Foundations: No.73 Autumn 2017

Book Reviews

Covenant and God’s Purpose for the World

Tom Schreiner, Crossway, 2017, 144pp, £7.58 (£6.71 Kindle)

Tom Schreiner’s latest offering, the fourth entry in Crossway’s Short Studies in Biblical Theology series, is an excellent introduction to one of the most important themes in the Bible: covenant.

Schreiner likens God’s covenants to the backbone of the Bible’s storyline, insisting that we can’t fully understand it if we don’t understand them. Moreover, a nuanced understanding is necessary as there is more than one covenant; showing how they are all related and fulfilled in Jesus Christ is the purpose of his book. It is a purpose that is admirably achieved, even without recourse to the traditional notion of a single, overarching “covenant of grace”. 

Schreiner defines covenant as “a chosen relationship in which two parties make binding promises to each other” (13). Marriage is a good example. That said, in the ancient world covenants were often not between equals but between a superior and an inferior, and this is obviously the case with those that God made with man. These “advance the story of God’s kingdom... tracing out the progress of redemptive history, which centres on the promise that God will bring redemption to the human race (Gen 3:15)” (13).

The author omits any discussion of the “covenant of redemption” between the persons of the Trinity in eternity past (cf. John 17) and moves immediately to the first covenant in time.

The Covenant with Creation

Many interpreters have held that the Lord made a covenant with Adam in the garden of Eden, often called the “covenant of works”. Schreiner agrees, though he prefers the title “covenant with creation” as it points to the final New Creation at the other end of the Bible. Some question whether there was such a covenant at all, given that the word is not used in Genesis 1-3 and that all the other divine covenants are redemptive, that is, given graciously to sinful men. But the author presents compelling evidence that there indeed was one.

As God’s children and image-bearers, Adam and Eve were to be priest-kings, ruling on his behalf, mediating his blessing to their offspring and to the rest of creation. Confirmation of this is found in the many parallels between Eden and the design of the tabernacle/temple. When our first parents fell, the world was doomed to die, yet the image of God in man, though marred, was not lost. Moreover, a Saviour was promised, the seed of the woman who would crush the serpent’s head (Gen 3:15), and this is our Saviour Jesus Christ (Rom 16:20).

The Covenant with Noah

How the promise will be fulfilled is not obvious however, for after Eden things get rapidly worse: “The world unravelled as sin enfolded humanity in its tentacles” (31). Genesis 4-6 bears witness to this downward spiral and provides the background for the next covenant. The Lord resolved to wipe out man, bird and beast in a flood, but spared Noah because of his righteous faith (Heb 11:7), making a covenant with him, which, Schreiner suggests, is a renewal of the one at creation. He identifies several parallels between Genesis 1-2 and 8-9, indicating that Noah is a kind of “new Adam”. Yet there is discontinuity as well; Noah is a sinner (9:20f), and the world he emerges into is fallen (8:21). The covenant, with its promise not to flood the earth again, was needed because human nature hadn’t changed. “Starting over again wouldn’t lead to Eden” (37) but now the world would be preserved until God’s plan of redemption could be realised. Schreiner is clear that there are conditions attached to this covenant that still apply (e.g. 9:6), but is right to affirm its ultimately unconditional nature. The next covenant will begin to provide a remedy and not just a restraint for man’s iniquity.

The Covenant with Abraham

If Adam was perfect, Noah upright, then Abraham was ungodly when God called him (Josh 24:2f). The grace of the Lord was exceedingly abundant in this covenant. Abraham was to be another Adam, with God’s original blessing on the first man now to be channelled through his seed (Gen 12:1ff).

The promises to Abraham can be divided into three parts: offspring (implying a nation), land (Canaan, a new Eden), and universal blessing. To begin with it was Abraham’s physical descendants who benefitted, above all in Solomon’s reign (1 Ki 4:20f). Yet “the covenant... was never focused solely on Israel... Through Abraham the whole world would be reclaimed for the glory of God” (46; cf. Rom 4:13).

Whereas Genesis 15 emphasises the unconditional nature of the covenant, in chapter 17 there are several conditions incumbent upon Abraham, notably circumcision (cf. 18:19).  Schreiner ably reconciles this tension: “The covenant is unconditional, for God will grant the grace for those who are his own to meet the covenant conditions.” (56) That included Abraham himself (Gen 26:5) but much more so Jesus Christ, the son of Abraham (Mt 1:1). “Since Jesus is the true son of Abraham, the children of Abraham are those who belong to Jesus Christ” (56; cf. Gal 3:29).

The Covenant with Israel

Made with Abraham’s descendants through Moses at Sinai, this covenant is distinct from the Abrahamic yet flows from it (Ex 2:23ff; 6:3ff). It is not a legalistic covenant in which salvation is based on works: “The Lord doesn’t begin with a demand that Israel observe these commands in order to be his people... His grace and mercy precede and undergird his demands” (61; cf. Ex 19:4; 20:2), and accompany them in the form of the blood sacrifices.

Israel too was a new Adam (“my son”, Ex. 4:22f) and Canaan a new Eden (“a land flowing with milk and honey”, Ex 3:8). “The blessing for the whole world will come through Israel.” (67)

At the same time, this covenant has “a built-in obsolescence. It was not intended to last forever” (68). “Remarkably, [it] was blighted with pessimism from the outset” (69). Disobedience was predicted and the curses (more detailed and lengthy than the blessings) would certainly be experienced. Yet the final word is optimistic: repentance and restoration (Dt 30:1ff). Israel’s national failure will be overcome by the obedience of an ideal Israelite (Isa 49:1ff). As the next covenant reveals, this one will be none other than their rightful king.

The Covenant with David

At first glance, the establishment of monarchy in Israel seems like a bad idea (1 Sam 8). But there had been increasingly clear hints that a royal line was always part of God’s plan for his people (Gen 17:6, 16; 35:11; 49:8ff; Num 24:17ff). It will not be self-reliant Saul though, but humble David, “a new Adam and the true Israel” (76), who fulfils this ancient promise.

God establishes his covenant with David in 2 Samuel 7, promising to build him an everlasting house (cf. Ps 89:3f). Like that with Abraham, it is a blend of the conditional and unconditional: “The dynasty won’t be removed from David’s house, and the covenant will finally be fulfilled, but individual kings who transgress will not experience blessing” (76; cf. Ps 89:30-37).

Even David himself fell short of true kingly conduct (2 Sam 11). Therefore Isaiah (9:6f), Jeremiah (33:14ff), Ezekiel (34:23f), Hosea (3:5), Amos (9:11) and Zechariah (12:10-13:1) all prophesy of the Christ, David’s son and Lord, whom the New Testament consistently declares to be Jesus. His resurrection and ascension inaugurate the final fulfilment of this covenant: “As David’s son he is now reigning at God’s right hand and will come again to consummate his reign” (87). 

The New Covenant

In his longest chapter, Schreiner shows how the New Covenant fulfils the previous covenants God made with his people, yet there are significant differences as well. For example, the genealogical principle of the Abrahamic covenant is not carried over; membership of God’s household is now co-extensive with heart circumcision, which was not the case previously. There is even greater discontinuity with the Mosaic covenant: In Jeremiah 31:31-34, “the banner passage on the new covenant” (90), God himself distinguishes the two. The problem with the Old Covenant was that Israel broke it and experienced the curses. The new will avoid this by God enabling his people to keep it, writing his law on their hearts not on stone. It is “the gift of the Spirit [that] enables the people of God to keep God’s laws” (92).

The work of Christ on the cross secures another outstanding benefit of the New Covenant – the complete forgiveness of sins. It is clearly “superior to the Old Covenant since it grants free and confident access to God by virtue of Jesus’ death” (97). He is the seed of the woman who at Calvary bruised Satan’s head, though his own heel was bruised (Gen 3:15).

Schreiner makes the interesting suggestion that the New Covenant promise of Israel’s reunification (e.g. Ezek 37:15ff) was fulfilled in the conversion of the Samaritans (Acts 8:4-25; 9:31). Gentile believers are with Christian Jews full members of the house of Israel, for their heart circumcision by the Spirit makes them spiritually Jewish (Rom 2:26, 28-29). Together, we will inherit a new creation at Christ’s return (2 Pet 3:13), when all the covenants will be complete. 

Conclusion

Some significant differences between Bible-believing Christians arise from our respective understanding of the covenants, so not everyone will agree with all of Tom Schreiner’s. It is also a relatively brief book, so at times one is left with unanswered questions. But if you know a young Christian who is eager to grow in their understanding, or indeed want to refresh your memory and whet your appetite in this area, this book is a great place to start. 

Oliver Gross
Pastor, Buckingham Chapel, Bristol

 

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