Is there a covenant at creation?

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.

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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-dawkinsRichard 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!

incarnation-450x300This 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.

What is a Covenant?

The word ‘covenant’ gets used frequently in discussion about biblical content and theology. However, the meaning of the word is often assumed rather than discussed.

Many people will offer what they think are synonyms, like ‘promise’, or ‘agreement’. But while a covenant might include such things, they don’t really define what a covenant is.

So what is a covenant?

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.

There are some relationships that occur naturally and, as such, don’t need covenants. These are largely biological. For example, the biological parents of a child don’t need a covenant to become the parents of their child. They don’t need to ‘sign on the dotted line’, because their child is by nature theirs and they are by nature the child’s parents. The child’s birth certificate doesn’t create the parent-child relationship. It simply acknowledges the existence of their naturally occurring relationship.

However, when a couple adopts a child that is not genetically their own, they do need to ‘sign on the dotted line’. They must go through a formal process that initiates the relationship, and then recognises it as specifically a parent-child relationship. Once the covenant is made, no one has the right to question the parent-child relationship, because it has been formalised and continues to be regulated, despite the relationship not occurring naturally.

In the Bible, God makes a number of covenants with various people. It’s not enough to say that God makes certain promises or agreements with people, because that doesn’t necessarily define what kind of relationship God initiates and maintains with them.

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That’s also why we must say that there is more than one covenant in the Bible. God does not relate the same way to the various parties with whom he makes covenants. Each covenant creates a different kind of relationship. The covenants certainly relate to each other (excuse the pun!), because God is party to them all. And they also share some common themes and promises. But in each case, God initiates a different kind of relationship and, therefore, he regulates them in different ways that are appropriate to the kind of relationship that the covenant establishes.

That’s why, for example, God doesn’t give the Law to Abraham, but to Moses and the nation of Israel. God makes a covenant with Abraham to be his personal, household deity, with certain associated promises (land, descendants, name, blessing to others). So he relates to Abraham in a very personal way, usually with implications for Abraham’s family and where his household should be. Law would be an inappropriate way for God and Abraham to relate to each other within this covenant. But at Sinai, God creates a covenant with Israel to become the nation’s head of state—their patron deity. Law is an appropriate means of regulating a relationship with an entire nation as a socio-political entity located in a particular territory. And that’s why he gives the Law to Moses.

There is a positive and a negative side to a covenant. The positive side is that it brings two parties together. The negative side is that these two parties may not otherwise naturally have associated with each other. This is why stipulations are brought to bear on the relationship. They keep the relationship going and regulate it, for otherwise there is a danger of the relationship dissolving.

We can see this positive and negative side, for example, with the covenant that God forges with Israel at Sinai. It’s positive in that it reflects God’s gracious and loving initiative towards the Israelite nation. The negative side is that it implies God does not have a natural relationship with them. God has to enter the relationship with Israel to be their head of state in a conscious and deliberate manner. And he regulates it through the Law and the sending of prophets.

In the next instalment, we’ll look at whether there is a covenant at creation and what implications the answer might have.


This is a reproduction of an article I wrote for another blog that is now defunct.

What Is a Covenant?

I’ve written a brief piece for Bible Study and the Christian Life, asking ‘What is a covenant?’

The word “covenant” gets used frequently in discussion about biblical content and theology. However, the meaning of the word is often assumed rather than discussed.

Many people will offer what they think are synonyms, like “promise,” or “agreement.” But while a covenant might include such things, they don’t really define what a covenant is.

So what is a covenant?

Read the rest of the article here: What Is a Covenant?

A Review of ‘Exodus: Gods and Kings’

I recently saw Ridley Scott’s film, Exodus: Gods and Kings, starring Christian Bale and Joel Edgerton. If you’re expecting to see a movie version of the biblical narratives, then you’ll be sorely disappointed. But then, why would you expect Hollywood to produce that? If it’s the Exodus narrative you’re after, just open a Bible and read it. If you’re expecting something to rival Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments, then you’ll also be disappointed. This film is far gritier, and lacks the melodrama of mid-twentieth century cinema. It also has some really good bits, too. In particular, its depiction of Egyptian palace life was, I thought, very nicely done. The human side of ancient life came through quite nicely, avoiding the stern caricatures that populate The Ten Commandments.

Exodus: Gods and Kings reinterprets the Exodus story in ways that depart distinctly from the biblical narratives. It takes up a series of themes that are very much at home in our post-9/11 world, seeing faith through a foggy postmodern lens.

Here are my brief impressions about the message of the film. I’ve kept the spoilers to an absolute minimum, so my comments here shouldn’t affect your viewing. In fact, I hope they might enhance your experience.

Having watched the film, I now understand Christian Bale’s comment that he thinks Moses was a very disturbed, possibly schizophrenic individual. His comments were evidently not based on the biblical narratives, but on the screenplay for the film. To appreciate Bale’s comments, look out for what happens when Moses chases three sheep up a mountain, and then the conversation he has with wife, Zipporah (Maria Valverde), just a few minutes later. These two ‘scenes’ bracket one of the most important scenes in the movie, but also demonstrate the cause of the change in Moses’ character.

The film continues the oft-worn path of seeing Moses and Ramesses as practically brothers. They are two people raised very closely with similar values, with circumstances eventually driving them apart and bringing them into conflict with each other. This means the movie also continues the Hollywood theme of Moses being unaware of his actual identity as a Hebrew. Nowhere does the biblical narrative of Exodus name the Egyptian Pharaoh, nor does it imply that Moses was unaware of his heritage. In fact, if anything, it implies he was aware, and that it plagued him (excuse the pun!). I was hoping that Moses would be portrayed with awareness of his heritage, but it seems the ‘unknown secret identity’ theme is too good to drop in a Hollywood production.

The film is clearly trying to say that religious faith is not neat. It has both good aspects and bad. In particular, it aims to say that there is a fine line between faith and fundamentalism, and adherents to a particular faith need to work hard at ensuring they do not slide into fanaticism. At the same time, it also shows that the circumstances people find themselves in sometimes call for desperate measures. This doesn’t excuse fundamentalism, but it helps to give it a context, and calls for reasoned development that tries to avoid it. Moses’ initial actions when he returns to Egypt clearly demonstrate all this. But in saying this, the film is not repudiating faith. On the contrary, the film is arguing for the validity of faith as a good thing, but it is not a pure good. It sees it as a messy good that is easily tainted. It therefore requires careful attention and development. The character of Moses in the early part of the film is rationalist—something that changes after his interaction with God. This change is demonstrating that reason alone is not enough to make sense of the world. Reason without faith is callous. But faith without reason is in danger of becoming fundamentalism.

The portrayal of God in the film is one of the most surprising aspects of it. It’s also the one that people of faith (Christian or Jewish) will likely find the most objectionable. The film is trying to say that biblical faith has come a long way since ancient times. Biblical faith is an advance on the superstition of ancient religions like that of the Egyptians. But in the days of Moses, biblical faith was still in its infancy. Faith needs time to settle and find a good balance, both for the humans who have faith, and for the God who sparks it. The film aims to say that Judeo-Christian belief has come a very long way from very messy, even childish beginnings. God himself has developed significantly as he has interacted with human beings. In portraying God this way, the film sees him as very much in the same mould as kings: powerful, but not omnipotent or omniscient; flawed, but perhaps trying to do his best. As such, the film creates God in human image. But this also explains the film’s subtitle: Gods and Kings.

A consequent notion of this portrayal is that other faiths might also have troubled beginnings, but given time and reason, they may contribute something valid to people’s lives. In a world that does not wish to denounce Islam while also wanting to condemn acts of terror committed in its name, the film treads a very politically correct middle path. In a postmodern way, it validates people’s chosen faith, while also encouraging critique and reform.

The film demythologises the miraculous, like the plagues and the Red Sea crossing, while trying not to undermine their impact as supernatural. This clearly demonstrates the film’s intent to show how faith and reason must go together, especially in considering natural disasters. The character of Moses also conveys this strongly. He is a man of reason who becomes driven also by religious conviction on the basis of his personal experience. The film does allow for special revelation to occur, but it also confines it to the personal realm. See, for example, the way the character of Joshua views Moses’ interactions with God from a distance. This is vastly different to the biblical narrative which portrays the revelation of Yahweh as publicly dynamic and ‘in your face’.

A very significant feature of the film is the human face it gives to the Egyptians. The biblical narratives do not name any Egyptians (not even the Pharaoh), allowing the reader to keep them all at a safe arm’s length. But the film does not do this. The final plague in particular shows that the Egyptians—the ‘other’—have faces, names, and relatives. This had quite an impact, and helped the film further its agenda to show the thin line between faith and fundamentalism.

The last few segments of the film do well in showing that Israel was baptised into Moses, and that God went with them through the wilderness.

On a different note: The Battle of Qadesh at the opening of the film was not fought in a remote desert. Qadesh was a thriving city in a verdant Syrian valley.

Ridley Scott isn’t Cecil B. DeMille, and nor should he be. But there are some good moments in the film. I never thought I’d feel sorrow for Pharaoh, but after the last plague, I did. And I never saw Moses wearing a watch!

If you’re hoping to see the book of Exodus come alive on the screen, think again. Hollywood is not interested in portraying biblical truth. Besides, we have the Bible anyway, so why should anyone expect divine revelation to come from a film? Exodus: Gods and Kings does, however, make a postmodern comment on faith and its development.

“A Man after God’s Own Heart”

I’ve written an article for the Journal for the Evangelical Study of the Old Testament (JESOT 2.2) titled, ‘“A Man after God’s Own Heart’: David and the Rhetoric of Election to Kingship’. Here’s the abstract:

The anticipation of David as a “man after Yahweh’s own heart” in 1 Sam 13:14 is to be understood as a statement about Yahweh’s election of David to kingship, rather than about David’s own moral qualities. Comparison of similar phrases in Akkadian texts shows that the phrase is part of the rhetoric of divine election to kingship. The focus on divine election does not mean David has no positive attributes. On the contrary, he is depicted as a man with clear leadership qualities. The phrase serves the Davidic apologia in distinguishing David from Saul as Yahweh’s personal choice for king.

JESOT is a free online journal. Subscribe at the website for notifications of new issues.

Remembering Nicaea

Yesterday (May 20th) was the 1688th anniversary of the start of the Council of Nicaea (a.k.a. Nicaea I). To mark the occasion, Fred Sanders has written a nice succinct article (though beware of the technical terms) called ‘What Happened at Nicaea?’ It’s an interesting read, but unfortunately the title is somewhat misleading. While the article has some really good information about theology in the fourth century, it doesn’t really tell us what happened at Nicaea. Rather, it gives us a good summary of what happened in theology after Nicaea. I don’t think Sanders is aiming to mislead, though. I just think the title does not really match the article’s content.

The article gives the impression that Athanasius was able to win the day with his theology at the Council of Nicaea in 325, but historically that’s not true. In fact, no sooner had the council finished up, than its conclusions were questioned. It took the rest of Athanasius’ life and the Council of Constantinople in 381 to bring theologians back into an orthodox understanding of God’s ontology. Athanasius himself seems to have played a minor role in proceedings at Nicaea, being a young deacon under his bishop, Alexander.

Also, the article gives the impression that those who disagreed with Athanasius were all Arians, but this is a mistake. Arius was very quickly neutralised and sidelined at the council. And even though Arius had a brief period in which his reputation was rehabilitated, he never really recovered his clout. Debate then proceeded for the next few decades after Nicaea between Athanasius and the radical subordinationists like Eusebius of Caesarea and Eusebius of Nicomedia. These guys weren’t Arians, though. Athanasius calls them ‘Arians’ throughout his writings to show that the logical endpoint of their theology was not far from Arius’ conclusions. They wanted to major on the difference between the Father and the Son in the Godhead, which is well and good in maintaining a distinction between the persons of the Godhead, and so avoiding the heresy of Modalism (a.k.a. Sabellianism). They saw the Son as subordinate to the Father, which is biblical, but then concluded that the Son was an inferior being to the Father. Athanasius rightly saw this as a fatal theological flaw. Subordination did not mean inferiority or separation. In order to capture this, Athanasius insisted on new terms, such as ὁμοούσιος (homoousios—’of the same substance’) to describe the relationship between the Father and the Son. The radical subordinationists, however, saw this as unbiblical, and wanted to stay with biblical terminology only. Athansius eventually won the day by insisting that new terms helped to clarify what the biblical terms meant, giving precision to theological discussion. Throughout this process, though, Athanasius called the radical subordinationists ‘Arians’. This does not mean they actually were Arians, though. This was just a rhetorical strategy on the part of Athanasius: everyone knew Arius was anathematised, so if Athanasius could tar his opponents with a similar brush, he might score some points and have some chance of keeping his orthodox theology alive in a very hostile environment. It was another way of implying that the conclusions of the radical subordinationists were unbiblical and should be rejected.

Athanasius did end up winning the day. A key turning point came when he chaired the local Council of Alexandria in 362. At this council, he made a huge leap forward in reconciling the theological terms people were using. He argued that those who talked about the Son’s substance as being ‘similar to the Father’ (ὁμοιούσιος) were being orthodox if in using the term they were not denying the full divinity of Christ and a singular triune Godhead. In other words, people could use the notion of ‘similar substance’ if they were implying that the Father and Son were coequal within the Trinity. This began to win many over to Athanasius’ theology. Eventually, it was the (now) older terminology of Nicaea that would become the standard paradigm for describing the nature of God: all three persons were ὁμοούσιος (of ‘one substance’). This was ratified at the Council of Constantinople in 381, and further developed by the likes of the Cappadocians (Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory of Nazianzus).

So while the Council of Nicaea in 325 was of immense significance, it actually took most of the fourth century to bear out its conclusions.