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Biblical Theology and Covenant Theology (4)

Here's the handout for a recent seminar in the current course at Emmanuel Training and Resources, Biblical Theology and Covenant Theology.

Emmanuel Training and ResourcesIntroduction

In this seminar we move on to the second major section of the present course, turning from Biblical Theology (the study of the many unfolding themes found in Scripture) to Covenant Theology (the study of one particular biblical theme, namely God’s unfolding relationship with humanity). This marks the next significant step on our journey towards the development of a Reformed doctrine of salvation grounded on a coherent reading of the whole Bible. In this part of the course we’ll be reading O. Palmer Robertson, The Christ of the Covenants (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1980), beginning with chs 1-4 (pp. 3-63).

It may be helpful at this stage to say a few words about what Covenant Theology is and why it is important. Covenant Theology is the perspective on God’s saving work that emerges from taking into account the shape of God’s unfolding relationship with humanity as it is presented in Scripture. God’s relationship with humanity always takes the form of a covenant, and Covenant Theology attempts to trace the development of successive covenants as they emerge in history. Covenant Theology is not an alien framework imposed on the biblical text; it is a perspective that Scripture itself presents and encourages us to adopt. At the same time, Covenant Theology provides a helpful integrative framework that draws together many other strands of God’s revelation in Scripture into a single coherent whole.

Robertson’s book is an outstandingly clear and insightful piece of work, though naturally we may find ourselves disagreeing with him at one or two points. As ever, if you’re pressed for time just omit the questions marked with a *.

Introductory questions

a. How would you define a “covenant”?

b. What do the following biblical texts imply about what a “covenant” is? Are you inclined to revise your answer to the previous question?

  • Gen 17:1-14
  • Deut  7:2
  • 1 Sam 18:1-3
  • 1 Chron 11:1-3

c. What is the old covenant? What is the new covenant? What are the differences between them?

Study questions on chapter 1: The nature of the divine covenants

In chapter 1 (pp. 3-15), Robertson defines a covenant as “a bond in blood sovereignly administered” (p. 4), and then proceeds to provide evidence to support this definition. The different sections in the chapter cover different aspects of this definition: a covenant is a bond (pp. 4-7), in blood (pp. 7-15), sovereignly administered (p. 15). Let’s think about these three aspects in turn.

1. Why does Robertson think that a covenant is a bond (pp. 4-7)?

2. Why does Robertson think that a covenant is a bond in blood (pp. 7-15)?

3. Why does Robertson think that a covenant is sovereignly administered (p. 15)?

For reflection: How well do the following biblical passages fit with Robertson’s definition of a covenant?

  • Genesis 9:1-17
  • Genesis 15
  • 1 Samuel 18:1-4
  • Luke 22:14-22

Study questions on chapter 2: The extent of the divine covenants

The word “covenant” first appears in the Bible in Genesis 6, in relation to God’s dealings with Noah. Some have argued on this basis that the concept of “covenant” is not found in the Bible before this point. However, Robertson thinks the concept of covenant is found even where the word “covenant” itself is not. In chapter 2, he argues that “the relationship of God to man prior to Noah may be designated as ‘covenantal’” (p. 19). Let’s try to work out whether we agree with him.

4. Can you summarise the different strands of evidence Robertson offers to support the idea of a covenant between God and man prior to Noah? The following section divisions might be helpful:

  • Some initial points (p. 18)
  • Jeremiah 33 (pp. 19-21)
  • Hosea 6:7 (pp. 22-24)
  • Some “elements essential to the existence of a covenant” (pp. 24-25)

Study questions on chapter 3: The unity of the divine covenants

In chapter 3, Robertson considers how the different covenants in Scripture relate to one another.

5. How does Robertson summarise the relationship between the different covenants in Scripture (p. 28)?

Chapter 3 is quite long, and at times rather complex. However, the biblical texts that Robertson highlights are fairly clear, and they help us to understand what Robertson means, so we’ll focus on these key texts as we work through the chapter.

Let’s begin with the first major section, beginning on p. 28, “the structural unity of the divine covenants”.

6. How do the following texts support what Robertson calls (on p. 28) “the structural unity of the divine covenants” (pp. 28-45)?

  • Exodus 2:24 (p. 29)
  • Exodus 6:4-8 (pp. 29-30)
  • 2 Samuel 7:6 (p. 31)
  • 1 Kings 2:3 (p. 32)
  • Exodus 32:13-14 (p. 32)

*7. What does Robertson mean by “a unity in genealogical administration” (p. 34)? How does he explain this idea on pp. 34-41? What extra element does he add on pp. 41-44?

For reflection: What implications might this principle of “unity in genealogical administration” have for our understanding of the church?

Now let’s consider the second major section of the chapter, beginning on p. 45, “the thematic unity of the divine covenants”.

8. What is the key phrase that serves to bind together the different biblical covenants into a thematic unity (p. 45)? Where does this phrase occur (pp. 45-51)?

Study questions on chapter 4: Diversity in the divine covenants

In chapter 4, Robertson highlights some important differences between the biblical covenants. Let’s look at these one by one.

9. What does Robertson think about the idea of an eternal covenant between the persons of the Trinity (p. 54)?

*For reflection: Could your previous reading on the doctrines of God and creation provide any support for the idea of an eternal covenant between the persons of the Trinity?

10. What is “the second structural distinction among the divine covenants” (p. 54)? What does Robertson think of “the terminology traditionally associated with this scheme” (p. 55)?

For reflection: Do you agree with Robertson’s criticisms of the terminology of “covenant of works” / “covenant of grace”?

*11. What is “the third distinction among God’s covenants” (p. 57)?

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