What We Believe

Covenant Theology: Biblical, Theological, and Historical Perspectives, by eds. Guy Prentiss Waters, J. Nicholas Reid, and John R. Muether. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2020, 672 pages, $35.00.

The faculty of Reformed Theological Seminary have produced a massive and comprehensive book on various aspects of covenant theology. The annotated bibliography itself, produced by John R. Muether, is worth the price of the book, although it too is already dated and needs revision (more below). The book is organized around three parts: biblical covenants, historical theology, and finally a section entitled collateral and theological studies.

Ligon Duncan, the chancellor, CEO, and professor of systematic and historical theology, writes the foreword. Then, the book begins with an article by Guy M. Richard on “The Covenant of Redemption.” We can be grateful to the editors (and Guy Richard) that this is included since this doctrine has been treated so diminutively in the past generation. Nevertheless, some important recent bibliography is not cited in this article. Richard P. Belcher takes up the covenant of works in the second chapter. Perhaps one of the most controverted areas he tackles is under the subheading, “The Role of Grace in the Covenant of Works” (69). I do appreciate Belcher’s strong defense of the covenant of works (COW). Nevertheless, discussions of “merit” with regard to Adam will have to take into consideration now and in the future the recent work of Harrison Perkins in Catholicity and the Covenant of Works.[1]

Of course, it would be unfair to criticize Belcher for failure to engage this work since it just appeared. However, it is a shame that Perkin’s work was not published prior to the book under review, since it could possibly have helped at least one author in the book (D. Blair Smith) from making historical gaffes (367–68). Prior to this work, we only had Aaron C. Denlinger’s work, Omnes in Adam ex pacto Dei,[2] which discussed the issue of merit ex pacto (i.e., covenantal merit) among seventeenth-century Reformed theologians. But now, with Perkin’s work, we know that James Ussher himself held to a notion of merit that challenges all the disproportionality arguments (i.e., that Adam’s portended intrinsic obedience would have been “out of proportion” to the infinite reward of life offered) so commonly bandied about today, even in the book under review. One of the most important aspects of the discussion of the covenant of works is whether Adam had the ability by his God given natural strength to obey and meet the terms of the covenant or whether he needed added grace (e.g., the Roman Catholic doctrine of donum superadditum) in order to rise to the obedience required. Perkin’s work has shown that Ussher, who was profoundly influential on the Westminster divines, thought that “Adam was able to earn the eternal state for himself and his posterity by use of faculties granted to him by creation.”[3] Although Ussher was not enthusiastic about the word “merit,” he was very precise in his formulations to suggest that merit ex pacto as opposed to some notion of condign, congruent, or ontological merit was the category to use. Ussher maintained that “Adam could earn a reward from God in a relationship of justice where the covenant defined the terms.”[4] Although Ussher and all orthodox Reformed theologians would agree that human beings cannot properly merit anything from God, nevertheless, we now know that in the sixteenth and up to the eighteenth centuries, Reformed theologians covering a wide geographical area, used the category of ex pacto merit—especially in their discussion of the COW—to polemicize against Roman Catholic paradigms, as demonstrated by Perkins in “Meritum ex Pacto in the Reformed Tradition.”[5] To Belcher’s credit, he is willing to talk about the weaknesses of John Murray’s approach to the COW. Any future discussions of the COW will have to integrate John Fesko’s exquisitely written and recently published work, The Covenant of Works,[6] since it is now the most important work of historical survey and analysis on the study of the COW.

The next article by Guy Waters (one of the editors), tackles the issue of the “Covenant of Works in the New Testament.” Water’s treatment, as one would expect, is confessional and robust with exegetical nuance. However, the reader should be aware that his treatment of Galatians 3:10–12 with regard to the law and what the Judaizers’ teaching about justification requires, namely “the fulfillment of the entirety of the law’s commandments for justifying righteousness,” (95) is only one interpretation of this crucial passage. And to this author, it does not cohere with Paul’s intentions in light of his laconic discussion of Christ’s work in Galatians 4:4–5.

True enough, God does require personal and perfect obedience to his law, and the reality is that no mere human being following the fall is able to fulfill such demands due to innate moral corruption. The real issue here is whether Paul is referring to the Judaizers’ aberrant teaching or describing a reality that existed in the old covenant that showcases a typological works principle that Christ has fulfilled. Consider the OPC’s report of the Committee to Study the Doctrine of Justification which was commended for Study by the Seventy-third General Assembly (2006):

In Galatians 4:4 Paul writes that Christ was “born under the law.” This statement indicates, with marvelous brevity, what Christ’s redemptive work entailed. To say that Christ was “born under the law” is striking, for being “under the law” is precisely the state from which we have been redeemed and to which Paul warns that we must never return (Gal. 4:21; Rom. 6:14–15). In what condition does that put Christ? First, it puts Christ under the curse of the law, culminating in his crucifixion. Being under the law entails a curse for Christ because he stood in the place of sinful people, whose failure to obey all the law brought that curse (Gal. 3:10, 13). In addition, however, being “under the law” means that in order to live one must do the law (Gal. 3:12); it means that one is justified according to the obligation to perform the entire law (Gal. 5:3–4). To be justified and live, then, Christ had to render positive obedience to the law’s demands. The fact that he was justified and lives in everlasting glory indicates that Christ in fact did obey the law perfectly. And this he did for our redemption (Gal. 4:5).[7]

In short, the reference to Leviticus 18:5 in Galatians 3:12, according to this view, is that Paul is not referring to the misappropriation of the law by the Judaizers. After all, does it make any sense that Paul will use a faulty view of the Judaizers (Gal. 3:12) to describe positively a works principle that Christ has fulfilled perfectly in order to secure our salvation in Gal 4:4–5? It is noteworthy that Water’s position is followed by others in this volume, e.g., J. Nicholas Reid in “The Mosaic Covenant” (169). Waters has another article later in the book, “Covenant in Paul.” Here, he continues his claim that Paul is correcting his opponents misreading of the Mosaic covenant but also develops in a very helpful and clear manner the relationship between the two Adams. Echoing WCF 7:5–6, Waters takes pains to emphasize that the Mosaic covenant is an evangelical administration of the one gracious covenant that God inaugurated in Genesis 3:15 (the covenant of Grace). In fact, he repeats the phrase four times in the space of three pages (237–39). Thankfully, he comes around to register certain discontinuities when he engages 2 Corinthians 3 and Galatians 3–4 (243).

John D. Currid’s article, “Adam and the Beginning of the Covenant of Grace,” showcases sensitivity to NT echoes and works hard to speak plainly and clearly by explaining difficult terms. Miles Van Pelt’s article, “The Noahic Covenant of the Covenant of Grace,” is well done. Aside from too many split infinitives in the body and the footnotes, VanPelt affirms, significantly, that the Noahic covenant is a non-redemptive covenant. VanPelt does an able job of distinguishing and separating the covenant described in Genesis 6:18 from the Noahic covenant in Genesis 9. The importance of this may not be understated. Too many biblical theologians do not maintain this, and if it is not rigorously maintained, then the consequences for a proper view of Christianity and culture results in fuzzy boundaries.          

The next article by Scott Redd, “The Abrahamic Covenant,” covers many important areas and overall is well done. I appreciate that he engaged the difficult issue of conditionality in the covenants: after all its demands are designed, defined, and fulfilled by God alone, its basis is unconditional, inviolable, and irrevocable. Human beings in no way fulfill conditions in the Abrahamic covenant in order to receive grace. Nevertheless, as Bavinck says, this covenant was destined to become bilateral in its administration since human beings are expected to offer grateful obedience. This difficult topic is handled very well by Nicholas Reid in the next article (153). Finally, there are a couple of typographical errors here. First, the reference to Genesis 15:1 on page 139 should be 15:2, and the Hebrew of Genesis 15:18 on the next page is incorrectly pointed.

Nic Reid writes on the Mosaic covenant. Reid, an expert in Assyriology, should be commended for tackling the issue of the exile and its relationship to conditionality in the Mosaic covenant. He is irenic and generous in his discussion of others with whom he differs. Moreover, he rightly cites WCF 7.5–6 which insists that the Mosaic covenant is part of the administration of the covenant of grace. Nevertheless, Reid makes a claim regarding the Pentateuch which potentially has systemic ramifications for any biblical theology of covenant and calls for reconsideration.

On page 153, following the work of L. Michael Morales, he claims that the Pentateuch’s main theme is God’s opening a way for humanity to dwell in the divine presence and further claims that Leviticus 16, which of course discusses the Day of Atonement, is the “literary and theological centre” of the Pentateuch. Mary Douglass and many other legal experts on the Pentateuch would challenge this notion, claiming that Leviticus 19, not 16, is the theological center of the Pentateuch. This is no small quibble. Reid claims:

If this thesis is correct, the broader perspective of the law is the context of facilitating worship and dwelling with God, thus facilitating the relationship that already exists between God and his people. The Mosaic covenant, then, as a covenant arrangement, does not use law to create the relationship between God and Israel. Rather, it provides a way for that relationship to be maintained, especially through ongoing atonement. (153)

This sounds at first glance commendable; however, the real problems, seismic at that, lie below the surface. By foregrounding and making primary the personal and relational dimension of the covenant (following Morales), Reid has made a methodological error that does not allow him to incorporate the importance and primacy of legal categories in his system. Secondly, and related to the first criticism, is that when one makes grace (or “relationship”) primary in their evaluation of biblical covenants, this begs for more precision and nuance. If the Bible communicates that the covenant at creation in the garden was a covenant in which God assigned a stipulated work to Adam as the representative head of the human race with the promise of a reward upon the condition of performance of that work, and if creation precedes redemption, then law must be the foundation of any biblical covenantal system. A similar point could be made with regard to the Covenant of Redemption. Only when law is made the foundation of covenant relationships and primary in a covenantal system can consistent covenantal integrity be maintained. Although law and love, or law and kinship or relationship, are typically contrasted in contemporary theology, such should not be part of our system in covenant theology. Reid authors another chapter later in the book, “Ancient Near Eastern Backgrounds to Covenants” (447–65). Not surprisingly, given his profound training in ANE studies, this article is very well done. This is especially the case since he deals with the controverted area of “land grants” and the various theologians that have attempted to incorporate insights from that area of study into covenant theology. Reid takes pains to correct Moshe Weinfeld’s influence in this area, particularly citing Gary Knopper’s important work (recently deceased). An abbreviation used in footnote 47 (KASKAL) is missing in the list of abbreviations on pages 15–21. On that topic, the important NT journal abbreviation JSNT is also missing, even though it too is cited in the book.

Belcher covers “The Davidic Covenant” next. Although the majority of his time is taken up in exegesis of 2 Samuel 7, he introduces a well-done intertextual comparison between that passage and 1 Chronicles 17. Michael McKelvey covers the new covenant in Jeremiah and the book of Isaiah in the next chapter. He aims to discuss how the new covenant is a central concern of the prophetic literature.

Michael Kruger shifts the discussion to the NT in the next chapter entitled “Covenant in the Gospels.” He recognizes that although the word covenant is missing by and large from the NT Gospel accounts, the concept is not. He tackles the notion of the genre of the Gospels and thankfully recognizes and affirms that the exodus is the backdrop for the Gospel genre, first proposed by M. G. Kline and later embraced and enjoined by many NT scholars. Kruger does not equivocate about the legal elements in the Mosaic covenant and recognizes Jesus’s obedience echoing Adam’s arrangement in the garden. Bob Cara covers covenant extensively in his chapter the “Covenant in Hebrews.” He notes that the author of Hebrews uses the word more than all other NT writers combined. Cara exposits the Abrahamic, Mosaic, Davidic, and new covenant in the book. He designates the writer to Hebrews’s treatment of covenant as “contrast within continuity” (249). The reader can learn much about the function and use of typology from this chapter. It is marked by smooth prose which leaves the reader appropriately adoring God’s developing redemptive history.

Gregory R. Lanier, one of the relatively newer additions to the RTS faculty, had one of the more creative and interesting chapters to this reviewer in “Covenant in the Johannine Epistles and Revelation.” He handles well the recurring issue about unilateral versus bilateral arrangements in the covenant (274). He appropriately recognizes John’s allusions to exodus and new exodus categories.

Ligon Duncan leads the segue into the historical chapters with “Covenant in the Early Church.” Duncan demonstrates deliberate attention to his role in writing in such a way that fits well with the other essays. Doug Kelly’s article “Covenant in Medieval Theology” thankfully demonstrates the influence of Thomas Aquinas on the Medieval period and his overall influence on theology; however, besides this it does not add much that is new in any way.

Howard Griffith (recently deceased and one of the authors to whom the book is dedicated) writes on “Covenant in Reformation Theology.” His article is largely indebted to Peter Lillback’s book, The Binding of God.[8] His discussion of Luther is engaging and he also comments on Zwingli, Bullinger, and Calvin. D. Blair Smith writes on “Post-Reformation Developments” in the next chapter. I have already made some comments on the weaknesses evident in this essay. One strength is that he is clear on the unilateral/bilateral distinction that comes up repeatedly in the book (cf. 371).

The article by Bruce Baugus on “Covenant Theology in the Dutch Reformed Tradition” was one of the most rigorous and interesting in the book. It is well done. To his credit, he leans heavily on Brian Lee’s dissertation (written under Richard Muller, professor of historical theology) on Cocceius. Mark McDowell’s article on “Barth and the Torrances” makes gains in helping us understand the influence of these theologians and the diminution of legal categories in discourse on the covenants. Michael Allen engages the recent trends in theology towards participatory categories. He engages with the work of John Webster (recently deceased), who was concerned about overreach of participationist language and enjoined a return to covenantal categories. He also engages Michael Horton’s four-volume dogmatics, which is guided by the topics of covenant and eschatology.   

Part 3 contains essays under “Collateral and Theological Studies.” I have already commented on Nic Reid’s article in this section earlier. Peter Lee takes up the subject of “Covenant and Second Temple Judaism.” Lee covers background texts that deal with the Abrahamic, Sinaitic, Davidic, new covenants, and even a “Covenant of Eternal Priesthood” in the War Scroll from Qumran. Most interesting here is how often the NT teaching on a subject (e.g., “works of the law”) is vastly different than what occurs in Second Temple texts, especially from Qumran.

Benjamin Gladd tackles “Covenant in New Testament Scholarship” in the next article, which helpfully outlines the state of the question in NT studies today. His chapter primarily outlines the rise and fall of influence of New Perspective(s) on Paul.  

Palmer Robertson pens some new and interesting thoughts on Israel in “Israel and the Nations in God’s Covenants.” He claims that “if the Abrahamic covenant provided redemptive blessings to all nations, then the Mosaic covenant also must provide redemptive blessings to the nations.” This, and his following argumentation, is a stretch, at best. Better is the terse, simple, and clear prose of T. David Gordon, who claims in his recently published commentary on Galatians, Promise, Law, Faith: Covenant-Historical Reasoning in Galatians,

Paul also indicated that the new covenant realities are similar in kind to the Abrahamic realities and dissimilar in kind to the Sinai covenant realities. The Abrahamic and new covenants comprehend Gentiles within their blessings, whereas the Sinai covenant is made with a single nation. [9]

The next chapter, by Michael Glodo, is simply titled “Dispensationalism.” Glodo is irenic in his tone, but he also engages in a critique of their views. This is a helpful chapter since Dispensationalism has been influential and remains so in certain quarters of the Presbyterian church, not to mention the rise of Christian Zionism as well by some evangelicals in unconditional support of Israel as a kind of divine imperative.

In the next chapter, Scott Swain discusses “New Covenant Theologies” (hence, NCT) or as they sometimes fashion themselves “progressive covenantalism” (hereafter PC), views held by a number of leading evangelical NT scholars. After tracing the biblical data for differences between the old and new covenants (including a great analogy of likening the distinction between a puppy and a dog vis-à-vis a dog and a cat), Swain engages the state of the question in the NCT writings (often self-published and therefore difficult to access). NCT and PC writers are occupied with the question of continuity and discontinuity in redemptive history. After a lengthy exegesis of Jeremiah 31:31–34, Swain concludes that they suffer from an “overrealized eschatology.”

The final chapter, by Derek Thomas, is on “Covenant, Assurance, and Salvation.” In this chapter, he takes up the issues of how the sacraments are “holy signs and seals of the covenant of grace” (572–74) and answers the question of how the sacraments “confirm our interest in Christ.” Something is missing in his footnote, #15, since he says, “A basic bibliography on paedo-Communion includes the following volumes,” but then he only cites one book. Perhaps something fell out of the note, or perhaps he meant to say “volume,” singular, instead of the following volumes since he does include a title previous to this sentence. Kevin DeYoung provides a short “afterword.”

In conclusion, this volume demonstrates that we can have confessional unity, with appropriate exegetical diversity, and without unanimity among our reformed academic colleagues and ministers. To that end, many can profit from the book. I learned much from many of the essays. Since many of these authors are ministerial and professional colleagues, and some I consider friends, I have attempted to deal with their project in a charitable vein, even when I disagreed.

Even so, I did wonder what the ultimate purpose for writing this book was. First, there is way too much redundancy in the book. The editors probably should have been more deliberate with the assignments to their authors in order to avoid this. Second, with the exception of a few articles, there was not enough serious rigor in the articles so that it could be helpful to the academic guild. Third, the section dealing with “collateral studies” lacked robust systematic conclusions. Finally, it was too detailed and too lengthy for the typical busy pastor. Although the authors were committed to classic Reformed theology as found especially in the Westminster Confession of Faith, the essays were somewhat uneven, and they lacked an overall coherent argument. Nevertheless, in a day when participatory categories threaten to swallow up discussion engaging covenant as the architectonic organizing principle in Scripture, I was grateful for their courageous confessional stance.


[1] Harrison Perkins, Catholicity and the Covenant of Works: James Ussher and the Reformed Tradition, Oxford Studies in Historical Theology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020).

[2] Aaron C. Denlinger, Omnes in Adam ex pacto Dei: Ambrogio Catarino’s Doctrine of Covenant Solidarity and Its Influence on Post-Reformation Reformed Theologians (Göttingen, Germany: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2010).

[3] Perkins, Catholicity and the Covenant of Works, 104.

[4] Ibid., 109.

[5] Harrison Perkins, “Meritum ex Pacto in the Reformed Tradition,” Mid America Journal of Theology 31 (2020): 57–87.

[6] John Fesko, The Covenant of Works: The Origins, Development, and Reception of the Doctrine (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020).

[7] Justification: Report of the Committee to Study the Doctrine of Justification (Willow Grove, PA: The Committee of Christian Education of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, 2007), 35.

[8] Peter A. Lillback, The Binding of God: Calvin’s Role in the Development of Covenant Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001).

[9] T. David Gordon, Promise, Law, Faith: Covenant-Historical Reasoning in Galatians (Hendrickson, 2019), 40.

Bryan Estelle is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and serves as professor of Old Testament at Westminster Seminary California in Escondido, California. Ordained Servant Online, November 2021.

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A Study in the Structure of the Revelation of John

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Small Preaching by Jonathan T. Pennington

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