Trinity and Covenant
The Christian Worldview
A Covenantal Map
The Covenant Outline
We have seen that the Triune God lives in an eternal covenantal fellowship of love, that He created the world in covenant with Himself and that He rules the world and directs its history by His covenant. All of this suggests that the Biblical idea of the covenant should be at the center of the Christian worldview. In order to apply the covenantal idea to the Christian worldview, however, it will be necessary to consider exactly what the covenant is and how it can be expressed in terms that are applicable to broader worldview issues.
Determining the Covenant Outline
Reformed theologians frequently refer to the covenant as if the word needed no definition. Some offer synonyms such as "agreement" or "compact." A covenant is said to be a compact between two or more parties in which promises are made and conditions are agreed upon. When the conditions are fulfilled, the promised benefits are bestowed. This definition is not altogether inaccurate, but it misses the heart of the issue. Not only does the idea of the covenant remain vague, it is difficult to distinguish this definition of the covenant from the definition of a contract, a strictly legal relationship established for mutual profit. But thinking of the covenant as if it were a contract is a fundamental misunderstanding that even Reformed theologians have been in part guilty of fostering. Indeed, in spite of their being in the same Reformed traditions, their views have differed markedly. This misunderstanding can be corrected if we understand the essence of a covenant relationship.
The Essence of the Covenant
If we are correct in asserting that the covenant begins in God and the personal relations of the Father, Son, and Spirit in all eternity, it must be clear that all "contractual" definitions are fundamentally mistaken. Neither in our study of the covenant in creation nor in our survey of its development through the Bible have we seen what may be rightly called a "contract." A closer look at a particular book in the Bible, in which the covenant theme is especially prominent, shows us the true nature of the covenant.
I have in mind the book of Deuteronomy. It has been declared "the center of biblical theology" by S. Herrmann. And von Rad designates it "in every respect as the center of the OT Testament." I do not believe these assessments are exaggerated. It is commonly agreed by Biblical scholars that the historical, prophetic, and wisdom literature of the Old Testament all rely heavily on the book of Deuteronomy in particular and the Mosaic writings in general.
What is equally important is the character of the book, for Deuteronomy is a covenantal document. In the words of William L. Moran of the Pontifical Biblical Institute, "it [Deuteronomy] is the biblical document par excellence of the covenant." Delbert R. Hillers of Johns Hopkins University wrote of Deuteronomy:
What is important about the citations of the above scholars is that none of them are Reformed scholars committed to traditional Reformed covenant theology. They cannot be said to assert the special place of Deuteronomy in the Old Testament, or the covenantal character of Deuteronomy because of a theological prejudice in favor of Reformed theology. It is, however, only in Reformed theology that their insights into Deuteronomy find systematic expression.
Even more important than these scholars' assertions about the importance of Deuteronomy as a covenant document is the understanding of Deuteronomy's message, for in this supremely covenantal book we discover the very heart and essence of the covenant. To quote from Moran again, "It should be remarked first of all that, if Deuteronomy is the biblical document par excellence of love, it is also the biblical document par excellence of the covenant." According to the book of Deuteronomy, the essence of God's covenant is love.
This is what we would expect, for this is true of the covenant between the persons of the Trinity in their eternal covenantal fellowship. The covenant bond of the Father, Son, and Spirit may come to expression in terms that fit the formula of an "agreement," but the essence of the covenant is love. And because man is God's image, the essence of God's covenant relationship with man, too, is love.
The covenant, then, must be defined as a bond of love in which the parties of the covenant solemnly swear to devote themselves to seek the blessing of the other party. Among the persons of the Trinity, the covenant is the formal expression of the mutual commitment of love between Father, Son, and Spirit. In God's relationship with man, the covenant is the formal promise of God's love and grace to man. As we have observed before, this kind of relationship in the nature of the case demands reciprocation. Obedience to God's commandments is the covenantal expression of a creature's love to the Creator. Never in the Bible, whether in the books of Moses or in the New Testament, does the covenant imply a contractual sort of legalism.
The Outline of the Covenant
Keeping in mind the essence of the covenant as a fellowship of love, we may ask whether there is a simple outline of the covenant that makes the idea of a fellowship of love concrete. Once again the book of Deuteronomy provides us with the answer. In his book That You May Prosper, Ray Sutton restates Meredith Kline's outline of Deuteronomy in terms that open up new avenues for systematic theology, apologetics, and Biblical theology. What Sutton has done through his outline of Deuteronomy is to make the covenant doctrine clear and concrete, just as the Synod of Dort made the Calvinistic doctrine of salvation clear and concrete.
Sutton's outline of the book of Deuteronomy is based upon the model of ancient suzerainty treaties as that was developed by the path-breaking work of George E. Mendenhall and, later, revised by Meredith Kline. Sutton varies from Kline's outline primarily in his theological interpretation of the covenant. Sutton has also shortened Kline's six points to five. What Kline and others express in terms of historical and documentary description, Sutton explains in language that shows the relation of the covenant to life. Here is Sutton's outline of the covenant:
Of course, the five-point approach to the covenant is not necessarily the only outline of the covenant that has Biblical validity. James Jordan, in a inductive study of Leviticus and Deuteronomy, suggests that a threefold (Trinity), fourfold (world foundations), fivefold (housebuilding), sixfold (man), sevenfold (sabbath), tenfold (law), or twelvefold (covenant people) organization of the covenant may be possible. Although Jordan does not believe that the division of the covenant into five parts has any actual priority over other possible outlines, he clearly demonstrates that the five-point outline is used most frequently by Moses and is not an arbitrary invention of expositors.
Also, North, Sutton, and Jordan analyze the Ten Commandments as a twofold repetition of the five-part covenant structure:
Jordan states Sutton's five-point outline in broader terms that make the implications of each point clear:
What Sutton has given us, then, is an outline of the book of Deuteronomy that can serve as an outline for the Christian worldview, an outline that not only helps us immensely in understanding the covenant in the Bible, but which also enables us to apply Biblical covenantal categories to the issues of everyday life.
Applying the Covenant Outline
A well designed worldview map of Christianity must meet three conditions. It must be: 1) Biblical, 2) broad enough to include all the basic worldview issues, and 3) concise and clear enough to be easily remembered and used. The covenantal outline of Deuteronomy satisfies all three of these needs. First, it is Biblical, for we are constructing our worldview map in accordance with one of the most important books of the Bible. We are also designing it in accordance with one of the most important themes in the Bible, the covenant.
Second, as I shall demonstrate in developing the five-point outline further, all of the basic issues of the Christian worldview are included in the five points of the covenant. Third, the five-point outline of Deuteronomy can be stated to make the acronym "THEOS," the greek word for God. This outline can be presented as five simple, basic questions, or in a fuller form that allows a deeper and more detailed comparison of worldviews.
THEOS Outline: General Map
It is important to be able to state in simple straightforward questions the broadest issues of the Christian worldview. These questions, in turn, are the basic questions to ask of any other worldview. The following outline presents the five points of the covenant as set forth in the acronym THEOS:
I will suggest a number of different ways to restate the five points as questions, but perhaps the best way to begin is by borrowing James W. Sire's five basic questions. For without intending to, Sire deals with each of the five points of the covenant, though in different order, when he defines a "well-rounded" worldview as one which answers the following five questions:
Sire's questions well express the basic points of the covenant outline. The first point of the covenant, Transcendence, deals with ultimate issues. Sire's first question or something similar is appropriate. To understand a worldview, we must ask what, according to that worldview, is the ultimate reality? Next comes Sire's question of how a worldview defines man. Since man was created as God's representative, the second point of the covenant, Hierarchy, asks most simply and basically who man is. The third question in the covenant outline concerns the definition of good and evil, the issue of how man is to live in this world to please God. Ethics, point three of the Biblical covenant outline corresponds with Sire's fourth question about the basis of morality. The fourth point of the covenant, Oath, is less obvious, but, as I shall explain below, it does fit with Sire's fifth question about the meaning of history. Succession, the last point of the covenant, deals with questions about the future, such as Sire's third question: What happens at death?
Two additional points are worthy of note. First, it is important to remember that the covenant is a unit. One's answer to any single point of the covenant will, if the person holds to a generally consistent worldview, indicate how that person would think about the other points. Second, the issues of the covenant are inescapable. The point is similar to what Ronald M. Green argues in his book Religion and Moral Realism, when he says that there are basic processes of moral reasoning common to all religions that constitute a "deep structure" of religious thinking. According to the Biblical worldview, all men think covenantally because they are created in the image of a covenantal God. Therefore, the basic issues of the covenant are inescapable. All men must come to some kind of an answer to the questions posed by the covenant and their answers will reveal a system of thought, in which the various issues are related.
To show how the five points are interrelated, we may state the issues as:
One further important point: I do not mean to suggest that the five point covenant outline is limited to questions of worldview. On the contrary, because life is covenantal, these questions can be stated in forms that apply to any aspect of life. To take just one example, Gary North provides a simple summary of the covenant outline especially designed for application to business:
The above outlines are suggestive examples of how the five points of the covenant can be restated as simple questions. Since God has created man in His image and since He rules man by His covenant, the basic issues of the covenant are essential to all human thought and endeavor. Therefore, the covenant outline may be used to present Christianity, evaluate a non-Christian worldview, or even analyze daily activities, such as business. The simple map of the Christian worldview suggested here may be drawn in greater detail.
THEOS Outline: Detailed Map
A detailed picture is appropriate, for the first divinely revealed covenantal worldview map, the book of Deuteronomy, deals with each of the five points of the covenant in considerable detail. Although I will not attempt to reproduce all of that detail here, we are reminded that a more detailed approach is important. It is usually in considering the details that the fundamental contradictions and problems in non-Christian worldviews appear. The covenantal outline is, thus, helpful not only for understanding non-Christian worldviews, but also for apologetics as well.
First Point: Transcendence
Let us, then, consider each of the five points of the covenant in more detail. Beginning with the first point, Transcendence, we must ask: how does the Bible present God as the transcendent covenant Lord? What are the issues associated with the first point of the covenant? The first and most obvious issue is the creation of the world.
If we consider the first covenant of God with man at creation, it is clear that the covenant is fundamental to the world. It is imposed by God as part of the created order. Thus, the act of creation itself is repeatedly referred to in the Bible as an act that reveals God's covenantal Lordship:
Creation is also the beginning of God's covenantal revelation of Himself to man. Revelation, as we have shown, is involved in the very idea of creation and is another aspect of covenantal sovereignty. As Paul emphasizes, only God Himself can reveal God:
A third related issue is salvation, for the basic Biblical idea of salvation is new creation. Isaiah put creation, revelation and salvation all together when he declared the Lord's transcendent sovereignty:
Finally, since God Himself is ultimate in the Christian worldview, we must ask what kind of God the transcendent Lord is. And the most distinctive point in the Christian answer is that the God of the Bible is Triune. This introduces the subject of the one and the many. This ancient philosophical issue, arguably the most important of all philosophical problems, plagues all non-Christian thought. Apart from the Biblical God, who is the eternal One and Many in whom unity and diversity are equally ultimate, there is no possible answer to this question. But every worldview must deal with the problem of the one and the many in some form or another because God has created the world to reflect His unity and diversity. Men are confronted with unity and diversity in all of their lives so the issue itself is inescapable.
In the Bible, then, God's transcendence is especially revealed in 1) His creation of the world; 2) His revelation of Himself; 3) the salvation of His people; and 4) His own Triune nature. These four issues provide a key to a deeper consideration of how we as Christians view the world and how we may question a particular non-Christian worldview. To more deeply understand a non-Christian worldview, we may ask questions like:
Second Point: Hierarchy
The second point of the covenant, hierarchy, deals with representative authority. Beginning with Adam, God has established representatives for Himself in the world. He does not daily speak to each and every man, animal, and plant to direct them in the affairs of life. Rather, since man is his image, God has granted to man authority to rule the world in His stead (Gn. 1:26-28). This included authority in the affairs of men as well. God created Adam to have authority over Eve and both Adam and Eve to have authority over their children. Eventually, God granted authority to man to judge other men and make decisions of death and life (Gn. 9:6) and established the seed of Abraham as a priestly nation to lead the world in true worship (Gn. 12:1-3; Ex. 19:5-6; Dt. 4:6-8). As the Biblical doctrine of representation develops, it is clear that God has established covenantal authority in the Family (Eph. 6:1-4), the Church (Hbs. 13:17) , and the State (Rms. 13:1ff.). Leaders in each of these institutions have their authority from God and should be required to take an oath to Him. In addition, each individual man is an image of God. Thus, the Bible shows individuals swearing oaths to God and it includes limits on the authority of covenantal institutions to protect the individual from oppression. The meaning of the individual and his place in society is, therefore, an issue related to the second point of the covenant.
The second point of the covenant, thus, brings up questions of social structure. When we apply the second point of the covenant to another worldview, we ask who has authority, how authority is granted, what is the meaning of the family, and similar questions. The leaders of a society are the de facto covenantal heads, even when they do not fear God or represent Him righteously. Since every worldview contains an implicit or explicit philosophy of society and social authority, questions related to the second point of the covenant are especially relevant for applying the covenant to issues of life in this world. We can summarize these questions as follows:
Third Point: Ethics
Questions of ethics appear at the very beginning of the Bible. God commanded Adam and Eve not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Why? That was the question Adam and Eve should have asked. In order for the tree of the knowledge of good and evil to become a source of understanding, Adam and Eve were supposed to think about the prohibition. They should have understood that the tree had no magical power to confer knowledge. They should have understood that the prohibition of the fruit of this particular tree was related to ethical knowledge.
God allowed the temptation by Satan in order that through it, Adam and Eve might be taught the fundamental meaning of good and evil. When Satan tempted them, they were put in a situation that actually divulged the meaning of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and the special prohibition of its fruit. Adam should have immediately understood the "secret" of the knowledge of good and evil, namely, that obedience to God's command, simply because it is the command of the heavenly Father, is the essence of righteousness. Since God Himself is the definition of righteousness, man's righteousness consists in being rightly related to Him. For man to be evil is to rebel against God. Good and evil for man are defined as the presence or absence of loving obedience.
This means an ethic based upon God's revealed law. The Ten Commandments revealed to ancient Israel cover the basic issues of covenantal obedience. From chapter six to twenty-six, the book of Deuteronomy applies the Ten Commandments in detail to concrete cases to show the ancient Jews how the law applies in principle to the realities of this world. But the essence of the law can be summarized simply, as Jesus taught, with the single word, love (Mt. 22:37-40). What the detailed commandments of the law provide is a definition of how love responds to particular situations.
Although the Church is not under the Mosaic covenant and, thus, not bound to the letter of the law, there is only one standard of righteousness in the world. Since the law is a revelation of God's holy nature, the commandments of the law are still important for us to aid us in thinking through ethical problems.
It must be further emphasized that ethics have a far more important place in the Biblical worldview than in other worldviews. Our relationship to God is defined by His commandments. They are the very heart of the covenant, which is a relationship of love. Therefore, for a Christian, the way to "success" in the world is defined in Psalm one -- avoid evil men and keep God's word.
A more detailed understanding of the ethical teaching of the Bible means that one is able to ask more detailed questions of and do a more detailed comparison with non-Christian worldviews. Each of the Ten Commandments provides multiple points for comparison with non-Christian systems. Under the sixth commandment, for example, we might ask questions like the following:
Fourth Point: Oath
The fourth point of the covenant concerns the oath. In the Bible, when man makes a covenant with God, he takes a self-maledictory oath (cf. 2 Sm. 19:13; 1 Kg. 2:23; 2 Kg. 6:31) in which he calls upon God to curse him if he breaks the covenant and to bless him if he keeps the covenant. This is essentially the meaning of the covenant ceremony described in Deuteronomy 27:11-26. Also this kind of self-maledictory oath is the basis for the covenantal institutions of Biblical society, Church, Family, and State.
In the book of Deuteronomy, Moses expounds at length the blessings that follow those who obey the Lord and keep His covenant (Dt. 28:1-14), and at more length the curses that will overwhelm those who break His law. They can be summed up simply as blessing or cursing in the family, society, agriculture, weather, economics, and international relations.
But God does not only bless and curse the nation of Israel. The prophets pronounced God's curse upon the Gentile nations, too (cf. Am. 1:3-2:3; Ezk. 27; Jr. 51). The blessings and curses of the covenant are the source of the Gentiles' success and failure in history no less than Israel's. Men who disobey God and break His law bring upon themselves His judgment, both in history and after history, both as individuals and as nations. God's blessings and curses determine who is economically powerful, who enjoys peace, who rules the nations.
Questions related to the fourth point concern the broader issues of the self-maledictory oath, the blessing and curse of the covenant. Each of the blessings or curses of the covenant may be turned into a question or a series of questions about one's worldview. In a more general way the fourth point of the covenant may be applied to non-Christian world along the following lines:
Fifth Point: Succession
The final point of the covenant, succession, deals with the future. In the final section of Deuteronomy (31-34), Moses records his farewell speech to the nation and makes provision for Joshua to take over the leadership after him (Dt. 31:1-8). Moses could not accomplish all that he wanted to in one lifetime. The work of leading Israel across the Jordan and leading the people in the task of judging the Canaanites had to be left for the next generation to complete. But even when that work was done, there was much more for the nation of Israel to do, for they were appointed as priests for the world (Ex. 19:5-6), they were supposed to be a channel of blessing for all the nations of the world (Gn. 12:1-3). God chose Abraham so that through him and his descendents, the original purpose of God in creating the world would eventually be realized.
The final accomplishment of God's purpose in creation is the Christian's vision of the future. But every individual, every group, every society has some vision for the future. Societies, for example, have educational programs that are designed to train the next generation in terms of some future social vision. Religious groups and civil governments must have systems for choosing successors to the present leaders, and those systems usually embody a future vision. Individuals not only take out life insurance, select heirs, and write wills, they also have a view of life after death which will usually have great influence on their life on earth.
Questions about the future of an individual, group, or a whole society fall under the fifth point of the covenant. We can only suggest a few of the many questions relating to these issues. When considering a worldview, perhaps questions of social vision are the most important:
The Biblical doctrine of the covenant may be summed up in the five points of the outline of the book of Deuteronomy. Those five points can be stated as a questions that provide a worldview map. Like maps of the physical world, worldview maps may be drawn in greater or lesser detail, depending in part upon the skill of the map-maker and the purpose of the map. The covenantal worldview map is important for Christians because it helps them to apply a Biblical perspective to the basic questions that must be asked in any worldview or practice endeavor. The covenantal map aids Christians in relating God Himself to all of life.
But we are not just interested in a theory of map-making. The best proof of the effectiveness of a map is in the actual use of it.
1. See: R. L. Dabney, Lectures in Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1972), pp. 429-33, and The Westminster Confession of Faith, VII, 1-3.
2. Note, for example, the differences between two of America's foremost covenant theologians John Murray and Meredith Kline. For a discussion of the difference between Murray and Kline, see: P. Richard Flinn, "Baptism, Redemptive History, and Eschatology" in James Jordan (ed.), Christianity and Civilization No. 1: The Failure of American Baptist Culture (Tyler, Texas: Geneva Divinity School, 1982), pp. 122-131.
3. Both quoted in Gerhard Hasel, Old Testament Theology: Basic Issues in the Current Debate (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, revised edition, 1975), p. 95. Hasel, by the way, does not agree with von Rad and Herrmann.
4. This is true, of course, of the Bible as a whole. But the book of Deuteronomy is structured around the covenant idea since it was a covenant renewal document.
5. "The Ancient Near Eastern Background of the Love of God in Deuteronomy," in The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, vol. 25, April 13, 1976, p. 82.
6. Delbert R. Hillers, Covenant: The History of a Biblical Idea (Baltimore, MD.: Johns Hopkins Press, 1969), p. 149.
7. Moran, "The Ancient Near Eastern Background," p. 82.
8. F. Ch. Fensham's view is similar: "The continuation of relationship is the heart of the covenant . . ." See: "Covenant, Promise, and Expectation in the Bible," in Theologishe Zeitschrift, vol. 23, no. 5, 1967 p. 310.
9. Gary North in "Publisher's Epilogue," Paradise Restored, p. 337. Already David Chilton has made effective use of Sutton's model as a tool of Biblical analysis in his commentary on Revelation, Days of Vengeance. Gary North and Gary DeMar have demonstrated the remarkable versatility and intellectual power of the covenant model as a theological construct, employing it as an outline for discussing subjects such as the Bible's teaching about government and international relations. See, Gary North, Healer of the Nations: Biblical Principles for International Relations (Ft. Worth: Dominion Press, 1987), and Gary DeMar, Ruler of the Nations: Biblical Principles for Government (Ft. Worth: Dominion Press, 1987).
10. George E. Mendenhall, Law and Covenant in Israel and the Ancient Near East (Pittsburgh: The Biblical Colloquium, 1955).
11. That You May Prosper, p. 14-17. Sutton points out that Deuteronomy is not a copy of the suzerainty treaties. The suzerainty treaties copied the Biblical original.
12. Ibid., p. 15-16. 1. The Preamble; 2. The Historical Prologue; 3. Stipulations; 4. Blessing and Cursing; 5. Successional Arrangements; 6. Depository Arrangements. As Sutton points out, Mendenhall originally listed seven divisions of the covenant. Ibid., p. 15.
13. Ibid., p. 16-17.
14. James B. Jordan, Covenant Sequence in Leviticus and Deuteronomy (Tyler, Texas: Institute for Christian Economics, 1989), p. 3-6. Jordan also suggests a threefold approach to the covenant in, The Law of the Covenant (Tyler, Texas: Institute for Christian Economics, 1984), p. 7: "In summary, the covenant has three aspects. There is a legal bond. There is a personal relationship. There is a structure within the community." He develops a four-point and a twelve-point approach in Through New Eyes, pp. 130-31.
15. Ibid., p. 6.
16. Jordan demonstrates that the first five books of the Bible fit the covenant model Sutton outlined. Genesis, as the book of creation and election, emphasizes the sovereignty of the transcendent God. Exodus is a book of transition from Egypt and its social order to a new social order with new hierarchies, including the house of God as the symbol and center of the new order. Leviticus, the book of the laws of holiness, sets forth the central concern of the law of God for His people: whether in ceremony or in daily life, Israel is to be the holy people of God. Numbers begins with the numbering of Israel as God's army, for they are to carry out His sanctions against the people of Canaan. And when Israel failed in her mission to apply the covenant curse of God to His enemies, they themselves inherited His covenant curse. In Deuteronomy the next generation, which will inherit the land, is instructed in the law of God in preparation for the conquest. Covenant Sequence in Leviticus and Deuteronomy, pp. 9-10. The first five books of the New Testament also follow the covenant outline: Matthew--Christ the King; Mark--Christ the servant of God, submitting to His will; Luke--Christ the perfect man; John--Christ the divine/human judge and giver of eternal life; Acts--Christ building His Church from heaven by pouring out the inheritance of the New Covenant, the Holy Spirit.
17. Gary North, The Sinai Strategy: Economics and the Ten Commandments (Tyler, Texas: Institute for Christian Economics, 1986).
18. Sutton, That You May Prosper, 214-24.
19. Jordan, Covenant Sequence in Leviticus and Deuteronomy, pp. 10-13.
20. Jordan, Covenant Sequence in Leviticus and Deuteronomy, p. 14.
21. James W. Sire, The Universe Next Door (Downers Grove, Il.: InterVarsity Press, 1976), p. 18.
22. Religion and Moral Reasoning: A New Method of Comparative Study (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988).
23. North, The Sinai Strategy, p. xv.
24. For an excellent discussion of the law and the Christian, see, for example: Vern Poythress, The Shadow of Christ in the Law of Moses (Brentwood, Tenn.: Wolgemuth and Hyatt, 1991); Walter C. Kaiser, Toward an Old Testament Ethics (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1983); and the classic by R. J. Rushdoony, The Institutes of Biblical Law (Nutley, N.J.: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1973).