Covenant Theology

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The doctrine of the covenant was one of the theological contributions that came to the church through the Reformation of the sixteenth century. Undeveloped earlier, it made its appearance in the writings of Zwingli and Bullinger, who were driven to the subject by Anabaptists in and around Zurich. From them it passed to Calvin and other Reformers, was further developed by their successors, and played a dominant role in much Reformed theology of the seventeenth century when it came to be known as covenant, or federal, theology. Covenant theology sees the relation of God to mankind as a compact which God established as a reflection of the relationship existing between the three persons of the Holy Trinity.

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This emphasis on God's covenantal dealings with the human race tended to lessen what appeared to some to be harshness in the earlier Reformed theology which emanated from Geneva, with its emphasis on the divine sovereignty and predestination. From Switzerland covenant theology passed over into Germany, and from there into the Netherlands and the British Isles. Among its early and most influential advocates were, besides Zwingli and Bullinger, Olevianus (Concerning the Nature of the Covenant of Grace Between God and the Elect, 1585), Cocceius (Doctrine of the Covenant and Testaments of God, 1648), and Witsius (The Oeconomy of the Covenants, 1685). It was taken up into the Westminister Confession and came to have an important place in the theology of Scotland and New England.

The Covenant of Works

Having created man in his own image as a free creature with knowledge, righteousness, and holiness, God entered into covenant with Adam that he might bestow upon him further blessing. Called variously the Edenic covenant, the covenant of nature, the covenant of life, or preferably the covenant of works, this pact consisted of (1) a promise of eternal life upon the condition of perfect obedience throughout a probationary period; (2) the threat of death upon disobedience; and (3) the sacrament of the tree of life, or, in addition, the sacraments of paradise and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Although the term "covenant" is not mentioned in the first chapters of Genesis, it is held that all the elements of a covenant are present even though the promise of eternal life is there by implication only. Before the fall Adam was perfect but could still have sinned; had he retained his perfection throughout the probationary period, he would have been confirmed in righteousness and been unable to sin.

Inasmuch as he was acting not only for himself but representatively for mankind, Adam was a public person. His fall therefore affected the entire human race that was to come after him; all are now conceived and born in sin. Without a special intervention of God there would be no hope; all would be lost forever.

The good news, however, is that God has intervened in behalf of mankind with another covenant. Unlike the earlier covenant of works, whose mandate was "Do this and you shall live" (cf. Rom. 10:5; Gal. 3:12), the covenant of grace is bestowed on men in their sinful condition with the promise that, in spite of their inability to keep any of the commandments of God, out of sheer grace he forgives their sin and accepts them as his children through the merits of his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, on the condition of Faith.

The Covenant of Redemption

According to covenant theology, the covenant of grace, established in history, is founded on still another covenant, the covenant of redemption, which is defined as the eternal pact between God the Father and God the Son concerning the salvation of mankind. Scripture teaches that within the Godhead there are three persons, the same in essence, glory, and power, objective to each other. The Father loves the Son, commissions him, gives him a people, the right to judge, and authority over all mankind (John 3:16; 5:20, 22, 36; 10:17 - 18; 17:2, 4, 6, 9, 24; Ps. 2:7 - 8; Heb. 1:8 - 13); the Son loves the Father, delights to do his will, and has shared his glory forever (Heb. 10:7; John 5:19; 17:5). The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit commune with each other; this is one of the meanings of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity.

On this foundation covenant theology affirms that God the Father and God the Son covenanted together for the redemption of the human race, the Father appointing the Son to be the mediator, the Second Adam, whose life would be given for the salvation of the world, and the Son accepting the commission, promising that he would do the work which the Father had given him to do and fulfill all righteousness by obeying the law of God. Thus before the foundation of the world, within the eternal being of God, it had been determined that creation would not be destroyed by sin, but that rebellion and iniquity would be overcome by God's grace, that Christ would become the new head of humanity, the Savior of the world, and that God would be glorified.

The Covenant of Grace

This covenant has been made by God with mankind. In it he offers life and salvation through Christ to all who believe. Inasmuch as none can believe without the special grace of God, it is more exact to say that the covenant of grace is made by God with believers, or the elect. Jesus said that all those whom the Father had given him would come to him and that those who come would surely be accepted (John 6:37). Herein is seen the close relation between the covenant of grace and the covenant of redemption, with the former resting on the latter. From eternity the Father has given a people to the Son; to them was given the promised Holy Spirit so that they might live in fellowship with God. Christ is the mediator of the covenant of grace inasmuch as he has borne the guilt of sinners and restored them to a saving relationship to God (Heb. 8:6; 9:15; 12:24). He is mediator, not only in the sense of arbitrator, although that is the sense in which the word is used in 1 Tim. 2:5, but in the sense of having fulfilled all the conditions necessary for procuring eternal salvation for his people.

Thus Heb. 7:22 calls Jesus the "surety" or "guarantee" of the new covenant, which is better than that which came through Moses. Within the context of this last passage repeated mention is made of God's promise to Christ and his people. He will be their God and they will be his people. He will bestow on them the grace they need to confess his name and live with him forever; in humble dependence on him for their every need, they will live in trustful obedience from day to day. This latter, called faith in Scripture, is the sole condition of the covenant, and even it is a gift of God (Eph. 2:8 - 9).

Although the covenant of grace includes various dispensations of history, it is essentially one. From the promise in the garden (Gen. 3:15), through the covenant made with Noah (Gen. 6 - 9), to the day that the covenant was established with Abraham, there is abundant evidence of God's grace. With Abraham a new beginning is made which the later, Sinaitic covenant implements and strengthens. At Sinai the covenant assumes a national form and stress is laid on the law of God. This is not intended to alter the gracious character of the covenant, however (Gal. 3:17 - 18), but it is to serve to train Israel until the time would come when God himself would appear in its midst. In Jesus the new form of the covenant that had been promised by the prophets is manifest, and that which was of a temporary nature in the old form of the covenant disappears (Jer. 31:31 - 34; Heb. 8). While there is unity and continuity in the covenant of grace throughout history, the coming of Christ and the subsequent gift of the Holy Spirit have brought rich gifts unknown in an earlier age.

These are a foretaste of future blessedness when this present world passes away and the Holy City, the New Jerusalem, comes down out of heaven from God (Rev. 21:2).

M E Osterhaven

(Elwell Evangelical Dictionary)

Bibliography
L Berkhof, Systematic Theology; C Hodge, Systematic Theology, II; H Heppe, Reformed Dogmatics; H Bavinck, Our Reasonable Faith; G Schrenk, Gottesreich und Bund in alteren Protestantismus; H H Wolf, Die Einheit des Bundes.


Also, see:
Dispensation, Dispensationalism
Ultradispensationalism
Progressive Dispensationalism
Covenant

The individual articles presented here were generally first published in the early 1980s. This subject presentation was first placed on the Internet in May 1997.

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