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The Covenantal Kingdom

by Rev. Ralph Allan Smith

Chapter Four


What Is a Covenant?

Reformed theologians frequently refer to the covenant as if the word needed no definition. Some offer synonyms such as "agreement" or "compact." A covenant is said to be a compact between two or more parties in which promises are made and conditions are agreed upon. When the conditions are fulfilled, the promised benefits are bestowed.[5] This definition is not bad, but it doesn't go far enough. The idea of the covenant remains vague. The lack of a clear and fully developed covenantal idea has led to significant disagreements among Reformed theologians concerning the covenant.[6]

The Outline of the Covenant

There has been a new development in covenant theology, however, that promises to provide a definition of the covenant sufficiently broad to enable theologians to make better use of the covenantal idea. In his book That You May Prosper, Ray Sutton restates Meredith Kline's outline of Deuteronomy in terms that open up new avenues for systematic theology, apologetics, and Biblical theology.[7] According to Christian economist Gary North, Sutton's book should be regarded as a classic volume that unlocks the Biblical doctrine of the covenant as no other book in the history of the Church ever has.[8] Some will undoubtedly disagree with North's enthusiastic evaluation of Sutton's book, but if those who disagree attempt to provide a better solution to the problem of defining the covenant, the book will still be very important. What Sutton has done is to make the covenant doctrine clear and concrete, just as the Synod of Dort made the Calvinistic doctrine of salvation clear and concrete.

Sutton's outline of the covenant is derived from Kline's analysis of the book of Deuteronomy. Kline, following Mendenhall and others in applying the outline of ancient suzerain treaties to the book of Deuteronomy,[9] analyzed the suzerainty treaty in six parts.[10]

Sutton's outline of the book of Deuteronomy is based upon this model, but varies from it primarily in its theological interpretation of the covenant. Sutton has also shortened the six points to five. What Kline and others express in terms of historical and documentary description, Sutton explains in language that shows the relation of the covenant to life. Here are Sutton's five points of the covenant:

True Transcendence (Deut. 1:1-5). Kline and others point out that the covenant begins with a "preamble." But what does the Biblical preamble of Deuteronomy teach? Here we find that God declares His transcendence. True transcendence does not mean God is distant, but that He is distinct.

Hierarchy (Deut. 1:6-4:49). The second section of the covenant is called the "historical prologue." Scholars who have devoted attention to suzerainty treaties point out that in this section of Deuteronomy, the author develops a brief history of God's Sovereign relationship to His people around an authority principle. What is it? And, what does it mean? Briefly, God established a representative system of government. These representatives were to mediate judgment to the nation. And the nation was to mediate judgement to the world.

Ethics (Deut. 5-26). The next section of the covenant is usually the longest. The stipulations are laid out. In Deuteronomy, this section is 22 chapters long (Deut. 5-26). The Ten Commandments are re-stated and developed. These stipulations are the way God's people defeat the enemy. By relating to God in terms of ethical obedience, the enemies fall before His children.

The principle is that law is at the heart of God's covenant. The primary idea being that God wants His people to see an ethical relationship between cause and effect: be faithful and prosper.

Sanctions (Deut. 27-30). The fourth part of Deuteronomy lists blessings and curses (Deut. 27-28). As in the suzerain treaty, Kline observes that this is the actual process of ratification. A "self-maledictory" oath is taken and the sanctions are ceremonially applied. The principle is that there are rewards and punishments attached to the covenant.

Continuity (Deut. 31-34). Continuity determines the true heirs. This continuity is established by ordination and faithfulness. It is historic and processional. The covenant is handed down from generation to generation. Only the one empowered by the Spirit can obey and take dominion. He is the one who inherits. The final principle of the covenant tells "who is in the covenant," or "who has continuity with it," and what the basis of this continuity will be.[11]

Of course, the five-point approach to the covenant is not necessarily the only outline of the covenant that has Biblical validity. James Jordan, in a inductive study of Leviticus and Deuteronomy, suggests that a threefold (Trinity), fourfold (world foundations), fivefold (housebuilding), sixfold (man), sevenfold (sabbath), tenfold (law), or twelvefold (covenant people) organization of the covenant may be possible.[12] Jordan does not believe that the division of the covenant into five parts has any actual priority over other possible outlines.[13] But he also shows that a five-point outline is used most frequently by Moses and is not an arbitrary invention of expositors.[14]

Also, North,[15] Sutton,[16] and Jordan[17] analyze the Ten Commandments as a twofold repetition of the five-part covenant structure.[18] The five-point covenant structure is, then, a tool for Biblical exegesis. It is also an outline for relating the Biblical covenant to the realities of everyday living, such as education, the family, etc. Jordan lists the five points in broad terms that make the implications of each point clear:

1. Initiation, announcement, transcendence, life and death, covenantal idolatry.

2. Restructuring, order, hierarchy, liturgical idolatry, protection of the bride.

3. Distribution of a grant, incorporation, property, law in general as maintenance of the grant.

4. Implementation, blessings and curses, witnesses, sabbath judgments.

5. Succession, artistic enhancements, respect for stewards, covetousness.[19]

Again, to see clearly the practical implications of the covenant outline, North restates the five points of the covenant in the following five simple questions that are especially relevant to business. With slight variation, however, these questions can be applied to any intellectual discipline or practical issue:

1. Who's in charge here?

2. To whom do I report?

3. What are the rules?

4. What do I get for obeying or disobeying?

5. Does this outfit have a future?[20]

The Essence of the Covenant

If we are correct in asserting that the covenant begins in God and the personal relations of the Father, Son, and Spirit in all eternity, it must be clear that all "contractual" definitions are fundamentally mistaken.

The same book of Deuteronomy that provided Sutton an outline of the covenant has also been declared "the center of biblical theology" by S. Herrmann. And von Rad designates it "in every respect as the center of the OT Testament." [21] I do not believe these assessments are exaggerated. It is commonly agreed by Biblical scholars that the historical, prophetic, and wisdom literature of the Old Testament all rely heavily on the book of Deuteronomy in particular and the Mosaic writings in general.

What is equally important is that these scholars agree on character of Deuteronomy as a covenantal document.[22] In the words of William L. Moran of the Pontifical Biblical Institute, "it [Deuteronomy] is the biblical document par excellence of the covenant." [23] Delbert R. Hillers of Johns Hopkins University wrote of Deuteronomy:

Deuteronomy is a Symphony of a Thousand, which brings us covenant ideas of very high antiquity, some of them in a fullness not found elsewhere . . . [24]

What is remarkable about the citations of the above scholars is that none of them are Reformed scholars committed to traditional Reformed covenant theology. They cannot be said to assert the special place of Deuteronomy in the Old Testament, or the covenantal character of Deuteronomy because of a theological prejudice in favor of Reformed theology. It is, however, only in Reformed theology that their insights into Deuteronomy find systematic expression.

Even more significant than these scholars' assertions about the importance of Deuteronomy as a covenant document is the understanding of Deuteronomy's message, for in this supremely covenantal book we discover the very heart and essence of the covenant. To quote from Moran again, "It should be remarked first of all that, if Deuteronomy is the biblical document par excellence of love, it is also the biblical document par excellence of the covenant."[25] According to the book of Deuteronomy, the essence of God's covenant is love.[26]

This is what we would expect, for this is true of the covenant between the persons of the Trinity in their eternal covenantal fellowship. The covenant bond of the Father, Son, and Spirit may come to expression in terms that fit the formula of an "agreement," but the essence of the covenant is love. And because man is God's image, the essence of God's covenant relationship with man, too, is love.

The covenant, then, must be defined as a bond of love in which the parties of the covenant solemnly swear to devote themselves to seek the blessing of the other party. Among the persons of the Trinity, the covenant is the formal expression of the mutual commitment of love between Father, Son, and Spirit. In God's relationship with man, the covenant is the formal promise of God's love and grace to man. As we have observed before, this kind of relationship in the nature of the case demands reciprocation. Obedience to God's commandments is the covenantal expression of a creature's love to the Creator. Never in the Bible, whether in the books of Moses or in the New Testament, does the covenant imply a contractual sort of legalism.


5. See: R. L. Dabney, Lectures in Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1972), pp. 429-33, and The Westminster Confession of Faith, VII, 1-3.

6. Note, for example, the differences between two of America's foremost covenant theologians John Murray and Meredith Kline. For a discussion of the difference between Murray and Kline, see: P. Richard Flinn, "Baptism, Redemptive History, and Eschatology" in James Jordan (ed.), Christianity and Civilization No. 1: The Failure of American Baptist Culture (Tyler, Texas: Geneva Divinity School, 1982), pp. 122-131.

7. Gary North in "Publisher's Epilogue," Paradise Restored, p. 337. Already David Chilton has made effective use of Sutton's model as a tool of Biblical analysis in his commentary on Revelation, Days of Vengeance. Gary North and Gary DeMar have demonstrated the remarkable versatility and intellectual power of the covenant model as a theological construct, employing it as an outline for discussing subjects such as the Bible's teaching about government and international relations. See, Gary North, Healer of the Nations: Biblical Principles for International Relations (Ft. Worth: Dominion Press, 1987), and Gary DeMar, Ruler of the Nations: Biblical Principles for Government (Ft. Worth: Dominion Press, 1987).

8. Gary North in the "Publisher's Preface" to Ray R. Sutton, That You May Prosper (Tyler, Texas: Institute for Christian Economics, 1987), pp. xi-xix.

9. Ibid., p. 14-17. Sutton points out that Deuteronomy is not a copy of the suzerainty treaties. The suzerainty treaties copied the Biblical original.

10. Ibid., p. 15-16. 1. The Preamble; 2. The Historical Prologue; 3. Stipulations; 4. Blessing and Cursing; 5. Successional Arrangements; 6. Depository Arrangements. As Sutton points out, Mendenhall originally listed seven divisions of the covenant. Ibid., p. 15.

11. Ibid., p. 16-17.

12. James B. Jordan, Covenant Sequence in Leviticus and Deuteronomy (Tyler, Texas: Institute for Christian Economics, 1989), p. 3-6. Jordan also suggests a threefold approach to the covenant in The Law of the Covenant (Tyler, Texas: Institute for Christian Economics, 1984), p. 7: "In summary, the covenant has three aspects. There is a legal bond. There is a personal relationship. There is a structure within the community." He develops a four-point and a twelve-point approach in Through New Eyes, pp. 130-31.

13. Ibid., p. 6.

14. Jordan demonstrates that the first five books of the Bible fit the covenant model Sutton outlined. Genesis, as the book of creation and election, emphasizes the sovereignty of the transcendent God. Exodus is a book of transition from Egypt and its social order to a new social order with new hierarchies, including the house of God as the symbol and center of the new order. Leviticus, the book of the laws of holiness, sets forth the central concern of the law of God for His people: whether in ceremony or in daily life, Israel is to be the holy people of God. Numbers begins with the numbering of Israel as God's army, for they are to carry out His sanctions against the people of Canaan. And when Israel failed in her mission to apply the covenant curse of God to His enemies, they themselves inherited His covenant curse. In Deuteronomy the next generation, which will inherit the land, is instructed in the law of God in preparation for the conquest. Covenant Sequence in Leviticus and Deuteronomy, pp. 9-10. The first five books of the New Testament also follow the covenant outline: Matthew -- Christ the King; Mark -- Christ the servant of God, submitting to His will; Luke -- Christ the perfect man; John -- Christ the divine/human judge and giver of eternal life; Acts -- Christ building His Church from heaven by pouring out the inheritance of the New Covenant, the Holy Spirit.

15. Gary North, The Sinai Strategy: Economics and the Ten Commandments (Tyler, Texas: Institute for Christian Economics, 1986).

16. That You May Prosper, pp. 214-24.

17. Covenant Sequence in Leviticus and Deuteronomy, pp. 10-13.

18. As follows:

(1) The first commandment, in teaching that God alone is to be worshipped, calls us to honor the transcendent Creator and Redeemer. In forbidding murder, the sixth commandment protects the image of the transcendent God.

(2) The second and the seventh commandments are related throughout the Bible in the connection between idolatry and adultery. Both sins are perversions of submission to the God-ordained order.

(3) The third section of the covenant, ethics, has to do with boundaries, which is also the point in the eighth commandment: "Thou shalt not steal." The third commandment demands that we wear the name of God righteously -- a call to obey His law whereby we show the glory of His name in our lives.

(4) The fourth and the ninth commandments are both concerned with sanctions. The Sabbath is a day of judgment in which man brings his works to God for evaluation. The command not to bear false witness puts us in the courtroom participating in the judicial process.

(5) The fifth and tenth commandments correspond to the fifth part of the covenant, inheritance/continuity. In the fifth commandment, children, as heirs, are told how to obtain an inheritance in the Lord. In the tenth commandment, we are forbidden to covet, a sin that leads to the destruction of the inheritance in more ways than one.

19. Covenant Sequence in Leviticus and Deuteronomy, p. 14.

20. The Sinai Strategy, p. xv.

21. Both quoted in Gerhard Hasel, Old Testament Theology: Basic Issues in the Current Debate (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, revised edition, 1975), p. 95. Hasel, by the way, does not agree with von Rad and Herrmann.

22. This is true, of course, of the Bible as a whole. But the book of Deuteronomy is structured around the covenant idea since it was a covenant renewal document.

23. "The Ancient Near Eastern Background of the Love of God in Deuteronomy," in The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, vol. 25, April 13, 1976, p. 82.

24. Delbert R. Hillers, Covenant: The History of a Biblical Idea (Baltimore, MD.: Johns Hopkins Press, 1969), p. 149.

25. Moran, "The Ancient Near Eastern Background," p. 82.

26. F. Ch. Fensham's view is similar: "The continuation of relationship is the heart of the covenant . . ." See: "Covenant, Promise, and Expectation in the Bible," in Theologishe Zeitschrift, vol. 23, no. 5, 1967 p. 310.

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