Book Review: Covenant and God’s Purpose for the World
In recent years, increased attention has been given to the role of covenants in the biblical storyline. Kingdom Through Covenant: A Biblical-Theological Understanding of the Covenants by Peter Gentry and Stephen Wellum (Crossway, 2012) sought to chart a course between dispensational and covenant theologies under the label “Progressive Covenantalism.” This framework seeks to underline God’s revelation through covenants, the relationship between the covenants, and how all the covenants find their fulfillment in Christ. Dr. Thomas Schreiner, James Harrison Professor of New Testament Interpretation at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, has continued the progressive covenantalism conversation in his lucid monograph, Covenant and God’s Purpose for the World. Schreiner’s volume is accessible to every thoughtful Christian and rich in biblical material.
The covenants form the backbone of the Bible, unfolding its story from beginning to end. For this reason, Schreiner observes, “We can’t grasp how the Scriptures fit together if we lack clarity about the covenants God made with his people” (12). The aim of Schreiner’s book is to biblically explore how the covenants progress, interrelate, and ultimately, climax in Christ.
Schreiner defines covenant as “a chosen relationship in which two parties make binding promises to each other” (13). It entails mutuality and election, oaths and signs, as seen in ancient Near Eastern context (51, 61-65) and biblical history. The progressive nature of the covenants looms large in the volume, with each covenant making up a separate chapter.
The first covenant explored is the covenant of creation, which Schreiner admits might be “the most controversial in the book…for…we don’t find the word covenant anywhere in Genesis 1-3” (19). Nonetheless, Schreiner compellingly argues from 2 Samuel 7 and 1 Chronicles 17 that a covenant can be present even when the word is absent, as in the case of God’s promise to David (20). A close examination of early Genesis reveals “the constituent elements of a covenant were present at creation” (21). Furthermore, a correct reading of Hosea 6:7, along with the parallel between Adam and Christ in Romans 5:12-19 and 1 Corinthians 15:21-22, confirm a covenant of creation (22).
God’s covenant with Noah is set before the reader in chapter 2. There Schreiner shines light on the parallels between Adam and the new kind of Adam, Noah (33). Noah dwells on a similar earth with animals (Gen 1:20-21; 8:17-19) and seasons (Gen 1:14-18; 8:22). He was commanded to be fruitful and multiply (Gen 1:28; 9:1, 7). Like Adam and Eve, Noah was to rule the created order (Gen 1:26, 28; 2:14; 9:2). God promised to preserve the human race through his covenant with Noah, hence Schreiner says it could be titled the “covenant of preservation” (31). Yet, even after a new beginning, old realities of sinful corruption still inhabited the heart. Noah would sin in a garden (Gen 9:20-21). Clearly, “the new family (Noah’s) had all the same problems as the old family (Adam’s)” (38).
Ungodliness continued to the life of Abraham (Gen 12), who was called out of idolatry and into covenant with God (Josh 24:2-3; cf. Rom 4:5). Schreiner’s chapter on the covenant with Abraham expounds the threefold covenant promise: offspring, land, and universal blessing (53). Resembling Noah, “Abraham was a new kind of Adam, representing a new beginning” (42). The promised seed of the woman (Gen 3:15) would be the promised offspring of Abraham, Jesus Christ (Gal 3:16). As a new Adam, Abraham was promised a new Eden (Gen 12:7; 13:14-17; 15:7, 16; 17:8; 22:17) fulfilled by Christ in the new creation (Rev 21:1-22:5). The covenant promise of universal blessing is also fulfilled in Christ, who “ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation” (Rev 5:9). Schreiner’s Christocentric hermeneutic is a leading strength of the book. He sets each covenant in context while also giving due attention to how each covenant finds its telos in Christ.
The next major covenant in biblical history is God’s covenant with Israel, often called the “Mosaic covenant” or the “Sinai covenant” because of the respective leader and location present when the covenant was initiated (59). The chapter is partially framed around the parallels between suzerain-vassal treaties of the ancient Near East (1400 to 1200 BC) and the Lord’s covenant with Israel (61). In the Mosaic covenant, the covenant is entered after deliverance from Egypt (Ex 2:23-25; 20:2; 24), stipulated in blessings and curses (Ex 20; 24:7; Lev 26; Deut 26-28), deposited in the temple (Ex 25:16), sealed with a meal (Ex 24:9-11), and marked by the Sabbath (Ex 20:8-11; Deut 5:12-16).
In 2 Samuel 7, God establishes his covenant with David. A close reading of the Pentateuch (Num 24:17-19), particularly Genesis (17:6; 35:11), anticipates the fulfillment of a promised king from the line of Abraham. “The scepter shall not depart from Judah” (Gen 49:10), Moses writes. In Schreiner’s estimation, promise-fulfillment lies at the heart of the Davidic covenant. Schreiner states, “The covenantal nature of what God pledged to David is clear: his dynasty and kingdom will never end…A Davidic king will be the means by which the promises of land, offspring, and worldwide blessing will be realized” (75). David is a new Adam, a fulfillment of Abrahamic promises, and a new Israel, who is to be eclipsed in the new covenant by Christ, “the true and perfect Adam, the true Israel, the true son of Abraham, and the true David” (83).
In the OT, “the prophets promised that a new day was coming, a new covenant would be realized, and thus there would be a new exodus, a new David, and a new creation” (72). The beauty of Covenant and God’s Purpose for the World is how simply and directly Schreiner showcases Christ as the fulfillment of all the OT. Schreiner helps the reader understand the new covenant (Jer 31:31-34) through several themes: “(1) renewal of heart; (2) regeneration; (3) complete forgiveness of sin; (4) new exodus, forgiveness of sins, and a new David; and (5) reunification of the people of God” (90). Additionally, the volume concludes by examining how, covenant by covenant, “the new covenant is consummation and fulfillment of the previous covenants” (113).
This volume stands as an excellent introduction to the biblical covenants. I commend Schreiner for his clear prose, accessible insights, and most of all, for his presentation of Christ as the fulfillment of the OT, who purchased the new covenant and all its benefits for God’s people by his substitutionary sacrifice on the cross (Luke 22:20).
Editor’s note: This book review first appeared in the Spring 2018 Midwestern Journal of Theology.