Thursday, March 06, 2003

Postmillennialism and Covenantal Theology

The flavor of premillennialism that so dominates American evangelism cannot be fully comprehended without a basic knowledge of its theological groundwork: dispensationalism. Likewise, although not quite so critically, it is helpful in understanding postmillennialism to have a working knowledge of dispensationalism’s main competitor: covenantal theology.

Covenantal theology means different things to different people both across reformed denominations and even within denominations. We will follow a simple pedestrian approach, borrowing much from Mathison’s book Postmillennialism—An Eschatology of Hope (P&R Publishing, 1999).

Covenantal theology holds that God has structured His redemptive plan around progressively developed and revealed covenants, the purpose for which is that God, for His own pleasure, has decided to redeem a people for Himself. Unlike negotiated covenants (contracts) among men, Biblical covenants are sovereignly and unilaterally imposed by God.

What is a Covenant?

As Mathison reports, Douglas Jones has described four elements of a covenant:
  1. A mutually binding agreement between God and man
  2. Sovereign administration
  3. Conditions (commandments, sanctions)
  4. Promises

In broad terms, there are two major covenants between God and man: The covenant of works, or the Adamic covenant, and The covenant of grace, or the redemptive covenant. The latter covenant is revealed progressively through the patriarchs, and these elaborations are also usually called covenants, such as the Abrahamic covenant, but they are properly viewed as falling within the umbrella of the covenant of grace. God’s part of the covenant, at least the redemptive aspect, is perfectly fulfilled with the finished work of Christ. Whether there are still promises that God will address in the future is an important echatological quaetion.

Even before there existed covenants between God and man, there was a covenant among the persons of the Godhead, or the Trinitarian covenant. In this “agreement”, God the Father chose a people for Himself, God the Son performed the redemptive work, and God the Spirit applied the redemption and would serve as a helper—to assist men in keeping their part of the covenant that they would eventually enter into with God. There is no single passage “proving” this covenant, it is essentially the same thing as proving the Trinity—it requires splicing together a number of passages. Mathison refers us to Ps. 2:8, Matt. 28:18, Luke 22:29, John 10:17-18; 14:31; 15:10; 17:5-6, 21-24; Rom. 5:19, Gal. 3:13; Eph. 1:4; Phil. 2:8-9; Heb. 1:5; 4:15; 12:2; Rev. 13:8; 17:8.

The Covenant of Works (The Adamic Covenant)

In this covenant, God promised life and intimate fellowship with Adam and his descendants upon the condition of Adam’s perfect obedience. Adam failed and, since the (conditional) promise was made to all of his descendents, we have all suffered the consequence of Adam’s sin.

This may not seem fair, but Adam was our representative and even in human terms we suffer or enjoy the consequences when our representatives enter or break agreements. For example, if Bush abrogates the ABM treaty, we all will either enjoy the increased security of a missile defense system or suffer decreased security through the destabilizing effect of a renewed arms race.

The Covenant of Grace (The Redemptive Covenant)

Immediately upon man’s fall, God laid the groundwork for the covenant of Grace (Gen. 3:15). This covenant would be revealed to the patriarchs, appealed to in times of distress by the prophets, and reach its zenith (and conclusion) on the Cross.

The Noahic Covenant

With Noah, God added a prohibition against murder and a promise not to destroy the earth by flood ever again:
6 "Whoever sheds the blood of man,
by man shall his blood be shed;
for in the image of God
has God made man.

7 As for you, be fruitful and increase in number; multiply on the earth and increase upon it."
8 Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him: 9 "I now establish my covenant with you and with your descendants after you 10 and with every living creature that was with you-the birds, the livestock and all the wild animals, all those that came out of the ark with you-every living creature on earth. 11 I establish my covenant with you: Never again will all life be cut off by the waters of a flood; never again will there be a flood to destroy the earth." (Gen. 9:6-11)

The Abrahamic Covenant

Here God reveals an additional promise:
2 "I will make you into a great nation
and I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
and you will be a blessing.
3 I will bless those who bless you,
and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth
will be blessed through you." (Gen. 12:2-3)
This is a very important part of the covenant, eschatologically speaking, for it promises, unconditionally, (if there was a condition it was that Abraham leave his home, which he did) that all peoples on earth will be blessed.

Postmillennialists would make four points about this promise to Abraham:
  1. This is an unconditional (or effectively unconditional) promise from God
  2. This sounds like a world-wide blessing—not universalism but certainly a promise that people from all over the world would be saved
  3. The dismal state of the world makes one pessimistic regarding whether this promise has been yet fulfilled
  4. If it is a promise, and it has not been fulfilled, then it will be at some point in the future, because God never breaks a promise. Ergo, we have reason to be optimistic about the future and to look forward to the success of the great commission
Now postmillennialism is not based on this interpretation of this one passage. Rather this gives some of the flavor of the comprehensive answer to the criticism of postmillennialism’s optimism: It is not misplaced optimism, but merely the certainty that God will keep His promises.

Mathison points out and amazing feature of the Abrahamic covenant. In ancient times two parties in a contract would pass through the carcasses of dead animals. This signified that if either broke the agreement, then their blood should be shed, just like the animal’s blood was shed. If you read Genisis 15 carefully, you will see that Abram arranged the carcasses, and God alone passed through them (Ge, 15:17), without requiring Abram to do likewise. The ramification is staggering: God did not require Abram to accept a death sentence if he didn’t keep his part of the covenant perfectly, but God imposed a death sentence on Himself should He fail to keep the covenant. Of course we know He surely will keep every single promise.

The Mosaic Covenant

Here the law in its fullness was revealed to the Jews, and the practice of tabernacle fellowship with God was instituted.

The Davidic Covenant

Here God promises an eternal kingship to David, to be delivered in his line. In other words, the Messiah would be a descendant of David.

The New Covenant

In the new covenant, the final revelation in the progression of the covenant of grace, all God’s promises relating to redemption are fulfilled. And for the first time, God has provided a helper to man to assist him in keeping his part of the contract, this too being a promise from God:
And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. (Ezek. 36:27)
This is an important part of the postmillennialist’s optimism. As mentioned earlier, the formal reason for optimism is that God appears to have promised that evangelism will succeed (more about that later). The instrumental reason for optimism is that God has sent the Spirit to assist us. We are not relying on man’s efforts—no cause for optimism there—but on the power of God Himself to accomplish His will.

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