Friday, October 23, 2015

Doug on Covenantalism Part II

After thinking further about Doug’s definition of covenant (the set of rules that flow from a relationship), it seemed to me to be a very robust thing that fit the biblical mold very tightly, and had a lot of explanatory power. The general form allows both for explicit covenants (like with Creation), and non-explicit ones, (like with the Angels), which was something my old model couldn't provide. But as I was turning the thing over in my mind I began to wonder if it wasn’t too broad--if it wasn't weak where my old one was strong. Was it so broad that it would do injustice to the discontinuities between those covenants which God makes pre-fall and the ones He makes post fall? After all, post fall have the idea of grace in them; they use the actual word covenant. Pre-fall ones do not. And that’s no small difference.

Candidly, that's what pushed me away from the old stuff. The classic thinkers tried to rescue the continuity by putting everything under a single supreme covenant—the Covenant of Works. It’s works, they argue, which makes up the spine of the story of mankind and runs through the whole of the bible. It was manifested first upon Adam, then again in requiring Noah to build a boat, in bright fullness at Sinai, and lastly in Christ who comes to keep the covenant of works on our behalf. This is what Van Dorn seems to have in mind when he says [loc 1193] “It had to be this way so that we would know that the covenant of works continues on as a vital idea throughout redemptive history. This will make much better sense when we look at how it is fulfilled by Christ in a later section.
Grace enters in once the thing is shattered and puts the pieces of it back together.

The problem is this relegates grace to a secondary effect, a kind of architectural buttress. Christ in large part becomes a plan B, springing into action to restore the original blueprint once the first is ruined, and no amount of protesting by saying “it was God’s plan all along to build, then rebuild” can fully cleanse that consequence. Once accepted as the principle mechanism of salvation (owing to the holiness of God) works must be larger than grace. Indeed Van Dorn even admits this is the natural consequence of such a view [also in loc 1193], “This helps us see that grace absorbs the personal, legal basis for covenantal blessing upon perfection as it anticipates the coming Messiah. It then acts as the bubble around which ‘works’ can be carried out faithfully. God is reestablishing with mankind that He still expects man to carry out the covenantal obligations made with Adam in Eden, even though the testing from a tree is no longer in place.
It's crude way to say it, but the thought is that grace is necessary now to enable the works to have their saving work. If carried to the logical conclusion the thought is something like: and one day God will have strengthened our feeble knees to such an extent that such grace will be irrelevant and we’ll return to the works as we were meant to. Or at the very minimum we have Christ carrying the Covenant of Works before the Father so that men can be accepted.
I'm not trying to be dismissive or tip sacred cows, I merely want to point out that this model at some level must
subordinates grace to works. In an effort to avoid that people now like to call the Covenant of Works by a different name, like, Life-Works-Creation covenant, or whatever, because they don't mean for the thought to come off bad. The redeemed take joy in the law and work out what God's worked in. Or they have a some kind of dualism between the Covenant of Works/Grace that allows works to come off as looking nicer, but still, it doesn’t much help in my view, and I think because it's a model that took a wrong turn at Albuquerque.

The newer thinkers back of this model and try to get over the discontinuity between pre and post fall covenants in an interesting but different fashion: through Biblical, rather than Systematic Theology. They attempt to pull Adam and Noah together by showing that Noah is a type of Adam in starting the world over. This however seems like an incidental effect of both pointing forward to Christ—they appear to be near each other only insofar as they are near to Him. Objects come nearer to each other as they near the center of the circle. However, it amounts to nothing more than a slight of hand since it achieves unity by downplaying the differences. Just as in the same way there’s no difference between Catholics and Evangelicals since both worship Christ. Van Dorn offers both the old model and the new explanation as reasonable. I'm not so sure about either. 
But once again it’s his definition of covenant to the rescue, and for this my appreciation for the idea grows. Doug’s assertion is that the key thing to understanding all of human history (and especially the story of redemptive history as recorded in the Bible) lies in understanding that it was Gods purpose to manifest Himself to the creation. Covenants make up the framework to the universe because Covenant is fundamental to who God is. He created in an act of love to manifest Himself to the creation, that it could know Him, and by that experience His love. He wants us to know His attributes, most especially His triunity. Thus Jesus prays for us to know Him, even as He knows Him.

(Gods purpose being for all to know Him also elegantly explains the covenant made with angels as well. Why were the angels created more powerful than men? Because God wanted them to understand that part of Him that is powerful yet voluntarily humble and serving. They were made to stoop and serve the men who were lesser in ability and might than they. Satan rebelled in that he didn’t want to serve, and therefore he didn’t want to magnify God’s glory, he didn’t want creation to see God’s attributes, and voila, the fall.)

Why did He make men and not predestine them to stay perfect like angels? Because they were made to manifest His graciousness. He wanted the fall so He could have them know Him as a savior. And since this is a much finer gift, a much greater role, we are much more highly favored than the angels. We get to know what it’s like to be pursed, brought back, redeemed, wood, rescued. Our portion is grace. Grace is in everything of who we are and why we’re here. We have been forgiven much, so we will love the much more.

Seen in this light the pre-fall covenants are indeed genuine covenants, but they are merely incidental ones. Er, I’m not sure that’s the best word for it. The pre-fall covenants are a necessary set up for the real show: the post fall covenants. The road sign that points you to where you’re going is real, it’s just not what you should be dwelling on, merely using. Or better yet it’s like a play—the backdrop, stage, lighting, and curtains are all necessary elements that are really a part of things, but they are… secondary? It’s not that they’re not themselves a real or important thing, it’s that they are not what you are meant to be paying full attention to. Don’t think of works as fundamental to all covenants, or even as fundamental to the pre-fall covenants. That’s taken care of in the definition. Think of the pre-fall covenants as a necessary set up for grace, and the post-fall as the revelation of grace.

This also explains why the first three chapters of Genesis are zipped through with no mention of covenant though it’s forms are there, either for man or angels. Because our story is one of grace, and it’s in terms of grace that we should be thinking. Yes they are necessary as background information, but we’re not meant to stop there, we’re meant to keep moving, because soon God is going to use the fallenness to reveal His real plan.
By moving the notion of works into the idea of covenant, we suppress the tendency to let such a notion as the covenant of work arise in the first place, and we’re free of it eating the truth of grace alive. Or if you like it keeps Christ from being a servant to our holiness.
10 more points for Van Dorn’s definition of covenant.

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