Thursday, May 18, 2006

Various thoughts on the covenant(s)

In general, Reformed people view tend to view covenants as a major structuring grid which encompasses the whole Bible. Although this narrows down the potential viewpoints quite a bit (all forms of Dispensationalism are thrown out at least), there remains quite a few issues in regard to the covenants. I've heard people talk about 3 covenants (1 between the Trinity in eternity to redeem mankind, 1 of works, and 1 of grace), I've heard talk about 2 basic covenants (either 1 of works and one of grace or 1 between the Trinity in eternity and 1 of grace) and I've heard of 1 basic Covenant of Grace. Now assuming that those who don't mention a covenant between the members of the Trinity take that one for granted or perhaps don't call it a covenant, then there are two basic positions with many sub-positions within those groups. The argument seems to come down to 1 covenant or 2. I've probably over simplified things, but some of these positions seem to split hairs to me.

It also seems that generally Reformed people hold to two covenants (a Covenant of Works and a Covenant of Grace) it just varies as to how they see these covenants progressing throughout redemptive history. For instance consider the Westminster Confession article 7 (from the OPC's website)
1. The distance between God and the creature is so great, that although reasonable creatures do owe obedience unto him as their Creator, yet they could never have any fruition of him as their blessedness and reward, but by some voluntary condescension on God's part, which he hath been pleased to express by way of covenant.

2. The first covenant made with man was a Covenant of Works, wherein life was promised to Adam; and in him to his posterity, upon condition of perfect and personal obedience.

3. Man, by his fall, having made himself incapable of life by that covenant, the Lord was pleased to make a second, commonly called the Covenant of Grace; wherein he freely offereth unto sinners life and salvation by Jesus Christ; requiring of them faith in him, that they may be saved, and promising to give unto all those that are ordained unto eternal life his Holy Spirit, to make them willing, and able to believe.

4. This Covenant of Grace is frequently set forth in Scripture by the name of a testament, in reference to the death of Jesus Christ the Testator, and to the everlasting inheritance, with all things belonging to it, therein bequeathed.

5. This covenant was differently administered in the time of the law, and in the time of the gospel: under the law, it was administered by promises, prophecies, sacrifices, circumcision, the paschal lamb, and other types and ordinances delivered to the people of the Jews, all foresignifying Christ to come; which were, for that time, sufficient and efficacious, through the operation of the Spirit, to instruct and build up the elect in faith in the promised Messiah, by whom they had full remission of sins, and eternal salvation; and is called the old testament.

6. Under the gospel, when Christ, the substance, was exhibited, the ordinances in which this covenant is dispensed are the preaching of the Word, and the administration of the sacraments of baptism and the Lord's Supper: which, though fewer in number, and administered with more simplicity, and less outward glory, yet, in them, it is held forth in more fullness, evidence and spiritual efficacy, to all nations, both Jews and Gentiles; and is called the new testament. There are not therefore two covenants of grace, differing in substance, but one and the same, under various dispensations.

From the Westminster Confession, it would seem that the Covenant of Works has not manifested itself at really anytime beyond the pre-fall era with Adam. This makes a lot of sense as the revelation of Christ does seem to become clearer and clearer as Biblical history goes along.

The Covenant of Grace is commonly considered to be an unconditional covenant. This comes from the fact that when Abraham was witness to the initial covenant making only God (as represented by the burning lantern in Genesis 15) passed through the split animals. Normally both parties would pass through signifying that "may what happened to these animals happen to us if we break our part of the covenant." But only God passed through, so He was taking on himself all of the obligations to keep this covenant. This idea presents a little bit of an issue with saying all other covenants are progressively revealing Christ because it seems that at least some aspects of the Mosaic Covenant are conditional and bringing about bondage. This seems to be something that Paul says in Galatians 4 as well:
Galatians 4:
21 Tell me, you who desire to be under the law, do you not hear the law? 22 For it is written that Abraham had two sons: the one by a bondwoman, the other by a freewoman. 23 But he who was of the bondwoman was born according to the flesh, and he of the freewoman through promise, 24 which things are symbolic. For these are the two covenants: the one from Mount Sinai which gives birth to bondage, which is Hagar— 25 for this Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia, and corresponds to Jerusalem which now is, and is in bondage with her children— 26 but the Jerusalem above is free, which is the mother of us all. 27 For it is written:

“ Rejoice, O barren,
You who do not bear!
Break forth and shout,
You who are not in labor!
For the desolate has many more children
Than she who has a husband.”

28 Now we, brethren, as Isaac was, are children of promise. 29 But, as he who was born according to the flesh then persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit, even so it is now. 30 Nevertheless what does the Scripture say? “Cast out the bondwoman and her son, for the son of the bondwoman shall not be heir with the son of the freewoman.” 31 So then, brethren, we are not children of the bondwoman but of the free.(NKJV)

For Paul to say that to "cast out the bondwoman and her son" after saying that the bondwoman correlated to the covenant on Mount Sinai seems to be a stronger rejection than simply a progressive administration of the Covenant of Grace. Jeremiah 31 also seems to support a strong rejection of the Mosaic covenant:
1 “Behold, the days are coming, says the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah— 32 not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, though I was a husband to them, says the LORD. 33 But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put My law in their minds, and write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. 34 No more shall every man teach his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they all shall know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them, says the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.” (NKJV)

On the other hand, virtually no one that I've read suggests that the Davidic Covenant has is anything but a further progression the Covenant of Grace. The promise to David that one of his descendants would sit on the throne forever can only be understood as pointing to Christ. The issue here for me is that David is a king of Israel ruled by all the various laws that Moses gave. The Davidic Covenant really doesn't make sense without the Mosaic.

Also, many, many elements of the Mosaic Covenant itself point directly to Christ; as the author of Hebrews argues, all the various aspects of the tabernacle and temple were "copies" of the heavenly things.
Hebrews 9:23 Therefore it was necessary that the copies of the things in the heavens should be purified with these, but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these. 24 For Christ has not entered the holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us; (NKJV)
So in a very real sense the Mosaic Covenant does further reveal Christ as our Savior (in comparison with the covenants beforehand).

Perhaps the Mosaic Covenant truly does have aspects of both the Covenant of Grace and the Covenant of Works. I'm not sure what consequences this would have in general though...


At 10:09 PM, Blogger Augustine said...

Check out Christ of the Covenants by O Palmer Robertson, he deals exactly with what you are blogging on.

At 10:12 PM, Blogger Bud said...

Robertson is good, but Witsius is better, as any Dutchman knows. :-)


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