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The Unity of God's Covenantal Plan: A Dissertation Review

By P. Andrew Sandlin
August 01, 1998

Rarely has Chalcedon published reviews of academic dissertations or theses, not even in the Journal of Christian Reconstruction, our occasional scholarly organ. But Robert S. Rayburn's "The Contrast Between the Old and New covenants in the New Testament" (doctoral thesis, University of Aberdeen, 1978) warrants just such attention.

Rayburn's principal thesis is that, contrary to certain sectors of traditional understanding, the old and new covenants do not describe religio-historical ethics or eras, but the subjective conditions of individuals since the fall of man. It has been assumed in some quarters, for example, that the old covenant refers to the dispensational period comprehending the Old Testament, or at least the Mosaic economy, while the new covenant refers to that heightened religious life and condition ushered in by the redemptive work of Christ and described in the New Testament. In its cruder forms, this notion reduces to old covenant = Old Testament, new covenant = New Testament. It is this thesis which Rayburn's dissertation effectively confutes.

After surveying the covenant idea as it appears in the Old Testament, in Judaism, and in the New Testament, Rayburn addresses the three chief passages in the New Testament in which the old and new covenants are contrasted: Galatians 3-4, 2 Corinthians 3: 6-18, and the book of Hebrews (specifically 8:6ff., 9:15f., 12:15f.). While these three principal passages manifest minor variations, Rayburn asserts they are variations on the same theme: the Biblical writers' dissent from and assault on a Judaistic misunderstanding of the Old Testament and its religion. Rayburn observers that, far from positing the relative inferiority of Old Testament religion—including Old Testament law—properly understood, St. Paul and the author of Hebrews condemn the Judaizing misunderstanding and misuse of Old Testament religion.

This conclusion (buttressed by careful, extensive exegesis) leads to several conclusions highlighting the unity of Biblical revelation.

First, because the old covenant and new covenant are subjective conditions rather than objective religio-historical eras, we can expect to find new covenant religion practiced in the Old Testament historical era, and old covenant religion practiced in the New Testament era. Indeed, as Rayburn notes, the guiding concern of the writer of Hebrews is to warn his hearers of falling into just such old covenant religion which he identifies as obsession with religious externals to the neglect of Christ, with unbelief, and with apostasy. Rather, Hebrews holds up as examples for New Testament Christians the numerous new covenant individuals in the Old Testament (Heb. 11).

Second, the old and new covenants represent an absolute, and not relative, contrast; they are antithetical to one another. It is often simply presumed that Galatians 3-4 and especially 3:21-4:11 describe the contrast between pre-incarnation, Old Testament religion and post-incarnation, New Testament religion; but Rayburn notes, quite correctly, that this simply cannot be the case. In 3:24, 4:3, and 4:9, the state of childhood or subservience to the law is described as one of condemnation, bondage, and estrangement from God—this can hardly describe the godly saints of the Old Testament era! By no means is St. Paul indicting the law in this context, or even implying its inferiority in contrast with Christ's redemptive work. Rather, the Apostle has in view the law's enslaving function among those filled with unbelief and estranged from Jesus Christ. The variable is in man, not in the law.

Third, Christ's historical-redemptive work is the hinge on which godly religion in both the Old Testament and New Testament eras turns. The relentless attack by the author of Hebrews, for instance, on the sacrificial and Levitical system practiced in the Old Testament cannot be construed as a debasement of those systems properly understood—the external cultus and testimony of our Lord Jesus Christ and his redemptive work. Rather, they are dangerous economies and practices when sequestered from that redemptive work itself, and from a lively, active faith that flows from union with Christ. Likewise, in his treatment of 2 Corinthians 3:6-18 (in what may be the most dazzling interpretive insight in this remarkable work), Rayburn observes that the contrast between the ministries of Moses and Paul which the latter addresses is not that the religious economy that Moses and the Old Testament upheld was somehow different from and inferior to Paul's, but that the ministry of the latter was sovereignly crowned with success—God graciously blessed the gospel preaching of St. Paul in a way he did not graciously bless the gospel preaching of Moses. Note carefully the prediction that when the sovereignly blind Jews turn to the Lord, the veil over their eyes will be taken away—but the object of their investigation which will one day disclose to them the truth of Christianity and the glory therein revealed is found in what Paul calls the "old testament" (2 Cor. 3:14). This of itself puts to lie the notion that either the Mosaic economy or the Mosaic revelation is somehow substantively different from and inferior to the message of the New Testament, the gospel preached by St. Paul.

Rayburn therefore concludes "that the only interpretation of the two covenants which does not involve a fundamental disruption of the Scripture writer's categories is that which understands the old covenant to be the relationship established by God with an unbelieving people (Israel) and the new covenant to be that relationship with God which is entered into by believers" (p. 228). For this reason, even to this day, unbelievers stand in covenant relationship with God—the old covenant of unbelief, works-righteousness, and Christlessness for which they will be judged unless they repent and turn to Christ.

In addition, Rayburn's thesis unwittingly refutes the popular notion that A. D. 70 constitutes an epochal pivot in God's redemptive plan in that (one hears argued) it signals the definitive destruction of the old covenant historical order. For Rayburn, the old covenant is not an historical order at all, but a subjective condition. The old covenant is destroyed experientially every time a sinner is regenerated. Rayburn asserts that the new covenant is not fully consummated until eternity but that certain of its benefits are experienced in the present historical order—in both Old and New Testament eras.

This dissertation presents potent evidence of the fundamental unity not merely of the Biblical revelation, but of God's covenantal and soteriological plan through the ages. It builds effectively on R. L. Dabney's work, who, in explaining the New Testament writers' seeming attacks in the reading of the Old Testament religion and the law, notes, "[W]e must always remember that the Apostles are using, to a certain extent, an argumentum ad hominem: they are speaking of the Mosaic institutions under the Jewish view of them. They are treating of that side or aspect, which alone the perverse Jew retained of them. Here is the key" (R. L. Dabney, Lectures in Systematic Theology [Grand Rapids, 1878, 1976], 458).


Topics: Dispensationalism, Old Testament History, New Testament History

P. Andrew Sandlin

P. Andrew Sandlin is a Christian minister, theologian, and author.  He is the founder and president of the Center for Cultural Leadership in Coulterville, California.  He was formerly president of the National Reform Association and executive vice president of the Chalcedon Foundation.  He is a minister in the Fellowship of Mere Christianity.. He was formerly a pastor at Church of the Word in Painesville, Ohio (1984-1995) and Cornerstone Bible Church in Scotts Valley, California (2004-2014).

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