Covenant Theology and the Patriarchal age (part 1)

In this next age we will slow down and take it in pieces, as there are many promises and distinctions to make. The Dispy age is marked out by Charles Ryrie as occurring between Gen. 11:10 – Ex. 18:27. Generally speaking, this spans from Abraham to Moses. He summarizes the age as Abraham’s responsibility (and his linage) to remain in the promise land, while continuing to believe in and obey God. He concludes that the age ends in another failure, because in judgement the children of Israel (Jacob) are placed in bondage in Egypt and later subjected to the wilderness wanderings.

Although the Dispy summary is concise, there is concern that very crucial covenant points and promises are being omitted.  To this the Covys position is to start in Genesis 11 and look at things one promise at a time.  This is important in our study as concerning whether or not certain promises are exclusively temporal and strictly for Israel as a national body, or more broadly as representative spiritual promises, for the faithful in all ages.  It particularly matters in this “age” as we see the nation being formed from a people, and more so because these people come from one family to whom so many promises are given.

First, we start the “age” with the linage of Shem through to Abram. Recall in Genesis 9:26-27 that Shem is blessed above his other brothers, although all three are said to be part of the covenant (Gen. 9:9). So covenantally, one can be visibly acknowledged as in it, yet cursed, excommunicated, and/or “cut off” from the line or relationship it represents (branches trimmed off – Romans 11). Thus, although physically related, Ham and Japeth are not represented as spiritually and faithfully in relation to the God who gave the promises.  As such the covenantal story of the Bible regularly cuts away people or groups we are no longer to follow as being part of the main promise leading us to God’s Redeemer/Messiah.  This Messiah is the one who makes relationship with God possible, by faith.

So as we arrive at Abram living in Haran, God issues him a promise. Abram is to go wherever God leads. God adds that He will make a great nation of him, blessings him and making his name great, blessing those who bless Abram, and cursing those who curse him. Then God says this, “and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” The first part, about his descendants, name, and God’s actions towards those who positively and negatively treat Abram is relatively easy.  The last clause takes some thought as in how we are to understand the “in you” statement.  God could have said “by you” as if referring to the direct actions of Abram, but instead uses terms to describe something else. 

Covys understand this to be a reference to those, or more specifically the One, who is representatively of the linage of Abram (Jesus).  Jesus is the blessing to all the world. This is brought out through the use of how scripture interprets scripture.  Galatians 3:16, Romans 4,  and Hebrews 7 illuminate the point that Abraham was a type of federal head, representing those who would come after him, and in some cases be receiving the promises that will ultimately be fulfilled in/by Christ (2 Cor. 1:20).  Also, because the Covy does not make the age breaks the way the Dispy does, the Covy is still holding to the initial covenant promise of a seed coming who will crush Satan’s head and so on. This fits the context of the promise to Abram and scriptures full revelation of what it means to be “in” someone (namely in Christ, but here Christ is represented as in Abram’s physical and spiritual linage). We must also allow for a trinitarian understanding that although Jesus will be a descendant of Abram, He is before him as God (John 8:58).

Because of their interpretive principle of progressive revelation, Dispys are supposed to hold the promise within the isolation of Abram’s hearing. So to the Dispy, Abram could not have understood Jesus as the promise, and in his limited understanding would have looked to his literal self and/or descendants being the blessing to all literal families on earth. This places the promise of God in the odd place of not being fulfilled. There were in Abram’s time, and beyond, families who have not been literally blessed by him or his descendants. So either the promise failed or this understanding of it is wrong. Lastly, It is also wrong to suppose Abram would not have understood or made the broader spiritual connection that this promise was simply including his family in the “seed of woman” promise for the Messiah, one that God fulfills though the faithful, while removing the unfaithful. Progressive Dispys may say that spiritual salvation by faith is always in the background, but that the focus of this text is that Abram is to simply obey and follow God’s lead. Covys would point out that although that is the instruction given, it ignores the promises provided, and as such the Dispy has abandoned a literal rendering of the whole text.

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