(Conversations with Bob! He likes it! He likes it! Hey Mikey! It's Bob's turn!)
At Fuller Seminary Presbyterian Students were expected to take a bunch of Presbyterian courses. They included Presbyterian History, Presbyterian Polity, Presbyterian Program, Presbyterian Ethos, and I think there was one other but I don’t remember what it was. It was 30 years ago.
Anyway, Jack Rogers taught Presbyterian Ethos. One day Jack asked what word would most characterize Presbyterian theology. There was this long silence and then Jack started almost jumping up and down shouting, “Covenant! Covenant! If you don’t get anything else out of this class I want you to remember that Presbyterians believe in covenant! So of course, I do.
I believe in a God who makes covenants. Most of us tend to think a covenant is something like a contract. One side agrees to do one thing and the other side agrees to do another think. Like getting a contractor to come in and replace your furnace. The contractor puts the furnace in and you pay. A covenant, from a Biblical perspective, is nothing like that.
In the Bible God acts first and then asks people to follow and obey. We see this in the 10 Commandments. The 10 Commandments begin:
1Then God spoke all these words: 2I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; 3you shall have no other gods before me. (Ex.20:1-3; Deut 5:6)
God acts with grace and then calls people to follow and obey. It’s the same in the New Testament. God acts in Jesus, (incarnation, life, death and resurrection), with grace and then calls people out to follow. (Okay, yes, Jesus called followers before he died and rose, but the incarnation was part of the grace. And yes, God called Abraham to follow and made promises, most of which were not fulfilled for years. So sometimes God calls first and then gives the gift. But the promise of the gift always comes before the call to follow.
Covenantal Theology says that God acts graciously and calls people to follow. This is the case throughout the Old Testament (literally Old Covenant) and also the New Testament. In fact Reformed thinking says that there is no difference between the Old and New Covenants in the aspect of work. The Covenants of the Old Testament are covenants of grace as are those of the New Testament. In a sense they are all one covenant, God acting graciously and calling people to follow. In this sense I do believe in salvation history.
Some caveats: while I believe that God made a covenant with Abraham and other covenants with the people of Israel, there can be no historical evidence for this. We can find some archeological evidence for the existence of the Kingdoms of Israel and Judah, (although whether some of the evidence actually goes back to the time period or are fakes is highly debated), but that evidence can’t tell us that God spoke to Abraham or Moses or David or Elijah and made covenants. Belief in a God who makes covenants and that specific covenants were made is a theological statement.
Another critical factor is the false assumption by some that God makes covenants with secular nations today. The US is God’s land only in the sense that all the earth is God’s. All nations do both good and bad. God has made no covenant with any nation today. To suggest that God does so is not only theologically wrong but also dangerous.
So a major part of Church belief that affects or at least should affect the behavior of the Church is the covenant God made with the people of God. Deuteronomy says that God didn’t choose Israel because there was something special about Israel. God doesn’t choose those who come to faith because there is something special about them. God simply chooses and makes a covenant.
This should produce two effects in the Church. First, there are no grounds for boasting because we are part of the Church. We didn’t become part of the Church because we did anything.
Humility is the order of the day. Second, while there is no work that gains God’s favor, part of being people with whom God has made a covenant is that we are called to live as the people of God. We must seek to live as if the Kingdom of God was already present in all completeness in the world today. Being people of the covenant makes ethical demands.
Grace and Peace