My Take on the New Covenant (Part 6)

Read the series.

Gentiles and Their Connection to the New Covenant

What has proven to be a thorny issue for Dispensationalists is the relation of the Church/Gentiles to the New Covenant. Since the only explicit NC text in Jeremiah 31:31-34 (repeated in Hebrews 8) identifies Israel and Judah as parties to the NC with God, the contention is that the Church is associated with the NC in a less direct way, or perhaps not connected at all! This brings us back to Mike Vlach’s list which we reproduced in Part One.

  1. The New Covenant will be fulfilled in the future with national Israel; the church has no relationship to the New Covenant (some classical dispensationalists)
  2. There are two New Covenants—one with Israel and another for the church (some traditional dispensationalists including John Walvoord)
  1. The New Covenant is completely fulfilled with the church; there is no future fulfillment with national Israel (Covenant Theology and some non-dispensational systems)
  1. The New Covenant will be fulfilled with Israel but the spiritual blessings of the covenant are applied to the church today (some traditional and revised dispensationalists)
  1. The New Covenant will be fulfilled with Israel but the church is an added referent to the New Covenant promises so there is a sense in which the New Covenant is being fulfilled with the church. The New Covenant has two referents—Israel and the church (some revised dispensationalists; Paul Feinberg)
  1. Since the New Covenant was given to Israel for the purpose of also blessing Gentiles there is literal fulfillment of the spiritual blessings of the New Covenant to all believing Jews and Gentiles in this present age, while the physical/national promises await fulfillment with Jesus’ second coming when national Israel is incorporated into the New Covenant (some revised and most progressive dispensationalists)

I am not going to comment on Option 2 (Two New Covenants) other than to say it is not held by anyone today and always was a stretch. Neither am I going to say much about Option 3 (the New Covenant is fulfilled in the Church) because being held by non-dispensationalists, it is irrelevant to my objective in these posts.

Looking now at Option 4 (the Church gets the “spiritual blessings” of the NC) I have to ask, “what on earth are these spiritual blessings?” Is the answer salvation?! And does stating this mean the NC is mainly about physical blessings upon Israel? But those “physical” matters are taken up in the other covenants with Israel. Let us remind ourselves of what Jeremiah 31 promises:

But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put My law in their minds, and write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people.

No more shall every man teach his neighbor, and every man his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they all shall know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them, says the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more. – Jer. 31:33-34

This is not a promise of land or throne or great productivity. It is the promise of redemption. The New Covenant is about redemption! When redemption is mixed with the other covenants what you get is the coming Kingdom of God on earth – literally fulfilled in line with those covenants. I will come back to Option 4. Let us focus on Option 1 (The Church has no part in the NC).

Roy Beacham wrote a paper entitled “The Church Has No Legal Relationship to or Participation in the New Covenant” which he presented under a different title at the Council for Dispensational Hermeneutics conference in 2009. I think there are several problems with his thesis as well as its central concern.

Biblical Covenants Were Not “Legal Contracts”

It is simply incongruous to parallel ANE covenants with those in the Bible, particularly those which God made. And it is wrong to claim that biblical covenants were contracts, and that therefore they were primarily legal in nature – they were not. As for the first, several scholars have warned about equating the covenants of Scripture with those of the ANE (e.g. Charles H.H. Scobie, The Ways of Our God: An Approach to Biblical Theology, 475). To be fair, Beacham does note that John Walton is (surprisingly) against his view that covenants in the Bible are to be understood against the background of the legal practices of the ANE (see FN 6). But he does spend much time “setting the scene” for his position by citing studies of non-biblical covenants.

As for the second assertion, the trouble is that even the Land or Royal Grant and Suzerain-Vassal Treaties of certain parts of the ANE (e.g. Egypt didn’t go in for them) were not like our contracts. Referring to the New Covenant Jakob Jocz observed,

It is easy to misunderstand the situation if we take the concept of covenant in the legal sense to mean a juridical contract whereby God binds Himself constitutionally… The covenant is not a legal document by which God finds Himself committed… The covenant is the highest expression of His determination to be our God. (The Covenant, 240-241)

Covenants were not legally binding in the sense that there was some high court that could be appealed to. Rather, they were sworn oaths, sometimes to a deity and sometimes to each other. Furthermore, they were often (not always) imposed by the more powerful party. In more garden variety situations, they were solemn oaths made between friends, or even enemies, with no judicial aspect at all.

So Beacham’s thesis is in trouble. But it gets further in the mire once the OT is studied. If one looks at the covenant between Abraham and Abimelech in Genesis 21 it is clear that it is based upon the culture of honor and shame. Jonathan’s covenant with David in 1 Samuel 20:11-16 is in private before the Lord. It cannot be said to be a legal procedure. In neither instance was there a written document!

When one comes to God’s covenants it is impossible to bind God legally. To attempt to do so would be to place a law above God. God’s covenants are based solely on God’s own character.

The New Covenant is Not Grounded in Any “Legal” Text of Scripture

On page 16 of his paper, Beacham claims that, “A better understanding of ANE covenants effects a better understanding of biblical covenants. Ignorance of the one leads to misunderstanding of the other.” I have shown, albeit briefly, that this is not the case. Further on in the document he has an important footnote (FN 56) where he argues (against Rod Decker) that:

The New Covenant is not just a promise or prophecy which might find broad, unspecified application or fulfillment; it is a legal instrument. Every covenant, as a legal instrument, specifically includes the name of all contracting parties and any incidental participants in the instrument. By specifically including the names of all parties and participants in the instrument, all others are excluded. (Ibid, 18)

He goes on to assert (this time agreeing with Decker) that the Church is not a legal party to the New Covenant but is a peripheral beneficiary to it. Christians are, in Decker’s language, “onlookers” or “participants” in the New Covenant, but not a party to it.

We shall reserve comment on Decker’s view for another time, but the fact of the matter is that I have shown that Gentiles are included in New Covenant texts like Isaiah 42:6 (which commentators generally note stresses the Nations and which point Matthew 12 makes clearer). We have seen that the same language of spiritual heart transformation and circumcision is used by Paul of the Church as is found in New Covenant passages in the OT (Compare e.g. Deut. 30:4-5; Ezek. 36:26-27 with 2 Cor. 3:3 and Col. 2:11).

Confusing the Function of the Separate Divine Covenants

On page 20 Beacham refers to Ezekiel 36:22-39 as a NC passage and picks out the provisions of the NC as he understands it. It quickly becomes clear that much of Beacham’s argument relies on investing the provisions of the New Covenant with more than they actually contain. He separates many items that are essentially wrapped up in redemption, but adds a few material blessings. This is common enough among Dispensationalists and I believe it to be a harmful error. For example he includes the land promise and restored abundance among the NC terms. But the land promise is part of the Abrahamic covenant, and the restoration of blessings stems from the theocratic promises in the Mosaic covenant, which is brought over into the NC because of Israel’s obedience. Further, since mankind is connected with the ground from which he was created, it goes without saying that a righteous humanity will see its reflection as it were, in the renewal of the ground (Gen. 2:7; 3:9). Great productivity is a blessing of the original creation.

Many Dispensationalists fail to see that the route to literal fulfillment of the covenants with Abraham, Phinehas, and David is through the inner spiritual transformation of the NC. (Basically all the other ‘provisions’ which Beacham sees in Ezek. 36 are a result of the inner work of the Spirit! That is, they are “spiritual”). There would be no reason to include the physical and political blessings in those covenants within the NC. In fact, what that would do is make the other covenants of God utterly devoid of meaning. God’s covenants run in an orderly stream, and are realized by their eventual connection with the New Covenant—who is, as we have shown and will show again, Christ Himself.

More to come…

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There are 8 Comments

bobbycook's picture

What is "ANE" ?

Paul Henebury's picture

Sorry, "Ancient Near Eastern"

Dr. Paul Henebury

I am Founder of Telos Ministries, and Senior Pastor at Agape Bible Church in N. Ca.

Larry's picture

Moderator

Thanks for this Paul. As you might expect I have a little interaction.

First, stopping a discussion of the NC in Jeremiah at v. 34 continues to be problematic, IMO. I don't understand that. It takes vv. 31-34 out of the literary context when there is no textual reason to do so. When we stop the NC passage before the NC passage stops, it will lead to a limiting of the NC itself. Jeremiah's discussion of the NC does not end until v. 40. And so our discussion of the NC in Jeremiah should not end until v. 40. When we do that, we see that the land promise and peaceful living in the land is part and parcel of the NC. I also think this is why Hebrews 8 gets misunderstood. People use the NT without first understanding the OT on its own terms.

This leads to a further conclusion, which starts with a question: Where have we seen peaceful living in the land earlier? In the AC we see the promise of the land and it is defined geographically. In the MC we see eviction from the land and restoration to the land in peace and prosperity, In the DC we see living in the land in peace under the Davidic king.

That leads to this: The NC is actually a culmination of the previous three covenants. The AC, the MC, and the DC all come to a full climax in the NC. The people of the AC inherit the land of the AC with prosperity and blessing; to live with a new heart to keep the MC, and to live under the ultimate king of the DC. So the NC is not some sort of "moving past" the previous covenants or a replacement of them. It is the keeping of them. The NC is in view in what some have called the Palestinian covenant of Deut 28-30. In Deut 30, after the scattering Israel is regathered upon their repentance. That is exactly what the NC is about. The writing of the law on the heart (Jer 31:33) is the circumcision of the heart (Deut 30:6). 

This understanding is why the church is not party to the NC per se. They were never party to the old covenants. In fact, it would make no sense for them to be party to the old covenants. If we understand the NC as the culmination of the old covenants, then we can better understand the NC. So I think part of the problem (not with Paul specifically) but with the conversation as a whole is the failure to exegete the covenants on their own merits and then to trace their themes through the Scripture. We too quickly get to the present and then try to read all of that back on to the past. 

Secondly, to argue that the covenants of Scripture are not similar to the legal covenants of ANE is also problematic. That is the historical context of them and that seems how Israel would have understood them. What other context would they have for understanding? Remember, Scripture is a historical document written in history with words that the people of the historical time would have understood because of their place in history. To assert a meaning of a word that is contrary to the common usage of the word, particularly a technical word, would have been most unlikely I think.

TylerR's picture

Editor

Briefly, I agree that the covenant of perfect peace (NC) is the culmination of the others; specifically the covenant of God's people (AC), which is the fountainhead. I think the covenant of God's people has very strong Gentile implications. The Gentile = people of God motif is strong in the NT. This is why I have little problem seeing the covenant of perfect peace (NC) as expanded to include more than just Israel as it's recipients. 

Stronger DTs will disagree with me. I see no meaningful eternal distinction between Jew and Gentile in eternity, past the Millennial Kingdom. I see one family of God - an implication of the covenant of God's people (AC).

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Paul Henebury's picture

Larry,

Thank you for your thoughtful comment.  Here is my push-back:

1. You say that if I had included the wider context to verse 40 I would have seen the land promise and the promise of peace.  Well, I had already stated that if the physical (e.g. land) promises were included within the NC then the land promises in the Abrahamic covenant (AC) would be effectively muted.  But they can't be muted because they are everlasting!  It needs the soil of the NC to flourish.  We know that the Kingdom will show that God's covenants with Israel were literally intended, but they were impossible to bring to pass without th redemption within the NC.  Hence, here in Jer. 31 as elsewhere, when the land promise is in view it is because the author is drawing on the AC.  Similarly, when the coming King is in view the DC (Davidic cov) is being referenced, but often in a NC redemptive context.  The NC doesn't render these everlasting covenants pointless (eschatologically), it makes them "fulfillable". 

The promise of peace is a result of the redemptive work of the NC.  When full salvation comes so does shalom.  You say, "The NC is actually a culmination of the previous three covenants."  Not in Jeremiah it isn't.  See Jeremiah 33:14-26.  It is not the culmination (as in the ending or climax of them), but the means by which they find their fulfillment and continuance.    

2. Your third paragraph is confused.  I am having real trouble parsing it out.

3. You are in error to claim that the church is not party to the covenants.  In fact, I think you are you are contradicting Paul (Eph. 2:12-13).  Also, Paul's argument in Galatians 3 is rendered incomprehensible if we are not party to the AC.  The blessing to the nations part of the AC is clearly a provision for non-Israelites (hence they become parties).  As to the DC, Christ will be King over all the earth (Zech. 14).  So I cannot agree with you. 

4. You are perhaps aware that I have put a great deal of work into exegeting the covenants in their context and following them through Scripture. 

5. Finally, despite my providng several examples of non-legal covenants, plus the opinions of three scholars, you want to make them legal contracts, because you think that the Israelites would have seen them in that light.  Firstly, that is not a good way to interpret Scripture as it violates the sufficiency of Scripture principle.  Secondly, it's simply false.  Please read this article on "The Ambiguity of Biblical 'Background'" by Noel Weeks. 

6. Finally, you state, "To assert a meaning of a word that is contrary to the common usage of the word, particularly a technical word, would have been most unlikely I think."  I mean no disrespect, but I have been studying covenants for years, and this statement comes across as less than conclusive!

For all that I am grateful to you for all your comments.

 

God bless you and yours,

Paul H           

Dr. Paul Henebury

I am Founder of Telos Ministries, and Senior Pastor at Agape Bible Church in N. Ca.

G. N. Barkman's picture

Paul,  I am enjoying this series on the Covenants.  I find much with which I agree, and some that requires additional consideration.  It's good to make me think.

But I must push back on one of your statements to Larry.  You said that rejecting a particular interpretation of the OT because that is not the way Israelites would understand it, is not a good way to interpret Scripture.  But I seem to recall past discussions when you argued that my approach of interpreting the OT in light of the NT was not valid because it was not the way the original readers would have understood it.  Aside from the observation that it is difficult, and in many cases impossible to know how the original readers understood something (a highly subjective statement, usually amounting to "the way I understand it"), isn't your current comment to Larry a contradiction of your previous comments?

This "push back" is not intended to diminish the value of your scholarship.  Your extensive study of the Covenants is both impressive and helpful.  Thank you.  

G. N. Barkman

Paul Henebury's picture

I am truly gratified that you have found this series worthwhile.  I take your words as sincerely meant and I return sincere appreciation.

As to your question, I think it is an important one.  My response involves the issue of definition; are the same things in view?

For starters I have to challenge your assertion about the subjectivity involved in the question of how the OT saints (or the NT saints) viewed certain things; and here I am most concerned about God's covenants.  I believe that the Scriptures themselves are replete with examples of how people in Israel saw these things.  My (long) series on the Biblical Covenants (which is in fact large chunks of my book), addresses this point in more than one place.  Moreover, as the Article by Noel Weeks, which I linked to above shows, we are not at all on sure ground if we try to reach back into history to find the answer to such a question.  No, the Scripture must supply our information about Jewish culture of the time.  Sometimes it is quite full (as I say it is with the covenants), and sometimes it is quite threadbare.  When it comes to the latter we can only speak subjectively, and we better not speak dogmatically.

As to definition then, Larry assayed to claim that the term berith or its semantic cousins bears a technical meaning across ANE cultures (which is not true), and further, that one ought to understand covenant in Scripture through the wider historical context in which the Israelites themselves lived.  That, as I say, is an erroneous claim, and it can be shown to be so by the way God's covenants are cited throughout OT history: the meanings do not change. 

This leads me to our previous discussions regarding the OT in the NT.  If the OT is quite clear as the meaning of the covenants from Moses to Malachi then this cannot endure "transformation" or reinterpretation by various interpretations of the NT.  My position is that the NT does not alter the established wording of the OT covenants at all.  After I have completed the indices for the OT volume, I intend (DV) to write the volume on the New, showing this very thing. 

 Many thanks and God bless!        

Dr. Paul Henebury

I am Founder of Telos Ministries, and Senior Pastor at Agape Bible Church in N. Ca.

G. N. Barkman's picture

I think I might understand, at least in part, what you are saying.  For the rest, I'll just have to let it go.

G. N. Barkman

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