A Biblical-Theological Review of Michael Allen’s Sanctification, Part 5: Chapter 4: Covenant

|

Allen surveys Rudolph Otto’s phenomenological and Mary Douglas’s cultural anthropological approaches (91-93). He tips his hat to their potential benefits but insists we must read Scripture as “instances and instruments of divine action–as the very word of God” which “bears a prescriptive force and not merely a descriptive opportunity” (93). Scripture teaches that “fellowship or communion with God is the fundamental basis and goal” and the “canon’s central episode. Jesus is Immanuel.” (94, 96). While fellowship is the telos of the gospel, covenant frames that communion. Within Reformed tradition, the “covenant of works” describes “this relational order and vocational telos of human existence before God” (100). Consequently, James Torrance’s seven critiques of federal theology are addressed at length (101-110). He concludes that the covenant of works informs our understanding of the course of creaturely holiness and sanctification in four ways: 1) Humans were created for fellowship with the triune God; 2) God designed this communion to involve a corporate head; 3) communion with God is bound by the commands of God; and 4) communion is based upon humans entrusting themselves to their Creator (110-12).

Affirmation

Allen’s work with covenant as a category for reflecting on sanctification helped me by shifting what had seemed an alien intrusion to a central feature. Allen’s dialogue with Torrence et al. crystallized my essential objection to the classic formulation of the “covenant of works” while moving me closer to seeing an Edenic covenant or covenant of creation as theologically viable.

I resonate deeply with Allen’s articulation of faith in the relationship between unfallen humanity and God: “The deepest calling of the covenant of works is the summons to consistent and perfect, unceasing and constant trust in the God who created, who promised, and who gives again and again. … This covenant does include other commands … yet we do well to note that the heart of its call is a matter of trust” (112).

Critique

The role and significance of love is present but muted throughout the book. Its muting here is acute. The nature of our fellowship with God as loving intimacy in marriage and family is noted, but its implications are undeveloped.[1] In Scripture, grace-inspired love is the dynamic of human holiness. It is the center-piece of divine-human fellowship. It is a central feature of inner-Trinitarian life and thus of divine holiness. This chapter is poorer for its omission.

Allen uses the phrase “covenant of creation” and “covenant of works” interchangeably. He recognizes the weakness of the standard formulation of this covenant—that God promised Adam life on the grounds of his perfect obedience—but sticks to traditional Reformed terminology. I find the standard “covenant of works” construct so flawed as to be unusable.

First, John defines eternal life as knowing God, that is, being in right relationship with God and His Son (John 17:3; cf. 1 John 5:20). Adam and Eve were created with and in right relationship with God. As creatures of the Holy God and part of God’s very good creation, they naturally possessed both the holy status necessary for fellowship and the character capable of holy fellowship. Eternal spiritual life was not something they did not have or needed to achieve. They had life in relation to the Son, their Creator. This seems to be the necessary implication of the warning, “You shall surely die,” and is supported by Genesis 3’s statement that the sound of Yahweh walking in the garden was recognizable, which implies previous experience of his presence and communion. 

Second, since the tree of life was given to them for food, there was no condition that needed to be met for their appropriation of immortality. Thus, immortality is not a promised covenantal benefit.

Third, what the implied covenant of creation made explicit was that the perpetuity of life was contingent upon persistence in faith that manifests itself in loving obedience. In this regard (faith working by love), the Edenic “covenant” is, at least on an Arminian reading, indistinguishable from the Mosaic and the New Covenants. The difference resides not in works vs grace as means of obtaining life. The difference resides in how union with Christ fulfills and empowers covenantal faithfulness. Adam and Eve’s being was upheld in Christ, but being unfallen, they would not have been united with Him in his death, burial, and resurrection. Perhaps it could be argued that the implied reward of persistence in obedience for Adam would have been glorification, but the text itself gives no warrant for this argument. That Christ obeyed perfectly, was perfected through suffering, is now glorified, and will bring all things into subjection to the Father via His reign in the kingdom of God fulfilled all that the first Adam was to do.[2]

Extension

Holiness as the condition for fellowship, the context of fellowship, and the consequence of fellowship could be addressed. Allen does present covenant as defining the path toward human holiness. Yet, holiness is also a prerequisite for covenantal relationship, within which the path of holiness is trod. We cannot be in relationship with God without first being set apart to Him. In theological terms, positional holiness grounds personal and progressive holiness.

 


 

Originally published at Exegetical Thoughts and Biblical Theology.

[1] Dennis Kinlaw’s explorations of these metaphors in Lectures in Old Testament Theology (Warner Press, 2010) are helpful.
[2] Thanks to Brian Collins for pointing out that Thomas McComisky raises similar objections in The Covenants of Promise: A Theology of the Old Testament Covenants (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1985), 218-19.

Philip Brownhttp://apbrown2.net
Dr. Philip Brown is Graduate Program Director and Professor at God's Bible School & College. He holds a PhD in Old Testament Interpretation from Bob Jones University and is the author of A Reader's Hebrew Bible (Zondervan Academic, 2008).