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.

creation

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.

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Is there a covenant at creation?

Following on from my blog article, ‘What is a Covenant?’, comes the next instalment. It asks, ‘Is there a covenant at creation?’

To whet your appetite, here’s a short excerpt:

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 flesh and recreating humanity.

You can read the whole article HERE.

Love, Tolerance, and Repentance

After some interaction on Facebook, I thought I’d pour together my streaming thoughts about love, tolerance, and how they relate to repentance.

Tolerance is touted as today’s ultimate virtue, particularly in the West. However, Tolerance is not actually a Christian virtue. Love is. As a Christian I am called upon to love, not to tolerate. If I tolerate everything, then I’m not actually doing all that much. I’m essentially always agreeing to the status quo. But in that case, I can sometimes show myself profoundly unloving with little sense of right and wrong, and with little impetus to do right.

Now I realise that advocates of tolerance often have a good motive for advocating it. They do want to be ‘neighbourly’ and see tolerance as the basic attitude to achieve that end. However, I think more thought needs to go into it, because tolerance can sometimes have unfortunate results or is not something we actually live out in practice. How many parents, for example, tolerate their children’s misbehaviour? Does our society tolerate murder or rape? How many people cheering from the grandstand tolerate a poor performance from their team, or a bad decision by a referee? Tolerance has shortcomings in the day-to-day rough and tumble of life, and there are times when we are profoundly intolerant for good reason.

Sometimes, though, tolerance is used as a strategy for selfishness. It’s an attitude that says, ‘You should let me do whatever I want, so I’ll let you do whatever you want, and that way we can appear neighbourly, albeit in the name of me getting my wish to do as I see fit.’ But such reified individualism can be very damaging to society, because people begin battling for their so-called ‘rights’. These ‘rights’ are an idealistic expression of ‘what you owe me’, and they always tend to be directed towards the self (eg. ‘my rights’ or ‘you should stand up for your own rights’). These individual rights can end up keeping us apart rather than bringing us together with something in common. And thus, we have conflicting rights (eg. the right of gay people to marry -v- the right of children to have both a mother and father in accordance to the way the birds and the bees work). Who gets the right to have their rights prevail over the rights of another? Tolerance cannot really solve these issues.

The Christian ethic is love. To put it in other words, it’s about being other-person-centred. It’s not so much about me standing up for my rights as me looking out for your genuine good. There’s nothing really about tolerance in that attitude. There is no satisfaction with a status quo, but rather a continual search for what is objectively good for the other. Love implies that there is an ultimate good, and that we should strive for it with an attitude of self-sacrificial giving. It’s not about individualism.

God himself is not actually tolerant. He did not tolerate me, a sinner; he loved me. He gave up his apparent ‘rights’, but not so that I might continue to have my own ‘rights’ as an individual who can do what he wants, but rather to sanctify me and bestow on me the right to be called a son of God. He actively sought my own good. He did not love me for who I am; he loved me despite who I am.

God never ever tolerates my sin. In fact, he has been working throughout all of history to eradicate my sin, and this was achieved finally once and for all at the execution stake of a Jewish man in the first century: the cross of Jesus Christ. I’m not now perfect as a result of that. Far from it—I’m all too aware of my own faults. But God is patient with me. I must not, however, mistake God’s patience for tolerance. For tolerance usually has, at best, an implicit approval of what another does regardless of its moral value, or, at worst, a complete apathy about it. But God does not approve of my sin, nor is he apathetic about it. His willingness to take nails in his flesh and die a human death on my behalf speaks anything but affirmation or apathy towards my sin. Rather, it shows his unconditional love for me as he took what was due to me, a sinner. And this unconditional love shows up the emptiness of ‘tolerance’.

It is often pointed out by advocates of tolerance that Jesus was a friend of tax collectors and sinners. They were so different to him, and yet he reached out to them. Shouldn’t we follow the same example? Well, yes, of course we should follow the example of Jesus in loving others. But Jesus did not affirm the tax collectors and sinners and prostitutes in their sin. Rather, he called on them to change—to go and sin no more. Repentance was his basic message (Mark 1.15). As he said, it wasn’t the healthy who needed a doctor, but the sick. And he was there to make a difference—he wasn’t just being a socialite. And it was love that impelled him the whole way—all the way to a gruesome death that paid the penalty for the sin of the tax collectors and prostitutes. You can still be someone’s friend while telling them to repent.

If Jesus can call people to repent, and he commissioned his followers to do the same, then we can and should discern between what is right and what is wrong. Some will say that it’s judgemental to demand that someone change. But there is a difference between being judgemental and being discerning. Judgement is up to God. I, a sinner, have no place judging a fellow sinner. It’s God’s prerogative as a perfect judge to vindicate or condemn people. But if I can recognise the sin in my life, I will also be able to recognise it in others, too. And if I call someone to repent, I’m not condemning them, but rather urging them to take advantage of God’s amnesty and recommended way of life for their own genuine good. Of course, sensitivity and humility are part and parcel of calling people to repentance, and nobody likes to hear from someone that they’re wrong. But if I was going astray somehow and my friends watched on in tolerance, you’d have to question their friendship, their commitment, and their love. Love reaches out to make a difference, not to tolerate.

I think what many people hear when someone calls them to change is, ‘Be more like me.’ That’s certainly not the Christian message. Unfortunately, it’s probably the message that some of us Christians put out there, but also what some people mishear Christians saying, too. Christians aren’t superior to anyone. No way! But we have been given the message of life that we want others to share in. I think the Apostle Paul captures the idea well when he tells the Corinthians that love compels him to do what he does, and on that basis, he urges them to be reconciled to God.

The message of love is not the message of tolerance. It does not say, “Be as you are and I will accept you for who you are.” The message of love is, “You don’t have to do anything to earn my love, because I will love you unconditionally. Yet, love compels me to be active in loving, and not to stand idly by when I see you going astray. So I will strive for your genuine good.”

As a dad I love my kids. I always will, no matter what. Yet it’s precisely because I love them that I do things that are for their good, though they may not understand it or agree with it, and sometimes may react hostilely to it. I do not tolerate it when they do something that harms themselves or others, or when they disobey me or their mother. Yet I still love them even in those moments. Love leads me to discipline them when it’s necessary, because I honestly believe in pursuing what is for good for them. Love also leads me to take them to the dentist when they need it, even though they protest and it might cause them pain. If I merely had an attitude of tolerance towards them, I might actually end up being profoundly unloving and let them continue doing those things that are harmful to themselves and others. Tolerance feels free to accept everything, but love reaches out to others personally and seeks out what is genuinely good. Tolerance is passive. Love is active.

Just some rambling thoughts.