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We come now to our last post on Michael Horton’s book on covenant theology, God of Promise. Many of us generic-brand Bible readers can benefit from being exposed to this covenant approach, even if we disagree. I offer a critique at the end of this post today.
Chp. 7, “The Covenant People,” is a little chp that covers two topics, the second of which did not make much sense to me. The first asks a very big question, and deserves more treatment. But, it asks this: Is there one people or two? (Israel and Church) Dispensationalism and liberal theology believe in two covenants (this is not fair to progressive dispensationalism — or at least it deserves more nuance) — the former in a covenant with Israel and then the Church and the latter with an eternal dual covenant of God with both Israel and the Church. (Frankly, I don’t think many liberals think like this; they tend to be pluralistic and not covenantalists at all.)
The second section has to do with covenants and canon, and gets into an intramural debate. He concludes that “Canon and covenant are mutually determinative.”
Chp. 8 is on the sacraments, which again is not on the topic of interest to us in this series, which is how to read the Bible covenantally. His terms are “signs and seals” for the sacraments, and he avoids the Roman Catholic theory of transsubstantiation and the symbolist view of Zwingli and low church theology. Instead, the Reformed view affirms the union of the sign and the thing signified as an act of God that is appropriated by faith.
Chp. 9 deals with New Covenant obedience and brings to the fore the issue of conditionality in a promissory covenant. First, how to use the Law lawfully:
1. Distinguish between the law itself and a covenant of law.
2. Distinguish between the moral, civil, and ceremonial laws.
3. Distinguish between the three uses of moral law: curbs criminal behavior, drive us to Christ, and the third use (its normativity).
On conditions — the answer to which either can solidify a covenant theology or end it.
1. Distinguish between justification and sanctification/glorification.
2. Distinguish between conditions with a law covenant and a promise covenant.
On apostasy, say in Hebrews 6, we are dealing with “covenant members” who are not truly united to Christ in faith. Thus, believers can’t fall away; only non-believing covenant members can fall away.
EvaluationCovenants of Promise.
1. There is a careful and probing exploration in this book of the distinction between promise and law, between the so-called covenant of grace and covenant of creation (works). Paul makes some kind of distinction like this (I’d not call it these two covenants) in Galatians and it comes up again in Romans. I’m not convinced there are separable covenants like this in the Bible, but the distinction between these “principles” deserves careful exploration. All responsible Bible students need to grapple with this old-fashioned but still quite alive theory of covenant theology.
2. There is in this book the tools for gaining a comprehensive grasp of the Bible. A covenant theology approach is a time-tested and well-used method that has been in operation since the Reformation. If you are Calvinistic, this is a good hermeneutic. It can put the whole Bible together, and not that many approaches can do this.
But I see three major problems with this book, and for me they are fatal (beside the fact that his book requires a good understanding of the history of covenant theology debates in order to be able to use it; this book is not useful for the beginning student).
First, Horton does not deal with the kingdom in the teachings of Jesus and how his message fits into this covenant theology (creation/works or grace?). [I suspect he seems him in “grace” but where does that put the Sermon on the Mount and its conditionality?] There is nothing in this book that prepares anyone for Jesus’ message of the kingdom. Now, perhaps Horton thinks “kingdom” is “Davidic kingdom” and therefore “Davidic covenant/Abrahamic promise” — but he doesn’t spell this out. So, we have four books in the NT (Matthew through John) that are for all intents and purposes ignored. One can’t ask Horton to write the book I think needs to be written; but when it comes to putting the whole Bible together into a covenant theology framework, something extensive needs to be said about kingdom.
This is a day and age when the teachings of Jesus on the kingdom of God have risen to the surface with a powerful display of their ability to evoke theological and hermeneutical reflection. For a long time covenant theologians have been criticized for not giving enough attention to Jesus; this book illustrates why that criticism still strikes home.
2. What about the New Perspective? Again, the NP has garnered masses of attention and debates in the last two decades, and the NP has direct implications for how to read the Bible (as story, as a Jewish story that is not quite like that of the covenant theologians where the emphasis is so much on “works”), and I know the covenant theologians have said some heated things about Tom Wright, Jimmy Dunn, and EP Sanders. Yet, in a book on covenant theology, published in 2006, one has to wonder how it can happen that the whole topic can be summarily undiscussed. Again, Horton wrote this book; I didn’t; but this question just kept coming home to me as I worked my way through his book.
Frankly, I had hopes this book would show why it is that covenant theologians find the NP so dangerous and misguided. No one, so it seems to me, is more fitted for such a discussion than Horton. So, this is a big blank chapter in this book. Maybe a second edition?
3. I’m an Anabaptist with an Arminian slant on conditionality texts in the Bible. The last chapter does finally bring this up, but in a few pages the entire issue is swept aside with a rather traditional (not necessarily bad) view: those who fall away are simply “covenant members” who are not genuinely converted.
Now it so happens that there is more to it than this. There are texts from the front of the Bible to the end of the Bible, in texts that are surrounded by Abrahamic and promissory covenant issues where conditionality comes up — and there is a stubborn form of biblical, exegetically-informed scholarship (and I think here of Howard Marshall’s thorough book, Kept by the Power of God, that neither minimizes grace nor sweeps aside as this book does the reality of conditionality for genuine believers) that deserves to be given more consideration than Horton gives attention to.
But, perhaps this illustrates that the primary discussion partners for Horton are fellow covenant theologians who have variant views of covenant theology. If so, well, my three criticisms just might be well swept aside by saying “that’s a different discussion.”
I will keep Horton near me; this is the best thing I’ve read putting together the covenant theology approach to the Bible. (Next year I’ll be teaching a class at Biblical Seminary and it will have some of this approach represented; I’ll be better prepared and I’ll point them to Horton — but also to Ed Sanders, Jimmy Dunn, Tom Wright and Howard Marshall. Maybe I’ll get myself in trouble with Marshall.)
Michael Horton was kind enough to respond to this week’s series; here it is. I’m glad to hear that Michael has directed his attention toward the concerns above, and has corrected a minor point or two.
Thanks for taking the time to review God of Promise. I thought it was fair (for the most part!) and inviting of further discussion.
Just a couple of points, though. One is technical: on the point about dispensationalism, I did qualify it by saying, “despite recent revisions.” All of the progressive dispensationalists I know still hold to a distinction between Israel and the church, but I’m willing to be corrected if I’ve overlooked someone. Also, I didn’t refer to “liberals” per se, but to mainline Protestant denominations that had, over the last two decades or so, become attached to this view. The footnotes are there to indicate who and what I have in mind there.
OK, now to substantial points. Most of your criticisms would be entirely valid if this were an attempt at a more comprehensive “systematic theology.” It’s not so ambitious, however. Covenant theology, I’ve argued, isn’t a summation of everything that the Bible says, but a way of looking at everything in the Bible that arises from the biblical history itself.
I hope I’m in the process of writing the books you’re talking about. Starting with Covenant and Eschatology: The Divine Drama (2002), then Lord and Servant: A Covenant Christology (2005), I am now finishing up Covenant and Participation: Union with Christ, with People and Place: A Covenant Ecclesiology winding things up. The series is published by WJK. Anyway, the kingdom figures prominently–you’ll be glad to know, with numerous appeals to Tom Wright among others. The Sermon on the Mount in particular is a great example of the covenantal benediction (especially in the context of “woes”). Jesus’ disciples ARE those described in Mt 5, because they already have received the blessing of Yahweh’s approval and inheritance.
Same with the New Perspective. I have 5 chapters interacting with the NPP in the volume I’m just finishing up right now (Covenant and Participation). I’m not a NT scholar, but theologians and biblical scholars need to talk to each other every once in a while.
Sorry to be a blog-hog and thanks for the opportunity to respond to an interesting review.
Mike Horton

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