Review of ‘Covenant’ by Daniel I. Block (Part 2)

Read Part 1.

Block’s Definition of Covenant

Daniel Block’s Covenant: The Framework of God’s Grand Plan of Redemption is a big book around 700 pages long. It is very noteworthy when a prominent OT scholar takes up the challenge to write a book on the biblical covenants, and I am grateful to have such a work to study and repair to.

One of the most important tasks that lies before a writer of such a book is that of definition. If you are going to be writing about the covenants then it is well to put forward a decent definition of just what a covenant; a biblical covenant no less, is. Here is Block’s definition:

A covenant is a formally confirmed agreement between two or more parties that creates, formalizes, or governs a relationship that does not naturally exist or a natural relationship that may have been broken or disintegrated…Covenants typically involve solemn commitments establishing the privileges and obligations that attend agreements. (1).

This definition is somewhat unlike what one usually finds, but it includes the important items such as formality, the relationship between the parties, and the solemn commitments (read oath). In Covenant Theology the covenants that we read about in the Bible, such as those involving Noah, Abraham, Moses, and David are understood to be manifestations of other covenants which, confusingly, are not to be found in the Bible. These covenants are the covenants of redemption, works, and grace, the latter of which is instanced in the covenants we can see; i.e. Noah, Abraham, etc. Block is having nothing of this. although he is nice about it, on several occasions he makes it clear that he sees no covenants in the early chapters of the Bible. On page 46 he writes,

[I]f covenants involve formal procedures to create a relationship that does not exist naturally or to reestablish relationships that have been ruptured, then we cannot define Adam and Eve’s relationship with God in Genesis 2 – 3 as covenantal.

He says something similar regarding Genesis 1 on page 24 (cf. 40). In fact he calls life in Eden “precovenantal” (3). This will not endear him to Covenant Theologians, Progressive Covenantlists, or indeed many Dispensationalists who, despite their professed literal hermeneutics insist upon finding Edenic and Adamic covenants in these early chapters of Genesis.

The “Cosmic” and “Adamic” Covenants of Genesis 9.

For Block the first covenants we can identify in Scripture are found in Genesis 9 (37). And this is where things start to get a bit debatable, for Block thinks he sees two covenants there; the first with the world, which he calls the “Cosmic covenant”, and the second with Noah himself, which he calls the “Adamic covenant.” (I know, just keep reading). As for the “Cosmic covenant” he states plainly that this is usually referred to as the “Noachian covenant” (39), but because “Noah’s role is unclear” and there are real cosmic dimensions to the covenant Block thinks “Cosmic covenant” is a better name.

But then there is his “Adamic covenant.” By the term “Adamic” Block means “humanity” not merely Adam. He believes he finds this second covenant in Genesis 9. This is necessitated because Noah and his family were given administrative roles as guardians of the creation (62).

How does one respond to this? I have to admit that I remain unconvinced. For one thing, on the same page (62), and in several other places Block presents Noah as a “second Adam.” But if he is a new Adam then surely he is given dominion and responsibility in similar ways to Adam? And this is borne out by Genesis 9:1-2. Well then, as God’s vice-regent Noah was the representative of creation to God and so the usual term “Noahic covenant” seems entirely appropriate. Accepting this, there is no reason to introduce a novel covenant with Noah called the “Adamic covenant.” Furthermore, although he extracts a lot of data from the text, Block does not hone in on the central verse for this covenant, namely Genesis 9:11, where the oath of God is to be found.

The author tells us a few pages on that, “After Genesis 11 the Adamic covenant recedes into the background” (65). Well, I for one was not sorry to see it go. Yet when one reaches the NT portion of this book, the “Adamic covenant,” in tandem with its near twin, the “Cosmic covenant” raises its head again (see esp. 405-424), although in the case of the “Adamic covenant” I think this is as unnecessary as formerly. As a matter of fact it creates a contradiction because the qualifier “Adamic” in connection with the covenant means “humanity,” but Block will relate it to the man Adam in Rom. 5:12ff. You can’t have it both ways.

Saying this does not mean one cannot profit from Block’s material, but in my opinion they will have to reinsert it into the mold of the Noahic covenant. For certain, the covenant with Noah and creation forms the stage or backdrop of the history of the world until the New Creation (Rev. 21-22), but Block’s failure (as I see it) to zoom-in on the actual oath of God in Genesis 9:11 is what causes the confusion. The preamble and general descriptions that surround the oath (i.e. Gen. 8:21-9:10, 12-17) are not a part of the covenant itself. As Paul Williamson has said, “the most basic covenantal element” is “a promissory oath” (Sealed with a Oath: Covenant in God’s Unfolding Purpose, 59). The Noahic covenant (as I and most others call it) concerns God’s promise to never flood the entire earth again, full stop. Block believes that Noah and his descendants were placed under conditions by God in Genesis 9:1-7, but these verses do not set out conditions. Maybe I am guilty of a lapse of memory, but I cannot recall one mainline or evangelical scholar who reads Genesis 9 this way. For sure, some like Bruce Waltke see a conditional covenant in Genesis 6, but even then they all state that the covenant in Genesis 9 is unconditional.

No Unconditional Covenants

Seeing conditions in what most heretofore have called an unconditional covenant with Noah and the world does not come as a surprise though. For Block has already made it clear that he rejects the idea of unconditional covenants (2-3). But it turns out that he does this because he includes the conditions that often surround God’s covenants within the covenant oath; or rather, he does not distinguish between the oath and the rest of the verbal context. This can be seen above and I believe it is a main cause of Block’s problematical constructions.

Miscellaneous Early Positives

In the first few chapters of Covenant there are numerous noteworthy comments and insights. The list would include:

  • Warning readers of the problems inherent in reading the NT back into the OT (9-10).
  • Calling attention to the fact that Creation is a “project” that God is committed to (13).
  • Noting that the presence of a Suzerain and a vassal does not make a relationship covenantal (15).
  • Insisting that Adam was a royal figure (20, 27), not a priestly figure.
  • Throwing suspicion upon the currently trendy “Cosmic Temple” readings of Adam in Eden (29ff).
  • Identifying the “Sons of God” in Genesis 6 as most probably angelic (34).
  • Addressing and repudiating the Dumbrell/Gentry & Wellum view that heqim berit must mean “to confirm a preexisting covenant” and the interpretation of Hosea 6:7 as referring to a covenant with Adam (46).
  • Block’s statement that “Hebrew wisdom is first and foremost covenantal” (66).
  • Asserting that the Bible “is our source of information on the covenants” (5).

At the same time there are a few assertions that are open to question. They include drafting into the discussion a lot of ANE parallels. Sometimes these are illuminating (e.g., 19, 77, 85, 87, 99-100, 124, etc.), but occasionally I think they are unhelpful and get in the way of what the biblical text is saying (e.g., 23, 48, 159, 161, 162). Another negative is Block’s opinion that the sequence in the opening chapter of Genesis has “an artificial flavor” (18). Then there is his view that “nefarious external forces” were in Eden (25, 50), but we should expect that from a professor at Wheaton (are there any YECs at Wheaton?).

As for Block’s treatment of covenants per se and his exposition of his “Cosmic” and “Adamic” covenants, I think he unnecessarily muddies the waters, but there is much here worth thinking upon.

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There are 3 Comments

josh p's picture

Thanks Paul. It sounds like a fairly novel book. I would like to read his interpretation of Hosea 6:7. Not sure I would buy a 700 page book for a few nuggets of gold though. 

Paul Henebury's picture

Josh, he considers the different views briefly and lands on a mixture of the "like men" and town of Adam.   

Dr. Paul Henebury

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

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