God of Promise: Introducing Covenant Theology by Michael Horton

Horton has undertaken the task of identifying the essential ingredients of covenant theology. In part he has been successful. He does an excellent job explaining the historical background of the Old Testament covenants, many of which (e.g. the Mosaic Covenant) are structured identically to the pagan suzerain-vassal treaties (pp. 24-28), whereas the Abrahamic Covenant is “a classic example of a royal grant as opposed to a suzerainty treaty” (p. 41). This information is helpful in understanding the different purposes of the covenants.

What is unique about covenant theology is not its understanding of the explicit biblical covenants, but its structuring of all redemptive history around three covenants that are never actually mentioned in Scripture: the covenants of redemption, works (creation) and grace. Under these three implied covenants the covenant theologian groups all the explicit biblical covenants (p. 78).

Horton boldly states that “reformed theology is simply covenant theology” (p. 11), yet he documents numerous individuals firmly in the Reformed tradition who reject or strongly question one or all of these covenants (pp. 78-107). While Horton interacts and rejects the arguments of these objectors, still their points are well made and seem to undermine the “reformed theology is covenant theology” statement. And, while not as boldly, he implies that Reformed individuals are also amillennial which is certainly not always the case (pp. 119-120). Nevertheless, whether one agrees with Horton’s propositions concerning the link between Reformed theology and covenant theology or not, the author is correct in his basic explanation of covenant theology itself.

Horton identifies several unique features of covenant theology, which are accepted by most in the Reformed camp as well: a three-fold division of the Mosaic Law (civil, ceremonial, moral) (p. 177); circumcision ratifying the covenant (p. 146); baptism being the sign of the new covenant (p. 153); being a member of the covenantal community but not necessarily saved (p. 152) and seeing the moral law of Moses not as a way to life, but as the way of life to God’s people (p. 76): “The Law can guide us in godly living, but it can never—even after we are justified—give us any life” (p. 128). Each of these features would be worthy of critiquing, but in this review I want to move on to more pressing matters.

First, and of relatively lesser significance, I believe Horton to be wrong in a number of assertions:

• He misunderstands the land promised to Israel (p. 47), stripping the Abrahamic Covenant of its eternal land promisies (p. 48). Horton writes, “The principle of law is the basis for remaining in the earthly land; the principle of promise is the basis for entering and remaining in the heavenly land” (p. 101). Yet, Genesis 13:15 promises that Abraham’s descendents will possess the land forever (cf. Deuteronomy 30:1-5). Horton did not wrestle with this promise; he simply dismisses it.

• He believes, “Only the new covenant can create true worshipers. ‘Legalism lacks the supreme sense of worship. It obeys but it does not adore’” (p. 73). And yet do we not see David (under the old covenant) as the biblical poster boy for worship and adoration?

• Horton tells us that Adam was commissioned to expand and even bring about the kingdom (p. 114). I find nothing in the Genesis account concerning this. Adam and Eve were told to rule over and subdue the earth (Genesis 1:25-28) but is that the same as expanding or bringing in the kingdom? In what sense was this needed? What does it even mean?

• He misunderstands the views of dispensationalists on several fronts. He accuses them of “replacement theology” (something repugnant to a true dispensationalist) and misrepresents what they believe in this regard (p. 130). More importantly he brings out the old saw that dispensationalists, at least the old ones, believed in justification by works for Old Testament believers (p. 101). This has repeatedly been debunked.

Horton’s brand of covenant theology is most disturbing when he moves into the realm of the “sacraments,” especially baptism. While Horton is often hard to pin, he seems to me to border on sacramentalism. Baptism, he claims, washes away our sin (p. 154); it mediates our redemption (p. 155). Additionally, Horton proclaims that “the New Testament lays before us a vast array of conditions for final salvation” (p. 182). Added to faith and repentance is perseverance, based on the book of Hebrews. But I would contend that perseverance is the evidence and fruit of salvation, not a condition for such. If final perseverance is a condition for salvation then assurance of our salvation can never be secured in this life—a most unhappy thought.

Horton takes a traditional Reformed view on the Lord’s Supper (pp. 162-170) but also believes that anyone not under church discipline is worthy to participate (p. 162). I find this extreme. Could Paul possibly be saying in 1 Corinthians 11:27 that all unexcommunicated believers are worthy to partake of the elements? If so, why did He tell us to “examine ourselves?” If we are under church discipline, the church has already examined us and found us unworthy. And what of sin unknown to the church? Should a man who committed adultery on Saturday night consider himself worthy to participate at the table on Sunday morning simply because no one else knows of his sin? I cannot buy Horton’s reasoning here.

All in all I am not certain Horton’s primer on covenant theology is the best representative of this view. Not only would readers from other persuasions disagree but many within covenantal circles would find much to debate.

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