Sunday, March 06, 2016

Introducing Covenant Theology by Michael Horton (Book Review #13 of 2016)

Introducing Covenant Theology
I read this work after reading Chase Sears' excellent Heirs of Promise: The Church as the New Israel in Romans (Snapshots). Sears’ book focuses on Paul's arguments in Romans about Christians being on equal footing and the inheritors of promises to Israel. Horton's work gives an overview of covenant theology and some of the views of early Reformers. It also contains some sermonizing only tangentially related to covenant theology, some of which is good. Like Sears, Horton strains to avoid replacement theology in describing covenant. “(I)nstead of seeing the church as Israel's replacement, it regards it as Israel's fruition” (p. 131).

Horton not only comes out of the Reformed tradition but writes that Reformed theology is covenantal theology. "Reformed theology is guided by a concern to relate various biblical teachings to the concrete covenants in Scripture as their proper context" (p. 11). Citing Meredith Kline's groundbreaking work (The Treaty of the Great King) on recently uncovered Near Eastern suzerain treaties through archaeology, covenant theology is seemingly a new strain of thought that blossomed under the re-emergence of biblical theology--focusing on the arc and message of Scripture in its entirety while appreciating the historical context and authorship of each component. Yet, Horton quotes many old voices, so that what is "new" is really just new again.

Horton's work helped me as I was working through the Pentateuch to teach a Sunday school class. He helped connect and enlighten some of the covenantal theology I was finding describes in various commentaries I was using. My Western American mind cannot wrap itself around joyful submission to a king, which Horton claims archaeology has shown us to be so in the Near East. “The great king was the father adopting the captives he had liberated from oppression” (p. 25).

The book begins by noting that all of creation has a covenantal relationship with God that goes back to Genesis 1. "the biblical understanding of God's relationship to the world as covenantal is both a bridge that deism ignores and a bar to any confusion of the Creator with his creation...We are all bound together ethically in mutual responsibility...The kingdom of God does not advance through cultural achievement but through divine rescue. Covenant theology marvelously unites these crucial commitments without confusing them." (p. 15-17).

The author then walks us through how the Abrahamic and Sinaitic Covenants mirrored other covenants of the day with preamble, prologue, stipulations, witnesses, deposition, and blessings and curses. Horton sees a dichotomy between the two, and cites Paul to get there. “Even when we are talking about Israel in the Old Testament, it is not enough to talk about the covenant, as if there were only one covenantal arrangement that could account for all of the conditional and unconditional language. We will first look at the precise nature of the Sinai covenant (a covenant of law) and then the Abrahamic covenant (a covenant of promise)” (p. 37). Horton sees the Sinaitic as being temporary, Israel failed it and therefore have no claim on the land, no claim on the promises therein.

“Dispensationalism and the so-called two-covenant theory currently popular in mainline theology both treat the land promise as eternal and irrevocable, even to the extent that there can be a difference between Israel and the church in God's plan. Both interpretations, however, fail to recognize that the Hebrew Scriptures themselves qualify this national covenant in strictly conditional terms. This is the witness of the Law and the Prophets as well as Jesus and Paul, not to mention the radical Jewish communities of Second Temple Judaism. In fact, nobody in Jesus's day doubted that Israel was in exile as a direct consequence of their corporate disobedience to the terms of the Sinai pact” (p. 47). “As the Epistle to the Hebrews emphasizes, neither Abraham nor Joshua regarded the earthly inheritance as ultimate. Instead, they looked through this arrangement to the original promise of a heavenly rest” (p. 101).

Ultimately, the Sinaitic covenant found its fulfillment in Jesus alone. But the  Adam-Noah-Abraham-Isaac-Jacob-David covenant is separate and ongoing. “The unilateral and utterly promissory character of the Abrahamic covenant yields to the conditional arrangement at Sinai even while the former is never—can never be—revoked by the oath-taking God (p. 50). “For the apostle to the Gentiles, the simplistic identification of the Old Testament with ‘law’ and the New Testament with ‘grace’ is unthinkable. God's covenant of grace, announced beforehand to Adam and inaugurated with Abraham, is precisely the same as to its content in both testaments” (p. 68).

Horton’s rejection of what he sees as the false “law” and “grace” dichotomy of OT versus NT seems problematic given that he early on quotes John 1:17 from which that dichotomy seems to come: “for the law was given through Moses, grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” But Horton rightly points out that the Law was always based on love and the heart rather than outward works like circumcision. Circumcision came after God’s initial covenant with Abraham, it was an outward sign of belonging to the covenant people. In Deuteronomy 6, God commanded Israel to love Him supremely and circumcise their hearts, and David reminds us in Psalm 51 that it is ultimately a contrite heart and true repentance in faith that God requires. “So it does not contradict the Abrahamic promise in the slightest. No one in the Old Testament obtained the inheritance by works, but only by promise. Yet Israel's national status in God's land depended on fulfillment of the treaty's terms” (p. 101).  

Horton deals briefly with various schools of eschatology-- amillennial, premillennial, postmillennial. Horton seems to be of the amillennial tradition, as he writes on page 120: “This view is usually called amillennialism (i.e,,"no-millennialism"), but this is a misnomer, at least for those of us who believe that the millennium is not denied but is in fact a current reality. What we reject is a literalistic interpretation of the thousand years, since the book of Revelation employs numbers symbolically.” He rejects the premillennial ideas prominent in contemporary American evangelical thought, noting it is the same error the Catholic church had made in seeing theirs as God’s kingdom on earth (P. 121-122):

“The body of Christ was not simply a heavenly, spiritual entity made visible in the world through Word, sacrament, discipline, worship, and fellowship in the covenant of grace, but a powerful worldly institution that served the interests of a particular earthly empire. This is the myth behind the Crusades, the Inquisition, and such American institutions as slavery and the doctrine of ‘manifest destiny,’ which gave narrative justification for the slaughter of American Indians. The American version of the Holy Roman Empire regarded the proliferation of Protestant hospitals, colleges, women's societies, and men's societies as signs of God's approval and, indeed, of the advancement of the kingdom of God...Ironically, even staunch premillennialists like Jerry Falwell sound a good deal like the postmillennialists of yesteryear. It is one thing to inconsistently act out a two-kingdoms position and quite another to act out a Christendom model because one has confused a particular culture with the kingdom of God.”

He further critiques the isolationist schools of Anabaptists and the Puritan thought of establishing God’s kingdom on earth which eventually led to the American Revolution. Pg. 127:

“But if Calvinists are not expected to endure tyranny, they are also not given liberty to take justice into their own hands or to exercise the judgment reserved for the King of Kings on the last day. Nor are they to seek to impose their distinctively Christian convictions on society through the kingdom of power, as both Rome and the radical Anabaptists tried to do. Rather, they are to pursue their dual citizenship according to the distinct policies proper to each kingdom. The Bible functions as the constitution for the covenant people, not for the secular state...Those who confuse civil righteousness with righteousness before God will be likely to confuse moral reform in society with the kingdom of God.”

It seems a fine line, and difficult to explain, how the church is the “fruition” of Israel and not its replacement. Grafted into the tree when Jews rejected Jesus, yet not a replacement. The promised land of the Abrahamic covenant no longer relates to a physical land, but to the place Christians dwell (Horton does a bad job of explaining this). Yahweh’s presence is the distinguishing mark between Israel and the nations (Exodus 19-20) and that can ony be said about Christians today. Covenantalists reject the idea that national Israel today has any special claim on the land. Yet, they agree that God is not done with the Jewish people; Romans 11:25-32 tells us that God will “pour out his Spirit on the Jewish people en masse” after the full number of non-Jews are brought into the fold (p. 132).

The author then looks at the sacraments and how the covenant is symbolized in them. I especially liked his thoughts on communion. He would decry the Southern Baptist churches I grew up in who often treat communion with the solemnity of a funeral rather than the celebration of a resurrection and forgiveness. P. 157:
“In all of this, therefore, two extremes are avoided: the sacerdotal error, which fails to distinguish the sign from the thing signified, and the memorialist error, which fails to recognize the union of the sign and signified.” P. 159-160:

“The Lord's Supper, then, is a covenant meal. That means that while it is first of all a ratification of God's pledge to us, it also ratifies our pledge to God and to each other...One cannot treat the Lord's Supper in an individualistic manner, but only as a covenant meal...The problem with the pietistic version of the Lord's Supper, therefore, is that in its obsession with the individual's inner piety, it loses much of the import of the feast as a sacred meal that actually binds us to Christ and to each other. Instead of viewing it first as God's saving action toward us and then as our fellowship with each other in Christ, we come to see it as just another opportunity to be threatened with the law. Instead of celebrating the foretaste of the marriage supper of the Lamb on Mount Zion, we are still trembling at the foot of Mount Sinai. It is no wonder, then, that there is a diminished interest in frequent communion.”

I had honestly never pondered the term “excommunication” in light of the communion sacrament/ordinance. Too often, we hear pastors warning congregants to abstain from communion unless they can take it in a “worthy manner.” This suggests that Christ’s death and resurrection was not sufficient to cleanse us of our sins. Since communion is a communal activity, not participating is self-excommunication. Horton notes that this is not biblical: “(W)e do not have this right to excommunicate ourselves. If members are not being disciplined by the church, they are worthy communicants.” As such, it is no wonder why churches that focus on pietism don’t have communion more frequently.

Horton then pivots back to the covenant and laws. “Calvin (like the Lutheran reformer Philip Melanchthon) followed many church fathers in distinguishing three types of old covenant law: the moral, the civil, and the ceremonial. The moral law, summarized in the Ten Commandments, is inscribed on our consciences by virtue of our being created in God's image (Romans 1-3)...the New Testament intensifies the requirements by emphasizing their internal significance...Paul's marvelous description of life in the Spirit and the fruit of the Spirit is simply an elaboration of the inner significance of the moral law: loving God and neighbor...Jesus did not make the law easier, but more difficult (p. 178-179).

Jesus standards of Matthew 5 and 6 remove any idea that a person can be morally pure under the law; indeed, all have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory (Rom. 3:23).

My favorite passage in the book notes that there are no Lone Ranger Christians, covenant is communal and not individual. P. 179:
“Where both Jewish and Christian covenant theology agree is that piety is directed to others—God and our neighbor, not chiefly toward ourselves. Many Christians today associate words like piety, devotion, spirituality, and Christian life with things a believer does in private. ‘How's your walk?’ is shorthand really for asking how well you are keeping up with your personal Bible reading, devotions, and other spiritual disciplines...a covenantal orientation places much more emphasis on what we do together, with each other and for each other... “The piety Calvin advocated was largely communal, churchly. There is much here about 'frequenting the sermons' and sharing in the Lord's supper, but very little about individual devotional reading of the Bible or daily routines of prayer, let alone group Bible studies or prayer groups."

Hence, our piety should be toward service. We were saved to do good works, not to be introverts. Loving our neighbor. A sermon by a local pastor also stuck with me. He mentioned that 15 years ago, when he was in college, he might have told someone to pursue godliness by starting a quiet time with God, but has changed on that individualistic component if you ask him today. “To be sure, our obedience is never complete. Inner renewal and renovation are always in process, falling short of that holiness of heart and life that we will enjoy in our glorification. Nevertheless, we have died with Christ and we have been raised with him in newness of life. These new covenant blessings cannot be reversed” (p. 191).

I felt that much of the book was only tangentially related to the specific ideas of covenant theology, but some of that which may not have been exactly connected were quite good. Other points were not explained quite as well. I will judge this book better after reading JI Packer’s Intro and various dispensationalist critiques of Horton’s work. For now, 3.5 stars out of 5.

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