A Problem Passage for the Definition of “Covenant”

I was just reading 1 Kings 8 in preparation for the Lord’s Day coming up, and I noticed a use of the term “covenant” which is extremely problematic for those who define “covenant” as “relationship.” This passage is 1 Kings 8:21. In the context, which is Solomon’s dedication of the temple, we note some interesting things.

First of all, what Solomon says indicates very clearly that the temple is the fulfillment of God’s promise made to his father David. However, verse 21 also implies that the fulfillment of the promise made to David is in turn connected to the covenant God made with the fathers when He brought them out of Egypt. This is indicated by the pronoun “our” connected to the noun “fathers.”

One is reminded of the preface to the second giving of the law in Deuteronomy 5, where Moses makes the point that it was not with their fathers (it was, but not absolutely and exclusively) that God had made the covenant, but with those present right there, all of them who were alive at the time of Deuteronomy being given to the people. In other words, 1 Kings 8:21 is a very important verse for deciding what the word “covenant” means, since Solomon is connecting the word not only with the Davidic promise-covenant, but also with the Mosaic covenant.

And here is what he says: the covenant actually resides in the ark of the covenant. What was in the ark of the covenant? The law of God (see verse 9). If covenant equals relationship, then it could not reside in the ark of the covenant. A relationship does not reside in a physical place. But it is actually said that the covenant was IN the ark of the covenant in the obvious form of the tablets of stone, on which were written the Ten Commandments. This points fairly conclusively to a definition of covenant as “agreement.” Of course, the relationship is based on the agreement, and the agreement and the relationship built upon it are closely tied together. And no, contrary to all the rhetoric of the FV folks, saying a covenant is an agreement is not a cold, legal, paperish sort of thing, any more than a marriage certificate is. Looking at my marriage certificate brings many happy memories back to me of the wedding, and of my wife, just as looking at the covenantal agreement in Scripture brings us back to God’s love for us, and the love we are required to give back to God in the form of obedience to the Ten Commandments.

27 Comments

  1. Steven Carr said,

    July 7, 2009 at 1:44 pm

    Interesting tidbit, Lane. This not only strikes at the FV definition of covenant but also at the Protestant Reformed definition of covenant which they say is a bond of friendship. Interestingly, the PR’s also say that calling a covenant an agreement is cold and paperish.

  2. Michael Saville said,

    July 7, 2009 at 3:14 pm

    Sounds like you would also take issue with Robertson’s “Bond in blood, sovereignly administered” definition as well?

  3. greenbaggins said,

    July 7, 2009 at 4:09 pm

    Michael, that depends on what is meant by “bond.” Bond can be taken in more than one way. I would agree if it means “pact,” which is a legitimate use of the word. If it means “relational tie,” then I disagree.

  4. tom said,

    July 7, 2009 at 5:01 pm

    Lane,
    I think a good work that you might want to read is Scott Hahn’s recently released work, “Kinship by Covenant”. You may not agree with his findings but I do think you would find good food for thought.

  5. Stephen said,

    July 8, 2009 at 7:07 am

    Michael, have you read Palmer Robertson’s material on the covenant? The bond in blood is a divine oath that God Himself makes. Dr. Robertson clearly states that God makes a covenant and swears an oath to fulfill it. He fulfilled it in the second Adam. Palmer never uses the language of relationship, which is a very weak expression of a covenant. I believe Lane’s point is that the covenant in Scripture is not the same as this idea of a relationship.

  6. Stephen said,

    July 8, 2009 at 7:10 am

    Tom, what constitutes a good work in Scott Hahn’s view of the covenant? His view of the covenant involves the “Mass”, which most of us would reject as being idolatry.

  7. Frank Davies said,

    July 8, 2009 at 7:49 am

    Lane,

    Our relationship with God is “based” on his love and grace, that all came before any agreement.

  8. Kenneth Pierce said,

    July 8, 2009 at 8:01 am

    Isn’t it amazing how right even the children’s catechism is? An agreement between two or more persons!

    Just like a marriage contract or an adoption decree. It is a binding foundation of a relationship. There is nothing cold and “merely” legal about those two things!

  9. rfwhite said,

    July 8, 2009 at 8:08 am

    Lane, would you say that the covenant-agreement between the Persons of the Godhead preceded any covenant-agreement with us?

  10. greenbaggins said,

    July 8, 2009 at 9:54 am

    Dr. White, I would certainly agree that any agreement between God and man was preceded by an inter-Trinitarian agreement. And Frank, that is how I would answer your objection: just as love does not precede or succeed covenant in the Trinity, so also love and grace do not precede or succeed (much less oppose) covenant in the relationship between God and man.

  11. Rick Phillips said,

    July 8, 2009 at 10:17 am

    During a visit to Uganda a couple of years ago, I stayed with the Robertsons. Palmer and I spent one evening discussing covenant and the FV issues (he is extremely anti-FV, as his stance against Norman Shepherd would indicate). I asked him if he intended his definition of covenant as bond to express something like relationship. He was vehement in rejecting this. Palmer told me that the reason he used bond in place of pact is to avoid the danger of people thinking of covenant as a contract. But by bond, he did mean the mechanism that governs the relationship and not the relationship itself. He means bond as “that which binds” rather than as “that which is bound”.

    Thanks, Lane, for the useful information in this piece. In the face of impassioned criticism of the classic Reformed view, the more I study this matter in the Scriptures, in historical theology, and in the church today, the more convinced I am that we must reject covenant = relationship and emphasis covenant as pactum (sovereignly administered). For this, I think Palmer’s “bond in blood sovereignly administered” is the best language we currently have.

  12. greenbaggins said,

    July 8, 2009 at 10:25 am

    Thanks, Rick. That’s very helpful!

  13. Frank Davies said,

    July 8, 2009 at 11:20 am

    Lane, the inter-Trinitarian covenant is one between equals. This is not the same as the one between creator and creature.

  14. tom said,

    July 8, 2009 at 11:47 am

    Stephen,

    I suggested the work to be read and did not suggest that you would agree with all of it, some of it or whatever. I gather from your statement that you would not read anything for edification from those who believe, in what you call an idolatry, the Mass, and I would add, the Sacrifice of the Mass. I then can safely conclude that you do not read St. Augustine for edification, since he too believed in the Sacrifice of the Mass.

  15. greenbaggins said,

    July 8, 2009 at 12:36 pm

    Frank, I didn’t say or even imply that that the inter-Trinitarian covenant is the same as one between creator and creature. But that is irrelevant to the question of whether grace and love come before or after a covenantal agreement. And even that in turn is not relevant to the question of whether a covenant is an agreement or a relationship, unless one assumes that creation equals covenant, as many seem to do.

  16. Frank Davies said,

    July 8, 2009 at 1:03 pm

    Lane, if it’s irrelevant, why did yo say “just as love does not precede or succeed covenant in the Trinity, so also love and grace do not precede or succeed (much less oppose) covenant in the relationship between God and man.”?
    Lane, God’s creation, by its very nature, instantly established a relationship, one between creator and creature. The minute Adam opened his eyes, it existed. The nature of this relationship logically influences the nature of any agreement that follows it.

  17. Benjamin P. Glaser said,

    July 8, 2009 at 1:17 pm

    How would this passage reflect upon the “republication” debate?

  18. greenbaggins said,

    July 8, 2009 at 1:26 pm

    Frank, the inter-Trinitarian covenant is relevant to the CoW-CoG insofar as it makes plain that love and grace do not precede the covenantal agreement. It is not relevant insofar as a claim for the covenants to be the same is concerned. They are not the same on many levels. Yet they are relevant when it comes to the specific point I am trying to make.

    The confession says that no fruition of relationship could happen unless God condescended to make Himself known to mankind. This can only happen by way of covenant. It is the only way God communicates to us. Besides, a covenantal agreement is not devoid of love and favor (I prefer to reserve the term “grace” for demerited favor, not just unmerited favor).

    Benjamin, I would refer you to the excellent article by Dr. White and Dr. Beisner in _By Faith Alone_, edited by Gary Johnson and Guy Waters. That is probably the best place to find the answer.

  19. Frank Davies said,

    July 8, 2009 at 1:43 pm

    “Frank, the inter-Trinitarian covenant is relevant to the CoW-CoG insofar as it makes plain that love and grace do not precede the covenantal agreement.”

    Lane, Inter-Trinitarian covenant proves nothing. How can anything “preceed” anything in a covenant that has no beginning and no end? That just doesn’t make any sense. The Inter-Trinitarian covenant has always existed the way that is.

  20. greenbaggins said,

    July 8, 2009 at 1:55 pm

    Well, it is relevant in that the question of love coming first or covenant coming first is a sort of chicken-egg question, just as it is in the inner-Trinitarian covenant. What about the rest of comment 18?

  21. Frank Davies said,

    July 8, 2009 at 2:36 pm

    Lane, the WCF doesn’t say “no fruition of relationship.” Those are your own words. I don’t think it means what you think it means.

  22. greenbaggins said,

    July 8, 2009 at 2:40 pm

    It is a fairly good paraphrase, Frank, of WCF 7.1, which says, “fruition of Him as their blessedness and reward.” You are really nitpicking here, Frank.

  23. Frank Davies said,

    July 8, 2009 at 2:49 pm

    Lane, the WCF in that chapter is speaking to the “God’s Covenant with Man.” It is not speaking of the relationship that existed prior to that covenant. So why did you invoke it?

  24. greenbaggins said,

    July 8, 2009 at 3:37 pm

    You are presuming that your interpretation is correct in the very way that you ask the question. The point I am seeking to establish here is that you cannot say relationship or covenant comes first. WCF 7.1 is extremely relevant here, since it says that we experience no blessedness of God without covenant. If, in seeking to describe the relationship between covenant and relationship, I invoke a discussion about covenant, why should that raise eyebrows? You haven’t responded to my point in any way whatsoever, which was that “blessedness and reward” is another way of saying “relationship.” Would you disagree with this paraphrase?

  25. Frank Davies said,

    July 8, 2009 at 4:05 pm

    Lane, whenever two or more entities have some form of contact with one anther, there is a “relationship.” This is simply a logical fact beyond dispute.

    When God created man and the world, some kind of “relationship” was established instantaneously. The question is, prior to Genesis 2:16, what was the nature of that relationship. It defies reason to suggest that God did not love Adam prior to Genesis 2:16. it further strains the boundaries of human reason to suggest that Adam’s very creation wasn’t a blessing from God.

    Oh, and to answere your question, “blessedness and reward” is another way of saying “covenant relationship.”

  26. rfwhite said,

    July 8, 2009 at 8:21 pm

    Frank and Lane: maybe I can help.

    Frank, when in #7 you stated, “Our relationship with God is ‘based’ on his love and grace, that all came before any agreement.“, I immediately thought, “no, that all came after the agreement between the Persons in the Godhead.” My question to Lane in #9 attempted to elicit from Lane an affirmation or denial that our relationship with God, which is based on his love and grace, and which did come before any agreement with us, came after an agreement among the Persons of the Godhead, particularly the Father’s covenant with the Spirit-anointed Son. In other words, God’s love and grace for us are predicated on the Father’s covenant with the Son. That said, to speak of our relationship with God as based om love and grace is to speak of us in the post-fall covenant of grace as mediated by Christ.

  27. Roger Mann said,

    July 12, 2009 at 10:37 pm

    16. Frank Davies wrote:

    Lane, God’s creation, by its very nature, instantly established a relationship, one between creator and creature. The minute Adam opened his eyes, it existed. The nature of this relationship logically influences the nature of any agreement that follows it.

    Since Scripture teaches that God’s law is written upon man’s heart as an inherent aspect of his nature (Romans 2:15), and since the law itself promises eternal life upon its fulfillment (Leviticus 18:5; Matthew 19:16-17; Romans 10:5; Galatians 3:12) and threatens eternal death upon its violation (Deuteronomy 27:26; Jeremiah 11:3; Galatians 3:10), then it follows that the “relationship” established between God and man at creation was a covenant of works — a relationship based upon man’s “personal, entire, exact, and perpetual obedience” to God’s law — which is precisely what the Westminster Confession of Faith teaches:

    WCF 4:

    II. After God had made all other creatures, he created man, male and female, with reasonable and immortal souls, endued with knowledge, righteousness, and true holiness after his own image, having the law of God written in their hearts, and power to fulfill it; and yet under a possibility of transgressing, being left to the liberty of their own will, which was subject to change.

    WCF 19:

    I. God gave to Adam a law [at the very moment of creation according to WCF 4.2], as a covenant of works, by which he bound him and all his posterity to personal, entire, exact, and perpetual obedience; promised life upon the fulfilling, and threatened death upon the breach of it; and endued him with power and ability to keep it.

    II. This law, after his Fall, continued to be a perfect rule of righteousness; and, as such, was delivered by God upon mount Sinai in ten commandments, and written in two tables; the first four commandments containing our duty toward God, and the other six our duty to man.

    Therefore the “nature” of man’s natural relationship with his Creator is not one based upon love and grace (defined as demerited favor), but rather one based upon pactum merit or demerit — that is, a legal relationship. It is only through belief of the gospel (the “covenant of grace”) that we enter into a relationship of love and grace with our Creator.


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