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.
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.
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.
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.