Covenant: The Framework of God’s Grand Plan of Redemption

Written by Daniel I. Block Reviewed By David R. Jackson

Daniel I. Block is Gunther H. Knoedler Professor Emeritus of Old Testament at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois. He is the author of For the Glory of God: Recovering a Biblical Theology of Worship (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2014) and commentaries on Deuteronomy, Judges, Ruth, and Ezekiel. In this work, Block has given us a monumental demonstration of his Christotelic reading of the “First Testament,” his preferred designation for the Hebrew Scriptures (p. xvi). Block’s Christotelic approach is an attempt to read OT texts in the integrity of the original author’s intended meaning, in their place within God’s redemptive work that climaxes in Christ, rather than reading Christ back into every OT text. Block affirms Jesus as “the heart and goal (telos) of all revelation,” but argues that “it is not the starting point of interpretation for any text” (p. 10). He calls us to go back to where the original authors stood, and look forward to Christ. He calls this “reading the text from the inside out” (p. 186). In his words, “I seek to read the New Testament in light of the antecedent texts, rather than the reverse, which often yields forced and unnatural readings of earlier texts” (p. 9). He describes this volume as “a ‘Here I stand’ sort of statement” (p. 7). He does not engage with alternate views, which gives the reader a clean and undistracted opportunity to listen.

Block calls for the rehabilitation of the First Testament. He observes that “for many evangelicals, the First Testament is at worst the problem that the New Testament supposedly fixes and at best a dead book that we would do well to bury ceremoniously in a genizah” (p. 9). While he recognizes that there are “parity covenants, between parties of equal social status,” he argues that “all covenants involving God are fundamentally monergistic suzerain-vassal pacts” (pp. 1–2). He rejects the classification of covenants as irrevocable (Abrahamic and Davidic covenants) and revocable (Israelite/Sinai covenant), arguing that they all involve divine irrevocability and the vassal’s options of fidelity or infidelity (along with the appropriate covenant consequences). Regardless of the vassal’s choices, God’s covenants “remained in force in perpetuity” (p. 3).

Block abandons the categories of conditional/unconditional covenants. Instead, he distinguishes missional/communal/ecclesial covenants (the Cosmic and Israelite) from administrative covenants (Adamic, Davidic, and Levitical). The former focus on “the health of the group (communal) and God’s mandate for them (hence missional)” (p. 4). The missional covenants address the triangular relationships between God, the earth, and living things. These relationships were inverted in Genesis 3:1–6:8 (pp. 32–33). They were restored in microcosm between YHWH, the people of Israel, and the land of Canaan (p. 41). Administrative covenants operate within missional covenants to appoint “individuals and their descendants to promote the smooth operation of these broader covenants” (p. 4).

Block argues that we need to think in terms of “covenance” rather than individual covenants (p. 4). Covenance focuses on the overall mode of God’s relating to his creation and his people. He sees God’s plan of redemption as playing out in five acts: (1) creation, (2) rebellion, (3) God’s grace through history leading up to (4) the work of Jesus, and (5) the recreation of the new heaven and the new earth (p. 14). Block sees no place for covenance prior to Genesis 3, “because these relationships were natural” (p. 24). He states that “by definition, a covenant formally establishes a relationship that does not exist naturally or re-establishes a relationship that has disintegrated” (p. 40). Therefore, he does not engage with historic debates in reformed theology concerning a covenant of works or covenant of grace (see WCF 7.2–6). Nevertheless, his concept of covenance is in accord with WCF 7.1.

In part 1, Block takes us through the Cosmic and Adamic Covenants. He locates the Cosmic Covenant in Genesis 8:21–9:17, noting that “YHWH specifically identifies the earth as his covenant partner in 9:13” (p. 39). Note that this is not “the Noachian covenant”; rather, “Noah was the agent through whom God established his covenant with the cosmos” (p. 40). In chapter 2 Block addresses the contentious question of the Adamic covenant. Allowing that Genesis 6:18 could mean the confirmation of a covenant previously made, he concedes, “If we must have a pre-existent covenant … God probably made it with Adam and Eve as they were leaving the garden of Eden (Gen 3:23–24), rather than at the time of their creation (chapters 1–2)” (p. 46). He identifies God’s covenant with Noah and his sons (Gen 9:9) as the Adamic covenant (pp. 61–65).

In part 2, Block guides us through the four stages of the Israelite Covenant: (1) the Abrahamic Covenant, (2) the Covenant at Sinai, (3) the renewal on the Plains of Moab, and (4) the New Covenant. Through detailed exegesis, Block points out the unity of all four stages as the progressive development of the one covenant, which in turn builds on the Cosmic and Adamic. In this section, Block highlights the integrity of his Christotelic reading.

In chapter 8 (looking at Deuteronomy), Block reminds us that “this book portrays Moses not as a legislator but as a pastor-teacher (Eph 4:11)” (p. 245). The law was God’s gift to a people redeemed (p. 262). He challenges the assumption that YHWH’s commands could not be kept: “If the Israelites failed in their performance, it was not the fault of the law” (p. 265). He concludes this discussion with the observation that “the Pentateuch provides no evidence that First Testament believers expected a future Messiah to take the punishment for their sins and die in their place.… The association of a messianic figure with sacrifice and substitutionary death occurs for the first time in Isaiah 52:13–53:12” (p. 272). Block affirms that “when God observed faith demonstrated in a pure life and rituals performed as he instructed, he applied to that person the forgiveness made possible through the blood of Christ…. But now we have reached far beyond the data available in the First Testament” (p. 272).

In chapter 9, Block argues that it is better to think of the New Covenant as “a renewed covenant” (p. 286). He finds that none of the features set out in Jeremiah 31:27–40 is new except for the promise that all Israel would be saved (v. 34; p. 285).

In part 3, Block traces references and allusions to the Davidic Covenant through the rest of the OT. He observes, “Many of these are commonly identified as messianic texts, but the notion of a single eschatological anointed Davidide is not evident in all of them” (p. 331). In part 4, Block works his way through the NT looking at how it builds on each of the covenants and stages that he identified in the First Testament. He notes the way the NT writers conflate the various covenants into one covenantal process such that the whole is fulfilled in Christ. “Because the New Testament identifies Jesus with YHWH … Jesus’s teachings build on his previous revelation as YHWH in the First Testament” (p. 600). He concludes by reminding the reader, “The divine drama of redemption did not end with the close of the New Testament: Act 5 is still to come” (p. 621).

Throughout this work, Block throws up gem after gem, inviting us to rethink and investigate familiar texts without domesticating them to later constructions. A Christotelic reading invites imagination and speculation, but rigorous controls are needed. Used in combination with the Christocentric approach, each may provide some mutual control. With respect to Genesis 3:15, Block does not want to read Jesus directly back into this text. He asserts that “a collective understanding is preferable” (p. 304). Further, “the prediction concerning the woman’s seed says nothing about the extraordinarily significant role the new/second Adam would play as head of a new humanity” (p. 424; see also pp. 35, 55).

Block has filled this volume with seeds for further reflection and investigation. He writes as a scholar inviting discussion. Scholars focused on the structure of covenant treaties or theologians engaged in the historical debates of covenant theology will find here a fresh set of eyes. Future research in biblical theology and exegesis will need to engage with this volume.

David R. Jackson

David R. Jackson
Werrington, New South Wales, Australia

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