Wednesday, December 29, 2010

A Summary of the New Covenant Paradigm

My current doctoral thesis is concerned to develop something of the bigger biblical-theological flow of salvation history in the Bible under the rubric of justification. I have called the resulting model the new covenant paradigm. The model can be summarized under 15 main theses as follows:

1) The condition of justification inside the garden of Eden was perfect (holistic) faith;

2) The condition of justification outside the garden of Eden is imperfect (holistic) faith;

3) The primary dispensational distinction in the Bible is that between the old covenant and the new covenant;

4) The condition of justification for Israel under the old covenant was not perfect faith but imperfect faith, as the presence of a system of sacrificial atonement within the law proves;

5) Under the old covenant, the condition of faith, being holistic, was characteristically described in terms of doing torah;

6) Hence, a legitimate doctrine of justification by the works of the law existed under the old covenant;

7) The old covenant is, therefore, a covenant of grace; but Israel's continuation in grace was conditional upon Israel continuing in imperfect (holistic) faith (i.e., doing torah);

8) But Israel as a nation broke the covenant by not doing torah;

9) Therefore, the Mosaic covenant of grace functioned historically primarily as a covenant of condemnation and death, compounding the original transgression of Adam;

10) The failure of the old covenant was part of God’s plan to highlight the supreme expression of the grace of God to be revealed under the new covenant in Christ;

11) Because the new covenant solves the problem of the failure of the old covenant, and is the fulfillment of the old covenant, the new covenant exhibits the same relational dynamics as the old covenant;

12) Therefore, justification under the new covenant is also justification by imperfect faith;

13) But with the coming of a new revelation in Christ, the content of faith has been redefined in terms of this new revelation (the gospel), which can be contrasted with the previous revelation that came via Moses (the law);

14) The new covenant definition of faith can be contrasted, therefore, with the definition of faith that was understood to apply under the old covenant, hence the covenantal distinction between justification by faith in Christ under the new covenant and justification by the works of the law (i.e., Mosaic faith) under the old;

15) Under the new covenant (like under the old), perseverance in faith is necessary in order to experience the fullness of salvation at the time of the consummation of the new covenant.


In other words, what I am suggesting is that, outside of the garden, justification has always been by (imperfect) faith. But because faith is typically viewed in the Old Testament in a holistic manner, justification by faith under the old covenant was typically thought of as being by way of obedience to the stipulations of the Mosaic covenant in the context of grace, what came to be known in Jewish parlance as justification by the works of the law. The New Testament works of the law versus faith in Christ distinction, therefore, is primarily a terminological distinction that expresses pragmatically the element of discontinuity between the covenants on the level of the mediator and content of revelation. In sum, if you wanted to be right with God under the old covenant, you had to follow the revelation that had been given to Israel via Moses (Deut 6:25; Rom 10:5); but if you want to be right with God under the new covenant, you need to follow the revelation that has been given to the world in Christ (John 8:31–32; Rom 10:8–13).

Sunday, December 19, 2010

A Balanced Protestant Biblical Hermeneutic on Law and Gospel

Understanding the teaching of the Apostle Paul regarding law and gospel in the light of Old Testament theology and prophecy suggests that Protestant exegetes of Paul have frequently overemphasized the condemnatory power of the law, resulting in an overly-rigid law versus gospel hermeneutic.

Here are some quotes from my essay “Paul and the New Covenant Paradigm” in the book An Everlasting Covenant: Biblical and Theological Essays in Honour of William J. Dumbrell from the sub-section that discusses the need for a balanced biblical hermeneutic on law and gospel in Paul:

“Traditional Protestant exegesis has exhibited a strong tendency to understand the righteousness terminology of the Bible, and of Paul in particular, in absolute terms, which in turn means that the condemnatory function of the law is emphasized with no place left for the justifying and vivifying function of the law when written on the human heart by the Holy Spirit” (pp. 141–2);

“A more balanced biblical hermeneutic on law and gospel would ... pay attention to the Old Testament teaching on the gospel as including the concept of the Holy Spirit writing God’s law on the hearts of his people. The biblical position is that where the Spirit is present writing divine law on human hearts, law is effectively gospel, and gospel effectively law” (p. 143);

“the Old Testament view of the gospel, which speaks of the triumph of the justifying and vivifying function of (eschatological) torah over the condemnatory and mortifying function of (Mosaic) torah, is the correct perspective to bring to our reading of Paul in Galatians and Romans” (p. 143).

My view is that Paul’s law versus gospel distinction should to be understood as being Paul’s way of distinguishing old covenant revelation from new covenant revelation. In other words, Paul’s law versus gospel distinction is primarily a salvation-historical distinction rather than being a distinction of linguistic form wherein command is strictly opposed to promise.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Apostle Paul’s Teaching on the Law

The Apostle Paul’s teaching on the law is derived from, and fully consistent with, the teaching of the Old Testament concerning Mosaic law and eschatological law. Understanding the Old Testament teaching on torah is the key to understanding Paul on the law.

Here are some quotes from my essay “Paul and the New Covenant Paradigm” in the book An Everlasting Covenant: Biblical and Theological Essays in Honour of William J. Dumbrell from the sub-section that discusses Paul’s teaching on the law:

“When Paul’s teaching on the law is examined in the light of the Old Testament teaching on torah, it comes as no surprise to discover that his view of the law is both positive and negative, corresponding to the dual function that the law exhibited under the old covenant. Positively, the Mosaic law offers the possibility of life (Rom 7:10) … In and of itself the Mosaic law is “holy and righteous and good” (Rom 7:12). Paul’s positive description of the Mosaic law in Rom 7:12 reflects the language of those parts of the Old Testament which praise the utility of the law for the believer, such as Ps 19:7-11; 119:1-2, 24, 72, 92-93, 98-100, 105, 130, 165, 175. Paul also speaks of the law as being “spiritual” (Rom 7:14), by which he means that the Mosaic law is a product of the Spirit, implying that there is no fundamental opposition between the Mosaic law and the Holy Spirit. Negatively, however, the Mosaic law was an instrument used by sin that led to the condemnation, enslavement, and death of the carnal majority in Israel, and indeed the nation as a whole (Rom 7:8-11, 13-24; 9:31; 2 Cor 3:6-7, 9)” (pp. 136–7).

“having come to understand the concept of the death of Israel through the instrumentality of the Mosaic law (which climaxed with the rejection of Christ), this is precisely where Paul saw the new covenant work of Christ and his Spirit entering the salvation historical equation. The Mosaic law was an instrument of condemnation and death to those among Israel who were “fleshly” (Rom 7:14), i.e., to those who did not have the Spirit writing the law on their hearts. But this former human unresponsiveness to God had now begun to change. Paul had come to understand that the new covenant had already commenced with the resurrection of Jesus. The new covenant work of spiritual regeneration had already begun and was being mediated through the proclamation of the gospel of the resurrection and lordship of Jesus (Acts 2:33, 36, 38; 10:44-45; Gal 3:2, 14) … Since faith is about submission to Jesus as Lord (Rom 10:9), Christian faith is equated in Paul’s thinking with the eschatological teshuvah of Israel (and the nations). Hence, Paul equates the eschatological law that is written on the heart with the gospel that is received into the heart through faith. It is through the preaching of the gospel and our submission to Jesus as Lord that the law in its eschatological form becomes written on our hearts. The benefit of this for those who have the Spirit of God dwelling in them, i.e., for those who are walking in the Spirit, is that we can now fulfill our covenantal obligations, and thus the law proves to be the way of life (Rom 8:2, 4, 6-8) as God had always intended (e.g., Deut 30:15-20)” (p. 139).

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Paul's Understanding of the Gospel as the Fulfillment of the Prophetic Hope of the Old Testament

In my essay “Paul and the New Covenant Paradigm” in the book An Everlasting Covenant: Biblical and Theological Essays in Honour of William J. Dumbrell, after establishing Paul’s Old Testament theological context (see the posts entitled “The Apostle Paul’s Understanding of the Old Testament View of the Law” and “The Apostle Paul’s Understanding of the Old Testament View of the Gospel”), and after providing some key observations regarding the nature of Paul’s Jewish opponents (see “The Identity and Theology of Paul’s Jewish Opponents”), I turn to consider how we should understand the teaching of the Apostle Paul in Galatians and Romans.

As I state in the introduction to the third section of my essay, which is entitled “Understanding Paul in his Historical Context,” I believe that “an understanding of the Old Testament’s teaching about the new covenant is crucial to understanding Paul’s teaching on grace and the law” (p. 134).

Here is a quote from the sub-section that discusses Paul’s understanding of the Christian gospel as the fulfillment of the Old Testament hope:

“Paul understood Jesus’ work and the outpouring of the Spirit in direct continuity with the Old Testament prophetic hope. Paul was convinced that the coming of Jesus and the eschatological outpouring of the Spirit was the fulfilment of the Old Testament prophecies of the restoration of Israel. As part of this work of restoration, Paul saw the preaching of the gospel of Jesus Christ as God’s main instrument in the new covenant age for bringing people, both Jew and Gentile, into a state of righteousness before God. In contrast to the old covenant age where covenant righteousness was defined in terms of commitment to the Mosaic law, Paul understood that the determining factor in the new covenant age is not a person’s commitment to the Mosaic law (i.e., the works of the law) but a person’s commitment to Jesus, the Lord of the new covenant, and to the gospel which proclaims his lordship (i.e., faith). In the new covenant age, where (according to God’s plan) righteousness is opened up to the nations, righteousness is no longer defined in terms of the Mosaic law, which was by definition mono-ethnic in its operation. The Mosaic law was a fence that divided Jew from Gentile (Eph 2:14-15). Applying to only one nation (Exod 19:5-6), the Mosaic law can no longer be used, therefore, as the determining factor of righteousness before God, for the age of the new covenant is a time when Gentiles will be included within the people of God. Therefore … the determining factor of righteousness in the new covenant age is whether a person has accepted the gospel and submitted to the lordship of Jesus in his role as Messiah” (p. 135).

My suggestion at this point to the world of Pauline scholarship is, therefore, that Paul’s concern lay not so much with defending Christ as the ground of absolute justification—the atoning value of the death of Christ was common ground between Paul and the Judaizers—but with defending faith as the instrument of justification on the level of the covenant. The dispute between Paul and his Jewish opponents centered around how covenant righteousness was to be defined (now that the new covenant in Christ had come). The Jews thought in covenantal categories. To interpret Paul and his opponents correctly, we need to do so too.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

The Identity and Theology of Paul's Jewish Opponents

In my previous posts entitled “The Apostle Paul’s Understanding of the Old Testament View of the Law” and “The Apostle Paul’s Understanding of the Old Testament View of the Gospel” I have presented some thoughts regarding the first aspect of the Jewish context of the theology of the Apostle Paul, namely, the theological context of the Hebrew Scriptures (i.e., the Old Testament) in which the Apostle Paul operated. The second aspect of Paul’s Jewish context is the identity of his Jewish opponents.

Here are some quotes from my essay “Paul and the New Covenant Paradigm” in the book An Everlasting Covenant: Biblical and Theological Essays in Honour of William J. Dumbrell from the sub-section that discusses the identity of Paul’s Jewish opponents:

“Paul’s Jewish opponents in general were not ignorant of the Old Testament doctrines of grace, sin, or faith. Their key characteristic was that they were fierce advocates of Mosaic covenant theology. They believed that this system of theology (which was based on the Old Testament) was still normative. Paul, however, no longer viewed Mosaic covenant theology as normative in the way that it had been previously. Since his encounter with Christ on the road to Damascus, he had come to view Mosaic covenant theology in effect as old covenant theology (2 Cor 3:6-14). That is to say, the system of Mosaic covenant theology, which had been valid during the old covenant age, had now been rendered obsolete through the coming of Christ and the establishment of the new covenant, a situation that had been foreshadowed in the Mosaic law itself. Paul’s Jewish opponents had more or less correctly understood the way that things were under the old covenant, but they had failed to see how the old covenant would be surpassed or exceeded (2 Cor 3:9-10) by the new covenant in Christ. The fundamental issue for Paul, therefore, was upholding, in the face of opposition from the advocates of traditional Mosaic covenant theology, God’s new covenant arrangement in Messiah Jesus” (p. 133).

“The non-Christian Jews of Paul’s day rejected Jesus and the Christian gospel primarily in the name of faithfulness to Moses and traditional Jewish teaching (see John 5:16, 18; 7:14-24, 45-52; 9:16; 16:2; Acts 22:3; Rom 10:2), while the Christian Judaizers sought to change the universal Christian gospel (which offered salvation to Gentiles on equal footing with Jews) into a Jewish gospel, where conversion to Judaism and keeping the law of Moses were viewed as being necessary for salvation (Acts 15:1, 5). In this way, the Judaizers were attempting to make Christianity fit snugly into the framework of the Mosaic covenant” (p. 133).

In other words, I agree here with William Dumbrell’s assessment of the Antiochene Judaizers as being Jews who “probably endeavoured to fit Jesus into the Sinai compact, which they saw as continuing … By their demand for the imposition of the Mosaic Law on Christian converts, they were in fact making demands for Christian incorporation into the Mosaic and Sinaitic structure” (William J. Dumbrell, Galatians: A New Covenant Commentary [Blackwood: New Covenant, 2006], 38–39).

“The dispute between Paul and his Jewish opponents, therefore, fundamentally revolved around the proper interpretation of the Mosaic covenant in God’s plan of salvation. At stake between Paul and his Jewish opponents was the proper interpretation of the Old Testament” (Coxhead, “Paul and the New Covenant Paradigm,” 134).

In general, Paul’s Jewish opponents were advocates of orthodox Mosaic covenant theology, which defined righteousness in terms of obedience (i.e., commitment or faithfulness) to the Mosaic covenant and its stipulations (i.e., the law of Moses) in accordance with the teaching of Deut 6:25. The Jewish nature of the theology of Paul’s Jewish opponents needs to be understood correctly before we can truly understand the significance of the Christian doctrine of justification by faith apart from the works of the law, which Paul strongly defended in his epistles to the Galatians and Romans.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The Apostle Paul's Understanding of the Old Testament View of the Gospel

I make the point again: the key to understanding Paul’s teaching on law and gospel is found in the Old Testament. Paul makes the claim in Rom 1:1–2 that his gospel was “the gospel of God that [God] promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures.” As far as Paul was concerned, his gospel was nothing other than the gospel proclaimed by the Old Testament prophets. But what exactly did the Old Testament prophets prophesy concerning the gospel?

Here are some quotes from my essay “Paul and the New Covenant Paradigm” in the book An Everlasting Covenant: Biblical and Theological Essays in Honour of William J. Dumbrell from the sub-section that discusses the Old Testament view of the gospel:

“[T]he failure of Israel to keep her covenantal obligation before God led to the emergence of the Old Testament prophetic hope, which looked forward to the time when Israel would finally be enabled by God to keep her side of the covenant arrangement, in order that the promised covenant blessing of eternal life might finally be realized. Thus, in the light of the historic failure of Israel under the Mosaic covenant, the Old Testament prophets looked forward to the time of the new covenant, when God would transform and circumcise the hearts of his people (Deut 30:6; Ezek 36:26) and place his law within (Jer 31:33), thereby enabling his people to keep covenant with him (Jer 31:31-32) through obedience to the law (Deut 30:6, 8, 10-14; Ezek 36:27), in order that they might finally receive the fullness of the covenant blessing that God had promised to the righteous of Israel back in the beginning (Lev 26:3-13) and to those among the nations who would be blessed through Abraham (Gen 12:3) by coming in submission to Israel’s Messiah (Ps 2:10-12)” (p. 129).

In other words, the gospel according to the Old Testament centers on the idea that God would enable Israel and the nations (through the work of Christ and the Spirit) to return in covenant obedience to himself.

“If the gospel according to the Old Testament speaks of God enabling the covenant obedience of his people such that they will keep covenant with him and receive the blessing of the covenant as a result, then surely it is wrong to interpret Paul in such a way that he is made to contradict this Old Testament understanding of the gospel” (p. 129).

“To teach or to give the impression that the gospel is only about the imputation of the righteousness of Christ as if there no longer remains any place for the covenant righteousness of the believer in the process of justification under the new covenant is actually a simplification and distortion of the gospel as ‘promised beforehand’ in the Old Testament” (p. 130).

In other words, the Old Testament prophets looked forward to the time when the law would be written on the hearts of the chosen from Israel and the nations, in order that they might be obedient to God, and consequently receive justification on the level of the covenant through the divine judicial declaration (to be proclaimed in a public way ultimately on the day of judgment but preempted today in the gospel ministry of the church) that believers have fulfilled their covenant obligations of faithful service to God (in the context of divine grace) through their submission to the Messiah Jesus (which the early church called faith). Those who are righteous on the level of the covenant have the privilege of sharing in the benefits of Christ’s sacrifice, their sins being covered by his perfection.

The law may have been primarily negative for old covenant Israel, but the Old Testament prophets viewed new covenant law as gospel! That is to say, for the Old Testament prophets, the function of torah in the new covenant age is primarily positive. Therefore, to interpret Paul through a black-and-white law versus gospel theological grid makes Paul not only contradict the Old Testament prophets, but also his own claim in Rom 1:1–2 that his gospel was “the gospel of God that he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures.” Law and gospel are not rightly divided by keeping them apart; they are rightly divided by proclaiming their unity in Christ. As the eternal Word of God, Christ is the embodiment of evangelical torah.

Friday, November 26, 2010

The Apostle Paul's Understanding of the Old Testament View of the Law

I believe that the key to understanding Paul’s teaching on law and gospel is actually found in the Old Testament. In particular, what does the Old Testament say about the role of old covenant law, eschatological law, and the gospel? Sadly, these questions have not been asked by the majority of those who have sought to interpret Paul’s teaching in Galatians and Romans. The key to understanding the debate concerning justification by the works of the law in the early church actually lies in understanding that the Mosaic covenant was a gracious covenant in which present and future grace was conditional upon works, i.e., upon obedience to the covenant performed in the context of grace. In other words, the Mosaic covenant is at one and the same time a covenant of grace and a covenant of works.

Here are some quotes from my essay “Paul and the New Covenant Paradigm” in the book An Everlasting Covenant: Biblical and Theological Essays in Honour of William J. Dumbrell from the sub-section that discusses the Old Testament view of the law:

“While it is definitely true that Christ is the only person who has kept God’s law perfectly and that his perfect righteousness must cover a person’s iniquity in order that he or she might be able to live in the presence of the most holy God, it is to overlook the gracious nature of the Mosaic law to keep on talking of the Mosaic law as if it required the absolute perfection of the people of Israel per se and to ignore the Old Testament concept of covenant righteousness. Rather, the truth of the matter is that it is precisely because no ordinary Israelite could keep God’s requirements absolutely that God in his grace provided a means of atonement for the people through the sacrificial system, which was an integral part of the Mosaic law. Significantly, the fact that the grace of the forgiveness of sins was built into the Mosaic law is the very thing that made it possible for some Israelites to keep the Mosaic law in the divinely intended covenantal sense” (p. 124).

“Understanding the gracious nature of the Mosaic law and how this establishes a valid doctrine of justification by the works of the Mosaic law is also the key to understanding the dual function that the Mosaic law had under the old covenant. To summarize this dual function, the Mosaic law had, on the one hand, a justifying and vivifying function, and on the other hand, a condemnatory and mortifying function. The law justified and vivified those who covenantally kept the law (Deut 6:25; 30:15-16, 19-20; Ps 19:7; 119:93, 156), but it condemned and mortified those who did not keep it in the required covenantal sense (Deut 30:15, 18-19)” (pp. 125–6).

“It will be argued below that Paul understood this dual function of covenant law in the Old Testament, and that his teaching in Galatians and Romans reflects this dual function of torah. Paul’s teaching in these epistles should not be interpreted in a way that makes him contradict the Old Testament teaching on the justifying and vivifying function of the Mosaic law for those among old covenant Israel who had the law of God written on their hearts by his Spirit” (p. 126).

It is to be noted that I am arguing in a manner consistent with orthodox Judaism that justification by covenantal obedience to the Mosaic law (what Paul and his Jewish opponents called justification by the works of the law) is a legitimate Mosaic (or Old Testament) doctrine as Deut 6:25 clearly posits:
“and righteousness will be ours, if we observe to do all this commandment before Yahweh our God, as he has commanded us” (Deut 6:25).
To quote from John Davies’s study on Deut 6: “It is inescapable from a reading of Deuteronomy 6 that central to God’s covenant with Israel is the call to love him unreservedly, with all that this entails. Without such love, Israel cannot expect to be ‘right’ with God, or to enjoy any of the previously promised blessings. To put it bluntly, salvation necessitates loving obedience as its sine qua non” (John Davies, “Love for God—A Neglected Theological Locus,” in An Everlasting Covenant: Biblical and Theological Essays in Honour of William J. Dumbrell [Reformed Theological Review Supplement Series 4; eds. John A. Davies and Allan Harman; Doncaster: Reformed Theological Review, 2010], 151).

In the light of Deut 6:25, the question is: does the Old Testament record anyone as having kept torah, and in particular the torah of Moses?

“The Old Testament speaks of God’s torah as something that was indeed kept, albeit by only a small number of people in the Old Testament age. This fact needs to be acknowledged and integrated into our Protestant systematic theologies. Abraham, for example, is described by God as being a person who ‘obeyed [Yahweh’s] voice and kept [his] charge, [his] commandments … statutes … and … laws’ (Gen 26:5). David is also acknowledged by God in 1 Kings 14:8 as being someone ‘who kept my commandments and followed me with all his heart, doing only that which was right in my eyes.’ From the Old Testament perspective, therefore, torah is doable. Both Abraham and David were keepers of torah” (Coxhead, "Paul and the New Covenant Paradigm," 123), although it should be noted that the torah kept by Abraham was not the torah of Moses.

But the fact that Mosaic torah was doable means that the Mosaic covenant was a gracious covenant. Furthermore, if Mosaic torah is actually doable, then it logically follows that justification by the works of the law is a legitimate Old Testament concept. But it was legitimate only for a time. As Paul will argue, justification by the works of the Mosaic law is a doctrine (1) that excludes the Gentiles, (2) that “failed” (according to God’s plan) to bring justification to Israel as a whole, and (3) that does not apply in the new covenant age.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Jewish Context of the Theology of the Apostle Paul

In section one of my essay “Paul and the New Covenant Paradigm” in the book An Everlasting Covenant: Biblical and Theological Essays in Honour of William J. Dumbrell I look at the Jewish context of Paul’s theology in Galatians and Romans.

The Jewish context of Paul’s theology is very important for understanding the nature of the problem that Paul was addressing in Galatians and Romans, but overall this dimension is something that has frequently been mishandled or overlooked in the history of the interpretation of these epistles.

“The Jewish context of Paul’s theology has two main aspects: firstly, the theological context of the Old Testament; and secondly, the nature of the Jewish opposition that Paul had to face during his ministry” (p. 121).

“When it comes to the theological context in which Paul operated, the most important element is the Hebrew Scriptures (i.e., the Old Testament) and the theological ideas communicated therein. There are two important aspects to the Old Testament that impact upon Paul’s theology: the Old Testament view of the law, and the Old Testament view of the gospel” (p. 121).

“The second aspect of Paul’s Jewish context is the identity of Paul’s Jewish opponents” (p. 130).

In my next post I will provide some quotes from the sub-section that deals with the Old Testament view of the law.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Paul and the New Covenant Paradigm

I thought that I should give you a brief taste of the content of my essay “Paul and the New Covenant Paradigm” in the book An Everlasting Covenant: Biblical and Theological Essays in Honour of William J. Dumbrell.

"Paul and the New Covenant Paradigm" has the following sections:

1. Introduction;
2. The Jewish Context of Paul’s Theology;
   i. Paul’s Old Testament Theological Context;
     a. The Old Testament View of the Law;
     b. The Old Testament View of the Gospel;
   ii. Paul’s Jewish Opponents;
3. Understanding Paul in His Historical Context;
   i. The Christian Gospel as the Fulfilment of the of the Old Testament Hope;
   ii. Paul’s Teaching on the Law;
4. A Balanced Protestant Biblical Hermeneutic on Law and Gospel;
5. Conclusion.

Now for some quotes from the Introduction:

“The task of building a new covenant paradigm is predicated on the idea that one of the greatest aids in understanding the theology of Paul is nothing other than the Old Testament Scriptures. It is regrettable that the Old Testament’s teaching on the new covenant has often been overlooked in scholarly discussions on Paul’s theology of grace and law” (p. 119);

The content of 2 Tim 3:15 and Rom 1:1–2 “means that to understand the Pauline gospel, the Old Testament Scriptures and Old Testament prophecy must not be left out of the picture” (p. 120);

“Consistent with Dumbrell’s basic approach, I will argue in this essay that the Old Testament prophetic perspective on the new covenant was important to Paul and provided the basic paradigm for his understanding of God’s work as revealed through Christ Jesus” (p. 120).

I will give you a taste of the remaining sections over the next few posts.

For anyone who is interested, the book An Everlasting Covenant: Biblical and Theological Essays in Honour of William J. Dumbrell is available from:

Reformed Theological Review
PO Box 635
Doncaster
VIC 3108
Australia.

The cost is AU$35 plus AU$3 postage within Australia, AU$8.80 to Asia, and AU$13 to elsewhere.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Festschrift for William J. Dumbrell


Last Friday I was present at a dinner organized by the Reformed Theological Review for the purpose of presenting a Festschrift of essays written in honor of Dr William Dumbrell (on the left in the photo above), entitled An Everlasting Covenant: Biblical and Theological Essays in Honour of William J. Dumbrell, edited by John A. Davies and Allan M. Harman, and published by the Reformed Theological Review.

Bill is the author of Covenant and Creation: A Theology of the Old Testament Covenants and The Faith of Israel: A Theological Survey of the Old Testament, and many other books and articles. John Davies has written this about Bill in the Introduction to the book: “Bill has a fertile and creative mind, able from his vast reading to evaluate and take on board the best of traditional and contemporary scholarship, while being prepared to rock the boat somewhat with ideas that go against the grain of some cherished notions.” I would also like to put on the public record here my appreciation for Bill’s support for me personally and also for his encouragement for me to continue my involvement in the work of theological education in whatever capacity possible.

As one of the contributors to the Festschrift, I am probably a little biased when I say that this book is packed full with interesting and thought-provoking essays interacting with aspects of the theme of covenant in Scripture, but I think that that description is not too wide of the mark. Here's an outline of the contents:

“Fathers and Sons in the Books of Samuel” by Gregory Goswell, pp. 1-28;

“For the Sins of the Fathers: Generational Recompense in the Old Covenant and Its Implication for Infants in the New Covenant” by Mark Glanville, pp. 29-51;

“Psalm 2” by Bruce Waltke, pp. 53-81;

“The Abrahamic Covenant in the Psalter” by Allan M. Harman, pp. 83-99;

“Jesus and His Disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane” by Don West, pp. 101-117;

“Paul and the New Covenant Paradigm” by Steven Coxhead, pp. 119-44;

“Love for God—A Neglected Theological Locus” by John Davies, pp. 145-64;

“Of Covenant and Creation: A Conversation between Systematic Theology and Biblical Theology” by John McClean, pp. 165-99;

and “The One and Eternal Covenant of God” by Joe Mock (which looks at the theme of covenant in Bullinger), pp. 201-233.

The Festschrift is available from:

Reformed Theological Review
PO Box 635
Doncaster
VIC 3108
Australia.

It costs AU$35 plus $3 postage within Australia, $8.80 to Asia, and $13 to elsewhere.

Friday, November 12, 2010

The Theme of Judgment in the Gospel of John

The theme of judgment is a theme of medium priority in John’s Gospel overall, but the amount of space devoted to the theme of judgment is surprisingly large all the same. Of greatest polemical significance is the idea that Jesus has a special role to play in God’s work of judgment. Even though the Father is both King and Judge, he has “given all judgment to the Son” (John 5:22). This corresponds to Paul’s teaching that on the day of judgment each person will be called to stand before the judgment seat of Christ to give an account of what they have done (2 Cor 5:10).

According to John 5:27, Jesus has received this “authority to execute judgment” from the Father, because he is the Son of Man in fulfillment of Dan 7:13–14. This judging function would not, however, be taken up in earnest until the day of judgment. Before this time, Jesus’ role is to bring salvation more than judgment per se. Thus, John’s Gospel teaches that “God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:18). Jesus himself teaches that he “did not come to judge the world but to save the world” (John 12:47). Even though Jesus’ primary purpose for coming into the world was not that of judgment, nevertheless Jesus also taught that he had come into the world “for judgment … that those who do not see may see and that those who see may become blind” (John 9:39). In other words, even though Jesus primary purpose in his first coming was that of salvation rather than judgment, because judgment is the flipside of salvation, we can say that Jesus also came “for judgment.” Jesus denied that he would judge the person who heard his sayings yet did not keep them, but at the same time this person will be judged “on the last day” in relation to the words of revelation that Jesus had spoken while in the world (John 12:47–48). Jesus also taught that through his death and glorification “the judgment of this world” had already come (John 12:31).

Also of polemical significance in the historical context of John’s day is the idea presented forcefully in the Gospel that a person’s faith in Jesus determines whether or not he or she will be condemned in the day of judgment. The person “who believes in [Jesus] is not condemned,” but “he who does not believe is condemned already” (John 3:18). Those who reject Jesus will be judged for loving darkness rather than the light of Christ (John 3:19). Jesus taught that “he who he hears my word and believes him who sent me … does not come into judgment but has passed from death to life” (John 5:24). Such people will participate in “the resurrection of life” rather than “the resurrection of judgment” that is reserved for “those who have done evil” rather than “good” (John 5:29).

The theme of judgment also applies in John’s Gospel to the issue of Jesus’ identity, which was a matter of serious debate between Jesus and his Jewish opponents. Jesus occasionally talked of his witness about himself as being his “judgment” (John 5:30). Jesus made the claim that “[his] judgment is just” in his opinion about himself, for he was only following his Father’s will in so judging (John 5:30). Jesus said to the Pharisees that he had “much to say about [them] and much to judge” (John 8:26). On another occasion, when debating with the Pharisees, Jesus said that he “judge[s] no one” (John 8:15). At the same time, however, Jesus’ judgment is not his alone but also the judgment of the Father who sent him (John 8:16). Thus, Jesus’ judgment or opinion about himself is not ultimately his but his Father’s.

John’s Gospel is also concerned with the issue of right judgment. Jesus accused his opponents of judging “by appearances” (John 7:24) and “according to the flesh” (John 8:15) rather than “with right judgment” (John 7:24). Jesus was judged by the Jews according to the Mosaic law but unfairly so (John 7:51; 18:31). Pilate adjudged Jesus to be innocent of crime (John 18:38; 19:4, 6), but he nevertheless delivered Jesus over to be crucified (John 19:16).

John’s Gospel also speaks of a role for the Holy Spirit in the work of judgment. The Spirit would “convince the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment” (John 16:8). This is best understood as a kind of argument based on the order of events in salvation history. The coming of the Spirit upon Jesus’ disciples at Pentecost implies the fact of Jesus’ ascension, which in turn proves the truthfulness of Jesus’ claims about himself. This argument is similar to Peter’s salvation-historical logic in Acts 2 (see especially Acts 2:32–33, 36). In this way, the coming of the Spirit would convict the world of the sinfulness of rejecting Jesus Christ (John 16:9), vindicate Christ by proving his righteousness in all that he said and did (John 16:10), and prove that through Jesus’ death and resurrection “the ruler of this world has been judged” (John 16:11) and “cast out” (John 12:31–32).

Monday, November 8, 2010

The Eucharist in the Gospel of John

Even though John’s Gospel provides an account of the Last Supper in chs. 13–14, it is somewhat surprising that there is no account of the actual institution of the Lord’s Supper in John’s Gospel, unlike the situation that is found in the Synoptics. This detail has led some scholars to speculate that John’s Gospel was written in part to de-emphasize a sacramental theology in the early church that had elevated the sacraments to a point where the reality of Christ behind the sacramental signs was in danger of being obscured.

It has also been argued that Jesus’ teaching in John 6 that he is the bread of life also functions to de-emphasize such an overly elevated view of the eucharist. It is argued from John 6:35 in particular that the language of eating Jesus’ flesh and drinking Jesus’ blood is merely to be understood as a combined metaphor for coming to Jesus and believing in him. In addition to this, the teaching in John 6:63 that “it is the Spirit who gives life” and that “the flesh is of no avail” has been taken as a possible critique of the view which emphasizes the physical dimension of the eucharist to the detriment of the spiritual reality to which the physical signs are supposed to point.

Opposing this view of an anti-sacramental theology in John’s Gospel, the majority of modern day scholarship has seen a positive link between John 6 and the Lord’s Supper. Raymond Brown is of the opinion that there are “secondary, eucharistic undertones” in John 6:35–50, and an explicit allusion to the Lord’s Supper in vv. 51–58 (Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel according to John I-XII: Introduction, Translation, and Notes [AB 29; Wimbledon: Geoffrey Chapman, 1971], 274). Rudolf Bultmann commenting on John 6:27–59 says that the concepts of eating Jesus’ flesh and drinking his blood “refer without any doubt to the sacramental meal of the Eucharist” (Rudolf Bultmann, The Gospel of John: A Commentary [Philadelphia: Westminster John Knox, 1971], 218).

C. K. Barrett also sees an allusion to the eucharist in John 6:51–58. He takes the addition of the words “drink his blood” in John 6:53 as pointing “unmistakably … to the eucharist” (C. K. Barrett, The Gospel according to St John: An Introduction and Commentary on the Greek Text [2nd ed.; London: SPCK, 1978], 299). At the same time, however, he makes the point that an allusion to the eucharist “does not in itself determine what John’s eucharistic theology was” (ibid., 297). He disputes that John 6:51–58 presents “the bread and wine to be a kind of medicine, conferring immortality by quasi-magical means” (ibid.). The “removal of the eucharistic allusion from the last supper” to the narrative in John 6 shows that John’s “intention” was “to set the eucharist in the context of the work of Jesus as a whole and to give it a strictly personal interpretation” (ibid.). Somewhat similar to Barrett, Leon Morris prefers the view that takes the teaching of Jesus in John 6:27–58 as being “primarily ... about spiritual realities” (Leon Morris, The Gospel according to John [Rev. ed.; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995], 313). At the same time, however, he “does not deny that there may be a secondary reference to the sacrament” (ibid.).

In all of this discussion, we should keep in mind that the immediate significance of the metaphors of eating Jesus’ flesh and drinking his blood in the context of Jesus’ dialogue with the crowd is definitely related to the need to become united with Jesus through faith so as to participate in the life-giving power of his sacrificial death. That is, the metaphors used by Jesus at this point speak of the need for faith in Jesus as the condition for eternal life. This is also the primary significance of the teaching in John 6:25–59 for readers of John’s Gospel today. Nevertheless, given that the New Testament testifies that the early church regularly participated in the Lord’s Supper whenever they met together (Acts 2:42, 46; 20:7; 1 Cor 11:33), and that participation in the Lord’s Supper is itself a pledge of personal faith in the context of a covenant renewal ceremony—participation in the Lord’s Supper is meant to be viewed as involving a public confession of faith confirming the confession of faith made at baptism—it is reasonable to assume that Jesus’ knew and intended that these provocative metaphors would allow links to be drawn in the minds of the early Christians between his teaching in John 6 with the familiar practice of the Lord’s Supper. If this is true, then John 6:25–58 also speaks in a secondary way of the significance of what we do when we participate in the Lord’s Supper. When we come to Jesus in the Lord’s Supper with faith in our hearts, we are assured that the power of his lifeblood is at work in us. Given the anti-Baptist and particularly anti-Judaistic orientation of John’s Gospel, it is also reasonable to assume that the function of John 6:25–58 in the polemical contect of the day would have implied an assertion of the efficacy and necessity of the Lord’s Supper (by which the gospel is formally sealed to believers) over against the rites of the communities with which the John’s Christian community was in competition (i.e., the followers of John the Baptist, and the orthodox Jewish community).

Attention has also been drawn to John 15:1–11 as being another allusion to the eucharist. Given that John 15:1–16:33 seems to record the teaching that Jesus gave to his disciples on the way to the Kidron Valley just after the conclusion of the Last Supper, we are obviously meant to understand Jesus’ teaching in John 15:1–11 in the context of the Passover meal that had just been celebrated. Furthermore, given that this Passover meal provided the model for the Lord’s Supper, it seems that Jesus’ teaching in John 15:1–11 also functions as a reflection on the deeper significance of the Lord’s Supper. As we participate in the Lord’s Supper, we renew our faith union with Jesus, and commit ourselves to his service to bear fruit for him, and to the bond of love which Jesus would have us maintain with our Christian brothers and sisters. It is quite possible that the tradition of calling the Lord’s Supper a “love feast” (Jude 12) stems from this teaching of the Lord. Participation in the Lord’s Supper is not only meant to be a communion in the death and life of the Lord Jesus, but also a communion of love of Christians with one another.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Baptism in the Gospel of John

Even though there is no specific command in John’s Gospel concerning the need for baptism, it is significant that John’s Gospel is the only gospel which records that baptism was an important part of Jesus’ public ministry. In John 3:22, the author records that Jesus “baptized” a large number of people, so much so that his ministry of baptism began to eclipse the widely popular ministry of John the Baptist. Even though this verse records that Jesus “baptized,” John 4:2 records that Jesus did not actually baptize anyone himself; rather he authorized his disciples to perform baptism on his behalf. But even though Jesus did not personally conduct baptisms, it is clear from the Gospel of John that baptism in water was important in the ministry of Jesus. This aspect of Jesus’ ministry is something that we do not see in the Synoptics.

The meaning given to baptism in John’s Gospel is also worthy of consideration. Baptism is linked to discipleship in the sense that submission to Jesus’ baptism was the initial formal step by which a person became a disciple of Jesus. This is clear from the wording of John 4:1, which says that “Jesus was making and baptizing more disciples and John.” This link between baptism and discipleship is echoed in the theology of the Great Commission in Matt 28:19, where it is taught that disciples are formally “made” through baptism. Having been baptized, the disciple is then obligated to learn from his or her master, to follow his example (John 13:14–15), by keeping the master’s teaching (John 17:6), and obeying his commandments (Matt 28:20; John 15:10). By keeping the master’s commandments, the disciple remains in the master’s love (John 15:10).

There has been a great deal of debate over whether or not Jesus’ teaching concerning rebirth “by water and spirit” in John 3:5 is a reference to Christian baptism. It is best to take these words spoken by Jesus in his dialogue with Nicodemus as teaching about the need for conversion by the Holy Spirit, with water (as is usual in John’s Gospel) being a metaphor for the Holy Spirit. At the same time, however, this metaphor lends itself to seeing a close connection between physical water and the Holy Spirit. The practice of Gentile proselyte baptism, in which Gentile converts to Judaism were considered to become like newborn children makes it quite likely that the word water would have conveyed the idea of baptism, or at least some kind of ceremonial washing, to a Jewish audience. Ezekiel 36:24–27 also connects the future work of the Spirit with the image of water sprinkled upon Israel in order to cleanse her from her uncleanness.

Since conversion or baptism by the Holy Spirit is paralleled in John 3:15–16, 18 with believing in Jesus, the obvious conclusion that must be drawn is that the new birth (i.e., baptism in the Holy Spirit) begins (for the adult convert) when one confesses faith in Jesus Christ. For the early church, the Christian confession of faith consisted of a public confession of belief in Jesus as Messiah using the formula (in a Jewish context) I believe that Jesus is the Christ (John 20:31), or I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God (Acts 8:37), which became in a Gentile context the confession that Jesus is Lord (Rom 10:9). The practice of the early church was that a person’s confession of faith in Jesus would be formally sealed in the act of baptism, which was performed immediately upon confession of faith. The book of Acts records no less than nine instances of converts being baptized immediately (or “at once” according to Acts 16:33) upon confession of faith. These are: the 3,000 converted at Pentecost (Acts 2:38,41); the Samaritans (8:12); the Ethiopian eunuch (8:37–38); the Apostle Paul (9:18; 22:16); the first Gentile converts (10:47–48); Lydia (16:14–15); the Philippian jailer (16:31–33); the Corinthians (18:8); and the twelve disciples of John the Baptist (19:3–5). This indicates that the early church thought of baptism as an integral part of conversion (hence, Peter could teach in 1 Pet 3:21 that “baptism … saves you”). Furthermore, it was the belief of the early church that the eschatological gift of the Holy Spirit was ordinarily received through Christian baptism (Acts 2:38, 41; 5:32; 19:2; 1 Cor 12:13; Tit 3:5), following the model of Jesus’ baptism, in which there was a conjunction of water and the Holy Spirit (Luke 3:21–22). Exceptions to the rule of the conjunction of water and the Holy Spirit in baptism only happened at special stages in God’s plan of salvation, such as at Pentecost (Acts 2:1–4) and upon the conversion of the Samaritans (Acts 8:14–17) and the first Gentiles (Acts 10:44–48).

Because this concept of the conjunction of water and the Holy Spirit in baptism was prevalent in the early church, it is most likely that John’s Christian audience, and non-Christians acquainted with Christian religious practices, would have understood the phrase of water and spirit as having some kind of link with Christian baptism. Thus, Jesus’ teaching in John 3:5 can be understood as an implied call for non-believers to convert to Christianity, i.e., to be baptized and to become disciples of Jesus Christ, similar to the teaching of the early church that is recorded in Mark 16:16: “He who believes and is baptized will be saved.”

In sum, it is best to take the primary reference of the words of water and spirit on the lips of Jesus as referring to conversion by the Spirit, but at the same time this implies the necessity of Christian baptism, because baptism in water and the Spirit were ordinarily viewed in the early church as happening together as part of the process of conversion.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Sacraments of Baptism and the Eucharist in the Gospel of John

The issue of the sacraments in the Gospel of John has received a lot of attention in Christian scholarship. Some scholars have even argued “that John was written to oppose people who gave too much place to the sacraments or those who gave too little place to them” (Leon Morris, “John, Gospel according to” in International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982], 2:1107). There has also been debate over whether or not John 3 refers to baptism, and whether or not John 6 refers to the eucharist. The extent of this debate is rather remarkable considering that, as C. K. Barrett has noted, “the Fourth [Gospel] contains no specific command of Jesus to baptize, and no account of the institution of the eucharist” (C. K. Barrett, The Gospel according to St John: An Introduction with Commentary and Notes on the Greek Text [2nd ed.; London: SPCK, 1978], 82).

I agree with Don Carson that John’s Gospel “is neither sacramentarian nor anti–sacramentarian” (D. A. Carson, The Gospel according to John, [Leicester: IVP, 1991], 99). Carson views these categories as being inappropriate, and he is right to do so, but he argues this on the basis that the language of the Gospel “drives people to the reality, to Christ himself, refusing to stop at that which points to the reality” (ibid.).

The problem with Carson’s argument at this point is that baptism and the Lord’s Supper (in Reformed tradition at least) are not merely signs that point to Christ; they are signs that actually communicate the reality of Christ. Furthermore, while it is true that the Gospel of John is primarily a call for people to be committed to Christ and his teaching, given that early church placed great importance on baptism and the eucharist, it is highly unlikely that John and his readers would not have drawn connections between Jesus’ teaching in John 3, 6 and the important Christian rites of baptism and the eucharist. The book of Acts shows that baptism was treated as an integral part of the gospel (e.g., Acts 2:38; 8:36), and that the eucharist was an important activity in Christian worship and fellowship (Acts 2:42, 46; 20:7).

Furthermore, if it is accepted that John’s Gospel was written with an evangelistic purpose in mind (primarily for confirming the belief of Christians, and secondarily to promote the conversion of unbelievers), then the issues of baptism and participation in the Lord’s Supper would naturally be present by way of implication. These were the key rites that defined initiation and continuation respectively in the Christian community.

It is valid, therefore, to allow for a deeper significance to Jesus’ words in John 3 and John 6 in the context of John’s day, where Christians (and possibly some non-Christians) would have understood Jesus’ teaching in these chapters in the context of the important Christian rites of baptism and the eucharist, allowing them to draw connections between Jesus’ teaching in the Gospel and Christian doctrine regarding the sacraments. I will pursue some of these connections in my next couple of posts.

Monday, October 25, 2010

The Concept of Light and Darkness in John's Gospel

Consistent with the Old Testament teaching on light and darkness outlined in my previous post “The Old Testament Background to the Concept of Light and Darkness in John’s Gospel”, the Gospel of John clearly identifies Jesus of Nazareth as being the spiritual light of the universe.

For John, Jesus is “the light of humanity” (John 1:4). The allusions in John 1:1–5 to Gen 1 (“in the beginning” in vv. 1–2; “word” in vv. 1–2; the act of creation in v. 3; life in v. 4; light and darkness in vv. 4–5) suggest that just as the word of God brought about the existence of physical light at the beginning of the history of the world, in a similar way the Word of God (who is Jesus) is the spiritual light that brings safety and life into our world of darkness (John 1:4). By Jesus coming into the world, his light has shone into the darkness; and wherever his light has reached, there the darkness has irresistably been overcome (John 1:5). At the same time, however, there are evildoers who love the darkness rather than the light, who as a consequence refuse to come to the light (John 3:19–20). In the original context, this is a reference to those Jews who were viewed as having broken the covenant with God. On the other hand, those (Israelites) who do the truth (i.e., who are committed to the covenant with God) come to the light of Christ in order to show the genuine value of their obedience to God under the Mosaic covenant (John 3:21).

John’s Gospel strongly promotes the idea that Jesus is “the true light who illuminates all people” (John 1:9). Jesus has shone in the world in order to enlighten people, regardless of nationality. He has “come as a light into the world, in order that everyone who believes in him might not abide in the darkness” (John 12:46). Thus, Jesus himself claimed to be “the light of the world” (John 8:12; 9:5). Following Jesus and his teaching is to avoid “walk[ing] in the darkness,” and results in a person experiencing “the light of life” (John 8:12). It is important to walk in the daytime rather than at night. Walking in the daylight is equated with seeing “the light of this world,” the benefit being the avoidance of stumbling (John 11:9–10). Consistent with the use of this imagery in the Old Testament, the person “who walks in the darkness does not know where he is going” (John 12:35). The danger with not seeing where you are going is that you will stumble so as to fall away from the pathway of salvation. Jesus viewed his earthly ministry as the short period of time (“a little while”) in which “the light is among you” (John 12:35; see also John 9:5). He called upon the Jews of his day to “believe in the light” while the light was still among them, “in order that you might become sons of light” (John 12:36). Rejecting the light would result in the Jewish nation being overtaken by darkness (John 12:35).

John’s Gospel is also concerned to make the point that John the Baptist, when compared with Jesus, is definitely “not the light”; instead, he only bore testimony concerning the light (John 1:8). At the same time, however, Jesus acknowledges that John the Baptist was “a lamp that burns and shines,” and that the Jews “were willing for a time to rejoice in his light” (John 5:35). John the Baptist was a light, but not the light. The “true light” who came into the world, “who illuminates all people,” is none other than Jesus of Nazareth. In him the Old Testament prophetic expectation of the coming of the glory of Yahweh has been fulfilled.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Old Testament Background to the Concept of Light and Darkness in John's Gospel

Light and darkness make up one of the conspicuous dualisms that are found in John’s Gospel. The source of such dualism in John is not Gnosticism or Greek philosophy, but the concept of light and darkness in the Hebrew Bible. Therefore, in order to understand John’s concept of light and darkness, we need to consider the Old Testament background to this idea.

Consistent with the characterization of light and darkness in many cultures, in the Old Testament light is a positive concept, whereas darkness is primarily negative (Isa 5:20). In Gen 1, darkness is associated with disorder and emptiness. The default state of the world is darkness, but the word of God brings light into the world (Gen 1:3; see also Isa 42:16). Darkness can be associated with the presence of God in the sense that the thickness of his glory cloud can prevent light from penetrating (Exod 14:20; 20:21; Deut 4:11; 5:22–23; 1 Kgs 8:12; Ps 18:9, 11; 97:2), and in the sense that God is the creator of (physical and metaphorical) darkness (Isa 45:7; Amos 4:13); but overall Yahweh is a God who dwells in glorious light (Exod 27:20; Ps 104:1–2; Ezek 1:27–28). He is the light of the righteous (Ps 27:1). His light gives light to his people (Ps 36:9; see also Ps 56:13; 97:11). Light shines from his face (Ps 44:3; 89:15). To the righteous, his word “is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path” (Ps 119:105; see also Ps 119:130; Prov 6:23).

Darkness is usually a sign of God’s judgment (Exod 10:21–23; Ps 105:28; Ezek 32:8; Joel 2:2, 31; Amos 5:18, 20; Nah 1:8; Zeph 1:15). The covenant curse of military defeat for Israel will see darkness covering the land (Isa 5:30; 8:22). The exile is pictured as a time of darkness (Jer 13:16). Darkness is also associated with death (Ps 107:10, 14; Prov 20:20). It is the ultimate abode of the wicked (1 Sam 2:9). There is no light in Sheol, the place of the dead (Ps 49:19). From the ethical perspective of the Old Testament, the problem with darkness is that it does not allow you to see where you are going. Darkness is dangerous. You cannot see the spiritual obstacles that would bring you down, which means that you can easily end up stumbling off the pathway that leads to life (Prov 4:19; Isa 59:10; Jer 23:12). To forsake the paths of uprightness is to walk in darkness (Prov 2:13). Evildoers hide in the darkness (Job 34:22). The righteous can also experience darkness (Isa 50:10; 59:9; Lam 3:2), but in the end light will shine upon the upright (Ps 112:4). Yahweh is a lamp who shines his light into the darkness experienced by the righteous (2 Sam 22:29; see also Mic 7:8–9). Repentance will result in the light dawning upon the darkness of Israel such that even her gloom will be as bright as noon (Isa 58:8, 10).

The eschatological coming of Yahweh is pictured in the Old Testament as the light of the glory of God that comes to push back and to overcome the darkness of this world. Yahweh will arise, and his glory will shine upon Israel, and be a beacon that will attract the nations (Isa 60:1–3). Emmanuel, the child of the young (virgin) woman (Isa 7:14), who is “Mighty God” (Isa 9:6), will come as “a great light” shining in “Galilee of the Gentiles” (Isa 9:1–2); and the Suffering Servant will be “a light for the Gentiles” (Isa 42:6; see also Isa 49:6; 51:4–5). In this way, the day of salvation will bring light to the blind (Isa 29:18; 42:7); the prisoners will be released from darkness (Isa 49:9); and the glory of Yahweh will become an everlasting light, so bright that the sun will be made redundant, its brilliance being eternally eclipsed by the utter magnificence of the glory of God (Isa 60:19–20).

Monday, October 11, 2010

The Doctrine of the Holy Spirit in the Gospel of John

The Gospel of John is packed full with important teaching about the Holy Spirit. John’s Gospel presents Jesus’ coming as being the key event for the accomplishment of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit that had been prophesied about by the Old Testament prophets.

The view of the Holy Spirit presented in John’s Gospel fully accords with the teaching of the Old Testament in this regard. According to the Old Testament, all life whether physical or spiritual is a product of God’s Spirit (e.g., Gen 1:2; Ps 104:30; Ezek 37:14). John’s Gospel teaches that the Spirit gives life (John 6:63). The Spirit is “living water” (John 4:10). Those who drink of the Spirit live eternally (John 4:14). Rebirth by the Spirit is necessary for entering the kingdom of God (John 3:5), and for experiencing eternal life and immortality (John 3:6). In the new covenant age, this Spiritual rebirth is no longer limited to the traditional Israelite lines of covenant membership, but is open to people of all nations (John 3:8; 4:21, 23).

John’s Gospel presupposes the Old Testament teaching concerning the eschatological gift of the Holy Spirit. The Old Testament describes the old covenant age as a time in which there was a limited work of God’s Spirit writing the law on the heart. During the old covenant age, God’s law was not written in the hearts of the majority of the people of Israel. This meant that the nation of Israel viewed as a whole did not walk in the way of God’s law, thereby breaking the covenant with God. This led to the covenant curses coming down upon Israel, culminating in the exile to Babylon. Even though God had allowed the Jews to come back to Judea after the exile, the time of covenant blessing had not yet come. The Old Testament looked forward, therefore, to a new age when God would pour out his Spirit upon Israel and all flesh. This eschatological work of the Holy Spirit would result in Israel returning to God in covenant obedience (see Deut 30:6; Jer 31:31–33; Ezek 36:24–27).

As Jer 31:31–33 and Ezek 36:25–28 make known, the coming of the new covenant age would mark the beginning of a transformation in the comprehensiveness of the work of the Holy Spirit. Instead of the limited work of the Spirit under the old covenant (which led to the covenant failure and exile of Israel among the nations), the Holy Spirit would be poured out in a greater way such that the hearts of the people of Israel would be changed, with the result that Israel would return to God in true worship and obedience and, as a result, begin to experience covenant blessing instead of covenant curse.

John’s Gospel is concerned to link this Old Testament prophetic expectation of the eschatological gift of the Spirit with the ministry of Jesus. The Old Testament prophets understood that the eschatological outpouring of the Spirit would come about through the ministry of the Messiah (e.g., Isa 11:1–5; 44:1–5; and 55:1–4), through the work of the Spirit-filled suffering Servant (e.g., Isa 42:1–7; 49:1–6; 61:1–4). John’s Gospel proclaims Jesus of Nazareth as being none other than this Spirit-filled suffering Servant-Messiah who has come into the world to accomplish the promised eschatological outpouring of the Spirit of life.

Thus, Jesus is presented in John’s Gospel as being the one upon whom the Holy Spirit descended and upon whom the Holy Spirit remains (John 1:32). Jesus has received the Spirit without measure (John 3:34). Following the more likely interpretation of John 7:38, “rivers of living water” flow from within the Messiah, who is himself the eschatological temple, bringing life and blessing to the world, in fulfillment of Ezek 47:1–10. Because Jesus is the Spirit-filled Messiah and Spirit-filled Servant, he is the person who would (after his glorification) baptize people in the Holy Spirit (John 1:33). He gives the living water of the Spirit to those who ask of him (John 4:10, 14). But only those who believe that Jesus is the Messiah can receive this gift (John 7:37–39). In other words, the eschatological outpouring of the Spirit is performed by Jesus. The Spirit proceeds from God the Father, but would be sent by Jesus to dwell within his disciples (John 14:17; 15:26). The Spirit would be given to those who love Jesus and who keep his word (John 14:23), but not to the unregenerate people of the world (John 14:17). Jesus’ disciples would see the Spirit and know him (John 14:17). The Spirit would abide with them forever (John 14:16). This eschatological outpouring of the Spirit, however, would not take place until after Jesus’ glorification (John 7:39). In God’s plan, the comprehensive outpouring of the Spirit was reserved for the new covenant age, which would be inaugurated through the death and resurrection of Christ.

The coming of the Spirit would be beneficial for Jesus’ disciples in a number of ways. The Spirit would be their Paraklete, their Helper. He would mediate to Jesus’ disciples the presence of the Father and the Son (John 14:21, 23). As the Spirit of truth, he would help God’s people worship God in the proper way (John 4:23–24). He would also guide Jesus’ disciples into all truth (John 16:13), reminding them of Jesus’ teaching (John 14:26), and testifying about Jesus to them (John 15:26). He would receive revelation from Jesus to pass on to Jesus’ disciples (John 16:13–15).

The teaching in John’s Gospel about the Holy Spirit is concluded in 20:22 when Jesus breathes upon his disciples, saying, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” There has been some discussion on the relationship of this incident with the giving of the Spirit at Pentecost, but it is probably best to understand this as a prophetic action on the part of Jesus intended to convey the important truth that the eschatological gift of the Holy Spirit—which would be poured out after Jesus’ glorification (John 7:39), i.e., after his resurrection and ascension—would be mediated through Jesus himself, and also that the gift of the Spirit to be received by his disciples would be a sharing in the Spirit of Christ himself.

Overall, the doctrine of the Holy Spirit in the Gospel of John is very comprehensive. However, it cannot be fully appreciated without an understanding of the need for the eschatological outpouring of the Spirit which emerges from the story of the covenant rebellion of Israel in the Old Testament.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

The Sabbath Commandment as a Hermeneutical Guide for Understanding the Seven Day Structure of Genesis 1:1–2:3

The length of the days in Gen 1 has been the subject of much debate, particularly over the last 150 years since the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of the Species. In the light of this debate, it is interesting to think about how Gen 1 would be understood from the point of view of the implied reader or listener of the text, which I take in the first instance to be a Hebrew-speaking member of ancient Israel of orthodox belief.

It is important to realize in this regard that Genesis (for all its importance) is really only the prologue to the exodus and the establishment of Israel as a nation in covenant with Yahweh. Genesis is, in effect, the prologue of the Pentateuch. The implied reader or listener would understand Genesis, therefore, through the prism of Israelite cultural knowledge, prominent within which would be the idea of Israel’s election and Israelite religious tradition and practice.

The implication of the existence of such cultural presuppositions in the mind of the implied reader is that the implied reader would approach the creation account in Gen 1:1–2:3 with a knowledge of the weekly pattern of six days’ work and one day’s rest as part of their cultural “baggage.” This means that the concept of God working to order and fill the world over six days, then resting on the seventh when everything was complete, would most naturally have been understood by the implied reader in terms of a cycle of normal 24-hour days, on analogy with the Hebrew custom of six day’s work, one day’s rest.

The initial impression that the implied reader would have received on reading or hearing the creation account is that God’s activity fits our own pattern of activity. We work for six days and then enjoy our Sabbath rest, and so does God! But it is not a case of God imitating the Hebrews. Further reflection would involve the application of the truth of the fourth commandment to the creation narrative:
Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to Yahweh your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days Yahweh made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore Yahweh blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy (Exod 20:8–11).
Knowledge of the fourth commandment and the Hebrew custom of resting from one’s work on the seventh day would effectively function as a hermeneutical guide for the the way in which Gen 1:1–2:3 would be understood. Hence the conclusion: it is not a case of God imitating us, but us imitating God! We Israelites work for six days and rest on the seventh, because that is what God did.

In this way the implied reader would come away from his or her reading of Gen 1:1–2:3, not only with an assumption that the days of the creation week were normal 24-hour days, on analogy with one’s own experience of work and rest; but more importantly, with the knowledge that God himself is the analogue for human work and rest. This idea has important ramifications for how the creation mandate of Gen 1:28 is to be understood.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

The Theology of Genesis 1

Genesis 1 has been the primary biblical battleground in the contentious debate over views of creation and evolution among Christians for many decades now, but in all of this the important theology of Gen 1 has frequently been overlooked.

Genesis 1:1 talks about the initial creation of the cosmos by God, but it is interesting from the perspective of the original Hebrew that Gen 1:2 contains three disjunctive clauses. These disjunctive clauses add information that is circumstantial to the main action of the narrative, which skips from v. 1, over v. 2, to resume in v. 3. At the same time, however, there is an element of contrast implied in these clauses. The following translation seeks to bring out something of the sense of the disjunctive nature of these clauses:
(1) In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth, (2) but the earth was formless and empty, and darkness was over the surface of the deep, but the Spirit of God was hovering over the surface of the water.
If the disjunctive nature of the first clause in Gen 1:2 is taken as conveying an element of contrast, then this is significant. It prompts us to ask the question: Why would God, when he created the world, initially create Planet Earth to be formless and empty? Surely God with his infinite power could have created a world that was fully formed right from the very beginning, but he chose not to; and the disjunctive clause at the beginning of Gen 1:2 is there to help us see how surprising this is. Why would a God of order create a world that existed in a state of disorder for a certain period of time? What is God trying to teach us?

A similar thing applies to the second clause in Gen 1:2. Like with the first clause in v. 2, the disjunctive nature of the second clause contrasts with the expectation of perfection that one might ordinarily have in relation to God’s creation of the cosmos in v. 1. God created the cosmos, but Planet Earth was covered in darkness. The disjunctive nature of the second clause in Gen 1:2 prompts us to see how surprising this is. Why would a God of light, the God in whom there is no darkness, create the earth only to cover it in darkness?

Formless, empty, covered in darkness; but the chaotic mass was pregnant with the expectation of new life, because the Spirit of God was brooding over the water. The disjunctive nature of the third clause in Gen 1:2 arguably signals contrast with the preceding two clauses just as much as it presents information that is circumstantial to the main action of the narrative. Things might look bleak, but the Spirit of God is always present offering the hope of new life:
Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there! If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there! If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me. If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light about me be night,” even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is bright as the day, for darkness is as light with you (Ps 139:7–12).
In the midst of the chaos and darkness of the world, the Spirit of God is present; and “it is the Spirit who gives life” (John 6:63).

What we have in Gen 1 is a movement from disorder, emptiness, and darkness, to light (v. 3), and order (through dividing and naming in vv. 4–10), and filling (vv. 11–31). And significantly, how does God bring about this order and the fullness of life? And God said (vv. 3, 6, 9, 11, 14, 20, 24, 26, 28, 29). Through the ten words of God, order and life is brought into the world. To the implied orthodox Hebrew reader, the message of Gen 1 at this point is crystal clear: it is the word of God that brings order and life. The whole of human society must be founded upon and directed by the word of God the Creator. To do otherwise is to revert back to the disorder, emptiness, and darkness of the original chaotic mass.

The theology of Gen 1 is not only that God is the Creator of the cosmos, but that he is the God who acts through the power of his Spirit and word to transform chaos into order, to transform the emptiness of non-life into the fullness of life, and darkness into light. The theology of Gen 1 is more than just the time frame of creation. In fact, the six day structure of Gen 1 should prompt us to ask why God took his time! Why take his time leisurely over six days rather than complete everything in the blink of an eye? Why start off with just one measly person, then two, in a small garden? Why not the whole earth full with ten billion people right from the start? Is such not possible for a God who created the cosmos ex nihilo? All of this signals that God has chosen to start off small, and to move progressively in time to bring about the full fruition of his purposes.

In sum, the six days of the ordering of the initial chaotic mass and filling it is a statement of the kind of God that God would prove to be. Even the very way in which God created the world was a dramatic proclamation concerning his intentions in history. This means that God actually had us in mind when he created the world! He deliberately created the world in the way that he did in order to teach us about himself and about his plan for the subsequent history of the world, and we miss the point of Gen 1 if we fail to see this. God created the world the way he did because he wants us to see that he is a God who moves in human history from small to big, from disorder to order, from darkness to light, from death to life. The theology of Gen 1 is a theology of the gradual growth of the kingdom of God on earth through the power of God’s word and Spirit. When we have understood this, then we have no reason ever to lose hope, no matter how dark the world around us may seem to be. The theology of the cross and resurrection has been foreshadowed from the very beginning.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

From Wilderness to Promised Land: The Experience of Adam, Israel, and Jesus

Most Christians are familiar with the idea that Adam was expelled from the garden of Eden to live effectively in the wilderness, but the idea that Adam commenced his life outside the garden is not so well known. Adam was not created inside the garden! This observation highlights some important biblical theological truths.

Firstly, to prove that Adam was indeed created outside of the garden. Thankfully, this is not too difficult to prove. The creation of Adam occurs in Gen 2:7, and the planting of the garden and Adam’s placement therein occurs in the next verse, i.e., in Gen 2:8. The NIV translation of ויטע and he planted into the English past perfect he had planted suggests that the garden was planted by God prior to the creation of Adam. But this is unlikely from the point of view of the original Hebrew. The most natural reading of the Hebrew is that the preterite verbs in Gen 2:7–8 (וייצר and he formed ... ויפח and he breathed ... ויהי and he became ... ויטע and he planted ... וישם and he placed) should be understood in the typical Hebrew manner as being temporally sequential.

In other words, Adam was not only created outside the garden of Eden, but he was created even before the garden had come into existence. This means that Adam was not only conscious of his “wilderness” origin—Genesis 2:5; 3:23 allow us to use the term wilderness of the land where Adam was created—but we can also assume that Adam would also have witnessed God planting the garden. He was, after all, conscious at the time. Imagine it from Adam’s perspective: after seeing God planting and getting everything ready, all of a sudden he is led by God into the garden that has been prepared almost as if it were specially for him. Imagine being led through a tree-lined entrance into the heart of a magnificent garden oasis. Adam knew the difference between the wilderness and the garden! He knew what it was to be the recipient of God’s (non-redemptive) grace from the very beginning.

Furthermore, noticing that Adam was created outside of the garden helps us to see that the important from wilderness to promised land theme of the Bible was something that was in operation from the very beginning. Just as Adam was led from the wilderness into the “promised land” of the garden of Eden, only to be expelled; Israel too would repeat this sequence. From the wilderness, John the Baptist proclaimed the arrival of the true Adam and the true Israel in the person of Jesus. Like with Adam and Israel, Jesus’ ministry began in the wilderness. There he was baptized, and there he was tempted; but unlike forgetful Israel, Jesus remembered the lessons of the wilderness (Matt 4:1–10): that “man [does] not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (a quotation of Deut 8:3 read in the light of Deut 8:2); that “you shall not put the Lord your God to the test” (Deut 6:16 read in the light of Deut 6:10–12); and that “you shall worship the Lord your God, and him only shall you serve” (Deut 6:13 also read in the light of Deut 6:10–12). Knowing the lessons of the wilderness, Jesus would not repeat the mistake of his forefathers, and the cycle of wilderness to promised land to wilderness was broken. Through his death, resurrection, and ascension, permanent human habitation of the promised land has been achieved.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Relationship before Covenant or Covenant before Relationship?

In interacting with William Dumbrell’s suggestion that the covenant in Gen 9 is a renewal of God’s covenant with creation, Paul Williamson has argued that relationship is prior to covenant in the biblical order of things:
For most Reformed theologians, any relationship involving God must be covenantal in nature—whether it is his relationship with creation in general or his relation with human beings in particular. Covenant is seen as framing or establishing such a relationship. This, however, is not in fact what the biblical text suggests. Rather than establishing or framing such a divine-human relationship, a covenant seals or formalizes it. The biblical order is relationship, then covenant, rather than covenant, hence relationship (Paul Williamson, “Covenant: The Beginning of a Biblical Idea,” Reformed Theological Review 65 [2006]: 12–13).
Williamson cites approvingly Bruce Waltke’s understanding that a covenant “solemnizes and confirms a social relationship already in existence” (Bruce K. Waltke and Cathi J. Fredricks, Genesis: A Commentary [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001], 136).

I agree in part with Williamson and Waltke at this point. Obviously God has been in a relationship with the world and its creatures from the very instance of creation, and it is true that there is nothing approximating a formal covenant ceremony in Gen 1–3. God’s relationship with the world is described in terms of his creation of the world, and his commitment to ordering and filling it. Filling the world and exercising dominion over it constitutes God’s blessing for humanity. God’s blessing is, in fact, the creation mandate (Gen 1:28), which is both imperatival, jussive, and indicative: God commands, desires, and foreordains that the mandate be fulfilled. The relationship between God and creation has as its presupposition, therefore, the divine fiat of creation; but the primary structure in Gen 1 for the outworking of this relationship is the divine blessing of life and dominion.

In addition to the blessing of life and dominion, promise also plays a part in structuring God’s relationship with humanity. In Gen 1:1–2:3, the ontological analogy between humanity and God (due to the former’s creation in the image of God) strongly suggests that the goal of humanity’s work on earth is an eternal Sabbath rest. That is to say, there is an implied promise in Gen 1:1–2:3. In Gen 2, the idea of promise is more explicit. The command not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil promised that death would result from eating the forbidden fruit (Gen 2:17). The flipside of this is the implication that obedience would result in life. Genesis 1–2 clearly teaches, therefore, that humanity’s relationship with God is regulated by God’s word. God word of promise is that, as his word of command is obeyed, his word of blessing will be realized. The focus in Gen 1–2 is on God’s word (his word of blessing, command, and promise) rather than on covenant per se.

I agree then that, strictly speaking, relationship is prior to covenant. But to say that covenants merely formalize an existing relationship is not accurate. The presence of a historical prologue in the standard covenant form acknowledges that some kind of prior relationship typically exists between the parties of a covenant, but covenants do not necessarily simply formalize the status quo. Covenants presuppose a certain history, but their orientation is towards the future. In particular, they specify the privileges, obligations, and sanctions of the relationship (from the time of the establishment of the covenant) into the future. The major divine-human covenants that we encounter in the Bible do not formalize the status quo, but establish and regulate in a formally binding way a new stage in the relationship. Marriage, for example, is a covenant. To say that the marriage ceremony formalizes a pre-existing one flesh relationship between husband and wife is not accurate. Rather, the marriage covenant defines a new relationship, or at least a new and distinctive stage in the relationship moving forward into the future.

And even if it is true to say that strictly speaking the concept of covenant does not occur in Gen 1–2, it also needs to be acknowledged that the basic structural elements of a covenant (i.e., parties, promise, condition, and penalty) all exist in the prelapsarian situation of Adam in the garden. Just as oaths function to strengthen promises, covenants formalize, solemnize, and strengthen relationships by defining the privileges and obligations of the parties in the relationship, as well as the sanctions that exist for any who would break the covenant. These privileges, obligations, and sanctions are at heart … promises. Covenants define binding relationships based on promise. The relational dynamics of promise inside the garden is not fundamentally different, therefore, from the relational dynamics of covenant outside the garden.

The definition of a relationship that a covenant provides may simply be to renew or confirm an existing covenant or relationship, or it may be to establish a new stage in the relationship that is consistent with previous commitments. The covenant with Noah confirms God’s intention that land animals should exist on the earth (as per Gen 1:24), and that the birds and humanity should be blessed (as per Gen 1:20, 22, 26–28). But, at the same time, it also contains new content: God promises in particular that all flesh will not be destroyed again by a universal flood. This is something that had not been promised in the garden. This particularity means, therefore, that the covenant with Noah cannot simply be a confirmation of God’s covenant with creation. Instead of looking back, the Noahic covenant looks to the future, and promises that animate life will be preserved on earth until God’s purpose of the blessing of life and dominion is achieved for humanity.

Monday, September 6, 2010

The Meaning of God Establishing His Covenant with Noah in Genesis 9

The language of establishing a covenant occurs twice in Gen 9. In Gen 9:9–10, God says to Noah and his sons: “And I, behold, I am establishing (מקים) my covenant with you and with your seed after you, and with every living creature that is with you.” מקים is a Hifil participle of קום. The question here is whether מקים means that God is establishing a new covenant with Noah, or confirming a previously existing one. Linguistically, both options are possible, so context must be our guide in deciding which option is more probable. Given the absence of any explicit covenant language in the text preceding the Noah narrative, it is difficult to take מקים as talking about the confirmation of a previously existing covenant. The most natural reading is that God is establishing a new covenant with Noah and his seed, together with the living creatures (saved by Noah) and their seed (see Gen 9:12, 15). The content of the covenant is specifically the divine promise not to destroy “all flesh” by way of further instances of universal flooding (Gen 9:11, 15). This promise constitutes new content arising out of the new situation, namely, the existential crisis of life in the postdiluvian world. Appropriately this new covenant also has a new sign: the sign of the rainbow (Gen 9:13–14, 16–17). The translation of מקים in the LXX as ἀνίστημι confirms this. ἀνίστημι as a transitive verb means to cause to stand up, to raise up, to erect, to build; compared to ἵστημι, which means to cause to stand, and which can also have the meaning of to confirm. Thus, the translators of the LXX, by their use of ἀνίστημι rather than ἵστημι in Gen 9:9, seem to have understood מקים as indicating the establishment of a new (covenantal) formality within the relationship between God, humanity, and the earth.

The second instance of establishing a covenant in Gen 9 is found in v. 11, where God continues and says to Noah: “I will establish (והקמתי) my covenant with you, and all flesh will not be cut off again by the waters of the flood, and there will not be a flood again to destroy the earth.” It is significant that והקמתי is a Hifil modal perfect form, the modal flavor of which must be determined in the light of the context. The ESV seems to interpret והקמתי as carrying something of the flavor of the participle מקים from v. 9, as it translates both מקים and והקמתי as I establish. However it is best to interpret the flavor of the modal perfect verb in question in line with the two negative imperfect clauses that follow it in v. 11, which are basically epexegetic of the first clause in v. 11. In other words, והקמתי has a standard future-imperfective force. According to this interpretation, the idea of establishing God’s covenant in Gen 9:11 is to be understood in terms of God’s fulfillment of his covenant obligations in the future. God’s “establishment” of his covenant in v. 11 will be realized as he refrains from sending another flood to destroy all flesh in the future. This future-imperfective interpretation of והקמתי is confirmed in the LXX, which translates והקמתי using the verb στήσω, the future tense of ἵστημι.

All up, therefore, I would argue that the language of establishing a covenant in Gen 9:9 best reads as indicating the establishment of a new covenant that helps to guarantee the eventual fulfillment of the blessing of the realization of the original creation mandate, renewed in Gen 9:1–7. However, in Gen 9:11 the confirmation and fulfillment of this covenant in the future is being asserted. The Noahic covenant is a new covenant that functions to preserve animate life in the world by restricting the operation of the forces of chaos and decreation until a permanent solution to human sinfulness might be achieved. In Gen 9 the Noahic covenant is a newly erected frame, but at the same time its erection confirms the original framework of blessing and promise for which humanity as a whole was created.

Friday, August 27, 2010

The Meaning of God Establishing His Covenant in Genesis 6:18

In Gen 6:18 God says to Noah: “I will establish my covenant with you.” The question under investigation here is the meaning of והקמתי, the Hifil form of קום, that is used in this verse. We need to note in the first instance that והקמתי is a modal perfect or a weqatal form. The flavor of the modal perfect must be determined on the basis of the linguisitic context in which it is found. It is clear in this regard that Gen 6:17 has the immediate future in mind. The participle מביא bringing is used here to indicate what God is going to do in the immediate future. It makes sense, therefore, that the modal perfect והקמתי in 6:18 carries something of a similar flavor. The logic of God’s speech at this point is that after he brings the flood upon the earth, then he will “establish” his covenant with Noah. In other words, the “establishing” looks like it will take place some time in the future after the flood has come.

But what is the meaning of the verb והקמתי in this context? Is it indicating here that God will establish a new covenant with Noah, or simply that God will take a previously established covenant and confirm it with Noah, after the flood has come? Contrary to what some have argued, the fact that God describes this covenant as my covenant is insufficient to resolve the issue. A covenant that is not yet in existence but which God is about to grant to his subjects can be described in such personal terms. For example, the language my covenant appears in Gen 17. In Gen 17:4, God says to Abraham that “[his] covenant” was going to be with Abraham. It is clear from Gen 17:10 that the covenant mentioned by God in Gen 17:4 is the covenant of circumcision that he was about to make with Abraham: “This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised” (Gen 17:10). Similarly in Exod 19:5, it appears far-fetched to say that my covenant here is not the covenant that God was proposing to make with Israel at the time, i.e., the Sinaitic covenant, the inauguration of which is recorded in Exod 24. Also, in Num 25:12, the expression my covenant refers to the covenant of an everlasting priesthood given to Phinehas and his seed. This was not a previously existing covenant, but one newly granted. The language of my covenant, which occurs 47 times in the Old Testament, simply serves to highlight God’s ownership of the covenants that he grants to his subjects, whether they be covenants already in existence or still to come into existence in the future.

In the end, how we are to understand the meaning of the expression I will establish my covenant with you in Gen 6:18 is dependent on the context. Given the logic of Gen 6:17–18, what happens after the flood (i.e., the content of Gen 9) will be the key to understanding the meaning of this expression. My next post, God willing, will discuss the idea of “establishing” a covenant that emerges from Gen 9.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

The Language of Establishing a Covenant in Scripture

I regard William Dumbrell as a great biblical theologian, and I count him as a friend and mentor. I thoroughly recommend his work on the Old Testament and his New Testament commentaries (such as Galatians and Romans) to anybody who is interested in understanding Scripture in the light of the theme of covenant in the Bible. I also find Dumbrell’s work on the use of covenant terminology in the Noah narrative fascinating. Dumbrell notes that the terminology of cutting a covenant [כרת ברית] is absent from the Noah narrative. Instead we have the language of establishing a covenant [הקים ברית]. This occurs in Gen 6:18; 9:9, 11, 17. Dumbrell argues that “perpetuation” rather than “the institution of a covenant” is “more than likely … in contexts where hēqîm berît” is used (William J. Dumbrell, Covenant and Creation: An Old Testament Covenantal Theology, [Exeter: Paternoster, 1984], 26). From this observation, Dumbrell suggests that God’s covenant with Noah was a confirmation of a pre-existing covenant, God’s covenant with creation, rather than being a newly instituted covenant.

In the light of Dumbrell’s thesis, it is interesting to consider how we should understand the meaning of the language of establishing a covenant in the Noah narrative. The verb הקים basically means to cause to stand. In relation to covenants, there are theoretically two possible meanings: to cause a covenant to stand for the first time (i.e., to establish or make a covenant), or to cause a covenant to continue to stand (i.e., to confirm, or to fulfill or carry out a covenant). Dumbrell argues that the biblical evidence consistently favors the second meaning. It is the case, however, that both meanings are attested in the lexicons. BDB, for example, suggests that הקים can mean to establish or make a covenant, as well as to carry out or give effect to a covenant (BDB, 879).

Leaving aside temporarily the references in Gen 6, 9, it is interesting to consider how the expression הקים ברית is used in the rest of the Old Testament. The expression in Gen 17:7 occurs in the context of God’s promise of future blessing, so should be understood in terms of God fulfilling or carrying out his covenant promises. In Gen 17:19, 21, God promises that he would perpetuate or renew the Abrahamic covenant with Isaac in the future. The usage of the expression in Exod 6:4 is a little ambiguous. It could either be saying that God established a covenant with the patriarchs to give them the land of Canaan, or that God confirmed this covenant and the promise of land by giving the patriarchs possession of the land in the sense that they were able to sojourn there. But can their sojourning in the land be considered as being a fulfillment of the promise to give them the land? To some extent, yes; but obviously not fully. This, along with the way in which God goes on to talk about how he would remember his covenant by redeeming the people from Egypt and taking them to the promised land (see Exod 6:6-8), suggests that the use of the expression in Exod 6:4 more likely indicates the intial establishment of the covenant with Abraham and the subsequent ratifications of the covenant with Isaac and Jacob individually. The expression in Lev 26:9 occurs in the context of future blessing, so it should also be understood in terms of God fulfilling or carrying out his covenant promises. The expression in Deut 8:18 also occurs in a future context, and should likewise be taken as indicating God’s fulfillment of the covenant promises. The usage of the expression in Ezek 16:60, 62 is somewhat ambiguous. God promises in Ezek 16:60 that he would remember his covenant (namely, the Sinaitic covenant; see Ezek 16:8) by establishing an eternal covenant with Judah. Is this talking about the institution of a new covenant, or the reaffirmation of the Sinaitic covenant? The answer to this is probably found in Ezek 16:61. Connected with the “establishment” of this eternal covenant is Judah’s penitent shame and her reception of Israel and the people of the region of Sodom as her daughters, “but not on the basis of your covenant.” This suggests that the “eternal covenant” in Ezek 16:60 is a new covenant, because it can incorporate non-Israelites, and because it is distinguished from “your covenant” (i.e., the Sinaitic covenant); but at the same time this new covenant constitutes God’s remembering, i.e., his fulfillment, of the Sinaitic covenant. It is not as if God would abandon or forget the Sinaitic covenant, but that the Sinaitic covenant finds its eternal fulfillment in the new covenant. If this is the correct understanding, then the covenant that is “established” in Ezek 16:62 is probably the new covenant, and this seems to be confirmed by the way in which the establishment of this covenant is linked in with the penitent shame of Judah and comprehensive forgiveness in Ezek 16:63.

The expression to establish the words of a covenant should also be noted. In this regard, 2 Kgs 23:3 is very interesting. Here Josiah cuts a covenant with Yahweh, and promises to obey Yahweh’s laws “with all his heart and all his soul, in order to establish the words of this covenant that were written in [the] book” of the law that was found in the temple. In other words, Josiah makes a covenant with God with a view to keeping the obligations of the Mosaic covenant. Josiah’s “new” covenant expressed his commitment to keeping the “old” Mosaic covenant. But to establish the words of a covenant clearly means here to fulfill one covenantal obligations. In a similar way, not establishing the words of a covenant is paralleled with the transgression of a covenant in Jer 34:18.

Overall, therefore, the expression הקים ברית usually indicates the confirmation or fulfillment of a covenant; but there are also places where it seems to be used of the initial establishment of a covenant. How then should we understand the use of the expression הקים ברית in Gen 6:18; 9:9, 11, 17? Please tune in next time for the answer to this question.