Biblical Covenants

Introductory Comments

Current discussion on the topics of biblical covenants swirls through theological circles like a Martian dust storm. Two types of theological particulates cloud the atmosphere and blot out light. Both covenantalism, on one hand, and dispensationalism, on the other hand, contribute to the tempest. Simultaneously, movements have taken place from both sides of the spectrum to try to meet somewhere in the middle for the purpose of allowing some clearing of the dust-filled skies. As a result, we now must seek to understand and collocate what is called “progressive dispensationalism” and “progressive covenantalism,” the response to the older “progressive dispensationalism.” “New covenant theology” has also added to the mix of positions and theological systems competing for attention and angling for converts in a postmodern world in which “traditional” theological stances are held suspect. Perhaps the question I hear most often is, “What difference does it make?” First of all, one’s position in this debate quite often reflects a person’s hermeneutics (method of interpreting the Bible). Secondly, the position one takes can profoundly affect whether they end up amillennial, premillennial, or postmillennial in their eschatology — signaling their view of the Messianic Kingdom. Thirdly, a person’s eschatology ultimately determines whether there is any remaining divine program for the nation of Israel. Replacement theology highlights one such outcome. Therefore, what we believe about the biblical covenants can have a profound effect on our theological position. In the midst of the theological tempest everyone seeks a mountain peak offering a position above the theological dust storm in the realm of light. 

A Brief Look Back

Back in 2015 I contributed an 8-part series entitled “Covenants and Dispensations” to the Dispensational Publishing Blog. It seems to me that it is time to recycle that blog. Why recycle it now? — because conversations with a number of pastors and teachers in the past few weeks have revealed that seminaries formerly taking a solid dispensational stand have hired professors who teach covenantalism. Seminaries with correct Reformed Christology, Trinitarianism, and soteriology appear to be moving in the direction of Reformed eschatology and replacement theology. And, along with the change in theology has come a change in hermeneutical methodology, because the changing theological landscape depends upon adopting a changed hermeneutic.

Being a retired professor of Old Testament and Hebrew, I can look back over the past half-century or more of theological developments. I know where Dallas Theological Seminary used to stand and where the seminaries I attended and taught at stood. There was a time when none of those seminaries would have even considered hiring a covenantal theologian to teach any theology class. They understood clearly what comes of an unequal theological yoke — confusion, obfuscation, and theological drift. When first-year students apply to an institution claiming to be dispensational, but are taught covenantal theology in their first course in theology, they rightly question whether they really made the right choice of school.

Let’s be clear — I’m fully convinced that students ought to be taught about differing theological positions and systems. However, it is a totally different matter when students are taught that the Bible teaches a “covenant of works” and a “covenant of redemption/grace.” Even solid (dare I say “traditional”?) covenantal theologians question the existence of these covenants in Scripture — see Anthony A. Hoekema, Created in God’s Image (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1994), 119-21. Such unbiblical covenants arise out of reading the white spaces and using one’s imagination to concoct covenants the Bible nowhere specifically identifies. Then, when those unbiblical covenants are used to argue for other theological viewpoints and positions, the whole theological framework becomes unsteady and ready to collapse.

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