Tuesday, 19 August 2008

Covenant theology: a summary and discussion

Covenant Theology - also called Federal Theology - is a way of summarising how God deals with humanity. As a system of doctrine, it comes mainly from the scholarly Calvinism of 17th century England, Scotland and northern Europe. But it was not "invented" then. It is a development of Calvin's thought [some people dispute this]; some Medieval theologians used covenant categories in their theology; and of course it tries to express what the Bible says about God's dealings with humanity.
Covenant theology summarises all of God's dealings with humanity in terms of two covenants: a covenant of works with Adam, and a covenant of grace in Christ. In Gen 2, God made a covenant with Adam: if he obeyed God and resisted the devil, God would reward him with eternal life in a glorified new creation. The tree of life in the garden of Eden represents this promise (Gen 2:9b). But as we know, Adam failed, and instead of life, brought the curse of death upon the whole human race.
Therefore, God made a second covenant with certain people - the elect - to redeem them from this mess that Adam has gotten us all into. This is the covenant of grace, and revolves around Christ. Christ, the Son of God, became incarnate, to both live the perfect obedient life that Adam failed to live, and to take the punishment, the curse, that Adam brought upon the human race. Christ Jesus died on the cross as a penal substitute for the elect, taking their punishment from the Father, offering himself, his whole obedient life, as an offering to the Father in their place.
The Holy Spirit applies this sacrifice to the elect. They hear the gospel message in some way: reading the Bible, evangelistic talk, chatting with a friend, reading a book, reading a website, whatever. As they do so, the Spirit moves secretly in their hearts to convict them of the truth of it, and moves them to respond to it by trusting Jesus, in his death & resurrection, to fix their relationship with God.
By trusting Jesus in this way, they are implicitly trusting him to live the perfect life before God that Adam failed to live, and to take the punishment that we, in Adam, all deserve. That is, they are trusting Jesus to provide both the positive and the negative righteousness required for a right standing before God. The positive righteousness is the obedient life that Adam should have lived, and Christ actually did live. The negative righteousness is the punishment of death that Adam brought upon us all, and that Christ suffered on behalf of the elect. In trusting Jesus, the believer is clothed with Christ's righteousness, and therefore perfectly acceptable to a holy God.
Covenant theology therefore presents salvation as a unified act of the Triune God, centered on Christ's death and resurrection. It provides a basis, in the covenant with Adam, for explaining how all people, everywhere, throughout all time, are accountable to God. It also, in the dual nature of Christ's righteousness - positive and negative, obedience and vicarious punishment - explains how the believer can be completely assured that God is pleased with them: not only has Jesus taken the punishment for all the wrong we have done and will do; he has provided the good that we should enact, but, even as regenerate Christians, still don't perfectly perform. So we need never feel guilty; in Christ, God has perfectly restored our relationship with him, forever.
There's some of the advantages of covenant theology. Now for some questions I have.
1. There's not much exegetical foundation for the covenant of works in Genesis ch 2. The existence of the tree of life in Gen 2:9b need not indicate the glorified eternal life of a new creation; it may simply represent continuity of Adam's life in the present creation. This would seem to be in line with God's warning in Gen 2:17: if he ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, he would forfeit his present life - which happened; Adam died at the age of 930 (Gen 5:5). Nor is Hosea 6:7 a good exegetical foundation - it may not read "like Adam, they transgressed the covenant"; it may read "as at Adam, they transgressed the covenant". The exegetical foundation for the two covenants comes much more from Romans 5:12-21 and 1 Cor 15.
Response 1A: If the exegetical basis is there in Romans and 1 Cor, then that should be enough, shouldn't it?
Response 1B: Isaiah 24:5 seems to point to a covenant of works (berit olam, eternal covenant), the breaking of which brings a curse upon all people of the earth (see the context).
Response 1C: Could God have intended to give Adam the glorified, new creation life as a surprise gift? Not strictly as a "reward" for obedience, but an additional act of grace - grace upon grace?
2. The language of a "covenant of works" sounds legalistic and impersonal. It makes God sound like an impersonal judge, not a personal, relational creator who loves all he has made, even if it rebels against him. Because of this, some [neo-orthodox] theologians reject the whole covenant-theology system, saying it necessarily has a heretical doctrine of God as a mere impersonal law-giver.
Response 2A: This isn't what the term "covenant of works" is meant to mean. It's meant to express how God graciously condescended to reveal his holy character to Adam. Furthermore, God graciously gave Adam the equipment, and the ability, to rightly respond to God's holy character. Adam didn't have to sin - he could have obeyed God. So God's wrath against Adam's sin is not an impersonal legal declaration; it is the personal anger of a good and gracious God, when his grace is used against him. I think that actually makes it more scary - don't you?
Response 2B: The covenant of works tries to express how all humans stand before God as responsible moral creatures. All three words are important. Responsible: we are accountable to God, we must answer to him. Moral: the nature of this responsibility has to do with right & wrong, which itself is based on God's holy, righteous character. Creatures: this moral responsibility is rooted in our being graciously created by God: he gave us life and existence; he deserves to dictate our purpose for existing. Our nature as responsible moral creatures underpins the whole Bible's view of sin, judgment and redemption.
Response 2C: There's no reason to keep the term "covenant of works". It's not itself a Biblical term; its a theological term, that tries to summarise Biblical themes. If it's more confusing than useful, we could replace it with something else. John Murray, of Westminster Theological Seminary, used the term Adamic Administration. I'll explore his ideas in a future post.

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