The Christ of the Covenants

Author O. Palmer Robertson
Published 1987
Pages 308
ISBN 9780875524184
Links Goodreads


November 21st, 2020–December 29th, 2020


Continued from my review of Dispensationalism by Charles Ryrie.

I'm trying not to be hasty, but after reading this I find the covenant theology framework very compelling. Israel and the Church as one unified group, the cumulative nature of covenants, and the lack of a Church age "parenthesis" seem more natural. The other strong argument for me is that this is apparently the historical position of the church.

This book is particular is well written (it doesn't prove who is right, but Robertson is a much better writer than Ryrie). There are a few times where Robertson went into more detail than I personally was interested in; I think the audience is probably seminary students. The one structural error is putting the Excursus on dispensationalism before the discussion of the Davidic and New Covenants. I'm really curious what was the reasoning behind that decision; to me an obviously better alternative would be to lay out the complete CT framework, then the comparison to dispensationalism, then a summary chapter to end.

Questions I had after reading Dispensationalism and their answers:

1. Isn't the distinction between Israel and the Church reasonable? We know God has separate plans for the angels, cities, and nations.

It is reasonable. God could have created the Church wholly distinct from Israel; but it does not appear that he did. Although there seems to be different plans for angels, cities, and nations, the Bible is concerned with the Redemption of creation.

2. Is the unifying principle of the Bible salvation, the work of Christ, or God's glory?

Again, God has multiple plans, but the message of the Bible seems to be redemption of humanity and the cosmos through the work of Christ. "Angels can't get saved" doesn't prove dispensationalism.

3. Future prophecy should be interpreted literally where possible because the Messianic prophecies were fulfilled literally.

4. Taking the land promises literally is reasonable; if the nation Israel will possess Palestine and be blessed in the land, that would require a future earthly kingdom of Israel. (Although, could this be fulfilled in the new heaven/new earth? Does it require a Millennial reign?)

"Literal vs non-literal" is a false dichotomy. The CT position doesn't spiritualize every promise, and dispensationalism isn't completely literal:

A. Not all of Abraham's descendant's are "Israel": for example, Esau was cut off.
B. Some of "Israel" are not Abraham's descendants: for example, Ruth married in.
C. At least according to Ryrie, every Jew up to the present will not receive the land promises; they will instead receive heavenly blessings with the Church. But Genesis 17:8 taken literally says Abraham and all his descendants will receive the land.
D. Genesis 22:17 Abraham's descendants will be as many as grains of sand on the seashore or stars in the sky. There are sextillions of sand grains and stars. The number of people that have ever lived is around 100 billion. If all of them were descended from Abraham, he would still be at 0.000000000001% of the literal number promised to him.
E. Psalm 105 says the promises to Israel extend 1000 generations. If this is literal, we have about 16,000 more years of land occupation by Israel, after which the promise can end.

Robertson sees many of the old covenant promises as fulfilled in part in the OT (Israel lived in the promised land, David's descendants sat on his throne, Israel returned from exile) as a shadow of the complete fulfillment in Christ.

5. Eschatology is one of the most recent theologies to be rigorously systematized, so it is not surprising that dispensationalism is a recent development.

Fair argument for eschatology, but that's only a part of dispensationalism. The main difference is the relationship between Israel and the Church. Their distinction is the reason for the rapture and other elements of dispensationlist eschatology.

6. Covenant theology proposes that Old Testament believers were saved by faithful "looking forward" to the promised Redeemer, but how well did Abraham, Moses, the prophets, and the "common man" understand that promise? The clear meaning of Genesis 15 seems to be that Abraham was saved by believing that God would give him a huge number of descendants. Galatians 3 also seems to support the dispensational view better.

It's funny, because now I read Galatians 3 as a strong argument for covenant theology! Paul explicitly links the church with Abraham and says the promise of blessing through Abraham refers to Christ.

7. If covenant theology and dispensationalism were both formed post-Reformation, what did Christians believe for the first three-quarters of Christianity?

Covenant theology was wasn't systematized until post-Reformation, but the core doctrine of Israel and the Church unified seems to go back much farther. For example, it seems to be the position of the Catholic church.

Not sure exactly what I want to look into next; maybe a fuller treatment of credo vs paedobaptism.


Chapter Notes:

# 1 The Nature of the Divine Covenants
A covenant is a bond in blood, sovereignly administered. It's not a mutual contract or a last will and testament.

# 2 The Extent of the Divine Covenants
Creation was a covenant (there are scriptural passages that indicate this), so humanity is bound in a covenant with God from the beginning to the end of time.

# 3 The Unity of the Divine Covenants
God's covenants are cumulative and unified. David's son received the promises of the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants, in addition to the David covenant. Deut. 5:2-3 says God made the Sinai covenant with the generation about to go into Canaan, most of which was not alive 40 years previously. By extrapolation, God made that covenant with all of His people, Jew and Gentile, including those who had not been born.

Acts 3:25

Gal. 3:13 The blessing of Abraham comes to the Gentiles

Gentiles could always be "grafted in" and become Israelite children of God. Israel has never been just an ethnic community. After ingrafting, the descendants become heirs to the Abrahamic covenant.

Conversely, "pruning" has always been a possibility. For example, Esau. Also Rom. 9:6.

The new covenant promised by the prophets is also a fulfillment of earlier covenants and is unified with them. Jer. 31:31, 32:39-41; Eze. 34:20-24.

Ezekiel 37:24-26 especially references the covenants of David, Moses, Abraham, and the then-future "covenant of peace" (new covenant) in unity.

Luke 22:20 Jesus inaugurates the new covenant. The Lord's Supper is now the covenantal meal. p43 "The Christian celebrates the reality of this new covenant relationship each time he participates in the Lord's Supper."

p47 "The very purpose of the covenant consists of God's intention to make a people for himself."

p49 This relationship leads to God dwelling with his people: the Tabernacle, the Temple, and the City of God; "the incarnate Christ, the Church of Christ, and the final glorification of God's people."

Zech. 2:11 Many nations joined to Yahveh

Rev. 21:3 New heaven and new earth prepares the way for the consummation of God dwelling with his people, again unifying the Beginning to the End.

p51 "In Christ the covenant theme finds consummate fulfillment...He becomes the unifying focus of all Scripture."

p52 "Because Jesus, as the Son of God and mediator of the covenant, cannot be divided, the covenants cannot be divided. He himself guarantees the unity of the covenants, because he himself is the heart of each of the various covenantal administrations."

# 4 Diversity in the Divine Covenants

An intra-Trinity covenant pre-creation is unlikely.

A pre-Fall covenant of works requires an Adam that is not purely mythical.

Covenant of Works and Covenant of Grace could be better termed Covenant of Creation and Covenant of Redemption.

Hebrews presents the new covenant as fulfilling the promise of the old covenant.

Galatians contrasts the promise of Abraham with the law of Moses.

# 5 The Covenant of Creation

p68 "By thinking too narrowly about the covenant of creation, the Christian church has come to cultivate a deficiency in its entire world-and-life view. Instead of being kingdom-oriented, as was Christ, it has become exclusively church-oriented."

God embedded the Sabbath, marriage, and labor in the structure of the world.

The Sabbath pre-dated the Law, and was not abolished with the Law. The Sabbath had an anticipatory and redemptive character under the old covenant.

Creation and Redemption are the two reasons to keep the Sabbath. The resurrection fulfilled God's redemption plan. The resurrection was a new creation greater than the first: "the resurrection-creation brought the world to its destined perfection". The people of the old covenant celebrated Sabbath at the end of the week because they looked forward to a rest; the people of the new covenant begin the week rejoicing in the rest accomplished by the resurrection.

Christians are not bound to keep the sabbath year or Year of Jubilee, but by the Ten Commandments are bound to keep the sabbath holy and to refrain from work on that day.

The tree of knowledge of good and evil was not an arbitrary prohibition; it was part of the covenant along with the Sabbath, marriage, and labor. The tree reminded man that he was not God. God required total obedience to his Word.

The mistake of fundamentalism is to make salvation of the soul the only goal of Christianity, ignoring the responsibility of a total kingdom life. Salvation is a part, but so is discipleship in our obligations to creation.

#6 Adam: The Covenant of Commencement
Even after failing "the test of probation", humanity is still responsible to labor, marry, and keep the Sabbath.

Gen. 3 The seed of the woman is the elect. The seed of Satan is evildoers.

The seed of the woman that will crush the serpent's head is Christ. God's salvation always comes through crushing his enemies; this is the reason for the Old Testament total warfare and imprecatory psalms.

The curse on the woman is marital imbalance: both desire superiority instead of living as equals.

Redemption is not returning to the garden, it is proceeding to a city.

# 7 Noah: The Covenant of Preservation
1. The creative and redemptive covenants are tightly linked.

p110 "The explicit repetition of these creation mandates in the context of the covenant of redemption expands the vistas of redemption's horizons. Redeemed man must not internalize his salvation so that he thinks narrowly in terms of a "soul-saving" deliverance. To the contrary, redemption involves his total life-style as a social, cultural creature. Rather than withdrawing narrowly into a restricted form of "spiritual" existence, redeemed man must move out with a total world-and-life perspective."

2. Noah was righteous because God gave him grace.

3. God dealt with Noah's family together, not as individuals.

Gen. 7:1 seems to indicate Noah's family was saved because of Noah's righteousness.

4. The Noahic covenant is one of preservation.

God will not curse the ground again because sin will never be conquered by judgment and curse. Government will be instituted to punish evildoers.

Murder is punished by death because humans bear the image of God and to preserve life for the mandate to multiply.

Rom. 8:22 Redemption will be for all of creation

God came in judgment but provided a way of preservation; God with us involves grace for his people and wrath for the seed of Satan.

# 8 Abraham: The Covenant of Promise

Ex. 24:8 Apparently the Mosaic blood-sprinkling ritual replaced the Abrahamic "pass through the pieces" ritual (Jer. 34:18-20; it's doubtful that the entire nation literally passed between the parts of the calf; apparently this form of the ritual had not been done since Abraham, although the substance continued in blood sprinkling).

A testament (aka "last will and testament") is activated with death. Alternatively, death is the punishment for breaking a covenant. Testament death cannot be substitutionary. Heb. 9:15, 18-20 is a covenant, not a testament. V16-17 are less obviously a covenant, but consistency between the verses would be logical.

Heb. 9:15 Christ died for the sins under the first covenant, in place of the covenant breakers.

V17 NASB "dead bodies" multiple implies a covenant; a testament in enacted with a single dead body.

Gentiles were always allowed to join the covenant (Gen. 17:12, then Ex. 12:43-49). It was a covenantal seal, not solely a "national badge".

Circumcision brought people into relationship with God and fellowship with the covenant people.

Physical descent was not enough to become a "true Israelite".

Circumcision represented cleansing from impurity and a joining with the covenant people.

Males were circumcised at 8 days old: children entered into this covenant without making a choice. God deals with families.

The Jews were surprised that the Holy Spirit came upon uncircumcised Gentiles. But the Gentiles did not need to become Jews: both groups became something new: the Church.

The rite of circumcision is ended (Acts 15:8-9). Eschatological implication: p159 "Never again may a return be made to the older shadow-forms involved in Israel's ritualistic activities. The reality has had its historical manifestation. To require repetition of the formalities of the shadow is to substitute a man-ordered ritual for a God-ordered reality."

Rom. 4:3, 9-12 Abraham is the father of the circumcised and uncircumcised.

p160 "The intention of circumcision was to seal the reality of righteousness."

2 Cor. 1:22 The Holy Spirit seals in the new covenant, like circumcision sealed in the old.

Col. 2:11-12 Baptism in the new covenant is the circumcision of Christ, the circumcision of the heart.

Review continued in comments