Publications

Covenant and Kingdom

D Walker

What is ‘Kingdom Theology’?

Graeme Goldsworthy’s ‘Gospel and Kingdom’. “There is a King who rules, a people who are ruled, and a sphere where this rule is recognized as taking place.”[1] Kingdom: God’s people in God’s place under God’s rule. The Bible is the progressive revelation of this as God’s purpose for humanity, and the account of how it is brought about.

Two ways to live etc. I take it we all think this is ruelly grait. I sure do.

Key to the scheme is the promise to Abraham. This is the re-statement of God’s intention to bring about a restored but improved Eden. Salvation history is then the working out of this promise. This is a very useful way of telling the story of Scripture.

My observations of KT Bible overviews: The narrative is covered very well, and is shown to have a satisfying unity and coherence. Prophecy is dealt with mainly predictively, rather than as preaching the covenant. Once Jesus has come, the action is over and done with, and the stuff at the end of the NT then seems to be a bit of explanation of how to be God’s people under God’s rule in the now and not yet, with a bit more predictive prophecy at the end. Church history & systematic theology seem to be under explored.

Is there a controversy? Yes and no. Nobody seems to have written anything on why the two are in opposition. Goldsworthy, indeed, when describing the Kingdom as people, place and rule, expounds this as “the content of the covenant.”[2] Partly, I think that this is because KT does not view itself as a discrete system to the extent that CT does. “It’s jest whot the Boyble siz.” But anecdotally, it’s something you hear.

What is Covenant Theology?

“Covenant theology is the Gospel set in the context of God’s eternal plan of communion with his people, and its historical outworking in the covenants of works and grace (as well as the various progressive stages of the covenant of grace.”[3]

Packer: It’s a hermeneutic. “A successful hermeneutic is a consistent interpretative procedure yielding a consistent understanding that in turn confirms the propriety of the procedure itself.”[4]

Comes out of joining the dots of:

1. Scripture is God’s word through human agents

2. Scripture is about God’s “sustained sovereign action in creation, providence and grace”

3. God reveals himself as trinity, working in the cooperative enterprise of salvation

4. God-centred thought and life, arising from God-wrought change of heart is the essence of true knowledge of God.

What is a covenant?

A covenant expresses the terms of a relationship. Covenants do not initiate relationships, rather they formalise and confirm relationships which have already been initiated. This can be seen in the Biblical language of “to cut a covenant”,[5] whereby a relationship is solemnised in life and death terms (sealed in blood), by means of a self-maledictory oath.

Covenant elements:

There is a common structure to ancient Near Eastern covenants which is reflected in the Bible as follows:[6]

A. Revelation of the name of God

B. Revelation of God's mighty acts in history

C. Revelation of God's law

1. Love (exclusive covenant loyalty)

2. Specific requirements

D. Revelation of God's continuing presence to bless and curse

E. Revelation of God's institutional provisions: Scripture, church, sacraments, discipline, etc.

Where we see these covenant elements in scripture it is right to speak of covenant, even if the word ‘covenant’ is not present. The covenant elements are not separate, but rather perspectives on the whole. We do not need to divide Scripture up into separate portions to correspond to the different covenant elements, rather we see all of them throughout - “So the whole Bible is a revelation of God’s name; it is all history; it is all law; it is all sanctions; it is all administration. Each element of the covenant is a way of looking at the whole Bible. Each element includes all the others.”[7]

Covenant of Redemption

This is where covenant theology most explicitly makes contact with the character of God-in-Trinity. It is a formulation of the descriptions in Scripture (especially in John’s Gospel) of the eternal pact between Father and Son whereby the Son agrees to accomplish redemption through his suffering and death, and is promised glorification and a people for himself. In the progressive revelation of the Bible, this covenant becomes clear later on, through a combination of the eternal nature of God’s plans to save and the clear agreement between Father and Son (and Spirit) in the ministry of Jesus. Theologically, however, it is prior to the other covenants. The covenant of grace, made with the elect, rests upon the fact that the covenant is first made with Christ, in whom they are saved.

Covenant of Works (Covenant of Creation, Covenant of Life)

This refers primarily to the pre-fall state. God creates covenantally, and immediately enters into covenant relationship with creation, formalised through the covenant head Adam. He reveals himself as the creator, graciously acts in creation, gives a clear commandment with sanctions and administrates it in Eden. Its goal is life: a kingdom which expands to fill the whole earth. Adam breaks the covenant. The covenant with Noah confirms that the terms of this covenant are still in place.

The term ‘covenant of works’ is unhelpful as we think of ‘meritorious worksiness’, and therefore imagine a situation devoid of grace.[8] Not so. Traditionally in covenant theology ‘grace’ is to do with God’s action towards sinful humanity (in line with biblical usage). The covenant with Adam clearly rests upon God’s gracious prior action, and depends for its fulfilment upon God’s gracious upholding. Adam in his innocent state is not a sinner needing redemption, but he is still a dependent creature, needful of God’s kindness, condescension and assistance.[9]

Does the covenant of works relegate Jesus to plan B? No, see covenant of redemption. People can get too steamed up about the covenant of works, in the same way as they do with lots of discussion of pre-fall creation, by spiralling off into hypothetical alternative histories which do not exist. The covenant of works describes the pre-fall stage of God’s one plan to save a people through Jesus Christ for his glory, which was ultimately brought to fulfilment through the covenant of grace. The covenant of works itself points to Christ and finds its fulfilment in him, as he uniquely fulfilled its conditions and yet bore its curse.

Covenant of Grace

The covenant of grace is the accomplishment of the purpose of the covenant of works; the historical application of the covenant of redemption. This is the big one as far as Biblical Theology goes: the bulk of the Bible is devoted to unveiling the covenant of grace in successive stages. The major turning points of scripture are tied up with covenant revelation. In the words of Calvin:

“in the beginning, when the first promise was given to Adam, it was like the kindling of some feeble sparks. Subsequent accessions caused a considerable enlargement of the light, which continued to increase more and more, and diffused its splendour in wider and wider extent, till at length, every cloud being dissipated, Christ, the Sun of Righteousness, completely illuminated the whole world.” Calvin, Institutes, II, X, 20

  • The covenant with Adam is little more than a seed of that which is to come, giving an early promise of coming redemption from the fallen state (the serpent crusher).
  • The covenant with Noah, while affirming the continuation of the covenant of works, forms part of the covenant of grace, in bringing salvation to Noah[10] and prefiguring the greater salvation through Christ. Redemption and creation are of a piece, both in line with the covenant of redemption.[11]
  • The covenant with Abraham then expands greatly on the promises of salvation, and these remain the promises in view for the rest of scripture – they are not abrogated by the new covenant. The chief promise is relationship: “you will be my people and I will be your God.” In line with all covenants, it is conditional, requiring obedient faith.[12]
  • The covenant with Moses elaborates on the covenant further. The law serves to reveal God’s will, and to heighten awareness of sin and so underline the need for Christ. It is not a system of works righteousness, resting as it does upon the prior gracious action of God[13] (as the covenant always does).
  • The covenant with David makes it clear that redemption will be through a king who will rule with God as his father, conditional on the faithful obedience of the king himself.
  • The new covenant is the climax of the covenant of grace, whereby all the previous administrations are fulfilled in Christ. Jesus explicitly makes the connection by explaining his death in terms of covenant and applying covenant signs to it.[14] The shadows and types which preceded are now seen in full. The pedagogical function of the Mosaic covenant having been fulfilled, it is superseded but not abolished. As in previous administrations, the covenant is all of grace, but contains the requirement to love and obedience. The law is now internal, rather than external (Jeremiah 31).

Strengths of covenant theology:

  • God is big: he is the sovereign covenant Lord, and we are his vassal people.
  • God is relational: covenants are about relationship, within the Trinity (covenant of Redemption) and with his people (covenant of Grace)
  • Thoroughly God-centred: sees God as the executor of salvation, and as the chief blessing of salvation. It is properly christocentric, in that redemption is always through Christ.
  • Trinitarian through and through - sees all of scripture as flowing from, and revealing the character of God in Trinity, from whom covenant relationship originates, and whose character it reflects.
  • Easily connects with systematic theology
  • Joins eternity with history, by revealing God’s eternal character applied directly to historical situations.
  • Coherence of the testaments as progressive revelations of one covenant.
  • Allows for a developed ecclesiology through the continuity of the covenant community.
  • Sits in line with the reformed tradition
  • Makes sense of ‘tricky’ passages about covenant conditions - especially passages concerning reward, the reward given to Jesus, falling away etc.
  • Presents a relational reading of scripture. Expands upon some very individualistic presentations of the gospel in recent times (journey to life, even two ways to live). Big on relationship between the individual and God while also giving due emphasis to the corporate dimension of this and the horizontal and creation-wide relationships.

I don’t think these are things that Goldsworthy et al are not concerned with, nor are they absent in the KT system. I just think that CT handles them more consistently and in greater depth.

Questions about Covenant Theology:

  • Is this covenant model speculative - going beyond what the Bible actually says - especially in the discussion of the covenant of works and covenant of redemption (‘covenant’ is not mentioned in the creation narrative, for example)?
  • Does covenant theology take an element of biblical theology - albeit an important one - and promote it to a status as the overarching theme of biblical theology which it should not have?
  • Is it not merely forcing systematic theology onto the Bible?
  • Is covenant theology an elaborate mechanism invented to justify some specific theological commitments (e.g. infant baptism, home schooling)?
  • Does the idea of a ‘covenant of works’ create a ‘plan A, plan B’ model of redemption?
  • Does the covenant of works therefore sideline Christ from redemption - demoting him merely to ‘plan B’?
  • There are obvious scriptural differences between the Mosaic administration and the New Covenant. Are these too great to be simply subsumed under one covenant of grace?
  • Covenant theologians seem to be always arguing. Isn’t this a problem?
  • Isn’t ‘covenant’ just a bit complicated to explain to 21st century people who, unlike people in the 17th Century, are unfamiliar with this language?

Is covenant there or isn’t it? Some Bible passages to consider:

Covenant of Redemption: John 4:32-34, 6:38-40, 10:14-16, 27-30, 17:1-5; Philippians 2:6ff; Ephesians 1:5ff

Covenant of Works: Genesis 2:1-17; Hosea 6:7; Jeremiah 33:25-26; Romans 8:19-22

Covenant of Grace: Genesis 2-3; 6; 9; 12; 15; 17; 22. Exodus 19-20. Deuteronomy. 2 Samuel 7. Jeremiah 31. Mark 14. Romans 4 & 5. Galatians 3. 2 Corinthians 3. Ephesians 1:5ff.

Bibliography

Graeme Goldsworthy, Gospel and Kingdom (1981), reprinted as part of The Goldsworthy Trilogy (Carlisle: Paternoster, 2000) A bonzer intro to Biblical Theology

John Frame, ‘Covenant and the Unity of Scripture’ at http://www.frame-poythress.org/frame_articles/1999Covenant.htm Clear and conciliatory, as always.

J. Ligon Duncan, ‘What is Covenant Theology’, online at http://www.fpcjackson.org/resources/apologetics/Covenant%20Theology%20&%20Justification/ligoncovt.htm Snappy and combative, as always.

J. I. Packer, ‘On Covenant Theology’ (1990), reprinted in Celebrating the Saving Work of God (Carlisle: Paternoster, 1998) A real cracker from Grim Jim Packer

Peter Golding Covenant Theology: The Key of Theology in Reformed Thought and Tradition (Fearn: Christian Focus, 2004) A good overview of the theology and history of CT.


[1] Graeme Goldsworthy, Gospel and Kingdom (1981), reprinted as part of The Goldsworthy Trilogy (Carlisle: Paternoster, 2000) p.53

[2] Graeme Goldsworthy, Gospel and Kingdom p.53

[3] J. Ligon Duncan, ‘What is Covenant Theology’, online at http://www.fpcjackson.org/resources/apologetics/Covenant%20Theology%20&%20Justification/ligoncovt.htm

[4] Packer, J.I., ‘On Covenant Theology’ (1990), reprinted in Celebrating the Saving Work of God (Carlisle: Paternoster, 1998) p.10

[5] See Genesis 15, Exodus 24. See also 1 Samuel 20 for the covenant between David and Jonathan.

[6] This summary is taken from John Frame, ‘Covenant and the Unity of Scripture’ at http://www.frame-poythress.org/frame_articles/1999Covenant.htm

[7] Frame

[8] as in the pre-reformation scholastic view of the ‘donum super-additum’ where man already has intrinsic worth before God, and only needs an extra supernatural gift - grace - to achieve the beatific state.

[9] Peter Golding Covenant Theology: The Key of Theology in Reformed Thought and Tradition (Fearn: Christian Focus, 2004) p.115

[10] Genesis 6:18, the first explicit mention of ‘covenant’ in the Bible.

[11] So: “Far from nature and Scripture being two competing sources of revelation as in much theology, God appears as the covenant controller of nature, the one who establishes its course. Nature therefore behaves as the covenant document says it will. And only those who see nature through the “spectacles” (Calvin) of the covenant document see nature aright.” Frame, who also observes how heaven and earth are called as witnesses to the covenant (Deut 4:26, 30:19) alongside the covenant document itself as chief witness (Deut 31:14-29). Cf Rom 8:19-22.

[12] The question of whether or not the covenant of grace is conditional has been the subject of much controversy. In short, it is, in each of its dispensations. The faith required is not a meritorious cause, but rather an instrumental cause, given by God, of the covenant blessings (Turretin).

[13] See Exodus 19:

[14] Mark 14:24 and parallels, picking up Exodus 24.