A covenant is the formal initiation and regulation of a relationship that does not occur naturally. It stipulates who the parties in the relationship are, and what kind of relationship they are entering.
In the Bible, God makes a number of covenants with various people at particular times. In each case, God doesn’t merely initiate a relationship. In all instances, God and the people with whom he entered into covenant were already known to each other. But, as is the case with marriage, a covenant brings two parties together in a new and specific type of relationship that the covenant then regulates. So also God initiated specific types of relationship through the various covenants in the Bible.
For example, in the Abrahamic covenant, God becomes the private family deity of Abraham’s household, and Abraham becomes the clan leader who is led by God and his promises. At Sinai, God becomes Israel’s head of state and national deity, and the Israelites become his subjects and citizens living in his land. With David, God becomes the father figure of Israel’s ruling dynasty, and the Davidic king becomes the ruling ‘son of God’ by adoption.
In light of this, was there a covenant at creation?
When I mean ‘creation’, I’m specifically thinking about the early chapters of Genesis. There are a few creation accounts elsewhere in the Bible, such as the ‘conquest of chaos’ idea (see Job 26:12–13; Ps 74:12–17; 89:10). But I want to focus attention on the beginning of Genesis, which lies at the heart of most theological discussion about creation and covenant.
There is no specific mention of a covenant in Genesis 1 and 2. This, however, is not enough to say that there was no covenant. Notice, for example, that the Davidic covenant in 2 Samuel 7 does not use the word ‘covenant’, but it clearly is one. It is explicitly called a ‘covenant’ in Psalm 89:3–4. So we need to delve a little deeper to see whether the concept of a covenant is there at creation, even if the word is not.
When we realise that a covenant initiates a particular relationship that does not occur naturally, we begin to see that creation does not actually need a covenant. That is, God does not need to enter into a specific legal agreement with creation in order to be its creator. God simply is the creator because he created. Similarly, creation does not need a covenant to be recognised and regulated as being a creation. It simply is a creation because God created it. So all of creation is by nature in a creaturely relationship with God, because he created it.
Furthermore, in the act of creation, God imparts an inherent nature to each created thing. Notice, for example, how God creates various ‘kinds’ of things in Genesis 1, each of which is distinct from all other things. In fact, Genesis 1 portrays creation not merely as God bringing things into existence, but more so about distinguishing things from each other, and assigning to each a place that is appropriate to its nature. The result is a very good order of things—an intricate, beautiful, and dynamic configuration that we call ‘nature’.
God creates human beings in Genesis 1 to be his image within creation—something that nothing else in the rest of creation has. So when God creates, he doesn’t just create generic stuff. Rather, he creates specific things that have a specific nature, function, and place.
What does this mean for the relationship between God and creation? It means God relates to everything in creation not simply as a creator of generic ‘things’. Creation is not God’s factory conveyor belt! God relates to creation as a talented creator of a multitude of masterpieces that each has its own distinctiveness. There is no need for a covenant to stipulate how God should relate to all of creation, for the relationships all flow naturally out of the fact that God created all things. God no more needs a covenant to relate to creation as its creator than an artist needs a covenant with his canvas.
In Genesis 2, God creates the man and commands him not to eat from a particular tree in the garden. Many people see this as a covenant. However, it’s just a command—not a covenant. It is not initiating or regulating a specific kind of relationship. Rather, God issues the command because he is the man’s creator. The natural creator-creature relationship means God is the one who commands, and human beings are the ones who obey.
An analogy might help to illustrate this point. Think of a mother telling her young child not to play with the power point. What is it that gives the mother the authority to demand this? It’s the fact that she is the child’s parent. There is no need to establish a covenant between the mother and her child to give the mother this authority. She simply has the authority because of the natural relationship she has with her own offspring. In the same way, the command that God issues to the man is not based on a covenant, but on the simple fact that God created the man.
When people talk about a covenant in Genesis 2, they do so for good theological reasons. For example, they might want to talk about the faithfulness of God towards creation. Covenant is actually a good category for this, because adherence to an agreed contract is a good way of describing faithfulness. However, such discussion uses covenant terms in a purely metaphorical sense. We might say figuratively that God has a ‘covenant’ with creation to obey him, in the same way we might say a sculptor has a ‘covenant’ with the stone to obey him. When humans sin, we might describe this as ‘breaking the rules’. These are all healthy, didactic ways of looking at things, but they are figurative.
Alternatively, some may see a covenant at creation as providing the means for God, who is completely divine and holy, to interact with his creation, which is quite simply not divine. Without such a covenant there may be no means for God’s creation to understand him as creator and what he requires of them. Yet this almost implies that God did not really endow his manifold creations and creatures with their own distinctive natures. Yet each created thing or being receives its being and nature from the creator—not from a covenant. So God requires no covenant to interact with his creation, and did not use one in the beginning. He simply relates to all of creation as its creator by virtue of creating everything and endowing everything with its respective being and nature. God and creation are in a natural relationship, making a covenant at creation superfluous.
So while talking about a covenant at creation is motivated by good, understandable intentions, it is actually not necessary. Furthermore, it isn’t supported by any biblical texts. Even Hosea 6.7, which is often used as evidence that there was a covenant with Adam, is reminiscing about the violation of a treaty at a place called Adam—a town located on the eastern bank of the Jordan River. A covenant at creation is simply not theologically mandated by Scripture.
How does any of this matter?
Well, if there was a covenant at creation, sin would merely be ‘breaking the rules’. While this might have some significant repercussions, sin would be purely a legal thing. It would be something that is external to the ‘sinner’. Theoretically, then, the remedy for sin could consist of God vetoing Covenant 1.0, thereby nullifying sin and its effects, and then starting again by issuing Covenant 2.0.
Richard Dawkins reflects this kind of scenario when he questions the character and justice of God. He asks, quite perceptively, why it is necessary for the God of the Bible to send his Son to die a bloody death for sin. Why could God simply not forgive sins with a wave of his hand, as it were? Can’t God just simply waive the penalty and move on?
It’s a good question!
Dawkins raises it to highlight what he perceives to be the absurd character of the God of the Bible. But Dawkins fails to account for what sin actually is and does. When we realise that there is no covenant at creation, we see that sin is not about ‘breaking the rules’ that are external to the sinner. If it were, sins could be excused, just as a teacher might excuse an unruly student and not put him on detention. But it’s because humans are in a naturally occurring creaturely relationship with their creator that sin is so devastating. Sin damages our inherent being and nature as good creatures of a good creator. This affects us at the core of our being. This is an existential problem—not just a legal violation of an external code. Furthermore, since humanity is over all creation as God’s image, the breaking of human nature affects the rest of creation, too. Human sin has led the entire creation to become ‘fallen’.
If sin were a violation of a covenant, God could upgrade the covenant, issue a new one, or just ‘wipe the slate clean’ and move on. But these are simply not sufficient for dealing with sin. A covenant can alter one’s legal status, but it cannot alter one’s nature. It would be like thinking that a marriage could somehow change a person’s gender. It simply can’t!
This is why the cure for sin requires the Incarnation. It takes God himself to become a human being—the image of God—and so redefine human nature. Christ is the new Adam—the one who fixes human nature and relates rightly to God. It is Jesus’ entire human life that is redemptive—not just his death and resurrection. He overcomes the devastation of human nature, which every human suffers. And because of humanity’s place as God’s image over all creation, the redemption of human nature entails the redemption of all creation.
This is why Paul depicts the Christian as ‘a new creation’ in whom ‘everything old has passed away’ and ‘everything has become new!’ (2 Cor 5:7). This is not just a change of status, but a change of nature—a regeneration.
If there is a covenant at creation, sin is an infringement and salvation is about being assigned a new status. But if there is no covenant at creation, sin breaks humanity’s inherent nature and fractures the entire relationship between God and creation. This requires nothing less than God becoming human and recreating humanity. This is precisely what he does in the person of God the Son. To be ‘in Christ’ is to be regenerated into this newly created reality—a new creation.
This is a slightly reworked version of an article I wrote for another blog that is now defunct.
By nature that God created mankind in Genesis which is not natural and giving them specific tasks, could that not be construed as a covenant?
No. This doesn’t formally initiate and regulate a kind of relationship that didn’t exist previously. It’s just God telling the man to do something. It’s like me telling my kids to clean up their room. It’s not a formal agreement that makes them my kids or my official tidiers of rooms—it’s just an instruction.
And the reason I can tell my kids to tidy their room is because I’m their dad. So the reason God can tell the man what to do is because he’s the man’s creator. There’s absolutely no need for a covenant here. Indeed, inserting a covenant in here makes for a highly artificial situation. We only need covenants once creation is actually broken. Furthermore, there’s absolutely no indication in the biblical text that a covenant has been formally made at creation. None.
George, in my opinion this is one of your finest posts. Good theology and a good answer to Dawkins.
Thanks for the kind words, Bruce.
I have some friends who can’t help but read something out of Genesis they call Creation Order; the headship of Adam over Eve (and therefore, all men/husbands over their women/wives); the pattern of Biblical Marriage – but they tend to view the description of Genesis 1-3 as a prescription for all humanity via 1 Corinthians 11 and Ephesians 5 – citing the very first commandment “be fruitful and multiply” as extremely important. I think that many desire so very much for it to say what they expect it to, that regardless of what the text says, it’s original language, any poetic or metaphor used – the preference to be completely literal just makes it really difficult to get to the heart of what the text actually says and means – or would have meant to it’s original audience.
Jamie I agree that the order of events in early Genesis isn’t automatically prescriptive for all mankind for all time – your example of is a good one. We could also include a certain view of the role of women in church held by a certain diocese as well! But I think we should avoid an either/or take on understanding early Genesis. This is unfortunately the attitude of some promininent Christian personalities and I don’t think it’s helpful at all. To elaborate, Genesis can be a literal description of how God created, AND be revealing of higher concepts, motives and relationships, AND be carefully crafted, utilising numeric repetitions, symbols etc to emphasise certain points. We place unjustifiable constraints on the scriptures by trying to exclude multiple levels of understanding. By the way, I think we shouldn’t forget that scripture is divinely inspired – God would have imbued meaning into the text as much for us as the Israelites thousands of years ago.
One of my favorite shows, ‘Sliders’ features a hippie community that calls the extradimensional travelers ‘prophets’ – they decide to listen closely to everything they say because it could have a profound double spiritual meaning. If we take the same attitude with scripture, there’ll be no end to the possible interpretations and variations of Scripture. Sometimes there are some things that just isn’t being said and isn’t being meant.
You are correct, we shouldn’t over-think the scriptures – in my experience this seems to be done to try to avoid more straight forward meanings (especially early Genesis). But, I don’t think it is overdoing it to acknowledge that you can take from early Genesis more than just the ‘who did what, when’ element.
One of my grandfather’s favorite sayings was: “Just because you can, it doesn’t mean you should.” I think that applies here – sure, of course you can take from early Genesis more than just the ‘who did what, when’ element, but it doesn’t mean that you should.
An excellent thought-provoking work, although the lack of reference to John 1:1-5 leaves room for some further development. For example, your statement “we need to delve a little deeper to see whether the concept of a covenant is there at creation, even if the word is not”, needs to be explained in light of John 1, which clearly states that the Word was there in the beginning with God, and without him nothing was made (created) that has been made.
God was as the Word in the beginning – inclusive of the Christ to be the incarnate son – a God of ‘Life and Light (Love and Truth)’ before His act of creation of life on earth. Following creation, He initially sought daily personal relationship with mankind, as their Father (Creator) figure, by way of an active ‘return’ of that inherent love (love your God) and it’s ‘sharing’ throughout all humanity (love your neighbour). But free-will saw the continuing fall of mankind into sin, man’s failure not God’s. Start again flood cleansing, chosen people covenants, legal covenants, sin-city destructions, kings, judges and prophets, divided kingdoms and eventually diaspora, were all unsuccessfully tried by God to restore at least his chosen people (if not mankind) into a full relationship with Himself. Continued sinfulness and especially worshipping of false-gods, eventually saw the need for His Living Messianic Word to come into the world as a light of truth for all mankind. Today, post that need for God to become incarnate in Christ, and his redemptive act of ransom exchange as a sacrifice for sin and salvation, we can add to those relationship requirements: a need for genuine ‘personal repentance’ (from all sin); a ‘declared faith’ in Jesus Christ (as His Son and Saviour); and a seeking of ‘spiritual rebirth’ in and through the advocacy presence of God’s Holy Spirit (John 3:5) who is at the ascended Christ’s request of the Father, now available in the world to all disciples of Christ (John 15:26-27;16:7-12). What was once a creative relationship between man and his Creator God is now a spiritual living relationship with the full triune nature of the Godhead, as empowered by the advocacy of Christ through the presence of the Holy Spirit within us, in order that we live by and for God’s will until Christ’s second coming. Now we have availed ourselves of this magnificent ability to have a daily living relationship with our creator God, how do we get all those false-teaching Biblical Commentaries changed, so that they refer to His creation as a ‘relationship act’ as opposed to a ‘covenant act’.
OK. I’m not sure how the argument that there is no covenant at creation is somehow undermined by the intra-Trinitarian relations or the work of all Persons in the atonement. Am I missing something?