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The “Covenant of Redemption” and the Historical Covenants

March 14, 2013

The 2013 Shepherds Conference included this instructive message from Dr. Mayhue, When God Gives His Word: a good overview lecture concerning the six historical covenants.  Mayhue’s list includes the Noahic, Abrahamic, Mosaic, Priestly (Numbers 25:13), Davidic and New Covenants — but not the “Edenic” aka “Adamic” covenant or the “Palestinian covenant.”  Looking at the explicitly named covenants, Mayhue’s inductive study through the Bible finds these six that are “very obvious, diverse and unmistakeable.” As we all know (or should know), only one of these, the Old / Mosaic covenant, is conditional, very unlike the other five.

Mayhue approaches the issue from the standpoint of the word “covenant” explicitly used in scripture, which is certainly true for these six covenants.  Some on both sides of the theological issue (CT and dispensationalism) have seen an implied “Adamic/Edenic” covenant — also called the Covenant of Works, one of the three theological covenants.  As to the Palestinian covenant (Deuteronomy 27-29), some see a separate covenant or a “renewing of a covenant”; but as Mayhue points out, no new information is given there that is not included elsewhere.

More details regarding the specific Abrahamic and Davidic covenants can be found in these previous posts (AbrahamicDavidic, and also here), from S. Lewis Johnson’s Eschatology series which included separate messages on each of the covenants. SLJ’s Divine Purpose series also went into more detail regarding each of the theological and historical covenants.

One other item to note. In keeping with a precise definition, that only explicitly named covenants are actually covenants, Mayhue gives his opinion regarding the theological “Covenant of Redemption.”  Yes, there was some “intra-trinitarian” deal going on there, as John MacArthur has termed it, as to the cooperation between the three persons in the Godhead and their agreement, before time began, concerning the election and salvation of God’s people, the elect.  MacArthur apparently also, like Mayhue, never calls this a covenant.  I understand that distinction, that the historical covenants are quite different from the implied, theological ideas described in scripture, which some have also labeled as “covenants.”  Yet I also understand S. Lewis Johnson’s way of describing it, making the distinction between the theological covenant of Redemption and the historical covenants, as he related in this message:

my basic contention has been that there is one great eternal covenant of redemption which is unfolded in a series of historical covenants.

and here:

I do not see myself that the covenant of grace is really a Scriptural covenant, but the covenant of redemption is a biblical covenant in my opinion, and the covenant of works is a fair representation of the arrangement that God made with Adam in the garden of Eden.  It has also been called the Edenic Covenant or the Adamic Covenant, as it is in the Scofield Bible.

As described in the Divine Purpose series:

Christ’s ministry is a condition of the Covenant of Redemption made between the persons of the Trinity.  In other words, each of the persons of the Trinity covenant to do certain things, and our Lord’s part of that Covenant is a condition for the accomplishment of the Covenant of Redemption.  That Covenant is a conditional covenant.  Now, because it’s a conditional covenant between the divine persons, there is a certainty of accomplishment of the terms of the Covenant bound up in the nature and being of the divine persons of the Trinity.  So what the Trinity, and what the persons of the Trinity take upon themselves to do, they are able to do, and they do do, because they are sovereign persons.  The sovereign Father.  The sovereign Son.  The sovereign Spirit.  And so they are fully able to accomplish all of the conditions, and they accomplish all of the conditions that they set upon themselves.

In the final analysis, I’m not convinced that the particular terminology used matters all that much. Some, such as John MacArthur and Richard Mayhue, want to say that only the explicitly named covenants can be called actual covenants, and yet they understand the “intra-trinitarian” working — a doctrinal understanding that others see as an (implicit) theological “Covenant of Redemption” describing the same aspect of the Triune Godhead’s work.  The classic case of the word “trinity” comes to mind: we use the term to describe the doctrine, fully recognizing that the term “trinity” is never actually stated in the Bible.  Similarly, I don’t see a real problem with some teachers, S. Lewis Johnson in this case, describing the “intra-trinitarian” working as a covenant, a theological covenant among the Godhead “which is unfolded in a series of historical covenants.”  The overall issue is that we understand the purpose and importance of the explicitly stated  historical covenants that God made with man, along with the understanding of the Triune redemptive purpose of God from before the foundation of the world.

  1. March 14, 2013 at 7:52 am

    Very good summary of a big topic.

  2. alf
    March 14, 2013 at 9:10 am

    I agree. Thanks Lynda.

  3. March 14, 2013 at 11:42 am

    Thanks, bography and alf.

  4. March 14, 2013 at 12:24 pm

    Here are some sources from my “working bibliography” on this subject that you might find helpful, or at least informative. The works of A. A. Hodge, Charles Hodge, William J. Dumbrell, and others may also be consulted on this issue. It is an issue with Covenant Theologians due to the involvement of their confessional and systematic “Covenant of Works”, while it is also an issue with others due to the lack of specific covenantal terms in the narative, and, for some, the baggage that attends the extra-Biblical construct of Covenant Theology.

    G. K. Beale, The Temple and the Church’s Mission: A Biblical Theology of the Dwelling Place of God, New Studies in Biblical Theology 17, series ed. D. A. Carson (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004), pg. 178, and 178 note 10.

    John M. Frame, Salvation Belongs to the Lord: An Introduction to Systematic Theology (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2006), pp. 118-119.

    Robert Gonzales, Jr., “The Covenantal Context Of The Fall: Did God Make a Primeval Covenant with Adam?” Reformed Baptist Theological Review 4:2 (JUL 2007), pp. 5-32.

    Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000), 516, note 1.

    Thomas Edward McComiskey, The Covenants of Promise: A Theology of the Old Testament Covenants (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1985), pp. 213-221, s.v., Ch. 6: “The Extent of Covenant as Theological Category”.

    John Murray, “The Adamic Administration”, in Collected Writings of John Murray, Vol. 2: Select Lectures in Systematic Theology (Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1977), pp. 47-59.

    Kim Riddlebarger, “Jesus Christ: The Sum and Substance of Biblical Prophecy”, originally published in Modern Reformation Magazine (SEP-OCT 2001), pg. 6; available in downloadable PDF format under “Christ the Sum and Substance” at http://kimriddlebarger.squarespace.com/theological-essays/.

    O. Palmer Robertson, The Christ of the Covenants (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1980); pp. 17-25, s.v. Ch. 2: “The Extent of the Divine Covenants”.

    Angus Stewart, “The Covenant with Adam: A Brief Historical Analysis”, on the Covenant Protestant Reformed Church (Northern Ireland) in http://www.cprf.co.uk/articles/covenantwithadam.htm; slightly modified from an article first published in the Standard Bearer; on the Presbyterian and Reformed Church of America at http://www.prca.org/standard_bearer/index.html.

    Geerhardus Vos, “The Doctrine of the Covenant in Reformed Theology”, in Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation: The Shorter Writings of Geerhardus Vos, ed. Richard B. Gaffin, Jr. (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1980), pp. 234-265.

    B. B. Warfield, “Hosea VI.7: Adam or Man?”, in Selected Shorter Writings, 2 vols., ed. John Meeter (P&R, 1970, 1973), I:116-129; originally published in The Bible Student VIII (JUL 1903), pp. 1-10; reprinted in The Bible Student and Teacher VIII (FEB 1908), pp. 130-138, as “The Meaning of ‘Adam’ in the Old Testament Hebrew.”

    Stephen J. Wellum and Peter J. Gentry, Kingdom Through Covenant (Wheaton: Crossway, 2012), pp. 177-221, s.v. Ch. 6: “The Covenant With Creation In Genesis 1-3”, 611-628, and 669. [The last is a citation from John Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied, (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1955), pg. 22.]

    Paul R. Williamson, Sealed with an Oath: Covenant in God’s Unfolding Purpose, Vol. 23 in New Studies in Biblical Theology, series ed. D. A. Carson (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2007), pp. 44-58.

    Fred G. Zaspel, The Theology of B. B. Warfield: A Systematic Summary (Wheaton: Crossway, 2010), pg. 400.

    Soli Deo Gloria,

    John T. “Jack” Jeffery
    Pastor, Wayside Gospel Chapel
    Greentown, PA

    • March 14, 2013 at 2:28 pm

      Thanks for that list, Jack, a good reference. Yes, I think Mayhue is reacting to “the baggage that attends the extra-Biblical construct of Covenant Theology,” in his emphasis on what he considers to be “covenants” in the Bible.

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