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In this final installment of my review of Covenant we turn to look at Daniel Block’s discussion of covenants in the NT. This is the section of the book that I was most looking forward to as many scholars (e.g. I. Howard Marshall) have written about the relative unimportance of covenant in the Gospels, Paul and General Epistles. In one sense (a rather superficial sense) they are right; the NT writers do not seem as concerned with covenants as their OT counterparts. But this is only on the surface of things. Upon closer examination, and provided one has not forgotten about them, it becomes apparent that the Apostolic authors thought much in covenant terms. With this in mind I eagerly read Block’s Part Four, “Covenant in the New Testament.”
Block gives 229 pages to the study (394-623), and even though he insists upon using his (to my way of thinking) confusing naming of the covenants (i.e., Cosmic and Adamic (=Noahic) covenants; the four part Israelite covenant composed of Abrahamic, Mosaic, Deuteronomic & New, plus the Davidic covenant), I could still mostly follow his argument. But I think casting the covenants into this mold makes them not only confusing but tame; they simply don’t look influential in Block’s presentation. And this creates a problem for his presentation of covenance in the Gospels and Paul; it’s all rather pedestrian (which is epitomized in his Conclusion on pages 615-623).
In his treatment of the first three parts of his “Israelite covenant,” (which we have to remind ourselves are the Abrahamic/Mosaic “covenant” with its renewal in Deuteronomy), the author returns to his insistence that the Torah was/is not “Law” in itself and so is a way of life. Let me turn there first.
The Torah as Grace
Central to Block’s understanding of torah is his position that the rabbinic accrual of interpretive stipulations is what is in Jesus’ and Paul’s minds when they talk about the folly of law-keeping. For example, consider these three quotes:
The postexilic community was indeed Torah based, but with the elevation of the Torah to virtual idol status, Second Temple Judaism had become a meritocracy in which the Oral Torah regulated every detail of life and for which the Pharisees considered themselves not only definers but also models of Torah piety. (465)
Paul’s reference to the Torah as pedagogue was a full frontal attack on the Judaizers. They and their Pharisaic predecessors in Judaism had robbed this precious gift of its heart- and life-giving power and transformed the Torah into an enslaving and stifling institution. The Torah was intended as a gracious gift, defining the will of the divine Suzerain and symbolizing the nearness of God and His invitation to them to flourish under his favor, thus stirring up the envy of the nations (Deut. 4:5-9). Instead, with all the man-made accretions of the Oral Torah, the Torah as nomos (law) had become a noose around their necks, dealing death instead of life. (491-492)
As early as the Decalogue we learn that obedience was to be the response to grace, not the precondition of it… (493)
From this understanding of nomos (Law) in the NT Block believes that when Paul inveighed against the “Law” he was referring to its Pharisaic caricature, not the Torah itself (494 cf. 496). I am thoroughly unconvinced. I cannot reconcile Paul’s strident words in Romans 4 and Galatians 2 with Block’s thesis. Just consider Paul’s argument about the circumcision of Abraham in Romans 4:9-12. It is well nigh impossible to squeeze into his argument the Pharisaic meritocracy that Block is so concerned about. The Apostle simply argues that Abraham was declared righteous before being circumcised, thereby being justified by faith; and this was centuries before the deadly accumulation of rabbinic codes had even been devised. (By the way, the author’s treatment of Romans 4 is disappointing – 448-452, including his handling of Rom. 4:10! – 451). I will be very surprised if Block’s views on the Law go unchallenged by subsequent reviewers, although one never can tell nowadays.
No Supercessionism But…
Moving on, the author makes it clear in several instances that he believes the land promise is critical to God’s covenants with Israel. He even speaks against supercessionism when he claims interpreters who hold that the relative silence of the NT towards ethnocentric Israel and its territory show these elements are no longer important, are often led “to a doctrine of supercessionism, according to which God’s commitment to the church universal eclipses his interest in the physical descendants of Abraham” (512). This is a good basic definition of the matter, which sadly many who are guilty of teaching it try to hide it with euphemisms. Block declares that given the language of hesed and fidelity (emuna) in God’s covenants such a thing is inconceivable (512-513).
But it doesn’t take him long to muddy the waters, for like most modern historic premillennialists he believes that, “one of the key motifs in the book of Romans is that gentiles who believe in Jesus have been grafted into the olive tree and are now full members of a redeemed humanity” (515, cf. 480, 523). Using a hermeneutics of charity I want to say that Block is not teaching that Israel and the church merge into one eschatological people of God with no separate traits, but it’s not easy to be confident about it. He leaves the exegesis of Romans 11 alone which is a shame.
The Davidic Covenant in the NT
Block recognizes the importance of the Davidic covenant in the NT, not just explicitly, but often times how it underpins many statements (e.g. 545), especially the messianic ones. He takes time to expound the Birth narratives in Matthew and Luke. There is good material here, but again one can get a bit bogged down in the detail.
He appears to think the seventy weeks ended with the birth of Jesus (544), but has good material on the title Son of Man, even though I don’t see as strong Davidic overtones as Block does. Again, he has good things to say about Peter’s confession at Caesarea Philippi (559-562), and also about the Transfiguration (562-566), although he spoils it unnecessarily by quipping that although Moses was a major figure, “the historical Elijah was a regular – if not marginal – rather than paradigmatic prophet” (564).
When it comes to the Passion narratives we once more get a mixture of the good and the bad. Yes, there are good insights littered here and there, and occasional background information that is of help, but did Jesus really redefine the nature of His reign at His Triumphal Entry (568-572)? Block’s interpretation of John 18:36 (“My kingdom is not from this world,” etc.) as John looking back and recognizing it “as the moment of Jesus’ coronation and exaltation” seems bizarre (578-579). And when the author asserts that Pilate would have interpreted Jesus statement, “You would have no power over me if it were not given you to you from above” (Jn. 19:11 his emphasis), in a political sense, I think he does Pilate a disservice. Was the Governor really that dim as to think Jesus was employing mere truisms? Pilate may not have believed in Yahweh but he did believe in gods above him.
When he reaches the NT letters we get more solid, brief, but not world-shaking stuff. I liked his brief but insightful recognition of 2 Timothy 2:8 (604), and I liked the observations on 1 Peter 1 (608-611). I do not however think John in Revelation borrowed motifs from Ezekiel 40 – 48 (612).
There are some fine moments in this section dealing with the NT that I want to call attention to. Firstly, he believes that Romans 8:18-25 clearly alludes to the “Cosmic” (Noahic) covenant (398). He rightly points out that agapao is a covenant-related term (399, 417), which is just one indicator that the notion of “covenance” underlies the thought of the inspired writers. He repeats the assertion that the relationship between God and Adam in Eden “did not involve a covenant” (416), offers a detailed breakdown of Mary’s Magnificat (430-434), and a decent one of Zacharias’s prophecy (434).
Unfortunately, there are quite a lot of “thumbs-down” moments. On pages 394-395 he claims that diatheke in Galatians 3:15 and Hebrews 9:16-17 carries a testamental significance. That is not unusual in itself (though I strongly disagree with it). But he gives no justification for these perturbances from the normal Apostolic meaning of “diatheke/covenant.” Moreover, later he appears to me to contradict himself by saying, “Gal. 3:15 is not about God’s covenant with Abraham, but a generic statement about how human covenants operate” (435). Well which is it? Is Galatians 3:15 talking about a testament or a covenant? As Block seems to acknowledge, the context of Galatians 3 points quite decisively to the latter.
After spending the last several weeks reading Covenant and taking detailed notes I came away a little exhausted and sadly underwhelmed. As I stated earlier, the treatment of the divine covenants lacks dynamism, and the author does not trace the oaths that Yahweh took and produce a big picture of all of His promises. His repeated insistence that the Torah was “grace” not “law” is singularly unconvincing. If God gave only instructions not to pick up wood on the Sabbath because it was a gift of rest it is hard to see why the individual in Numbers 15:32-36 was stoned to death. Not following instructions may lead to harm but it does not lead to punishment. Breaking the Law does!
Paul Martin Henebury is a native of Manchester, England and a graduate of London Theological Seminary and Tyndale Theological Seminary (MDiv, PhD). He has been a Church-planter, pastor and a professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics. He was also editor of the Conservative Theological Journal (suggesting its new name, Journal of Dispensational Theology, prior to leaving that post). He is now the President of Telos School of Theology.