If I were asked that question, I would have to answer with another question, namely, ‘What kind of Covenant Theology are you referring to?’
Some years ago a lady came to the church in Truro in which I was an elder, and she asked me, ‘Are you a Calvinist?’ Without pausing to think I replied, ‘Yes.’ When a look of disappointment appeared on her face I realized my mistake. I should have said, ‘What kind of Calvinism are you referring to?’ or perhaps, ‘What do you mean by Calvinism?’
A well-known pastor, Bible teacher and author recalls that when he was a Free Church Chaplain in the RAF, after the Roman Catholic and the Anglican chaplains had taken charge of their adherents, he was left to look after the rest, which included not only the Free Church Christians but also those who claimed to be atheists. When he got a chance to talk to an atheist he would ask him, ‘Tell me about the god you don’t believe in.’ When they had finished describing God as they understood him, this chaplain would respond, ‘Well, you have just made me an atheist, too, for I don’t believe in that kind of God either!’ Definition is so important.
To return to the subject of Covenant Theology, there are two entirely different types that could claim that designation.
First of all, there is a covenant theology that is based upon clear biblical teaching, defined through the careful exegesis of specific Scripture texts. This teaching understands a divine covenant to be a promise confirmed by an oath so that it is unchangeable. In this it differs from other divine promises which may be withdrawn, or which have to be inherited by faith and patience. (Deut. 28:68; Jonah 3:10; Heb. 6:12-18).
In the Old Testament the word for covenant is berith, which has three implications. First, it implies an inviolable word of God, a declaration that cannot be broken. Second, it is usually associated with a sacrifice; the shedding of blood is involved. It is interesting that the Hebrew for making a covenant is literally, ‘to cut a covenant.’ When God made a covenant with Abraham, Abraham prepared a sacrifice and cut the animals in two, intending to walk between them, as if to say, ‘If I break this covenant may this happen to me.’ But God pre-empted that by putting Abraham into a deep sleep, and something like a burning lamp, representing God’s presence, passed between the pieces, as though God were saying, ‘No, Abraham, you cannot keep this covenant; I will keep it.’ The third element of the word berith is that frequently the participants in a covenant ate together (Gen. 26:28-30; Ex. 24:11). It is easy to see how these three elements come together in the Lord’s Supper, an inerrant word, the shedding of blood and eating together.
This type of Covenant Theology stresses the importance of careful exegesis of the passages describing the various God-given covenants. In the Old Testament there are also covenants made between individuals, such as David and Jonathan (I Sam. 18:3), but we will leave those aside as we are considering only the covenants God made with man.
The covenant made with Noah was universal in its scope, and the sign, as is always the case, was related to the subject matter of the covenant; when there was rain there was the rainbow, the sign of the covenant God had made (Gen. 8:20-9:17).
The covenant made with Abraham was God’s sworn promise that Abraham would have a multitude of descendants, and that they would inherit the land. The sign of this covenant was circumcision, again related to the content of the covenant, as a small operation upon the male organ of reproduction would always remind Abraham’ descendants of God’s promise to give a multitude of descendants to Abraham. The scope of this covenant was racial, in that it applied only to Abraham’s seed. Notice that these two covenants are quite distinct and unrelated.
The third God-given covenant was that made with Israel at Sinai. When Jacob’s family went down into Egypt they were just that, a family. But over the next 400 years they multiplied so greatly that the Egyptians became concerned about their growing power (Exod. 1:7-10). Hence when they eventually emerged from Egypt they were no longer just a family; they were a nation, and a nation needs laws. God gave them laws and made a covenant with them, promising to be their God. The condition on man’s part was that they should obey God’s laws (Exod. 19:5-7). The scope of this covenant was national, and the sign of the covenant was the Sabbath (Exod. 31:12-17). For over 400 years they had lived as slaves, and were about to wander for forty years in the desert. But God in this covenant now promised to give them rest and the covenant sign was the weekly rest of the Sabbath. This sign has marked out the descendants of Israel ever since (Ex. 31:15; 35:2; Lev. 16:31; Deut. 12:9, etc.).
it is important to notice that Moses expressly stated that this covenant was quite distinct from the covenant made with their fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, but was made particularly with the newly formed nation of Israel.
‘The Lord our God made a covenant with us in Horeb. The Lord made not this covenant with our fathers, but with us, even us, who are all of us here alive this day (Deut. 5:2,3).
Next we read a prophecy in Jeremiah which tells of a ‘new covenant’ which will be unlike the covenant made with Israel when they came out of Egypt. Instead of laws engraved on stones, God’s requirements will be written on the participants’ hearts. Instead of priestly intermediaries, all in the new covenant will know the Lord themselves. Instead of continually offering sacrifices their sins will be forgiven and remembered no more.
This prophecy finds its fulfilment in the Person and Work of Christ, who announced, when he instituted the Lord’s Supper, ‘This is my blood of the New Covenant,’ words repeated by Paul in First Corinthians chapter 11. Later the apostle goes to great lengths to distinguish this new covenant from the covenant made with Israel at Sinai, now referred to as the old covenant.
In the Second Letter to the Corinthians, chapter three, he contrasts tables of stone with the ‘fleshy tables of the heart’, and speaks of himself and his colleagues as ‘ministers of the new covenant; not of the letter, but of the spirit: for the letter kills, but the spirit gives life.’ He refers to the old covenant as ‘the ministration of death,’ which had a limited glory, which was to be done away. But the ministration of the spirit has much more glory. The old covenant is a ministration of condemnation, but the new covenant is a ministration of righteousness. Those who stand by the old covenant have a veil on their faces which prevents them seeing the new covenant, but in Christ the veil is taken away.
In Galatians chapter four Paul again takes up this contrast, using the illustration of Sarah and Hagar. Hagar represents the old covenant whose children are in bondage. Sarah represents the Jerusalem from above whose children are free.
The Epistle to the Hebrews likewise stresses the clear distinction between the Old Covenant, made with Israel, and the New Covenant made with the new nation of believers from every tribe and tongue and nation. It is important to read the whole epistle, but for the sake of space I will just mention a few verses. First, in chapter seven we read that there is a change in the law (v. 12, cf. vv. 18, 19), and also that Jesus is ‘the guarantor of a better covenant.’ In chapter eight we learn that ‘Christ has obtained a ministry that is as much more excellent than the old as the covenant he mediates is better, since it is enacted on better promises. For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion to look for a second.’ (vv.6, 7). Then the writer quotes the prophecy of Jeremiah, 31:31-34, in full. The chapter closes with these words, ‘In speaking of a new covenant, he makes the first one obsolete. And what is becoming obsolete and growing old is ready to vanish away.’ (v. 13). It is significant that within about four years of the writing of this epistle, the Jewish ritual and temple had vanished. Chapters nine and ten follow up these statements. This type of covenant theology, because it is firmly based upon Scriptures which clearly teach about the New Covenant, is called New Covenant Theology.
The other type of covenant theology first appeared at the time of the Reformation. It was first proposed by Ulrich Zwingli, a Swiss Reformer (1484-1531). Zwingli came to a position where he realized that infant baptism was wrong, and that believer’s baptism was the correct form according to the New Testament. This was the view held by certain other groups in Switzerland and Germany who were nicknamed “Anabaptist.” Zwingli said, “Nothing grieves me more than that at the present I have to baptize children, for I know it ought not to be done.” Zwingli headed up a small group of earnest reformers, priests, university lecturers, etc, who were seeking to understand the Scriptures and reform the church. One by one they rejected Roman errors. Then they came to baptism. Zwingli was cautious. A debate was held between Zwingli and his fellow reformers. The City Council ruled that Infant baptism was right and these Swiss reformers were wrong. Zwingli accepted their ruling because he was wedded to the union of church and state.
However, his fellow Anabaptists also believed in the separation of Church and State. The union of Church and State was a fact of life at that time. The pope dominated all kings and emperors in ‘Christian’ states. Nearly all the Reformers held to that status quo, the idea of a ‘sacral society.’ To reject the link between Church and State was to reject the established political arrangement existing at that time. Moreover it was highly dangerous, for in the eyes of many it amounted to treason.
Zwingli feared that the Reformation in Switzerland might be shipwrecked if this teaching of the Anabaptists succeeded. So he withdrew his support for believer’s baptism and fell back to the then current practice of infant baptism. However, he realized that there was no biblical support for infant baptism, and he rejected the old superstition that baptism washed away sin. So he looked around for a justification for baptizing infants. He hit upon the idea of a covenantal explanation. He began to argue that there was only one covenant, an overarching covenant of which the various covenants in Scripture were but different aspects. This meant that just as (male) babied were circumcised in the Old Covenant, so they could be baptized in the New Covenant. The analogy between circumcision and baptism had been employed before, but Zwingli now brought in the idea of a covenantal foundation for it.
This idea was further developed by Zwingli’s successor, Heinrich Bullinger (1504-1575) and then John Calvin. Other Reformers added their contributions and so Covenantal Theology was born. This is the view held by most Presbyterians and some other Reformed groups. It is based, as has been mentioned, upon a hypothetical covenant, not specifically mentioned in the Bible. This idea also leads to proposing other hypothetical covenants which are not mentioned in Scripture, such as a covenant of works, a covenant of grace, and so on. In fact all of God’s covenants are covenants of grace.
Proponents of this type of covenant theology are also prone to make other unbiblical assumptions. For example, God’s words to the serpent in Genesis 3:15 are called a ‘covenant promise.’ Certainly all down the centuries believers have seen in this verse the first hint that the seed who would bruise the serpents head is in fact Christ. That is a valid interpretation. But these words were spoken to the serpent (Satan), not Adam, and God does not make covenant promises through the enemy! These words were not so much a promise as a prediction, a warning, a threat. The context is not covenant but curse. The word ‘covenant’ is nowhere mentioned in the context.
Once this idea of a hypothetical overarching covenant is swallowed, the door is opened to other similar presumptions. For example, here is a quotation from a commentary on Esther written by someone wedded to covenant theology.
Describing the relationship between Mordecai and Esther in the book of Esther, the author wrote: “It is a story of a teacher of grace who confronted his student with the crown rights of Jehovah and with the covenant of grace to redeem His people… He taught the content of the covenant in the context of covenant love … he reminded her of her identity as a child of the covenant.” (Heirs of the Covenant by Susan Hunt, Crossway Books, pp. 218-222).
Which type of covenant theology do you hold to? One based upon solid exegesis, or one based upon a hypothetical overarching covenant? Read the passages carefully, especially the Epistle to the Hebrews, and make your decision.
Archive for February, 2016
If I were asked that question, I would have to answer with another question, namely, ‘What kind of Covenant Theology are you referring to?’
A week ago last Monday I attended the Reformed Ministers Fraternal in Glasgow. The address given was inconsequential, explaining how the Edinburgh School of Theology (formerly the Free Church College) trains ministers.
Much more important as far as I was concerned, was the announcement that we could purchase a copy of an important new book for a nominal sum. The book was A Sad Departure by David J. Randall, a retired Church of Scotland minister (Banner of Truth, 2015). Reporting the fact that about forty ministers and many members, including a number of complete congregations, have left the Church of Scotland in recent months, the author clearly attributes this sad departure to the grievously sad departure of the Church of Scotland from its biblical foundations. The reason these ministers and congregations have left the Church of Scotland is because the denomination no longer affirms the Bible to be the Word of God, and no longer regards it as the infallible standard for doctrine and practice. A whole series of catastrophic decisions by the Church Assembly, from ordaining women, through recognizing same-sex marriages, to the latest act of ordaining practising homosexuals, has forced many to leave the denomination.
I am reminded of a cartoon I personally did not see but which was described to me. It portrayed an Anglican procession led by a female Archbishop of Canterbury, arm in arm with her lesbian lover, followed by clergy waving Tibetan prayer flags, etc., etc. At the rear walked two evangelical ministers, muttering to one another, “One more thing, and we’ll leave.”
However, to return to the situation in the Church of Scotland, David Randall lays the blame for this sad departure from the faith at the door of liberal theology, which, over the last century, has eaten away at the foundations of the Church of Scotland.
But I believe there is another factor, not mentioned in the book, and which would, in any case, not be recognized by the author. The other cause of declension is surely the time bomb of infant baptism. In spite of the best efforts of sincere evangelicals in both the C of E and the C of S, multitudes of people grow up with the conviction that, as they were ‘baptized’ as infants, they are Christians.
Nor is this error merely the fault of an uninformed laity. Both denominations, at their roots, foster this belief.
I have on my shelves a copy of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, dated 1842. In the section dealing with the ‘Publick Baptism of Infants,’ we read that after ‘baptizing’ the child, the priest declares, “We receive this child into the congregation of Christ’s flock…” Then he adds, “Seeing now, dearly beloved brethren, that this child is regenerate, and grafted into the body of Christ’s Church, let us give thanks…”
Evangelicals, and perhaps some others, may adopt slightly different wording today, but there is the error right at the root of the church.
Presbyterianism (of which there are nine different denominations so far in Scotland) relies upon Covenant Theology. The idea is that once a child is ‘baptized’ he or she is ‘in the covenant.’ They simply have to continue attending the church, accepting its teaching and practices to be regarded as Christians. More than one Presbyterian theologian has described ‘baptized’ babies as ‘little Christians.’
Therefore, multitudes of churchgoers have grown up with the delusion that, having been baptized, and in the case of Anglicans have also been confirmed, they are Christians.
Inevitably it transpires that over the years some of these unregenerate church members have progressed into positions of leadership, influence and authority, some even becoming ministers. This may help to explain why such devastating decisions can be made at the highest level.
As far as liberal theology is concerned, any church can be affected by it if they let go of their biblical foundations, and so may end up with unregenerate members and even ministers. But evangelical churches that hold to believer’s baptism are much less likely to have unregenerate members because their theology of a regenerate church membership works against it, whereas in churches that practise infant baptism their theology works in favour of this error. These are also some of the reasons why the current interest in New Covenant Theology is so crucial.