Reformed theology in recent years has seen a resurgence of interest in covenant theology, which has come with a new wave of books about the biblical covenants. Richard Belcher has just released another contribution to the growing body of literature on covenant theology with The Fulfillment of the Promises of God: An Explanation of Covenant Theology. Belcher’s stated goal is to give an explanation of covenant theology according to the Westminster Confession of Faith, and to chart a course through some of the recent debates about Reformed covenant theology.
The book falls generally into two parts. The first explains the various covenants that appear in Scripture, and the second addresses debates about covenant theology regarding both issues within the Reformed perspective and those who have suggested an alternative version of covenant theology. After a chapter introducing the wider significance of studying covenant theology, the next several chapters discuss the covenant of works, the beginning of the covenant of grace, the covenant with Noah, the covenant with Abraham, the covenant under Moses, the covenant with David, and the new covenant. Belcher also explains and endorses the covenant of redemption, that pact between the persons of the Godhead concerning the plan of salvation, in the introductory chapter. These chapters focus on giving an exposition of what these various covenants are and how they function as part of the biblical narrative to advance God’s purposes of salvation in Christ.
These chapters have several strengths that readers will appreciate. First, many newer works on covenant theology have tried to take the theme of covenant in new or innovative directions, but Belcher advances a traditional understanding of Reformed covenant theology. Even introductory works on covenant theology at times introduce the author’s idiosyncratic revisions and modifications – sometimes without mention – to traditional covenant theology, but Belcher’s work sets forth a fairly generic (in the positive sense) understanding of how to explain the covenants. Perhaps one notable contribution is how the chapter on the new covenant very helpfully draws together the themes from previous chapters in how they are fulfilled in Christ.
The second strength is that Belcher emphasizes the implications of covenant theology for helping us understand salvation. For example, in regard to the covenant of works that God made with Adam, Belcher highlights how the demand for Adam’s perfect obedience as the representative of all humanity in that covenant has reference to how we understand Christ’s work as our representative in the covenant of grace, who merits our citizenship in heaven. Belcher argues that we should understand Adam’s potential to earn a reward from God in the covenant of works as a form of merit according to the terms of the covenant. This is not merit as if Adam could demand something from God as a creature per se, but merit in the sense that once God promised to reward Adam’s obedience, then his works became potentially meritorious under the conditions of the covenant. Belcher rightly notes how this point undergirds the distinction between the law and the gospel, so that we do not attempt to blend works and grace in our doctrine of justification.
The third strength in these chapters is that Belcher’s emphasis remains thoroughly doctrinal. Some books on covenant theology have failed to provide a helpful discussion of the covenants because they neglect the task of drawing together biblical material into doctrinal points. This approach leaves the idea of covenant hanging as a theme interspersed throughout the Bible, but not having much conceptual value. Belcher, however, does well at focusing on the theological implications of his biblical arguments, and this book provides a clear presentation of what the discussions about scriptural passages entail concerning what we should believe.
There are, on the other hand, a few weaknesses in these chapters. The first relates to Belcher’s aim to provide an explanation of the covenant theology in the Westminster Confession. It should be clearly stated that nothing in this book is outside the purview of the Confession. Still, in order to make good on the claim to explain the Confession’s covenant theology, one would expect far more interaction with passages from the Confession itself. There is a not much in this book that draws the biblical exposition back in reference to the formulation and wording of the Confession. In that regard, this book should likely be considered as an explanation of covenant theology within the framework of the Westminster Confession, rather than as an explanation of the Confession’s covenant theology. That is important in terms of some of Belcher’s discussions that address intra-Reformed debates about covenant theology. It might give the impression that Belcher’s position simply is the position of the Confession and others who disagree have demurred from the confessional position. In reality, the Confession is not as specific as some of Belcher’s arguments, which is why there is debate within Reformed circles about these issues.
The second weakness is that these chapters are heavy on explanation, but understated in exegesis. Belcher does cite many passages in reference to each of the covenants, but there is less exegetical argumentation than expected. This book would be tremendously useful for teaching a course on covenant theology in that the explanations in the book could be supplemented by exegetical demonstration during class time. Perhaps that is exactly how Belcher intended it to work for his own seminary courses, but pastors could perhaps use it for book studies in similar fashion. Even though this book contains explanations of the covenants that will be useful for those who already agree and need deeper understanding, the infrequency of exegetical argument will likely fail to convince readers who do not start with the assumption of covenant theology.
The second half of the book addresses debates about covenant theology. The issues here include minor and major revisions of covenant theology from within the broader Reformed community, the views of Meredith Kline, and alternative versions of covenant theology articulated from a baptistic perspective. Belcher should be thoroughly commended for the way that he writes polemically. His tone throughout is irenic, and he ably and accurately described various viewpoints with which he disagrees, but without any sort of inflammatory rhetoric or wobbly argumentation. Perhaps one of the greatest strengths of this book, and particularly its second half, is Belcher’s ability to keep the focus on explaining the ideas rather than taking superficial jabs to undermine the credibility of alternative viewpoints.
Belcher is also strong on maintaining consistent emphasis on how covenant theology shapes our understanding of salvation and church practice. He is hardest on those whose alternative version of covenant theology undermines the doctrine of justification, such as Federal Vision writers and William Dumbrell. On the other hand, Belcher is fairhanded with authors whose covenant theology does not strike at this important theme. For example, Belcher criticized John Murray’s rejection of the covenant of works, but he fairly outlined how Murray’s views do not revise traditional Protestant soteriology.
Further, Belcher disagreed with Meredith Kline’s understanding of the Mosaic covenant as a republication of the covenant of works, which is an issue that has sparked great debate within Reformed churches. Even though Belcher is clear about his position, he does not denigrate or harshly criticize those who hold the Klinean view. In full disclosure, as someone who holds the Klinean view, I never thought that Belcher had unfairly described my position. I disagreed with his conclusions, but his arguments genuinely make room for further discussion, rather than shutting down the conversation with overstated rhetoric. Belcher himself argues that the Mosaic covenant’s emphasis in the law is on driving people to see their sin and need of a Savior, rather than simply instructing believers how to live godly lives. He avoids the reduction of the Mosaic law to the third use of the law that motivates a great deal of concern from those who take the Klinean view.
Belcher also provided perhaps the most helpful explanation and brief refutation of baptistic versions of covenant theology in print. He covered more traditional versions of confessional Baptist covenant theology, as well as the newer development of “Progressive Covenantalism,” which is an innovative even if overreaching way of reconstructing covenantal hermeneutics in a way to preserve believers only baptism. Belcher has clearly understood their concerns, and irenically responds to the issues of difference between how those of baptistic persuasions have articulated the covenants.
In sum, this is a helpful book that explains a fairly standard way that Reformed people understand covenant theology. It is clearly written, and informative. For those who have heard about covenant theology for some time, but have needed some deeper insight into what covenant theology is about and some of the issues involved, this will certainly be a useful book.
Harrison Perkins (PhD, Queen’s University Belfast) is the assistant minister at London City Presbyterian Church, a visiting lecturer in systematic theology at Edinburgh Theological Seminary, and the author of Catholicity and the Covenant of Works: James Ussher and the Reformed Tradition (Oxford University Press, forthcoming).