Studies in the Laws of Nature’s God
by Gerald R. Thompson
SELF-STUDY – COVENANT LAW
The purpose of this study is to examine the principal components of the divine law. The Bible, however, is not written like a legal hornbook, with “black letter law” written in propositional statements organized by topic. Rather, various laws were revealed at different times to particular people in specific situations. The legal context of each revelation of laws has generally been understood as a covenant, which is a form of agreement between God and man.
Although these divine laws and the law of nature are perfectly consistent, they are different in several respects. For example, the law of nature has applied since the world’s creation, but the divine law was given at various later times. Also, while it is widely believed that the law of nature applies to everyone, there is sharp disagreement as to whether parts of the divine law apply only to certain people.
For legal purposes, our primary interest in the divine covenants is the extent to which they are the means used to delegate authority. To the extent people have authority to rule over some aspect of the creation or each other, that authority is primarily to be determined from a study of the divine covenants. These delegations of authority are covenant specific, that is, they apply only to those governed by the covenant. Thus, one of the key issues is to determine, as a matter of law, to whom each divine covenant applies.
There are six divine covenants generally recognized, of which we will look at four, namely, the covenants made with: 1) the first people; 2) Noah and his family; 3) the nation of Israel (“Mosaic covenant”); and 4) the Church. The covenants with Abraham, David, and other possible covenants will not be examined here.
Each of these covenants plays a role in the redemptive (or religious) history of mankind. However, the importance of the covenants is not necessarily limited to matters of personal salvation and other religious concerns. The divine covenants do, in fact, address other matters of legal and governmental significance. It is this aspect of the covenants that is to be addressed here.
1. Read Gen. 1:26-30 and Gen. 2:15-25. (Adamic covenant.)
Do these scriptures make an express reference to a covenant? Can the existence of a legal relation between God and Adam and Eve be fairly implied? Why or why not?
2. Read Hos. 6:7 (“like Adam they have transgressed the covenant”) and Jer. 33:20-25 (the express covenant with “day and night”). To what extent do either of these texts suggest the existence of a covenant between God and mankind at the time of creation in Genesis 1-2?
- To what extent does God delegate authority to Adam and Eve with respect to: having children? the earth? the animal kingdom? food? marriage?
- What are the legal implications of God’s dealings with Adam and Eve relating to family law and environmental law? That is, who has ultimate authority over families and the environment?
3. Read Gen. 8:20-9:17. (Noahic covenant.)
- Does this text make an express reference to a covenant? Who are the express parties?
- To what extent is authority delegated to Noah and his family with respect to: having children? the animal kingdom? food? capital punishment?
- What are the legal implications of the covenantal dealings with Noah, et al. relating to animal rights and criminal law? That is, do animals have any legal rights? And who has the ultimate authority to administer criminal (especially capital) punishment?
4. Read Ex. 20:1-17; 24:1-12. (Israelite, or “Mosaic,” covenant.)
- To what extent authority delegated to the Israelites to punish: religious offenses? offenses against the family? offenses against individuals?
- What are the legal implications of God’s dealings with Israel relating to the constitution of a lawful civil government and the rightful exercise of police powers? Who established Israel’s government: God or the Israelites? Was the Israelites’ police power limited? How so?
5. Read Mat. 28:18-20 and Gal. 3:15-22. (Church covenant.)
- Has any authority been delegated to the Church of a non-religious character? Does the Church have any jurisdiction over nations?
- What are the legal implications of God’s dealings with the Church concerning religious freedom? What about crossing international boundaries to proselytize? to smuggle Bibles into “closed countries”?
One of the key issues concerning the divine covenants is the extent to which they are applicable today. There are many attributes of covenants which have been identified by biblical and legal commentators for the purpose of determining their applicability. Of these many attributes, let us look at three which are directly related to the legal nature of covenants and their legal effects. These are the principles of mutual assent, irrevocability, and binding effect on descendants.
The principle of mutual assent holds that a covenant is an agreement where two or more persons each consent to be bound by certain terms and conditions. If this principle is valid, we should expect to see God offering His covenants to people in such a way that each person may accept or reject the proposed relationship. The principle of irrevocability holds that a covenant cannot be entirely revoked once the parties have made it. If this principle is valid, we should expect to find evidence that covenants between God and people are perpetual. The principle of binding effect on descendants holds that if the original parties acted in a representative capacity, their descendants will also be fully bound by the covenant. If this principle is valid, we should expect to see that some or all of the divine covenants make an express reference to their applicability to descendants.
1. Adamic covenant.
- Read Gen. 2:16-17. God gave Adam and Eve the choice whether to obey Him. To what extent can the existence of this choice be linked with the consent to a covenantal relation by Adam and Eve? In other words, did Adam and Eve ever agree to obey God? Did they ever accept a delegation of authority from Him? Is that “consideration” in a contract sense?
- Read Gen. 3:14-19. To what extent, if any, did the Fall negate or terminate God’s prior delegation of authority to Adam and Eve? Did Jesus consider the commands of Gen. 1 and 2 to have been negated in Mat. 19:4-7, or did He view them as irrevocable?
- Read Rom. 5:12,18. To what extent do the effects of the Fall apply to people today (that is, descendants of Adam and Eve)? What is the correlation between people affected by the Fall and people who have been given dominion authority per Gen. 1:28? In other words, is there anyone alive today to whom dominion authority is not applicable, or who is not affected by the Fall? If there were, what difference would it make?
2. Noahic covenant.
- Read Gen. 6:14,22. To what extent, if any, did Noah’s actions operate as an acceptance of the covenant with God to come?
- Read Gen. 9:9-16. What is the duration of the Noahic covenant, by its terms? Has anything occurred since then to cut short the duration of this covenant?
- Are there any people to whom the promise of the rainbow does not now apply? Is there anyone alive today who is not Noah’s descendant? If there were, what difference would it make?
- Is there any legal basis for regarding people as subject to the provisions of Gen. 9:13, but not the provisions of Gen. 9:6?
3. Israelite covenant.
- Read Ex. 24:3,8. Were the people of Israel coerced into accepting God’s covenant, or did they assent to it voluntarily?
- Read Ps. 105:8-10; and Heb. 8:13. Has the Israelite covenant been revoked, or is it still in effect? Is it possible that the covenant could have been modified or obsoleted in part (as to priesthood), but that the rest remains intact?
- Read Rom. 11:25-29. Is God finished dealing with Israel as a covenant nation? Who, if anyone, is legally bound by the Israelite covenant today as to civil matters?
- Is everyone a descendant of Israel? Were Gentiles ever bound by the terms of the Mosaic Code as a matter of covenant law?
God has an absolute right to rule over people as the uncreated Creator of everything, and everyone, that exists. As a result, God has the right to exercise any means whatsoever to effect His governance. Are these same choices available to us? First, no one is the actual creator of another person. Second, no one has authority over others as part of his or her inherent nature. All people are created equal before the law, and no one is “born to rule” over others. This is the basic thought behind the phrase, “all men are created equal.”
Although God can exercise any means of rule He wants, it appears that He has chosen to rule us primarily, if not exclusively, by covenant. The question for us then becomes one of whether we have any choice but to exercise rule by covenant. If we receive our ruling authority from God via covenant, this may also be the exclusive means by which we obtain authority to rule over others. To the extent this is true, human covenants are not merely convenient, but an absolutely necessary means for anyone to legitimately rule over others.
1. Review Gen. 1:27. The Bible asserts we are made in the image of God. Does this mean that we are to relate to each other according to the pattern of the way God relates to us? What does this mean in terms of our legal right to rule over others?
2. Read Dan. 2:20-21. To what extent does this text support or contradict the idea of a direct appointment or authorization of civil rulers by God (without the consent of the governed)?
3. Is all human authority derived, mediately or immediately, from a delegation via divine covenant? To what extent, and in what ways, do we otherwise acquire authority?
4. To what extent has God ever given anyone authority to rule over others apart from the divine covenants revealed in the Bible, and how would you know if He had?
5. What would be the legal effect of someone claiming that God gave them special authority to tell you what to do? Would you be bound to obey? Why or why not?
6. Read Josh. 9:3-15. What parallels can you identify between Joshua’s actions here and modern Senate ratification of international treaties? Is a treaty a covenant? Why or why not?
7. Does a modern “covenant running with the land” have the characteristics of mutual assent, irrevocability, and a binding effect on future generations? Does that mean all covenants running with the land conform to lonang?
* Copyright © 1995, 2006 Gerald R. Thompson. Used by permission.