Let’s Rethink This “Covenant” Issue, Shall We!

Bill Evans head shot

In a recent article (“Déjà Vu All Over Again?: The Contemporary Reformed Soteriological Controversy in Historical Perspective,” Westminster Theological Journal 72/1 (2010): 135-151) I suggested that “the role of the covenant theme in Reformed systematic theology” needs to be reexamined.  I noted the way that covenant is presented as the programmatic theme in theology by schools of thought that nevertheless stand in serious conflict with one another over the nature of the theme itself, as well as ongoing and persistent problems of covenant definition and squabbles over covenant conditionality and unconditionality.  In short, the notion of covenant, long thought by many to be the very hallmark of the Reformed tradition, actually seems to be an ongoing problem for the conservative Reformed tradition.

Just to be clear (for those who still seem to think that Dispensationalism and the later federal [i.e., bi-covenantal] theology are the only evangelical options), I’m no Dispensationalist.  I don’t buy the “earthly people of God” and “heavenly people of God” dichotomy, or the notion that Jesus during his ministry made a bona-fide offer of an earthly millennial kingdom to the Jews.  Nor am I premillennial (of any variety) in my eschatology.  And just for the record, I love the Heidelberg Catechism and the Westminster Confession, and there is rather little in the WCF that I don’t embrace.

A bit of historical background is needful.  Some—particularly those suspicious of any suggestion of discontinuity between Calvin and the later Calvinists—will not agree with everything I say here, and that’s OK.  I too tend to assume continuity . . . except when the texts demand a different conclusion.  That being said, my sense is that what follows here is defensible in terms of mainstream scholarship on the topic.

After Calvin, whose use of the covenant theme is both limited and judicious, some Reformed thinkers came to believe that all God’s dealings with humanity must be covenantal.  There are, of course, cultural and theological reasons that account for this striking popularity of the covenant concept; these have been explored at length in the scholarly literature and need not detain us here.  Thus it was that the pre-Fall situation of the first parents was understood in terms of a “covenant of works” or “covenant of creation.”  Likewise, and with considerably more exegetical and historical foundation, the economy of salvation was understood in terms of a “covenant of grace.”   The covenant theme was even projected into the divine psychology via the notion of an eternal “covenant of redemption” between the Father and the Son to accomplish redemption for the elect.

But all this stress on covenant, what we might call “pervasive covenantalism,” raises the question of whether prominence has turned into overemphasis and imbalance.  Are we dealing, as OT scholar John Stek has argued in a fine but somewhat overlooked article (“Covenant Overload in Reformed Theology,” Calvin Theological Journal 29 (1994): 12-41), with a case of “covenant overload”?  I would argue that this pervasive covenantalism has in fact led to some serious problems.  Let me mention four of them.

First, we can at least raise the question of the biblical support for pervasive covenantalism.  Exegetical arguments for a “covenant of redemption” and a “covenant of works” are inferential at best.  More seriously, John Stek has persuasively argued in the article cited above that the covenant theme emerges in Scripture as an accommodation to the ANE cultural context in which suzerainty treaties were familiar, and that it is a secondary theme which functions within the context of relationships already constituted.  In short, the theme of covenant was simply never intended as a timeless, all-encompassing organizing principle of theology.  If Stek is correct, there is much work to be done, and these issues should be of concern to those who are ostensibly committed to sola Scriptura.

And while we are discussing the problem of exegetical foundation, there is the related question of whether an excessive focus on covenant has led to a distortion of the biblical materials, and more specifically to a “flattening” of redemptive-historical differences.  According to the NT, the great covenantal watershed difference in Scripture is the transition from the Mosaic covenant economy to the New Covenant inaugurated by the coming of the Messiah.  But, as some have pointed out, pervasive covenantalism implicitly locates the decisive covenantal transition in Genesis 3 with the shift from the covenant of works to the covenant of grace, and the remainder of the OT and the NT is viewed as largely continuous administrations of the covenant of grace.  To be sure, there is considerable biblical truth in this notion of the unity of the covenant of grace under different dispensations—the unity of the testaments and the story of redemption in some sense hangs on it—and I affirm that as far as it goes.  But as this has been applied in Reformed circles, the overwhelming emphasis has tended to be on continuity, and this has led to some rather odd appropriations of OT materials by Reformed people over the years.  For example, many New England Puritans viewed themselves as a sort of “New Israel” subject to the blessings and curses of the Mosaic covenant, and more recently some have argued for the continuing validity and application of the Mosaic civil laws.  Both of these moves would have been unlikely in a different theological context.

Not surprisingly, this emphasis on continuity has led to reactions and attempted corrections.  For example, Dispensationalists have said, “Wait a minute, there are real differences in the ways that God deals with people at different times.”  And the New Perspective writers have said, “Wait a minute, the transition from the Old Covenant to the New was a really big deal, and our theology needs to account for this!”  Now I’m not arguing for either of these correctives, but they were responding to a real problem.

Second, there is the simple problem of definition.  After about four centuries of covenant theology we have yet to arrive at a generally accepted theological definition of “covenant,” and the competing schools of thought today (Murray, Shepherd, Kline, Robertson, Schilder, etc.) are reasonably well known.  Many of the points of difference have to do with whether the covenant is conditional or unconditional, and in what ways.  Sometimes I sense that the term “covenant” is a sort of theological wallpaper used to cover a multitude of conceptual ambiguities.  And this situation is not helped by the fact that the term “covenant,” perhaps because of its ambiguity, has considerable appeal in the popular marketplace.  Thus we have recent books on “covenantal worship,” “covenant epistemology,” “covenantal apologetics,” and so on.  I’m not saying these are bad books, but there is a larger problem that needs to be noted.

Third, and related to the definitional problem noted above, there is the problem of oscillation between legalism and antinomianism.  This is complicated phenomenon due to a number of factors, but part of it has to do with the way that those who frame the covenant of grace in primarily unconditional terms can tend toward antinomiamism, while those who frame it in primarily conditional terms can raise the spectre of legalism.  In fact, the tradition has tended to swing back and forth, repeating the same old debates in the same old terms every third generation or so.

Finally, this pervasive covenantalism has led to extrinsic views of solidarity in sin and salvation in which the unity and concreteness of salvation in Christ has been obscured.  Instead, salvation has often been understood more abstractly as on the basis of what Christ has done.  Notions of “federal” or “covenantal” or “legal” unions with Christ and Adam provided a conceptual apparatus for articulating nominal or extrinsic relationships between Adam and humanity and between Christ and the Christian.   By the 19th century this extrinsicism was so ingrained in the tradition that later federalist such as Charles Hodge, William Cunningham, and Louis Berkhof were taking Calvin to task for his view of union with Christ, and the rich sacramental theology of the earlier Reformed tradition was not-so-subtly reinterpreted (as John W. Nevin demonstrated in his The Mystical Presence and subsequent debate with Hodge).  Such a covenant-driven extrinsic view of salvation is also, I think, evident in Karl Barth, where it is made even more abstract by his objectivism (which obviates the need for human response) and his actualistic ontology.

Are there alternatives within the Reformed tradition to this pervasive covenantalism?  Indeed there are.  For example, Calvin’s more limited and careful deployment of the covenant theme is instructive, and there have always been Reformed realists who have sought a basis for solidarity deeper than the merely nominal or “legal.”  More recently, A. T. B. McGowan has argued in a significant study of Scottish covenant theology that, in the final analysis, the deeper issues at stake are solidarity in sin and solidarity in salvation, and that the notion of “covenant” may not be the most useful conceptuality for expressing these realities.  Such a move, we should recognize, puts Reformed theology back into fruitful dialogue with the great Irenaean tradition of real solidarity with Adam and Christ as it was mediated to both East and West.

On the other hand, we could just continue to rehash the same old issues in the same old ways.