Covenant Theology is widespread in many parts of the world, for example in the Netherlands, South Africa, parts of America and elsewhere. But is Covenant Theology based on covenants inductively found in the Bible? After an introductory chapter or two, why do dispensationalists almost always start books about eschatology with a study of the Biblical covenants? Let us start with the last question first.
Books About Eschatology
Test this yourself. Open his classic book about eschatology, Things to Come, and you will notice that Dwight Pentecost (1958) devotes chapters 5 to 8 (pp. 65-128) to a detailed discussion of the Biblical covenants. Move forward about fifty years, and Benware (2006) likewise spends nearly 50 pages on the topic of the Biblical covenants early-on in his book about eschatology (chapters 2 and 3, pp. 35-80). Concerning the end times, Hixson & Fontecchio (2013) write 71 pages about the Biblical covenants (pp. 85-156). One example after another can be provided, but let’s conclude with Woods (2016), who writes about the role that covenants play in God’s unfolding kingdom plan (chapters 3 and 4, pp. 11-27). Which covenants do the above commentators emphasize? They emphasize the unconditional Noahic, Abrahamic, Davidic, Land and New Covenants — while also noting the conditional Mosaic Covenant.
Contrast the above with Covenant Theology. In his book about eschatology (A Case for Amillennialism), Riddlebarger (2003) spends all of six pages (pp. 57 – 63) about the covenant of works and the so-called covenant of grace. But that is six pages more than Storms (2015) used, for the latter did not discuss the covenants in much detail in his book about the kingdom (if at all). In his book about the covenants, Robertson (1980:62-63) notes covenants like the Abrahamic, Davidic or New Covenants (etc.), but makes these covenants subservient to the covenant of grace, which always takes priority. The covenants that the Bible describes are viewed as forms of one and the same covenant of grace (Osterhaven 2001:303; Robertson 1980:27–52). The covenant of grace therefore functions as the one ‘super-idea’ on which both Biblical and systematic theology of Covenant Theology is based on.
The Covenant of Grace?
But where exactly does the Bible describe the so-called covenant of grace? If it exists, what are its terms, is it an unconditional covenant — and if so, by what authority is this supposed covenant superior to the unconditional covenants that the Bible actually describes? Prominent covenant theologians like Berkhof and Hodge even admit that there is no Scriptural proof for the covenants of work and grace in their theological systems (see Couch 2000:158). Again, can the covenant of grace inductively be found in the Bible?
Ryrie (2007:100), a dispensationalist, asks: ‘(1) Is the covenant of grace stated in Scripture? (2) Even if it is, should it be the controlling presupposition of hermeneutics and theology?’ My answers are ‘No’ and ‘No’. Ryrie (2007:221; my emphasis) continues:
What the covenant theologian does to make up for the lack of specific scriptural support for the covenants of works and grace is to project the general idea of covenant in the Bible and the specific covenants (like the covenant with Abraham) into these covenants of works and grace. No one disputes the fact that covenant is a very basic idea in Scripture and that a number of specific covenants are revealed in Scripture. But there remains still the reality that nowhere does Scripture speak of a covenant of works or a covenant of grace as it does speak of a covenant with Abraham or a covenant with David or a new covenant.
But you dislike those pesky dispensationalists. Fair enough, but here is the same observation posed by the ‘father of New Covenant Theology’. Reisinger (1998:129; see also Wellum 2006:126–127) states: ‘Neither of these two covenants [works and grace] had their origin in Scripture texts and biblical exegesis. Both of them were invented by theology as the necessary consequences of a theological system’. (Note: The problem with New Covenant Theology is that it makes all the unconditional covenants of the Bible subservient, not to the so-called covenant of grace, but to the New Covenant. But I don’t find that in the Bible either.)
The Real Covenant Theologians
The issue is clearly one’s understanding of the Biblical covenants. Covenant Theology builds its whole theological system on a covenant that is neither stated in the Bible nor can it reasonably be inferred inductively from the Biblical texts. So, covenant theologians view different dispensations as forms of one covenant of grace. Dispensationalists not only acknowledge an interplay between unconditional and conditional covenants that the Bible describes in detail, but frequently also identify different dispensations in God’s dealings with humankind. (This in turn must affect eschatology, Israelology, ecclesiology, angelology, etc.) Therefore, is it not clear who the real covenant theologians are?
Why should you care about the above? How can this be applied in your life? We conclude with three observations.
First, to understand God’s plan for the ages — and God declared the end (eschatology) from the beginning (protology) — study the covenants that the Bible specifically describes as covenants. The covenants revealed in the Bible are without a doubt important building blocks to make sense of God’s plan. Regarding the Biblical covenants, notice its specific terms, conditions, promises made to specific people — and then also figure out the interplay between unconditional and conditional covenants, know that unconditional covenants can contain conditions, etc.
Second, keep in mind that while every word in the Bible is inspired, yet God saw it fit to further confirm unconditional covenants with oaths and ceremonies. God’s Name and honour is at stake! If mere human beings cannot simply ‘replace’ our husband or our wife from our unconditional marriage covenant, how much more will God not simply replace Abraham, David, or Israel in the various unconditional covenants. The Church has not replaced and cannot replace Abraham, David or Israel in any of the covenants that God made to these persons/entities. While the Church partakes of some of the blessings of these covenants (cf. Gen 12:3; Gal 3:8), it does not take over any person or entity’s place in them. Also, you can neither replace unconditional physical promises with spiritual promises (or vice versa), nor can you kick all physical promises to the eternal touchline and think that is ‘fulfilment’.
Third, unconditional promises that God made in the Bible come in the form of unconditional covenants or as unconditional prophecies. If these unconditional promises have not yet been fulfilled to those whom it was promised to, then know that God will fulfil this. Moreover, He will fulfil this literally before the eternal order. This explains why dispensational eschatology books invariably start with a discussion of the covenants and unfulfilled, unconditional prophecies.
Having studied these things to show yourself approved, then witness how God is setting the stage for numerous end-times prophecies to be fulfilled. For the LORD God is the covenant-keeping God and, as Isaiah 46:9-11 states, He will do all his pleasure as He has purposed it:
I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like Me, declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times things that are not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will do all My pleasure, calling a bird of prey from the east, the man who executes My counsel, from a far country. Indeed, I have spoken it; I will also bring it to pass. I have purposed it; I will also do it.
Benware, P.N., 2006, Understanding End Times Prophecy: A Comprehensive Approach, Moody Publishers, Chicago.
Couch, M., 2000, ‘Covenant Theology and the Doctrine of the Church’, in M. Couch (ed.), An introduction to Classical Evangelical Hermeneutics: A guide to the history and practice of Biblical interpretation, pp. 157–163, Kregel Publications, Grand Rapids.
Hixson, J.B. & Fontecchio, M., 2013, What Lies Ahead: A Biblical Overview of the End Times, Lucid Books, Brenham.
Osterhaven, M.E., 2001, ‘Covenant Theology’, in W.A. Elwell (ed.), Evangelical Dictionary of Theology 2nd edition, pp. 301–303, Baker Academic, Grand Rapids.
Pentecost, J.D., 1958, Things to Come, Zondervan, Grand Rapids.
Reisinger, J.G., 1998, Abraham’s Four Seeds, New Covenant Media, Frederick.
Riddlebarger, K., 2003, A Case for Amillennialism: Understanding the End Times, Baker Books, Grand Rapids.
Robertson, O.P., 1980, The Christ of the Covenants, Presbyterian & Reformed Publishing, Phillipsburg.
Ryrie, C.C., 2007, Dispensationalism, Moody Publishers, Chicago.
Storms, S., 2015, Kingdom Come: The Amillennial Alternative, Mentor Imprint, Ross-shire.
Wellum, S.J., 2006, ‘Baptism and the Relationship between the Covenants’, in T.R. Schneider & S.D. Wright (eds.), Believer’s Baptism, pp. 97–162, B&H Publishing Group, Nashville.
Woods, A.M., 2016, The Coming Kingdom: What is the Kingdom and how is Kingdom Now Theology Changing the Focus of the Church?, Grace Gospel Press, Duluth.
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