The short answer to the question ‘what is covenant theology?’ is simple: covenant theology is biblical theology. Let me explain.
Every time God engages with mankind either to save or to condemn God does it through covenants. So in order to have a true and healthy understanding of the doctrine of salvation (and really the whole Bible) we must look first to covenant theology. Covenant theology is merely an explanation of the special grace given by God to man. Common grace, or general grace, is something we’ll look into later.
Let’s begin with a simple question: what is a covenant?
Throughout the Bible we come face to face with the reality of the covenant on many occasions, and when you look at all of them there appears to be only three kinds of covenants in Scripture: man making a covenant with man, man making a covenant with God, and God making a covenant with man. In each occasion of these covenants there are similarities that can be compiled together as a whole to form a working definition of covenant. O. Palmer Robinson does this in his book The Christ of the Covenants and says a covenant is “a bond in blood sovereignly administered.” (The Christ of the Covenants, page 4) Can you see the different aspects at work in his definition? First, a covenant is a bond. Second, a covenant is a bond in blood. Third a covenant is sovereignly administered. Let’s look into these further:
To say a covenant is a bond is to say a covenant results in binding people or parties together into a kind of relationship. This is most clearly seen in Scripture when God establishes a covenant with His people, declaring that He is forever committed to them and that He will always relate to His people in a certain manner. Then in response the people or parties on the receiving end of this bind the covenant by performing a kind of external practice. It could be a verbal oath (Gen. 21:23-24), the giving of a gift (Gen. 21:28-32), eating a meal (Ex. 24:11), making a memorial (Josh. 24:27), sprinkling blood (Ex. 24:8), offering a sacrifice (Gen. 15), and passing under the rod (Ezek. 20:37). Along with these external practices there are always signs that follow covenants. For example we think of the rainbow in Genesis 9, and circumcision in Genesis 17. These signs were more than external practices, these signs function as a token or pledge (like a wedding ring) symbolizing the permanent nature of the covenant bond.
A Bond in Blood
To say a covenant is a bond in blood is to say a covenant is a bond of life and death. “It involves commitments and life-an-death consequences.” (Robinson, page 14) And once the covenant has begun only the shedding of blood is able to relieve any covenant obligations. This is why there are covenant blessings for those who obey the stipulations of the covenant, and covenant curses for those who disobey, clearly the largest curse for covenant disobedience is death. This shedding of blood exists within covenants to show how strong the promises called for are within a covenant.
Robinson adds the last phrase ‘sovereign administered’ in his definition for needed clarification just in case we wrongly think covenants involve a lengthy agreement over details, or a kind of bargaining back and forth between the parties. This doesn’t happen in biblical covenants. Every biblical covenant is initiated by a greater party to a lesser party. An example of this would be when a conquered people are brought into a covenant relationship with their new masters. The best example of this is when God (the sovereign Lord) enters into covenant with His creation. Because God is greater He gets to be the One who decrees the stipulations or terms of the covenant.
So, a covenant is a bond in blood sovereignly administered. Our next question then comes in afterwards: what covenants are in the Bible?
We see a plethora of covenants being made throughout Scripture between man and man, and even man and God. But when it comes to those covenants God makes with man, six covenants stand forth in blazing clarity.
Adamic Covenant – commencement
Noahic Covenant – preservation
Abrahamic Covenant – promise
Mosaic Covenant – law
Davidic Covenant – kingdom
New Covenant – consummation
That these are God’s covenants made with man tells us that there has been, and there will never be a time in history when God has dealt with mankind outside the realm of covenant. Or to say it another way, from creation to consummation God’s people have always related to God on the basis of covenant. Some people think that covenant didn’t exist until Noah because it isn’t until Noah that we find the word ‘covenant’ used in Scripture. But even though the word covenant isn’t in the early chapters of Genesis the presence of a bond in blood sovereignly administered is. This is why Hosea 6:7, long after Adam and Eve, in talking about the adulterous ways of Israel says this “Like Adam they transgressed the covenant…they dealt faithlessly with Me.”
So all the way from the garden to glory, God is a covenant God with a covenant people.
Now, we would be wrong to embrace this covenantal framework and conclude that God works differently in each covenant. Though the covenants are different, and made with different parties, they all serve the same ultimate purpose. More so, rather than replacing covenants beforehand, each time God makes a new covenant with His people the new covenant expands on the reality of all previous covenants. So to this end let’s look briefly at the diversity and unity of the covenants.
First, the distinction between covenant of works/covenant of grace. The term ‘covenant of works’ describes God dealing covenantally with man in his pre-fall condition. So Adam and Eve, pre-fall, were in covenant with God and could have received the covenant blessings of God solely by their own works. They were not yet fallen, and so they had a nature that could produce righteousness. Contrast that with the term ‘covenant of grace.’ This term describes God dealing covenantally with man in his post-fall condition. So after the fall all men can no longer come into any covenant blessings of God based on works, but solely by the grace of God. This distinction is why some people refer to the covenant God made with Adam and Eve simply as the ‘covenant of works’ but that is misleading because even in the covenant of works we see grace at work in that God didn’t have to make men at all, but did and willingly entered into covenant with them. Some people also call the Mosaic covenant a covenant of works because by keeping the Law Deut. 6:25 says “it will be righteousness for you if you are careful to observe all this commandment before the Lord our God.” To call the Mosaic covenant a covenant of works is misleading as well because the Law was given to show that we cannot do enough on our own to earn a right standing with God. The only covenant that can truly be called a ‘covenant of works’ is the covenant God made with Adam and Eve in the garden.
Second, the distinction between old covenant/new covenant. That we make a distinction between an old and a new covenant does not mean to imply that one is simply old and one is new. It’s far greater than mere age in view here. All of the covenants before Christ are in the category of ‘old covenant’ while the one covenant after Christ is in the category of ‘new covenant.’ The old covenants are seen as ‘promise’ ‘shadow’ ‘prophecy’ while the new covenant is seen as ‘fulfillment’ ‘reality’ and ‘realization.’
So even in the diversity among the covenants we see a harmony, which is glorious. Let’s now look at the unity among the covenants, we see this in two ways as well.
First, structurally in that all these covenants were initiated by God, given to an underserving people, with blessings if they obey, and curses if they disobey. Second thematically in that one theme resounds throughout them all, “I shall be your God and you shall be My people.” Not only is this theme continually present in all covenantal dealings between God and His people, but the result of this wondrous theme is that God actually dwells in the midst of His people. It doesn’t stop here either. All of this moves covenantal structure moves forward throughout redemptive history and culminates in the moment when God dwelt among His people in a single Person, our Lord Jesus Christ.
O Palmer Robinson comments on this saying, “In the Person of Jesus Christ, the covenants of God achieve incarnational unity. Because Jesus, as Son of God and Mediator of the covenant, cannot be divided, the covenants cannot be divided. He Himself guarantees the unity of the covenants because He Himself is the heart of each of the various covenant administrations.” (Robinson, page 52)
So we can conclude with one grand statement: from seeing the unified covenantal structure of all Scripture we see that in Christ is the fulfillment of all of God’s covenantal purposes.