Introducing Covenant Theology, by Michael Horton ★★★
I’ve read a number of books by Micheal Horton, and have appreciated not only his theology but also his teaching style. In this book, my expectations were a touch higher than Horton delivered, as I’ll explain later. Horton writes well, so this book was not a challenge to read. It’s 194 pages long, yet Horton has been able to keep repetition to a minimum.
The book starts out with a definition of a covenant. Horton breaks down covenants into two types, suzerainty covenants, and promissory covenants. Covenants, by their nature, are one-sided events, with suzerainty covenants entailing obligations on the part of the covenant individual, and promissory covenants based solely on the trustworthiness of the covenant giver. As examples, the Noahic covenant was promissory, in that it did not demand obedience for God to promise never to flood the earth again; the Mosaic covenant is a suzerainty covenant that states essentially “Do this and you will live, don’t do this and you will die”. Much of his references in the first part of this book were to Meredith Kline and to O. Palmer Robertson. I’ve read Robertson, whose writings on the covenants are superlative.
After developing the nature of the covenants, Horton explores several other areas related to covenant theology. Common grace is mentioned, which is the blessings God bestows even on the ungodly. Evil people also enjoy good health, a good brain, sunshine and rain, as well as a society in good behavior. These are all a part of the promissory covenants which God makes with man. The people of the covenant are discussed, as well as the status of the Israelites. Here, Horton drives a strong stance for amillennial eschatology as best fitting a covenantal approach to Scripture. Horton discusses the Sacraments and develops support for the Reformed thinking of the nature of the Eucharist. He discusses the means and implications of signs and seals of the covenant. Finally, Horton closes with a chapter offering last words on the law-grace tension.
What are my misgivings with this book, why do I only give it 3 stars? Firstly, I believe Horton holds too heavily of a stance with Kline. Kline appropriately noted how the Biblical covenants strongly resemble many of the covenants of the Ancient Near East (ANE) kings. Such information is helpful but certainly not necessary in grasping the significance of a covenant-making God. It also leaves one in the lurch; did God model His covenants after the ANE kings, or vice-versa? If the latter, then Biblical covenants explain the secular covenants and not vice-versa.
Secondly, Horton does poorly in detailing the history of Covenant Theology. Was Calvin adherent to covenant theology? Where could you prove it in Calvin’s writings? Why is Witsius only mentioned as a footnote? How do the Heidelberg and Westminster Confessions promote the theology of the covenants? In what ways do the theology of Cocceius and Witsius differ? How is it that covenant theology was developed out of the Biblical Theology movement, and not the Systematic Theology movement? How did Reformed thinkers after Cocceius and Witsius further develop the theology of the covenants?
Third, Covenants, including the covenant of grace in which we are currently living, say something about the children of believers, yet Horton is totally silent in this regard. Why?
Fourthly, what are the main arguments against Covenant Theology? A chapter comparing and contrasting Covenant vs. non-Covenant theology would have been very helpful. Is Covenant Theology truly synonymous with Calvinism/Reformed thinking? Can one be a partial Covenanter, or a halfway house covenant theologian? How does one answer the individual who claims that they are in the Reformed (5-star Calvinist) camp and yet disavow Covenant Theology? Reformed Baptists offer a distinctive twist on the theology of the covenants which would have deserved a mention.
Fifthly, many of the Israelites from Moses to Jesus were saved, and the saved Israelites were all saved by grace rather than by keeping the law, though Horton implies that the Abrahamic covenant (promissory, by grace) was in action here. This is a weak argument since the Abrahamic covenant applied to the land but not for personal salvation. This is an issue that could have been more strongly developed.
Finally, Horton seems sufficiently concerned about not being confused with advocates of salvation by works, so he doesn’t deal adequately with the beauty of covenant theology in reconciling the tension between salvation by faith and salvation by works. This is a bit understandable. Many of contemporary Reformed theologians’ most fierce battles have been over the accusations regarding grace “vs” works (sola gratia)*, as though grace and works were competitive ideas. Recent attacks on Federal Vision (not to be confused with Federal Theology) bear witness to how brutal Christians can be in their accusations of heresy over this single issue. Please make no mistake, I am not a Federal Vision advocate, mostly because it has failed to adequately define itself precisely. Or, perhaps I am a Federal Vision advocate since it has no clear definition????
Though Horton argues against it, his tendency is to regard the law as solely deontological, that is, consisting of nothing but a list of duties with promise (the land and health) rewarded for obedience. The authors who penned the Psalms seem to mention the law frequently, and always as a source of joy, wisdom, guidance, strength, and delight. The Psalms destroy the notion that the law simply addresses our actions and not our thoughts. Psalm 119 is especially noted as an encomium to the law. The mistaken interpretation of the law by the Jewish community at the time of Christ saw the law (works) solely as a source of salvation without the necessity of faith and true love for God. In this, I believe the Reformers rather than NT Wright were right (no pun intended).
JI Packer’s short Introduction to Covenant Theology as well as Geerhardus Vos’s The Doctrine of the Covenant in Reformed Theology were previously read by me in preparation for reading Horton. Packer was definitely the most insightful, selling Covenant Theology not as a particular theological movement, but rather as a hermeneutic for interpreting Scripture. This seems to make the most sense to me. Vos is erudite but sharp in his readings, offering good historical insights and not being afraid to be mistaken as a “legalist”. For example, “Thus, it is that in the covenant of grace, too, the participants are exempt from the demand of the law as the condition for eternal blessedness, but not from its demand as being normative for their moral life.” With both authors, the superiority of seeing Scripture in a Reformed covenantal fashion is a necessity. JI Packer notes, “1. The gospel of God is not properly understood till it is viewed within a covenantal frame,… 2. The word of God is not properly understood til it is viewed within a covenantal frame”. I wholeheartedly agree with Packer on these points, and his short tome is valuable reading.
This was a worthwhile book to read, written in a scholarly but quite readable format. If Horton were to address my concerns mentioned above, the book would be awesome but also considerably lengthier. IMHO, I think it would be worth it.
-* moral law is not an arbitrary set of rules/laws given by God for man to obey, but is based on the very nature and character of God, ie, God is by his very being ontologically moral. Thus, any claim to be free from “the law” is a claim also to be free from God. Another way to say it, ontology and ethics are separate topics for created man, though with God they are a unity.
“… amillennial eschatology as best fitting a covenantal approach to Scripture.”
It is often argued that the eschatology of the early church was historical amil, and although that might be right from a viewpoint centuries later, the more important emphasis for our time is that they were neither preterist or futurist but “historicist”. Today, we can look back on the book of Revelation and see a significant amount of it fulfilled in the intervening centuries after the destruction of the Lower Kingdom of Israel in the first century.
“… the Biblical covenants strongly resemble many of the covenants of the Ancient Near East (ANE) kings.”
This was an important discovery made in the mid-1950s by George E. Mendenhall, who went through many of the ANE covenant tablets and found the format of them to be the same as the Yahwist covenant with Israel (Exodus 20 …) It is not uncommon for Yahweh to communicate to the inferior human party in terms it is cognizant of, including treaty formats and even the scientific thinking of the time. Treaties earlier than the Yahweh-Israel covenant have the same form, indicating that this format was not original with the Exodus treaty.
“… many of the Israelites from Moses to Jesus were saved, and the saved Israelites were all saved by grace rather than by keeping the law, …”
This is a popular, antinomian-leaning sentiment nowadays and while true, it is also misleading because it is only partly true. They were saved by grace through faith – a faith that led to keeping of the law. Too many modern Christians misread Paul’s letters and invoke some conflict between grace and law from them where none exists. If it did, we can throw the Psalms out of the Bible – a book these OT saints would have memorized. Apparently this is a big issue in the Covenant-Reformed sects of the church. To me it is like arguing over the arrangement of deck chairs on the titanic.
” JI Packer notes, “1. The gospel of God is not properly understood till it is viewed within a covenantal frame,… 2. The word of God is not properly understood til it is viewed within a covenantal frame”. I wholeheartedly agree with Packer on these points …”
So do I. The one dominant theme running throughout the Bible is the covenant theme, or its closely related theme of the kingdom of God. Unless the whole of scripture is not understood in this framework, one ends up with the religious gobbledogook so prevalent nowadays.
“… moral law is not an arbitrary set of rules/laws given by God for man to obey, but is based on the very nature and character of God …”
In an indirect way that is true in that humans have been created to reflect something of the nature or “image” of Yahweh and the law correctly interprets and informs us based on the characteristics of human nature. So many of the -isms springing out of the Enlightenment, such as Communism or other dystopian views of “Shto delyat” (What Must be Done; the title of Lenin’s book), have an idealistic view of human nature that fails to take into account the dark side of it.
I recommend that you balance your reading of systematic theology with historical theology such as that of George Eldon Ladd. It does not carry with it the medieval rationalist tone but develops theology as it developed historically. The only problem with too much of theology generally is that it ignores the wilderness church of 30 to 1500 AD/CE and goes along with the mistaken Vatican bias that only the RCC is the true Christian church throughout the Middle Ages. So much for the Culdee Church in Britain, founded by Joseph of Arimathea in the 30s CE, Iona, Columba, Colambanus, Aidan, the church of Lazarus and the Marys in the Rhone valley in southern France…