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Kingdom through Covenant-Interview with Peter J. Gentry, Part 2

Interview by Matthew Claridge–

This is Part 2 of our interview with Stephen J. Wellum and Peter J. Gentry about their groundbreaking book, Kingdom through Covenant: A Biblical-Theological Understanding of the Covenants. In Part 1 we talked with Wellum and you can read that interview here. In this interview we are pleased to talk with Peter Gentry about his understanding and approach to the covenants in Scripture.

In a summary fashion, what do you think is the most distinctive aspect of your approach to the covenants in contrast to other standard “covenantal” readings such as Covenant Theology?

What I think we have been able to do is, first of all, take the basic passages in the Scriptures that deal with the major covenants and given them a completely fresh exegesis based upon four things: 1) looking at the cultural setting; 2) looking at the linguistic data; 2) looking at the literary structures in the text; and 4) always keeping an eye on the relationship of the passage with the metanarrative or plot line of Scripture.

When I look at the books out there on the covenants, there hasn’t been any fresh exegesis of the key passages in over 40 years. For example, scholars in the school of Covenant Theology continue to refer to the work of Meredith Kline, but a great deal of more information has been developed in the last several decades that requires a new, fresh approach. There has been tremendous advances in our understanding of the cultural setting of the ANE (economic, political, social, religious background and historical events) and in the area of linguistic analysis, particularly in the field of “discourse grammar.” In terms of literary structures, I have read most of the books on the market today unpacking covenantal structures, and I don’t see a rigorous interaction with the shape of the text.

Secondly, we have zeroed in on many passages in the Bible that discuss the relationships between one or two covenants together and explain the implications of this phenomena for a whole-Bible theology. If we collect these passages and pay attention to them, then we are enabled to put the covenants together in a structure that comes from the Bible and not from our own imagination. The problem with both Covenant Theology and Dispensationalism, is that ultimately, the meta-narrative they are providing is not the meta-narrative of the Bible. It owes too much to a story outside the Scripture and to the times in which they were developed. Our goal is to uncover a methodology that will tell me if my meta-narrative is more true to the Bible than another.

Today, there are many books available dealing with “four views” of one thing or another. The contributors typically provide their “view” out of how they put the Bible together and not simply out of collecting proof-text. Unless we find a way to adjudicate whether one metanarrative is better than another or truer to Scripture than another, we will not get beyond this impasse. At the end of the chapters to which I contribute in Kingdom Through Covenant, I am careful to relate the discussion to the rest of the biblical story and covenants.

Many scholars and theologians have attempted to identify the biblical covenants with either a suzerain-vassal treaty or a royal grant treaty. You suggest that the biblical covenants can actually be a mixture of both. How is that the case and what difference does it make?

Fundamental to communication is that the speaker must begin with the cultural setting and linguistic framework of the hearer. If you don’t begin there, you will not be communicating. In other words, you cannot begin with the unknown and move to the still further unknown. You must start with what is known to the hearer, and move from there to what they don’t know. This is fundamental to my understanding of how God communicates in revelation.

One example of this in biblical revelation is the use of the tabernacle. Scripture makes it clear that Moses was supposed to follow the pattern that God had shown him on the mountain, and when I was a boy in Sunday School I thought this was because the Israelite temple would be different from other temple structures in the Ancient Near East. I was shocked when I discovered that, in fact, the tabernacle and the latter Solomonic temple were almost identical to all the temples we have discovered in the Ancient Near East. They all have an outer courtyard, an altar of sacrifice, and within the building the division into an outer and inner room. The point is that when the Israelites saw this tabernacle, they knew what it was. God was communicating in their language.

However, noting the similarities is only the first step. We must not only compare but also contrast Israel’s institutions with her contemporary cultural setting. When you do this, there is always some important, if small difference that is enough to turn your whole worldview inside out. Thus, if you were in a pagan temple, and you moved from the outer to the inner room, what would you find there? You would find a stature representing one of the four forces of nature. Pagans viewed their temple worship and system of sacrifices in terms of “sympathetic magic,” that is, trying to manipulate the “powers that be” in order to guarantee the good life for themselves and their tribe. When you look at the tabernacle, when you get to the inside, there is a real shock. There is a kind of throne, but there is no one sitting on it. Secondly, there is a little box, the 10 commandants by which God is implicitly saying, “you cannot manipulate me with sympathetic magic. If you want the good life, you have to follow in my way and follow my commandments. Submission to my will guarantees the good life for you.”

All communication works this way. What is fundamental to divine revelation is a comparing and contrast with the contemporary culture and language. The problem in the last 60 years is that evangelicals are embarrassed by the similarities and the liberals haven’t seen the differences. But it only takes one small difference to totally invert your whole world view; and you see that happening time and again in the expositions that I am giving as I compare and contrast the biblical documents with their pagan contemporaries.

If you look at the research that was done 60 years ago, people identified two types of treaties—suzerain-vassal and royal grants. Research being done today shows that these two types are not so different as we once imagined. It’s possible that we have set-up false distinctions. We should give the biblical writers and God the freedom in the whole business of revelation to adapt the cultural background and to change it in order to communicate the new wine of his revelation. You see this in the Davidic Covenant. Most people identify the Davidic covenant as a royal-grant treaty. But at the center of the covenant relationship, according to 2 Samuel 7 is the father-son relationship, and the terminology associated with that relationship is characteristic of suzerain-vassal treaties not royal grant treaties. God begins with the cultural setting and the linguistic data, but as he communicates and reveals himself those things are changed and modified to communicate something unique. That’s the whole point of the discussion of the Mosaic Covenant, because it is a document unlike any other document in the ANE. In form it is a treaty but in content it is a legal treatise. It has characteristics of both of these genres. The whole point of the law of Hammurabi is to reveal the righteousness of the king, and the whole point of the Torah is to reveal the righteousness of the King.

Interestingly, you begin your discussion of the covenants with Noah and only then proceed to discuss the Adamic or Creational covenant. Why is that?

First of all, many  people don’t believe there is a covenant in the creation account; secondly, the Noah story is the first place where you actually have the term “covenant;” third, the language that is used in the context of the Noahic covenant suggests that it represents a re-affirmation of God’s original commitment at the time of creation. Once that is established, I go back and show what is entailed in the covenant with creation and how and what the Noahic covenant is re-affirming in the original “Creation Covenant” with Adam.

You spend a good bit of time on the “Image of God” in the Creation account. Why is a discussion of the “Image of God” so important for your explication of the covenants?

Quite simply, I haven’t seen anyone else explain the “image of God” in terms of a covenant relationship between God and man on the one hand, and a covenant between man and the world on the other. I believe a covenant relationship is fundamental to the image of God. There are a lot of people that see “dominion/kingship” as part of the image of God, but typically only as a functional not an ontological component of the divine image. I argue that this covenantal framework defines an ontological reality first and only then a functional role. It is actually hardwired into our very nature to have a covenantal relationship with God—like a Father-son relationship of love, trust, obedience—and a relationship with the world of servant-kingship.

You suggest that God’s covenant with Abraham is a unique moment in biblical history in the sense that “there are no major new beginnings after this in the narrative of Scripture (until we come to the new creation at the end of the story)” (pg. 230). What makes the Abrahamic covenant distinctive in this sense in relation to the previous and subsequent covenants? Might its distinctive place have a bearing on the Covenant vs. Dispensational theology debates?

It is possible that this statement could be misunderstood. At the beginning, God creates Adam in his image so that he has a covenant relationship with God first and with the rest of the world second. This falls apart in Genesis 3, so God re-affirms God’s covenant with Noah in chs. 6-9 and that falls apart fairly quickly at the end of ch. 9 and with the tower of Babel. So God makes a brand new start with Abram. This is really the last new start, there are no new beginnings with the world after this. I try to argue that Abram is an Adamic figure, who has a covenant relationship with God and that the rest of the world will be blessed through him. There are covenants that come after this, to be sure, but they are all really entailed in the promises God makes to Abraham. Jesus is the seed of Abraham who fulfills the promises in the Abrahamic covenant. I would suggest that I am reading the Bible the way the apostle Paul read it who called Christ the Last Adam, because he is the seed of Abraham who is the Last Adam in that sense in the Bible.

You can see from reading the book that my approach to the covenant with creation is completely different from the “covenant of works” in Covenant Theology, and they don’t do very much with the Noahic Covenant. The beginning of their story is really the Abrahamic covenant and they flatten that out across the Bible. Furthermore, in Covenant theology there is a lack of focus on the Father-Son theme in the Creation covenant. They focus on the “command” God gave to Adam, but they don’t really expound the image of God in the way I do, nor talk about the covenant relationship between God and man in terms of obedient sonship and the covenant relationship between man and the world in terms of servant kingship.

The contrast you draw between a Greco-Roman and the ANE view of the law puts the legal material of the Pentateuch into a whole new light. Could you briefly explain your definition of the legal material in Exodus-Deuteronomy as a legal “treatise” rather than “law code”?

I find this to be a very important feature to understand. The Israelite covenant is not a law code in the Greco-roman sense (which continues in our modern legal system) where laws are referred to as the basis of making legal decisions in court. The Mosaic covenant is a covenant where God gives instruction to his people in the context of a relationship of love, loyalty, and trust. Just as Hammurabi created a code, not because he was creating a set of precedents that would be used in court, but because he wanted to demonstrate his wise righteous rule, so God gives instruction to his people about how to live and at the same time reveals his own righteousness. In the New Covenant, our relationship is not defined by the Mosaic covenant, but that doesn’t mean that the righteousness of God has changed. It is the same righteousness that is enshrined in the New Covenant.

Many Covenant theologians argue that the New covenant is ‘new” or different only in terms of extent or quantity. How does the OT prophecies of the New Covenant see things: a quantitative difference or a qualitative difference?

In Jeremiah’s account, he states that one of the benefits of the New Covenant is that someone will no longer need to say to his neighbor, “know the Lord.” The context of this comment is the “mixed community” of the Old Testament era. People were automatically members by birth. This meant that when they grew up, there would be covenant members that are believers and others who are not. In essence, Jeremiah’s words recall the need in the OT era for “believing” covenant members to evangelize their non-believing Jewish brothers—“Know the Lord.” Jeremiah promises that in the New Covenant this kind of dynamic will no longer hold. The only way you can get into the New Covenant community will be by faith. Everyone in the New Covenant community will be a believer, and no one in the New Covenant community exhorts another person in the New Covenant community to be a believer because they are all believers. Isaiah says the same thing in ch. 54, namely, that “all your children will be taught by the Lord.” He is saying the same thing as Jeremiah. This is all quite different from the view of Covenant theology in which the New Covenant community remains a “mixed assembly.” Jeremiah’s, Ezekiel’s, and Isaiah’s accounts of the New Covenant flatly contradict such a notion.

Peter J. Gentry is Professor of Old Testament Interpretation at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He has an expansive knowledge of biblical languages. He served on the faculty of Toronto Baptist Seminary and Bible College for 15 years and taught at the University of Toronto, Heritage Theological Seminary, and Tyndale Theological Seminary. Dr. Gentry is the author of many articles and book reviews, and has given presentations to groups, such as the International Organization for the Study of the Old Testament and the Society of Biblical Literature, of which he is also a member. He is currently editing Ecclesiastes and Proverbs for the Göttingen Septuagint Series and is giving leadership to the Hexapla Institute.

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