“Preoccupation with the biblical teaching on the covenants has long been a distinguishing trait of Reformed theology.” [1] This blog series examines the origins and results of that preoccupation. Covenant Theology (CT) also goes by the names, “The Federal Theology,” or just “Federalism.” The terms are interchangeable and are used variously throughout the paper. CT is by no means a monolithic system of theology: as there are many variations (even competing versions) of CT among its proponents. This paper focuses primarily upon tracing the origin of the two covenant manifestation of CT since it is ostensibly the currently most popular formulation of CT. I also offer a critique of the presuppositions that appear to have led to its development. Surveying all of the internecine battles (and there are many) within CT and charting all the various developments within CT that have taken place over the years is beyond the scope of this paper. However, mention of some of these is made when appropriate.

Defining Covenant Theology

CT is essentially a framework into which all of divine revelation is placed, and that framework also functions as the interpretive grid by which divine revelation is understood. While at first this short definition may seem to the critical reader to be a caricature of CT, it is not. The proponents of CT simply claim that the framework is itself derived from Scripture and therefore legitimate for organizing and understanding all of divine revelation. Therefore, for proponents of CT, Kline is typical in his sentiments that, “Following the lead of the Scriptures themselves, Reformed theology has long prized the covenant as a structural concept for integrating all that God has so diversely spoken unto men of old time and in these last days.” [2] Kline further relates that, “Before the end of the sixteenth century a growing biblical insight within the movement of Covenant Theology had embraced all special revelation, pre-redemptive as well as redemptive, in the unity of a covenant framework.” [3]

My contention is that CT is ultimately an artificial, manmade framework that, while it incorporates many truly biblical ideas, is illegitimate for organizing and understanding all of divine revelation.

Robertson explains the biblical catalyst for Reformed theology’s preoccupation with the covenant concept,

Ample biblical evidence establishes the vital role the divine covenants have played in God’s dealings with man from Noah to Jesus Christ. No period in the history of redemption from Noah to Christ stands outside the realm of God’s covenantal dealings with his people…The promise of the New Covenant…finds its fulfillment in the days of Jesus Christ and extends to the consummation of all things. [4]

To be sure, covenants that God has made with men loom large in Scripture. This causes proponents of CT to inquire further concerning the covenant concept. Robertson reasons that, “The only question that remains concerning the extent of the divine covenants has to do with God’s relation to man prior to Noah. May the concept of the covenant be extended legitimately to the period preceding the establishment of God’s covenant with Noah? Is the earliest portion of biblical history also to be understood from the perspective of a covenantal framework?” [5] CT answers this question in the affirmative.

When the concept of covenant found in Scripture is extrapolated backwards from Noah as far as logically possible, one ends up applying a covenant schema in the internal relationships of the Godhead before creation. This is precisely what one finds in the three covenant formulation of CT. “Since the reformation, distinctions have been made between a pre-creation covenantal bond among the persons of the Trinity and a historical covenant between God and men.” [6] The various names that this supposed covenant has been given are the “covenant of redemption,” the “eternal covenant,” the “counsel of peace,” or the “counsel of redemption.” [7] Robertson notes, “This particular ‘covenant’ finds no specific development in the classic creeds of the Reformers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. But it has been recognized broadly among covenant theologians since that time.” [8] He does not affirm that there is such covenant because, “A sense of artificiality flavors the effort to structure in covenantal terms the mysteries of God’s eternal counsels. To speak concretely of an intertrinitarian ‘covenant’ with terms and conditions between Father and Son mutually endorsed before the foundation of the world is to exceed the bounds of scriptural evidence beyond propriety.” [9]

In moving out of eternity past and into the history of the created order, if one were to maintain the logic of CT one is confronted with the necessarily covenantal nature of God’s relationship with his creation. The covenant governing this period of time is variously called the “covenant of works,” the “covenant of nature,” or the “covenant of creation.” [10] Turretin claims, “The covenant of nature is that which God the Creator made with man as his creature, concerning the giving of eternal happiness and life under the condition of perfect and personal obedience.” [11] In fact, according to CT, “Had Adam before the Fall remained faithful to the covenant with his God, he would have merited eternal life for himself and all his posterity.” [12] Or, in the words of the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF), “The first covenant made with man was a covenant of works, wherein life was promised to Adam; and in him to his posterity, upon condition of perfect and personal obedience.” [13]

According to CT, under the dictates of the covenant of works Adam was appointed to stand probation for himself and his race. Life was promised if he obeyed and cursing if he disobeyed. Hodge contends that because of the federal and natural union “between Adam and his posterity, his sin, although not their act, is so imputed to them that it is the judicial ground of the penalty threatened against him coming upon them also.” [14] The natural union that exists between Adam and his posterity is that of a father and child; “the character and conduct of the one, of necessity to a greater or less degree affect the other.” [15] The federal union between Adam and his posterity is simply “that God constituted [Adam] the federal head and representative of his race, and placed him on probation not only for himself, but also for all his posterity.” [16] Since Adam sinned, he and his race stand condemned according to the stipulations of the covenant of works. This is because the union, federal and natural, between Adam and his posterity is the ground of the imputation of Adam’s sin. The imputation of Adam’s sin is the ground of their punishment. In what way is Adam’s sin imputed? The guilt of Adam’s sin is charged to the account of Adam’s posterity. It is important to understand that “by guilt is meant not criminality or moral ill-desert, or demerit, much less moral pollution, but the judicial obligation to satisfy justice.” [17] God’s justice demands that sin be punished retributively. Adam as federal head of the human race under the covenant of works sinned; so, the human race is counted as owing satisfaction to God’s vindicatory justice. Therefore, the whole human race is punished by God retributively according to the demands of the covenant of works. The punishment was the loss of original righteousness, the corruption of human nature (total depravity), and death.

The above situation leads to the next covenant in CT: the covenant of Grace.

Man, by his fall, having made himself incapable of life by that covenant, the Lord was pleased to make a second, commonly called the covenant of grace; wherein he freely offereth unto sinners life and salvation by Jesus Christ; requiring of them faith in him, that they may be saved, and promising to give unto all those that are ordained unto eternal life his Holy Spirit, to make them willing, and able to believe. [18]

Murray claims that, “It was with the Covenant of Grace that the covenant theologians of the 16th century were concerned almost exclusively.” [19] The covenant of grace is, simply stated, “That arrangement between the Triune God and his people whereby God promises friendship, hence full and free salvation, to his people, upon the basis of the vicarious atonement of Christ, the Mediator of the covenant, and they, out of gratitude, promise to live for him.” [20] According to the WCF,

This covenant was differently administered in the time of the law, and in the time of the gospel: under the law, it was administered by promises, prophecies, sacrifices, circumcision, the paschal lamb, and other types and ordinances delivered to the people of the Jews, all foresignifying Christ to come; which were, for that time, sufficient and efficacious, through the operation of the Spirit, to instruct and build up the elect in faith in the promised Messiah, by whom they had full remission of sins, and eternal salvation; and is called the old testament. [21]

Some claim that the covenant of grace was founded on the covenant of redemption while those who reject the covenant of redemption obviously do not. [22] Regardless of its grounding, it is plain by what is said above that the covenant of grace is conceived to be a covenant that establishes the culmination of redemptive history. This covenant is then the subject of all of Scripture discussed and viewed from various historical contexts and perspectives. A great difference here exists in that some see the covenant of grace as ultimately satisfying the demands of the covenant of works; while others, who reject the covenant of works, see it as simply a covenant that God chose to implement out of pure grace in his relationship with man. Under this scheme, it still serves to alleviate the damage of sin and effect redemption, but the connection with the prelapsarian economy is more general and undefined rather than explicit.

Continue reading part 2 on Covenantal hermeneutics.

[1] Mark W. Karlberg, Covenant Theology in Reformed Perspective: Collected Essays and Book Reviews in Historical, Biblical, and Systematic Theology (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2000), 11.

[2] Meredith G. Kline, By Oath Consigned: A Reinterpretation of the Covenant Signs of Circumcision and Baptism (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1968), 13.

[3] Ibid., 14.

[4] O. Palmer Robertson, The Christ of the Covenants (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1980), 17.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., 53.

[7] Ibid., 54.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10]  Karlberg, Covenant Theology in Reformed Perspective, 11.

[11] Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, vol. 1, trans. by George Musgrave Giger, ed. by James T. Dennison Jr. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, 1992), 575.

[12]  Karlberg, Covenant Theology in Reformed Perspective, 273.

[13]  WCF, VII/ii.

[14]  Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, 3 vols. (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1940), 2:192–93.

[15]  Ibid., 2:197.

[16]  Ibid., 2:196.

[17]  Ibid., 2:194

[18]  WCF, VII/iii.

[19]  John Murray, Collected Writings of John Murray, 4 vols (Edinburgh, PA: The Banner of TruthTrust, 1982), 4:223

[20]  William Hendrickson, The Covenant of Grace (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1932), 18.

[21]  WCF, VII/v.

[22]  One area of confusion that can crop up here is that sometimes those who reject the notion of an intertrinitarian covenant of redemption are wont to call the covenant of grace by the name, “covenant of redemption.”