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How to Read the Bible 4

Michael Horton, in God of Promise, provides what is surely the most recent and complete defense of a covenantal theology reading of the Bible. And chp 5 sketches the fullness of this approach to the Bible. He calls it “From Scripture to System: The Heart of Covenant Theology.” I have major doubts that this chp sketches a move from Scripture to system, thinking as I do that there’s not enough Scripture to the System, but it is not my place here to engage in much evaluation. I’ll leave that to next week. Question for the day: What do you think of this covenant theology approach to putting the Bible together?
This chp engages in debate with Reformed scholars over the meaning and validity of the three major covenants: covenant of redemption, covenant of creation (works), and covenant of grace.
Covenant of redemption is an intraTrinitarian, eternal covenant commitment: “The Father elects a people in the Son as their mediator to be brought to saving faith through the Spirit” (78).
Horton contends this covenant is biblically justifiable through the very notion of election and by the notion John’s Gospel says the Father gave to the Son a people. Some Reformed theologians disagree with Horton on whether this “covenant of redemption” can be justifiably called a “covenant.”
Covenant of creation (works) is fundamentally the Adamic condition of humans being summoned to do what God has said and this condition must be fulfilled in order to inherit eternal life. This covenant of creation remains, and was fulfilled in Christ’s obedience, which is imputed to believers. So, that covenant of creation (works) abides as an eternally-necessary requirement before God. Humans cannot fulfill the law after the Fall.
Horton provides a battery of defenses, but it would require too much space on this blog to sum it all up. Inherent to this theory is a rather heavy emphasis on the typological function of Law and Sinaitic covenant.
Covenant of grace is based not on law but on promise. There are real partners (God and believers), real conditions (repentance and faith), but the meeting of these conditions is graciously given rather than performed. “Whatever stipulations … God puts on his people, they will never — can never — be the basis of his judgment of their status before him” (106-7).
Here’s a big one: Jesus fulfilled the covenant of works and believers are incorporated into his obedience.
Conclusion: if you don’t distinguish covenant of works from covenant of grace you end up destroying “by grace alone.”
The 6th chp, which I won’t engage here since it is not concerned as much with how to read the Bible, is a defense of the Calvinistic two-kingdom approach to the relationship of Church and State. It comes in a chp about common grace: there is Church, there is non-Church, and there is Common Grace. The covenant with Noah is the prototype. (Don’t know if readers know that Noah’s aftermath is directly connected to creation, and is often seen as a kind of second creation covenant.)
Here’s a question: What happens to this system if it demonstrated, from the Bible, that there is another condition in the so-called “covenant of grace”? That is, in addition to repentance and faith, if one adds obedience — in the sense of perserverance (rather than simply preservation)? Does this ruin the distinction between covenant of creation (works) and covenant of grace?
And another: Why do both Jesus and Paul say we will be judged by our works? Does this judgment determine our status before God?

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posted June 29, 2006 at 5:55 am

Now , this is why I think you should stick to commenting on soccer

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posted June 29, 2006 at 7:06 am

If Covenant is the recognition of a relationship that exists, the formalisation of it, then the obedience required is about staying in covenant, and continuing to receive the blessings. We don’t work to earn anything; it’s a lease, with conditions for the leaseholder, and promises from the lessee. I have been following this through from John Murray, via Palmer Robertson and Dumbrell, and into Barth. Covenant does not mean contract. Nor does the new covenant require the law keeping presumed under the old covenant in order to earn/win salvation. Here we need a recapitulation Adam christology.
Adam had the blessings, but needed to grow up into them – Jordan, Zizioulas etc. The covenant still stands though, God is still gracefully disposed towards humanity. Christ comes from him as the new Adam, and humanity is in him, as Head.
I have tried to address a new covenantal model in the context of the atonement here
and here
I’d be grateful for some informed opinion as to whether I am on a good track.

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Scot McKnight

posted June 29, 2006 at 7:19 am

Horton would say that the New Covenant did require law-keeping, and it was kept by Christ. That is the essence of your comment of recapitulation.
Let me take a look at your posts.
First I’ve got to read the sports page over hear.

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posted June 29, 2006 at 8:23 am

Thank you for blogging on Horton’s book. It is very much an insider debate and your observations are illuminating. As are your questions about obedience and judgement of our works.
Our small group just talked about this: lots of ideas, less scriptural input, no consensus.
All in all, I use the covenantal approach when reading the Bible. It provides a reasonable unifying theory. The to-the-point questions/observations lead me to being less sure (and hence less condescending toward others). But I usually see them as things I just can’t get all around. (And they seem smaller than the corresponding value of the big-whole-covenantal approach.)
Thanks again

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Scot McKnight

posted June 29, 2006 at 8:47 am

I, too, use the “covenant approach” but we need to distinguish a covenant approach from the specific method called “covenant theology.” Are you speaking about the former or the latter?

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posted June 29, 2006 at 8:57 am

“Why do both Jesus and Paul say we will be judged by our works? Does this judgment determine our status before God?”
These are very big questions in my thinking at this time, and among the questions which rocked the way that I approach and think about scripture and theology. I don’t buy the ideas in Covenant Theology as you’ve described it, because I don’t think they actually arise from a consistent approach to scripture or acceptance of the whole picture. Wright’s approach makes the most sense to me at this time.

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posted June 29, 2006 at 9:38 am

Well I have been trained in covenant theology and it has been a foundation of my thinking. But somewhere I discovered people who thought differently that I could not discount. And now I see many more that I feel ashamed I ever did discount.
For instance I used your notes on the Hebrews texts even though my system taught otherwise. End result for me was not to change perspectives, but to recognize very real exegetical differences, let the weight of them fall as God wants, to humbly confess that my ‘system’/’theology’ doesn’t get “it all” and so start talking about an approach rather than a theology.
It’s not that I’ve decided it’s not the best theological system, but it’s that I realized that all systems miss some things. So I follow the advice I learned about eschatology–follow what looks least bad in your handling of the texts.
Often what I sense is people within the system (Horton may be an example) seem to miss the value of what others bring to the table. And thus sometimes even good arguments or presentations sound canned or somewhat hollow to me. I’m not saying this book by Horton does that, since I haven’t read it. It’s just that I have been so arrogant myself that I am sensitized to things that have triggered it in me in the past.
So short story–approach sounds better than theology to me.

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posted June 29, 2006 at 10:32 pm

Will you be answering your question about Jesus and Paul saying we’ll be judged by works? ’cause I really don’t have an answer, but I’d love to hear yours. That part of the whole NPP thing has certainly rocked my boat.

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posted June 29, 2006 at 11:49 pm

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