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What is a Covenant? Dr. Michael Thigpen

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Guest: Dr. J. Michael Thigpen | Dr. Arnold interviews Dr. Thigpen about covenants.

Topics of conversation include:

  • A definition of covenant
  • The significance of covenants in understanding the Biblical narrative
  • What the Old Testament covenants illustrate
  • The difference between dispensational and covenant theology
  • Practical implications of God’s covenant to us
  • Resources for further reading on the topic of covenants.

Dr. J. Michael Thigpen is professor of Old Testament at Phoenix Seminary. He previously served as the Executive Director of the Evangelical Theological Society and the associate professor of Old Testament and Semitics at Talbot School of Theology. Dr. Thigpen holds a PhD from Hebrew Union College and is the author of Divine Motive in the Old Testament: A Comprehensive Survey and Analysis (Gorgias Press, 2015).


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Intro (00:01):

Welcome to Faith Seeking Understanding, a podcast from Phoenix Seminary—helping Christians grow in their understanding of the faith, hosted by Dr. Brian Arnold, president of Phoenix Seminary.

Brian Arnold (00:18):

Our God is a promise-maker and a promise-keeper. What he says he will do, he does. From the beginning of the Bible’s story, he promises that if man sins, he will die, and all men die in Adam. He also promised that he would send a Messiah who would crush the serpent underfoot, and all men can be saved in Christ. Throughout the Bible we see many of these promises. The Bible calls these promises covenants. God makes many covenants through Scripture with Noah, Abraham, and Moses to name just a few. He promises them things that will happen in their day, and he looks forward into the future to make promises. And if you hear nothing else in our time together today, I hope you’ll know that God is true to his word. If he makes a promise, he keeps it. His covenants never fail. He has promised that those who have faith in Christ will be saved in the end, and that is quite a pillow to sleep on at night. Well, with us today to talk about covenants is Dr. J. Michael Thigpen, who is professor of Old Testament at Phoenix Seminary. He previously served as Executive Director of the Evangelical Theological Society, as well as an associate professor of Old Testament and Semitics at the Talbot School of Theology. He is the author of Divine Motive in the Hebrew Bible: A Comprehensive Survey and Analysis, as well as numerous articles and book chapters. Dr. Thigpen holds a PhD from Hebrew Union College. He’s been with us before, and I want to welcome him back to the podcast. Mike, welcome back.

Michael Thigpen (01:42):

Thanks. It’s great to be with you.

Brian Arnold (01:43):

So as you know, we ask our guests one big question every time, and this week’s question is—what is a covenant? So let’s just dive right in there. So what is a covenant? How do we define that word?

Michael Thigpen (01:56):

A covenant is, in essence, a solemn promise, and it can be anything between two individuals—like Jonathan makes a covenant with David because he loves him. And so they make a commitment about how they’re going to be together in the tension with Saul, and what that’s going to look like, all the way through to something as grand as a Great High King making a covenant with a lesser nation, all the way through to God making a covenant with his people. So it can operate at the personal level, at kind of a national level, and it can operate at the divine level. But they’re all fundamentally a personal promise and guarantee of the way that we will do life together.

Brian Arnold (02:40):

And in the modern period, we see similar types of things, even if we don’t call them covenants always—business contracts, things like that. But marriage, oftentimes, we do call a covenant. I keep telling Lauren, I’m waiting to show up at a wedding one day and see an animal that has been cut in half, and the end split from one another to demonstrate what a covenant is. So here I am talking about that language. Why use that imagery? So we see that in the Old Testament, don’t we?

Michael Thigpen (03:09):

We do. And the way that oftentimes covenants were enacted is you would have a sacrifice, and the parts of the sacrifice would kind of create an aisle way. And the individuals making the covenant would walk through that together, as a way of symbolizing that if I break the covenant, may I become like these sacrificial animals—may I be taken apart. But if you break the covenant, may you become like these sacrificial animals. And Jeremiah actually says—he is kind of being a little snarky—and he says, “You know what? I hope you become like the animals, because you’ve broken this covenant with God.” And he references that. And so it’s one of the visual kind of vivid imageries of covenant. And that you take this on in a way that you’re saying that kind of being torn apart if I’m the one who violates this covenant.

Brian Arnold (03:55):

Well, and you started off by talking about a solemn promise. I mean, it doesn’t get more solemn than that. If the imagery is that there will be death. And the words from Hebrew karath berith mean to “cut a covenant.” And so that idea is even woven into the term itself.

Michael Thigpen (04:11):

It really is. And it’s the idea that this is not…that’s why I say that it’s a solemn guarantee. It is something that is—and here I want to be careful. We sometimes use the language of contract, and that’s not bad, in that contracts have obligations, they have penalties, they’re legally binding. And all that is largely true of covenant. But contracts don’t involve some of the same level of solemness and personalness that are in here. And that’s where covenant has this other dimension to it, because so often a covenant is made between individuals who love one another, who care for one another. And marriage here is an excellent example of a covenant in the Old Testament. And it is the idea that this is something that you should not want to break, you should not want to violate. And so it just has this solemnity to it. We oftentimes kind of sign off on a contract rather haphazardly, but this is one that one needs to take greater thought and care about when you’re thinking about it. It has a real sense of weight to it.

Brian Arnold (05:14):

Well, and that’s why God uses it so often, especially as we see in the story of the Old Testament. There’s an Old Testament theologian, Walter Eichrodt, who famously argued that the concept of covenant is the key to understanding the Old Testament—showing some of the unity and diversity in the Old Testament, even. So how would you say how significant covenants are in the Old Testament? I mean, does this kind of form the heart of the Old Testament?

Michael Thigpen (05:44):

I think it does. Gosh, if we don’t understand the nature of what it means to be in covenant with God, I don’t think we understand any of the Old Testament well. And I say that because the most basic premise that’s made in the Old Testament is that God is a covenant-maker and keeper. And it’s through covenants that he’s going to establish both his people, as well as, ultimately, his salvation. So the idea that he makes a covenant with Abraham, that he’s going to give him a land, a nation, and he’s going to make him and the family that comes from him a blessing to all nations. This is what picks up on that thread you mentioned it in your intro of Genesis 3:15—that there is a promised seed coming. Well, where’s that seed going to come from? It’s going to come from Abraham. Why? Because God chose him and made a covenant with him.

Michael Thigpen (06:32):

It’s going to come from the nation of Israel. Why? Because God chose the nation of Israel, made a covenant with them. It’s going to come through the new covenant, because God chose to give a different kind of covenant to his people. And so all through the way, this is the primary device that God uses to say—here’s who I am. And I am like a great king that you would experience. And I’m going to come and save you, and I’m going to defend you, and I’m going to keep you, and you’re going to have this relationship with me. But here’s what’s key—I’m the great king, and you can only have one great king in your life. And the covenant says that you’re going to worship me and me alone, and then I’m going to give out my blessings to you, and you’re going to respond in obedience. And this is what our life together should look like. And that’s fundamentally the story of the Old Testament.

Brian Arnold (07:21):

Well, and let’s talk specifically about a couple of those you’ve kind of mentioned, and the promise in those. So God makes a covenant with Noah, for instance, right? And then Abraham, and then Moses, and then David, and then we see the New Covenant kind of language. So why all those different covenants? Why not just one covenant? What is he trying to show us in each of these that point to maybe a greater reality? You and I have had these conversations before, and we talk about even in the book of Hebrews, and this idea of the shadow versus the substance in reality that’s coming later in the story.

Michael Thigpen (07:59):

Yeah, I do think we’ve, we’ve got two things going on here. One is that we have a couple of different kinds of covenants taking place. Some of them are what…the languages people pick at it, but I think it’s still helpful. Some of them are more bilateral, meaning you and I are both on the hook for this. And we have a few things that look that way. So Jonathan and David make a covenant with each other, husband and wife make a covenant with one another, and the nation of Israel and God at Sinai make a covenant with one another, where they both have obligations that they have to keep up as a part of this. And we see that in the ceremony there, is that part of the blood of the sacrifice is sprinkled on the altar representing God, and part of it is sprinkled on the people. And this is a kind of covenant that God will say in the prophets—this is a covenant that they could and did break.

Michael Thigpen (08:48):

It’s a breakable, a violable covenant that the people actually walked away from. And this is why there’s a need for a New Covenant in Jeremiah 31 and other places. But there are other covenants that have a different kind of a picture to them. So the Abrahamic Covenant is one of these. And in Genesis 15 there’s this great image where it’s not the first time God gives the covenant to Abraham, but he’s trying to help explain it—Abraham, how can I help you get this? And so Abraham makes a sacrifice, as we talked about earlier. He splits the parts. And then God puts him into a deep sleep, and in that state of sleep, he gives him a vision. And God shows a kind of boiling or fiery pot that goes through the sacrifices all on its own, while Abraham’s off to the side asleep. And what that kind of symbolizes for Abraham is they didn’t join hands and walk through that sacrifice together.

Michael Thigpen (09:42):

God, the image of God alone, walked through the sacrifice as a way of saying—I’m going to keep this. You have obligations to respond well, and you have things you need to do, but ultimately the make or break of this is on me. And so part of what we begin to get is we get some covenants in the Old Testament that illustrate to us—we can’t do it. We can’t keep our end of it. We won’t keep our end of it. And these are covenants that get broken. But there are other covenants where God says—I’m going do this because I’m the only one who can. And these illustrate for us the nature of salvation. So the covenants are constantly teaching us our inability and God’s gracious ability to save. And they work their way through that. And then each one kind of adds a little bit to it, whether it’s choosing people in Abraham to say—I’m going to make a nation out of you.

Michael Thigpen (10:34):

That’s where the blessing is going to come from. Giving Israel a way of living to illustrate that you can’t do this in the Mosaic. Choosing the line of kingship through David, and that I’m going to keep this forever, because the Messiah is going to be part of this line. And then ultimately the New Covenant to say—this is how I’m going to give you salvation, in that I’m going to change your heart. I’m going to put my Spirit in you, and I’m going to change you from the inside out, so that you’ll finally be able to be obedient. So each one of these covenants kind of stacks, gives us a little bit more, pushes the story forward. But they’re always teaching us these two sides—what we can’t do, and what we must have done for us by God.

Brian Arnold (11:17):

And then there’s this kind of culmination at the end of the Old Testament in Jeremiah 31, or Ezekiel 36 and 37, where there’s a promise of a new covenant coming. And so I want to kind of zoom out real fast and look at the whole biblical narrative, because if we both agree that the way that we understand covenant really changes and colors how we view the entire Bible—God’s unfolding plan of salvation from beginning to end, from Genesis to Revelation, how is God moving amongst his people—well the New Covenant as is promised there, as I mentioned, is signaling something different. So in what sense do the covenants hold together? And here I’m thinking the Old Testament and the New Testament specifically, dealing even with who the people of God are.

Michael Thigpen (12:08):

Yeah, I think what you end up getting here is that if you follow the track of the covenants, you have one common thread, which is that the people of God are those that he chooses and that he brings salvation to. So Abraham doesn’t do anything to be worthy of the covenant, but God chooses him and says—I’m going to do this. And then he says—I’m choosing this son of yours, Isaac. And he continues to choose sons, not according to human tradition, the oldest or whatever, but he continues to choose them sovereignly. And he lays out that this is where salvation is going to come through. Same thing with David. David’s not chosen because he fits any human conception, but because God chooses to give him the monarchy. And he begins to lay that out. So there’s this thread that runs through both Old and New, of God choosing his people, of loving on them and lavishing on them salvation, and carrying this through.

Michael Thigpen (13:04):

But there is this kind of tipping point, where the way things have been—the Mosaic Covenant, the laws, the sacrifices, the temple—all those things cannot accomplish all that God wants to do in salvation. So he brings a New Covenant. And for me, the New Covenant is kind of the tent pole, if you want to think of it that way, that bridges the Old and the New. Because it’s that New Covenant given to us in Jeremiah 31 and Ezekiel 11, and 16, and 34 to 36, and in all those places. It’s that New Covenant that Christ says—this is what I’m doing. So when I go to the cross and I shed my blood for you, this is the new covenant sacrifice that we’ve been waiting for. And so, as believers now, we’re joined in a way with everything that God has been doing from his promise in Genesis 3:15, through his promise to Abraham, through his promise to his people, through the promise to David, all the way through now to Christ’s sacrifice. Now we have one covenant that joins Old and New, and says—this is always what I’ve been doing. I’m going to work through a perfect sacrifice, a perfect high priest, and I’m going to change you and put my Spirit in you. And this is what I promised in the Old, and now fulfilled in the New Testament. And so it really is this covenantal structure that brings us continuity between the two. It illustrates some differences between Old and New Testament, but it really is the thread that holds everything together.

Brian Arnold (14:39):

It is. And I think a lot of people have not wrestled with this much, and then they plop down in the Bible somewhere and don’t really know how to read effectively, because they don’t see this bigger structure of the narrative—like you said, I mean, it is the tent pole that kind of holds this all together. Let’s get a little bit specific for some of our listeners who might want to dive a little bit deeper into Dispensational versus Covenant Theology. Because they’re dealing with the nature of the covenants as well, and how to fit the whole Bible together. So even things like infant baptism oftentimes comes from how people understand the nature of the covenants in the Old Testament, and the continuity between that and the New Testament. Where people on the Dispensational side see a little bit more discontinuity between these. So maybe define those quickly, and then flesh out a little bit how they would both understand the covenants. And then kind of where you fall on that.

Michael Thigpen (15:31):

Yeah, so you’ve got…with a more Covenant Theology approach, you’re really starting with the covenant in the garden made with Adam and Eve, that then they’re going to violate, and it’s going to carry on through. And oftentimes with the view of what will be called the pactum salutis, sort of a covenant amongst the Godhead—that the Trinity is making a covenant before time to bring salvation to people and to work through the incarnate Christ in the future. And they’re going to carry that through. And so there’s a really strong emphasis on the corporate aspects of the covenant in the Old Testament, that Covenant Theologians will see in continuity with today. So in the same way that a child was born into the Mosaic Covenant in the Old Testament, they see a child being born—not into salvation, they’re very careful about that—but being born into the covenant benefits of being in the church community. The same way that a child would’ve had the covenant benefits of being born into the Israelite community.

Michael Thigpen (16:31):

So in that way, they will mirror circumcision in the Old Testament with infant baptism in this New Testament period. Whereas Dispensational folks along that line will see a little bit more discontinuity, and they’re going to say—no, no, no. Circumcision is old covenant, it’s Mosaic. And it’s something that we have there. And the closest analogy that we have would be the change of the heart that takes place, because most of the language that we have about circumcision in the new is about circumcision of the heart. And so they’re going to say that we’re not going to follow entrance in that way with circumcision. We’re going to wait until we have new life, and then we’re going to follow that up with baptism in that period. That’s kind of a fundamental divide between the two in the way that they think about it. And there is sort of an emerging…there’s some middle positions in here.

Michael Thigpen (17:23):

One would be Gentry and Wellum’s sort of Kingdom through Covenant approach, a little bit different. Others would be somebody like a Tom Schreiner, who would refer to himself a little bit more as sort of a “New Covenant Theologian.” And I’m closer to these sort of middle ground positions, in that for me, the Covenant and the Dispensational approaches are not how I approach the text, but I appreciate aspects of both of them. And for me, the big key is the New Covenant. How does the New Covenant differ from what came before it, and how does the New Covenant enable what comes after it? And so, for instance, on these questions, I would argue that even in the Old Testament itself, it begins to shift us from the circumcision of the flesh to the circumcision of the heart, and anticipating that that is the work that God is going to do.

Michael Thigpen (18:13):

Jesus himself will use the language of “new birth” as the means of entering into the kingdom. So how do you become part of the kingdom of God? Well, you must be born again. When were you circumcised? Well, at birth. When are you baptized? Well, I would say at new birth. At this point that you have actually entered the New Covenant community, this is when we would initiate baptism, because it is an entrance piece that you do once you’re born into. But born into the Old Covenant meant when you were a baby. Born into the New Covenant is when God works in our heart in order to bring about salvation in us.

Brian Arnold (18:48):

And then not going too far on the other side of so much discontinuity that God has two distinct people, such that Israel is saved different than the church is saved, for instance, as I think some Dispensational theologians early on especially got into a little bit of trouble in that area. Just like I would say flattening out the covenants on a traditional Covenant Theology side is not helpful. And this again plays into how we read our Bibles, and how we think through eschatology, end times. Like the Left Behind series, for those who may not know, that’s Dispensational reading of how the end of the world will come about. And I mean, that’s not where I’m at on those issues. But there have been, as you mentioned, several really helpful mediating positions. I think as you mentioned, Progressive Covenantalism with Wellum and Gentry and then Progressive Dispensationalism with a guy like Darrell Bock are really…they’re getting a lot closer to what they’re saying. But it does—if you’ve not thought through this issue much—really does impact the way you read all of your Bible. And so I wanted to maybe shift there, in our last few minutes together, is a pastoral piece of—this is not academic theology. This matters. If our God is a covenant-making God, as a pastor, how do you relay that to your people? Why is that so significant?

Michael Thigpen (20:11):

I think it’s huge, because it indicates that our salvation is based on God’s choice, on his sovereign decision. And here’s where this comes down for me—and we don’t have time to do it here, but perhaps in another occasion—there’s this doctrine of impassability. That God is not swinging emotionally like we do. And I think that’s huge for us, because when I come down and say—God makes covenants. He makes solemn commitments and he keeps them, it means that my salvation is not tenuous based on how I’m doing today. God doesn’t fly off the handle and I lose my salvation because I sin. God doesn’t become fickle and decide that I really don’t want to do this, and I don’t want to pour out my love on him. No. God makes sovereign, settled decisions. And that brings a security and a comfort that goes beyond my immediate circumstances. And one that serves as a motivation, so that Christ can say—you know what?

Michael Thigpen (21:08):

No one can take one of my sheep out of the Father’s hand, because this is a done deal. It’s settled. And so this is a way of really thinking about this. And it even begins to help as we process—well, how do I deal with the Old Testament? How do I deal with the laws that are there? Well, those laws are there and they teach us about who God is. They teach us about who we are. They teach us about what it looks like to live a life that’s pleasing to God. But I don’t earn my salvation by keeping the law. You know what? Israel did neither. Israel had life because God chose to reach out and to love them. And he’s doing that same thing for us today. And so this consistent thread of God’s choice at a pastoral level brings comfort and hope, because I know that I’m not dependable. And I know that I can’t do enough to make myself acceptable to God. But I can rely fully on him, because he’s proven himself to be reliable. And I can trust that he will keep his promises.

Brian Arnold (22:05):

And just like that beautiful picture of Abraham, you mentioned before, God walks through, alone. And he has achieved salvation for us that we could not achieve. And he keeps his promises to the end. And so if you are in Christ, you’re in Christ forever, and he will bring you home safely. And that is just such a sweet, soul-stirring reality of who our God is, and what he’s done for us in Christ. Well, Mike, I do appreciate you taking the time to talk today. Maybe you could mention one or two resources that would be helpful for our listeners to read.

Michael Thigpen (22:40):

I think Kingdom through Covenant, by Gentry and Wellum. I also think Tom Schreiner’s The King in His Beauty—which kind of walks through all of the Scriptures with these ideas in mind— are both great places to think about the way that God has acted through his covenants all throughout the Old and the New, and how they hang together on his promises.

Brian Arnold (23:00):

Those are excellent resources. I would commend them as well. Lift with your legs, if you choose to get those volumes. <laugh> Even Gentry and Wellum, I will say, have a more condensed version as well. If you’re not wanting to do the 900-pager or whatever, 700-pager, you can do the 250-pager and get a lot of that meat off the bone. Well, thank you very much. This is really helpful. It does really form part of the core of the Bible, is that God is a covenant-making God, covenant-keeping God, and he can be trusted. Mike, thanks for the conversation.

Michael Thigpen (23:30):

It’s been great to be with you.

Outro (23:32):

Thank you for listening to Faith Seeking Understanding. It means so much to us that this content is helping you grow in your understanding of the faith. I want to take a moment to tell you about our new online learning experience at Phoenix Seminary. Over the last year, we’ve been creating what we believe to be the highest quality of online courses for ministry training. If you’re called to train for a lifetime of faithful service, but can’t join us on campus, I’d like you to invite you to join us online. Take courses featuring some of the guests you’ve heard on Faith Seeking Understanding, including Wayne Grudem, Mike Thigpen, Steve Duby, myself, and more. Learn more about Phoenix seminary online, and even access the entire online lecture content for my church history course at ps.edu/online.

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