What are some misconceptions about covenant theology? Dr. Ligon Duncan addresses some common objections to covenant theology.
Sometimes I hear people say that covenant theology imposes a framework on the text of Scripture that’s not there. Sometimes I hear people say that covenant theology doesn’t interpret the Bible literally. And sometimes I hear people say that covenant theology is replacement theology. Let me talk about each of those things just a little bit.
Covenant Theology Recognizes the Framework of Scripture
First of all, when people say covenant theology imposes a framework on the Scripture, they’re very often not talking about the biblical covenants. They’ll acknowledge that the Bible talks about a covenant with Noah and a covenant with Abraham and a covenant with Moses and a covenant with David and a new covenant that’s established with Jesus Christ. But when you read about a Covenant of Works and a Covenant of Grace and a pretemporal Covenant of Redemption, they become uncomfortable with that because they believe that that’s imposing a framework on the Scripture.
Historic covenant theology is simply trying to do justice to the fact that there is a singular plan of God that is revealed from Genesis to Revelation.Here’s the thing: historic covenant theology is simply trying to do justice to the fact that there is a singular plan of God that is revealed from Genesis to Revelation in Scripture. It is made very clear, especially in the New Testament and especially in the writings of the Apostle Paul, that that plan actually was planned from before the foundation of the world. That’s what Ephesians 1 is about; the plan of God in creation and redemption is not something that he came up with on the fly. It’s something that he planned from before the time there was a world.
Thirdly, covenant theologians want you to understand that the Bible makes a big distinction between man’s relationship to God before the fall of Adam and Eve and after the fall of Adam and Eve. The idea of the Covenant of Redemption from before time, the Covenant of Works with Adam in the Garden, and the Covenant of Grace from Genesis 3:15 to the end of the Book of Revelation all comes out of those biblical ideas. In other words, the framework comes from the theology of the Bible itself and helps us to read the Bible better.
Covenant Theology Interprets the Bible the Way the Bible Interprets Itself
What about “covenant theology doesn’t read the Bible literally”? What oftentimes people mean by that is if the prophecies of the Old Testament that say that Israel is going to be restored as a nation are not fulfilled in Israel being restored as a nation, then you’re not reading those prophecies literally. But what covenant theologians will point out is simply this: you have to look at how the New Testament interprets those prophecies. Amos 9 is a passage that C. I. Scofield said is the most important passage in the whole of Scripture for the dispensational system. It’s about the restoration of the fallen temple, the fallen booth of David. Acts 15 says that that passage is fulfilled in the bringing of the Gentiles into the church, not the rebuilding of the temple, but the bringing of the Gentiles into the church. So covenant theologians say you just have to interpret Old Testament prophecy via the New Testament’s exposition of how it’s fulfilled.
Fulfillment Theology, Not Replacement Theology
Covenant theology isn’t replacement theology, it’s fulfillment theology. There’s promise and fulfillment.Of course the same comes with the issue of replacement theology. Oftentimes you’ll hear people say, “Covenant theology is replacement theology because it says that Israel was replaced by the church.” Well, that’s not an accurate depiction of covenant theology. Covenant theology isn’t replacement theology, it’s fulfillment theology. There’s promise and fulfillment. The promises of God to Israel are fulfilled in both the Jews and the Gentiles being part of the one people of God in the purposes of God’s redemption.
Think how often the Psalms talk about all the peoples coming to Mount Zion to worship God, talk about all the nations worshiping the one true God. The people of God in the Old Testament longed for the day when all the nations would come to worship God and would be part of the people of God. That’s written in the Abrahamic Covenant in Genesis 12:3. Covenant theology believes that, not that Israel is replaced, but that there is this fulfillment where the Gentiles are grafted in to the ancient people of God, and God’s one people reaches an international, worldwide flourishing beyond anything experienced in the Old Testament. It’s not a replacement, it’s a fulfillment.