Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Why I Reject Covenant Theology

Like Dispensationalism, Covenant Theology is not monolithic. Still, I understand O. Palmer Robertson's Christ of the Covenants to be a well-respected and representative work on the theological system. (Incidentally, if you're a D who's never read anything on CT, or vice versa, you really should.)

Robertson argues that "the covenants of Abraham, Moses, and David actually are successive stages of a single covenant" (41). I'm not going to unpack out his whole case, but I trust it's reasonably obvious how this conclusion also serves as a necessary premise for fundamental continuity in God's relationships with mankind after the fall. IOW, if those three covenants aren't essentially the same covenant, the CT argument for strong continuity can't stand.

Here are a couple other examples of this piece of the CT argument:
Jeremiah's classic prophecy clearly relates the new covenant to its Mosaic predecessor (cf. Jer. 31:3ff.). This "new covenant" with the "house of Israel and with the house of Judah" will not be like the Mosaic covenant in its externalistic features. But the law of God as revealed to Moses shall be written on the heart. While the substance of the law will be the same, the mode of its administration will be different. The form may change, but the essence of the new covenant of Jeremiah's prophecy relates directly to the law-covenant made at Sinai. (41)
. . . and . . .
The covenants of God are one. The recurring summation of the essence of the covenant testifies to this fact. (52)
On the very next page, Robertson argues that the covenants are one structurally and thematically; however, they are distinct in their administration. In other words, the essence of the covenants are indistinguishable, but God uses different mechanisms and structures to implement that covenant.

That argument reminds me of some words from one of my profs at Southeastern, which even now echo in my ear: "Covenant Theology is an amazing theological system. The only problem is, it has nothing whatsoever to do with the Bible." Though that may have been a bit of hyperbole, his conclusion is nowhere more clear to me than on this particular point that Robertson asserts. Robertson is helpful in many ways, particularly in demonstrating how Gentiles were incorporated into the Abrahamic Covenant from its inception. (Why should we be surprised if they are incorporated today via the Church?) But when I read Scripture, I find evidence that is incompatible with the notion that the biblical covenants are essentially the same.

We can begin at the text Robertson notes above: Jeremiah 31. Robertson argues that the "new covenant" is the same covenant as the covenant established through Moses at Sinai. But Jeremiah says this new covenant is not like that old covenant. He doesn't say the administration of the covenant changes. He says the covenant changes. The administration is part of the very essence of the new covenant. That's the argument Jeremiah makes in verses 33-34 when he says, "This is the covenant:" and then proceeds to tell us that part of the essential change in covenant is administration. Administration change is part and parcel to covenant change. Hebrews 8 quotes this passage and concludes (v 13), "In speaking of a new covenant, he makes the first one [covenant] obsolete."

We could walk through other texts in Hebrews, but let's instead back up to Galatians 3-4—a passage, incidentally, which presents no small problems for many Dispensationalists. Covenant Theologians will quite reasonably argue from 3:15-22 that the Sinai Covenant did not abrogate the earlier Abrahamic Covenant. But 4:21-31 explicitly declares that there are still two covenants (not two administrations of the same covenant). One of them—the covenant of Sinai—leads to slavery. The other—the covenant to which we are parties ("the Jerusalem above . . . is our mother") leads to freedom and inheritance of the promises.

21 comments:

James Kime said...

The Galatians text in arguing for the superiority of the Abrahamic vs the Mosaic then proves they are not the same.

Spot on with the New Covenant.

The issue of how law is determined for today then cannot go back to Moses.

Kevin Davis said...

I haven't read Robertson's book, so I don't know exactly how he parses things. But, I've read a great deal of Covenant Theology from Calvin to the Scholastics to modern proprietors like Michael Horton. As I understand it, Covenant Theology is not denying a multiplicity of covenants. The whole point of the "administration" distinction is to say that there is an essential unity to the covenants, so that it is proper to speak of a single "covenant" that unites the multiple covenants. In other words, there is a single "covenant," and there are multiple "covenants." The single covenant is manifested (given concrete existence) in multiple different covenants, but they express the same single covenant. This single covenant reveals a single plan of salvation: by faith alone and by grace alone and even by Christ alone. This singular unity of purpose, in God's work of redemption, is why Reformed theologians have stressed the single "covenant" across multiple succeeding "covenants."

So, in other words, I think you are getting hung-up on semantics. Don't take Robertson too literally when he says that there is only one covenant. Of course there is only one covenant, just as there are multiple covenants. It's all about how we define "covenant" and the "covenants."

Ben said...

Kevin,

Robertson argues that the multiple covenants are one covenant with different administrations. I'm arguing that the text doesn't support that level of continuity.

Were people living under the Sinai Covenant saved by grace through faith alone? Absolutely. But the Sinai Covenant is still a different covenant from the Abrahamic and New Covenants. Not merely different in administration. Different in their essential nature.

Anonymous said...

What makes them different in their "essential nature"?

I'm not asking what makes them different, but what makes them different at the level of essence.

Keith

Anonymous said...

One more question. I thought you rejected Dispy Theology. If you also reject Cov Theology, what do you accept? And, please, please don't say "Biblicism" (or use "Biblical Theology" as a synonym for Biblicism).

Keith

Kevin Davis said...

But the Sinai Covenant is still a different covenant from the Abrahamic and New Covenants.

Yes, Reformed theology does not deny this.

Not merely different in administration. Different in their essential nature.

That means nothing without actually defining how their "essential nature" is different. Reformed theology has been careful to articulate how the efficient cause, material content, and instrumental means are the same across the covenants.

d4v34x said...

Last night, after only James had commented, I almost wrote that I should pop some popcorn, wait for Keith to show up, then watch you two go at it. :^)

Should have trusted my instincts.

Ben said...

Keith, what God binds himself to do is different. In the NC, he binds himself to put his law within his people and write it on their hearts. If you know of a place in the Sinai Covenant context that says something like that, I'd love to see it. What I see, precisely to the contrary, is that the Israelites were obligated to write the law on their own hearts.

Maybe I'm just too much of a literalist, but when Jeremiah and the author of Hebrews say that the new covenant is not like the old covenant and that the new covenant has made the first obsolete, I have a hard time seeing how it's merely an administrative change.

I'm not sure I've ever written that I reject Dispensationalism. I've obviously made some arguments that are incompatible with traditional/normative/revised/whatever D. I'm not entirely on board with PD, and I haven't yet read anything that's explicitly NCT, so I don't know how I relate to that stream. At this point, I've never encountered anything by D.A. Carson on the covenants that I disagree with, so if you know what he calls himself, let me know.

James Kime said...

Ben, I know that Carson's work on the Sermon on the Mount was a major contribution to furthering what many New Covenant Theology proponents have been saying. I don't know if he would specifically identify with NCT or not. Moo also says things that sound NCT.

Hebrews makes it clear that the Sinai covenant was temporal by nature. The whole thing was temporal. The...whole...thing.

The New Covenant by contrast is eternal, cannot be made obsolete, and will never fade away.

That just scratches the surface on the essential nature of the two.

Anonymous said...

d4,

Sorry you didn't get some popcorn and entertainment -- really.

But, sadly, I had no intention of going at it with James. And, I wasn't trying to attack Ben. Just trying to understand his point.

Ben,

Thanks for the clarification, but even if one agrees with all you've written in your response to me, it still doesn't seem to me that you've established that the covenants are "essentially" different.

In their essence they all seem to be covenants initiated by God to bring glory to himself as parts of the unfolding of his plan of redemption. They all seemed to be based on nothing but pure grace. They seem to be the same in essence but different in particulars (the things you mentioned).

Nevertheless, I'm glad to leave that word (essential) alone if you were meaning something different by it than I do.

Thanks for the clarification.

Sorry to hear that you haven't rejected dispensationalism yet. You'll be glad when you do :)

Keith

Ben said...

Keith, I guess the extent of our agreement hinges on our definition of "pure grace." Would you argue that there is no grace in God's covenant with Adam in the Garden? (I'm assuming, for sake of the argument, that it exists.)

So while I would agree that there is grace in the Sinai Covenant, I'll also argue that there's a works-based contingency that is different in essence from the Abrahamic and New Covenants.

Anonymous said...

Ben,

There was grace in God's covenant with Adam. Outside of graciousness, Adam would not even have been created, God would not have been revealed to Adam, etc.

As to the works portion of the sinaitic covenant -- wouldn't you say that every gracious covenant includes some sort of rewards for works done in faith?

Keith

David said...

Keith,

No worries, actually I was hoping more to read something to help me figure some of this stuff out better.

James Kime said...

David, the best way to figure it out is to start with scripture. When you do that, you immediately leave CT behind. Speculative covenants have no place in theology, much less a massive grid over the Bible.

d4v34x said...

James,

I agree that's the place to start, but going by that alone, I may not end up at either C or D. I'm a decent reader, but I'm not a great systematizer.

James Kime said...

David, when studying theology, that isn't a bad thing. ST often times creates problems.

Ben said...

James, the problem is not innate to ST. ST doesn't cause problems. ST is absolutely essential. The problem is with people who do ST w/o doing proper BT—people who do ST before they do BT and people whose ST drives their BT. And then some people are just bad at ST.

Anonymous said...

There's no avoiding systematics -- unless you want to just avoid certain questions altogether.

There's also no way to read the Bible (or anything else) like one is some sort of completely objective and flawlessly interpretive tabula rasa.

I love Biblical Theology. However, what many fundamentalists call BT is not what most people mean by the term. And, what they mean by the term doesn't exist.

Keith

James Kime said...

What I said was that sometimes ST creates problems. When ST becomes a grid over the Bible, ST is a problem. All ST are manmade and are fallible. Had God given us a ST, it would be perfect.

I wasn't implying one could interpret the Bible without coming to some form of ST.

Ben said...

James,

Bad ST is the problem. People do bad ST. ST isn't the problem.

Keith, you wrote:

"As to the works portion of the sinaitic covenant -- wouldn't you say that every gracious covenant includes some sort of rewards for works done in faith?"

Which covenants are gracious? I'm arguing all of them including the CoW. But this fits my argument, which is that the essence of the covenants and the nature of their unity can't be defined by an obligation of works or the presence of grace.

James Kime said...

I suppose we will have to disagree about the ST issue. I know it wasn't the intent of your post.