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:


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?


  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.

Biblical passages dealing with God’s Providence

Earlier in this blog I promised that I’d do a series on God’s providence. If you look at the “preliminaries” post, the schedule looks like this:

  1. Biblical passages that deal with God’s providence
  2. God’s control and our free will
  3. The question of suffering
  4. Why a proper understanding of providence is important

Here we attempt the first of these topics. I find that too regularly that discussion about God’s providence goes on without any explicit discussion of the relevant biblical passages. This post is meant serve to fill this “gap” in my discussion on this blog. I don’t claim that this is the most comprehensive collections of passages (if you know any others then, by all means, let me know in the comments), but it’s a start and a sturdy enough foundation for rest of the series. Ok, with that slight disclaimer out the way, off we go 🙂

What is God’s providence

Before we consider passages talking about God’s providence, it’d be a good idea to define what exactly we mean by the term. I guess that the term “providence” could refer to a number of things, but here we’re concerned with God’s control and direction of all history. So we’re asking questions like, “Does God have control over the choices humans make in their day to day lives?” and, “How does God achieve His purposes in history?” Another name that sometimes used for this doctrine is “God’s sovereignty”. In these posts we’ll use the terms “providence” and “sovereignty” interchangeably. We’ll also be most concerned with God’s control and direction of humans, as opposed to nature in general.

Biblical passages discussing God’s providence

Two questions can be asked on the outset of our adventure through the scriptural passages dealing with this topic:

  1. Does God have the ability to control or direct human choices and actions?
  2. How often does God exercise this ability?

I’ve tried to categorise the following scriptural passages into broad sections. More will be said in coming posts about how we make sense of them and the issues involved in God’s providence. Note that I’m quoting from the ESV translation and that passages marked with a “*” might need some context to see the providence in action more clearly.

God working his plan, without any mention of a means

*Genesis 45:4-9 – “So Joseph said to his brothers, ‘Come near to me, please.’ And they came near. And he said, “I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. And now do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life. For the famine has been in the land these two years, and there are yet five years in which there will be neither ploughing nor harvest. And God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God. He has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt. Hurry and go up to my father and say to him, ‘Thus says your son Joseph, God has made me lord of all Egypt.”

Genesis 50:20 – “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.”

1 Samuel 2:25 – “If someone sins against a man, God will mediate for him, but if someone sins against the LORD, who can intercede for him?” But they would not listen to the voice of their father, for it was the will of the LORD to put them to death.”

*1 Samuel 9:1-16 – “Now the day before Saul came, the LORD had revealed to Samuel: ‘Tomorrow about this time I will send to you a man from the land of Benjamin, and you shall anoint him to be prince over my people Israel. He shall save my people from the hand of the Philistines. For I have seen my people, because their cry has come to me.’”

2 Samuel 12:11-12 – “Thus says the LORD, ‘Behold, I will raise up evil against you out of your own house. And I will take your wives before your eyes and give them to your neighbour, and he shall lie with your wives in the sight of this sun. For you did it secretly, but I will do this thing before all Israel and before the sun.’”

2 Samuel 24:1 – “Again the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel, and he incited David against them, saying, ‘Go, number Israel and Judah.’” (cf. 1 Chronicles 21:1, Job 1:6-12)

Ezra 7:6 – “He was a scribe skilled in the Law of Moses that the LORD the God of Israel had given, and the king granted him all that he asked, for the hand of the LORD his God was on him.”

Proverbs 16:4 – “The LORD has made everything for its purpose, even the wicked for the day of trouble.”

Proverbs 16:9 – “The heart of man plans his way, but the LORD establishes his steps.” (the NET Bible notes say that the verb kun (“to establish; to confirm”) with tsa’ad (“step”) means “to direct” (eg. Ps 119:133, Jer 10:23). And that the purpose here is to contrast what people plan and what actually happens – God determines the latter.)

Acts 4:27-28 – “for truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.”

Luke 22:22 – “’For the Son of Man goes as it has been determined, but woe to that man by whom he is betrayed!’”

Ephesians 1:11 – “In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will”

Philippians 2:12-13 – “Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as inmy presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”

God moving a king’s heart for good

Ezra 1:1 – “In the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, that the word of the LORD by the mouth of Jeremiah might be fulfilled, the LORD stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia, so that he made a proclamation throughout all his kingdom and also put it in writing:”

Ezra 6:22 – “And they kept the Feast of Unleavened Bread seven days with joy, for the LORD had made them joyful and had turned the heart of the king of Assyria to them, so that he aided them in the work of the house of God, the God of Israel.”

God hardening hearts

Exodus 4:21 – “And the LORD said to Moses, “When you go back to Egypt, see that you do before Pharaoh all the miracles that I have put in your power. But I will harden his heart, so that he will not let the people go.”

Also Exodus 7:3-4, 9:12, 10:1, 20, 27, 11:10, 14:4, 8, 17

Deuteronomy 2:30 – “But Sihon the king of Heshbon would not let us pass by him, for the LORD your God hardened his spirit and made his heart obstinate, that he might give him into your hand, as he is this day.”

Joshua 11:20 – “For it was the LORD’s doing to harden their hearts that they should come against Israel in battle, in order that they should be devoted to destruction and should receive no mercy but be destroyed, just as the LORD commanded Moses.”

*Psalm 105:24-25 – “And the LORD made his people very fruitful and made them stronger than their foes. He turned their hearts to hate his people, to deal craftily with his servants.”

Judges 9:22-24 – “Abimelech ruled over Israel three years. And God sent an evil spirit between Abimelech and the leaders of Shechem, and the leaders of Shechem dealt treacherously with Abimelech, that the violence done to the seventy sons of Jerubbaal might come, and their blood be laid on Abimelech their brother, who killed them, and on the men of Shechem, who strengthened his hands to kill his brothers.”

God moving armies against Israel

2 Kings 24:1-4 – “In his days, Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon came up, and Jehoiakim became his servant three years. Then he turned and rebelled against him. 2 And the LORD sent against him bands of the Chaldeans and bands of the Syrians and bands of the Moabites and bands of the Ammonites, and sent them against Judah to destroy it, according to the word of the LORD that he spoke by his servants the prophets. 3 Surely this came upon Judah at the command of the LORD, to remove them out of his sight, for the sins of Manasseh, according to all that he had done, 4 and also for the innocent blood that he had shed. For he filled Jerusalem with innocent blood, and the LORD would not pardon.”

2 Chronicles 28:5 – “Therefore the LORD his God gave him into the hand of the king of Syria, who defeated him and took captive a great number of his people and brought them to Damascus. He was also given into the hand of the king of Israel, who struck him with great force.”

*2 Chronicles 33:10-11 – “The LORD spoke to Manasseh and to his people, but they paid no attention. Therefore the LORD brought upon them the commanders of the army of the king of Assyria, who captured Manasseh with hooks and bound him with chains of bronze and brought him to Babylon.”

Jeremiah 25:8-14 – “Therefore thus says the LORD of hosts: Because you have not obeyed my words, behold, I will send for all the tribes of the north, declares the LORD, and for Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon, my servant, and I will bring them against this land and its inhabitants, and against all these surrounding nations… This whole land shall become a ruin and a waste, and these nations shall serve the king of Babylon seventy years. Then after seventy years are completed, I will punish the king of Babylon and that nation, the land of the Chaldeans, for their iniquity, declares the LORD, making the land an everlasting waste. I will bring upon that land all the words that I have uttered against it, everything written in this book, which Jeremiah prophesied against all the nations. For many nations and great kings shall make slaves even of them, and I will recompense them according to their deeds and the work of their hands.”

And Exodus 33:2, 1 Kings 16:34, 2 Chronicles 11:4, 12:8, 24:24, 25:16, 20, Isaiah 5:25-29, 10:5-6, 44:28, 45:1, Jeremiah 51:20-23, Lamentations 1:17 and lots more.