Historical Theology and the Covenant Concept
I once thought that “covenant theology” had (only) its three theological covenants, whereas (only) dispensationalists taught regarding the historical covenants (Noahic, Abrahamic, Davidic, New), with no overlap or combinations in between. Also I heard the commonly asserted idea, that covenant theology only began in the 17th century.
Though some current day Calvinist-Dispensationalists may take exception to the idea of any theological covenants, it is interesting to note that classic dispensationalism from earlier years recognized the “Adamic/Edenic Covenant” (CT’s covenant of works). Also, the late Dr. S. Lewis Johnson, even in his earlier Dallas-Seminary years recognized in scripture both the “covenant of works” (Edenic) covenant and the theological “Covenant of Redemption,” along with all the historical covenants. The CT side, it turns out, also recognizes the historical covenants, though seeing the historical covenants as the redemptive history outworking of the theological “covenant of grace.” See for example this series on covenant theology, taught at a 1689 reformed, historic premillennial church, which teaches through the three theological covenants AND each of the historical covenants (Noahic, Abrahamic, Mosaic, Davidic, and New).
Variations also exist among different covenant theologians in terms of eschatology, with the (in modern times dominant) amillennial and postmillennial spiritualizing/replacement idea concerning the prophetic texts, as contrasted with the many classic/covenantal premillennialists’ literal understanding of the OT prophetic texts as describing the future millennial age and national Israel’s restoration. Such different approaches clearly relate to the different covenant theologians and their eschatological views, as well seen in examples such as Horatius Bonar’s “Prophetic Landmarks,” (see this excerpt and also this one) written by a covenant theologian advocating the literal, future Israel understanding of the Old Testament prophecies, with very sharp words against the spiritualizing hermeneutic of his reformed/amillennial contemporary Patrick Fairbairn.
Regarding the development of “covenant theology,” certainly its highly developed form originated in the 17th century. But as pointed out in some online articles, the rudiments of covenants, and the scriptural approach to covenants, goes back to the early church. As with the doctrines of grace, Augustine had a more developed view of covenants than the earlier church fathers, even recognizing the “covenant of works” with Adam, as in this excerpt from Augustine:
But even the infants, not personally in their own life, but according to the common origin of the human race, have all broken God’s covenant in that one in whom all have sinned. Now there are many things called God’s covenants besides those two great ones, the old and the new, which any one who pleases may read and know. For the first covenant, which was made with the first man, is just this: “In the day ye eat thereof, ye shall surely die. “Whence it is written in the book called Ecclesiasticus, “All flesh waxeth old as doth a garment. For the covenant from the beginning is, Thou shall die the death.”
Even Augustine’s more limited (compared to later ages) understanding of covenants limited his thinking, as Ligon Duncan observes in his “History of Covenant Theology“:
That is why Augustine, with as good as an answer as he gave to Pelagius, didn’t quite solve all the issues related to original sin because Augustine did not have a fully worked out Covenant Theology. Augustine was a realist in his view instead of a federalist in his view of the imputation of Adam’s sin, and so Augustine got up to a certain point and he was stymied. Some of the errors in his theology are related to that distinction with regard to the imputation of Adam’s sin.
Yet the basics were there, what he had learned from the even earlier Christian teachers. Ligon Duncan’s article explains the early church use of the historical covenants: as part of their understanding and ability to respond to the early heretics. Irenaeus, in “Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching,” expounded God’s redemptive plan as “unfolded in covenants with Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, the New Covenant, and Christ.” Justin Martyr, Tertullian and others likewise explained their thinking, their apologetic, on the basis of these covenants set forth in scripture. Their covenantal thinking helped in their responses to the gnostics, by showing the continuity of scripture, that the God of the Old Testament is the same God in the New Testament, and Christ is that same God. Their response to unbelieving Jews, who denied that Christians were the legitimate heirs of the Abrahamic promises, was similarly based on the historical covenants and the Abrahamic promises.
As we know, the early Reformation emphasized a return to the original languages of the scriptures and early Christian writings. Through this, the 16th century Reformers (a century before the Dutch and the full development of Covenant Theology) including especially Zwingli, rediscovered the covenant concept. Several of the 16th century reformers use the covenants as an organizing principle, especially Zwingli and Bullinger. Calvin taught the unity of the covenants for a covenantal framework to understand the sacraments and argue against the Catholic teaching. Other 16th century reformers followed with important contributions toward the development of full covenant theology.
The articles mentioned above give more details regarding the development of covenant theology from the early church up to the 17th century, for a helpful part of historical theology and the development of Christian theology that we have inherited from those who went before.