The Hermeneutics of Covenant Theology -- By: Michael A. Harbin

Journal: Bibliotheca Sacra
Volume: BSAC 143:571 (Jul 1986)
Article: The Hermeneutics of Covenant Theology
Author: Michael A. Harbin


The Hermeneutics of Covenant Theology

Michael A. Harbin

[Michael A. Harbin, Elder, South Garland Bible Church, Garland, Texas]

The question of authority is probably the key question of this generation. Conservative Christianity has struggled to resist numerous attempts to erode the base of authority rediscovered during the Reformation, when the Reformers proclaimed Sola Scriptura, rather than the pope, as the base of authority.

Following this standard, the Reformers built on the principle of a literal interpretation of Scripture.1 This hermeneutical principle is more than just a guideline for Bible study. It is also a powerful control on what Scripture may or may not be construed to say. In other words the principle of literal interpretation is what makes Scripture, and not some interpreter, the authority.

However, the issue is more complex than this. Obviously the Scriptures contain many kinds of figurative speech. In addition several books of the Bible are devoted almost exclusively to prophecy. Properly interpreting this mass of material has challenged conservative Christianity since the Reformation. Two schools of interpretation have arisen in an attempt to maintain this authority.

These two schools, popularly known as covenant theology and dispensationalism, are often set at odds with one another. Unfortunately they are also often misunderstood. At times members of both camps have gone to extremes in their zeal to uphold their systems.

What Is Covenant Theology?

Confusion abounds in the minds of many people about several terms. Apparently many people use the terms “Reformed tradition,” “Calvinism,” “covenant theology,” and “amillennialism” interchangeably. For this reason it is necessary to define these terms.2

Reformed Tradition

“Reformed tradition” is a term often used by Presbyterians and people in related groups to reflect their theological system. This is a catch-all term that reflects all the various facets of theology that arose as part of the Reformation. The “Reformed tradition” seems to include Calvinism, covenant theology, and amillennialism, as well as the Presbyterian form of church government. Arriving at a more technical definition is difficult. As de Witt observes, “There is no single source to which we can turn for an authoritative expression of Reformed faith.”3 He cites several sources of the Reformed faith, including John Calvin, Martin Luther, the Canons of Dort, and even pre-Reformation men ...

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