After over forty-five years of reading the Bible and commenting on it, I remain firmly convinced that the most prolific source of doctrinal error and misapprehension in the church is failure to understand biblical covenant theology. While it is true, especially since the Reformation, that various views on the covenants have exercised a profound influence on received theologies (see e.g. Golding, Ward), I am fully persuaded that they have not been a true reflection of what the Bible teaches. The inevitable result of this has been and still is doctrinal chaos. Before going further, it is worth taking a brief look at some of the different portrayals of covenant in Christian history (1*. The meaning of the word ‘covenant’ has been much debated in quite recent times. Without going into detail I take it for granted that the covenants with man discussed here are sovereign dispositions of God that nonetheless harbour the notion of agreement, reciprocation or mutuality, see e.g. Dumbrell, pp. 11ff. who makes a valiant but forlorn effort to read the covenant with Noah back into a covenant with Adam and creation. This notion founders on the stubborn and inescapable fact that Scripture fails to refer to one, and for good reason. See further below. It comes as no shock that having sought to make creation itself the subject of a covenant, Dumbrell talks of its redemption, p.33, an idea quite alien to the entire drift of the Bible, see e.g. Ps. 102:25-27; Isa. 34:4; Mt. 24:35; Heb. 12:27; Rev. 21:1-4, etc. Like the flesh which derives from it, creation was never intended to last forever. It is intrinsically temporal as Genesis 1 implies. In other words, there is intelligent response to the covenants on the part of Noah, Abraham, etc. While it is true that according to Jeremiah, for example, God appears to have made a covenant with inanimate creation, Jer. 33:20ff., cf. 31:35-37, this seems to be in order to illustrate the permanent nature of God’s commitment to it until his salvific purposes for man are fulfilled. In light of Genesis 8:22, it ought to be obvious that unless creation continues, the divine plan regarding Israel, David, and the Levites cannot come to fruition, cf. Dt. 11:21; Rom. 8:18-25, let alone be ultimately fulfilled in the royal high priesthood of Christ. It needs to be pointed out that the covenant first referred to in Genesis 6:18, cf. v.8; 9:9-12,15, is said to be with Noah himself. This can only mean that for Noah the stability of creation is guaranteed in a way that it was not for Adam. For Noah not only was there no more curse, Gen. 8:21, but the sign of the rainbow was there to inspire his confidence, 9:12-17. He was therefore able to undertake the propagation of the race with an assurance that Adam lacked, Gen. 9:1,8, cf. Jer. 33:19ff. Just as the Mosaic covenant did not nullify the covenant with Abraham, Gal. 3:17, so the Abrahamic, Mosaic, Davidic and even Christian covenants did not nullify the covenant with Noah, cf. Mt. 5:45; Acts 14:17; 17:25ff. Unless Jeremiah, like Isaiah, 54:9f., has Noah in mind, the idea of mutuality is clearly absent. In any case, Jeremiah appears to be using the word ‘covenant’ like the term “everlasting hills”, Gen. 49:26, or “everlasting covenant”, Gen. 9:15f., even though the Bible makes it clear that both the hills and the covenant are part and parcel of a transitory creation, which by all appearances was threatened by the flood, not to mention man’s sin, cf. Heb. 1:10-12, etc. Motyer comments appropriately on Isaiah 54:9f., which alludes explicitly to Noah when he says that “the fabric of the world is the most permanent thing we know and lends itself to an apt comparison (cf. Jer. 31:35-37).” Among other relevant references are Psalm 72:17; 89:37; 119:89-91; Isaiah 51:6 and Habakkuk 3:6. It is worthy of note that all five divine covenants made with man are at least implicitly present in Jeremiah 31:35-37 and 33:20ff.
In addition to the above, it must be observed that there is a fundamental reason why creation and Adam are not covenanted in the Bible: both are temporal expedients or means to an end. We are taught that the physical creation, which has been given over to futility, will ultimately be destroyed, e.g. Mt. 24:35; 2 Pet. 3:7,10-12; Heb. 12:27; Rev. 20:11, etc. And the same is true with regard to Adam to the extent that he typifies the flesh, cf. 1 Cor. 15:45-50, as Paul is at pains to point out in 2 Corinthians 5:1, cf. Rom. 8:10. Even Jesus whose fleshly body did not experience corruption in the grave had to undergo transformation, and the idea that at his ascension he took his fleshly body into heaven, cf. Acts 1:9, must be scouted absolutely, 1 Cor 15:50; Gal. 4:29f.; John 8:35. There can be little doubt that those who criticise paedobaptists for baptising the flesh, cf. John 1:13, hit the nail on the head. Except in the general sense, God has not made a covenant with babies many of whom die apart from sin and righteousness since they know neither good nor evil. See further below. 2*.)
Historical Covenant Theology
Probably the most influential view has been covenant or federal theology (see e.g. Packer’s chapter On Covenant Theology and the articles on Federal Theology by Collins and Covenant Theology by Osterhaven in EDT). Basically it holds that God originally made a covenant of works with Adam, the covenant head and representative of all his posterity. Thus, once Adam failed to obey the covenant commandment, he forfeited the life it promised (Gen. 2:17, cf. WCF, 7:2) and suffered the penalty of death. As a result of this, all Adam’s children being “in him” were born sinful and were hence also subject to death (WCF, 6). However, God in his mercy and in pursuit of his own glory (cf. Isa. 45:22f.; 59:16; 63:5) made a second covenant of grace with his beloved Son, Jesus Christ, which offered salvation or life to all who put their trust in him (cf. WCF, 7:3).
Attractive though this view is, it does not appear to be supported by Scripture. One of the most obvious criticisms to be levelled at it is that there is no mention of a covenant with Adam in the entire Bible (2*. I am fully aware that the arrangement God made with Adam has all the hallmarks of a covenant. See e.g. Robertson, pp.93ff. However, historically the significance of its failure to be considered as a covenant in Scripture seems to have been missed (see below). What is surely true is that the commandment, Gen. 2:16f., was a precursor in rudimentary form of the law of Moses, cf. Rom. 7:9f., though this is hotly denied by some, e.g. Murray, CW 2, p.50. It should be noted that a Jewish boy, cf. uncircumcised girls and the heathen, was not responsible for keeping the law until his bar mitzvah, cf. Luke 2:41ff., when he became a son of the commandment. Regrettably, covenant theologians on occasion treated it as if it was a promise of grace like that made to Abraham, cf. Murray on the Mosaic covenant, ibid., Berkhof, pp.297f. and Ward, pp.71,171. The flaw in this line of thinking was that the commandment/law was imposed like circumcision on the eighth day, Lev. 12:3, and the faith by which it should have been activated was conspicuously absent, cf. Gal. 5:3f. However, once they had made this clearly erroneous move, the covenant theologians were in a position to refer to the words ‘in Adam’, 1 Cor. 15:22, in covenantal fashion. 1 Corinthians 15:22 is manifestly in synonymous parallelism with v. 21. Given its context where Paul is dealing with the nature of the body, it is difficult indeed not to infer that ‘in Adam’ means ‘in the flesh’, cf. vv.45-49. In stark contrast with the words ‘in Christ’ which, according to Roberts occur 164 times in the NT, this sole appearance of ‘in Adam’ cannot have a covenantal reference. The truth is that the OT, not to mention the NT, makes it abundantly clear that human beings, though heavily influenced both for good and evil, e.g. Lu. 11:13, by their parents, Adam included, Rom. 5:12, cf. Ex. 20:5f.; 34:6f., nonetheless sin for themselves, Dt. 24:16; Num. 26:11; 27:3; Neh. 1:6; Ps. 106:6, Jer. 3:25; 4:22; 9:13f.; 11:10; 14:20; 31:29f.; 32:18f.; Ezek. 3,18,33; Rom. 3:23, etc. and are consequently judged personally by their works, Jer. 32:18f.; Rom. 2:6, cf. 9:31f., etc. While works and wages are indissolubly linked, imputation and wages are categorically differentiated. Being in antithesis to one another, they are in fact mutually exclusive, Rom. 4:1-8; 6:21,23. In other words, the imputation of sin apart from action, cf. Rom. 4:8, or faith as in the case of Christ, Mt. 26:39,42; John 6:38f.; 12:27; 2 Cor. 5:21; Phil. 2:8; Heb. 5:8, is a contradiction in terms. So, a covenant theology to which the biblically impossible dogma of original sin is fundamental must of necessity be false.
There is another point to be made. On the assumption that it is not by accident that there is no mention of a covenant with Adam at creation, covenant theology begins, as Murray maintained, with Noah, that is, when the race had gained a degree of maturity (knowledge) and had been cleansed of its infantile filth by the flood, 1 Pet. 3:21. It follows from this still on the assumption of a parallel between the race and the individual, that the latter cannot be regarded as a covenant child until it has gained sufficient understanding to recognise rainbows, name animals, respond, albeit negatively, to simple commands, cf. Gen. 2:17; Rom. 7:9f., and above all to exercise faith, cf. Gen. 3:15. This point is further confirmed by the fact that the child can neither be punished for the sins of its parents nor inherit their faith, Num. 14:29-35; Dt. 24:16; Ezek. 18, etc. Thus the Bible as a whole divides covenantally or dispensationally into three, and we are all, or at least if we are Jews, initially ‘baptised’ into Noah, 1 Pet. 3:21, and noticeably not into Adam, then into Moses, 1 Cor. 10:2, and finally into Christ, Mt. 28:19; Acts 2:38. In this way we come to fullness of knowledge of God in Trinity, Mt. 28:19, which has ever been the divine intention, John 17:3; 1 Cor. 13:11f., cf. 2 Cor. 3:18.)
While he is obviously in Paul’s view representative, even archetypal, man according to the flesh (1 Cor. 15:21f., 45-49) in whose image we are all made (Gen. 5:1-3), nowhere is it suggested that Adam is our covenant head and representative (3*. Ridderbos writes: “Clear indications are lacking … that Adam is termed the head of mankind in this representative sense”, p.386. Hosea 6:7 is dismissed or reinterpreted by most commentators, and is clearly too insecure a basis on which to argue a convincing case.) Yet it is frequently claimed on the basis of extremely dubious exegesis of Romans 5:12-21 that we all fell or sinned in him. Unfortunately for this view, the words “in him” do not appear and are in fact either illegitimately imported from 1 Corinthians 15:21f. or assumed on the basis of what is nowadays universally acknowledged as the mistaken translation and interpretation of Augustine. Furthermore, the Bible teaches in words too clear to be misunderstood that a son cannot be punished for the sin of his father (Dt. 24:16; Num. 26:11; 27:3; Ezek. 18, etc.), and if he could, then Jesus himself as a son of Adam (Luke 3:38) would necessarily be implicated.
The other side of the two-covenant theory is also suspect. For while it is true, profoundly true, that God made a covenant of grace with Christ, it is historically false to imply that it operated immediately following the sin of Adam. The plain fact is that, though it is promised in the covenants of Abraham and David and even spelt out in Jeremiah 31:31-34, it is not actualised until it is inaugurated by Jesus himself in person (cf. Mt. 26:28). In this sense, it is really an imposition on Scripture, an inference from what has been called the covenant of redemption. This term is misleading and would be better termed the counsel (council?) of redemption which indicates that God had a plan of salvation in mind from before the foundation of the world (Eph. 1:4, etc.). So even without going into more detail we can safely state that traditional federal theology is flawed (4*. It is sometimes argued that the law was never intended as a means of justification but was given to an already redeemed people at the exodus. While it is true that in light of our redemption in Christ this idea gives us a degree of perspective, it hardly detracts from the clear teaching throughout Scripture that the law depends for its fulfilment on works, Mt. 19:17. Had Jesus not kept the law he would have been a sinner like the rest of us and, having failed to attain to righteousness and the life it promised, he would have been rendered incapable of serving as our Saviour, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, Heb. 12:2.)
Since this essay is intended primarily to be positive, I do not intend to launch into a full-scale attack on the imputation of Adam’s sin. However, it is perhaps wise at this point to add a little more by way of criticism in case the reader thinks my dismissal of federal theology is too cavalier. So I would argue that not only is there no evidence especially in Genesis and Romans to support it, but that it is also tarnished by internal inconsistency and involves in fact an inherent contradiction. Let me explain. If a covenant is posited between God and Adam and Adam is regarded as the covenant head and representative of all his posterity to whom his sin is imputed, then Jesus, who is integral to his posterity (Luke 3:38, etc.), is definitively disqualified from acting as the second Adam. In OT terms, he is a lame duck permanently incapacitated like a blemished animal that cannot be used as a sacrifice (cf. e.g. Mal. 1:14). If it is replied as a kind of after-thought that Jesus must be excluded from the Adamic covenant, then all sorts of problems arise. First, it takes us back to the ancient heresy of docetism: Jesus was not truly man but only seemed to be. Yet, according to the NT and the author of Hebrews in particular, especially in chapter 2, the condition of life and salvation must be met by man (cf. Gen. 2:17; Lev. 18:5, etc.). If Jesus was not a son of Adam, made in his image (cf. Gen. 5:1-3), a truly representative son of man, then he could not serve as the Saviour of man. Of course, it may then be urged that as One born of the Holy Spirit (Mt. 1:18; Luke 1:35, etc.), he was not affected by Adam’s sin. To say this, however, differentiates him from all his brethren in spite of Hebrews 2:17 and 4:15. On the other hand, leaving aside the Virgin Birth which I would argue is irrelevant to the issue, the assumption that his birth by the Spirit enabled Jesus to avoid sin in Adam ignores what is fundamental to the theology of the NT, that is, that atonement and justification of necessity (Lev. 18:5) precede the cleansing of the Spirit (Tit. 3:3-7). It is blood that atones for sin (Rom. 3:25; Eph. 1:7; Rev. 1:5), not Spirit. So, since Jesus at birth had not atoned for sin, he remained inescapably involved in Adam’s sin. And since as a sinner he was incapable of effecting atonement, salvation for man is a chimera. The truth is that the logic of Reformed theology when followed through leads to absolutely devastating conclusions. It is palpably plain that its Augustinian doctrine of sin, being an imposition on the Bible, is false. At the end of the day the federal two-covenant view devolves remorselessly into incoherence. It is not merely flawed: it is fatally so! Thus many who claim to be brandishing the banner of truth at this point are in fact flying the flag of fabrication.
The Covenant of Grace
In more recent times the Reformed theologian, John Murray, perhaps not insensitive to criticism by dispensationalists who claim to emphasise progressive revelation, has, in his “The Covenant of Grace” (p.3), taken his cue from Calvin, Vos and others who suggested that, apart from its administration, the covenant with OT believers was the same as that with those in the NT (Inst. 2.10.2). Thus, disallowing what he refers to as the Adamic administration covenantal status (cf. CW, pp.47ff.), Murray articulates “the organic unity” of the covenant of grace (sometimes referred to as the unity of the covenant or one covenant in two dispensations), which takes different forms as “covenant revelation” (p.4) progresses. The most obvious problem with this view is that though all scriptural covenants are gifts of grace in some sense, the law, for example, cannot be regarded as part of the covenant of grace (cf. Luke 16:16; John 1:17) since it depends on works (Rom. 2:13, etc.). To contend that it can is to fall prey to Pelagianism and like the Jews to fall away from grace (Gal. 5:4). What is more, failure to appreciate the difference between the Abrahamic covenant of promise, which is activated by faith, and the Mosaic covenant of law, which operates on the basis of works, is to commit theological folly of the worst kind. (L.Berkhof, pp.297f. maintains that the Abrahamic and the Mosaic covenants are essentially the same. O.P.Robertson, p.41, appears to arrive at the same conclusion. Though he later differentiates between the various covenants, e.g. p.59, he never succeeds in resolving the problem of continuity and discontinuity, unity and diversity in biblical covenant theology. Inevitably he ends up in confusion.) Even the OT itself recognises the difference between the two (see e.g. Dt. 11:26f., 2 Kings 13:23, etc.). And Paul’s careful discrimination in Galatians, especially 3:10-18, puts the issue beyond reasonable doubt.
A substantially different covenant theology is promoted by the dispensationalists who claim that their view of eight different covenants in seven dispensations alone does justice to the progress of evelation (see e.g. C.Ryrie, p.19, 57-64). They too, however, find in Scripture an Adamic covenant which is not mentioned. But, worse, despite Ephesians 2:11ff. and 3, for example, they go on to make such a radical distinction between Israel and the church that they form parts of different plans of salvation. (Cf. the more recent two-covenant notion of K.Stendahl who, in the interests of inclusivism, posited salvation for Jews apart from Christ.) While regarding the church as a parenthetical institution which delays the fulfilment of God’s promises to Israel, they find the goal of history in the earthly millennium referred to in Revelation 20 (Ryrie, p.17). Certainly we may concede that the dispensationalist scheme provides for progressive revelation and the proper differentiation between the eras in what is nowadays known as salvation or redemptive history, but as a theological construct it seems to lack Scriptural support. To put the issue another way, while it may provide pedagogical assistance to teachers wishing to give students a knowledge of Scripture as a whole, it seems to be lacking in schematic theological value and, to my knowledge, it is never recognisably used or alluded to in Scripture. This point is perhaps best illustrated by what I believe to be the true Scriptural view as outlined below, for, in contrast with the dispensational scheme, this appears frequently and finds ample support.
The Covenant with Noah
As Murray in particular maintains, the first divine covenant in the Bible is the one made with Noah (cf. Gen. 6:18). It appears to be a ratification or endorsement of the divine commitment to a hitherto uncovenanted creation which had been threatened by the flood. It guarantees that seedtime and harvest will not cease until the end of the world (Gen. 8:22, cf. Dt. 11:21), thus making provision for both man (Mt. 5:45; Acts 14:17) and beast (e.g. Ps. 104) throughout history (cf. Luke 17:27,30). But while it has obvious relevance to all created things, it is capable of being understood by and inspiring faith only in man made in the image of God. (This implies man in his childhood, not in his infancy when he knows neither good nor evil and when he is incapable of exercising faith! See further note *2).
The Covenant with Abraham
This covenant of nature is supplemented in due course by the covenant made with Abraham (Gen. 12,15,17). The latter takes the form of a gracious divine promise of blessing which has relevance throughout the rest of Scripture.
The Covenant with Moses
At the exodus, however, the law of Moses comes to occupy centre stage and in the course of time it dominates the mind of the children of Israel.
The Covenant with David
Next to appear is the promise made to David which is clearly an endorsement and extension of the Abrahamic covenant (cf. Luke 1:32f.,51-55,68-75; Rom. 4:1-8).
The Christian Covenant
Finally, in the NT the new covenant predicted by Jeremiah (31:31-34, cf. Ezek. 11:19f.; 36:25-27; 37:26) is established by Christ. In the memorable words we frequently repeat at the celebration of the sacrament, Jesus said as he took the cup at the last supper, “… this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Mt. 26:28).
Biblical Covenant Theology
How then do we derive a covenant theology from all this? First, instead of arguing from silence and blurring distinctions as Reformed theology does, we must differentiate between the covenants and refuse to reduce them with facile sleight of hand to a single covenant of grace or an undifferentiated monolithic unity. So we need to note that the most basic or foundational covenant is the first one, that is, the one made with Noah, a man of faith (Gen. 7:1; Heb. 11:7). It relates to creation or nature as a whole, and in this-worldly terms it is an everlasting covenant (Gen. 9:16, cf. Gen. 8:22; Jer. 31:35f.; 33:19f.). Then, since it looms so large in the rest of Scripture and can be denominated the old covenant, it is important to see that the arrangement with Moses was one of law which depended on works (Rom. 2:13; 3:20,27f.; 9:31f.; Gal. 3:10-12). As has already been hinted, it stands in stark contrast with the new covenant of grace in Christ (see e.g. 2 Cor. 3; Gal. 3 and Heb. 8). The one depended on the ability of man to work his own way to life (Lev. 18:5, etc.) and led inevitably to failure (e.g. Ps. 143:2; John 7:19; Rom. 9:31), the other depended on the success of its mediator to pave the path of his people to perfection (John 15:10; Heb. 2:10). We have then covenants of nature, law and grace. What about the covenants with Abraham and David? They were clearly promissory pointing to the coming of the Saviour (John 8:56) who was great David’s greater Son, the Messianic King (Mt. 16:16).
At this point, in view of what has been said in criticism of the covenant theologies referred to above, it might well be asked what the theological relevance of the present outline is? What and where is its Scriptural support? First, I would argue, especially in reply to dispensationalists, that the promises made to Abraham and David, not to mention Adam, do not constitute dispensational covenants. Abraham himself was a heathen and until the time of his separation worshipped heathen gods (Jos. 24:2,14). Though the promise he personally received was real enough, it was not fulfilled during his lifetime (Acts 7:5; Heb. 11:39f., cf. John 8:56). The same is true with regard to the promise made to David: like Adam before him he was essentially a type of the One who was to come (cf. Rom. 5:14). Like all the kings of Israel, David was very much under the law of Moses (cf. Dt. 17:14ff.). He not only sinned against it but was also punished under it (2 Sam. 12:7-15; Ps. 89:30-37).
Covenant and Community
Once we see this we are in a position to recognise, in contrast with the dispensational scheme, for example, that these covenants all appear in theologically relevant relationship, even succession, in at least one place in the Bible, that is, in Paul’s letter to the Romans. In chapters 1 and 2 the apostle draws attention to the heathen Gentiles under the covenant with Noah with their characteristic fleshly sins (cf. Gen. 9:21ff. and Rom. 1:18ff.); in chapters 2 and 3 he describes the Jews under Moses and their offences against the law which, in contrast with their children (Num. 14:3,29-35; Dt. 32:52; 34:4), prevented their entry into the Promised Land; and in 3:21-26 he alludes specifically to believers in Christ under the new covenant who through faith in him are accounted righteous and are guaranteed life. It is important to note, however, that the non-dispensational character of the Abrahamic and Davidic covenants is brought out by their separation from the rest in 4:1-8. Here the emphasis falls, as it does in the new covenant, on personal faith and invites comparison with the cloud of witnesses in Hebrews 11 where faith is at a premium. It is incidentally the continuity of faith, which, as Paul makes clear especially in Galatians 3 (cf. Heb. 11), is transdispensational, rather than of covenant that Reformed theology should be emphasising! (5*. Faith, rather than covenant, is the one common characteristic of the one people of God throughout Scripture, cf. Heb. 11. Of course, it is by faith that the OT saints participated proleptically in the Christian covenant of grace and were similarly redeemed by the one substitutionary sacrifice of Christ, cf. John 8:56; Heb. 9:15; 11:39f. See further 7* below.) While it is true that the Christian covenant, or covenant of grace, has relevance to all mankind (cf. Heb. 9:15; 1 John 2:2) and produces one humanity (Eph. 2:15), the true vine (John 15:1) or the Israel of God (Gal. 6:16), it is historically false to pretend that the saints of Hebrews 11 lived under it (though note 11:39f.; John 8:56). Furthermore, it leads to serious theological misunderstanding and distortion of the gospel. For example, the idea that the OT saints were born again and hence that regeneration precedes faith in the order of salvation (or ordo salutis, see e.g. Murray, Romans, p.27 n.21; Redemption, p.106) runs counter to the basic and pervasive teaching of the Bible that righteousness, and hence faith, is the absolutely indispensable precondition of life (Gen. 2:17; Lev. 18:5; Dt. 32:47; Rom. 5:18,21, etc.) (6*. Robertson seems very unsure of himself at this point. He apparently wants to have his cake and eat it! See pp.292,297.). It was precisely because Adam sinned and was thus accounted unrighteous that he was separated from the tree of life (Gen. 3:22-24).
Covenant and Individual or Individual and Community
On reflection, it is hardly surprising that the Bible, which progressively reveals our triune God to us (cf. Murray’s stress on revelation referred to above), also underlines the triadic nature of true covenant theology. In his letter to the Galatians, having dealt with the spiritual progress of both Jews and Gentiles from heathenism to Christianity (3:15ff.), Paul draws attention specifically to the covenantal character of the experience of the individual. Seeing that the word ‘Adam’ in Genesis refers to both the race and the individual, who is mankind (Adam) in miniature (cf. Christ as the second Adam), it ought not to surprise us unduly that Paul sees the historical covenants made with Gentiles and Jews at large epitomised, encapsulated, re-enacted or recapitulated in the individual. (It ought not to pass without notice that the end of Galatians 3:28 can be translated “for you are all one man in Christ Jesus”. The idea, according to Guthrie, is not that “of a unified organisation, but of a unified personality.” Cf. 1 Cor. 12:13; Col. 3:11; Eph. 2:15, 4:24, and 4:13 where the corporate Christ corresponds with the personal Christ.) Indeed, he makes his point by alluding to Jesus himself, the pioneer of our faith, whom he portrays in 4:4 as having, first, been born of woman, that is, as a child of nature who initially like Adam knows neither good nor evil, Isa. 7:15f., yet becomes a conscious beneficiary of the covenant with Noah, second, put under law as a Jewish son of the commandment and then, third, acknowledged as the Son of the Father on his reception of the Spirit at his baptism. (This does not mean that Christ was the subject of adoption as we are, but that his incarnation required him to ratify his ontological status by action, that is, keeping the law.) Otherwise expressed, as a child Jesus recapitulated Israel’s heathen experience in Egypt (Mt. 2:15, cf. Gal. 4:1f.), was, like all Jewish boys, made a son of the commandment (Luke 2:40-51), and, in accordance with the divine plan, was finally manifested as the Son of God at his baptism and sealing by the Spirit (Mark 1:10f.; John 1:31f.; 6:27). Clearly, individuals who believe in Christ follow in his footsteps (Gal. 4:5f., e.g. Cornelius in Acts 10, though there is no evidence that as a “God-fearer” he was ever circumcised). Paul, who described himself as a citizen of Tarsus and a debtor to the Greeks, was an educated Jew and a confessing Christian. So, theologically speaking, believing Jews, though circumcised on the eighth day, advance from heathen slavery (cf. Ex. 13:8, etc.), through Jewish servanthood (cf. Lev. 25) to Christian sonship (Gal. 3:23ff.). In comparison, Gentiles never live under the law like Jews; rather they resemble women who remain uncircumcised and progress directly from their childlike heathenism under the Noahic covenant to maturity in Christ (Gal. 3:28; 4:3,6f.; Eph. 4:13-16; 1 Pet. 4:1-3). (8)
If we revert to Romans for a moment, we can see the relevance of the comments just made when we note that Paul’s “autobiography” in chapters 7 and 8 also reveals the triadic covenantal nature of his experience. As a child (but definitely not as an infant who like the primal pair before they received the commandment knew neither good nor evil, Gen. 2:17; Dt. 1:39) when understanding dawns, he succumbs to deception like Eve and the Gentiles before him (7:7-12, cf. 1 Tim. 2:14 and note also Gal. 4:3; Eph.2:3; Tit. 3:3). Then, like the Jews, whose sin against the law resembled Adam’s, he is completely unable to keep the law of Moses by which he seeks to be justified (7:14-25). And it is only as one who trusts in Christ that he enjoys something like success (cf. 1 Cor. 11:1; Phil. 3:12-15). For then he submits in faith to the leading of the Spirit and becomes an adopted son of God (8:1-39). In this way, he puts away childish things (Gal. 4:3; Eph. 2:1-3; Tit. 3:3) associated with slavery (Gal. 4:8-10; Col. 2:16-23) and becomes a man in Christ (1 Cor. 13:11, cf. 14:20 and Eph. 4:13).
Before leaving Romans it is worth drawing attention to 1:16 and 4:9-12 (cf. 2:25-29; 3:29f.; 10:11f.; 11:25-32 and 15:8f.), which also point to the threefold nature of covenant theology. For Abraham, the heathen, is the physical father of the Jews and the spiritual father of both Jews and Gentiles who believe in Christ (Gal. 3:7-9,14,29).
The Acts of the Apostles
There are numerous other representations in Scripture supporting the conclusion that there are only three dispensational covenants in Scripture. First, in Acts 20:21 (cf. 11:17f.; 13:26,46f.; 15:14; 18:6; 19:10; 23:11; 24:24; 26:17-20; 28:28) where Paul refers to the need of both Greeks and Jews to experience Christian conversion, he clearly has the race in mind all of whom enjoy the benefits of the Noahic covenant (14:16f.; cf. 17:24ff.). Then going back to Galatians again, we discover the apostle referring in both 5:6 and 6:15 to uncircumcision (Gentiles), circumcision (Jews) and love, or a new creation (or creature, cf. 2 Cor. 5:17, that is, one man in Christ, cf. Gal. 3:28, etc.) which is the Israel of God (6:16, cf. 1 Cor. 10:32). (It is perhaps worth comment in passing that the race is representatively present in Acts 2.)
In Ephesians the same pattern appears. For a start we may note the unholy trinity of the world, the flesh and the devil (2:1-3) by which we are all tempted and tested like Jesus (Mt. 4:1-11). But whereas he was triumphant, the rest of us are shown to be failures and, unless we repent, we arrive at malignant maturity and ultimately achieve the same goal as the devil (cf. Gen. 15:16; Rom. 2:8f.; Rev. 20:10). Ephesians, however, especially chapter 2, is saturated with covenant significance. Noteworthy first are Paul’s references, to Gentiles (v.11), Israel (v.12) and saints (v.19). This reminds us of Romans 1-3. But whereas in Romans 4:1-8 Paul specifies the covenants with Abraham and David, here in Ephesians he contents himself with a general reference to the covenants of promise (2:12). Next, Paul mentions the “uncircumcision” (v.11) who are far off, second, to “the circumcision” (v.11) who are near and, third, believers from both who enjoy joint access to the Father in one Spirit (v.18, cf. 3:11f.) as one humanity (2:15). So the heathen cease to be strangers and aliens and become “fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone” (vv.19f., ESV). Again, in the same letter Paul sketches the movement from childhood to mature manhood (4:13-16, cf. 1 Cor. 13:11; 14:20; Col. 1:28; 2:2), and though it is not specifically spelt out, there can be little doubt that it is to be understood in covenantal terms (cf. 2:15).
The triadic pattern is again implicit throughout chapter 3 but especially in 3:6. In 5:31, in a variation on his theme, Paul refers to marriage and its mystery. If we assume that the wife (Eve) represents the heathen Gentiles, the husband (Adam) Israel who had the law, then we can understand how together in Christ they bear fruit for God (cf. Rom. 7:4).
Turning next to the first letter to the Corinthians we find a number of examples of the triadic pattern that I originally noted in Romans 1-3. In the first chapter Paul distinguishes between Gentiles (or Greeks), Jews and Christians (1:22-24). Then in 7:19 he virtually repeats Galatians 5:6 and 6:15. In 9:19-23 the apostle covers the same ground with slightly different terminology by referring to those outside the law, those under it and those under the law of Christ (cf. Rom. 1-3). In 10:32 he again makes evident his concern for the race by means of a pointed allusion to Greeks, Jews and the church of God (cf. Gal. 6:16). Dealing with spiritual gifts in chapter 12 Paul portrays the unity of all men and women in Christ as baptised by the Spirit into one body regardless of racial background and social status (12:13). And in chapter 13:13, after referring to the process of perfection or maturation (vv.10-12), he highlights one of the best-known triads in Scripture, that is, faith, hope and love (cf. Gal. 5:6). Judging by Hebrews 11:1-22 even the heathen were capable of faith though, compared with the Jews who were, and remain, its prisoners (Zech. 9:12), they lacked hope (Eph. 2:12). Love, however, is at the heart of the Christian covenant as is frequently emphasised (e.g. John 3:16; 1 John 4:7ff., etc.).
Like Hebrews, which quotes Jeremiah 31:31-34 in full (8:8-12), 2 Corinthians is primarily concerned with the difference between the transitory or provisional old covenant and the permanent new. Covenantal progression is highlighted by Paul’s reference to the fact that though the Mosaic covenant is in principle “set aside”, it is “still there” (cf. 3:14, NRSV) in those who have not yet embraced Christ. They remain under the law. Thus he highlights the contrast between condemnation and justification (3:9) and the old man and the new man (Eph. 4:22-24 and Col. 3:9f.). 2 Corinthians is nonetheless relevant to the matter under discussion in that it assumes the covenant with Noah. For example, Paul deals with man as such especially in chapters 4 and 5 where he refers specifically to the Creator (4:6) and then to the creature (4:7). He intimates that while the latter’s body of flesh is destined for destruction, he will, after judgement, be nonetheless clothed with immortality (4:16-5:10) in a redeemed spiritual body (Rom. 8:23; 1 Cor. 15:44,46) like that of Christ (Phil. 3:21, etc.).
The Rest of Scripture
There are other indications of the triadic nature of covenantal thinking in Scripture. Israel, as we have seen, was born in heathendom (Jos. 24:2,14, cf. Dt. 32:10ff.; Ezek. 16:1ff.) and worshipped idols as a slave in his youth in Egypt (Ezek. 23:2,8,14, etc.). Even servanthood under the law in the Promised Land (cf. Lev. 25) was frequently like slavery, as Ezra’s prayer painfully reminds us (Neh. 9:36). And since the old covenant, like the flesh it was intended to regulate (Num. 15:39; Gal. 5:17), proved a lamentable failure (cf. Rom. 8:3; Gal. 3:21; Heb. 8:7), Jeremiah saw the need for a new one which would at last prove effective (31:31-34, cf. Ezek. 11:19; 16:59-63; 36:26f.). Later John would arrive at the same conclusion, for he too saw the failure of Gentile under Noah and Jew under Moses but the triumph of Christian under Christ (John 1:10-13). Again, in his first letter John alludes to the covenantal pattern evident even in Christians as such, for he distinguishes between children, young men and fathers (2:12-14). This suggests that the history of Christianity is “covenantal”, for it first experienced Hellenisation, next Judaisation especially in the Middle Ages, and finally we may hope in these post-Reformation times for full Christianisation (cf. Eph. 4:13-16). (The church urgently requires a capable historian of the Middle Ages with a thorough knowledge of the OT to demonstrate their remarkable similarity and correspondence.)
The Three Measures of Meal
It is worth drawing attention here to Jesus’ brief parable of the woman and her three measures of meal in Matthew 13:33 (cf. Gen. 18:6). He seems to imply that just as Abraham was intended to be a blessing to the world so the kingdom of heaven, as Green suggests (p.159), will have beneficial effects throughout the world. It is interesting to note that in Matthew 15 when Jesus encounters a Canaanite woman who is outside the covenant people, he commends her for the faith which prompts her to eat the crumbs that fall from the master’s table (cf. Luke 7:9). If the measures of meal represent the three covenants, then the parable takes on profound relevance.
The Human Constitution
The question of whether man is dichotomous or trichotomous has been much debated in the history of the church and cannot be adequately addressed here. However, while Reformed theology in general seems to have opted for the former view, the fact that man is made in the image (“Let us make man in our image…”, Gen. 1:28) of the triune God suggests that the triad referred to in 1 Thessalonians 5:23 should be given its full weight. If man is seen as body, mind and spirit (cf. Rom. 7:23; 1 Cor.14:14; Heb. 4:12) and we accept that his general development is first physical, second mental and, third spiritual, it accords remarkably well with the covenant theology I am advocating (cf. 1 Cor. 15:46, cf. v.23. It is also worth considering that there are three kinds of life referred to in the Bible: bios, psyche and zoe. Edwards, p.110, claims that the latter is unique to God and that he wills to impart it to his people). When at the new birth the Holy Spirit bears witness with our spirit, which is the lamp of the Lord (Prov. 20:27), we then achieve our God-ordained status as the children of God (Rom. 8:16,21), the culmination of our Trinitarian blessing (2 Cor. 13:14, etc. (7*. The miniaturisation or recapitulation of the covenants with the race in the individual, Jesus specifically, Gal. 4:4, is vastly important in another area, that is, in the atonement. John writes that Jesus is “the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world”, 1 John 2:2, ESV, cf. Heb. 9:15. Not without reason did Irenaeus write: “He came to save all by himself, all, I say, who through him are born again unto God – infants, and children and boys and youths and old men. He therefore passed through every age … thus sanctifying them for the Lord …”, quoted by B.B.Warfield, pp.160,226. This is a subject in itself and needs separate treatment elsewhere. I would, however, make two points: diminished responsibility is integral to the biblical covenant theology as outlined in this essay; and the idea that Christians and Christians alone are ultimately saved cannot be true not least since faith is transdispensational. Cf. Michaels who in comment on 1 Peter 4:6 stresses the perennial gospel, p.237.)
While the letter to the Hebrews has a good deal to say about covenant, it is mainly concerned, like 2 Corinthians 3, with the contrast between the temporary Mosaic (8:13) and the eternal Christian covenant (13:20). Chapter 12:18-24 highlights the two mountains, Sinai and Zion, and their differences. This reminds us of Galatians 4:21-31 where Paul makes the same contrast but sets it proleptically under the Noahic covenant before even the law was given. The difference between Hagar and Ishmael who personify the flesh (cf. 4:29) on the one hand and Sarah and Isaac who personify the spirit on the other highlights the difference between the flesh and the Spirit of Paul’s theology in Romans, for example. Again it is worth noting that faith was a significant feature of the Noahic covenant and a prime characteristic of Noah himself (Gen. 6:8f., cf. Heb. 11:7; 2 Pet. 2:5). As Hebrews 11 makes clear, the faith by which we are alone justified is exercised throughout the different covenant dispensations and links them together (cf. 11:39f.). On the other hand, no covenant is made with babies who like Adam before them are ignorant of (the) law and, knowing neither good nor evil, are incapable of either sinning or of exercising faith.
I have already alluded to 1 John 2:12-14. Verses 15-17 are in a way somewhat oddly expressed but despite some commentators’ resistance to the idea, it is difficult not to infer that the flesh, including the lust of the eyes (cf. Gen. 3:6; Num. 15:39; Job 31:7), the world and the pride of life are reflections of the original temptation of Adam and Eve and so of Jesus himself. To adopt the alliterative terms of J.I.Packer, what is involved is pleasure, profit and position (God’s Words, p. 175). Ultimately, only position matters (cf. 1 Cor. 13:13; Gal. 6:15).
The Temptations of Jesus
The covenantal nature of the temptations of Jesus, which involved the flesh, the world and the devil (Mt. 4:1-11), seems to me to be beyond reasonable dispute. Since Jesus was mankind’s representative, the second Adam, to be relevant they had to be. They are a perennial feature of life in this present age reflecting our own struggles, as Paul was well aware (e.g. Eph. 2:1-3, cf. Tit. 3:3-7). It is comforting for us, who, like the first Adam have failed to master our temptations (cf. Gen. 4:7), to note that Jesus did so and was able to say that the devil found nothing in him (John 14:30). Thus, since with Christ the ruler of this world suffered total defeat (John 12:30f.), we who maintain our faith in him to the end are sure to triumph (Rom. 8:31ff.; Rev. 3:21).
It is thus pertinent to ask at this point if the teaching of Jesus specifically indicates the threefold nature of covenant theology? There is reason to think that the parable of the sower as expounded in Mark 4 is relevant to the subject. With the first group the devil has his way (v.15). With the second (slaves, children?) and third (servants?) there is no fruit. The good soil would then appear to be representative of believers in Christ himself, that is, those who are born of the Spirit, who proceed to produce varying degrees of (spiritual) fruit. The latter, like the slave Onesimus, were once useless or unprofitable but became useful once they became Christians (Philemon 1.11). Jesus himself maintained that even the best of servants (under the law that was what he himself was) simply do what they are commanded (Luke 17:7-10, cf. the books of Moses and that of Joshua). And Paul leads us to believe only those who are adopted sons/daughters through faith in Jesus do good (i.e. useful, profitable) works (Eph. 2:10, cf. John 15:1-11).
It would be remiss of me not to point out the covenantal character of the tabernacle/temple with its court of the women and children, court of Israel and court of priests where, to all intents and purposes, Shem, Ham and Japheth, the sons of Noah, came of age. If Jesus is our temple (John 2:19,21), then in him we enter the very presence of God himself (1 Pet. 3:18; Rev. 21:22), the supreme holy of holies.
It is a feature of Matthew’s gospel that it specifically teaches that our baptism is into the name of the Father (Creator) and of the Son (Word) and of the Holy Spirit (Executor, 28:19). This surely points to the fullness of the knowledge of God which in contrast with Gentiles and Jews only Christians can have (cf. John 17:3; 1 Cor. 13:11f.). While the heathen were baptised into Noah (1 Pet. 3:21) and the Jews into Moses (1 Cor. 10:2), Christians are baptised into Christ in whom all the fullness of God dwells bodily (Col. 2:9). The implication of Acts 8:14-17 and 19:1-6 is that the Samaritans and the Ephesians respectively experienced an element of theological deficiency. Mature Christianity in its fully triadic covenantal form is uniquely Trinitarian.
The Provisional Nature of the Old Covenant
In view of the teaching of dispensational theology in particular, it is of prime importance to stress that the Mosaic covenant of law, like the covenant with Noah (cf. Gen. 8:22; Ps. 102:25f.; Heb. 1:10-12), was intrinsically temporary, provisional (cf. Mt. 5:18, contrast 24:35), inadequate (Heb. 7:18f.) and obsolescent (Heb. 8:13; 2 Cor. 3). It is only the new and spiritual covenant that remains forever (Heb. 8:7; 10:9) like its author (7:3,16,24f.; 13:8) and his word (Isa. 40:8; Mt. 24:35; 1 Pet. 1:23-25). It is in fact an eternal covenant (13:20), which secures an eternal redemption (9:15, cf. 5:9) and promises an eternal inheritance (9:15; 10:34; 11:10,16; 13:14; Rom. 8:18,32; 2 Cor. 4:17f.). So, while it is true that Israel will remain an elect nation to the end of the world (Rom. 11:28f., cf. Mt. 5:18), to suggest that God has different and/or separate plans of salvation for Jew and Christian implies radical theological and particularly covenantal error. The purpose of the law, like the rest of Scripture (Luke 24:44), was to point to Christ (Gal. 3:19; Rom. 10:4), and once it has performed that function for the Jew who was intended to be a light to the Gentiles (Isa. 42:6; 49:6,8, cf. Rom. 15:8f.), it is superseded by what is permanent (2 Cor. 3:11). In this way “all Israel” (Rom. 11:26; Gal. 6:15f.), who are by faith the true children of Abraham (Rom. 4:11ff.; Gal. 3:7,9), the true circumcision (Phil. 3:3, cf. Rom. 2:28f.), the true Israel (1 Pet. 2:9), will be saved, and God’s purpose to bring many sons to glory in Christ will be accomplished (Heb. 2:10-13; 11; John 6:37-57; Mt. 8:11f.).
Before concluding this essay it is worth mentioning that while various writers over the years have tried to divide history into three eras or dispensations (Joachim of Flora, Cocceius, Comte, Hegel, etc.), I am unaware of any division that is identical with the one I have proposed. For all that, mine has certainly been hinted at, not least in Reformed theology (cf. Heppe, p.394). In his Institutes, 2.11.13, Calvin wrote, “… if a householder instructs, rules and guides his children one way in infancy, another way in youth, and still another way in young manhood, we shall not on this account call him fickle and say he abandons his purpose. Why then do we brand God with the mark of inconstancy because he has with apt and fitting marks distinguished a diversity of times” (quoted by Ryrie, p.41). Perhaps even more appositely Francis Turretin commented, “The heavenly Father, who instructs his people as the head of a family (Deut. 8:5), taught the church, when it was still young and childish, by the spoken word, the most simple form of revelation. Then, as it began to mature and was established under the law in its early youth, he taught both by the spoken word, because of continuing childishness, and by writing, because of the beginnings of maturity, until the apostles’ time. But when the church had reached adulthood under the gospel, he wanted it to be satisfied with the most perfect form of revelation, that is, the written light” (quoted from “The Doctrine of Scripture”, edited and translated by J.W.Beardslee 111, p.28, by R.S.Ward, WCF, p.10).
The ramifications of the different covenant theologies are extremely important but cannot be worked out here. I am fully convinced, however, that the one I have offered above makes sense of and unifies biblical teaching, especially as it concerns man, in a way that others certainly do not. This being so leads necessarily to the comment that since faith operates in all three covenant dispensations which provide for diminished responsibility, the possibility of ultimate salvation not simply for children and adolescents but for men and women of every tribe, tongue, people and nation, sinners though they all are, is assured (Rev. 7:9, cf. Heb. 11). Though more needs to be said, the Augustinian idea that all the unbaptised and the heathen en masse are damned can safely be rejected (cf. WCF, 10.4; WLC, qu.60). See further additional note below.
On the assumption that there is a parallel or correspondence between Adam the race and Adam the individual, Jesus the second or last Adam summed up all mankind in himself (cf. Eph. 1:10). As B.B.Warfield long ago pointed out, his was the only truly normal human development the world has ever seen (pp. 158ff.). Though he was truly the virgin-born Son of God, his covenantal relationship with his Father was progressive. As a baby (flesh) who knew neither good nor evil (cf. Isa. 7:15f.) his life lacked a covenantal guarantee. However, in accordance with the divine purpose for mankind, when understanding dawned, he became first a slave (cf. Mt. 2:15), second, a servant who had to prove his (divine) pedigree under the law (cf. Luke 2:41ff.), and, third, having done so, he was openly acknowledged as the Son of God (Mt. 3:17) and empowered to save his people (Rom. 5:10; 1 Cor. 15:45; Gal. 4:6f.).
All human beings who attain to knowledge in contrast with the animal creation (cf. Ps. 32:9) are the conscious beneficiaries of the covenant with Noah (Acts 14:17; 17:22-28; Rom. 1:20). All the circumcised receive both the Abrahamic and Davidic promises with the law of Moses to boot. And wherever the gospel of Christ is preached, believers who are the spiritual seed of Abraham also experience the benefits of all five divine covenants with man.
Jesus was the only complete or perfect(ed) man (Heb. 2:10; 5:9; 7:28), the one whose development or progress from creation (cf. Heb. 10:5) in the image of God (cf. Gen. 5:1-3) to his perfect likeness (Rom. 8:29; 2 Cor. 3:18; 4:4,6; Heb. 1:3) was complete and unalloyed (cf. Mt. 3:15; 5:48; 19:21). So far as the rest of us are concerned, whether Jew or Gentile we achieve perfection in him (cf. Phil. 3:12-15; Heb. 3:1; 2:10; 5:9; 10:14; 11:39f.; 12:2, etc.). Apart from him, we can do nothing (John 15:5,16). He is at once pre-eminent (Col. 1:18) and indispensable (1 Cor. 15:17). On him alone depends the salvation of the world.
This leads to a final comment: the triadic nature of biblical covenant theology, involving creation, word and Spirit, points unerringly to the revelation of the Trinity. It is often pointed out that the latter is a new covenant doctrine. It is therefore hardly surprising that through faith in Jesus we achieve the goal of our creation which is knowledge of God in Christ (John 17:3). In other words, far from reaching maturity in atheism as Freud contended, we achieve it through acceptance of the fullness of divine covenant revelation (Mt. 28:19).
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1. Since writing the above I have read with great interest, profit and chagrin “Christian Zionism” by S. Sizer (Leicester, 2004), “The God of Covenant” ed. Grant and Wilson (Leicester, 2005), “Who Can Be Saved?” by T.L.Tiessen (Leicester, 2004) and “Always Reforming” ed. A.T.B.McGowan (Leicester,2006). See further note 4 below. While much could be said in comment on all four books, I find it somewhat ironic that Colin Chapman refers to dispensationalism as “fatally flawed” (The God of Covenant, p. 238) when I use the same expression (see above) with regard to Reformed theology. If ever there was a case of the pot calling the kettle black this is one. What is worse, I implied the same more than thirty years ago when I offered my “A Challenge to the Church” to various American and British publishers only to receive excuses and to be shunted uselessly from one to another. Considering the resurgence of world religions, of Islam in particular, and the parlous state of world politics one wonders what harm could have been avoided if publishers and other influential people had been prepared to give my work a hearing. When will evangelicals wake up the fact that Augustine, on account of his immense influence, has proved one of the greatest of all distorters of the Christian faith? Do modern traditionalists think they are immune from the judgement of God in our day? Who knows when the day of our visitation will be past?
2. According to Ian Hamilton writing in The Banner of Truth magazine for November 2005 with reference to “John Owen on the Christian Life” by S.B. Ferguson, Edinburgh 1987, John Owen argued for a covenant of redemption involving three conditions. First, Christ as the second Adam was to assume human nature and be made flesh. Second, he was to obey the law to perfection. And third, he was to atone for his people’s sins. In other words, Owen saw in the covenant of redemption what he and others failed to see in biblical covenant theology proper, that is, that nature, law and grace constitute its essence.
3. It seems to me that T.L.Tiessen’s attempt to adopt accessibilism on the basis of an ecclesiocentric Reformed theology is less than convincing. See his “Who Can Be Saved? Leicester, 2004.
4. Henri Blocher’s essay in “Always Reforming” (pp. 240-270) usefully stresses the proleptic nature of the covenant of grace so far as OT believers were concerned. Though heading in the right direction, Blocher fails in my view to attain to an adequate covenant theology of the Bible.