Review of God of Promise: Introducing Covenant Theology

Gregory Edward Reynolds

Ordained Servant: June–July 2006

The Covenants

Also in this issue

Editorial: Clarity on the Covenants

Thoughts from John Calvin on Differences among Christians

God of Promise: Introducing Covenant Theology, by Michael Horton. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006, 204 pages, hardcover, $19.99.

Here is a book I wish I had read thirty years ago. It is the only full, popular treatment of the biblical covenants, as far as I am aware, that distinguishes between the covenants of works and grace in the way our Confession and Catechisms do, and does so as part of a full blown federal theology. The very brief treatment of Calvin Knox Cummings' excellent little booklet, The Covenant of Grace, is also helpful, and is available at the OPC website (click here). Unfortunately, Owen Palmer Robertson's full-length treatment Covenants: God's Way with His People takes a more mono-covenantal approach, and is less consistent with the classic covenant theology of our Confession. Horton makes this plain.

The majestic superstructure of Reformed theology that emerged in the century before the Westminster Confession was formulated deserves the thorough treatment accorded this important subject by Professor Horton. Building on the more recent work of Geerhardus Vos and Meredith G. Kline, Horton explains the essential features of the doctrine of the covenants that give the mature Reformed expression of Westminster it's unique flavor.

The three essential covenants of redemption (pactum salutis), among the persons of the Trinity; works or creation (foederus naturae), by which God's kingdom is inherited by obedience; and grace (foederus gratiae) by which God's kingdom is inherited as a gift through the works of the Mediator, are clearly explained.

Horton demonstrates that the two historical covenants of works and grace have analogues in the international treaties of the ancient Near East of the second century B.C. Ancient Near Eastern suzerainty treaties are a model for covenants of works, as are royal grant treaties for covenants of grace. These sovereignly arranged models serve as proof of the antiquity of the Pentateuch. As incorporated into inspired Scripture, they also form the basis of a fundamental distinction upon which the entire fabric of Reformed doctrine is constructed. Covenants of law, which are conditional, must be distinguished from covenants of grace, which are unconditional.

Horton asserts the historical presence of the works-grace scheme (rooted in the essential Reformation law-gospel distinction) in the magisterial reformers Calvin and Ursinus, the primary author of the Heidelberg Catechism (Chapter 5, "From Scripture to System"), and as a central theme running through Reformed theology to the present. The concept of the covenant of works is historically affirmed by Reformed theologians.

Careful exegesis demonstrates the covenant of grace model running through Abraham and David to its fulfillment in the new covenant. The covenant of works is revealed in Eden and then in Moses as the need for the obedient Christ is accentuated typologically in the national entity of Israel. Horton is especially adept at explaining the relationship between "testament" (διαθήκη, diatheke) in the New Testament and the Old Testament word "covenant" (ברית, berith) (62-73). The two types of covenant are reiterated in the New Testament, but the Sinaitic covenant pictures a demand that can only be achieved by the Mediator's obedience, death, and resurrection; and freely given to the elect in fulfillment of the promise to Abraham. "It is only in the new covenant as the realization of the Abrahamic-Davidic covenant that... [the] release from sin's bondage and guilt is actually secured" (71).

Horton rightly understands Israel as a nation to be the true parenthesis in Scripture (rather than the church, as in the dispensational construct, 101), providing a provisional revelation of what the obedient Mediator would achieve for his people, but of which Adam's children are entirely incapable. "Israel's probation pointed to Christ in two ways: by reiterating the inability of humanity to fulfill the law because of sin and by establishing ceremonies, sacrifices, a temple, a kingship, and a priesthood as shadows of the coming One, the true and faithful Adam-Israel" (94).

Horton's understanding of common grace wisely opposes the Constantinian error of identifying the church with political entities. Embracing Augustine's two-kingdom approach, he believes that the nations rule civil government by general revelation, not the law of Moses (122). Calvin, despite the confusion cause by his medieval context, understood this (126).

While Horton does not major on polemics, he wisely interacts with several contemporary Reformed theologians who espouse a more mono-covenantal scheme. Owen Palmer Robertson, as his mentor John Murray, tends to blur the works-grace distinction, believing that all divine-human relationships require grace before and after the fall. Horton appreciates many of Robertson's insights, but notes a fundamental flaw in his failure to recognize the Mosaic covenant as a law covenant (100). Covenantal nomism sees the conditional element in the Mosaic covenant as essential to the new covenant as well (101). But, as Horton points out, this does not explain why Moses was denied entrance into the land of promise (103).

Horton presents a rich treatment of the sacraments by charting a careful course between the Scylla of sacerdotalism "which fails to distinguish the sign from the thing signified," and the Charybdis of memorialism, which fails to recognize the union of the two (157).

Finally, Horton removes the charge of antinomianism from covenant theology by asserting that, while the new covenant is not a covenant of works, it is rooted in Christ's obedience to the covenant of works as the foundation of the covenant of grace and thus calls for our obedience as a response of gratitude. Recognizing that we are saved by Christ's works, the Reformed have always affirmed the third use of the law as a guide to the Christian life, exemplifying the holiness of our Savior, which is the goal of our redemption. The indicative of Christ's accomplishment and our union with him "drives" the imperatives (192).

The book is loaded with Scripture references, which are too numerous to quote in a review. Historical, exegetical, biblical, systematic, and creedal theology inform Horton's masterful treatment of his subject.

I have only one theological quarrel with the book. On pages 133 ff. Horton takes a postmillennial position on the future of ethnic Israel, referring to a "large-scale conversion of ... Jews at the end of the age" (131), without any exegesis of Romans 11. This seems inconsistent with his otherwise amillennial interpretative approach.

My editorial complaints are few. The first is a failure of the publisher to provide subject and Scripture indexes. These would make the work so much more useful, especially for the novice for whom an "introduction" is ostensibly designed. Whether in an academic or popular work, endnotes are annoyingly inconvenient. When will publishers realize that, especially with popular works, footnotes are so much more accessible? If footnotes are considered a distraction in popular works, then don't have them at all, or limit end notes to a page or less. Also future editions should correct the mistaken endnotes on chapter 7, notes 3, 4 and 7. Notes 3 and 4 are a mystery since they have page numbers 269 and 272 when the book ends on page 203. Note 7 should be page 99 not 14.

Finally, as an introduction, this book would be slightly more useful if it were twenty-five percent shorter. Chapters 5 and 8 were especially, and I think unnecessarily, long. Applying Occam's razor would help.

The Reformed community should be grateful for this excellent book. It would make a wonderful adult education text. It is truly worthy of the name "federal" theology, and worth the thirty-year wait.

Gregory Edward Reynolds
Amoskeag Presbyterian Church
Manchester, New Hampshire

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Ordained Servant: June–July 2006

The Covenants

Also in this issue

Editorial: Clarity on the Covenants

Thoughts from John Calvin on Differences among Christians

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