Theology Matters: Where is the Old Covenant Found?

Where is the Old Covenant found? To pin down its singular origin and location in Scripture is nearly impossible—like looking in an ice cream case for one flavor that tastes good. All the flavors are delicious, and all the stories of the Old Testament point toward a covenantal relationship between God and Israel. And yet, when we think of the Old Covenant, we typically think of Abraham, or maybe Noah. We tend toward the micro instead of the macro, the instances rather than the Covenant itself. As J.I. Packer put it, “God's covenant of grace in Scripture is one of those things that are too big to be easily seen, particularly when one's mind is programmed to look at something smaller.”

There are any number of covenants made between God and the people of Israel, depending on which theologian you ask. But one thing is almost universally understood—the Old Covenant is a bond established by God with Israel before the birth of Christ. We think of it as distinct from the cross—the Old Covenant in comparison to the New—found somewhere between Genesis and the prophets, but not in the Gospels.

The promises begin with Adam. God created mankind and, “blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.’” (Genesis 1:28, NRSV). In the second creation story, there is a condition attached: do not eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil.

From that moment, from that first covenant, a bond is established that is sustained by God with the people of Israel. God bids Noah to fill the earth and promises never to destroy it by flood again. God calls Abraham to move to a foreign land and promises to bless him so that he will be a blessing. God gives the law to Moses and the people on Sinai before bringing them into the Promised Land. God declares that if Aaron’s descendants will serve Him, they will be set apart as priests. God places David on the throne of Israel and promises that his descendants will be seated on that throne forever. And yet, none of these individual promises is the Old Covenant itself. 

There is a theme that is infused in each of the promises that was made in the Old Testament. Repeatedly, the people are asked to live faithfully: to abstain from eating the fruit of one tree, to leave a homeland, to follow a law, to dedicate one’s children to priestly ministry, to be a king who knows the heart of the Lord and rules with mercy and justice. But the promises made by the people are broken. And yet, God holds up his end of the bargain. The Old Covenant, boiled down, is God’s faithfulness in the face of Israel’s near-constant disobedience. 

So where do we find the Old Covenant? It is found anytime God is faithful to his promise to Israel, even when Israel is not faithful to him. That may be the biggest difference between the story we read in the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Covenant of the Cross. At last, a human person, the Son of Man who is God Incarnate, is faithful on our behalf. We find God’s faithfulness and covenantal love meeting together with the perfect, fully human response, together on the cross in Christ Jesus.

Posted by The Rev. Perry Mullins with

How Did God First Help Us?

  1. How did God first help us?

  2. God first helped us by revealing himself and his will, through nature and history, through many seers and saints, and especially the prophets of Israel.

            (BCP 845)

God first helped us by revealing himself and his will

"The Christian Faith is a revealed religion. Its original sources are prophecy, not philosophy."[1] A primary foundation of our faith, and the Christian worldview, is that God acts first and did so in what we call revelation. When we consider God and who God is there are often two opposite errors: either that God is forever unknowable or that he is knowable by our own efforts without divine action. To the first, they are partially right, God is unknowable. However the second are also only partially right, for though God is knowable, he only is so insofar as he reveals himself to us and not by our efforts. The foundation for a doctrine of revelation derives from the idea that God is a personal and relational being. Unlike Deism, Christianity teaches that God interacts in his world. God loves his creation, and this love drives God to enter into a relationship with his creatures, a relationship which requires interaction and communication. 

God may have a desire, but do we really need it? Isn’t humanity capable of discovering God for ourselves? No. The first problem we face is the “distance” in our nature and God’s. God is infinite and the Creator, while we are limited and a creation. We are no more able to comprehend God by our own ability than a pet-animal could comprehend human philosophy. Second, even what comprehension we would be able to attain is hindered by sin. Sin has separated us from God beyond what was originally intended. Our tools for understanding God and God's will are both inadequate and broken! 

We need revelation, for without it we’d have a disjointed assortment of human opinions about God. This is, in fact, what we find to be the human religious experience: a plethora of various religions each when taken seriously presents competing claims about the nature of God(s), reality, human nature, and our purpose. Is God one or many? Does sin really exist or is it a state of mind? If there is “evil” what’s the solution? Do we need an outside salvation or can we attain it ourselves? Either one religious tradition must be right or all must be wrong in enough core ways as to be impossible to parse the true nature of reality without oversimplifying them all. If one is right, it can only be right by virtue of special revelation. That is the only claim that ultimately matters and the claim we make as Christians. 

Christians believe God has chosen to reveal himself and that revelation is in the Holy Scriptures and in a fuller sense in God made flesh Jesus Christ. This is also why natural revelation is deficient even though helpful. It relies on our inadequate abilities and doesn't take the hindrance of sin into account. God must act first to bridge the gap, and only once he does can we respond to God with our understanding and in proper worship.

Some argue that though we may need God to reveal himself in theory, in practice God is just as incapable as bridging the gap as we are, and thus we are left with nothing better than our disparate human attempts.

Though we may be unable to comprehend God, God is not limited in that way. He is able to communicate with us by using our language and through those he inspires to be revealers such as the Prophets. In the same way a child may not be able to fully understand everything about physics, a good teacher can communicate the basics to the child in a way they can understand. As the child understands more they will build on what they learned, but the original foundation would remain true. In terms of our connection with God we are perpetually in a childlike state of knowledge. Though it’s true there is much that is beyond our ability even with God’s help, that doesn't mean we’re unable to understand anything or to say nothing with certainty. 

Through nature and history

Some specific aspects about God can be discerned from creation and human reason, and this was call natural revelation. (Rom 1:18-21) This is the most uncertain version as it relies on human interpretation of a fallen world and may often run afoul of equating "is" with "ought", an idea that because something "is" a certain way then it morally "ought" to be good. We must also be careful at drawing complex conclusions from a few natural observations which is why natural revelation doesn't have the authority to override special revelation in the Scriptures.

What use is it then? It’s helpful in bolstering our understanding of special revelation when that revelation needs clarification. Theologians often debate the proper role and scope of this revelation. In general over-reliance on this type begins to call into question the need for revelation in the sense of believing human beings can attain to knowledge of God on our own power.

Through many seers and saints, and especially the prophets of Israel.

The main source of revelation from God and about God is the Scriptures starting with the Old Testament written under God's inspiration during ancient Israel. These are the Scriptures Jesus quoted, and the God reveled in it is the one Jesus called his Father. It was in these that God first communicated both who he is and what his will for humanity and creation is. It was through the Old Testament that Jesus the Messiah was promised to us to fix the sin, evil, and death in God's creation.

 

 

 

[1] Rev. C.B. Moss The Christian Faith 35.1

Posted by The Rev. J. Wesley Evans with

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