Michael Horton. God of Promise: Introducing Covenant Theology. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006.
I decided to check this book out of the library after reading a book about dispensationalism. Dispensationalism and Covenant Theology are rival ways of conceptualizing God’s purposes in the Bible.
I decided to read this book to find answers to questions: Were the Israelites saved by grace through faith in the Old Testament under the Mosaic covenant and, if so, how? And what was the relationship between the Mosaic covenant, which conditioned Israel’s habitation of the Promised Land on her obedience to God’s laws, and the Abrahamic covenant of Genesis 15, which was unconditional, meaning that God would fulfill it, whatever Israel did or did not do? Also in Genesis 15, God counts Abraham’s faith as righteousness. Paul would make a big deal about this in articulating and defending his belief that people are declared righteous on account of their faith, not on account of their good works or obedience to the law (Romans 4; Galatians 3).
The Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants seem to be going in opposite directions: one is about God’s activity, grace, and faith, whereas the other is about Israel obeying the law. How could the two covenants co-exist? Covenant theologians have accused dispensationalists of believing that the Israelites under the Old Covenant were saved by works, and many dispensationalists have denied this. Both sides seem to agree that Israelites under the Old Covenant were not saved (i.e., accepted by God) by works or obeying the law, but rather by grace through faith. In what sense, then, were the Israelites under the Mosaic covenant saved by grace through faith? They were put to death for certain sins. Works seem to have been a significant factor in being accepted by God and staying alive, under the Mosaic covenant!
Incidentally, I had these same questions when I read O. Palmer Robertson’s The Christ of the Covenants (see my post here). That was over two years ago.
Did Michael Horton address my questions, in some manner? He did raise a variety of considerations. Of course, he argued that the Abrahamic covenant was unconditional. On the basis of the Abrahamic covenant, God did not destroy Israel after the Israelites built the Golden Calf (Exodus 32:13-14), but rather God spared them and continued to guide them towards the Promised Land. At the same time, Horton acknowledged that God conditioned Israel’s habitation of the Promised Land on her obedience to the law. One reason that God did this, for Horton, was to show people that they could not successfully be saved, or accepted by God, through obedience of the law, for no one could keep the law perfectly. That is why people need the grace that Jesus Christ brings. Another reason for the Mosaic law, according to Horton, was so that the Israelites could model God’s kingdom of righteousness. Israel was to be a righteous nation, obeying righteous laws.
On the one hand, Horton in places distinguishes between the Mosaic and the Abrahamic covenants. Horton appears to argue more than once that the Abrahamic covenant concerned personal salvation—-being forgiven and entering a good afterlife. This is by grace and not by works. On what basis does Horton say that the Abrahamic covenant was about this? For one, Galatians 3 interprets the Abrahamic covenant as Abraham’s seed, Jesus Christ, blessing all nations, which would occur by grace through faith. Paul ties the Abrahamic covenant with the Gospel, which concerns salvation and entering the good afterlife. Secondly, Hebrews 11:16 states that Abraham (among others) desired a heavenly city. The Mosaic covenant, by contrast, was not related to personal salvation but was Israel’s national constitution, and it pertained to the rules Israel had to keep to dwell in the land.
I question whether this distinction holds any water, for two reasons. For one, God’s promise to Abraham pertained, at least in in part, to Israel dwelling in the Promised Land. One cannot treat the Abrahamic covenant as pertaining to personal salvation and the Mosaic covenant as pertaining to the Promised Land, for both relate to the Promised Land, as Horton probably knows. Second, Horton makes the point that grace cannot really exist without law. Grace only makes sense if there is law. Grace is God forgiving and accepting people even though they have sinned, so grace implies that there is a standard to sin against, namely, the law. Can Horton divorce the grace of the Abrahamic covenant from the law of the Mosaic covenant, when both complement each other, in some manner?
What is more, how does the Mosaic law relate to Gentile Christians? If the Mosaic law were merely Israel’s national constitution, does it apply to anyone outside national Israel? If not, how are Gentile Christians saved by grace? Do they not need a law, for grace to make sense? Of course, Paul addresses this question in Romans 2:15: for Gentiles, the conscience functions as a sort of law. Horton himself believes that the Mosaic Torah contains three kinds of laws: the moral ones apply to everybody, the ceremonial ones applied only to Israel and were temporary, and the civil ones were part of Israel’s national constitution, not something Christians have to do.
Another question that I have about Horton’s treatment of the Abrahamic covenant is this: How unconditional is unconditional? For Horton, God’s covenant with national Israel no longer exists. Israel (as a nation) blew it through her sins and rejection of the Messiah, so now God works with the church. That does not sound very unconditional to me. On the other hand, Horton does believe that God has not forsaken the Jewish people, for Romans 11 indicates that God still has a benevolent plan for them.
This book was rather scattered, maybe even inconsistent (and I apologize if I have mischaracterized Horton’s arguments). Yet, there were a lot of interesting and thoughtful discussions in the book. I think of Horton’s discussion of circumcision and baptism: how both, in some sense, relate to death for failing to observe the covenant. Because the Israelites experienced that death through circumcision, and Christians (and, in a sense, people in the Old Testament) undergo it through baptism, they do not have to experience God’s wrath in the future. They have already experienced that death and have come out on the other side.
Horton also has an interesting discussion about the relationship between common grace and whether religion should influence the government. Common grace is God preserving and blessing creation, even those who do not have a saving faith in Jesus Christ. Can the government be a part of this, by conforming society to godly values? Although Augustine wanted the secular authorities to suppress the Donatist Christians, he tended to separate church and state: society, for Augustine, is not the same as the church, and the church should not try to force society to become Christian. Yet, for Augustine, God’s providence extends even to heathen governments. (At least that was my understanding of Horton’s quotations of Augustine.) Luther followed Augustine’s approach and subordinated the church to the state. The Anabaptists either tried to take over the state so it could be Christian, or to set up their own separate societies away from the state. Calvinists were mixed: they were in favor of a godly society, yet, on some level, held that the state could be good without being distinctly Christian.
Horton also made an edifying point about how repentance, under the New Covenant, is not exactly a good work that we do to get God’s forgiveness, but is itself a gift from God.
Another point that I liked was when Horton said that, if God required perfection to fulfill his covenant, the covenant could not get off the ground. Yet, Horton maintained that the law did require perfect obedience. Perhaps that is where grace came in, even in Old Testament times.
Overall, the book was not a clear explanation of Covenant Theology. It was more of an exploration of topics, and different facets of those topics.