Covenant Theology: Biblical, Theological, and Historical Perspectives

Guy Prentiss Waters, Nicholas J. Reid, and John R. Muether, eds., Covenant Theology: Biblical, Theological, and Historical Perspectives (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2020).

This volume begins with a clear assertion: “Covenant theology is Reformed theology” (23). While other theological traditions have drawn attention to the covenant theme in Scripture, the doctrine of the covenant became central to the Reformed presentation of the gospel, particularly in the seventeenth century and following.

Including twenty-seven well-respected contributors—all members of the faculty at Reformed Theological—this book presents covenant theology from Biblical, historical, and theological perspectives. This robust treatment will introduce divine covenants to serious readers and help them develop this important theme as it relates to other disciplines.            

The biblical section includes thirteen chapters, while the sections devoted to historical and “collateral theological studies” include seven each. The biblical material treats the covenants of redemption, works, and grace, largely following the unfolding message of Scripture chronologically, and covering the spectrum of the biblical canon. Roughly half of the historical material takes readers from the early church, through the middle ages, up to the Reformation. The other half of this section examines post-Reformation developments, the Dutch Reformed tradition, Karl Barth and the Torrance brothers, and recent theological developments. The third and final section lifts issues that arose in the preceding sections for further expansion, including ancient near Eastern backgrounds to covenant theology, New Testament scholarship, Israel and the nations, Dispensationalism, New Covenant theologies, and the relation of covenant theology to assurance and to the sacraments. The volume concludes with an essay, adapted from a sermon, by Kevin DeYoung on the basic components and general importance of covenant theology for the church. While every section of the book includes excellent material, I found its historical and “collateral” material to be some of the best and most helpful parts of the work.

A number of features stood out to this reviewer as particularly valuable. First, while expressing some diversity of views, all of the authors seek to maintain a unified biblical and confessional approach to the covenants. Most of the chapters make substantial reference to the Westminster Standards, and the biblical material undergirds the theological conclusions that these authors hold in common. Second, there is a full defense of the covenant of works in two chapters (2 and 3). The covenant of works does not disappear after this stage, but it stands at the heart of the parallels between Adam and Christ in Christ’s work of redemption throughout. This is important, partly because the covenant of works has been under attack in recent debates. Third, the focus of the book as a whole is distinctly Trinitarian (see into pp. 34). This comes out strongly in Gregory Lanier’s treatment of covenant themes in the book of Revelation (chapter 13), but it appears throughout.

Several chapters are particularly noteworthy. The two chapters by Guy Waters (3 and 11) are exegetically satisfying and yield rich biblical and theological insights in relation to the covenant of works in the New Testament and the covenant in Paul’s epistles. Blair Smith’ treatment of the development of post-Reformation covenant theology (chapter 17) provides an excellent overview of many of the main issues involving continuity and development in Reformed thought during this period. Bruce Baugus’ material (chapter 18) on Dutch Reformed covenant theology complements this chapter by tracing Dutch Reformed covenant theology with equal quality, which subject is important because Dutch authors shaped much of covenant theology, even though their doctrinal standards say very little about the doctrine. Chapters twenty-one and twenty-two introduce readers, with exceptional clarity, to recent developments in Ancient Near Eastern studies and Second Temple Judaism, which have touched virtually all modern studies of the Old and New Testaments. The authors give readers a reliable guide to the relevant issues that prioritize the Bible itself rather than its surrounding contexts. Lastly, Scott Swain’s treatment of New Covenant Theologies is noteworthy because instead of merely describing views that he disagrees with, he establishes a Reformed reading of the new covenant in Jeremiah 31:31-34 and stresses points of convergence as well as divergence with opposing views. Doing so promotes a positive, rather than a polemical tone.

Even though this volume is a good guide to covenant theology as a whole, a few deficiencies—in part reflecting my own biases—are worth noting. Chapter one, on the covenant of redemption, notes how quickly this doctrine passed into Reformed theology (57), but the author neglects the primary theological reasons behind the doctrine. Historically, the covenant of redemption combatted both legalism and antinomianism by grounding the gracious character of the gospel in the eternal covenant, which was unconditional regarding the elect, and by requiring the condition of faith in the temporal covenant of grace. The grounds of our redemption is unconditional, while the way of receiving redemption is conditioned on faith, supplied by the Spirit, leading to repentance and working by love. The covenant of redemption thus ruled out both legalism and antinomianism. Expounding biblical passages alone can show an eternal aspect to God’s plan of redemption, but it does not adequately show the theological reasons for distinguishing between an eternal and temporal covenant, as opposed to asserting eternal and temporal aspects in the same covenant. Additionally, the author does not adequately treat the condescension of the Spirit as the promised gift of the covenant of redemption, leaving the place of the Spirit underdeveloped (61). Historically, the Spirit was regarded as the Father’s promise to Christ in the eternal covenant of redemption, so that he might become Christ’s gift to the church in the covenant of grace. The Spirit is active in the covenant of redemption in a way that reflects the eternal processions of the divine persons, as well as their historical missions with respect to our salvation. The Father is the contracting party, as the originator of every divine work. The Son is the party who receives covenant promises and conditions, as the one who accomplishes every divine work. The Spirit, while not a party in the covenant, is the promise proceeding from the covenant between the Father and the Son, as the one who proceeds from Father and Son eternally, and who perfects every divine work. The Spirit thus becomes the link between the covenant of redemption and the covenant of grace.

The other issue that stood out was Van Pelt’s exposition of the Noahic covenant (chapter 5). He treats the covenant of Gen. 6:18 as distinct from the covenant found in Genesis 9. The former was with Noah as an individual and promoted the promise of Gen. 3:15, requiring obedience. The second was universal with the entire world, and did not require obedience, renewing the principle of common grace (127). Yet it is possible (and preferable, in my view) to read the Noahic covenant as continuing the covenant of grace made with Adam, with common grace benefits for the rest of the world in calling them to repentance and delaying the judgment. Without getting into specific exegetical details here, this option seems to fit better with the narrative of Scripture as a whole, as well as with Peter’s appeal to the flood as a type of final judgment in 2 Pet 3, where he argues that God delays the final judgment due to his longsuffering in calling his people to repentance and salvation. Van Pelt’s appears to assume a creation covenant distinct from both the covenant of works and the covenant of grace. I believe that there is no Scriptural warrant for a creation covenant separate from the covenant of works. This scheme results in a creation covenant, a covenant of grace, and possibly a distinct Mosaic covenant in the Old Testament. The make four covenants in the Old Testament rather than two: a covenant of works and a single covenant of grace. This, at least, is a different covenant scheme from that found in the Westminster Standards. John Scott Redd opposes this idea as well, arguing for a single covenant of grace including the Noahic covenant (134).

On a few minor notes, it is surprising that chapter 12 treating the covenant in Hebrews omits Hebrews 9:16-17, since this passage stands at the heart of debates over whether the new covenant is a covenant or a testament. This omission results in a bit of a theological vacuum in relation to an important, and long-standing, topic. In addition, it appears as though the authors do not devote enough attention to the sacraments, since only one chapter mentions the sacraments in detail (chapter 27), and references to the sacraments elsewhere are scattered at best. Sacraments are integral to covenant theology, since sacraments are covenant signs and seals. Covenant theology is also integral to the sacraments, since the covenant is the primary means by which we understand, appreciate, and apply the sacraments in the life of the church. Lastly, one author makes the common mistake of referring to the inclusion of the pre-temporal covenant of redemption is a “three-covenant scheme” (31). This is not true historically, since three covenants referred to the Mosaic covenant bearing a unique character. Rather than adding a third (or fourth!) covenant to the list, the covenant of redemption was an eternal covenant that stood behind two (or three!) historical covenants.

Covenant theology still stands at the heart of Reformed theology. Though, as this book shows, Reformed theology is not alone in treating covenant themes, the covenant has a special place in Reformed faith and practice. The doctrine of the covenant is biblical, historical, and contemporary. Despite its size, this volume serves as a good introduction to the topic in at an accessible level. Readers at every stage of growth in the Christian faith can benefit from these pages. 

Ryan McGraw (@RyanMMcGraw1) is associate professor of Systematic Theology at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Greenville, South Carolina.

Related Links

Covenant Theology: Biblical, Theological, and Historical Perspectives

Podcast: "Foundations of Covenant Theology"

"Sign and Seal" by Ryan McGraw

"Defending the Covenant of Redemption" by Scott Swain
[ Part 1  |  Part 2  |  Part 3 ]

David's Son and David's Lord, edited by Ryan McGraw and Michael Morales

Backdrop for a Glorious Gospel: The Covenant of Works according to William Strong by Thomas Parr