New covenant, old covenant

Last week in class, we spent some time discussing the relationship between the new covenant in Christ, and the old covenant. Our professor formulated this helpful concise question:

Do you think that the new covenant

  • extends,
  • adds to, or
  • replaces

the old covenant? Your answer to this question determines how much of a supersessionist you are.

More precisely, one might first ask this question about the old covenants, plural: because there are several covenants described in the shared scriptures (Old Testament / Tanakh).

I think that, as Christians raised in a Christian culture with an explicitly supersessionist history, we tend to naturally hear “new” as if it means “replaced”. That is, we tend to assume that of course the new covenant replaced the old covenant.

But I think that is an unwarranted assumption. We certainly don’t seem to see the new covenant at Sinai replacing the old covenant with Abraham. “New” doesn’t always mean “replaced” in common parlance: if I have a new car, I probably sold my old one; but if I have a new blouse, you’ll probably see me in my old blouse again next week. It would take a careful linguistic study to prove that the word used for “new” in the Greek NT always had connotations of “replaced”; failing the ability to do that study, I can only point out that new does not necessarily mean replaced.

Ferguson presents an analysis of these covenants in terms of the types of legal documents used in the culture of the times. He classifies the covenants with Abraham and with David as charters, which were arrangements initiated by a more powerful or higher status person to bestow favor on another person, and to all people in his family or associated with him. The Mosaic covenant at Sinai, on the other hand, he classified as a suzerainty covenant, or what I might describe as a vassal-state treaty. These treaties were initiated by a more powerful state and imposed conditions on the vassal state in exchange for the benefits of vassalage.

Ferguson does not, that I recall, attempt to classify the new covenant in Christ as one of these types, but it strikes me that it is much more similar to a charter than to a suzerainty treaty. We traditionally speak of Christians in terms of their relationship to Christ: in baptism we die with Christ, or we put on Christ, or we are incorporated into Christ. And it is through our relationship with Christ that we gain the benefits of salvation. That sounds precisely like a charter to me. It certainly doesn’t sound like suzerainty.

The language in Galatians about being adopted sons and heirs might either be charter language, or language that was actually used in legal adoptions of the time — perhaps a third category of covenant.

The language in Romans about Gentiles being grafted in to the Abrahamic covenant seems pretty clearly to be describing the new covenant as an extension of the old covenant.

The arguments in Hebrews comparing the new Christian covenant to the old Mosaic covenant argue for its superiority, to be sure, but not for its replacement. Sure, there’s language about the people being disobedient — but salvation history is filled with story after story after story of God’s people being disobedient or failing their covenant obligations, then getting punished for it, until they repent, and God takes pity on them again. We hear many of these stories during the Easter Vigil, and they tell us something that we Christians hold to be true about the nature of God: that God is ever faithful and ever forgiving, that the LORD is near to those who call on him, even when those who call on him have fallen into disobedience and sin.

Clearly the NT writers argue for the superiority of the Christian covenant over the Mosaic covenant, and there’s a good case to be made for it (assuming one believes that Christ is who the writers say he is): who would want to settle for vassal-state status when one could instead be an adopted heir?

But the very presence of these arguments suggests that the writers did not consider the old covenant to have been abrogated. If it were, there would be no need to demonstrate the superiority of the new covenant: it would be the only game in town.

As Holy Scripture testifies, Jerusalem did not recognize the time of her visitation, nor did the Jews in large number, accept the Gospel; indeed not a few opposed its spreading. Nevertheless, God holds the Jews most dear for the sake of their Fathers; He does not repent of the gifts He makes or of the calls He issues-such is the witness of the Apostle.

Nostra Aetate 4

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4 Responses to New covenant, old covenant

  1. Chris says:

    “replaces”, but I say you are right – we don’t completely discard the old – Christ fulfills the Law

  2. Thanks Chris! But a question back at you: What does “fulfills” mean with respect to the present status of the Mosaic covenant? Is it more like “extends” or more like “adds to”?

  3. Chris says:

    I’d say neither “adds to” nor “extends”. I mean more like “completes”. We are no longer (for those that were) under the Mosaic Law, but it was not something we could bear anyway. Now though, we are credited as righteous via Christ, so we can be seen as satisfying to God in the judgement – not to mention that Christ actually helps us obey the law in our current lives.

    That’s my take.

  4. Pingback: Parsing Paul, Part 2: Word Study Results | Gaudete Theology

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