God’s Covenant With Us

The Owl continues unfolding What the Owl Is Trying to Say, using five main terms for the outline. Now we are up to the word “Covenant.”

The valiant reader may recall our saying the covenant between God and humankind is really a series of covenants, each with a specific sign and promise, all given on God’s initiative: the Noachic Covenant, with the sign of the rainbow and the promise that God will never again destroy all life on earth with a flood. There follow covenants with Abraham, making him the patriarch of a numerous people; then the covenant with Moses at Sinai, giving Israel the law of Jhwh and making himself their God and them his people. Without ever calling that into question, we have the New Covenant established in Jesus Christ.

This last has a series of signs: crucifixion, resurrection, ascension, and Pentecost, which must be taken as one event because none of them is complete in its meaning without all the rest. The promise in this case is a double one: first, that God’s Holy Spirit, who created the Church at Pentecost, will remain with us as a Comforter and Teacher; and second, that we have a true life, which we cannot lose, hidden in God with Christ. He will not leave us orphans, but he has gone to prepare a place for us. We have dual citizenship in this world and the next. While we are here waiting, we are to take care of our fellow creatures, giving succor to each other as needed. Notice: no mention of making the world a new Eden; not even making it better: only living in it as best we can, for each other’s good.

In a sense, the creation of the world could be read as the beginning of all covenants, but I would rather use Karl Barth’s terms: The creation is the material basis for the covenant, and the covenant is the spiritual basis of the creation. The earth is here because we need it as the theatre, or crucible, in which we carry out our side of the covenant. Unless that is the case, there is no need for it; it is absolutely gratuitous. Reversing the order: God has made his covenant(s) as a sheer act of his will; he elects to have creatures different from himself as the objects of his love. He is under no necessity; nothing compels him to live with us, but so he does, Immanu-el. That Hebrew phrase is one of the names of Jesus Christ, who became a man and lived with us where we could see, hear, and touch him. Blessed are they who saw and believed, and blessed are we, their successors, who not having seen have yet believed (John 20:24–29).

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There is another theory. It is an evolutionary theory, in which the pivotal event is called the Axial Age. That refers to the remarkable fact that most of the world’s great religious traditions: Greco-Roman mythology, Hebrew monotheism, Hinduism, Buddhism, arrived on the scene in a short span of time around the turn of the millennium before Christ. We say “short,” but it was short as these things go, viewed against the millions of years of evolution preceding it. This is the subject of a very interesting book, The Axial Age and Its Consequences, edited by Robert N. Bellah and Hans Joas (2012).

The facts as paleontologists set them out are incontrovertible. So we have a question: How does this comport with the covenant theology we have been discussing just above? Attorney General Barr, speaking on October 11, 2019, at Notre Dame, put the case succinctly: “Part of the human condition is that there are big questions that should stare us in the face. Are we created or are we purely material accidents? Does our life have any meaning or purpose?”

The Owl will not give up meaningful work and purposeful life, of which he is blesssed enough to know a little. (We will come to Freedom and Obedience in our outline in due time.) Here the Owl is perhaps too bold, but I suggest we do as we have done with the Biblical creation narrative when confronted with Darwinian theories of evolution. We say God created the world, and the fundamental truth of that remains untouched by human scientists’ ideas about how. If millions of years passed between a Big Bang and Noah’s rainbow, and another two thousand or so between that and Jesus’ birth, God has all the time he needs, and God chooses the time.

God remains faithful to his covenant. He was steadfast even in the worst of the Babylonian captivity, and he remains steadfast with us even now, while our secular culture’s denials grow ever more smug and vitriolic, God weeps along with us. When we ought to be on our knees, or our faces, begging forgiveness, we carry placards and shout infamy in public, but God remains with us as the Judge whose name is Mercy.

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