The Covenants Between God and Man

“I will walk among you and will be your God, and you shall be my people” (Leviticus 26:12, ESV; cited in 2 Corinthians 6:16; all Biblical quotations are from the ESV).

Since He made man, God has told people how He wants them to act and made promises to them of how He will act toward them in various circumstances. The Bible contains several summaries of man’s obligations and God’s promises which theologians call “covenants.” Although the dictionary defines a “covenant” as “a solemn agreement between two or more persons or groups to do or not do something specified,” all the covenants between God and man recognized by theologians were imposed by God rather than arrived at by consultation between Him and man. His basic idea in all of them is expressed in what He told the Isralites in the passage quoted above.

During the past week my family and I have been considering in our family Bible reading time the covenants between God and man recognized by theologians, guided by Wayne Grudem’s consideration of them in Chapter 25, “The Covenants Between God and Man” of his Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1994) and, because it focuses on the three covenants of Covenant Theology rather than on the dispensational covenants that I was familiar with from The New Scofield Reference Bible, by the resources listed in the Bibliography at the end of this post. Throughout the post I’ll refer to those resources by author and/or title; see the Bibliography for more information about them.

Covenant Theology, which was developed by some of the early Reformers, identifies three covenants: the Covenant of Works, the Covenant of Redemption, and the Covenant of Grace. Although my family and I read all that Grudem says about them, here I’ll give just definitions of them. The Covenant of Works is the covenant that God made with Adam and Eve on creating them. The Covenant of Redemption is the covenant between God the Father and God the Son regarding the salvation of mankind. The Covenant of Grace is the covenant between God and His people, mediated by Christ, regarding His providing salvation for them. The best survey that I have of Covenant Theology is Osterhaven’s article on it in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology (279-80), and the fullest exposition that I have of it is Berkhof’s in his Systematic Theology (211-18; 262-301).

However the Bible actually portrays God as entering into several covenants with people, each of them being imposed by Him and including an obligation and a promise. Here I’ll comment briefly on the first seven of the eight covenants identified in The New Scofield Reference Bible: the Edenic covenant, the Adamic covenant, the Noahic covenant, the Abrahamic covenant, the Mosaic covenant, the Palestinian covenant, the Davidic covenant, and the New Covenant. Covenant Theology calls the Edenic covenant “the Covenant of Works” and views the other covenants identified in The New Scofield Reference Bible as forms of the Covenant of Grace. When our family encountered each of them in our reading of Grudem’s Systematic Theology, we read the Bible passage(s) establishing it and noted how it qualified as a covenant. I’ll consider the New Covenant in next Tuesday’s post.

The Edenic Covenant

28 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 heavens and over living thing that moves on the earth. . . . 29 Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and very tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food. 30 And to every beast of the earth and to every bird of the heavens and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food. . . . 16 You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, 17 but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it shall surely die. (Genesis 1:28-30 [God is speaking to Adam and Eve] and 2:16-17 [God is speaking to Adam])

Although the word “covenant” isn’t used in the Biblical account of the Edenic covenant, the essential parts of a covenant are there: two parties–God and Adam / Eve), an obligation–God’s commands in the passages quoted and “to work [the Garden of Eden] and keep it” (Genesis 2:15), and a promise–eternal life (it is implied in the threat of death for disobedience). Moreover Hosea 6:7, “Like Adam they transgressed the covenant,” implies a covenant relationship between God and Adam.

The Edenic Covenant is also known as the Covenant of Works and the Covenant of Life. Grudem prefers “Covenant of Works” because “participation in the blessings of the covenant clearly depended on obedience or ‘works’ on the part of Adam and Eve” (Grudem, page 517). On the other hand, J. Rodman Williams argues, “It is not a ‘covenant of works’ in the sense that man is granted life on condition of obedience, as if eternal life would be achieved by <i>not</i> eating of the forbidden tree. Rather, this life is granted to man through his continuance in fellowship with God and partaking of the ‘tree of life.'” He prefers “Covenant of Life” because “life–eternal life–is the promise” (Williams, 277-78).

The fullest accounts that I have of the Edenic Covenant besides the one in Grudem’s Systematic Theology (516-18) are those by Berkhof (pages 211-18) and Williams (pages 276-79).

The Adamic Covenant

I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his head. (Genesis 3:15; God is speaking to Satan)

Again the word “covenant” isn’t used in the Biblical account of the covenant but the essential parts of a covenant are there. Imposed on Adam and Eve by God after their fall and conditioning mankind’s life until Jesus’ return, it includes the curses put on Satan (Genesis 3:14-15), Eve (3:16), and Adam (3:17-19) and the promise of a redeemer (3:15).

The fullest accounts that I have of the Adamic covenant are those in The New Scofield Reference Bible (page 7, note 2) and by Berkhof (pages 293-94).

The Noahic Covenant

9 Behold, I establish my covenant with you and your offspring after you, 10 and with every living creature that is with you . . . 11 that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of the flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth. 12 . . . This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all generations. I have set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth…16 When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth. (Genesis 9:8-16; God is speaking to Noah and his sons)

The Noahic covenant consists of a promise made by God to Noah and his sons, their descendants, and all living creatures–that another universal flood would not occur–without an obligation being placed on them. It is the first of God’s covenants with man to include a sign, the rainbow.

The fullest accounts of the Noahic covenant that I have are those by Berkhof (pages 294-95) and Williams (pages 279-80).

The Abrahamic Covenant

1 Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. 2 And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 3 I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth will be blessed.” 4 So Abram went as the LORD had told him . . . to the land of Canaan. . . . 7 Then the LORD appeared to Abram and said, “To your offspring I will give this land.” So he built there [at Shechem] an altar to the LORD, who had appeared to him. (Genesis 12:1-7)

The Abrahamic covenant consists of a promise made by God to Abraham that if he would go to a land which God would show him God would give him and his descendants that land, he would have so many descendants that they couldn’t be counted, and all families of the earth would be blessed in him. When Abraham was in that land (Canaan), God renewed His promise to him several times (Genesis 13:14-17; 15:1-21; 17:1-21; and 22:15-18). On one of those occasions God gave him a sign that he would possess Canaan (15:8-17), and on another of them God instituted circumcision as a sign of God’s covenant with him and his offspring (Genesis 17:9-14). God reaffirmed the Abrahamic covenant with Isaac (Genesis 26:2-5) and Jacob (Genesis 28:13-15).

The fullest accounts of the Abrahamic covenant that I have are those by Berhof (pages 295-97), Pentecost (pages 65-94), and Williams (pages 280-89).

The Mosaic Covenant

3 Israel encamped before the mountain [Mount Sinai], 4 while Moses went up to God. The LORD called to him out of the mountain, saying, “Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the people of Israel” 4 You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. 5 Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all the peoples, for all the earth is mine; 6 and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the people of Israel.” (Exodus 19:3-6)

Following this God gave the Israelites numerous rules collectively referred to as “the Law”, including the familiar Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1-17), and they participated in a ritual confirming the covenant between God and them (24:3-8). Paul refers to the Mosaic covenant as “the old covenant” (2 Corinthians 3:14). I’ll consider what he and others refer to as “the new covenant” and contrast it with “the old covenant” in next Tuesday’s post.

The fullest accounts of the Mosaic covenant that I have are those by Berkhof (pages 297-99) and Williams (pages 289-94).

The Palestinian Covenant

Deuteronomy 29:1 says, “These are the words of the covenant that the LORD commanded Moses to make with the people of Israel in the land of Moab, besides the covenant that he had made with them at Horeb [another name for Mount Sinai].” Bible scholars disagree on whether “these” refers to what precedes or what follows the passage and on whether “the covenant that the LORD commanded Moses to make with the people of Israel in the land of Moab” was a new covenant or a renewal of “the covenant that he had made with them at Horeb.” The Scofield Reference Bible takes “these” to refer to Deuteronomy 29-30 and “the covenant that the LORD commanded Moses to make with the people of Israel in the land of Moab” to be a new covenant, and it calls the new covenant the “Palestinian Covenant.”

However I understand “the covenant that the LORD commanded Moses to make with the people of Israel in the land of Moab” to be a renewal of “the covenant that he had made with them at Horeb” and “these” to refer to both what precedes and what follows Deuteronomy 29:1, comprising at least Deuteronomy 27-30 and possibly even Deuteronomy 1-30. As Donald C. Stamps observes, “To conquer the land of Canaan successfully would require their [the Israelites’] commitment to this covenant [the Mosaic covenant] and the assurance that the Lord God would be with them” (The Full Life Study Bible, page 291).

The Davidic Covenant

8 Now, therefore, thus therefore shall you [Nathan the prophet] say to my servant David, “Thus says the LORD of hosts, I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep, that you should be prince over my people Israel. 9 And I have been with you wherever you went and have cut off all your enemies from before you. And I will make for you a great name, like the name of the great ones of the earth. 10 And I will appoint a place for my people Israel and will plant them, so that they dwell in their own place and be disturbed no more. And violent men shall afflict them no more, as formerly, 11 from the time that I appointed judges over my people Israel. And I will give you rest from all my enemies. Moreover the LORD declares to you that the LORD will make you a house. 12 When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. 13 He shall build a house for my name, and I shall establish his kingdom forever. 14 I shall be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son. When he commits iniquity, I will discipline him with the rod of men, with the stripes of the sons of men, 15 but my steadfast love will not depart from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I put away from before you. 16 And your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me. Your throne shall be established forever.” (2 Samuel 7:8-16)

Psalm 89 also describes the Davidic covenant. The covenant includes promises by God to David that He would establish the kingdom of his son, Solomon, who would build a house for Him (Solomon’s Temple), and that He would establish David’s house and kingdom forever. It also includes an obligation on David’s offspring to be faithful to God, His warning that He would punish them if they forsook Him and His law. Hebrews 1:5 applies “I shall be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son” to Christ.

The fullest accounts of the Davidic Covenant that I have are those by Pentecost (pages 100-15) and Williams (pages 294-303).

Bibliography

To prepare for our family study of the covenants between God and man, I read numerous articles and book chapters about them. Listed below are the ones, besides Grudem’s Systematic Theology, that I’ve cited in this post. Note that Berkhof and Osterhaven are from a Covenant Theology perspective and The New Scofield Reference Bible and Pentecost are from a dispensationalist perspective.

The New Scofield Reference Bible. Edited by C.I. Scofield. New York: Oxford University Press, 1967. I was given a copy of the 1917 edition by my parents on my tenth birthday and a copy of the 1967 edition by my first wife shortly after it was published. It has notes on the Edenic covenant, the Adamic covenant, the Noahic covenant, the Abrahamic covenant, the Mosaic covenant, the Palestinian covenant, the Davidic covenant, and the New Covenant.
The Full Life Study Bible. Edited by Donald C. Stamps. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1992. It has articles on God’s covenants with Abraham, the Israelites, and David and on the Old Covenant and the New Covenant.
– Berkhof, Louis. Systematic Theology. Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1939. Its chapter “Man in the Covenant of Works” (pages 211-18) and its section “Man in the Covenant of Grace” (pages 262-301) consider the covenants of Covenant Theology. “Man in the Covenant of Grace” includes a chapter, “The Different Dispensations of the Covenant” (pages 290-301), that considers God’s covenants with Adam, Noah, Abraham, and Israel and the New Covenant.
– Osterhaven, M. Eugene. “Covenant Theology.” Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, edited by Walter A. Elwell, pages 279-80. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1984.
– Pentecost, J. Dwight. Things To Come. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zonderan, 1958. It has chapters on the Abrahamic covenant, the Palestinian covenant, the Davidic covenant, and the New Covenant.
– Williams, J. Rodman. Renewal Theology. Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1988-92. Its chapter “Covenant” (Volume One, pages 275-303) considers God’s covenants with Adam (the Edenic covenant), Noah, Abraham, Israel, and David and the New Covenant.

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