Challenging Covenantalism

Over the years, there have been certain issues and teachings that have surfaced in working with people that seem like the proverbial Gordian Knot. One particular difficult knot to figure out for many is known as Covenant Theology (CT). CT is a system of theology by which its proponents assert you must understand the Bible. Some of the basic positions of this system will be stated below and over the next few posts compared to Scripture, but at the outset it should be understood that it is a system and, as such, it is seen by many as the key to understanding the Scriptures. Reformed Theology has CT as its foundation, according to many.

Some remarks should be made:

  • First, although CT needs to be challenged from Scripture because of its widespread, and growing acceptance, it is not to say that we should deny the fact that we owe much of what we know today as Evangelicals to the work of the Reformers. The recovery of the gospel on behalf of the masses of humanity under the domination of the Catholic Church in the 16th-18th centuries is due, in large part, to the bravery and work of the Reformers.
  • Second, it is also not something that we need to conclude that all who hold to CT are unsaved. That is not the issue. As Paul writes, “So then each one of us will give an account of himself to God” (Romans 14:12). Other factors may be precipitated by holding to CT as a system, and not holding fast to Christ. However, the issue at hand is not trying to figure out who is saved and who is not, who is in and who is out. The Lord will make that clear in the future.
  • Third, this is not an issue of Dispensationalism vs. Covenantalism. These, in actuality, are arbitrary and superficial titles that really confuse the issue.
  • Fourth, and final, the issue is bringing every thought captive to the obedience of the truth of Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 10:5). That is, the speculative teaching, and potentially damaging results, of CT need to brought under obedience to the truth of Christ. Thus, examination of the basic tenants of CT are in order.

It is best to begin by covering what exactly is meant by CT. That is, what exactly is Covenant Theology and why is it to be examined? The relationship of Covenant Theology and Reformed Theology is an intimate one. The Reformed Faith is built upon the constraints and presumptions of the covenantal framework which act as its guide. The presumption is that God had originally created all things under a covenantal framework, the first of which was the “Covenant of Works” made with Adam. The Westminster Confession of Faith of 1646 states, “The first covenant made with man was a covenant of works, wherein life was promised to Adam; and in him to his prosperity, upon condition of perfect and personal obedience” (Westminster Confession of Faith, 1646, chapter VII, section II). From this assumption, i.e. that this is an actual covenant made between God and Adam, the rest of Scriptures and covenants flow. However, Adam did not keep that covenant and fell into the condemnation spelled out in that covenant, namely death. The next covenant, then, since Adam failed, is called the “Covenant of Grace” which states: “Man, by his fall, having made himself incapable of life by that covenant, the Lord was pleased to make a second, commonly called the covenant of grace; wherein He freely offers unto sinners life and salvation by Jesus Christ; requiring of them faith in Him, that they may be saved, and promising to give unto all those that are ordained unto eternal life His Holy Spirit, to make them willing, and able to believe” (Westminster, chapter VII, section III). Upon the backs of these two “covenants” are said to be the entire plan of redemption of sinners. In other words, because Adam disobeyed the Covenant of Works, God punished him by inaugurating death into this world. And, because of that disobedience to the Covenant, God initiated a Covenant with the elect to save them. Both Reformed Theology and Covenantalism assume these two Covenants as fact.

Further, as a result of these assumptions, biblical history, then, takes the form of one large unit under the umbrella of the Covenant of Grace. The result of this is that the plan of redemption is moving forward, with one covenant under various dispensations replacing one after the other (Westminster, chapter VII, section VI). The net effect of this replacement, or displacement, is that the next dispensation replaces the previous one, and yet maintains fragments of the previous to some extent. As an example, in the earlier dispensation God instituted the act of physical circumcision to commemorate an Israelites introduction into the covenant made with Abraham (Genesis 17:10-12; cf. Acts 7:8; Romans 4:11). However, when Christ came, they say, He instituted the act of baptism as a reflection of circumcision under Abrahamic covenant. Thus, seeing that circumcision was done to male infants, baptism, in turn, may also be done upon infants and children.

A number of other conclusions are also drawn as a result of the assumption of the Covenant of Grace made with the elect:

  • Israel is subsumed into the church, the true Israel, and thus has no claim to a uniquely Israelite land promise.
  • The prophecies of a future for national Israel are nothing more than the “shadow” of the “substance” realized in Christ in the church.
  • The Old Testament is mostly contrived of “shadowy” figures and types of Jesus and thus should be comprehended that way.
  • Future prophecies yet to be realized are also shadowy figures, e.g. the idea of a 1,000 year reign of Revelation 20:1-10.
  • The New Testament has priority over the Old Testament and thus the New Testament has the authority to advance an interpretation in the Old Testament that may not be readily available from simply reading the Old Testament passage itself.
  • The Law of Moses remains binding for the church.
  • The promises for Israel are actually realized in the church.

Over the next few posts, I will be examining the distinctions of CT and comparing them to Scripture. But, allow me to first state my conclusion at the outset. I have concluded that the positions and teachings as found in CT, some of which are stated above, are a departure from authentic, biblical, revelation. That is, although many components contained in CT are obviously true, e.g. man’s fall in Adam, election, Jew and Gentile in one body the church, that does not give license to take liberties with God’s Word to introduce teachings that are not found in Scripture, which CT has done. The result of introducing these teachings is a confusion over the nature of the church, eschatological realities, the work of God in the actual covenants listed in Scripture, as well as a number of activities which are affected by what one does with OT passages (e.g. parenting) which all in turn upset households who have been challenged to rethink the clear and straightforward teaching of Scripture on these issues, and many others. The result of this influence of dealing with Scripture is confusion and doubt, since the CT position in many aspects is not true, and therefore lack sanctifying power in the life of a believer (John 17:17). Overall, CT advocates different doctrines, and does not agree with sound words, those of our Lord Jesus Christ, nor with the doctrine conforming to godliness (1 Timothy 6:20-21) and therefore upset the faith of many by their confident assertions based upon philosophical musings and self-styled hermeneutical gymnastics which suit their assumptions.