Reading Paul with the Reformers— Part Six

Reading Paul with the Reformers— Part Six November 20, 2017


Ben. It is a great irony to me that those who most trumpet covenantal theology don’t seem to understand either the ANE ways of looking at covenants, much less the early Jewish ones. And what I mean by this is that in that world when a sovereign made a treaty or a covenant, and the people broke it, the sovereign was not obligated any longer to keep that covenant. He could end the relationship, he could invoke the curse sanctions and do so, he could start anew with a new covenant, but there was no talk of ‘renewing a broken covenant’. None. Where this has a bearing on Paul is of course the interpretation of 2 Cor. 3 and Gal. 4 especially. In Paul’s view, the new covenant is the fulfillment of the Abrahamic one through Christ, ‘the seed of Abraham’ (and in Him we are also the seed of Abraham). The Mosaic covenant was an interim arrangement according to Paul, a child-minder until the time had come to send the Messiah to redeem those under the Mosaic Law out from under the Mosaic Law. Christ is the end of the Mosaic covenant, both in the sense that he fulfilled its just requirements through absorbing the punishment for sin on the cross, absorbing the curse sanctions, and in the sense that the covenant is now obsolete, a point that Hebrews makes even more emphatically. So all this stuff about ‘the righteousness of God’=God’s covenant faithfulness to the Mosaic covenant, simply doesn’t work! It’s not Paul’s view. This is not just over-reading covenant hither and yon, this is reading a wrong and unPauline view of covenant into various texts especially in Romans. In my view, it is because God is consistent and faithful to his own character of being both just and merciful, both righteous and forgiving, both holy and loving, both compassionate and yet demanding obedience that we can talk about God’s faithfulness. He is faithful to his own character, not to some previous many times over broken covenant. The new covenant is genuinely a new covenant, as Jesus said, and inaugurated in ‘his blood’. It didn’t exist before. How do you respond and how would the Reformers respond?

Stephen. In relation to covenant, it makes most sense to focus on Calvin, for whom this is an important theological theme. Calvin has a strong sense that Scripture contains a single covenant renewed on various occasions, and also a strong sense of the continuing validity of the Mosaic Law as a guide to the Christian life. Yet, this is Calvin’s canonical view, based on his reading of the whole of Scripture. In Paul’s letters he believes that we receive descriptions of the Law in terms only of what was unique to the Law (i.e. command and prohibition and the restraining of transgressions). Looked at in this way, abstracted from the promises of the covenant, the time of the Law is indeed completely over and this is what Paul wishes to emphasize.

We should note that this careful distinction by Calvin between the Law in Paul’s letters alone and the Law in Scripture as a whole has some striking exegetical consequences. If you read Calvin’s comments on Romans 1:16-17, he certainly states that the Gentiles have been admitted to participation in the Gospel covenant, but he does not expound the righteousness of God primarily in terms of covenant faithfulness. Instead, the righteousness of God is that which is approved at God’s tribunal, i.e. presumably that which reflects what is right according to God’s own character. Thus, while you and Calvin might be poles apart on covenant overall, you are much closer exegetically in the Pauline letters than might be expected. Calvin will certainly happily reflect on the theme of covenant whenever Paul uses the term, and he certainly regards covenant as significant for Paul, but he does not make it the overarching theological category within which the Pauline letters are to be read in the manner of recent “covenantal” interpretations of Paul. Covenant is a category that he develops more strongly in relation to other parts of the canon.

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