ABSTRACT: Dispensationalism or covenant theology? From the beginning of the church, Christians have wrestled over how best to relate the covenants. In recent generations, two broad traditions have governed the church’s covenantal thinking. In seeking to “put the covenants together” in Christian theology, we need to do justice to the plurality of God’s covenants, each of which reaches its fulfillment in Christ; posit an implicit creation covenant as foundational to future covenants; and seriously account for the newness of God’s new-covenant people. From creation to the cross, God accomplishes his redemptive plan covenant by covenant, progressively revealing the greater new covenant now ratified in Christ.
All Christians agree that covenants are essential to the Bible’s redemptive story centered in our Lord Jesus Christ, but we continue to disagree on the relationships between the covenants. This is not a new debate. In the early church, the apostles wrestled with the implications of Christ’s new-covenant work. In fact, it’s difficult to appreciate many of the early church’s struggles apart from viewing them as covenantal debates. For example, the reason for the Jerusalem Council was due to covenantal disputes (Acts 15), especially regarding Jew-Gentile relations (Acts 10–11; Ephesians 2:11–22; 3:1–13) and theological differences with the Judaizers (Galatians 3–4).
Although Christians today share a basic agreement that the Bible’s story moves from Adam to Abraham to Sinai to Christ, we still disagree on how to put together the covenants.1 These differences affect other key theological issues, such as the newness of what Christ has achieved, how the Decalogue and the Sabbath laws apply to the church, and how Old Testament promises are now fulfilled in Christ and the church (a question related to the larger Israel-church relationship). When these differences surface, we discover that there are still significant disagreements regarding how the covenants are put together.
This article addresses the topic of how to put the covenants together, and it does so by answering three questions: (1) Why do we disagree? (2) How do we resolve our differences? (3) How might we put the covenants together in a way that least distorts the data and emphases of Scripture?
Why Do We Disagree?
Why do those of us who affirm Scripture’s full authority disagree on significant truths? The answer is complicated and multifaceted. For starters, theological views are not simply tied to one or two texts. Instead, views involve discussions of how texts are interpreted in their context, interrelated with other texts, and read in terms of the entirety of Scripture.
Furthermore, views are tied to historical theology and tradition. We don’t approach Scripture with a blank slate; we are informed by tradition and a theological heritage, which affects how we draw theological conclusions. Within evangelical theology, two broad traditions often govern our thinking about the covenants: dispensationalism and covenant theology.
Dispensationalism began in nineteenth-century England and has undergone various revisions. However, what is unique to all its forms is the Israel-church distinction, dependent on a particular understanding of the covenants. For dispensationalists, Israel refers to an ethnic, national people, and the church is never the transformed eschatological Israel in God’s plan. Gentile salvation is not part of the fulfillment of promises made to national Israel and now realized in the church. Instead, God has promised national Israel, first in the Abrahamic covenant and then reaffirmed by the prophets, the possession of the promised land under Christ’s rule, which still awaits its fulfillment in the premillennial return of Christ and the eternal state.
The church, then, is distinctively new in God’s plan and ontologically different from Israel. Although the church is presently comprised of believing Jews and Gentiles, she is receiving only the spiritual blessings that were promised to Israel. In the future, Christ will rule over redeemed nations, not the church in her present form. The church will not receive all of God’s promises equally, fully, and forever in Christ. Instead, believing Jews and Gentiles, who now constitute the church, will join the redeemed of the nation of Israel, along with Gentile nations, to live under Christ’s rule according to their respective national identities and the specific promises given to each. Dispensationalism also teaches that the church is constituted as a regenerate community, which entails that the sign of baptism is to be applied only to those who profess faith in Christ.
Covenant theology formally began in the Reformation and post-Reformation era, and it is best represented by the Westminster Confession of Faith and other Reformed confessions. It organizes God’s plan in history by God’s covenantal dealings with humans. Although covenant theology is not monolithic, those who hold to it typically argue for three covenants: the intra-trinitarian covenant of redemption; the temporal covenant of works made with Adam on humanity’s behalf, which, tragically, he broke, resulting in sin and death; and the covenant of grace made in Christ for the salvation of God’s people, which has unfolded over time through different covenant administrations.
Although covenant theology recognizes the plurality of the covenants, it subsumes all post-fall covenants under the overarching category of the covenant of grace. As a result, the Israel-church relationship is viewed in terms of continuity — that is, the two by nature are essentially the same, yet administered differently. For this reason, Israel and the church are constituted as a mixed people (elect and non-elect), and their respective covenant signs (circumcision and baptism) signify the same spiritual reality — hence why baptism may be applied to infants in the church.
Given that we tend to read Scripture in light of our theological traditions, it’s not surprising that people disagree on the covenants. How, then, do we resolve our differences?
How Do We Resolve Our Differences?
Without sounding naive, we resolve our differences by returning to Scripture. Yes, resolution of our differences is not an easy task; it will require us to examine our views anew. But given sola Scriptura, Scripture must always be able to confirm or correct our traditions. Thus, the resolution to covenantal disagreements is this: Is our putting together of the covenants true to Scripture’s own presentation of the covenants from creation to Christ? This raises some hermeneutical questions, especially what it means to speak of Scripture’s own presentation, or its own terms. My brief answer is to note three truths about what Scripture is on its own terms, all of which are important in properly putting together the covenants.
First, Scripture is God’s word, written by human authors and unfolding God’s eternal plan centered in Christ (2 Timothy 3:15–17; 2 Peter 1:20–21; Luke 24:25–27; Hebrews 1:1–3). Despite Scripture’s diverse content, it displays an overall unity and coherence precisely because it is God’s word written. Furthermore, since Scripture is God’s word given through human authors, we cannot know what God is saying to us apart from the writing(s) and intention of the human authors. And given that God has spoken through multiple authors over time, this requires a careful intertextual and canonical reading to understand God’s purposes and plan. Scripture does not come to us all at once. As God’s plan unfolds, more revelation is given — and later revelation, building on the earlier, results in more understanding as we discover how the parts fit with the whole. The best view of the covenants will explain how all the covenants are organically related to each other, and how each covenant prophetically points forward to Christ and the new covenant.
Second, building on the first point, Scripture is not only God’s word written over time, but the unfolding of revelation is largely demarcated by the progressive unfolding of the covenants. To understand the canon, then, we must carefully trace out God’s unfolding plan as unveiled through the covenants. Our exegesis of entire books must put together the canon in terms of its redemptive-historical unfolding, and the best view of the covenants will account for the unfolding nature of God’s plan through the covenants, starting in creation and culminating in Christ and the new covenant.
Third, given progressive revelation, Scripture and the covenants must be put together according to three unfolding contexts. The first context is the immediate context of any book. The second context locates the book in God’s unfolding plan, because texts are embedded in the larger context of what precedes them. The third context is the canonical context. By locating texts (and covenants) in God’s unfolding plan, we discover intertextual links between earlier and later revelation. As later authors refer to earlier texts (and covenants), they build on them, both in terms of greater understanding and by identifying typological relationships — God-given patterns between earlier and later persons, events, and institutions. These patterns are a crucial way God unfolds his plan through the covenants to reach its fulfillment in Christ and the new covenant. Theological conclusions, then, including covenantal formulation, are made in light of the canon. The best view of the covenants will account for how each covenant contributes to God’s plan, starting in creation and reaching its fulfillment in Christ.
Is There a ‘Better’ Way?
To seek a “better” way is not to question the orthodoxy of alternative views. Despite our differences, we agree much more than we disagree, especially regarding the central truths of Christian theology. Instead, to speak of a “better” way is to assert that the two dominant traditions are not quite right in putting together the covenants, which results in various theological differences among us. In this article, I cannot defend my claim in detail.2 Instead, I offer just three reasons why we need a better account for Scripture’s own presentation of the covenants.
Plural Covenants Fulfilled in Christ
First, as covenant theology claims, the covenants are the central way God has unfolded his redemptive plan. But instead of dividing history into two historical covenants — the covenant of works (a conditional “law” covenant) and the covenant of grace (an unconditional “gospel” covenant) — and then subsuming all the post-fall covenants (Noahic, Abrahamic, Mosaic, Davidic, and new) under the larger category of the covenant of grace, Scripture depicts God’s plan and promises as progressively revealed and accomplished through a plurality of covenants (Ephesians 2:12), each of which reaches its fulfillment in Christ and the new covenant. This formulation better accounts for how each biblical covenant contributes to God’s unified plan without subsuming all the covenants under one covenant. It also explains better how all of God’s promises are fulfilled in Christ (Hebrews 1:1–3; Ephesians 1:9–10) and applied to the church, along with emphasizing the greater newness of the new covenant.
“God’s plan and promises are progressively revealed and accomplished through a plurality of covenants.”
This formulation is better because it explains the covenants first in biblical rather than theological categories, consistent with Scripture’s presentation of the covenants. After all, there is no specific textual warrant for the covenant of grace; it is more of a theological category. Theological categories are fine, but they must be true to Scripture. By contrast, there is much biblical warrant for God’s plan unveiled through plural covenants (see, for example, Ephesians 2:12; Romans 9:4). No doubt, covenant theology’s bicovenantal structure grounds the theological categories of “law” and “gospel,” and it highlights well the two covenant heads of humanity: Adam and Christ. However, this is not the only way to ground these theological truths, and covenant theology’s primary weakness is that it grounds these truths by a covenantal construction foreign to Scripture.
Furthermore, there is little warrant for the ratification of two distinct covenants in Genesis 1–3, first in Genesis 2:15–17 and then in Genesis 3:15 (as covenant theology contends). Instead, it’s better to view Genesis 3:15 as God’s gracious post-fall promise that, despite Adam’s sin and rebellion, God’s purpose for humans will stand, and that, from humanity, God will graciously provide a Redeemer to undo what Adam did. Thus, from Genesis 3:15 on — and through the covenants — we see the unfolding revelation of the new covenant.
Furthermore, careful readers of Scripture will want to avoid categorizing the covenants as either conditional/bilateral (law) or unconditional/unilateral (gospel), as covenant theology tends to do. Instead, Scripture teaches that each covenant contains both elements, but with a clear distinction between the covenant in creation before and after the fall. Thus, what was demanded of Adam before the fall is not confused with God’s promise of redemption after the fall, and the Christological promise of Genesis 3:15 gets unpacked across the covenants, revealing that redemption is always and only in Christ alone. In fact, it’s because of this blend of both elements that we can account for the deliberate tension that is created in the Bible’s covenantal story — a tension that heightens as God’s plan unfolds and is resolved only in Christ’s perfect obedient life and death for us.
On the one hand, the covenants reveal our triune God, who makes and keeps his promises. As God initiates covenant relationships with his creatures, he is always the faithful partner (Hebrews 6:17–18). Regardless of our unfaithfulness, God’s promises, starting in Genesis 3:15, are certain. Yet God demands perfect obedience from us, thus explaining the bilateral aspect of the covenants. But as the covenants progress, a tension grows between God’s faithfulness to his promises and our disobedience. God is holy and just, but we have sinned against him. And due to Genesis 3:15, God’s promises are tied to the provision of an obedient son who will undo Adam’s disastrous choice. But where is such a son/seed, who fully obeys God, to be found? How can God remain in relationship with us unless our sin is removed? It is through the covenants that this tension increases, and it is through the covenants that the answer is given: God himself will unilaterally act to keep his own promise by the provision of an obedient covenant partner — namely, Christ.
“Christ alone can secure our salvation, and in him alone are the covenants fulfilled.”
If we maintain this dual emphasis in the covenants, we can account for how and why in Christ the new covenant is unbreakable, which also underscores Scripture’s glorious Christological focus. The Bible’s covenantal story leads us to him. Christ alone can secure our salvation, and in him alone are the covenants fulfilled.
How, then, does Scripture present the covenants? Not in terms of a bicovenantal structure, but as God’s one redemptive plan unfolded through multiple covenants that all progressively reveal the greater new covenant. For this reason, we cannot simply appeal to the “covenant of grace” and draw direct lines of continuity, especially regarding circumcision-baptism and the mixed nature of Israel-church, without thinking through how each covenant functions in God’s overall plan, and how Christ brings all the covenants to fulfillment in him, which results in crucial changes across the covenants, reaching their greater fulfillment in the new covenant.
Creation Covenant as Foundation
Second, as in covenant theology (different from dispensationalism), we need to account for why the covenants are more than just a unifying theme of Scripture but the backbone of Scripture’s redemptive plotline, starting in creation and culminating in Christ. Although dispensationalism acknowledges the significance of Genesis 1–11 for the Bible’s story, “The idea of a creation covenant . . . has no role.”3 But this is the problem. There is abundant evidence for such a covenant, and its significance for putting together the covenants is twofold.4
First, the creation covenant is foundational for all future covenants since all subsequent covenants unpack Adam’s role in the world as our representative head (Romans 5:12–21; Hebrews 2:5–18). Adam, and all humanity, is created as God’s image-son to rule over creation (Genesis 1:26–28; Psalm 8). Adam is created to know God as he mediates God’s rule to the world. God demands perfect obedience from his covenant partner, which, sadly, he fails to fulfill (Genesis 2:16–17; cf. Genesis 3:1–6). But God graciously promises that a woman’s seed will come (Genesis 3:15), a greater Adam who will reverse the effects of sin and death. All subsequent covenant heads (Noah, Abraham, Israel, David) function as subsets of Adam, but they are not the greater Adam; instead, they only point forward to him. Without a creation covenant as the foundation, the remaining covenants hang in midair.
Second, the creation covenant is foundational for establishing crucial typological patterns that reach their fulfillment in Christ and the new covenant — for example, the rest of the seventh day (Genesis 2:1–3) and salvation rest in Christ (Hebrews 3:7–4:13); Eden as a temple sanctuary fulfilled by Christ as the new temple (John 2:19–22); and Adam as a prophet, priest, and king fulfilled in Christ (Acts 2:36; 3:22–26; Hebrews 7). As these typological patterns are unveiled through the covenants, they eventually terminate in Christ and his church.
Thus, to put the covenants together according to Scripture, we must start in creation. Genesis 1–11 is framed by God’s creation covenant first made with Adam and upheld in Noah. Then as God’s salvific promise (Genesis 3:15) is given greater clarity through the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants, it’s brought to a climax in the promise of an individual, the Davidic son-king who will rule the world forever (2 Samuel 7:14, 19). In this promise of a son, we hear not only echoes of Israel as God’s son (Exodus 4:22), but also echoes of Adam and the initial seed promise (Genesis 3:15). Central to God’s covenantal plan is the restoration of humanity’s role in creation, and by the time we get to David, we know this will occur through David’s greater son.
However, David and his sons disobey, thus leaving God’s promises in question. But the message of the Prophets is that although Israel has violated her covenant, God will keep his promise to redeem by his provision of a faithful Davidic king (Psalms 2; 72; 110; Isaiah 7:14; 9:6–7; 11:1–10; 49:1–7; 52:13–53:12; 55:3; 61:1–3; Jeremiah 23:5–6; Ezekiel 34:23–24). In this king, identified as the “servant of Lord,” a new/everlasting covenant will come with the outpouring of the Spirit (Ezekiel 36–37; Joel 2:28–32), God’s saving reign among the nations, the forgiveness of sin (Jeremiah 31:34), and a new creation (Isaiah 65:17). The hope of the Prophets is found in the new covenant.
For this reason, the new covenant is not merely a renewal of previous ones, as covenant theology teaches. Instead, it is the fulfillment of the previous covenants and is, as such, greater. Since all of the covenants are part of God’s one plan, no covenant is unrelated to what preceded it, and no covenant makes sense apart from its fulfillment in Christ. No doubt, new-covenant fulfillment involves an already–not yet aspect to it. Yet what the previous covenants revealed, anticipated, and predicted is now here. This is why Jesus is the last Adam and the head of the new creation (Romans 5:12–21; 1 Corinthians 15:21–22); the true seed and offspring of Abraham, who brings blessings to the nations (Galatians 3:16); the true Israel, fulfilling all that she failed to be (Matthew 2:15; John 15:1–6); and David’s greater son, who rules the nations and the entire creation as Lord.
The Bible’s covenantal story begins in creation, and to put the covenants together properly requires that we start with a creation covenant that moves to Christ and the fulfillment of all of God’s plan and promises in the ratification of a new covenant.
New and Greater Covenant
Third, our putting together of the covenants must also account for the Israel-church relation. Minimally, Scripture teaches two truths about this relation that theologians must account for.
First, against dispensationalism, Scripture teaches that God has one people and that the Israel-church relation should be viewed Christologically. The church is not directly the new Israel or her replacement. Rather, in Christ, the church is God’s new-covenant people because Jesus is the antitypical fulfillment of Adam and Israel, the true seed of Abraham who inherits the promises by his work (Galatians 3:16). As God’s new creation/humanity, the church remains forever, comprised of believing Jews and Gentiles, who equally and fully receive all of God’s promises in Christ, realized fully in the new creation (Romans 4:13; Hebrews 11:10, 16). As Ephesians 2:11–22 teaches, the church is not the extension of Israel, or an amalgam of Jews and Gentiles, or merely one phase in God’s plan that ends when Christ returns to restore national Israel and the nations. Instead, the church is God’s new-creation people, Christ’s bride who lasts forever (Revelation 21:1–4). Dispensationalism and its covenantal construction does not sufficiently account for these truths.
But second, against covenant theology, the church is also new and constituted differently from Israel. Covenant theology correctly notes that Israel, under the old covenant, was constituted as a mixed people (Romans 9:6). Yet it doesn’t sufficiently account for the newness of the church. It fails to acknowledge that what the Old Testament prophets anticipated is now here in Christ in his church — namely, that in the new covenant, all of God’s people will know God, and every believer will be born-empowered-indwelt by the Spirit and receive the full forgiveness of sin (Jeremiah 31:31–34).
“One is in Christ not by outward circumcision/baptism but by the Spirit’s work in rebirth and granting saving faith.”
Given its bicovenantal view, covenant theology fails to see that the relationship between God and his people has changed from the first covenant to the new; it’s not by natural but by spiritual birth that we enter the new covenant. For this reason, the church is constituted not by “you and your biological children,” but by all who savingly know God. One is in Christ not by outward circumcision/baptism but by the Spirit’s work in rebirth and granting saving faith. In contrast to Israel, the church is constituted as a believing, regenerate people. This is why baptism in the New Testament — the sign of the new covenant — is applied only to those who profess faith and give credible evidence that they are no longer in Adam but in Christ. Also, it explains why circumcision and baptism do not signify the same realities, due to their respective covenantal differences. To think that circumcision and baptism signify the same reality is a covenantal-category mistake.
This view of the church is confirmed by other truths. Although we await our glorification, the church now is the eschatological, gathered people identified with the “age to come.” For those who have placed their faith in Christ, we are now citizens of the new/heavenly Jerusalem, no longer in Adam but in Christ, with all the benefits of that union (Hebrews 12:18–29). Also, the church is a new creation/temple in whom the Spirit dwells (1 Corinthians 6:19; Ephesians 2:21), which can be true only of a regenerate people, unlike Israel of old. On these points, covenant theology, due to its imprecision in putting together the covenants, doesn’t sufficiently account for how all of the covenants have reached their fulfillment in Christ, resulting in the newness of the church.
In Christ Alone
As we continue to discuss these important matters, we would do well to not only seek to conform our views to Scripture’s own presentation, but even more significantly, to glory in Christ Jesus, who is central to all of God’s plans and purposes. In Christ alone, all of God’s promises are Yes and Amen (2 Corinthians 1:20), and in our covenantal debates we must never forget this truth.
In Christ, the divine Son has become the promised human son, Abraham’s seed, the true Israel, and David’s greater son. By Christ’s life, death, resurrection, and ascension, and by the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost, he pays for our sin and remakes us as his new creation. Ultimately, the central point of the covenants is that, in Christ alone, all of God’s promises are fulfilled, the original purpose of our creation is now accomplished, and by grace, we as the church are the beneficiaries of his glorious, triumphant work, now and forevermore. May this glorious truth unite Christ’s church as we continue to wrestle with how to put the covenants together according to Scripture.
Credit: Stephen Wellum