Thursday, 26 March 2009

condition and covenant

How we describe the biblical covenants is of great theological significance. What we mean by ‘conditional’ and ‘unconditional’ and to which element of the covenants we apply those adjectives is very important. 

How we conceive of God’s action in history and in us is also bound up in the use of words like ‘unconditional’. There are pastoral contexts in which we speak more of God’s ‘unconditional’ grace (to a tender conscience or someone struggling with assurance) and contexts in which we speak more of scriptural warnings and exhortations and on the role played by obedience in our relationship with God (in cases of indifference or flagrant sin).

Precisely what ‘unconditional’ means and for precisely whom it means that lies at the heart of Christian Zionist and Dispensationalist interpretations of the Old Testament land promises.

What about the texts before we look too much at the details of the theologies above? Are there any conditions, implicit or explicit, in the texts themselves? I’ll post some detailed observations on this at some point, but for now, some gleanings from commentators on the Abrahamic covenant. Notice how the texts do rather seem to contain various kinds of conditions at various stages...

Genesis 17:9

When Abram was ninety-nine years old the LORD appeared to Abram and said to him, "I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless, that I may make my covenant between me and you, and may multiply you greatly." ...And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. ...And God said to Abraham, "As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your offspring after you throughout their generations. This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. ... Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant."

“Whereas inaugurating the covenant was entirely the result of divine initiative, confirming it involves a human response, summed up in v 1 by ‘walk in my presence and be blameless’ and spelled out in the demand to circumcise every male.” 

[Gordon Wenham, Genesis 16-50, WBC 2 (Dallas, 1994), p.20]

“Although in chapter 15 Abraham was a passive partner to whom God unconditionally committed himself, this supplement calls Abraham into active partnership. Just as Noah lived righteously and was rewarded with the Noahic covenant by the Lord, Abraham must “walk before” the Lord (living in fellowship with him and being taughtby him) and be blameless (living with integrity) in order to enjoy the covenant blessings. In fact, only after Abraham shows his total commitment to the Lord by his willingness to offer up Isaac as sacrifice does God take an oach to fulfill this covenant (22:15-18). From henceforth the covenant supplement is unconditional. Nevertheless, the formulation suggests that for Abraham’s descendants to increase and be a blessing they too must walk before God and be blameless. The suggestion becomes explicit in the blessings and curses in the Mosaic covenant (Lev. 26; Deut. 28).”
[Bruce Waltke, Genesis: a Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001), p.263.]

Genesis 22:18

And the angel of the LORD called to Abraham a second time from heaven and said, "By myself I have sworn, declares the LORD, because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of his enemies, and in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice."

“A promise which was previously grounded solely in the will and purpose of Yahweh is transformed so that it is now grounded both in the will of Yahweh and in the obedience of Abraham”
[R.W.L. Moberly, ‘The Earliest Commentary on the Akedah’, VT 38 (1988), 320]