanimous agreement regarding these points; but the majority of opinions, along with the Westminster Confession of Faith, being a consensus document, set forth these points as the avenue in which God sets out to accomplish redemption in time.  

The Westminster Confession of Faith VII.1-3 expounds upon the covenant of works and the covenant of grace found in scripture as follows (Scripture references included):

I. The distance between God and the creature is so great, that although reasonable creatures do owe obedience unto him as their Creator, yet they could never have any fruition of him as their blessedness and reward, but by some voluntary condescension on God’s part, which he hath been pleased to express by way of covenant. (a)

[(a) Isa 40:13-17; Job 9:32,33; 1 Sam. 2:25; Ps 113:5,6; Ps 100:2,3; Job 22:2,3; Job 35:7,8; Luke 17:10; Acts 17:24,25]

II. The first covenant made with man was a covenant of works, (b) wherein life was promised to Adam, and in him to his posterity, (c) upon condition of perfect and personal obedience. (d)

[(b) Gal. 3:12; (c) Rom 10:5, Rom. 5:12-20; (d) Gen. 2:17; Gal. 3:10]

III. Man by his fall having made himself incapable of life by that covenant, the Lord was pleased to make a second, (e) commonly called the Covenant of Grace: whereby he freely offereth unto sinners life and salvation by Jesus Christ, requiring of them faith in him, that they may be saved;(f) and promising to give unto all those that are ordained unto life his Holy Spirit, to make them willing and able to believe. (g)

[(e) Gal. 3:21; Rom. 8:3; Rom. 3:20,21; Gen. 3:15; Isa. 42:6; (f) Mark 16:15,16; John 3:16; Rom. 10:6,9; Gal. 3:11; (g) Ezek. 36:26,27; John 6:44,45]

The covenant of redemption can be defined as the pre-temporal pact made between the persons of the Trinity to bring about the redemption of the elect. In this covenant, the Father promised the Son a people as His inheritance, the Son promised the necessary work of redemption, and the Spirit, by extension, magnifies and empowers the Son as well as effectuates all the benefits of salvation regarding the elect of God. 

From beginning to end, covenant theology seamlessly answers the age-old question—how can sinful man approach God?

Further Reading

Novice:

Covenant Theology Made Easy, by C. Matthew McMahon

Covenants Made Simple: Understanding God’s Unfolding Promises to His People, by Jonty Rhodes

Intermediate: 

Introducing Covenant Theology, by Michael Horton

Christ and Covenant Theology: Essays on Election, Republication, and the Covenants, by Cornelis P. Venema

Sacred Bond: Covenant Theology Explored, by Mike Brown and Zach Keele

The Christ of the Covenants, by O. Palmer Robertson

Advanced:

The Economy of the Covenants Between God and Man: Comprehending a Complete Body of Divinity, by Herman Witsius

The Covenant of Life Opened, by Samuel Rutherford

Kingdom Prologue: Genesis Foundations for a Covenantal Worldview, by Meredith Kline

Jonathan Watson