The History of Covenant Theology

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Until recently, it was widely held that covenant theology was created in the middle of the seventeenth century by theologians such as Johannes Cocceius (1609–1669). In fact, covenant theology is nothing more or less than the theology of the Bible. It is also the theology of the Reformed confessions. In the history of theology, the elements of what we know as covenant theology; the covenant of redemption before time between the persons of the Trinity, the covenant of works with Adam, and the covenant of grace after the fall; have existed since the early church.

Indeed, Reformed readers who turn to the early church fathers (c. 100–500 AD) might be surprised to see how frequently they used language and thought patterns that we find very familiar. The covenant theology of the fathers stressed the unity of the covenant of grace, the superiority of the new covenant over the old (Mosaic) covenant, and that, because Jesus is the true seed of Abraham, all Christians, whether Jewish or Gentile, are Abraham’s children. They also stressed the moral obligations of membership in the covenant of grace.

The covenant theology of the medieval church (c. 500–1500 ad) was related to that of the early fathers but distinct in certain ways. In response to the criticism that Christianity gave rise to immorality, the early church tended to speak about the history of redemption as the story of two laws, the old (Moses) and the new (Christ). They tended to speak of grace as the power to keep the law in order to be justified.

This habit only increased in the medieval church. The major theologians argued that God can only call people righteous if they are actually, inherently, righteous. This, they thought, will happen when sinners are infused with grace, and cooperate with that grace, so that they become saints. In this scheme, sanctification is justification, faith is obedience, and doubt is of the essence of faith.

In medieval covenant theology the word “covenant” became synonymous with “law.” They did not speak of a covenant of works and a covenant of grace, as we do. Rather the grace of the covenant enables one to keep the law.

Late in the medieval period, some theologians began to stress the idea that God has given a kind of grace to all humans and made a covenant so that “to those who do what is in them, God does not deny grace.” In effect, God helps those who help themselves. The Reformation would not only reform the covenant theology of the early fathers, but wage full-scale war on the covenant theology of the medieval church.

When he rejected the medieval doctrine of salvation by cooperation with grace, Martin Luther (1483–1546) rejected the old law/new law understanding of redemptive history. He came to understand that all of Scripture has two ways of speaking, law and gospel. The law demands perfect obedience, and the gospel announces Christ’s perfect obedience to that law, his death and his resurrection for his people.

Not long after Luther came to his Protestant views, others were already reforming covenant theology along Protestant lines. In the early 1520s, the Swiss Reformed theologian Johannes Oecolampadius (1482–1531) was teaching what would later become known as “the covenant of redemption” between the Father and the Son from all eternity. He also distinguished between the covenant of works as a legal covenant and the covenant of grace as a gracious covenant. A few years later Heinrich Bullinger (1504–75) published the first Protestant book devoted to explaining the covenant of grace. Like the early fathers, this work stressed the graciousness and unity of the covenant of grace.

John Calvin (1509–1564) had a robust covenant theology and taught the substance of the more highly developed federal theology including the covenant of redemption in eternity, the covenant of works before the fall, and the covenant of grace after the fall.

The post-Reformation theologians after Calvin faced severe challenges, namely a resurgent Roman church, Arminianism, and Amyraldism, that forced them to articulate a more detailed covenant theology. They had to explain not only the history of salvation, but how that history relates to our understanding how sinners are justified and sanctified.

The Reformed theologians in Heidelberg did this by weaving together the threads left by the earlier Protestants. Two of the most important Reformed covenant theologians of the late sixteenth century were the chief authors of the Heidelberg Catechism (1563), Zacharias Ursinus (1534–1583) and Caspar Olevianus (1536–1587). Ursinus began his covenant theology with the covenant of works in which Adam could have entered a state of eternal blessedness by obeying the law. Transgression of that law-covenant meant eternal punishment.

According to Ursinus, in his obedience for the elect, Christ fulfilled the covenant of works and bore their punishment. On this basis God made a covenant of grace with sinners. The message of the covenant of grace is the Gospel of undeserved favor for sinners.

This was the focus of Caspar Olevianus influential book, On the Substance of the Covenant of Grace Between God and the Elect (1585). He taught that the covenant of grace can be considered in a broader and narrower sense. In the narrower sense, the covenant can be said to have been made only with the elect. It is the elect who are united to Christ by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, who receive the benefits of the covenant, strictly speaking.

Since only God knows who is elect, in its administration, the covenant of grace, considered broadly, can be said to be with all the baptized. Therefore we baptize on the basis of the divine command and promise, and we regard covenant children (before profession of faith) and all who make a credible profession of faith as Christians until they prove otherwise. Those who are in the covenant only in this broader sense or externally, do receive some of the benefits of the covenant (Heb. 6:4–6), but they do not receive what Olevian called the “substance of the covenant,” or the “double benefit” of the covenant: justification and sanctification. Only those who are elect actually appropriate, by grace alone, through faith alone, the “double benefit” of the covenant of grace.

Two of the most developed covenant theologies of the seventeenth century were those of Johannes Cocceius (1609–1669) and Herman Witsius (1636–1708). They taught the covenants of redemption, works, and grace, and they used the biblical covenants as ways organizing redemptive history. Most other Reformed theologians, in Europe and Britain taught theology using the same categories. This was also the covenant theology of the Westminster Confession of Faith and catechisms.

The confessional Reformed theologians in the modern period (for example, the Princeton theologians) followed the outlines of the covenant theology of the Reformation and post-Reformation periods. Nevertheless, there has been considerable confusion about covenant theology since the nineteenth century. Some of this has been due to the influence of the Swiss theologian Karl Barth (1886–1968). He rejected much of classic Reformed covenant theology as legalistic, “scholastic,” and unbiblical. Judged by historical standards, much of the rest of covenant theology in the twentieth century must be judged to be idiosyncratic as well. By the middle of the twentieth century, several influential Reformed theologians in the Netherlands and in North America had rejected the covenants of redemption and works. Others argued that there is no narrow/broader distinction in the covenant of grace. Other revisions or rejections of orthodox covenant theology include the so-called Federal Vision movement that not only rejects the covenant of redemption; it rejects the distinction between law and gospel and the distinction between the covenants of works and grace. According to them, every baptized person is elect and united to Christ through baptism, but this election and union can be forfeited through faithlessness.

In sum, throughout the history of the church there has always been a theology of the covenants. The Reformation recovery of the Gospel and the biblical distinction between grace and works made it possible for Reformed theology to construct a detailed and fruitful covenant theology.

The experiments of the modern period, in doing away with the covenants of redemption and works, have tended to turn the covenant of grace into a legal covenant. Conflating the covenants of works and grace confuses law and gospel, which is the very foundational distinction of the Reformation and the Gospel. Instead of making Reformed theology more gracious and Christ-centered, as promised, the revisions actually lead to more self-centered theology.

There are encouraging signs, however. Some recent biblical scholarship has called attention to the existence of ancient Near Eastern treaties that illumine the biblical covenants of works and grace. Historical theology has renewed its study of the original sources of Reformed covenant theology, which is helping to recover the classical and confessional covenant theology of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in our time.

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