History and Overview of Covenants
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your Bibles, please open to Genesis 1:24 as we read God's word.
Thus ends this reading of God’s Holy Word. May He add His blessing to it. Let’s pray together.
Father, thank you for bringing us back together again to study your Word. We thank You for faithful men in the past who have taught us about the truth of Scripture. We pray that as we learn from them and that as we learn from your Word, our spiritual lives would be shaped and molded by the truth, that our ability to minister to the people that You have called us to serve would be enhanced by our knowledge of the truth and that we would have an experiential grasp of this truth. That we would not only be amazed by it intellectually, but we would be transformed by it personally. We ask these things in Jesus’ name. Amen.
What I want to begin with today is to give you a little bit of a historical overview of Covenant Theology. And it may be helpful for you as we do this, to pull out the Macleod article that you read. And I am sure that you poured over it in great detail, but you might want to pull it out anyway and put it next to your sheet as we go through, it will help you perhaps with some of the names and some of the concepts. I want to give you a little historical background on Covenant Theology before we get going, so that we’re confident about development, and so that we are confident about certain terms and aspects of Covenant Theology as we study this straight out of the Scriptures. Maybe we will even get to some of the original covenant material from the Scripture in the second half of class today.
As we said last time, Covenant Theology is a blending of both Biblical and Systematic Theology. If I could grossly oversimplify and give very short definitions, again, Biblical Theology is the study of the Bible from the perspective of redemptive history. It is looking at the Scriptures in terms of the eras in which God unfolded His plan of redemption and it is asking perhaps about specific themes. What do we learn about this particular theme in this particular era of redemptive history? And then, what do we learn about it in the next era of redemptive history and how does God unfold that particular theme as revelation progresses?
A classic example, by the way, of that type of study of Biblical Theology would be a study of the doctrine of sin from a historical perspective. We have no listing of the Law of God prior to Exodus 20. And because John has told us that sin is lawlessness, and Paul has told us in Romans 2 that where there is no law, there is no sin, we know that you have to have law to have sin. And as we know from the Apostle Paul’s comments in Romans 2, there was sin prior to the giving of the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20.
So the way God unfolds and tells you about the doctrine of sin prior to Exodus 20 is different than the way that you learn about it after Exodus 20 and all the ceremonial law and all the judicial law and all the moral law in its various ordinances and statutes.
Now, to be sure, the book of Genesis has a very clear doctrine of sin. You may remember the liberals tell us that there are multiple authors of the Pentateuch, and in particular, there are multiple authors of the book of Genesis. There was one who was in the tradition that used the term Yahweh to describe God, and one was in a tradition who used Elohim to describe God, and one was in the deuteronomic tradition, and one was in the priestly tradition and there are all sorts of variations of that particular JEDP scheme. But even the liberals admit that the aim of the author/authors in the first eleven chapters of Scripture is to give you a very clear concept of the doctrine of sin. I mean you can’t get out of Genesis 3 without noticing that something is awry. And you can’t get out of Genesis 4 without noticing that something is awry. And then Genesis 5 and 6, and 10 especially, there is a tremendous emphasis on sin even though there is no first command, second command, third command, fourth command given to you in those chapters.
You know in Genesis 4, that when Cain murders Abel, that he should not have done that. You don’t need Exodus 20 written prior to that time to know that. But let me tell you what, no matter how strong a doctrine of sin you have, coming out of that patriarchal era, when you get to the book of Leviticus, believe me, your doctrine of sin, your understanding of sin is enhanced, because in the unfolding of God’s revelation He teaches you things about sin that you would have never dreamt about, no matter how well you had taken in those truths earlier recorded from an earlier time in His plan of redemption in the book of Genesis. He teaches you things that you would have never dreamt about by the time you get to Moses’ exposition of the law. So when you read Leviticus, and when you read Deuteronomy, and you reflect upon that commands that have been given in the Book of the Covenant, you are overwhelmed by how pervasive sin is in your experience and in the experience of the community. And so by watching progressively, God unfolds this theme. You learn something about that doctrine itself. That is Biblical Theology.
Now every people has markers in its histories like that by which it remembers certain great things. In the South, we sort of mark everything by something known as The War. We are not talking about the First World War or the Second World War. We are talking about The War, that is, The War Between The States. And so we even talk about Antebellum, and Postbellum. It is a huge marker in our history. It doesn’t matter what side you are on or anything else. You know that is a marker in the corporate minds of the people. Every people has events like that, that mark out their corporate mind in the way they view their past and the way they chop it up and explain it and express it.
The people of God, already by the time of Exodus, are thinking in terms of these covenant relationships as epic marking events. This is an incredible event, when God comes and enters into relationship with Abraham, because at that time, Abraham was a what? A pagan, living in Ur of the Chaldees. The father of Israel. He is the first Hebrew. What a tremendous marker in the history of Israel and so it marks off events.
So Covenant Theology is Biblical Theology, but it is also Systematic Theology we said. That is, Systematic Theology takes the fruits that Exegetical Theology attempts to draw out of the text the intent of the divine and human authors in combination. It attempts to draw out of the text the emphasis and the teaching which they are attempting to convey in that text, so it takes the fruits of Exegetical Theology, it takes the fruits of Biblical Theology.
Biblical Theology can’t stand on its own. If you only have Biblical Theology and you don’t have Systematic Theology, you will end up with a Thematic Theology which will be kind of like holding a bunch of wet spaghetti noodles in your hand. There will be all these nice themes that will be really fun to learn about, but there is no way that you can figure out how to interrelate them. You have to have Systematic Theology before you can interrelate all those themes.
Most modern theologians, even the ones who call themselves Systematic Theologians, are not Systematic Theologians. They are Thematic Theologians. They get all fired up about one or two themes and they want to run with the implications of that particular theme, but they do not integrate it with the rest of biblical truth, and what happens? They become heretics. Because imbalanced truth becomes untruth because it refuses to pay attention to the balance of truth that God has given in His Word.
So Systematic Theology takes the fruits of Exegetical Theology, it takes the fruits of Biblical Theology and those wonderful themes that are developed in the history of redemption. It takes the fruits of Historical Theology because we cannot ignore the understanding of Scripture which has been gradually accrued in the history of 2000 years of the church. Protestants don’t have a problem with tradition, we have a problem with tradition which presumes to be on the same par with the sole authority of faith which is Scripture. We don’t have a problem with tradition, we just have a problem with tradition which refuses to be tested according to the standard of Scripture. So there is much which we glean from the past. In fact, we can have no appreciation for the depth of Scripture if we skip over the teaching that has been learned by the church over the last two millennium in the East and West, beyond the western culture and to the various cultures of the world, etc. The wonderful thing about the deposit of Christian truth that we have learned over that time is that it is not fixed within one cultural framework.
A lot of times modern, specifically evangelical and Reformed Theology, is accused by people of being peculiarly Western and even specifically American as opposed to being a world theology. There is legitimacy to that critique. But, a theology that is well-grounded in historical theology has its roots in a past which predates the Western and American and European rise and gives a balance and an understanding, an appreciation for that truth which we wouldn’t have otherwise. So the attitude which says, “It is just me and my Bible and don’t confuse me with all that history and all that other stuff,” is sure to lead you into problems, because you are cutting yourself off from the communion of saints.
Now see, you cannot be an orthodox Christian and say, for instance, “Well, I am going to have to sit down and rethink this doctrine of the Trinity thing.” I am sorry. That is not up for grabs. You can’t sit down and be an orthodox Christian and say, “You know, I am going to really rethink this whole virgin birth thing.” No. The Church has already decided its position on that and it is not up for you or for me to determine or to rethink that. If you rethink it and decide that it is wrong, that is fine. You are just not a Christian. And if you rethink it and find out that it is right, well, you have just reinvented the wheel. We already had it; we didn’t need your help. I am not being facetious. I am showing how a lot of people will come along and think of themselves much more highly of themselves than they ought to. And they will do it in the name, well, I am being scriptural and I’m really going to think this thing from the ground floor up. There is a reason why Jesus said to the apostles that they were going to be the foundation, the bedrock of the Church which He built. And you don’t lay the foundation again, folks. You lay foundation once. You get it right the first time and you don’t lay it when you are already nineteen floors up.
Our job as Christians in the almost twenty-first century is not to lay the foundation again. Our job is to continue building on the foundation that has already been laid upon the apostles and the prophets. And that does not mean reinventing the wheel at every point. Does that mean that there is no development in Christian Theology? No. Of course there is development in Christian Theology. There are many areas where we still need to work things out. We have been going through an era in the West in particular where the doctrine of the Holy Spirit has been worked on intensively for the last fifty years. You may expect it to be worked on for the next hundred. We have gotten a lot more questions in the last fifty years than we have settled with regard to answers.
You may be sure that the doctrine of creation is something that is going to be worked on for another good hundred years. We have got more questions right now than we have answers on that particular issue. So every era has its own distinctive contribution to the building of the deposit and understanding of Theology. But we don’t rethink the Trinity; we don’t rethink the virgin birth. That is complete. For the church has already said, “You don’t believe that Christ is an incarnate person, divine and human nature in one person, that is fine. You are not a Christian.” That is not up for rethinking. “You don’t believe in the Trinity, that is fine. You are not a Christian.” That is Christian doctrine. So we have some set points that we learn from Historical Theology that keep us from going awry even in our work with Scripture.
So Systematic Theology takes the fruits of Biblical Theology, Exegetical Theology, Historical Theology and it integrates them and it attempts to make as definitive a statement as can be made about a particular topic, pulling together all that is said about that topic from the whole of Scripture.
Covenant Theology is both Biblical and
That is, it gives us an organizing principle for our Biblical Theology. But it also provides us a very important category or what the older theologians would have called a locus, literally, a place. It gives us a very important category or place in our Systematic Theology. It is the organizing principle of Biblical Theology in the sense that anyone who is going to do justice to God’s unfolding plan of redemption has to talk in terms of covenants. It is the dominant theme featured in the whole issue of God’s unfolding plan of redemption in history. So you have to talk in terms of the covenants, if you are going to be scriptural when you are talking about Biblical Theology.
But if you are going to do Systematic Theology, you are going to also have a section in your Systematic Theology where you talk about the covenant of works and the covenant of grace and the covenant of redemption and their relationship to doctrines like the imputation of Adam’s sin.
If you are sitting down to write your Systematic Theology, and it is going to be a bestseller right up there with Berkhof and Reymond and the rest of them, you are not going to leave out the doctrine of imputation of Adam’s sin, I mean that is an important doctrine. It has been discussed and argued about since the fifth century, so you are not going to leave that one out.
But in order to talk about the imputation of Adam’s sin, you have to talk about Covenant Theology, because Covenant Theology tells us about the federal headship of Adam and Christ. And you are not going to get very far in your understanding of the imputation of Adam’s sin if you don’t talk in covenant terms.
That is why Augustine, with as good as an answer as he gave to Pelagius, didn’t quite solve all the issues related to original sin because Augustine did not have a fully worked out Covenant Theology. Augustine was a realist in his view instead of a federalist in his view of the imputation of Adam’s sin, and so Augustine got up to a certain point and he was stymied. Some of the errors in his theology are related to that distinction with regard to the imputation of Adam’s sin. So Covenant Theology is both Biblical Theology and both Systematic Theology, and in Systematic Theology it has a locus or a place or a heading in which it has to be discussed.
And you remember we said last time when we were together, that it is the bridge between Anthropology (the doctrine of man, and especially the doctrine of fallen man, the doctrine of man in sin, that locus and that heading, in Systematic Theology) and the doctrine of salvation or Soteriology. It is the linking point that gets you from the doctrine of man in sin and deserving of judgment to the doctrine of man in the state of grace. The covenant is the vehicle by which God extracts man from that situation of sin and gets him into a state of grace.
But, the covenant is going to play a very significant role in organizing even your Systematic Theology. This is not a new thing. From the very earliest Christian theologians, the covenant concept was very significant in their theology. For instance, in the second century, among the anti-Gnostic fathers—that is, the orthodox Christian theologians who were responding to the Gnostic heretics, who were denying a number of biblical teaching. For example, you remember the Gnostics had a tendency to deny the fleshly humanity of Christ. They argued that Jesus only appeared to be human, and that He really didn’t die on the cross as a man. It only appeared as if He has died on the cross as a man. The Gnostics taught that the God of the Old Testament was not the same God as the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. And I am not going to go through a whole listing of Gnostic teachings, but I want you to understand the Gnostic threat was very pervasive in early Christianity. The Gnostic teaching was the greatest threat to the existence of Christianity since the apostle Paul was still Saul.
And over against the Gnostics, theologians like Melito of Sardis, Irenaeus of Leon, Tertullian, and others mounted a massive theological offensive. And what instrument did they use against the Gnostics and also against those Jews who were still very prominent in the Mediterranean world at that time and who denied that the Christians were legitimately interpreting and claiming the Old Testament Scriptures? What instrument, what vehicle did they use? They used the covenant. They used it in three areas.
First of all, against the Gnostics who denied that the God of the Old Testament was the same as the God of our Lord Jesus Christ in the New Testament, they used the covenant to show the continuity of the Old Testament and the New Testament. Irenaeus, if you wanted to pronounce it strictly in Latin, it would be something like ‘Urenaeus.’ But Irenaeus is what you will hear most frequently. Irenaeus, the great second century father from Gall (modern day south of France), wrote a book called Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching, in which he showed that God’s redemptive plan had been unfolded in covenants with Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, the New Covenant, and Christ. He was Palmer Robertson, 1800 years ahead of his time.
One of the ways which he showed the covenant continuity of the Old Testament and the New Testament Scriptures was in this brilliant way. For a number of years, in fact from the time that the Gospels were written, what was the favorite tool of Christians in showing to Jewish believers or Jewish followers, Jewish people of the Jewish religion, what was the favorite way for Christians to show them that Jesus was the Messiah, promised of old? To go to Old Testament passages and show the prophecies about the Messiah and then to bring them over into the events of the life of Christ and the work of the Apostles and show how they were fulfilled. And you get a lot of this in the New Testament. It is in the Gospel of Matthew, it is in the Gospel of Mark, it is in the Gospel of Luke, it is in John and it is in Paul. There are very few books in the New Testament which do not use that technique and it makes perfect sense, doesn’t it? You are writing to an initially Jewish audience. You are trying to convince them that this is not a rejection of the traditions of old. It is the fulfillment of the traditions of old, and that Jesus Christ is in fact fulfilling the prophecies made about Him by the Old Testament prophets and therefore He ought to be believed in as the Messiah.
Well, Irenaeus and before him, Justin Martyr, had taken that argument and turned it against the Gnostics and here is how they did it. They said, “We Christians all know that Christ as Messiah fulfilled the prophecies of the Old Testament prophets. Now by what God did those Old Testament prophecy?” You see, what they are leading? They are saying, “If Jesus fulfilled the Scriptures of the Old Testament, then the God of the Old Testament who revealed those prophecies to the those Old Testament prophets must be the same God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” They showed, by a reversing of the argument, that if Jesus fulfilled those prophecies then the Old Testament itself must be in unity and continuity with the New Testament. Because if the God of the Old Testament and the God of the Old Testament prophets was utterly unrelated to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, why would Jesus be fulfilling those prophecies? So they turned the argument, which had originally been aimed toward the Jews and they covenantally angled it at the Gnostics. And they said this shows that the Old and the New Testament are in continuity not in opposition. So they used covenant arguments.
They also used the covenant concept to argue against the Jews who denied that Christians were the legitimate heirs of the Abrahamic promises. They used the covenant concept, and of course, they picked up on a theme which Paul expounds in I Corinthians 10, the disobedience of Israel to the covenant promises. Remember Paul in I Corinthians 10 warns Christians not to do the same thing that the disobedient, unbelieving children of Israel did in the wilderness. They doubted God. They tempted Him. They refused to have faith and trust in His promises that He would bring them through and provide for them while they were in the wilderness. And the Apostle Paul in I Corinthians 10 basically says to Christians, don’t you do that.
Well, using the covenants, these first and second and third century theologians mounted that same argument against the children of Israel, accept they applied it to the time of the Lord Jesus Christ. Now again this was not original to them. Peter has done this in the Book of Acts. You remember Peter’s first sermon in the Book of Acts, I mean, it was a scorcher. Basically, the thrust of the concluding point is, “Men of Israel, this man who has been attested to you to be the Messiah, the Son of the living God, you have put to death by the hands of sinful men.” And so after, Peter has amassed Scripture passage after Scripture passage, confirming that Jesus was Messiah and confirming that the events of Pentecost were the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies especially given by Joel, then he says, “And gentlemen, you killed Him, your own Messiah. You killed Him.” That argument is reduplicated and you pick up, you cannot miss this when you pick up Melito of Sardis, and read his Peri Pascha, his homily on the Passover. Here you see him using that same argumentation, that covenantally yes, Christians are simply Jews and Gentiles who have been embraced by the Abrahamic promises according to the promises of God of old Abraham to bless him and to be a blessing to the nations and to bring the Gentiles, and they can go to Amos and Jeremiah and all sorts of other places to prove that. So they use the covenant concept in both their arguments against the Gnostics and against the Jews, and, as I mentioned before with Irenaeus, they use it to structure their redemptive history. You can find this in Irenaeus, you can find this before Irenaeus, in Justin Martyr, you can find this in Tertullian, you can find this in Lactantius, you can find it in Clement of Alexandria, you can eventually find it in Augustine, who learned his theology of the covenants primarily from Irenaeus and his contemporaries.
So the idea of the covenant concept being a structuring principle for Christian theology is not a sixteenth century phenomenon. Rather, it is a patristic phenomenon, occurring as early as the first century of the Christian church. If you look at the apostolic fathers, that collection of writings that contains writings by Ignatius of Antioch— it contains writings by Polycarp, it contains a little book called the Epistle to the Corinthians, it contains a book called the Shepherd of Hermas—that collection of writings which was probably completed by 115. In that collection of books already, in, say the book of Corinthians, in that Epistle to the Corinthians, already by that time, A.D. 115, you can see the covenant concept being used just like it was used in the Old Testament, that is for moral exhortation to believers. Okay. So, the covenant concept was of long standing in the Christian tradition as an organizing principle and a significant theological locus.
Now not surprisingly, as the knowledge of Hebrew fades and as Latin becomes the lingua franca of the Christian church, especially of the western Christian church, the covenant concept fades into the background theologically. Now, there is no expert in the covenant concept in the medieval, but we need one. But we do know that prior to the Reformation, even in the time of late medieval nominalism, (from which Luther came, the tradition that began to dabble a little bit and rearticulate the Catholic church doctrine of justification, and Luther eventually came out with a full-blown reworking of the Catholic doctrine of justification according to the Apostle Paul), well, in the nominalist tradition the covenant idea was again prominent. So we know that over long periods of the church’s history, the covenant idea occupied a very significant place in the church’s theologizing.
Now, generally we think of Covenant Theology as a subset of Calvinism. We see it as something that is a peculiar mark of the Reformed Branch of the Reformation. That is true and not true. I mean, obviously, all Orthodox Christianity of any form believes in both unity and continuity from the Old Covenant to the New Covenant, from Old Testament to New Testament. It believes that, though we have two testaments, we have one Bible and it has a unified message and is integrated, and that the New Testament gives us both an interpretation of the Old Testament, it gives us both a hermeneutical map to the Old Testament and gives us also a fulfillment of the Old Testament. All Orthodox Christian Theology accepts that, and to that extent it is Covenant Theology.
But Covenant Theology in a stricter sense of the term is indeed something that has been uniquely related to the Reformed tradition. Because it was during the Renaissance and Reformation and especially the rediscovery and the reapplication of the church’s teachers to the original languages of Scripture that the covenant concept again became important, even dominant, in Christian theological thinking and writing. You remember we said last time that the Latin term testamentum is what we get our modern terms Old Testament and New Testament, and it’s is very easy if you’re operating out of a Latin framework to see how you can miss all that rich Hebrew and Near Eastern background information that helps you understand what a covenant is in the first place. And it is easy to see how you can miss the clear hints that were there in the Greek New Testament, unless you understand that the basic vocabulary of New Testament Greek is not determined by classical Greek, but is determined by Hebrew.
In other words, for building your theological vocabulary of New Testament Greek, it is more important that you pay attention to Hebrew terms and concepts than it is for you to pay attention to classical Greek terms and contexts. That is why Hebrew is so important, because behind those Greek concepts are most often very directly and genetically Hebrew concepts, and not just Septuagint concepts that come from the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament.
Now, as the Reformers went back to the original sources, you remember one of the mottos of the humanist Reform that began in the 1500’s, maybe a little before that and lead to the Renaissance and Reformation was ad fontes, or back to the fountain, back to the source. The idea was go back and read the Greek directly. Don’t read a Latin translation of Homer; go back and read the Greek. Don’t read a Latin translation of Ecclesiastes; go back and read the Hebrew. Go back to the original sources. So there was a tremendous amount of work done in recovering old documents and such.
And out of that it is not surprising that a renewed interest in the covenant developed. And it developed in a number of places in the Reformed tradition in the 1500’s. Perhaps you have heard that Ulrich Zwingli, 1484-1531, the Reformer in Zurich, made much of the covenant concept in his writing. He used the idea of the covenant to refute the Anabaptists on the issue of infant baptism. Zwingli taught that God had made a covenant with Adam, though he doesn’t specify whether that is a prefall or a postfall covenant, but Zwingli was significant in the development of the use of the covenant concept.
Again, Heinrich Bullinger, who succeeded him, 1504–1575, wrote a very important book called Of the One and Eternal Testament or Covenant of God. He argued that the various covenants of Scripture are organically related, and that the New Covenant was a fulfillment of all the previous covenants. Bullinger is more explicit in his use of the covenant in the structuring of his total theology than either Zwingli or Calvin. Calvin, of course, has those very important sections in the Institutes on the covenant, especially as it relates to the Scripture interpretation. But he doesn’t use it as the organizing principle of his book as did Bullinger.
John Calvin, 1509–1564, taught the unity of the covenants. Calvin very highly developed his doctrine of the sacraments in light of the covenant. This was especially crucial in illustrating the Reformed view of the Lord’s Supper. If you don’t have an adequate understanding of Covenant Theology you are weaponless against a Roman Catholic exposition of Old Testament and New Testament language about the sacraments. If you do not have an adequate covenantal framework for your doctrine of the sacraments, you have no chance against a Roman Catholic who sits down with you and says, “Well, what does Peter mean when he says, ‘Consequently baptism now saves you.’”? See, if you do not have a covenant understanding of that realistic language, you are duck soup.
And Calvin gives a covenant framework of how we understand the sacraments. He goes back, for instance, and he says, “What is the tree of life and what is the Garden?” And his answer is, “Well it is a sacrament.” Calvin’s argument is that where there is a sacrament, there must be a covenant. Why? Because a sacrament is a covenant sign. So did the tree of life, mystically, magically convey eternal life? Calvin says, “No, it was a sign and a seal of a covenant promise.” And by the way, Calvin is telling you through the back door, isn’t he, that he believes that there exists a covenant prior to the fall of God and Adam, because if there is a sign of a covenant prior to the fall, then there must be a covenant prior to the fall. So he expounds the covenant signs of Noah and of Abraham and of the time of Moses.
Caspar Olevianus is another sixteenth century Reformer who contributed substantively to our understanding of the covenant. He, a little bit younger than these other guys, lived from 1536 - 1587. He was a theologian in Heidelberg and he and Ursinus wrote the Heidelberg Catechism that begins with that gorgeous question, “What is your only hope in life and in death?” Caspar Olevianus and Ursinus are the authors of that Heidelberg Catechism. And they worked out the doctrine of the covenant of grace.
One of the things that we are going to see especially in our study of Covenant Theology is that determining who the parties of the covenant of grace are can be a little bit tricky. Is the Covenant of Grace made between God and the elect or is it made between God and Christ? And then we are the beneficiaries of the covenant of grace made between God and Christ. Reformed Theologians worked around that in different way for a long time before they came up with what they were satisfied was a satisfactory answer. And Olevanius argued that the covenant of grace was made between God and Christ, and that for the elect, Christ is their representative. Olevanius also explicitly wrote about the eternal intertrinitarian Covenant of Redemption and the prefall covenant of works. And those three covenants, the covenant of redemption in eternity past, the prefall Covenant of Works, and the covenant of grace, were the foundational covenants for seventeenth century Covenant Theology. When Scots like Robert Rollock take the concept, those three covenants are in place.
Now, finally we get to a point where we get to Macleod and he can give some help.
The next major figure in the development of Covenant Theology is Robert Rollock of the University of Edinburgh, 1555–1598. You will see Rollock’s name there in the Macleod article. Rollock wrote a book called Questions and Answers Regarding the Covenant of God.
Now Rollock did a lot of work on the matter of the Covenant of Works. He taught that the condition of the Covenant of Works was complete obedience to the moral law of God as summarized in the Ten Commandments. You heard me right. The argumentation being that the moral law, based again on the exposition of Romans 2, was not first given at Mt. Sinai. The moral law originated in the Garden and was written on Adam’s heart. So even though it wasn’t written down on tablets of stone until Exodus 20, the moral law was in place from the beginning of man’s creation. This is one of the great contributions of Rollock to the development of the Doctrine of Works. This covenant, Rollock has said, was manifest to a certain extent in the conditions of the Mosaic covenant.
And let me say again that that issue, just like the issue of, “Who are the parties in the Covenant of Grace, the elect or Christ?”, the issue of “What is the Mosaic Covenant? — is it a Covenant of Grace or is it the covenant revisited?’ has been significantly debated in the Reformed history of Covenant Theology.
Now where does the Covenant of Moses fit? Oftentimes it is spoken of by Paul in an almost negative light and juxtaposed to the Covenant of Abraham. In the book of Hebrews, when the author of Hebrews speaks of the first covenant of the Old Testament, oftentimes he has in mind the Covenant of Moses, the Mosaic Covenant, as opposed to the New Covenant. So is the Mosaic Covenant some sort of a remanifestation of the Covenant of Works or not? That debate is with us until this day. You will find this in the wrings of Meredith Kline, as opposed to people like John Murray, or other contemporary Reformed scholars. At any rate, Rollock also developed the relationship between the covenants and the sacraments so those are your sixteenth century men who worked on Covenant Theology and its development. Now, into the seventeenth century.
In the seventeenth century, English Calvinism was very much influenced by the use of the covenant concept. You have heard of the Cambridge Theologians, like William Perkins and William Ames. Perkins and Ames both were Covenant, or Federal Theologians and made much use of the covenant concept. Ames, of course, was a major influence on New England Calvinism. And John Preston also discusses the covenant concept in his book, The New Covenant, or the Saints Portion, written in 1629. John Ball, another Cambridge Calvinist wrote a book called The Treatise on the Covenant of Grace, in 1645 and this again was another classic statement on Covenant Theology.
One theme that you will hear from time to time in terms of the history of Covenant Theology is that Covenant Theology was a reaction against high Calvinism, and that Theodore Beza, good old Teddy Beza, is always the bad guy. And whoever is against Beza, whether it is Arminius or whoever else is always the good guy wearing the white hat. And the argument will be, well, Covenant Theology came along to kind of modify Beza and scholastic Calvinism. And this is particularly a theory when you hear people say, “Johannes Cocceius was the inventor of Covenant Theology,” they will say, “you see he came along to give a warmer more biblical exegetical warm fuzzy view of theology than nasty old mean Theodore Beza.” But Beza was just as much a Covenant Theologian and more of one than was Johan Cocceius. So the idea of Covenant Theology was designed to mollify the harsher characteristics of predestinarianism in Calvinism is just utter rubbish. And John Ball is one to prove it. Because Ball, here he is writing a treatise on the Covenant of Grace and he drinks at the fount of Theodore Beza all the time. So you don’t see a dichotomy between these two things.
Now back to the continent for a minute in, still the seventeenth century, two important names to remember are Francis Gomoris, and Francis Turretin. Turretin was of course teaching in the Academy of Geneva. And Turretin is especially important for his Covenant Theology. Why? Because who taught Turretin’s Systematic Theology textbook and taught about two thousand Reformed ministers last century? Charles Hodge. Charles Hodge’s Systematic Theology textbook was Francis Turretin’s Institutes of Elenctic Theology, and Dabney taught out of Turretin. So both in the north and the south in the nineteenth century, Turretin was the basic Systematic Theology textbook. So his Covenant Theology is very important, not only for his own time, but for our time, because it was transmitted through those classes.
Active in Britain and Ireland at this time was a gentleman named James Ussher, spelled with two s’s., in fact, Archbishop Ussher, to be exact. Archbishop Ussher was the author of The Irish Articles, a confessional statement used for the Episcopal Church in Ireland. And both his Irish articles, which were written in 1615, and his Systematic Theology, called a Body of Divinity, were influential in the language and the theology of a little-known confession known as The Westminster Confession. In fact, Ussher was voted to be a delegate to The Westminster Assembly, although he did not participate, but his theology was very influential on The Westminster Confession and Catechisms. The Westminster Confession and Catechisms are built on a Covenant Theology model. There is an entire section of the Confession devoted to the covenant concept, chapter seven. The view of the offices of Christ in chapter eight is impacted by a covenant outlook on the work of Christ. The doctrine of the church, the doctrine of the sacraments, the doctrine of the law, the doctrine of Christian liberty, we could go on and on and on how the covenant concept impacts The Westminster Confession. Covenant Theology is part of the warp and woof of The Westminster Confession. Many of you will have the edition of The Confession that was published by the Free Presbyterian Church in Scotland, and in this edition of The Confession, they actually have included in the back a little document called The Sum of Saving Knowledge. And that Sum of Saving Knowledge, and by the way that document was written by two Scottish theologians, James Durham, and David Dixon, was an explicitly covenantal document designed to show how the Gospel might be presented in Covenant terms. It was written in 1650 and became so popular that it was often bound with copies of The Confession.
Now also in the seventeenth century back on the continent we come back to Johan Cocceius who is often wrongly credited with being the inventor of Covenant Theology. He was born in Bremen in Germany and he studied under William Ames in Holland at the University of France and eventually taught there himself as well as teaching at Lyden. He specialized in Hebrew, Rabbinics, Philology and Typology, and wrote a book called The Doctrine of the Covenants and Testaments of God in 1648. His counterpart, his more Orthodox counterpart on the continent on the seventeenth century, was a man named Herman Witsius, a Dutchman we have already mentioned, who wrote a book called The Economy of the Covenants, which was translated from Latin into English. And because it was written in Latin, as most theological books at this time and prior, and because John Cocceius’ work was written in Latin but was never translated into English, it never had the impact that Witsius’ work did. But Witsius’ work was translated into English and eventually became very popular in both Britain and America.
Now, in the eighteenth century, Covenant Theology continued to be very significant. John Cotton and Jonathan Edwards were both Covenant Theologians, Federal Calvinists. Charles Hodge in the nineteenth century carried on the covenant tradition, being influenced most by Westminster and Turretin. In the twentieth century, Louis Berkhof’s Systematic Theology again continues in the Federal tradition, and it has been a seminary textbook for thousands. You should also know that back in England in the seventeenth century, you have the English Particular Baptists, that is, Baptists who believed in particular redemption. You remember there are two classes of Baptists in Britain at this time: the General Baptists and the Particular Baptists. The General Baptists were named so because they basically held to a universal atonement position, while the Particular Baptists held to a limited atonement position, holding all five points of Calvinism. The Particular Baptists, after 1688, became more and more explicitly covenantal and Federal in their own theology. And John Gill, for instance in his Body of Divinity, will give numerous covenant arguments. A. W. Pink continued that tradition in the twentieth century with his little book on The Divine Covenants.
Now I need to mention at least one more historic name and that name is again an eighteenth century Scottish Calvinist name, Thomas Boston. Boston was a very important Federal Theologian whose collective writings fill about 12 volumes and were recently reprinted by Richard Owen Roberts, who prints a lot of the revival literature and such. And they are well worth laying your hands on if you can get them. But in those 12 volumes, he has among other things, an exposition of The Westminster Confession and Catechisms. But he also has a series of sermons that he preached at his tiny little church down in Ettrick. One called “A View of the Covenant of Works,” and another was “A View of the Covenant of Grace”. But if you know Boston at all, the book that you have heard about most is his book, Human Nature in its Four-Fold State, oftentimes simply called The Four-Fold State. All of those books are written from a covenantal perspective, looking at the work of Christ, the progress of redemption, from a covenant perspective. So he is a name that you need to know.
And if I could throw out one more nineteenth century Scottish Calvinist name, I would throw out the name, Hugh Martin. Hugh Martin wrote a set of essays on the Covenant, on the priestly work of our Lord, on the intercession and the mediation of our Lord, which were collected and put into a book that was titled The Atonement. Hugh Martin was one of the masters of Covenant Theology in the Nineteenth Century in Scotland. And his book, The Atonement, and its relation to the covenant, the priesthood, and the intercession of our Lord, again is in print. That book is another good example of Covenant Theology now.
The Three Covenants
Covenant Theology, or Federal Theology, organizes itself around three great covenants. The first is the Covenant of Works. Now the Covenant of Works is called different things by different Covenant Theologians. For instance, in The Westminster Confession, the Covenant of Works, or in The Catechisms, the Covenant of Works is referred to once as the Covenant of Life, but it is also sometimes referred to as the Covenant of Nature. So you get different titles for this thing. Now Robertson calls the Covenant of Works, what? The Covenant of Creation. And we will talk about why later. But just bear that in mind. Just because you see a different term does not necessarily mean that it is talking about something different. You have to be careful with some of these terms because sometimes, when they are used, the same phrase is used to describe something different.
Now Covenant Theology makes it clear that Adam is not a private individual. He is a public person. When he acts as covenant head he acts representatively for the entire race. Where do Covenant Theologians get this from? Not simply from what are clearly the implications of Adam’s sin in Genesis 4 and 5, but explicitly from Paul’s teaching in Romans 5, where he parallels Adam and Christ and says, “By one man’s unrighteousness sin came into the world, so also by one man’s righteousness all are justified.” So this Adam-Christ parallel from Paul, in combination with what are clearly the elements of a covenant relationship with Adam as seen in Genesis 1 and 2, combined in Covenant Theology give you the framework for a doctrine of the Covenant of Works. Now this isn’t all we will do on it. We are coming back to this. I just wanted to do the overview first. Then we will get into the exegesis. I want us to understand what we are talking about though.
The Passing of the
Covenant of Works
Now according to Federal Theology, according to Covenant Theology, the Covenant of Works no longer continues in its ability to bless. The stipulations of the Covenant of Works are still incumbent upon us, but it no longer continues in its ability to bless since the fall. Why? Because in the Covenant of Works, as formed in the garden between God and Adam, there is no stipulation for blessing in spite of demerit. There is no stipulation for forgiveness in the Covenant of Works, and we have already sinned. So the Covenant of Works can’t bless you if you have sinned. The condition of the Covenant of Works is perfect and personal obedience. So it remains in force as a binding obligation, but we are incapable of fulfilling it. We are born in sin, the Apostle Paul says, and are by nature children of wrath. But the fact that it is still in force explains why both Jesus and Paul argue against legalism, not by saying that it is wrong in principle for someone to think that they can earn their salvation.
Now, notice how Jesus and Paul will use the same polemic. When the Judaizers come to Paul and say you have got to get it by your works, Paul doesn’t say no, you can’t do it, you’ve got to do it by grace. That is not what Paul says. Paul’s response is always, “He who shall live by it shall do it.” In other words, he says, “do this and live.” He is saying, “Okay, you think you can stand before God righteously in your own merit. Fine. If you can, He will welcome you into the kingdom of heaven. Go ahead and do it.” The apostle Paul’s argument is not that it is illegitimate to think that perfect obedience is acceptable to God. The Apostle Paul’s argument is that you can’t do personal obedience. You cannot do perfect and personal obedience. You are fallen. You sin in thought and word and deed everyday. So if you think you are going to stand before God in righteousness that way, fine. Do it. That is Paul’s argument, and that is Jesus’ argument against legalism. So the Covenant of Works stays in force in the sense that both Paul and Jesus can use that argument. Yeah, you can be perfect. You can stand before God and be accepted in heaven. That’s all you have to do: be perfect. “If anyone,” Macleod says, you will see at the bottom of page 215, “If anyone could present himself at the bar of God and prove that he was free from sin, personal or imputed, actual or original, he would be acquitted.” That is all you have to do. I am free from sin, let me in Lord. Because the principle, “The soul that sins shall die” is still valid. So the opposite of that is also valid. The soul that does not sin, shall not die. So if you have not sinned, you are doing great.
Why is salvation by works impossible? Not because it is inconceivable but because we are morally corrupted and totally depraved. Salvation by works is not a metaphysical impossibility. It is a moral impossibility. We are rebellious human beings fallen in Adam. And we have no hope for moral capacity to obey fully the law of God.
The Condition of the
Covenant of Works
Why is it called the Covenant of Works? Because the condition of the covenant is the obedience of Adam.
2. The Covenant of Redemption.
The phrase, The Covenant of Redemption (and I am not speaking of Robertson’s Covenant of Redemption, no), historically in the Reformed tradition refers to the intertrinitarian covenant, especially the covenant between the Father and the Son before the foundation of the world. It took place in eternity and is the plan by which election would be elective. Berkhof defines it this way, “the Covenant of Redemption is the agreement between the Father giving the Son as head and redeemer of all the elect and the Son voluntarily taking the place of those whom the Father has given Him.” And so the Father, foreseeing the fall, in His grace effects a covenant with the Son in which He gives all the elect to the Son and the Son says I will take their place. Now where in the world did the Covenant Theologians get this? Well, we are going to look at this very closely later on. But let’s look at some of the outline.
First of all, they found it in the Messianic Psalms—Psalm 2:7-9—where we have a picture of God speaking to the king: “I will surely tell of the decree of the LORD: He said to Me, ‘Thou art My Son, Today I have begotten Thee. Ask of Me, and I will surely give the nations as Thine inheritance, And the very ends of the earth as Thy possession. Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron, Thou shalt shatter them like earthenware.’”
Now in that Messianic Psalm (and by the way, that is a Psalm and that is a passage in that Psalm that is directly identified as messianic in the New Testament; we’re not doing this by implication; it is directly quoted as a Messianic Psalm in reference to Christ, so there is no speculation involved here), the Covenant Theologians say, “What is happening there?” God the Father is giving to the Son the nations as His inheritance and is appointing the Son in that phrase, “Thou art My Son, this day I have begotten Thee.” That doesn’t mean that Christ is coming into being that day. That is the language of the royal enthronement. “Thou art the Son, today I have begotten Thee.” It is as if the king of Israel has just ascended the throne now. And the Father is saying I have appointed you now as the monarch over all your inheritance, all the chosen people. And so the Son takes the role of Mediator and of head. You see this also in Psalm 40:7-9 which is another royal Psalm. You see it in Psalm 89:3 and again it is picked up in Hebrews 10:5-7 and elsewhere, applied to Christ.
The Covenant Theologians also noticed that in the Gospels Christ emphasizes that the Father had given Him work to do. The language in John 5:36 is interesting, isn’t it? The Father gave Me a work to do. And so elsewhere in the Gospels, Matthew and Mark, you will find Jesus saying things like, “It is my food to do the will of Him who sent Me.” Over and over we see the Son openly subordinating His will to the Father’s will. A classic example is in the Garden of Gethsemane, “Nevertheless, not My will, but Thy will be done.” And the Covenant Theologian basically pulls back from that and says, “Wait a second, we’re Orthodox Trinitarian Christians, we believe that the Son is very God, a very God. He is equal in power and glory with God the Father. What is the Son doing saying, ‘nevertheless not My will, but Thy will be done?’” He is referring to the obligations of the covenant which He voluntarily took on Himself in order to save His people. And the Father said, “Son, if you are going to be the surety of Your people, this is what You must do.” And the Son says to the Father, “That is what I want to do, Father, so that You will be glorified and that they will be saved.” Now we will build a foundation for this as we go through it.
Theologians have quibbled over whether to call this a covenant. Okay. All Reformed Theologians believe in a decree. They believe that there is a plan that God has instituted from eternity for the saving of His people. Covenant Theologians simply say, “You really can’t understand that decree, especially as it regards to our redemption, until you understand the covenant aspect of it.” And the covenant aspect is the Covenant of Redemption. It is that eternal covenant--that covenant which is prior to time, in which the Son undertakes to be our surety and our mediator and the Father undertakes to give to the Son all the elect because of the Son’s perfect obedience.
Hear that clearly. In the Covenant of Redemption, the Son buys you by right. You hear that? Last week we said the whole function of Covenant Theology is to do what? Build the assurance of God’s people in His promises. Now the Covenant of Redemption tells you that when Christ dies for you, it makes your salvation absolutely certain. Why? Because the Father has promised the Son, “If you will take that man’s place, I will give him to You.” The whole point is that the Father cannot renege. He has promised the Son in the Covenant. So there we have the Covenant of Works and The Covenant of Redemption.
The Covenant of Grace
The Covenant of Grace is the overflowing of the Covenant of Redemption in time after the fall. Adam miserably failed as the federal head in Genesis 3 and so God acts for the first time in a manner of grace towards humanity. And it is so important for you to understand that strictly speaking here, that grace does not exist where there is no sin. Hear me very clearly. We are going to hammer this one home over and over. There is no such thing as grace where there is no sin. Sin is always prior to grace. We may say that God was loving and that He was good in His entering into the covenant relationship with Adam in the Garden, and we would not be understating ourselves. But strictly speaking, Adam was not related to on the basis of grace, because grace entails God’s blessing despite demerit. And there was no demerit in Adam. There was no demerit to overcome. There was no gulf of sin between God and Adam as he was originally created. Grace comes in where demerit has entered into the scene.
Question: “On the Covenant of Works, you called it a relationship initiated by God?”
Thank you. You caught me and I was trying to keep from using that word. Let me say that people will argue, “Can you say that the Covenant of Works is gracious?” As long as you understand that strictly speaking, grace does not exist prior to the fall in terms of God’s relationship with man. If you are using gracious in a less technical sense to express God’s goodness and His love and the unmerited aspect of that relationship too, I have no quibble with it.
But it is so important for us to recognize that grace is not operative in that first relationship, because God does not give us to Jesus as our Mediator by the vehicle of grace. Jesus earns us. The whole vocabulary of redemption, is the vocabulary of the marketplace. When you say the phrase, “Jesus redeemed me,” we could translate that, “Jesus went to the market and bought me.” Now that puts a whole different spin on it. Christ isn’t given you by grace. The Father does not give you to the Son by grace. He gives you to the Son because the Son has earned you. He has bought you. He has purchased you. You see the whole purpose of that language there is to make you understand how absolutely secure your salvation is. The very justice of God would have to be violated for your salvation to be lost once you are in Christ.
Now, the Covenant of Grace is that covenant between God and the elect as they are in Christ. It is the overflowing of the Covenant of Redemption into our human history after the fall. It is inaugurated in Genesis 3 with Adam, and especially in the word of curse against the serpent in Genesis 3:15, and it is expanded in the covenant with Noah. It is most clearly set forth in the Old Testament in the Covenant of Abraham. But it is continued in the covenants with Moses and with David. It is prophesied of in its fullest form in Jeremiah in the New Covenant and, of course, it comes to realization in the New Covenant itself inaugurated by Jesus Christ.
Now the Covenant of Grace, Robertson calls this what? Let’s not get these things confused. Robertson calls it the Covenant of Redemption. And he is not talking about this covenant. In fact, Robertson stays away from talking about that intertrinitarian covenant at all. Okay. So Robertson will use the word Covenant of Redemption when he is actually talking about this end time covenant, the Covenant of Grace. And he will use the phrase, Covenant of Creation when he is talking about the Covenant of Works. The Confession will use Covenant of Works, Covenant of Grace, or Covenant of Life, Covenant of Grace. Robertson uses Covenant of Creation and Covenant of Redemption. Those are Meredith Kline’s terms. Robertson is following Meredith Kline’s terminology there, for those of you who care about that particular discussion.
Question: “Robertson is arguing that a covenant is something in blood.”
Right. Yes. I suspect, having taken Robertson for Biblical Theology, I suspect that his biggest hang up about talking about the Covenant of Redemption is in the issue of covenants being asymmetrical. He sees biblical covenants as always entailing a greater and lesser party with regards to God’s involvements. And I would not quibble with His specific examples of that. God and Adam, God and Noah, God and Abraham, God and David. Obviously, if you have got God and man in a covenant arrangement, it is going to asymmetrical. God is going to be sovereignly in charge.
And so he is saying, “How can you talk about an arrangement like that that as intertrinitarian, between equal persons of the Trinity?” Well, it is because all covenants are not asymmetrical and you have got biblical examples of non-asymmetrical covenants, so I think you also have to add into that the voluntary subordination of the Son. You know, there is a legitimate kind of subordinationism. It is not ontological subordination. It is economical subordination. And economic subordination in a covenant. I think that is his biggest hang up about the issue of using covenant terminology about the intertrinitarian arrangement. But there are lots of covenants between two equal parties. You know, Abraham and Abimilech. David and Jonathan. Jacob and Laban. So with the blood aspect of the covenant, there is clearly still a life and death thing going on there. It is not dissimilar to what happens in Genesis 15, when God walks between the pieces in the form of a smoking oven and the flaming torch. You have got a situation there where God Himself is calling down self-malediction. So I think you could satisfy him at the level of blood. I think it is just that subordination issue that he is wrestling with, and I think there is a biblical answer to that, that is in fact, absolutely essential.
You know what I mean when I say ontological subordination and economic subordination? Ontological subordination would say that the Son is in His essence, in His being, in some sense, less than or derivative than the Father. There are some people who believe in the doctrine of the Trinity but sort of see the Trinity as sort of a hierarchy. You know, you have either got the Father, the Son or the Holy Spirit, and the Son is a little less than the Father, and the Father is the original fountain, and then the Spirit is something else. Or some people see the Trinity, “Well you know you have got three thrones, and the Father’s is the biggest, and you know then you have the Son’s out there, and then you have got the Spirit’s over there. And they all sit on their thrones, but the Father’s throne is the biggest throne.” And that would be a form of subordinationism, to see the Son and the Spirit as somehow less in substance or essence than the Father.
But economic subordinationism speaks of that voluntary willingness to be made nothing, to take on the form of a servant, to be the covenant mediator, which is spoken about all through the New Testament. And it is not an emptying of His essence. In fact, Paul makes that so beautifully clear in Phillipians 2 when he says, that “He emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant.” You see it is not an emptying of essence that is involved in Phillipians 2. It is the taking on of humanity and, specifically, taking on the role of mediator for humanity which is the subordination that the Son undertakes for us. And He talks about it all the time. This is one of the reasons why many heretics go to the New Testament, to the Gospels, and to Acts, and to the Epistles, and end up saying, “Well Jesus can’t really be fully God in the way that God the Father is because look at this language. You know, look at this language, ‘not My will, but Thy will.’ You see, Jesus clearly thinks the Father is greater than He is.” And a Covenant Theologian comes along and says, “No, no, you totally misunderstand. Jesus is speaking covenantally there. He is saying, ‘Brethren, before the foundation of the world, I loved you with my heart and therefore, I said to the Father, ‘I want to take that man’s place. And I will submit My will to Your will to effect the redemption by covenant of that people.’”
And so all that language of subordination in the New Testament suddenly becomes intelligible from the standpoint of the covenant. And it is not because the Son ontologically, in His essence, in his being is less than the Father. It is because the Son has voluntarily said, “I want to take that man’s place.” And Paul’s language helps us so much there. Over and over, “in our place,” “for us,” “on our behalf,” all those wonderful little phrases. Over an over, and what is that language? That is the language of covenant mediation.
Question: “Where did Systematic Theology get its origins?”
Historically, Systematic Theology was being done by the late second century, early third century. Typically we say that Origen’s First Principles was the first attempt at a Systematic Theology that still stands. But I would argue that even before that you would have at least attempts by early writers at systematizing particular doctrines. So in terms of Christian history, you see it very early on, especially for the purpose of catechizing, of teaching those who are coming to the church to join as catechumens. And it is argued by New Testament scholars who would know better than I would, that some of the Gospels, and in particular Matthew itself, are organized for the purpose of memorizing, for the sake of instructing the catechumens.
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