Is the Covenant of Works an Aberrant Theological Construct? Part III: the CoW Christologically Understood

christ deathThis is the final installment of our series on the covenant of works. See here and here for the first and second installments.

V. The Covenant of Works Christologically Understood

It has been persuasively argued by biblical scholars that the original human beings expressed their divine image-bearing natures as priest-kings. Thus, Adam and Eve were to tend the garden of God, which was in fact a temple-garden, and cultivate this garden as it spread into the untamed wilderness. The functional approach to being divine image-bearers takes pains to place the priestly and kingly roles of humanity as what being “the image of God” primarily denotes. Yet, we would suggest that Adam and Eve functioned in this way because of their ontological identity as a son and daughter of God, respectively. That is to say, as children of God they were to trust in their father, namely, God, and, by doing so in the face of evil and temptation, receive an inheritance, namely, life forever, with all the benefits and privileges that come with it.

Now, as the reader may suspect, this is a programmatic statement, one which pulls together those threads which we, albeit briefly, have touched upon. So, with that, we will bring together prior thoughts and apply them to that prelapsarian scene oft-called the covenant of works (CoW).

In our first post, we argued that the Bible does not cast positive light on the notion that any activity that is pleasing to God can be so if it is not preceded by faith or trust in God for “everything apart from faith is sin” (Rom 14). In the second post, we hinted at a connection between Israel as God’s son and his priestly and kingly roles given by and for God. This then was followed by the NT connection between Christ as God’s son and God’s image. In addition to this, it is beyond dispute that Christ also fills and indeed fulfills the role of priest and king. Here, we can see protology and eschatology kiss; or, more specifically, the protological and eschatological man, Adam and Christ, respectively.

With all the points made, it is our contention that for Adam and Eve to bear God’s image meant that they were God’s own children. Israel, as a priest-king nation and God’s son, was a recapitulation of Adam and Eve; Christ, as a priest-king and God’s Son, was the new and better Adam (Rom 5; 1 Cor 15) and the true Israel. Hence, following Girardeau, the 19th century Southern Presbyterian, we would argue that Adam was a son of God who as a consequence of the first sin became a disinherited son.

Thus, we can reimagine Gen 1-3 in this way. God created male and female in his image, he created them to be in filial relationship with him. Since evil already existed, as is indicated by the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and the serpent, God called Adam to trust in him who is invisible (and whose appearance in the garden was therefore likely a theophany) despite what they see. We recall that Heb 11:1-3 and 2 Cor 5:7 that faith is contrasted with that which we apprehend with our senses or even understanding; yet, in Gen 3:6 we read, “So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise …”.  Notice the words “saw,” “eyes” and “desired” (cf. vv. 5, 7: “eyes … opened”). This ‘sight’ contrasts with the childlike trust in a heavenly and good father that relies on God despite what is ‘seen.’

One of the reasons we would suggest why Christ is portrayed as the antitype to Adam is this: Christ was the faithful son who believed in his father despite temptation (Matt 4 // Luke 4) and the prognostication of immense suffering (Matt 26 // Luke 22), that is, despite what circumstances or senses may dictate. Thus, there is continuity between Adam and Christ. Both knew God before sin, both were sons of God who had a filial relationship with their father, and both are representatives of a broader collective. Yet, there is discontinuity as well. Christ is the image of God in virtue of his divine sonship, whereas Adam is made in God’s image as a created being. Moreover, Christ as divine son became also a human son who did not lose trust in his Father. In sum, Christ fulfilled, as it were, the CoW.

Something else must be highlighted at this point. Adam and Christ had the same prelapsarian faith in their father. That is to say, they both had a truth in their father (or at least an opportunity thereof) that preceded any activity good or bad. No other human beings have been in such a position of trust in God the Father; no other human beings can existentially conceive of a trust that exists prior to their own sin or, in the case of Christ, lack thereof. This is, we would suggest, one reason why Adam and Christ stand as representatives of large swaths of human beings for only Adam and Christ were, as humans, in this unique position of trust in relation to God. This furthermore highlights the reasons why this one sin brought death to all of Adam’s progeny.

God created Adam to be his son. “Trust in me,” he called. “Believe in me though you cannot fully see or comprehend me. Trust in me for you are my child. Look, I have given you every good thing on this earth; I have given you life.” (There is evil in my creation that will confront you and challenge my goodness and love.) “So, trust in me!” To break trust then with the Father was to admit a rupture into their filial, dare we say, covenantal bond. God knew and knows though that a single even seemingly infinitesimal breach was to undo the very psyche, the very sanity, the very moral aptitude of the first man. Such a breach was to, in truth, turn to an idol, which is what can be seen, grasped, and comprehended.

Now, there is another layer to this. Christ is said to be the image of God. We have already enlisted this to support our contention that Adam should be understood as made to be a son of God. Further nuance should be teased out at this point. Adam was in fact made to be the image of Christ for Christ is the true son of God the Father. The unbreakable filial bond that the Son experiences with his Father, the eternal generation which is the mysterious result of Son’s relationship to the Father (if result is the proper word), was to be experienced and imaged by the created son Adam. He was to reflect this bond between God the Father and God the Son for, though created and indeed generated (we hasten to add in time and not eternally), he was created in order to have such a deep, intimate bond with his God and Father, reflecting, in turn, in a limited, creaturely yet nonetheless true way the bond shared with the true divine image of God, the Son of God, with his Father. Therefore, just as it is inconceivable for God the Son to break filial bond with his Father so it is inconceivable that God’s creaturely image, Adam (and Eve), would rupture this bond without the direst of consequences: death, a spiritual seed giving way to totalizing effect.

It is in this way that the CoW still stands. The penalty for its rupture, its violation, is death. Death has not yet been fully defeated though the beginnings of its defeat has been assured and sounded by the resurrection from the dead of the son of God/Man. Here, we must flesh out the importance of the CoW. It is clear that this covenant is not devoid of faith on the part of man (or, at least the necessity thereof), nor, we would suggest, is it devoid of grace for God’s grace is not some energy or substance abstracted from God himself, but rather grace is found in by being in the presence of God.

So, if grace and faith are characteristic of the CoW, then one might ask how this differs from the covenant of grace usually seen as distinct from the CoW. We would understand the difference in this way: with the CoW, the failure on the part of the first humans to trust in their father resulted in a dramatic break in the divine-human relationship with such a break requiring a powerful, drastic act on the part of God– namely, Christ incarnate, crucified, resurrected and ascended–to remedy this and restore man back to God. The CoW, while having some continuity with the covenant of grace, is to be distinguished by the penalty resulting from the break of this covenant. The covenant of grace–or Christ’s person and work–is the answer to (or resolution of) the death resulting from the breaking of the first covenant (which is, as we’ve mentioned, failure to trust God) and, as such, the two must be distinguished.

To conclude, the CoW, rightly, that is, Christologically understood, pays great theological dividends. By reframing Adam’s divine image-bearing nature in a manner that is equivalent to Adam’s sonship with God, we avoid reducing humankind’s essence to a functional, priest-king anthropology instead recognizing that Adam was a priest-king because he was first a son. Moreover, we do not relegate Christ’s person and work narrowly to the eschatological breaking-in of God’s kingdom, but recognize that Christ is the eschatological man because he was first the proper protological image of the protological man; that is, Adam pointed to Christ, as type to antitype, but, perhaps more fundamentally, Christ lay behind Adam as the true son which the created son was called to reflect. If Adam had not broken trust with his Father, he would have, after a short trial/temptation (cf. Gen 3), enjoyed eternal fellowship with the Triune God. Thus, this man of the dust would have been joined with the image, the son of heaven.

In addition and lastly (though much more could be said), the richness of Christ’s person and work is brought into even sharper relief with the CoW as we’ve described it. God the Father loved his creaturely son so much that he sent his son to assume a human nature, in turn, having a life-long, creaturely trust in his heavenly Father that remained unbroken even in the face of trials and temptations beyond anything the first creaturely son could have imagined. Yet, even more, he assumed the penalty of death which the first son received in the stead of the first son, undeservingly yet willingly. By assuming this penalty and overcoming/undoing it, he radically opened the way for the covenant of grace whereby man could be restored back to filial, covenantal relations with the Father despite man’s weak and fleeting faith, which is so often overcome by trials and temptations, so-called sight and understanding. It is a covenant of grace because those human partners of this covenant trust in one who fully trusted in and continues to trust in his Father on their behalf; their faith is not in their own faith, their faith is in Christ’s, the image/Son of God’s, faith.

These dividends, to bring it around to the beginning of our series on this topic, is congruent with and in fact, we would argue, taught by representative expressions of the CoW such as that found in the Westminster Standards. Now, this contention does not minimize the fact that the truths summarized above are not always emphasized or placed in the forefront as they should be by those who adhere to a CoW, but this failure on the part of some is not necessary to or indicative of the CoW as it is expressed confessionally. Thankfully our faith is one defined by a living, personal God and not mathematical formulae; or, for that matter, merit-earning devoid of grace and faith.


Is the Covenant of Works an Aberrant Theological Construct? Part II: Christ, the Son and Image of God

image of gIn our prior post regarding the so-called covenant of works (CoW), we looked briefly at some of the implications of a standard articulation of the CoW as well as some essential teaching of the NT on the nature of faith especially as it relates to work. Now, we will continue with our exploration of the CoW.

III. Old Testament Teaching on Sonship

Throughout the Old Testament, Israel is called God’s son. In Exod 4:22, we read, “Then you shall say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says the Lord, Israel is my firstborn son …”. Hosea 11:1 alludes to this passage when the prophet writes, “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.” Paul confirms this understanding of Israel when he writes, “… and to them belong the adoption” (Rom 9:4; cf. v. 8). Other passages in the OT also support this (Jer 3:19; 31:20; Deut 14:1; 32:5). The theme of inheritance found throughout the OT in relationship to Israel, most particularly the Promised Land, is also bound up with Israel’s sonship.

Beyond this, sonship is bound up with the Davidic covenant (2 Sam 7:14). Although less clearly connected to the Davidic covenant, Psalm 82:6, like 2 Sam 7, connects sonship with royal authority. Pss 1-2, usually considered messianic in import, also makes this same connection (cf. esp. Ps 2:7, 12). This connection of sonship with royal authority has implications, which we will develop more below, regarding the Lord’s statement that Israel “shall be to me [the Lord] a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exod 19:6; cf. 1 Pet 2:9).

Although somewhat obscure, it is clear enough that Israel, at least collectively construed, is considered to be a son of God. Yet, as is often recognized, that there is a relationship and interplay between the individual and the community such as is found in the so-called Servant Songs of Isaiah (Isa 52:13-53:12; cf. Daniel 7). This appears also to be the case with the Davidic line; i.e., the Davidic king represents the people of God. Thus, Matt 2 is warranted in connecting Hosea 11:1 directly to Jesus. As a consequence, the sonship of Israel, while having a collective emphasis in the OT, cannot be narrowly restricted to collective Israel but must also have individual Israelites in mind, though likely not all as Paul takes pains to argue in Rom 9-11.

IV. Christ, the Image of God

It is a clear New Testament teaching that Christ is the image of God (cf. Rom 8:29; 1 Cor 15:49; 2 Cor 3:18; 4:4; Col 1:15; 3:10; Heb 1:1-4). Moreover, in many of these same passages Christians are described as being comforted to that image that is Christ (Rom 8:29; 1 Cor 15:49; 2 Cor 3:18). Christ as the image of God is crucial to understanding what we are as humans as well as who God is in Christ. To understand this further, we must ask: what can it mean that we are conformed to the image of Christ when we learn in Genesis 1 that we are made in the image of God?

The most obvious thing to be noticed is that this implies that Christ is God. In fact, Col 1:15-20 and Heb 1:1-4 are not shy in expressing this fact. Christ in both of these passages is described as active in creating and preserving the world. Moreover, Christ’s humanity is highlighted in both passages. In fact, the assumed flesh of the son of God, while asserted, is more of an assumed reality than something argued for.

But, something even more striking is to be noted for our purposes. Christ is described as both the Son of God and image of God at the same time. Hebrews 1 is burdened to assert Jesus’ sonship as a distinguishing feature over against angelic beings, but notice also v. 3: “He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature.”  Paul in Colossians makes the same connection when he joins Christ as “the image of the invisible God” with his role as “firstborn of all creation.” The latter phrase is taken by those who deny Christ’s deity to be a support for such a contention, but that would be to grievously miss what is being communicated. The “firstborn” was the son and heir of the father; here, Christ is the Son of the Father and thus heir of “all creation” (cf. Heb 1:2). In sum, Paul and the author of Hebrews joins Christ’s divine sonship with being the image of God.

Briefly, a further observation in this connection will prove helpful. 1 Cor 15:49 states that we believers will “bear the image of the man of heaven,” namely, Christ, which is set in contrast to the image “we have borne of the man of dust.” 1 Cor 15 is a classic text alongside Rom 5 which explores the connection between the first man, Adam, and the second man, Christ. Although the Adam/Christ connection will be explored further below, it is important to register the fact that language of “image” is used regarding this connection.


Some Thoughts On That Which We’d Rather Ignore


Death, regardless of atheistic presumptions to the contrary, is a horror. Indeed, death is a tragedy, but, more so, a travesty. It is an affront to life itself. It is, to use a biblical archaism, abominable. One may ask why this is the case. Let’s be completely and entirely clear. It is the case because a very good, that is, maximally good Creator is the source of life itself. Life is not an abstraction from God but is in fact found and summed up in God. God is life. Jesus says in John 11, “I am the resurrection and the life.” In 1 Cor 15, death is described as an enemy of God; truly the last enemy to suffer defeat at the hand of God. Death is an affront therefore to God.

So, when God tells Adam that if he tells Adam that if he eats of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil he will die, God is telling Adam that he will suffer the very thing that is contrary to the very being of God: life. Imagine the desolation, the despair, the horror that is death. To be withdrawn, removed and relegated from the life that is found in God. Oh, what an utter travesty, what a crime that we creatures who were given life by a maximally perfect, good and loving indeed life-producing creator should suffer at the hands of such a universally known and feared enemy such as death.

When we imagine the reality of death being applied to not just any created thing, but to creatures especially made in the image of God, the horror, the heinousness of death becomes even clearer. The death of beings, embodied souls, made in the image of God is a sickening affront to God himself. Imagine the dire and very solemn warning of God to Adam: “… in the day that you eat of it [the tree of the knowledge of good and evil] you shall surely die” (Gen 2:17). Or, as the Hebrew has it, you shall ‘die die’ (תָּמֽוּת מֹ֥ות).  Here, God has made beings that are the pinnacle of his creation, beings that he has especially designated to be his image bearers, and yet, he must, in the face of preexisting evil (cf. Gen 3:1ff), give this solemn warning. We can understand it this way:  human beings are given the dignity and privilege of belonging to and having relationship with the living God, yet, one that can be robbed of human beings by this, namely, a separation from God caused by sin leading to death. Oh, the horror; oh, the travesty.

We must not fail to feel the weight of this event. We must not fail to feel the weight of the solemn and dire warning which God gave the first man. We can even think of it in light of God’s later-to-revealed character as a plea which could go something like this: “Listen, son, I love you and have created you for myself and to be my image in my beautiful and good creation. There is just one thing. I have given you every tree with one exception, a tree that, if you eat of it, will bring something which I don’t want for you, and which you would not want for yourself (trust me!): death.” Yet, Adam, and his magnificent gift of a wife Eve fail to heed this warning.

So, eating ever so frivolously and carelessly, ever so enchanted by the lust of the eyes, the first man and woman fall into the clutches, the cruel and  insatiable appetite of death (Prov 27:20). Death brings the chaos, disorder, and darkness which exists when separated from God. Death brings spiritual decay and futility first followed by the decay and ultimate demise of the physical life of human beings. Death permeates the entire being, the outer and inner life, of humanity. Neither outward nor inward can man, left to himself, escape the insatiable, relentless clutches of death. Embodied spirits, i.e., image-bearing human beings suffer a distortion of the very thing for which they were made: to image and reflect God in the material and life abounding creation. Both the embodied and spiritual aspect of human beings must be stressed at this point. It is an insufficient understanding of human beings to make the spiritual aspect primary or the bodily. Rather, a true, full human being is an embodied spirit; that is to say, not merely a spirit and not merely a body. Thus, without some act which undoes both the spiritual and physical expressions of death, life cannot be fully found in the existence of human beings. In sum, death is to be understood as both punctiliar and progressive; that is, as both demarcating a distinct transition from life to death as well as a continual progress in the latter. Death swallows up the human being, both soul and body. Death swallows up the heart, mind, emotions, affections, loves, goodness, greatness, and honor of human beings. Death is, to be sure, insatiable.

Why give room for this grim picture of things? While death and all that it is and does is to be hated, to be hated more so is the denial of it and its consequent effects and affects. To minimize the reality of death, its insatiable and indomitable power, is to undermine the need for a delivery from such a relentless and ubiquitous (internally and externally construed) enemy. It’s when we taste the sting and sorrow that death brings that we have a care to consider a deliverance from such indignity, such horror and tragedy. It is when we truly feel and apprehend (though perhaps not comprehending) the entrapping grip of an undefeatable enemy that we look outside our own presumed self-sufficiency and strength to something greater.

This brings us then to a conclusion which rounds out what we’ve said before. Jesus is the resurrection and the life. God is life and life abundantly. God the Son, God’s very own Son, suffered under the cruel hand of death, and, by doing so, evicted it of his power for death could not contain the very one who possesses life in himself. The Triune God is the one who conquered death with the incarnate Son of God, the second person of the Trinity, most immediately suffering under its hand. God in his maximally beautiful, perfect and true love did not leave human beings to themselves, even though they chose the totality of death over eternal life with the living God, but rather, in his great and unfathomable mercy himself suffered, without it being a just dessert, under death’s powerful yet ultimately conquerable hand. Christ, the second and last Adam, is “a life-giving spirit” (1 Cor 15:45). May we trust in him and receive that which we do not deserve: life everlasting (cf. 1 John  5:20).

Is the Covenant of Works an Aberrant Theological Construct? Part I

c of wThe covenant of works (hereafter CoW) is that feature of covenant theology (which stands in contrast to various understandings of the overall structure of the Bible[1]) that is most commonly rejected by those reject the broader interpretive or hermeneutic approach of covenant theology. This rejection of the CoW is due to the word “works,” which brings to the mind the idea of merit in the Thomist sense. That is to say, the CoW seems to suggest that man, in his original state, was able to earn a life with God. Such an idea is rightfully seen to be repugnant and thus to be rejected. Yet, it will be our contention here that such an understanding of the CoW is not necessary to it. We will do so by interpreting this event with relevant biblical-theological categories. At times, this may sound like a criticism and even rejection of the CoW, but, it is our hope to reframe the CoW using biblical-theological categories so as to shed it of those misconceptions which are commonly attached to it.

I. A Brief Exposition of the Covenant of Works as Defined by the Westminster Confession of Faith

Before moving forward, it behooves us to present an articulation of the CoW with some comments. The Westminster Confession of Faith writes:

The distance between God and the creature is so great, that although reasonable creatures do owe obedience unto Him as their Creator, yet they could never have any fruition of Him as their blessedness and reward, but by some voluntary condescension on God’s part, which He has been pleased to express by way of covenant. The first covenant made with man was a covenant of works, wherein life was promised to Adam; and in him to his posterity, upon condition of perfect and personal obedience.[2]

By way of comment, we can note, first, that this confessional standard does not present the CoW as devoid of God’s grace (“some voluntary condescension on God’s part”), but rather was a free act of God toward man (cf. the words “voluntary” and “pleased”). Note, further, that this standard presents God himself as the “blessedness and reward,” hence, the “life promised” is God himself. Moreover, the words “perfect” and “personal” modify the type of obedience required.

Personal has to do with the personal relationship between God and man; hence, it is not some abstract principle of merit that we are dealing with but rather man in engagement with a personal God. Perfect is the modifier that would cause an obvious knee jerk reaction for those less-than-sympathetic to the CoW, and, as such, we will discuss this in more detail below. Suffice it to say here, the gracious, voluntary act of God toward man; that God is presented as the reward and the life received; and, the personal dynamic between God and man should caution us against admitting a Pelagian or semi-Pelagian understanding of merit or some principle abstracted from God himself into our understanding of “perfect” at this point.

II. What is Faith?

Paul writes in Rom 14:23,[3] “For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.” This statement Paul makes at the conclusion of his discussion of how believers with different convictions are to relate to one another; and, it is a categorical statement which basically orients how we are to understand any and everything that we do. Whatever we do, if it is not accompanied by faith, is sin. That is to say, faith is to be the ground of all our activity. Now, it would be a mistake to assume that he means faith simpliciter, rather, he has in mind faith connected with a particular object, namely, God as he is revealed in Christ. Thus, faith in Christ, God the Son, is the ground of all that we do.

Paul’s statement here pairs well with and in fact draws out his phrase “the obedience of faith” in Romans 1:5 and 16:26. This phrase bookends Romans, and, as such, serves as an interpretive clue for the book. Paul is concerned with an obedience that arises from faith, with obedience apart from faith being impossible.

At this point, further clarity on what exactly faith is will be beneficial. As James 2 makes clear, faith is not merely mental assent. Rather, the culmination, the height of faith, although not less than mental assent, is trust; in this case, trust in a person, namely, God. The author of Hebrews writes:

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. For by it the people of old received their commendation. By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible (11:1-3).

Here, Hebrews brings out the fact that faith in God is a faith which sees, as it were, the unseen. Faith apprehends God, faith trust in God, who is unseen. Paul, in 2 Cor 5:7, confirms this aspect of faith when he writes, “For we walk by faith not by sight”; that is, it is not by our empirical understanding or even the appearance of things that we are to live, but we are to live by faith. The remainder of Hebrews 11, which presents examples of those with faith who did not act according to empiricism or appearance, but according to trust in God, further supports this. We are to look “to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith” (Heb 12:2).

Returning now to Romans, this faith in God, a faith that is apprehends the One who stands outside mere appearance or empirical evidence, we see faith as a pivotal, indeed essential, concept for understanding how one is to live before God. Those who are righteous, that is, who walk with God, are those who “live by faith” (Rom 1:17). We receive Christ, “a propitiation” for our sins, by faith (3:24-25). Moreover, we are counted as righteous, justified, by faith, “apart from works of the law” (3:21-31; cf. Rom 4:1ff). Even more strikingly, Paul states that the Jews did not attain righteousness “… [b]ecause they did not pursue it by faith, but as if it were based on works” (9:30-32). Indeed, we stand as believers by our faith (11:20).

This summary of Paul’s teaching on faith may seem rather rudimentary, but, as we will see, it is essentially for understanding the pre-fall sitution of man. Trusting in God, or, apprehension of the invisible God by faith in him, is necessary for us to truly walk with God, receive him and the salvific benefits that come from him,[4] and be truly righteous before him. Again, it must be stressed, nowhere does Paul (or, it is our contention, any biblical author) understand obedience to God as existing without it being first and in a totalizing manner grounded in a trusting apprehension of the invisible but truly manifest God. Put differently, obedience must exist under the hegemony of a trusting apprehension of the Lord, who is good and loving, for to fail to do so it in fact to fail to attain to actual obedience (cf. Rom 1:5, 9:32; 14:23; 16:26, et al.).


See Next Week for Part II of This Post.


[1] This is a complex subject, although, in the main, the differences between the various understandings of the supra-structure of the Bible can be summarized as the continuity or discontinuity that is posited between the Old and New Testaments. Classical dispensationalism can usually be seen as the understanding which posits extreme discontinuity between the various periods of the Bible; covenant theology can be seen as positing a basic continuity between the various periods, seeing the strongest point of discontinuity between the covenant of works and the covenant of grace, although, as with any summary, this is something of an oversimplification. See the guest posts of Brittain Brewer here and here for a outline of Karl Barth’s provocative critique of the CoW.

[2] Chapter VII, para. I-II. The Westminster Larger Catechism (Q/A. 20) calls this same covenant a “covenant of life.” Had this terminology been adopted in the Confession, some of the misunderstandings of the CoW may have been avoided at the outset.

[3] The epistle to the Romans is a key book for understanding the relationship between faith and works as well as Christ’s relationship to the original man, Adam; therefore, we will be drawing from Romans throughout.

[4] The reader may anticipate a connection between a reception by faith of God and his benefits here and in the pre-fall situation. We will turn to this possible line of connection as we move forward.

How are we to understand Jesus? Historically? Ethically? Psychologically? – Beholding the God-man as He Ought to be Beheld.

moneySome people breathe heavy, some breathe deep; for others, their breathing becomes shallow, almost imperceptible. These forms of breathing signal varying responses to the name of Jesus Christ. Oh, yes, the one-and-only Jesus Christ, who has been the subterfuge of many a historical-critic, the bane of many a Marxist atheist, and the one whose eyes pierce to the bottom of the soul for many a Christian. Now, these responses, with the last being the most clearly dominant (if we are to take empirical and statistical evidence at face value), are responses to, as the Christian tradition articulates it, the God-man, the Son of God/Man, who was sent by the Father, yes, Father God, to redeem a broken, afflicted, and rebellious humanity. And it is these responses, or, more specifically, what the right response of believers should be, that we are concerned.

In a recent book, I was presented with a picture of Jesus, a “low to medium Christology,” as it were, which cast Jesus, the Son of Man, in terms which modern day ethicists deem as proper, or, at the very least, the most comfortable. By painting Jesus against this wall, he was, in turn, painted as an oppressor, for he did not immediately overthrow the Roman Empire with all her crimes; as a racist for his treatment of the Syrophoenician woman; as a rage-o-holic for his anger and violence toward the temple merchants; and, essentially, as something less than what we’d expect from the (quotes intentional) “Son of God,” never mind a son of God.

Yet, is this the proper way to approach Jesus or is something, to put it mildly, drastically amiss? Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 5:16-17:

From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.

Briefly, we can note a few things about this statement. First, the “no one” Paul has in mind, while it could be taken to refer to every person, in light of vv. 11-15, likely refers to not regarding the apostles, and any other such person, who lives for Christ (v. 15). Second, it is clear that Paul has in mind the identity of believers, those who are in Christ, as being part of a new creation for the eschatological breaking-in of God’s kingdom/new creation has “come.”

T. F. Torrance writes with regard to 2 Cor 5:16:

Paul is [not] indifferent to the historical Jesus – but that a Jesus who is known only in a carnal manner, as by the mere historian, the reporter of historical events, can be of no interest to us. That Jesus … apparently failed in his mission … [Rather], it is … Jesus Christ, spiritually discerned, by a transcendent mode of apprehension … we have [thus] … an object of knowledge presented to us in a complex of historical fact and spiritual event.[1]

Torrance is helpful here, for it would be wrong for us to deduce from 2 Cor 5:16 that we are to reject any notion of Christ historically-speaking. In fact, this would militant against the very existence of the Gospels, which, albeit in different ways and with different emphases, gives us a picture of the historical Jesus. Instead, we are to regard Christ in a manner that, while taking Christ’s humanity into account (for, indeed, how can we rightly fail to do so?), holds it together with Christ as the God the Son incarnate, or, in Torrance’s terms, we must keep in mind the “complex of historical fact and spiritual event.”

waterSo, choosing to start with a constructive approach, we cannot expect to truly apprehend Christ unless we approach him in faith. Now, to be clear, by faith we mean not mere intellectual assent, but rather, something far greater: trust. We must be those who trust in Jesus as our mediator and redeemer. This kind of trust is greater than merely the trust that can exist between peers, or, even the trust between a superior and an inferior (e.g., child toward parent). It is trust in the God-man, the One who, by his priestly work, provides the way for us to boldly approach the throne of grace. As a consequence, this kind of trust quickly approaches worship. By beholding Christ by faith, we receive him as the subject and object or the God and man of our faith. By approaching him in this way, we cannot see him merely from a historical or anthropocentric viewpoint, whether it be the modern canons of ethical deliberation, modern historiography, or something else. Rather, we must look upon Christ as truly encapsulating, incarnating, a spiritual event. It is Christ as both God and man, rejecting the possibility of denying either the former or the latter, whom we behold and receive by faith, and, in turn, whom we worship.

Moving toward a polemical orientation, to approach Jesus in any other manner is, to be blunt, blasphemy. BDAG defines blasphemy (βλασφημία) as “speech that denigrates or defames, reviling, denigration, disrespect, slander.[2] Now, what is often translated as slander when referring to humans is the same word used for blasphemy when referring to God, namely, βλασφημία. It is our opinion that this lexical definition can be expanded to give countenance to the theological nuance accompanying such a definition. In sum, blasphemy is communicating in such a manner that detracts for the essential dignity of the human or divine person of whom the communication refers. In the case of humans, it takes the shape, in large part, of slander; with God, it takes the shape of blasphemy so-called. Yet, whether this communication is directed toward humans or God, this does not significantly modify the substance of such a communication. At base, it is a distortion of the person (human or divine) which is subversive of the person’s basic dignity and worth.

Therefore, while we would expect those who do not enjoy fellowship with Christ, who have not been united to him and, as a consequence, received the benefits of this union, to speak in such a manner that conforms with our discussion of blasphemy, or, in Pauline terms, “according to the flesh” (κατὰ σάρκα). Christ can never be merely an object of historical inquiry for the believer, nor can he be seen through the eyes of modern-day psychoanalysis, ethical theory, or everyday politicizing. To attempt to approach him in these ways is in fact to approach him “according to the flesh” and, as such, in a manner that does not in fact apprehend or give the rightful dignity and honor owned to him.

So, to conclude, let the one who does not enjoy such a beautiful, life-altering union with the risen One engage in such blasphemous and thus severely miscalculated analyses of Christ, but, for the one who truly trust in and worships this same One, let their thoughts be ever beholding anew the beauty, majesty, holiness, goodness, love, truth, and perfection of him thus shaping how one understands Jesus’ treatment of the Syrophoenician, the Roman Empire, the Temple merchants, and the Pharisees, to name a few.


[1] T. F. Torrance, Incarnation: The Person and Life of Christ (ed. Robert T. Walker; Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2008), 29.

[2] A Greek Lexicon of the New Testament and other Early Christian Literature (3rd ed.; University of Chicago Press, 2000), 178. Italics original.

The Book of Chronicles as a Polemical, Reorienting Document: a Proposal

dariusThe book of Chronicles (consisting of 1 and 2 Chronicles) is a book that is neglected relative to other books of the Old Testament, never mind the entirety of Scripture. Upon reading a monograph by David Janzen,[1] some background information relevant to the book was brought to our attention. The purpose here is to outline an argument for reading Chronicles as a polemical and thus reorienting document.

To begin with, even for one only minimally acquainted with Chronicles, it is clear that, while the book has much in common with 1-2 Samuel and 1-2 Kings, there is much that distinguishes it from them. Some would take the approach of viewing the relationship between Chronicles and Samuel/Kings as something akin to the synoptic relationship between the gospels of the New Testament (Matthew, Mark, Luke). Yet, such an approach, we would argue, misses the particular focus of Chronicles and Samuel/Kings. Now, this does not mean that something can’t be gained from comparing a story found in these distinct books, but to make this the central interpretive framework for understanding Chronicles, i.e., vis-à-vis 1-2 Sam/1-2 Kgs, is to miss the unique message of Chronicles.

In Chronicles, there are four main ways in which the author portrays the Davidic line. First, it is presented as an established fact (1 Chron 10) rather than as something that developed over time. Second, Solomon is said to have been chosen by God to build the temple as well as rule (1 Chron 28:5, 6, 10; 29:1). Third, the reign of David and Solomon are presented as essentially overlapping. And, lastly, good kings in Chronicles are rewarded by God in Chronicles for given due attention to the temple cult.[2]

Neo-Assyrian and Neo-Babylonian concepts surrounding the king appear to be incorporated by the Chronicler in these four aspects of his portrayal. For one, it was believed that “the king was the special creation of the gods.” While the Chronicler does not portray the Davidic king in such terms, his omission of virtually any development toward a kingly rule, with only one brief mention given to anything preceding David’s reign (1 Chron 8-10:7) leaves the reader with the impression that the Davidic monarchy stands at the beginning of Israel’s history; or, at the very least, such a monarchy is natural to it.[3]

Continue reading “The Book of Chronicles as a Polemical, Reorienting Document: a Proposal”

The Neglected Doctrine of Christ’s Ascension: a Dogmatic Sketch

by Thomas Haviland-Pabst

ascensionIn our last post, we briefly surveyed pertinent NT biblical teaching on Christ’s ascension. It is our purpose now, based on prior post, to provide a dogmatic sketch of Christ’s ascension. Given this reliance, we will presuppose the biblical teaching without citing it afresh. We will first concentrate on how the ascension of Christ relates to his person and work, which will be followed by some implications for us who are united to him.

Throughout we see a picture were Christ’s deity is set alongside his humanity. For examples, the book of Hebrews and Phil 2 present Christ’s person having a divine origin, as it were. Yet, Christ also, in his humanity, grew in wisdom, demonstrated his obedience to his Father, indeed, to the point of death on the cross. This death is, in turn, followed by his resurrection and ascension or exaltation. This already signals something of importance, i.e., unless one adopts an adoptionistic schema wherein Christ, formerly a mere man, is exalted to divinity by his obedience (a heretical position, we hastily add), there must be something more occurring in such passages.

Putting it differently, if Christ is God, then it follows that he does not need to be exalted; his exaltation is, as it were, superfluous. So, either Christ’s exaltation is superfluous or the adoptionist schema is correct, right? No. Rather, the biblical teaching suggests something else; something intrinsic to Christ’s work, and, as such, necessary for understanding his assumption of human flesh.

Christ, God the Son, assumed human flesh in order to perfectly reveal the Father for, as the gospel of John tells us, no one has seen the Father except the Son; and, it is only in the Son that the Father is made known. When we behold Jesus, we see the Father. Thus, Christ is the prophet of God par excellent. Moreover, Christ is the mediator between God and man; and, as such, he has reconciled men to God by his blood, but also, by his obedience. That is to say, Christ’s incarnation was a priestly work. And, finally, Christ demonstrates the rule and reign of God by his power over nature, sickness and disease, and even demonic powers which are at war with God. In summary, Christ is the prophet, priest, and king of God; and, both his deity and his humanity lend a hand in these three offices.[1]

In order to draw this out, we will concentrate on Christ’s priestly office. Christ in his incarnation was both in the full and complete presence of his Father, doing only what he saw his Father doing, and, bearing the weight of a fallen, broken creation. Thus, we see Christ enduring the suffering that is temptation, perceiving and indeed becoming the object of the rejection, exploitation and scorn of men (yes, before even the cross), and experiencing firsthand the sorrow that accompanies existing in this fallen world. So, God the Son was not one who was removed and thus at a vast distance from the fallen, sin-riddled, and God-opposed world; rather, he experienced this world first hand. But, for whose sake, we must ask? Was he resigned to such an existence, such a host of experiences, by necessity? Not in the least. Quite to the contrary, he willing took on human flesh, with all that that entailed (i.e., immersion in a sin-soaked and death-conquered environment) for our sake. How so very much is Christ’s incarnation a priestly work!

We recall that Hebrews describes Christ’s substitutionary sacrifice as a heavenly act. Christ crucified was in the very presence of his Father—indeed, how could he not be! He was laid bare, bruised and humiliated, in the presence of his God. It is not as if he was transported to some place other than the gruesome cross from which he hung. Better, he is the only one who stands in the unrestrained presence of his Father, far above all created beings; and, as such, he is the only one that provides the way to the Father. Christ is the only human that can rightfully say without qualification that he has descended from the Father for he is God. Yet, this descent (assumption) does not entail that Christ removed himself from the presence of his Father (to do so is to abrogate his deity—an impossibility); so, it is best to understand Hebrews as teaching that at the same time as he hung on the cross he was purifying the heavenly things of which the earthly tabernacle, with its corresponding sacrifices, pointed. Hence, the veil of the earthly tabernacle leading to the very presence of God (the Holy of Holies) was torn, which communicates that Christ’s sacrifice made a way for us to enter into the Father’s presence unhindered.

Yet, Christ’s priestly work doesn’t stop there. In Hebrews 9:24 we read, “For Christ has entered, not into holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true things, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf.” Note the word “now.” Christ is now interceding for or serving as priestly mediator between God the Father and man in the unrestrained presence of God. This is where we see the person and work of Christ come into sharp relief: he is the only one that has such access to the Father for he is the Son, and, he can only bring us to this access because he is a man. That is to say, Christ, in his ascension/secession (exaltation), took our humanity into the presence of the Father; something that only he could do for it is only he that is at the same time God and man.

Since Christ’s ascension/session is deeply interwoven with his priestly work, which is, in turn, inextricably connected with his incarnation, it is best to understanding his ascension as the culmination of his inter-advent work. This is further substantiated by the fact that Christ’s prophetic and kingly offices are still exercised after his ascension. With regard to the latter, the very idea of ruling and reigning is built into his ascension above all principles, powers and authorities; with regard to the former, we see Christ still speaking to his church. Yet, even more to the point, Christ’s ascension allows the Holy Spirit to step forward, as it were. Christ then is speaking to his church through the Holy Spirit; and, the Holy Spirit is empowering Christ’s body. The prophetic and kingly function of the Spirit is clear. Moreover, the Spirit comforts us as well as interceded for us as “another advocate,” pointing to the Spirit’s priestly work, if you will. Thus, the ascension of Christ leads to a thoroughgoing Trinitarian understanding of Christ’s work as well as a pneumatologically rich one.

Turning then to our union with Christ, Christ’s ascension becomes even more relevant. We are even now seated with Christ above all other authorities and power. So, nothing in the entirety of creation can take us from the presence of God. This brings great comfort, especially if we are faced with threat to our physical safety. Moreover, as Hebrews reminds us, because Christ is interceding for us before the Father even now, our salvation will be completed. Christ’s once and for all substitution did not occur only once on this earth, only to be forgotten. Rather, it occurred in heaven and continues there, in the very presence of God; thus, it’s effectiveness to save is unhindered. Lastly, Christ, as the one seated at the right hand of the Father in glory, gives us his Spirit to equip us, but, moreover, to communicate to us (teaching, convicting, revealing). Christ, as man, has pulled us up, as it were, into the presence of God.

In sum, Christ’s ascension is the culmination of his inter-advent work as it is the continuation of his priestly, kingly, and prophetic office; indeed, it is the continuation of his incarnation. Christ was not exalted for his sake (does God need to be exalted?) but for ours. By his exaltation, we were brought near to God, and he was brought near to us. The Spirit, as God’s presence with and in us, brings the reality of this into our lives in growing measure. We await the day when Christ returns, the apocalyptic Son of Man, the theanthropos descending again to complete the salvation he begun (and continues), to consummate his kingdom, and establish a new heavens and a new earth where God’s full, unrestrained presence is expressed “on earth as it is in heaven.”


[1] Of course, much more could be said here, but, for the sake of brevity, we would encourage the reader to read more extensively in this area on their own to substantiate further what we are asserting.