Covenant Theology (or Federal theology) is a prominent feature in Protestant theology, especially in the Presbyterian and Reformed churches, and a similar form is found in Methodism and Reformed Baptist churches. This article primarily concerns Covenant Theology as held by the Presbyterian and Reformed churches, which use the covenant concept as an organizing principle for Christian theology and view the history of redemption under the framework of three overarching theological covenants: the Covenant of Redemption, the Covenant of Works, and the Covenant of Grace. These three are called "theological covenants" because although not explicitly presented as covenants, they are, according to covenant theologians, implicit in the Bible.
In brief, Covenant Theology teaches that God has established two great covenants with mankind and a covenant within the Godhead to deal with how the other two relate. The first covenant in logical order, usually called the Covenant of Redemption, is the agreement within the Godhead that the Father would appoint his son Jesus to give up his life for mankind and that Jesus would do so (cf. Titus 1:1-3).
The second, called the Covenant of Works, was made in the Garden of Eden between God and Adam and promised life for obedience and death for disobedience. Adam disobeyed God and broke the covenant, and so the third covenant was made between God and all of mankind, who also fell with Adam according to Romans 5:12-21.
This third covenant, the Covenant of Grace, promised eternal blessing for belief in Christ and obedience to God's word. It is thus seen as the basis for all biblical covenants that God made individually with Noah, Abraham, and David, nationally with O.T. Israel as a people, and universally with man in the New Covenant. These individual covenants are called the "biblical covenants" because they are explicitly described as such in the Bible.
Covenant theology as a refinement of Reformed theology is evident among early Scottish theologians. For example, see The Theology and Theologians of Scotland, Chiefly of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries (1872) passage: "The old theology of Scotland might be emphatically described as a covenant theology."
History of Covenant Theology
Covenant theology has roots in the writings of Augustine and John Calvin (Institutes of the Christian Religion 2:9-11). Johannes Cocceius (c. 1603-1669) developed the classical statement on covenant theology in his The Doctrine of the Covenant and Testament of God (Summa doctrinae de foedere et testamento dei, 1648). Covenant theology was clearly expressed in the British Westminster Confession of Faith (chap. 7) and further developed by Herman Witsius (1636-1708) in the Economy of the Covenants Between God and Man. It may also be seen in the writings of Jonathan Edwards (Collected Writings of Jonathan Edwards, Vol 2, Banner of Truth edition, p.950).
In the United States, the Princeton theologians (Charles Hodge, A. A. Hodge, B. B. Warfield, Geerhardus Vos, and J. Gresham Machen) and, in the Netherlands, Herman Bavinck followed the main lines of the classic view, teaching the Covenant of Redemption, the Covenant of Works (Law), and the Covenant of Grace (Gospel).
Current well-known Covenant theologians include R. C. Sproul, J. I. Packer, John Frame, Sinclair Ferguson, James Boice and Michael S. Horton. This system is taught at schools such as Covenant Theological Seminary, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Westminster Theological Seminary.
Covenant Theology and the Biblical Covenants
Covenant theology first sees a Covenant of Works administered with Adam in the Garden of Eden. Though it is not explicitly called a covenant in the Bible, Hosea 6:7 has been interpreted to support the idea. The specific covenants after the fall of Adam are seen as administered under the overarching theological Covenant of Grace and include:
- The Noahic Covenant, the covenant made with Noah and sealed with a rainbow. (Genesis 8:1-9:17)
- The Abrahamic covenant, found in Genesis chapter 15.
- The Mosaic Covenant, found in Exodus chapters 19 through 24.
- The Palestinian Covenant -- an unconditional covenant enlarging upon the Abrahamic Covenant promising the seed of Abraham eternal possession in the land (Deuteronomy 30:1-10), and
- The Davidic Covenant, found in 2 Samuel chapter 7 establishing David and his lineage as the rightful kings of Israel and Judah and extending the covenant of Abraham to David's lineage.
- The New Covenant, predicted by the prophet Jeremiah in the eponymous book, chapter 31, and connected with Jesus at the Last Supper where he says that the cup is "the New Covenant in [his] blood" and further in the Epistle to the Hebrews (chapters 8-10). The term "New Testament," most often used for the collection of books in the Bible, can also refer to the New Covenant as a theological concept.
Covenant Theology and the sacraments
The Lord's Supper
The Lord's supper instituted by Jesus was a replacement for the Jewish Passover festival. As such, it should be celebrated in much the same way - as a symbolic participation in God's act of salvation. In the Old Testament the Jews celebrated God's rescue from slavery in Egypt, with lamb's blood painted on their doors to protect them from God's wrath. In the New Testament, this directly refers to a celebration of God's rescue of the church from their lives of sin, with the blood of Jesus as the means by which God's New Covenant people are delivered from God's wrath.
Within the ranks of Covenant theology as a minority position, is also the belief that as Israel's children celebrated the Passover Meal, so too ought baptized children of believing parents today celebrate the Lord's Supper as fellow sharers in the covenant with God and thus, also, in the promises and blessings of the covenant. Cited proof texts include Matthew 19:14 and Mark 10:14.
Covenant Theology sees the administration of the biblical covenants as including a principle of familial, corporate inclusion or "generational succession." The biblical covenants between God and man include signs and seals that visibly represent the realities behind the covenants. These visible signs and symbols of God's covenant redemption are administered in a corporate manner (for instance, to households), not in an exclusively individualistic manner.
Baptism is considered by Covenant Theologians as the visible sign of entrance into the New Covenant and therefore may be administered individually to new believers making a public profession of faith, corporately to the households of believers which typically would include children, or individually to children or infants of believing parents (see Infant baptism). Baptism is thus seen as the functional replacement and sacramental equivalent of the Abrahamic rite of circumcision and symbolizes the internal cleansing from sin, among other things.
Criticism of Covenant Theology
Several primary weaknesses that are often attributed to Covenant Theology as a system are that, first, it requires an allegorical interpretation of many Scripture passages, including prophecy that relates to God's future plans for Israel. Second, critics claim it does not draw a sufficient distinction between the conditional Mosaic covenant of the Law, the other unconditional covenants established by God for Israel, and the "better covenant" established by Jesus (cf. Hebrews 7:22; 8:6-13). Third, it equates the nation of Israel with the New Testament Church. Fourth, the two (and possibly three) primary covenants of Covenant Theology are no where named in Scripture as such.
Historical documents relating to Covenant Theology
- The theology and theologians of Scotland, chiefly of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries [ed. by N.L. Walker and W.G. Blaikie. Cunningham lects., 1870/71 Being the Cunningham Lectures for 1870-71 By James Walker, William Garden Blaikie, Norman Lockhart Walker.
- Princeton Theological Seminary, MacCalla & Co. Inc., 1912, v. 10]
- Children at the Lord's Table by R.A. McLaughlin
- Murray, John (1982). Covenant Theology. In Collected Writings of John Murray, vol. 4. Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth. ISBN 851513409
- Reymond, Robert L. (1998). A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith. Nashville: Nelson. ISBN 0849913179
- Robertson, O. Palmer (1981). Christ of the Covenants. Phillipsburg: Presbyterian & Reformed. ISBN 0875524184
- Van Til, Cornelius (1955). Covenant Theology. In L. A. Loetscher (Ed.), The New Schaff-Herzog Twentieth Century Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge. Grand Rapids: Baker. ISBN 9991429808.
- Vos, Geerhardus (2001). The Doctrine of the Covenant in Reformed Theology. In R. B. Gaffin, Jr. (Ed.), Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation: The Shorter Writings of Geerhardus Vos. Phillipsburg: P & R Publishing. ISBN 087552513X
- Covenant of Grace
- Covenant of Works
- Covenant of Redemption
- New Covenant Theology
- Infant baptism
- Series on Covenant Theology, by J. Ligon Duncan - 12 two-hour lectures on Covenant Theology
- The Divine Covenants by A.W. Pink
- J. I. Packer on Covenant Theology
- Essays on Covenant Theology
- Covenant Theology Articles
- Commentary on Romans 5:12-21 by Charles Hodge - a central passage for federal theology
- "The Covenant of Works" and "The Covenant of Grace" from Systematic Theology by Charles Hodge
- "The Adamic Administration" by John Murray
- Series on Covenant Theology by J. Ligon Duncan
- The Economy of the Covenants Between God and Man by Herman Witsius
- Nave's Topical Bible on covenant
- "An Arminian Covenant Theology" by Vic Reasoner
- Bibliotheca Sacra (Dallas Theological Seminary) definition (1884, v.41)
- Charles Haddon Spurgeon definition (Published 1875)
- The theology and theologians of Scotland, chiefly of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries defintion (1872)
- Biblical Study: its principles, methods and history, together with a catalogue of books of reference, Charles Augustus Briggs, Alexander Balmain Bruce, Charles Scribner's Sons, 1884