Covenant Theology

Covenant (or federal) theologyis so called because it uses the covenant concept as an architectonic principle for the systemizing of Christian truth.  The seeds of this approach were sown by John Calvin (Institutes 2: 9-11) and there are already hints of it in Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531), Henrich Bullinger (1504-1575) and Zacharias Ursinus (1534-1583).  But it took some time to develop fully, though by the early seventeenth century virtually all orthodox Reformed theologians came to accept it and work out their theology within its framework.    Such theologians as Johannes Cocceius in his Summa Doctrinae de Foedere et Testamento Dei Explicata (Amsterdam, 1648) and Herman Witsius in his De Oeconomia Foederum Dei cum Hominibus (Leeuwarden, 1677; ET 3 vols, London, 1763; 1822, 2 vols) represent covenant theology in fully developed form.  English divines also generally adopted the covenant theology.  John Preston, The New Covenant (London, 1629), John Ball, A Treatise of the Covenant of Grace (London, 1645), Francis Roberts, Mysterium & Medulla Bibliorum.  The Mysterie and Marrow of the Bible: viz. God’s Covenants with Man (London, 1657), and William Strong, A Discourse of the Two Covenants (London, 1678) are but four examples.  In keeping with this, the Westminster Assembly used a covenant framework in drawing up its Confession of Faith and catechisms, as did The Marrow of Modern Divinity (London, 1645).

Scottish covenant theologians

The phrase ‘the covenant of works’ occurs in Scottish theology as early as Robert Rollock’s Quaestiones et Responsiones aliquot de Foedere Dei (Edinburgh, 1596) and Tractatus De Vocatione Efficaci (Edinburgh, 1597; ET, A Treatise of God’s Effectual Calling, London, 1603).  In fact, Rollock was the first theologian to use the phrase, though Barth (Church Dogmatics, IV:I, p. 59) gives the credit (or discredit, as he sees it) to Polanus.  Polanus’ Syntagma Theologiae Christianae was not published, however, till 1624.  Federalism quickly became a dominant influence in Scotland, so much so that James Walker could comment, ‘The old theology of Scotland might be emphatically described as a covenant theology’ (The Theology and Theologians of Scotland, Edinburgh, 2nd edition 1888, p. 73).  The widespread acceptance of this is illustrated by The Sum of Saving Knowledge, published in Edinburgh in 1650, a bare two years after the work of Cocceius, and traditionally bound with copies of the Westminster Confession of Faith, even though it never received ecclesiastical sanction.  According to Robert Woodrow (Analecta, Vol I, p. 166), the authors were David Dickson and James Durham.  Dickson expounds covenant theology at some length, particularly emphasizing the Covenant of Redemption, in his Therapeutica Sacra (Edinburgh, 1656; ET, Edinburgh 1664).  Samuel Rutherford advocates covenant theology in The Tryal & Triumph of Faith (London, 1645, Edinburgh, 1845), Sermons VII and VIII; and more fully in The Covenant of Life Opened: or, A Treatise of the Covenant of Grace (Edinburgh, 1655).  But the most extensive Scottish work on the covenants was written by Patrick Gillespie, though only the first two (of five) parts were published: The Ark of the Testament Opened, or . . . a Treatise of the Covenant of Grace (London , 1661) and The Ark of the Covenant Opened; or, A Treatise of the Covenant of Redemption (London, 1677).

In the eighteen century both Church of Scotland and Secession theologians propounded covenant theology: Thomas Boston wrote both A View of the Covenant of Works (published posthumously, Edinburgh, 1772) and A View of the Covenant of Grace (also published posthumously, Edinburgh, 1734).  Adam Gib’s Kaina kai Palaia: Sacred Contemplations in Three Parts (Edinburgh, 1786) is largely an exposition of the covenants of grace and works.  Other works on the covenants include Thomas Bell’s View of the Covenant of Works and of Grace (Glasgow, 1814) and John Colquhoun’s, A Treatise on the Covenant of Grace (Edinburgh, 1818) and A Treatise on the Covenant of Works (Edinburgh, 1821).  James Fisher’s, The Assembly’s Shorter Catechism Explained (Glasgow, 1753) and Robert Shaw’s Exposition of the Westminster Confession (Edinburgh, 1845) indicate loyal adherence to the covenant theology.  Free Church theologians took a similar position.  William Cunningham’s Historical Theology (2 vols, Edinburgh, 1862) allocates no specific chapter to the covenant, but his treatment of both the fall (Vol I, pp. 502ff) and the atonement (II, 261ff) is strongly federalist.  James McLagan, FC Professor at Aberdeen, took a similar line (see Lectures and Sermons, Aberdeen, 1853, especially Lecture XXX).  But possibly the most enthusiastic nineteen-century devotee of covenant theology was Hugh Martin, who gave his major work the title, The Atonement, in its Relations to the Covenant, the Priesthood, the Intercession of our Lord (Edinburgh, 1882).


Three covenants

Federal theology organizes Christian truth around three great covenants:

1.  The covenant of works (sometimes called ‘the covenant of life’ or ‘the covenant of nature’).  Federal theologians acknowledged that Scripture nowhere applied the term ‘covenant’ to the relationship between Adam and God.  They also acknowledged that the relationship was asymmetrical: God and Adam were not equal partners in a mutually negotiated contract.  On the contrary, God sovereignly imposed the conditions, and graciously promised a reward for what Adam owed as a matter of duty.  But all the elements of the covenant were there, they argued.  There were two partners: God and Adam (as the representative of all mankind).  There was a clear stipulation: perfect obedience, focused on the specific prohibition of one fruit.  And there was a clear promise or threat.  Obedience would mean life, disobedience would mean death.

Within the framework of this covenant, federal theology saw Adam as not simply a private individual but as the representative of the human race.  Taking their cue from Romans 5:14 they argued that Adam sustained the same relationship to all as Christ did to the church.  The justification for this lay in the fact that Adam and Eve were, organically, the root of all mankind.  This oneness, at once federal and natural, legitimized the imputation to us of the guilt of Adam’s first sin, explained the transmission to us of a corrupt nature, and accounted for the fact that even those who never actually sinned (e.g. infants) nevertheless suffer the very punishment denounced on Adam.

According to federal theology, the covenant of works is no longer in force as a probationary framework for mankind.  Each stood probation in Adam and no longer stands each for himself.  But in other important respects the covenant of works is still in force.  In particular, the principle, ‘Do this and live!’ is still valid.  If any person could present himself at the bar of God and prove that he was free from sin, personal or imputed, actual or original, he would be acquitted.  Similarly, the principle, ‘The soul that sins shall die!’ is still valid.  This is clearly implied in the contrast between salvation by works and salvation by grace to which St Paul alludes so frequently.  Salvation by works is impossible not because it is in principle inconceivable, but because we are morally and spiritually helpless.  The weakness lies not in the law but in the flesh (Rom. 8:13).

2.  The covenant of redemption.  This was an eternal covenant between the Father and the Son, according to which the Son became surety for his people, undertook to obey and suffer in their place and was promised everything that pertains to grace and salvation.  Express biblical warrant for this covenant (or counsel of peace, as it was sometimes called) was found in Ps. 2:7-9, 80:3, 2 Sam. 7:11-16 and especially Zech. 6:13 (‘the counsel of peace shall be between them both’).  But its real basis lay in broader biblico-theological considerations.  Scripture constantly relates Christ’s mission to the will of God the Father.  He was sent from God, received his rules of engagement from God and received certain promises from God.  Such language, according to covenant theologians, clearly indicates that he did not come on his own initiative alone, but on terms agreed with the Father.

Some such covenant, in the view of federal theology, was also necessary to the union between Christ and his people.  A union by mere divine decree would have rendered the obedience of Christ involuntary.  Union by mere community of nature (that is, by incarnation) would have meant the saving identification of all mankind, simply as men, with Christ: a fact belied by the Bible’s insistence that unbelievers perish.  Union by means of the indwelling of the Spirit was itself the consequence of the work of atonement, and certainly could not have been its condition: at the moment when Christ bore their sins the vast majority of his people were completely alienated from him spiritually.  The true basis of union then, according to the federal theologians, could only be the covenant of redemption.

There was no agreement among Reformed theologians, however, as to the need to posit a separate covenant of redemption.  In his Exposition of Hebrews, John Owen devotes a whole chapter of his Preliminary Exercitations to ‘Federal Transactions between the Father and the Son’ (Exercitation XXVIII), and Herman Witsius likewise treats separately ‘the Covenant between God the Father and the Son’ (Bk. II:II) and ‘the covenant of God with the elect’ (Bk. III:I).  Dr James Packer, in his Introduction to the 1990 reprint of the English translation of Witsius, also argues strongly for a ‘specific agreement’ between the Father and the Son, and insists that this covenant of Redemption underlies the covenant of grace (this Introduction contains no page-numbering).

Among Scottish theologians, the doctrine of a separate covenant of redemption Herma is clearly promulgated in The Sum of Saving Knowledge.  It is also asserted by Rutherford (see, for example, Covenant of Life, pp. 282ff).  But other theologians insisted that it was simply part of the one covenant of grace (see below).  This was particularly true of Thomas Boston: ‘The covenant of redemption and the covenant of grace are not two distinct covenants, but one and the same covenant’ (Works VIII, p. 396).  They denote the same transaction under different considerations:  ‘By a covenant of redemption is meant a bargain of buying and selling: and such a covenant it was to Christ only; for as much as he alone engaged to pay the price of our redemption, 1 Pet. 1:18, 19.  By a covenant of grace, is meant a bargain whereby all is to be had freely: and such a covenant is to us only, to whom the whole of it is free grace; God himself having paid the ransom, and thereupon made over life and salvation to us, by free promise, without respect to any work of ours, as the ground of our right thereto’ (pp. 396f).

Adam Gib is of the same mind as Boston, declaring, ‘The Covenant of Grace is a Covenant of Redemption.’ (Sacred Contemplations, p. 141).  This divergence between Dickson and Rutherford on the one hand, and Boston and Gib on the other ,is probably not a substantive one.  But clarity is not unimportant, and those who follow Boston find themselves having to distinguish constantly between the way the covenant of grace bears on Christ and the way it bears on believers.  For them, it was pure grace; from him, it demanded perfect obedience.  From them, it required faith; to him, it promised it.  Besides, the archetypal covenant of Grace is God’s covenant with Abraham (see Galatians 3:15-18), and it is exceedingly difficult to subsume Christ under this covenant.  There is no precedent for regarding Abraham as a type of Christ, and in any case they diverge radically in their relation to the covenant.  Abraham is a covenant-keeper as a non-worker: Christ is a covenant keeper as a worker, obedient even to the point of death.   The true fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant is the bond between God and the individual believer, who becomes an heir according to the promise.

The older Scottish theologians believed it would be an impoverishment, therefore, to relinquish the covenant of redemption.  It contributes significantly to a clearer and more comprehensive statement of the truth.

3.  The covenant of grace.  This concept was common to all federalists, but there was still room for considerable difference on matters of detail.

For example, who were the parties?  Even the Westminster divines found this difficult to answer.  The Shorter Catechism (Answer 20) is non-committal, saying merely, ‘God having, out of his mere good pleasure, from all eternity, elected some to everlasting life, did enter into a covenant of grace to deliver them out of the state of sin and misery, and bring them into an estate of salvation by a Redeemer.’  This does not tell us with whom the covenant was made.  The Westminster Confession is equally cautious: ‘The Lord was pleased to make a second (covenant), commonly called the Covenant of Grace: whereby he freely offered unto sinners life and salvation by Jesus Christ’ (VIII.3).  The Larger Catechism, however, attempts to be specific: ‘The covenant of grace was made with Christ as the second Adam, and in him with all the elect as his seed’ (Answer 31).  This answer combines the covenant of grace with the covenant of redemption and well illustrates the confusion which results.  There is no set of stipulations and promises which apply symmetrically to Christ and the elect.  The Sum of Saving Knowledge, although speaking clearly of two covenants, is unspecific as to the parties.  Thomas Boston was hampered by his refusal to distinguish between the covenant of grace and the covenant of redemption.  The covenant of grace, he says, was made with Christ as the Last Adam, head and representative of his seed.  But those ‘contracted for’ were the elect.  In effect, this resolves everything into the covenant of redemption and virtually obliterates the covenant between God and the believer.

What is needed here is a firm commitment to seeing the covenant of grace in terms of the Abrahamic covenant.  Abraham was not Christ (or even a type of Christ).  Nor was the covenant made with him as elect.  Nor, again, was it made with him pre-temporally.  It was made with him, in history, as a believer; and this warrants the conclusion that the parties to the covenant of grace are God on the one hand and the believer on the other.  God’s diathēkē (last will and testament) is made out in favour of faith.

The question of the promises of the covenant of grace provoked little discussion.  Broadly, the covenant promised eternal life.  But the stipulations were not so clear: they depended, again, on whether particular theologians distinguished between the covenant of redemption and the covenant of grace.  Boston, who did not, took the view that the only condition of the covenant was the Christ’s fulfilling all righteousness (Works, VIII, p.  438). From this point of view, faith was not a condition, but a promise.  God produced faith in the elect because Christ, by his obedience, had fulfilled the conditions.  Boston stressed, however, that faith was indispensable.  A person is not in the covenant until he believes: ‘He that believeth is within the covenant of grace personally and savingly: he that believeth not is still under the covenant of works, where the first Adam left him.  Faith is the hand whereby one taketh hold of the covenant, signs it for himself, and closeth the bargain for his own salvation’ (p. 579).

Samuel Rutherford, on the other hand, asserted most strongly that faith was a condition: ‘The condition of the covenant is faith . . . This do was the condition of the covenant of works.  This believe is the condition of this covenant; because faith sendeth a person out of himself, and taketh him off his own bottom, that in Christ he may have his righteousness’ (The Trial and Triumph of Faith, p. 87).  The context in which Rutherford wrote was, of course, markedly different from that of Boston, and this probably explains the difference between the two men.  For Boston, the great danger was the new legalism (Baxterianism), which turned faith itself into a ‘work’ and presented it as the ground of justification: instead of being justified ‘through’faith (per fidem) we were justified ‘on account of’ faith (propter fidem).  For Rutherford, by contrast, the ogre was the antinomianism of Tobias Crisp (1600-43), which regarded justification as eternal, and dismissed the human response to grace as of no importance.

There are two pressures on the theologian here.  On the one hand, he must secure the freeness of grace.  On the other, he must maintain the reality of the covenant as bilateral.  The first requires an avoidance of the language of conditionality.  The second requires an insistence that the human response is both necessary and meaningful.  The most appropriate way to secure these two objectives is to avoid speaking of faith as a condition while continuing to insist that it is a requirement.

Covenant theologians were at great pains to stress the unity of the covenant of grace, while clearly recognizing that there were differences in administration.  This was in line with the position taken by Calvin (Institutes, II: X-XI).  On the one hand, the Sinaitic covenant did not abrogate the Abrahamic, but represented merely a different phase of its administration; on the other hand, the ‘new (Christian) covenant’ likewise perpetuated Abrahamic principles.  Among other advantages, this insistence on the unity of the covenant enabled federal theologians to present a coherent theology of infant baptism.  The Abrahamic covenant had clearly stipulated that the sign of the spiritual covenant be administered to the physical seed.  Since this was the covenant under which the church still existed (Gal. 3:14, 17) there was every reason to believe that this ordinance still stood; and that infant baptism, therefore, was not only a right, but a duty.

The twentieth century has seen a reaction to federal theology, even in in relatively conservative theological circles.  C. G. M’Crie, writing in 1906, was already sharply critical of The Sum of Saving Knowledge, accusing it of reducing the gospel to a legal compact between two independent and equal partners: ‘The blessedness of the mercy-seat is in danger of being lost sight of in the bargaining of the market place.’ (The Confessions of the Church of Scotland. Edinburgh, 1907, p. 72).  Professor John Murray, a Scottish expatriate teaching in America, managed to combine a deep personal loyalty to the Westminster Confession with a detached attitude to federalism.  Following the researches of such scholars as his own mentor, Geerhardus Vos, Murray took his cue from the biblical preference for diathēkē over sunthēkē, minimizing the two-sided nature of the covenant and viewing it as ‘a sovereign dispensation of grace’ (The Covenant of Grace, Phillipsburg, NJ, 1953, p. 18).  But Murray’s deepest reservations related to the idea of a covenant of works (Works, II, 47ff).  He regarded the term itself as ‘infelicitous’ (even though it is used in the Westminster Confession, 7:2) since it obscured the elements of grace which were prominent in the Adamic administration.  But he also questioned the theological propriety of using the word ‘covenant’ in this connection.  Scripture itself never called the Adamic administration a covenant: on the contrary, it limited this term to ‘a provision that is redemptive or closely related to redemptive design’ (p. 49).  In addition, ‘covenant’ involved a degree of security which the Adamic administration did not bestow.

Murray could have drawn support from the fact that Calvin traced the idea of covenant no further back than Abraham, and knew nothing of an Adamic covenant.  On the other hand, Murray agreed that the divine arrangements with Adam involved both conditions and promises, and traditional federal theologians would probably not have asked for more.  He was also thoroughly conservative in his overall view, arguing, for example, that ‘the Adamic administration with all its implications for racial solidarity’ alone provided an explanation of original sin.

J. B. Torrance’s critique of federal theology.

The most persistent Scottish critic of federal theology has been J. B. Torrance.  Torrance set forth his position in an important article entitled, ‘The Contribution of McLeod Campbell to Scottish Theology’ (Scottish Journal of Theology, Vol 26 [1973], pp. 295-311) and frequently re-stated it in similar terms in several subsequent articles (for example, in ‘Strengths and Weaknesses of the Westminster Theology’, in The Westminster Confession in the Church Today, ed. A. I. C. Heron, Edinburgh, 1982, pp. 40-55).  Besides his obvious debt to McLeod Campbell, Torrance also reflects Barth’s criticisms of federal theology (Church Dogmatics IV.1, pp. 22-66); and he himself, in turn, strongly influenced a whole generation of younger Scottish (and Scottish-trained) theologians (see, for example, M. C. Bell’s Calvin and Scottish Theology, Edinburgh, 1985).

Torrance’s aversion to federal theology is not merely cerebral and academic but deep-seated and passionate.  He clearly considers the gospel itself to be at stake.  His main objections are as follows:

(i)  The whole federal scheme is built on a deep-seated confusion between a covenant and a contract.  These may mean the same in Scots law, but in theology they must be clearly distinguished.  The edge of this criticism is rather blunted, however, by the fact that the Hebrew berith frequently means a contract.

(ii)  The federal scheme involves a radical dichotomy between the sphere of nature (covenant of works) and the sphere of grace (covenant of grace).  This, according to Torrance, makes nature (or law) prior to grace and thus represents a betrayal of the Reformation, which insisted that nothing was prior to grace.  The obvious response to this is that there is always something (sin) which is prior to grace; and always something (law) which is prior to sin.  To make grace prior to sin is to end up in the most unacceptable kind of supralapsarianism.  Men and women must be related to God as sinners before they can be reconciled to him through a gracious adoption.

(iii)   Federalism, according to Torrance, moves the focus away from what Christ has done for us to what we do for ourselves. It would, however, be very difficult to document this.  In covenant theology faith itself is the gift of God, granted to the people of Christ in accordance with the covenant of redemption: and the object of faith was emphatically not anything we do for ourselves, but Christ crucified.

(iv)  Federalism, according to Torrance, imperiled the very doctrine of God itself by suggesting that whereas justice was an essential attribute, mercy was a merely arbitrary or optional one.  God was related to all men in terms of justice, but only to the elect in terms of love.  But this antithesis between mercy and justice is a false one.  A merciful judge and a loving father may sometimes show his true disposition not by forgoing punishment but by imposing it reluctantly.  Besides, the whole gospel story is about God’s provision of a just mercy.

(v)  Federalism inverted the biblical order of the relation between forgiveness and atonement, teaching that God had to be conditioned into being gracious by the obedience and penal satisfaction of his Son.  Scripture, by contrast, (and here Torrance is closely following McLeod Campbell), insists that forgiveness always precedes atonement: in fact, it was because of his forgiveness that God provided a way of atonement.

This argument rests, surely, on a confusion between love and graciousness on the one hand, and forgiveness on the other.  All federal theologians regarded God’s love and graciousness as eternal, unearned and unconditioned.  They were adamant that God’s love preceded atonement, and indeed provided it.  But they did not confuse love with forgiveness.  The loving God proceeded directly not to forgiveness, but to atonement, making the One who knew no sin to be sin in our place (2 Cor. 5:21).  Christ’s death was not the ground of God loving us.  But it was certainly the ground of his being reconciled to us: ‘We are reconciled to God by the death of his Son’ (Rom. 5:10).

There are few signs today, even in the most conservative of Scottish theological circles, of any return to a coherent federal theology.  In this respect, at least, contemporary Evangelicalism has little organic connection to its past.    Admittedly, all attempts to impose an artificial unity on Scripture should be treated with caution.  But there is no doubt that large masses of biblical truth can be organized under the covenant principle.  Nor can there be any doubt that adherence to a covenant framework encourages close attention to the progressive, historical character of revelation.  Ironically, to find a modern version of federal theology one has to turn to the work of the German Old Testament scholar, Walter Eichrodt, whose Theology of the Old Testament (1933; ET, London, 1961) uses covenant as its central concept, ‘by which to illuminate the structural unity and the unchanging basic tendency of the message of the OT’ (13).  This shows that the idea is still viable and that attempts to relegate federalism to the museum of theological antiquities are premature.


This is a slightly amended version of an article which originally appeared in the Dictionary of Scottish Church History and Theology, ed. Nigel M. de S. Cameron (Edinburgh, 1993).

Further reading

Thomas Boston, ‘A View of the Covenant of Grace from the Sacred Records’ in The Complete Works of Thomas Boston, 12 Vols (1853.  Reprinted  Stoke-on-Trent: Tentmaker Publications, 1980), Vol VIII, pp.379-604.

Thomas Boston, ‘A View of the Covenant of Works from the Sacred Records’, (Works, Vol XI, pp.  178-339.

Adam Gib, Kaina kai Palaia: Sacred Contemplations, in Three Parts (Eduinburgh,1786; Philadelphia, 1788.  Reprinted BiblioLife, LLC, n.d.).  Part I contains ‘A View of the Covenant of Works’; Part II, ‘A View of the Covenant of Grace’.

G.D. Henderson, The Burning Bush (Edinburgh: Saint Andrew Press, 1957), pp.61-74 (‘The Idea of the Covenant in Scotland’).

William Klempa, ‘The Concept of the Covenant in Sixteenth- and Seventeenth- Century Continental and British Theology’ in Donald K. McKim (ed.) Major Themes in the Reformed Tradition (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992).

Samuel Rutherford, The Trial and Triumph of Faith (Reprinted Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2001).  Also available on Kindle.

Geerhardus Vos, ‘The Doctrine of the Covenant in Reformed Theology’ in Richard B. Gaffin (ed.), Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation: the Shorter Writings of Geerhardus Vos (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1980), pp. 234-267.

Herman Witsius, The Economy of the Covenants between God and Man (ET 2 vols, 1822.  Reprinted 1990 with an Introduction by J I Packer.  Distributed by Presbyterian and Reformed, Phillipsburg, New Jersey.

David Dickson’s Therapeutica Sacra (ET 1664) can be downloaded from the Free Church College web-site: