Book Review: Covenant Theology

Understanding the biblical narrative is crucial to proper biblical interpretation. For many, the Bible is a collection of loosely related religious writings that have little or nothing to do wit the others in the canon. In truth, however, each of the sixty-six books of the biblical canon tell one big story that is revealed throughout redemptive history by covenants. This is what is taught in the theological system known as covenant theology. Understanding the covenants is the primary way that covenant theologians interpret Scripture, and explain God’s unfolding grace throughout redemptive history. In an effort to convey the tenants of covenant theology, the faculty of Reformed Theological Seminary have published an academic resource that explores the deeper understanding of covenant theology. Edited by Guy Prentiss Waters, J. Nicholas Reid, and John R. Muether the book is published under the title Covenant Theology: Biblical, Theological, and Historical Perspectives (Crossway, 2020).

Although the book is well over six hundred pages in length, it provides only a brief introduction to the differing aspects of covenant theology. The book explores covenant theology in three parts: (1) biblical covenants, (2) historical theology, and (3) collateral and theological studies. What follows is a brief summary of each section of the book in turn. First, what are the biblical covenants? Traditional covenant theology teaches that there are two covenants as revealed in scripture. The first is the covenant of works. This covenant was instituted by the Lord and broken by the first Adam, tragically bringing a curse upon all of creation and his posterity. The second covenant is the covenant of grace, whereby the covenant of works is ultimately fulfilled in the person and work of Jesus Christ. The covenant of grace is revealed by the Lord through differing “administrations”, whereby the Lord reveals His grace over time throughout the story line of the Bible. Administrations of the covenant of grace as seen in the Old Testament are the Adamic, Mosaic, Abrahamic, and Davdic. The covenant of grace culminates in the new covenant administration through the person and work of Jesus. This section of the book does an excellent job of laying a foundation for the biblical understanding of the covenants. It is by no means exhaustive, but it provides a decent amount of material for the reader to explore. 

In part two, the book explores the historical and theological understanding of covenant theology throughout church history. It argues that covenant theology has been a consistent theological system since the days of the early church. Teaching on the covenants, however, was not as prevalent during the Middle Ages, but boomed during the time of the Reformation in the sixteenth century. It took another dip in popularity a few hundred years ago with the rise of dispensational theology, but has made a come back in recent decades along with an interest in reformation theology as a whole. This section provides a brief, but very sufficient overview of covenant theology as seen throughout church history, which is crucial to understanding the essence of covenant theology as a theological framework.

Part three explores the collateral and theological studies regarding covenant theology. These include understanding covenants based in Ancient Near East culture. This is an important aspect of understanding covenant theology, because covenants were made throughout the ancient world. Most covenants were made between nations and monarchs. Yet this frame work is seen in scripture, as most scholars believe that the book of Deuteronomy is written in the form of an Ancient Near East covenant. The major difference however is that biblical covenants are not made between two nations or peoples, but are made by God for the benefit of His people. Another major collateral study in covenant theology is the issue of Israel and the Church. Covenant theology teaches that there is no distinction between Israel and the Church, but sees the Church as the culmination of the promises made to Israel in the Old Testament covenants. On the other hand, dispensational theology teaches that there is a distinction between Israel and the Church. For dispensationals, redemption history is broken up into dispensations, all of which culminate in the rapture and the millennial reign of Christ on earth. Seeing Israel and the Church in two different “dispensations” opens up the possibility for seeing salvation of Israel and the Church separate from the work of Christ. This section of the book proves helpful in understanding the covenants and how covenant theology fits among varying theological frameworks. 

Covenant Theology is an excellent resource for students of theology and redemption history to deepen their knowledge of covenant theology. It would be a great resource for a seminary class or a class at a church aimed at a deeper understanding of theology. The authors of each chapter do an excellent job of making their point clear, as well as keeping focused on the book collectively. It is not a resource for casual readers. Although it is a brief overview of covenant theology, the book touches on terms and topics that some readers may not be familiar with. However, I would recommend Covenant Theology to anyone seeking to deepen their understanding of Christian theology in general and covenant theology in particular.