Whatsa covenant?

"Covenants are, at bottom, relationships. Covenants are not doctrinal abstractions. Covenant is not a mere word that we use to distinguish ourselves from other denominational traditions. Covenants are structured in the very way that God created the world, and in the way He recreated the world in Jesus Christ. Simply put, you are never alone. Everywhere you go, in everything you do, you are always in relationship."
- Douglas Wilson


  1. Steve,

    I understand the emotive appeal of what Wilson is saying here. But, as he so effectively does, he is able to cast what he says in such a way that those who disagree with him look narrow, legalistic, etc.

    Nobody is saying that the be all and end all of covenant relationship is the legal reality of it.

    Yet, I believe that belittling the legal nature of the covenant leads us down some bad roads.

    If we compare the covenantal relationship to a marital relationship, for instance. Would any of us say, at root, the marriage covenant is relationship? Isn't it a legal guarantee first? If not, why go through the legal ceremony? Why have the state involved on any level?

    Isn't the relationship founded upon the promises made and pledged to be kept before God and the magistrate? When the relationship wanes (as it does on occasion), isn't it just the essence of the binding nature of the agreement that keeps it together?

    Or, adoption. I cannot go up to any kid on the street, profess to love him or her with a fatherly love, and develop a son-daughter relationship with that child. There has to be a legal foundation for that relationship.

    Nobody is arguing that we do not serve an inherently, intrinsically, and extrinsically relational God. Indeed, that is at the heart of the doctrine of the Trinity. But, that love is offered upon the fulfillment of legal conditions. It is forensic. It is not thereby less precious, but more. GOd has swown by himself; he has undertaken obligations. He cannot lie, and therefore will not recant.

    I suggest to you that adopting parents view their legal relationship with their adopted beloved children as just the guarantee that those children can never be taken out of that relationship (in a just society), and that it has really changed the status of that child from "not my son" to "my son." Thus, to disparage the legal nature of a covenant is to disparage its reality.

  2. Ken, I would agree that marriage isn't based on feelings - when they are gone the marriage is not over. Yet marriage is not simply a contract, either. What really makes a marriage is grace or the desire to favor another, which can only be expressed in a relationship. There are legal realities that define such relationships (I don't think Wilson belittles them to say a covenant is not an abstraction) - but they are useless without the desire to favor another.

    Maybe this is a chicken and egg problem: legal or relational? Does one need priority over the other?

    I also think your analogy breaks down because we are talking about the personhood of God, whose word is more sure than any legal contract we can imagine. His relational favor toward us will not waver.

  3. Steve,

    I guess my point is that nobody (at least in my knowledge) in Reformed circles would argue that the covenant is a "mere" abstraction (or an abstraction at all), but there are solemn, legal (ie law-based) obligations, promises, etc. that undergird, strengthen, and promise, or, alternately, justly condemn the covenant breaker. The idea that it is legal fiction, abstraction, and the like is a charge that has been hurled at traditional covenant theology by the FV and it is altogether unjust.

    MOre traditional covenant theology may argue that the covenant is a legal bond, but that does not downplay the relational nature of God among the three persons of the trinity, or with creatures in his image.

  4. Ken,

    It looks like I agree with you for the most part on this issue, although I don't have a problem with what Wilson says here. It's true that covenants are, at bottom, relationships and not abstractions. However, there are two specific forms that covenantal relationships take: legal and personal.

    Even using the marriage analogy, marrige is at root a relationship. When two people marry, they enter into a legal relationship, not a legal abstraction. But the fulfillment of the marriage requires a personal relationship, as well. Two people who go through a marriage ceremony and never see one another again are still legally married - they maintain a legal relationship. But they have no personal relationship. And so their marriage never reaches the level of true fulfillment.