The Abrahamic Covenant is One
In examining what Scripture teaches concerning God's covenant dealings with Abraham, Jeffrey Johnson finds a helpful conversation partner in Nehemiah Coxe, who was perhaps the chief architect of the Reformed Baptist Confession [the 1689 Confession]. However, there is a point of disagreement that Johnson notes between he and Coxe:
Coxe goes on to explain that God had established two distinct covenants with Abraham at two different periods in Abraham's life. Abraham received a covenant of grace in Genesis 12 and a covenant of circumcision/works in Genesis 17. Twenty-five years separated these two covenants from one another. According to Coxe, the first covenant was a covenant of grace and the second was a covenant of works, which he called a covenant of circumcision. The covenant of grace promised Abraham that in him all nations would be blessed. This was in reference to Abraham's spiritual offspring, which would include believers out of every race of people. The covenant of circumcision, on the other hand, promised blessings to a single nation. This nation was limited to Abraham's physical offspring. [Jeffrey Johnson, The Fatal Flaw of the Theology Behind Infant Baptism (Free Grace Press, 2010), 216.]While in agreement with Coxe's main point (that we must differentiate between promises to Abraham's physical seed and his spiritual seed), Johnson writes:
Unlike Coxe, I hold that God's promises to Abraham in Genesis 12 and 17 cannot be separated. I believe that these promises recorded in these two chapters are a part of the same covenant. [Ibid.]The Proof Considered
I believe that Johnson's view of this matter is correct, and provably so.
Let us consider: are readers to understand Genesis 15 and 17 as two distinct covenants? Should we think, speak, and write about Abrahamic covenants rather than the Abrahamic Covenant? I believe that, due to language found in the context of the Abrahamic Covenant, and due to how God later speaks of the covenant, we should view the Abrahamic Covenant as one.
In Genesis 17, God establishes or confirms His covenant with Abraham. This is different language from what was used in Genesis 15. In Genesis 15, the language of “cut” or “make” was used to describe God’s covenant-making activity. [I write of Genesis 15, rather than Genesis 12-as in the quotes above-because, while the promises of the covenant appear in Genesis 12, there is no formal inauguration of the covenant until chapter 15.] In Genesis 17, the language of “establish” or “confirm” is used. As noted regarding the language of the Noahic Covenant, “cut a covenant” refers to the initiation of a covenant, whereas “establish a covenant” refers to the renewal of a previous covenant arrangement.
A consideration of the term used in Exodus 2:24 and 6:4-8, along with the context of these verses, offers definitive proof that we should view the Abrahamic Covenant as one. In these verses, God refers to “covenant” in the singular, mentioning the covenant He made with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. In the historical storyline of Scripture, the early chapters of Exodus are leading up to God’s delivering the Israelites from Egypt to bring them into the Promised Land. In making the covenant with Abram (in Genesis 15), God spoke of Abram’s descendants being enslaved in Egypt and then being delivered. In establishing the covenant with Abraham (in Genesis 17), God spoke of Abraham and his descendents receiving Canaan. These promises are inseparable, and they are part of a singular covenant with Abraham.
Understanding the Abrahamic Covenant as a singular covenant arrangement with distinct aspects is helpful when considering other covenants as well. An examination of the covenants with Adam and Noah reveal that there may be various facets to a covenant (the Adamic Covenant being both the Creation Covenant and the Covenant of Works) or different movements in God’s covenant-making activity (God began extending covenant words to Noah before the Flood, Gen 6:18, but the Noahic Covenant was ratified after the Flood, Gen 8:22-9:17). However, in each of these cases readers should consider that God was dealing with Adam, Noah, and Abraham not as private individuals to whom He was making various covenants. Rather, He was dealing with these men as federal representatives through whom certain promises would come to humanity.
The idea of a dichotomous nature to a single covenant may have implications to how we understand the Mosaic Covenant as well.
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