Covenantal Modalism

This probably isn’t a novel idea, but I thought it was worth sharing. I was talking to my friend, Marcus, about various theological topics and at some point the question of the nature of blessing in the Old and New Testaments came up. I was trying very hard to articulate generally how I saw the relationship between the different covenants we see in the Bible, and more particularly the difference between what blessing looks like in pre-exilic Israel and post-Easter Christianity. Then, it dawned on me how I might explain my position, and that’s what I’m going to do here. But before I can, we need to have a vague understanding of two other views:

Covenant Theology and Dispensationalism

Now, my understanding of “Covenant Theology” or “Dispensationalism” is weak at best, so please bear with me as I stumble through this. These are the two most common Biblical Theological[1] “frameworks” which form a general context for understanding individual parts of Scripture (we’ll see how this works out later in this post).

Part of each framework involves an understanding of the relationship between the different covenants we find in Scripture: Edenic, Noahic, Abrahamic, Davidic, Mosaic, and New. Now, for the sake of simplicity, I’m only going to focus on two of the bigger ones (since these are often the ones in focus), and just pretend like my comments can be acceptably generalised to the others too. The Mosaic covenant was given at Mt. Sinai when God founded the nation of Israel. He entered into a covenant with them and gave them the Mosaic law (the 10 commandments start this off). Now, part of the covenant involved blessings contingent on Israel’s obedience to God (Deut 28, Ps 1). These blessings, at least in part, took the form of prosperous living in the promise land, which in turn was a symbol of “closeness” to God (since, minimally, it was achieved by obedience):

If you fully obey the Lord your God and carefully follow all his commands…The Lord will establish you as his holy people, as he promised you on oath, if you keep the commands of the Lord your God and walk in obedience to him. Then all the peoples on earth will see that you are called by the name of the Lord, and they will fear you. The Lord will grant you abundant prosperity – in the fruit of your womb, the young of your livestock and the crops of your ground – in the land he swore to your ancestors to give you.

The New covenant was inaugurated by the coming of Christ. We are blessed by Christ’s sacrifice for our sake, enabling us to approach God by justifying us (Rom 3:21-26). Now already questions start arising: is the blessing spoken of in Ps 1 and Deut 28 relevant to us in the New covenant? How are we to view the Mosaic law? We can compare Covenant Theology and Dispensationalism on how they answer the latter of these two questions[2].

Covenant Theologian’s answer to the question is that Christ fulfilled (that is, brought to completion) some of the aspects of the law, and the aspects that he didn’t fulfil continue to be binding on us. Typically, in the Reformed tradition (of which Covenant Theology is a part of), the Mosaic law is split into three sections: moral, civil, and ceremonial laws. Moral laws are easily identified (do not lie, do not murder, do not commit adultery, etc.), ceremonial laws involve the sacrificial, food and separation laws found mainly in Leviticus, and civil laws are what’s left, usually involving civil matters (one example: there’s a law about putting a railing round the roof of one’s house). Now the Covenant Theologian will say that only the moral law continues into the New covenant. Everyone is agreed that the ceremonial laws were fulfilled in Christ[3], and some agree that the civil laws ceased when God’s people ceased being a single nation[4]. Covenant Theology tends to stress the unification of the covenants (focussing mainly on continuation) and as such we speak about administrations of a fixed covenant[5] rather than different covenants. If we were to draw a sort-of “continuation diagram” between the two covenants on the Covenant Theologian’s view, it’d look like this:

Covenant Theology

By way of explanation: the dots represent the starts of the two administrations we’re talking about (I’m keeping them as “covenant” in the diagram for the sake of consistency with diagrams), the bottom line represents the continuous covenant that spans the different administrations, the middle line represents those things that continued through to the new covenant, the top line represents those things that were fulfilled.

If Covenant Theology stresses continuity, Dispensationalism stresses discontinuity. On this view, the Mosaic covenant (or dispensation) came to complete fulfilment at Christ’s coming and as such, the law completely ends. Only what is commanded in the New Testament, by the Lord, is considered binding in the New covenant[6]. Of course, here we don’t need the tripartite breakdown of the law, although it still remains enlightening. It must be stressed that the Dispensationalists don’t believe that successive dispensations/covenants abrogate[7] the previous ones. Rather, they end up getting developed into new ones or fulfilled. For example, everyone agrees that the Mosaic covenant had purposes that didn’t involve making people right with God. If all these purposes were brought to completion in Christ’s work, then he can be said to fulfil the law without abrogating it. Anyway, as you might have guessed, our continuation diagram for Dispensationalism looks like this:

Dispensationalism

Note that here there’s a break between the covenants/dispensations to represent the discontinuity that arises between the two covenants[8].

Covenant Modalism and the Mosaic Law

Now we’ve set the scene for my view, which I call “Covenant Modalism”. As with many of the views I end up holding[9], it serves as a sort-of middle ground between the two views we’ve just considered. The way I see it, the Covenant Theologian seems right in thinking that there is a single unified covenant[10], but at the same time I feel the pull from the Dispensationalist’s position, and so it seems that this unified covenant expresses or manifests itself in different modes (thus, Covenant Modalism) at different times. To see what I mean, consider again the Mosaic Law. Plausibly, God has a moral will and the Mosaic Law is an expression of that will accommodated to Israel as a ancient near-eastern theocratic nation[11]. Our standing before God is reckoned according to how we obey his moral will (cf. Rom 2:6-11) and this has always been the case, however the mode of our knowledge and the expression of that law has changed. Before and after the Mosaic Law, we have no codified law, as Israel did, which stipulates specific statutes (sometimes in specific circumstances) and specific punishments. Instead, we have conscience and possibly other expositions of God’s will, like the teachings of Jesus. So, as you might’ve guessed, I understand the beatitudes not as an exposition of the Mosaic Law itself, but of the principles that lay behind that Law[12]. So how do we understand the Law on this view? Well, prior to the Law God had a moral will and mankind was held accountable to it[13]. When Israel entered into the Mosaic covenant with God, he expressed his will in the Law and in doing so made his will more explicit. Now that we’re in the New covenant, God’s will remains the same and the Law still stands as an exposition of it, but we are only held accountable to God’s will, which has been expounded by Jesus and the New Testament authors. We can represent this Covenant Modalism with the following continuation diagram:

Covenant Modalism

Note that God’s moral will (the principles that get expressed in the Mosaic Law) is part of the unified covenant which continues all the way through.

Covenant Modalism and Life

Now we come full circle to the very problem I was originally trying to solve: how the understanding of blessing changes through the covenants. It seems to me that at the heart of blessing has always been right standing with and “nearness” to God, even though the way this is expressed may differ between the covenants. For example, when establishing the Abrahamic covenant God says, “and I will be their God” (Gen 17:8, referring to Abraham’s descendants). And for Israel (a couple of centuries after that discussion with Abe), prosperity in the land (Deut 28) and being “watched over by God” (Ps 1) was an expression of right standing with God. Presumably, being in the land also meant being able to worship God properly, using the tabernacle/temple, which counts as being nearer in my books. And for today, Christ’s people are made right with God through his sacrifice (Mark 10:45, Rom 3) and will ultimately be in his presence one day in heaven: how much nearer could you get?

Notes

  1. I defined “Biblical Theology”, as I’m using it here, in a previous post: where we consider a theme that spans and progresses as we move through the Bible. Examples of this are “the Law and how it applies to us in the Christian era” and “the progressive revelation of the Trinity”.
  2. I’m only going to offer one version of each of these. In reality there are a number of variations on both of these views, but for the sake of simplicity I plan not to go there.
  3. Hebrews is a great book to get this from. Furthermore, Christ declares that the food laws are no longer binding, his death on the cross is the ultimate sacrifice, and the separation laws don’t make sense in a context where God’s people are no longer a single nation.
  4. Theonomists, however, hold that the civil laws, or at least the principles underlying them, continue to the New covenant. Non-theonomists say that only the moral laws continue.
  5. In reality there’s discussion about whether there aren’t two covenants that remain fixed: the covenant of works (where we can hypothetically, but not actually, earn our righteousness by being perfect) and the covenant of grace (where we are counted as righteous on account of our faith).
  6. It’s interesting I speak of both new testament and new covenant here, since testament = covenant. However, as with many things, the two have come to designate different things: a collection of letters and an agreement between man and God, effected by Christ, respectively.
  7. I’m using “abrogate” here to refer to a “going back on one’s word” or “changing one’s mind” kind of way.
  8. It might be a slight misrepresentation, since some dispensationalists hold that the New covenant was an addition to the Mosaic covenant, not a fulfilment, but whatever.
  9. Just wait until you see, in a later post, what I think about the doctrines of grace. Arminians and Calvinists would spit on me 😛 It’s lonely in the middle.
  10. The same nuance as in note 5 applies here too.
  11. Consider, for example, Jesus’ response about ethics in Mark 10:5-8. Here he seems to be citing God’s moral will as expressed in the order of creation as having been accommodated for them in the Mosaic Law. Also, see Paul Copan’s article here.
  12. Often people speak of the “spirit of the Law” versus the “letter of the Law”. I think this captures the essence of the former more nicely than other views.
  13. Often people will raise the question of how we could’ve been held accountable to a law we didn’t know. Of course, one’s accountability is proportional, at least in part, to one’s knowledge (Luke 12:41-48). We’re not making any claims about that here, just that man did have moral duties.

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