I remember when I first started to study covenant theology while a student at a dispensationalist seminary in Texas. One thing that always puzzled me was the lack of any introductory level book explaining the basics of covenant theology. There were, of course, books that looked at the specific biblical covenants as well as books that examined this or that aspect of covenant theology, but at the time, I was unable to find a single work that put everything together and explained the basics in a way that someone new to covenant theology could understand. Today several such volumes are available, and among them, one of the most helpful is Michael Horton’s book God of Promise (Baker, 2006).
It should be noted at the outset that covenant theology is not monolithic. Historically, there have been disagreements on some issues, and Horton mentions those disagreements when necessary. Despite these disagreements, however, there has been a broad consensus among Reformed theologians on the most fundamental points. Horton’s volume represents one strand of thought within covenant theology, a strand whose most prominent recent exponent was Meredith Kline.
In the first chapter, Horton explains what a “covenant” is and how the concept functions in Scripture as a unifying structural foundation. He also explains the relevance of the whole discussion, not only for our understanding of Scripture, but also for our Christian lives. It influences everything from the way we understand justification to the way we view governments, churches, and families. Horton looks next at the secular background of the biblical covenants in certain ancient Near Eastern documents, showing the similarities and differences between these secular covenants and the biblical covenants.
Horton argues in chapter 3 that all of the biblical covenants can be grouped around two kinds of arrangements: “conditional covenants that impose obligations and unconditional covenants that announce a divine promise.” The Mosaic covenant is a conditional covenant. It shares similarities with ancient suzerain vassal treaties. The Abrahamic covenant, on the other hand, is an unconditional covenant. It is similar to the ancient “royal grants.” Chapter 4 explains the way all of these threads come together in the new covenant. Jesus fulfills the unilateral promises of the Abrahamic covenant and the bilateral conditions of the Mosaic covenant.
Beginning with chapter 5, Horton moves from biblical theology to systematic theology, explaining how the biblical teaching has been developed by Reformed theologians. Traditionally, Reformed theologians have seen in Scripture three distinct covenants: the covenant of redemption (an eternal pact between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit), the covenant of works (which was made with humanity in Adam), and the covenant of grace (made with believers in Christ). The most controversial of these has been the covenant of works. While some have questioned whether the concept is biblical, Horton rightly explains the importance of the doctrine and its basis in Scripture.
Horton looks at the relationship between God’s covenants and common grace in chapter 6. He sees the clearest relationship between the two in the covenant made with Noah. This leads to a helpful discussion of the differences between the “city of God” and the “city of man.” Here we see an example of the way that our understanding of the covenants impacts our understanding of the world. Horton turns his attention next to the people of the covenant. He examines what Scripture has to say about the relationship between Israel and the Church, challenging both dispensationalism and any kind of “bi-covenantalism” that posits two ways of salvation.
Horton looks in some detail at the signs and seals of the covenant, before turning in chapter 9 to what is probably the most disputed question under consideration—what role, if any, the law has in the Christian life. He argues that several distinctions are necessary to a proper understanding of the law in the new covenant: first, we must distinguish between law itself and a covenant of law; second, we must distinguish between the kinds of biblical law — moral, civil, and ceremonial; and third, we must distinguish between the three uses of the law – civil, pedagogical, and normative.
This overview of the contents cannot do full justice to the book. Virtually every page contains something that forces the reader to stop and think. In other words, this is the kind of book that should be read slowly and then read again, not only by pastors, but by all who seek a better understanding of Scripture.