Contract God verses Covenant God

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By far, one of the best books I’ve read this year is The Claim of Humanity in Christ by Alexandra S. Radcliffe. This is a simple yet magnificent overview of the theology of the Torrance brothers JB and TF. Strangely enough, the book hasn’t gotten much love over at Amazon. I would highly encourage people to read this as an intro to the Torrances’ theology, and to an overall introduction into what is popularly called “evangelical Calvinism”.

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Thomas F Torrance

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James B Torrance

The Torrance’s were Scottish Presbyterians, and yet they were greater than their own tradition, challenging many of the categories of the Westminster Confession. In fact, much of their theological framework was informed, as Alexandra Radcliffe rightly informs us, by Eastern Patristic theologians like the Cappedocians and Athanasis and Cyril of Alexandria. These theologians had radically differing ideas from common Presbyterian theology.

I want to give a brief overview of Torrancian theology from this great . Radcliffe has her chapters laid out magnificently in 6 short theses. I summarize the theses in three points below:

  1. God the Father as Covenant vs Contract
  2. God the Son as Ontological vs External
  3. Participation in the Spirit as Objective vs Subjective

There is more to her book than these three, but most of the heavy lifting is done with these three points. In this post (I’m hoping to extend this overview to three posts! We will see :)) I want to consider the first of three theses: God the Father as a covenant God rather than a contractual God.

To understand this thesis, we must take a step back to understand much of the doctrine posited by Westminsterian theology: this is called federal theology or federal headship theology:

Federal theology was the prevailing preaching and teaching of the Torrances’ Scottish Reformed tradition in their time. Federal theology has had a history of dominance in the perspective of those wishing to adhere to Calvinism and it continues to have an abiding authority toady. It currently governs the North American Reformed perspective and “is considered, by many, to be the only orthodox Reformed theology acceptable”. According to Federal Calvinism , God made a covenant with Adam as the “federal” head of the human race. God created Adam to discern the laws of nature by reason and, if Adam was obedient, God would give him eternal life. If he was disobedient, it would lead to death. Adam disobeyed the law and, as federal head of the human race, his curse affected all of humanity. Out of his love, God made a new covenant, electing some to be saved by Christ. In order to forgive humanity, God had to satisfy his righteousness and justice and Christ therefore became a penal substitionary sacrifice to atone for the sins of the elect. This federal scheme is expressed confessionally in the Irish articles and the Westminster confession. (p 16)

This is a pretty basic overview of the gospel for those who know the Westminster confession. However, this construal of the gospel was totally abhorrent to the Torrances. JB Torrance in particular wrote a now infamous article known as “Covenant vs Contract”, in which he outlined how this construal is not only biblically inaccurate, but it turns the gospel on its head.

But how does it turn the gospel on its head?

Both Torrances believed that federal theology overturned the gospel by making God a Judge primarily and a Father only secondarily. Put another way: God is primarily  judge of mankind. He judges them according to works, and they must perform them rightly to stay in his good graces. For the Torrance’s, this meant that mankind’s relationship to God is one of law, conditions, and works over grace, communion, participation. Radcliffe expounds:

TF believes that an overarching legal framework distorts the nature of the Father, presenting him primarily as a Judge and Lawgiver and only a Father to those who satisfy the requirements of the law. If you begin with a concept of God as Lawgiver, JB considers, there is the tendency to understand salvation in terms of God being conditioned into being gracious by human works or by Christ satisfying the conditions of the law…

JB also perceives that a legal framework leads to a distortion of our understanding of humanity. He writes, “the federal scheme has substituted a legal understanding of man for filial. That is, God’s prime purpose for for man is legal, not filial, but this yields an impersonal view of man as the object of justice rather than as primarily the object of love. (p 21)

In the Torrances’ view, federal theology leads to a strict view of God who demands obedience and performance. Man owes God obedience not because of a loving relationship, but simply because God is judge!

While they don’t disagree that God is a judge, for the Torrances, God’s first and primarily identity is one of Father. And as such, he creates mankind for loving communion with him in the Son:

However, if you begin with the God revealed by Jesus as the triune God of grace, you will see his unconditional filial purposes whereby he draws us as his son into communion with Him… God’s primary purpose for humanity is filial, not just judicial, where we have been created in the image of God to find our true being-in-communion, in sonship, in the mutual relations of love (p 21)

Put another way, God is concerned not primarily with our conditioned obedience to him as a judge would be. Rather, his purpose for creating mankind is to draw us into loving communion by the Spirit through the Son into his own triune love. His primary identity is one of Father: he wants mankind to participate as imaged sons in the Son by the Spirit. Obedience is a necessary corollary of being family. But, man obeys not to condition God; rather, mankind obeys because God is Father and he is son!

The Torrances take this identity of God-as-Father, as man-created-for-sonship, and move next to God’s means of relating to mankind. JB Torrance, particularly, says that because God is a Father, he does not relate to man conditionally, as in a contract, but rather covenantally, as in a family. Radcliffe explains:

JB defines a contract “as a legal relationship in which two people or two parties bind themselves together on mutual conditions to effect some future result”… The Torrances identify contractual thinking in Federal theology when salvation is made dependent upon our personal response. Although God’s grace may be upheld, contractual thinking can unintentionally steal in when forgiveness is made conditional upon repentance, with devastating consequences for assurance of salvation. (p 22)

Thinking of God contractually, in the Torrances’ mind, means that salvation is thought in terms of “do this, then…”. If I do this, then God will accept me. If I repent; if I have enough faith; then God will accept me. Instead, the Torrance’s explain that God primarily relates to man through a covenant. While covenant is likened to a contract, it is fundamentally different. A contract is a mutual exchange of properties and obligations. A covenant is an exchange of persons, and it creates a familial relationship. It creates a blood-bond. It creates a family bond not of merit and reward, but of communion and fellowship.

God makes successive covenants with mankind throughout the biblical narrative precisely because he wants to be our Father. It is not a works based contract that he creates with us, but a familial covenant. This covenanting of God culminates with the sending of the Son who performs both sides of the covenant–as perfect human Son and as faithful God–through the incarnation death and resurrection. In his coming, Christ creates a bondedness between man and God that allows man to participate in Christ’s own Sonship through the Holy Spirit. In my next post, I want to discuss how the Torrance’s understand the atonement as objective, universal, and actually accomplished in the person of the incarnate Son.

What does it mean that Jesus is the head of the church?

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What does it mean that Jesus is the head of the church? This concept of Jesus being over the church is mentioned numerous times in the New Testament, both implicitly and explicitly. In Colossians 1, Paul calls Jesus the head of the body, the beginning, and the first born from the dead, with the end result of him being preeminent in all things (Col 1:18). Jesus is the head, becoming the center of all things concerning God and his church. Paul mentions Christ’s headship in Ephesians 5 as well; and he compares Christ’s headship over the church to a husbands relationship to his wife, telling us that Christ’s headship is one of nourishment and sanctification toward his church; similarly, husbands should care for and nourish their own wives (Eph 5:23-29). But what is Paul trying to convey here?

When Paul speaks of headship, he is talking primarily about representation.

Biblically, what we must understand is that God deals with people by way of representatives. Whatever happens to that representative happens to those under him. This principle goes throughout the entire history of the scriptures.

For instance, when God created Adam, he gave him certain responsibilities. Adam was to cultivate the garden that God had given him, and to be fruitful and multiply (Gen 1:28). To Adam alone was given this responsibility — and Eve was given as a helper to assist him in accomplishing his God-given tasks. Also, God prohibited Adam from certain things. He was not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Gen 2:17). If he were to eat of it, he would surely die. Of course, we find that Adam and his wife did eat of the tree. But it’s interesting just how God punishes Adam and Eve for their disobedience. First, God holds Adam alone responsible, not Eve (Gen 3:9-10). Second, because of Adam’s failure, God punishes all of humanity, not just the pair. Paul later picks up on this concept, and tells us that we are sinful because of one man’s sin (Rom 5:12). What this indicates is that Adam was a God-ordained representative for all humanity. If he would have been obedient, we would have all benefitted. But because he chose to disobey, we all fell into sin.

From Adam and on, the principle of headship as representation can be traced from Old Testament to New. God chose Noah as the head of a new humanity (Gen 6-9), Abraham as the head of a new nation Israel (Gen 12-22), Moses as the head of the Mosaic Economy (Exod 19-20), and David as God’s eternal kingly dynasty (2 Sam 7). What is especially interesting when reading about the institution of the Mosaic Law, we find that the people of Israel waited at the bottom of Mount Sinai as Moses went and spoke before God on their behalf (Exod 19:1-3). And God interacted with the people of Israel through Moses alone. In that sense, Israel went in Moses into God’s presence. Paul picks up on this in 1 Corinthians 10, telling us that Israel was baptized into Moses in the Red Sea (1 Cor 10:2). What an interesting way to articulate the concept!

And when we arrive at the New Testament, we find out that all of these representative heads were merely pointing to the true cosmic representative, Christ. Matthew describes Christ becoming the true Moses who teaches God’s people from the mountain (Mt 5-7). Matthew also presents Christ as the true Israel, God’s true righteous servant (Mt 2:13-4). Paul calls Christ the last Adam, making him the head of a new humanity (1 Cor 15:22). He also calls Christ the true seed of Abraham who blesses the nations through his life and death (Gal 3:16). And, Luke presents Jesus as the true Davidic king whose kingdom will last forever (Lk 1:32-33). In this way, Jesus is the ultimate head who realizes all of God’s redemptive purposes. He realizes Adam’s mission, Israel’s purpose, and David’s kingship. In this way, Jesus is the fountain of all things.

So when we call Christ our head, what we mean is that he represents us before God. This is why Paul can say of himself: “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal 2:20). If we are in Christ, this means that the death that Jesus died to sin, we also died. It means that the life he now has is our life (Col 3:1). It means that his reign is our reign (1 Cor 3:21). If Christ is your head, you are hidden in him, seated at the right hand of God, clothed in his righteousness, dead to sin, and alive to God (Rom 6, Col 3:1-4).

Christ is our representative. This is what headship means. In Christ, what happens to Jesus happens to you! This is why Paul tells us that Christ’s headship means that he is preeminent in all things (Col 1:18). It is what Paul means when he tells us that our chosenness is in Jesus (Eph 1:3-10). We have been chosen in Christ before the ages began. And the result is that Christ is our representative, and all things are be summed up in Him alone (Eph 1:10).

**For further discussion on this, you can read a post on how Jesus fulfills the Old Testament here