Brandon D. Crowe. The Path of Faith: A Biblical Theology of Covenant and Law. IVP Academic, 2021. Go here to purchase the book.
Brandon D. Crowe has a Ph.D. from Edinburgh and teaches New Testament at Westminster Theological Seminary. This book, The Path of Faith, is part of IVP’s Essential Studies in Biblical Theology series. This particular book traces the concept of God’s law and the importance of obeying it through the Old and New Testaments.
My post here will not be a comprehensive summary and analysis of the book but rather will identify points that stood out to me and intersected with what I have been thinking about lately.
A. Crowe talks about the Reformed concept of the “covenant of works.” Adam and Eve were under a “covenant of works” in the Garden of Eden: obey God and they will live, disobey God and they will die. Well, they disobeyed God and, under the “covenant of works,” they deserved death. That is why God inaugurated another covenant, one of grace, which would allow Adam and Eve to live and have a relationship with God, even though they had sinned. When I first looked up this concept, it somewhat baffled me, as it appeared to limit a significant concept, a covenant of works, to Adam and Eve, and that covenant did not even last that long, at that. But Crowe highlights that the “covenant of works” has continued relevance. Those who are saved are under the covenant of grace, whereas the unsaved are under the covenant of works: as with Adam and Eve, God judges the unsaved according to their obedience and, of course, they fail, which is why they need a savior.
B. But Crowe says more about the covenant of works, as he addresses Christian critiques of the concept. Crowe rejects the idea that, under the “covenant of works,” Adam and Eve needed to earn eternal life in the Garden. Rather, they, too, were the recipients of God’s freely imparted gifts in the Garden. In my daily devotions, I read Scripture and ask what the passage I am reading says about God’s love, grace, sovereignty, presence, and hope (by which I mean eschatology and New Testament application of Old Testament passages). Often, it is difficult to identify how a passage relates to God’s grace because it appears to reflect God’s law: God judges a sinner for sin or God stresses the importance of obedience. But a thought occurred to me: God’s grace is still present even in passages about law. God established the covenant with people by grace: God took the initiative, and they did not qualify for it through any merit on their part. They may have had to obey rules under the covenant, and consistent violation of those rules could bring peril, but their relationship with God existed because God chose to establish it, before they had done anything good or bad. Moreover, God’s law was itself a gift of grace, something that God freely gave people and that they did not earn. Crowe makes similar points in his book. Where this idea gets thorny is that Paul in Romans and Galatians seems to distinguish grace from law.
C. Crowe engages the question of what exactly makes the new covenant new. That is a question that I have long had. Christians make a big deal about how Jesus gave people access to God and brought them divine forgiveness, but people, particularly Israelites, had that under the Old Covenant, too. I can think of ways that the New Covenant is an advancement on the Old Covenant. Under the Old Covenant, God related primarily to Israel; under the New Covenant, God relates to Gentiles as well, through Christ and the church. In the Old Testament, God’s Spirit empowered people for great works in specific circumstances: kings, judges, prophets. In the New Testament, that is the case, too, as occurs in Acts and in the spiritual gifts given to believers, but the Spirit also plays a role in the spiritual regeneration and practical sanctification of Christians. The New Covenant also lacks many rituals of the Old Covenant, as the New Covenant is a more spiritual covenant. Moreover, while people under the Old Covenant had a relationship with God, in which they could pray to God and receive divine forgiveness, Jesus eventually had to come and do his work for those things to exist in both the Old Covenant (in that case, retroactively) and the New Covenant. The access that people had to God under the Old Covenant, in short, was due to Jesus. Those are the results of my grappling with the question, which nevertheless lingers. How does Crowe address the question of what the New Covenant brought that was new? Essentially, he says that the New Covenant brings people a greater level of access to God and experience of the Holy Spirit than existed under the Old Covenant. I will need a separate item to address the topic of access to God. On the topic of the Holy Spirit, what is interesting is that Crowe believes that spiritual regeneration existed under the Old Covenant. Many Old Testament Israelites were unregenerate, according to him, but some were regenerate.
D. Before I get into the topic of access to God, I want to say that Crowe’s chapter on Hebrews is very good. It is largely in that chapter that Crowe addresses the question of what makes the New Covenant new. Crowe focuses on the text of Hebrews to identify where the author believed the Gospel was present under the Old Covenant, and what the New Covenant brought that was new. Crowe in that chapter also engages Hebrews interaction (8:10; 10:16) with Jeremiah 31:33, where God promises a new covenant in which God will write God’s laws on the hearts and minds of the Israelites. Crowe quotes someone who looks at Hebrews itself and concludes that this does not mean the author expected Christians to observe the entire Torah literally. Some laws, primarily moral ones, are still binding, whereas ritual ones centered on the sanctuary are null and void, as far as God is concerned.
E. Now to the topic of access to God. My struggle with this topic is twofold. First, what did the Tabernacle in the Old Testament bring that the Israelites did not already have? Israelites could already pray to God and receive answers to prayer, right? Abraham’s servant in Genesis 24 did so. What access to God, therefore, did the Tabernacle provide that the Israelites lacked? Second, what access to God did the new covenant bring that was lacking under the Old Covenant? Evangelicals sing the song “Take me into the Holy of Holies, take me in by the blood of the Lamb,” assuming that Christians have the kind of access to God that Old Testament priests had. Do Christians have that kind of access, or is their access—-the right to pray to God and receive answers to prayer—-something that all Israelites, not only priests, had under the Old Covenant? Something that the Tabernacle brought, of course, was God’s actual presence in the midst of the Israelite community, and that is why the ritual system and the restrictions were set up: to protect the Israelites from a pure and holy God, and to encourage the pure and holy God to continue to live in the midst of the Israelites and bring them physical blessings (i.e., agricultural abundance) rather than departing from them in response to their moral or ritual defilement. Does a similar concept exist under the New Covenant? Well, one can make a case that God is actually and physically present with people under the New Covenant: I Corinthians 6:19 affirms that the Christian’s body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, and more than one passage treats the church itself as a temple of God (e.g., I Corinthians 3:16-17; II Corinthians 6:16; Ephesians 2:19-22; I Peter 2:5). One can even argue that, in light of God’s presence with believers individually and communally, believers should seek purity, as the Old Testament Israelites were to purify themselves so that God’s presence would stay with them and would not destroy them. Paul in II Corinthians 7:1 exhorts Christians to purify themselves in body and spirit, and Paul also speaks of the inappropriateness of joining Christ’s body with a prostitute (I Corinthians 6:15). Death can even result from failure to treat God’s presence with respect, for Paul in I Corinthians 11 speaks about people who ate the Lord’s supper in an unworthy manner and became sick, died, and perhaps even brought on themselves damnation. I guess my problem here is this: it does not feel as if the situation today is similar to the Israelites’ experience of God’s presence in the Old Testament. God’s presence does not necessarily bring material blessings under the New Covenant, as it did under the Old, but, what is more, carnal Christians are not dead at higher rates due to their spiritual and moral impurity. Does Christ’s blood protect them from that?
F. Crowe highlights how God under the Torah was establishing a holy and righteous order, in which God was worshiped and honored and people respected their neighbors enough to avoid harming them and to give to them in time of need. A question occurred to me recently: was it really that difficult for Israelites to obey the Torah? Was God seriously asking that much of them? Many Christians would answer “Yes, it was difficult, even impossible, and that is why God sent Jesus to be the savior.” But how difficult was it for Israelites simply to participate in the righteous system that God established: to bring their sacrifices when they were supposed to bring them, to leave the corners of their field for the poor, to refrain from retaliatory vengeance? If God was requiring utter spiritual and moral perfection from them, that would be a different story, but what God required of them under the Torah seemed manageable and doable. Yet, the Israelites did not do it, and here Christians maintain that this was because their human nature was sinful.
G. Crowe in one place emphasizes the importance of finishing strongly. He contrasts David and Solomon, who started well but ended poorly, with Paul’s statements about running the race and persevering until the end (I Corinthians 9:23-25; Philippians 3:12-4:1). Two things come to mind. First, there is the Reformed concept of the perseverance of the saints: true saints will persevere in the faith until the very end. Yet, we have Solomon, who may not have. John MacArthur’s response to that is that Solomon may very well have persevered, however, for Ecclesiastes was probably written near the end of Solomon’s life, as Solomon reflected on the futility of his earlier years and recognized the importance of revering God. On a related note, some Christians present spiritual growth as inevitable for the true believer. Is it, though, if spiritual giants like David and Solomon regressed? Second, it is easy for Christians to lose the simplicity of their faith as they are battered by life, with its suffering, temptations, and betrayals. They can become jaded and their faith and love for God and others may weaken.
H. Crowe states on page 162 that “The cubic dimensions of the new Jerusalem (Rev 21:16) recall the dimensions of the holy of holies and Ezekiel’s temple (Ezek 40-48): the whole city is a temple where God will dwell with his people.” This interested me because I have been curious as to how the New Testament engages Old Testament eschatological expectations, which largely focus on Israel and assume Old Covenant institutions (i.e., temple, sacrifices, priesthood). According to Crowe, the New Testament embraces some of those expectations, while modifying them.
This book does not answer every question I have to my satisfaction, but it was refreshing to read someone at least asking those questions and trying to engage them.
I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher. My review is honest.