Covenant Theology

Review of ‘Covenant’ by Daniel I. Block (Part 4)

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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).

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Review of ‘Covenant’ by Daniel I. Block (Part 3)

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The “Law” was not Law even though it was Commanded

As we move on from Block’s discussion of what he calls “the Cosmic covenant” (i.e. Noahic) the “Adamic covenant” (?), and the “Israelite covenant” (i.e. the Abrahamic and the Mosaic together!) we next encounter the “New Israelite covenant” (275ff.). For reasons I shall attempt to explain this is what most call “the New covenant.”

But before we do that I need to refer the reader to Block’s position on the possibility of obeying the Torah. He rightly says that the word means “instruction” more than “law.” Then he goes on to say on page 264 that,

“YHWH’s expectations, expressed by the laws he prescribed for his people, were both clear (Deut. 29:4, 29…) and attainable (Deut 29:29..30:1-14).” Italics original.

On the next page he avers,

“The ethical and ceremonial performances that YHWH demanded of the Israelites were both reasonable and doable. Not a single command was impossible.” (265)

But notice that Block calls this torah by the name “commands” which “YHWH demanded.” Sounds like law to me! My mind runs to Acts 15 and the Jerusalem conference where certain Pharisees wanted to instruct the Gentiles to keep the law [nomos] of Moses (Acts 15:5). Peter’s response to this was incisive:

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

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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).

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Review of ‘Covenant’ by Daniel I. Block (Part 1)

A Review of Daniel I. Block, Covenant: The Framework of God’s Grand Plan of Redemption, Grand Rapids: Baker, 2021, 704 pages, hdbk.

Daniel Block has been a major evangelical OT scholar for many years, contributing commentaries on Ezekiel, Deuteronomy, and Judges/Ruth, and many articles. He is known for his incisive and creative scholarship. Therefore, this contribution to the study of covenants in the Bible is most welcome.

As someone with familiarity with Block’s work I fully expected Covenant to be marked by independent thinking and fresh insight. Both qualities are to be seen in this large work. As someone who has a decided interest in the subject I think it best if I begin my review with some general comments.

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Literal or Figurative?

One of the biggest debates among Christians is how to interpret the Bible. Liberals accuse conservatives of taking the Bible too literally. Conservatives accuse liberals of not taking the Bible seriously enough, often by declaring controversial sections to be figurative. That seems to be a handy way to avoid passages that teach what you don’t want to believe.

But even conservative Christians divide over the issue of literal verses figurative. For example, Dispensationalists often accuse the Reformed of spiritualizing certain sections of Scripture, and the Reformed frequently fault Dispensationalists for their “wooden literalism” by awkwardly forcing literal interpretations upon passages that are intended to be figurative.

Dispensationalists charge the Reformed with “Replacement Theology,” which means interpreting Old Testament prophecies made to Israel as fulfilled in the New Testament Church, and the Reformed return the favor by charging Dispensationalists with interpretive myopia; focusing too narrowly upon the immediate context, and failing to see the forest for the trees.

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Contrasting Dispensationalism and Biblical Covenantalism

A Little Backstory

As many of my readers will know, I have spent a lot of time and energy trying to place Dispensational theology on what I believe is a more secure footing. Dispensationalism has not produced many top-line academic works, especially in the last half century, and with only one or two exceptions it presents itself as static and unwilling to improve. In the meantime it has been frozen out of mainstream evangelical scholarship and its influence has dwindled.

One example among many will suffice: The huge 8 volume IVP Dictionaries, which cover the entire Bible, and are written by hundreds of top scholars across the broad sweep of evangelicalism, include scarcely any contribution by dispensational scholars. The Dictionary of the Old Testament Prophets has (as far as I can tell) only one entry by one dispensationalist (Robert Chisholm on “Retribution,” and I’m not sure Chisholm is much of a dispensationalist).

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