Saturday, January 27, 2007

Questions about whether the Supper is a “covenant renewal ceremony”

Keith blogged about the Lord’s Supper being a covenant renewal ceremony. The idea of the Supper as a covenant renewal ceremony does seem to have appeal for sacramentally-oriented Calvinists. It provides a way to articulate a high view of the sacrament within the traditional Reformed construct of covenant theology. As such, I have little problem with the notion. Whatever it takes to get to the real presence is fine by me.

I have not, however, seen a sustained argument as to why we should think of the Supper as a covenant renewal ceremony. To be sure, Jesus introduces the rite with the comment that the cup “is the new covenant” in his blood. But it seems quite a leap to me to jump from this statement to the conclusion, then, that it is a covenant that fallen humans renew.

So here are some questions I’ve had about the idea that the Supper is a “covenant renewal” ceremony.

First, which covenant is it, precisely, that is renewed in the Supper? You might say, “well, duh, Jim, the New Covenant.” But, on reflection, I don't think that makes sense. Only the persons who make a covenant can renew that covenant. It seems to me that while fallen humanity is the third-party beneficiary of the New Covenant (thanks be to God), we are not parties to the making of the covenant.

As I understand it, there are only two options regarding the number of parties to a covenant. A covenant can be a unilateral covenant, wherein one person unilaterally covenants to provide a benefit to another person, or a covenant can be a bilateral covenant, where two people exchange promises. (Unlike contracts, however, failure to perform by one party does not free the other party from performing his covenantal obligation. Also, there would also be multilateral covenants, but they are in principle no different than bilateral covenants as far as making them is concerned.)

First, if the New Covenant is a unilateral covenant, then God could be its only maker, and fallen humanity cannot “renew” that covenant.

So, if humans can "renew" the New Covenant, it seems as though the New Covenant has to be a bilateral covenant, a covenant between God and humanity. But there’s a rub – God already had a bilateral covenant with fallen humans. It was called the Mosaic covenant. Israel continually failed to perform her covenantal obligations, and she was judged. Indeed, it seems as though the Scriptures themselves anticipated the need for a New Covenant precisely to solve the problem that fallen humans could not perform covenantal obligations. (A number of theologians have articulated that view; NT Wright has forcefully articulated the view in his writings.)

The solution to the problem of the Mosaic covenant is Jesus. The New Covenant is a covenant between God the father and humanity’s perfect human representative, Jesus.

But while fallen humanity is the beneficiary of this covenant, we did not make this covenant. And since we did not make it, we cannot renew it. Therefore the Supper cannot be a “covenant renewal ceremony” in which “we” as fallen humans “renew” a covenant that we made.

Jesus made the covenant. Jesus does not need to renew the covenant. While forgiveness, which is the benefit of the covenant, is distributed to us in the Supper, and we receive God’s forgiveness by receiving the Supper, fallen humanity did not make the covenant through which that benefit is provided to us. Indeed, the idea that you and I renew the New Covenant when we celebrate the Supper, seems to me to threaten to rob Christ of his singular glory. Only Jesus could make a New Covenant that would definitively secure God’s blessing to humanity. We did not share in actual ly making that covenant. (If the success of the covenant depends on us, on our vows and promises, then it seems as though it would fail as the Mosaic coveanant failed.)

Finally, I might note that the liturgies of the Supper (at least those that I know) do not support Keith’s claim that we renew our vows and promises in the Supper. It would be very easy to do so - we'd repeat vows and promises as part of the cermony. Instead, the Supper is usually celebrated by reading the words of institution, a text in which forgiveness is promised by God. In response to the grace that God distributes to us in the Supper, we may as a forgiven and renewed humanity walk away from the Supper with a renewed intention to walk in the new life that God created in us in baptism. But that would be an effect of the grace distributed to us in the Supper, not a condition for it.


Blogger CPA said...

There are of course no vows or ceremonies.

I think Keith's concept can be salvaged only with a much more primitive concept of covenant: an agreement sealed by blood shed in sacrifice, with the benefits thereof to be given to whoever participates eats the sacrificial meat, thus confirming and approving and participating in the sacrifice.

In the Lord's Supper, we once more eat the meat of the sacrifice. Thus we renew our share in the sacrificial covenant made between God and His Son Jesus.

January 27, 2007 8:03 AM  
Blogger CPA said...

I meant of course "vows and promises" -- the Reformed can't let any promise be just a promise, can they?

January 27, 2007 8:04 AM  
Blogger The Presbyteer said...

Maybe "renewal" is the term of stumbling here. I use it only because everybody else around here does. But I'd be just as happy with another word that suits what, for example, is going on in Psalm 50. V. 5 "Gather my saints together unto me; those that have made a covenant with me by sacrifice..." and v. 14 "Offer unto God thanksgiving and pay thy vows unto the most high." So worship, as JBJ would say is repeated, regular "command performance" thanksgiving ("eucharist") by God's covenant people. It looks back ("you proclaim his death") and forward ("until he comes") in terms of our place in God's covenant with Christ.

Is "renewal" the problem word? Isn't Christian worship somehow defined by the Covenant?

January 30, 2007 9:48 AM  
Blogger Jim said...

Hi Keith,

Now that you mention it, it could very well be that use of "renewal" is a big part of my problem. This may sound sort of weird, but my exposure to the idea of covenant renewal came from scholarly theological literature that used the phrase as a specifically defined term of art. And so when I hear the phrase, I've always just assumed that everyone was using it in the same way.

To wit, in covenant renewal, the covenant has been broken and at least one party to the covenant is re-covenanting. So blood must be shed again, etc. It's that "presentness" that bothered me. In a sense, Roman Catholic eucharistic celebration could be thought of as "covenant renewal" in this specific sense, in that they believe (as I understand it) that Christ's blood is being shed again.

As for worship, sure it's grounded by the New Covenant in Jesus blood. But unlike the old covenant, the initial human action has moved from us as human to Jesus as human. The covenant with humanity is with Jesus as the head; we receive the benefits of that covenant via baptism. But we are not an immediate party to the covenant as OT Israel was. We are, as it were, at one remove from the covenant, in that Jesus is our mediator.

I think the service is a both/and -- the first move is God's, from whom we receive a blessing (eulogia), we then respond with thanksgiving.

The eucharist is the eucharist because in it we receive blessing, that is, forgiveness is distributed to us in the Supper. We then in turn bless the cup of blessing.

As best as I can tell, every major translation except the NIV translates "eulogia" in 1 Co 10.16 as "blessing" rather than "thanksgiving." The former avoids the implication that all the action in the Supper is the offering of thanksgiving from human to God.

But the focus in the sacraments is what God gives us in those actions (with the Word), not in how we respond to God in response to what God gives us.

Besides that, it would be easy, liturgically speaking, to add language about vows and promises to the eucharistic liturgy if one wanted to. But as I said in my initial post, I know of no liturgy which actually incorporates vows and promises in the eucharistic liturgy. (And there is no record that Jesus had the disciples reiterate vows and promises at the Supper's first celebration.)

But I'll give you a good-natured challenge: If you believe the Supper is a covenant-renewal ceremony in which promises and vows are renewed, then integrate them into the liturgy. Israel did so in the covenant renewal recorded in Nehemiah (10.28-39).

January 31, 2007 2:45 PM  
Blogger Joel said...

Hmm. I always just assumed that "covenant renewal" meant God's renewal of his covenant blessings towards us.

Maybe this is one of those places Reformed folk like to throw the word "covenant" in without really thinking through what that might mean.

February 17, 2007 2:58 PM  
Blogger Jim said...


It would work for me if the phrase was that the worship service is understood as a "renewal of the covenant blessing" service.

In that case, the focus is on the blessing that is renewed, rather than then covenant being renewed. And my whole beef with "covenant renewal" is that there's something about the New Covenant that needs to be renewed. That's what I couldn't understand from the traditional terminology.

February 18, 2007 9:31 AM  

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