Replacement Theology: Is it Wrong to Use the Term? (Pt.3)

Part Two

Replacement of Concepts?

In the book The Meaning of the Millennium (ed. Robert G. Clouse), the well known postmillennial scholar Loraine Boettner said,

The land of Palestine…was given to Abraham and his seed “for an everlasting possession” (Gen. 17:8).  But the same thing is said of the perpetual duration of the priesthood of Aaron (Ex. 40:15), the Passover (Ex. 12:14), the Sabbath (Ex. 31:17) and David’s throne (2 Sam. 7:13, 16, 24).  But in the light of the New Testament all of those things have passed away. – 98

It stands to reason that if Israel’s promises have passed away, they have to be replaced by something else.  But according to many Presbyterian covenant theologians the church has always existed, so they object to being called supercessionists.  R.C. Sproul, Jr is a representative voice when he says,

The Reformed perspective takes a different tack. It affirms that that Israel which is actually Israel, just as with the promise to Abraham in Genesis 12:3, applies to those who are in Christ, who trust in His finished work. Though we deny the moniker, this is what our dispensational friends call “replacement theology.” The Reformed, however, see this is as the outworking of the truth of Galatians 3:7- “Therefore know that only those who are of faith are sons of Abraham.” We who are Reformed do not believe God replaced Israel with the church. We believe instead that there has always been only one people of God, those who believe. – R.C. Sproul, Jr. http://rcsprouljunior.blogspot.com/2012/01/ask-rc-is-it-true-that-god-blesses.html

An older work by W. J. Grier makes this abundantly clear:

Let us here insist that there was a Church in Old Testament times; and that the Old Testament and New Testament believers form one Church – the same olive tree (Romans 11). – The Momentous Event, 33

Seeing that this is the position of at least some covenant theologians, is it fair to label them as replacement theologians?  Well, not in the sense that they believe the church has replaced Israel in toto, (although not a few of these men do slip into that kind of rhetoric on occasion).  But I would argue that an identifiable form of supercession is still going on.

Grier’s opinion that “Israel” equals believers stripped of the accoutrements of a designated land, with cities, a temple, priesthood and a king looks overly simplistic. These key OT themes are swept aside with a wave of the hand.

Consider this statement from Edmund Clowney:

The greatest promises of the Old Testament are fulfilled in the church – we are the temple of the living God. – Edmund P. Clowney, “The Final Temple”, in Prophecy in the Making, ed., Carl F. H. Henry, 84

And again this by Steve Motyer:

[Paul] consistently applies to the church – that is, the mixed Jewish and Gentile congregations to whom he writes – the great covenant ideas and terms which had previously belonged to Israel. They are the elect (1 Thess. 1:4-5), the people called to holiness (1 Cor. 1:2), the justified who are objects of God’s saving righteousness (1 Cor. 6:11; Rom. 3:22-24), the redeemed (Rom. 3:24; Eph. 1:7), who inherit the kingdom of God (1 Cor. 6:10; Col. 1:12).  They are the children of God (Rom. 8:14; cf. Exod. 4:22), on whom the glory of God rests (Rom. 5:2; 8:30), who offer pleasing worship (Rom. 12:1-2; Eph. 5:1-2), and who can rightly appeal to the covenant faithfulness of God (Rom. 8:31-39).  In all likelihood, when Paul calls God’s peace and mercy upon ‘the Israel of God’ in Galatians 6:16, he is referring to the church. – S. Motyer, “Israel (nation)”, in New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, ed., T. Desmond Alexander, et al., 585-586.

Clowney takes all the best promises to Israel in the Bible and gives them (though in a greatly altered condition) to the church.  Motyer, like so many who take this line, thinks that God’s speaking about the church in similar terms to the way He speaks about Israel is decisive in equating the two.  In the Boettner quote we can see that the “perpetual duration” of the OT promises to Israel of land, king, priesthood etc., are not, in fact, perpetual; at least not in the way they would have been understood in OT times.  The notion of perpetuity changes, as do the ideas of land, king, priesthood, temple, Jerusalem, and other associated matters. (more…)

Replacement Theology: Is it Wrong to Use the Term? (Pt.2)

Part One

It’s a Real Thing

That replacement theology actually exists should be beyond dispute.  In a well known admission, the esteemed NT scholar C.E.B. Cranfield wrote,

the assumption that the Church has simply replaced Israel as the people of God is extremely common. . . . And I confess with shame to having also myself used in print on more than one occasion this language of the replacement of Israel by the Church. – C. E. B. Cranfield, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on The Epistle to the Romans, vol. 2, 448.

If such a prominent voice as Cranfield’s says that replacement theology is no fiction then clearly we have something to talk about.  

Although some non-covenant theologians have believed in supercessionism, this teaching is usually found in the sphere of covenant theology.  A trip to Monergism.org brought up a link to an article on “Israel and Dispensationalism” that includes this:

The covenantal privilege that national Israel enjoyed as the chosen people of God was ended when the Jewish leaders “fill[ed] up… the measure of [their] fathers’guilt” (Matthew 23:32) by rejecting and crucifying their own Messiah. Jesus was very explicit in stating that the “house” of Israel was left “desolate” (Matthew 23:37-39), and that the Kingdom would be taken from the Jews as a people and given to another people (Matthew 8:10-12, 21:33-45, etc.).” – Greg Loren Durand, “Israel and Dispensationalism”,http://www.preteristarchive.com/dEmEnTiA/1995_durand_israel-dispensationalism.html

The “other people” to whom the kingdom was given is the church, according to the standard CT interpretation of Matthew 21:43.  Such an interpretation implies a switching of one people (“the Jews”) with another people, a “supercession.”

As an example of a major voice from this perspective one can hardly get more authoritative or more trenchant than Herman Bavinck, who avers,

The community of believers has in all respects replaced carnal, national Israel. – Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 4.667

Another, though admittedly lesser example, would be covenant theologian Charles Provan, who wrote a book entitled The Church is Israel Now: The Transfer of Conditional Privilege.  On the first page of his introduction, the author states that because the NT uses some of the same descriptions of the church as the OT does to describe Israel,

The only hypothesis which explains how this could be is that the Israel of the Old Testament (so called ‘Racial Israel’) had been replaced by the Israel of the New Testament, the Christian Church.

Provan’s book has been lauded by many.  It is sold at the Metropolitan Tabernacle Bookshop in London, where I first encountered it.  In his recent work A New Testament Biblical Theology, G.K. Beale commends the book’s thesis and acknowledges the influence it had on him (page 669, footnote 50).  

A Preterist website carries a synopsis of the book by Provan in which he states,

When the Israelites obeyed God, God loved them. But when the Israelites turned from him, He hated them, stripping them of their Israelite status. After centuries of Israelite rebellion against God, culminating in their rejection of Jesus the Messiah, the titles, attributes and blessings of Israel were transferred to all who accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, and to no one else, regardless of Abrahamic descent. The Church is Israel Now. –  http://www.preteristarchive.com/PartialPreterism/provan-charles_dd_01.html

In these excerpts it is clear that Provan had no problem with replacement terminology, and that he used the word “transfer” to denote a transfer of title from one entity (national Israel), to another entity (the church).  The transfer even going so far as to take the name “Israel” from off the one and give it to the other.  And since a book which plainly does teach replacement theology is recommended by many covenant theologians, one can hardly blame people who tar them with the same brush.  In fact, to the degree that CT’s promote such works they practically drip the tar on themselves.  This impression grows deeper when those who claim not to be supercessionists employ the very same arguments as those who do.  

A final instance of this approach, at least for now, comes from a book whose purpose was to contrast the positions of dispensationalists and covenant theologians on the relationship between the Testaments.  In his contribution to the book, entitled “Kingdom Promises as Spiritual”, covenant theologian Bruce Waltke states that,

The Jewish nation no longer has a place as the special people of God; that place has been taken by the Christian community which fulfills God’s purpose for Israel. – Bruce Waltke, “Kingdom Promises as Spiritual,” in Continuity and Discontinuity: Perspectives on the Relationship Between the Testaments, ed., John S. Feinberg 275

There is, therefore, such a thing as “replacement theology”, where some Christians believe and teach that the Church has taken the place of OT Israel, including its name.           (more…)

Replacement Theology: Is it wrong to use the term? (pt.1)

Recently I have been reminded of the Reformed CT community’s aversion to the label of supercessionism, or worse, replacement theology.  In the last decade or so particularly I have read repeated disavowals of this term from covenant theologians.  Not wanting to misrepresent or smear brethren with whom I disagree, I have to say that I struggle a bit with these protests.  “We are not replacement theologians” we are told, “but rather we believe in transformation or expansion.”  By some of the objectors we are told that the church does not replace Israel because it actually IS Israel; well, “true Israel” – the two designations are really one.  This move is legitimate, they say, because the “true Israel” or “new Israel” is in direct continuity with Israel in the Old Testament.

In this series of posts I want to investigate the question of whether it is right; if I am right, to brand this outlook as replacement theology and supercessionism.

Basics: what is a “replacement”?

A good thing to do as we begin is to have a definition of the word at issue.  Websters New World Dictionary defines the word “replacement” thus:

“1. a replacing or being replaced 2. a person or thing that takes the place of another…”

The entry for “replace” says,

“1. to place again; to put back in a former or the proper place or position.” (obviously, this does not apply to our question).

“2. to take the place of… 3. to provide a substitute or equivalent for.”

The synonym “supersede” means that something is replaced by something else that is superior.  In the way I use the terms in a theological context I mean “to take the place of”.  The third meaning (i.e. to substitute) is  somewhat relevant since some may be claiming that OT Israel has been switched out for another Israel.  By “supercessionism” then, I mean any theology that teaches a switching out of “old Israel” with “new”, “true Israel.”

The question before us is whether the Church takes the place of Israel in covenant theology, and if so how?  To answer that question we must ask several more.  These include such important questions as, ‘what exactly do covenant theologians say about the matter?  And do they ever use replacement terminology themselves?’; ‘Can their understandings of Israel and the church, and so their “expansion” language, be supported from the Bible?’

If “Israel” and “the church” are the same thing then clearly we have our answer, and I can stop writing.  If the church and Israel are the same any question of replacing one with the other starts and stops with the simple swapping of names.

Identifying “Israel”

In the Old Testament Israel is either a person, the man Jacob who was renamed “Israel” by God in Genesis 32:28, or the nation of people (sometimes a part of them either in rebellion or redeemed) who stem from Jacob who are called “the children of Israel” in Genesis 32:32 (Israelites), or a designation for the promised land (cf. Josh. 11:16, 21).

Covenant theology adds to these designations another.  For example, an anonymous devotional at Ligonier’s website entitled “Who is Israel?” claims that,

Finally, the term Israel can also designate all of those who believe in Jesus, including both ethnic Jews and ethnic Gentiles. In Galatians 6:16, the Apostle applies the name Israel to the entire believing community—the invisible church—that follows Christ. Paul does not make this application specifically in Romans 11; however, this meaning is clearly implied in his teaching about the one olive tree with both Jewish and Gentile branches (vv. 11-24). 

Although nowhere does the New Testament explicitly equate Israel with the church, the assumptions that lead the writer to his conclusion (not to mention his exegesis of Gal. 6:16 and his use of the Olive Tree metaphor) come into focus once his view of the church is understood.

Chapter Twenty-five of the Westminster Confession of Faith defines the Church like this:

I. The catholic or universal Church, which is invisible, consists of the whole number of the elect, that have been, are, or shall be gathered into one, under Christ the Head thereof; and is the spouse, the body, the fulness of Him that fills all in all.

II. The visible Church, which is also catholic or universal under the Gospel (not confined to one nation, as before under the law), consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion; and of their children: and is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ,the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation.

(more…)

Messiah in the Pentateuch

I want to turn quickly to consider the picture of the Messiah in the story as we have it in the first five Books of Moses.  If one hesitates to bring to the Pentateuch what one already knows from the rest of Scripture, the picture of the Promised One is diminished but still of real interest.[1]

The main passages are in Genesis 3:15; 22:18; 49:8-10; Numbers 24:8-9, 17-19, and Deuteronomy 18:15-19.  These are the clearest scriptures.  Other passages, such as the offering up of Isaac (Gen. 22), and the Passover lamb (Exod. 12) are typological, but because they are types they cannot be viewed as revelatory or predictive within the framework of the Pentateuch as we have it.  We do not have information about whether the people in these stories knew and understood about the typology involved.  Even though it is fashionable in the current evangelical milieu to erect intricate whole theological structures based upon typology, this is most often done because of the retrofit-hermeneutics which reads the Old Testament in light of the New.  Since the design of this biblical theology is to conscientiously avoid doing such a thing I will be true to my persuasions and pass by typological foreshadowings.

As we have seen, the Seed of the Woman prophecy in Genesis 3:15 was aimed at the serpent, not our first parents.  It is also apparent that the curse concerns the eventual destruction of the serpent (who will later be identified as Satan) by a man (“he will crush your head”).  Hence, it is through a representative of the humanity which the serpent corrupted that his doom will be sealed.  From this text alone it is a leap to make the human Vanquisher of Satan a savior of humanity also.

The text in Genesis 22:18, which is often (though not always) taken as the place Paul appeals to for his “seed was Christ” doctrine in Galatians 3:16, is not as clear.[2]  Perhaps we would not see Christ in the story if the Apostle had not told us about it?[3]  Sailhamer calls our attention to Genesis 15:4 where God does set up a single-seed precedent (Isaac)[4].  But when all is said and done I don’t think Abraham’s willingness to offer up his son was understood at the time as being loaded with Messianic portents.

When the Lord Jesus said in John 8:58, “Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw it and was glad”, He was not claiming that the Patriarch foresaw Christ dying on a Roman Cross for the sins of the world.  That is not what Jesus said.  He said that Abraham knew the He, the Messiah, would come, and that this knowledge made him glad. To put it in one sentence, Abraham knew the Christ would come.  Where did Abraham get this knowledge?  Perhaps through inference?  Maybe he put together the promise of the Vanquishing Seed of Genesis 3:15 with the coming descendant who would realize the three promises within the Abrahamic covenant?  This, at any rate, is plausible.

(more…)

An Independent Land Covenant? – A Note

Bridging the portentous chapter 28 and the hopeful chapter 30, Deuteronomy 29 contains what is often referred to, especially in Dispensational literature, as ‘the Palestinian covenant.’[1]  Clearly the way the chapter begins must be taken seriously:

These are the words of the covenant which the LORD commanded Moses to make with the children of Israel in the land of Moab, besides the covenant which He made with them in Horeb. – Deuteronomy 29:1 

This “other” covenant is explicitly said to be “besides” the Mosaic covenant.  Taken in situ then there can be no complaint about distinguishing this covenant from the other covenants.  Certainly something is going on here.  Sailhamer contends that this covenant deliberately omits the necessary stipulations.[2]  If I understand him right he says this points the way to the replacement of the Mosaic practices with the coming New covenant.[3]

As I have just said, the language of regeneration is prominent in this passage.  So Sailhamer has a point.  But I prefer to see the covenant in Deuteronomy 29:1 as a reawakening of the national consciousness to the reality of the land rooted in the Abrahamic covenant but now conditioned within the Mosaic covenant.  The land is at the forefront of Moses mind but is also, of course, in the mind of all the people who are on the borders of Canaan (Deut. 29:2; 31:7; Josh. 1:11-15).  Since nothing is stated in the passage which enlarges on the land promise within the Abrahamic covenant (allowing for the promise of future regeneration which is a New covenant reality), I think the covenant in Deuteronomy 29-30 is then a case of God facing a timorous people with a restatement of the work involved in claiming the promised land.  If that is so, I think isolating a “Palestinian covenant” from the Abrahamic covenant is a little fruitless.  The stronger claim to the land is certainly in the Abrahamic covenant in Genesis 15.

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[1] Examples of this would be respected teachers like Arnold Fruchtenbaum, and Paul Benware.   Benware calls the Palestinian covenant a “sub-covenant of the Abrahamic” – Paul N. Benware, Understanding End Times Prophecy, 56.  Fruchtenbaum sees this covenant as predicting the regathering of Israel to their land after God Himself has regenerated them. – Arnold G. Fruchtenbaum, Israelology, 796-797.  Although he lists eight provisions of the covenant, he does not find an oath.  In fact, he admits that “The Palestinian Covenant is an enlargement of the original Abrahamic Covenant”, particularly the land aspect. (Ibid, 583).  In view of this the present writer prefers to see Deuteronomy 29:1-30:20 as a reiteration of the land promise within the Abrahamic covenant but now in terms of the theocracy.

[2] John H. Sailhamer, The Meaning of the Pentateuch, 403-404.

[3] Ibid, 251

The Mosaic Covenant and Other Covenants

The Mosaic Covenant as a Historical Placeholder for Other Covenants

If the commandments in the ‘Ten Words’ on Sinai (Exod. 20) and all those that followed in their train were too stringent for a fallen people to keep, at least the covenant God made with Israel, and which they voluntarily entered into (in Exod. 24), distinguished them among the other nations of the world.  It did this to the extent that they were preserved as a distinct people in continuity with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.[1]

Just as the Noahic covenant guarantees the perpetuation of the regulation and predictability of the rhythms of nature,thereby creating the stage of history for God’s program to play out upon, the Mosaic covenant acts to set the covenants with David and Phinehas within a theocratic outlook – even if both of these covenants transcend the temporary “old covenant” and are embraced by the coming New covenant.  Another way to say this is to imagine the people of Israel as connecting the Mosaic covenant to the New covenant brought upon Israel at Christ’s return (Isa. 61:2b-3; Jer. 31:31-37); a covenant that supersedes the old one, but without morphing the promises God made out of all recognition.

That preservation through the Law, even when it was being reduced to formal hypocrisy – as it was much of the time (e.g. Isa. 1:2-23; Mal. 2:10-11) – was enough to keep Israel from being absorbed into the peoples and cultures surrounding them.  The elaborate details of the Tabernacle, with its importance for ethnic and religious identity, and the whole Levitical system, served to isolate the Jews enough to keep them separate, therefore guaranteeing their continuance.  Looked at this way the covenant with Israel in Exodus and Deuteronomy served as a place-holder for the covenants to follow; the ‘Priestly’, the Davidic and the New.  Israel needed to remain a static entity so that the covenants so bound up with the nation could be fulfilled.  Not only that, but because the interests of the nation were indelibly intertwined with the Abrahamic covenant, that covenant too was secured within the continuing people called the Jews.

Future Blessing and a Palestinian Covenant?

The Book of Deuteronomy finds Israel on the verge of entering the land which God has promised them.  Up until this point the people have not distinguished themselves for their faith in God.  But the Lord is not going to remove the faith requirement out of the way.  What was true for the writer of Hebrews is true for Israel east of Jordan, “without faith it is impossible to please Him.” (Heb.11:6).  So Israel will have to face its foes; some of them (i.e. the city of Jericho – cf. Josh. 3:16; more sons of Anak – Josh. 15:13-14), look formidable.  But YHWH has promised to go before them (Deut. 1:30, 42; 20:4).  Moses reminds the people about the incident which cost the lives of twenty-four thousand people at Baal-Peor (Num. 25), and the giving of the Ten Commandments at Sinai (see Deut. 4:3-13).  Then he turns to their fortunes if they decline from the Law.  God will cast them out of the land and scatter them abroad (Deut.4:26-27)[2], but He will also do something about their plight “in the latter days” (Deut. 4:30).  The reason for this mercy is “He will not forsake you nor destroy you, nor forget the covenant of your fathers which He swore to them.” (Deut.4:31).  The “covenant of your fathers” is clearly not the Mosaic covenant which He is recalling to them.  God’s dealing with Israel is covenantally determined, but as we have seen, it is determined principally on account of the Abrahamic covenant, together with the ‘Priestly’ covenant (see below) and the covenant He will make with David. (more…)

‘The Case for Jesus’ by Brant Pitre – A Review

Book Review: The Case For Jesus: The Biblical and Historical Evidence for Christ, by Brant Pitre, New York: Image, 2016, 242 pages, hdbk.

I suppose that the first thing I ought to say is that this is not The Case for Christ by Lee Strobel, nor is it related to the set of books spawned by it. This is a new work by a Professor at Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans.

Coming from the desk of a Roman Catholic readers may want to question what I am doing even bothering to read it. My defense is that some Roman Catholic writers are well worth being acquainted with, and, in fact, ought to be read – though with the caveat that they are Roman Catholics. To name just a few, I think Jay Budziszewski is one of the best writers and speakers to recommend to a college student. Anthony Esolen and Benjamin Wiker are good guides on what to read and what not to read. Robert Barron, who coincidentally wrote the Afterword for the book under review, is worth your time on practically anything, creation and church doctrine apart. And a man who cannot find any benefit from G. K. Chesterton is a reflective sluggard indeed. Alongside of these Brant Pitre deserves a hearing, and especially this book.

The Case For Jesus is, I think, the very best book on its subject for a general audience. It is wonderfully written, very informative, conservative in its conclusions, and is a great faith-builder. Its thirteen compact chapters, which even with Barron’s contribution bring the book in at a mere 242 pages, including endnotes, comprise a consistent push-back against the slippery arguments of Bart Ehrman (Pitre’s main foil) and others like him.

The opening chapter sets the context for the discussions which follow. Of major concern to Pitre is the Telephone Game illustration of Gospel transmission used so effectively by the run of unbelieving scholarship. Anyone who has heard Erhman will be familiar with his mantra that the Gospels are anonymous, the titles we have being added much later. Actually, I have come across this belief even in evangelical authors. But Pitre dispatches this fiction very effectively – by a straightforward appeal to the facts. He points out in chapter two,

The first and perhaps the biggest problem for the theory of the anonymous Gospels is this: no anonymous copies of Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John have ever been found. They do not exist. As far as we know, they never have. (15. Author’s emphasis).

The edifice which Erhman leans upon so heavily is made of air. All of the available manuscript and Patristic evidence points in the other direction. Erhman, a textual critic, is surely close to committing the unpardonable sin of his discipline – of ignoring all the textual evidence in favor of his preferences.

Pitre also asks how such well known and cherished writings managed to be copied and handled without their authors being identified. And how come there is complete unanimity in the ascription of the authors? (19).  Related to this is the question of the both internal (within the Gospels themselves) and external (writers outside the Gospels) evidence for whether we know who wrote the Gospels. These issues are covered in chapters three and four. Again, the evidence is “completely unambiguous and totally unanimous.” (39).

The fifth chapter ably handles the inaccurately called “Lost Gospels” while chapter six inquires whether the Gospels fit within the genre of ancient biographies. This impressive chapter closes with a short discussion about whether the Gospels should be viewed as verbatim transcripts. The author decides in favor of the position that word-for-word accuracy is not always present but,

On the other hand, the historical character of the Gospels does mean that the authors intend to record the substance of what Jesus really said and did. (81. Author’s emphasis).

Chapter seven examines the dating of the Gospels. Pitre deals with reasons for fixing the Gospels with a late date and finds them to be seriously flawed (89). This excellent chapter finishes off what I might call the first part of the book. From then on the next six chapters focus on who Jesus is.  They continue the high standards set by “part one”. Along the way Pitre works with several prophetic chapters from the Book of Daniel (Dan. 2, 7, and 9).  On the whole he addresses himself to these chapters with real competence, and always conservatively. The ninth and tenth chapters are concerned with Jesus’ divinity, while chapters eleven and twelve deal with the crucifixion and resurrection respectively. The resurrection in particular is skillfully handled, with a fine exposition of “the Sign of Jonah”(185-190).

Fittingly, the final chapter is a brief meditation on the identity of Jesus Christ utilizing His question at Caesarea Philippi, “who do you say that I am?” We are left in no doubt about the answer:

In light of everything we’ve seen in this book, one thing is clear: if you are going to hold a theory that Jesus never claimed to be God, you had better be committed to eliminating a lot of historical evidence. (193. Author’s emphasis).

Indeed. Dr Pitre makes his case. And he is helped by a whole company of scholars, from Craig Keener, Richard Bauckham and Martin Hengel to John Meier and Joseph Fitzmyer, whose appearances are most felt in the endnotes.

So buy and read The Case For Jesus, digest its arguments, teach them to others. Do not commit the logical error of shooting the messenger because he is not a Protestant. The author has written a clever rebuttal to the croaking arguments of the skeptics, and I for one am very glad that he did.

Exodus and the Mosaic Covenant (pt.3)

Part Two

The Relationship between the Abrahamic and Mosaic Covenants

The covenant with Abraham was, as we have seen, the source from which the people of Israel were created.  But a people without a land can never truly be a nation, and Yahweh had promised that very thing (Gen. 12:2; 17:20; 21:18; 46:3; 48:4. cf. Deut. 7:6-8).  A nation’s identity is tied to its surroundings; the familiar topography which is recalled in its literature, poetry and songs (e.g. Psa. 137:1-6).  So God promised a specific territory to the physical descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob for an everlasting possession (e.g. Exod. 32:13).  In fact, the last mention of Abraham in Genesis is in tandem with Isaac and Jacob and the land (Gen. 50:24).  There was an oath-based guarantee of Israel-in-the-land in existence hundreds of years before Moses brought the people to Sinai.

The first chapters of the Book of Exodus are full of allusions to the Abrahamic covenant.  Before He had even brought them out of Egypt Yahweh declared He would do so because of this covenant:

So God heard their groaning, and God remembered His covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. – Exodus 2:24

When God introduces Himself to Moses it is in the context of covenant remembrance (Exod. 6:1-8).[1]  The land is once more prominent:

And I will bring you into the land which I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; and I will give it to you as a heritage: I am the LORD. (Exod. 6:8).

As the Mosaic covenant will be made with the people of Israel prior to them taking possession of the land (although there was a delay through unbelief – Num. 32:11), this indicates that that bilateral covenant was built upon the oath contained in the previous unilateral Abrahamic oath.  It follows from this that if the provisions of the Mosaic Law were violated (cf. also Deut. 27 – 30) – which was sure to be the case – the Divine oath uttered to the Patriarchs would be unaffected apart from the time of its fulfillment.[2]

Conversely, if it is assumed that the Sinaitic requirements overrode the promises to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, then the Mosaic covenant would be the ideal way to frustrate the revealed plan of God up to this point in the biblical narrative.  The Creation Project would have had to be rerouted so as to bypass human depravity and dereliction.  But that was not the case.  Moses knew that he could appeal to God’s covenant with Abraham and so ensure the survival of the disobedient nation.  When God threatened to destroy the people after the episode concerning the golden calf, Moses successfully interceded for them by claiming the Abrahamic pledges.

Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, Your servants, to whom You swore by Your own self, and said to them, ‘I will multiply your descendants as the stars of heaven; and all this land that I have spoken of I give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever. – Exodus 32:13

Moses is careful to include both of the main strands of the Abrahamic covenant, that is, land and seed (descendants), which concern Israel as a new nation created by God.  And we will see that this pattern repeated continually; one might say habitually, by the writing Prophets.

Even though Israel is spared through the intercession of Moses, and delivered through the waters of the Red Sea, there is no final salvation through the Mosaic covenant (cf. Rom. 3:19-20; 4:15)[3].  The covenantal nature of the Law, though it does not rule out an approach to God through sacrifice, does prohibit salvation on the basis of performance, cultic or otherwise (cf. Isa. 1:3-5).  Whether one is reading the Old Testament or the New Testament, a redemptive approach to God is always via God’s grace.  This is even more clearly true when one is referring to the eschatological salvation, that is, the telos of God’s covenantal plans.

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[1] Shortly afterwards we read about what at first sight looks like a contradiction.  God says to Moses that “I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, as God Almighty, but by My name LORD I was not known to them.” (Exod. 6:3).  Of course, God had used that name and Abraham knew and used it in addressing God (e.g. Gen. 13:4; 14:22; 15:2, 8).  But what was not made clear was the significance of the Name.  I don’t agree with the view that the editor of the Pentateuch retroactively placed the Tetragrammaton onto the lips of Abraham (e.g. Robin Routledge, Old Testament Theology, 92-94).  Childs seems to argue similarly, although he does notice that the context lays stress upon the character of God and not the name itself. – Brevard S. Childs, Exodus, 112-115.

By contrast, Garrett believes “one could hardly more badly misread the text than to claim that Exod. 6 is the revelation of something new.” – Duane A. Garrett, A Commentary on Exodus, 252-253.  In his view God was saying that He was to be now known under the name YHWH.  But Motyer is surely correct when he says that “the character expressed by the name that was withheld from the patriarchs and not the name itself.” – J. Alec Motyer, The Revelation of the Divine Name, 15-16.  On top of this see Allen P. Ross, “Did the Patriarch’s Know the Name of the LORD?” in David M. Howard Jr. & Michael A. Grisanti, eds, Giving the Sense: Understanding and Using Old Testament Historical Texts, 323-339

[2] Kaiser observes, “The connection is undeniable.  The duty of obedience (law, if you wish) was intimately ted up with promise as a desired sequel.  Therefore, the transition to the coming time of Mosaic law should not be all that difficult for any who had really adequately listened to the full revelation of the promise in the patriarchal era.  But in no way was the promise-plan dependent on anyone’s obedience; it only insured their participation in the benefits of the promise but not on its maintenance.” – Walter C. Kaiser, Jr, The Promise-Plan of God, 61.

[3] “Ultimately, the people had to look to God for forgiveness and could not expect pardon by mechanically fulfilling the external requirements (Isa. 1:11-17; Mic. 7:18-20).” – Willem VanGemeren, The Progress of Redemption, 162

Exodus and the Mosaic Covenant (pt.2)

Part One

Relationship

The covenant Lord comes to establish a relationship.  This relationship is not yet predicated upon the finished work of Christ at Calvary, so the judicial element demands law.  Still, it also entails the fact that the God of the Law is the God also of grace.  If He were not, there would be no hope of relationship and the covenantal purposes of God would be reduced to futility.

The laws found in Exodus through to Deuteronomy are given, for the most part, to restrain Israel’s sin and to proclaim an ethics of human value, regardless of social status, and of the unity of communal life.[1]  The commandments can be summed up in two: Deuteronomy 6:4-5 and Leviticus 19:6.[2]

The 613 laws of the Torah can be boiled down to these two, but because these two are not realizable by corrupted humans, the other 611 spell out what this means in terms of living in a theocracy.

It must be recognized that it is a mistake to conflate the Pentateuch and the Law.  The Law does not show up until we are sixty-nine chapters into the Pentateuch.  Also, the role of faith is prominent in these books[3].

The Mosaic Covenant is Bilateral and Temporal

The covenant at Sinai was made with the children of Israel, who agreed to live as a Theocracy under God’s rule.  The covenant relationship was predicated on holiness.  While God’s holiness describes His Being and is absolute[4], fallen humanity does not possess the quality of holiness as a personal property.  As beings we are sinful (Isa. 61:6; Eccles. 7:20; Psa. 51:5; Rom. 3:23).  This means that any holiness we might “attain” is going to have to be God-approved.  This is especially the case if God is going to dwell in our midst.  In what is called “The Book of the Covenant” in Exodus 20-24[5] Israel discovers what external holiness looks like. (more…)

Exodus and the Mosaic Covenant (pt. 1)

More book excerpts

With the Book of Exodus we bid adieu to the Patriarchal period and are thrown into the misery of slavery and hopelessness.  Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are long dead.  The covenant promise is all but a forlorn hope.  Even Joseph’s eminence in Egypt has been forgotten; at least by those who matter.  Genesis ends with a small tribe of “Israelites” leaving their homeland and descending in to Egypt.

Yet the first half of the Book of Exodus contains some of the most compelling narrative ever written.  Exodus is a book about redemption.  The redemption envisaged in the early chapters is predominantly a deliverance from servitude.  Many who came through the waters were not saved spiritually, as the incident with the golden calf (Exod. 32) proved. Exodus is also a book about how God and sinners can meet on His terms.  The condition of this meeting was covenantally grounded; firstly in the Abrahamic covenant (Exod. 2:24), since the whole saga was predicted at the time God initiated His covenant with Abraham in Genesis 15:13-16.  But the relationship between the newly formed nation “Israel” and their God is one of theonomy; of law-keeping.  The Law that was to be kept was in the Mosaic or Sinai covenant (Exod. 20-24).  Unlike the other divinely instituted covenants in the Old Testament, the covenant with Israel was bilateral; both parties swearing an oath to perform their part.  Of course, Israel as all people, could not deliver on their obligations, and it was only by grace, mediated through the sacrificial system within the law, that salvation and blessing were made possible.

The great event which punctuates the history of Israel is the rescue of the people from the Egyptian might by the miraculous hand of God.  The exodus deliverance is often recalled by the Lord in His overtures to His wayward people (e.g. Deut. 7:8; 9:26; 13:5; 2 Sam. 7:23; Mic. 6:4; Neh. 1:10 etc.).  The covenant at Mt. Sinai was perhaps above all a covenant of identity.  It established Israel as a nation apart.  Even though they would continually depart from God and the Law God would never totally abandon them.  This rootedness of Israel’s hope, not in the Mosaic covenant but in the soil of the Abrahamic covenant is what assured the survival of the nation.  Moses clearly understood this when he pled for Israel in Exodus 32:14!  The Mosaic covenant does not abrogate the original Abrahamic covenant.  The first covenant is unilateral and unconditional[1], whilst the covenant with Moses and Israel is bilateral and conditional.  And because its demands were too high for sinners to meet, it was also a temporary covenantal relationship.

Nevertheless, it is by means of the Mosaic covenant that Israel was set apart and preserved historically.  Because Yahweh had redeemed Israel through the waters (a constant refrain in Deuteronomy), the nation, if not always the individuals in the nation, were special to Him.  Moreover, the covenant at Sinai was also a kind of marriage covenant between Yahweh and Israel; a metaphor which the Prophets will afterwards take advantage of as they call Israel to repentance.[2]  As I hope to show, the Lord’s willingness to take back His erring “wife” in a “new covenantal” relationship is one of the great examples of forgiveness and reconciliation. But only if He takes back the same wife!

The calling of Moses at the Burning Bush was not just the calling of one man, it was the beginning of the making a nation of God’s people.  The great redemption through the waters of the Red Sea (Exod. 14), and the provision of manna (Exod. 16), not to mention the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night (Exod. 13:21-22), show the care of Yahweh for His people.  Though there were challenges at Marah (Exod. 15) and afterwards, yet the God who called them would keep them.

So Israel comes to the Mountain of God to receive the Ten Commandments (ten words) and to institute the covenant of law.  But we must remember Exodus 19:6 where God tells the people that He wants them to be “a holy nation and a kingdom of priests”.  The meaning of this calling should not be missed.  Israel clearly has a ministry for the nation among the nations of the world.

Israel was to be kings and priests to God on behalf of the nations; they were to be… missionaries to the nations…, and they were to be partakers in the present aspects and coming reality of the “kingdom of God”.[3]

Verse 5 declares,

Now therefore, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be a special treasure to Me above all people; for all the earth is Mine. (my emphasis)

Here there is a distinct intention behind the calling of the nation.  Israel is to be a “special treasure” (cegullah) to Yahweh “above” all the other nations of earth.  The intent, therefore, was for Israel to dwell among other nations on earth yet to enjoy a peculiar position in God’s sight.[4]  As His “peculiar people” they were to serve God alone in the midst of an idolatrous world.[5]  Israel was to be prized as a wedding ring is prized.  Indeed, as already indicated, the Prophets would invoke marital language when describing the covenant relationship.

What this shows, I believe, is that the children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were destined to live with their God upon the earth surrounded by other saved nations to whom they would minister as priests.  This is what is taught in the “blessing” part of Deuteronomy 28: the LORD your God will set you high above all nations of the earth – Deut. 28:1

Then all peoples of the earth shall see that you are called by the name of the LORD, and they shall be afraid of you.  And the LORD will grant you plenty of goods, in the fruit of your body, in the increase of your livestock, and in the produce of your ground, in the land of which the LORD swore to your fathers to give you.  The LORD will open to you His good treasure, the heavens, to give the rain to your land in its season, and to bless all the work of your hand. You shall lend to many nations, but you shall not borrow. – Deuteronomy 28:10-12 (My emphases)[6]

This note is also struck in the Psalms.

(more…)