There’s a lot of material in the Bible on covenant, the vast majority of which focuses on God’s covenants with his people. But there are human relationships in the Bible also described as covenants, such as Abraham and Abimelech (Gen. 21:27, 32), and Jacob and Laban (Gen. 31:44). Importantly, marriages are named as covenants. God explicitly calls human marriage a covenant (Malachi 2:14). God also describes his own covenant with his people as a marriage (Ezek. 16), and this is surely one of the aspects of God’s marriage that is mirrored in our own (Eph. 5:32).
There are some dimensions of God’s covenant with his people that are not mirrored in all human marriages, except in rare cases such as Hosea. But there are still many insights into covenant from biblical theology that we can apply to our own marriage covenants. Here, in no particular order, are twelve reflections on marriage as a covenant:
Architecture. Covenants are relational-structural bonds. As a bond, a covenant establishes a sort of structure or architecture for the relationship. Like the architecture of a house, the covenant is not the purpose of marriage, but reflecting on the covenant can help us to understand the purpose and pattern of marriage. The covenant is sort of the hub or lattice on which all of the pieces of marriage can be arranged.
Complementarity. All covenants are asymmetric or complementary relationships in some way. Complementarity, the differing roles and responsibilities of husband and wife in the dance of marriage, is built into the fabric of covenant. For example, God calls the husband and wife together by the name of the husband (Gen. 5:2), and the first husband named the first wife. God, who establishes the marriage covenant (Matt. 19:6) has different exhortations and requirements for husbands and wives (Eph. 5:22, 25).
Particularity. Covenants are particular and exclusive: God is God and savior to these people; this man cleaves to this woman and no other.
Death. Covenants are not mere contracts that exchange goods and services for mutual benefit. Contracts have their place, but a covenant is a promise and a giving of oneself. Theologians speak of the “self-maledictory oath” in a covenant: covenant promises are a sort of “cross my heart and hope to die.”
Blessing and curse. There are always both blessings and curses attached to a covenant. God calls us to a standard of fidelity and sacrifice, but in this he equally intends to give us great gifts and happiness and joy. In fact, death and sacrifice are the very soil in which happiness and joy flourish.
Adoption. A good picture of a covenant is what happens in adoption: you leave an old world-situation-family and enter into a new one; you become responsible for and to one another. In fact, in marriage, husband and wife do adopt one another as brother and sister in a way (consider the sister-bride in the Song of Solomon).
New creation. Every covenant establishes a new creation, a new order of things. This involves a rejection and separation and death to what came before: what came before was good in its time, but it is no longer adequate for the current situation. Out of this death, every covenant brings a kind of new life or resurrection into a new world-creation.
Union. This new creation involves a new union: union with Jesus in one case, or union with one another in marriage. This is the husband and wife becoming one flesh, leaving and cleaving; it is an incorporation of the other into oneself. Sex is a part of this but it does not exhaust the meaning of it.
Signs. Covenants have covenant signs that mark their establishment and renewal. The old covenants were marked or renewed with rainbow, circumcision, offering, and sacrifice-feast. The new covenant is marked in baptism and renewed in the Lord’s Supper. Our marriage covenants are marked (often) by the exchange of rings, and renewed in sex.
Fellowship. These unions and covenant signs often include meals. The meals are an expression of fellowship, a high point of the entire covenant. Consider that God’s covenants are broken by false eating (Genesis 3, 1 Cor. 10) and in the end are summed up in a feast (Revelation 19). Even the most reluctant of covenants (Jacob and Laban) is an expression of equality through a meal (Gen. 31:54). Likewise there is an experience of equal footing and deep fellowship that we are to enjoy in our marriages.
Administration. Covenants make provision for their administration: they are not private agreements, but public ones. Our marriages are administered by God (Matt. 19:6, Mk. 10:9) through the help of his body that also serves as a witness.
Succession. All covenants make provision for their future and succession. God’s covenants include promises and instruction for future generations. God intends for our own marriage covenants normally to produce worshipers (Mal. 2). We also see that God intends to preserve Christian marriages (Mt. 19:6, Mk. 10:9), and this is not a mere platitude: he will give grace to us to accomplish this.
Peter Leithart makes the point that the genealogies of 1 Chronicles 1 shift from father-son language to the language of death with the introduction of kings. Building on this, we could say that:
- Priests beget sons and houses in a Fatherly fashion (1 Chronicles 6:3)
- Kings beget kings and kingdoms in a Son-like fashion, by dying (1 Chronicles 29:28 – 2 Chronicles 1:1)
- Prophets beget in a Spirit-like fashion, by speaking-breathing:
- New life into being by their prayer (1 Kings 17)
- A new covenant-creation-world into being by their authority (Zechariah)
- New prophets into being by their teaching (2 Kings 2:3)
All God’s people now are priests (1 Peter 2:5), kings (Ephesians 2:6), and prophets (Acts 2:17-18). Be fruitful, and multiply!
James Jordan suggests a kind of monergistic understanding of sacrifice:
Sacrifice is something God does, not something we do. We commonly speak of “making a sacrifice” when we give something up for someone else. That “works-centered” notion of sacrifice does not do justice to the Biblical idea of sacrifice. The lamb led to the slaughter was not particularly thrilled at the idea, and neither was Jesus, who asked that if possible the cup might be taken from Him. When God comes to sacrifice us it is usually painful, and that is why singing the psalms is so important, because the psalms are full of pain.
We would like to think that when the pain comes, we will joyfully accept it. Sometimes that is what happens, but think about it: If you are able to keep a cool head during your suffering, then you are not experiencing the fullness of suffering. The most potent kind of suffering, and of sacrifice, comes when you experience a “dark night of the soul,” when it feels as if God has deserted you, when the inward agony does not let up day after day, when you are weak and not strong, when you join Job on the ash heap of ignorance concerning what God is doing to you. This kind of sacrificial experience means that the Great Physician is doing “depth surgery” on you, operating at levels you cannot understand. The psalms are full of this kind of experience, and it is this kind of experience that Lord’s Day worship is, in part, all about. (Theses on Worship, 86)
James Jordan writes of a three-layered meaning of the parable of the Good Samaritan:
For 1900 years, pastors in every branch of the Church have interpreted the parable of the Good Samaritan as having a “first application” to our Lord Himself. Jesus is the Good Samaritan, who helped in the face of death when the Old Creation’s representatives (priest and Levite) were unable and unwilling to do so. The inn at which He left the man is the Church, the community of believers that has been given money and oil (the Spirit) to help converts. The broken man in the parable is the lawyer who asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus answered, “I am your Neighbor, man. Don’t you see that you are near death? You have left the holy city Jerusalem and gone down to the accursed city of Jericho. You need a Neighbor, and I am He.” A secondary point of the parable of course, is to set an example for us, who are in Christ. (Theses on Worship, 56)
Luther states that “This Samaritan of course is our Lord Jesus Christ himself.” Calvin, on the other hand, notes in his commentary that he has “no liking” for this interpretation, suggesting that it “disguise[s] its natural meaning.” To be fair, Calvin here is not arguing against Luther directly, but rather against “advocates of free will” who apparently argue from the man’s injury rather than death that he was not beyond reach of saving himself. Perhaps Calvin would not after all disagree with Luther’s and Jordan’s more straightforward application.
I side with Luther and Jordan. With Frame (tri-perspectivalism) and Poythress (symphonic theology) I don’t think that we must choose a single natural meaning and application here to the exclusion of all others. For example, we follow the very same approach in the Psalms, where we acknowledge that Jesus is the first singer of the Psalms (consider Heb. 2:11-12), and yet both the church corporate (the body of Jesus) and the individual Christian (united with Jesus) are also proper singers of the Psalms.
Calvinism is often accused of a kind of fatalism or determinism that does violence to the will of the creature. But this is a caricature, at least of the best of Calvinism. For example, the Westminster Confession of Faith confesses that “God from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass; yet . . . the liberty or contingency of second causes [is not] taken away, but rather established.” (WCF 3.1)
This was a position that ebbed and flowed in the church. Augustine defended the sovereignty of God against Pelagius, and the Protestant reformation once again recaptured it.
In his recent book, Delivered From the Elements of the World, Peter Leithart shows that a healthy Augustinian view still persisted in the early stages of medieval Scholasticism:
[H]igh Scholastics like Aquinas did not . . . think that human beings could in any way escape the oversight and providence of God. Human beings are ontologically incapable of being independent causes of anything. For Thomas at least, cooperation between God and humans is not competition, and causation is not a sum total of divine and human causation.
According to Fergus Kerr, this theme “takes us right to the heart of Thomas’s theology. He often quotes Isaiah 26:12: ‘Lord, thou has wrought all our works in us’—which he takes . . . precisely as excluding all competitiveness between divine and human agency.” Cooperation for Thomas does not picture “two rival agents on a level playing field,” but rather he “sees it as a mark of God’s freedom, and ours, that God ’causes’ everything in such a way that the creature ’causes’ it too.” . . . According to Kerr, Thomas consistently contests the notion that “if God produces the entire natural effect, surely nothing is left for the human agent to do,” emphasizing instead a doctrine of “double agency,” in which God and humans act to produce the same effect, though in different ways. Thomas rightly sees this as an implication of the doctrine of creation: “It is always by divine power that the human agent produces his or her own proper effect: that is the doctrine of creation. It is not superfluous, even if in principle God can by himself produce all natural effects, for them to be produced by us as causes. Nor is this a result of the inadequacy of divine power, as one might be tempted to think, thus giving way to the charms of process theology. On the contrary: it is a result of the immensity of God’s goodness (bonitas: “bounty”). It is another implication of the doctrine of creation that God wills to communicate his likeness to things not only so that they might simply exist but that they might cause other things. Indeed, this is how creatures generally attain the divine likeness—by causing.”
. . . On this early understanding [prior to 1250], . . . [d]ivine and human causation are never in competition; causation is not a “zero-sum game” in which creaturely causation can only be affirmed at the expense of divine causation. Every event in creation is wholly the product of God’s action, and yet at the same time it is totally caused by creatures. God causes by influencing from within the creation, not by exerting power externally from without. . . .
So long as divine and human causation were not seen to be competitive, and as long as a human action was not conceived of as the product of human causation added to divine causation, human contributions to salvation could not be conceived of as independent contributions. On this view, there might be a proper synergism: We work out our salvation not in addition to God working in us, but because God works in us. We work and love because his Spirit who is love is poured into us and his power works in us. As soon as the notion of causation assumes an area of pure nature in which human beings act and exist in semi-independence of God’s action, then synergism becomes a Pelagian nightmare. This is the kind of cooperation posited by late medieval theology, and the kind of cooperation the Reformers were correct utterly to reject. (Leithart, 320-324)
All this is simply to say that God is the author of his creation. We do not think to say that Sauron and Saruman are not deeply responsible and accountable for their actions just because Tolkien penned them. We do not think to say that Frodo and Sam made no great sacrifice or achieved no great thing because Tolkien had intended it all along. Nor do we think to charge Tolkien with a lack of affection for his creation, willfully subjecting so many to the destruction of Melkor, Smaug, Sauron, Saruman and others, merely to show off his ability to turn a beautiful story.
Nor should we think to charge God with this.
Yet, wonder of wonders, unlike any other author, God entered his own creation to make things more deeply right than any other story.
God so loved the world (John 3:16)
Outrushing the fall of man is the height of the fall of God. (Chesterton, Gloria in Profundis)
Peter Leithart opens his recent book, Delivered From the Elements of the World, with the following observation:
No purely secular society exists or has ever existed. Define religion how you will: As a matter of ultimate concern, as belief in something transcendent, as the organizing master narrative for history and human lives, as a set of practices. However religion is defined, all institutions, structures and patterns of behavior have religious features. All cultures are infused with values and actions that have religious dimensions and overtones. Whether they name the name of a known God or not, societies and cultures are always patterned by some ultimate inspiration and aspiration.
By the same token, all religions have social aspects; they are all embedded in and rely on patterns of interaction among persons. Even the retreat of a solitary ascetic into the desert is a social act, since it is a retreat from social relation. And all religions deal with artifacts, symbols and rituals that might as well be called “cultural.”
Religion is not the “soul” of culture, nor culture the “body” of religion. Religions have bodies, and cultures have souls. It is rather the case that in dealing with any group of human beings, we are always dealing with socio-religious or religio-cultural entities. The common contemporary rhetoric of conflicts between religion and politics obscures the reality. Conflicts are never between politics and religion. Conflicts are always between rivals that are both religious and both political.
Islamic terrorists kill themselves and innocent bystanders for overtly religious reasons. In response, the United States sends troops to the Middle East to make the world safe from terrorism, but also to sacrifice themselves to preserve and advance America’s values, freedom and democracy. To say that the terrorist and the Marine are both motivated by religious values is not to make a moral equivalence. But we misread the times unless we recognize that the war on terror is a religious war on both sides.
We think ourselves all secular, all grown-up, but we have our taboos, our pollution avoidances, our instincts of recoil and disgust. Not so long ago, many found homosexual sodomy disgusting. In a matter of decades, the disgust has turned inside out, and now those who consider homosexual conduct sinful and unnatural are outcasts, treated with contempt. The freedom to engage in any form of consensual sex is now considered a right, and a sacred one, as inviolable as the sacred precincts of an ancient temple. (Delivered From the Elements of the World, 11-12)
If the Philistines have taken our cities and our churches, we can still be agents of Yahweh’s victory. If we end up in exile or worse, it is because Jesus is sending us into new territory. The ark wasn’t captured, and neither was Samson. They were deployed. When God is with us, we are never captives. We are always invaders. Wherever He sends us, He sends us with better news than Dagon’s, the good news of Dagon’s ultimate defeat.