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The Christ of the Covenants O. Palmer Robertson

(Presbyterian & Reformed, 1980)

In this work the author proposes to focus on two areas of concern in Biblical interpretation:"the significance of God's covenants and the relation of the two testaments" (p. vii). These are areas of great significance vital to the formulation of any theological system.

Although covenant theology is a well-established theological framework in Protestantism, the classic works on covenant theology continue to be those of the older theologians. It is refreshing to see another work on this system by a contemporary scholar.

Robertson defines covenant as "a bond in blood sovereignly administered" (p. 4). The definition is based mainly on the consistent use in the OT of the expression "to cut a covenant," which reflects the ancient self-maledictory oath involving the dismemberment of animal carcasses. This definition leads him to reject the concept of covenant as a will or testament because a Biblical covenant is initiated by death (blood), whereas in the case of a will or testament death comes at the end of the relationship.

One may wonder if the word "cut" in the above expression is to be carried as far as the author takes it. Is the Davidic covenant a bond in blood? Are the covenants with the beast of the field (Hos 2:18) secured by blood? The expression "cut a covenant" may have become a crystallized term that lost the literal sense of its original meaning.

It is also questionable whether brt should be defined by karat ("cut") even though they often occur in an associative clause. The sovereign administration of the covenant is dealt with in only two paragraphs. The essence of the author's argument is that "recent scholarship has established rather certainly the sovereign character of the divine covenants in Scripture" (p. 15), but there is no discussion of the verses that seem to imply a condition in the Abrahamic covenant (Gen 12:1; 17:14; 26:5), nor is there a discussion at this point of the role of human obedience in covenant.

One of the distinctives of traditional covenant theology is the function of covenant as the diachronic mode of divine redemptive activity. Robertson proves himself to be a traditional covenant theologian in his discussion of "The Extent of the Divine Covenants" (chap. 2). He argues effectively for the application of the term "covenant" to divine-human relationships not called covenants in the specific passages where they are instituted. He notes particularly the statement of the promise to David in 2 Samuel 7, which is called a "covenant" only in 2 Sam 23:5 and Ps 89:3.

Robertson appeals to Jer 33:20, 21, 25, 26 and Hos 6:7 to support the extension of the concept of covenant to the pre-Noahic period. In the case of the latter passage, the author adopts the view that "Adam" refers to the first man rather than to the city of that name cited in Josh 3:16. A great deal is based on this verse even though its interpretation is tenuous. Robertson does not consider the view that "as Adam" may be translated "as at Adam" (cf. Andersen and Freedman's Anchor commentary on Hosea).

The chapters on unity and diversity in the divine covenants (chaps. 3-4) are particularly strong and incisive. The unity in the covenants is to be found in the elements of the promise. In his discussion of diversity in the divine covenants the author examines the structural distinctions in the covenants and observes certain weaknesses inherent in the terms "covenant of grace" and "covenant of works." He follows M. Kline in suggesting that the terms "covenant of redemption" and "covenant of creation" may be preferable. In his discussion of the distinction between the old and new covenants the author demonstrates his ability to handle the NT materials. He concludes that while the old and new covenants are diverse in their historical setting and content there is an overarching unity to be found in God's dealings with mankind in the covenant of redemption.

Part two of the book (chap. 5) is devoted entirely to a discussion of the covenant of creation, which denotes the "life and death bond" established by God's act of creating man and speaking to him, "thus determining precisely the role of man in creation" (p. 67). The elements of this covenant are the Sabbath, marriage and labor. The discussion of the Sabbath and its relation to the new covenant is full and insightful. Robertson argues: "To speak of the 'abolishment' of the Sabbath under the new covenant involves a breach of the very orders of creation, history, and consummation as revealed in Scripture" (p. 72). Polygamy, divorce and homosexuality contradict "the creational order of marriage" (p. 78). Likewise labor is an integral part of the creation ordinance and contributes meaning to man's existence. The concept of the covenant of creation should lead man to avoid a narrow expression of the gospel and extend his responsibility into the world "of economics, politics, business and culture."

Part three of the book is devoted to a discussion of the covenant of redemption. The discussion begins with a consideration of Gen 3:14-19, in which the author argues for a messianic interpretation of Gen 3:15. The covenant with Noah follows in the discussion. The author views this covenant primarily as a covenant of preservation of the human race. In this connection he considers whether the Noahic covenant sanctions capital punishment in any case and concludes that the Noahic covenant and subsequent Scripture passages give support to capital punishment. The perspective of the Noahic covenant is basically oriented to creation. The context of preservation inherent in the Noahic covenant provides the framework for redemption. In his discussion of the Abrahamic covenant the author argues that the ritual of sprinkling the people with blood in Exodus 24:8 reflects the rite of "passing between the pieces" cited in Gen 15:17. The author traces the subsequent judgment of Israel to the life-and-death relationship established at Sinai, which in turn reflected the covenantal procedure involved in the institution of the Abrahamic covenant.

Not all readers will agree with Robertson that the diatheke of Heb 9:15-20 is a covenant and not a will or testament, but his argumentation must be given consideration. Perhaps he sees too much in the phrase "over dead bodies" (Heb 9: I7), which he understands to reflect the inauguration of a covenant. The expression may simply refer to the deaths of successive generations, which convey the property of wills and testaments to succeeding generations. The author includes a very helpful discussion of the NT significance of circumcision.

The discussion of the Mosaic Law reveals the author's grasp of current critical opinion concerning the Mosaic Law. The discussion of this important matter is brief but cogent and includes a number of important NT passages.

In an excursus (chap. 11) Robertson discusses the structure of Scripture in both covenantal and dispensational modes. He treats dispensationalism fairly in that he does not approach it only from the standpoint of the older Scofield Bible. His appeal to dispensationalists to consider covenants as the "scriptural indicators of divine initiatives that structure redemptive history" demands consideration and hopefully will lead to a response in the literature.

In his discussion of the Davidic covenant of 2 Samuel 7 Robertson concludes that because David's throne was considered as one with God's throne, Christ is occupying David's throne today. This chapter (chap. 12) also contains a lengthy section portraying the historical outworking of the Davidic covenant.

Chapter 13 is centered on the fact that Christ consummates the covenantal promises by virtue of his role as Messiah. The new covenant will find its fulfillment in the Israel of God.

This work is a substantial contribution-not only to the area of covenant theology in particular but to OT theology in general. The emphasis on a covenant of creation as opposed to a covenant of works represents a refinement badly needed in covenant theology. The concept of a covenant of creation is presented not only as a theological category but a worldview as well, demanding the extension of the Christian message into the created world.

The dialogue with dispensationalism is at once firm and courteous. One could wish that certain aspects of the argumentation had been based on more solid exegetical foundations, such as the discussion of Hos. 6:7. In the opinion of many theologians who are in disagreement with covenant theology that system has failed to prove that covenant is the sole diachronic mode of redemptive activity. It is in this area that covenant theology impresses its opponents with vagueness.

This is a superior work that clearly fulfills its stated purpose. It is a modern statement of covenant theology that admits weaknesses in the older expression of that system and refines them. At the same time it gives no quarter in its affirmation that covenant is the basic structure of the Bible.

Thomas Edward McComiskey

This review first appeared in Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 25:3 [1982] and is used here with permission. No part of this review may be copied or transmitted in any form without the prior permission of the publisher. See JETS for subscription and pricing information.