Review: ‘The Foundation of Augustinian-Calvinism’

A Review of Ken Wilson, The Foundation of Augustinian-Calvinism, Regula Fidei Press, 2019, 121 pages, paperback.

I was sent this book by a former student a while back and I promised that I would review it. The book has and will cause controversy with Calvinists because of its thesis. That thesis is that Augustine’s theological turnabout from the generally accepted views of God and the human will was mainly influenced by the determinist worldviews he had imbibed before he was a Christian. This will ruffle the feathers of some of my readers. With that said, let us continue.

The author is an M.D. and evangelical Christian who has earned a D. Phil from Oxford University with a dissertation on Augustine’s Conversion from Traditional Free Choice to ‘Non-free Free Will’: A Comprehensive Methodology. This book, the author stresses, is only a partial presentation of the data in his bigger study (IV-V).

This book is a “popular” version of the Oxford dissertation and is still somewhat of a challenge for the average reader. I appreciate the work as a good piece of historical theology. I do not find the idea surprising that no previous theologian of the early church taught divine determinism and compatibilist freedom. I have taught Church History at Seminary level, and in pouring over the standard works and biographies, as well as reading from the sources (e.g. Epistle of Diognetus, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Cyprian, Clement of Alexandria, the Cappadocians) one does not encounter these doctrines (I would be very interested if someone could show me where that assertion is incorrect btw). In fact, Wilson avers, you encounter just the opposite, a uniform insistence upon “traditional free choice” or what we would call libertarian freewill (19-20).

Let me be clear, Wilson’s most controversial point is not only that no orthodox writer before 412 taught Augustine’s doctrine of Divine predetermination, it is that there were those who did teach it; the Stoics, the Neo-Platonists, and the Gnostic-Manicheans. Wilson claims that these groups employed the very same texts and interpretations to teach their deterministic views as Augustine would later use.

Please understand what is being claimed here. Wilson is not saying that Augustine agreed with Stoic/Manichean exegesis per se, only that his prior familiarity with it influenced his conclusions when pressed for answers in his debates with Pelagius and Julian of Eclanum.

Despite the reading I have done I do not consider myself to be well read enough in Patristics to know whether Wilson is right or wrong in his main points. All I can say is that I think it is uncontroversial to state that the later Augustine introduced theological determinism into soteriology at the turn of the 5th century A.D. This can be found in many books and articles even by Reformed authors. What is “new” is the opinion of where Augustine derived his later teaching, and when.

Now before continuing I should say two things. The first is to point out the obvious, namely that even if Wilson is right in his assertions it does not mean that Augustine was wrong. That is to say, Augustine’s doctrines of predestination and compatibilism (i.e. that human will is compatible with God’s foreordination of all things) may yet be biblical. The second point that I would make is that anyone familiar with the early Church Fathers ought to be aware that they sometimes held what we would consider erroneous views of baptism (that it was necessary for salvation or inclusion in the Church), and of eternal security (that is, they did not hold to it), and occasionally of the Persons of the Trinity (especially concerning the Divine economy). Wilson’s book then should not be seen as a refutation of Augustinianism/Calvinism, and therefore should not be countered theologically but historically. It is a documentation of Augustine’s possible (read probable) influences. Those influences are Stoicism, Neo-Platonism, and Manicheanism; all of which were explored in depth by the pre-Christian Augustine and all of which were strongly deterministic in orientation. Further, Wilson claims that the way these three groups interpreted the Scriptures is directly reflected in later Augustine’s theology. Wilson has developed an acronym, DUPIED, meaning “Divine Predetermination of Individuals’ Eternal Destinies.” (5).

It might be objected that the author’s purpose in writing the dissertation was to prove his beliefs, and I believe it was. The author is an adherent of free grace theology (although he has written against the Zane Hodges/Bob Wilken brand as heresy). But even if that is the case the real question is whether he succeeded in doing so. What makes Wilson’s scholarship noteworthy is that he appears to be one of the very few Patristics scholars who have carefully read Augustine’s theological works in chronological order. The outcome of carrying out this daunting task is that Wilson shows how the great Western Father revised much of his corpus after 412 A.D. (and his Pelagian controversy) to reflect his new understanding. These revisions are particularly relevant in the case of his 396 work Ad Simplicianum 2.5-22 (3, 49-53, 91-94) because it has been thought on the basis of that work that Augustine held to his mature doctrines prior to the Pelagian affair.

This book is well organized and documented although it does have a rushed feel about it; no doubt because the writer had not intended to produce a trimmed version of his dissertation. For all that it presents a cogent and compelling argument. Wilson moves from philosophical precursors (Stoicism, Neo-Platonism, Gnosticism, Manicheanism) in chapter 1 to Christian authors prior to Augustine in chapter 2, then on to early Augustine (386-411) in chapter 3, and then to the later Augustine in chapters 4 through 7. A Conclusion with Appendix and Timeline closes the book.

Each chapter is quite short. The first one surveys the relevant teachings of the pagan systems which (once?) influenced Augustine. Chapter 2 runs through a succession of Church Fathers and scholars to show that “Not even one early church father writing from 95-430 CE – despite abundant acknowledgement of inherited human depravity – considered Adam’s fall to have erased human free choice to independently respond to God’s gracious invitation.” (34). Chapter 3 is on Augustine’s earlier doctrine. Things start hotting up in chapter 4 with Wilson’s assertion that, among other things, Augustine emphasized God’s power above His justice (65-66), especially in the election of certain ones to salvation. Chapter 5 is entitled “Augustine Resorted to Manichaean Interpretations of Scripture.” A longish sample of Wilson’s conclusion is pertinent:

“Augustine had earlier taunted the Manichaeans for inventing a god who damned persons eternally when those persons had no ability to do good or choose good (Contra Faustus 22.22). Augustine converted back to a Manichaean proof-text interpretation of Eph. 2:8 wherein God regenerated the dead will and infused faith (gr.et.lib.arb. 17). Augustine reverts to his prior Manichaean training with their interpretation of multiple scriptures…He now accepts and teaches the very interpretations he had previously refuted…This scenario is precisely why early church policy forbade any prior Manichaean from becoming a Christian bishop and why charges of Manichaeism had been brought against the early Augustine before ordination.” (78-79 cf. 110-111).

The sixth and seventh chapters compare pagan (especially Stoic) determinism with Augustine and go on to ask when and why he converted to determinism. The author quotes Harvard philosopher Harry Wolfson as saying Augustine’s “doctrine of grace is only a Christianization of the Stoic doctrine of fate.” (86). Whether Wolfson was right is beyond my ability to judge, but Wilson supplies plenty of information.

In conclusion I think that The Foundation of Augustinian-Calvinism, although it is a popular version of a scholarly tome, demands to be taken seriously as a piece of historical research. Again, let not the Reformed reader commit the logical faux-pas of dismissing the book because of Wilson’s own theology and positions (of which I am not in complete sympathy myself). Let the counter arguments be along historical lines, citing the sources.

It has to be admitted that because of the author’s clear animus against Augustinian-Calvinism his book is not likely to find a willing audience among those with Reformed sympathies. I wish a more dispassionate tone would have been adopted in places. However, facts are facts, and Wilson has marshalled a lot of them (at least it looks like it). When he states that he is “unaware of even one Patristics scholar who would agree” that the early Church taught anything like the points of TULIP (112 n. 11), he has by that time mounted a considerable array of witnesses to back it up.

The Kingdom of Heaven in Matthew (6)

Part Five

The Olivet Discourse (Pt. 1)

            Coming at last to the Olivet Discourse in Matthew 24-25, although the main descriptive section comes in Matthew 24 with an addendum at the end of Matthew 25, before which are two parables. 

            Matthew 24:1-2 belong on their own.  They provide the setting for the discourse that follows in that they refer to the glories of Herod’s temple.[1] Jesus does not even acknowledge the great work, which by His time was famous throughout the Empire.  Instead, He predicts its devastation, which came upon it in A.D. 70.                          

            In the verses that come next some are tempted to keep within the first century setting of the opening two verses, but I think this is plainly mistaken.  Verse 3 is critical to what will follow:

Now as He sat on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to Him privately, saying, “Tell us, when will these things be? And what will be the sign of Your coming, and of the end of the age?” – Matthew 24:3.

            They have arrived at the Mount of Olives outside Jerusalem.  The disciples, moved to further inquiry by Jesus’ prophecy of the destruction of the temple, come to Him with more questions.  Two questions are put to Jesus; the first refers to the overthrow of the temple that Jesus had just spoken of.  The second question concerned Christ’s coming (which He had spoken about: Mk. 8:38; Lk. 12:40; 17:24[2]; 18:8; cf. Matt. 16:28; 19:28).  This coming was understood to take place at the time of “the end of the age.”  If one pays close attention to the words recorded by the Evangelist, it quickly becomes clear that the first question does not receive an answer (at least none is reported).  Matthew’s focus is upon the answer to the second question; the one about Christ’s return and the end of the age.  This can be decided by noticing the phenomena of men claiming to be Christ (Matt. 24:5, 24), false prophets abounding (Matt. 24:11, 24), the setting up of Daniel’s “abomination of desolation” (Matt. 24:15), greatly intensified tribulation reminiscent of Daniel 12 (Matt. 24:21-22), and the signs of the second coming itself (Matt. 24:29-31), with its depiction of Christ’s judging the nations to determine who goes into life and who faces punishment (Matt. 25:31-46).  These particulars are not to be swept away with the magic word “apocalyptic.”  They direct our attention away from the first century and onto events just prior to and including the second advent.  This conclusion is reinforced by the repetition of the term “the end” in the first half of the chapter (Matt. 24:3, 6, 13, 14).  This corresponds to the employment of “the end” in Matthew 10:22; 13:39-40, 49, cf. 28:20. 

The Sign of Christ’s Coming and of the End of the Age 

            Since, as we have seen, Jesus’ remarks concern the second question of the disciples, which is to say their question about Christ’s coming and the end of the age, it is vital we get the setting of these remarks right.  First, “the beginning of sorrows” (Matt. 24:8) include what appears to be world upheaval, both societal and natural (Matt. 24:6-7).  Of course, there have always been “wars and rumors of wars.”  Hence, the only way to make sense of this is in terms of an undeniable explosion of war and mayhem.  This concentration of wars is combined with false prophesying and “many” people falsely claiming to be Christ. (Matt. 24:4-5).[3]  We must look for wars, widespread civil unrest, natural calamities, disease, and false Messiahs and false prophets occurring together.  People will be alarmed and fall prey to deceptions.  This will precede the end, but “the end is not yet” (Matt. 24:6); meaning, I believe, that before Christ’s second coming, the world (or at the very least the Middle East[4]) will be thrown into confusion and chaos.

            In this time period the saints will be persecuted (I take the “you” here as anticipatory, referring to Christ’s followers at that time).  The general alarm will be exploited by false prophets (Matt. 24:9-12) who will encourage the persecution.  It is within this context that we must fit “he who endures to the end shall be saved.” (Matt. 24:13).

            What does the saying mean?  I think the very first question to be asked is ‘Does the phrase “the end” in verse 13 mean the same as it does in verses 3, 6, and 14?  Or does it mean something like “the end of one’s life”? or “the end of one’s trial”?  I see no reason to believe that this second answer is correct.  The end should mean “the end of the age” as it does in the rest of its usages in the discourse.  If this is correct, we may paraphrase verse 13 as “he who makes it through to the return of Christ.”  To bring in Matthew 25:41-46, it would mean that those saints who survive the persecution will be ushered into the Kingdom.

            But doesn’t this create a tautology?   Am I simply stating that the ones who make it through the final torrid days of this age are the ones who escape death?  Of course, the question of what the verb “saved” means in this verse is critical.  If it means the salvation of the soul then the problem of tautology vanishes, but the possible problem of works raises its head.  Does one have to endure (viz. put in effort) to be saved?  If so, how is this connected to the matter of justification?  If however “saved” equates to survival the tautology reappears.  Or does it?  What if we paraphrase things a bit?  What if it means “the believer who gets through the Tribulation will be rescued, and will enter the peaceable Kingdom”?  Glasscock writes,

Contextually, the salvation being discussed here was not eternal redemption but deliverance from the persecutions and wretchedness of the world.[5] 

The Gospel of the Kingdom and the End of the Age

            I have said that it is essential to interpret the Olivet Discourse in light of the way Jesus answered the second question that He was asked in Matthew 24:3.[6]  So far we have tried to show that the whole direction of the discourse points to the end times and not to the first century A. D.  This impression only deepens as the chapter proceeds.  In the next verse Jesus remarks,

And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in all the world as a witness to all the nations, and then the end will come. – Matthew 24:14.

            This statement is immediately followed by the warning about seeing “the abomination of desolation spoken of by Daniel the prophet” (Matt. 24:15).  That verse, as well as what has gone before, places the preaching of “the gospel of the kingdom” at the time of the end.  As hard to take as it may be for many, the plain fact is that the Gospel of Matthew does not know anything about the good news involving Christ’s substitutionary atonement and His resurrection for our justification (cf. Rom. 4:25; 1 Cor. 15:1-4).  The “gospel” of Matthew’s narrative is “the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 3:2; 4:17; 10:7), and when Matthew 4:23 and 9:35 speak of “the gospel of the kingdom” it appears that this is the message (i.e., the message of the soon arrival of the kingdom) that is being spoken of.  As a matter of fact, although Jesus does mention His forthcoming death and resurrection in Matthew 16:21; 17:23; and 26:31-32 it was not done openly, and the disciples are not described as fully comprehending His meaning.  One may fairly ask then, aside from the discomfort which these facts may produce, is it not true that the gospel of the kingdom as presented in Matthew is different than the gospel in Paul’s letters?[7]  The blunt answer is Yes!  

            What then are we to do with this prediction by Christ about the gospel of the kingdom being preached for a “witness” before the end comes?  One thing we must say is that this text has nothing to do with present world missions, laudable as they are.  A point that follows hard on the heels of this is that the gospel of the kingdom, viz., “the kingdom of heaven is at hand,” which made sense at the first coming before Christ’s rejection, begins to make sense again, only in light of Christ’s imminent second coming.  This is just what we see in Matthew.


[1] Herod’s temple was essentially a rebuilding of the temple built under Zerubbabel.  Hence, both edifices are usually referred to as the second temple.   

[2] Jesus appears to have used the analogy of a lightning flash to speak of His second coming before Matthew 24.

[3] Not many men in history have made this claim.  The most famous was Simon Bar-Kohkba, who was overthrown by Rome in A.D. 135.  Rabbi Akiba believed he was the Christ. 

[4] It is unclear whether these end time predictions of Jesus have the entire world in view or just the area covered in His time by the Roman Empire, West and East.    

[5] Ed Glasscock, Matthew, 466-467.

[6] Most scholars believe that the destruction of the temple in A. D. 70 is addressed by Jesus in Luke 21:12-24.  As can be seen from my comments on that passage, I respectfully disagree.   

[7] One must face the fact that the word euangelion (“gospel” or “good news”) does not possess a technical meaning in the four Gospels like it does in the later NT.    

The Kingdom of Heaven in Matthew (5)

Part Four

The Parables of the Kingdom (Pt. 2)

The Parable of the Mustard Seed

            The other five (or six) parables are shorter.  The Parable of the Mustard Seed (Matt. 13:31-32) speaks of the “kingdom of heaven” beginning almost imperceptibly like a tiny seed but growing until it becomes a tree that can hold bird’s nests.  Does this depict positive or negative growth?  The wheat or the tares?  It is hard to say, but I side with the majority who see it as positive growth.

The Parable of the Woman Hiding Leaven

            The Parable of the Leaven (Matt. 13:33) has of course been interpreted as illustrating the private growth of the “kingdom” or Gospel in the world throughout history.  But this way of thinking about it would be foreign to the initial hearers of the message.  “Leaven” is not equated with good things in the Bible.  Jesus Himself consistently uses leaven as a negative figure elsewhere (Matt. 16:6, 11-12. Cf. Mk. 8:15).  Paul does the same (1 Cor. 5:6-8; Gal. 5:9).  When we come to the OT things do not change (e.g., Exod. 12:15, 19; 34:25; Lev. 2:11; 10:12; Deut. 16:4; Amos 4:5).  Are we now to believe that this word would be understood positively in this single case?  No, the growth of the leaven, which is “hid” remember (linking it with the devil’s surreptitious sowing in Matthew 13:25, 39), refers to the “tares.”  In my opinion it is best to understand the hidden growth of evil in history, not simply as the general impact of the unrighteous, but of a certain line of usually powerful men whose ambition and greed make them foils in Satan’s hands.  It is something like this that John is alluding to when he writes about the whole world being “under the sway of the wicked one” (1 Jn. 5:19).    

The Parable of the Hidden Treasure

            The next parable is the Parable of the Hidden Treasure (Matt. 13:44) where a man sells everything once he discovers treasure in a field.  The treasure isn’t his until he owns the field!  The joy of the man and the value of the treasure show that this relates to the positive aspect of the “kingdom.” 

The Parable of the Pearl of Great Price

Likewise with the parable which follows: a man finds “a pearl of great price” (Matt. 13:45-46).  Since a pearl is a thing of beauty it seems natural to infer that this depicts a positive aspect of the “kingdom”; perhaps the truth of the message preached?

The Parable of the Dragnet

            Finally, we read the Parable of the Dragnet (Matt. 13:47-50).  In this parable we see good and bad (clean and unclean) fish pictured, which reminds us of the Parable of the Wheat and the Tares. 

The Parable of the Householder

            After He has recited the seven parables of the kingdom Jesus closes with a parable likening the good listener; the one who comprehends Him, to a householder who can produce old and new treasures from what he has learned (Matt. 13:52).  This suits the disciples cum Apostles who bring truth out of both the OT and the teachings of Jesus.[1] 

A Summary 

            What one is left with after studying these parables is the crucial importance of hearing correctly (paying attention), the joint growth of lookalike good and bad (true and false) disciples, the secret insidious growth of what Satan has sown within the sphere of the kingdom (cf. Matt. 15:13), the surpassing value of having found the truth, and the job of separating the true followers from the false that is given to the angels at the second coming.  In this chapter “the kingdom of heaven” does not refer to the eschatological reign of peace but to the progress of “the word of the kingdom” in conflicting circumstances.  I think we are left with the following:

  1. The “word of the kingdom” is the same as the announcement “the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”  That certainly was “the word” that had been proclaimed up until then.
  2. The phrase “the mysteries of the kingdom” relates to the several aspects or perspectives about the progress of the kingdom before its consummation in the messianic age to come.
  3. This means that the majority of Jesus’s usages of “the kingdom of heaven” in these parables, as well as the other parables where we read “the kingdom of heaven is like” (i.e., Matt. 18:23; 20:1 ff.; 22:2; 25:14) do not refer to the eschatological Kingdom but rather to the growth activity toward that Kingdom.     
  4. All the parables that include the introductory formula “the kingdom of heaven is like” (which is peculiar to Matthew) describe either positive or negative characteristics of this growth or both.
  5. However, in Matthew 13:41, 43 and 44 the kingdom of heaven is the eschatological kingdom either just before its proper inception or in its consummation.

It is exceptionally difficult to decide exactly what form the progress of the kingdom of heaven takes since the message “the kingdom of heaven is at hand” is not the message of the Church.  I confess to not feeling able to take a decided position on the matter.  In my view the best option is to understand these Matthean parables as describing the route that elect, whether in the Church or not (i.e. Tribulation saints[2]), travel towards the coming age of fulfillment.[3]      


[1] Andreas J. Kostenberger, The Jesus of the Gospels, 93.

[2] By saying this I am showing my hand.  It lies ahead of me to try to prove that the NT distinguishes Church saints from pre and post Church saints (e.g., Israel and the Nations).  Unless we insist upon spiritualizing Revelation 21:23-26 we can readily see a distinction of peoples in the New Creation. It will also be my duty to argue for the removal of the Church before the Tribulation period.    

[3] Another less discussed yet glaring issue is the stubborn fact that the kingdom message of Jesus in the Gospels is not the same as the “Pauline” message of the Church.  Like it or not, the crowds were not hearing about the pending substitutionary death and resurrection of the Lord from either Him or His (clueless) disciples.  I shall seek to establish this fact later in this book. 

The Kingdom of Heaven in Matthew (4)

This is from the first draft of my book ‘The Words of the Covenant, Volume 2: New Testament Continuity’.

Part Three

The Parables of the Kingdom (Pt. 1)

            In any study of the Kingdom “the parables of the kingdom,” seven (or eight depending on one’s reckoning) of which are located in Matthew 13 are critical.  Although this is not a Bible commentary, it is important to take a look at these parables because they provide important information about the progress of God’s Kingdom program.[1]  We should remind ourselves that although the majority of OT texts refer to the eschatological Kingdom, there are verses such as Psalm 103:19 which declare, “The LORD has established His throne in heaven, and His kingdom rules over all.”  There is then a sense in which God has a kingdom up in heaven (naturally enough), but this is not the same as the one on earth described in such vibrant terms by the Prophets; the eschatological Kingdom.  As we have seen that Kingdom is very much part of the theology of Luke.

            Prior to chapter 13 Matthew has employed the term “kingdom of heaven” in a futuristic sense.  It is something ahead (Matt. 3:2; 4:17; 5: 3, 10, 19-20; 7:21; 8:11; 10:7; 11:11-12).  In several instances the passages plainly speak of the coming new aeon (Matt. 5:19-20; 8:11), but I submit that all the references ought to be taken in that way.  However, things change in Matthew 13.  

The Parable of the Sower

The first parable, the famous Parable of the Sower (Matt. 13:1-9; 18-23) is the key parable.[2]  This parable does not contain the formula “the kingdom of heaven is like,” which is seen in the other parables in chapter 13. 

The first parable acts as a sort of interpretive guide to the rest of the parables in the chapter.  At its close we see that the parable is all about how one hears.  “He that has ears to hear, let him hear” (Matt. 13:9).  The ear has been made to hear rightly.  Matthew 13:14-16 (which cites Isaiah 6:9-10) relates the misuse of eyes and ears; the problem emanating from the heart!  We see this in Jesus’ interpretation of the first parable where He notes that the seed (i.e., the word) does not find receptive ground.  In Matthew 13:19 the person does not understand the word, and the cause is in the heart.  In Matthew 13:20-21 the word is gladly received, but there is no depth for it to take root.  That is, the heart is not prepared for the word.  The way Jesus puts it is interesting; “he has no root in himself” (Matt. 13:21).  This indicates that although the word was accepted it was accepted rather like a lover of fiction accepts a pile of books only to discover that nothing in the pile strikes their fancy.  Or rather, the books received require more than a mere foray of the imagination.  In Matthew 13:22 the third kind of hearer is too enamored with the world for the word to change their heart.[3]  At last we come to the hearer who “understands” (Matt. 13:23).  Hearers of this sort produce “fruit,” probably in accordance with their abilities and circumstances. 

A true hearer will understand the word.  That is what the Parable of the Sower is about.  Hopefully now we will be attentive to the other parables.

The Parable of the Wheat and the Tares

The Parable of the Wheat and the Tares tells us something crucial about “the kingdom.”  It shows us that the kingdom is something that is “planted,” is growing, and is vulnerable to assault from the Enemy.  This should put us on our mettle; we are not to think of the final eschatological Kingdom here.

In His explanation of the parable (Matt. 13:36-43), Jesus identifies Himself as the Sower of the good seed (Matt. 13:37), the devil as the Enemy who sows bad seed (Matt. 13:39), the field as the world (Matt. 13:38), the wheat as “the sons of the kingdom,” (Matt. 13:38), the tares the “sons of the wicked one,” and the reapers as the angels at the end of the age (Matt. 13:39). 

What Jesus is presenting in these parables is a kingdom in the making, not consummated.  What does this mean?  Some believe that it means that the kingdom of heaven is seen as beginning at the start of Jesus’ public ministry and extending through the visible church till the “end of the age” (Matt. 13:39, 49).  That is a common understanding, especially among Reformed commentators.  But it has problems.  Firstly, we are expressly told that “the field is the world,” not the Church (Matt. 13:38).  This must be carefully pondered, for it means that “the sons of the kingdom” cannot be synonymous with Christians!  And if that is the case then “the sons of the wicked one” cannot be false Christians.  Who then are they?  Perhaps the safest answer (although admittedly frustratingly indeterminate) is that these godly and ungodly “sons” represent two strands of sinners in all ages; the first saved by grace and the second enslaved by the devil?[4]  Also, if the kingdom equates to the Church, then in such a scenario the kingdom lasts only until the close of this dispensation (or until the separation – Matt. 13:39-43).  But surely the age to come (inferred here, though see Matt. 12:32. Cf. Matt. 19:28) is the true age of the Kingdom (cf. Matt. 13:43), as it has been prior to this chapter?  Cutting the kingdom of heaven away from the age to come doesn’t work in any millennial perspective.  The eyes have to be fully open.  For example, one thing that ought to grab the attention, but may slip by is that “His kingdom” in Matthew 13:41 has to be different than “the kingdom of their father” in verse 43.  It is the nuances in the parables that make them challenging.          

I think we have to be clear on what is meant by the phrase “the kingdom of heaven is like.”  And to do that we have to connect it to “the mysteries of the kingdom” (Matt. 13:11).  If we understand the phrase to refer to what was being preached, that is, “the word of the kingdom,” then it is the proclamation of the Kingdom that is primarily in view.  In contrast to the Parable of the Sower, in the Parable of the Wheat and Tares “the word of the kingdom” is not the seed but instead produces the seed, which are “the sons of the kingdom.”[5]  The Sower is Christ who proclaims the word which produces the “seed.”  Continuing this line of thinking we can go one of two ways.  We can assume that the proclamation of the word by Jesus’ followers throughout what we know as Church history is meant, in which case the Church proclaims the Kingdom.  But that view, as we have just seen, is problematical.[6] 

Alternatively, we can say that the “word of the kingdom” was a particular message; one of the immanence of the next age (“the kingdom of heaven is at hand”) which ceased with the ministry of Jesus but perhaps will be resumed when that message is again relevant.  In light of Matthew 24:14 this second position looks to have something going for it, but it cannot account for the growth of the good and bad seed in the Parable of the Wheat and Tares, so it is inadequate.       

To be clear on what I am saying so far, I am proposing that the announcement of the approaching Kingdom (“the kingdom of heaven is at hand”) by John the Baptist and by Christ is the same as “the word of the kingdom” referred to in Matthew 13:19.[7]  But may we go further and claim that this “word of the kingdom” is what is in view in Jesus’ refrain “the kingdom of heaven is like?”  That is to say, is Jesus saying something like “the kingdom represented in Me and My message of its soon approach is like this.”?  To interpret this way is to wrap the Person and Kingdom message of Christ together, which is attractive.  It is here that we must recall that Jesus is teaching about “the mysteries of the kingdom,” and that these mysteries concern its progress toward final consummation, not the consummation per se.  For instance, it cannot be that the devil sows false disciples in the messianic Kingdom itself since in any end times scenario the devil is incapacitated (however Revelation 20 is interpreted).  Let us keep reading.

Therefore as the tares are gathered and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of this age.  The Son of Man will send out His angels, and they will gather out of His kingdom all things that offend, and those who practice lawlessness, and will cast them into the furnace of fire. There will be wailing and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears to hear, let him hear! – Matthew 13:40-43.

            The close of the parable deals with eschatological issues.  The Son sends out His angels “to gather out of His kingdom all things that offend.” (Matt. 13:41 my emphasis).  This has to mean that there is an expression of the Kingdom that predates “the age to come.[8]”  Therefore, the phrase “the kingdom of heaven is like” must refer to an aspect or aspects of it that run from the first to the second advent.  The final piece of the parable finds Jesus speaking of the new aeon; “the kingdom of their Father” (which we know will be mediated by the Son).[9]  When Christ says that His angels will one day “gather out of His Kingdom all things that offend” (Matt. 13:41), He is probably referring to an event that happens right after Christ has returned to the earth.  In which case the “kingdom” in that place is the eschatological Kingdom in its infancy, though perhaps ahead of its formal inauguration.        

            We see then that the term “kingdom of heaven” is somewhat elastic in Matthew 13.  In Matthew 13:41-42 it refers to the eschatological Kingdom, but the phrase “the kingdom of heaven is like” refers to aspects of the kingdom already occurring.    


[1] Often the nuances within these parables are not dealt with adequately.

[2] “In many ways…this is the quintessential parable that opens up our understanding of all Jesus’s parables.” – Andreas J. Kostenberger, The Jesus of the Gospels: An Introduction, Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2020, 92.  This perhaps goes a little too far. 

[3] Of course, we are to understand that the “heart” does not refer just to the emotional side of man, but to his driving impulses. 

[4] I do not mean that the “sons of the wicked one” necessarily include all lost men, but rather those who grow alongside the saints.  Remember, the evil one plants these people.  

[5] In Matthew 8:12 where the term “sons of the kingdom” is applied to Jews who are excluded from the eschatological Kingdom.  This reminds us that every parable must be studied for how words are used within its own story. 

[6] See D. A. Carson, “Matthew,” 316-317, 324-326.   It is also worth noting that the Church has not proclaimed the kingdom, at least not in a major way, unless one wishes to equate the kingdom to the Roman Catholic Church that is!  

[7] This is not controversial.  See e.g., John Nolland, Matthew, 539.

[8] That is to say, the eschatological Kingdom. 

[9] To these considerations we might add the Parable of the Workers in Matthew 20:1-16 and the Parables in Matthew 21:28-32; 22:1-12.  Of course, many writers insist upon relating that parable to the church. 

Review of ‘COVENANT’ by Daniel Block (Pt. 4)

Part Three

In this final installment of my review of Covenant we turn to look at Daniel Block’s discussion of covenants in the NT. This is the section of the book that I was most looking forward to as many scholars (e.g. I. Howard Marshall) have written about the relative unimportance of covenant in the Gospels, Paul and General Epistles. In one sense (a rather superficial sense) they are right; the NT writers do not seem as concerned with covenants as their OT counterparts. But this is only on the surface of things. Upon closer examination, and provided one has not forgotten about them, it becomes apparent that the Apostolic authors thought much in covenant terms. With this in mind I eagerly read Block’s Part Four, “Covenant in the New Testament.”

Block gives 229 pages to the study (394-623), and even though he insists upon using his (to my way of thinking) confusing naming of the covenants (i.e., Cosmic and Adamic (=Noahic) covenants; the four part Israelite covenant composed of Abrahamic, Mosaic, Deuteronomic & New, plus the Davidic covenant), I could still mostly follow his argument. But I think casting the covenants into this mold makes them not only confusing but tame; they simply don’t look influential in Block’s presentation. And this creates a problem for his presentation of covenance in the Gospels and Paul; it’s all rather pedestrian (which is epitomized in his Conclusion on pages 615-623).

In his treatment of the first three parts of his “Israelite covenant,” (which we have to remind ourselves are the Abrahamic/Mosaic “covenant” with its renewal in Deuteronomy), the author returns to his insistence that the Torah was/is not “Law” in itself and so is a way of life. Let me turn there first:

The Torah as Grace

Central to Block’s understanding of torah is his position that the rabbinic accrual of interpretive stipulations is what is in Jesus’ and Paul’s minds when they talk about the folly of law-keeping. For example, consider these three quotes:

“The postexilic community was indeed Torah based, but with the elevation of the Torah to virtual idol status, Second Temple Judaism had become a meritocracy in which the Oral Torah regulated every detail of life and for which the Pharisees considered themselves not only definers but also models of Torah piety.” (465).

“Paul’s reference to the Torah as pedagogue was a full frontal attack on the Judaizers. They and their Pharisaic predecessors in Judaism had robbed this precious gift of its heart- and life-giving power and transformed the Torah into an enslaving and stifling institution. The Torah was intended as a gracious gift, defining the will of the divine Suzerain and symbolizing the nearness of God and His invitation to them to flourish under his favor, thus stirring up the envy of the nations (Deut. 4:5-9). Instead, with all the man-made accretions of the Oral Torah, the Torah as nomos (law) had become a noose around their necks, dealing death instead of life.” (491-492).

“As early as the Decalogue we learn that obedience was to be the response to grace, not the precondition of it…” (493).

From this understanding of nomos (Law) in the NT Block believes that when Paul inveighed against the “Law” he was referring to its Pharisaic caricature, not the Torah itself (494 cf. 496). I am thoroughly unconvinced. I cannot reconcile Paul’s strident words in Romans 4 and Galatians 2 with Block’s thesis. Just consider Paul’s argument about the circumcision of Abraham in Romans 4:9-12. It is well nigh impossible to squeeze into his argument the Pharisaic meritocracy that Block is so concerned about. The Apostle simply argues that Abraham was declared righteous before being circumcised, thereby being justified by faith; and this was centuries before the deadly accumulation of rabbinic codes had even been devised. (By the way, the author’s treatment of Romans 4 is disappointing – 448-452, including his handling of Rom. 4:10! – 451). I will be very surprised if Block’s views on the Law go unchallenged by subsequent reviewers, although one never can tell nowadays.

No Supercessionism But…

Moving on, the author makes it clear in several instances that he believes the land promise is critical to God’s covenants with Israel. He even speaks against supercessionism when he claims interpreters who hold that the relative silence of the NT towards ethnocentric Israel and its territory show these elements are no longer important, are often led “to a doctrine of supercessionism, according to which God’s commitment to the church universal eclipses his interest in the physical descendants of Abraham.” (512). This is a good basic definition of the matter, which sadly many who are guilty of teaching it try to hide it with euphemisms. Block declares that given the language of hesed and fidelity (emuna) in God’s covenants such a thing is inconceivable (512-513).

But it doesn’t take him long to muddy the waters, for like most modern historic premillennialists he believes that, “one of the key motifs in the book of Romans is that gentiles who believe in Jesus have been grafted into the olive tree and are now full members of a redeemed humanity.” (515, cf. 480, 523). Using a hermeneutics of charity I want to say that Block is not teaching that Israel and the church merge into one eschatological people of God with no separate traits, but it’s not easy to be confident about it. He leaves the exegesis of Romans 11 alone which is a shame.

The Davidic Covenant in the NT

Block recognizes the importance of the Davidic covenant in the NT, not just explicitly, but often times how it underpins many statements (e.g. 545), especially the messianic ones. He takes time to expound the Birth narratives in Matthew and Luke. There is good material here, but again one can get a bit bogged down in the detail.

He appears to think the seventy weeks ended with the birth of Jesus (544), but has good material on the title Son of Man, even though I don’t see as strong Davidic overtones as Block does. Again, he has good things to say about Peter’s confession at Caesarea Philippi (559-562), and also about the Transfiguration (562-566), although he spoils it unnecessarily by quipping that although Moses was a major figure, “the historical Elijah was a regular – if not marginal – rather than paradigmatic prophet.” (564).

When it comes to the Passion narratives we once more get a mixture of the good and the bad. Yes, there are good insights littered here and there, and occasional background information that is of help, but did Jesus really redefine the nature of His reign at His Triumphal Entry (568-572)? Block’s interpretation of John 18:36 (“My kingdom is not from this world”, etc.) as John looking back and recognizing it “as the moment of Jesus’ coronation and exaltation” seems bizarre (578-579). And when the author asserts that Pilate would have interpreted Jesus statement, “You would have no power over me if it were not given you to you from above” (Jn. 19:11 his emphasis), in a political sense, I think he does Pilate a disservice. Was the Governor really that dim as to think Jesus was employing mere truisms? Pilate may not have believed in Yahweh but he did believe in gods above him.

When he reaches the NT letters we get more solid, brief, but not world-shaking stuff. I liked his brief but insightful recognition of 2 Timothy 2:8 (604), and I liked the observations on 1 Peter 1 (608-611). I do not however think John in Revelation borrowed motifs from Ezekiel 40 – 48 (612).

Elsewhere

There are some fine moments in this section dealing with the NT that I want to call attention to. Firstly, he believes that Romans 8:18-25 clearly alludes to the “Cosmic” (Noahic) covenant (398). He rightly points out that agapao is a covenant-related term (399, 417), which is just one indicator that the notion of “covenance” underlies the thought of the inspired writers. He repeats the assertion that the relationship between God and Adam in Eden “did not involve a covenant” (416), offers a detailed breakdown of Mary’s Magnificat (430-434), and a decent one of Zacharias’s prophecy (434).

Unfortunately, there are quite a lot of “thumbs-down” moments. On pages 394-395 he claims that diatheke in Galatians 3:15 and Hebrews 9:16-17 carries a testamental significance. That is not unusual in itself (though I strongly disagree with it). But he gives no justification for these perturbances from the normal Apostolic meaning of “diatheke/covenant.” Moreover, later he appears to me to contradict himself by saying, “Gal. 3:15 is not about God’s covenant with Abraham, but a generic statement about how human covenants operate.” (435). Well which is it? Is Galatians 3:15 talking about a testament or a covenant? As Block seems to acknowledge, the context of Galatians 3 points quite decisively to the latter.

Overall

After spending the last several weeks reading Covenant and taking detailed notes I came away a little exhausted and sadly underwhelmed. As I stated earlier, the treatment of the divine covenants lacks dynamism, and the author does not trace the oaths that Yahweh took and produce a big picture of all of His promises. His repeated insistence that the Torah was “grace” not “law” is singularly unconvincing. If God gave only instructions not to pick up wood on the Sabbath because it was a gift of rest it is hard to see why the individual in Numbers 15:32-36 was stoned to death. Not following instructions may lead to harm but it does not lead to punishment. Breaking the Law does!

Shameless Plug: My Book is Out!

Roll up, roll up, look this way to see a new and amazing sight! Well, not quite. The truth is more in the region of “Oh, Henebury’s book that he’s been promising since Gutenberg is actually out now.”

I got my advance copies in the mail a couple of weeks ago. It was a strange feeling looking down at the thing I had spent over five years writing and nearly twelve years studying. I asked a friend who has himself published many books about this weird feeling and whether he ever felt that way. “Every time!” he replied.

Anyway, The Words of the Covenant: A Biblical Theology, Volume one is released today. It is a Biblical Theology of the Old Testament (Volume two will deal with the New) centered on the expectations that God raises by His oaths and promises. It is available from many outlets including Amazon and Barnes and Noble. It is published through Xulon. I managed to get Dr. Michael Vlach, now at the Shepherd’s Theological Seminary; Dr. Kevin Zuber of The Master’s Seminary; Dan Phillips who used to be a regular part of the Pyromaniacs blog, and Fred Butler of Hip and Thigh to write nice blurbs for the book. Since they have each taken an interest in what I’ve been doing I knew they could write something meaningful.

Answers to Some Questions I have Been Asked:

  1. What led to “Biblical Covenantalism?” – I completed my doctoral dissertation on Method and Function in Dispensational Theology in 2006. Around the same time I found myself in the unenviable situation of being let go from an institution I had sweated blood for during many long and sometimes highly stressful hours. Finding myself with a lot of time on my hands and with several unanswered questions about Dispensational methodology I plunged anew into the study of the Bible. One main question bothered me throughout. It was a simple question that I could not find any scholar even asking. The question was “Why does God make covenants?” Pondering a biblical response to that question led me to see the importance and vitality of the six covenants of God.
  2. What is “Biblical Covenantalism”? – At the most basic level it is the answer to the question “Why does God make covenants?” and finally seeing how God’s covenants provide a dual eschatological/teleological pathway for God’s Creation Project. It became apparent that the Person of the Promised Redeemer, King-Messiah could not be separated from those covenants. Indeed, He was pivotal to everything God is doing in Creation. As I state in the book: “

“I mean by it that the covenant oaths found plainly within the pages of our Bibles, and more particularly the covenants of God (i.e. associated with Noah, Abraham, Moses, Phinehas, and David, and mediated by Christ in the New covenant) compose together the main argument of Scripture. They pick up and carry forward creation’s teleology and eschatology. Every teaching of Scripture is subordinated to the divine covenants. Therefore, interpreting and following the iteration of the covenants is what Biblical Covenantalism is all about.”

3. Am I trying to find another middle path between Dispensationalism and Covenant Theology? In his commendation Fred Butler asks this question. The answer is a very definite “No!” I believe Dispensational Theology (DT) is built upon different presuppositions than Covenant Theology (CT), and, for that matter, Progressive Covenantalism (PC). CT and PC are both mainly erected upon prior assumptions that are inimical to DT. Both are highly inferential systems, especially with regard to eschatology and the covenants of God. I believe Dispensationalism has got a lot of things right due to its hermeneutics. This includes the eternal importance of the nation of Israel, the Millennium, and the Rapture of the Church. My issue with DT is its method (which has hardly ever been thought through). As I see it DT is wrong in emphasizing Divine stewardships and defining itself through them and superimposing them on the covenants. I also think it is in error about DT only needing to focus upon eschatology and ecclesiology (and sometimes soteriology). Therefore Biblical Covenantalism (BC) as I see it is a corrective to DT in terms of its method and its vision. But, I hasten to add that I never started with Dispensationalism and then tried to tweak it. I believe I got BC from Scripture and can back it up from Scripture; hence the book!

4. What is the Place of Jesus Christ in Biblical Covenantalism? In line with what I said above, I was not happy with the method of DT. One problem with DT as I see it is the place it gives to Jesus Christ. The genius of Covenant Theology is its focus on Christology. Now what they do with Christ in finding Him in OT texts via types and shadows and by interpreting the OT on the basis of the NT (or rather their understanding of it), cuts right across what God has declared in His covenants and must therefore by in error. But DT’s emphasis is too often upon the Israel-church distinction (which is real) and the End Times (e.g. the Rapture, the Mark, and the Kingdom) and not upon the centrality of Christ in the whole Creation Project. In BC Jesus is the reason Creation exists and is preserved. He is also the One who redeems Creation and restores and will reign over Creation to the glory of God. He combines the promises of the covenants in Himself as the embodiment of the New covenant. It’s really all about Him.

5. (A Question I wish I had been asked) – Do You see Yourself as an Outsider? When I first saw clearly that DT had issues which were not being addressed I asked myself, “Do you want to put yourself beyond the pale by chasing this down?” My response was to forge ahead regardless, trusting the Lord to help me and to correct me as I went. So yes I know I am somewhat at the periphery and may stay there. I do harbor faint hopes that my work will be seen as a help and not a challenge and that more dialogue would be opened up as a result of people thinking through The Words of the Covenant.

Volume Two, “The Words of the Covenant: New Testament Continuation” is being written as we speak.

Review of ‘COVENANT’ by Daniel Block (Pt. 3)

Part Two

The “Law” was not Law even though it was Commanded

As we move on from Block’s discussion of what he calls “the Cosmic covenant” (i.e. Noahic) the “Adamic covenant” (?), and the “Israelite covenant” (i.e. the Abrahamic and the Mosaic together!) we next encounter the “New Israelite covenant” (275ff.). For reasons I shall attempt to explain this is what most call “the New covenant.”

But before we do that I need to refer the reader to Block’s position on the possibility of obeying the Torah. He rightly says that the word means “instruction” more than “law.” Then he goes on to say on page 264 that,

“YHWH’s expectations, expressed by the laws he prescribed for his people, were both clear (Deut. 29:4, 29…) and attainable (Deut 29:29..30:1-14).” Italics original.

On the next page he avers,

“The ethical and ceremonial performances that YHWH demanded of the Israelites were both reasonable and doable. Not a single command was impossible.” (265).

But notice that Block calls this torah by the name “commands” which “YHWH demanded.” Sounds like law to me! My mind runs to Acts 15 and the Jerusalem conference where certain Pharisees wanted to instruct the Gentiles to keep the law [nomos] of Moses (Acts 15:5). Peter’s response to this was incisive:

Now therefore, why do you test God by putting a yoke on the neck of the disciples which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear? – Acts 15:10.

Peter calls the law a yoke which doesn’t sound very promising. And James writes,

For whoever shall keep the whole law, and yet stumble in one point, he is guilty of all. – James 2:10 (cf. Gal. 5:3).

So this “doable” torah required absolute and unwavering conformity if it was to work. Block says that “they lacked the will and the motivation to keep the law.” (265). But surely that was because they were sinners! I think Block is trying to show that God’s “demands” were reasonable, but the law of the offerings (Lev. 1-7) was there because they were so stringent. Moreover, those offerings did not have the power to clear the conscience (Heb. 9:9). This was not an ideal setup, which is why Paul says that the law was a pedagogue to lead us to Christ (Gal. 3:24), since the law kept us under guard “synkleio” (Gal. 3:23). The metaphor is very apt. Torah living is not “freedom” (Gal. 5:1).

The New Israelite Covenant (i.e. New covenant).

Block’s name for the New covenant is “the New Israelite covenant” (275ff.). I understand that Jeremiah 31 is the only place in the OT where the term is used (276), and that even there the prophet does not call it “the New covenant”; he simply speaks of “a new covenant.” That said, the OT doesn’t call it “the New Israelite covenant” either. But Block’s term does assist him in tying “the New Israelite covenant” to the “Israelite covenant.” (AKA the Abrahamic cum Mosaic covenant).

Block’s way of unifying the Abrahamic, Mosaic, Deuteronomic covenants with the “New Israelite covenant” (New covenant) does not persuade me. For one thing, the NT does speak of this covenant as the New covenant (Lk. 22:20; Heb. 12:24 with the definite article).

Before he gets into his exposition of the “New Israelite covenant” the author stops to remind his reader that the “Cosmic” (“Noahic”) covenant and the Abrahamic covenant were characterized as berit olam (everlasting covenant). But he says the same thing about the “Israelite” (Mosaic) covenant too, by referencing Lev. 24:8 and Exod. 31:16-17 (276 cf. 288). But Lev. 24:8 is about the bread offering on the Sabbath and Exod. 31:16-17 is about keeping the Sabbath. Neither reference is about the (Mosaic) covenant itself! As a matter of fact the Bible never calls the Mosaic/Sinaitic covenant “everlasting.” But it is necessary for Block’s view that his “New Israelite covenant” be the fourth part of his one “Israelite covenant.”

He rightly asks concerning Jeremiah 31:31-34, “What is new here?” (283). His answer is that,

“There had always been “new-covenant” Israelites who had the Torah of God in their hearts/minds,” who delighted in covenant relationship with God (Exod. 29:45; Lev. 26:12), who knew God (Exod. 33:13; cf. Judg. 2:10), and who rejoiced in the knowledge of sins forgiven.” (285).

A closer look at these texts reveals that Block is reading more into them than they say. For instance, both Exod. 29:45 and Lev. 26:12 concern God dwelling in the Tabernacle, not in people’s hearts. Exodus 33:13 is Moses’ plea for God’s presence to go with Israel, while Judges 2:10 is a statement about Israelites who “did not know the LORD”, whose opposite is not that some did know Him in the Jeremiah 31 sense. To Block the “New Israelite covenant” was “not like” the Mosaic covenant only in the fact that with this “New” covenant all Israelites would know God. Better therefore to think of it as “a renewed covenant” (286 his italics); the “ultimate realization of the same covenant that God had made long ago with Abraham, established with the exodus generation…at Sinai, and renewed with the conquest generation on the plains of Moab.” (Ibid).

I know the author believes this, and argues for it in several places (e.g. 288, 292), but I cannot follow him there. For one thing this would make “the New Israelite covenant” a second renewal covenant after the Deuteronomic covenant in the plains of Moab (which failed). If people had the new birth in the OT and these covenant still failed why what would ensure the success of this one? For another thing, neither the Abrahamic covenant nor any covenant apart from the New covenant is soteriological, whereas the New covenant is (Jer. 31:34; Isa. 49:6; Ezek. 36:26-27). The New covenant is also Christocentric (Isa. 49:8; Matt. 26:28; Heb. 9:15), whereas the Mosaic covenant is not (cf. Jn. 1:17).

I’m afraid I am not buying what Block is selling here, even though I respect him and good material abounds. E.g., he is a consistent supporter of the land being given to Israel, and he warns against spiritualizing (287). But I also have to report that the author considers the “Gog and Magog” chapters (Ezek. 39-39) to be “hypothetical” (296). Let us move on.

The Davidic Covenant

The chapter on the Davidic covenant (300ff.) includes a number of good studies and solid assertions. The coverage is extensive, taking in the Historical and Prophetic books and Psalms. He is clear that the Davidic covenant “is never retracted” in “the prophets, psalmists, and NT writers.” (310), although “the benefits could be suspended for a time.” (310, 317). In fact, the very existence of the Psalms “testifies to the significance of the Davidic covenant.” (367). The importance of Zion is stressed (391). There are good things here.

Sadly though, it’s another mixed bag. The collective understanding of Genesis 3:15 is “preferable” to the singular Messianic view (304); the Book of Ruth was composed long after the fact; probably in the seventh century B.C. (306, 334). Micah 5:2 is best viewed as an ancient decree “calling David to kingship” (334); The covenant with Levi [probably related to Num. 25] is downplayed in Jeremiah 33:18 (349); and in an odd translation Zechariah 12:10 no longer has men looking at “me whom they pierced (daqar).” Block has the poor individual needlessly “stabbed,” thus destroying the Messianic implications (364, despite Rev. 1:7). There is also a curious mention of “David’s Melchizedekian Priesthood” (387).

Finally, Block fails to interact in any way with the crucial Messianic covenantal texts in Isaiah 42:6 and 49:8. I was looking forward to seeing how he tackled these verses and to discover that they went untreated was a big let down.

So ends the “First Testament” part of Covenant. The detail is there, making the book important for anyone wanting to dive into the biblical concept of covenant, but as Spurgeon might have said, there is a good deal of dross mixed with the gold. The overall impression on this reviewer is that this approach to the covenants of God, though a vast improvement over Covenant Theology, still lacks the dynamism that I find in the Hebrew Bible.

Review of ‘COVENANT’ by Daniel Block (Pt. 2)

Part One

Block’s Definition of Covenant

Daniel Block’s Covenant: The Framework of God’s Grand Plan of Redemption is a big book around 700 pages long. It is very noteworthy when a prominent OT scholar takes up the challenge to write a book on the biblical covenants, and I am grateful to have such a work to study and repair to.

One of the most important tasks that lies before a writer of such a book is that of definition. If you are going to be writing about the covenants then it is well to put forward a decent definition of just what a covenant; a biblical covenant no less, is. Here is Block’s definition:

A covenant is a formally confirmed agreement between two or more parties that creates, formalizes, or governs a relationship that does not naturally exist or a natural relationship that may have been broken or disintegrated…Covenants typically involve solemn commitments establishing the privileges and obligations that attend agreements. (1).

This definition is somewhat unlike what one usually finds, but it includes the important items such as formality, the relationship between the parties, and the solemn commitments (read oath). In Covenant Theology the covenants that we read about in the Bible, such as those involving Noah, Abraham, Moses, and David are understood to be manifestations of other covenants which, confusingly, are not to be found in the Bible. These covenants are the covenants of redemption, works, and grace, the latter of which is instanced in the covenants we can see; i.e. Noah, Abraham, etc. Block is having nothing of this. although he is nice about it, on several occasions he makes it clear that he sees no covenants in the early chapters of the Bible. On page 46 he writes,

I]f covenants involve formal procedures to create a relationship that does not exist naturally or to reestablish relationships that have been ruptured, then we cannot define Adam and Eve’s relationship with God in Genesis 2 – 3 as covenantal.

He says something similar regarding Genesis 1 on page 24 (cf. 40). In fact he calls life in Eden “precovenantal” (3). This will not endear him to Covenant Theologians, Progressive Covenantlists, or indeed many Dispensationalists who, despite their professed literal hermeneutics insist upon finding Edenic and Adamic covenants in these early chapters of Genesis.

The “Cosmic” and “Adamic” Covenants of Genesis 9.

For Block the first covenants we can identify in Scripture are found in Genesis 9 (37). And this is where things start to get a bit debatable, for Block thinks he sees two covenants there; the first with the world, which he calls the “Cosmic covenant”, and the second with Noah himself, which he calls the “Adamic covenant.” (I know, just keep reading). As for the “Cosmic covenant” he states plainly that this is usually referred to as the “Noachian covenant” (39), but because “Noah’s role is unclear” and there are real cosmic dimensions to the covenant Block thinks “Cosmic covenant” is a better name.

But then there is his “Adamic covenant.” By the term “Adamic” Block means “humanity” not merely Adam. He believes he finds this second covenant in Genesis 9. This is necessitated because Noah and his family were given administrative roles as guardians of the creation (62).

How does one respond to this? I have to admit that I remain unconvinced. For one thing, on the same page (62), and in several other places Block presents Noah as a “second Adam.” But if he is a new Adam then surely he is given dominion and responsibility in similar ways to Adam? And this is borne out by Genesis 9:1-2. Well then, as God’s vice-regent Noah was the representative of creation to God and so the usual term “Noahic covenant” seems entirely appropriate. Accepting this, there is no reason to introduce a novel covenant with Noah called the “Adamic covenant.” Furthermore, although he extracts a lot of data from the text, Block does not hone in on the central verse for this covenant, namely Genesis 9:11, where the oath of God is to be found.

The author tells us a few pages on that, “After Genesis 11 the Adamic covenant recedes into the background.” (65). Well, I for one was not sorry to see it go. Yet when one reaches the NT portion of this book, the “Adamic covenant,” in tandem with its near twin, the “Cosmic covenant” raises its head again (see esp. 405-424), although in the case of the “Adamic covenant” I think this is as unnecessary as formerly. As a matter of fact it creates a contradiction because the qualifier “Adamic” in connection with the covenant means “humanity,” but Block will relate it to the man Adam in Rom. 5:12ff. You can’t have it both ways.

Saying this does not mean one cannot profit from Block’s material, but in my opinion they will have to reinsert it into the mold of the Noahic covenant. For certain, the covenant with Noah and creation forms the stage or backdrop of the history of the world until the New Creation (Rev. 21-22), but Block’s failure (as I see it) to zoom-in on the actual oath of God in Genesis 9:11 is what causes the confusion. The preamble and general descriptions that surround the oath (i.e. Gen. 8:21-9:10, 12-17) are not a part of the covenant itself. As Paul Williamson has said, “the most basic covenantal element” is “a promissory oath.” (Sealed with a Oath: Covenant in God’s Unfolding Purpose, 59.) The Noahic covenant (as I and most others call it) concerns God’s promise to never flood the entire earth again, full stop. Block believes that Noah and his descendants were placed under conditions by God in Genesis 9:1-7, but these verses do not set out conditions. Maybe I am guilty of a lapse of memory, but I cannot recall one mainline or evangelical scholar who reads Genesis 9 this way. For sure, some like Bruce Waltke see a conditional covenant in Genesis 6, but even then they all state that the covenant in Genesis 9 is unconditional.

No Unconditional Covenants

Seeing conditions in what most heretofore have called an unconditional covenant with Noah and the world does not come as a surprise though. For Block has already made it clear that he rejects the idea of unconditional covenants (2-3). But it turns out that he does this because he includes the conditions that often surround God’s covenants within the covenant oath; or rather, he does not distinguish between the oath and the rest of the verbal context. This can be seen above and I believe it is a main cause of Block’s problematical constructions.

Miscellaneous Early Positives

In the first few chapters of Covenant there are numerous noteworthy comments and insights. The list would include:

Warning readers of the problems inherent in reading the NT back into the OT (9-10).

Calling attention to the fact that Creation is a “project” that God is committed to (13).

Noting that the presence of a Suzerain and a vassal does not make a relationship covenantal (15).

Insisting that Adam was a royal figure (20, 27), not a priestly figure.

Throwing suspicion upon the currently trendy “Cosmic Temple” readings of Adam in Eden (29ff.).

Identifying the “Sons of God” in Genesis 6 as most probably angelic (34).

Addressing and repudiating the Dumbrell/Gentry & Wellum view that heqim berit must mean “to confirm a preexisting covenant” and the interpretation of Hosea 6:7 as referring to a covenant with Adam (46).

Block’s statement that “Hebrew wisdom is first and foremost covenantal.” (66).

Asserting that the Bible “is our source of information on the covenants.” (5).

At the same time there are a few assertions that are open to question, they include, drafting into the discussion a lot of ANE parallels. Sometimes these are illuminating (e.g., 19, 77, 85, 87, 99-100, 124, etc.), but occasionally I think they are unhelpful and get in the way of what the biblical text is saying (e.g., 23, 48, 159, 161, 162). Another negative is Block’s opinion that the sequence in the opening chapter of Genesis has “an artificial flavor.” (18). Then there is his view that “nefarious external forces” were in Eden (25, 50), but we should expect that from a professor at Wheaton (are there any YEC’s at Wheaton?).

As for Block’s treatment of covenants per se and his exposition of his “Cosmic” and “Adamic” covenants, I think he unnecessarily muddies the waters, but there is much here worth thinking upon.

Review of ‘COVENANT’ by Daniel I. Block (Pt. 1)

A Review of Daniel I. Block, Covenant: The Framework of God’s Grand Plan of Redemption, Grand Rapids: Baker, 2021, 704 pages, hdbk.

Daniel Block has been a major evangelical OT scholar for many years, contributing commentaries on Ezekiel, Deuteronomy, and Judges/Ruth, and many articles. He is known for his incisive and creative scholarship. Therefore, this contribution to the study of covenants in the Bible is most welcome.

As someone with familiarity with Block’s work I fully expected Covenant to be marked by independent thinking and fresh insight. Both qualities are to be seen in this large work. As someone who has a decided interest in the subject I think it best if I begin my review with some general comments.

  1. Block decided not to interact with the scholarship on covenants in this book. for the most part this was a good choice, although occasionally one feels this reduces the interpretative options of certain passages and concepts.
  2. Block is not satisfied with some of the traditional nomenclature of the biblical covenants. This leads him to rename the Noahic covenant the “Cosmic covenant,” with an additional “Adamic covenant” which he also thinks he sees in Genesis 9. The Abrahamic and Mosaic (or Sinaitic) covenants together are the “Israelite covenant,” with the New covenant being dubbed “the New Israelite covenant.”
  3. Block sees the Abrahamic covenant, the Mosaic covenant, and even the New covenant as one continuous covenant.
  4. He doesn’t like the term “Old Testament” either, preferring “First Testament” (the New Testament retains its name).
  5. The book contains a lot of helpful exegesis, much background information placed inside the narrative, and ample word studies. Sometimes the examination of texts can mean heavy-sledding for readers. The text is read carefully, even pedantically in places. Because of this it is easy to loose sight of the covenant being discussed.
  6. Although he sticks to a chronological approach Block’s method has a tendency to view God from a distance rather than personally. Yahweh is referred to in a way similar to how false gods are treated. It is the same for biblical personages; Noah, Abraham (slightly less so), David, etc. are studied dispassionately as if they were simply people who lived a long time ago. E.g., Moses is studied with the same kind of aloofness as Gudea of Lagash. This impression may be somewhat subjective, but I believe it ought to be mentioned.
  7. The definition of “covenant” is disappointingly “loose.”
  8. The “Priestly” covenant (e.g., Num. 25) is called the “Levitical covenant” and is dealt with only in a lengthy but unsatisfying Excursus. Block avoids its connotations in Ezekiel 40 – 48, Jeremiah 33, etc.
  9. Block rejects the “conditional/unconditional” concept, choosing to keep the former while calling God’s unilateral oaths “irrevocable.”
  10. Speaking of oaths, the author spends very little time on the importance of the oaths within God’s covenants.
  11. Block believes that the instructions (torah) from Exodus to Deuteronomy were doable. His arguments for this are important, if a little optimistic. If Israel could perform the requirements of the Mosaic code, so can we. If that is so why do Israel (or we) need a spiritual rebirth?
  12. He includes a lot of comparisons from the ANE. Sometimes these are helpful, while at other times they seem to dictate his interpretations.
  13. Although he does hold to and expound messianic passages, it is not always done compellingly (e.g. Psalm 110). He tries to fit these texts within the historical context (sometimes speculated) of the passage. The predictive element is occasionally obscured.
  14. Block has no room for pre-Noahic covenants including the theological covenants of covenant theology.
  15. He is to be commended for providing a rare study of covenant in the New Testament.

In the coming weeks I shall attempt to discuss this important book, noting what I think are it’s strengths and weaknesses. I envisage four installments in all, but may need to add a summary post.

Update: The Book Will Be Available Soon

One of my least favorite things in the whole world is self-publicity. I don’t like it and I’m sure it’s unscriptural. The sin of calling attention to oneself is often exacerbated when one is promoting a ministry or a book. I have a book out soon. It’s not the work the world has been breathlessly waiting for, but it’s the best I can do. I hope I have written a sound, edifying, educational book which repays its purchase price. I think it does but my judgment is not to be wholly trusted on this matter.

According to the publisher, The Words of the Covenant: A Biblical Theology, Vol. 1 – Old Testament Expectation will be ready by the end of the month. I for one am greatly looking forward to holding a copy in my hands. But that is to be expected since I have slaved away at it for about five years plus change.

The Words of the Covenant is just shy of 500 pages long and has over 1,300 footnotes (I tried to keep them down). I do not quote a lot of Dispensationalists because an affirmation from someone who is not oriented that way is weightier than from someone who would agree with one’s overall trajectory. Within its pages I present my ‘Biblical Covenantalism,’ at least of the Old Testament.

It can be bought for $42.49 in hardback and $32.49 paperback from Xulon Press: https://www.xulonpress.com/bookstore/bookdetail.php?PB_ISBN=9781736770405

Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Words-Covenant-Biblical-Testament-Expectation/dp/1662826206/ref=sr_1_3?dchild=1&keywords=henebury&qid=1630618895&sr=8-3

Expect another shameless plug when it’s finally released!