How key moments in the storyline of the Bible shape Christianity.
Thomas R. Schreiner, James Buchanan Harrison Professor of New Testament Interpretation and associate dean of the School of Theology at Southern Seminary, talks with Southern Seminary Magazine writer Andrew J.W. Smith about the new book he authored, Covenant and God’s Purpose for the World.
Let’s just start with, biblically speaking, what makes for a covenant in the Bible, and why does it matter?
Covenants precede the Bible. A covenant is an agreement, and what we see in Scripture is something that was practiced in the society as well. You make an agreement, and there are promises and obligations and consequences if you break that agreement. I think that’s a good place to start.
When we’re teaching and preaching about the Bible, how do we bridge the cultural gap to help people understand exactly what’s going on in the covenant? How do we really bring it home to people in a way that makes sense to them?
The biblical storyline progresses through the covenants. Maybe that’s why they’re important to understand — there are these key junctures, key moments in the story, where the story is progressing. In some ways, if we start with Adam, there you have a command, a promise of life, and a threat of death. With the covenant with Noah, you have a promise that God will preserve the human race until God’s redemptive purposes are fulfilled. When you come to the Abrahamic covenant and the animals, we read these stories, and we recognize what they’re saying in that covenant — that what is done to these animals will be done to us if we don’t fulfill the covenant obligations. The punishment meted out on these animals is the punishment we can see fulfilled in the cross.
How did the covenants relate to one another?
In the covenant with Adam, the promise of Genesis 3:15 is that the offspring of the women will triumph over the serpent and his offspring. I think that promise when we come to the Noahic covenant is that he will not destroy the world again until that promise is fulfilled. So the Noahic covenant is organically related in that sense. Genesis 8:21 indicates that sinfulness of human beings continues. When we come to the covenant with Abraham it becomes clear that the offspring of the woman who will triumph over the serpent will come from Abraham’s descendants. So there’s a clear, organic connection to the covenant made in Genesis 3. If we just look at the big picture, the covenant with David narrows down the covenant with Abraham, in the sense that the promised offspring through Abraham will be a king. The blessing will be mediated through one of Abraham’s descendants, we learn in the Davidic covenant. The new covenant fulfills them all.
So how can the concept of the covenant shape how we read the Bible in our daily lives?
First, always think about what covenant you’re reading in. If you’re in Genesis 20, obviously the Abrahamic covenant has occurred. The new covenant is clearly not fulfilled until the time of the New Testament. Second, always read your Bible so you’re connecting the covenants to fulfillment in Christ. All the covenants are looking for obedience, and there’s only been one true obedient son, and that was Jesus Christ. Our righteousness finally comes because we belong to him. We are covenantally in the story. We always read the Bible canonically, how it is fulfilled in Jesus Christ as Christians. If you know your Bible well, you’re doing so quickly and automatically.
So there’s a hermeneutical consequence to being aware of how the covenants work together.
Devotionally it all centers on Jesus. There’s a profound way of reading the Scriptures so that we’re always seeing the fulfillment in Jesus Christ, so that in our Bible reading we’re always centering on him. How exciting to see Jesus rightly in every text we’re reading.