My compiled summary regarding Reformed Covenant Theology

Reformed Covenant Theology sprung up in the nebulous ‘things are settling down to normal’ period after the initial Reformation period. It’s deep origins can be traced to the influence of Bullinger and Calvin, though neither produced anything like the formulations you see in the various Reformed confessions that specifically include it. Bullinger had independently developed a covenant theology in Zurich, more advanced than Zwingli and often deployed against the Anabaptists. Calvin’s theology needs to be read from his commentaries. Both essentially speak of the unity of the covenants and so forth, but do not go into things like a covenant of redemption or works. Some argue that these ideas are either compatible with what is said by Calvin or nebulously appear, but until I go through Calvin’s commentaries myself, this is perhaps an argument from silence.

The formulations and publications that show recognisable signs of this theology arise later. It would appear that English and Scottish puritans and reformed types developed a theology independent of the continent. Notable names are Cocceius, Olevianus, and Witsius. Cocceius created a bit of a storm by saying that scholastic systematization is stupid and that his more biblical theological method is better, and creating a bit of a flame war, despite both sides probably being closer to each other than they thought. What we do see, though, is that RCT is both a biblical hermeneutic AND a systematic theological framework. So, not only does it attempt to bring about a unity to the testaments and interpret Christ with respect to the Old Testament, it also binds to other doctrines in systematic fashions, most notably, original sin and justification. If you will, it is both a trellis and a vine (I still haven’t read that book. It’s also not on the list, and probably won’t ever be.) What this means is that any attempt to deal with this creates a whole tangle, because not only do you need to deal with the hermeneutics and so forth, but you need to provide answers regarding the systematic bits you might be pouring out with the bathwater.

Now, the reformed world is not monolithic in this manner. There has been continued refinement and interaction with it – e.g. Robertson saying that the intra-trinitarian covenant is dumb (my paraphrase), being more aware of the ANE background of covenants. It has had to deal with dispensationalism and more recently New Covenant Theology, and these have brought forth modern retellings of RCT and reasons why these other people are wrong. Nevertheless, it holds a central place in the Westminster confessions and its main tenets have not changed much in ages.

I should at some point give my take on it. So here goes.

The classic question of the unity of the old and new testaments is answered by RCT through the covenants. It posits that covenant is the structuring principle of redemption in the Bible, in that God’s gracious salvific work is done exclusively in the context of covenant. Each of the biblical covenants is an expression of an eternal covenant of grace that specifies that all have salvation in Christ by faith. This covenant is itself an outworking of the eternal covenant of redemption in the Godhead, that is, the Father covenants with the Son regarding the whole plan of creation and so forth. At first, humanity in Adam is presented with the covenant of works/creation/nature/life (it’s had a few different terms, and each has its pro’s and con’s). The usual construction is that if Adam didn’t stray from obedience to God, he’d remain in the garden forever and it’d be awesome. But of course, he didn’t. This covenant of works is, however, fulfilled by the perfect obedience of Christ, and its benefits mediated by him. The covenant of grace is the means by which we can obtain these benefits through faith in Christ, etc. and each of the biblical covenants points to it.

That’s the main bit. It has quite a few distinctive corollaries, such as covenant paedobaptism, and the whole moral-civil-ceremonial division of the law and the abrogation of the civil and ceremonial, but I won’t go into that, mainly because I think Brian Rosner is right in this matter.

Now, here are the weaknesses I think with the system:
1) It tends to do injustice to the distinctiveness of each covenant in context. This is the reason why McComiskey came up with his promise covenant/administrative covenant structure. By putting all the covenants as representing one covenant, one emphasizes their continuity, but at the expense of overlooking their discontinuity. McComiskey wanted to restore the distinctiveness of each, and so bifurcated the system.
2) It tends to overstate the univocality of berith. You’ll often find a discussion about the definition of berith, and then by association diatheke, though the theological reality of the Greek term is dependent on the Hebrew. These, though, have a tendency to attempt to collapse all covenants into one meaning, usually the one involving God. More recent renditions are better regarding this due to better method, but I still think there is an underlying problem because this point is related to (1).
3) It has to extrapolate into things that the Scriptures don’t explicitly say. Whilst comparisons may be drawn with the Trinity, the Bible is fairly adamant that the Father is God, Jesus is God, and the Spirit is God, and it’s fairly important to salvation that they all be God and not three gods. On the other hand, the biblical evidence for a covenant of redemption is circumstantial and marginal, and the biblical evidence for a pre-fall Adamic covenant is also circumstantial, and also, I believe that the functions of both in systematic theology can be generated by resorting to different systematic formulations. Also, I do not believe anyone has not been saved by denying a covenant with Adam, whereas denying that Jesus is God would be a fairly definite indicator of impending eternal damnation.
4) Covenant is often not front-and-centre in the NT. Yes, it is there, assumed, in the background, but the many books on covenant that have been weak on the New Testament attest something to the reality of this. In my opinion, making covenant the centre of the biblical hermeneutic is to mistake the instrument for the thing that is being ‘instrumentated’. Covenant, I believe, is the instrument through which God enacts his purposes, but it is not the purposes in and of itself. Rather, it points to the development of the kingdom situation of God as king among a people of his own who worship him freely and truth in a redeemed creation. The biblical covenants are important because they are geared to bringing this about, either in type or in promise.

I don’t know why there are people who might hold on to Reformed covenant theology with quite an amount of passion. But like Goldsworthy’s setup, it too requires additional work. There are plenty of good evangelical biblical scholars who don’t operate with it and are also not dispensational or new covenant theologians. Even in America, you just need to think of those who work at Trinity, like D.A. Carson.

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