Sunday, September 16, 2012

What I find mostly helpful about Covenant Theology

     We have noticed for the past couple of days the value of looking at the Bible as both a "Book of Ages" and a "Book of Covenants".  Yesterday I wrote regarding what I find mostly helpful about dispensational theology.  As a system of biblical theology, dispensationalism is "mostly helpful", however there are parts about it with which I do not find to be helpful.  In like manner, Covenant theology, or the viewpoint that understands scripture through the various covenants, is an incredible system.  Yet like dispensational theology, Covenant theology has its strengths and weaknesses too.  Today I want to mention some things I find helpful, and a few things I don't agree with when it comes to Covenant theology.

Why I like Covenant Theology
1. Unity of the scripture.  Covenant theology emphasizes the grand unity of the Biblical text.  Through almost all of the the covenants we find the unifying idea of "promise" and a "descendant" or "seed".  That promise and that seed focuses the Christian upon Christ, who came and fulfilled the covenants in a grand way in His first coming, and who will come and fulfill them in a final way in His second coming.

2. Focus on Salvation.  The great work of salvation is the chief topic of discussion in all forms of Covenant Theology.  Adam breaks the original covenant of works - consigning all of his descendants to a curse.  God in turn issues a second covenant - a covenant of grace.  The basis of that covenant was grace, the grounds was to be the shedding of blood and the means of reception - faith.  This pattern characterizes Biblical salvation from Genesis to Revelation.

3. Focus on Christ.  The strength of dispensational theology is God's glory in Christ. In covenant theology, the focus is God's salvation culminating in Christ and His work. 

4. God's Sovereignty.  Some of the greatest writers of present and past who have written on God's comprehensive control of all places and times (Sovereignty) have espoused Covenant Theology.  Along with the Bible's teaching of human responsibility, I applaud this much needed emphasis of God's Sovereignty. 1   To know that God is the one reaching down to man into this lower story of existence is truly a comforting thought.

5. The emphasis of progressive revelation.  Much like dispensational theology, Covenant theology sees God progressively revealing and unfolding His plan of redemption.  Every covenant represents the unfolding of another detail of the grand saga of redemption.

Some weaknesses of Covenant Theology
Despite the rich heritage and insights that can be gained by viewing the Bible through the lenses of the covenants, there are some weaknesses which I must point out:

1. Confusing Israel and the Church.  Many Covenant Theologians that I have read deny the distinction between Israel and the Church - called by their critics "replacement theology".  Those who equate both cite passages such as Galatians 6:16 and Ephesians 2:15-16, which on first glance seem to indicate that the Church has indeed replaced Israel.  This is one aspect of Covenant Theology that I find non-helpful.  Why? For one thing, Paul is comparing the Church to be "like Israel".  It is far different to say that the Church is "like Israel" as compared to saying Church "is" Israel or that she has "replaced" Israel.  

Often we will see Christian conversion being called "circumcision of the heart" (Colossians 2:12-13) or the distinction between one who is a Jew "outwardly" versus one who is "inward". (Romans 2:29)  These again are "comparisons", not equatings of Israel and the Church.  The Church has not replaced Israel, as seen in passages that promise Israel's restoration (Romans 11:25-26), as well as the classification of Gentiles, Israel and the Church in 1 Corinthians 10:32.  To deny these distinctions is (in my mind), to confuse passages which speak clearly about the church versus those which promise the restoration of Israel. 

2. Stressing too much the continuity between Old and New Testaments.  If not regulated, Covenant theology's tendency to stress unity will blur what are some legitimate areas of distinction in the Bible (i.e Israel and the Church, initial fulfillment versus ultimate fulfillment of prophecies). This second weakness is taking the strength of Covenant theology (the unity of scripture) and almost ignoring the diversity that also exists between the Old and New Testaments.  A small bit of dispensationalism can help counterbalance this trend.   Passages like Colossians 2:12-13 are comparing both, saying that one is "likened" to another.  However to say that there is total continuity is going, in my estimation, beyond the intent of the text. Placing Christ and His work at the center of our understanding of the relationship between both Old and Testaments will enable us to know best how to identify both similarities and the differences between both.  Note #2

Just like in yesterday's blog on why I mostly agree with dispensationalism, I would say that I mostly agree with Covenant theology.   

Why does this matter, and how much does it matter?
On the one hand issues such as Covenant Theology and Dispensational Theology are not "Heaven and Hell issues" - meaning that holding to one or another will not determine one's salvation.  With that said, it is important to understand how one is going to approach God's Word in understanding God's dealings with His world and with His people.  Does God keep His promises or break them? Which portions of God's Word have been fulfilled by Christ and if those portions have been fulfilled, then how do I still use them in my Christian life today?

Questions such as these are one's we must continually ask as we grow in Christ and in His Word.  As a Christian, I desire to better understand how God's Word does fit together, and how my life is to be shaped and molded by it. 

End Notes____________

1. Dispensational teaching attempts to do this as well, with newer forms of dispensationalism doing better than older versions.  I attribute this mainly to the fact that over the decades, movements within dispensational theology such as Ryrie's Revised dispensationalism of the 1960's and Progressive Dispensationalism of the 1990's aimed to be more precise in communicating the overarching purposes of God through the ages.

 To say for instance that Old Testament circumcision is to be equated with New Testament baptism is going too far. Practices such as Infant Baptism build its case off of the circumcision of infants carrying over into the New Testament baptism of infants as covenant children.  As a practice, infant baptism constructs its arguments more off of drawing parallel points between the Old and New Testaments, rather than direct biblical commands concerning the baptism or sprinkling of infants (none of which exists in the scripture).  In other blogs I have written more at length on believer's baptism by immersion, which with direct statements from scripture, word studies and church history demonstrates it to be the biblical mode of baptism.  

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