New Covenant Theology NCT) is at times misrepresented as a new or updated version of Covenant Theology (CT). To categorize it as such would be inaccurate. NCT decisively differentiates itself from CT (in all its forms) as it does not accept the sine qua non of CT. What is the sine qua non of CT? It is CT’s covenantal superstructure, i.e., the theological framework through which CT, generally speaking, understands redemptive history: pactum salutis (the Covenant of Redemption), foedus operum (the Covenant of Works), and foedus gratiae (the Covenant of Grace). This covenantal schema theologically buttresses the following doctrinal distinctives that proponents of CT champion to varying degrees: (1) infant baptism; (2) the transcovenantal nature of the Decalogue; (3) the Church existing in the Old Testament; and (4) Sunday as the New Covenant equivalent of the Old Covenant Sabbath. NCT rejects not only CT’s theologically-deduced covenantal superstructure but also its aforementioned doctrinal distinctives. For example, Dennis Swanson, a Dispensational theologian, aptly writes:
NCT has been characterized as being to Covenant Theology what Progressive Dispensationalism is to Traditional or Classic Dispensationalism. However, this assessment is not accurate. Despite its differences with the traditional or classic position, Progressive Dispensationalism still retains a measure of the core Israel-church discontinuity with the resulting ecclesiological and eschatological schemes essentially intact. On the other hand, NCT entirely abandons all the distinctive fundamentals of Covenant Theology, so that no connection remains or is possible.
In short, NCT is not simply a new Covenant Theology. Rather, it is New Covenant Theology, i.e., the theology of the New Covenant.
One factor in particular that has significantly contributed to this misconception is that NCT has principally emerged, historically speaking, from the theological confines of CT. In fact, this is the assessment of Michael Vlach, another Dispensational theologian: “NCT appears primarily to be a movement away from CT.” Vlach concludes this for two chief reasons: (1) “New Covenant theologians…have devoted most of their attention so far to explaining and defending their system in contrast to CT” and (2) “Third, some of the key theologians of NCT received their theological training within an environment of CT.” To be sure, Vlach’s assessment is both fair and generally accurate. However, many adherents of NCT, such as this author, have emerged from a predominantly Dispensationalist theological background.
Just as it would be inaccurate to characterize NCT as a new or updated version of CT, it would also be inaccurate to characterize NCT as an even more progressive iteration of Dispensational Theology (DT). How so? NCT decisively differentiates itself from DT (in all its forms) as it does not accept the latter’s sine qua non, i.e., its sharp distinction between Israel and the Church. To be fair, at the time of this writing, this author has not encountered a description of NCT as a new, updated, or more progressive version of CT.
Having stated that NCT does not accept the sine qua non of both CT and DT, it is appropriate to set forth NCT’s indispensable elements. The sine qua non of NCT is defined as the consistent Christotelic interpretation of the OT in light of the NT (Luke 24:27, 44; Rom. 10:4; 2 Cor. 1:20) which results in the following theological distinctives: (1) the plan of God: one plan of redemption, centered in Jesus Christ (Eph. 1:10; 2 Cor. 1:20; Col. 1:18), implemented according to the God’s eternal purpose (Eph. 1:11; 3:11; 2 Tim. 1:9), and securing the salvation of God’s elect (Rom. 8:28-32); (2) the biblical covenants: the covenants of Scripture progressively unfold God’s kingdom purpose (Matt. 6:10) in history, culminating in the New Covenant; (3) the Old Covenant: the conditional (Exod. 19:5-6) treaty which God established with the ethnic descendants Jacob at Mount Sinai – a covenant which formed the nation of Israel as a geopolitical entity, the sign of which was the Sabbath (Exod. 31:15-17), which was temporary in terms of its purpose and duration (Heb. 8:7-13), and which was superseded by the New Covenant (Jer. 31:31-33); (4) the New Covenant: the promised everlasting covenant (Heb. 13:20) established by Christ Jesus (Luke 22:20; Dan. 9:26-27) that fulfills all preceding biblical covenants – a covenant in which all believers have full forgiveness of sins (Jer. 31:34), are indwelt by the Spirit (Ezek. 36:25-27; Eph. 1:13-14), and are empowered by the Spirit to please God (Jer. 31:31-33; Phil. 2:12-13); (5) the people of God: all God’s elect, comprised of believing Jews and Gentiles (Eph. 2:15), first formed as the Church at Pentecost (Acts 1:4-5; 2:1-41), not before (John 7:39; 17:21; Col. 1:26-27; Heb. 11:39-40), as one corporate spiritual body in New Covenant union with Christ (1 Cor. 12:13; Eph. 2:19-21; Col. 1:18, 24); (6) the nation of Israel: the ethnic descendants of Jacob (Gen. 28:13-15) formed into a geopolitical entity at Sinai via the Old Covenant (Exod. 19:5-6), comprised of both believers and unbelievers (1 Cor. 10:1-5; Heb. 3:16-4:2), typological of Christ (Hos. 11:1; Matt. 2:15) and His Church (Exod. 19:5-6; 1 Pet. 2:9), the believing remnant (Rom. 9:27; 11:5) of which was transformed into the Church at Pentecost (Acts 2:1-10,41), and which awaits a future spiritual restoration (Amos 9:8) in the form of a massive, end-time ingathering of elect Jews into the Church at Christ’s Parousia (Rom. 11:12, 15, 25-27); (7) the law of God: the two greatest commandments – love of God and neighbor (Matt. 22:36-40) – constitute God’s absolute or innate law, which is righteous, unchanging, and instinctively known by man (Rom. 2:14-15) created in God’s image (Gen. 1:27), and of which each system of covenantal law is a temporary, historical outworking (Heb. 7:12) in accordance with God’s eternal purpose (Eph. 1:11; 3:11; 2 Tim. 1:9); (8) the Law of Moses: the covenantal outworking of God’s absolute law under the Old Covenant – the exhaustive, indivisible (Jas. 2:10; Gal. 5:3) legal code, summed up in the Ten Commandments (Exod. 34:28), covenantally binding upon the nation of Israel (Exod. 19:5-6; 24:3), temporary in its duration (Heb. 7:11-12; Col. 2:14), and fulfilled in Jesus Christ (Rom. 10:4; Matt. 5:17-18; Col. 2:16-17); (9) the Law of Christ: the covenantal outworking of God’s absolute law under the New Covenant – the gracious law of the New Covenant (Rom. 6:14), which is covenantally binding upon the Church (1 Cor. 9:20-21) and consists of the law of love (Matt. 5:44; Gal. 6:2; Jas. 2:8; Rom. 13:8-10), the example of the Lord Jesus Christ (John 13:34; Phil. 2:4-12), Christ’s commands and teaching (Matt. 28:20; 2 Pet. 3:2), the commands and teachings of the New Testament (2 Pet. 3:2; Eph. 2:20; Jude 1:17; 1 John 5:3), and all Scripture interpreted in light of Jesus Christ (Matt. 5:17-18; Luke 24:27,44; 2 Tim. 3:16-17); (10) the Kingdom of God: the everlasting reign of the Lord Jesus Christ in heaven with His saints (Heb. 1:1-4; Rev. 20:4; Eph. 2:6), which was inaugurated at His ascension (Dan. 7:13-14) in fulfillment of the Davidic Covenant (2 Sam. 7:12-16; Acts 2:25-36) and will be consummated at His Second Coming when He subdues all His enemies (1 Cor. 15:24-28).
Wayne Grudem succinctly describes the CT’s covenant of grace: “The legal agreement between God and man, established by God after the fall of Adam, whereby man could be saved. Although the specific provisions of this covenant varied at different times during redemptive history, the essential condition of requiring faith in Christ the redeemer remained the same.” Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), 1239. Another helpful explanation of the post-fall covenant of grace can be found in Chapter VII of the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF): “(3) Man, by his fall, having made himself incapable of life by that covenant, the Lord was pleased to make a second, commonly called the covenant of grace; wherein He freely offers unto sinners life and salvation by Jesus Christ; requiring of them faith in Him, that they may be saved, and promising to give unto all those that are ordained unto eternal life His Holy Spirit, to make them willing, and able to believe. (4) This covenant of grace is frequently set forth in scripture by the name of a testament, in reference to the death of Jesus Christ the Testator, and to the everlasting inheritance, with all things belonging to it, therein bequeathed. (5) This covenant was differently administered in the time of the law, and in the time of the Gospel: under the law it was administered by promises, prophecies, sacrifices, circumcision, the paschal lamb, and other types and ordinances delivered to the people of the Jews, all foresignifying Christ to come; which were, for that time, sufficient and efficacious, through the operation of the Spirit, to instruct and build up the elect in faith in the promised Messiah, by whom they had full remission of sins, and eternal salvation; and is called the Old Testament. (6) Under the Gospel, when Christ, the substance, was exhibited, the ordinances in which this covenant is dispensed are the preaching of the Word, and the administration of the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper: which, though fewer in number, and administered with more simplicity, and less outward glory, yet, in them, it is held forth in more fullness, evidence, and spiritual efficacy, to all nations, both Jews and Gentiles; and is called the New Testament. There are not therefore two covenants of grace, differing in substance, but one and the same, under various dispensations.”
To be fair, not all Covenant Theologians hold to all three covenants within CT’s covenantal superstructure.
As stated above, NCT does not accept the covenantal superstructure of CT, believing this theological framework to be a non-Scriptural theological deduction. For example, advocates of NCT respectfully reject the foedus gratiae (i.e. CT’s over-arching covenant of grace) for at least three reasons. First, NCT insists that CT’s teaching that each biblical covenant is a distinct, historical administration of the overarching covenant of grace significantly “flattens” the redemptive-historical distinctions between the biblical covenants. Simply put, the covenant of grace deemphasizes the discontinuity of the biblical covenants, while contrastingly overemphasizing the continuity of the biblical covenants. Second, NCT asserts that God’s eternal purpose is not to be understood as a covenant (e.g. the over-arching covenant of grace Covenant Theology), as Scripture does not define God’s eternal purpose (Greek: prothesis; Eph. 1:10, 3:10-11; 2 Tim. 1:9) as a covenant (diathēkē). Third, the historically-documented debates between Ulrich Zwingli and the Swiss Anabaptists (among others) clearly evince that the covenant of grace was theologically formulated to justify the practice of infant baptism – as Zwingli was among the first to propose that New Testament baptism was a direct equivalent of Old Testament circumcision. See William R. Estep, The Anabaptist Story: An Introduction to Sixteenth-Century Anabaptism (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1963; reprint 1975, 1996). NCT maintains that infant baptism is CT’s theological Achilles’ heel, as its covenantal superstructure was originally formulated to theologically buttress the practice of infant baptism. That being said, NCT sincerely questions why many Reformed Baptists still cling to the covenantal framework of CT, which was originally formulated to justify the practice of infant baptism – a practice with which it does not agree.
Dennis Swanson, “Introduction to New Covenant Theology,” TMSJ 18/1 (Fall 2007): 158.
Michael J. Vlach, “New Covenant Theology Compared with Covenantalism,” TMSJ 18/1 (Fall 2007): 202.
See footnote 2 from Blog Post NCT Misconceptions #3 for a fuller description of the sine qua non of DT.
See footnotes 5 and 6 from the Introductory Blog Post of this series (NCT Misconceptions #1) for a fuller explanation of a Christotelic hermeneutic.