What is Covenant Theology?
Most of the content on this topic will be coming from J. Ligon Duncan’s Covenant Theology lectures from Reformed Theological Seminary. They are completely free on iTunesU and also on RTS’ website and will be linked. A lot of what Dr. Duncan covered in his lectures comes from O. Palmer Robertson’s Christ of the Covenants, which I will also link below. These works are very thorough and are excellent assets for if you want to learn more, you can just consider this a primer on covenant theology. I will warn that Robertson’s book is very intellectual and I am not sure that I would recommend it to someone who is newer to reformed theology because it might be too much in the beginning while you’re trying to learn other stuff. That said, preparing for these posts has given me the opportunity to listen to Dr. Duncan’s lectures for the second time and I think that if you are newer to reformed theology, I would probably stick to the first section for the beginning and then move on to the more advanced content when you feel more comfortable.
This will be covered from a paedobaptist perspective. This means that we (and most of historic reformed Christianity) practice infant baptism. We will cover the differences between credobaptist covenant theology and paedobaptist covenant theology. If you are in a reformed church and have questions, remember that you can and should also ask your pastor for their thoughts, as well. Theology Gals can be great for online fellowship and learning, but it’s no replacement for the church and you should always read things you see online alongside scripture so you can discern the truth.
What is it?
Dr. Ligon Duncan defined covenant theology as the gospel set in the context of God’s eternal plan of communion with his people and an outworking in the covenant of works and the covenant of grace. It is both a hermeneutic and a blending of biblical theology and systematic theology. It is also the Bible’s way of explaining several important themes:
- The atonement
- The sacraments
- The way of setting forth and explaining the continuity of redemptive history
- The dynamic of God’s sovereignty and our responsibility in living the Christian life (law and gospel)
Covenant theology is an important paradigm to use as we read scripture because it helps us see the Old Testament as a Christian book. Dr. JI Packer said in the intro to The Economy of the Covenants Between God and Man (written by Herman Witsius in 1990), “the gospel of God is not properly understood until it is viewed within a covenantal frame.”
Biblical Theology & Systematic Theology
Biblical theology reads forward through scripture and understands how God operates chronologically across time. Systematic theology looks at the entire Bible to see what it says about a given topic. Systematic theology also takes what the Bible says on one topic and relates it to other topics.
The way this works together is covenant theology involves:
- Taking a biblical theological survey over how a topic is treated throughout the entire Bible
- Taking a look at historical theology and how the church has historically treated the text
- Summarizing a topic
- Relating it to other scripture
- And bringing it all together
History and Definition of Covenants:
Many people think that covenant theology developed as a response to dispensationalism, but it actually predates dispensationalism by almost 300 years. While it was codified by Ulrich Zwingli during the reformation, Irenaeus outlined covenant theology in a very similar way to the way Robertson does and used the concept of the covenant to argue against Gnosticism in book 4 of Against Heresies. O. Palmer Robertson’s definition of a covenant is almost identical to how Irenaeus describes it, “a bond in blood sovereignly administered.”
Monergism’s website explains covenant theology as:
“Covenant Theology organizes biblical revelation around three unified but distinct covenants: the Covenant of Redemption, between the persons of the Trinity in eternity past, in which the Father promises to give a people to the Son as his inheritance, and the Son undertakes to redeem them; the Covenant of Works, which God enjoined upon Adam in the Garden, solemnly promising him eternal life if he passed the probationary test in the Garden of Eden (also, many covenant theologians see the covenant given on Mount Sinai as being in some sense a republication of the Covenant of Works); and finally, the Covenant of Grace, which God first entered into with Adam immediately after the Fall, when he promised to send a Seed of the woman, who would defeat the tempting serpent (Gen. 3:15). In the Covenant of Grace, God promises a champion to fulfill the broken Covenant of Works as a federal representative of his people, and so to earn its blessings on their behalf. All the later covenants of the bible, such as those which God confirmed to Noah, Abraham, David, and the New Covenant which promises to fulfill these prior covenants in the prophecies of Jeremiah and Ezekiel, are all organically connected, essentially being different administrations of the one eternal Covenant of Grace, which build upon each other and are all brought to completion in the New Covenant which Christ inaugurated with his shed blood.”
This is also a very helpful series in understanding covenant theology and baptism.
Theology Gals Episodes on Covenant Theology:
By: Theology Gals Contributor