Covenant Theology: A Neglected Art
by Anna Kitko, Ratio Christi Regional Director for Tennessee and South Carolina.
Speedy Summary: Within Christianity there are two broad schools of thought describing God’s interactions with His people through the Old Testament and New Testament. The older school of “Covenant Theology” organizes the biblical time line according to covenant agreements bestowed by God onto his people. These covenants work to develop, expand, and explain the ultimate and pervasive covenant of grace through the Messiah.
1) Theology: The study of God; his divine attributes and character.
2) Covenant: A formal, legal agreement initiated by God between God and man, that specifies conditions of their relationship.
3) Covenant Theology: One of two main schools of thought within Christendom that seeks to explain how God interacts with his people throughout human history. It focuses on the organization of time into continued revelation about the Messiah. As each agreement between God and man is offered through the Old Testament, each new development is a clarification of the older ones, meaning that covenants are never nullified, but are rather continually being fulfilled whether the people know the specifics at that time or not. Practically speaking, this means that anyone found outside of the Messiah’s fulfillment in this way (including the Nation of Israel), will not receive accommodation in the Kingdom of God. Those adhering to this view see “Israel” and the “Church” as the same entity to whom all promises have been made.
4) Dispensational Theology: One of two main schools of thought within Christendom that seeks to explain how God interacts with his people throughout human history. This position views history as divided into periods called “dispensations.” Each dispensation is characterized by God’s dealing with mankind in a specific manner. These time periods are specific to the individuals found therein, and thusly, when said dispensation passes through the repeated process of testing, failure, and judgement of those individuals, the subsequent dispensation nullifies the previous one. Practically speaking, in our current dispensation anyone found outside of the Messiah’s fulfillment will not receive accommodation in the Kingdom of God. However, those to whom previous promises have been given (specifically, the Nation of Israel) about a future dispensation, will be given a special accommodation in the Kingdom of God due to those promises. Those adhering to this view perceive “Israel” and the “Church” as separate entities to whom God has made differing agreements.
When I first moved to the Bible-belt a few years ago, I was shell-shocked. There were Scofield Reference Bibles for miles and I was surrounded by Dispensationalism. I had never been in an Evangelical environment so isolated from alternative Christian theology. I once asked my college students if they could articulate for me Covenant Theology. The replies I received fell between two categories, “What’s that?” and “I think I once heard someone mention it on a podcast.” I would then inquire whether or not they knew anything about John Nelson Darby or C.I. Scofield?
And thus we launched into a four-week intensive on how Christians make sense of harmonizing the Old Testament with the New.
Dispensational Theology vs. Covenant Theology
They were equally shocked that Dispensationalism has an alternative Christian counterpart. And even more alarmingly, I was encountering seminarians who scoffed at me when they found out I was teaching my dispensational apologists how to understand and accurately articulate Covenant Theology. I was flabbergasted by my new environment to say the least, but excited to impart my corner of theology in this dispensational one; especially given that in my experience, Covenant theology and Dispensational theology have not played well together. But we will get to that in a minute.
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So what exactly is Covenant Theology? Well, let’s begin at the beginning. Covenant Theology seeks to understand and articulate the overall structure of Christ’s story as told in the Old and New Testaments. It answers the question, “How are we to interpret God’s dealings with mankind?” From scripture we see that God focuses our attention on our creation, our fall into sin, our redemption from that fall, and finally the consummation of God’s eternal purpose in our original creation.
Creation. Fall. Redemption. Consummation.
Within this framework, God regularly makes agreements with his people. This is where the title “covenant” comes from. These agreements build upon each other, developing and promising and clarifying how and why God is working and renewing. There is a unity of development as the story of Christ unfolds. Biblical covenants therefore emphasized what precisely was needed for mankind at specific stages of the unfolding of God’s kingdom by furthering what was promised and set up in previous agreements. This is a crucial aspect of Covenant Theology. God is always unifying his promises and purposes as each consequent promise and covenant reveals Christ over and over again. God is in the business of fulfilling His promises, not replacing old promises with new ones. The New Testament is never at odds with the Old. The New Testament does not replace the Old. The unity of the two is a crucial element when reflecting upon the unfurling of the Kingdom of God. Let’s look at what this means.
When Jesus teaches us to pray, he too, begins at the beginning,
“Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven…” (Matthew 6:9-10)
His priority is clear. The emphasis of our experience as human beings having been created by God is for the purpose and goal of establishing God’s kingdom in creation as it is also in heaven. There we have it. Our beginning framework. The advancement of God’s kingdom on earth is present but also not yet completed. How has God been advancing his kingdom on earth? By establishing treaties for expansion with his representatives. Representatives that are illuminated by Scripture; snapshots of crucial moments in the history of mankind where God expanded upon previous territory: Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, Jesus.
Dr. Richard Pratt puts it best,
“God started with Adam to reveal His own kingship, the role of humanity, and the destiny He had planned for the earth . These principles were then carried forward as God promised stability in nature for humanity’s service in Noah’s covenant . God enhanced His previous covenants by promising that Abraham’s descendants would become a great empire and spread God’s blessings to all other nations . God built on these covenants by blessing Israel with His law in the days of Moses . Every previous covenant was taken to new heights as God established David’s dynasty and promised that one of his sons would rule in righteousness over Israel and over the entire world . All Old Testament covenants were then furthered and fulfilled in Christ . As the great son of David, His life, death, resurrection, ascension, and return eternally secures the transformation of the entire earth into God’s glorious kingdom.” [cited]
As God has revealed then, the story of the Messiah is building and expanding over time. Each revelation reveals the overall substance of God’s character and intentions: grace and holiness. The entire purpose of the scriptures is the unfolding of the great overall covenant: the covenant of grace with his people. The intention of his purposes with us is his agreement to demonstrate grace to us. And in turn, our chief end is to love him and enjoy him forever.
Here then is our structure: God makes himself known through his word, his promises, his Messiah. You can easily see why this discussion is therefore so crucial for modern American Evangelicalism. Here we have individuals who are genuinely confused by what role the Old Testament plays in their lives. If they have a “new” covenant, then they do not need to concern themselves with the old one. But what Covenant Theology points out is that the entire history of the people of God explains what we do with the new covenant.
It is not out with the old and in with the new, but rather God renewing the old. And in fact when we look at the Hebrew from where we translate these things, châdash, we find that it is not meant to imply completely new at all, but rather, rebuilt and refreshed (consider Isaiah 61:4; Ezekiel 36:26; Job 29:20). When God promises the new covenant to come in Jeremiah’s book of Restoration (chapters 30 and 31), it is not entirely new, but is simply different than they expect and “not like the covenant I made with their forefathers when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt (Jeremiah 31:32).”
So if the new covenant is not entirely new, but is rather a renewal of the old, then what about the old covenant needed renewal?
Jeremiah’s prophecy answers that question in 4 ways:
1. The New Covenant is unable to be broken. As Jeremiah points out that previous ones had been. (consider Jeremiah 31:32)
2. The New Covenant is a permanent transformation of the people of God into faithfulness. As Jeremiah points out that previous ones had not done this. God is going to do this by going inward with his law; circumcising hearts instead of bodies. (consider Jeremiah 31:33 cf. Deuteronomy 10:16; Jeremiah 4:4)
3. The New Covenant is the exclusive boundary for the people of God. This means that God’s people are not exclusive to the nation of Israel, but rather exclusive to the covenant itself. (consider Jeremiah 31:34)
4. The New Covenant will permanently forgive its members’ sins. As Jeremiah points out, the forgiveness of sin would be eternal, described with the compelling words that God would “remember their sin no more.” (consider Jeremiah 31:34)
And how will these things be done? Through the fulfillment of this prophecy in the Messiah, the Christ. When Jesus points out that, “not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished (Matthew 5:18)” until heaven and earth pass away, he is telling the truth. The old covenant is not gone, but is actively being fulfilled in him. As the psalmist writes centuries before, all of God’s precepts are eternal,
“The works of his hands are truth and justice; all his precepts are trustworthy. They are upheld forever and ever, enacted in truth and uprightness. He has sent redemption to his people; he has ordained his covenant forever; holy and awesome is his name…” (Psalm 111:8)
The old covenant has not passed away. It is rather being fulfilled right now in the person of Christ. We as members of the new covenant should be ready with answers to questions about the application of the Law of God today. We must understand that the old covenant reveals God’s character and expectations of us, just as much as the New Covenant.
Why does this matter for modern American Evangelicalism? Every day we are faced with questions dealing with morality, politics, church culture, and Christian parenting. We are hit with questions like
What does the Bible say about a believer’s sanctification?
How should the church promote discipleship and maturity?
What should we expect of Christian leaders in what they teach and how they live?
If we hold to a theology that says that the old testament has been nullified in the new, then we will legitimately face difficulty in applying the moral aspects of the old covenant. We will have greater difficulty explaining what holiness looks like. Our churches will struggle to provide wise instruction in the spiritual discipline of sanctification.
All of a sudden we have popular preachers teaching that the sacraments of the Old Testament can be redesigned because any restrictions applied only to people long passed. They begin saying things like, “we need to unhitch ourselves” from the Old Testament. We have a harder time addressing the modern secular age without sounding like we are cherry-picking the Scriptures for our personal agendas. We lose sight of the value of the specifics that were steadily revealed by God to his people about himself. We begin debating end-times prophecies about the modern state of Israel and American Evangelical spiritual partnerships instead of evangelizing to the very people to whom the Messiah appeared and of whom they reject. Sound familiar?
Think about it. Have a theology that teaches that none of what God has revealed about himself has passed away. It is explained, applied, fulfilled, clarified, and renewed in the person of Christ. We have this at our fingertips, and it is an incredibly powerful tool for addressing the modern era. We have the great plumbline from whom and through whom our distinctions are answered. Christ, the great catechizer.
He is the one who refers back to the old covenants. He is the one who teaches us the entire story of the old covenant. He is himself the author of the old covenant, walking out the grace by which we are saved.
Our references to the law are, in actuality, references to Christ himself.
Applying the moral standards of God’s design to the modern era is not arbitrary. Rather, it is a consistent application of God’s character and design at every point of human history. Including ours. Why? Because the author and perfecter of our faith was there when it was written.
Do you see how powerful this can be when those outside of Christianity challenge us with our emphasis on a standard of morality outside of ourselves? No matter what theological camp you find yourself persuaded by, it behooves us to know and study the wonderful and powerful tool that is Covenant Theology. There is great value in profitable and charitable dialogue between Dispensational and Covenant theologians that I think has been seriously neglected in our day.
We are not rival dojos in the theological arts. We are factions of warriors in the same war with different emphasis in the purpose of being obedient to the Great Commission. Folks in the opposite camp from you are not unenlightened, and although both camps have some mutually exclusive claims and not everyone can be right, it might also be that in reality both camps are mostly right and have a lot to glean from their counterpart. People are important, separate from some list of theological positions within Christendom. We need to listen to each other, study the history of the positions we take, be honest about our position’s shortcomings, and be prepared to listen. You never know what you may learn from the experience.
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Anna Kitko is a Christian Apologist who specializes in Cults and New Religions. Her writing ranges from solving biblical difficulties to training people how to avoid coercive persuasion from aberrant Bible-based groups. She is an avid reader of Christian history and loves to point out ancient heresies being re-packaged and re-distributed in our culture. In addition to being a Regional Director for RC, she personally directs the chapter at University of Tennessee-Knoxville. Anna can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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