by John Murray
STUDENTS of historical theology, even those who entertain a radically different view of the history of divine revelation from that which governs the thought of classic Reformed theology, have recognized that the covenant theology marked an epoch in the appreciation and understanding of the progressiveness of divine revelation. William Robertson Smith, for example, gives the following appraisal: ‘With all its defects, the Federal theology of Cocceius is the most important attempt, in the older Protestant theology, to do justice to the historical development of revelation’. Geerhardus Vos, steeped in and sympathetic towards the covenant theology, says that it ‘has from the beginning shown itself possessed of a true historic sense in the apprehension of the progressive character of the deliverance of truth.’
When we use the term “covenant theology”, however, we must not restrict this evaluation to the more fully developed covenant theology of the seventeenth century. For in John Calvin there is a distinct emphasis upon the historic progressiveness and continuity of redemptive revelation. We need only to be reminded of the Institutes, Book II, Chapters x and xi where he unfolds in detail the similarities and differences of the two Testaments. It is in connection with this discussion that he says: ‘The covenant of all the fathers is so far from differing substantially from ours, that it is the very same. Only the administration varies.’ Later, in one of the most significant statements relevant to this subject, he says: ‘If the subject still appears involved in any obscurity, let us proceed to the very form of the covenant; which will not only satisfy sober minds, but will abundantly prove the ignorance of those who endeavour to oppose it. For the Lord has always covenanted thus with his servants: ‘I will be to you a God, and ye shall be to me a people" (Lv. xxvi. 12). These expressions, according to the common explanation of the prophets, comprehend life, and salvation, and consummate felicity.’ Nothing could be more pertinent to the perspective which is indispensable to the proper understanding of covenant revelation than the recognition that the central element of the blessing involved in covenant grace is the relationship expressed in the words, ‘I will be your God, and ye shall be my people’.
The covenant theology not only recognized the organic unity and progressiveness of redemptive revelation but also the fact that redemptive revelation was covenant revelation and that the religion of piety which was the fruit and goal of this covenant revelation was covenant religion or piety. The necessity of this conclusion can readily be shown by the fact that the relation of grace and promise established by God with Abraham was a covenant relation. It is this Abrahamic covenant, so explicitly set forth in Genesis xv and xvii, that underlies the whole subsequent development of God’s redemptive promise, word, and action. It is in terms of the promise given to Abraham, that in him and in his seed all the families of the earth would be blessed, that God sent forth His Son in the fulness of time in order that He might redeem them that were under the law and all without distinction might receive the adoption of sons. It is in fulfilment of this promise to Abraham that there is now no longer Jew nor Gentile, male nor female, bond nor free, that Christ is all and in all, and that all believers are blessed with faithful Abraham. The redemptive grace of God in the highest and furthest reaches of its realization is the unfolding of the promise given to Abraham and therefore the unfolding of the Abrahamic covenant. Soteriology is covenant soteriology and eschatology is covenant eschatology.
The covenant theology was governed by this insight and by this conception. It was in the Reformed theology that the covenant theology developed, and the greatest contribution of covenant theology was its covenant soteriology and eschatology.
It would not be, however, in the interests of theological conservation or theological progress for us to think that the covenant theology is in all respects definitive and that there is no further need for correction, modification, and expansion. Theology must always be undergoing reformation. The human understanding is imperfect. However architectonic may be the systematic constructions of any one generation or group of generations, there always remains the need for correction and reconstruction so that the structure may be brought into closer approximation to the Scripture and the reproduction be a more faithful transcript or reflection of the heavenly exemplar. It appears to me that the Covenant theology, notwithstanding the finesse of analysis with which it was worked out and the grandeur of its articulated systematization, needs recasting. We would not presume to claim that we shall be so successful in this task that the reconstruction will displace and supersede the work of the classic covenant theologians. But with their help we may be able to contribute a little towards a more biblically articulated and formulated construction of the covenant concept and of its application to our faith, love, and hope.
Table of Contents
Definition Of The Term 'Covenant
The Use Of The Term In Scripture
(a) Covenants Between Men
(b) Covenants Made By Man With God
(c) Divine Covenants
The Post-Diluvian Noahic Covenant
The Abrahamic Covenant
The Mosaic Covenant
The Davidic Covenant
Covenant In The New Testament
(a) The New Covenant And The Old
(b) The Concept Of "Testament"