The Subtle Errors of Covenant/Calvinist Theology
Many regularly write us asking for a brief explanation of Covenant Theology. The following is provided as an introduction for the serious student of the Word. Keep in mind that a great deal of diversity, including disagreement and confusion, exists about what constitutes the covenant system of theology--even amongst those who consider themselves Covenant in orientation--(e.g., civil wars over the meaning of sola fide). As one well-known, modern-day Covenantist writes:
In the Beginning
As with all efforts to systemize biblical revelation, Covenant theology is a method for organizing and interpreting the Bible based on certain presuppositions. A presupposition is a conscious or unconscious assumption about reality, and these assumptions are antecedent to our normal reasoning processes as well as emotional responses. Without exception, for good or ill, we all have our presuppositions.
For example, the most popular and false presupposition is the autonomous nature of man. The public is repetitively told they have "free will" and this assumption results in a gross misinterpretation of Scripture. However take heart, based on Christ's promise recorded in John 14:26, the Holy Spirit sovereignly sees that the growing, new-creation Christian receives a different understanding. False presuppositions are progressively displaced with God's perspective. The Apostle Paul encourages us to "...not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind." (Romans 12:2).
With all varieties of Covenant theology, there is an obsession for an overriding continuity or unified purpose for the sixty-six books (Canon) which comprise Holy Scriptures. Rather than having wisdom to discern the real difference among things which resemble one another, the Covenantist is driven to find an "integrating" principle to produce theological uniformity, in the hope of discovering "what the Bible is really all about." Their "key" is the concept that absolutely every relationship between God and man must take the form of a covenant or legal agreement. From this notion, albeit logical, has arisen their apocryphal and overarching Covenant of Works and Covenant of Grace. Dr. Lewis Sperry Chafer wrote:
It must be said that covenant plays a very important role in the Old Testament (OT), as well as the Synoptic Gospels. However, biblical covenants pertain to the earth, and God’s dealing with his earthly people, Israel. Where covenant theology goes seriously wrong, is their effort, even obsession, to stuff the remainder of the Canon into the straight-jacket of the covenant framework. Read that sentence again slowly.
The Gospel of John, Acts, the Epistles, as well as the Book of Revelation, are seen as unfolding OT prophecies of Israel’s promised kingdom and nothing more. Thus, the mystery of the Church, the Body of Christ, and other mysteries spoken of by the Apostle Paul, revelations given directly from the Risen Lord Jesus Christ (Gal. 1:11-12) to the Apostle Paul, cannot for them, be either new or previously unknown—on account of their erroneous presupposition! All Scripture must conform to the Jewish vision found in the OT. Listen to a description of this vision by scholar John W. Cooper of Calvin Theological Seminary:
The Old Testament is resoundingly this-worldly. The fullest possible existence for a human being is to live an earthly life as God created it to be lived. Health, sufficient material goods, enjoyment of marriage and family, meaningful work, standing in the community, freedom from one’s enemies, and above all walking in integrity with the God of the covenant—the Israelite who enjoyed these blessings could exclaim, “It doesn’t get any better than this!” When the prophets look forward to the eschatological future, they do not envision heaven for the individual. Their hope is for a New Jerusalem and a new earth, a place where the existence of the Lord’s people will again be what it was created to be in the beginning. Human life is tied to the earth. 
Both the Covenant theologian and Covenant system adherent truly believe they are being fair in limiting the NT to the OT. They even have a mantra, “Interpret the New in light of the Old” which they repeat frequently. For many, the New Testament seems to introduce a foreign Greek Platonism—a false dichotomy of earthly versus heavenly, flesh versus spirit, etc. Some even go so far as to see this portion of the Canon as corrupted by such Platonism.
Further, a corollary to Covenant theology is Calvinism. While Calvinism holds to several biblical tenets, such as unconditional election and sovereign grace, it misinterprets the following Genesis 2:17 passage:
Historically Christendom, to its ruin, has largely minimized the sin consequences of the Fall. However in reaction, the Reformed/Calvinists have also developed and teach an inaccurate theory for the biblical truth of mankind's spiritual death--the death inherited from the first man, Adam. The Calvinistic emphasis often portrays our post-Fall, pre-New Birth condition (Total Depravity) as a state of total unconsciousness and passivity (similar to physical death: Lazarus is frequently cited as an example.) rather than a conscious rebellion and alienation from God. Later, we'll examine this area of confusion in more detail.
As most scholars agree, Covenant theology is largely a product of the 16th-17th century Reformation. Early leaders such as Johann Heinrich (Henry) Bullinger (1504-1575), Kasper Olevianus (1536-1587), Johannes Wollebius (1586-1629), William Ames (1576-1633), Johannes Cocceius (1603-1669), and Hermann Witsius (1636-1708) were instrumental in developing the Covenant view and incorporating it into various creedal confessions. These include the First (1636) and Second (1566) Helvetic Confessions, the Heidelberg Catechism (1563), the Thirty-nine Articles (1571), and the landmark, Westminster Confession of Faith (1647). Dr. Kenneth H. Good remarks:
While Covenant theology is typically deemed synonymous with Calvinism, Reformed, or Puritanism; similar covenant theological frameworks can also be found in Catholicism, Anglican/Episcopal, Methodism and other Anglo-Catholic denominations.
Among the Reformed/Calvinists, there are numerous variations and sub-groups: e.g, Princeton, Dutch Reformed, Southern Reformed, Reformed Baptist, New Covenant, Reconstructionist, to name just a few. At present, major civil wars rage amongst these Calvinists.
The Two Overarching Covenants
Covenant theology views God's revealed Word through the presuppositional lens of two overarching covenants.
However, there is a very serious downside to this approach. Hear Dr. Chafer again:
For additional lucid comments by Chafer, see Dr. Chafer on Covenant Theology complied by Miles J. Stanford.
A Flawed Foundation
For nearly four centuries, the Reformed/Calvinist tradition has faithfully battled the insidious errors of Christian humanism and its attendant philosophic indeterminism--the theological foundation of the entire Anglo-Catholic tradition. The Protestant Reformation's rejection of these Enlightenment-based views laid the groundwork for a more accurate and biblical view of grace and redemption. However, serious flaws still exist in the Calvinist's soteriological emphasis which in turn result in deficient and unscriptural views. [NOTE: These generalizations are not meant to suggest that the issues aren't complex or are easily understood. I have met several Reformed/Calvinists who favor the more "moderate" views of compatibilism. See Human Freedom and the Sovereignty of God.]
1) The various creeds of the Reformed/Calvinist realm [e.g., Westminster Standards] rightly mention the "corruption" of man's nature. However, the focus of this tradition is overwhelmingly upon transgression of law and individual sins, and thus by extension--justification by imputed righteousness to the exclusion of the believer's union with Christ. For example, hear the words of a contemporary "Reformed" Episcopal minister:
While this minister is correct as far as he goes; he doesn't go far enough. The curse of Sola Imputation is its failure to see the ontological effects of the Fall upon the First Adam, and subsequently upon us and all mankind. Their doctrine of so-called "Total Depravity" is not really total! Let's explore this statement.
Romans 5:13 and14 state that "before the law was given, SIN was in the world" and "death reigned from the time of Adam to the time of Moses." God's adding of a legal or forensic dimension (law) to amplify man's responsibility and our understanding of the gravity of depravity does not fully deal with the problem of our SIN. SIN is the source of our sins--it is the polluted, animating life-force ("flesh") transmitted from the first Adam.
2) Many Reformed/Calvinists portray humanity's post-Fall, pre-New Birth condition (Total Depravity) as a state of total unconsciousness and passivity rather than separation from God. This erroneous emphasis is reactive in both its nature and origin, and largely a carryover from their century-old battle with Roman Catholic and Arminian heresies. Consequently, it creates serious problems relative to: a) the true condition of lost sinners and the preaching of the Gospel, b) differences between the effectual calling, the New Birth, and the role of faith, and c) the believer's relationship to his indwelling nature of sin (flesh).
3) Thus, The Reformed emphasis in regeneration (drawn from prophetic Scriptural references to the Millennial Age) focuses the new-creation Christian largely upon justification and forgiveness of sins. Their concept of sanctification is one of change (as the Law is written upon the heart) and the goal is keeping the Ten Commandments--albeit supernaturally. Paradigmatic of all Reformed theology, David Wendt quotes Greg Bahnsen as saying,
Also due to its eschatological amillennial perspective, Reformed theology to one degree or another sees the Body of Christ as the fulfillment of Israel's New Covenant. Consequently, they attempted to apply the future millennial regeneration promised under that covenant to members of the Body of Christ--now! Their non-dispensational theology demands it!
To the degree that they embrace law as their "rule of life", they reject the Lord Jesus Christ's teaching via Paul's in his Epistles regarding SIN and identification. In spite of their doctrinal superiority over both Romanists and all varieties of Arminians, the Calvinist's impoverished view of depravity, together with the misapplication of Israel's New Covenant regeneration, seriously cripples the believer's walk in the Spirit.
From time-to-time, a Calvinist will loosen his grip on his theology or maybe his theology loosens its grip on him. Reformed pastor Leonard Verduin (1897-1999) became suspicious of this deficiency. Regarding the central tenet of the Reformation, he wrote:
Dr. L. S. Chafer stated it even more precisely:
Is it any wonder why the Reformed/Calvinist tradition reduces the Christian life to "law as a rule of life"? Since SIN is limited to the concept of law-breaking, the antithesis--holiness, take the logical form of law-keeping. Add to that, their reinforcing concept of Millennial regeneration--i.e., law written on the heart, and it all seems so theologically correct!
Further, their non-dispensational, even anti-dispensational bent guarantees a law-bound experience. In their fleshly effort to keep the law and resulting hypocrisy, various forms of ascetic discipline or humanistic psychology are added in hopes of reaching the goal. And thus the popularity and truck loads of Puritan, neo-Puritan, and behavioral writings in the realm of Christian living.
However, as Paul clearly states, "the strength of sin IS the law". Placing Christians under law only results in a protracted Romans 7 experience or even descent into the blatant hypocritical realms of Romans 2:17-24. For a more detailed discussion, see our article entitled The Law.
Also, the following links to these articles written by Christian author, Miles J. Stanford will help clarify the issue.
For over 50 years, the late Miles J. Stanford wrote and published extensively on these subjects. Much of his analysis is contained in many published critiques and polemic papers which are available to you on this website. For a comprehensive account of the believer's relationship to his indwelling sin nature, we invite you to visit Miles' web site--linked to his name above.
Israel's Covenants and the Apostle Paul's "Mystery"
The devastating consequences of Covenant theology are far-reaching and will not be covered within the brief scope of this paper. However, in addition to problems of this system's foundational presuppositions and erroneous concepts of sin and death, we wish to touch upon the fact that the Covenant approach totally negates the distinction between earthly Israel and the heavenly Bride of Christ. Hear Roy A. Huebner:
By contrast, rather than two separate peoples of God which in a certain sense mirror each other, Covenant theology only sees an earthly "spiritual" Israel into which elect Gentiles are grafted, thus eliminating the heavenly position and possessions of the Body of Christ. The heavenly Body of Christ (true Church) becomes "Kingdomized", and her primary role becomes one of bringing 'reformation' to the Earth.
Lewis Sperry Chafer remarked:
Suffice to say, and contrary to Covenant theology, Israel was not, is not, nor ever will be the Church. There exists a substantial antithesis between these two separate entities. Miles Stanford provides bracketed commentary on the Apostle Paul's statements:
Regarding the "mystery," one writer points out:
* Heirs of the benefits of the blood of the eternal covenant mentioned in Hebrews 13:20.
And along a similar line, Dr. Chafer said:
Regularly, we receive questions regarding the meaning of Romans 9-11, and in particular 11:17-24. To help readers avoid being drawn into the covenantal spin, we have provided some condensed interpretational comments. See The Apostle Paul's Olive Tree Analogy.
To temporarily wrap up, we hope the foregoing has helped answer your original question about Covenant Theology. With the Apostle Paul, our concern is that you not turn "to a different gospel--which is really no gospel [good news] at all," but see the life of the risen and ascended Lord Jesus Christ "formed in you". (Galatians 1:6,7; 4:19). If you would like to provide feedback or comments, please contact us through our email link <- here. In addition, we've posted a few interesting letters below.
By His sovereign love, grace, and mercy.
+ Letters of Interest +
Continuing in His Grace,
You know I see a huge momentum toward Covenant/Reformed Theology today. The Law perspective is appealing to the natural man and fits in well with self improvement and other kinds of hype-oriented, works-based attainment theories -- no different than Dennis Waitly, Earl Nightingale, or Tony Robbins.
The Covenant people are extremely prolific in their writings (just look at Gurnall's 1200+ pages on the Armour of the Christian; Richard Baxter's 70+ volumes; John Owen's endless elaborations where he digresses almost in every paragraph to rhapsodize about our state as "worms, worthlessness, etc, etc." This kind of writing chews up reams of paper and gallons of ink.
This is not surprising as law-orientation by nature is quite voluminous, since it spirals and diverges on endless elaborations regarding degrees of holiness or measures of goodness. The Talmud is a huge expansion of the Torah's 613 or so discrete commands. Law-prose can literally go on forever and this level of production tends to intimidate the believer. Faith encourages an outward look and a heavenly perspective. Law insists upon spiritual naval watching, constant measurement and pulse-taking; the search for goodness and power from within (which is impossible) and endless "to-do's" -- all of course through the power of the Holy Spirit -- the typical tack-on slogan to avoid the kind of conclusion that readers might draw, which is the dreaded leaven of the Pharisees -- legalism.
Paul said he knew nothing except Christ and Him crucified. He could have quoted from his own considerable storehouse of knowledge, his own Puritanical John Owen's or Thomas Goodwins if you will, in the form of the Rabbinical teachings but he counted those perspectives as worthless and a distraction to the illustrious work of Christ. He wrote 14 succinct letters in themes of doctrine, instruction; reproof of practical failure, correction of error.
Paul's kind of writing is what is in demand in the business world and for those in highest level of responsibility. It is consistent with our calling as eventual rulers in the next age. Mountains of detail and elaboration are quickly dismissed by executives as worthless speculation. The correspondence that leads to action and production is what drives the business world and the Bible message to the servant-king believers is no different.
It appears that Reformed theologians are increasing and the great light of dispensational teaching from the mid 1800's to the late 1900's is about to go out. After Ryrie and Walvoord, then who? MackIntosh, McClain, Kelly are out of print. Chafer is slandered as an antinomian even though his scholarship and insights are [almost] impeccable. Scofield is branded a heretic while loud-mouthed legalists like Gentry, Rushdoony, DeMar, Sproul, flood the channels with their spiritual cyanide which is the message of works wrapped in irrationalism and antinomies ("you are saved by faith alone, but a faith that is not alone;" "Works are not meritorious but they are essential;" "You are completely dead in sin and a spiritual corpse, but you must pray (that is perform an operational act as a 'lively' corpse) to receive the new birth; "You have only a new nature that loves God, but sinning comes from a beachhead/remnant/flesh/humanness/members kind of source that was fully eradicated but not quite...." "Biblical Law is the road to holiness (regardless of the testimony and demonstration of Israel's failure)." All of these incomprehensible theories are distributed in a scholastic presentation format to unwitting people who gorge on spiritual husks and pods, fill their bellies, then die of spiritual malnutrition. Heavy weight but no nutrition.
I have a friend, Dr. John Robbins of the Trinity Foundation who thinks he is Reformed. Yet, he rails against this irrationalism and calls justification a result of believing the Gospel. He also absolutely dismantles reconstructionism, yet he clutches to his Covenant theology and supralapsarian presuppositions. He doesn't realize that Rushdoony, Bahnsen, Beeke, and others are consistent. Robbins' lucidity is in direct proportion to his own inconsistency with the suppositions of Westminsterism.
Thanks for your ministry Dan. I guess the Lord's rhetorical question "Will the Son of Man find faith in the earth..." is the answer to the patterns I see. Faith will be rare and works-theology will abound.
As you testified…
You rightfully rejected the religious humanism and error, and were led by the Holy Spirit to discover sovereign grace. However, in the process, you picked up something extra-biblical--Covenant theology. In His time, you hopefully will come to see the harmful effects of this interpretational approach.
Based on the widespread use of OT quotations, together with verses such as 4:1, 7:1, etc., nearly all scholars agree that a) Jews constituted a substantial minority within the congregation, b) Gentiles were highly knowledgeable regarding Judaism, or c) both. Before answering you question regarding one or two “peoples of God”, let me focus upon a very subtle Covenantal presupposition in your statements. You write:
Your presupposition is a unitary “promise of blessing”; thus you’re logically led to see a unitary “people”. But this covenantal presupposition is neither stated or inferred in any of the OT texts which speak of the Abrahamic promises. In the NT, Paul states that “the promises [plural] were spoken to Abraham and to his Seed.” (Gal.3:16).
In Galatians, the Apostle Paul’s explains the relationship of the Abrahamic promise of imputed righteousness to the Mosaic law covenant. That’s the issue there. Similar to his epistle to the Romans, he seeks to maintain that the CAUSE of personal salvation was always election and grace, while the MEANS was always faith. These passages DO show the commonality of the BASIS for redemption of either Jew or Gentile. But they DON’T show the need for a common result or outcome, nor the need to eliminate the Church (the Body and Bride of Christ) as a separate people of God.
I believe: 1) the Church was neither prophesied nor revealed in OT Scriptures, 2) the Church was a complete mystery until revealed doctrinally by Paul, 3) that the suspension of Israel’s corporate election was also not revealed in OT Scriptures (Romans 11:25), and 4) Paul, in the Church Epistles, was the minister of Church truth. Yes, I believe in two peoples of God (redeemed Israel and the Church) which complement and mirror one another, and have differing roles in God’s plan for the future.. Regarding this "mystery," S.R. Shearer writes:
What WAS revealed in OT Scripture [but often overlooked by the Jews] was that “God would justify the Gentiles by faith” (Gal. 3:8) and that this PORTION of the Abrahamic promises would extend to the sphere of the entire world (i.e., “all nations”). This promise is fulfilled both in the Church AND in elect individuals living amongst the Gentile nations and under Israel’s rule during the Millennium.
What WASN’T revealed in the OT (but was with Paul) was the truth of Israel’s heavenly counterpart—the Church, the Bride of Christ; and fact that Israel (the apostate and divorced wife of Jehovah) would experience a “hardening in part” for a period of time, but would later be restored.
In my opinion, the reason so many believers are attracted to and obsessed with the Covenant theological presupposition of the “one people of God” is two-fold. 1) Like Roman Catholicism, we’re enthralled with, envious of, and desire to usurp Israel’s earthly blessings (witness the flood of current Reformed graduates joining Romanism), 2) we’re frightened by the Cross of Christ, suffering, and the life-out-of-death principle which is the new-creation believer’s portion in this world. Like the disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane, our initial reaction is to flee from Paul’s statements in 2 Cor. 4:11,12; Col. 1:24; and Phil. 3:10.
Dan R. Smedra
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