An Introduction to Covenant Theology, by JI Packer ★★★★★
Curiosity left me restless until I re-read Packer’s treatise on Covenant Theology, following my reading of Vos’s exposition of Covenant Theology (see my preceding book review). The contrast could not be more profound. If a dog comparison could be made, Vos was a raging pitbull and Packer a loveable golden retriever. Packer, in a much shorter space than Vos, elaborated more fully, replete with multiple Scripture arguments, the fundamental themes of Covenant Theology, while still giving it a historical perspective. Perhaps I have a bias because I took Systematic Theology from Packer. But it is his approach to theology that I have learned so greatly to appreciate; Packer is NOT a bull in a china shop like Vos. While Vos mostly held up the example of Cocceius as representing covenant theology, Packer takes issue and contends that Cocceius was “a stormy petrel” who “muddied his exegesis by allegorical fancies and… needless attacks on the analytical doctrine-by-doctrine approach to theological exposition”. For Packer, Witsius is the less tempestuous theologian who “manages to correct some inadequacies and errors that poor exegesis in the Cocceian camp had fathered”. Cocceius essentially fathered Biblical Theology, which attempted to separate itself from the then predominantly Systematic Theology techniques of doing theology. Witsius was able to calm a turbulent contention between the Cocceians and Voetians by showing the importance and necessity of both branches of academic theology. Witsius remains the text that Packer advises should one wish to go into depth regarding the study of covenant theology. Interestingly, while Vos tended to attack the Lutherans for having a substandard theology, Packer will frequently quote Lutheran theologians including Luther. The difference in styles could not be more plain.
This brings us to the topic under discussion… this book. After a brief introduction of Herman Wits (Witsius, 1636-1708), the question is first asked, “What is Covenant Theology?” The simple answer is that is really nothing but a hermeneutic or a perspective for reading Scripture. Packer would call a successful hermeneutic a consistent interpretative procedure yielding a consistent understanding of Scripture which in turn confirms the propriety of the procedure itself. He contends that covenant theology meets that description and then goes on to explain. I won’t detail Packer’s arguments as this book is easy to read and inexpensive on Amazon.
A covenant relationship is a voluntary mutual commitment that binds each party to the other. While many covenants are negotiated, God’s covenants are unilaterally imposed. Still, “the relationship depends simply on the fact that mutual obligations have been accepted and pledged on both sides”. God’s covenant promises are constantly repeated throughout the entirety of Scripture, the promise that God will be our God, and then the promise that God will supply our needs. The God-given covenant carries the obligation for a life of faith and repentance and obedience. Thus, the struggle that Lutherans had with salvation by faith alone is expanded to show how they are correct yet need not feel that obligations are in contest with sola fide.
Thus, Packer notes three things. 1) The gospel is NOT properly understood till it is viewed within a covenantal frame. 2) The word of God is not properly understood till it is viewed within a covenantal frame. This is elaborated at length, concluding “There are not therefore two covenants of grace, differing in substance, but one and the same, under various dispensations.” And 3) The reality of God is not properly understood till it is viewed within a covenantal frame. Again, Packer elaborates at length on what he means by this. He ends this part of the discussion by quoting numerous hymns of the past that refer to the covenant that we live under. Quoting Packer, “One way of judging the quality of theologies is to see what sort of devotion they produce. The devotional perspective that covenant theology generates is accurately reflected in these (the quoted) lyrics. I can think of many hymns to serve this end, including “A Debtor to Mercy Alone” (quoted by Packer), “My Hope is Built on Nothing Less”, and even “Amazing Grace”, even though the word “covenant” is never used, it is the backbone to the meaning of that hymn.
Packer feels “that the Bible ‘forces’ covenant theology on all who receive it as what, in effect, it claims to be”. This is accomplished 1) by the story that it tells, 2) by the place it gives to Jesus Christ, 3) through the specific parallel between Christ and Adam that Paul draws, and 4) by the explicit declaring of the covenant of redemption.
Packer ends with a brief relapse to the history of covenant theology, arguing that it was a natural development in Reformed thought, starting with Zwingli, Calvin, Ursinus and Olevianus, etc. As a person convinced of the truth of Reformed thinking, I find nothing to disagree with in Packer’s treatise. I especially appreciate his thoughtful and always irenic process of presenting the case for covenant theology. I have left out much in this review, and any curious individual would be served best by downloading a digital copy of this short treatise which may be read within 1-2 hours’ time. I believe it would serve well both those for and against the covenant approach to theology to best understand what the hermeneutic is all about and how it can help in obtaining a better grasp of the riches of Scripture.
The Doctrine of the Covenant in Reformed Theology, by Geerhardus Vos ★★★
This book was read by me on a Kindle device. I had read a concise treatise on Covenant Theology by JI Packer, and was hoping that Vos would offer more illumination. Vos actually muddied the waters. The strength of this short volume is how Vos elaborates on the history of Covenant Theology, beginning with Calvin, but focusing on the Heidelburg theologians Ursinus and Olivianus, and then moving on to Coccieus, and others in that time period. He spends much time distinguishing Reformed Theology from Lutheran Theology, suggesting that Lutheran theology starts from man as its foundation and works up, whereas Reformed Theology begins with God and works down. I felt that much of this argument was artificial and that contemporary Lutheran theologians would probably take issue with this. Vos labors much to identify the covenant of works that precedes the covenant of grace; thus, the book’s title should have been “Doctrine of the Covenants…” rather than the singular for covenant. Vos ends with a discussion of how the doctrine of covenants affects the position of paedobaptism.
The historical aspects of the book were interesting. His arguments for covenant theology were poor. His leaning toward supralapsarianism becomes quite plain. His intolerance for theological fine points that vary from his is remarkable. He does not present any Scripture argument for his position; I don’t believe I saw a single quoted Scripture verse. He is replete at quoting the voice of historical theologians, a strange approach for a man steeped in the sola Scriptura tradition.
So, I started reading the book with enthusiasm and ended with disappointment. Vos’s writing style is muddy. Most phrases needed to be re-read, even when he was stating simple theological premises. For this reason, I do not recommend this book to others. I’ve found that reading Vos is ponderous and thus left to theologically constipated folk. I welcome recommendations for a better text on this topic. Perhaps a recent book on the covenants by Michael Horton would be in order?
Churchill’s War, Volume 1, by David Irving, 1987, 666 pages ★★★★★
This book and its subsequent volume 2, published in 2001, hit shock waves around the western world. Churchill, who, in his own words, “saved” Christian civilization, is analyzed by the author by means of consulting those who were near and dear to him, and by an exhaustive investigation of whatever personal and war records remained. Oddly, many records were destroyed after the war, probably because the Brits knew that the evidence would not be kind to them in supporting their pre-war and war actions. The existing records do not portray Churchill as the noble, selfless hero who through brilliance and fearless devotion to the British Empire gave his all to the cause. In exposing the “real” Winston Churchill, author Irving was not acting unfairly or acting out of revenge; Irving wrote a similar book titled “Hitler’s War” which was equally harsh to Churchill’s arch-enemy. Controversy will rage and many will still esteem Churchill as being the greatest statesman of the century, facts be damned. Perhaps Irving was a little off-sided in his commentary on this man, so we will let Churchill have the last word on himself. Late in 1940, Churchill went down to Dover to be entertained by the bombers flying overhead, gleeful that he had finally gotten Hitler to start bombing civilian targets (Churchill first started by bombing civilian Berlin), hoping that it would get American sympathy and their involvement in the war. Without regard to his personal safety, Churchill commented at that time “Perhaps tonight I shall be in Hell…” Churchill was off by a few years, but the statement reflects a rare instance when Churchill the inveterate liar actually seemed to be speaking the truth. If Dante were to write an update to his Inferno, the amended version would surely include Hitler and Churchill being forced to spend eternity with each other in one of the lower rungs of hell, next to Attila the Hun.
Volume 1 covers up to mid-1941, but gives a very brief account of Churchill’s early life. The focus of the text was the era between 1939 to 1941. Churchill was raised in the aristocracy with a silver spoon. Though performing somewhat mediocre in school, he excelled in the English language. He ended up as a reporter in the Boer War and was briefly captured by the enemy before escaping. Churchill’s interest in politics and war grew. During the Great War (WW1), Churchill is best known for the Gallipoli affair, a massive military blunder in Turkey leading to a great loss of British lives and materiel. This did not affect Churchill the least, and his efforts in politics remained steadfast. Churchill did have the penchant for switching sides, flip-flopping between the conservatives and liberals, siding for whatever would serve his best advantage. Though a highly effective and persuasive orator, he fell out of favor among peers in the political realm. Many lean years followed (during the 1920s and 1930s) where Churchill desperately tried to re-establish himself in politics. He lived a life of most elaborate existence at Chartwell, with multiple servants and great expenditure. His main income was through book publishing, which did not provide cash flow commensurate with his profligate lifestyle. He married an American wife and had three children, the oldest, Randolf, ended up costing Churchill dearly in the financial realm as a compulsive gambler, and he never supporting the “Churchill” political cause with consistency. Wealthy benefactors needed to occasionally bail Churchill out of crisis economic events. Churchill was a massive cigar smoker, exceeded only by his drinking habit, and all his most intimate friends knew him to be an incorrigible alcoholic who could not survive without the bottle, with brief moments of sobriety finding Churchill at his worst. Churchill rarely held the pen; almost all of his writing was while he was lying in bed with his housecoat, dictating to his secretary. This is true even of his massive multi-volume History of the English Speaking Peoples as well as the other multi-volume sets that he “wrote”.
Chamberlain was Churchill’s enemy in the British system, and as prime minister, Chamberlain behaved with the desire to keep England out of unnecessary wars. Much to the chagrin of Churchill, any effort for a benevolent solution to the “Hitler problem” was a symbol of appeasement and not strength. The empire must be preserved at all costs, and any competition for world domination was considered an affront to the British empire. Hitler had no grievance with Great Britain and no desire to be militarily involved against the Brits. Throughout the book, multiple attempts by Germany to cease and desist fighting each other and have Churchill stay out of Hitler’s affairs were clear. Churchill had no problems with other nations (Russia and Japan) engaging in power-plays; it was clear through Churchill’s writings and actions that he harbored a personal vendetta against Germany, and come hell or high water, at an enormous loss of British lives, and destroying the British Empire and bankrupting the British Empire, Churchill was going to persist. Almost sounds like Hitler, doesn’t it? Churchill made desperate attempts to return as a member of parliament to no avail as he had too many enemies, and England wasn’t interested in another war. Even with German (and Russian) invasion into Poland and declaration of war, Chamberlain remained prime minister. Without dealing a blow-by-blow account of this history, eventually, Churchill was able to oust Chamberlain and establish himself as PM. Churchill realized that Great Britain was not ready for another war, and needed to stimulate public interest into fighting the “Hun”. This demanded one of Churchill’s greatest skills, the ability to be a pathological liar. Lying to the public about the threat of Germany (even when he knew there was none), lying to Parliament, and lying to his hopeful allies like the USA, Churchill hoped to drum up the war cause. I didn’t realize this, but one of Churchill’s three greatest speeches, often quoted, “their finest hour”, occurred long before England had ever been attacked.
Churchill made a colossal blunder at Dunkirk by overestimating the capabilities of the French army, and when begged and pleaded for help from France while the German attack was faltering, Churchill refused air support and refused the deployment of troops, instructing the troops instead to run. They did so at the mess that is called Dunkirk. Thus, the “finest hour” speech was everything but England’s finest hour.
Germany was receiving iron and steel from Scandanavia. The Germans intercepted radio signals that showed that Churchill was going to invade neutral Norway in order to stop iron supplies to Germany, and so Germany wisely preempted their strike. There were a few battles on the Norwegian coast; Churchill had several Norwegian towns bombed, but ultimately had to withdraw in shame from Norway. The propaganda arm of Churchill kicked into motion, blaming Germany for invading neutral Norway, something to which Churchill wished the Brits could have beat the Germans.
Repeatedly, Churchill’s poorly made decisions and rash pronouncements should have brought him down and removed as PM; yet, his slithering tongue held him in power. Germany began to bomb strategic military targets on the English mainland. Churchill desperately tried in vain to lure Hitler into bombing civilian centers. Churchill knew from decoded Enigma signals that Hitler had absolutely no intention of bombing civilian targets, though Churchill’s public speeches were at odds with what he knew to be true. Churchill had hoped that the bombing of civilian London would bring the USA into the war, so desperately hoped that he could ultimately lure Hitler into bombing the civilian centers. Ultimately, one misguided German bomber accidentally dropped some bombs on some civilian houses, killing nobody, but serving as a justification for British reprisal. Churchill immediately ordered a fleet of bombers to hit civilian Berlin. Repeated civilian bombings of Berlin ultimately persuaded Hitler to start bombing London. This WAS Churchill’s finest hour, the joy of seeing London bombed, hoping that it would bring the USA into the war. As an aside, an example might be used to illustrate Churchill’s character, as seen in the war up until now. Imagine being in the deep south many moons ago, when the Ku Klux Klan were active. A group of KKK members come upon a n***er (dark skinned man of African origin) who is minding his own business, and wishes no contention. The KKK members begin to irritate, poke and prod, and ultimately come near to threatening the life of the poor n***er. The black man, in defense, suddenly fights back in defense, which then gives the KKK the justification for inflicting mortal harm on an innocent soul. (These events happened frequently in the south!) Churchill was that KKK man, relentlessly irritating Hitler until Hitler had no choice but to respond in defense. To think of Churchill as representing the paragon of Christian virtue turns the devil into a saint. Blessed are the peacemakers…
British losses at sea, in Greece, at Crete, and in North Africa were devastating to their economy. A fool-hearted invasion of Vichy France in Syria and Iraq led to no military advantage or great victory. The United Kingdom was bankrupt, thanks to Churchill’s war. Hitler continued to offer Britain reasonable terms, and Churchill aggressively made sure that peace offers from Germany were not known to the public. The entirety of British gold was in US hands, and Churchill sought to bargain off British islands in the Caribbean to the USA, something that Roosevelt had enough sense not to bite at. Ultimately, the USA conceded to a land-lease arrangement to Britain, though this came short of Churchill’s intention of luring the USA into the war.
An interesting aside is noted. In mid-1941, Rudolf Hess, a leading Nazi, flew a plane into England with the offer to help negotiate a peace settlement, as he was opposed to Nazi foreign aggression. Hess was held in prison, and remained there the rest of his life, dying in 1987. Much of his life was in solitary confinement. Most of his writings, memos and messages have either not been released yet to the public, or else destroyed. Sounds like GB was trying to hide something there!
The book ends with the beginning of Operation Barbarossa by Hitler, leaving more of the story to be told in volume 2.
There are great lessons to learn from this book. Government rarely ever tells the truth, and when they are the most desperate, they are probably lying the most. This book documented Churchill’s lies and deceptions on nearly every page. A slick-tongued orator like Churchill (or Hitler) should be most greatly feared. The deep state has had a long existence and knows no country boundaries. It is said that the first casualty of war is truth; this book makes it clear that this statement is simply not true, as truth dies long before the fighting ever begins; lies serve as the stimulus for an otherwise pacifist public to offer up life and limb for the cause. We knew that this was true in the Great War, when British propaganda spoke of the mindless Hun raping women and slaughtering children, exactly what was NOT happening. Present events bear witness to the “Churchill phenomenon” in Ukraine, where most of the information that we are given is highly suspect, yet leads to countless billions of dollars flowing into a needless war against a hypothetical barbarian foe (Russia). Peter, Paul and Mary were completely correct when they sang “when will they ever learn?”.
This book had the quality of generating a profuse flow of questions and reflections on how we are experiencing deja vu all over again and again and again. Politics doesn’t change, save to exceed in the corruption of preceding generations. I am left in complete bewilderment as to why people on the right adore Churchill (see for example the Hillsdale College website, where they are offering a complete lecture series on this “great” man. The link is https://online.hillsdale.edu/landing/winston-churchill-and-statesmanship I have serious disagreement with every one of their six main points as to why one should study Churchill). The blindness of the hard political right explains why the UCSA (United Communist States of Amurika) is in our current mess. Peter, Paul and Mary…! On to volume 2…