Reformed Baptist Fellowship

How Old is Covenant Theology?

In Reformed Baptist Fellowship on March 3, 2012 at 12:10 pm

In one sense, I believe covenant theology is as old as the Bible. But church-historically speaking, when did Christian theologians begin to view the Bible as covenantally structured? I believe the answer to that question is quite long ago, way before the Reformation and the Westminster Assembly’s Westminster Confession of Faith. I say this due to a book I read by Irenaeus of Lyons, On the Apostolic Preaching (see below).

Irenaeus lived from about A.D. 130-200. He is best known for his anti-Gnostic Against Heresies. The governing principle of his hermeneutic was the doctrine of recapitulation, according to Bray.[1] Inscripturated revelation was intended to take us back to what Adam had in the Garden. He viewed Christ as the new or last Adam who started the human race on a path of salvation that culminates in perfection. Though he viewed scriptural revelation as progressive, he denied any progressive or evolutionary view of mankind.[2] Irenaeus saw the various epochs of redemptive history structured around four covenants – Adam, Noah, Moses, and the Gospel.[3]

Irenaeus also wrote On the Apostolic Preaching. According to John Behr, this is the first extant “summary of Christian teaching.”[4] Irenaeus claims to have known Polycarp of Smyrna, who had known the apostles, which makes his work especially important. Behr says that

Irenaeus follows the example of the great speeches in Acts, recounting all the various deeds of God culminating in the exaltation of His crucified Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, and the bestowal of His Holy Spirit and the gift of a new heart of flesh.[5]

What is striking is that Irenaeus utilizes the Old Testament for “the foundation of his presentation.”[6] He viewed “Christ and Christianity as the fulfillment of the Old Testament by means of a christological-typological reading of the text.”[7] He also saw biblical revelation as salvation history “structured according to the various covenants of God with man.”[8]

Richard Barcellos, pastor
Grace Reformed Baptist Church
Palmdale, CA

[1] Bray, Biblical Interpretation, 81.

[2] Bray, Biblical Interpretation, 81.

[3] St. Irenaeus of Lyons, Translation and Introduction by John Behr, On the Apostolic Preaching (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1997), 8, n. 1.

[4] Behr in On the Apostolic Preaching, 7.

[5] Behr in On the Apostolic Preaching, 7.

[6] Behr in On the Apostolic Preaching, 7.

[7] Dockery, Biblical Interpretation, 67. For an example of Irenaeus’ allegorizing tendency see Johnson, Him We Proclaim, 103.

[8] Dockery, Biblical Interpretation, 67. See p. 69 for a summary of Irenaeus’ hermeneutical practice.

  1. Hey Rich,

    Thanks for this article.

    In light of this, I’m interested in your thoughts on Michael Vlach’s post here,, regarding R.C. Sproul and Sinclair Ferguson’s misrepresentation of DIspensationalism, specifically the alleged connection with “multiple ways of salvation” and trichotomy.

  2. Todd! I saw the Sproul/Ferguson Q&A a few Friday nights ago. Sometimes older guys speak about older forms of Dispensationalism. I think that’s what happened. They needed to qualify there statements. I think they should have been more careful.

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