Wednesday, May 31, 2023

Critiquing Covenant Theology


I very much appreciate many Covenant Theologians. Several Presbyterians and Reformed Baptists have influenced my thinking -- from John Calvin to Charles Spurgeon to Cornelius Van Til to Francis Schaeffer to John Frame, Alistair Begg, Wayne Grudem, and James White -- I have a load of gratitude for many non-Dispensational pastors, authors, and scholars. However, when it comes to the Covenant Theology vs. Dispensationalism issue, I remain convinced that the Dispensational system best explains God's program as revealed in the Bible. Further, Covenant Theology seems to muddy the waters instead of providing clarity regarding God's purposes in the world.

So it is from this perspective of thankfulness and admiration for my Reformed brothers and sisters that I offer a critique of their theological system.

I've broken down this issue into nine categories, as seen by the headings below. For each of these categories, I will first articulate the Covenant Theology perspective before offering my critique from a Dispensational viewpoint. I hope this article serves well those who are seeking to understand the differences between these systems and why it matters.


Covenant Theology (CT) uses different hermeneutics for the Old Testament (OT) and the New Testament (NT). After interpreting the NT normally, theological conclusions from there are projected onto OT prophecies to bring out hidden, spiritual meanings unknown to the OT’s authors.

This method is sometimes called NT-Priority hermeneutics or Sensus Plenior/Fuller Meaning hermeneutics. Some will go as far to say that the NT clarifies the OT, implying that OT revelation is not as perspicuous as NT revelation; that the OT is dark and needs the light of the NT.

Critique: To grasp the Bible’s storyline, Scripture should be read progressively, and theology should be developed following progressive revelation using one hermeneutic -- a grammatical, historical, and contextual approach to every passage to ascertain its meaning.

CT must abandon normal interpretation of many OT passages in order to comport with their system. This approach does not allow the OT to mean what it says; thus, it fundamentally alters the trajectory of God’s revealed program for Israel as declared through the OT prophets.

So, instead of a developing a supposed theology of continuity that leads to an inconsistent hermeneutic when dealing with the text of the Bible, Christians should seek hermeneutic consistency and allow God to build our theology through the plain meaning of the words He inspired.

Covenant of Redemption

CT claims that in eternity past a covenant was made between the Father and the Son (many include the Spirit also), agreeing to accomplish man’s salvation in the world that would be created and corrupted by sin.

The Father elected a people to give to the Son, and the Son agreed to take the place of those whom the Father gave. This covenant sets the stage for the doctrine of Limited Atonement.

Critique: Such a covenant is not described in the Bible. Although it is true that the Father elected a people to give to the Son (John 10:29, 17:24), the Persons of the Godhead would not need to make a covenant to establish an agreement. They share a perfect eternal will.

Additionally, there is no higher rank or dubious partner within the Trinity that would necessitate a formal covenant, as many covenants are security in the case of an untrustworthy or unreliable party. Regardless, this is the covenant of CT I have the least problem with.

Covenant of Works

CT teaches that In the garden, God made a covenant with Adam wherein it was agreed that if he maintained righteous works only, personally, perfectly, and perpetually, he would enjoy eternal life forever.

Critique: Such a covenant is not described in the Bible.

John Frame, a Presbyterian, believes in this covenant, "though," he says, "there is no record of God’s formally announcing it as in other covenants." That's a big deal to me.

Although it is true that if Adam never sinned he would have lived forever, this does not necessitate a covenant of works wherein eternal life is earned by man. The insertion of this covenant is critical to the entire system of CT, yet it is done without biblical warrant. 

Covenant of Grace

CT teaches that after the fall, God made a covenant with Adam and his progeny, providing salvation by grace through faith in the work of Christ. This covenant was progressively disclosed through other covenants.

Some who hold to CT (Presbyterians, etc.) say the Noahic, Abrahamic, Old, Davidic, Priestly, and New Covenants are just dispensations of the singular Covenant of Grace. However, Reformed Baptists say only the New Covenant should be equated with the Covenant of Grace.

Critique: Such a covenant is not described in the Bible. Although it is true that God showed Adam grace and made a promise of redemption in Gen 3, He did not use covenantal language. The promise of the coming Seed of the woman is truly paramount, but it is not a covenant. 

Additionally, the NT declares that God made multiple covenants with Israel, which they still possess, rather than a singular “Covenant of Grace” (Rom 9:4, Eph 2:12). An often-forgotten covenant is the one made with the priestly family in Numbers 25, which does not seem to have a home within CT.

Israel and the Church

For many Covenant Theologians, ethnic/national Israel no longer has a role in God’s program. Rather, “Israel” is to be understood as the people of God in all ages, regardless of their physical lineage.

In this sense, it could be said (as it is by some) that Israel has existed since Adam. CT teaches that Israel continues to exist today and that true Israel is the Church built by Jesus Christ. Therefore, there is no meaningful distinction between Israel and the Church in CT.

Essentially, Israel was the Church of the OT and the Church is the Israel of the NT. Furthermore, since God will not bring national Israel back into focus as its own entity, the Church is to be understood as the culmination of OT prophecies about blessings for Israel.

Critique: Israel has always had reference to the literal, physical descendants of Jacob, consisting of twelve tribes. Gentile believers are “sons of Abraham” by faith (Gal 3:6-9), but they are never called the offspring of Jacob, which is Israel (Isa 65:9, Jer 46:27).

The Church is a mysterious new work (Eph 3:4-7), meaning it was not disclosed in ages past. As a new work of God, the Church is distinct from national Israel in God’s program, not replacing Israel or usurping the promises God made to Jacob’s descendants. 

The Church is made to participate in the New Covenant (Lk 22:20), yet she does so as the Church, not as Israel. Believing Gentiles and Jews in the Church come together as a new man, a new international organism created by God, distinct from the singular nation of Israel. 

In the Bible, prophets have revealed that one day God will return to dealing with national entities (Isa 19:19-25) and Israel will have a special role (Zec 14:16-21). However, at the present time, the new man is being built up in Christ wherein there is neither Jew nor Greek. 

The Law

In CT, the Law given through Moses in the OT has three categories: moral, civil, and ceremonial. The moral aspect of the Law is binding on humanity from creation to consummation, summed up in the Ten Commandments.

Most believe that the civil/ceremonial aspects were binding on humanity only from Moses to Jesus, but the moral aspect of the Law is perpetual, so it must have a sanctifying element today. Thus, one of the uses of the Law is for believers to look to it to grow in the faith. 

Critique: God’s Law was not given with categories; therefore, any labeling of laws is to some degree superficial. Apostolic instruction says that the Church is not under or bound to the Law (Rom 6:14, 7:6, Gal 6:18). Instead, the Church is under the Law of Christ (Gal 6:2). 

The Law given through Moses has been taken out of the way as an obligation for believers (Eph 2:14-16); yet, because it reflects God’s nature, the Law is holy, just, and good. It revealed God’s will for Israel and reveals mankind's total inability to meet God’s holy standard.

It serves as a tutor to lead men to Christ, and when one believes in Christ, he is no longer under the tutor (Gal 3:25). Thus, believers are not sanctified through Law, but by the Spirit (2 Cor 3:4-11), as He leads us into life by a higher standard: Christlikeness.

The Great Tribulation

There are three main interpretations of the tribulation within CT, all of which include the Church suffering through the event.

Preterist: The tribulation occurred and was fulfilled in the first century.

Historical: The tribulation events correspond to events through history, even to today.

Spiritual: Literal fulfillment is unimportant; all elements allegorically apply to all believers in every age.

Critique: There is a Great Tribulation that will take place over the face of the earth, displaying God’s wrath toward sin as described in Revelation chapters 6-18 (cf. Isa 13:6-16, Dan 9:27, Oba 1:15-21, Mat 24:21, 1 Th 5:1-10). No historical event has fulfilled these prophecies.

The Church will be spared from this outpouring of God’s wrath, since she is not destined for it (Jn 14:3, 1 Th 4:16-18, 5:9, Rev 3:10). During this tribulation, Israel will specifically endure God’s judgment and all who remain will be saved (Jer 30:7, Zec 13:1-9, Rev 7:4-8). 

The Millennium

There are three main interpretations of the millennium within CT, none of which include a particular function for Israel as a national entity within the program of God. These are general overviews of the positions.

Historic Premillennialism: Before Christ's coming, Israel will be saved and grafted into the Church. Upon His return, He will reign for a literal thousand-year period in which the Church will experience the blessings for Israel promised in the OT. Christ's return is imminent. 

Amillennialism: The thousand years described in Scripture symbolize Christ’s spiritual reign that began with His resurrection/ascension. His reign is limited to the Church today rather than being an explicit governance over all nations in the future. His return is imminent.

Postmillennialism: The nations will be conquered for Jesus before His return. As the world converts to Christianity, the thousand years begin (whether literal or not), and at the end of the millennium Jesus will come to inherit His kingdom. Christ's return is not imminent.

Critique: After the Great Tribulation, Jesus will return with His previously-raptured Church to establish a literal thousand-year reign on the face of the earth (Rev 20:1-6). The saints will reign with Him at that time (Mat 19:28, 1 Cor 6:3, 2 Tim 2:12).

As revealed through the OT prophets, this will be the kingdom promised to David, resulting in blessings for the world and a specific function for Israel, who will be restored in their land (2 Sam 7:12-16, Isa 2:1-11, 19:19-25, Jer 23:5-8, 33:14-18, Ezk 37:24-28, Am 9:10-15).

Satan's Status

During the Millennium of Revelation 20, Satan is described as being bound/sealed in a bottomless pit for the duration of it. For historic premillennialists, this is still a future event. Dispensationalists agree.

However, amillennialists and postmillennialists claim that Satan is currently bound and sealed in the bottomless pit while still being very active in the world. He is only unable to prevent the church from growing. (This implies he was able to do so before this binding.)

Critique: In Rev 20, Satan is prevented from doing anything whatsoever, as he is sealed in the abyss. Also, Satan is described as being active against the church in the NT (1 Th 2:18, 1 Pet 5:8), including in Revelation itself (Rev 2:10, 13). Thus, the binding must be future. 

Additionally, Satan has never been able to stop the work of God, as the Lord has always had a remnant. CT teaches that Israel was the church of the OT; but Satan could not stop the growth of Israel or deceive the nations so as to prevent their salvation (Rahab, Ruth, etc.). 


  1. I thought this was a decent overview of what CT would hold and what dispensationalism would hold, but I didn’t get the argument for dispensationalism. Why would one be a dispensationalist?

    1. In short, there is no reason to be a dispensationalist.

  2. One would be a dispensationalist because it is the only view that takes a literal approach to the Bible. It allows for Israel to keep all of her promises, and it allows for the church to keep all of its promises. One has to disbelieve large sections of scripture to reject dispensationalism.