At the close of the last post I wrote:
I do not know of any Christian who thinks that God will renege on the Noahic Covenant (cf. Isa. 54:9-10). As far as this covenant at least is concerned, no spiritualizing, no symbolic hermeneutics, no typologizing or allegorizing is allowed to derail the literal meaning of God’s covenant promise. What God says is what God means!
As I continue with this fourth personal rule I want to build on that crucial detail. And I want to start out by asking a simple question:
Why Did God Make Covenants?
If I were more “liberally” inclined, and I had spent most of my time with scholars who treated the Bible as just another ANE document of varied worth, I might well answer my question by pronouncing knowingly that the writers used the covenant forms they were familiar with, and epitomized their laws as of Divine origin by representing YHWH as a covenant God. I would allege that the covenant forms were in no way part of the Divine character, except as that character evolved in response to cultural and agrarian needs through time.
If I attended one of our less than fully conservative seminaries, and therefore was fed a steady diet of the same sort of books as above, I might say that the answer to the question was that YHWH is depicted as availing Himself of the contractual norms of the day to encourage Israel in their monotheistic religious cult.
In either case, I would be claiming that the covenant forms of the OT were more anthropocentric than theocentric: that they were devised by humans within their religious environment for the purpose of fidelity toward Israel’s God. Neither of these answers actually addresses the question, except to redirect it by asserting that God Himself didn’t make covenants, but is only shown as making them. This kind of answer is of no use to anyone who believes that God Himself entered into these covenants. It also ignores the advice of C. H. H. Scobie that scholars should derive their understanding of the Bible’s covenants from the Bible itself and not so much from the surrounding cultures. See The Ways of Our God, 474-475.
On the other hand, say I attended a very conservative Reformed seminary which adhered to covenant theology (I actually did for a while). In that case I would be told that the covenants which God entered into in time were expressions of the covenant He entered into before time – the “covenant of redemption” – which was revealed in time as the fabled “covenant of grace.” I would henceforth hear lots of talk about “THE covenant,” and it would be understood that God made this covenant with all of the elect from Adam to the Second Coming.
One of the problems with this explanation is that it seems to flatten out the testimony of the biblical covenants while giving pride of place to a “covenant” that is not to be found in the Bible, but is rather a crucial requirement of a particular version of theology. Thus, the answer to the question in this kind of setting would be something along the lines of, “God made the covenant of grace with all the elect, while the rest of humanity is under the covenant of works, of which they are transgressors.”
This means that covenants in the Reformed understanding are interesting more for their association with “the Gospel” (placed in quotation marks because their view that Paul’s Gospel was basically the same one which was preached in OT times). From this understanding the theological demands of the “covenant of grace” in particular forge (one might say “force”) a strange unity between the Testaments for the sake of having one people of God.
Finally, I might ask a dispensationalist why God made covenants. Sadly many dispensationalists talk more about covenants than actually employ them in their theology. However, someone well read in J. D. Pentecost for example will answer in terms of God’s faithful promise to do what He says He will do – therefore covenants were made by God to elicit faith. This, I believe, is certainly spot on. But it isn’t a complete answer.
Faith In What?
Think again about the first covenant; the covenant with Noah. Was this covenant made to elicit faith? Indubitably. But faith in what? The answer to that question is as self-evident as it is eye-opening. God made covenants so that men would believe what He said in those covenants!
Picked yourself up off the ground yet? Well brush yourself off and sit down and consider the ramifications of that last proposition. God clearly doesn’t need to make covenants with Himself. (I insert here my full agreement with K. Barth [Church Dogmatics IV.1, 66], who correctly reasoned that there was no rationale for any pre-temporal covenant in the absence of a second party – man – with whom it would make any sense to make it).
God’s “Yes” is “Yes” and His “No” is “No.” When God speaks He always speaks in tune with His holy and veritable character. No utterance of God can be any truer or more authoritative than any other. It may strike us that way, depending on how it involves us, but the fact remains that God’s words reflect the One behind them and are thus of equal weight. This means that a biblical covenant, like the Noahic, Abrahamic, Davidic, or New, was made so that we human creatures would pay special attention to “the words of the covenant” and would gain knowledge of precisely what God intended to do in history with regards to the revelatory content of those words!
What I am driving at is that God must stick to the very words which He pledges to perform in every covenant He enters in to, just as He did with the first (Noahic) covenant. Those words cannot have an ambiguous or equivocal meaning to them since God would know of the equivocation when He uttered them and thus would be using the covenant oath to mislead the pious. See my posts on “Disingenuousness“).
If I am right then when we couple this truth up with what was said in the first part of Rule 4 (readers may also wish to compare this post too) about God thoughts and speech matching His actions, we have a powerful hermeneutical tool in our hands – and it is derived from the pages of the Bible itself, not from Schleiermacher or Gadamer or Thiselton!
Covenant Affinity in Biblical Hermeneutics
From the foregoing conclusion it is but a step to declare that the wording of the biblical covenants ought to have legislative primacy over other putative explanations of the text of Scripture and its theological teachings.
The upshot of this proposal would be to either hold in suspicion or else to eliminate such interpretations of the Bible which could not be brought into a rapport with the covenants which God has made and has spelled out in His Word.
This then brings the diligent study of the biblical covenants into sharp focus. Because these covenants are announced and described prominently in the Old Testament, it would be non sequiter to give hermeneutical priority to one Testament (i.e. the New) over another. I also believe that instead of the forced continuity of covenant theology, and the uncomfortable discontinuity of classic dispensationalism, with its perennial problem with what to do with the New Covenant, a concentration, which I rather clumsily call “Biblical Covenantalism” holds promise of reconciling the Testaments along covenantal lines.
I also believe that the nexus between Biblical Theology and Systematic Theology can be closed much better using this simple approach than resorting to extra-biblical theological covenants or by an unproductive fascination with various dispensations. But that subject will have to wait for another time!