Covenantal theology is a distinctive approach to Catholic biblical theology stemming from the mid-twentieth century recovery of Patristic methods of interpreting Scripture by scholars such as Henri de Lubac. This recovery was given further impetus by Dei Verbum, the Second Vatican Council's "Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation", and consolidated in the section on Scripture Catechism of the Catholic Church (nos. 101-141). These developments gave rise to an approach that emphasizes the "four senses" of Scripture within a framework that structures salvation history via the biblical covenants, in combination with the techniques of modern biblical scholarship.
Covenantal theology has its roots in Patristic interpretation of Scripture, drawing on the theology of history and exegetical methods developed by the Fathers (Wilken 2003). Notable for the theology of history are Irenaeus's emphasis on the unity of the Old and New Testaments in Against Heresies and Augustine's explication of that unity through the "two cities" theme in The City of God (Books XI-XXII). Closely related are the exegetical methods by which Scripture is explained according to its "spiritual senses" (de Lubac 1984a). These developments were organized by the scholastics into the doctrine of the "four senses," encompassing the literal sense and the three spiritual senses (allegorical, moral, and anagogical) (de Lubac 1984b). The allegorical sense relates persons, events, and institutions of earlier covenants to those of later covenants (and especially to the New Covenant), thereby situating "spiritual" exegesis within the covenantal theology of history.
In the modern period, the Patristic tradition of spiritual exegesis was overshadowed by scholarly focus on the literal sense using historical-critical techniques. A revival of interest in spiritual exegesis began in the late 1950's, led by Henri de Lubac with his pioneering study, Medieval Exegesis (de Lubac 1998, de Lubac 2000, Wood 1998). The historical studies of Jean Danielou, such as The Bible and the Liturgy and The Lord of History, were likewise seminal (Danielou 1956, Danielou 1958). In its "Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation" of 1965, the Second Vatican Council taught that Scripture should be "read and interpreted in light of the same Spirit by whom it was written" (Dei Verbum 12), a Patristic formula associated with spiritual exegesis (de la Potterie 1988). The Catechism of the Catholic Church (1994, 1997) confirmed this teaching and specified that the necessary spiritual interpretation of Scripture should be sought through its four senses (nos. 111, 113, 115-119) (de la Potterie 1994). Encouraged by these developments, covenantal theology has been vigorously pursued from the 1990's onward; a good example of recent work is provided by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) in Many Religions – One Covenant (Ratzinger 1999). In his discussion of methodology in the foreword to Jesus of Nazareth, the same author notes that "there are dimensions of the word that the old doctrine of the fourfold sense of Scripture pinpointed with remarkable accuracy," supporting a "Christological hermeneutic, which sees Jesus Christ as the key to the whole and learns from him to understand the Bible as a unity" (Ratzinger 2007).
Covenantal theology is distinctive in its emphasis of the following tenets:
- The biblical covenants (Adamic, Noahite, Abrahamic, Mosaic, Davidic, and New) are taken to be the chief structural framework for salvation history.
- The Abrahamic covenant (as distinct from the Mosaic) is taken to be the central Old Testament covenant that is fulfilled in the New Testament, in accordance with Pauline theology (Galatians 3:6-29).
- The Old and New Testaments are taken to be integrally related through the sequence of covenants, with prophetic fulfillment understood chiefly in terms of covenantal correspondence.
- Scripture is interpreted via the four senses, with an emphasis on describing the correspondence between covenants via the allegorical sense.
- Jesus' prophecy in the Olivet Discourse is understood to have been fulfilled by the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 AD.
- Old Testament prophecy of a restoration of Israel in which Jews and Gentiles are united is understood to have been fulfilled in the Church, cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church 781 drawing on Lumen Gentium 9.
- Jesus is understood to have inaugurated the Kingdom of God, which advances throughout history from the Ascension to the Last Judgment, cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church 669-670.
- The advance of the Kingdom of God throughout history is interpreted in terms of the Augustinian concepts of the City of God and the City of Man.
Covenantal theology is reflected, with varying emphases, in the works of contemporary authors such as Scott Hahn (1998, 1999), Timothy Gray (1998), Edward Sri (1999, 2005), Michael Barber (2001, 2005), Stephen Pimentel (2002, 2005, 2007), and Brant Pitre (2005, 2006).
Covenantal theology has sometimes been criticized by more liberal theologians for adhering too closely to the Catechism of the Catholic Church's high view of biblical inerrancy (nos. 105-107), which is based on Dei Verbum 11 (Gaillardetz 2004:29).
- Barber, M. (2001) Singing in the Reign: The Psalms and the Liturgy of God's Kingdom, Steubenville, OH, Emmaus Road Publishing.
- Barber, M. (2005) Coming Soon: Unlocking the Book of Revelation and Applying its Lessons Today, Steubenville, OH, Emmaus Road Publishing.
- Danielou, J. (1956) The Bible and the Liturgy, Notre Dame, IN, University of Notre Dame Press.
- Danielou, J. (1958) The Lord of History: Reflections on the Inner Meaning of History, London, Longmans, Green & Co.
- de la Potterie, I. (1988) Interpretation of Holy Scripture in the Spirit in Which It Was Written (Dei Verbum 12c). In Latourelle, R. (Ed.) Vatican II: Assessment and Perspectives. Mahwah, NJ.
- de la Potterie, I. (1994) The Catechism of the Catholic Church: The Section on Sacred Scripture. Communio, 21, 450-460.
- de Lubac, H. (1984a) Typology and Allegorization. Theological Fragments. San Francisco, Ignatius Press.
- de Lubac, H. (1984b) On an Old Distich: The Doctrine of the 'Fourfold Sense' in Scripture. Theological Fragments. San Francisco, Ignatius Press.
- de Lubac, H. (1998) Medieval Exegesis Vol. 1, Grand Rapids, MI, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
- de Lubac, H. (2000) Medieval Exegesis Vol. 2, Grand Rapids, MI, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
- Gaillardetz, R. (2004). Do We Need a New(er) Apologetics? America. 190: 26-33.
- Gray, T. (1998) Mission of the Messiah: On the Gospel of Luke, Steubenville, Emmaus Road Publishing.
- Hahn, S. (1998) A Father Who Keeps His Promises: God's Covenant Love in Scripture, Ann Arbor, Charis, Servant Publications.
- Hahn, S. (1999) The Lamb's Supper: The Mass as Heaven on Earth, Doubleday.
- Pimentel, S. (2002) Witnesses of the Messiah: On the Acts of the Apostles 1-15, Steubenville, OH, Emmaus Road Publishing.
- Pimentel, S. (2005) Envoy of the Messiah: On the Acts of the Apostles 16-28, Steubenville, OH, Emmaus Road Publishing.
- Pimentel, S. (2007) The Master Key: Pope Benedict XVI’s Theology of Covenant. Homiletic & Pastoral Review 108, no. 1.
- Pitre, B. (2005) The 'Ransom for Many,' the New Exodus, and the End of Exile: Redemption as the Restoration of All Israel (Mark 10:35-45). Letter & Spirit: A Journal of Catholic Biblical Theology, 1.
- Pitre, B. (2006) Jesus, the Tribulation, and the End of the Exile: Restoration Eschatology and the Origin of the Atonement, Baker Academic.
- Ratzinger, J. (1999) Many Religions - One Covenant: Israel, the Church, and the World, San Francisco, Ignatius Press.
- Ratzinger, J. (2007) Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration, New York, Doubleday.
- Sri, E. (1999) Mystery of the Kingdom: On the Gospel of Matthew, Steubenville, OH, Emmaus Road Publishing.
- Sri, E. (2005) Queen Mother: A Biblical Theology of Mary's Queenship, Steubenville, OH, Emmaus Road Publishing.
- Wilken, R. (2003) The Spirit of Early Christian Thought: Seeking the Face of God, New Haven & London, Yale University Press.
- Wood, S. (1998) Spiritual Exegesis and the Church in the Theology of Henri de Lubac, Grand Rapids, MI, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.