O. Palmer Robertson. The Christ of the Covenants. Phillipsburgh, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1980.
A Reformed Christian recommended this book to me about eight years ago—-that, and O. Palmer Robertson’s 2000 book, The Israel of God: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow. I recently decided to read The Christ of the Covenants for a variety of reasons. First of all, I was noticing John Valade’s blog posts about the book, and that reminded me that I had it. Second, I not long ago blogged about a book by John MacArthur and others defending dispensationalism,
and I wanted to understand the perspective of dispensationalism’s
rival, Covenant Theology. Third, my church will be doing its Bible
study on the covenants, and that has placed the covenants on my mind.
In this post, I’d like to talk about Robertson’s interaction with two
issues. The first issue is the relationship between the Abrahamic and
the Mosaic covenants. The second issue is Robertson’s view that God’s
covenant with Israel typified themes in the New Testament.
1. I have long had a question about the covenants: What is the
relationship between the Abrahamic covenant and the Sinai/Mosaic
covenant? Back when I was a child, I heard a preacher say that the
Mosaic covenant was an extension, or a sub-set, of the Abrahamic
covenant. When I would read Paul years later, it seemed to me that Paul
was placing the Abrahamic covenant and the Mosaic covenant in
opposition to each other, as if Christians are to rely on the Abrahamic
covenant of justification by grace through faith, whereas the Mosaic
covenant was a temporary schoolmaster of works that was designed to lead
Israel to Christ.
Just looking at the two covenants, they strike me as rather
different. The Abrahamic covenant is unconditional and is based on
God’s promise that Abraham’s offspring would inherit the Promised Land,
and Abraham is considered to be righteous in trusting God’s promise.
The Mosaic covenant, however, conditions Israel’s possession of the land
on her obedience to God’s commandments.
Robertson interacts with this question, as well as dispensationalist and neo-dispensationalist takes on it.
One dispensationalist perspective is that Israel essentially took a
step down when she adopted the Mosaic covenant. Under the Abrahamic
covenant, she was justified and possessed the land by grace through
faith alone, but she chose instead to embrace a covenant that
conditioned her righteousness and her possession of the land on her
works. Later on, Robertson observes, the New Scofield Bible
would deny that Israel under the Mosaic covenant was justified by works,
maintaining that obedience to the law was to be an expression of her
faith. (Maybe, but I don’t think that one can get around the
conditional nature of the Mosaic covenant: if Israel did not obey, she
would not possess the land.)
Robertson disagrees with dispensationalism on this issue, and he
actually has a variety of takes on it. Robertson seems to question that
the Abrahamic covenant was truly unconditional. He notes the
importance of obedience even under the Abrahamic covenant: one had to be
circumcised to remain a part of God’s people, and Abraham was said to
obey certain laws. Robertson also affirms that there are conditions in
the New Covenant. The laws that God writes on people’s hearts and minds
(a la Jeremiah 31:31-33) are the same as the Mosaic laws, as far as
Robertson is concerned, even though he acknowledges that Christians
should not obey all of these laws physically and literally, as Old
Covenant Israelites did. At the same time, Robertson later in the book
appears to grant that the Abrahamic covenant is unconditional, for only
God walks through the animal pieces in Genesis 15. Robertson’s position
here seems to be that God is committed to Israel under the Abrahamic
covenant, yet God will still discipline her with exile for her sins. In
this book and also in The Israel of God, Robertson argues that
Christ himself fulfilled the conditions of the covenant, the conditions
of obedience that Israel could not fulfill.
Why does Robertson believe that God gave the law to Israel? One
reason was that nations need laws. God promised that Abraham would have
offspring and would possess the Promised Land, meaning that there would
be a nation. At Sinai, God constituted Israel into a nation by giving
her laws. Later, under the Davidic covenant, God would establish a
system of authority to enforce the laws and the proper worship at
Jerusalem. Second, according to Robertson, God gave Israel the law to
remind her of her inability to be righteous by works, thereby
highlighting her need for Christ.
Speaking for myself, I would say that God’s promises in
Deuteronomy and prophetic writings to spiritually transform Israel bring
together the unconditional and conditional covenants: God’s promise
that Israel would inherit the land is unconditional, but she cannot stay
in the land if she disobeys God. How does God solve this problem? God
programs Israel to be obedient, so she is guaranteed to stay in the
land! The unconditional covenant is fulfilled as God ensures that the
conditions are met!
2. I often felt in reading The Christ of the Covenants that
Robertson was reducing God’s covenant with Israel to being a type of
the themes of the New Testament (i.e., salvation through Christ), while
ignoring Israel’s significance and value within the Hebrew Bible itself,
and criticizing dispensationalists for acknowledging some non-Christian
significance to elements of the Hebrew Bible. Maybe my concern is
fair, but it is not entirely fair, for there are places in the
book where Robertson treats God’s relationship with Israel on its own
terms, without reference to the New Testament. While Robertson believes
that circumcision is a symbol of the spiritual cleansing that believers
receive under the New Covenant (Colossians 2:11), for example, he
argues on the basis of Joshua 5:9 (Israel’s circumcision rolled off of
her the reproach of Egypt) that circumcision related to spiritual
purification in the Hebrew Bible, as well. He also offered other
reasons for circumcision under the Old Covenant: that it highlighted
God’s relationship with Israel as a community, since the organ of
procreation is what is circumcised, and circumcision is a ritual whereby
Israelite children become part of the covenant community.
Overall, however, my impression is that Robertson regards God’s
covenant with Israel as a type of the New Covenant. Does that mean that
Robertson believes that the church has replaced Israel as God’s chosen
people? Well, Robertson does not think that the land promises are in
effect the same way that they were under the Old Covenant, for he
regards them more as spiritual within the New Covenant on the basis of
Hebrews 11:9-10. (Robertson does argue more than once, however, that
God plans are not just spiritual and heavenly, for they relate to the
healing of the cosmos, and Christ’s rule in heaven has earthly
effects.) But Robertson does not seem to believe that God has utterly
forsaken physical Israel, for Robertson states that God has reserved a
remnant of physical Israelites who believe in the Messiah, Jesus Christ.
I wish that Robertson had gone into more detail about the New
Covenant significance of Israel’s restoration from exile. Robertson
does well to place the promised New Covenant in Jeremiah 31 within the
context of Jeremiah 31 itself, but God in that chapter associates the
New Covenant with Israel’s return to her land. Does Robertson not
interpret that return as literal? If not, why not? Maybe he’ll go into
more detail about this in The Israel of God.
This book was worth the read, even though I walk away from it with a
rather fragmented understanding of the covenants. Perhaps that should
be an incentive for me to study more, and my church’s Bible study will
provide me with an opportunity to do so.