Sunday, December 30, 2018

Inbox: Thoughts in Progress (1)

The process of coming to grips with some of the great ideas in scripture and how best to understand them is far from easy or instant. More than a high IQ or a great memory, it takes desire, persistence and most of all ... time.

“Read, pay attention, pray, think and wait … and while you’re waiting, read some more” is sound advice for the young Christian who wants to learn, but it’s a difficult thing to sell to early 21st century Westerners who can ask Google a trivia question on their phones and get what passes for an answer in nanoseconds.

If you want to know where the nearest pizza place is and how late it’s open, that’s fine. But Google can’t tell you how to find oblique references to the Church in the Minor Prophets when you’re doing your morning reading, or even if you should expect to.

I mean, sometimes you’re not even at a stage where you’d know the right question to ask it.

Covenants and Dispensations

So, instant understanding is not coming anytime soon. Wisdom has never revealed itself cheaply or easily, and I have learned to be okay with putting an idea on the shelf for a few years and letting it percolate. After all, at least as I experience things, there is only so much room in the easy-access part of my brain, and it’s already full of other ideas I’m working through, like the differences between the Apocrypha and the word of God, or why Andy Stanley is dead wrong about chucking the Old Testament. Some concepts and issues just have to wait.

For me, one of those has been the covenant theology/dispensationalism debate. Anyone who reads here for any length of time has probably correctly inferred that I have strong instinctive leanings on the issue. These are a result of repeated readings of scripture rather than formal religious training. I grasp what’s at issue, and I have picked up enough from scholars to know that theologians would call my way of thinking dispensational, but I’m not well-read on the history of dispensationalism or aware of the relative stature of its advocates and critics. Nor am I a hard-liner about number of dispensations or whether we call them dispensations or covenants. I’m certainly not versed on the minutiae of the ongoing debate.

Irresistibly Dispensational

Anyway, I recently read Andy Stanley’s Irresistible and re-read Charles C. Ryrie’s 50+ year old Dispensationalism Today in the same two-week period, so the subject’s back on the front burner for a bit.

Then I came across a verse in Hosea that seems to strongly imply Adam transgressed not just a command but a covenant. So I ordered my thoughts and fired them off to a few others I know who care enough about these things to work them through. It looked something like this:
“Subject: Covenant Theology and Problems in Hebrews

‘Like Adam they transgressed the covenant; there they dealt faithlessly with me.’ (Hosea 6:7)

Here the word ‘covenant’ is bĕriyth, the same word used of God’s covenant with Noah (Gen. 6:18; 9:9-17), Abram-Isaac-Jacob (Gen. 15:18; 17:2-21; Ex. 2:24); the nation of Israel (Ex. 19:5), David (2 Sam. 23:5) and the ‘new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah’ referred to in Jeremiah 31:31. This last is arguably the same ‘new covenant’ of Hebrews 8, since the writer to the Hebrews quotes Jeremiah, which makes the covenant mentioned in Jeremiah (at least theoretically) the same covenant into which we Gentiles have latterly been brought.

While all these ‘covenants’ have different terms and conditions, while some are bilateral and some unilateral, and while some take the form of commands (Adam), others the form of promises (Abram) and still others the form of agreements (Sinai), they are all referred to by the same Hebrew word and therefore are all of a certain common order notwithstanding their differences. Fair?

So how is it that the covenant theology folks see only two covenants? Do they not use Strong’s? It is clear the covenant with Adam is not the covenant with Noah is not the covenant with Abram, and the one with David is not even close. Even if we use the word ‘covenant’ instead of ‘dispensation’, we are still much closer to a dispensational view here than anything else. This is Andy Stanley’s error in dismissing the Old Testament: he lumps all the covenants found there into a single overarching covenant despite the fact that they are clearly radically different from one another. How does the covenant theologian account for these differences? Or does he? I have not encountered anything that might explain their thinking and I certainly wouldn’t want to put words in their mouths.

(I recognize identifying the Hebrews 8 ‘new covenant’ as absolutely identical with the one referred to by Jeremiah is not without its problems, since that ‘new covenant’ is ‘with the house of Israel and the house of Judah’. Except by the sort of John Piper (‘We’re all Jews!’) non-literal reading of ‘house of Israel and Judah’, we Gentiles really don’t fit there. Now, I don’t believe we’re all ‘Jews’ in the sense Piper teaches it. [I spell out the reasons for this elsewhere.] That’s just silly. But if not, or if we don’t fit in under this covenant with Israel and Judah, where do we fit? So that one kinda works for them ...)

Any thoughts? Mull and mulch ...”
It’s nice to be able to reach out to other like-minded people, no?

Not the Bible’s Covenants

Anyway, this is what I got back from one good friend:
“Not surprisingly, I think everything you wrote is dead on.”
See, now that’s what one likes to hear. But it gets better:
“We just went through the covenants at our Thursday night studies and found it very helpful. Here are a few thoughts that came to mind while reading your email:

I remember arguing with [a mutual friend] about dispensationalism. As you know, he was a dispensationalist even before he died but just hated the word. [I can obviously relate.] But in the early years that I knew him, he would often use the argument (as covenant theologies commonly do) that the Bible hardly ever uses the word ‘dispensation’ but has lots to say about covenants. This wasn’t compelling for all the standard logical reasons. But it was an effective argument (even though it shouldn’t be) because it consoled covenant theologians and gave them a false sense of security.

Then one day, I discovered that the covenants of covenant theology aren’t the Bible’s covenants.”
Say what???

Covenants and Pseudo-Covenants

This is news to me. I can see I’m going to have to do some more reading:
“Not just that they have interpreted the Bible’s covenants differently, but that they wouldn’t even claim to be speaking of the same covenants. They believe in two or three covenants (depending on the version of CT). A covenant of works with Adam, a covenant of grace from the Fall onwards, and (optionally) an eternal covenant between the Father and Son for the Son to die to effect redemption. At first glance, their supposed covenant of works seems to align with the Edenic covenant but only because of timing — the terms of the covenant of works in their theology are very different from the terms of the Edenic covenant. But even if they were the same, their other two covenants don’t even pretend to align with the biblical covenants.

I literally felt betrayed.”
And no wonder.
“These guys are using a concordance count to justify their theology and then we realize that they’re ignoring all the verses that they use for their count. They’re saying, ‘All these verses count to make CT important even though we don’t think they have anything to do with CT.’

[Our mutual friend] laughed and shrugged his shoulders.”
This is the sort of discussion we both used to have with him back in the eighties. We would sling it back and forth pretty hard, but always with humor and goodwill. I still like to go at it that way.

Sorry, back to my friend’s response:
“I think this is significant. We read through the Bible and get a list of covenants. And covenant theologians don’t even claim that those are the covenants of CT. Their covenants are entirely imagined. I suspect that most of them couldn’t explain or even list the biblical covenants.”
Let me stop here to assure you it’s quite possible Andy Stanley is among them.

Systems of Theology and the Problems They Cause

And yet Stanley has written a popular book in which covenants are not just significant but, well, the entire point. One would hope he’s using the word “covenant” the way scripture uses it.

Stanley calls the covenant at Sinai “a classic, I will as long as you do suzerain treaty”. This may be a fair description of that particular covenant. But the Old Testament content from which Stanley is most at pains to detach himself, and which he dismisses in view of the obsolescence of this particular “suzerain treaty”, actually pre-dates the covenant at Sinai by hundreds of years, and in some cases thousands. Those chapters come under one of at least three previous covenants (Adam, Noah, Abram), none of which bear this same strong resemblance to “classic suzerain treaties”.

In any case, his thesis ignores these covenants almost completely. I don’t know whether Stanley is a covenant theologian or just uninterested in a lot of Old Testament detail, but his view of it is both potentially influential and missing something significant.

It’s at this point in the discussion that I began to start making a distinction between being a party to a covenant and being positively or negatively impacted by it.

The Adamic Covenant

Adam’s “covenant”, the one we see referenced in Hosea, came in the form of a command, not a treaty of any sort:
“You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.”
Adam was never given a choice about whether he would or would not enter into this covenant. It was simply declared. As children of Adam, it impacts both you and me in that his fall applied to us by proxy and handed us over to the dominion of death just as surely as we are now made alive in Christ through faith in him.

So there is a difference between being a party to a covenant and being either a beneficiary or loser under it. This covenant was with Adam, but it was the human race that was the big loser.

The Noahic Covenant

Noah’s covenant came in the form of a solemn promise that required nothing of Noah personally, but positively impacted everyone. Here the parties are spelled out to include you and me:
“… with you and your offspring after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the livestock, and every beast of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark; it is for every beast of the earth.”
The fact that this covenant is unilateral is evident in that even birds and animals are included as parties. The covenant is made with “every living creature”, and is entirely positive. It is guaranteed by the rainbow, and we very definitely benefit from it.

Speaking Meaningfully About Covenants

In short then, to be able to speak meaningfully about the covenants of scripture, we need to look closely at each of the parties, conditions (where these exist) and intended beneficiaries.

Let me stop here for now as this is getting a bit lengthy. It is, as I say, a work in progress …


  1. What a mess - covenant theology, dispensational theology, millenialists, premillenialists, and no apparent clear understanding of what is really meant and going on or is supposed to come. A field day for the bookworms and lovers of intrigue (present company excluded :-? ). No wonder the ordinary churchgoer is satisfied to just skip over the details and is happy to be a minimalist instead.

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    2. To be fair, this subject is not the sort of thing ordinary churchgoers can be expected to instantly grasp, Q, not because it is especially hard -- it isn't -- but because it's not something that jumps out at you unless you are constantly reading and re-reading the Bible.

      Christians are not readers these days. They have other things to do with their time. I'm not sure that says anything especially wonderful about the priorities of our generation.