Biblical Theology 101: Covenant Theology

As a good (ahem) Presbyterian it would be remiss of me to talk about Biblical Theology and not mention covenantal theology… Famous advocates of Covenantal theology include Ligon Duncan, Bill Dumbrell and apparently Spurgeon… who said:

“The doctrine of the Covenant lies at the root of all true theology. It has been said that he who well understands the distinction between the Covenant of Works and the Covenant of Grace is a master of divinity. I am persuaded that most of the mistakes which men make concerning the doctrines of Scriptures are based upon fundamental errors with regard to the covenants of law and the covenants of grace. May God grant us now the power to instruct and you the grace to receive instruction on this vital subject.”

Duncan’s work on Covenant Theology is a pretty good primer.

Here are some of his points:

The Covenants give order to creation and redemption. They delineate the Bible’s various historical periods. Many of us are familiar with Scofield’s arrangements of dispensations. That is an entirely artificial arrangement from the standpoint of the Scriptures themselves. But all you have to do is turn to say, Psalm 89 or to the book of Hebrews, and know that the Bible itself talks about the epics of Scripture in terms of covenants. So this isn’t something that men had to think up on their own. The Bible itself talks about God’s history of redemption in covenantal epics. And of course, the covenants have even given us the titles of the Old and the New Testaments.

The covenants unify the Scriptures. The very heart of the covenant is the Immanuel principle, “I will be your God and you will be My people.” This is the very heart of the Scriptures. We could stop today and do a survey of that and you would see that theme of God being our God and of us being His people runs from Genesis to Revelation, as the very essence of God’s design for us. And that principle is a covenantal principal. It pervades and unifies the history of salvation recorded in the Bible. The book of Hebrews, at the very end, in chapter 13, speaks of this everlasting covenant.

He talks about the importance of Covenantal theology in the light of Biblical Theology – seeing the theme of covenant as an important thread running through the whole Bible. Which segues nicely into Bill Dumbrell’s work…

Bill Dumbrell

Where Goldsworthy emphasises God’s kingdom as the unifying theme of the Bible, Dumbrell emphasises God’s covenant – the mechanism by which he relates to his people, or, to synchronise the two, the mechanism that his rule is conducted. The Westminster Confession recognises two covenants – the pre-fall “covenant of works” and the post fall “covenant of grace” – or so it was explained to me. I tend to disagree with this position, I think the Bible speaks of the pre-Jesus Abrahamic/Noahic/Mosaic promises as an old covenant, and Jesus as the harbinger of a new covenant. This covenant is foreshadowed in the Old Testament – like in Deuteronomy 30 (with the promise of an internal writing of the law/new covenant sign ie the Holy Spirit).

Identifying “covenant” as a theme is pretty useful for exegesis. One question to ask, among many, when exegeting a passage is “what role does God’s covenant relationship play here?” Placing a passage within the covenantal framework and asking what the expectations of the people under the agreement are will almost always bring clarity (and is probably useful for application too).

It is particularly useful in understanding the Old Testament though, especially with regards to Israel’s failures to meet their obligations and the spiraling consequences. At every turn in the Old Testament we’re confronted with disasters only mitigated by God’s gracious flexibility with regards to Israel’s obligations. In the conquest narratives Israel fails to take the land, which leads to constant conflict with the remnants of the other nations (and eventually their expulsion from the land), in Judges the Israelites constantly turn their backs on God, which eventually leads to civil war, in 1 and 2 Samuel Israel demand a king like the other nations, who becomes a king like the other nations (which isn’t a good thing), David, the ideal king, commits adultery which leads to the implosion of the Royal family, including fractricide, and a filial coup d’état, then Solomon, at the pinnacle of covenant fulfillment, also meets every negative criteria established for bad kings in Deuteronomy 17. His many wives lead him astray, and it’s downhill from there. Israel fail their covenantal obligations throughout – and God shows them mercy.

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