Ethics through Covenant: A Primer on Progressive Covenantalism and Moral Theology (Part 1)

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“If you are not a Christian, you cannot really be married.”

This is a paraphrased statement a student said to me a few years ago in class. The best possible interpretation I can give is that the student thought that because marriage has God as its author (which is, of course, true), any couple that is not Christian is not fully satisfying the demands of marriage (which, from the vantage point of Scripture, is false). A non-Christian couple may not experience the fullness of a Christian marriage, but the marriage they are in is indeed real and ordered to their creaturely enjoyment. The student’s statement reveals a fundamental misunderstanding in how to relate contemporary Christian ethics to the function and progression of biblical covenants. As I will argue in this essay, understanding the relationship between Christian ethics and biblical covenants serves as an essential guide for understanding the abiding reality of moral goods and the abiding reality of moral obligation.

A misunderstanding like the statement made above, although there is a grain of truth in it, as I will explain below, shows the inadequacy within Protestant moral theology. Absent a larger framework through which to do ethics, this type of misunderstanding can lead to improperly relating the order of creation to the order of redemption. An accurate conception of how biblical covenants function, however, can help correct this type of error. In the above example, the student’s understanding of the order of redemption has consumed the order of creation as reflected in the covenant of creation. This has the unintended consequence of narrowing the scope of Christian ethics’ field of action to the Christian alone. It also destroys the intelligibility of Christian ethics in relationship to creation order—an order that continues to the end of the age due to the Noahic covenant. If marriage is only a Christian reality due to the order of redemption, it renders our responsibility to speak to the world about what marriage is, from a creational standpoint, moot. While this essay is not about marriage per se, this topic will serve as a helpful foil through which to understand and apply the framework I will explain below.

In turn, as I will argue in this essay, Progressive Covenantalism yields a more coherent framework in which to do ethics, a framework that allows the moral claims of the Christian to be (1) explicitly Christian while (2) anchoring those claims to a broader canonical framework that, in addition to having gained biblical warrant through proper covenantal placement, offers moral claims what they need in order to be coherent: Objectivity, intelligibility, universality, and in turn, obligation.

If Protestants lack the moral framework in which to make universally binding moral claims as Christians—and not just as mere natural human beings—we will find ourselves laboring in a moral ghetto, falling victim to the pietistic tendency that sectarianizes Christian ethics as an alien ethic foreign to the world. Progressive Covenantalism, in contrast, allows us to universalize Christian moral claims by securing them to both the order of creation and the order of redemption.[1] An approach to moral theology of this kind helps demonstrate the ongoing relevance of Christian ethics to matters of political morality and the common good.

1. For the sake of terminological clarity, my use of “order of creation” and “order of redemption” are categories of my own choosing used to help trace the continuity of moral order through the canon of Scripture. They are not used in line with the bi-covenantal arrangement that is associated with traditional covenantal theology.

In this three-part essay, we will look at three important topics. First, I will look at how to do moral theology within the framework of progressive covenantalism. Second, I will take an issue of practical significance (marriage) and use it as a template for thinking about the ethics of marriage in view of progressive covenantalism. Then, in the third installment, I will argue for why progressive covenantalism provides theological warrant for grounding a doctrine of natural law within the new covenant.

(1) How to do Moral Theology within Progressive Covenantalism

One of the most urgent tasks of contemporary Christian ethics is to simultaneously affirm the inherent naturalness of Christian ethics while (1) affirming the created world as morally intelligible and (2) affirming the centrality of Christology in the moral grammar of those creation-affirming obligations. Oliver O’Donovan’s magisterial The Resurrection of Moral Order attempted to do this, but O’Donovan’s masterful volume does not take into consideration the storyline of the covenants to bring systematic organization to that thesis.

Even though Christian ethics is more than narrative-based ethics, the drama of Christian ethics takes place within the covenantal storyline. It is urgent, then, to calibrate properly the role that covenants play in shaping ethical continuity and ongoing ethical obligation. As we think about ethics through covenantal progression as New Covenant Christians, what is at stake is considering how we come to decipher the relationship between creation and redemption as our knowledge of moral realities is progressively revealed through the covenants.

Enter Progressive Covenantalism (PC). As a Scriptural hermeneutic, PC affirms the advancement of God’s redemptive plan through the progression of covenants, allowing for a proper pre-fall and post-fall distinction (e.g., creation, Noahic, Abrahamic, Mosaic, Davidic, and the New Covenant). Each of those covenants are intelligible within their own epochs while each builds sequentially on what came prior to it as the eternal plan of God unfolds in history. To put matters more simply using an example, to know the contours of the Davidic Covenant and what its uniqueness as a covenant requires or teaches, we must know what previous covenants have come to pass, what previous covenants are still in effect or have expired, and how the ethical witness of each covenant negates, fulfills, or ratifies ethical witness in the Davidic Covenant. In other words, we must ask when doing ethics: Is there ethical continuity between the Abrahamic Covenant and the Davidic Covenant, despite the Abrahamic Covenant (directed to all Abraham’s offspring) having been narrowed by the David Covenant (to the Davidic line)? This would require examining the text itself and the epoch of the covenant juxtaposed against prior covenants and then seeing how all the covenants reach their fulfillment in Christ and the ratification of a new covenant.

I agree with the progressive covenantalist hermeneutic that champions biblical interpretation through grammatical-historical-literary exegesis of the text, epoch, and canon of Scripture. To examine a given topic in ethics, we must consider the text along these three horizons or contexts—that is to say we must consider its immediate context, the epoch of redemptive history up to that point in the biblical storyline, and lastly, we must consider the topic in view of the full canon of Scripture.[2] The covenants themselves reveal the moral horizons for how God relates to (1) creation, (2) Israel, and (3) the church. As a hermeneutical paradigm, ethics through covenant means that we do ethics ultimately in view of the organic unity of the covenants due to the one plan of God. Nonetheless, how the covenants (each in their own way) prefigure the climactic coming of Christ and how the authority of Christ sheds light on prior covenantal moral demands is where the work of ethics takes place.

2. David Schrock, “The Three Most Important Words I Learned in Seminary: ‘Textual, Epochal, Canonical,’” 9Marks Journal, What’s Wrong with Gospel-Centered Preaching Today? (March 2020): 128–34.

What PC calls for that is especially important when considering moral theology is the integrated and organic continuity of the covenants. This allows us to do ethics from the full scope of Scripture as Scripture while affirming the unity and coherence of Scripture’s moral witness and the climactic authority of Christ on matters of ethics. In other words, PC supplies a needed principle for unifying an ostensibly diverse book into one canonical revelation which terminates in Christ and the new covenant. Through this approach to Scripture, ethics—as a biblical and theological discipline—is not carried out by a piecemeal collation of randomly assembled Bible verses. Instead, Christian ethics looks to how the climactic dawning of Christ and the New Covenant shapes the entirety of the canon’s ethical witness.

“The Law” and Progressive Covenantalism

Because Christians are not under the Old Covenant as a covenant, we do not look to what is explicitly repealed or explicitly re-stated in the New Covenant to do ethics. This is an approach taken by some advocates of Theonomy and other forms of covenant theology. Such an approach, though commendable on the one hand, is an incomplete Christian approach to ethics. This is because Christians, while not looking to the Old Testament Law as unilaterally binding as a covenant, do see every word of the Old Testament as useful for instruction, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness (2 Tim. 3:16–17) now that we live under the new covenant. In other words, the Old Testament is useful for doing Christian ethics. As Steve Wellum notes, “Although Christians are not ‘under the law’ as a covenant, it still functions as Scripture and demands our complete obedience.”[3] Because the Church, as one new man in Christ, is not the same as Old Testament Israel, we do not look to Israel’s Law in the same way. Rather, as Christ fulfilled all of the Law (Rom. 10:4; Gal. 3:15–4:7; Heb. 7:11–12), the commands of the Law now serve as a source of Christian wisdom and ethical instruction as viewed through the lens of the new covenant.

Stephen J. Wellum, “Progressive Covenantalism and the Doing of Ethics,” in Progressive Covenantalism, ed. Stephen J. Wellum and Brent E. Parker (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2016), 217. I would like to acknowledge my general indebtedness to my colleague Stephen Wellum for his influence on my thinking about ethics through the covenants. The book chapter I cited is particularly helpful and I see myself doing something slightly different, and yet complementary to Wellum’s chapter. Wellum’s chapter is the attempt of a systematic theologian to do ethics. As an ethicist and moral theologian, this essay is the attempt of an ethicist to do systematic theology. Wellum’s chapter focuses on the interpretive project of ethics, while this essay focuses more on the substance of morality itself within a Progressive Covenantalist framework. In other words, there is the task of “how” to do ethics (Wellum) and reflection on “what” morality is (Walker).

This is not to suggest that the Mosaic covenant was in any sense bad. Rather, the old covenant is a reflection of God’s Eternal Law and God’s moral norms, which are as unchanging as God Himself. His holy commandments are a reflection of God’s own being, and therefore, we understand the Mosaic Law’s principles as holy, righteous, and good (Rom. 7:12). Even though Christians are not under the “Mosaic Law” as a covenant, we do not reject the moral principles inherent in the Law. Instead, we look to how Christ fulfills, in himself, the demands and precepts of the Law, and how the new covenant brings to fulfillment the entire old covenant. We see that the principles comprising the Mosaic Law, but not “the Mosaic Law” itself, have abiding intelligibility, validity, continuity, and fulfillment in Christ. This suggests that the Law’s moral principles bear an important truth in relationship to the creation order that impacts our consideration of how those moral norms remain binding in the New Covenant. As we will see, Christ fulfills not only the Law Covenant, but he fulfills and affirms the moral principles behind the logic of the covenant. The morality that Jesus speaks of in the New Testament is presumed to be universal, intelligible, objective, and obligatory. The Mosaic Law is proleptic in that it was good when it was issued, but the Mosaic Law itself points to a coming fulfillment in Christ. The question we’re asking is: How do Christians understand as Christians where they ground their sense of moral obligation?

Covenantal Progression and Eschatological Overlap

Fundamentally, moral obligation for the Christian comes by placing each text within its textual, epochal, and canonical context and by viewing the moral issue at hand, starting in creation and ultimately, in light of Christ’s affirmation or fulfillment of the moral principle in question. We must evaluate how the issue at hand has gone awry because of sin, evaluate how each covenant approaches the topic, and look, finally, at how the New Covenant understands the issue in light of Christ and Spirit-enabled obedience. When we do this, we will see Jesus and the New Covenant affirm the underlying moral principles grounded in creation but alter the punishment that comes with moral disobedience. For example, whereas sexual infidelity was a capital offense in theocratic Israel (Lev. 20:10; Deut. 22:22), in the New Covenant, the moral norms against marital infidelity remain (Matt. 19:4–6), though the form of punishment has shifted away from capital punishment to excommunication, especially in regard to the church (Matt. 18:15–20; 1 Cor. 5). The shift in punishment—but not the substance of the moral principle itself—has drastic implication for the prudential application of the moral law in modern day political contexts.

Of course, this does not justify seeing a “radical” new approach to ethics in the person of Jesus. Jesus’s ethics are, at root, creation ethics because they are grounded in the nature and will of God. It is God’s covenant with the creation, reestablished through Noah, that grounds and orders moral and telic reality. Any ethical demand Jesus places beyond reaffirming creation ordinances and that which flows from creation order are demands unique to membership in the order of redemption and, in one sense, not expected of non-Christians in this age. This is why Christians are uniquely commanded to practice radical generosity as a Kingdom ethic even while we still insist that non-Christians have an ongoing obligation against wantonly murdering one another. Arriving at this distinction is possible only within view of how the covenants are distinct yet overlapping in light of inaugurated eschatology.

Furthermore, this distinction is necessary because it prevents us from demanding an over-realized ethic in the present age. For example, while Christians are to not be retaliatory or vengeful following the Sermon on the Mount and Romans 12:9–21, such a demand cannot be expected of political powers. As such, justice handed down in the Noahic Covenant, for example, forms our foundation for why political authorities have one set of moral obligations and New Covenant Christians have a set of moral obligations that do not negate the Noahic Covenant, but simply builds upon the Noahic Covenant’s platform and calls for more radical moral commitments. To make this practical: It is conceivable that a Christian who is also an elected official could practice radical mercy toward a prisoner as a Church member while still called to execute laws that were lawfully passed against the same prisoner. A Progressive Covenantalist understanding of the law helps differentiate the callings of institutions that are grounded in one covenant (first creation and then the Noahic Covenant) from the demands of another covenant tied to the order of redemption.

Instead of looking to the Mosaic Law itself, we look to how Christ re-interprets, reaffirms, or ratifies the ethical topic at hand within the New Covenant itself and how the “Law of Christ” (1 Cor. 9:21; Gal. 6:2) activates, animates, and compels us to obedience as a response to the Spirit’s work in our life. All the covenants preceding the New Covenant do indeed function as canonical Scripture for Christians, but prior covenants must be refracted through the ultimate and climatic covenant, the New Covenant of Jesus Christ. As Scripture tells one story about the coming of God’s kingdom through his son, the Christ, so Scripture speaks with moral unison as well. Rather than giving the appearance of a disjointed assemblage of verses that we just cherry-pick from to prove our case, PC allows us to insist that, properly understood, Scripture offers a unified moral witness by allowing us to see intertextual connections and climactic fulfillments of moral truths that culminate in Christ.

Regarding the doing of ethics through covenant, what PC avails us is the opportunity to retain and affirm the ontological soundness of moral principles worked through successive covenants while viewing them with new Spirit-given epistemological insights gleaned from the New Covenant’s re-situating of those moral realities. An example in the next article will show how to do ethics through an analysis of covenantal progression. Back to the original question: Can you really be married if you are not a Christian? Matrimony will be our test case in the next installment.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Author

  • Andrew T. Walker

    Andrew T. Walker is Associate Professor of Christian Ethics at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he also serves as an Associate Dean in the School of Theology. He is a Fellow with The Ethics and Public Policy Center and Managing Editor of WORLD Opinions. He and his family are members of Highview Baptist Church where he leads a Sunday community group and men’s Bible study.

Andrew T. Walker

Andrew T. Walker

Andrew T. Walker is Associate Professor of Christian Ethics at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he also serves as an Associate Dean in the School of Theology. He is a Fellow with The Ethics and Public Policy Center and Managing Editor of WORLD Opinions. He and his family are members of Highview Baptist Church where he leads a Sunday community group and men’s Bible study.