Conditionality in Divine Covenants

Are divine covenants conditional, with requirements for loyalty?

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The question of conditionality in divine covenants, or the question of unconditionality in divine covenants, has been under a lot of discussion for some time. I think the most natural and best view is this: all of the covenants, every one of them is unconditional in this sense, each of those divine human covenants will continue. God will continue each one until it has accomplished the purpose for which he instituted it. On the other hand, every covenant is also conditional… They're conditional in the sense that under each covenant the Lord gives conditions. Under the Adamic covenant, there is the condition of not eating the fruit of the tree… Under the Noahic covenant, there is the condition that has to do with murder, and there seem to have been other issues as well because in Isaiah 24:5 — which is an eschatological poem sometimes called the "Isaiah Apocalypse" — and the Lord through Isaiah speaks of how the people have broken the laws and the statutes of "the everlasting covenant." Well, that term, berith olam, "everlasting covenant," is first used in Genesis 9:16 of the Noahic covenant. And so, scholars generally recognize that those two passages are related. What that tells us is that there were other conditions under the Noahic covenant that didn't get recorded, but we know they existed. Under the Abrahamic covenant, also, there were conditions. There is circumcision, but there is also, when God reaffirms the covenant with Isaac, he says he's doing so because Abraham obeyed my laws, my decrees, my requirements. Well, what were those? We don't know what they were. We aren't told. But by the time we reach that point in Genesis, we find that there were other conditions. Of course, the Mosaic covenant has many things that people have to obey; those are conditions. And even under the new covenant, even though our salvation doesn't depend on our perfect obedience, we still are called to the obedience of faith. There are things that we are supposed to do too. So, I think that's the better way to understand those terms and understand how they relate to the covenants.

Answer by Dr. Jeffrey J. Niehaus

Dr. Jeffrey J. Niehaus is Professor of Old Testament at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.