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Catholic Culture Resources

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A Biblical Theology of Redemption in a Covenant Framework

[Catholic Biblical Quarterly 29 (January 1967) 1-19]

Current biblical theologies of redemption seem to leave room for further work. For if one asks, why did God want the death of Christ for our redemption, and how did his death bring about redemption, the answers given are not completely satisfying. We do say that Christ is our head, that He is the way, that He is the suffering servant ..., but these explanations, while quite true, do not go far enough in answering the why and the how.

It is possible to approach the redemption through several avenues. In choosing to follow up one of these avenues, we do not mean to exclude the others, nor do we claim to be considering all aspects of the redemption. We wish, however, to follow up one approach that has been rather little used, namely, through the covenant. The reason why it has been little used is the fact that there have been and still are so many debates about the nature of both the old and the new covenant and of the relations between them.

The Problem of Sinai

We must obviously begin with the Sinai covenant. Immediately we are in the midst of the debates on its nature: Was it unilateral,1 or bilateral?2

At the outset it is important to clarify what we mean by a bilateral covenant, for there has been much confusion on this point. A good example is provided by Bonsirven: "Jewish thought apparently tends more and more to the idea of a reciprocal choice, which is a distortion of the biblical concept of election. Despite appearances, including that of the Hebrew word berith, the covenant is not a bilateral contract.... God took the initiative ... he did not leave his people free to refuse the alliance that was offered. God's only commitment was to protect and reward his people if they were faithful to their promises and kept the commandment."3

Bonsirven apparently has not noticed that there are at least three distinct questions: 1) Why did God decide to make a covenant? 2) Why did He choose Israel as the partner in it? 3) Having made the covenant, why did He keep His part in it?

As to the first, Bonsirven simply says that "God took the initiative." He does not attempt to say why God made a covenant at all. As to the second, Bonsirven notes that Jewish thought tended to the notion that Israel's merits led to her choice.4 He rightly rejected such a notion as "a distortion of the biblical concept of election."5 As to the third question, why God kept His commitment under the covenant, Bonsirven says: "God's only commitment was to protect and to reward His people if they were faithful...." Now this latter statement clearly admits bilaterality in the sense that God had made a commitment, on the condition of the fidelity of His people. And yet, Bonsirven had said flatly a few lines earlier, "the covenant is not a bilateral contract."

We believe that the three questions must be kept carefully distinct. The bilaterality we wish to examine would be merely this: Was not only Israel, but also God under a commitment, so that both assumed an obligation?

Many have hoped for light from a study of the literary form of the Sinai pact, and have thought that covenant must be unilateral since the Hittite vassal treaties, which it has been said to follow, are considered unilateral. Today we cannot so readily accept that means of solution: first, because recent studies, especially those of McCarthy,6 have shown that it is at least strongly probable that Sinai does not follow the Hittite pattern;7 secondly, because even if it did, at least some of the vassal treaties do show at least some bilaterality.8

It is best to approach the problem of the Sinai covenant by strictly exegetical means. Before beginning, it is good to put ourselves on guard against the use of aprioristic considerations. For such considerations, unfortunately, seem at least to have entered this debate. One gets the impression, for example, that some interpreters have excluded in advance any bilaterality because they reject all human conditions or cooperation in divine works,9 or because they fear bilaterality would mean that God would owe10 something to His creatures, which is, we grant, impossible. Still more common is the fear that any bilaterality would contradict St. Paul.11 Now of course, we do not intend to accept any interpretation that would really contradict St. Paul. Yet, sound method requires us not to prejudge the solution by what we think St. Paul means. For perhaps new light on St. Paul will be found through a more careful study of the Sinai covenant.

The first aprioristic difficulty is easily handled, for it really applies only to Protestant, not to Catholic interpreters. As to the second: It is true God cannot, strictly, owe anything to a creature. But He can owe something to Himself if He chooses freely to make a covenant pledge. He can owe it to Himself to keep His word. That, in practice, produces substantially the same result.

We will return to the problem about St. Paul later. But first, sound procedure urges that we try to find the interpretation of Sinai by strictly exegetical means.

We notice at the outset what at least appears to be a bilateral statement in Ex 19,5-6: "Therefore if you hearken to my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my special possession, dearer to me than all other people...." In these words God seems to commit Himself to showing special favor, if His people observe the terms of the covenant which He delivers to Moses in the decalog. But before making a judgment on the matter, it is better to see how other parts of the OT understand this relationship.

Much light can be gleaned from a study of the uses of hesed in the Psalms, especially where it is used in parallelism.

First of all, we find a direct appeal to the covenant in Ps 74,20: "Look to your covenant, for the hiding places in the land and the plains are full of violence."

There are likewise appeals to the covenant bond, hesed: "Return, O Yahweh, save my life, rescue me because of your hesed."12

But we also find appeals to God's sedaqa: "In you, O Yahweh, I take refuge, let me never be put to shame, in your sedaqa rescue me and deliver me."13 And again: "Behold I long for your precepts; in your sedaqa give me life."14 We note that these appeals to sedaqa at least seem parallel to the appeals to the covenant, and so begin to suspect that for Yahweh to fulfill hesed is a matter of sedaqa.

This suspicion finds support in the many Psalm verses in which hesed is put into parallelism with sedaqa: "Keep up your hesed towards your friends; your sedaqa to the upright of heart."15 And similarly: "For your name's sake, O Yahweh, preserve me, in your sedaqa free me from distress; and in your hesed destroy my enemies, bring to naught all my foes, for I am your servant."16 In view of the parallelism in these verses, it would seem that God's exercise of hesed is considered also as an exercise of sedaqa. That is, for him to keep his part under the covenant, is a matter of moral righteousness. Hence, he must have bound himself.

We find a similar parallelism of 'emuna, fidelity to the covenant, with sedaqa. For example: "O Yahweh, hear my prayer, listen to my supplication in your 'emuna, answer me in your sedaqa."17 Again, God has bound himself.

Is our conclusion that the writers of these Psalms considered that Yahweh had bound himself vitiated by the fact that on the one hand, hesed is some times used loosely of mere mercy, rather than of the precise covenant bond, and on the other hand sedaqa in later times18 could be used also in a more vague sense? It seems not, and for several reasons:

1) We note that a condition is required, in our citations, for the exercise of hesed: "All the ways of the Lord are hesed and 'emet towards those who keep His covenant and His decrees."19 Now if a condition is required for hesed, then hesed cannot be mere mercy in the exact sense of that word, for mercy as such is gratuitous, and so does not require a condition. But here it is required that the human partner keep the covenant. Similarly: "The hesed of Yahweh is from eternity to eternity toward those who fear him; and his sedaqa toward children's children, among those who keep his covenant and remember to fulfill his precepts."20 Again, the presence of a condition, for the carrying out of hesed-sedaqa by Yahweh is not promised to all, but "toward those who fear him" and "among those who keep his covenant." Similar conditions are contained in the verses cited above: Pss 36,11 and 143,11-12.21 We note too the citation given above from Ps 25,10: "All the ways of the Lord are hesed and 'emet toward those who keep his covenant...." The coupling of hesed with 'emet shows that hesed is not a matter of mere mercy, for this exercise of hesed is a matter of 'emet, fidelity-that is, fidelity to the covenant. But fidelity to a covenant is not mere gratuitous mercy, it is the carrying out of a pledge.

2) Not a few texts put Yahweh and Israel in parallel positions. In remarkably bold language, Dt 26,17-18 asserts: "You have caused Yahweh today to say he will be a God to you ... and Yahweh has caused you today to say you will be to him a people, a special possession." Similarly, Ex 24,8 says: "Behold the blood of the covenant which Yahweh has cut with you." We note it does not say "for you," but "with you." Hence Ps 62,13 says flatly: "And you, Adonai, have hesed, for you will pay a man according to his work." In other words, a reason is given why the Lord can be said to have hesed: the reason is that he pays a man according to that man's work. So that is what hesed involves. Similarly, Dt 7,12 plainly tells the people of Israel: "As your reward for heeding these decrees and observing them carefully, Yahweh your God will keep for you the covenant and the hesed which he promised...."

3) The imagery of the marriage22 between Yahweh and his people plainly conveys the same sort of mutual bond. As Father Stuhlmueller has so well observed: "Marriage is a mutual contract, a two way agreement; what is true for one party, is true for the other. God dares to oblige himself by such an agreement."23

4) We might add too that the LXX at times renders hesed by dikaiosyne, the Greek word for justice, thereby reflecting the idea that God had bound himself. For example, in Ex 34,6-7 God describes himself as "continuing hesed [dikaiosyne] for a thousand generations." And the victory hymn of Ex 15,13 sings: "In your hesed [dikaiosyne] you led the people you redeemed."24

5) Finally, St. Paul definitely seems to consider Sinai to be bilateral, for it is that very fact that raises a difficult problem in his thought in Gal 3,16-18,25 where he tries to explain how it can be that the Sinai covenant, being conditioned on human response, did not conflict with the unconditioned promises to Abraham.

The conclusion seems to emerge that Sinai was bilateral, so that both Yahweh and His people undertook obligations, with him promising to make them his favored people on condition of their obedience. But someone may wonder if this is not rather cold legalism, and if it can fit with the gratuity of God's love. We return, therefore, to the three questions raised earlier, namely: 1) Why did God want any covenant? 2) Why did He choose Israel as the partner? 3) Why does he observe his part in it?

It is only the third question which we seem to have answered thus far, and even that only partially. The answer we have reached is that part of the reason why God keeps his part in the covenant is that he bound himself to do so. But to understand the remaining, and more basic part of the answer to this third question, we must take up the first two questions.

In regard to why God wanted any covenant: Of course, it was not to gain anything for himself: "Can a man be profitable to God ... ? Is it of advantage to the Almighty if you are just? Or is it a gain to him if you make your ways perfect?"26 Since he could not want a covenant for gain to himself, it must be that He made it out of spontaneous, unmerited, generous love. But we may still ask why that love decided to use a covenant form. At least two reasons seem obvious: 1) Human beings in general are apt to mistrust God, saying: His ways are above ours as the heavens are above the earth: Who can understand them? Israel in particular came from a milieu in which the gods were the object of mistrust.27 A covenant could be a device of love to make men know where they stand, to reassure them that at least under specified conditions they may have confidence. 2) His spontaneous love wants to give favors to men. But it is necessary, as a minimum, that men should not make themselves indisposed, so as to be incapable of receiving. The covenant could be a device to lead men to be properly disposed, so that his love could give. For love to bind itself is a testimony to its intensity, just as a man who makes a vow at least supposedly does so out of intense love, wishing to assure his own perseverance in a good course. God, of course, could not doubt his own perseverance, but he knew that men could. So again, to prove his love and thereby to move them to respond is an obvious reason for a covenant regime. Sifre on Numbers says well: "God's ways are not like those of 'flesh and blood.' For a man acquires slaves that they may look after and sustain him, but God acquires slaves that he may look after and sustain them."28

Why was Israel chosen? Of course not because after the Torah was translated into seventy languages, all but Israel refused it.29 The real reason is given in Dt 7,7: "It was not because you are the largest of all nations that the Lord set His heart on you, and chose you.... It was because the Lord loved you...." And if we press further and ask why he made that particular choice out of love, we may not unreasonably conjecture that Israel, being a stiff-necked people, needed special help and care, more so than other nations.30 A good Father gives more care to a child who needs it.

If we return now to the third question, why God kept his part of the covenant, we can easily see that the most basic reason was simply his generous, unmerited love. That love led him to make a covenant; the same love led him to observe it. The obedience, such as it was, of his people, would then be only an added and secondary reason, not the basic reason, for his giving favors under the covenant.

Jeremiah and the New Covenant

Before turning to the NT itself, we must consider the prophecy of Jer 31,31-34: "I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their fathers ... for they broke my covenant, and I had to show myself their master31.... But this is the covenant.... I will place my law within them and write it on their hearts: I will be their God, and they shall be my people." Although the immediate reference32 of this prophecy seems to be the time of the return from exile, yet, following Vatican II,33 we can see that its vision was not limited to that time, but embraced also the Christian dispensation. For, 1) The new covenant is to be made with all of God's people, with "the house of Israel and the house of Judah." But, in the merely literal and genealogical sense, only Judah, not also Israel, returned from exile. So it is best to make the full reference to Israel in the Pauline sense of spiritual descendants. Father Vawter is quite right in saying: "Anyone whose view is limited to the Old Testament's account of itself would have had to say that prophecy had failed, and that Jeremiah had ... failed worst of all. Luckily ... we have been taught by One greater than the prophets to see its fulfillment in an Israel that is truly new, an Israel that is not of the flesh but of the spirit."34 2) Christ Himself in the Cenacle clearly alludes to and intends to fulfill this prophecy, in his words about the cup of the new covenant.

We note at once that the new is to be different from the old in two ways: 1) The old was broken, but the new will be eternal; 2) The old law was written on stone, but in the new, the law will be written in hearts.35

But it is equally clear that the new is parallel to the old in the essential respects First, the old covenant created a people of God: so does the new. Second, the favor of God in the old required as a condition, the obedience of his people; in the new, obedience is likewise required, even though it is not to an external law written on stone, but to an interior law written in hearts.

The Pauline View of the New Covenant

One of the aprioristic objections to a bilateral view of Sinai was that it would not fit with the spirit of St. Paul. It is true that Paul gives no synthesis in which he describes a new covenant that is parallel to Sinai. But it is not to be expected that Paul would make such a synthesis. First, because the Semitic mind is not inclined to synthetic constructions. Second, because Paul had to argue with all vigor against those who overstressed the Sinai covenant in a distorted way. With our modern ecumenical approach, we would have made all possible concessions to the Judaizers, and would have made many a distinction in attempting to admit all possible truth in their stand. Not so Paul. As a true Semite, he did not indulge in distinctions, nor in concessions to adversaries. Instead, he barely admitted any good at all in their position, and attacked them with every bit of force he could muster.

Yet, in spite of all this, though we cannot look for a synthesis, we can look for the essential elements of the covenant view we are considering. We have already noted in regard to Jer 31 that there are two essential features needed if the new covenant is really parallel to a bilateral old covenant. That is: Does the new covenant 1) Make a new people of God ? 2) Require that that new people obey a law as a condition of obtaining divine favor?

Paul clearly teaches that the new covenant creates a new people of God: "You are the temple of the living God, as God says: For I will dwell among them and will walk among them, and I will be their God and they will be my people."36 In Rom 11 he envisions this new people as not entirely distinct from the old people of God, but rather as grafted into the old;37 and he applies to the new people the words of Hosea, originally written of the old people of God:38 "A people not mine I will call my people, and an unbeloved, beloved, and her who has not obtained mercy, one who has obtained mercy. And it shall be in the place where it was said to them: You are not my people, there they shall be called sons of the living God."39

Paul teaches that this new covenant was established in the Cenacle: "I myself have received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus, on the night in which he was betrayed, took bread ... and also the cup, saying: 'This cup is the new covenant in my blood.'"40 This blood is the price, which has bought the people of acquisition: "For you have been bought at a great price,"41 and "now that we are justified by his blood, we shall be saved through him...."42 But it is not just the mere physical shedding of the blood of Christ which wrought redemption, for Paul told the Romans: "Just as by the disobedience of the one man the many were constituted sinners, so also by the obedience of the one the many will be constituted just."43 So the obedience of Christ to the will of the Father was the basic required condition on the human side of the new covenant, just as the obedience of Israel was the human condition in the old covenant.

But Paul does not confine the requirement of obedience to Christ himself: Those who belong to his body, in order to come under the covenant with him, must do all things syn Christo. They too must obey. Paul presents this requirement in the vein inaugurated by the words of Jer 31. For he tells the Romans that the spirit of Christ writes in Christians the "law of the Spirit,"44 so that they "do not walk according to the flesh."45 But Paul knows well that Christians can refuse to follow the spirit, and so he injects a condition into his assertions, "if anyone does not have the spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ."46 And similarly: "if by the spirit you put to death the deeds of the flesh, you will live."47 Or, "Whoever are led by the spirit of God, they are the sons of God."48 We see that those who are not led by the spirit, are not sons. Paul does not even shrink from using the imagery of slavery to describe this obedience, and does so in the very epistle in which he so splendidly extols the freedom of the sons of God: "Do you not know that to whom you offer yourselves as slaves for obedience, to him whom you obey you are the slaves, whether to sin unto death, or to obedience unto justice. But thanks be to God, that you who were the slaves of sin have now obeyed ... that form of doctrine into which you have been delivered and ... you have become the slaves of justice."49

If we add up these data, we shall see that the result is really parallel to the old covenant on the essential points.50 In both, the covenant creates a people of God, to whom God binds Himself to show favor. In both, the people receive the favor on condition of obedience. In the new covenant, that obedience is basically the obedience of Christ, by which the many are constituted just. But to come under the covenant with Christ, one must be syn Christo in the double sense of pertaining to His body, and of being like Him in obedience to the law of the spirit.

The Problem of Gratuity in St. Paul

But someone will object that we seem to have destroyed the gratuity of grace, a theme so dear to Paul. To understand the situation, we must recall that Paul, like his Master, used the Semitic style of presenting complex matters. We today would construct a synthesis with many delicately drawn distinctions. But just as Christ was capable of saying on one occasion: "when you pray ... pray to your Father in secret, and your Father, who sees in secret, will reward you,"51 and on another: "let your light shine before men, in order that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven,"52 so also Paul taught by means of two series of affirmations seemingly opposed to each other. It was up to the hearer to put them together mentally if he could, or, if unable or if lacking in inclination to speculate, to simply accept in faith both series of seemingly irreconcilable teachings.

One series of Pauline texts vigorously affirms gratuity: "For we reckon that a man is justified by faith independently of the works of the Law ... to him who works, the reward is not credited as a favor, but as something due. But to him who does not work, but believes ... his faith is credited to him as justice."53 Again, Paul stresses that we are heirs since we are sons: "the spirit himself gives testimony ... that we are sons of God. But if we are sons, we are heirs also...."54 This clearly implies gratuity, for no son is said to earn his inheritance. Similarly: "... the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is life everlasting."55 Death is indeed earned, it is the wages of sin. But everlasting life is not earned, it is "the gift of God."

The apparently opposite series of Pauline statements includes chiefly those already cited on the required obedience of the new people of God. To them we might add his teaching that we are "heirs ... provided however we suffer with Him that we may also be glorified with him."56 Or, "Do we therefore through faith destroy the Law? By no means. Rather, we establish the Law."57 And again, "Circumcision does not matter, and uncircumcision does not matter, but the keeping of the commandments of God is what matters."58 And also, "For it is not they who hear the Law that are just in the sight of God; but it is they who follow the Law that will be justified."59 And Paul himself looks forward to his reward as something earned: "For the rest, there is laid up for me a crown of justice, which the Lord, the just Judge, will give to me in that day...."60

To find the synthesis which Paul did not express-and which he may never have worked out in his own mind-there are two lines of approach, each of which will reveal a different part of the complete picture.

One line begins with the three questions we asked in reference to Sinai. Briefly, we saw that there was a basic reason why God wanted to make a covenant and why he kept his part under it: that reason was unmerited, spontaneous, generous love. Having made it, there was the added reason that he had bound Himself. The same answers are to be given to these questions in regard to the new covenant. Therefore, one set of Pauline assertions brings out the most basic and fundamental reason, gratuitous love. The other set brings out the fact that there is an added reason why God honors his commitment, namely, that in his generosity he really did bind himself, so that he owes it to himself (though not, technically, to his creatures) to keep his pledge.

The second line of approach would distinguish two stages in the process the application of redemption to each man: 1) The initial becoming a member of Christ and heir of God, 2) the subsequent living out of this status.

The one series of Pauline assertions, those that stress gratuity, bring out the fact that no man by his own power merits to become a member of Christ. That status is given him without any merit on his part. It is Christ alone who has earned that favor for each man. Until a man becomes a member of Christ, he cannot earn anything under the covenant, for it is only as a member of Christ, not as a private individual, that he can come under the covenant and earn favor. So he must first become a member, and only after that can he earn divine favor by fulfilling the covenant terms. So that first stage, the most essential, is gratuitous.

The other series of Pauline teachings brings out the fact that once a man has, without any merit of his, been made a member of Christ and a sharer with him in the covenant, from then on that man can earn divine favor. And further, he is expected to, for as Paul says, those who do not walk according to the spirit do not belong to Christ, and so are not heirs with him.61

The Epistle to the Hebrews

The nature of the covenant concept held by the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews has been questioned, partly because of alleged changes in the concept of covenant due to the use of the Greek diatheke,62 partly because of the remarks in Heb 9,15-17, in which the concept of testament is dominant, as contrasted with that of a bilateral pact.

We readily grant that Heb 9,15-17 does use the word in the sense of last will. However, we believe that the correct view is given by Mendenhall, who writes: "There is an incidental argument drawn from the Greek usage of diatheke to refer to a 'last will and testament.' There can be no doubt, however, that this is simply an apologetical argument, and cannot be taken seriously as the framework of the author's concept of the covenant, which is entirely within the OT pattern of thought."63

A closer inspection of all pertinent passages in Hebrews reveals that, with the one exception noted, the writer's covenant concept is as Mendenhall asserts. For the writer clearly teaches the essential points which we have seen above, namely: 1) The covenant creates a new people of God, to whom He binds Himself to show favor; 2) this favor is dependent on a condition, obedience.

First, the new covenant does create a new people of God. This appears clearly in the long passage of 8,6-13 in which Jer 31,31ff is quoted and applied to the new covenant. We note especially v.10: "For this is the covenant ... I will put my laws into their mind and upon their hearts I will write them, and I will be their God and they shall be my people." The fact that God binds Himself is clear in v.6 of the same passage, which speaks. Of a "superior covenant enacted on the basis of superior promises." Since God has promised, He is bound by His promise.

Secondly, there is a human condition, obedience. That this condition is really required, so that there is not just a unilateral promise is made clear in several places. First in v.10, just cited: "I will put my laws into their mind and upon their hearts I will write them." But, still more clearly, 10,36 says: "For you have need of patience, that, doing the will of God, you may receive the promise." Here it is explicitly stated that for the people to receive what is promised, they must do the will of God, must obey. So it is evident that God's promise is not unilateral: it is conditioned by men's "doing the will of God."

We saw that in the thought of Paul, the essential obedience by which the new covenant is constituted is that of Christ: the obedience of others is required but is secondary. The Epistle to the Hebrews has the same teaching: "... in coming into the world He says: 'Sacrifice and oblation you did not want, but a body you have fitted to me....' Then said I: 'Behold I come to do your will, O God.' In saying in the first place, 'Sacrifices and oblations ... you did not want' ... and then saying: 'Behold I come to do your will, O God,' He annuls the first [covenant] in order to establish the second. It is in this 'will'64 that we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all."65 So Christ, who "learned obedience from the things He suffered,"66 sanctified men, and established the second covenant by this "will," that is, by the will he proclaimed on entering into the world: "Behold I come to do your will, O God." Thus "He became to all who obey him the cause of eternal salvation."67

A confirmation of the bilaterality of the covenant appears also in the repeated assertions68 that Christ is the "mediator" or "surety" of a new covenant. In the framework of a last will concept, there is neither need nor place for a mediator. In the framework of a bilateral covenant, parallel to that of Sinai, in which Moses was the mediator, there is place for the New Moses,69 Christ. As Paul says, "there is no intermediary where there is only one"70 party. But a bilateral agreement has room for an intermediary.

Other NT Writings

Elsewhere in the NT71 we do not find the clarity of covenant thought that we saw in Paul and in Hebrews. Yet the essential notions are widespread.

First, the Synoptics all present Christ as saying in the Cenacle that the cup is the new72 covenant in his blood. In so doing he is plainly alluding to and intentionally fulfilling Jer 31,31. As Mendenhall says: "In the light of covenant forms, there seems to be no reason to doubt that this act was intended as the formal rite which established a covenant relationship."73

Again, the frequent theme that Christ is the New Moses,74 points to his making a new covenant. To that new people, he gives a new law in the Sermon on the Mount. In saying that he came not to destroy but to fulfill the old law, he makes clear the parallelism of old and new. Again in the Cenacle he is depicted as giving a new law.75 Similarly, the promises of reward for following his way reveal the similarity to the old.

There is a specially explicit mention of the new people of God in 1 Pt 2,9-10, with an obvious allusion to Ex 19,5 6: "You however are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a purchased people.... You who in times past were not a people, but are now the people of God...." A similar allusion to Exodus is found in the new canticle of Ap 5,9-10: "Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain and have redeemed us for God with your blood, out of every tribe and tongue and people and nation, and made them for our God a kingdom and priests...." The eternity of the covenant is depicted in Ap 21,24, in the OT bridal covenant imagery: "And I John saw the holy city Jerusalem coming down from heaven from God, prepared like a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying: Look at the dwelling of God with men, and he will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and he will be their God with them...."

Summary and Conclusions

In the Cenacle, Christ made a new covenant in his blood. This covenant was remarkably parallel to the old on all essential points. For both covenants brought into being a people of God. In both God bound himself to show favor to his people, but he bound himself on a condition, obedience. In the old, that obedience was to the covenant law, the decalog. In the new, that decalog is not destroyed but fulfilled, but the obedience that basically creates the new covenant is not merely that of men, but that of Christ. He did not sign a document, nor did he say in explicit words that he would do all that the Father commanded. Rather, he chose a symbolic or dramatized acceptance. For if a man's body is in one place, and his blood in another, that man is dead. In putting his body under the appearance of bread, his blood under that of wine, he in effect said: "Father, I know the command you have laid upon me, to die tomorrow. Here is my body, here is my blood: I accept." But for men to enter the new people of God and come under the new covenant they must be members of him who made it, that is, members of Christ. They must, further, be conformed to him, especially in his obedience to the Father.

Finally, we are far from any legalism, in spite of the many mentions of law. For not only did the Father make neither covenant in order to gain, but also he did not choose his old or new people on the basis of merits.76 We must add that in both covenants, the basic reason why he gives his gifts is not the obedience of his people, nor even the obedience of Christ. The basic reason is simply that the Father's generous love wanted to give. He chose to use the covenant framework as a device for giving. But that covenant is not the basic reason that moved the Father. The basic reason is, in both covenants, his love. The intensity of that love was such that it wanted to bind itself. It wanted to bind itself so as to reassure77 his people of his love, and thereby to move them to respond, not for his gain, but so that he might find in them the disposition needed to receive abundantly.

That is why Paul, who is so averse to legalism, can still describe himself and the other apostles as "qualified ministers of the new covenant."78


1E.g., L. Cerfaux, Le Christ dans la théologie de Saint Paul (Paris, 21954) 110: "L'initiative de la reconciliation vient de Dieu (par le Christ) et de même qu'il n'y a pas d'alliance véritable entre Dieu et l'homme mais que l'alliance s'entend plutôt d'une disposition généreuse de Dieu acceptant l'homme dans son amitié, ainsi, dans la reconciliation, Dieu seul agit ..." [italics added]; J. Bonsirven, S.J., Theology of the New Testament (tr. S. F. Tye; Westminster, 1963) 280: "The essence of the covenant, unilateral rather than bilateral, was the promises God made.... We cannot say that blood played any part in it. This is truer still of the new covenant ..."; J. Giblet, "God's Covenant with Men," The God of Israel, the God of Christians (tr. Kathryn Sullivan, R.S.C.J.; Deus Books, 1966) 27: "Of course, this Covenant was essentially a favor and is, in no sense, a bilateral contract ...", Gerhard von Rad, Old Testament Theology (tr. D. M. G. Stalker; New York, 1962) 1,131: "... the text [of J] clearly understands the covenant ... as a unilateral protective relationship. In the Elohist's picture in Ex xxiv.3-8 ... the human partner is ... called on to make a decision and only as he declares himself ready to play his part is the covenant made." Cf. also H. B. Huffmon, "The Exodus, Sinai and the Credo," CBQ 27 (1965) 101-113; and the excellent survey by D. J. McCarthy, "Covenant in the Old Testament: The Present State of Inquiry," CBQ 27 (1965) 217-240.
2E.g., Walther Eichrodt, Theology of the Old Testament (tr. J. A. Baker; Philadelphia, 1961) I, 37: "... the use of the covenant concept in secular life argues that the religious berit too was always regarded as a bilateral relationship; for even though the burden is most unequally distributed ... this makes no difference to the fact that the relationship is still essentially two sided. The idea that in ancient Israel the berit was always and only thought of as Yahweh's pledging of himself to which human effort was required to make no kind of response (Kraetzschmar), can therefore be proved to be erroneous"; Bruce Vawter, C.M., "Our God is the God of History," Worship (April, 1958) 289: "For Amos a covenant by its very nature consists in rahamim, a term which means the spontaneous dedicated love that a mother feels for her child. The other prophets join to this the virtue of hesed, the dutiful love which results from a common bond and which conveys mutual obligations. From these two fonts have sprung the thirteenth chapter of First Corinthians and the Last Supper discourse of John's Gospel" [italics added].
3J. Bonsirven, Palestinian Judaism in the Time of Christ (tr. W. Wolf; New York, 1965) 46. [Italics added.]
4Cf. ibid., 45: "Apart from his own people, God found no nation or land capable of receiving the Torah (R. Simeon ben Yohai, ca. A.D. 150, Sifre on Deut., 32:8). God foresaw the future merits of Israel."
5Ibid. 46.
6D. J. McCarthy, Treaty and Covenant (Rome, 1963) 172: "... the great, original covenant of Sinai ... does not show the covenant form." We might add too that even if Sinai had much stronger resemblance than it actually does to the Hittite form, one might still observe with McCarthy (p. 58): "... it should be an axiom of form study that similar situations call forth similar responses, and thus formal similarity hardly proves a causal nexus between similar manifestations in different cultures."
7Cyrus H. Gordon, in spite of the fact that he at times goes beyond his evidence, yet seems to have shown an at least probable existence of what could be called the Amarna culture, i.e., many common cultural features in the civilizations of Egypt, Palestine, and even Greece and some other near eastern areas during the Amarna period. He is clearly correct in saying (The Common Background of Greek and Hebrew Civilizations, New York, 1965, 96): "One of the most remarkable documents of ancient Anatolia is the Apology of Hattusili III. Though a son of King Mursili, Hattusili was not in line to succeed his father. And yet he did ... wrest the throne for himself. To justify himself he composed this Apology showing how he had been wronged and how he and the goddess Ishtar entered into a covenant, whereby she protected him and advanced his career in return for his devotion to her and for his elevation of her to the foremost place among the gods. The relationship between the king and the protecting deity is of a piece with the personal Covenant relationship between the Patriarchs and Yahweh in which human devotion is matched by divine protection. Greek heroic literature is replete with illustrations of such covenant relationships between a particular man and a particular deity." Cf. also ibid., 256-257, and H. Mattingly, Roman Imperial Civilization (New York, 1959) 262: "The usual form of prayer was the vow, the prayer accompanied by the promise to pay some tribute named when the prayer was answered."
8Cf. the treaty of Duppi-Tessub (in ANET 204): "When I, the Sun, sought after you in accordance with your father's word and put you in your father's place, I took you in oath for the king of the Hatti land, and for my sons and grandsons. So honor the oath to the king and the king's kin! And I, the king, will be loyal toward you, Duppi-Tessub" [italics added]. Cf. also McCarthy, "Three Covenants in Genesis," CBQ 26 (1964) 188-189.
9There is a tendency to consider that the divine favors had been given in advance of Sinai. This eliminates, or seems to eliminate, a need to return in bilaterality. Cf. Huffmon, art. cit., 108: "... Sinai ... based upon prior gracious acts of the suzerain...."
10Cf. the comment in ThWNT 2, 477: "Nur muss man dabei festhalten, dass es immer de hesed ist, den Gott verheizen hat, den man zwar nicht beanspruchen kann, den man aber erwartet...."
11Cf. McCarthy, "Covenant in the Old Testament...," 233.
12Ps 6,5.
13Ps 71,1-2.
14Ps 119,40. Cf. Pss 116,3-6; 31,2, and Dt 32,4.
15Ps 36,11.
16Ps 143, 11-12. Cf. Ps 40,11.
17Ps 143,1. Cf. also parallelisms of hesed with mishpat (often with sedaqa in the same passage): Ps 33,4-5; 36,6-7; 89,15, 119,149.
18Cf. Bonsirven, Palestinian Judaism 19.
19Ps 25,10.
20Ps 103,17-18.
21Cf. also Ps 32,10; Dt 7,9-10; Dn 9,4.
22Hos 2,18-22; Jer 2,2; 3,1; Ez 16,8; Is 50,1; 54,5, 62,5.
23Carroll Stuhlmueller, C.P., The Prophets and the Word of God (Notre Dame, 1964) 103.
24Cf. Is 38,19; Gn 24,27; 32,11.
25Paul tries to solve the problem by saying in 3,21 that if a law had been given that could give life, there would be a conflict between law and promise: but, the law cannot give life; so, there is no conflict. His interpretation is hardly meant as literal, but is rather of the Rabbinic type which can ignore the literal sense. This is shown by the fact that Paul in 3,15-16 takes sperma to refer to Christ because it is singular. This of course ignores the fact that both the Greek and the Hebrew nouns though singular in form are commonly collective in sense. Paul himself takes the same sperma as collective in Rom 9,7; 4,13.16. Further, Paul ignores the original literal object of the old promise, i.e., the land and temporal favor, which were later understood more and more of spiritual favors (S. Lyonnet, De peccato et redemptione [Romae, 1957, 1960] I,34; II,36) but in their original literal sense as seen by the first readers could not have been taken of eternal salvation, of which the first readers probably had no concept.
26Jb 22,2-3.
27Cf. a Mesopotamian hymn: "What is in Enlil's holy mind? What has he planned against me in his holy mind? A net he spread: that is the net of an enemy. A snare he set: that is the snare of an enemy.' Cited from Thorkild Jacobsen, "Mesopotamia," The Intellectual Adventure of Ancient Man (Chicago, 1946) 144.
28Sifre on Numbers, Shelah § 115,35a, cited from C. K. Barrett, The New Testament Background: Selected Documents (New York, 1961) 152.
29Cf. Bonsirven, Palestinian Judaism 53.
30Paul asserts that men are chosen for the people of God, not on the basis of merits (Rom 9), but that instead, "the foolish things of the world has God chosen to put to shame the wise, and the weak things of the world has God chosen to shame the strong' (1 Cor 1,26-27); Ezekiel is told (3,5-7) that he is not being sent to strange nations but to Israel who will reject him, though the nations would accept him; the book of Jonah depicts the Assyrians, the worst of all people in the Jewish mind, as readily listening to a prophet, though Israel stoned her prophets; the Gospels depict just one cured leper, a Samaritan, as returning to say thanks while nine of the chosen people did not, and again, represents officials of the chosen people passing by the wounded man on the way to Jericho, while only a Samaritan showed charity. Cf. W. Most, De gratia et praedestinatione (Romae, 1963) §§ 68-69.
31J. Coppens ("La nouvelle alliance en Jer 31,31-34," CBQ 25 [1963] 14) translates "car eux ont violé mon alliance et, moi, j'ai dû agir envers eux en maître-époux." The CCD translation brings out better the fact that the violation of the covenant made it necessary for Yahweh to act not as a kinsman but as a master.
32Paul indulges in a similar amplification of the words of Hosea in Rom 9,24ff.
33De Ecclesia 2,9: "'Ecce dies veniunt, dicit Dominus, et feriam domui Israel et domui Iuda foedus novum....' Quod foedus novum Christus instituit, novum scilicet testamentum in suo sanguine, ex Iudaeis ac gentibus plebem vocans, quae non secundum carnem sed in Spiritu ad unitatem coalesceret, essetque novus Populus Dei."
34Bruce Vawter, C.M., The Conscience of Israel (New York, 1961) 277. Cf. Rom 9,6-8.
35W. D. Davies, Torah in the Messianic Age and/or the Age to Come (JBL Monograph Series, VII; Philadelphia, 1952) 21-28, argues convincingly that the interior character of the new law does not preclude that law being simultaneously written.
362 Cor 6,16.
37Rom 11,13-22.
38S. Lyonnet, Quaestiones in Epistulam ad Romanos (Rome, 1956) II, 60-61.
39Rom 9,25-26.
401 Cor 11,23-25. Cf. W. D. Davies, Paul and Rabbinic Judaism (London, 1962) 250-253, esp. 253: "It is not then as sacrificial and expiatory but as covenantal that Paul chiefly thinks of the Death of Jesus in the context of the Last Supper, although of course everything covenantal had a sacrificial basis."
411 Cor 6,20.
42Rom 5,9; cf. 3,25 and Eph 1,7; 2,13; Col 1,14-20.
43Rom 5,19. Cf. Davies, Paul and Rabbinic Judaism 265-66: "... the death of the Messiah could only have one meaning for him, it would be the expression of obedience to the demands of God.... Paul's emphasis on the category of obedience as the clue to the Death of Jesus is essentially Rabbinic."
44Rom 8,2.
45Rom 8,1.
46Rom 8,9.
47Rom 8,13.
48Rom 8,14.
49Rom 6,16-18. Davies (Paul and Rabbinic Judaism 148-150, 222, 223, 225-226) holds that Paul thought of Jesus as Himself the New Torah. As to the slave imagery, we note that in Col 3,23-24 Paul glides without effort between the sonship imagery ("inheritance") and slave imagery.
50Cf. G. E. Mendenhall, s.v. "Covenant," Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible (New York, 1962) 723: "... the Sinai covenant of the OT and the NT covenant in Christ's blood are one: each created a people of God out of those who were no people, demanded the complete self-surrender to God as a joyful response to the love of God which preceded. The simple stipulations of the Decalogue were summed up in the yet simpler obligation of love at Jesus' command...."
51Mt 6,6.
52Mt 5,16.
53Rom 3,28; 4,4-5.
54Rom 8,16-17.
55Rom 6,23.
56Rom 8,17.
57Rom 3,31.
581 Cor 7,19.
59Rom 2;13-14. Paul does not consider this as a mere speculative hypothesis, but as a reality, for he says that the Gentiles "do what the Law prescribes" and that they show "the work of the Law written in their hearts"-by the spirit, spoken of in chapter 8.
602 Tm 4,8. Paul's thought on merit is fully in accord with the Rabbinic thought the time and with his own Rabbinic training, as Davies shows well (Paul and Rabbinic Judaism 268-273).
61Pauline faith is closely related to the covenant condition, obedience. For Pauline faith, being the adherence of the whole man to God, will vary according to the type of encounter. If God speaks a truth, total adherence means intellectual assent; if God makes a promise, it requires full confidence; if God gives a command, adherence means obedience. The faith of Abraham of which Paul speaks in Rom 4 is both intellectual assent and confidence. But it is, in a way, also obedience, for God ordered Abraham to believe, and Abraham did so. Yet, in view of what we said above about the need of first becoming a member of Christ and only after that being able to earn under the covenant, Abraham's response here would not earn his justification, for that justification was the OT counterpart of Christian justification in which a man first becomes a member of Christ, the prerequisite for earning anything. Cf. W. Most, op. cit., §§ 77-87.
62As early as the 1920's exegetes began to give up the too Hellenistic interpretation of diatheke. L. G. Da Fonseca concluded an exhaustive philological study ("Diatheke -Foedus an Testamentum," Bib 9 [1928] 158) with this result: "Veterem diatheken intelligunt NT Aa qualem veteres Hagiographi concipiebant: Foedus inter Deum et homines, uno Deo auctore instituto, sed in se ipso bilaterale, iniquum (maximam partem) hypotheticum.... Novam autem diatheken modo prorsus parallelo concipiunt' [italics his]. He found no instance at all in the LXX where diatheke meant last will. The entry in ThWNT 2,137 agrees: "Form und Inhalt des Begriffes diatheke verdankt das NT dem AT. Was zwischen AT und NT liegt, ist der Schritt von der Weissagung zur Erfüllung." Moulton-Milligan, Vocabulary of the Greek New Testament (London, 1957) 148, says: "we may fairly put aside the idea that in LXX 'testament' is the invariable meaning: it takes some courage to find it there at all." Various commentators agree, e.g., the article on "Covenant" in the Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Bible (New York, 1963) says: "Throughout, the sacred writers of the NT appear to have kept the OT concepts; a contrary opinion is held by some who conclude that the NT writers misunderstood the OT, and intentionally or unintentionally transformed diatheke='covenant' into diatheke='testament.' But such a thing is hardly likely for writers who were born Jews.... It can hardly be doubted that Paul understands diatheke in the OT sense.... Only in Gal 3,15 ff is diatheke used in the Hellenistic sense of testament ... the writer [of Hebrews] understood diatheke in the OT sense." Cf. also the citation from Mendenhall below, at note 63. For certain, it is not possible to hold that the OT notion of covenant was forgotten by NT times. Lyonnet (Quaestiones in Epistulam ad Romanos [Roma, 21962] 89-101) has shown that it was well known. And Paul had to fight against a distortion of that covenant idea, which, however, was objectionable only in that it attributed to man's unaided power the ability to merit justification. Paul himself, as we saw above, clearly understood the old covenant as bilateral, in Gal 3,16-18, where he tried to solve a difficult problem brought on by that bilaterality. Cf. note 25 above. We also saw above that Paul has all the essential elements of the bilateral covenant in his own teaching. The Qumran community certainly had the old idea of covenant, which permeated all their writings. Cf., e.g., Hymn 5,5-19 (T. H. Gaster, The Dead Sea Scriptures [New York, 1964] 153): "... to them that seek after that truth, Thou bindest Thyself in pledge"; and the Zadokite document (Gaster, op. cit., 75) speaks of "the covenant which he made with those ancients to forgive their iniquities." (The thought that God had even bound himself to forgive perhaps reflects such passages as Mi 7,9 and Ps 51,16.) We might add that not all scriptural usage of words corresponds to the secular use; cf., e.g., `ilaskesthai in the study by Lyonnet, De peccato et redemptione (Romae, 1960) II, 67-117.
63Art. cit., 723.
64Thus even though Hebrews stresses sacrifice more than covenant, it does recognize obedience as the heart of sacrifice. Cf. the comment of Sifre on Numbers 28,8 in regard to the prescription of offering a second lamb at evening "as a sweet-smelling oblation to the Lord":-"This is said to teach you that it makes no difference to God whether one offers much or little. For precisely as it says 'a sweet-smelling oblation' in regard to the offering of an ox, so does it also in regard to the offering of a sheep or a goat and so also in regard to the offering of a bird. It is said to teach you that in his sight eating and drinking are nothing, but much more ... because he has said [commanded] it, and now, in the presentation of the offering, His will is done." This is clearly an echo of 1 Sm 15,22: "Obedience is better than sacrifices"; cf. Hos 6,6: "For hesed is my pleasure, and not sacrifice." That is, what counts is obedience to the covenant.
65Heb 10,5-10.
66Heb 5,8.
67Heb 5,9.
68Heb 7,22; 8,6; 9,15; 12,24.
69Cf. Heb 3,1-6. The New Moses theme is common in the NT elsewhere too; cf., for example, Mt 2,15.20; Jn 1,17; Acts 3,22. The SBJ in a note on Dt 18,18 says: "Sur la base de ce texte du Dt, les Juifs ont attendu le Messie comme un nouveau Moïse." Cf. also Davies, Paul and Rabbinic Judaism, chapters 7-9, esp. p. 144, and H. M. Teeple, The Mosaic Eschatological Prophet (JBL Monograph Series, X; Philadelphia 1957).
70Gal 3,20.
71It is interesting to note also Pliny, Epistles 10,96: "Adfirmabant autem hanc fuisse summam vel culpae suae vel erroris, quod essent soliti stato die ante lucem convenire carmenque Christo quasi deo dicere s cum invicem, seque sacramento non in scelus aliquod obstringere, sed ne furta, ne latrocinia, ne adulteria committerent, ne fidem fallerent, ne depositum appellati abnegarent...." Mendenhall (art. cit.) thinks, rightly, that this may reflect a covenant notion.
72The word new is lacking in the better MSS of Mt 26,28 and Mk 14,24, but is present in Lk 22,20 and in 1 Cor 11,25.
73Mendenhall, art. cit., 722.
74Cf. note 69 above.
75Jn 13,34.
76Rom 9,11-18.
77Cf. Rom 5,8-9: "But God proves His love for us, because when we were yet sinners, Christ died for us."
782 Cor 3,6.



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