What is Covenant Theology?

In Bible/Theology, Blogs by David M. Levy24 Comments

On October 31, 1517, the Reformation of the church began when Martin Luther posted his Ninety-Five Theses on the church door in Wittenberg, Germany.

Shortly following Luther’s proclamation came the writing of John Calvin. He penned The Institutes of the Christian Religion in 1536. It was to become a textbook on the Protestant faith. During this same period other men like Zwingli, Bullinger, Wollebius, Cocceius, and Ames (to name a few) were instrumental in setting forth a basic theology built on the writing of Calvin. Their writings would lay the foundation for a systemized biblical philosophy of history and theology for the Reformed Church that later was developed into what is known as Covenant Theology.

Covenant Theology, broadly categorized, puts the teachings of the Bible into two basic Covenants; later a third covenant would be added (though not accepted by all). They are called the covenants of works, grace, and redemption.

COVENANTS PRESENTED

COVENANT OF WORKS
Covenant theologians believe that God entered into a covenant of works with Adam at the time of his creation. God placed Adam in the Garden of Eden, and commanded him, “but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (Genesis 2:17).

Adam was tested through a “choice” given to him by God. If Adam refused to eat from the tree, he was promised life. The promise of life included perfection of his body and soul, and a holy, intimate, relationship with God. This life meant Adam would possess and enjoy eternal life in a perfect state on Earth.

If Adam disobeyed God by eating of the tree he would suffer death. Both Adam and Eve failed the test and ate from the tree. In so doing, they acquired a sin nature, their relation with God would not be the same, and they would die spiritually and physically. Because Adam was the federal head of the human race (Romans 5:12), all people born after Adam possess a sin nature, and like Adam and Eve, experience death.

Covenant Theology named the agreement between God and Adam the covenant of works, because Adam had to make a decision of obedience in order to receive the promise of eternal life. This is never explicitly identified as a “covenant,” let alone a covenant of works in the book of Genesis, or any biblical text.  Still, Covenant Theology insists that it is implicitly identified as a covenant of works. They argue it is a covenant based on the agreement of two participants, God and Adam.

COVENANT OF GRACE
Adam’s failure to meet the required obedience to the covenant of works resulted in sin and death for him and all of mankind. God in His loving kindness had mercy on sinful mankind and established what reformers called the covenant of grace. This covenant would provide salvation through Jesus Christ for a select group of elect, sinful men and women. Thus, God made the covenant of grace with sinful man, whereby He offers salvation to those sinners that are the elect in Christ. Covenant theologians believe that the main scriptural promise of God for the covenant of grace (which includes all other promises), is contained in the often-repeated words, “I will be a God unto thee, and to thy seed after thee” [KJV] (Genesis 17:7).

Covenant theologians believe that God’s divine love and grace guarantee redemption through Jesus Christ His Son by means of the energizing work of the Holy Spirit in man. Those whom God saves are promised and guaranteed eternal salvation by God. These promises are not applicable to everyone, but only the elect that God has chosen in Jesus Christ.

COVENANT OF REDEMPTION
The covenant of redemption is another covenant put forth by some Reform theologians, but not all. There are distinctions between the covenant of grace and the covenant of redemption.

Some teach that the church has replaced Israel, and actually Israel was the church mentioned in the Old Testament. They say the church’s roots are in the people of God, beginning in the Old Testament.

This covenant teaches that in eternity past, God the Father and God the Son agreed to provide for man’s salvation and put into action a plan that Covenant theologians call the covenant of redemption. Jesus Christ (the Son of God) was appointed by God the Father to become the Mediator of this covenant by means of His incarnation, whereupon He would suffer death on the cross for man’s sin. Jesus Christ accepted God the Father’s plan, and as the God-Man was commissioned to accomplish the work of redemption for God’s elect.

Jesus Christ is identified in Scripture as the last Adam. Unlike fallen Adam, Jesus Christ would be obedient unto God the Father, and being found without sin, would fulfill all the righteousness mentioned in God’s Law. It was predetermined that God the Father would decree the plan of redemption. God the Son would provide for redemption through His sacrificial death on the cross for sin. And God the Holy Spirit would produce salvation in the life of all elected believers through the power granted to Him. God in His grace provided a way for man’s salvation through the covenant of redemption.  

Covenant Theology as presented today was never addressed in the writings of Luther, Calvin, or Zwingli.

COVENANT POSITION

How did Covenant theologians come to identify the covenants of works, grace, and redemption? There are no precise Scriptures that identify the subjects of “works,” “grace,” and “redemption” as covenants.

Covenant theologians took their study of Scripture and, by means of deduction from what they believe to be scriptural evidence for their position, projected the idea that these three covenants (works, grace, and redemption) were taught throughout the Bible. For example, because of the makeup of various texts like Genesis 3:15, they identified such texts as scriptural evidence for the covenant of redemption. But the word “covenant” is never mentioned or alluded to in Genesis 3:15 (or any portion of Scripture) identifying it as a covenant.

Often the texts used were spiritualized or allegorized to make them fit into one of the covenants mentioned here. Thus, various texts dealing with Israel, and especially prophecy, were not interpreted normally, literally, grammatically, or historically in the context that they appeared; but interpreted spiritually or allegorically, thereby stripping the text of its true meaning.   

COVENANT PROBLEM

There are numerous problems that can be identified within Covenant Theology’s interpretation of the Scripture. Here are a few:

Scripture never mentioned the so-called covenants of works, grace, and redemption specifically as covenants. These are man-made captions or designations artificially chosen by Covenant theologians deduced from Scripture to identify their findings. There are definite covenants mentioned in Scripture, such as the Abrahamic Covenant (Genesis 17:1–27); Noahic Covenant (Genesis 6:18; 9:11–17); Mosaic Covenant (Exodus 19:5; 24:1–8); Davidic Covenant (2 Chronicles 7:18; cf. 2 Samuel 7:8–17); and New Covenant (Jer. 31:31). The word “covenant” is specifically used in identifying the Scriptures just mentioned as “covenants” in the Bible. But nowhere in Scripture is there mentioned a covenant of works, grace, or redemption.  

Covenant theology is too narrow in its overall view of God’s program for the history of mankind. Covenant theologians emphasize much about grace and redemption, yet other major areas of doctrine dealing with prophecy and God’s eschatology program for Jews, Gentiles, and the church are by and large passed over or misinterpreted.

In order to interpret the Bible properly, one must apply the correct rules of hermeneutics to the biblical text. That is, to study the text in its normal, grammatical, historical, and cultural setting within the context of the passage to discern the literal meaning of what the writer is teaching. This applies to the proper interpretive use of figurative of speech, and typological language as well.

Covenant Theology often fails to do this, especially on prophecies dealing with the nation of Israel and other eschatological subjects. Covenant theologians often read the New Testament back into the Old, changing the clear meaning of the Old in its context, thus applying an artificial structure of interpretation. They use the New Testament revelation as the authorized interpreter of the Old Testament. They believe that Jesus and the apostles provided the correct interpretation to the Old Testament, especially when it comes to eschatological subjects.

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Covenant Theology changes the meaning of the word Israel as used in the Old Testament. Some teach the church has replaced Israel, and actually Israel was the church mentioned in the Old Testament. They say that the church’s roots are in the people of God, beginning in the Old Testament. That is, Israel and subjects relating to the nation are only shadows and types that become correctly interpreted as to their literal fulfillment once Jesus provided new revelation from the New Testament. Not true! New Testament revelation does not reinterpret, override, nor cancel the original meaning of Old Testament revelation. To the contrary, the New Testament continues the revelation on Israel, and refines, reiterates, and reaffirms the literal fulfillment of the Old Testament promises to Israel in both advents of Jesus Christ.

In other words, the promises made to Israel are not fulfilled spiritually in the church nor does the church replace a literal, physical Israel as the people of God, now, or in Christ’s Kingdom rule. It should be noted, the church was never presented in the Old Testament, because its beginning was on the Day of Pentecost after Christ’s 40-day, post-resurrection ministry (Acts 2).  The word church is never used interchangeably in the New Testament with reference to Israel.

Covenant theologians believe the early church leaders taught their position. Church history does not prove this to be true. Covenant Theology was not a position held by the early church, church in the Middle Ages, nor mentioned by Luther, Calvin, or any others at the beginning of the Reformation. Neither is there evidence to prove that a Covenant Theology was developed or present in any of the confessions of faith in the early church. In fact, its first appearance was in the Westminster Confession in 1674, but was not fully developed until years later by Covenant theologians. In other words, the systematic doctrine of Covenant Theology (believed today) is a refinement of the reformers’ teaching. However, it is important to mention that the framework of Covenant Theology has been around since the second century AD.

The problems mentioned above in the Covenant theologian’s interpretation of the Bible are by no means exhaustive. For the reasons mentioned here, I do not believe that Covenant Theology is a true biblical approach to the interpretation of Scripture.

About the Author
David M. Levy

David M. Levy

David M. Levy is the media resource specialist and a Bible teacher for The Friends of Israel Gospel Ministry.

Comments 24

  1. Thank you for reenforcing what our Bible says and clarifying how it is misinterpreted. It’s all about Jesus and nothing else.Many blessings to you and all the staff of foi.

  2. Thank you. I was wondering if those who follow Covenant Theology are usually cessationist. I am asking since it seems that those who follow cessationist theology seem to arrive at their beliefs in a similar manner.

  3. Thanks for the article.

    I wish you had given more concrete examples of Covenant Theologians writings and interpretations, and how they have come down to our current age.

    I do not disagree with your premise, I only wish that the article provided more concrete examples, so that I could use it to help those who are struggling through these issues. I regularly spend time with pastors and brothers in the Lord, helping to unravel the theological mess that much of this theology creates.

    I find it insufficient to state that there is a problem w/o giving clear evidence (ideas and writings that demonstrate misalignment with the scriptures) and how the ideas that have come down to us through Christian Tradition have created a systematic misalignment of biblical interpretation.

    I realize that this a lot to ask in such a short article. Perhaps if you have more in-depth articles (or books), you could share them here for the more curious among us.

    Blessings b’Shem Yeshua, (in the Name of Jesus)

    Michael

  4. Great information…thanks so much David! I just taught on Replacement Theology in our ladies SS class and had to cover some history first. This doctrine is spreading around here .in some formally literal interpretation believers (not allegorical) . I thank FOI of covering this. All my IMGs are filed and I found articles addressing the issues related to this way back in IMGs,*2007, 2014, and 2016. One lady in our class spoke up and said “FOI is the best source on the subject.” Arnold Fructenbam also did a great article on the subject is his last months ARIEL magazine. Arnold quoted Andrew D. Roinson. He called it the “Doctrine of Demons”. Thanks again, I so often refer to my IMGs when teaching.

  5. Bullinger was mentioned early on in article. I have read some of his writings and use his Companion bible. He is in the Covenant camp. He is very much a dispensationalist more inline with Ultra dispensationalism. I don’t agree with some of his conclusions but I do admire his love for Gods Word and his serious study especially recognizing Apostle Paul and the Dispensation of Grace entrusted to him.

  6. After expressing the fact that covenant theology was first set down in the Westminster Confession, you make the unexplained one sentence comment: “However, it is important to mention that the framework of covenant theology has been around since the 2nd century AD.”

    What do you mean by this? It seems to undo a lot of the previous commentary.

  7. Again brother David, thanks for the overview of Covenant Theology, something that I’m not acquainted with as much as I should be. In reference to your quote “the promises made to Israel are not fulfilled spiritually in the church”, would you agree that when we partake of the Lord’s Supper in the breaking of the bread and drinking of the cup, that we as believers today (both Jew and Gentile) are entering from a spiritual perspective the new covenant that the Lord speaks of in Matt 26:28 “for this is My blood of the new testament (covenant), which is shed for many, for the remission of sins.” Each Lord’s Day I sit to remember the Lord Jesus in the breaking of the bread and drinking of the cup, I’m not only remembering that the cup (wine) speak of His blood shed for me, the sinner, and for my sins. (Rom 5:6; 1 Cor 15:3) but I’m recognizing that this covenant that Jeremiah 31:33-34 speaks of is the same covenant that we as NT believers enter into from a spiritual perspective but will only be fulfilled literally with Israel in a coming day when Christ appears in glory. I agree with your comments on Covenant Theology and find it disturbing that Christians can believe that the Church replaces Israel in light of the plain truth given in Romans 9-11 and the teachings of Daniel, Zechariah and Revelation. BTW, I want to thank you for your book on Revelation. I’m enjoying it very much. the Lord bless!

  8. I think the reference to “Bullinger” in the article was to “Heinrich Bullinger,” a successor to Huldrych Zwingli, in Zurich in the 16th century? “Ethleburt Bullinger,” was from England and lived in the 19th into the early 20th centuries. He was an ultra dispensationalist.

  9. It is interesting to me that both groups (Covenant and Dispensational) claim roots back to the early church. But this discussion seems to only have been around since the mid 1800s. While the Dispensational view seems to me to be more faithful to scripture, it is curious that the discussion took so long to come to the fore.

  10. Dear CATHERINE FULLER, Acts 7:37-39 (NASB) reads: 37 “This is the Moses who said to the sons of Israel, ‘GOD WILL RAISE UP FOR YOU A PROPHET LIKE ME FROM YOUR BRETHREN.’ 38 “This is the one who was in the congregation in the wilderness together with the angel who was speaking to him on Mount Sinai, and who was with our fathers; and he received living oracles to pass on to you. 39 “Our fathers were unwilling to be obedient to him, but repudiated him and in their hearts turned back to Egypt …. The Greek word translated ‘congregation’ is ekklesía, which means ‘a calling out, especially a religious congregation (i.e. Jewish synagogue, or Christian community of members on earth or saints in heaven or both), assembly, church. Other translations (e.g. KJV, ASB) use ‘church’ so, I presume, the fact that you read the word in the verse makes you think that some could cling to this as a reason for believing that the ‘church’ existed in the Old Testament? If the word ‘church’ had not been accepted as a suitable replacement for the genuine word ekklesia this thought would never occur to anyone. Some argue that the word ‘church’ is probably derived from the Greek kuriakon [i.e., “the Lord’s house” – related to kuriakos, meaning ‘belonging to the Lord (‘Jehovah’ or Jesus), e.g. kuriakos deipnon – ‘Lord’s supper’ in 1 Corinthians 11:20], which was used by ancient authors for the place of worship. But the derivation is more likely derived from kirk (derived from a large variety of European language sources and still used in Scotland to describe Christian ekklesia), the Latin circus, circulus, and the Greek kuklos – because the congregations were gathered in circles – and therefore probably from pagan sources. The Greek word ekklesia originally meant an assembly called out by the magistrate, or by legitimate authority, and it was in this sense that the word was adapted and applied by the writers of the New Testament to the Christian congregation. We can see the influence of the often heretical ‘Church Fathers’ and the increasingly corrupt Papal Roman Catholic Church (by strict definition it quickly became a cult and remains so to this day) on the manuscripts of the New Testament as their ‘translators’ began to replace the Greek word ekklesia with ‘church’ (which is synonymous with the Hebrew kahal of the Old Testament). There is no clear instance of kuriakon being used as a place of meeting or of worship, although in post-apostolic times it quickly received this meaning from these injurious sources. This word (kuriakon) is also never used to denote the inhabitants of a country united in the same profession, as it came to be applied in referring to the “Church of England,” the “Church of Scotland,” etc.

    The correct word ekklesia is used in the following senses in the New Testament: It is translated “assembly” in the ordinary classical sense (Acts 19:32, 39, 41) and has wisely been used by the ‘Assemblies of God’ which, in the ‘United Kingdom’, are still often very Biblically-correct (although several instances within reach of my home have slipped into error, either through the immoral behaviour of the leadership or approving the ‘Word-Faith’ cult).

    It denotes the whole body of the redeemed, all those whom the Father has given to Christ, the invisible catholic (meaning ‘universal’, not as in Papal Roman Catholic) church (Ephesians 5:23-29; Hebrews 12:23).

    A few Christians associated together in observing the ordinances of the gospel are an ekklesia (Romans 16:5; Colossians 4:15) and we find the same word in other places, e.g. ‘the church that was at Antioch’ (Acts 13:1); the “church of God at Corinth” (1 Corinthians 1:2), “the church at Jerusalem” (Acts 8:1), “the church of Ephesus” (Revelation 2:1), cf. (1 Corinthians 15:9; Galatians 1:13; Matthew 16:18).

    So, fairly briefly, that is all there is to it – AND – we must all remain vigilant as spiritual Bereans (Acts 17:11; 1 Thess. 5:19-23)

  11. Hi David
    Thank you for taking the time in writing your article. I would be remiss if I did not comment on what I felt was maybe not intentional on your part but errors or misinterpreted. But first and most important I refer to Ephesians 4: 14-29.
    http://www.preceptaustin.org/covenant_definition
    I would not normally have written or replied to your article but as I reviewed the comments I was concerned. When I have taken classes from the Ottawa Theology Hall I remember distinctly my Professor Rev. Matt Kingswood of Russell Reform Presbyterian Church always instructing us to do our on research from Scriptures and never place our faith that someone else may have not made some error he also stated it would help to ensure we understood what we were being taught.
    Blessings
    Douglas

  12. Hello David,
    Thanks for the concise treatment of this misleading doctrine. I would like to add two things. First, it is growing in popularity at the expense of the God’s plan for Israel. Second, many people are drawn to the logic when the covenant of works is attached to the Old Testament law, and the covenant of grace is laid out by Paul. You point out how those theologians foisted this supposed covenant of works back to creation. Thanks.

  13. “Covenant” theology seems like a very poorly chosen label for those who subscribe to such theology. A covenant presupposes the capacity of the parties to act contrary to the terms of the covenant, but by an act of volition, pledge not to act contrary to the terms of the covenant (see Ex. 24:7-8). Yet those who subscribe to “covenant” theology insist upon denying the capacity of man to act or the capability to exercise volition in the covenant, which renders that which is labeled a “covenant” not a covenant at all. It should be labeled “decree” theology or something synonymous, but definitely not “covenant” theology, because what they subscribe to is not a covenant.

  14. Thank you for your article. Recently I was reading several articles in a “Nine Mark Journal” they constantly are referring to the church as a covenant community. Then writing on “The Corporate Component of Conversion” they made this statement: It is true that all of the Old Testament covenants find their fulfillment in the seed (singular) of Abraham. Jesus is the new Israel. Yet it is also true that everyone united to Christ through the new covenant also becomes the Israel of God and the seed of (plural) Abraham (Gal. 3:29; 6:16).

    These kind of statements bother me and they are becoming so common with prominent “theologians” of the day. Thank God for men like Dr. Showers and your editorial staff.

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