Covenant in the Clutch

There’s some controversy these days among Reformed folk concerning the covenants we find in Scripture. One book on the subject that has “prompted some discussion,” to be polite, is the book, Sacred Bond: Covenant Theology Explored. The authors are a URC minister and an OPC minister, and they take the Westminster California angle on the covenant. Fourth-year William and I were assigned to review the book (separately) for our History of Revelation in the Old Testament course. Because it’s a contemporary and rather heated subject, I thought I’d toss my review into the “polite” mix.
I. If it was the doctrine of sola fide that ignited the Reformation, one of its most brightly burning embers has certainly been covenant theology. It is not that a doctrine of the covenant was a novelty of the Reformers, nor even was the idea of multiple covenants within Scripture. Indeed, Augustine had written a thousand years earlier, “Now there are many things called God’s covenants besides those two great ones, the old and the new, which any one who pleases may read and know.”[1] The novelty, rather, was in the development of the doctrine of the covenant into the foundation for all later Reformed thinking. It is from that foundation that we make sense of the sacraments, structure our worship, and formulate our soteriology. Since covenant theology is so basic to Reformed thinking, it follows that without a clear understanding of the doctrine of the covenant there will be confusion regarding Reformed thinking in general. So a book that lays out very simply and clearly what the doctrine of the covenant looks like would certainly be a valuable addition to any Reformed bookshelf.

Michael Brown and Zach Keele, ministers in the United Reformed and Orthodox Presbyterian churches, respectively, and graduates of Westminster Seminary (California), have attempted such a book. In the introduction to Sacred Bond: Covenant Theology Explored, the authors make clear their target audience: “We have often found ourselves at a loss when asked by congregants for a good introductory resource on covenant theology.”[2] So the book is written and organized with the goal of acquainting the average church member with the broad outlines of this essential doctrine.

To that end, the authors use a similar structure for each of the eight covenants they explain. Each chapter covers one covenant, and begins with a short introduction, followed by a definition of the covenant under discussion, the scriptural evidence for it, and then an explanation as to why understanding that covenant matters for us today. And just as each chapter follows the same structure, each covenant is governed by the same overall definition. In the introduction to the book, Brown and Keele define covenant as “a solemn agreement with oaths and/or promises which imply certain sanctions or legality.” The authors explain how each of the eight covenants satisfies that definition and thus qualifies as a covenant.

Brown and Keele also add a simple but noteworthy caveat: “[This book] is in no way the final word on the vast subject of covenant theology.”[3] This is helpful because in admitting their own limits the authors invite the same kind of stance in someone evaluating the book. Because covenant theology covers so much scriptural material, someone looking to explain its broad outlines has to choose what, of this mountain of material, are the essentials. Such a project runs the risk, on the one hand, of choosing to emphasize the wrong material; and on the other hand, of choosing the right material but generalizing it to the point that it becomes simplistic. This is a risk run both by authors writing about the covenant and by those reviewing them.

II. Perhaps it is best, then, to begin the evaluation at the most general level. That level, according to Brown and Keele, is Scripture itself: “Covenant is the very fabric of Scripture. It is God’s chosen framework for the Bible.”[4] And again, “Covenant theology is the Bible’s prescribed method of helping us interpret the Scriptures properly.”[5] A good grasp of covenant theology then is not only foundational to understanding Reformed thinking, it is foundational to understanding the whole of God’s revelation itself.

Considering that the entire testimony of Scripture falls under this claim, and considering that this testimony is larger than any one or two people – or a generation, for that matter – could fully understand in a lifetime, it is worth measuring this claim against the long history of illuminated readers in the Church. If covenant theology is the interpretive key to Scripture, and if we do not find covenant theology being expounded throughout church history, then we have to conclude either that the Church between the apostolic era and the Reformation was only reading Scripture poorly, or that covenant theology is not the key.
The historical data is not complicated on this matter. As R. Scott Clark points out, “The early church … had a theology of the covenant which is best described as latent, but undeveloped.” He goes on to say that in Augustine the covenant becomes more prominent, but only during the Reformation was covenant theology really fleshed out.[6] Clark’s historical claims are not contentious, as it is commonplace to equate covenant theology with Reformation and post-Reformation thinking. But this calls into serious question the claim that covenant theology is the key to interpreting Scripture. For we would have to conclude, as just one historical example, that since the bishops who formulated the Nicene Creed – the foundational document for all Christian ecumenism – did so at a time when covenant theology could at best be called “latent,” those bishops were operating without the interpretive key to Scripture. We either make that judgment, or we conclude that covenant theology is not the interpretive key to Scripture.

This is not to say, of course, that covenant theology does not provide a rich and profound interpretive lens through which to read Scripture. It certainly does. But to make it the fabric and the framework is to make a claim that passes a rather severe, and, I believe, untenable judgment on the Church prior to the Reformation. Nor do I believe that it is necessary for the success of a book on this subject for the authors to make such a claim. Covenant can be a major feature of revelation, and foundational to our theology, without being the sine qua non of scriptural hermeneutics.

III. But because the authors do make this claim about Scripture, it shapes their explanation of Scripture in Sacred Bond. That is, because covenant is “a solemn agreement with oaths and/or promises which imply certain sanctions or legality,” and because covenant is seen as the interpretive key of Scripture, everything in Scripture belongs to this juridical structure. The authors do explain that “legality” should not be understood only in its technical, courtroom sense. Rather, it should be understood as the social cost of forsaking one’s duty, whatever that duty is. Thus, legality is not opposed to meaningful relationships, as even our most intimate relationships are governed by duty and the consequences of forsaking that duty. But nevertheless, in claiming that covenant is the fabric of Scripture the authors hold that Scripture is rightly understood primarily through a legal, that is, an oath/oathbreaking, lens.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the chapter on the Mosaic covenant. Brown and Keele argue that the Mosaic covenant is a covenant of works administered within the larger framework of the covenant of grace. God made a covenant of grace with Adam and Eve, promising salvation based on his actions alone, but before that promised salvation would come God had to forever close the door to salvation-by-works. He would do this through the Mosaic covenant. By holding out to Israel the prospect of salvation by works, God is graciously teaching them that this avenue of salvation is impossible. The authors use the analogy of a young man restoring a classic car. His father offers to help, but the young man stubbornly refuses, insisting that he can restore the car without his father’s help. So the father, in the interest of teaching his son a lesson, leaves him to it. The son, of course, makes a mess of the whole thing and eventually comes to his father humbled and ready to seek his help. This, too, is the lesson that God is teaching Israel – and us – through the Mosaic covenant. No matter how much man is tempted to achieve salvation on his own, he cannot do it. The purpose of the Mosaic covenant then is a legal one; first, to underscore our oathbreaking guilt on all counts, and second, to underscore our inability to atone for that guilt.

Understanding the Mosaic covenant this way is significant. As Brown and Keele point out, “Virtually every Old Testament book, in one way or another, falls under the Mosaic covenant.”[7] So how we understand the Mosaic covenant will in large part determine how we read the entire Old Testament. For that reason, I will address this claim in detail.

One of the key points in Brown and Keele’s argument is that from the beginning God had ordained this covenant to fail. The LORD held out this relationship of harmony and blessedness, and then immediately decreed its failure for the purpose of driving Israel to look away from their own righteousness to a righteousness outside of them. The meaning of the law then, from the beginning, was: Don’t even try this, but look for the One who can. They provide as evidence Deuteronomy 4:26, 27. Here is the passage as they quote it:

“I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that you will soon utterly perish from the land that you are going over the Jordan to possess. You will not live long in it but will be utterly destroyed. And the LORD will scatter you among the peoples, and you will be left few in number among the nations where the LORD will drive you.”[8]

That certainly looks like a strong prediction, with Moses calling all of creation to witness to the fact that Israel is going to fail. The problem is that these verses are removed from their grammatical context. Those words are in fact the second part of a sentence, the first part of which is given in verse 25:

“When you father children and children’s children, and have grown old in the land, if you act corruptly by making a carved image in the form of anything, and by doing what is evil in the sight of the LORD your God, so as to provoke him to anger, I call heaven and earth…” (emphasis mine).

When read in context, verses 26 and 27 are not a strong prediction, but a strong warning. They are the apodosis to the protasis of potential idolatry. Now admittedly, the NASB and NKJV both omit the word “if” and replace it with “and.” This indicates that the Hebrew is ambiguous, and in the case of those translations the verses in question do sound much more like a prediction than a warning, although it is still possible to read them as a warning. But Brown and Keele quote the ESV which along with the NIV does not render this verse ambiguous. If the authors wanted to argue on the basis of the ambiguity that this verse should be taken as a prediction, then it would have been necessary to at least mention the different translations, and to mention that the translation they are using does not agree with their interpretation. But since they do not, any reader who turns to the ESV for the rest of the context will immediately see that these verses have been misquoted.

The authors also point to Deuteronomy 30:1 and the song of Moses in Deuteronomy 32 as further evidence of Israel’s ordained failure. But in the case of the former, that, too, is within the context of a possible future apostasy. Deuteronomy 32 is more amenable to Brown and Keele’s argument, but it can be interpreted as being a parable of the future for the purpose of warning, rather than a prediction of the future.

But if it is granted to the authors that the above evidence is ambiguous and could possibly support their position, there is yet considerable contextual evidence against it. The first is that God himself gives the meaning of the Mosaic covenant. In Deuteronomy 6:20-25, Moses imagines a conversation between father and son. If the son were to ask what the meaning of this covenant was, the father was to respond by explaining that God delivered Israel from Egypt with signs and wonders and brought them into this land. As a result, “the LORD commanded us to do all these statutes, to fear the LORD our God, for our good always, that he might preserve us alive, as we are this day. And it will be righteousness for us, if we are careful to do all this commandment before the LORD our God, as he has commanded us.” In other words, “I have saved you, now this is how you ought to live with me.” So the grace of God in the Mosaic covenant is not that through this covenant God will forever quash works-righteousness; it is that God has already saved his people. It is not just in its relation to the overarching covenant of grace that the Mosaic covenant finds its grace; rather, grace is inherent to the meaning of the Mosaic covenant itself.

The second piece of contextual evidence is the later testimony of the Old Testament saints, primarily in the Psalms. In Psalm 119, for example, the psalmist writes, “Your testimonies are my heritage forever, for they are the joy of my heart. I incline my heart to perform your statutes forever, to the end” (vs.111-12). But how could the psalmist have found his joy in the performance of God’s statutes when the very attempt was meant to humiliate him? And if God had ordained at Horeb already that following the Torah was futile, then the psalmist missed this and we would have to judge Psalm 119 as the fruit of an erroneous reading of Scripture.

If we understand Brown and Keele’s claim within the framework of Calvin’s three uses of the law, then they hold that the first use, the punitive use, is the primary one. The main purpose of the law was to hold out to Israel a way of salvation that they could never achieve, thus driving them to look away from themselves toward another. Yet Calvin addresses this very claim: “How little different from mockery is it to show forth the hope of happiness, to invite and attract us to it, to assure us that it is available, when all the while it is shut off and inaccessible?”[9] Thus for Calvin the first use of the law is not the primary one. Rather, it is the third use that is primary: “The third and principal use, which pertains more closely to the proper purpose of the law, finds its place among believers in whose hearts the Spirit of God already lives and reigns.”[10] The law is primarily a thing to be affirmed and celebrated in the Christian life for its revelation of God’s goodness and holiness.

This accords more fully, I believe, with Scripture’s own testimony. Deuteronomy 6:20-25 does not give the meaning of the law as, “This is how you must live with me, and then I will save you;” rather, it is, “I have saved you, now this is how you ought to live with me.” And with this understanding, the words of the psalmist, far from ringing hollow, echo the cry of our own hearts. The primary desire of the regenerated heart is perhaps no better expressed than in Psalm 63:1: “O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.” By making the third use of the law the primary one then, we can understand the purpose of the law to be first of all an answer to those profound desires.
IV. In fact, along those lines, if I could suggest a one-word alternative to covenant as the fabric of Scripture, it would be desire. That is, rather than Scripture revealing primarily a pattern of of oaths and oath-breaking, it reveals a pattern of desire and fulfillment. God desires fellowship with man, God regenerates our hearts to desire him, and then God reveals the way in which those desires find their blessed consummation.

In the first place, this shifts the fabric of Scripture away from a concept – covenant – and places it within the heart of God himself. No king ever clutched a Hittite vassal treaty close to his heart and cried, “My soul is consumed with longing for your rules at all times” (Psalm 119:20). But when that treaty is an expression of God’s desire to commune with us, then it is not the treaty itself that so moves us but the intentionality that lies behind it. In the second place, finding the fabric of Scripture in desire sets Jesus Christ before us not merely as the answer to a system of carefully delineated covenants, but as the supreme expression of God’s desire for us, and the object of every longing in our own hearts. This shrouds the interpretive key to Scripture in glory, “glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.”

V. As vast as covenant theology is, Scripture is more vast yet. Brown and Keele certainly do offer a helpful guide to understanding what the different covenants are and how they function within Scripture. Augustine had written of these multiple covenants, “which anyone who pleases may read and know,” and a reader of Brown and Keele’s book will be better equipped to both read and know. But all this can be done without making covenant, and its attendant legalities, to be the fabric or framework of Scripture. For such a claim is not only unnecessary for the success of the book, and thus unhelpful, but it works at cross-purposes to the book by distorting the covenants it seeks to explain. The covenants in Scripture are not properly understood simply by finding all the covenantal elements and structuring them accordingly. That is important, and that is the gift that covenantal theology is for the Church. But the covenants in Scripture are properly understood only as means to a much greater end. That greater end is found in the covenantal formula, “I will be your God.” God himself is the reward for those who live in covenant with him. While that may sound simple and obvious, it is an essential point for it explains how the Church, apart from a robust covenant theology, can still rightly and fruitfully interpret Scripture. And it also helps us to find the essence of Scripture not in one of God’s tools, but in God himself.

[1] Augustine, “City of God, Chapter 27,” Saint Takla Haymanout website: Coptic Orthodox Church – Alexandria, Egypt, [accessed October 26, 2015].

[2] loc. 286 of 2900.

[3] loc. 286.

[4] loc. 89.

[5] loc. 268.

[6] R. Scott Clark, “A Brief History of Covenant Theology,” Spindleworks, [accessed October 26, 2015].

[7] loc. 1561.

[8] loc. 1765.

[9] Institutes II.VII.4.

[10] Institutes II.VII.12.


2 thoughts on “Covenant in the Clutch

  1. As ever, I have been enriched! That is something I always believe and say.- that the law is liberating indeed! Thanks for pointing that out also in this review!

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