The Beginnings of Christian Reform (25)

The Bible: A Structured Covenant


Believers have for over a century retreated into antinomian pietism and pessimism. This retreat began in the 1870’s. They have lost the vision of victory which once motivated Christians to evangelize and then take over the Roman Empire. They have abandoned faith in one or more of the five features of Christian social philosophy that make progress possible: (1) the absolute sovereignty of the Creator God; (2) God’s covenant that governs all men; (3) the tool of the covenant, Biblical law;(4)Biblical pre-suppositionalism-the self-attesting truth of an infallible Bible, which is the ultimate judge of everything; and (5) the dynamic of escatological optimism. We should conclude, then, that either the dissolution of modern humanist culture is at hand, or else the regenerate must regain sight of their lost theological heritage: dominion optimism and Biblical law.[1]

In 1985, a U. S. Anglican minister named Ray Sutton made a remarkable discovery. He had been considering the Bible’s symbols of covenant: in the Old Testament, circumcision and Passover, and in the New Testament, baptism and communion. What did they have in common, and what precisely, is the covenant?

One Old Testament scholar he consulted, Meredith Kline, suggested that Deuteronomy’s structure had significant parallels with the ancient pagan world’s suzerain (king-vassal) treaties. The king (suzerain) would initially announce his sovereignty over a nation, demand loyalty, impose sanctions for disobedience, offer protection for obedience, publish a law code, and establish the rules of succession.[2] Kline suggested that these might have five, six or seven parts. Were these treaties original documents, or had they in their day, been taken from Biblical literature? Intrigued, Sutton looked at Deuteronomy himself, to see if there was an identifiable structure; he found five parts.

Then, he examined other books of the Bible that were known to be divided into five parts: the Psalms, and Matthew’s Gospel. He also found a five part structure in some of Paul’s epistles, such as Romans. This led him to a conclusion: there was a 5 part structure to the Biblical covenant.[3]

A .The Covenant Structure:

What is a covenant? God comes before man and ‘lays down the law’-His law. Man must either conform to God and His law, or be destroyed. As He told Adam, “Eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and you will die.” God deals with men as a king deals with his subjects. His covenant is to prosper us when we obey and curse us when we rebel.[4]

Sutton concluded that a Biblical covenant has five sections:

1) An announcement that God is transcendent- the supreme Creator and deliverer of mankind. God is completely superior to and different from men and the world He created, yet He is also present with it: immanent.

2) The establishment of a hierarchy to enforce God’s authority on earth.

3) A set of rules or laws man must follow in exercising his dominion over the earth. God will judge man by how he follows these rules.

4) A list if judgments that will be imposed by God, who blesses man for obedience and curses man for disobedience.

5) A program of inheritance– a lawful transition that mortal men need in order to extend their dominion over creation.[5]

This can be abbreviated, this way:

1) Transcendence/Immanence (presence)

2) Hierarchy/Authority (submission)

3) Law/Dominion (stipulations)

4) Judgment/Oath (sanctions)

5) Inheritance/Continuity (survival)

Another abbreviation, drawing on the acronym THEOS (the Greek term for God), is:

1) Transcendence

2) Hierarchy

3) Ethics

4) Oath

5) Succession

A light-hearted way of considering this, is:

1) Whose in charge here?

2) To whom do I report?

3) What are the rules?

4) What happens to me if I obey (disobey)?

5) Does this outfit have a future?

B. The Structure Elaborated:

Remarkably, the Great Commission itself is essentially a paraphrase of the five components of the covenant: “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age”(Mat.28:18-20).

Covenantally, these verses can be considered this way:

1) Christ is sovereign over heaven and earth, yet present with His people. He is both transcendent (high above) and immanent (present) with us.

2) He is the Supreme Commander over a hierarchy, so His followers are to bring the nations under Christ’s authority through baptism.

3) His kingdom is a kingdom of law, meaning ethics, for Christians are commanded to teach men to observe (obey) all that He commands.

4) He judges the nations, for baptism is a covenant sign, a form of oath taken before God; violating the terms of the Biblical covenant always brings cursing (Deut.28:15-68), while obedience brings blessings (Deut.28:1-14).

5) There is continuity over the generations of men, for He promises to be with His people always, to the end of the age.[6]

       C. The Ten Commandments:

If Sutton’s comments about the five points of the Biblical covenant were to be true, the Ten Commandments (the most important legal document of the Bible), would have to be shown to be both a workable and a classic example, because the Bible calls the Ten Commandments “His covenant”(Deut.4:13). This seems to create a problem: five parts of the Covenant, but Ten Commandments?

The solution is that “the Ten Commandments express God’s law in a covenantal way. There are five parts to the covenant, and so God’s ten laws follow the covenant twice, each re-enforcing the other.[7]Furthermore, two groups of five constitute a double witness, [8] which is critical in a criminal conviction (Deut.17:7; II Cor.13:1). God has lavished on us the knowledge that the Ten Commandments are His covenantal statement towards us.

1 .Transcendence/Immanence (presence):

a) With the First Commandment, God shows His transcendence through His creation, redemption, revelation and resurrection. [9] He not only created all of us and all things, but He redeemed Israel, “out of the house of slavery.”(Ex.20:2) Furthermore, Israel was effectively dead as a slave in Egypt, but was raised up before all the other nations. The redemption and resurrection of Israel from slavery in Egypt, has of course the New Testament correlation: Christ was raised from the dead, and so believers are to subsequently “walk in newness of life” (Ro.6:4).

b) The Sixth Commandment also shows forth God’s transcendence. Because man is made in the image of God,“to kill man is analogous to killing God.” [10] This aspect of murder was noted from the beginning (Gen.9:6). Thus man is prohibited from murder: endeavouring to eradicate God’s transcendent/immanent representation in man.

2) Hierarchy/Authority (submission):

a) The Second Commandment places all authority with God. Anyone else only has delegated authority. Furthermore, we are obliged to render submission to God. The notion of autonomous man is utterly rejected through this Commandment. Our worship and our life are to be in subjection to the King of Kings, without qualification, and we are plainly warned about the punishments for idolatry.

b) The Seventh Commandment teaches us that adultery is “due to rebellion against the authoritative hierarchy within marriage.”[11]It is significant that God’s jealousy is an aspect of the Second Commandment, and adultery is prohibited in the Seventh. Why? Both of them are issues of hierarchy. Within the marriage covenant, husband and wife are to see to it that in terms of their sexual relations, they are to be in mutual submission; their bodies belong to one another. “The husband must fulfil his duty to his wife, and likewise also the wife to her husband… stop depriving one another, except by agreement for a time…” (I Cor.7:3-5).

3) Law/Dominion (stipulations):

a) The Third Commandment places obligations on those who use God’s Name. We are to use God’s Name, but not in an attempt to manipulate God, or in vain. This is an aspect of our submission to God. False oath-taking is taking God’s Name in vain. Furthermore, as representatives of Jesus Christ in the world, we are obliged to ensure that our lives are to be faithful representations of His Name. This requires consistency between our commitments and our conduct, that we “swear to our own hurt”(Ps.15:4).

b) The Eighth Commandment establishes the legitimacy of boundaries within human activities. The thief seeks to manipulate for profit (using violence or deception), rather than toil for it, when the Bible commands that “he who steals must steal no longer; but rather he must labour, performing with his own hands what is good…”(Eph.4:28). The thief wants “something for nothing.”  He wants to engage in boundary violations, with impunity.

4) Judgment/Oath (sanctions):

a) The Fourth Commandment reminds us that judgment always comes. Men are to work and to seek profit for their activities, but these are not to be their overriding factors in life. Rather, we are to “seek first His kingdom and His righteousness…”(Mat.6:33). Men in their anxiety or greed do not always know how much they need to rest, but God knows. “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath” (Mk. 2:27).

b) The Ninth Commandment can legitimately be interpreted as being applicable to a court-room, and to the behaviour of witnesses therein, but it has application far beyond that. Slander in the church or the community is both hurtful and damaging, as any experienced pastor will testify.“Just as a narcotic addict needs a progressively larger dose to maintain his habit, so the liar needs both a more monstrous lie and a more perverse reality in order to maintain his stability in terms of evil. A liar is thus more dangerous than a thief: he destroys far more, and he lets loose greater evils.”[12] The Psalmist was so convinced of the potential harm in this regard, that he wrote “whoever secretly slanders his neighbour, him I will destroy” (Ps.101:5).

5) Inheritance/Continuity (survival):

a) The Fifth Commandment emphasises the authority of the family. “The meaning of the family is thus not to be sought in procreation but in a God-centred authority and responsibility in terms of man’s calling to subdue the earth and to exercise dominion over it.”[13] In the family, the past, present and future are closely related, and “in Biblical faith, the family inherits from the past in order to grow firmly into the future.”[14]

b) The Tenth Commandment, listing many of the things that belong to a man, relate to his inheritance. “The term ‘house’…can be used in a more or less wide or transferred sense to mean, for instance, the family, or to sum up everything which is included in the house.” [15]

“Anything that belongs to your neighbour,” are the things that he has been granted, and needs on a day-to-day basis; they are the things he will leave to others. The desire to protect one’s inheritance is a valid one, exemplified by Naboth in his refusal to sell his vineyard to Ahab (I Kings 21).

[1] Gary North, “Liberating Planet Earth,” 1987, p.142.

[2] ibid., p.52.

[3]Ray Sutton, “That You May Prosper,” 1997. Sutton details his discoveries and conclusions. This paper draws heavily from his work.

[4] Gary North, “Inherit the Earth,” 1987, p.5.

[5] Gary North, “Inherit the Earth,” p.6.

[6] Gary Demar, “Ruler of the Nations,” 1987, p.4.

[7] Sutton, p.224.

[8] ibid., p.215.

[9] ibid., p.216.

[10] ibid., p.220.

[11] ibid., p.221.

[12] Rousas Rushdoony, “The Institutes of Biblical Law,” 1973, p.589.

[13] ibid., p.164.

[14] ibid., p.167.

[15] M. Noth, “Exodus,” 1962, p.166. (Quoted in Rushdoony, above, p.632.)

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