A couple of months ago I began listening to a new podcast called The Pactum. In one of the episodes, the host Pat Abendroth was talking about covenant theology and referred to his dissertation called “Covenant Theology for the Uniformed, Unsympathetic, and Misinformed.” I was very intrigued by the title, so I decided to download it and add it to my reading list. I usually do not read dissertations as they are not the easiest papers to read, but I was pleasantly surprised that the author was engaging, clear, and straightforward.
My theological background is not from a covenantal position. My first seminary experience was at a school that taught dispensationalism. We learned the primary differences between dispensationalism and covenant theology, but the primary emphasis was on understanding the different strands of dispensationalism. I am now at a church that is confessional, subscribing to the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith. My pastor and I have been discussing the confession which sparked my interest to learn more about covenant theology. This dissertation was an opportunity for me to engage with covenant theology.
The theme of the dissertation is to explain and defend classic covenant theology. Abendroth explains that covenant theology refers to the “covenant of works, grace, and redemption” which provides a framework for understanding God, his word, and his ways. He argues that his position on covenant theology is “exegetically derived, historically significant, and pastorally prudent.” One nuance to his approach that I appreciate is his pastoral tone, revealing how covenant theology leads to worship.
The dissertation has five chapters: 1) What is a Covenant? 2) The Covenant of Redemption, 3) The Covenant of Works, 4) The Covenant of Grace, and 5) Covenant Theology for the Church. He also has two helpful appendices: 1) The Problem of Biblicism and 2) Imputation, Justification, and the Active Obedience of Christ.
He explains how the Bible uses the word covenant in the first chapter. He points out that the Bible uses the word covenant over 300 times. He traced covenants in the Bible, pointing out familiar ones such as the Abrahamic, Noahic, Davidic, and the New Covenant. He provides a definition for covenant as “a solemn agreement” that involves a relationship. This agreement has specific promises, claims, and obligations on both sides.
In the next three chapters, he explains the three covenants of Covenant Theology, along with objections primarily from a dispensational point of view. Some brief definitions of the three covenants are:
- The covenant of redemption – the formal agreement between the members of the triune God before the foundation of the world to redeem the elect.
- The covenant of works – the agreement between Adam (and those he represented) and God in which Adam would receive eternal life if he obeyed.
- The covenant of grace – the gracious agreement between God and man with the promise of salvation through faith in Christ.
He argues that the three covenants are from Scripture and then shows how they are related to one another. He explains that you will not prove covenant theology by a singular biblical text, but from multiple passages in both the Old and New Testament. He concludes that the three covenants provide a framework to understand God, the Bible, and the gospel. Covenant theology also keeps the distinction between the law and the gospel. He says covenant Theology offers a perspective for understanding the Bible that keeps both specifics and generalities of the drama in view, all the while remaining faithful to “the eternal purpose” of God as it guides the narrative from beginning to end (Eph 3:11). I admit that he makes a strong argument for covenant theology.
There was one important topic in the dissertation that I found particularly helpful. This was the relationship between the covenant of redemption and the assurance of salvation. He made this statement, “Assurance of salvation is likewise covenantal.” The doctrine of assurance has both an objective and subjective reality. Abendroth points out that the covenant of redemption is the ultimate source of assurance (Eph. 1:4-5). He compares the objective and subjective by saying that covenant theology offers assurance not to those who measure up and obey God’s standards, but comes rather from the one who kept the law perfectly on the behalf of a believer. He does not overemphasize the objective nature of assurance to the detriment of the subjective. He acknowledges that there is a subjective assurance that comes from the actual transformation of life by the Spirit who produces fruit (1 John), but that the primary source of assurance should be reserved for the objective and completed work of Christ. I think that is a helpful way to hold the tension in Scripture between the objective and subjective side of assurance, revealing first that the true foundation for assurance is the active obedience of Christ.
In conclusion, I really enjoyed this dissertation and have recommended it to others. His paper helped me better understand covenant theology, and I see a lot of strengths to that framework. It is worth noting that he did not address some other areas such as eschatology and the relationship of Israel and the Church. Most importantly this paper led me to worship the triune God, his plan, his promises, and his faithfulness. Finally, when I first started listening to his podcast, I had no idea what the word Pactum was about, now I get it. Praise God!