Covenant Theology: What’s in It for Israel?
Covenant Theology (as opposed to Dispensational Theology, which is what we believe) is a system that attempts to develop the Bible’s philosophy of history on the basis of two or three covenants. It represents the whole of Scripture and history as being covered by these covenants.
Covenant Theology did not begin as a system until the 16th and 17th centuries. It did not develop in the early church or the Middle Ages.1 Kaspar Olevianus (1536–1587) was the founder of a well-developed Covenant Theology “in which the concept of the covenant became for the first time the constitutive and determinative principle of the whole system.”2
The system started in the Reformed churches of Switzerland and Germany and spread to the Netherlands, Scotland, and England. In 1647 the Westminster Confession of Faith in England became the first confession to refer to Covenant Theology.3
Johannes Cocceius (1603–1669) portrayed the whole of biblical history as being governed by the covenant idea.4 Herman Witsius (1636–1708) connected the covenant idea with the eternal decrees of God.5 This prompted the idea that in eternity past, God determined to govern the entire course of history on the basis of covenants.
Most Covenant theologians believe that three covenants relate to the Bible’s philosophy of history: the covenants of redemption, works, and grace.
They claim that in eternity past, a covenant of redemption was established between God the Father and God the son. Knowing that mankind would fall away from Him, God determined to provide redemption for the elect during the course of history. The Father covenanted to grant the Son to be the Head and Redeemer of the elect, and the son covenanted to provide redemption for the elect by becoming incarnated in human flesh and dying a substitutionary death for them.6
According to Covenant Theology, a covenant of works was established between the triune God and Adam between creation and the fall of mankind.7 God required Adam’s “implicit and perfect obedience.”8 Adam was placed on temporary probation to determine if he would voluntarily subject his will to God’s will.
God promised eternal life (not natural life) to Adam and his descendants in return for Adam’s perfect obedience.9 But because God appointed Adam to be representative head of the human race, he and his descendants would be penalized with death, “including physical, spiritual, and eternal death,”10 if he disobeyed God.
Covenant Theology also maintains that God established a covenant of grace because Adam broke the covenant of works. Louis Berkhof defined the covenant of grace 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.”11 Thus God is the first party of the covenant of grace.
Covenant theologians claim the second party is either (1) the sinner, (2) the elect, (3) the elect sinner in Christ, or (4) believers and their seed.12
Some Covenant theologians believe the covenant of grace was established immediately after Adam’s fall, while others claim it was not established until God’s covenant with Abraham.13 Once established, it continues throughout time as the unifying principle of history.
Covenant Theology’s Inherent Problems
Unfortunately, space restricts the number of problems I can address.
Is Too Limited. Covenant Theology’s ultimate goal of history, the glory of God through the redemption of the elect, is too limited. During the course of history, God not only has a program of redemption for those people who get saved, but He also has a program for those who never get saved and programs for nations, rulers, angels, Satan, and nature. The ultimate goal of history must be large enough to include all of God’s programs, not just one.
Denies Distinctions. Covenant Theology denies or weakens some of the distinctions in the Bible by insisting that distinctions are different phases of the same covenant of grace.
For example, it claims that the Abrahamic Covenant and Mosaic Covenant (the Law) were essentially the same. But Paul emphasized their distinctiveness in Galatians 3. It also teaches there is no essential distinction between the Mosaic and New Covenants. But Jeremiah 31:31–34 indicates that the New Covenant would be different from the Mosaic Covenant, and Paul signified several major distinctions between them (2 Cor. 3:3–9).
Covenant Theology denies the distinction between the nation of Israel and the church. It believes that the church, which it claims could also be called “the Israel of God,” existed in Old Testament times and that the nation of Israel was a major phase of the church in those times. It defines the church as the continuing covenanted community, consisting of all people throughout history who have been in the covenant-of-grace relationship with God. Thus it asserts there is only one people of God throughout history.
But if the church existed in the Old Testament and Israel and the church are the same, why did Jesus place the building of the church in the future (Mt. 16:18)? And why did Peter call Pentecost (Acts 2) “the beginning” (Acts 11:15)?
Covenant Theology denies the distinction between the gospel of the Kingdom and the gospel defined in 1 Corinthians 15:1–4. Believing the ultimate purpose of history is God’s glory through the redemption of the elect and that there is only one people of God, it teaches there is only one gospel throughout history.
But the gospel of the Kingdom (“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand,” Mt. 4:17, 23) said nothing about Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection. Christ commissioned the gospel of the Kingdom to be preached exclusively to Israel (Mt. 10:5–7).
By contrast, the 1 Corinthians 15 gospel consists of Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection. Christ commissioned this gospel to be preached to the whole world (Mk. 16:15). In addition, only after the apostles had preached the gospel of the Kingdom for some time did Christ begin to tell them that He must be killed and resurrected, prompting Peter’s negative reaction (Mt. 16:21–22).
Violates a Principle. Covenant Theology teaches that each biblical covenant is a continuation and newer phase of the covenant of grace. For example, it claims that the Mosaic Covenant was a newer phase of the covenant of grace established earlier. But the Mosaic Covenant instituted conditions not previously introduced. If it were a newer phase of the covenant of grace, it would be adding new conditions to that covenant. That action would violate the principle that no new conditions may be added to an established covenant (Gal. 3:15).
Is Inconsistent. Covenant Theology employs a double system of interpretation. Although it recognizes that the historical-grammatical method of interpreting the Bible is normal and that using another method can lead to disaster, it uses another method primarily in areas related to the future of the nation of Israel and the future Kingdom of God. There it employs the allegorical method, in which words are not given the common, normal meaning they had in the culture and time of a passage.
According to this method, the word Israel could mean the church, not the nation of Israel; and the promises of future blessing for Israel are to be fulfilled with the church, not the nation of Israel. But the fact that the prophetic Scriptures fulfilled thus far have been fulfilled according to the historical-grammatical method of interpretation, not the allegorical, seems to indicate the manner that God intends all prophetic passages to be interpreted.
Rejects Israel’s Future. Many Covenant theologians teach that, because Israel as a nation did not accept Christ as its Messiah during His First Coming, God has rejected Israel as a nation forever and replaced it with the New Testament phase of the church. Thus God has no future program for Israel.
However, Samuel said to national Israel, “The Lᴏʀᴅ will not forsake His people, for His great name’s sake, because it has pleased the Lᴏʀᴅ to make you His people” (1 Sam. 12:22). Concerning the nation of Israel that God redeemed for a people to Himself from Egypt, David wrote, “You have made Your people Israel Your very own people forever; and You, Lᴏʀᴅ, have become their God” (2 Sam. 7:24).
God promised that even if He were to make a full end of all nations where He had scattered Israel, He would never make a full end of Israel (Jer. 30:11).
Furthermore, the apostle Paul indicated that even while the Israelites are enemies of the gospel, God’s election of them to be His people is irrevocable (Rom. 11:28–29).
Is Amillennial. Because Covenant Theology believes that the ultimate goal of history is the glory of God through the redemption of elect human beings, most of its advocates see no need for a 1,000-year, political reign of Christ on Earth. Thus they hold an amillennial view of the future Kingdom of God foretold in the Bible.
That view claims the Kingdom is a spiritual kingdom, consisting of the church or the rule of Christ in human hearts, and that it was established by Christ when He sat down on the throne of God in heaven. Therefore, it equates God’s throne with David’s throne, which the Bible promises will be given to the Messiah when the future Kingdom of God is established.
There are several problems with this view. First, several decades after Christ sat down on God’s throne, He drew a distinction between that throne and His throne, which He will sit on in the future (Rev. 3:21).
Second, the prophetic dreams recorded in Daniel 2 and 7 indicate the future Kingdom of God will not coexist with Gentile world dominion. By contrast, the church has coexisted with Gentile rule for centuries.
Third, the Daniel 7 dream revealed that the future Kingdom of God will be established when the Messiah comes as the Son of man with the clouds of heaven (vv. 13–14). Christ indicated He will come in that manner at His Second Coming after the Great Tribulation (Mt. 24:21, 29–30) and that
He will then sit on His throne, rule as King, and send believers into the Kingdom (Mt. 25:31–34).
Fourth, Zechariah 14:4 and 9 signify that the Messiah will be King over all the earth after His feet touch down on the Mount of Olives at His Second Coming.
Fifth, Jesus will sit on His throne as the son of Man when the earth is regenerated through the lifting of the curse (Mt. 19:28) once Israel has repented as a nation and Christ has returned from heaven (Acts 3:19–21). This event hasn’t happened yet.
A minority of Covenant theologians, called historic premillennialists, believe in Christ’s earthly Millennial reign after His Second Coming. Another minority advocates a postmillennial view
Called Christian Reconstructionism or Theonomy. It claims the church will gain control of every institution and administer God’s Mosaic Covenant legislation over the world for an extended time before Christ returns on the last day of history.
- Charles Caldwell Ryrie, Dispensationalism Today (Chicago: Moody Press, 1965), 179.
- Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1953), 212.
- Ryrie, 179.
- K. R. Hagenbach, A Text-Book of the History of Doctrines (New York: Sheldon & Company, 1869), 2:173.
- Ryrie, 182.
- Berkhof, 269–271.
- Ibid., 215.
- Ibid., 216.
- Ibid., 217.
- Ibid., 277.
- Ibid., 273.
- Ibid., 295.