Review: Biblical Theology: The Common Grace Covenants

Biblical Theology Common Grace Covenants

Some may be familiar with Jeffrey Niehaus and his work on God at Sinai and Ancient Near Eastern Themes in Biblical Theology. In this new work, volume one of two, on the common grace covenants of the Bible (the Adamic and Noahic covenants), Niehaus compares ANE covenants with those found in the Bible and shows how they are foundational to understanding the Bible’s covenants.

I’ve posted it in a previous review, but it bears repeating, “We cannot honor God’s choice of communication strategies if we refuse to ignore the deep worldview connections shared by both Israelites and pagans” (Heiser, I Dare You Not to Bore Me with the Bible, 9). God’s covenant to Israel is similar to the second millennium BC covenants found in ANE. God is the suzerain (the boss/employer) who promises to provide goods/benefits for the vassal-to-be (the employee-to-be) before the contract is signed. Once it is signed, both are bound to their word.

In studying the first two covenants, Niehaus disagrees with covenant theology and claims that the Creation covenant (or Adamic, here) is not a ‘covenant of works.’ In fact, he states that all covenants are under grace.

Summary

Niehaus’ major paradigm (outline) for God’s covenants is as follows (with some variations considering the covenant)

  1. God works
  2. by his Spirit
  3. through the Word/a prophet figure
  4. to war against and defeat his foe(s).
  5. God establishes a covenant with a people.
  6. God’s covenant establishes that people as God’s people.
  7. God establishes a temple among his people, because he will reside among them.

The ‘common grace’ covenants [CGC] (Adamic and Noahic) are God’s grace to all of humanity through Adam, and again through Noah. They are unlike God’s ‘special grace’ covenants which are “cut” for a special people for God. Under the CGC, all are to follow the same rules and all are under the same judgments

Chapters one and two shows the creation covenant compared to ANE covenants, and the unfolding of the creation covenant in man’s responsibilities. In chapter three shows the covenant being threatened by the enemy, how man fails and breaks the covenant, how God (perhaps) shows up in a mighty theophany (reminiscent of Exod 19, but due to early revelation it isn’t mentioned in the same terminology), and judges the serpent, the woman, and the man, yet shows grace to the last two.
Chapter four shows us the progress of the non-elect line, that of the firstborn Cain and his genealogy.
Chapter five gives us insight into the reason for the flood with some explanation of the Nephilim.
Chapter six shows the historical background to the flood, Noah’s justification in the eyes of God, and how Noah is a ‘new Adam,’ in a ‘new creation,’ under a ‘renewed covenant.’ It ends with the Noahic covenant, eschatology, and how all the world will be judged under this common grace covenant.
Chapter seven is about life under two covenants, where all of humanity is under the two comman grace covenants, even those who are under a special covenant.

The Chocolate Milk

Niehaus’ layout of the covenants makes sense. And while I don’t really know how the layout to covenant theology works, Niehaus makes sense. The covenant with Adam wasn’t one of works, for God graciously gave him everything he needed. He simply had to have faith and obey God. For now, I’m convinced that Niehaus’ plan works better than that of covenant theology.

The Spoiled Milk

Niehaus sets out to write a biblical theology under the beauty and prose of poetry, yet I didn’t see it. Perhaps my problem is my distaste for poetry and so I was blinded to it here. Perhaps that’s why this was a difficult read for me. Maybe it was my jetlag. Regardless I did not find this book to be easy to read. It took more effort than usual to understand Niehaus (though he says this book can be read by college students – which is true), and it took me until the end of chapter three until I realized the structure of Niehaus’ book.

Throughout his book Niehaus exegetes the bigger picture of Genesis 1-11, but it as more often than not that I felt his topics were off base. In his beginning Prolegomena, Niehaus explains how all of God’s behavior is covenantal. God has chosen to relate to humanity through his various ordained covenants. Excursuses (yes, that is a real word) immediately come a’plenty.

Niehaus asks how God created the kingdom (earth/universe) that then was, and enters into a discussion on the Spirit and the Word. He talks about faith, faith in agreement with God, God and time, and how the new covenant was not future but ‘present’ for the God who is outside of time. I couldn’t follow the flow in this chapter. As I said before, it was a few chapters into the book that I realized Neihaus was going through all eleven chapters of Genesis.

In chapter four Niehaus gives an excursus on how Cain could build a city, yet then spends sixteen pages on how the Spirit gives one and all imagination to make cities, create technology, the ability to make food to live, etc. To take a thought from T. D. Alexander in his book From Paradise to the Promised Land, should we really be surprised that Cain goes to build a city?

“…[H]umans were created to build for God a temple-city on earth. Unfortunately, God’s plans are almost immediately thrown into chaos as Adam and Eve betray their Creator and subsequently their descendants pursue their own agenda by constructing God-less cities” (Alexander, p 120). 

While Niehaus’ discussion is plausible, we are created by God, thus including the Spirit, who gives us our instinctive thoughts, but to spend sixteen pages on it is too much. Alexander makes two sentences in his book about our instinct to build cities, and I know more about the theology of building cities than I do from Niehaus’ sixteen pages.

The odd thing about the end of the book was, as Niehaus continues on in chapter seven, he finishes, in the larger topic of the Tower of Babel, with talking about territorial spirits. He strangely finishes with a divine council and how things on earth are related to events in the heavens. A strange way to end a book. His final conclusion is only one paragraph long.

Recommended?

Perhaps one might want to see how Niehaus views the first two covenants as being ‘common grace,’ or you’ve read some of his books before and enjoy his writing. But for the most part, in his comparisons of Adam to Noah, I’ve seen the same thing in James Hamilton’s biblical theology God’s Glory in Salvation through Judgment. In fact, three biblical theologies that have come out in just the last few ears aren’t even in Niehaus’ bibliography (Hamilton’s aforementioned book, Tom Schriener’s The King in His Beauty, Greg Beale’s A New Testament Biblical Theology, and Alexander’s From Paradise to the Promised Land). No author should be expected to read every book that comes out, but many of his statements and conclusions could be found in these books, and perhaps by reading them Niehaus would not have deviated from his point so much.

Lagniappe

[Special thanks to Emily and Weaver Book Company for allowing me to review this book! I was not obligated to provide a positive review in exchange for this book.]

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Review: Biblical Theology: The Common Grace Covenants

  1. Wow thank you for this review. This seems unique among the books out there on Covenant Theology in it he goes back to the ANE situational context. Excellent.

    Like

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