Thursday, August 29, 2013

A Model of the Covenants (Old vs New etc)

The question of the distinctions and inter-relationships between the "covenants" in the Bible is complex and far from simple. Issues of continuity vs discontinuity etc. It is not spelled out neatly or simply in the Scriptures, and hence our difficulty in coming to grips with it all. Definitely lots of nuancing required. Back in 2000, out of discussions with an old friend, I tried to articulate some of my position on this matter. I decided to dig it up again and post it here for posterity (with only minor changes/clarifications). It is in the form of two diagrams with some accompanying dot points, reproduced below.

One other comment about my approach to all this sort of thing, a slightly-reworded note of what I said to my friend at the time: This may be a cop-out, but I tend to try to hold the whole complex thing in 'tension', without simplification or minimalization. I guess because I'm more of a details man than a 'big picture' person. Hence I tend to think either way we start systematizing into a model we lose some information, and end up with an imperfect model (like all models - science background speaking). The trick is working out which things are 'reducible' and which are not (borrowed that concept from IT background, "elementary facts" and all that). When we try to make things simpler and more clear-cut than the Bible we tend to lose information, and reduce the irreducible. In other words, I think models ("gospel economy", moral/civil/ceremonial, etc) are useful to emphasise and teach one aspect, but will always fall down if we want them to replace the real thing. If God wanted to make it simpler, he would have done it for us in the Scriptures. If he didn't, we need to be careful not to presume we can do a better job of it than him!

Diagrams of Model:


Notes on the Model:

  • The ‘eternal truth’ relating to the character of God and how He relates to creation, is common to all covenants
  • Purest and fullest revelation of this ‘eternal truth’ occurs now in the New Covenant. However, this is not final or perfect, and there will be a different temporal administration in the consummation, in the new heavens and new earth after the resurrection at Christ's return.
  • In previous covenants (eg Abrahamic, Mosaic) that revelation is shadowy and incomplete, with some aspects clearer than others. A particular covenant may emphasise different aspects from another covenant. This preserves the progressiveness of revelation.
  • The ‘temporal administration’ of a covenant is the outworking of the ‘eternal truth’ in a necessary and binding way appropriate to that time, place and extent of revelation. (Principles of anthropomorphism, condescension, ‘context sensitive revelation’ etc.)
  • Such a model allows for different particular outward administrations, obligations and promises from covenantal ‘epochs’, while maintaining consistent aspects of revelation (eg a common ‘covenant of grace’, ‘way of salvation’, etc).
  • Consistency of ‘eternal truth’ allows for continuity of moral principles (ie law), as well as similarities between different ‘temporal administrations’ (eg Passover/Lord’s Supper, Circumcision/Baptism, Sabbath/Lord’s Day, Temple Cultus/Church Worship, etc).
  • Clear revelation in an earlier covenant of the same ‘eternal truth’ can be assumed in the New Covenant (and thus promotes a ‘whole Bible’ attitude, and does not need everything to be explicitly restated in the New Testament for it to be contemporary).
  • Differences in ‘temporal administrations’ allow for ‘discontinuities’ in outward observances associated with a particular ‘epoch’.

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