Book Reviews

Book Review: Covenant Theology (eds. Waters, Reid, Muether)

How should we read and understand the Bible as one continuous story? What part does Israel play in the overall story? Is the church a new thing? Will there be a rapture? How do the covenants factor in? In a new book by Crossway, twenty-six current and former professors at Reformed Theological Seminary give us biblical, theological, and historical perspectives on covenant theology. Covenant theology (CT) has been around much longer than dispensationalism, and, from my point of view, has more theological basis (though I still disagree with key aspects of it). To get some idea on what covenant theology is, here is a link to 10 things you should know about covenant theology

I grew up hearing different forms of dispensational theology growing up. Whenever I did hear about God making covenants with Abraham, Israel, David, or with believers through the new covenant, I always wondered (especially regarding OT covenants), “Why is this so important?” If dispensationalism revolves around differing dispensations, what do the covenants have to do with anything? Then one day I heard of covenant theology and thought that this just made more sense (generally speaking). Revolving around the covenant of works and the covenant of grace, within covenant theology we see God makes a covenant with Adam, Abraham (and reaffirms it with Isaac and Jacob), and Israel (reaffirming it again with the second generation in the book of Deuteronomy). Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel foretell of a new covenant that will provide God’s people with hearts willing to obey him (Isa 54; Jer 31; Ezek 11, 36, 37). God relates to his people through covenants, and he relates to Christians through the new covenant brought about through the death and resurrection of Jesus. 

This is a massive work with just under 600 pages of content. It is divided up into three sections: (1) Biblical Covenants, (2) Historical Theology, and (3) Collateral and Theological Studies. I’m not as intrigued in historical theology as I should be, but Parts One and Three were both very interesting. Authors in Part One look at the covenant of works in the OT and NT, each different OT covenant, and how covenant is viewed in the Gospels, Paul, Hebrews, and in John’s epistles and Revelation. Authors in Part Three compare the biblical covenants with other ancient Near Eastern covenants, they compare CT with both dispensationalism and new covenant theology, and ask how Israel and the nations relate (to name a few chapters).

However, having twenty-six different contributors means there will be clashing perspectives on covenant theology (though it could be a benefit, it can also be confusing). Ligon Duncan (in the Foreward, p. 27) and Kevin DeYoung (in the Afterward, p. 590) disagree on whether the Westminster Confession identifies the covenant of works as “grace” when it speaks of God’s “voluntary condescension” to man (Duncan: No; DeYoung: Yes). Miles Van Pelt believes two covenants are given to Noah (one in Gen 6 with Noah and a different one in Gen 9 for the world) while John Scott Redd believes they are the same (134). 

Interestingly, for how big this volume is there is little discussion on the Sabbath. I searched for the word Sabbath (on PDF) and found very little interaction over debates surrounding the Sabbath day. Writing about the OT law for Christians today, Ben Gladd writes, “Reformed scholars are not in complete agreement on what Mosaic laws carry over (and how they apply) in the new covenant age (e.g., the role of the Sabbath commandment)” (490). But he doesn’t tell what those views are. On the one hand, he doesn’t need to do this. On the other hand, it’s unfortunate that he didn’t because there’s so little written about the Sabbath in this volume.

Referencing the beliefs of new covenant theologians, Scott Swain writes, “On this trajectory, new covenant theologies discern various degrees of continuity and discontinuity with respect to God’s moral will across various covenant administrations, concluding that certain commandments, notably the Sabbath command, no longer apply to God’s people, while other commandments continue to apply to God’s people, albeit in a manner ‘transformed’ and ‘advanced’ by Christ within the context of the new covenant” (557). That’s the only time Swain mentions the Sabbath in his entire chapter. Again, this would be fine if there had been an overall agreement that someone would write a substantial explanation for the continued Sabbath-keeping in CT. 

Recommended?

One of the main ways that the Bible teaches us about God and his saving acts toward us is through the covenants. Covenant is not the bible main theme, it is one of them. Covenant Theology is an impressive book, though it is neither a popular-level book nor an introduction to covenant theology. For a counter-perspective, see Peter Gentry and Stephen Wellum’s book, Kingdom Through Covenant. (One strength with KTC is that it is authored by only two people instead of twenty-six. Also, see Wellum’s review of Covenant Theology.) That said, this is a very good book to help you understand CT and how works to explain the overall story of Scripture.  

See also the helpful Biblical Theological Introductions to the Old and New Testaments by many of the same RTS professors. 

Lagniappe

  • Editors: Guy Waters, J. Nicholas Reid, & John Muether
  • Hardcover: 672 pages
  • Publisher: Crossway (October 27, 2020)
  • Read Chapter One

Buy it from Amazon or Crossway!

Disclosure: I received this book free from Crossway. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 http://www.access.gpo.gov/nara/cfr/waisidx_03/16cfr255_03.html.

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