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Cover Image: The Covenants of Promise

The Covenants of Promise:
A Theology of the Old Testament Covenants

Thomas McComiskey (Baker, 1985)

Blurb Review by Meredith G. Kline

Review by Meredith G. Kline

It would be difficult to select a subject of more basic import for the study of Biblical theology and hermeneutics than the nature and structure of the divine covenants. The author tells us that his main purpose is to provide a formal reclassification of the system of redemptive covenants, one that will clarify their unity and diversity (p. 10).

McComiskey distinguishes two kinds of covenants: Promise covenant "states and guarantees the elements of the promise" (p. 140). Administrative covenants firstly "set forth stipulations of obedience" and secondly "explicate the elements of the promise in terms appropriate to the economies they govern" (p. 140).

The core of his proposal is a restructuring of the Abrahamic covenant. Usually, and properly, God's dealings with Abraham (and Isaac and Jacob) are viewed as a single covenant, a particular administration of the overarching covenant of grace, containing the offer of salvation through the promise-faith principle, accompanied by the Lord's constant requirements of holiness and obedient service. This unified covenant is distinguished from other administrations of the covenant of grace before it (e.g. the Noahic covenant of Genesis 6-8) and after it (e.g. the Mosaic covenant).

In McComiskey's scheme the unity of the Abrahamic covenant is, if not obliterated, certainly obscured. For he separates the aspect of promise-faith from that of demand obedience, identifying them as two different covenants-the first promissory, the second administrative. He says that administrative covenant does not appear until Genesis 17. Before that, he insists, there is simple promise with no stipulations of obedience. However, to maintain this he must indulge in election fraud, counting only "precise" stipulations (like the circumcision requirement in Genesis 17) and discounting demands for a "broad ethical response" such as that in Gen 12:1 (p. 149). He is driven to such devices because the presence of just one of the two criteria for administrative covenants would suffice to get Genesis 12 ff. so classified (as in the case of the circumcision "covenant"), and if that happened he would be left with no promise covenant at all and no thesis. By the same token he must also regard Genesis 3-11 as containing no (precise) stipulations since he treats this section as of a piece with Genesis 12 ff. Presumably then he must dismiss a covenantal stipulation like that given Noah to build the ark-kingdom (Gen 6:14 ff.) as just a broad ethical obligation that does not count. Furthermore, lest Genesis 12 ff qualify as an administrative covenant by exhibiting the second criterion for such, McComiskey must deny that the way the promises are set forth to Abraham differs from previous presentations of them: "The promise reigned from Adam to Abraham with no apparent change in its expression" (p. 195). This would mean, for example, that there was no difference between the kingdom as promised to Abraham and the kingdom in the ark as promised in the Noahic covenant (Genesis 6-8). In a word, then, McComiskey's concept of a stipulationless promissory covenant in Genesis 12 if., the cornerstone of his entire reconstruction, is an unhistorical abstraction.

Another critical feature of McComiskey's approach is his treatment of the circumcision transaction of Genesis 17. Misunderstanding the idiom to "give" a covenant, he misconstrues as a separate, "administrative" covenant what is merely the addition of a sealing sign to an existing covenant. Precisely the same terms applied to circumcision are used for the Sabbath sign in Exodus, and McComiskey subsumes the Sabbath under the Mosaic covenant. Consistency would suggest that he treat similarly the relation of circumcision to the Abrahamic covenant.

In the case of the new covenant, contrary to his handling of the Abrahamic covenant McComiskey does not separate promise and obedience aspects into two covenants. However, the single new covenant is classified as administrative. Perhaps nothing exposes the heuristic failure of the proposed reclassification scheme more than this. How utterly incongruous that this ultimate, consummating realization of the grace-promise principle should get classified in the category in which human obligation rather than divine grace is made the distinctive feature!

Besides the more formal matter of the classification of the covenants, certain vital theological issues require attention.

Analysis of the relationship of the old and new covenants confronts one with the question of law (works) and grace. To bungle here is to obscure if not pervert the heart of the gospel. This has been the unhappy effect of several recent covenantal studies. Emanating from more or less evangelical circles, they have nevertheless challenged standard Reformational thinking about law and gospel. These revisionists deny that works has ever been an operating principle in any divine covenant. Intruding the concept of grace into the situations where the works principle is actually operative, they blur the principial distinction between grace and works. I have detailed the disastrous theological consequences of this anti-forensic position in a review article on the teachings of D. P. Fuller and N. Shepherd (cf. Presbyterion 9 [1983] 85-92). Unfortunately, McComiskey has bought into this teaching or at least has been influenced enough by it to become muddled in his formulations. There are some whose failure in this regard extends only to refusal to recognize the works principle operating in the typological dimension of the old covenant (cf. e.g. P. Robertson, The Christ of the Covenants [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1980]). But McComiskey says things that seem to reflect the more radical repudiation of the works principle in God's covenantal relation to Adam at creation and in the covenant of the Father and Son in eternity.

With respect to the old covenant, the author does acknowledge that though Israel's kingdom-election was a gracious gift the ground of their retention of the kingdom was national obedience to the law. However, he refuses to identify this as the works principle. In so doing he throws away the key to understanding Paul's teaching on the law. Paul, perceiving that Israel's tenure in the kingdom depended on their obedience and was not under the guarantee of Christ's suretyship, concluded that the old covenant was, at this typological level, operating under a principle opposite to the grace-promise-faith principle (cf. e.g. Rom 6:14; 10:4-6; 2 Cor 3:6-9; Gal 3:11, 12, 17, 18). McComiskey devotes a chapter-length appendix to a vain exegetical effort to avoid the simple force of Paul's statements (pp. 106-137).

The confusion introduced by the rejection of the law-gospel contrast clouds the entire discussion. Often it is not clear whether the author is talking about the law as rule of conduct or principle of government. And of course the distinction between human obedience functioning as meritorious ground of blessing and as confirmatory accompaniment of saving faith does not come into its own. The result is a garbled account of the way of salvation. Thus a comment on Gal 3:6 attributes to Paul the teaching that "faithful obedience on Abraham's part was the ground of his participation in the benefits of the promise" (p. 36; italics mine). Concerning law defined as obedience he observes: "Dependence on that principle alone is insufficient ... The Law 'killed' those who sought life in the letter alone and not in the promise" (pp. 127,128; italics mine). The Reformers were concerned to maintain the doctrine of faith alone. Here the question apparently becomes whether obedience alone will suffice or needs to be supplemented by promise-faith. At best the formulation is misleading. Pity the poor soul dependent on such an account of the "gospel" to find the way to peace with God. These formulations, more Judaizing than Reformational, are not consistent with more Biblical affirmations that come from the evangelical heart of McComiskey elsewhere. But it is just such inconsistency, obscurity and confusion that vitiate this work.

Another current error obstructing development of a soundly Biblical theology of the covenants concerns the land promise of the Abrahamic covenant. In dispensationalism the promised land is treated as an integral part of an assumed comprehensive resumption of the old Jewish kingdom in a millennial order distinct from the Church's eschatological experience. Not so consistent hermeneutically, even if proportionately a lesser misconception, is the view that isolates the land promise, positing for it a distinctly Jewish future while interpreting the other promises under the new covenant in terms of the common experience of the whole Christian Church. Though disavowing the intention of moderating between covenant theology and dispensationalism (pp. 11-12), McComiskey adopts this halfway dispensationalism as do, for example, W. C. Kaiser, Jr., and W. Van Gemeren. A version of this view adapted to thinking on the theological left is advocated by ecumenicists who would include Judaism alongside Christianity as a legitimate tradition within a multiform covenantalism.

According to the NT, after a typological-level fulfillment under the old covenant, the kingdom-promise configuration of king, land and people receives fulfillment as a coherent whole on the antitypical level under the new covenant. At this level the promised land does not remain the old symbol-territory of Canaan, nor does it turn into a spiritualized landedness in Christ. It continues to be territory but takes on the cosmic proportions of the consummated creation.

McComiskey is sympathetic with the positive part of that assessment and frankly acknowledges that the NT lacks even "one unequivocal affirmation that the promise of the land will be fulfilled for the Jewish people within the definable boundaries of Palestine" (p. 200). Nevertheless he proceeds to assign to the present Israeli occupation of Palestine the same redemptive-covenantal significance as the birth of Isaac as a divine earnest of larger future fulfillment. Modern Israel is, he says, "an earnest of the future conquest of the world by Christ" (p. 208). He feels forced into this conclusion by his theory that the Abrahamic "promise undergoes expansion, but it never suffers observable abrogation" (p. 207). What he should do, of course, is to correct his theory since it lacks the support of the NT. Moreover he does not apply his theory consistently. For example, in the case of the promise of the king he does not think necessary the retention of the old typological version along with the royal Christ.

To follow the hermeneutic of dispensationalism only halfway is enough to get en-snared in the theological dilemma of that system: Either one must dissent from the NT teaching that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek and hence there cannot be a separate Jewish form of kingdom inheritance, or one must allow that the redemptive blessings offered in the covenant of promise can be enjoyed by Jews apart from faith-commitment to Jesus Christ. To allow this is to side with Judaism against the Church. It is to preach another gospel.

Courage and industry are evidenced by the author in undertaking so enormous a task. But he has become entangled in the depths. In particular, the reclassification system he recommends does not work. It does not fit the covenantal realities. Rather than explaining and clarifying it obscures and confuses.

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