Friday, February 25, 2011

The Notion of Covenant.

This excerpt is rather lengthy, but fascinating:
The Reformed churches in the sixteenth century primarily avoided two extremes, which were viewed as theological dangers: Roman Catholicism and the Anabaptist "radical Reformation." We do well to describe these two alternatives in terms of their approach to the story found within the Bible. A methodological concession can be offered at this point: it is likely that proponents of both church traditions would describe their own projects in very different terms, so the following should be read as the common way in which Reformed theologians of the sixteenth century characterized their opponents.

First, the Roman Catholic system of religion maintains that the Old Covenant and New Covenant are continuous. Not only is Jesus Christ the lamb of God for both Israelites and catholic believers, but the style of piety, liturgy, and polity to be followed now is basically similar to that which was practiced then. In Reformation era debates, then, the Roman church pointed to the trappings of the Old Covenant temple worship as precedent for her own elaborate Mass. The Roman Mass was not merely pomp and circumstance devised according to high cultural standards within the late medieval period; rather, it was intended to convey the aesthetic complexity of temple and tabernacle worship in contemporary format. A belief in the continuity of God's people - Israel and then the Roman church - led to an affirmation of similar vestiges in ethos and culture. This emphasis on continuity also affected issues of polity, authority, etc. ...

Second, the Anabaptist churches presented the opposition temptation. In place of Rome's emphasis on continuity, the radical Reformation accentuated all discontinuities between Israel and the churches. These reformers pointed to Paul's contrast between letter and spirit as illustrative of this broader historical difference: "we act with great boldness, not like Moses, who put a veil over his face to keep the people of Israel from gazing at the end of the glory that was being set aside" (2 Cor. 3:12-13). THis new boldness arises from the fully redeemed composition of the church, over against the mixed multitude of ethic Israel in the Old Covenant: "their minds were hardened. Indeed, to this very day, when they hear the reading of the old covenant, that same veil is still there, since only in Christ is it set aside . . . when one turns to the LORD, the veil is removed" (2 Cor. 3:14-15). The Anabaptist churches birthed communities, in fact, for they secluded themselves from broader society in an effort to remain pure and unmixed. Whereas Israel was plagued with syncretism, idolatry, unfaithfulness, the churches were now - in Jesus Christ - capable of true devotion and steadfastness. This new self-identity of the Christian community, of course, played itself out in broader reforms, leaving behind all antique forms of church life as external, physical, inferior, and Jewish. Against these mere trappings, the Christian life was spiritual, pure, regenerate, and immediate.

The Reformed churches - along with confessional Lutheran and (at times) Anglican churches - attempted to steer a middle course between these two extremes. Thus, Reformed theology can be views as attempting to negotiate the tensions of mediation, tradition, and structure, as reformed by the ever-new disruptions brought by the proclamation of the Word of God. In other words, Reformed theology affirms continuity in discontinuity, and discontinuity in continuity."

- R. Michael Allen in Reformed Theology, 35-37
Needless to say, the notion of covenant has vast implications for theology. I began to question how profoundly the Roman Catholic doctrine of soteriology is influenced and conditioned by their particular view of the radical continuity between the New and Old testament covenants (excuse the politically incorrect term "old testament"; I do realize "Hebrew Bible" is the preferred label these days, but the author uses it so I'm trying to be consistent). I am often struck by the refusal of many to admit that whatever one confesses in one particular doctrine has an impact upon one's entire theological confession. Everything is interconnected in a rather organic manner and the attempts to deny such reality is futile.

But the portion of this quote that really struck me was the correlation between the Anabaptist understanding of covenant and their views of culture. Most evangelical Churches today are not confessional (Reformed, Lutheran, Anglican, etc.) and therefore have more similarities to Anabaptist tendencies. In these types of Churches, I continually hear language of "us vs. them" in relation to the Church and broader society remaining faithful to the Anabaptist tendency to strive for "pure and unmixed" communities. But Churches that even have some influence from Reformed confessions (even if it is merely the beloved Augustinian doctrine of grace that has swept the neo-reformed movement) show a greater willingness to engage with broader culture (even if it lacks the genuine and profound Christ transforming culture paradigm that is championed by Reformed theology). And let's not even begin to discuss the effect of one's view concerning covenant upon one's view of Israel. The implications are so vast, it is astounding.

So perhaps John Hesselink was not exaggerating when he once boldly declared, "Reformed theology is covenant theology." Might one be able to say that "_____ theology is their particular view of covenant"?

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