Book Review: Introducing Covenant Theology

Introducing Covenant Theology by Michael Horton

Published by Baker Books

ISBN: 080107195X
ISBN-13: 9780801071959

Thanks to Adam Ferguson at Baker for this review copy!

Michael Horton sets out in this book to “show the richness of this covenantal web and its centrality to the organization of the Bible’s diverse teaching” (p.11).

The book is divided into 9 chapters:

  1. The Big Idea?
  2. God and Foreign Relations
  3. A Tale of Two Mothers
  4. A New Covenant
  5. From Scripture to System: The Heart of Covenant Theology
  6. Providence and Covenant: Common Grace
  7. The Covenant People
  8. Signs and Seals of the Covenant
  9. New Covenant Obedience

Chapters 1 and 2 essentially provide the historical and theological backdrop for Horton’s primary discussion of the covenant. Chapter one introduces the reader the concept of covenant and offers a brief sketch of some of the theological wrangling that has taken place, particularly in Reformed camps, in an effort to find the central theme of Scripture. Horton argues that no such center exists, but amid all of themes of Scripture there is a binding element—the covenant. He describes the covenant as “not a central dogma but an architectonic structure, a matrix of beams and pillars that hold together the structure of biblical faith and practice” (p. 13).

Chapter 2 offers historical background for God’s covenant dealings with his people. Horton again issues a cautionary statement: “it is not a matter of reducing everything in the Bible to the covenant, but of recognizing the rich covenantal soil in which every biblical teaching takes root” (p. 23). Horton discusses in ample detail the now well-know similarities between biblical covenants and suzerain-vassal treaties of the Ancient Near East. After a detailed discussion of these comparisons, Horton sets up the transition to the next chapter by noting that though there is certainty in the comparisons made, “similarities between Hittite suzerainty treaties and biblical covenants begin to diminish” (p. 34).

Chapter 3 takes up the question of covenant traditions, namely “Are there two different covenantal traditions?” Horton here compares and contrasts the covenants of law and blessing, or the Sinaitic covenant (law) and the Abrahamic covenant (blessing). Horton essentially understands the Sinai covenant to be concerned primarily with “earthly, temporary measures that served as types of the heavenly, eternal reality promised and confirmed in the latter covenant” (p. 38), whereas the Abrahamic covenant “leads to Christ and thus the heavenly realities of everlasting liberty” (p. 38).

Chapter 4 is a bit longer than the first three because it is here that Horton tackles the concept of the “new covenant.” In this chapter he builds on the previous discussion of the two covenants by discussing them in several contexts: the prophets of the Old Testament, Jewish writings during the Second Temple period (which was rather brief), and the New Testament. After reviewing the two-covenant concept in these contexts, Horton tackles the somewhat thorny issue of “Testament vs. Covenant,” which is essentially an effort to argue for which is the more accurate description of the unfolding of God’s work in the various covenant types that have been at the fore of the discussion. Though this section was a little confusing, there is a helpful summary at the end of the chapter.

Chapter 5, which is the longest and most complex of the book, is an attempt at some sort of systemization of covenant theology. Here the three overarching covenants that essentially comprise covenant theology are laid out and discussed: the covenants of redemption, creation, and grace. This, according to Horton, is the heart of covenant theology.

Chapter 6 is entitled “Providence and Covenant” and is primarily a discussion of the relationship between the king (God) and the servant (humanity) and how the sovereignty of God and man’s responsibility play out in covenant making. The common thread that runs this chapter is the concept of common grace, and it runs through discussions of issues such as the clashes over millennial positions, the social gospel, and other outgrowths of Christianity, particularly in post-WWI American Christianity.

Chapter 7 looks at the covenant people, namely the distinctions between the Church and Israel. Horton addresses the dispensational view of these covenant people, but doesn’t dwell on them long. He sketches the position briefly (which he acknowledges) and then argues that the covenant view of the Church and Israel bypasses the pitfall of supercessionism and replacement theology. He sees the church as the “fruition” of Israel, not its replacement (p. 131).

Chapter 8 looks at the various signs and seals of the covenant: the presence of God, baptism, and the Lord’s Supper. Horton’s view of the sacraments, not surprisingly, is that they do not convey or impart grace in any way, but he argues against a view that would empty the sacraments of value or meaning by reducing them to merely symbols of the thing represented. He essentially sees the sacraments as seals of the covenant.

In the final chapter, Horton examines the question that has caused no end of problems for Christians since the early church: what is the role of the Old Testament for the new covenant believer? By casting the OT in a covenantal framework, Horton avoids the extremes of antinomianism and legalism. Horton argues that rather than dispensing with the law altogether, Christians are still bound by the moral law, as it is a reflection of God himself. He argues that while the law is incapable of providing eternal life, it is still good and has a role in the Christian life. Horton sums up his position this way:

“We must not think that the law drives us to Christ in the beginning and then Christ drives us back to the law for our acceptance before God in sanctification. Rather, the law continues to provide with the soundest guidance available, but apart from Christ and the indicative announcement of what he has done for us and in us, it can only lead us to either despair or self-righteousness” (p. 194).

In summary, Horton does a good job of accomplishing the goal of the book—to introduce the concept of covenant theology. There were times, especially during the first half of the book, when the material seemed a little less interesting and had the feel of trudging rather than the easy reading of the material in the latter half of the book. There were also a couple of times I felt the material was a little confusing, but I suppose that is bound to happen when trying to make a concept such as “covenants” accessible to an initiate to the subject. Overall the book is well-written, even with the slower-moving parts mentioned. I would also register my objection to the use of endnotes, which always make reference-checking more tedious. Those negatives aside, if you are looking to make a foray into covenant theology, I highly recommend this title by Michael Horton.

Memorable Quotes

“As Paul’s critics had confused the principles of law and promise, they had also confused the relative fidelity required in the national covenant and thus they remain in the typological land with the absolute faithfulness required of every person in order to fulfill all righteousness and thus appear safely in God’s heavenly presence” – p. 38

“The point could not be clearer: the new covenant  is not a renewal of the old covenant made at Sinai, but an entirely different covenant with an entirely different basis” – p. 53

“Whatever gracious support God gives in this life to those who remain ‘in Adam,’ the final judgment will be according to works and entire perfection will be the only acceptable standard” – p. 94

“God alone could not have saved us. Our Savior had to be the Second Adam” – p. 94

“God does not simply hate unbelievers and leave them to their own devices; he feeds, clothes, heals, and cares for them, and he sends them many earthly pleasures. Yet this does not lead us to conclude that God’s love and care for everyone in common grace is the same as his love and care for his elect in saving grace” – p. 118

On communion: “Instead of viewing it first as God’s saving action toward us and then as our fellowship with each other in Christ, we come to see it as just another opportunity to be threatened with the law. Instead of celebrating the foretaste of the marriage supper of the Lamb on Mount Zion, we are still trembling at the foot of Mount Sinai. It is no wonder, then, that there is a diminished interest in frequent communion” p. 160

Αυτω η δοξα,

Jason

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