In recent weeks we’ve been developing a basic, positive argument for Shadow Covenant Theology, something to kind of sketch out how history is perceived through the shadow-covenantal perspective. To summarize, there are two stories being told in history – God’s greater story of redemption from creation to the final judgement, and His shadow story from the flood of Noah to Christ’s return.
At this point I’d like to take a break from that forward motion to address some of the reasoning used within classic Covenant Theology. In a few posts we’ll begin looking at the shadow covenant itself, tracing how it relates to the greater covenant of redemption. In order to do so profitably I need to highlight one of the key places of disagreement that I hold with classic Covenant Theology, namely the way that it frames the covenants of scripture.
It’s somewhat challenging to find and distill my points of disagreement with Covenant Theology, because there’s so much that I do agree with. As I noted in my opening post, “most systems of theology have their benefits, and it would be foolish not to learn from them.” I think that this is an important point for me to remember at this juncture, because so often dispensationalists and covenant theologians will spend all of their time trying to highlight the flaws in the opposing system without pausing to learn from it, to improve their own understanding, to grow and change.
And this is important for us all to keep in mind as we develop our own personal understanding and theology. I remember something that David Guzik once said at a Calvary pastor’s conference; he was presenting to the pastors a response to the recent rise of Reformed theology in North America. Before proceeding to his main points of disagreement however, he made the following qualification:
“Now a third reason is this – and again, I hope this isn’t controversial to say; I’m just being very transparent with you – there are a great number of Calvinists historically and today that we can learn from. And I think that there are things that we can learn from Reformed theology. I’m going to put it to you this way:
– I believe in predestination.
– I believe in election.
– I believe in God’s sovereignty.
– I believe in man’s inability to save himself.
– I believe in the central place of God’s covenants in His plan of redemption.
“But I am no Calvinist, because I don’t believe in those things the way that Reformed or Calvinistic doctrine teaches them. But if you ask me, ‘Do I believe in predestination?’ Of course I do – just not the way you frame it and say it. ‘Do I believe in election?’ Of course I do – but just not in the way that you frame it or say it.
“And I’ll say this – I also appreciate many Calvinistic and Reformed thinkers and theologians…I appreciate Spurgeon, and John Stott, and Martin Luther, and Lloyd-Jones, and James Montgomery Boice, and I’ve even gotten some good stuff from Calvin…Now I can glean some things from these guys without agreeing with all their theology in the slightest.”
— David Guzik, Thoughts on Reformed Theology, (11:15 – 13:25)
In other words, there is benefit to be had by listening to and processing perspectives that we may largely disagree with; sometimes they can help to highlight the weaknesses in our own perspectives, and make us stronger. We can glean some things from competing viewpoints without agreeing with all of their theology in the slightest.
So like Guzik, I too believe in the central place of the covenants in God’s plan of redemption – just not in the way that Covenant Theology frames it, or says it. As Dr. Sproul notes,
“One doesn’t have to engage in what is sometimes called ‘Covenant Theology’ to observe this. Virtually all theological schools of thought recognize that the scriptures are filled with references to ‘covenant’.”
— R.C. Sproul, The Drama of Redemption (Disc 1, Track 3, 0:52 – 1:08)
Even dispensationalists will usually recognize and agree that covenants are a dominant theme in scripture, and certainly Shadow Covenant Theology wouldn’t argue against their importance. So where is it exactly that I disagree with Covenant Theology? I’ll put it this way:
- I agree with the centrality of the covenants in scripture.
- I agree that there is a single, unified covenant of redemption spanning from the beginning of God’s story to the end.
- I disagree with the idea that all of the divinely administered covenants in scripture are somehow expressions or administrations of that one covenant of redemption.
In other words, classic Covenant Theology rests upon the idea that all of the (major) covenants in scripture are really the same covenant, though it appears somewhat differently in different eras of time. Robertson gives a more complete summary of this thesis in his chapter on The Unity of the Divine Covenants.
“Scripture obviously presents a series of covenantal relationships instituted by the one true living God. The primary covenants in Scripture are those made with Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, and the new covenant. In addition, strong evidence favors viewing the original creation relationship between God and man, as well as the first bond established by God with man after the fall, as covenantal.
“How do these various covenants relate to one another? If the interjection of divine initiative into human history comes by way of the covenants, how do these covenants coordinate?
“Obviously an element of freshness and newness will emerge each time the Lord God constitutes a distinctive relation to his people. But does some unity bind together the various covenantal administrations spread across human history? Are the covenants to be viewed as successive and distinctive commitments that replace one another in temporal sequence? Or do the covenants build the one on the the other so that each successive covenant supplements its predecessors without at the same time supplanting the continuing role of the more ancient bond between God and his people?
“The cumulative evidence of the Scriptures points definitely toward the unified character of the biblical covenants. God’s multiple bonds with his people ultimately unite into a single relationship. Particular details of the covenants may vary. A definite line of progress may be noted. Yet the covenants of God are one.”
— O. Palmer Robertson Christ in the Covenants, pp. 27-28
Robertson’s primary concern in this statement appears to be the debunking of Dispensationalism’s view of the covenants, that “the covenants [are] to be viewed as successive and distinctive commitments that replace one another in temporal sequence.” In doing so however he presents us with a false dichotomy, giving the sense that we have two choices – either the covenants replace one another (Dispensationalism), or they build upon each-other as a unified whole (Covenant Theology). This entirely ignores other possibilities, such as the following:
- The divine covenants don’t relate to each-other at all, or have a different kind of relationship; they neither replace one another, nor do they build on one another, but exist in their own right.
- Some covenants operate on their own; others build on one another.
- Some covenants relate to the covenant of redemption whereas others relate to the covenant of creation. Still others relate to both or neither.
- History isn’t marked off exclusively by the introduction and/or deprecation of covenants; other motifs and events come into play as well.
In other words, just because Dispensationalism is wrong in its framing of the covenants, that doesn’t mean that Covenant Theology is right. I’m not a dispensationalist; I don’t believe that the covenants of scripture mark off “successive and distinctive commitments that replace one another in temporal sequence.” Yet I will need a great deal more convincing before I ever allow myself to think that “the covenants of God are one.”
Consider for example the Noahic covenant. The covenant with Noah was an unconditional agreement between God, man, and certain animals, and it was made with a very specific purpose; in it God promised that He would never again destroy the earth with a flood (Gen 9:11). Whereas the covenant of redemption is made only with the people of God, the Noahic covenant is given to all mankind, and to the animals. It doesn’t matter if you’re a tiger; it doesn’t matter if you’re an unbeliever; it doesn’t matter if you shake your fist at God and curse Him to His face – He will never again destroy the earth with a flood, period.
This is very different from e.g. the Mosaic covenant, which was a conditional agreement between God and the children of Israel. Both God and Israel were expected to fulfill certain obligations of the covenant; various curses and blessings were defined for the covenant breakers and keepers (Lev 26). This covenant was not, as far as I know, given to any animals (though certainly there were laws to benefit animals, e.g. Deut 25:4). If you were a tiger; if you were an unbeliever; if you did shake your fist at God and curse Him to His face, then you did not experience the blessings of the covenant.
To say that the Noahic and Mosaic covenants are two expressions of the same covenant goes far beyond the bounds of scripture, at least insofar as I can see. Certainly the Mosaic covenant doesn’t usurp or replace the Noahic covenant; we are still experiencing the blessings of God’s promise to Noah today. But neither does it extend or supplement the Noahic covenant; these exist as two separate covenants that God has made with two different groups of people.
Rather than trying to force the covenants of scripture into a framework that views them all as one, perhaps it would be better to view each covenant in its own right, with its own contents and context. Certainly we may have situations where successive covenants should be viewed as one entity; the idea that the Mosaic covenant extends or builds upon the Abrahamic covenant is a highly defensible viewpoint. And undoubtedly all of the divine covenants are related to God’s plan of redemption in one way or another. But the idea that all biblical covenants are expressions of the covenant of redemption simply does not hold water in my estimation, and this is a key point of disagreement between my view and classic Covenant Theology.
In my next post, I’ll dig into some of the reasoning that Robertson uses to support this thesis, and I’ll endeavor to demonstrate the places where I believe his reasoning goes awry.