An Evaluation of Covenant Theology
In the previous article concerning Covenant Theology, several aspects of that system’s Covenant of Grace were considered. In this present article further aspects of that same Covenant of Grace will be examined.
Editor’s Note: Is my face red! Please accept my apology. Inadvertently, the fourth article by Dr. Showers was published before the third article. Chronologically the article you now hold in your hand should be placed before the article which appeared in the December/January issue, pages 16-19.
Because Adam broke the Covenant of Works a final covenant was established the Covenant of Grace.
Berkhof is convinced . . . that believers before Abraham were in the Covenant of Grace.
Covenant Theology represents the whole of Scripture and history as being covered by several covenants. The Covenant of Redemption was established between the Father and the Son in eternity past. Through it God determined to provide redemption for elect human beings during history. The Covenant of Works was established between God and Adam, the representative head of the human race. It was put into effect between the times of the creation and fall of man, and it required Adam to be perfectly obedient to God.
Because Adam broke the Covenant of Works a final covenant was established — the Covenant of Grace. According to Berkhof, this covenant was established between God on the one hand and believers and their children on the other hand.
Covenant Theologians disagree concerning when in history the Covenant of Grace was established. Some believe that it was established immediately after Adam’s fall, when God gave the first promise of the Redeemer (Gen. 3:15). Others take a different view. Berkhof states that Genesis 3:15 was the first revelation of the Covenant of Grace, but it was not the formal establishment of that covenant.1 The covenant was not established until God’s covenant with Abraham (Gen. 12). “The establishment of the covenant with Abraham marked the beginning of an institutional Church.” Before Abraham “there was what may be called ‘the church in the house’.. . families in which the true religion found expression . ., but there was no definitely marked body of believers, separated from the world, that might be called the Church.” 2 Thus, Berkhof sees the Church in the Old Testament, and he appears to equate the beginning of the Church with the establishment of the Covenant of Grace.
Although Berkhof is convinced that the Covenant of Grace was not formally established until Abraham’s time, he also is convinced that believers before Abraham were in the Covenant of Grace. “The Abrahamic Covenant did not include the believers that preceded him and who were yet in the covenant of grace.” 3
Covenant Theology claims that the Covenant of Grace requires several things of those people who are in it. It requires faithful, devoted love, agreement to be God’s people, saving faith in Christ, continual trust in Christ forever and a life of obedience and consecration to God. 4
The main promise which God makes in the Covenant of Grace is this: “… I will… be a God unto thee, and to thy seed after thee” (Gen. 17:7). However, this main promise includes the following promises: temporal blessing, justification, adoption, eternal life, the Spirit of God with His many ministries, and final glorification.5
On the basis of biblical statements to the effect that Jesus is the Mediator of the New Covenant (Heb. 8:6; 9:15; 12:24), Covenant Theologians have concluded that Christ is the Mediator of the Covenant of Grace. 6
The Relationship Of The Covenant of Grace To The Dispensations And The Progress Of Revelation
Covenant Theologians recognize that there have been different dispensations and progress of revelation through the course of world history.
According to Covenant Theology, each dispensation or each covenant named in the Bible is simply another stage of the progressive revelation of the nature of the Covenant of Grace throughout history.
Covenant Theologians recognize that there have been different dispensations and progress of revelation through the course of world history. For example, in the Netherlands Johannes Cocceius (1603-1669) recognized three dispensations after the fall of man. He called the first ante legem (before the law), the second sub lege (under the law) and the third post legem (after the law) 7
Traditionally, however, most Covenant Theologians have preferred to divide post-fall history into two major dispensations. Berkhof says:
It is preferable to follow the traditional lines by distinguishing just two dispensations or administrations, namely, that of the Old, and that of the New Testament; and to subdivide the former into several periods or stages in the revelation of the covenant of grace. 8
Ernest Frederick Kevan, principal of London Bible College, London, England, expresses it this way:
God’s covenanted purpose with sinful man has ever been one of grace; but the covenant of grace was based on a double plan, or, to use scriptural terminology, was revealed in two dispensations. The first of these was the Mosaic dispensation sometimes called the “Old Covenant,” and the second is the Christian dispensation, usually called the New Covenant.” 9
Covenant Theologians claim that the Covenant of Grace exists throughout these dispensations. In spite of some differences in administration between the dispensations, it is the same Covenant of Grace which is being administered. Kevan declares that in the strictly biblical sense the word “dispensation” is used in the Scriptures to make only one distinction, that is, the distinction between the way the grace of God was made known before the coming of Christ and the way it was manifested after his redeeming work had been accomplished . . . strictly, the covenant is one and the same covenant of grace all through, …. 10
Covenant Theologians present several proofs for the existence of the Covenant of Grace . . .
. . . it would appear that Covenant Theology sees the ultimate goal of history as being the redemption of the elect.
To Kevan’s way of thinking, then, it is rather improper to speak of Old Covenant and New Covenant. 11
Berkhof says that the Covenant of Grace is essentially the same in all dispensations, though its form of administration changes. 12
Now it is undoubtedly true that there is considerable difference between the administration of the covenant before and after the giving of the law, but the similarity is greater than the difference.13
The covenant of Sinai was essentially the same as that established with Abraham, though the form differed somewhat. 14
The covenant of grace, as it is revealed in the New Testament, is essentially the same as that which governed the relation of Old Testament believers to God. 15
According to Covenant Theology, each dispensation or each covenant named in the Bible is simply another stage of the progressive revelation of the nature of the Covenant of Grace throughout history. George N. M. Collins, minister of Free St. Columba’s Church, Edinburgh, Scotland, writes:
Throughout the OT period there were successive proclamations of this covenant. We find it in the protevangelium of Gen. 3:15. Certain of its provisions were later revealed to Noah (Gen. 9). It was then established with Abraham (Gen. 12), and with his descendants after him, thus becoming a national covenant. Although in the NT this covenant is described as new, such passages as Romans 4 and Galatians 3 show that it is essentially one with the covenant under which believers lived in OT times …. But although the same covenant, it is described as a better covenant under the NT dispensation, because it is now administered not by Moses, a servant, but by Christ the Son (Heb. 3:5,6). 16
Covenant Theologians present several proofs for the existence of the Covenant of Grace throughout the dispensations.
The summary expression of the covenant is the same throughout, both in the Old and New Testament: “I will be thy God.” It is the expression of the essential content of the covenant with Abraham, Gen. 17:7, of the Sinaitic covenant. Ex. 19:5; 20:1, of the covenant of the plains of Moab, Deut 29:13, of the Davidic covenant, 2 Sam. 7:14, and of the new covenant,Jer. 31:33; Heb. 8:10. 17
The Bible teaches that there is but a single gospel by which men can be saved. And because the gospel is nothing but the revelation of the covenant of grace, it follows that there is also but one covenant. 18
Third, “The Mediator of the covenant is the same yesterday, today, and forever, Heb. 13:8.” 19 The point of this proof is as follows: If the Mediator (Christ) is the same throughout history, then the covenant which He mediates must also be the same throughout history.
The way of salvation revealed in the covenant is the same. Scripture insists on the identical conditions all along. Gen. 15:6, compared with Rom. 4:11; Heb. 2:4; Acts 15:11; Gal. 3:6-7; Heb. 11:9. The promises, for the realization of which the believers hoped, were also the same, Gen.
15:6; Ps. 51:12; Matt. 13:17; John 8:56. And the sacraments, though different in form, have essentially the same signification in both dispensations. Rom. 4:11; 1 Cor. 5:7; Col. 2:11, 12. 20
Here Berkhof uses the term “sacraments” to refer to circumcision and baptism.
Key Elements Of Covenant Theology’s Exposition Of The Biblical Philosophy Of History
Earlier it was noted that, in order for an exposition of the biblical philosophy of history to be valid, it must contain certain necessary elements. Now that Covenant Theology has been surveyed as a system, it is essential to determine how it deals with those necessary elements as it attempts to exposit the Bible’s philosophy of history.
As was seen earlier, the first necessary element of a valid exposition is this: an ultimate purpose or goal for history toward the fulfillment of which all history moves. Because Covenant Theology emphasizes the Covenant of Grace as God’s means of working His purpose throughout history, and because it defines that covenant as “that gracious agreement between the offended God and the offending but elect sinner, in which God promises salvation through faith in Christ, and the sinner accepts this believingly, promising a life of faith and obedience,” 21 it would appear that Covenant Theology sees the ultimate goal of history as being the redemption of the elect.
The second necessary element is the recognition of distinctions or things that differ in history.
Covenant Theology handles distinctions as follows: Distinctions after the fall of man are different administrations of the same Covenant of Grace.
The third necessary element is a proper concept of the progress of revelation. As it deals with this concept, Covenant Theology sees each new body of truth which is revealed as simply another stage of the progressive uncovering of the nature of the Covenant of Grace.
The fourth necessary element is a unifying principle which ties the distinctions and progressive stages of revelation together and which directs fchem toward the fulfillment of the purpose of history. Covenant Theology’s unifying principle for history after the fall of man is the Covenant of Grace.
In order to benefit from the continuity of the material presented by Dr. Showers, you may now want to go back and read again the article in our Dec./Jan. issue. That segment concludes his dealing with Covenant Theology, and the next issue will focus on the alternate approach, namely — Dispensationalism.
- Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (second revised and enlarged edition; Grand Rapids: Wm, B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1941), p. 293.
- Ibid., p. 295.
- Ibid., p. 296.
- Ibid., p. 277.
- Ibid., pp. 282-83.
- Ibid., p. 292.
- Ibid., p. 293.
- Ernest Frederick Kevan, “Dispensation,” in Baker’s Dictionary Of Theology, editor-in-chief, Everett F. Harrison (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, I960), p. 168.
- Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, p. 278.
- Ibid., p. 292.
- Ibid., p. 297.
- Ibid., p. 299.
- George N. M. Collins, “Covenant Theology,” in Baker’s Dictionary Of Theology, editor-in-chief, Everetfc F. Harrison (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1960), p. 144.
- Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, p. 279.
- Ibid., p. 280.
- Ibid., p. 277.