31. What is Covenant Theology?

Covenant Theology is a framework for understanding the overarching storyline of the bible, which emphasizes that God's redemptive plan and his dealings with mankind are without exception worked out in accordance with the covenants that he has sovereignly established. Although the importance of the divine covenants has been realized since the time of the earliest church fathers, Covenant Theology was not articulated as a thoroughly developed system, taking into account the entire extent of biblical revelation, until the days of the sixteenth and seventeenth century reformers, such as the influential Johannes Cocceius and Herman Witsius. The Westminster Confession of Faith is a landmark seventeenth century document that displays a robust, fully-developed Covenant Theology throughout.

Basically, Covenant Theology organizes biblical revelation around three unified but distinct covenants: the Covenant of Redemption, between the persons of the Trinity in eternity past, in which the Father promises to give a people to the Son as his inheritance, and the Son undertakes to redeem them; the Covenant of Works, which God enjoined upon Adam in the Garden, solemnly promising him eternal life if he passed the probationary test in the Garden of Eden (also, many covenant theologians see the covenant given on Mount Sinai as being in some sense a republication of the Covenant of Works); and finally, the Covenant of Grace, which God first entered into with Adam immediately after the Fall, when he promised to send a Seed of the woman, who would defeat the tempting serpent (Gen. 3:15). In the Covenant of Grace, God promises a champion to fulfill the broken Covenant of Works as a federal representative of his people, and so to earn its blessings in their behalf. All the later covenants of the bible, such as those which God confirmed to Noah, Abraham, David, and the New Covenant which promises to fulfill these prior covenants in the prophecies of Jeremiah and Ezekiel, are all organically connected, essentially being different administrations of the one eternal Covenant of Grace, which build upon each other and are all brought to completion in the New Covenant which Christ inaugurated with his shed blood.

Different theologians, have proposed several different definitions of a biblical covenant; but perhaps the best is O. Palmer Robertson's phrase, “A bond-in-blood sovereignly administered” (The Christ of the Covenants, P&R Publishing, p. 15). Covenants are typically characterized by a visible sign and seal, which serves to “remind” God of his promises to those whom he has entered into covenant with. Some examples of these covenant signs are the rainbow, given to Noah; circumcision, given to Abraham; and baptism and the Lord's Supper, given to believers after the coming of Christ.

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