“Covenant theology glorifies God alone. There are other theologies abroad which magnify men; they give him a finger in his own salvation, and so leave him a reason for throwing up his cap and saying “Well done I;” but covenant theology puts man aside, and makes him a debtor and a receiver. It does, as it were, plunge him into the sea of infinite grace and unmerited favour, and it makes him give up all boasting, stopping the mouth could have boasted by filling it with floods of love, so that it utter a vainglorious word.” ~ Charles Spurgeon
Covenant theology is a conceptual overview and interpretive framework for understanding the overall flow of the Bible. It uses the theological concept of covenant as an organizing principle for Christian theology.
Covenant Theology as held by the Presbyterian and Reformed churches, which use the covenant concept as an organizing principle for Christian theology and view the history of redemption under the framework of three overarching theological covenants: the Covenant of Redemption, the Covenant of Works, and the Covenant of Grace. These three are called “theological covenants” because although not explicitly presented as covenants, they are, according to covenant theologians, implicit in the Bible.
In brief, Covenant Theology teaches that God has established two great covenants with mankind and a covenant within the Godhead to deal with how the other two relate.
The first covenant, called the Covenant of Redemption, is the agreement within the Godhead that the Father would appoint his son Jesus to give up his life for mankind and that Jesus would do so (cf. Titus 1:1-3).
The second, called the Covenant of Works, was made in the Garden of Eden between God and Adam and promised life for obedience and death for disobedience. Adam disobeyed God and broke the covenant, and so the third covenant was made between God and all of mankind, who also fell with Adam according to Romans 5:12-21.
This third covenant, the Covenant of Grace, promised eternal blessing for belief in Christ and obedience to God’s word. It is thus seen as the basis for all biblical covenants that God made individually with Noah, Abraham, and David, nationally with O.T. Israel as a people, and universally with man in the New Covenant. These individual covenants are called the “biblical covenants” because they are explicitly described as such in the Bible.
Covenant theology as a refinement of Reformed theology is evident among early Scottish theologians. For example, see The Theology and Theologians of Scotland, Chiefly of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries (1872) passage: “The old theology of Scotland might be emphatically described as a covenant theology.”
Theonomy in Covenant Theology
The law revealed by Moses and subsequent Old Testament authors was given within a covenantal administration of God’s grace which included not only moral instruction, but gloriously and mercifully “promises, prophecies, sacrifices, circumcision, the paschal lamb, and other types and ordinances delivered to the people of the Jews, all foresignifying Christ to come” (Westminster Confession of Faith VII.5). God’s revelation itself teaches us that New Covenant believers, who have the law powerfully written on their hearts (Jer. 31:31ff.; Heb. 8:8-12), no longer follow the foreshadows and administrative details of the old covenant. They are obsolete (Heb. 8:13), having been imposed only until the time when the Messiah would come (Heb. 9:10; Col. 2:17). Thus, for example, on the basis of God’s own instruction, we no longer resort to animal sacrifices at the temple and a Levitical priest (Heb. 7-10); the cultic dietary laws have been set aside, for God has cleansed the unclean meats (representing the Gentiles) from which Israel was to be separate or holy (Acts 10).
Theonomy teaches, then, that in regard to the Old Testament law, the New Covenant surpasses the Old Covenant in glory, power, and finality. The New Covenant also supersedes the Old Covenant shadows, thereby changing the application of sacrificial, purity, and “separation” principles, redefining the people of God (e.g., Matt. 21:43), and also altering the significance of the promised land (e.g., Rom. 4:13; 1 Peter 1:4).
What is crucial to notice here is that theonomic ethics comes to these conclusions on the basis of Biblical instruction. Men have no right to alter or spurn Old Testament laws on their own say-so, social traditions, or preconceived ideas about what is morally appropriate or inappropriate in the Mosaic law. They have no right to include more in the discontinuity between old and new covenants than can be warranted from divine revelation.
Theonomy thus teaches that we should presume that Old Testament laws continue to be morally binding in the New Testament unless they are rescinded or modified by further revelation. Theonomy’s methodology stands squarely against that of dispensational theology which maintains that all of the Old Testament commandments should be deemed — in advance of exegesis — to be abrogated, unless they are repeated in the New Testament.
On this issue the words of our Lord are definitive and clear in Matthew 5:17-19. Jesus declared that he did not come not abrogate the Old Testament Law and Prophets, but to give them their full measure. John Murray wrote that Jesus’ “fulfillment” of the law “refers to the function of validating and confirming the law and the prophets” (Principles of Conduct, p. 150). With respect to the Old Testament’s moral standards, Jesus went on to insist that until the end of the physical cosmos, not the slightest stroke of the law will pass away. “Therefore whoever shall break one of these least commandments and teach men so shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven.” Jesus confirmed the validity of the law, even down to its least commandment, and censures anyone who dares to teach otherwise (without authorization from the Lawgiver Himself). New Testament Christians must operate on the presumption of continuity with the Old Testament moral code.
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