“The Big Idea” is the title for the first chapter in Michael Horton’s book, Introducing Covenant Theology, which was previously published in hardcover under the title, God of Promise: Introducing Covenant Theology.
Horton quickly gets to the point, which is that Reformed Theology = Covenant Theology. The framework of the covenant is central to the Bible’s teaching. TULIP (the Five Points of Calvinism, or the Doctrines of Grace) is “only the beginning of what Reformed theology is all about” (p. 11). Although an accurate expression of the gospel, these points are not the core of Reformed theology; rather, they are derived from careful exegesis of Scripture. As Horton puts it,
Reformed theology … attempts to interpret the whole counsel of God in view of the principle that Scripture interprets Scripture. In other words, that which is clearest and is treated with the greatest significance in Scripture interprets those passages that are more difficult and less central to the biblical message. …[T]he goal is to say what Scripture says and to emphasize what Scripture emphasizes. (p. 12)
The architectural structure that unites the diverse themes of Scripture is the covenant–“not simply the concept of the covenant, but the concrete existence of God’s covenantal dealings in our history” (p. 13)
What Difference Does It Make?
Horton emphasizes that the covenantal structure is not something we impose on the Bible, but it rises “naturally from the ordinary reading of the Scriptures from Genesis to Revelation” (p. 14). He presents an anecdote that I think we can all relate to:
How often have we heard important debates about biblical teaching dismissed with a shrug and the words, “You have your verses and we have our verses,” as if the Bible itself were internally inconsistent or contradictory? For Christians all of the verses are “our verses.” Our interpretation of a given point must be demonstrated not only as taught in this or that passage, but as consistent with the whole teaching of Scripture. (p. 14)
Covenant theology, Horton contends, is the framework which Scripture itself provides, by which we can resolve its diversity and answer questions that may arise.
Not only does it help to resolve the diversity in Scripture, it helps to resolve the extremes that humans tend to go to in “dividing” or “confusing” things that are supposed to be held in balance. He uses a few examples from societies ancient or modern, and relates it all back to the idolatry of human sovereignty. “The point of idolatry is to maintain our own autonomy (i.e., sovereignty) over God, either by banishment or absorption.” This affects the way we interact with our surroundings. “In our age, a lot of harm has been done to the natural creation because of the pretensions of human sovereignty” (p. 15). In contrast, there are movements that glorify creation, seeing God “in” everything.
He also address the ways in which individualism has elevated the self above the community.
The individual self is sovereign. This has infected the church profoundly, in both its faith and practice, wherever the emphasis on “me and my personal relationship with God” has supplanted the biblical assumption of covenantal solidarity. Covenant theology, in fact, requires such solidarity: that of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in the covenant of redemption; our solidarity with all of creation and especially our being “in Adam” by virtue of the creation covenant and “in Christ” in the covenant of grace. (p. 16)
The answer will not be found by allowing the societal pendulum to continue to swing from one extreme to the opposite. What we need is a healthy balance between the individual and the community. In all these issues, it’s not one or the other, but both…and… The covenant allows us to have a proper perspective and fulfill our responsibilities.
…all of creation, especially all humans, stand already in a relationship to God as creator and judge in the covenant of creation. We all are bound together ethically in mutual responsibility. Each person, Christian or not, bears God’s image, and we can work side by side with non-Christians to fulfill the scriptural command to show love to our neighbors. (p. 17)
As another example of holding to the extremes, Horton highlights the errant teachings of Arminianism and Hyper-Calvinism. Both of these views come to Scripture with a central dogma already presupposed, and they deduce all the possible interpretations of Scripture from that dogma. For Arminianism, it’s the libertarian concept of human free will that is not subject even to one’s own preferences. For Hyper-Calvinism, it’s “a distorted concept of God’s sovereignty that pushes everything else to the periphery” (p. 19).
But when we start with the covenant, it changes things considerably, because we’re no longer working with abstract philosophical ideas, but concrete, historical facts. “When Reformed theology hears Scripture teaching both divine sovereignty and human responsibility, divine election and the universal offer of the gospel, it affirms both even though it confesses that it does not know quite how God coordinantes them behind the scenes” (p. 19). “In the covenant, both the Lord and the Servant are on trial for their faithfulness: there simply can be no choice between whose action we take seriously. This focus curbs our speculative tendencies” (p. 20).
The covenant framework helps us to read the Old and New Testaments together. It views Scripture in a way that moves from promise to fulfillment, not from one dispensation to another and back again. “It helps us to see the continuity between the old and new covenants in terms of a single covenant of grace running throughout…” (pp. 20-21)
Posts in this series:
- What’s “The Big Idea?”
- “God and Foreign Relations”
- Chapter 2.5: God’s Freedom in Covenant
- The Covenant of Works and the Covenant of Grace