O. Palmer Robertson. The Christ of the Covenants. Phillipsburgh, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1980.
A Reformed Christian recommended this book to me about eight years ago—-that, and O. Palmer Robertson’s 2000 book, The Israel of God: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow. I recently decided to read The Christ of the Covenants for a variety of reasons. First of all, I was noticing John Valade’s blog posts about the book, and that reminded me that I had it. Second, I not long ago blogged about a book by John MacArthur and others defending dispensationalism, and I wanted to understand the perspective of dispensationalism’s rival, Covenant Theology. Third, my church will be doing its Bible study on the covenants, and that has placed the covenants on my mind.
In this post, I’d like to talk about Robertson’s interaction with two issues. The first issue is the relationship between the Abrahamic and the Mosaic covenants. The second issue is Robertson’s view that God’s covenant with Israel typified themes in the New Testament.
1. I have long had a question about the covenants: What is the relationship between the Abrahamic covenant and the Sinai/Mosaic covenant? Back when I was a child, I heard a preacher say that the Mosaic covenant was an extension, or a sub-set, of the Abrahamic covenant. When I would read Paul years later, it seemed to me that Paul was placing the Abrahamic covenant and the Mosaic covenant in opposition to each other, as if Christians are to rely on the Abrahamic covenant of justification by grace through faith, whereas the Mosaic covenant was a temporary schoolmaster of works that was designed to lead Israel to Christ.
Just looking at the two covenants, they strike me as rather different. The Abrahamic covenant is unconditional and is based on God’s promise that Abraham’s offspring would inherit the Promised Land, and Abraham is considered to be righteous in trusting God’s promise. The Mosaic covenant, however, conditions Israel’s possession of the land on her obedience to God’s commandments.
Robertson interacts with this question, as well as dispensationalist and neo-dispensationalist takes on it. One dispensationalist perspective is that Israel essentially took a step down when she adopted the Mosaic covenant. Under the Abrahamic covenant, she was justified and possessed the land by grace through faith alone, but she chose instead to embrace a covenant that conditioned her righteousness and her possession of the land on her works. Later on, Robertson observes, the New Scofield Bible would deny that Israel under the Mosaic covenant was justified by works, maintaining that obedience to the law was to be an expression of her faith. (Maybe, but I don’t think that one can get around the conditional nature of the Mosaic covenant: if Israel did not obey, she would not possess the land.)
Robertson disagrees with dispensationalism on this issue, and he actually has a variety of takes on it. Robertson seems to question that the Abrahamic covenant was truly unconditional. He notes the importance of obedience even under the Abrahamic covenant: one had to be circumcised to remain a part of God’s people, and Abraham was said to obey certain laws. Robertson also affirms that there are conditions in the New Covenant. The laws that God writes on people’s hearts and minds (a la Jeremiah 31:31-33) are the same as the Mosaic laws, as far as Robertson is concerned, even though he acknowledges that Christians should not obey all of these laws physically and literally, as Old Covenant Israelites did. At the same time, Robertson later in the book appears to grant that the Abrahamic covenant is unconditional, for only God walks through the animal pieces in Genesis 15. Robertson’s position here seems to be that God is committed to Israel under the Abrahamic covenant, yet God will still discipline her with exile for her sins. In this book and also in The Israel of God, Robertson argues that Christ himself fulfilled the conditions of the covenant, the conditions of obedience that Israel could not fulfill.
Why does Robertson believe that God gave the law to Israel? One reason was that nations need laws. God promised that Abraham would have offspring and would possess the Promised Land, meaning that there would be a nation. At Sinai, God constituted Israel into a nation by giving her laws. Later, under the Davidic covenant, God would establish a system of authority to enforce the laws and the proper worship at Jerusalem. Second, according to Robertson, God gave Israel the law to remind her of her inability to be righteous by works, thereby highlighting her need for Christ.
Speaking for myself, I would say that God’s promises in Deuteronomy and prophetic writings to spiritually transform Israel bring together the unconditional and conditional covenants: God’s promise that Israel would inherit the land is unconditional, but she cannot stay in the land if she disobeys God. How does God solve this problem? God programs Israel to be obedient, so she is guaranteed to stay in the land! The unconditional covenant is fulfilled as God ensures that the conditions are met!
2. I often felt in reading The Christ of the Covenants that Robertson was reducing God’s covenant with Israel to being a type of the themes of the New Testament (i.e., salvation through Christ), while ignoring Israel’s significance and value within the Hebrew Bible itself, and criticizing dispensationalists for acknowledging some non-Christian significance to elements of the Hebrew Bible. Maybe my concern is fair, but it is not entirely fair, for there are places in the book where Robertson treats God’s relationship with Israel on its own terms, without reference to the New Testament. While Robertson believes that circumcision is a symbol of the spiritual cleansing that believers receive under the New Covenant (Colossians 2:11), for example, he argues on the basis of Joshua 5:9 (Israel’s circumcision rolled off of her the reproach of Egypt) that circumcision related to spiritual purification in the Hebrew Bible, as well. He also offered other reasons for circumcision under the Old Covenant: that it highlighted God’s relationship with Israel as a community, since the organ of procreation is what is circumcised, and circumcision is a ritual whereby Israelite children become part of the covenant community.
Overall, however, my impression is that Robertson regards God’s covenant with Israel as a type of the New Covenant. Does that mean that Robertson believes that the church has replaced Israel as God’s chosen people? Well, Robertson does not think that the land promises are in effect the same way that they were under the Old Covenant, for he regards them more as spiritual within the New Covenant on the basis of Hebrews 11:9-10. (Robertson does argue more than once, however, that God plans are not just spiritual and heavenly, for they relate to the healing of the cosmos, and Christ’s rule in heaven has earthly effects.) But Robertson does not seem to believe that God has utterly forsaken physical Israel, for Robertson states that God has reserved a remnant of physical Israelites who believe in the Messiah, Jesus Christ.
I wish that Robertson had gone into more detail about the New Covenant significance of Israel’s restoration from exile. Robertson does well to place the promised New Covenant in Jeremiah 31 within the context of Jeremiah 31 itself, but God in that chapter associates the New Covenant with Israel’s return to her land. Does Robertson not interpret that return as literal? If not, why not? Maybe he’ll go into more detail about this in The Israel of God.
This book was worth the read, even though I walk away from it with a rather fragmented understanding of the covenants. Perhaps that should be an incentive for me to study more, and my church’s Bible study will provide me with an opportunity to do so.