What Is Covenant Theology?
At first glance, it is apparent that the Bible is a very complex book: it was written in three different languages, by dozens of human authors, over the course of many centuries, and in a wide variety of styles and genres. However, beneath this dauntingly complicated surface, there must be a unified purpose and message; for behind all of the human authors and historical circumstances in which it came to man, there is one true Author, the God of creation, who set forth in this book just what he wanted mankind to know. So what is that unified message of the Bible? How does one go about relating all of its various styles and books into a mutually-interpretive volume? Bible scholars have suggested a variety of methods for structuring the unfolding story of special revelation, and have come up with numerous ideas for a central theme or themes which bind everything together. Perhaps the most compelling of these attempts, and the idea which most rigorously allows the Bible itself to indicate its own major emphases and underlying structural elements, is commonly called Covenant Theology.
However, the sad truth is that, in contemporary Evangelicalism, many believers have only a very fuzzy understanding (at best) of this helpful and biblically-faithful way of understanding the over-arching message of the scriptures. And yet, in the author's experience, there are few teachings which will enable a Christian to make better and more fruitful use of his scripture-reading than the basic components of Covenant Theology â€“ understand these few, scriptural themes, and you will be able to mark out and follow the general flow of the unfolding saga of redemptive history, as recorded in God's Word. And so, although it may be a naively ambitious undertaking, in light of the massive volumes written on this very topic by some of the most gifted and knowledgeable Bible-scholars God has given the Church, it has become a burden of mine to compose a very brief and simple introduction to that manner of understanding the Bible which we call Covenant Theology.
The Purpose of the Bible Story
From the first, it is apparent that the Bible tells the story of God's powerful work of creation; and then continues with the story of his gracious work of redemption. In other words, it basically gives a history of mankind, from God's perspective. As one reads this history, it becomes quickly apparent that God has intentionally designed history, and so works that it unfolds according to his own master plan (see Ephesians 1:11; Numbers 23:19). But what is that master plan? What was the purpose of creation, and what is the purpose for its continuing existence?
Fortunately, God has given us some teaching on his purpose for the world: everything he created and every way in which he continues to govern his creation is done to display his glory (see Romans 11:36; Revelation 4:11; Isaiah 43:7). Another way of saying this is, everything that God has done, and that he has recorded for us in his word, is done to display who he is. Ultimately, this purpose of self-display included God's sending his Son to reveal his true nature to the world (see John 1:14,18; Hebrews 1:1-3). The advent and work of Jesus Christ is the ultimate purpose of history, for it is the ultimate display of who God is. Which leads us to an understanding for the purpose of redemptive history, over and above the purpose for creation: the nature of God is too manifoldly rich to be displayed in the wonderful work of creation alone. For the display of such attributes as God's just wrath, his essential, unearned love, his free mercy and grace, his vengeance against sin, he designed the perfect plan of redemption. And in the story of redemption, both those to whom God gives his free mercy and those from whom he withholds it are created to display who he is â€“ they are created for his glory (see Romans 9:22-24; Ephesians 2:7).
The Basic Structure of Covenant Theology
What does all of this have to do with Covenant Theology? Basically, Covenant Theology attempts to unfold the biblical story with constant reference to the universal display and glorification of God. From the beginning of Genesis, God created mankind with the purpose of having him display God's own nature, ruling in justice and righteousness over the rest of creation, in analogy of God's own righteous and universal rule. When man failed in that original intent, God then promised that he would send a man, born of a woman, who would accomplish this original design, and so exercise a God-like rule, and display the Divine image to perfection (Genesis 3:15; see also Hebrews 2:6-10).
But how does this kingdom of righteousness, which displays the divine image, grow and advance from the first creation to the final, consummate new creation? That is where the covenants come in. Covenant Theology differs from other systems in that it sees the biblical structure giving great weight and importance to a series of divine covenants. These covenants are like the framework of a house â€“ without them, all the doctrines and stories in the Bible fall down into a hopelessly confused jumble of unrelated bits of information. The story of creation and redemption is the story of the divine establishment of a few all-important covenants, the divine response to covenant-failure, and the divine fulfillment of the covenant-promises. Without understanding the nature and purposes of these covenants, one cannot hope to understand why God reacts as he does to the sticky problem of sinful humans who were created to enjoy fellowship with a holy God and exercise dominion in the image of God.
So what are these covenants? Theologians speak, first, of a Covenant of Redemption, made between the members of the Godhead; second, of a Covenant of Works, made between God and man; and third, of a Covenant of Grace; which is basically a repetition to man of the first Covenant of Works, with the added proviso that a Redeemer would be provided to fulfill the required works in the place of all covenant-members, as their federal head. Let's look at each of these three covenants in a little more detail.
The Covenant of Redemption
The inter-Triune Covenant of Redemption is the foundational Covenant, and serves as the unshakable basis for the Covenants of Works and Grace. This Covenant entails God's eternal plan of redemption, in which each member of the Godhead had a role that he solemnly agreed to undertake, in pursuit of a mutually-determined goal. Ephesians one, verses three through fourteen, gives a basic summary of this eternal purpose: the Father planning redemption and choosing out members from the human race; the Son accomplishing that redemption as the incarnate substitute and federal head for those chosen members; and the Holy Spirit applying that fully accomplished redemption in human time.
This solemn agreement between the Father and the Son, in which the Father promises a chosen people to the Son, in exchange for the Son's vicarious work of earning a positive righteousness and suffering the covenant-penalty of disobedience in behalf of that chosen people, is spoken of at several points in the scriptures. Psalm 2:8 relates the Father swearing to the Son, whom he would anoint as the Messiah-King: â€œAsk of me, and I shall give you the nations for your inheritance, and the uttermost parts of the earth for your possession.â€ Later, the prophet Isaiah expressed the essence of this covenantal agreement in more precise terms: â€œwhen you shall make his soul an offering for sin, he shall see his seed, he shall prolong his days, and the pleasure of the LORD shall prosper in his hand. He shall see of the travail of his soul, and shall be satisfied: by his knowledge shall my righteous servant justify many; for he shall bear their iniquitiesâ€ (Isaiah 53:10-11). And finally, in the gospel of John this idea of a certain people covenanted to the Son in exchange for his work of redemption comes to the fore many times (see, for instance, John 6:39,65; 13:3; 17:11,24).
This Covenant is vital, first, because it is the ultimate reason that the other two covenants were enacted at all. Before human time, the Father designed to glorify the Son, and the Son to glorify the Father, in this precise way. This inter-Triune pact of mutual glorification was the reason for creation and human history, with the first Covenant of Works, man's fall, and the subsequent Covenant of Grace. But even beyond this foundational significance, the Covenant of Redemption demonstrates to us something of God's nature. Because God, in all his glory, is invisible to the human eye, we can only come to know him through his works. And the Covenant of Redemption is the reflection, in works, of the essential nature of God. The essential nature of the Trinity concerns the relationship of the different persons of the Godhead to each other; the economical Trinity concerns the relationship of the different persons of the Godhead to their mutual plan of redemption. And we could never understand the mystery of the all-glorious Trinity in its essence, if we didn't glimpse the all-glorious Trinity in its economy. This also tells us something of man's basic nature as the divine image-bearer. Just as the Trinity is covenantal in nature, so man was created as a covenantal creature. Part of what it means to reflect God's image is to be involved with other humans, and indeed with God himself, in a solemn covenant. The Covenant with man did not come as an afterthought: it was an integral part of what man was created to be, enjoying fellowship with God in analogy to the fellowship within the Trinity; and to work out God's dominion with covenantal responsibility, in analogy to the relationship between the Father and the Son, with regard to their work. And now, with the foundation laid, let us look at the first Covenant established with mankind.
The Covenant of Works
When God created man, and placed him in the Garden of Eden, he immediately set him in a covenantal context. Within this covenant (as in all covenants) were the following elements: sovereignly-mandated commandments (positively, to be fruitful and exercise dominion over the earth, and negatively, not to eat of the fruit of the specified tree); promises of reward, upon the fulfillment of those commandments (eternal life and joy in fellowship with God); and threats of punishment, in the event of disobedience (death and separation from God). In addition to these elements, we see the first instance of a covenantal sacrament. Because man is so designed that he needs a visible means of signifying invisible covenant realities, God condescended to confirm the covenant through a physical sign and seal. In the garden, this was the Tree of Life. Later covenants would have signs such as the rainbow; circumcision; and baptism and the Lord's Supper. If the first man, Adam, had passed the covenant-test of obedience to God's commandments, he would have earned the reward of everlasting, joyful fellowship with God. And since he, as the first man, was functioning as the representative head of the race, he would have earned those blessings for all of his descendants (see Romans 5:12-21).
However, Adam failed in his covenant obligation, and earned the promised curse for himself and his descendants. As promised, this curse came; but in an unforeseen act of free mercy, God established a second, gracious covenant with fallen man. Before we talk about this Covenant of Grace, however, we need to mention another Covenant, which, unlike the Covenant of Grace, and like the first Covenant with Adam, was conditioned on works.
After God tested Adam in a conditional Covenant of works, he promised that a human Seed would be confronted with the same test, but would be victorious. Later, when God called out Abraham into a new, covenantal relationship with himself, he promised that this covenant victory and blessing would come through his seed. A few generations later, Abraham's seed had become a great nation; and God brought them (as Abraham's seed) through precisely the same test as he had set before Adam. Unlike Adam, the very fact that God had brought them out of Egypt, to establish his covenant with them, was gracious and undeserved. But like Adam, the final secural of their corporate, national blessings, and their right to reside forevermore in the promised land of God's presence and fellowship (analogous to the Garden of Eden), was conditioned on their obedience to God's commandments. Over and over, God reminded them, if you obey, you shall live long lives in the promised land; but if you disobey, you will be driven out. And finally, like Adam, national Israel failed, and was driven out.
However, God's purpose was not yet accomplished: and so, just as he promised to Abraham, he finally produced one from his seed (the promised Christ) who would undergo the same probationary test, but be victorious. Thus Christ's forty days of testing in the wilderness correspond to Israel's forty years of testing in the wilderness, which itself corresponds to Adam's time of testing in the Garden. But, unlike Adam and national Israel, this one promised Seed was ultimately triumphant (see Galatians 3:10-16; II Corinthians 1:20).
It may be asked, Why was a new Covenant of Works inaugurated after the failure of the first, and the establishment of a better and eternal covenant? First, we must be certain that it was not added as another way to righteousness and life. In fact, confusion upon that very point brought condemnation, and the stern rebuke of the Apostle Paul (see Galatians 3:10-12). We must also emphasize that it did not negate the Covenant of Promise, made with Abraham (Galatians 3:17-18). On the contrary, it was a Covenant made with national Israel, not as a condition of eternal life, which, as the Abrahamic promise made clear, was possible only through faith; but as a condition for continuing in a land which symbolized fellowship with God. And it was made to teach of Christ, the Guarantor and Fulfiller of the Covenant of Grace. It did this, first, by revealing and stirring up sin in man, and so rendering him guilty and needy of a Redeemer (Romans 7:7-12). Second, it formed a nation and worship-cult that would exemplify in many types and patterns just who this Christ would be, and what he would accomplish (especially in the tabernacle and sacrificial system). And third, it gave more explicit testimony to the eternal, moral law and righteousness of God, that it might be more fully known exactly what sort of marvelous righteousness the Christ would actually accomplish (cf. Matthew 3:15; Hebrews 2:10).
The Covenant of Grace
We have left only to mention the final covenant â€“ the Covenant of Grace. This is the unexpected covenant that God so mercifully inaugurated after man had failed to obey the first covenant. In this covenant, God unilaterally promised to have mercy upon sinful man, apart from any good works. But how could he do this, without reneging on the first Covenant of Works? He did this, not by abrogating the works which he had initially said must be fulfilled â€“ but by promising to send a representative who would fulfill them in man's behalf. He first inaugurated this covenant with Adam, immediately after the Fall; but he would cut this same basic covenant with Abraham, some time later, with a ceremony and a promise that would become definitive for the rest of redemptive history.
In this Abrahamic covenant (see Genesis 12:1-3; 15:1-21; 17:1-16), God gave the same promise to Abraham that he had offered as a mere condition to Adam in the Garden â€“ that is, the prospect of eternal fellowship and joy with God. But whereas he had commanded of Adam some conditions prior to the enjoyment of this reward, in his covenant with Abraham, he solemnly undertook to fulfill these obligations himself. And even beyond this, the curse of death and separation that Adam had already merited he laid upon himself, in the event of covenant unfaithfulness â€“ and hence, he solemnly passed through the divided animals, and took upon himself the curse of a bloody death if the covenant should not remain firm.
Of course, this is exactly what God did some two thousand years later, when he sent the long-awaited Messiah. This Messiah, who was God in the flesh, took upon himself the punishment of death for the covenant-disobedience of his people, just as God had signified he would do in that ceremony with Abraham. And so were fulfilled both the Covenant of Works and the Covenant of Grace in the earthly ministry of Christ. Jesus of Nazareth entered into the Covenant of Works, and merited the covenant blessings from the Father. Then, he suffered the penalties of covenant-disobedience in the place of God's chosen people; and in so doing, he also fulfilled the promise to Abraham and made firm the Covenant of Grace.
Before we conclude, we must mention two more covenants, given in expression of the post-Fall Covenant of Grace. The first of these, the Noahic Covenant (Genesis 9), was given in response to the uncertain state of the earth, after God had cursed it for man's sake. Even though man, through disobedience, had lost his ability to rule over creation according to God's design, yet God's purpose remained inviolable: he would have a perfect earth over which a perfect man would rule. And so, as a first taste of this ultimate design, he promised that he would not utterly destroy the earth, as he had in the flood. Instead, he would ultimately renew it and restore it to perfection (see Isaiah 25). This is a unilateral Covenant of Grace, as may be seen from the sign of the rainbow: just as God had symbolically taken the pains of death upon himself in his Covenant with Abraham, so he symbolically drew back a bow against himself, in a gesture that, upon the pains of a bloody death, he would not completely destroy the earth, as it ought to have been destroyed in accordance with the first Covenant made with Adam.
The final covenant that serves a pivotal role in biblical history is the Covenant made with King David (II Samuel 7). Just as God had initially designed for man to rule over creation in righteousness; and just as he had promised that the fulfillment of this design would come from a seed of the woman, and, more specifically, of the seed of Abraham; so he promised to David, Abraham's son, that the promised Seed would come from his line, and would rule forever as man had been created to do from the beginning. And so Christ, when he had accomplished our redemption, ascended to sit upon the throne of David, where he would rule for all eternity (see Acts 2:29-36).
So in the end, although the Bible is a richly diverse book, its basic message is surprisingly simple: God decided to display his glorious nature by creating mankind, who would reign over the world in display of the divine image, and enjoy covenantal fellowship with God, in the manner of the inter-Triune fellowship of love. When man failed in this first covenant relationship, God graciously promised to send a Redeemer, who would undertake the covenant obligations in man's behalf, and win for mankind (all whom the Father had chosen to give him) the blessings that the first covenant held forth on a condition. The rest of the Bible is all about how God enters human history to choose out a people and accomplish this intention â€“ all to his glory alone. The blessed end and eternal triumph of this design finally reaches its ultimate fruition when the great effects of Christ's great redemption change the earth to a place of eternal fruitfulness, inhabited by an eternally-saved people, fellowshipping in joy with God in their midst. The bible begins with man losing the joy of fellowship with God. It ends, most appropriately, like this:
And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away; and there was no more sea. And I John saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God. And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away. And he that sat upon the throne said, Behold, I make all things new. And he said unto me, Write: for these words are true and faithful. And he said unto me, It is done. I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end. I will give unto him that is athirst of the fountain of the water of life freely. He that overcomes shall inherit all things; and I will be his God, and he shall be my son (Revelation 21:1-7).
How does all this come about? Well, my friend, the story rides upon the establishment and ultimate fulfillment of several divine covenants. Upon these covenants, all redemptive history hangs.