Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Doug On Coventalism

This is an analysis of Doug Van Dorns assertion regarding the definition of Covenants as seen in his book Covenant theology, a Reformed Baptist Primer.
I promise you this blog post is more interesting than I just made it sound.

Necessary Personal Background Information

Let me begin by saying something about the view I had regarding how the covenants all fit together before picking up this book: I only accepted a covenant when the Bible explicitly stated it. Noah, Abraham, and David, are in, Adam is out. This is because I took covenant to mean “Christ,” which is why the covenants in the old testament have death or sacrifice in them, since they foreshadow the savior.  Each covenant is designed to be a progressive revelation about Jesus until we get to the New Testament whereupon the thing is fully revealed. For example, Noah teaches us that God would send someone to save the world from His wrath and put everything back together. Abraham teaches us that Jesus would descend from him, a man who would bless the world. From David we learn He will be a King. In short Old Testament=Christ Promised, New Testament=Christ revealed.
But for this reason the covenant with creation mentioned in Jeremiah 33 never sat well with me. I tried to shoehorn it into the covenant God made with Noah, but that’s sort of an ugly fit and I was never happy with it, because it never really worked. Think about it for a minute and you’ll see why.

As far as I can tell Dougs stance looks very much like the older treatises on the matter (whether or not that’s your bag) with the only difference being that his work is more accessible for the layman than say, Hodge. Doug has done a great job in making this topic trivially easy to grasp, but personally I’m a little disappointed that he’s stuck closely to the original thinkers whom I find to be defective, or at least incomplete. Not that I blame him for that you understand, being in a different stage, age, career, and circle of life than I do it’s only natural. Nor does it bother me that he comes closer to historicity than I think is wise. Lots of other good thinkers have. I readily admit that I get away with blog posts like this because I’m independent, and find it exceedingly amusing when my pastor calls my blogs the stupidest thing he’s ever read. A man like Doug or Bob Gonzalez however doesn't have that luxury, he must necessarily stick closer to the Authorized Opinion if they’re to be heard by their community. (Otherwise they’d end up like me!)
Full disclosure though, I’m suspicious of my own view, since, as far as I know, nobody holds it but me. I’m even more suspicious however of the even larger inconsistencies I see in the historic models.

A Short Critique of the Text Leading up to the Assertion

Right away Doug defines covenant like the older thinkers do [see kindle location 206] as: an oath of fealty sworn between two unequal parties, often ushered in by blood. This is different than a contract which is between equals. Often a covenant is best understood by an ancient near east Suzeran making his vassal swear allegiance to him, or giving things to his vassal regent.
“I find this… lacking.” I say to myself, “A contract is an agreement over things, a covenant is an agreement between two people. Furthermore, for as much as these theologians go on about blood, the covenant cut with Adam or creation doesn’t feature blood in it. And for goodness sake, when will those old canards about grants versus obligations die already? That’s a terrible fit to the Biblical model, no matter how much Kingdom Through Covenant pushes it. It leaves so much on the table and achieves very little in terms of clarity.”

In another place however he contradicts that line of thought by defining a covenant as: a formal definition of relationship between two parties.
“Well that’s an improvement at any rate,” I think to myself. “Although it still leaves the door open for bare assertions of God to be classified as Covenants, which I’m not impressed with. It would mean for example, when Adam named the animals he covenanted with them—a dubious proposition at best. It also seems to make a mash of how works and grace get along, allowing some theologians to say works are antithetical to grace, and others to say the existence of works are gracious.”
To be fair Doug seems to realize the problem of this as well since he later talks about the problems of categorizing the covenants [see Loc 783].

The book then takes a turn for the better when discussing the objective and subjective dimensions of Christ’s work, then a turn for the worse in falling back into the older thought patterns regarding Covenant of Redemption. And then—an almost throwaway line [loc 603]—God covenants with the day and night (Jer 33:20)… this covenant is based on the oath of God which binds the forces of nature by natural laws.

Now I’ve already got my antenna up because he’s put his finger on the weakness of my model, but what he does in the second half I’m completely unprepared for. Because if he’s right, then the necessary and logical consequences of his assertion there doesn’t just kick over my own table, it upends everybody’s. With a thermonuclear warhead. The result of his statement means that a covenant is best defined as the works (or laws) which flow from a relationship. Not too different I hear you say? That makes sense, it’s just like the rules of fidelity which defines a husband and wife, right? Oh no my friend. Look again at what he’s proposing.

The Consequences of Van Dorns Assertion

  • Let’s start with the passage itself. In the covenant of creation the relationship is: God the creator and matter the creation. The rules are the natural laws. Planks constant, e, pi, blackbody radiation, the strong nuclear force, electromagnetism, fusion power, etc.  These rules are themselves covenant God has made with our universe. Those scientific principles which define the galaxies and keep them well ordered is the covenant which God has made.
  • This means that at Sinai the laws themselves compose the covenant. An assertion which I find very interesting since this seems to be what Ex. 19:5 indicates. Of note also is that Sinai is not a recent manifestation of some previous eternal covenant of works by which man does good merit life, but a covenant in its own right. And that too is much more natural.
  • It means the baptists are right about the New Covenant being a new covenant. Now the people are made clean by the blood of Christ, the requirements of a previous covenant have been fulfilled, and are made willing to keep the laws in the new covenant terms. Men are in covenant with God by keeping His commandments, and His commandments are not burdensome. The Apostle John calls it abiding in Christ. Do we keep the laws to earn a seat at the table? No, Jesus has kept the covenant regulations for us. Must we keep them to be in covenant with God? Yes, which is why we confess our sins. By the laws of love we have an ongoing relationship with God. By the laws we know His will, by the laws we can see what He wants. The law is our brother. (Notice that I mean law as in rules for loving God, which is distinct from the Mosaic Law given at Sinai). Casting off God and opting for gross sin gets you booted from the covenant, by definition. Isn’t that what the warning passages are all about?
  • It also means God covenants with Adam, since He gave him instructions, and those works which flow from the relationship constitute a covenant. I do think we must be careful to distinguish the big redemptive Covenants which typify Christ in a direct way with the other covenants that don’t, but it’s evident Adam was under obligation to God to perform certain duties and abstain from others, and that means covenant. 
  • It means God has covenanted with all of us by giving us a conscience, or the natural law. This turns out to be very similar to what the older thinkers called the Covenant of works but is both more robust, and more plainly limited than the old form. Our transgression of these innate moral understandings makes us guilty before God even if further special revelation isn’t present. Because we’ve broken the covenant we are sinners, see Is 24:5.
  • It breaks down (and by that I mean completely unravels) the Covenant of works, Covenant of grace distinction that mires the older thinkers down, but also reconciling the thought patterns beautifully. No longer do you have to figure out which old testament covenant belonged where, now you can accept the covenant itself, as itself, or by itself. (I don’t think Doug himself saw the full implication of this one in forcing the reader to define a covenant like that, since he sticks to the older forms in the book. Nonetheless, accidental or not, his assertion delivers the deathblow to the historic dichotomy. Atom. Bomb.)
  • It has the largest impact on understanding the Covenant of Redemption in that it turns the whole thing upside down. Since a covenant is the rules which flow from the relationship, we, interestingly enough, now necessarily have a covenant before the covenant of redemption—call this the Covenant of Identity. It means that the Son is the Son of the Father. The Spirit is the Spirit, the person who proceeds from them. It is who and how the members of the Trinity relate to each other. I don’t mean to be saying something stupidly obvious like God is God, I mean that the relationship between the persons of the God head is governed by boundaries and rules, and that the interactions and innate nature of the persons follow certain principles of relation.

    Proceeding outward from this Covenant of Identity is the Covenant of Redemption—but here we’d do better to call it the Covenant of Manifested Triunity.  Or the Covenant of the Revealing of God. Now it’s no longer about a plan to save the elect by sending Christ, but the plan for the members of the Trinity to introduce themselves to creation, so that creation could know them. It is a scheme to manifest their attributes, persons, and nature in history to the universe, whether that be to men, angels, animals, or even the dirt and stars. Christ still stands at the center of the creation as He hangs on the cross, or as the women find the tomb empty, certainly, but now we have a robust visible portion for all of them in our definition. Previous incarnations of the Covenant of Redemption leave little room for the Holy Spirit, but now we have ample space for all of them to become visible. This definition of covenant leads to a much more robust Trinitarian theology. It is the unfolding story of God, not just of His Christ. It’s… ah… forgive me, I’m saying this badly, I know. My point is not that the old covenant of redemption system is wrong, so much as the Covenant of Manifested Triunity is superior and swallows it up. It’s like how Newtonian mechanics is now known to be a subset of general relativity, rather than in opposition to it. By knowing Einstein you get Newton for free.
Interestingly, and I mean very interestingly, there is a side-effect of defining covenants as the rules which proceed from relationships: it removes or dilutes the idea of neutral ground from creation. Whereas we are tempted to think of the laws of physics as neutral things, neither moral nor non-moral, in this scheme that becomes more difficult. Creation existing under a covenant carries with it a moral component by virtue of the personal God making it. Now when God creates the heavens and the Earth He pronounces it good, as in right by virtue of His relationship to it. Uzziah touching the ark is a problem because he’s sinful, but because the ground or cart is morally pure there is no problem. This means the angels who fell by disobeying their instructions from God received a new nature by virtue of their fall. Man, during the fall, had his heart modified, twisted, corrupted, since there’s no escape from the moral bleeding into the physical. The moral cannot be separated from it. That means that ordinarily to tinker with nature as given is a bad, or immoral thing, but because God made man regent over all creation and gave him instruction to, it’s now a good thing. I’m not sure what the further implications of all that are, since clearly the sun is moral in a different way than we are. But it at least is evident that by creations continual obedience God is glorified, and that is good.

Let me answer a particular objection and then I’ll wrap it up. In the old scheme the promise, or if you like the promises, are inherently antithetical to works. But that thinking need no longer apply in this scheme. The covenant of promise which the new testament speaks of in Ephesians includes the work that not just man was to do, but chiefly what God would do. The definition of covenant in this case is large enough to encompass it without difficulty.

So obviously my brain is running below capacity since I’ve been stuck on this plane for the better part of 24 hours and I feel sick and feverish. I can feel that I’m not thinking well. And obviously I didn’t come at this topic with as much passion or strength as I would were I defending my position, since this is blog post was my examination of Doug’s proposal, not necessarily my view on the matter at this point. I think however that it has a great deal going for it, and it definitely worth further consideration. On a glance I see there’s a lot of reason to accept it, and not very many to dismiss it. It takes what was valuable from the older thinkers and seems to leave out their weaknesses. Granted it pulls me very near the old model, but I think it’s much more sound.

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