Covenant theology

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Covenant Theology (or Federal theology) is a prominent feature in Protestant theology, especially in the Presbyterian and Reformed churches, and a similar form is found in Methodism and Reformed Baptist churches. This article primarily concerns Covenant Theology as held by the Presbyterian and Reformed churches, which use the covenant concept as an organizing principle for Christian theology and view the history of redemption under the framework of three overarching theological covenants: the Covenant of Redemption, the Covenant of Works, and the Covenant of Grace. These three are called “theological covenants” because although not explicitly presented as covenants, they are, according to covenant theologians, implicit in the Bible.

In brief, Covenant Theology teaches that God has established two great covenants with mankind and a covenant within the Godhead to deal with how the other two relate. The first covenant in logical order, usually called the Covenant of Redemption, is the agreement within the Godhead that the Father would appoint his son Jesus to give up his life for mankind and that Jesus would do so (cf. Titus 1:1-3).

The second, called the Covenant of Works, was made in the Garden of Eden between God and Adam and promised life for obedience and death for disobedience. Adam disobeyed God and broke the covenant, and so the third covenant was made between God and all of mankind, who also fell with Adam according to Romans 5:12-21.

This third covenant, the Covenant of Grace, promised eternal blessing for belief in Christ and obedience to God's word. It is thus seen as the basis for all biblical covenants that God made individually with Noah, Abraham, and David, nationally with O.T. Israel as a people, and universally with man in the New Covenant. These individual covenants are called the “biblical covenants” because they are explicitly described as such in the Bible.

Covenant theology as a refinement of Reformed theology is evident among early Scottish theologians. For example, see The Theology and Theologians of Scotland, Chiefly of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries (1872) passage: “The old theology of Scotland might be emphatically described as a covenant theology.”^[1]^

History of Covenant Theology

Covenant theology has roots in the writings of Augustine and John Calvin (Institutes of the Christian Religion 2:9-11). Johannes Cocceius (c. 1603-1669) developed the classical statement on covenant theology in his The Doctrine of the Covenant and Testament of God (Summa doctrinae de foedere et testamento dei, 1648). Covenant theology was clearly expressed in the British Westminster Confession of Faith (chap. 7) and further developed by Herman Witsius (1636-1708) in the Economy of the Covenants Between God and Man. It may also be seen in the writings of Jonathan Edwards (Collected Writings of Jonathan Edwards, Vol 2, Banner of Truth edition, p.950).

In the United States, the Princeton theologians (Charles Hodge, A. A. Hodge, B. B. Warfield, Geerhardus Vos, and J. Gresham Machen) and, in the Netherlands, Herman Bavinck followed the main lines of the classic view, teaching the Covenant of Redemption, the Covenant of Works (Law), and the Covenant of Grace (Gospel).

Current well-known Covenant theologians include R. C. Sproul, J. I. Packer, John Frame, Sinclair Ferguson, James Boice and Michael S. Horton. This system is taught at schools such as Covenant Theological Seminary, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Westminster Theological Seminary.

As late as 1912 B. B. Warfield agrees with an author whose work is being reviewed that the history of Covenant theology has not been fully worked out. ^[2]^

Covenant Theology and the Biblical Covenants

Covenant theology first sees a Covenant of Works administered with Adam in the Garden of Eden. Though it is not explicitly called a covenant in the Bible, Hosea 6:7 has been interpreted to support the idea. The specific covenants after the fall of Adam are seen as administered under the overarching theological Covenant of Grace and include:

  • The Noahic Covenant, the covenant made with Noah and sealed with a rainbow. (Genesis 8:1-9:17)
  • The Abrahamic covenant, found in Genesis chapter 15.
  • The Mosaic Covenant, found in Exodus chapters 19 through 24.
  • The Palestinian Covenant – an unconditional covenant enlarging upon the Abrahamic Covenant promising the seed of Abraham eternal possession in the land (Deuteronomy 30:1-10), and
  • The Davidic Covenant, found in 2 Samuel chapter 7 establishing David and his lineage as the rightful kings of Israel and Judah and extending the covenant of Abraham to David's lineage.
  • The New Covenant, predicted by the prophet Jeremiah in the eponymous book, chapter 31, and connected with Jesus at the Last Supper where he says that the cup is “the New Covenant in [his] blood” and further in the Epistle to the Hebrews (chapters 8-10). The term “New Testament,” most often used for the collection of books in the Bible, can also refer to the New Covenant as a theological concept.

Diversity of Views

While all covenant theologians agree that there was a Covenant of Works with Adam in the garden, and a single covenantal means of salvation throughout history called the Covenant of Grace, there remains a very wide diversity of views over the particulars of that construction.

Who is in the Covenant of Grace?

Henri Blocher refers to this as the thorn in the flesh of covenant theologians ^[3]^. The Westminster Larger Catechism, Answer 31 states: “The covenant of grace was made with Christ as the second Adam, and in him with all the elect as his seed.” However, Louis Berkhof notes “Reformed theologians are not unanimous in answering this question. Some simply say that God made the covenant with the sinner… Others assert that He established it with… believers and their seed. The great majority of them, however, maintain that He entered into covenant relationship with the elect or the elect sinner in Christ. ^[4]^

Speaking of this identification of the Covenant of Grace with the Covenant of Redemption (rejecting a distinction between the two), Berkhof asks “What induced these theologians to speak of the covenant as made with the elect in spite of all the practical difficulties involved?”^[5]^ Meredith Kline argues that these practical difficulties (i.e. infant baptism and a confusion of the covenantal works/grace principle) requires a distinction between the Covenant of Grace and the Covenant of Redemption. “In the series of administrations of the Covenant of grace the covenant is made by the Lord with those who confess the faith and their children; the covenant membership includes others than the elect – they are not all (elect) Israel who are of (covenant) Israel.”^[6]^

Conditionality of the Covenant of Grace

Directly related to the question of who is in the covenant is the question of the conditionality of the covenant. Some confusion arises over this question due to its wording. No covenant theologian denies that faith is a condition of justification. Therefore the question is not if there are any conditions that someone must meet in order to be saved. Samuel Petto notes: “That this might not be a strife of words, I could wish men would state the question thus, Whether some evangelical duties be required of, and graces wrought by Jesus Christ in, all the persons that are actually interested in the new covenant”^[7]^ In other words: Is faith a condition or blessing of the Covenant of Grace? Or: Can the Covenant of Grace be broken? Samuel Petto and John Owen (both signers of the Savoy Declaration of Faith), among others, argue that faith is a blessing of the Covenant of Grace that is given to all its members. Therefore, only the elect are in the Covenant of Grace.

Others reject this view, arguing that the Covenant of Grace is conditional and that one can apostatize from the Covenant of Grace. This view can be found, for example, in the PCA Book of Church Order, which says “By virtue of being children of believing parents they are, because of God”™s covenant ordinance, made members of the Church, but this is not sufficient to make them continue members of the Church. When they have reached the age of discretion, they become subject to obligations of the covenant: faith, repentance and obedience. They then make public confession of their faith in Christ, or become covenant breakers, and subject to the discipline of the Church.” ^[8]^

Substance of the Biblical Covenants

There is also disagreement over the substance of the Biblical covenants. Substance refers to the essence of something and covenant theology commonly divides a biblical covenant into its substance and its “accidents” or non-essentials. Cornelius Venema explains:

“In the subsequent history of Reformed covenant theology, Calvin”™s insistence upon the unity of the covenant of grace through all its various administrations becomes a commonplace. Upon the basis of this far-reaching formulation, Calvin consistently maintains that all of the essential components that make the covenant of grace what it is belong to each of its administrations. Consequently, whatever may distinguish the Mosaic administration as a distinct administration of the covenant of grace belong to the category of what Calvin terms “accidental” forms that are incidental to the covenant”™s nature [such as the ceremonies].”^[9]^

The Westminster Confession of Faith (7.6) sees all of the historical, biblical covenants as “administrations” of the covenant of grace. In other words, they are all the same covenant. They are all united by the same substance/essence.

However, this formulation, though the most common, is not held by all. John Owen, in his commentary on Hebrews 8 said: “[W]e may consider that the Scripture does plainly and expressly make mention of two testaments, or covenants, and distinguish between them in such a way as can hardly be accommodated by a twofold administration of the same covenant”¦Wherefore we must grant two distinct covenants, rather than merely a twofold administration of the same covenant, to be intended.”^[10]^ Though Owen agreed that there was only one Covenant of Grace throughout history, he rejected the idea that all biblical covenants are administrations of the Covenant of Grace. Instead, he argued that only the New Covenant is the Covenant of Grace. “Having shown in what sense the covenant of grace is called “the new covenant,” in this distinction and opposition to the old covenant, so I shall propose several things which relate to the nature of the first covenant, which manifest it to have been a distinct covenant, and not a mere administration of the covenant of grace.”^[11]^

This view led Owen to revise the wording of the Westminster Confession of Faith in chapter 7 for the Savoy Declaration. Nehemiah Coxe, the editor of the 2nd London Baptist Confession stated his agreement with Owen's view and thus made his own formulation of chapter 7 as well.^[12]^

More recently, Meredith Kline has similarly challenged the consensus view of God's covenants, specifically the Mosaic Covenant. Kline argued that the Mosaic Covenant was superadded to the Covenant of Grace but was distinct from it, concerned only with temporal things, not the eternal things of the Covenant of Grace. ^[13]^

Covenant Theology and the sacraments

Since Covenant Theology today is mainly Protestant and Reformed in its outlook, proponents view Baptism and the Lord's Supper as the only two sacraments.

The Lord's Supper

The Lord's supper instituted by Jesus was a replacement for the Jewish Passover festival. As such, it should be celebrated in much the same way – as a symbolic participation in God's act of salvation. In the Old Testament the Jews celebrated God's rescue from slavery in Egypt, with lamb's blood painted on their doors to protect them from God's wrath. In the New Testament, this directly refers to a celebration of God's rescue of the church from their lives of sin, with the blood of Jesus as the means by which God's New Covenant people are delivered from God's wrath.

Within the ranks of Covenant theology as a minority position, is also the belief that as Israel's children celebrated the Passover Meal, so too ought baptized children of believing parents today celebrate the Lord's Supper as fellow sharers in the covenant with God and thus, also, in the promises and blessings of the covenant.^[14]^ Cited proof texts include Matthew 19:14 and Mark 10:14.


Covenant Theology sees the administration of the biblical covenants as including a principle of familial, corporate inclusion or “generational succession.” The biblical covenants between God and man include signs and seals that visibly represent the realities behind the covenants. These visible signs and symbols of God's covenant redemption are administered in a corporate manner (for instance, to households), not in an exclusively individualistic manner.

Baptism is considered by Covenant Theologians as the visible sign of entrance into the New Covenant and therefore may be administered individually to new believers making a public profession of faith, corporately to the households of believers which typically would include children, or individually to children or infants of believing parents (see Infant baptism). Baptism is thus seen as the functional replacement and sacramental equivalent of the Abrahamic rite of circumcision and symbolizes the internal cleansing from sin, among other things.

Criticism of Covenant Theology

Several primary weaknesses that are often attributed to Covenant Theology as a system are that, first, it requires an allegorical interpretation of many Scripture passages, including prophecy that relates to God's future plans for Israel. Second, critics claim it does not draw a sufficient distinction between the conditional Mosaic covenant of the Law, the other unconditional covenants established by God for Israel, and the “better covenant” established by Jesus (cf. Hebrews 7:22; 8:6-13). Third, it equates the nation of Israel with the New Testament Church. Fourth, the two (and possibly three) primary covenants of Covenant Theology are no where named in Scripture as such.

Historical documents relating to Covenant Theology

Soli Deo Gloria


  1. “‘ [The theology and theologians of Scotland, chiefly of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries ed. by N.L. Walker and W.G. Blaikie. Cunningham lects., 1870/71 Being the Cunningham Lectures for 1870-71 By James Walker, William Garden Blaikie, Norman Lockhart Walker.
  2. “‘ Princeton Theological Seminary, MacCalla & Co. Inc., 1912, v. 10]
  3. “‘ Always Reforming, ed. A.T.B. McGowan, p 249]
  4. “‘ Systematic Theology, Louis Berkhof, Banner of Truth, p 273
  5. “‘ ibid
  6. “‘ Comments on the A. A. Hodge One-Covenant Construction of the Redemptive Order Meredith Kline
  7. “‘ The Great Mystery of the Covenant of Grace Samuel Petto
  8. “‘ PCA Book of Church Order 56.4-j
  9. “‘ The Mosaic Covenant: A “Republication” of the Covenant of Works? A Review Article: The Law Is Not of Faith: Essays on Works and Grace in the Mosaic Covenant by Cornelis P. Venema, Mid-America Journal of Theology, Volume 21
  10. “‘ An Exposition of Hebrews 8:6-13 John Owen
  11. “‘ ibid
  12. “‘ A Tabular Comparison of WCF, SDF, LBCF: Chapter 7
  13. “‘ Kline's Covenant Theology
  14. “‘ Children at the Lord's Table by R.A. McLaughlin


  • Murray, John (1982). Covenant Theology. In Collected Writings of John Murray, vol. 4. Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth. ISBN 851513409
  • Reymond, Robert L. (1998). A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith. Nashville: Nelson. ISBN 0849913179
  • Robertson, O. Palmer (1981). Christ of the Covenants. Phillipsburg: Presbyterian & Reformed. ISBN 0875524184
  • Van Til, Cornelius (1955). Covenant Theology. In L. A. Loetscher (Ed.), The New Schaff-Herzog Twentieth Century Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge. Grand Rapids: Baker. ISBN 9991429808.
  • Vos, Geerhardus (2001). The Doctrine of the Covenant in Reformed Theology. In R. B. Gaffin, Jr. (Ed.), Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation: The Shorter Writings of Geerhardus Vos. Phillipsburg: P & R Publishing. ISBN 087552513X