Connecting Preaching to Covenant Theology

I’ve decided to read through Hughes Oliphant Old’s entire set on the history of preaching. As I go along, I will note some of the more important insights from the set. Volume 1, interestingly enough, describes preaching in the Bible itself.

The first great insight I’ve come across so far is the very close connection there is between preaching and covenant theology. Old, depending on the work of Craigie, among others, has argued that the very nature of a covenant required the reading and the explanation of the covenant. In the ancient Near East, when a covenant was made between suzerain and vassal, the vassal was required to read the treaty regularly to his people, lest the people forget the nature of that covenant. Ancient Near Eastern treaties were always written down. The main reason for this was so that they would be read at solemn assembly to the people (p. 29). Old makes the point even more sharply when he says “Of the very essence of these treaties or covenants is that they are written down and regularly read and taught to the people in a public assembly” (p. 29, emphasis added). Old says, “If Craigie is right, then we have in the covenant theology of the Pentateuch the rationale for the reading and preaching of Scripture in worship – namely, that it is demanded by a covenantal understanding of our relationship to God and to each other” (p. 29). If the people are in a relationship with God based on a covenantal agreement, then it is absolutely necessary for the maintenance of that relationship that the terms of the covenantal agreement be regularly read and interpreted to the people.

Old goes on to describe what preaching looked like in the book of Deuteronomy. He observes three main elements in the preaching of Deuteronomy: remembrance, interpretation, and exhortation (p. 37). Retelling Israel’s story is absolutely essential, because God’s people are incredibly forgetful (see Deut. 4:9-14). A great deal of preaching should therefore be focused on helping people to remember what God has done in the past. Otherwise, our view of the future will get very dim indeed. The second element is interpretation (Deut. 1:5, for instance). This is obviously one of the main elements of any preaching. One simply has to explain the text. For the people need to hear what God means. Thirdly, there needs to be an exhortation for the people to do God’s will (Deut. 4:1, 6:4-6, 30:11,14).

I will conclude with this wonderful description of the power of God’s Spirit working through the Word (Old has the radiance on the face of Moses in the back of his mind as he writes these words):

God is a sacred fire, and to come near to him is to catch fire and glow with the same holy radiance. This begins to happen to us when we hear God’s Word. We are transformed after the image of Christ. It is through entering into that covenant that we enjoy his presence and through abiding in his presence that we are made holy (p. 25).

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16 Comments

  1. James Vandenberg said,

    May 12, 2010 at 11:45 am

    I’m amazed there is no controversy around Matthew Henry being included with the Moderates.

  2. timprussic said,

    May 12, 2010 at 12:25 pm

    Good word, Pastor. I was just listening to a lecture from Dr. Kloosterman on listening to preaching. He commented that, in listening to a sermon (especially in the context of public worship) *something* always happens.

    Anyway, thanks for posting this and for drawing our attention to Old’s work.

  3. Paul Bankson said,

    May 12, 2010 at 12:37 pm

    I look forward to reading your posts regarding this series. I took a DMin class with Dr. Old a few years ago. He is a very gentle and gracious man and I counted it a privilege to spend time with him that week.

  4. Vern Crisler said,

    May 13, 2010 at 6:10 pm

    Sounds like another attempt to imitate the Israelite theocracy.

  5. Todd Pedlar said,

    May 16, 2010 at 7:02 am

    Good stuff, Lane. I wonder if you’d agree that much of what ails the church (both the broader evangelical church and the Reformed branches) has to do with exactly this point- either deleting the connection to the covenantal working of God in his people from Adam to the present (one of the chief lackings of the broadly evangelical church) or confusing the nature of the covenant (those flirting with or engrossed in the Federal Vision)? In either case, the church goes awry, and the sheep are misled and/or confused. Old’s writing is surely a helpful tonic for our times, whichever of these issues we face.

  6. David Linton said,

    May 21, 2010 at 10:08 am

    Todd, I agree this is good stuff. My reaction, however, was somewhat contrary to yours. In some ways Lane is supporting FV here. I have just completed an extensive study of Deuteronomy and Exodus as it relates to worship and particularly the Sabbath. Calvin correctly refers to the Sabbath as a OT sacrament. “Remember” in Exodus parlance was a covenantal term, a covenantal commitment. Therefore, the command to remember the Sabbath was a covenantal/sacramental command. I also agree with everything Old and Lane propound on the significance of preaching in a covenant renewal event. There is a clear covenantal significance to following in the sacrament and failing the sacrament. Ezekiel 20 highlights this point.

  7. greenbaggins said,

    May 21, 2010 at 10:33 am

    David, I am a bit confused here. You say I am supporting FV here. I am curious as to how you think I am doing that. I wasn’t aware that I was. But then you seem to be agreeing with what I’m saying, so I’m confused. Help me out, brother, please. :-)

  8. Todd Pedlar said,

    May 21, 2010 at 10:44 am

    My thoughts exactly. I can’t see how anything that Lane posted in the original article can be construed as supportive of the FV. If you think what he’s posted supports Jeffrey Meyers’ “Covenant Renewal” view of worship, I think you’re making a significant stretch…

  9. David Linton said,

    May 21, 2010 at 10:59 am

    Greenbaggins, great name by the way. I will try. I must confess that sometimes I am confused with the anxt created by the whole FV debate. I think oftentimes the two sides talk passed each other. Perhaps I am unintentionally doing that here. If so, I am sorry. One side speaks of God’s eternal decree and the order of salvation and the other side speaks of the people’s covenantal response. I do not see how the two sides can contradict each other at these point without starting from a common ground. While the two are two sides of the relationship, you can not define one side of the relationship in terms of the other side of the relationship. To see more of my thinking on this, see http://jdlinton.blogspot.com/2010/05/my-take-on-federal-vision-controversy.html.

    Your discussion on this post relates to the “maintenance of the relationship.” For example, ” If the people are in a relationship with God based on a covenantal agreement, then it is absolutely necessary for the maintenance of that relationship that the terms of the covenantal agreement be regularly read and interpreted to the people. ” You appear to be saying there are certain things man is called to do to maintain the relationship, might I even say a “saving relationship.” This is the side typically explored by the FV folks. I am not taking you to say that the ordo saludis is in any way affected, but what I am saying is that, like the FV folks, you are expressing the covenant community’s response.

  10. greenbaggins said,

    May 21, 2010 at 11:16 am

    I can see your point, David, except that I do not believe a discussion of the believing community’s response is something distinctively FV. The Puritans dwelt on this point ad nauseum.

  11. David Linton said,

    May 21, 2010 at 11:29 am

    Thank you. I agree it is nothing new in FV, which again causes me not to understand the anxt in the debate.

  12. greenbaggins said,

    May 21, 2010 at 12:04 pm

    The angst (not anxt) in the debate revolves not around the necessity of human response to God’s saving work per se, but whether our eternal destiny rides on our response to God’s saving work (which would actually be a contradiction, since, if God saved us, then we are saved. Period. And we wouldn’t therefore need to respond in order to retain said salvation).

  13. David Linton said,

    May 21, 2010 at 12:25 pm

    I’m not sure I understand your distinction (sorry for the typo, the engineer got ahead of the lawyer). With all due respect, I think you are making a distinction without a difference. In a contract, if there is a necessary condition precedent to the fulfillment of the contract, the fulfillment of the contract depends on satisfying the condition precedent. If something is necessary, isn’t that the same as saying to some extent or another the result depends on the necessity? The real question in my mind is whether God is obligated in any sense by an action initiated by man rather than in response by man.

  14. greenbaggins said,

    May 21, 2010 at 1:09 pm

    Not at all, David. The difference is fairly clear when you see that there is a difference between an accompanying necessity versus a causal necessity. For instance, if an atomic bomb explodes, heat is a necessary accompaniment to that explosion. It will always happen, because that is the very nature of an atomic explosion: it will produce heat. This is very different from a person needing to keep on making house payments in order to keep the house. These two necessities are very different in character. The nature of works in the Christian life is of the former necessity, not the latter. Our salvation in no way depends (past, present, or future) on our works in any kind of causal relationship. However, our salvation is a necessary accompaniment to salvation, because God saves us TO good works.

  15. David Linton said,

    May 21, 2010 at 1:25 pm

    That distinction helps emensly. Let us put it in terms of the ordo salutis (not ordo saludis as I previously wrote). What you are saying is that God’s grace is irresistable. Therefore, His election and calling will not be refused by the elect. I agree. The fruit of the Spirit necessarily follow from the irresistible grace extended by God, much as the heat of the explosion. I agree. But this does not refute the relationship of necessity or dependence. One is a necessary result of another and one depends on the other. The real question is not one of dependence or necessity but obligation. Is God obligated to us? No. Are we obligated to God? Yes. Can God obligate Himself to us? Yes. Thank you for the conversation. I will be buying Old’s book. Good recommendation.

  16. February 26, 2011 at 5:29 pm

    [...] >Here are some helpful thoughts on the relationship between covenant theology and preaching.  Over at the Greenbaggins blog, insights from Hughes Oliphant Old are being provided on preaching from the history of the church.  Old says,  If Craigie is right, then we have in the covenant theology of the Pentateuch the rationale for the reading and preaching of Scripture in worship – namely, that it is demanded by a covenantal understanding of our relationship to God and to each other” (p. 29). If the people are in a relationship with God based on a covenantal agreement, then it is absolutely necessary for the maintenance of that relationship that the terms of the covenantal agreement be regularly read and interpreted to the people. [...]


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