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.

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