Covenant Theology in Brief

Towards the end of the ’60s I became convinced that received covenant theology in its various forms is false. After undertaking study of this issue in the Bible for myself I came to the following conclusions:

There is no covenant with creation or with Adam, man according to the flesh, who derived from the earth. On the assumption that a covenant necessarily involves at least minimal agreement, a unilateral covenant is a contradiction in terms. Thus the arrangement God made with Adam (Gen. 2:16f.) who knew neither good nor evil was an imposition totally devoid of reciprocation and hence non-covenantal. The inference I draw from this is that the temporal material creation of which man according to the flesh is a part is not intended for redemption (cf. John 3:1-8; 1 Cor. 15:50; 2 Cor. 4:18; Heb. 12:27, etc.). In contrast with its Creator, it has a beginning, undergoes development, achieves maturity, ages and dies naturally (Heb. 1:11). Sin exacerbates its corruptibility but does not cause it. Creation is by nature corruptible and ultimately futile (Rom. 8:18-25) like the flesh which derives from it (John 6:63; Rom. 7:18).

The first covenant God made was with Noah (Gen. 6:18, etc.). From the standpoint of the observer, the flood threatened the very existence of the material creation, but the covenant guaranteed its perpetuation until the plan and purpose of God to make his people his heavenly children (Eph. 1:4f.) was complete (Gen. 8:21f., cf. Isa. 54:9f.; Jer. 31:35-37; 33:19-26; Acts 17:8-17; 17; 17:22-31). Thus Noah as a man of faith undertook the propagation of the race (Gen. 9:1,7) and the exercise of dominion over creation as Adam had done before him (Gen. 1: 28) but with the confidence that his efforts would not be in vain (cf. Gen. 8:21f.).

God made a covenant of promise to Abraham that he would bless the world through him and his descendants (Gen. 12:1-3,7, cf. Rom. 4; Gal. 3, etc.).

Next, after the exodus with the agreement of the people (Ex. 19:8; 24:3,7) God made a covenant of law or works with his elect nation through Moses. Keeping it promised life (Lev. 18:5, cf. Gen. 2:17); breaking it threatened curse and death (Ex. 32:33; Dt. 11:26-28; 30:15-20; Ezek. 18:4). Since man who is mortal and corruptible flesh by nature (Rom. 1:23) proves incapable of meeting the condition of eternal life (cf. Mt. 19:17; Rom. 5:12), he needs a Saviour who can. Thus Jesus who alone kept the law and overcame the world (John 16:33; Heb. 2:9; Rev. 5:5) is universally indispensable (John 14:6; Acts 4:12, etc.).

The promissory covenant with David (2 Sam. 7; Ps. 89) is an extension of the covenant with Abraham. It provides the basis of the Messianic hope which is fulfilled in Christ.

The covenant inaugurated by Jesus (cf. Luke 22:20) is an eternal covenant (Heb. 13:20) which guarantees eternal redemption (Heb. 9:12) and an eternal inheritance (Heb. 9:15) for his people (cf. Rom. 8:31ff.).

There are therefore five divine covenants which apply to mankind in general. The covenants with Noah and Moses are clearly temporary and provisional (Gen. 8:22; Mt. 24:35; 2 Cor. 3; Heb. 8:13, etc.) and relate to life on earth alone (Mt. 5:18; Heb. 7:16; 9:10). The Abrahamic and Davidic covenants being promissory are fulfilled in Christ whose own covenant is eternal and finds its completion in heaven in the presence of God in accordance with his plan to save his people (cf. Heb. 2:9-13). It should also be noted that the covenants with Noah, Moses and Jesus are dispensational. Even though they overlap to some extent, they are not to be merged in such a way as to hide their distinctiveness and discontinuity. They are linked by faith (cf. Heb. 11).

There is one place in Scripture where all these five covenants are clearly implied: Romans 1:16-4:8. There we find the covenants with the Gentiles (Noah), the Jews (Moses) and Christians (Jesus) who constitute a third race (cf. e.g. 1 Cor. 10:32, etc.). In Romans 4:1-8 Paul refers to the covenants of promise with Abraham and David.

The word Adam (man) embraces both the individual and the race or community. This being so, it is hardly a surprise to find that the covenants with the race are miniaturized, embodied, telescoped, re-enacted or recapitulated within the individual man, supremely in Jesus, the Man or second Adam. This Paul makes plain in two places in particular: Galatians 4:1-7 and Romans 7-8. Elsewhere Paul says that Jesus summed up all mankind in himself (Eph. 1:10). In other words, just as the history of the race is covenantal so is that of the individual: once we become rational souls we all go through a Gentile, Jewish and Christian phase in the course of our lives (cf. John 1:9-13) even though Gentiles are never specifically under the law of Moses.  Jesus himself as the second Adam epitomized this progress when he recapitulated his forebears’ stay in Egypt as a slave (Mt. 2:15), became a son of the commandment as a circumcised Jew (Luke 2:40-52) and hence a servant (Lev. 25:39-46) and, having kept the law, pioneered life as a son, the Son, under the direction of the Spirit after his baptism. In covenantal terms we all experience spiritual childhood, adolescence and adulthood. At this point, the fact that Gentiles are never formally under the law like Jewish men if not women is relatively insignificant (cf. Gal. 3:23ff. and the suggestion of the KJV of the law as a ‘schoolmaster’).

Until he was eclipsed by Augustine of Hippo, Irenaeus the father of theology was perhaps most famous for his teaching on recapitulation. In effect he taught that ontology recapitulates phylogeny, Jesus being the prime example (Gal. 4:1-7, cf. Eph. 1:10). The idea is not exactly foreign to modern science and is implied by Genesis 1 where we are told that things are created and reproduced according to kind (cf. Mark 4:28).

Covenant theology then is of prime importance in understanding the teleological thrust of the Bible and the people, that is, all of us, to whom it relates. Since this is so, the Augustinian worldview which dominates the Western church and begins where the Bible ends with the  righteousness and perfection of man in his infancy is clearly false. Righteousness and holiness are inherent only in God himself and so far as man is concerned are attained only by keeping the law of which Adam like a baby even though he was physically adult was initially entirely ignorant (cf. Dt. 1:39, etc.). (Pro)creation is followed by development leading to perfection (maturity, completeness). One thing is clear: infant baptism, which is based on original sin and a fall from the maturity of supposed righteousness, has turned biblical teaching on its head. It has in effect reduced man to a flat uniformity devoid of development (evolution) and given rise to the idea of a fall from an initial ‘high estate’. This is ruled out of court by Jesus who became the Righteous One (Acts 3:14) or perfect(ed) man only by completing the work his Father gave him to do (John 17:4f.; Heb. 2:10, etc., cf. Phil. 3:12-14). Otherwise expressed, he had undergone normal human development by keeping (the) law (Luke 2:40-52) and having gained life (Lev. 18:5) reached maturity under the leading of the Spirit. Needless to say, believers follow his lead (Eph. 2:15; 4:12-16; Gal.3:28).

Even the wicked are not born evil (Dt. 1:39) but like us all they sin from their youth (Jer. 3:25, etc.). If they refuse to repent, they are ultimately perfected (achieve maturity) in their sin (James 1:15, cf. Gen. 15:16; Lev. 18:25-30; Rev. 20:11-15).

At the end both the good and the evil alike reap their respective rewards (Mt. 25:46).

See also my Covenant Theology,  Covenant Continuity and Discontinuity and Did God Make a Covenant with Creation? which examine the issue in more detail.

Note J. Stott, Authentic Christianity, pp. 334f.