How do we read the Bible? In Michael Horton’s eyes, we read it “covenantally” for it alone ties us to the God who is covenanted within three persons and whose hyper-relationality extends to creation. This is one big idea in the first chapter of his book God of Promise. In chp 1 he gives an apology for reading the Bible covenantally and in chp 2 he surveys how “covenant” was formed by the “suzerainty treaty” of ancient Israel.
A covenant is a “relationship of ‘oaths and bonds’ and involves mutual, though not necessarily equal, commitments” (10).
He contends the covenant approach is biblical, unifies themes that are often separated, unified human and nonhuman worlds, unifies individual and community and the body and soul, as well as unifies kingdom of God and kingdoms of this world, and it brings together doctrine and practice, justification and sanctification, and it explains the problems of human and divine agency. (Here he critiques hyper-Calvinism but just loops all Arminians into one group that “seems to begin with an all-controlling presupposition … a libertarian concept of human freedom…”… I’ll not get into this here, but this is unfair and it behooves him to be as fair to Arminians as he is to Calvinists and to point to hyper-Arminians.) He goes on… and the image is clear. Covenant theology can do it all. Historic hermeneutics have always had such confidence.
Now to a major grid we all need to know about if we want to understand covenant theology: the modern shape of covenant theology was dramatically influenced by Meredith Kline’s theory of the suzerainty treaty. This is a treaty form discovered in the ancient world. Thus: the rise of an international treaty between a suzerain (major empire king) and a vassal state (smaller collection of tribes), in which the former formed a relationship with specific conditions. Here is what a “suzerainty treaty” looked like in the ancient world:
1.Preamble: name of great king.
2. Historical prologue: explains historical relationship.
3. Stipulations on the vassal state.
4. Sanctions for not doing the stipulations.
5. Deposit of treaty in sacred temple and periodic public reading of same.
The suzerain never took the oath himself; he made the treaty. The vassals took the oath to do what the suzerain said; they got protection and security. Suzerains acted in absolute freedom.
There are major examples of this, and surely Exodus 19-24 and Deuteronomy are major uses of this treaty form to reveal God’s relationship with Israel. The basic contention is that these texts utilized the suzerainty treaty to reveal how God related to Israel.
But, this is not the only kind of covenant in the OT: this suzerainty treaty, which involved a host of stipulations and conditions, needs to be set in the context of the Abrahamic, promissory covenant. I’ll explain this a little more completely tomorrow, for it is not until chps. 3-4 that Horton explains his case. (Some of it is assumed in chps. 1-2.)
A major point, and it has to be said often, is that this suzerainty treaty, not to mention the promissory covenant, was a relationship and not a contract or simple compact. “Covenant” transcends legal contract; we need to see this in full form. God’s covenant, as understood in the Bible, is the establishment of a fictive/spiritual relationship in order to create his people. It is not just a set of laws and obligations. Say it often; it is relationship. Horton emphasizes this enough that critics of covenant theology need to listen a little more carefully.
Horton moves from his observations about suzerainty treaties into biblical covenants, which to me confuses theology with history too much and in a one-sided manner, so I’ll take issue with him right here. Here’s the big idea: God and humans are “not related by virtue of a common aspect of our being, but by virtue of a pact that he himself makes with us to be our God” (29). This is inferred in part from the suzerainty treaty.
I see a few problems here:
1. Eikon is not without some value in seeing not so much a “spark of divinity” (pagan religions) but some kind of “being relationship” between God and humans.
2. The quote above is a false dichotomy: we are both, I would contend.
3. Horton is in danger of a dualism here if he makes God both quantitatively and qualitatively different. I say there is a danger, not a blatant mistake.
4. Historically these features simply can’t be derived from the suzerainty treaty; this is theologizing and goes well beyond the historical treaties. Thus, the king and vassal are both humans, etc..
5. The theology he infers from the suzerainty treaty derives from his theology not just from the treaty form and its contents.
Even if I disagree at this point, it is important to grasp the value of what we’ve learned about covenant by learning about suzerainty treaties.
Horton will make a major delineation between suzerainty treaties as the form for the Sinaitic covenant and the royal grant form of a treaty that shapes the Abrahamic covenant.
The next two chps will look more specifically at Law and Prophets and the New Covenant.