2012 Convocation on Covenant Theology

Covenant Theology

August 22, 2012

2012 Convocation

Reformed Theological Seminary

Jackson, Mississippi

The Reverend Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III

It's a joy to be with you, friends. This is a formal academic occasion and perhaps calls for a more formal academic address. My address will be somewhere between an academic address and preaching; I will be unable to resist drifting into preaching as we tackle this subject. I thought it might be encouraging to you at the outset of this new semester and for some of you at the outset of your theological education, to be reminded of a central commitment of this institution and of reformed Christianity from the very beginning, and that is the commitment to classic covenant theology. And I want to briefly make a case for classic covenant theology, knowing that for some of you even that terminology is entirely new. And so I want to try to give some explanation about what we mean when we say covenant theology, I want to talk just a little bit about covenant theology in history, and then I want to point us to four places where covenant theology helps us in the Christian life from the Scriptures.

So let's begin by noting this — covenant theology is the Gospel set in the context of God's eternal plan of communion with His people and in its historic outworkings in the covenants of works and grace as well as in the various progressive stages of the covenant of grace. Covenant theology explains the meaning of the death of Christ in light of the fullness of the Biblical teaching on the divine covenants, it undergirds our understanding of the nature and use of the sacraments, and it provides the fullest possible explanation of our grounds of assurance of salvation. To put it another way, covenant theology is the Bible's way of explaining and deepening our understanding of five things. And here they are. I’ll name them and then I’ll go back and explain them: the atonement, assurance, the sacraments, the continuity of redemptive history, and sanctification. Covenant theology is the Bible's way of explaining and deepening our understanding of the atonement, assurance, sacraments, the continuity of redemptive history, and sanctification.

It is the Bible's way of explaining and deepening our understanding of the atonement. That is, the meaning of the death of Jesus Christ. What did Jesus come to do? What did He in fact accomplish in His redemptive death, burial, and resurrection? Covenant theology, at its very origins, sought to explain that. And we’ll see why in just a few moments. Secondly, covenant theology is the Bible's way of explaining and deepening our understanding of assurance. That is, the basis of our communion with God and the enjoyment of His promises. How can we be sure that we are accepted by God? How can we be assured that we are right with God and secure in His hand? Covenant theology seeks to give a Biblical explanation and application of that truth, deepening our understanding of that glorious aspect of the Christian life. Third, covenant theology is the Bible's way of explaining and deepening our understanding of the sacraments. That is, the signs and seals of God's covenant promises; what they are and how they work. Covenant theology explains covenant signs; what they’re there for, what they do, what they don't do, how they help us, how they’re means of grace. Fourth, covenant theology explains and deepens our understanding of the continuity of redemptive history, the unified plan of God's salvation. One of the great things that RTS students tell me constantly is how they are gripped by this in their Biblical studies courses when they see the great flow of redemptive history and the unified plan of God. Well covenant theology is there to help us grasp the one plan of God in redemption in history. And covenant theology explains and deepens our understanding of sanctification, and especially the role of God's power in growing us in grace in the living of the Christian life without denying our responsibility. Sovereignty and responsibility exist not only in salvation as it is expressed in election and faith but also in the work of sanctification which Paul repeatedly says is God's work and then he calls on us to do things. And so covenant theology helps us to understand how the monergistic work of God in us doesn't leave us robots with nothing to do but human beings who are called to respond and to act. So covenant theology helps us in those five areas.

It is also an hermeneutic, that is, an approach to understanding Scripture, an approach that attempts to Biblically explain the unity of Biblical revelation. Covenant theology is a blending of both Biblical and systematic theology. If Biblical theology is the thematic survey of redemptive history with an emphasis on theological development from era to era of whatever topic you’re studying in the Bible, then covenant theology could rightly be called Biblical, Biblical theology. That is, covenant theology recognizes that the Bible itself structures the progress of redemptive history through a succession of covenants. So in that sense, covenant theology is Biblical theology, which studies the Scriptures from the standpoint of the history of redemption. But it's also systematic theology. It's systematic theology in that it recognizes the covenants serve as a fundamental architectonic or organizing principle for the Bible's theology and so it proceeds to integrate the Biblical teaching, for instance, of the federal headships of Adam in Christ, the covenantal nature of the incarnation and atonement, the continuities and discontinuities in the progress of redemptive history, the relation of the Jewish and Christian Scriptures, Law and Gospel, into a coherent theological system.

And one of the unique things that you will receive at RTS is a theological education that does not pit Biblical theology against systematic theology, but rejoices in them both. In many places, Biblical theology and systematic theology are taught in tension and contradiction of one another. Here, there is what I might call dynamic complementarity. The systematic theologians that you hear rejoice and thrive in Biblical theology and our Biblical theologians know that it is impossible not to have a systematic theology. We all do, it's just that some of us admit it and others don't. And we want to be Biblical in both our Biblical theology and our systematic theology.

But covenant theology also — we need to understand its role in history — covenant theology is not a response to dispensationalism. I don't know how you are, but when I went to seminary, having grown up in that eighth generation home of a southern Presbyterian elder, the dominant theological system of hermeneutics and Biblical theology that I had received from reading popular evangelical literature was dispensational. In fact, when I went into my first Biblical theology class in seminary I was suspicious of the professor because I knew that he was going to be, how shall I say it, unfriendly to dispensationalism. Now it took him fifteen minutes to win me over — all of fifteen minutes! But so often, those of us who have grown up in reformed settings, and certainly those of us who haven't, have had no exposure to this glorious system of Biblical theology bequeathed to us in the covenant tradition. And that is not a new thing. That's what I want you to understand. Covenant theology is not a response to dispensationalism. Covenant theology existed centuries before dispensationalism was popularized by the pen of C.I. Scofield.

Let me just give you a taste for this. I wish I could give you a whole study on the history of covenant theology but just take this as an hors d’oeuvre and study it some more yourself. Scholars studying the origins of the 16th century reformers covenant theology have established a link between the early reformers covenant thought and the patristic writers, that is, the writers of earliest Christianity, the church fathers. It has been shown, for instance, that Heinrich Bullinger, a reformer who was a younger contemporary of John Calvin, appealed to a number of early church fathers in his teaching on the covenant idea, for instance in his book on the one and eternal covenant or testament of our Lord Jesus Christ. Here's what one scholar says. “Bullinger drew heavily on the Bible and used several church fathers to give his idea of the covenant a pass in order to show that it was not an innovation but the very fabric from which the history of salvation was woven through the centuries from Adam to his own day. He cited Augustine, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Lactantius and Eusebius for his patristic support.”

Now since that discovery, reformation scholars are widely knowledgeable of that now, but reformation specialists have also conducted preliminary surveys of the covenant idea in the church fathers in order to set the stage for the analysis of the reformers covenant theology. Andrew Woolsey, for instance, who studied at the University of Glasgow, gives these concluding remarks to his brief overview of the use of the covenant concept in the epistle of Barnabas, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, and Augustine. So you’re covering from roughly the 2nd century to the 4th century:

“First of all they used the covenant idea to stress the unity and explain the differences between the Old and New testaments. Secondly, they saw the covenant soteriologically as one eternal covenant in Christ manifest throughout all ages from the time of Adam. Third, there was a dual emphasis in their presentation of the covenant. It was a unilateral promise of grace given sovereignly by God, but it also required a response of faith and obedience from man. And though this response was only by divine enabling and not by any natural inherent power in the fallen man, it complimented the sovereignty of God in the work of sanctification. Fourthly, in the case of Augustine, there was a definite use of the idea of covenant in a legal sense, though still in the context of grace with respect to Adam in his fallen state. And finally, again, in Augustine especially, there was a close association of the covenant with baptism. So it is erroneous to locate the origin of the idea of covenant theology to Zwingli in the reformation in Zurich” - as you still often hear people say.

They’ll say, “Covenant theology was invented in Zurich in the time of the reformation.” Now let me tell you one other thing. There is a book that was written by Irenaeus, one of the fathers that is referenced here, that we did not have possession of, again, until the early 1900's. And we only have it in a Syriac translation. It's called, On the Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching. And it is what early church scholars call, catechesis. It is an example of what a pastor would use to teach his congregation the basics of the Christian faith. And if you look at that little book, he structures — first of all, it's Biblical theology. He wants his people to have an understanding of the sweep of redemptive history and if you look at that book it is outlined not unlike Palmer Robertson's book, Christ of the Covenants. He goes from Adam to Noah to Moses to David to Christ and he structures redemptive history around the outline of the covenants. And that's how he wanted to train young Christians in his church in Biblical theology. Now remember, Irenaeus studied under a man in Smyrna, probably Papius, who had studied under John — that John, the John who wrote the gospel and the letters and who laid his head on Jesus’ chest at the Last Supper. And interestingly, you may never have seen it before, even if you've read Eusebius ecclesiastical history, when he's telling about Irenaeus call to the ministry — do you remember that fascinating story? It's 177 and you’re in Gall and the pastor of the church has been martyred by a mob of pagans. And the congregation unanimously asks a young man to be their new pastor. He is terrified of the prospect. His name is Irenaeus. But they send him on an embassy from the church to Rome to ask their brothers to help them in this precarious situation. And Eusebius says that that young man, Irenaeus, was called “a man who was zealous for the covenant of Christ.” Now there is no ascription in the ancient world that is remotely like that description of Erroneus — “a man zealous for the covenant of Christ.”

My only point is simply this — covenant theology is rooted in history. It's a blending of Biblical and systematic theology. And I want to say this very quickly. Covenant theology is central, not peripheral, to the Biblical story. Think about this with me for a few moments. When Jesus wanted to explain the significance of His death to the disciples, where did He go? He went to the doctrine of the covenants. If you look at Matthew 26, Mark 14, and Luke 22, all the Last Supper narratives, whereas Jesus, as far as we can tell from the gospels, rarely, if ever, used covenant theology or covenant theology in His public teaching, when He comes to explain the meaning and significance of His death to the disciples, do you remember what He says? “This cup is the new covenant in My blood.” He relates the meaning of His death to the fulfillment of the prophecy of Jeremiah 600 years before, and then harkening beyond that in the bread word, to the establishment of the Mosaic covenant in Exodus 24. So He brings in covenant terminology, categories, and concepts to explain the meaning and significance of His death. This shows us how central covenant theology is, not only to the Christian story but to Christian theology.

Second, when God wanted to assure Abraham of the certainty of His word of promise, where did He go? He went to the covenant. Near Eastern deities didn't make covenants with their people and they certainly didn't assume the role of a vassal in relation to their people. But when Abraham, in Genesis 15, asks, “Lord, how am I going to know that You are going to fulfill Your promises?” God goes to the covenant and He swears a curse against Himself as He walks through the pieces of the slaughtered animals like a vassal and says to Abraham, “Be it done to Me as we have done to these animals if I do not fulfill My promises to you.” He goes to the covenants, in other words, to assure Abraham. The meaning of Christ's death, the assurance of Abraham.

Third, when God wanted to set apart His people and engrain His work in their minds and tangibly reveal Himself in love and mercy to them and confirm their future inheritance, what did He do? He gave them covenant signs. In Genesis 17, when Abraham still does not have a child by Sarah, and God has changed His name from “mighty father” to “father of nations,” still without his own heir, and God wants to assure him of the covenant that He has made with him, what does He do? He gives him circumcision. He cuts a sign in his own flesh in order to assure him and to confirm to him His promises. And so when God wants to engrain in Abraham's mind and reveal Himself in love and mercy and confirm his future inheritance He goes to the covenant signs. And you can't understand what He's doing apart from the theology of the covenants.

When Luke wanted to show early Christians that Jesus’ life and ministry were the fulfillment of God's ancient purposes for His chosen people, where did he go? He went to the covenant of grace and he quoted Zacharias’ prophecy which showed that believers in the very earliest days of the Jesus movement understood Jesus and His Messianic work were the fulfillment, not a Plan-B, but a fulfillment of God's covenant with Abraham. Take a look at Luke chapter 1 verses 72 and 73 and you’ll see Zacharias acknowledging that the coming of the Savior into the world is the fulfillment of God's promise to Abraham and that that promise belongs to those who believe in the Savior.

When the psalmist, in Psalm 78 and 89, or the author of Hebrews in chapters 6 to 10 want to show how God's redemptive plan is ordered and on what basis it unfolds in history, they go to the covenants and they structure their presentation of Christian history or the history of redemption in terms of God's covenant plans. The doctrine of the covenant lies at the root of all true theology. It has been said that those who understand well the distinction between the covenant of works and the covenant of grace are indeed masters of divinity. “I am persuaded that most of the mistakes that men make concerning the doctrines of Scripture are based upon fundamental errors with regard to the covenant of law and of grace.” Who said this? Charles Haddon Spurgeon, the English Baptist preacher, certainly a man beyond our suspicion of secretly purveying a Presbyterian view of the sacraments to the unsuspecting evangelical masses! Why is that? Because Charles Spurgeon was a reformed protestant and the Biblical theology of the reformed movement is covenant theology and he was commending the understanding of that to his people for the understanding of Scripture.

Covenant theology flows from the Trinitarian life and work of God. God's covenant communion with us is modeled on and reflected in the intra-Trinitarian relationships - Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The shared life, the fellowship of the persons of the Holy Trinity, what theologians call perichoresis or circumincession is the archetype of the relationship that the gracious covenant God shares with His elect and redeemed people. God's commitments in the eternal covenant of redemption find their space time realization in the covenant of grace. Covenant theology is the Gospel set in the context of God's eternal plan of communion. As you learn those things, and many more here this semester and in the years to come, may the Lord bless and enrich your souls.

© First Presbyterian Church.

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