The Nature of Covenants

Righteousness and justice are the foundation of your throne.1

The idea by Covenantal Theologians that a covenant can be changed, in the absence of an amending formula established from the outset of the covenant, betrays a deficiency in understanding the nature of law and justice. Indeed, the Mosaic covenant specifically forbids such alterations. (“Do not add to what I command you and do not subtract from it, but keep the commands of the LORD your God that I give you.”2) Furthermore, just as the covenant required ratification from all parties to initiate it, (although presented as an all or nothing proposition by Jehovah to the Israelites); any amendments, were they permissible, would also have required signing off by the other parties, (unless a proviso allowed one side to make arbitrary changes).That is the nature of the beast.

There is delicious irony in this. These covenantal theologians, which take great sport in accusing their adversaries as Antinomians (lawless), violate the very core principle of covenants; which both natural justice and Scriptures upholds.

It is well understood that one party cannot arbitrarily change the terms of a negotiated agreement. It is tantamount to violating the agreement; except going through the motions of changing the agreement to avoid technical violations of the doctored document. It is an act tantamount to capricious tyranny for a sovereign or governor to unilaterally change the terms of internal pacts with some or all of his/her subjects/citizens. It is ruling by raw power rather than with moral authority.

These agreements (alliances, compacts, treaties, pacts, contracts etc) constitute binding promises to obligate one or more parties to do or refrain from doing something. Whereas contracts usually have expiration dates and/or provisions for voluntarily withdrawing from the contract (usually requiring compensation), the life of covenant only expire when one of the parties expire or until at least one side has been deemed to have broken the covenant. (“For example, by law a married woman is bound to her husband as long as he is alive, but if her husband dies, she is released from the law of marriage.”3) Whereas, a contract obligates certain conduct of one or more parties; as largely a mutual exchange of services; a covenant (Hebrew “berith”), at least of the Biblical kind, appears to bind the persons themselves to each other.

The type of covenants associated with Jehovah and His Christ have been understood as a suzerainty covenant. That is, the superior (plenary) power unilaterally dictates the terms of the covenant, which the other party may accept or reject, but cannot alter. This type of covenant (Greek – “diatheke”) differs from the negotiated kind (Greek – “suntheke”). A ‘will and testament’ exemplifies the diatheke form of covenant. The Jews who transcribed Hebrew Scriptures into the Greek Septuagint and the New Testament Scriptures utilize the former form to designate the type of covenant.

Nevertheless, though terms of a covenant might be unilaterally dictated, the other party must give approval in order for the covenant to spring into life. That approval may be formal or implicit by a pattern of conduct that is based on the attitude of fulfilling a bargain. It can be tricky to discern the latter from a pattern of conduct, which is merely based on practicably trusting the counsel, which warns or promises certain natural consequences for particular actions. The Israelites gave oral approval en masse to the Mosaic Covenant on behalf of them and their descendents.4 A Christian must consent to enter into the New Covenant individually.

Biblical covenants may be unconditional, such as the Noahic covenant5, where God promises, through Noah and his sons, never to destroy the earth and all that dwell upon it by flood. Or they can be conditional like the Mosaic (“Know therefore that the LORD your God is God; he is the faithful God, keeping his covenant of love to a thousand generations of those who love him and keep his commands.”6)

There are often explicit signs of the promise given or expected as marks of that covenant. For Noah and sons, it was the appearance of rainbows; for Abraham, circumcision; for Moses and the Israelites, the Sabbath. 7 A sign for the New Covenant has not been explicitly and plainly specified in Scriptures as in those other covenants; although many theologians strain to make baptism or Communion that external marking. In that true Christianity is more spiritual, circumcision of the heart8 (regeneration/repentance from sinful nature/behaviour) is a more plausible candidate. The seal of the Spirit is plausible (“Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession”9) in that it marks ownership and separate identity, just like circumcision. However, such signifiers are not a necessary part of covenants. One must stretch and strain in vain to find a sign of promise for the Divine covenant with Phineahas10 or David11.

This straining and ‘creative’ reading into the narrative of other aspects of covenants also applies; whether promises, sealed with oaths or the shedding of blood. “Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.”12 But, not all covenants involve forgiveness. The same goes for the need for preambles, prologues and witnesses. If they do not appear in every covenant, then they are evidently not necessary as part and parcel of the definition of covenants.

The essence of the covenant is a binding between parties; with no set duration, except expiry of one of the parties (i.e. life of a person, state) or a breaking of the covenant. The parties must be identified as the next condition requires this knowledge. A list of promised obligations on the part of one or more parties is enumerated. Rewards and punishments are established in relation to the keeping/breaking of particular items of the agreement or the covenant as a whole. And as a social contract/covenant, declaration/ratification by those parties pledging the obligations is necessary. Without ratification, the covenant merely becomes an edict by the plenary power or an unjust imposition by third parties. All other elements may be helpful under the differing circumstances (i.e. provide psychological / spiritual / material security) but still, by definition, must be considered optional.

Contracts, covenants, constitutions or agreements of any kind may or may not have amending formula provisions. There may be provisions within the accord that allow for certain articles to be nullified on the basis of fulfilling or failure to fulfill a condition. Infractions might impose stated punitive exactions; fulfillment certain rewards. However, these stipulations are stated clearly at the outset. An agreement which has no inherent change mechanism stated within the agreement must be voided in totality and a new agreement redrawn. An agreement which has an inherent change mechanism must have each party of the agreement signing off on the changes. Any practice that fails to adhere to such principles is deemed illegal or ‘extra-legal’.

It is upon these latter points that Covenantal Theology completely violates an understanding of the nature of covenants and justice. God may be omnipotent and be able to do all things. However, because of the inequality of the relationship between Creator and creature, which can leave the latter at the caprice of the former, a security is given when God binds Himself to His own agreements. “Great is Thy Faithfulness” is the key root to human safety and security in such a relationship. The God, who intends to rule by righteousness and justice and not through the caprice of unbounded power, commits to scrupulously fulfilling His end of agreements. It is a pervasive theme throughout the Scriptures.

From the very outset of the Mosaic covenant, there lacks any form of amending formula. Even the typical credit card proviso that the terms of the Mosaic Law may be subject to periodic unilateral changes is omitted in the terms. Those changes that did occur in the lifecycle of the ancient Hebrew state were anticipated by the Torah (i.e. desire for rule by kings). And if Catholics and Reformed Magisteriums suggest that the inscrutable ‘moral law’ component of God contained within the Mosaic Covenant is that perfect rule of righteousness, the concept of inalterability is clearly understood even by them.

Indeed, as noted, the Mosaic Covenant of Scriptures specifically forbade such alterations. Christ condemned the Pharisees for such alterations (“you nullify the word of God for the sake of your tradition”14). And even if there had been an amending formula, ratification by the other parties of the amended covenantal agreement would be necessary. It is not at all apparent in the Scriptural account.

The Mosaic Code, by the very admission of the God of Scriptures and His Christ, cannot be modified. It can only be nullified or abrogated in whole. And even if it could be modified; the other signatory party, who may not have any say as to the contents of that covenant and its alterations, nevertheless, must, by the very rules and precedents of covenants, ratify those amendments. For God to do otherwise, would be an act of a tyrannical, capricious god; not one that conforms to the image that Scriptures gives of Jehovah. It would be god who deigns Himself above His own law and covenantal promises.

When Catholic and Reformed Magisteriumsuggest that there exists only one law, extended by Christ in New Testament Covenant, with large components excised; they give this Son of God the tyrannical power to unilaterally alter agreements without ratification of the other signatory parties. It provides neither the evidence of faithfulness nor of justice. And Christ Himself condemns such a practice and repudiates such a claim for Himself.

 I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.15

 Has everything been accomplished? Has heaven and earth disappeared? Is that Lawonly some inscrutable subset of the Mosaic Covenant that the Scriptures did not and cannot discern? Such innovations emerged only from a ‘Chinese Whispers’ accumulation of hubristic theologians and their disingenuous sophistries? Scrutability is another necessary attribute of Justice. Covenantal Theology has significant problems with clarity and scrutability.

If the modifications to spiritual practice that Christ and His Apostles advocated are non-ratified amendments to the Mosaic Covenant, they are evil scoundrels in the eyes of the God who said do not add to what I command you and do not subtract from it. The pronounced and profound changes by Christ and His Apostles make scrupulous sense and reason and are Just, only if they define a new and different covenant with its own set of stipulations.

Likewise, those, who suggest that the Mosaic Law has been totally abrogated for all, go beyond what is written. “Christ is the end of the law…for everyone who believes.”16 Scriptures says nothing about an end or abrogation for those who do not believe. Nor does Scriptures advocate that Christians impose the continuance of Mosaic Law upon their unbelieving neighbours, while they presume themselves to be immune to that form of regime.

Can any covenant, contract, law code or constitution be legitimately altered without changing its core essence and semantic meaning? Complicated covenants and law systems like the Mosaic Covenant Law are, like all systems, irreducibly complex. There is integrity of the whole to such compacts and systems. Add or reduce one element to an ecosystem and the ramifications and unintended consequences are potentially far reaching to all components of that ecosystem. The obligations in one party of a labour agreement may be the very basis by which a reciprocal obligation can be profitably granted. The extension of the Bill of Rights to the states in the aftermath of the Civil War and to private entities in the 1960s radically altered the essence of the U.S. political system; drifting the nation from Lockean limited scope governance to a centralizing Rousseaunian totalitarianism under a judicial monarchy. The legal fiction of giving corporations ‘personhood’ in the latter half of the 19th Century has subverted the effectual power of democracy and civic equality. If shifting just a major component or two in a compact, constitution or system can induce severe changes to the essence and ethos of that compact, what should one think when it is proposed that 2/3 of the Mosaic Code be gutted out, the punitive component of an inscrutable ‘moral law’ be excised and some content of that so-called moral component of covenant law be palpably modified?

“Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law.”17 “For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it.”18 James and Paul are agreed; breakage of one component is breakage of all. Just because one unilaterally changes the content of that law, in order to technically abide by the doctored agreement, it doesn’t take away from a violation of the original ratified agreement. That would essentially give the Lawgiver and Sovereign capricious power above the Law. No subject or citizen of that kingdom would be safe and secure. What is the difference between the criminal who breaks the law and the sovereign who uses his plenary power to unilaterally alter a law, agreement or treaty that he/she does not like in order to technically abide by the new altered law and legally violate the original?

There is no sanction in the Mosaic Constitution of Scriptures or by the shared principles of both Divine and human justice, which granted no sanction to amend, to amend a covenant in any of its component parts. There is no sanction by Scriptures or by the shared principles of both Divine and human justice to impose arbitrary categories, which lack scrutability and discretenes, in order to sever off those parts of a law agreement that one no longer likes. There is no sanction by Scriptures or by the shared principles of both Divine and human justice to suggest that agreements can be changed without ratification of all parties. Covenants, without amending formulas, are all or nothing; applicable in the whole or not applicable at all. Otherwise justice has been denied. Evil has been committed.

Procedures matter to this scrupulous God of ours. The death of Uzzah, who for the best of motivations touched the Ark of the Covenant in order to prevent its tumbling19, presents evidence, difficult for the heart, for that. One of the rationales is provided by Christ and Paul in the yeast principle. “A little yeast works through the whole batch of dough.”20 Small deviations in doctrine or ethics have habit of proliferating into metastasized malignancies.

Covenantal Theology violates Justice at its very core understanding of covenantal arrangements. It represents and unrighteous and unjust God. It repeats the very errors of the Romanists in fabricating theological and ethical constructs that pervert and distort the meaning of original Scriptures.

From "Moral Law of God Written in the Hearts of Men"

Endnotes:

  1. Psalm 97:2, Psalm 89:14
  2. Deuteronomy 4:2. Also Deuteronomy 12:32
  3. Romans 7:2
  4. Exodus 24:7
  5. Genesis 9:8-17
  6. Deuteronomy 7:9
  7. Noah (Genesis 9:13), Abraham (Genesis 17:11), Mosaic (Exodus 31:13)
  8. Colossians 2:11, Romans 2:29, Jeremiah 4:4
  9. Ephesians 1:13-14. Also Ephesians 4:30, 2 Corinthians 1:22
  10. Numbers 25:10-13
  11. Noah (Genesis 9:13), Abraham (Genesis 17:11), Mosaic (Exodus 31:13)
  12. 2 Samuel 7
  13. Hebrews 9:22
  14. Matthew 15:6
  15. Matthew 5:18-19
  16. Romans 10:4
  17. Galatians 5:13
  18. James 2:10
  19. 2 Samuel 6:3-7
  20. Galatians 5:9, 1 Corinthians 5:6. Also Matthew 16:6, 12
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