"God of Promise: Introducing Covenant Theology" by Michael Horton

Michael Vendsel
Wednesday, May 2nd 2007
Jul/Aug 2006

Growing up in a Baptist home while attending a Presbyterian church, I heard quite a few discussions about covenant theology. Nearly every time, though, the focus of the discussion was on the legitimacy of paedobaptism. This happened often enough that I naturally associated the two subjects; whenever covenant theology came up, I assumed paedobaptism was not far behind. Even for those Presbyterians who grew up without any Baptist influences, I suspect covenant theology is often viewed as primarily a theological support for infant baptism, or else a riposte to dispensationalism. And it is precisely for that reason that Michael Horton's new book God of Promise is such a welcome addition to the literature on this topic. Horton labors to show that covenant theology informs a wide variety of theological topics, including, but far from limited to, baptism. He even goes so far as to say that "whenever Reformed theologians attempt to explore and explain the riches of Scripture, they are always thinking covenantally about every topic they take up." (14)

To defend this claim, Horton begins by explaining just what is meant by "covenant." He describes two kinds of international treaties that were common in the ancient Near East: suzerainty treaties and royal grants. In a suzerainty treaty, the lesser king (vassal) could enter into a covenant with the great king (suzerain), or as often happened, a suzerain could rescue a vassal from impending doom and therefore claim his right to annex the beneficiaries of his kindness by covenant to his empire. They would be his people, and he would be their suzerain.

The vassal state would then be given a set of stipulations to live by, and the covenant would be ratified by a meal or ceremony. In treaties of this kind, the benefits of political allegiance with the suzerain would obtain to the vassal state provided that it obeyed the suzerain's stipulations.

A royal grant works oppositely. In a royal grant, "an inheritance [is] bestowed freely and in utter graciousness on the basis of the Great King's performance." In short, a royal grant is an unconditional bequest. Horton quotes an ancient near eastern example: "From this day forward Niqmaddu…king of Ugarit has taken the house of Pabeya…which is in Ullami, and given it to Nuriyana and to his descendants forever…Seal of the king."

God accommodates himself to these two sorts of treaties and makes two sorts of covenants in the Old Testament. The covenant at Sinai is patterned after the suzerainty treaty, while the covenant with post-Fall Adam, Noah, Abraham, and David are all modeled after the royal grant. As such, the latter covenants are essentially gracious and promissory, while the Sinaitic covenant is a covenant of works. In the promissory covenants, God swears by himself (dramatically portrayed in the covenant ritual of Genesis 15) that what is promised will come to pass and will not fade away. In the Sinaitic covenant, however, that which is promised is contingent on the people's obedience, and the possibility of forfeiture is very real.

Horton does not mean to suggest that these two covenants absolutely contradict each other. As to what is promised-a land and descendants, each pointing to the future eschatological blessings of the New Covenant-they are in continuity with each other. However, there is a genuine antithesis between them as to how those blessings are to be appropriated. "When it comes to how we receive the inheritance and so are made beneficiaries of everlasting life, Paul sets these covenants in absolute antithesis. They represent two different 'principles' (nomoi): the principle of works (law) and the principle of grace (promise)."

Horton suggests that failure to recognize these two kinds of covenants will make it very difficult to do justice to the biblical data: "…we must resist concluding that the covenant concept is inherently conditioned upon personal performance and…that it is inherently gracious in character. In both cases, we are making a priori judgments about what a covenant can and cannot be rather than attending to the diverse ways in which the word is used in the Scriptures. Covenant in both Old and New Testaments is a broad term encompassing a variety of arrangements-most notably, conditional covenants of law and unconditional covenants of promise."

Of course, acknowledging this does not mean recognizing two distinct modes of salvation. Salvation was always by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. The purpose of the Sinaitic covenant of works was not to propose an alternative to that arrangement via works, but to point to Christ both by underscoring Israel's inability to keep the law and by providing typological images such as the sacrificial system and the temple. Even so, the difference between these covenants based on the contrast between law and promise is quite real.

The New Covenant, Horton says, is not a suzerainty treaty, but a royal grant.

The blessings of the New Covenant are not obtained through obedience to the law, but as a gift through faith in Christ: The New Testament…identifies its new covenant with the royal grant, a promissory oath made to Noah, Abraham, and David… Just as a great king bestows a gift on a loyal vassal in view of noteworthy service, the New Testament teaches that believers become coheirs with Christ…inheriting by grace that which he has inherited by personal obedience.

Horton is careful to point out that this does not mean the law has no role in the life of the believer. "The apostle Paul," he writes, "was not an antinomian." For one thing, royal grants always carried an implicit obligation to reasonable service and fidelity. But beyond that, obedience is actually one of the New Covenant blessings. As Horton writes, "The new covenant announced by the prophets long ago included both justification and rebirth, imputed and imparted righteousness, forgiveness of sins and a new heart that thirsts for God and his glory." All these things are part of the "royal grant" bestowed on those in Christ. The believer, then, will have an intimate relationship with the law, but the law will never again be the basis of the believer's covenant standing before God. Obedience is now a promise, not a condition. "While the Scriptures uphold the moral law as the abiding way of life for God's redeemed people, it can never be a way to life."

With these categories in place, Horton goes on to discuss the ways in which these two kinds of covenant relate to the older concepts of the eternal covenant of redemption, the pre-Fall covenant of works, and the covenant of grace. He also discusses how covenant theology affects one's view of common grace, of the canon, of the relationship between Israel and the church, of the sacraments, and of the relationship between divine and human agency. He closes the book with an entire chapter focusing on how the law is meant to function in the life of the New Covenant believer.

On the whole, God of Promise is a good example of how redemptive-historical hermeneutics can be of service to systematics, and it is unique in its appreciation of the broad sense of the term "covenant" in Scripture, its balanced consideration of both recent and classical scholarship, and its attention to the broad theological implications of covenant theology.

Wednesday, May 2nd 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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