What is 'Covenant Theology'?

Should Theologians Introduce "Covenants" Which Otherwise Have No Biblical Existence?

Recently two e mails have came through to my computer desk enquiring about 'Covenant Theology.' What is it?

Well, Covenant theology is a system of theology which views God's dealings with mankind in respect of covenants rather than, for example, with the dispensations (periods of time), which Dispensationalism, or Darbyism, uses. Ultimately, however, both approaches (and other ones) are the philosophical approaches of men, as applied to Holy Scripture. Sure, these were very sincere men but we always have to ask whether the need for consistency within any such adopted approach has sometimes caused scriptural understanding to be undermined and/or confused.

How it Works

So, in more detail, what is 'Covenant Theology'?

Covenant Theology (also sometimes called 'Covenantalism' or 'Federal theology' or 'Federalism') is a conceptual overview and interpretative framework for understanding the overall flow of the Bible. It is indeed a 'nuts and bolts' theology for those who want to break things down into smaller parts to see how they work. This form of theology lies at the heart of the reformed (Calvinist) school of Protestantism as developed from the 17th century, whilst having no place at all in the 16th century writings of Calvin himself.
Covenant theologians see 'covenant' as the basic architectural principle through which Holy Scripture organises itself.

This approach essentially views the history of God's dealings with mankind, from Creation to Fall, on to Redemption, and on to Final Consummation, under the framework of three theological covenants.

These three covenants are often called "theological covenants" because it is usually freely admitted that they are not explicitly presented as such in the Bible, yet they are thought to be theologically implicit, describing and summarizing the wealth of Scriptural data.

Firstly, 'The Covenant of Redemption' (within this viewpoint), is not a covenant between God and Man at all but is an eternal agreement - within the Godhead - in which the Father appointed the Son Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit to redeem the elect from the guilt and power of sin. God appointed Christ to live a life of perfect obedience to the law and to die a penal, substitutionary, sacrificial death as the 'covenantal representative' for all who trust in him (all entirely biblical, of course - but can this really be called a 'covenant'?).

Secondly, the 'Covenant of Works' does not cover the Mosaic period, or the 'Old Covenant' (as one might suppose from its name), but refers to God's original scheme for working with Adam and Eve.

Thirdly, those specific covenants after the fall of Adam (the covenants which are actually scripturally outlined), are then seen as administered under, and enclosed within, the 'umbrella covenant' of the 'Covenant of Grace' and, in this view, they do not stand truly separate and distinct and are probably best viewed as 'sub-covenants.' Such covenants - standing within and under - the Covenant of Grace include:

a. The Noahic covenant (Genesis 9),

b. The Abrahamic covenant (Genesis 15),

c. The Mosaic covenant (Exodus 19-24),

d. The Palestinian covenant (essentially enlarging upon the Abrahamic covenant and giving the specific promise of land),

e. The Davidic covenant (2 Samuel 7; establishing David and his lineage as the rightful kings of Judah and extending the covenant of Abraham to a royal lineage), and finally,

f. The New covenant (Jesus' promise of Eternal Life to His believers as outlined at length within the New Testament).

It may be seen at once that - within this theological schema - the Covenant of Grace covers rather a lot of things, including the New Covenant.

Inherent Problems Within Covenant Theology

There are several problems here, including:

A far more biblical view would surely be to state that whilst there are several biblical covenants, two appear to be presented within Holy Scripture as of a more major importance:

1. The Old Covenant (the formal delivering of God's law to the Jewish people, as outlined from Exodus-Deuteronomy, during the life of Moses).

2. The New Covenant (the salvific promises of Jesus Christ and the focus of the entire New Testament).
Biblical teaching seems clear that the New Covenant has now replaced the Old, but Covenant Theologians cannot live with this law/grace tension since it throws confusion into their theological system, indeed, Covenant Theology insists that the gospel of grace has been preached since Genesis 3:15 and is not restricted to the New Covenant. It is hard to reconcile the New Testament teaching that the Christian is now part of a New Creation with the view that we continue to stand under a covenant which effectively pre-dated Noah!

'Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!' (2 Corinthians 5:17, NIV).

Many other New Testament Scriptures clearly depict the demise of the Old Covenant; 2 Corinthians 3, for example, should be consulted as should Hebrews 8:13 which clearly characterizes the Old Covenant as 'obsolete'! The Epistles, especially those of Paul, often paint a stark Old Covenant/New Covenant contrast, yet 'Covenant Theology' cannot live with this tension and so their writers and theologians prefer to ignore this biblically-depicted contrast. The entire 27 books of the New Testament focus on the New Covenant and what it means for men and women made in the image of their Maker. This abundant centrality of Christ fits in much much better with the view that the New Covenant now supercedes all others, rather than the view that both old and new covenants are no more than sub-covenants of a so-called "gospel of grace" which goes back to Noah!

Most of the more minor biblical covenants seem to reach at least some degree of fulfillment (if not entire fulfillment) in this New Covenant (the Abrahamic, Davidic and Palestinian for instance). Indeed, the New Covenant, focusing on the atonement of Jesus Christ, may now be seen as the major focus of the entire biblical revelation. In contrast, the suggested 'Covenant theology' remains essentially legalistic because - to be fully consistent within itself - law cannot simply be set aside. Yet if one, for example, sets out to read the writings of the apostle Paul at depth, it becomes plain that the great apostle of Tarsus would not have been a supporter of so-called 'covenant theology' (the books of Romans and Galatians alone contain numerous statements which simply will not fit in with the concept that both the law and the grace of Christ stand under one and the same covenant). There is no doubt that it fell to Paul to be the premier New Testament theologian and Paul (as already mentioned), is very strong on the Law/Grace tension which he presents as pivotal to Christian understanding - Luther was absolutely correct about that; but 'Covenant Theology' is totally at odds with this schema. The flawed theological approach of 'Covenant theology' (for all of its good points, and not for one moment to deny the sincerity of most of its adherents), is why reformed theology in practice is intrinsically legalistic.

One quick example of this legalism is to compare the attitude towards the Sabbath within Christianity in general, with the Covenant Theology view. Christianity in general sees the Sabbath as fulfilled in Christ, with The Lord's Day being an entirely separate day of freedom, joy and worship. In complete contrast, covenant theologians see Sabbath observance as necessarily ongoing and now simply transferred to Sunday; they take this view without any Scriptural justification whatsoever, being perfectly content to ignore the teaching of Jesus in Matthew 5-7, several clear statements by Paul, and the complete silence on this from the writer of Hebrews whilst discussing the spiritual application of 'rest' (Hebrews 3:18-4:11). Calvin himself rejected the view that Sunday is a new Sabbath, the error came from Bullinger, being later reinforced by legalistic Puritan theology. But this is far too big a subject to consider here, for those wanting more information I advocate the reading of Why Worship on a Sunday?

Problems With Infant and Child Baptism Within Covenant Theology.

The veracity of infant baptism is upheld within 'Covenant theology.' In this view, baptism is seen as the functional replacement and sacramental equivalent of the rite of circumcision and symbolizes the internal cleansing from sin.

The children of believers are seen as included within the 'Covenant of Grace' and therefore they too (according to this reasoning) ought to receive this sign of the covenant (baptism). Calvin, let us clearly understand, did not support 'Covenant Theology,' which arrived after his time, however, he did support infant/child baptism. The great reformer maintained that the covenant which God makes with those who put their faith in his Son extends unconditionally to their children.

“God pronounces that he adopts our infants as his children before they are born, when he promises that he will be a God to us and to our seed after us. This promise includes their salvation.” (Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, IV xv 20).

The great problem with this view is that the Bible verses don't actually seem to say what Calvin thought that they did, to say nothing of the fact that hundreds of years of church experience shows that many (dare one even say 'most'?) children of believers do not grow up as believers themselves - yes, the influence will certainly be there and undoubtedly God leaves a door open for the children of believers, but human experience has clearly illustrated that the children of commited Christian believers simply cannot be assumed or concluded as believers themselves until a real individual commitment is made, therefore baptism should never be performed without precise - and mature! - individual commitment. Here we see the example of an error being perpetuated simply because of the attempt to maintain a consistency of theological principle. Frankly, some of the greatest scoundrels and criminals of the western world were baptized as small babies, yet never showed any interest in the gospel - does this not stand Calvin's belief on its head?

Regarding the verses which are often stated to uphold infant baptism:

Mark 10:13-16.

Mark 10:13-16 does not even state that the people bringing children to Jesus were disciples at that point and the indications seem strong that they were not. So others “such as these” doesn’t refer just to the children of believers but is applicable to all small children. Such verses may indeed reassure us that small children who die are saved and go straight into God's kingdom, but nothing is stated here about the children of believers. Certainly, Jesus partly meant that the 'teachability' of small children is what new believers most need (verse 15) and such humility and receptiveness among those who are new to the Faith are surely a joy to God. This Scripture is also notable in that it goes on to record the equivalent of the modern service of thanksgiving for the gift of a child, but nothing here refers to the service of infant baptism, and nothing here places the children of believers in any special, or 'elect,' or 'covenantal' category. We should never force Scriptures to fit a particular doctrinal approach in such a manner.

Acts 2:38-39.

Acts 2:39 follows on from verse 38 which seems to refer to the need for the repentance of sins, which of course an infant will not be able to do because he/she will be too young to make such decisions. Yes, we are assured that the promise has a wide application: 'For you and your children and all who are far off' (2:39). So the promise is 'open' and not 'closed' or restricted to only a tiny majority. 'Your children' does indeed indicate that God places the children of believers in a special category, the 'door' is, perhaps, not just open but even carries an 'invitation sign,' but this does not mean that the children of believers can ever be assumed to be true believers and these two verses commence with the 'bottom line' on this point:

'..."Repent and be baptised, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins..."' (Acts 2:38).

Here baptism is placed alongside repentance from sin: the two should go together. They cannot go together in the case of small children, so such children should not be baptized! 'Every one of you' can hardly be assumed to include those who would not even correctly understand the concepts of sin and repentance. Yet the promises are indeed also open to all of our children...when the time is right!

1 Corinthians 7:14.

This speaks of the children of believers as 'holy.' But it also speaks of a Christian's spouse as sanctified in the same manner. But does this then mean that an unbelieving husband or wife of a believer is necessarily saved? In fact, verse 16 plainly shows that that would be an incorrect understanding, for this verse states,

'How do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or, how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife?'

So this is speaking of the power of example! Without doubt the husband or wife of a true believer who is not antagonistic towards his (or her) marriage partner, place themselves in a special category before God: the door is not only open but has an invitation sign attached to it! This also applies to our children who must - however - finally make their own choice and decision! So God is indeed prepared to apply the category of 'holy' to the spouses and children of true Christian believers until such a time that they - individually and personally - confirm that category. However, if the logic is that such infants and children should be baptised, then the same logic would state that unbelieving marital partners should also be baptised!! We might add that, if such people see true Christianity in action within their familes, but then reject it, they are then in a weaker position than they would otherwise have been, so we should not misunderstand God's willingness to place the unconverted children and partners of believers in a special category, simply awaiting confirmation!

We must candidly state that nothing in these scriptural texts instructs us to baptize children, or frankly, even suggests that we should! Neither do any such verses have reference to any 'covenant.'

Writers Who Have Supported Covenant Theology

While both Augustine and Calvin are sometimes stated to be the founders of 'Covenant Theology,' it is not too difficult to determine that it was later writers who simply read these things back into their works. A. H. Strong in his Systematic Theology, (Vol. 2, page 612) says,
"The federal theory, or theory of the covenants, had its origin with Cocceius (1603-1669), professor at Leyden, but was more fully elaborated by Turrentin (1623-1687)."
This form of theology is detectable in John Owen and Jonathan Edwards before 1800. In the United States, the Princeton theologians (Charles Hodge, A. A. Hodge, B. B. Warfield, Geerhardus Vos, and J. Gresham Machen) formally organised this theological view and, in the Netherlands, Herman Bavinck was an adherent.

More recent and well-known covenant theologians would include Michael Horton, Meredith G. Kline, Robert L. Reymond, O. Palmer Robertson and R. C. Sproul. In the United States, this theological system has been taught at such places as Covenant Theological Seminary, Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, Knox Theological Seminary, Reformed Theological Seminary and Westminster Theological Seminary. It is interesting that even Neo-Orthodox theologian Karl Barth was a covenant theologian (of a type) although he strongly departed from the way that many had previously outlined it. Barth, and John Murray too, departed from the traditional explanation of a Covenant of Works to develop a sort of mono-covenantal scheme, gathering everything under just one Covenant of Grace. The focus of all biblical covenants is then on grace and faith. Interesting, but still problematic where the glorious New Covenant does not seem to have the supreme focus which Scripture itself freely gives to it.


'Covenant Theology' is a theological schema for explaining the Scriptures which certainly does often contain certain strengths and insights, but it ultimately falls short through the practice of eisegesis, that is, through the practice of reading things into Holy Scripture, rather than exegesis (drawing things out of the Scriptures). The stated covenantal structure does not truly exist in the Bible in the manner in which such writers have explained it and whereas, in many areas, scriptural understanding is unaffected, in other areas it becomes compromised, indeed, occasionally quite seriously, for 'continuous covenant' teaching (of which 'covenant theology' is undoubtedly one form), takes the accent off the centrality of Christ which the New Testament unashamedly upholds; the glorious light and freedom of Christ becomes somewhat dimmed and the Christian is again placed under law.

The view which UK Apologetics upholds has been referred to as New Covenant theology. This view simply notes the clear biblical position that Christ, and the New Covenant, are revealed by the New Testament to be the primary focus of all Scripture. Sadly, a few mistakenly feel that 'New Covenant theology' is very new even when it may be seen to be fully outlined within the writings of the apostle Paul and seems to have been Martin Luther's position.

Robin A. Brace, 2007.