Goodbye to Covenants, Or Why God is a Wolf

The very fact that we think of our relationship with God in terms of a covenant is proof that the god we worship is a man-made construct. I realise that this is somewhat of an inflammatory statement, but bear with me: this thought has a ‘good news’ ending.

 

It was Mark Rowlands’ The Philosopher and the Wolf that started me off on this train of thought. Rowlands explores the differences between simian and lupine evolution and socialisation. Apes, he argues, use social contracts to maintain social cohesion; wolves, on the other hand, rely on loyalty. The ramifications in terms of moral development are profound. It is a book I would certainly recommend: it helped me to begin to understand God as more wolf than ape.

 

At its core, a covenant is a social contract: if you do x for me, I will do y for you; alternatively, if you refrain from x, I will refrain from y. Indeed, God’s covenant with Abram in Genesis 17, does exactly that. To sum up the gist of the contract, if Abram agrees to circumcise himself and all male descendants for the rest of time, and they all obey God’s commandments, then God will “be their God” and give them the land.

 

It sounds delightful, but it is fraught with problems. To start with, a social contract is only possible between equals. It is, essentially, an agreement between two equally matched parties, who each consent to sacrifice something – to limit their freedoms in some way – in order to secure a form of reward from the other. A party with a genuinely significant power advantage over another has no reason to enter into a contract with any party that can offer nothing in return. The powerful party could simply requisition what it wanted by force.

 

But set that aside for a while, and let’s examine this covenant more closely. What do we – humans, as represented by Abram – get out of the contract? According to the Genesis 17 passage, our primary gain is a powerful ally: “I will be their God”. Crudely put, we get to be friends with the biggest child in the playground, and He (new readers, please note that I only use the masculine pronoun in reference to God when I wish to emphasise a problematic aspect of our construction of Hen) has promised to boot everyone else out of said playground so that the playground can be reserved for our exclusive use. In other words, God will pick our side. Sounds like a peachy deal.

 

The big question, of course, is what does God get out of all of this? If God wanted men to be circumcised, why create them with foreskins in the first place? Why the obsession with snipping people’s squishy bits? Because we need to be demonstrably different: set apart as belonging to God, being willing to serve only Him and to brand ourselves His servants. Circumcision is a process of slave-branding.

 

Perhaps that is why we can detect an implicit threat in the covenant: if we don’t agree to it, we end up like the various –ites who get smitten throughout the Old Testament. At the very least, there is the threat that God will abandon us to the (un)mercies of aforementioned –ites, who are savage and hairy and smelly, and we could do worse than to pursue the vague niggling in that back of our minds that questions whether this isn’t a little bit like God hiring a hitman to do His dirty business instead of pulling the trigger himself. Either way, God agrees to restrain Himself from giving expression to His violent tendencies at our expense; if we agree to serve God, then He won’t hurt us. So back to the question: what does God get? Servants. Coerced slaves. *

 

If that thought horrifies you, good. It ought to. The existence of this covenant speaks to a God who cannot be trusted. The only beings that need contracts to regulate their relationships are untrustworthy ones. Where love and trust form the foundation of a relationship, a contract is completely unnecessary. Actions are performed out of love and loyalty, not out of obligation.

 

Fortunately, I do not believe that God is a covenant God. And as proof, I offer Jesus. If we accept that Jesus is the full revelation of God (and if you call yourself Christian and cannot accept this premise then the theological starting point from which you operate is logically and fatally flawed), then just a tiny amount of logic would lead you invariably to this conclusion: God neither requires nor desires servants; God serves.

 

“…just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:28, my emphasis)

 

“ I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.” (John 15:15, my emphasis again)

 

If, then, God’s primary inclination is towards service, the idea of a covenant God who requires people to mark themselves as His servants in order to remain under His protection is nonsensical. Paul, I think, understood that, and his rejection of circumcision as a marker of belonging (Galatians 5:2) – in fact, his rejection of any social boundary markers at all (“There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” Galatians 3:28) – suggests this.

 

So too, in Jesus’s teachings it is clear that God does not reward only those who obey, but God ‘sends rain on the just and the unjust alike’ (Matthew 5:45), which suggests that there is no such thing as a covenant with God where obedience guarantees special treatment. Jesus promises, on the contrary, that “in this world you will have trouble” (John 16:33).

 

It seems clear – to me anyway – that the concept of the covenant is an attempt by humanity to construct God in its own sordid image. It tries to obscure that fact by trying to make God appear gracious and just, but the inescapable implications of this covenant – of the very existence of any sort of covenant at all – remain: the God who would initiate such a contract is suspiciously human in nature: capricious, cruel, and egotistical. However, if Jesus, who is the very opposite of all that, is an accurate representation of the invisible God, and accurately demonstrates the way in which God would relate to humanity, then there is only one conclusion: the idea of covenant, which stinks of humanity, is not a God-thing. And that is ‘good news’ indeed.

 

*That God requires this suggests that for some reason, despite possessing enormous power, God cannot do this without our consent. In itself this should make us suspicious of the claim that this covenant is divine in origin. If God requires voluntary enslavement, then the threat of punishment for non-compliance is hollow – a truly powerful being would not require our permission. And the argument that God wants us to choose to love Him and therefore does not force His will on us does not hold water. First, nothing about this covenant suggests a loving God, and second, love – even if not coerced – can never be the product of a contractual obligation. It must be freely and unconditionally offered or not at all.

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6 thoughts on “Goodbye to Covenants, Or Why God is a Wolf

  1. Over-all, this employed some sound theology. I applaud your effort and testimony of faith in Christ. As I was directed to this Article by an Alert to your ‘LIKE’ of my Article: “The Relativity of the Law For Christians”, I first thought we completely disagreed regarding covenants. After reading your full Article, I realize that you have grasped concept of covenants, but have NOT fully comprehended what Old Testament Theology reveals.

    While your arguments about “the threat that God will abandon us to the (un)mercies of aforementioned –ites” is logical from a purely human view, it is NOT at all consistent with the spiritual truth of the matter. The assertion that “a social contract is only possible between equals” is not only theologically inaccurate; it also defies common law demonstrated in the vast majority of legal contracts.

    IIn order for a contract to be binding it must be reinforced by valuable consideration. That means one party promises to do something in return for a promise from the other party to provide a benefit of value – a trust agreement between the parties as the agreed price for the other’s promises. It can be anything of value including the promise not to do something, or to refrain from exercising some right. Numerous examples of contracts between non-equal parties far exceed the number of contracts by equal parties.

    The bank that offers a mortgage to a buyer is much greater in terms of financial power. So too, are the manufacturers who offer contracts in the form of warranties. The norm usually involves a much greater party offering a promise of some value to lesser parties. When we examine BOTH Testaments in Scripture (‘testament’ = contract) we immediately find that one (NT) replaces the other (OT). The reason is provided by multiple NT writers – simply the OT was conditional and temporary. It was to serve as a ’shadow’ or ‘type’ of the better (NT) to come. It was ALWAYS God’s intent that it would be fulfilled and eventually replaced.

    That most individuals under the OT sought merely the LETTER of the contract (ignoring the spirit of it) is why to this day, too few persons properly understand it from a godly perspective. You posed a question: “…what does God get out of all of this?” To rightly comprehend the answer you must consider God. He (I always acknowledge God as HE reveals Himself throughout Scripture in the masculine) is NOT subject to the same scrutiny whereby we judge other men. ““God is not a man, that He should lie, Nor a son of man, that He should repent.” – Num. 23:19.

    Your opening remark: “The very fact that we think of our relationship with God in terms of a covenant is proof that the god we worship is a man-made construct” rightly implies the nature of the OT. However, it ignores the intent God had in purposely using ‘man-made construct’. God wants fellowship with man and in that He needed to communicate with man in a manner by which man could relate.

    You show significant appreciation for the idea that “Actions are performed out of love and loyalty, not out of obligation.” This encompasses the whole teaching of Scripture regarding Law vs. Grace. But in order to perfect the appreciation of Grace, the Law necessarily preceded it. You are right in saying: “God neither requires nor desires servants; God serves.” But to imply that as proof that God is NOT a covenant God, shows a misunderstanding of ‘covenant’ altogether.

    As stated B4, the OT serves as a ‘shadow’ of a better covenant to come. Even today, thousands of years AFTER the initiation of the NT, we are under a covenant with God. In it He offers Eternal Life to those who accept it through Christ. Accept it, the covenant is binding. Reject it, the covenant is void.

    “Brethren, I speak in the manner of men: Though it is only a man’s covenant, yet if it is confirmed, no one annuls or adds to it. Now to Abraham and his Seed were the promises made. He does not say, ‘And to seeds,’ as of many, but as of one, ‘And to your Seed,’ who is Christ. And this I say, that the Law, which was 430 years later, cannot annul the covenant that was confirmed B4 by God in Christ, that it should make the promise of no effect. For if the inheritance is of the Law, it is no longer of promise; but God gave it to Abraham by promise.” – Gal. 3:15-18.

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    1. Thank you for taking the time to respond so thoughtfully, Mark. I always appreciate the respect that is shown when somebody takes the time to respectfully disagree.

      Indeed, when I read your article I did find that we had more in common in terms of our theologies than I thought we would, and I liked much of what you had to say.

      I understand your argument, but nevertheless disagree with it. The problem as I see it is that any true expression of love would obviate the need for a covenant. In essence, a covenant regulates a relationship ina transactional sense, as you have noted in your descriptions of what a covenant is. In other words, it prescribes terms and conditions for the delivery of the service. I have issues with that from a theological perspective. First, grace and love that are offered only conditionally are neither grace nor love. If God requires our obedience in order for Hen to extend grace and love, then Hen is neither loving nor gracious. This is why I think that Jesus points out in Matthew 5 that God sends rain on the just and unjust alike, and why Paul emphasises that while we were still sinners (not only after we kept the terms of the covenant and repented of our transgressions) Christ died for us. If God is love, as John writes, then covenant is a lie. Love and covenant are not compatible. Love is not a transaction.

      Second, I cannot accept your comparison of God to a business or a bank. Although businesses and banks may have more financial power, they are, in fact, more or less equal to their clients in that their survival and success is dependant upon the cooperation of such clients. They cannot exist independently of them. This is not true for God. He has no need for a covenant. Covenant implies that God has a need that requires our cooperation to fulfil. If that need is relationship or love, then covenant is a puerile and emotionally unintelligent way to achieve that end, and one that understands love as a transaction. I think covenant is below God. Love is not. If God requires a covenant to offer eternal life when Hen has ultimate power, then God is weak. Love would offer it anyway. Which is what I think God does in Jesus.

      Please don’t take my disagreement as a dismissal of you – I truly value the interaction. It is just some of your ideas that I don’t agree with. I know you are more than your ideas, and we are all trying to understand the love of a God infinitely greater than we can comprehend.

      Grace and Peace to you, my brother

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      1. Peter – May we continue in mutual respect for divergent opinions. If we were to BOTH agree to limit debate about this topic to merely subjective probability, your points are well made. However, I determine to employ objective probability based on an analysis in which each measure is established on recorded observation, rather than a mere subjective estimate.

        Apply objectivity to your comment: “First, grace and love that are offered only conditionally are neither grace nor love.” While Grace is clearly defined as unmerited favor, it therefore cannot be earned, and is therefore ‘unconditional’ in essence. Grace is freely available to ALL, but it is only effective when accepted and properly appreciated as it relates to salvation and eternal life. Grace in THIS earthly realm keeps us breathing without constant thought about it. But Grace in the spiritual realm requires an appropriate response. Spiritual concepts cannot be rightly comprehended with the mere rational thought of our carnal intellect. They must be spiritually discerned under the anointing of the Holy Spirit.

        Now contemplate this analogy. Fuel is readily available without discrimination to ALL (grace). Never-the-less, I must fill my tank with it in order to receive any benefit from it. My treatise on how grace ‘works’ is a necessary extension of my spiritual comprehension of WHAT grace IS. As it is with God, so is it with Grace and Love. An individual’s private interpretation of these is only valid to the degree that it is fully consistent with ALL other FACTS.

        To say, “God is Love” demands a full and factual understanding of ‘LOVE’. Scripture uses three different Greek terms that are translated as ‘love’ into English. Proper spiritual discernment regarding those 3 terms are needed to rightfully claim mastery. The point being, God’s Grace and Love are deeply faceted terms that can be grossly misunderstood when merely ‘scratching the surface’. Like the waves of the ocean, so much more lies beneath than what is seen at 1st glance.

        Prayerfully reconsider your idea: “If God requires our obedience in order for Hen [Him?] to extend grace and love, then Hen [He?] is neither loving nor gracious.” As it stands, that notion reveals a distinct naivety. Unless (a condition) you believe (a condition) you shall perish (Jn.3:16). Grace enables, unearned by us – but paid for in full by Christ. Redemption through Christ (Greek for Messiah) can only be rightly comprehended by a full knowledge of the OT covenant – What, Why, When, and How. Of course, this proper knowledge only comes from the Holy Spirit’s guidance.

        Suppose we AGREE that the earth is round. Surely advances in technology provide sufficient photographic evidence to support this. What can we do to change someone’s opinion that the earth is flat? Only if THAT someone is open to new information, with a greater desire to know truth, than to advance his opinion, can we hope to change his mind.

        “As many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name” – Jn1:12. Touching your opinion regarding obedience – turn this quotation from POSITIVE ASSERTION to NEGATIVE ADMONITION. It becomes: “As many who DO NOT receive Him, to them He WITHHOLDS the right to become children of God, to those who believe NOT in His name”. Grace provides inclusion in God’s Love (adoption into His Family) through faith (belief) in Christ. But unbelief negates Grace. Not that Grace is non-existent, but the benefits of it go unappreciated, unaccepted, and neglected – rendering it void – to the non-believer.

        God is eternal, as are His Grace and Love. They remain perpetually available to ALL who believe. Do you believe in ANY other Savior than Jesus Christ? If so, you do NOT know God. “Now if any man has not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of His”. – Ro. 8:9. Hopefully, you agree – “Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved.” – Ac. 4:12.

        Regarding your statement: “Love and covenant are not compatible. Love is not a transaction”, it is a displayed lack of deeper spiritual understanding. The OT covenant was indeed an expression of God’s LOVE. The Fulfillment of it in Christ is the distinct purpose of God’s Love – eternal righteous fellowship .

        “Before faith came, we were kept under the [OT] law , shut up unto the faith which should afterwards be revealed. Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But after that faith is come, we are no longer under a schoolmaster.” – Gal. 3:23-25.

        The OT reveals an original COVENANT between God and Man in Eden (Gen.3:14-16). God would provide a Savior through the seed of a woman – physiologically impossible. Other covenants are cited specifically with Abraham in several chapters in Genesis (12,15, 17, 22). They too were based on a PROMISE F from ONE greater to one lesser – to ultimately provide a Savior to finally remedy the problem of SIN (separation from God). God does NOT want us to be separated from Him. SIN has. Because God is so pure, so infinitely perfect, He cannot condone SIN in His presence. So either He remedies that (by removing SIN from us – through blood sacrifice), or He permanently turns away from Man.

        Blood sacrifice is appalling to most; it is misunderstood apart from deep contemplative prayer. I challenge everyone to invest appropriate research into the topic, but since most will not, I offer this synopsis. Included in the Abrahamic covenants (later extended to the Mosaic) was the custom of sacrifice. It was widely practiced and accepted by the ancients, and so God’s covenant was on Abraham’s level of comprehension. Although quite barbaric to modern man, it was a way of life to mankind in Abraham’s time.

        The sacrifice of Abraham’s son Isaac was to establish trust in God, and at the same time to memorialize the typology of redemption. God substituted a ram, saving Isaac, yet maintaining the cohesion of the principle of sacrifice. This was a GREAT act of Love! Through the ages since, Man has continually violated God’s Covenants, yet God’s Grace has kept the PROMISE of them intact. Where Man has failed, God has remained true to His part of His covenants, proof of BOTH Grace and Love.

        In determining the Cannon of Scripture (texts accepted as divinely inspired) scholars scrutinize whether or not the theme of redemption through sacrifice is maintained. It has been called ‘The Scarlet Thread of Redemption’. This ‘litmus test’ has been applied to all manuscripts considered for inclusion in the Bible. The whole of the Bible (OT and NT together) make up the written word of God. Verses pulled out of context and presented as superior or inferior to others engender misinterpretations and false doctrines. Every new spiritual truth absolutely complements every prior spiritual truth. Where conflict is perceived, falsehood is unveiled.

        Those who see Jesus as more compassionate than the covenant making God of the OT largely fail to rightly comprehend a proper Biblical foundation. God and Christ are NOT two different beings. The God of the OT is personified in Jesus Christ, in full!! “For in Him [Christ] dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily.” – Col. 2:9. Additionally, any idea that the ruthlessness, or lack of compassion, displayed in the OT implies that God is any less loving or gracious then than now, is due to viewing the OT through lenses filtered by a worldly perspective, NOT spiritual.

        As for my comparison of God to banks, I offered that only to emphasize the SUPERIORITY of one party over another in most covenants – to counter your claim that covenants must be between parties of EQUAL power and/or authority. Analogies must be appreciated in terms of the purpose of explanation or clarification, NOT the absurdity of obvious differences between the things being compared.

        Finally, your idea: “Covenant implies that God has a need that requires our cooperation to fulfill,” reveals a superficial understanding of life in general. God ‘needs’ NOTHING. He is Omnipotent, lacking NOTHING. But as Creator Supreme, He has desired righteous fellowship with Man. In order to achieve that, He has created conditions that He has revealed to Man in the form of covenants. Not because God needs them, but solely because Man is familiar with them. In Love, God always reaches out to Man to provide a way to eternal righteous fellowship with Him. It is out of Man’s need, NOT God’s. God relates to Man in ways Man can relate to. Our cooperation with God’s covenants is based upon OUR need, Not God’s.

        In direct reply to your closing remark: (“It is just some of your ideas that I don’t agree with”), may I advise you to consider the difference between ‘subjective’ dialogue (which you offer) and objective discourse? I offer FACTS accumulated from years of scholastic research, NOT merely my opinions. Conduct a similar investigation of the reams of factual information available and prove my presentation wrong. Try to refrain from opinions gleaned from mere subjective probability. Facts do not change, regardless of one’s opinion of them. Immerse yourself in the realm of WHAT IS. Become no longer content to remain in the egocentric realm of only What YOU THINK.

        I leave you with the submission of Martin Luther, the great Reformer: “If you can show me where I err in Scripture, I shall recant.” This reply is NOT intended to insult, but to illuminate. “Faithful are the wounds of a friend; but the kisses of an enemy are deceitful.” – Pr. 27:6.

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        1. Mark, I do not think for a moment that you intend to insult and I certainly do not take it that way. I expect no less of anyone who lives their convictions than a passionate engagement. I am like that myself, and I know that no malice is intended. I will read none there

          Ironically, I would have argued that you too are arguing a subjective interpretation of the facts. All theology is interpretive. What we are doing, if I can use an analogy, is mapping the spiritual terrain. I have no doubt that your years of scholastic research have made you an expert in your particular version of the map. But I have done a lot of research too, and my map looks very different from yours. Like yours, my school of thought has a substantial body of theological scholarship to back it up. There is not, nor ever has been, a single unified Christian theology. And that is okay, I think. The debate is healthy.

          I do not believe that blood sacrifice is God ordained. I think that in many key places in the Bible, the practice is directly challenged. It is probably too much to go into in one blog response, when the volume of theological scholarship on the matter is substantial, but in a nutshell, I see that what God does in the Bible and particularly what Jesus does at Calvary is not an endorsement of the sacrificial system, but an exposé and rejection of it. The work of Rene Girard is particularly insightful, but a really good summation of the particular school of Christian thought I subscribe to would be S. Mark Heim’s “Saved from Sacrifice”.

          We have this in common – we accept only Jesus. That just means different things to both of us. And although I don’t believe that the Bible is the revealed Word of God (only Jesus holds that title for me), I do believe God works through it. I see a God who takes the side of the victims, who vindicates the oppressed, and in very many unique ways among world religions, renounces violence. I see a contrast between the monstrous God of human imagining, a version of Molech, who demands blood to satiate his sense of justice, and I see a beautiful contrast with the God fully revealed in Jesus, who looks on his enemies – even as they crucify him – and says, Father, forgive them. In the stories he tells and in the way he treats sinners,I see a Jesus who does not treat sinners as they deserve but who runs after them and brings them home and always – even before they repent – offers forgiveness. Every time. If he is, as he claims, one with the Father, if, as he tells Philip, we have seen God once we have seen him, then what else am I to conclude about God’s nature than that Hen is absolutely loving and absolutely forgiving? There is not a trace of violence in Jesus – especially in how he treats sinners. How then can I possibly conclude that God – already fully revealed in Jesus – demands blood justice to restore honour? We have different maps of this terrain. We have each interpreted the facts as best we can, based on how we understand God to be revealed – you through the Bible and Jesus, me through Jesus alone. We both have made extensive studies of the question and arrived at slightly different conclusions. I respect your journey and your commitment to it. Seek, and you shall find. I know that for both of us, God will be faithful to honour that promise. Shalom, my brother.

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