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Covenant Theology

Sometimes called “Federal Theology,” this system describes the relationship between God and man in the form of covenants. One of the features in the development of Calvinism, it was especially popular with Puritans and the Reformed theologians of Germany and Holland in the latter sixteenth and during the seventeenth century. It holds that God entered into an agreement with Adam at creation, promising him eternal life if he would obey the divine commands. Adam failed by eating the forbidden fruit and thus plunged himself and his descendants into eternal death. To remedy this, God (eternally) entered into a second agreement with Christ on behalf of the elect, promising them forgiveness and eternal life on the basis of Christ's sacrifice. The elect may have assurance of salvation with all its attendant blessing because of their faith in Christ.

This teaching helped Calvinists reconcile the sovereignty of God with man's desire for assurance. The covenant, or federal, theologians believed that man as a sinner has no right before a holy, sovereign, omnipotent God. Man ought to be perfectly obedient to the will of God, but even then there is no reward to be earned. Fellowship with God must come through a voluntary divine agreement establishing a relationship which is not necessarily according to nature. This was done by the covenant, which caused God to act in a kindly way, thus removing the uncertainty from dealing with the Almighty.

Covenant theology in a strict sense began in Germany when a number of Calvinists such as Kaspar Olevianus* and Zacharias Ursinus* emphasized the idea of the covenant of God with man and the believer's mystic union with Christ. Parallel with this German movement was the British development of covenant theology which was sometimes related to political thought (see National Covenant and Solemn League and Covenant). William Ames* became the leading British exponent of federal theology, which in a moderate form appears in both the Westminster Confession* and the Savoy Declaration.* Debtor to both British and German schools, John Cocceius* published a book, Summa Doctrinae de Foedere et Testamento Dei (1648), which has the most elaborate explanation of the covenant principle produced to that time.

Interest in covenant theology continued into the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but in a much diminished form. The Princeton theologians Charles and A.A. Hodge* gave it much attention, and federal theology still occupies a central position in reformed doctrine.

W.A. Brown, “Covenant Theology,” Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics (ed. J. Hastings), vol. IV, pp. 216ff.; P.Y. DeJong, The Covenant Idea in New England Theology (1945); P. Miller, The New England Mind, the Seventeenth Century (1961), pp. 365ff.; P. Toon, The Emergence of Hyper-Calvinism in English Nonconformity (1967), chap. 1.