The Parameters of Meaning: Rule 4b

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!

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12 comments

  1. Hi Paul,

    Thanks for the sharing the article. A question which may be tangential to this thread: is it biblical to say that God not only hates the sins, but also hates all sinners? I’m aware most 5-point Calvinists point out anything less than God hates sinners smacks of liberalism, but I’m uncertain whether suggesting passages such as Psalm 5:5 teaches it (eg refer to a typical 5-point Calvinist blogger Mike Ratliff’s blog post http://mikeratliff.wordpress.com/2011/09/07/what-is-the-offense-of-the-gospel/ ), is sound exegesis or reading the TULIP theology back into it.

    Also I have been trying to locate any works that offer non-trivial refutations of Covenant theology from a good dispensationalist angle? I found Chuck Smith or other charismatics’s attempts largely unsatisfactory. Most the serious Covenant lay believers or theologians, who are either of Michael Horton’s calibre or who seem to hold Horton’s works as virtually the gospel, would thumb their noses at the likes of Charles Ryrie, Renald Showers, or Barry Horner’s opposition as being “sophomoric”. Would you suggest anyone’s work (books or articles) that offers biblically comprehensive refutations at Berkhof or (ideally) Bavinck’s level?

    Thanks.

    1. Joel,

      You have given me a plateful here, but I’ll try to be concise.

      “Is it biblical to say that God not only hates the sins, but also hates all sinners?” – Here’s the problem with the adage – it is open to too many qualifications to be of use. This is often the case with these maxims. Another example would be, “Christ’s atonement is sufficient for all but efficient for some.” Again, it has to be unpacked, and it can be unpacked in several different ways.

      It is biblical to say that God loves the world of sinners (Jn. 3:16). It is also biblical to say that God hates those who practice sin as a way of life (Psa. 5:5). But, we were sinners. We were ungodly (Rom. 5:8). Therefore we must explain the apparent paradox. The first thing to do is to understand God’s “hate” as His righteous response to unrighteousness in thought and deed. It is vital to see it as a RESPONSE and not a capricious choice like high Calvinists do. Men like John Owen and David Engelsma are very blunt about this. God hates the non-elect from before the foundation of the world. That is what ordains them to destruction. But notice how Psa. 5 treats God’s hatred as a response to sin! Hell is also a response to sin, since it was created for the Devil and his angels.

      Second, we must remember OUR membership in the set “sinners.” We come from the same “lump” of sinful humanity (Rom. 9:21). Therefore, if the teaching you ascribe to certain Calvinists were true, John 3:16 could not be true. Therefore, that teaching is false.

      Further, I hope you see that if what they say is true then God does not love the non-elect and does not want them to be saved. If so, it follows that one ought not to tell a non-believer the Gospel (save in an abstract fashion: “this is what we believe”) or urge them to believe it. That is the Gospel standard teaching that Andrew Fuller and C. H. Spurgeon battled in their day. That is Hyper-Calvinism.

      As to your question about dispensational refutations of covenant theology on a par with Horton et al. Well, Horner and Larsen and Vlach’s works are quite scholarly, although clearly written. Most CT’s would never read them, but just try to ignore them with a wave of the hand. Fruchtenbaum’s “Israelology” does a good job of comparing the views. I know of no comparable work by a CT. I have problems with some of Fruchtenbaum’s other work, which is both good and bad depending on his speculations. Then also the book “Continuity and Discontinuity” ed. by J. Feinberg is very good, and, I believe, shows that dispensationalists can stand up to CT’s.

      You ask about refutations at the level of Berkhof or Bavinck? Well, the options are thin! Yes, I think Peter’s “Theocratic Kingdom” is up to that standard. But too often dispensationalists serve up popular presentations. So let me mount my soapbox again: Dispensationalists have not worked on their theology as a true SYSTEM. They have not (and show no promise of) developed their theology from the ground up. That is one reason they cannot really write at the level of Horton (I’m not a big fan of Horton, but I know what you mean). You see, because DT’s generally harp on about the End Times interminably they have done little original work elsewhere on the theological spectrum. They tend to be borrowers rather than lenders, theologically-speaking.

      Now I am trying to call attention to this, and also to write some positive work in line with what I call “Biblical Covenantalism,” but my time is limited. Besides, a blog is not really the place 🙂

      I have a (slow) series on “Some Problems I Have With Covenant Theology” which are appearing now and again in tandem with these posts on “The Parameters of Meaning.” You can therefore expect another piece on that to appear here before very long. Here’s a link: https://drreluctant.wordpress.com/2011/05/04/some-problems-i-have-with-covenant-theology-2/

      Your brother,

      Paul

      1. Thanks for this much food for thought Paul. I found the likes of Ratiff insist this is not what they teach, that it is God who calls all to repentance but only those those predestined will respond etc. As you said God hates sinners because of the action, not because they are born unelected. The 5-pointers are very evasive when they come to this area.

        Also thanks for recommending Horner and Vlach and Fruchtenbaum’s works. Coincidentially I have all three on my bookshelf now. As I go to a Reformed-orbit church and this probably keeps my sanity when I hear any supercessionist teaching from the pulpit (thank God it is not too frequent and I haven’t heard anything explicitly amillennial). Sam Waldron has written a lengthy rebuttal to Horner’s Future Israel but insiders say the piece was more of emotional plea rather than a scriptural response.

        I agree as everyone says, it is high time for you to embark on a book related to hermeneutics, and another one related to a truly dispensational systematic theology.

        In Christ,

        Joel

    2. Most the serious Covenant lay believers or theologians, who are either of Michael Horton’s calibre or who seem to hold Horton’s works as virtually the gospel, would thumb their noses at the likes of Charles Ryrie, Renald Showers, or Barry Horner’s opposition as being “sophomoric”.

      While I understand this to be true, I also think it says a lot about those who reject anything that isn’t up to their (nose-sky-high) standards of “academic respectability.” Let we forget that Jesus chose simple fishermen for the majority of His disciples and begin to think that academic treatments are the only place where truth is found. On the contrary, one of the beautiful aspects of dispensational theology is that it appeals to the average person in the pew who hasn’t been swept away by pointy-headed thinking and still knows how to read the back of a cereal box.

      The higher-brow the treatment, the more of a jaundiced eye I’ve found is needed when wading through the “logic.” If a person won’t accept a simple analysis of Biblical teachings to see that CT has serious problems, then they’ve already swallowed the poison. My experience has been that following after them in an attempt to engage them proves to be more diversion than value.

      As an aside, I would also submit that this is one of the reasons there are fewer serious young theologians remaining in the dispensational camp: many of them are more interested in scholarship, academics, and respectability than simple truth. I’ve known several personally that this has been the primary reason for their departure into “smarter realms” of fellowship.

      1. Amen! I think this is very true! There is a certain smugness about many CT’s (and Reformed folks generally) which seems to make them believe they have risen to a higher realm of understanding than us. One of these guys once told me he had had three epiphanies in his life: one when he recognized the “truth” about “the doctrines of grace”; one when he understood that Christ was the key to interpreting Scripture; and then again when it was revealed to him that dispensationalism was false and covenant theology (one people of God under the cov. of grace) was right.

        I for my part believe this “dawning of the truth” which these guys always speak about comes as a result of the sort of thing you refer to. I do not think all CT’s or Reformed are like this. But it is a frequent phenomenon and reflects poorly on the theology itself.

      2. I certainly sense this sentiment from some online Reformed folks who are militantly anti-dispensational.

        I have also seen another type of ex-dispensationalists who moved in that direction because they have been influenced by the secular media and been sympathetic towards the Arab causes in the Israeli-Arab conflict. These poeple don’t make the transition to Reformed theology on a permanent basis – I know one person online who is like that with a ThM from DTS then moved to WTS for ThD and became Reformed after meeting a Palestinian Christian and become anti-Israel. He eventually morphed into a liberal/emergent “evangelical” a la Rob Bell-style! In other words, he was never truly convinced by the Reformed theology, it was just a cover over his theological liberalism.

      3. Another observation: if the DT understanding of Israel from Scripture is true, then one should expect that as the timeline of God continues to move toward the second coming we should expect the issue of support for Israel (Biblically, politically) to increasingly become a ‘hot potato.’ Which seems to be what we are in-fact seeing. Thus, their should be increasingly a gradual turning of all nations to oppose Israel. We’d be naive to assume that many Christians will not be swept up in this trend. The Bible alone serves as a reliable and sturdy “anchor” in the midst of a mighty river of relativism which threatens to sweep anyone who does not cling to its teachings downstream with the culture. Sadly, many Christians are caught up in the cultural flow having lost their grip with areas where Scripture is plain.

        This seems to be one of the key elements of DT which is hot under the collar of other points of view: our unwavering support of Israel according to the plainly stated plan of God. I increasingly find myself being opposed by fellow Christians who have great animosity towards Israel and hold some pretty odd ideas to boot. A recent Q/A I posted on my website entitled “Who is a True Jew” which endeavored to discuss the various Biblical passages on the subject got picked up by a prophecy blog and then cross-posted to a forum frequented by Jewish readers and did that ever stir up a bees nest! It was informative, if nothing else, to see just how hot a topic like that can be and how much heat one comes under for simply upholding NT teaching. While I myself did not participate in the forum, it was amazing how many took me to task as a “Gentile” for giving “my opinion” trying to define who was a Jew. Of course the opinions weren’t mine at all, but solely those of other Jews (Paul, John, and Jesus)! 🙂

  2. Dr. Henebury,

    Great post, as usual. Really appreciate your approach to the Biblical Covenants, and especially this current series connecting them to a Biblical basis for hermeneutics.

    One thing you mentioned in this post hit a chord with me. I’ve always been uncomfortable with the idea that God has accommodated Himself to the methods of the ANE, whether that is Abraham’s “cutting of the covenant” or with the structure of Deuteronomy as taking the Hittite Suzerain-vassal treaty form. I don’t dispute the similarities, or even their connections, but I prefer to take Jehovah’s use of such forms as having priority, with the cultures of the ANE adopting them after His use of them. I understand that conflicts with modern dating approaches, but I hesitate to put a lot of weight on them. Do you have any comments along these lines?

    Also wonder, do you generally recommend Scobie’s text on Biblical Theology?

  3. Hi Steve,

    Thanks for the encouragement. You ask two questions:

    1. I don’t think there is anything the matter with seeing treaty forms in places like Exod. 20-24 and Deuteronomy. In fact these can be used as evidences for the early (16th-12th century BC) dating of these books. However, these are structural forms, not biblical covenants. And you are right to infer (if I am taking you correctly) that these forms should not RELY upon external confirmation for their dates.

    The biblical covenants, though, are interesting in that they provide plenty of information and intertextual connections to be treated independently of extraneous data. Thus, although Ake Viberg, in his ‘Symbols of Law’ can say that the self-maledictory meaning of the dividing of animals is known only in certain personal pledges, this does not (and ought never to) mean that the interpretation of the covenant texts in the OT are affected. This is because God has been very clear in His statements; either during the actual making of the covenant (e.g. With Noah, Abraham, Phineas, the Remnant), or in His commentary on the covenant (e.g. as in the Davidic). Therefore, I am encouraged to search within the Bible itself for the meaning of God’s covenants and also their ramifications for the theology of the Bible.

    2. Scobie’s book is very helpful in many regards. It is very well organized, so that it is a sort of Digest of many important subjects. Also Scobie is positioned kind of between the “conservative” liberals like Childs and Brueggemann, and the mainline evangelicals like W. Kaiser and I.H. Marshall. He drifts easily from Von Rad to Kaiser etc. so that his treatment is thorough. Yet he doesn’t allow the scholars to obscure the Bible. He writes as a believer and the Bible is his principal text. Yes, he endorses some historical-critical methods, and he embraces certain more liberal views on say, women in the Church. But there is much good material in his book. I often repair to it.

    If you aren’t interested what the more critical guys have said or are saying then Scobie might be too much of a bad thing. If you want a solid Biblical Theology along more solidly conservative lines I would recommend E. Merrill’s “Everlasting Dominion.” This is written with great clarity and is well organized. Merrill brings out the covenant aspects of the OT better than anyone I can think of. I also would recommend Larry Helyer’s “Yesterday, Today and Forever” – a book which ought to be better known.

    Are you still with Tyndale?

    🙂

    1. Dr. Henebury,

      Thanks for the points on Scobie. Of course, I have Dr. Merrill’s work.

      Yes, still nominally with Tyndale. About 60 hours through ThM, but suffering with some disillusionment with where Tyndale is going (perhaps a topic for a private discussion). Also pursuing work in parallel with ICR.

    2. Paul, thanks for the Merrill & Helyer suggestions. I now have them both – along with Keener (and the end notes). I’m going through Helyer’s book at the moment and enjoying it immensely. He’s very helpful. I fully agree that it “ought to be better known”.

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