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The Trinitarian Covenant in John 17

by Rev. Ralph Allan Smith

Legitimacy of Covenantal Interpretation

What Jordan's citation of these verses implied was a covenantal interpretation. He has not expounded that in detail, but careful consideration of the language in John 17:20-21 offers support for his insight and justification for the view that Reformed theology offers a distinctly Trinitarian view of the covenant. This passage offers the primary, if not the exclusive, exegetical basis for such a view. It begs for careful examination.

What would a covenantal interpretation here mean? We might say that a covenantal interpretation is simply an intensification of the ethical view. I think that it is more. By defining the love and fellowship envisioned, the covenant offers an explanation of Christian unity that goes deeper than a mere unity of purpose or love. Or, to put it in different words, the very ideas of love and unity in the Bible are not comprehensible apart from the covenant. These words belong to the covenantal sphere of language. Unity on this view would be unity in the covenant, something more than the notion of "ethical" unity and something that is possible to be held in common between God and man, unlike ontological union.

A covenantal also interpretation offers a Biblical answer to the unusual "in" expressions employed in this context. It seems best to understand our Lord here as alluding to Old Testament ideas. To begin with, the idea of God's presence with His people, first in the Garden, then in the tabernacle and the temple, is the Old Testament background for Jesus' promise that the Spirit will "dwell in" believers. In Solomon's prayer dedicating the temple, he expresses in non-theological language the precise point that God's presence with Israel was covenantal not "ontological." It was a fulfillment of the promise of the Abrahamic covenant that God would be with His people to bless them and make them a channel of blessing for the whole world (1 Ki. 8:20-21, 23-53).

Though a covenantal interpretation promises to provide insight on both interpretive problems, the original questions have not yet really been answered: If Jesus intended to express covenantal unity, why didn't He speak of the covenant? How can the covenant be an interpretive grid in a book of the Bible that seems so unconcerned with the covenantal idea that the word "covenant" does not even appear? Unless these questions can be answered, Jordan's citation of John 17:20-21 might justly be regarded as another example of Reformed scholars reading their pet covenant doctrine into a passage of Scripture when there is in fact no justification for such a reading in the context.

To answer the question of whether or not a covenantal interpretation best fits the passage, we must consider Jesus' words in context - first in the context of the whole Bible, then, in the context of John's Gospel, and, finally, in the most immediate context of the upper room discourse, for which the prayer in chapter 17 provides a conclusion.

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