Friday 9 July 2010

Exploring Biblical Themes (5): Covenant

[This is a lightly edited transcript of an LICC podcast segment, first uploaded to the website of the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity on 7 July 2010.]

‘I will be your God, and you will be my people’ are words that resonate across the pages of Scripture (see, e.g., Exodus 6:6-8; Leviticus 26:12). They capture in a short-hand formula the essence of the covenant relationship between God and his people.

And when it comes to themes that span the whole Bible, there are none nearly so prominent as covenant. Apart from anything else, its importance is seen in the designation we give to the two parts of the Christian Bible – the Old and New testaments, or covenants.

The word itself occurs over 300 times in English translations of the Bible, as well as being bound up with other significant terms like ‘steadfast love’, and even the covenant name for God himself – Yahweh, the Lord God.

Beyond the use of words, the biblical story itself can be seen as a series of covenants that God makes and renews with his people, binding him and them together. We can see that God administers his kingdom through various covenants, and to trace the covenants is to trace his unfolding rule over, and relationship with, his people.

So significant is the concept that some Christian traditions have held that we must see God in covenant with creation itself, and Adam and Eve – since, even though the word ‘covenant’ itself is not used in the first chapters of Genesis, it is clear that God enters into a special relationship with men and women, giving them designated authority as those created in his image. Some have even suggested that we should understand the members of the godhead – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – as ‘covenanting’ together in saving men and women, working on the assumption that all of God’s actions must be understood from the perspective of covenant.

Even if we decide that’s a step beyond the evidence, there’s no getting away from the fact that covenant is a core theme in Scripture.

The language of ‘covenant’ may seem slightly strange to us today, but it would have communicated powerfully in its original context. In fact, it’s possible to see that many of the biblical covenants are structured in a similar way to treaties made between individuals or between nation-states in the ancient Near East – showing how God speaks and acts in ways his people would understand.

The first mention of the word ‘covenant’ in the Bible is in the account of Noah in Genesis 6:18, which anticipates the promise God makes later with all creatures that ‘never again will all life be destroyed by the waters of a flood’ (Genesis 8:20-9:17). Here’s a covenant which reaffirms God’s original intention for humanity, but which involves not just a nation or people but the earth itself! It’s a lovely reminder that the biblical story is about the whole of God’s world, that God’s goal of redemption will embrace not just one nation, nor even just humanity, but the whole earth.

God’s plan to restore his world is then kicked off in the making of a covenant with Abraham, beginning in Genesis 12, when God promises him descendants and land, and promises to bless all nations through him. God himself guarantees to do this in Genesis 15, and requires the circumcision of males in Genesis 17 as a sign of the covenant. As the story goes on, it becomes clear that the covenant with Abraham is extended to Isaac and then to Jacob, and then to the whole nation in the Sinai covenant.

Sinai doesn’t do away with the Abrahamic covenant, but maintains the relationship between the Lord and Israel, with his people marked out as representing him to the nations. In Exodus 19, God tells them that the whole earth is his, but reminds them they have been singled out to be a kingdom of priests and holy nation, for the blessing of all, in fulfilment of the promise to Abraham (Exodus 19:4-6). As part of that deal, God gives them the law to guide their relationship with him and with each other as they live in the land, in order to show themselves as the special nation God intended them to be – a reminder that with privilege comes responsibility. And, as Deuteronomy tells us, this covenant is renewed in a different context, where a new generation commits themselves to the Mosaic covenant before taking possession of the land.

Then, later on (in 2 Samuel 7:18-29), within the family of Israel, God singles out the king from whom Messiah would come, promising an everlasting line from David. The word ‘covenant’ is not used in 2 Samuel 7, but it is commonly held that the language used in that chapter and elsewhere (such as Psalm 89) shows that a covenant relationship has been formed. The promises made to Abraham become more focused, as the means through which God will bring blessing to the nations is through David’s royal line.

Alas, however, through the whole biblical story, we are confronted with the failure of the people and the failure of the monarchy. The fulfilment of God’s promise to Abraham and David would have to be met by a true Son of Abraham and Son of David.

And so it is that God promises through the prophets a new covenant, one that he alone will establish. Jeremiah 31:31-34 is the most well-known passage which speaks of a new covenant, but other passages in Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Isaiah use covenant language as the people anticipate what God will do beyond exile – looking forward to a new covenant which will remove sin, transform the heart, and restore relationship with God; which will transcend national boundaries and extend to the ends of the earth, to all nations, and ultimately (as promised in Isaiah 65-66) to creation itself.

And then comes Jesus – the goal of the covenantal promises, the one in whom the promises made to Abraham and David find their fulfilment, the one in whom the obligations of the Sinai covenant are fulfilled. If the anticipated end of the covenant is the establishment of the kingdom of God, it is clear from the gospels that this gets bound up with the cross as the means by which God will inaugurate the new covenant – where covenant has to do not just with redemption from Egypt or return from exile, but with release from sin. So, if Jeremiah looked forward to a time when God would remember the sins of the people no more, that new covenant is ratified by the death of Jesus, the one through whom salvation will come to all nations.

It’s no surprise, then, in the rest of the New Testament, that the new covenant people is made up of believing Jews and believing Gentiles, as Paul makes clear – notably in Romans, Galatians, and the central chapters of 2 Corinthians. The covenantal promises are fulfilled in spiritual descendants of Abraham who enjoy relationship with God through faith. The law of God is no longer written on tablets of stone, but written by the Spirit on human hearts. No wonder, then, that the letter to the Hebrews quotes Jeremiah 31 at length (in 8:8-12 and 10:16-17), delighting in the fact that in Jesus God has made a new covenant with his people.

Moreover, we look forward to the final ratification of the covenant in the new heavens and the new earth, as Revelation 21:3 echoes the ancient covenant formula: ‘And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God”.’

Of course, as you can imagine or might well know, there’s a lot of discussion as to whether the Bible describes one covenant extending throughout salvation history, which is renewed at various points, or whether we should see distinctions between the covenants. Indeed, some appear unconditional and some conditional, some unilateral and some bilateral, some permanent and some temporary. Some thinkers distinguish between ‘promise’ covenants (like the ones made with Abraham and David) and ‘law’ covenants (like the one made with Israel at Sinai); some distinguish between covenants for new relationships and covenant renewals for renewed relationships.

But this ongoing discussion only shows just how significant the theme of covenant is, providing lenses for understanding who God is and who his people are.

It has important things to say about God himself, about his love and faithfulness, his promises and initiative. And it says something about the value that God places on us, about our nature and destiny, that we are created to enjoy relationship with him. It reminds us that salvation is the restoration of fellowship with God. It tells us that the church can see itself as God’s covenant-partner, created not just to be in relationship with God but with each other too.

And it has implications for lifestyle and mission, because God still calls his covenant people to live in alignment with his will and character, and to display that to men and women in the whole of our lives, as we walk according to his design for human existence, as we live according to the pattern of the covenant-making and covenant-keeping God.

Further Reading
The following books and chapters of books – written at the different levels indicated – provide opportunities to explore a biblical theology of covenant in more detail.

David L. Baker, Two Testaments, One Bible: The Theological Relationship Between the Old and New Testaments, 3rd edn. (Nottingham: Apollos, 2010), 237-64.
An academic textbook exploring the relationship between the two testaments with, as you might expect, a treatment of ‘covenant’ as one of the themes which provides a framework for understanding the unity of the two testaments.

Andy Croft and Mike Pilavachi, Storylines: Tracing the Threads that Run Through the Bible (Eastbourne: Survivor, 2008), 65-81.
This is one of the best books for those who are new to the study of biblical themes; the pages cited deal with the covenant.

James E. Davison and Sara Covin Juengst, Journey Through the Word: Exploring Biblical Themes (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2003), 10-19.
A brief treatment.

William J. Dumbrell, Covenant and Creation: A Theology of Old Testament Covenants (Exeter: Paternoster, 1984).
An older treatment of the topic, but still significant for the way it connects the different covenants back to God’s purpose for humanity from creation onwards.

Jamie A. Grant & Alistair I. Wilson (eds.), The God of Covenant: Biblical, Theological and Contemporary Perspectives (Leicester: Apollos, 2005).
A collection of papers by scholars on different aspects of the covenant.

Scott J. Hafemann, ‘The Covenant Relationship’, in Scott J. Hafemann and Paul R. House (eds.), Central Themes in Biblical Theology: Mapping Unity in Diversity (Nottingham: Apollos, 2007), 20-65.
A long essay, presenting a strong argument for the view that ‘Scripture testifies to one, constant relationship between God and his people throughout redemptive history that is formalized and embodies in its successive covenants’ (30).

Scott W. Hahn, Kinship by Covenant: A Canonical Approach to the Fulfillment of God’s Saving Promises (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009).
A significant academic work from an evangelical-turned-Roman-Catholic theologian, arguing that the various covenants described in Scripture form a father-son bond (hence the ‘kinship’ of the title) between God and his people.

Carl B. Hoch, Jr., All Things New: The Significance of Newness in Biblical Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1995), 75-135.
A chapter-length treatment from a New Testament perspective.

Michael Scott Horton, God of Promise: Introducing Covenant Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006).
Writing from a Reformed tradition which has made much of the biblical covenants, Horton seeks to identify the essential ingredients of ‘covenant theology’.

W. Eugene March, Great Themes of the Bible Volume 1 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2007), 12-22.
A brief overview at an accessible level.

Thomas Edward McComiskey, The Covenants of Promise: A Theology of the Old Testament Covenants (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1985).
Makes a distinction between ‘promise’ covenants (like the one made with Abraham) which are eternally valid, and ‘administrative’ covenants (like the one made at Sinai) which are not.

O. Palmer Robertson, The Christ of the Covenants (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 1980).
A classic work, emphasising the unity of the different covenants in Scripture as coming to their fulfilment in Jesus.

Robin Routledge, Old Testament Theology: A Thematic Approach (Nottingham: Apollos, 2008), 159-74, 233-36.
A mid-level treatment from an Old Testament perspective.

H.H. Drake Williams III, Making Sense of the Bible: A Study of 10 Key Themes Traced Through the Scriptures (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2006), 27-47.
Like March (above), Croft and Pilavachi (above), and Davison and Juengst (also above), a brief overview at an accessible level.

Paul R. Williamson, Sealed With an Oath: Covenant in God’s Unfolding Purpose, New Studies in Biblical Theology 23 (Nottingham: Apollos, 2007).
A stimulating treatment of the individual covenants and the covenant theme in Scripture. Williamson’s most distinctive point is to argue that Genesis 15 and 17 are two separate distinct but related covenants with Abraham which take up different aspects of the promises in Genesis 12:1-3 – descendants and land (taken up in Genesis 15) and international blessing (taken up in Genesis 17), the promise of national blessing to Abraham and the promise of international blessing through Abraham. Williamson also contributed the entry on ‘covenant’ in T. Desmond Alexander and Brian S. Rosner (eds.), New Dictionary of Biblical Theology (Leicester: IVP, 2000), 419-29, which is well worth reading.

Previous Exploring Biblical Themes

Exploring Biblical Themes (1): Introduction
Exploring Biblical Themes (2): Creation
Exploring Biblical Themes (3): Humanity
Exploring Biblical Themes (4): Sin

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