So we’re working through a series on Shadow Covenant Theology, my proposed alternative framework for understanding biblical history. In my previous post I developed the biblical concept of a “shadow” or “type”, a device that God uses to reveal spiritual truth by casting it alongside a concrete, visible example. In this post then I would like to explore the other focus of this system, the concept of a covenant.
O. Palmer Robertson provides a compelling treatment of this topic in his book The Christ of the Covenants, so I’m going to rip off a lot of my thinking from his book. For all the differences between our perspectives, I was surprised by how much agreement I have with him in this area. More than that, I was surprised by how much I learned. I suppose I shouldn’t marvel that a covenant theologian would be the best kind of expert to provide a biblical definition of the term “covenant” :-)
In the opening chapter of his book, Robertson argues for the following definition:
A Covenant is a bond in blood sovereignly administered. When God enters into a covenantal relationship with men, he sovereignly institutes a life-and-death bond. A covenant is a bond in blood, or a bond in life and death, sovereignly administered. (p. 4)
He defends his definition by noting that when scripture institutes a covenant, it tends to speak in terms of “cutting” the covenant. Abraham for example, when he entered into a covenant with God cut several animals in two; then God passed between the pieces. This cutting symbolized the repercussions of breaking the covenant, that if God would fail to fulfill His promise to Abraham, then the undying God would die. This is why sin – our breaking of a covenant with God – must result in death.
This phrase “bond in blood” accords ideally with the biblical emphasis that “apart from the shedding of blood there is no remission” (Heb. 9:22). Blood is of significance in Scripture because it represents life, not because it is crude or bloody. The life is in the blood (Lev. 17:11) and so the shedding of blood represents a judgment on life.
The biblical imagery of blood-sacrifice emphasizes the inter-relation of life and blood. The pouring out of life-blood signifies the only way of relief from covenant-obligations once incurred. A covenant is a “bond-in-blood,” committing the participants to loyalty on pain of death. Once the covenant relationship has been entered, nothing less than the shedding of blood may relieve the obligations incurred in the event of covenantal violation. (pp. 10-11)
I’ve come to really appreciate this definition, because it highlights the fact that the two parties in covenant are in a relationship that cannot be broken without life and death consequences. Classically I have always viewed a covenant simply in terms of it being a contract, but I’ve somewhat missed the relational side of it.
This is important, because not all covenant relationships are necessarily formed by a formal contract. For example, parents and children exist within a “bond of blood,” a relationship where a child’s deep-seated, continual dishonoring of his parents is cause for his death (at least under the Mosaic law).
“Anyone who curses his father or his mother shall surely be put to death; he has cursed his father or his mother; his blood is upon him.” (Lev 20:9)
“If a man have a stubborn and rebellious son, which will not obey the voice of his father, or the voice of his mother, and that, when they have chastened him, will not hearken unto them: Then shall his father and his mother lay hold on him, and bring him out unto the elders of his city, and unto the gate of his place; and they shall say unto the elders of his city, ‘This our son is stubborn and rebellious, he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton, and a drunkard.’ And all the men of his city shall stone him with stones, that he die: so shalt thou put evil away from among you; and all Israel shall hear, and fear.” (Deut 21:18-21)
Of course there are a lot of qualifications that need to be emphasized with the verses above, and a lot to study out, but my point is that the child is in a life and death relationship with his parents that he didn’t choose to enter. He didn’t agree contractually to be conceived and born of his parents; he’s in a covenant relationship with them simply because they gave him life. So not all covenant relationships are necessarily formed by a formal contract; they are a bond in blood.
This I think is an important thing to realize when we’re examining the account in Genesis about our creation and fall. Covenant theologians will often speak of two covenants, the covenant of creation/works and the covenant of redemption/grace. I appreciate this construction, and I think that it’s basically correct, but I want to make one slight shift regarding the covenant of creation. From what I’ve heard discussed by R.C. Sproul and O. Palmer Robertson, it sounds like the general thought is that God entered into a covenant with His creation (us, mankind) when He gave us the commandment not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Gen 2:17). I however would say that we were in a covenant relationship with Him from the moment He breathed life into our nostrils, from the moment He had a son (Luke 3:38). The commandments that He gave to Adam were simply an outworking of His existing covenant, His parent-child relationship with Adam, not the institution of a new covenant.
I’m making this distinction because I want to highlight the fact that Adam didn’t choose to enter into a covenant with God when He gave the commandment to not eat from the tree. In a covenant formed out of a contract or agreement, the parties are agreeing to enter into the relationship. In creation, Adam didn’t have the option to not be in a relationship with God; the covenant of creation – the covenant that was broken by Adam – is a covenant born out of his being a creature, not something that he agreed to post-creation. But that’s a relatively minor point; it might come into play later though.
So I like the idea of viewing a covenant as a bond in blood rather than a contract; it explains a lot more theologically. However I don’t want to accept this definition uncritically, so I’ll raise two possible (minor) issues that may one day lead to some worthwhile disagreement. For now however, I wholeheartedly accept the term “covenant” as referring to a bond in blood.
— Lucian instituting a new coven(ant) as a bond in blood.**
Is-a or Creates-a?
In computer science, when developing a system we are often encouraged to think about the relationships between different things in the world, and think critically about our perceptions of them. For example, when walking a dog people will often attach a leash to the dog to keep her from running away. However it’s important when mimicking this in the computer to realize that we’re not actually attaching the leash to the dog, but rather to her collar. If we fail to make that distinction and assume instead that they are one unit, then any time the collar needs to be replaced, the dog needs to be replaced as well.
In other words, the dog has a collar; the dog is not one entity with the collar. In CS we call this a “has-a” relationship as opposed to an “is-a” relationship. The dog has a collar; the dog is not the collar.
Similarly, I have a concern here about the relationship between a covenant, and a bond in blood. Is a covenant the same thing as a bond in blood, or is a covenant something that creates a bond in blood? Robertson puts forward the idea that a covenant is-a bond in blood. However I have to consider the possibility that the term “covenant” in scripture refers to a contract or agreement that creates-a bond in blood.
I’ve already noted that not all bonds in blood are instituted with a formal agreement between all parties; a child is in such a bond regardless of agreement. So my question would be, does the term “covenant” refer to a contract that creates some of the bonds that we see in scripture? Or does it refer to the bond itself? This is a minor distinction, but like the dog and its collar, it could have implications if we get it wrong.
Always In Blood?
My other question would be, is a covenant always a life or death bond in blood, or is it possible to have a covenant with lesser repercussions? For example, in Exodus 22, a thief is breaking God’s commandment not to steal (Ex 20:15), but the infraction doesn’t result in death. Rather, the thief is simply required to restore what was stolen, plus interest.
Ultimately we know that the tiniest hint of sin is enough to condemn anyone to spiritual death (Rom 6:23), so even theft will be punished by death in an ultimate sense, unless the thief places his trust in Christ. However if this breach of the Mosaic covenant didn’t result in physical death, then that suggests to me that it’s possible to have a covenant with repercussions that are less than life and death.
Even with both of those possible issues stated, I thoroughly appreciate Robertson’s definition of a covenant as consisting of or creating a “bond in blood.” I want to make one further development though by asking a question, “What kind of blood?” If the breach of a covenant requires the spilling of blood, what kind of blood is to be spilled?
To put it another way, if a man is to die for breaking a covenant bond, then what kind of death should he experience? Because the Bible speaks of two deaths – physical and spiritual.
“And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” (Matt 10:28)
In a covenant relationship, does the bond-breaker experience physical death or spiritual death, or both? Or are there different kinds of covenants, some resulting in spiritual death, and some resulting in physical death? Let’s examine Adam’s breach of the covenant of creation.
“And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, ‘You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.’” (Gen 2:16-17)
“The days of Adam after he fathered Seth were 800 years; and he had other sons and daughters. Thus all the days that Adam lived were 930 years, and he died.” (Gen 5:4-5)
God told Adam that in the day he ate of the fruit he would surely die. However it took Adam almost a millennium to experience physical death. We must therefore conclude that the death that Adam experienced for breaking the covenant was a different kind of death than physical, the spilling of a different kind of blood.
We know that blood in scripture is a picture of life, and that the shedding of blood serves as a separation from life. As Robertson observed above, “blood is of significance in Scripture because it represents life…the life is in the blood (Lev. 17:11) and so the shedding of blood represents a judgment on life.”
However we have to ask, where does spiritual life come from? Jesus said, “It is the Spirit who gives life.” (John 6:63) The Holy Spirit is our source of spiritual life just as blood is our source of physical life (6:56). So when Adam broke the covenant of creation, he died spiritually; his spiritual blood was shed when the Spirit that God breathed into him departed. That’s why when we are saved, we need the Holy Spirit to indwell us again to bring us back to life.
Therefore I am going to make the claim that the covenant of creation was fundamentally a spiritual covenant, a bond in spiritual blood that resulted in spiritual death when Adam fell. Certainly there were ramifications in the physical world; physical death for example came as a byproduct of Adam’s spiritual death (Gen 3:19). However the actual judgment rendered for breaking the covenant of creation was spiritual in nature. We know that physical death isn’t a central part of the judgement because in the end of time, both believers and unbelievers are resurrected into bodies – covenant breakers receive physical life so that they can experience an eternity of spiritual death (Dan 12:2, Jhn 5:28-29, Act 24:14-15). Presumably they will be dying physically as well (Mat 10:28, Mk 9:48), but will never fully lose their physical life again (Heb 9:27).
I don’t want to make too strong of a disconnect here between the physical and spiritual; certainly they are intimately related. But I do want to drive home the point that physical life is a picture or shadow of spiritual life. In the same way, physical death is a picture or shadow of spiritual death (Heb 10:28-29). God in His great mercy has given us these concrete, visible examples to teach us truth about eternity, about heaven and hell, about what He had to do to rescue us from the judgement of the broken covenant.
Therefore if spiritual life has a shadow, and if spiritual death has a shadow, is it not possible that a spiritual covenant bringing such life and death might have a shadow as well? If all of us are living under a covenant founded on spiritual terms, yielding spiritual death to the covenant breaker, then might not God in His mercy erect a picture of that covenant, founded on physical terms, yielding physical death to the covenant breaker – a covenant “concerned only with foods and drinks, various washings, and fleshly ordinances imposed until the time of reformation” (Heb 9:10)?
In the posts to come I will be sketching out this covenant, how it maps to the greater covenant, and how its presence in scripture should affect our understanding of redemptive history. I will begin by painting in broad strokes the historical framework in which it rests, the shadow story that serves as a picture of God’s greater plan of redemption.
** Not sure why Underworld quotes keep appearing in semi-relevant ways, but I guess you gotta use these things when you can :-P