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Covenant Theology: One or Many?

October 25, 2007

Readers familiar with Covenant theology, will likely be aware of the theological divide over how many and what kind of covenants exist in the Bible (covenant of works, covenant of grace, dispensations, etc.). You, no doubt, consider this debate to be of the utmost importance, especially given its implications for the Reformed understanding of justification (double imputation). To others the debate over the biblical covenants may seem like an esoteric discussion not worthy of reflection.

To those familiar with this debate, I would aver that too much has been made over covenantal distinctions, that the gospel isn’t necessarily compromised by a mono-covenantal approach to Bible reading or by a single imputation understanding of justification. To those who think this debate to be too esoteric for reflection, I would aver that reflection on how God redeems and relates to humanity is always worthy of more reflection.

Dr. Jeffrey Niehaus recently wrote an article entitled “An Argument against Theologically Constructed Covenants,” (June, JETS) in which he challenged the idea that the Bible sets forth a singular, overarching covenant in God’s relationship to man. Critiquing two main proponents of this monocovenantal approach, W.J. Dumbrell and Scott J. Hafemann, Niehaus insists that these scholars have imposed a “theologically constructed covenant” upon the Bible as a whole. Instead, he argues for an interpretation of the biblical covenants in terms of special and common grace.

According to Niehaus, the covenant with Adam and Noah is a covenant of “common grace,” affecting the whole of humanity, while the rest of the biblical covenants, Abraham to the New Covenant, are covenants of “special grace,” focused particularly on the elect of God. He states that the common grace covenants are part of the same “legal package.” The problem with Niehaus’ alternative is that it, too, is theologically constructed. The notion of common and special grace, though arguably biblical notions, are in fact theological constructs.

Diving deeper, Niehaus’ main critique of the monocovenantal approach is that it does not make the proper distinctions between covenants and covenant renewals in the Bible (following ancient Near East convention). So, for Hafemann and Dumbrell, all covenants “confirm or formalize a relationship that already exists between two parties.” Not so for Niehaus. Instead, he argues that there are covenants (new relationships) and there are covenant renewals (renewed relationships).

To quicken to the implications, if all covenants confirm a pre-existing relationship, then no matter who makes it—Adam, Moses, David, etc—then God works the same way in all times with all people. As Hafemann has argued, creation is the Historical Prologue, the Grace of God that enables Adam’s obedience in the Garden. READ= no covenant of works. Meredith Kline, Niehaus and others strongly aver that there are two covenants, two new relationships between God and man, one based on works (Adamic, Mosaic) and one based on grace (Abrahamic, New Covenant).

In forthcoming posts, I will develop the deeper layers of the exegetical issues involved in answering the question: “Is there One Covenant or Many?”

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8 Comments leave one →
  1. Geoff permalink
    November 1, 2007 7:45 pm

    I feel like an especially helpful post would be to delve into the theological and thus pastoral implications between believing there is “one covenant relationship” (Dumbrell, Hafemann) vs. what Niehaus posits, “One salvation program, many covenants and renewals”

  2. November 1, 2007 8:06 pm

    I think that the exegetical matters need to be dealt with first, in order to appropriately raise the pastoral implications. However, a couple implications come to mind:

    1) The Covenant of Grace/Covenant of Works model (Kline, Reformed, Niehaus) can lead to nominalism. If Jesus kept the covenant of works on our behalf, it is easy for classic double covenant folks to rest in their double imputation justification and not persevere in their own good works. The wider implications of the gospel like caring for the poor, homeless, downcast can, in turn, be viewed a secondary, optional.

  3. Geoff permalink
    November 2, 2007 8:34 pm

    I agree that solid exegesis precedes application – and you’ve done yeoman’s work with this interaction with Niehaus’ article. I look forward to more since both options can be convincing.

  4. November 25, 2007 10:19 am

    Maybe I read the article too quickly, but I don’t think Niehaus is advocating the cov. of works/cov of grace Reformed model, but rather just wanting to do justice to each covenant on its won terms.

  5. November 25, 2007 2:22 pm

    You are right, Blake. He critiques that model. I have continued this discussion at http://www.theological.wordpress.com

  6. Jeffrey Niehaus permalink
    March 11, 2008 8:32 pm

    Blake White is correct in what he says about my article and the covenant of works/grace model, which in fact I have not advocated.

    I must further point out something in the posted article. The writer says, “The problem with Niehaus’ alternative is that it, too, is theologically constructed. The notion of common and special grace, though arguably biblical notions, are in fact theological constructs.”

    This may be a problem, but it is not a problem for my position. I have not argued against theological constructs per se. I have argued against the concept of a theologically constructed covenant, because there were no such covenants in the ancient world, and the concept is alien to what a covenant was in the Bible and its world. Its use as a hermeneutical key only clouds discussion of biblical covenants, as I have tried to argue.

    I hope this contributes some clarity to the discussion.

Trackbacks

  1. Covenant Unity or Diversity: Niehuas Responds « Creation Project
  2. The Boar’s Head Tavern » Post-Lutheran Covenant Theology

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