The Facts and Flaws of Covenant Theology, Part 1
By: James Showers
Covenant Theology is the dominant theological system of most mainline Protestant churches.
It is a system of theology that interprets the Bible’s philosophy of history through the lens of two or three covenants and is founded on Replacement Theology, which maintains that God has replaced the Jewish people with the church and that Christians are now God’s chosen people.
As a systematic theology, it attempts to explain God’s purpose for history. Why are things the way they are today? Why were they different in the past? Why was there a time when there was no government on Earth? Why was there a time when God gave the Law to a particular group of people? Why is that system of law not applied throughout the world today?
Systematic theology must make sense of the progress of revelation. Why didn’t God give the Epistles to Old Testament Israel? Why did He wait to reveal those after the church began?
Theology must provide a unifying principle that connects these historical differences with the progress of revelation, thus providing answers for the past, present, and future. Most important, a valid philosophy of history will answer these questions: “Where did we come from? Why are we here? Where are we going?”
Covenant Theology’s basic premise is that, in eternity past, God determined to govern all of history on the basis of three covenants. (Some combine two of the covenants into one.) These are the covenants of works, redemption, and grace.
The Covenant of Works. According to Covenant theologians, the covenant of works was established between the creation and Fall of Man. Covenants are formal, legally binding agreements in which both parties have obligations.
The covenant of works supposedly was established between the triune God and Adam, in which Adam is God’s representative head of the human race and acts for all his descendants. Covenant theologians argue that Adam’s obligation was perfect o obedience to God. God’s obligation was to provide eternal life in exchange for perfect obedience. Adam’s penalty for failing to keep his part of the covenant was death to both Adam and his descendants.
Where do we find this covenant in the Bible? We don’t. It is not in the Bible. Covenant theologians infer these covenants based on certain Scriptures, including the threat of death for eating of the tree of knowledge in Genesis 2. There must be a covenant, they say, because God provided a warning and a penalty. That is the logic they use.1
The Covenant of Redemption. This covenant supposedly was established before creation in eternity past between God the Father and God the Son, in which the Father made His Son the Head and Redeemer of the elect. The Son volunteered to take the place of those whom God gave to Him—the elect here on Earth. The Son’s obligation was to become human under the Law, live without sin, and willingly take the elect’s punishment on the cross. The Father’s obligation was to resurrect the Son and give Him numerous seed, all power in heaven and earth, and great glory.
Again we ask, “Where is this covenant in Scripture?” And again the answer is that it is not there. It does not exist. Covenant theologians claim it is implied based on God’s promises and the Son’s willingness to go to the cross.2
The Covenant of Grace. Some Covenant theologians combine the covenants of redemption and grace. They are uncertain when the covenant of grace was established. Some argue it began with the promise of redemption in Genesis 3:15 when God told the serpent He would bruise the serpent’s head and that the serpent would bruise the Man-Child’s heel. Others argue it began with the covenant God made with Abraham in Genesis 12.
In the covenant of grace, God, the offended, makes a covenant with the elect sinner, the offender. The elect sinner’s obligation is to accept the promise of salvation willingly, agree to be a part of God’s people, trust in Christ forever, and commit to a life of obedience and dedication to God. God’s obligation is to provide salvation through faith in Christ and eternal life to all who believe.
There is no reference to this covenant in the Bible. Covenant theologians argue that it is implied in the “I will be Your God” passages throughout the Old and New Testaments.
These three covenants constitute what is known as Covenant Theology. They define history’s ultimate purpose as glorifying God through the redemption of elect man. The shortcoming of this philosophy is that it presents a human-centered view of history: The glory of God is summed up only through the redemption of man. The covenant of grace becomes the unifying principle for history, in which history is understood in terms of God’s redemption of man.
If you want to understand what happened in the past, you turn to the covenant of grace. If you want to understand what is happening now or in the future, look at the covenants of grace and redemption.3
There are a number of problems with Covenant Theology. First, its ultimate goal for history is flawed because it only explains God’s purpose for elect man. It does not begin to touch on all the other programs God is carrying out in history.
For example, if God is the one true and sovereign God of this universe, He will restore the universe to its pre-fall condition (Mt. 19:28; Acts 3:18–21). Covenant theology provides no explanation for this aspect of history. Nor does it provide reasons for God’s dethroning of Satan as ruler of the earth (Rom. 16:20) or for reestablishing God’s theocratic Kingdom on Earth (Rev. 19—20).
Second, it is a human-centered theological system with an inherent weakness for humanism. Who is the god of humanism? It is man and the belief that, ultimately, all answers lie in man.
A theological system that believes the glory of God is centered in what God is doing with man ultimately focuses on man. Add to that fact a hermeneutic that spiritualizes the words of Scripture, reinterpreting the literal into something figurative, and you have created a platform for humanism. History bears out that liberal, modernist movements have flourished in mainline Protestant, Covenant churches.
A further problem is that the unifying principle of Covenant Theology is too narrow. It deals solely with man’s redemption; it does not include God’s plan for the redemption of all creation. Nor does it provide enough answers for what God is doing here on Earth. Furthermore, it diminishes the true covenants recorded in Scripture: the Abrahamic, Mosaic, and New Covenants— to mention three.
Another of Covenant Theology’s serious flaws is that it denies the distinction between Israel and the church. It redefines the church as all covenant people throughout history. Therefore, the church begins with Abraham (Gen. 12), rather than in Acts 2; and Old Testament Israel no longer refers to the physical descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Old Testament Israel is redefined as the covenant people, the people of faith in the Old Testament. No longer is it physical descent that makes one an Israelite; it is faith in God.
To accomplish its goals, Covenant Theology uses two methods, rather than one, to interpret Scripture— another serious flaw. Bible-believing Covenant theologians use the historical-grammatical-literal method of interpretation for most of Scripture, including all prophecy that has already been fulfilled. However, when it comes to unfulfilled prophecy, they turn to a different method: an allegorical-spiritual one that enables them to redefine Israel and make it the church, rather than the Jewish people. They also change the Millennial Kingdom from a literal, future 1,000-year period into the current Church Age. This belief is referred to as Amillennialism or Postmillennialism.4
Because it is built on Replacement Theology, to remove Replacement Theology from Covenant Theology would collapse the entire system. It would force Covenant theologians to accept that God has two distinct programs, one for Israel and one for the church. Covenant theologians would have to define the church as beginning in Acts 2, with Israel being a separate entity. Further, they would have to accept a literal, future Tribulation and the Millennium. To accept this would turn them into dispensationalists.
E N D N O T E S
1 Renald E. Showers, There Really Is a Difference
(Bellmawr, NJ: The Friends of Israel Gospel
Ministry, 1990), 10.
2 Ibid., 9–10.
3 Ibid., 10–13.
4 Ibid., 19–24, 127, 136–137.