Covenant theology (also known as Covenantalism or Federal theology or Federalism) is a conceptual overview and interpretive framework for understanding the overall flow of the Bible. It uses the theological concept of covenant as an organizing principle for Christian theology.
The standard description of covenant theology views the history of God's dealings with mankind in all of history, from Creation to Fall to Redemption to Consummation, under the framework of three overarching theological covenants — the covenants of redemption, of works, and of grace.
These three covenants are called theological because they are not explicitly presented as such in the Bible but are thought to be theologically implicit, describing and summarizing the wealth of Scriptural data. Within historical Reformed Christian systems of thought, covenant theology is not merely treated as a point of doctrine, neither is it treated as a central dogma. Rather, Covenant is viewed as the structure by which the biblical text organizes itself.
As a framework for biblical interpretation, covenant theology stands in contrast to dispensationalism in regard to the relationship between the Old Covenant with national Israel and the New Covenant in Christ's blood. Regarding the theological status of modern day Jewish people, covenant theology is often referred to as "supersessionism," or "replacement theology" by its detractors, due to the perception that it teaches that God has abandoned the promises made to the Jews and has replaced the Jews with Christians as his chosen people in the earth. Covenant theologians deny that God has abandoned his promises to Israel, but see the fulfillment of the promises to Israel in the person and the work of the Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth, who established the church in organic continuity with Israel, not a separate replacement entity.
Covenant theology is a prominent feature in Protestant theology, especially in churches holding a reformed view of theology such as the Reformed churches and Presbyterian churches and, in different forms, some Methodist churches and in some Baptist churches.
In particular, covenant theology teaches that God established two covenants with humankind, flowing from one eternal covenant within the Trinity which deals with how the other two relate. Thus, focusing on the relationship of God and man, historic Calvinism has been bi-covenantal, reflecting the early Reformation distinction between Law and Gospel.
Though it is not explicitly called a covenant in the opening chapters of Genesis, the comparison of the representative headship of Christ and Adam, as well as passages like Hosea 6:7 have been interpreted to support the idea. It has also been noted that Jeremiah 33:20-26 (cf. 31:35-36) compares the covenant with David to God's covenant with the day and the night and the statues of heaven and earth which God laid down at creation. This has led some to understand all of creation as covenantal: the decree establishing the natural laws governing heaven and earth. The covenant of works might then be seen as the moral law component of the broader creational covenant. Thus the covenant of works has also been called the covenant of creation, indicating that it is not added but constitutive of the human race; the covenant of nature in recognition of its consonance with the natural law in the human heart; and the covenant of life in regard to the promised reward.
The covenant of grace became the basis for all future covenants that God made with mankind such as with Noah (Genesis 6, 9), with Abraham (Genesis 12, 15, 17), with Moses (Exodus 19-24), with David (2 Samuel 7), and finally in the New Covenant fulfilled and founded in Christ. These individual covenants are called the biblical covenants because they are explicitly described in the Bible. Under the covenantal overview of the Bible, submission to God's rule and living in accordance with his moral law (expressed concisely in the Ten Commandments) is a response to grace - never something which can earn God's acceptance (legalism). Even in his giving of the Ten Commandments, God introduces his law by reminding the Israelites that he is the one who brought them out of slavery in Egypt (grace).
The Mosaic covenant, found in Exodus 19-24 and the book of Deuteronomy, expands on the Abrahamic promise of a people and a land. Repeatedly mentioned is the promise of the Lord, "I will be your God and you will be my people" (cf. Exodus 6:7, Leviticus 26:12), particularly displayed as his glory-presence comes to dwell in the midst of the people. This covenant is the one most in view by the term Old Covenant.
Although it is a gracious covenant beginning with God's redemptive action (cf. Exodus 20:1-2), a layer of law is prominent. Concerning this aspect of the Mosaic Covenant, Charles Hodge makes three points in his Commentary on Second Corinthians: (1) The Law of Moses was in first place a reenactment of the covenant of works; viewed this way, it is the ministration of condemnation and death. (2) It was also a national covenant, giving national blessings based on national obedience; in this way it was purely legal. (3) In the sacrificial system, it points to the Gospel of salvation though a mediator.
The Eucharist or the Lord's Supper was instituted by Jesus at a Passover meal, to which he gave a radical reinterpretation. The festival of Passover commemorates the Israelites' deliverance from Egypt - specifically, how the lamb's blood which God commanded them to place on their door posts caused the Angel of Death to "pass over" their dwellings, so that their firstborn might be spared from the final plague. The New Testament writers understand this event typologically: as the lamb's blood saved the Israelites from the plague, so Jesus' substitutionary death saves God's New Covenant people from being judged for their sins. Covenant theology has generally viewed the Eucharist as a mysterious participation in the Real Presence of Christ mediated by the Holy Spirit (that is, real spiritual presence or pneumatic presence). This differs from Roman Catholicism and Lutheranism which believe in the Real Presence as an actual bodily presence of Christ, as well as from the generally Baptist position that the supper is merely a memorial commemoration.
Baptism is considered to be the visible sign of entrance into the New Covenant and therefore may be administered individually to new believers making a public profession of faith. Paedobaptists further believe this extends corporately to the households of believers which typically would include children, or individually to children or infants of believing parents (see Infant baptism). In this view, baptism is thus seen as the functional replacement and sacramental equivalent of the Abrahamic rite of circumcision and symbolizes the internal cleansing from sin, among other things.
Credobaptist Covenant theologians (such as the Baptist John Gill) hold that baptism is only for those who can understand and profess their faith, and they argue that the regulative principle of worship, which many paedobaptists also advocate and which states that elements of worship (including baptism) must be based on explicit commands of Scripture, is violated by infant baptism. Furthermore, because the New Covenant is described in Jeremiah 31:31-34 as a time when all who were members of it would have the law written on their hearts and would know God, Baptist Covenant Theologians believe only those who are born again are members of the New Covenant.
The classical statement of covenant theology can be found in the British Westminster Confession of Faith (particularly chap. 7, 8, 19), as well as in the writings of English theologians such as John Owen (1616–1683), Biblical Theology, and An Exposition of the Epistle to the Hebrews. The classical statements among 17th century continental theologians include Johannes Cocceius (c. 1603-1669) in The Doctrine of the Covenant and Testament of God (Summa doctrinae de foedere et testamento dei, 1648), Francis Turretin (1623–1687) in his Institutes of Elenctic Theology, and Hermann Witsius (1636–1708) in The Economy of the Covenants Between God and Man. It may also be seen in the writings of Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758) in Collected Writings of Jonathan Edwards (Vol 2, Banner of Truth edition, p.950).
The interpretation of how the reformed scholastics treated the relationship between covenant and contract is one that has been much debated, especially concerning the continental development of federal theology. Lyle Bierma has challenged the commonly held notion in contemporary scholarship that Genevan Reformers taught a unilateral and unconditional covenant relationship whilst the Rhineland Reformers taught a bilateral contractual relationship. He argued that Leonard Trinterud’s identification of the apparent polarisation between Calvin and Olevianus on the one hand and Luther and Bullinger on the other hand is a faulty reading of history. Revisiting the possible cross-fertilization of thought between the continental reformers and English reformers such as William Tyndale, it seems that they were developing a similar approach to federalism, namely that the covenant relationship incorporates both a unilateral and a bilateral dimension.
In the United States, the Princeton theologians (Charles Hodge, A. A. Hodge, B. B. Warfield, Geerhardus Vos, and J. Gresham Machen) and, in the Netherlands, Herman Bavinck followed the main lines of the classic view, teaching the Covenant of Redemption, the Covenant of Works (Law), and the Covenant of Grace (Gospel).
Recent well-known covenant theologians in the United States include Michael Horton, Meredith G. Kline, J. I. Packer, Richard L. Pratt, Jr., O. Palmer Robertson and R. C. Sproul. This system is taught at schools such as Covenant Theological Seminary, Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, Knox Theological Seminary, Reformed Theological Seminary, Westminster Theological Seminary, and Westminster Seminary California.
Meredith G. Kline did pioneering work in the field of Biblical studies, in the 1960s and 1970s, building off of prior work by George E. Mendenhall, by identifying the form of the covenant with the common Suzerain–Vassal treaties of the Ancient Near East in the 2nd century BC. One of the highlights of his work has been the comparison of the Mosaic Covenant with the Hittite Suzerainty Treaty formula. A suggested comparison of the treaty structure with the book of Deuteronomy is as follows:
Kline has argued that comparisons between the suzerainty-vassal treaties and royal grants of the Ancient Near East provide insight in highlighting certain distinctive features of the Mosaic covenant as a law covenant, in contrast with the other historic post-Fall covenants. Many who have embraced Kline's insights have still insisted, however, in accordance with the Westminster Confession of Faith, that the Mosaic covenant was fundamentally an administration of the Covenant of Grace.
At Westminster Theological Seminary in the late 1970s, Norman Shepherd, a professor of systematic theology, was dismissed due to controversy over his teaching on justification. His views involved a reconfiguration of covenant theology that went beyond those of Murray, his predecessor. Shepherd denied any notion of a works or merit principle, leading to a denial that Christ's righteousness is imputed to the believer. He argued that Jesus' own justification was due to his faith and obedience which is not to be considered meritorious. In the same way then, the believer must be justified before God by faith and his or her own personal obedience. He explains in The Call of Grace (2000, p. 39):
God does not tempt his children to try to earn their salvation by the merit of their works. Nor does he tease them by offering a way of salvation that he knows will not work. More pointedly, the very idea of merit is foreign to the way in which God the Father relates to his children. Rather, in love the Lord leads his people to trust him. In the Mosaic covenant, he teaches his people how to live happy and productive lives in the Promised Land in union and communion with the Lord of the Covenant. He promises forgiveness of sins and eternal life, not as something to be earned, but as a gift to be received by a living and active faith.
Theologians who follow Shepherd deny that God ever made a covenant where humanity was required to earn anything by their works. Their claim is that the Covenant of Works between Adam and God in the Garden of Eden was not originally part of covenant theology. A Covenant of Works at creation does not receive explicit mention in early confessions such as the French Confession (1559), the Scots Confession (1560), the Belgic Confession (1561), the Thirty-Nine Articles (1562), the Heidelberg Catechism (1563), and the Second Helvetic Confession (1566) (John Murray, Collected Writings of John Murray: 4, Studies in Theology, pp. 217-218).
Some of Shepherd's critics contend that the concept of a works principle distinct from a Covenant of Grace is evident in the commentaries and dogmatic works of the earliest covenant theologians, particularly in the distinction made between Law and Gospel (for instance, Zacharias Ursinus, Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism). There is also explicit articulation of a Covenant of Works in the writings of those such as Olevianus and Rollock. Additionally, defenders of the traditional view argue that the concept of this works principle operating in the pre-Fall state in the Garden of Eden as a covenant is present in the early confessions even if the Covenant of Works is not explicitly named. Examples include Belgic Confession, article 14, which speaks of Adam having received and transgressed the "commandment of life"; or Heidelberg Catechism, Question and Answer 6 affirming the goodness of man in creation. The later Westminster Confession of Faith (1646) explicitly names the Covenant of Works which Adam transgressed (7.2; 19.1), and which "continues to be a perfect rule of righteousness" in the form of the moral law (19.2, 3).
In opposition to the modern revisers, Meredith Kline has reemphasized the idea of a covenant of works as expressed in the Westminster Confession of Faith 7.2 as a means to protect a gospel of grace. Kline writes in Kingdom Prologue (Two Age Press, 2000), p. 108-109:
If meritorious works could not be predicated of Jesus Christ as second Adam, then obviously there would be no meritorious achievement to be imputed to his people as the ground of their justification-approbation. The gospel invitation would turn out to be a mirage. We who have believed on Christ would still be under condemnation. The gospel truth, however, is that Christ has performed the one act of righteousness and by his obedience of the one the many are made righteous (Rom 5:18, 19)…. Underlying Christ's mediatorship of a covenant of grace for the salvation of believers is his earthly fulfillment, through meritorious obedience, of his heavenly covenant of works with the Father.… What begins as a rejection of works ends up as an attack, however unintentional, on the biblical message of saving grace.
Kline, Michael Horton, and others have sought to uphold the classical distinction of two sorts of covenant traditions: one based on law (works) and the other on promise (grace). While works in Reformed theology are antithetical to grace as the means of justification, they are on the other hand ultimately the basis for grace since God requires perfect upholding of the law for salvation, and heaven must be earned. However, since this is seen as an impossible task for the corrupted sinner, it is Christ, who perfectly obeyed the law and who, earning the reward, graciously bestows it to his people. The sinner is thus saved by Christ's works and not his own. Right standing before God is then due to an alien or imputed righteousness, not by personal faithfulness which is recognized as the fruition of salvation and not its ground. For example, in Getting the Gospel Right (Baker Books, 1999), p. 160, R.C. Sproul writes:
Man's relationship to God in creation was based on works. What Adam failed to achieve, Christ, the second Adam, succeeded in achieving. Ultimately the only way one can be justified is by works.
Here, Sproul articulates the traditional view, that Jesus was glorified in his death and resurrection because of his merit in fulfillment of the Covenant of Works as the second Adam. His merit is then counted for those he came to save. The believer is not justified by personal righteousness, but by faith, receives the righteousness of the mediator, Jesus Christ.