Reformed Theology is Covenant Theology

This morning I was reading from John Frame’s latest book, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian Belief.  I am teaching my wife about Covenant Theology and this morning we are working through the Abrahamic Covenant.  As I was finalizing my thoughts and re-reading through Frame’s work on this, one of Frame’s footnotes from this section lead me to an article from Richard Pratt that I found very interesting, historically, about Reformed Theology.  It actually dovetails nicely with another book I recently completed entitled, Covenant Theology: A Baptist Distinctive.

Here is the article:

The Scriptures were written over thousands of years, by many human authors, to meet the needs of God’s people in different times and places. Despite the diversity that resulted from these variables, biblical faith is highly unified. Behind the manifold details of Scripture is a rather simple, straightforward theological organization shaped by what Reformed theologians have called covenant theology.

Traditional Covenant Theology

While John Calvin himself acknowledged the importance of God’s covenants from time to time in his commentaries, he did not draw attention to their significance for the organization of Scripture as a whole. Yet, within one generation Reformed theologians began to see that the theology of the bible gives a central role to divine covenants. Since that time, it has been nearly impossible to separate Reformed theology from covenant theology.

The pinnacle of these early developments appeared in the Westminster Confession of Faith in 1646. It expresses a way of looking at covenants that we may call traditional covenant theology. In brief, the Confession speaks of God condescending to reveal himself to humanity in two covenants: the “covenant of works” in Adam and the “covenant of grace” in Christ (WCF VII).

This traditional twofold approach to covenant theology highlights at least two central teachings of Reformed theology. On the one hand, the covenant of works draws attention to the fact that humanity’s relationship with God was based entirely on human works before Adam fell into sin. Of course, Adam failed and cast all human beings as well as the entire creation under God’s curse.

On the other hand, the covenant of grace points to the Reformed teaching that salvation for human beings and the restoration of creation has always been entirely dependent on God’s grace in Christ. From the first promise given to fallen Adam and Eve in Genesis 3:15, to the last chapter in Revelation there has been only one way of salvation. The Confession admits that this long history is “commonly called the covenant of grace” (WCF, emphasis mine). Note 1 below. In other words, the phrase “covenant of grace” is theological terminology and not found in the Bible, much like the word “Trinity.” Even so, the doctrine of the covenant of grace expresses the teaching of Scripture that salvation throughout the Old and New Testaments is in Christ alone.

Although the contours of this twofold approach to divine covenants have characterized Reformed theology through the centuries, covenant theology has never been static. Throughout the centuries Reformed theologians have explored different aspects of covenant theology in a variety of ways. During the second half of the last century, covenant theology made some rather dramatic advances in at least two areas that we will sketch in this article: first, covenants and the history of salvation; second covenants and personal salvation.

Covenants and Biblical History

In the first place, recent covenant theologians have explained more thoroughly the prominence of biblical covenants in biblical history by discerning their function in the kingdom of God. Reformed theology has always emphasized that in a broad sense, God is the sovereign king over all of creation. Everything has been, is and will be the kingdom of God because he is sovereign over all. Continue reading

God’s Christmas Name

This is from John Frame and is originally entitled, “God in Time.”

On Christmas, we celebrate something quite wonderful: God entering our time and space. The eternal becomes temporal; the infinite becomes finite; the Word that created all things becomes flesh.

Incarnation

Oh, the mystery of it all! The one who knows all things (John 16:30, 21:17) must “grow in wisdom” (Luke 2:52). The all-sufficient one (Acts 17:25) must hunger and thirst (Matt. 4:2, John 19:28). The creator of all must be homeless (Matt. 8:20). The Lord of life must suffer and die. God in the flesh must endure estrangement from God the Father (Matt. 27:46).

In Jesus, God the Son, who knows the end from the beginning (Isa. 46:10), must watch his eternal plan unfold bit by bit, moment by moment. He grows from infancy, to childhood, to adulthood, responding to events as they happen. One time he rejoices; another time he weeps. From day to day, from hour to hour, the changeless God endures change. But God the Son incarnate is still God, still transcendent. As he responds to events in time, he also looks down on the world from above time and space, ruling all the events of nature and history.

Why did God enter time in Christ? Joseph named his baby Jesus, “because he will save his people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21). It was the Father’s love (John 3:16) that sent his Son, “that whosoever believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life.” The Son of God took on the limitations of time, even death, so that we who deserve death can have life without limit, forever with God. He died in our place, that we might never die.

At the incarnation of Jesus, the angels stand amazed (Luke 2:14, Eph. 3:10, 1 Pet. 1:11-12). And at this event, non-Christian philosophers and religious teachers look on in bewilderment. In non-Christian systems of thought, it is impossible for ultimate reality to enter time and space. For the eastern religions, and for Plato, Aristotle, and the ancient Gnostics, the supreme being is impersonal, and it would lose its absoluteness if it came in contact with temporal reality. For other religions and philosophies, the supreme being, if it exists at all, is the temporal world itself, or an aspect of it. For them, “god incarnate” could be at most indistinguishable from the rest of the finite world.

Only in biblical religion is there a clear affirmation of a personal God distinct from the world he has made, who is able to come into that world without compromising himself and without losing himself in the world. As incarnate, he remains fully God, and he reveals his full deity, clearly, to his creatures, even amid all the mysteries I mentioned earlier. But this means that only in Scripture do we learn of a God who loves us so much, so wonderfully, so powerfully, that he enters time on our behalf and stands strong to win God’s battle in history against Satan and sin.

Theophany

The incarnation is wonderful, and absolutely unique. Only once did God become a man. He remains God and man forever (Col. 2:9, Heb. 7:24). He became man once, that we might be saved from sin once for all.

But the incarnation was not the first occasion on which God entered time. Scripture records other times when God met human beings in history: with Adam and Eve in the Garden, with Noah, with the patriarchs and Moses, with Isaiah in the temple, and so on. He appeared to Israel in the wilderness, in the cloud and the fire, for over forty years. His glory descended upon the tabernacle and the temple.

These events, that theologians call “theophanies” (“appearances” of God), are not incarnations. In them, God does not become flesh forever, to die for sins and rise to glory. But they are similar to the incarnation of Jesus in some ways. Certainly, they are mysterious. As in Jesus, God in theophany enters a historical process, a series of events. He becomes an actor in his own historical drama.

In Isaiah 6, God watches and listens to the angels sing his praises. He waits until they are done. Then he hears Isaiah’s repentance, observes his symbolic cleansing (6-7), speaks to Isaiah, hears his reply (8) and continues the conversation (9-13). God acts in time, responding to each event as it comes, doing what is appropriate at each moment. He changes, in a way: for at one time he listens; at another he speaks. He changes, though he is unchangeable (James 1:17).

In Ex. 32, Israel rebels against God by worshipping a golden calf. God threatens to destroy them and replace them with a new nation, made up of Moses himself and his descendants (verse 10). But Moses intercedes: Lord, remember your promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. And God “relents” (verse 14). He does not destroy Israel, though he they do feel his wrath. Here we see how God in theophany accomplishes his eternal plan: through dialogue with a man. He first states an initial intention (a statement of what Israel actually deserves), but then, in response to Moses’ intercession, promises mercy instead. Mercy was always his eternal plan; but he also planned to bring that mercy through human prayer, not without it. Before Moses’ prayer, only judgment was in order. Through a give-and-take between God and Moses, the Lord works out his eternal intention.

In theophany, God, whose eternal plan brings all things to pass (Eph. 1:11), awaits events that he has foreordained. He accomplishes his will, not instantaneously, but by a process. He accomplishes his will in time by becoming an actor in the historical drama of which he himself is the author. He does not hasten to bring it to an end, as he well might. As in the incarnation, he responds to events as they happen. Once he speaks of grace and blessing, another time of judgment. He speaks and acts appropriately as he responds to each situation. In these ways, the mysteries of theophany are similar to those of incarnation.

Temporal Omnipresence

But even incarnation and theophany together do not exhaust the mysterious ways in which God comes into time. For in a sense, God is always in time, in history. We do not hesitate to speak of God’s omnipresence in space: God is everywhere. We can never escape from his presence in blessing and judgment (Psm. 139:7-12, Jonah 1-2, Acts 17:28).  But if God is present in space, he is also present in time. If he is always here, then he is always now as well.

Israel in Egypt knew that God was God of their fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. (Ex. 3:6); but, groaning under their bondage, they may well have wondered if God was still their God, still able to fulfill his promises after 400 years of silence. I believe that the mysterious name “I AM” (Ex. 3:14) is in part a response to this concern. God says to Moses, “I will be with you” (3:12), not only in the burning bush theophany, but also when Moses stands before Pharaoh to demand his people’s freedom.

He is still with us, now. Jesus said that he would be with us always (Matt. 28:20) in the Spirit (John 14:15-18). That means that God is still an actor in history, as well as transcending history. He is with me as I write, watching one moment pass into the next, responding appropriately to each event, bringing his sovereign Lordship to bear on every situation as it comes, hearing and responding to my prayers. But he is also looking down on the world from his transcendent, timelessly eternal viewpoint. He is both transcendent and immanent. As transcendent, he brings all things to pass according to his eternal plan. As immanent, he works in and with all things, moment by moment, to accomplish his sovereign will.

So Immanuel, God’s Christmas name, is still appropriate. Jesus’ incarnation, unique as it is, is in some respects like the way God relates to his world at all times, in all generations (Psm. 90:1). God is still an actor in our history, acting, responding, grieving, rejoicing. But he acts in history as the sovereign Lord of history.

The “open theist” movement of writers such as Gregory Boyd, William Hasker, Clark Pinnock, Richard Rice, and John Sanders, believes that if we are to do justice to the give-and-take between God and his creatures in history, we must reject God’s sovereign control over history, even his exhaustive knowledge of the future. Those conclusions do not follow logically, and they are not biblical. (I shall explore open theism in greater depth in myDoctrine of God, forthcoming from P&R Publishers.) Rather, these biblical pictures of God’s actions in time should lead us to a heightened view of God’s sovereignty. Our God is one who can and does accomplish his sovereign will, not only “from above,” by his eternal decrees, but also “from below,” by making all things work together for his good purpose (Rom. 8:28). Even God’s apparent defeats in history are the outworkings of his eternal plan. In the very death of Jesus for our sins, God was acting in time to bring his sovereign purpose to pass (Acts 2:23).

So Christmas reveals in a wonderful way that God acts in time as well as above it. It shows us wonderfully how God relates to us, not only as a mysterious being from another realm, but as a person in our own time and place: interacting with us, hearing our prayers, guiding us step by step, chastising us with fatherly discipline, comforting us with the wonderful promises of the blessings of Christ. Truly he is Immanuel, the God who is really with us, who is nonetheless eternally the sovereign Lord of all.

Our Obligation

Since God created and governs all things, he is the original interpreter of creation, the One who understands the world in all its depths – not only its material nature, but also its ultimate meaning and purpose.  God, therefore, has the ultimate viewpoint on the world, the broadest, deepest understanding of it.  His word, therefore, about himself or about the world, is more credible than any other word, any other means of knowing.  It obligates belief, trust, and obedience. – John Frame