Jenny Richards, Dualism, Contract and Covenant
On a Gospel Reverb podcast, Jenny Richards explained the difference between a covenant and a contract. We thought this might be of interest to those who like the You’re Included program. Jenny is Lecturer in Law and Academic Advisor in the College of Business, Government and Law in Flinders University, Australia.
For an audio version, which includes the entire podcast, go to https://resources.gci.org/media/videos/the-spirit-of-truth-w-jenny-richards
Anthony Mullins: Hello, friends and welcome to the latest episode of Gospel Reverb. Gospel Reverb is a podcast devoted to bringing you insights from Scripture found in the Revised Common Lectionary and sharing commentary from a Christ-centered and Trinitarian view.
I am your host, Anthony Mullins, and I’m excited to welcome this month’s guest, Jenny Richards. Jenny is a Lecturer in Law at the College of Business, Government and Law at Flinders University in South Australia, and Senior Associate (Barrister and Solicitor) at Old Port Chambers, Port Adelaide. She is co-author of Integrating Human Service Law, Ethics and Practice (an Australian textbook on holistic practice in social work law), and a past member of the Management Committee of the Centre for Crime Policy and Research at Flinders University. Jenny’s recent work includes a research project on collaborative responses between law and religious leaders to address domestic violence against Muslim women.
She is in her final year of a PhD dissertation on holistic criminal justice responses to violence against Christian women using the theology of T.F. Torrance and J.B. Torrance. She is also a member of the T.F. Torrance Theological Fellowship.
I got to know Jenny through one of my favorite theologians and authors, Julie Canlis. Julie told me, you’ve got to interview Jenny because of her understanding and articulation of the theology of T.F. and J.B. Torrance, especially as it relates to discussions about contract and covenant. Jenny and I had a chance to meet over a Zoom discussion and I think you’re going to enjoy her commentary.
Jenny, thank you for joining us today and welcome to the podcast. And for those that are in our listening audience who may not be familiar with you and your work, why don’t you take a moment and tell us about it.
Jenny Richards: Thanks, Anthony, for your welcome and for the invitation.
I’ll say first up, I too am a great admirer of Julie and of her work. I’ve been a Christian my whole life pretty much, and I’ve always had a passion and interest in justice. And that’s a key reason why I got into law. I did a lot of work in youth and young adults ministry when I was younger and that fueled it too, I think.
I’m a career academic, really. And that suits me well because I’m a total nerd, but also have a couple of disabilities. So, sitting around and thinking about things is actually a lifestyle that suits me really well. And being a nerd, I’ll study anything I can get my hands on. Except for maths. We need to be clear about that!
AM: You and me both!
JR: For that reason, I’ve always been really interested in theology and learning what I can that way. I was introduced to the work of the Torrances probably in the early 2000s through Baxter Kruger, who was doing some conferences out here. And you’ll hear a lot of his phrases throughout this conversation, I’m sure.
He and a few others asked me for some thoughts on J.B. Torrance’s work on covenant and contract. I think they figured I might be able to shed some light on the contract side of things because of my law background. As you’ve said, I also work one day a week as a criminal lawyer in practice with one of my brothers.
Both of those jobs are part-time because I’m chipping away at this PhD that brings together those interests in law and theology, considering ways in which we can improve the engagement of Christian women who’ve experienced family violence with the criminal justice system. And I’m using the work of T.F. and J.B. Torrance together to undergird that.
Covenant is really relevant to it and so is theological method. And so, the work of both Torrance brothers speaks really directly to it, particularly in terms of understandings of things like justice, restoration, personhood, covenant, and needless to say, how we can address the damaging theological beliefs that can get in the way of people’s help-seeking.
I’m absolutely loving working on my thesis because I’m a nerd. As much as I can anyway, I’ve got about a year to go. So, I mostly spend my time in my home office in the Adelaide Hills. I have the gum trees. I have the koalas and then my cats diligently sleep—well, no, they supervise, of course, in the corner. But I get to spend my time thinking about how personhood, justice, dignity, freedom, and restoration can be more fully realized for Christian women, and men for that matter, who faced this situation and feel outside of the reach of the criminal justice system.
It’s an opportunity that I’m really grateful for.
AM: Outstanding. You’re our favorite nerd on this podcast, just so you know. And of course, when I thought about your vocation as an attorney, I’m thinking, how does this work being a Torrance scholar as well, do these things go together? But they do!
The Torrances often spoke and wrote about the harmful effects of confusing the God of covenant love revealed in Jesus with the God of contract that we make up in our own fallen experience. So, help us understand the ramifications of this confusion and how it brings conflict to our Christian journey.
JR: I’ve become really passionate about understanding the Torrances’ work on covenant and contract—in case you can’t tell already. And the reason for this is the difference that it makes for us when we understand the ramifications of what it means that God is a covenant God and not a contract God. It was a pivotal insight for me into what it means that God is Trinity.
Because that’s the first difference between a covenant God and a contract God. The contract God is not the Trinity at all. A contractual God cannot be the triune God of grace who made himself known in the incarnation of Jesus. And this is precisely why J.B. Torrance cautioned against it so strongly in almost all of his work.
It is impossible for the Trinity to relate out of a contract, either within the Godhead or with humanity. So, in the same way, T.F. Torrance also emphasize the meaning and depth and outworking of Jesus as the Mediator of the new covenant. And the other thing that T.F. brings really strongly to the table for us is his theological method and his understanding of the way in which the relations that we find within the Trinity speak to what human existence is actually about.
So, there’s something going on in how God the Trinity relates to humanity in covenant that is unprecedented in our human experience. So, if we mix up covenant and contract, the confusion and conflict that it brings to the Christian walk is essentially that it derails the gospel and throws us back on ourselves and gives us a completely foreign and incorrect concept of God the Father, Son, and Spirit.
The new covenant forged in Jesus is a relationship of unconditional love. And its motive is familial, right? God establishes himself as our Father and humanity as his children. Whereas a contractual model is based in law, and so it centers God’s legalistic holiness as the most important thing. Its motive is to deal with sin and clean us up. And sure, God loves us after that because of Jesus. But the law bit comes first. That’s a contractual model in a nutshell.
So, if we heed the warning about keeping a covenantal mindset, it’s really easy to think, okay, covenant means we focus on unconditional love, not legalism. And that’s true, but it’s easy for us to take away just a caution to not try and earn God’s love through our discipleship. And that is part of what J.B. was emphasizing, but that’s not all.
There’s a whole lot to covenant. And some of that is illuminated by contrasting it with contract. J.B. didn’t do that to a large extent, because he was quite clear about not knowing very much about contract law. So, the meanings of covenant and their contrasting with contract are rich and beautiful and freeing and glorious, because they show us not only the heart of the Father, Son, and Spirit and the depths of the grace and love and joy that we’re created for and included in, but they also help us guard against being oriented towards religious performance or thrown back on ourselves for our identity as children of God.
And that’s why J.B. referred to the secret of God being covenantal rather than contractual, as “the secret to peace and joy in believing.” So, the point of connection between their work that I’ve gotten really excited about is a less explored aspect of contracts: contracts are dualist.
They don’t just inhabit a legal framework; they operate out of a dualistic framework. And T.F. Torrance’s theological method involves not just a complete rejection of dualism and dualistic thinking, but stark warnings against it. In The Mediation of Christ, he goes so far as to say that if we apply what amounts to a dualistic framework to Jesus as the Mediator of the new covenant, the whole gospel collapses.
So, we’ve got J.B. Torrance on one hand, effectively telling us that if we’re believing in the triune God of grace, the God of the Bible, we have to keep at the forefront that he’s a covenant God, not a contract God. And we’ve got T.F. Torrance on the other hand, warning us that if we try to interpret what Jesus has done out of a dualistic model, the entire gospel collapses.
And given that contracts are dualist, there are significant insights here on two levels. First, in terms of what covenant and a non-dualistic theological method show us about who this Trinity is, of what that means for us. And second, in what that means for how we live and what the Christian life looks like. So, this definitely needs unpacking.
So, for me, there’s really three things involved in breaking all of it down. One is looking at dualism and looking at theological method. The second is looking more closely at contracts. And the third, of course, is looking at theological covenant.
So perhaps if we start with dualism, if that would be useful. It’s got a variety of meanings, and the 2020 Oxford English Dictionary—bringing out my inner nerd—defines it as a theory or system of thought that recognizes two independent principles.
So, with dualism, you’ve got several elements. One of them is very much an individual or independent existence and a capacity for separation and being removed from everything else. That’s what’s meant by that independence. And common examples of splitting things into categories that’s what’s sort of implied in dualism, are things like the mind and body, Cartesian dualism, Plato’s dualism of the realm of physical matter versus the realm of the spirit or intellect.
T.F. Torrance uses a generalized concept of dualism, and it’s something like, “the division of reality into two incompatible or independent domains.” That definition is taken from Elmer M. Colyer’s fantastic book (get it if you don’t have it), How to Read T.F. Torrance, page 58. So, the division of reality into two incompatible or independent domains.
So, T.F. sees dualisms as inherent to contemporary Western thought. It’s literally the structure and the framework that we’re accustomed to thinking in. We don’t think holistically; we don’t see connection and inter-relationality. We see separation and things existing distinct from each other, not just distinct, but separated from each other.
And it comes through modernity from philosophers like Kant and Descartes, but before them Greek philosophy. So, dualism as a general term for Torrance refers to this characterizing belief around the structure of Western society and fundamental to post-enlightenment Western thought. And it compartmentalizes existence and experience rather than regarding them as an integrated whole.
Now T.F. did a lot of work on science, and dualism is particularly evident in the Newtonian tendency towards having mechanistic understandings of reality, and externally created relationships between things rather than inherent connection and interrelationship. And this is a key problem of dualist frameworks, which is particularly relevant to the difference between covenant and contract. And in Western societies, we are so accustomed to thinking in dualist ways, we hardly even notice it.
Cartesian dualism, Kantian dualism there’s almost a concept of personhood we’ve got and of being that we’ve got that emphasizes individualistic, rational existences as the primary thing about human beings and the way in which the world is organized. And J.B. emphasizes these things too, although he didn’t label them as being about dualism.
But J.B. always insisted that the primary thing about human beings is not that we’re independent and rational intellectual creatures. We are made in community for community and particularly communion with the Father, Son, and Spirit. “We’re persons in communion,” that’s his classic phrase, that’s our identity. And those are internally forged connections that are inherent in our being; they’re not externally created.
Whereas contracts involve two people that are disconnected coming together and having an externally created legal relationship that is all about the particular thing they need, or the aim that they have. And Western concepts of community and society are likewise about externally created relationships. They’re based on the social contract. We’re naturally disconnected and individual, but we forged some connections amongst ourselves and organize ourselves based on utility. We’ve got the need for protection, so we form a little society and a few other bits and pieces, but primarily we keep to ourselves and most of our lives are not the business of anybody else. They’re not the business of the government or the law. There are all these distinctions between the public and the private that come out of that.
And we see all kinds of things as separate and not interrelated, unless we deliberately connect them—so, sacred and secular, mind and body, like I said before, public / private. All of these are really common dualistic frameworks.
There are two reasons that I believe we really default to thinking contractually about God. One is that like J.B. Torrance, we all know a little bit about contracts, but the other is that because our Western culture is absolutely steeped in dualism. We are primed to bring that mindset and those preconceived ideas to the gospel. And one other thing I think that we bring to the gospel out of this, is that dualism sees God as detached and outside of creation.
And I don’t know about you, Anthony, but I can think of a number of ways that this influences us. We see God as living in heaven, which is geographically “up there” somewhere and certainly separate from earth. (Hello, Plato.) We see ourselves as not being at all connected to God unless we become a Christian.
We say things like, make Jesus the Lord of your life, or invite him into your heart. Now, while conversion is obviously important, belief is important, and 100% things do change when someone becomes a Christian, they change from our perspective, not God’s! Jesus’ work on the cross was finished and accomplished for all of humanity throughout history, 2000 odd years ago. He’s already Lord, he’s already Savior. Our prayer doesn’t change who Jesus is. It doesn’t make him Lord.
Now on one level, of course we know that, and yet we still use this kind of language. We fall into that. And I think the reason why our language so often makes it seem as though it’s our prayer that effects that change is because of dualism and the impact of contractual understandings in how we get our heads around the Christian message.
AR: Jenny, one of the things you mentioned, and I think this is really important when you were talking about J.B., is how we are persons in community for community. We think through the lens of individualism, which is an “ism.” It’s problematic. Often what we think is, it’s just me and the Lord, right? It’s just me and God and my Bible, and I’m good to go.
But as you said, it’s primarily in communion with the triune God, but also with one another, as we exist, move, have our being in him. Don’t you think?
JR: Absolutely. And I think one of the things that is really powerful in a lot of the work that’s being done in this space is looking at what does this mean for the church and the role of the church within the wider world and all of those things.
And T.F. was very strong on that. Kate Tyler has written a fantastic book in relation to that [The Ecclesiology of Thomas F. Torrance]. Julie Canlis looks at a lot of that [A Theology of the Ordinary]. A lot of people are starting to look at that at the moment for precisely that reason. There’s nothing at all that is individual in relation to a covenantal God and in relation to the gospel and living in the Father, Son, and Spirit.
I think part of the reason that we default to an individualistic picture of Christianity—even though we are naming the Trinity—is because of those contractual understandings. And T.F., in relation to what he says about dualism and the need to be holistic, is really clear that our entire theological method has to be holistic rather than dualistic.
He didn’t start out with that; he didn’t start by rejecting dualism. He wasn’t presupposing it. He rejects dualism because his theological method is centered around what we know through God’s self-revelation in Jesus. He holds to a realist epistemology, which is thoroughly Christological and Trinitarian, right?
We don’t get to decide who God is. In fact, we can’t. Our minds would default to whatever picture of God best served our own purposes. But the Christian message is that God has made himself known to us through the incarnation. And the God who reveals himself in Jesus is entirely holistic in how he is in himself, within the Godhead, and as well as who he is and how he is to humanity. That’s the central theme of Karl Barth. That’s the central theme of T.F. Torrance. Baxter emphasizes that as well: whenever we’re speaking of Jesus or seeing Jesus, we’re never actually just seeing him or speaking of him, we are seeing Jesus, the incarnate beloved Son of the Father who has joined himself to humanity in the Spirit.
In contract, I think we wind up with a little individualistic Jesus carved off from the Father as well, again because of dualism. But every act of God is a Trinitarian act, and every thought of God is a Trinitarian thought.
So, there’s no dualism here between the spiritual realm where God is and the earthly realm where creation is. That doesn’t actually exist. There’s no detachment or bridge that needs to be crossed because humanity—and indeed all of creation—is bound up in union with the Father and Son, through the person and work of Christ.
AM: Yeah, I appreciated what you said about, we cannot create God; we cannot fathom what he is from our own fallen experience. He has to reveal himself in himself, in the person of Jesus.
And it reminded me of this movie we have here in the States. It’s (I’m aging myself a bit, but) it’s called Talladega Nights. And there’s this famous scene where the family’s around the table. And they’re about to “say grace,” in quotations, say a prayer before the meal.
And everybody’s trying to decide what type of Jesus they want to pray to. “I like baby Jesus. So that’s who I’m going to pray to.” And another one says, “I want Jesus in a tuxedo shirt because it says, he’s a partying Jesus.” And it just went on and on. It was comical, but it was sad commentary, too, because it does reveal ultimately the way that we think. We are trying to create God in our image, instead of the way that it actually is—that only God can reveal God’s self and he’s done so, thankfully! We can see him in Jesus.
JR: Absolutely. And I think understanding that T.F. didn’t start by rejecting dualism but starts because of the way that we need to know God. And it comes out of our theological method and comes out of his epistemology in that respect.
Colyer is great on that too. But this holism that T.F. is committed to, it leads him to hold to this profound integration of ontology and epistemology. And that’s where he gets his concept of onto-relations from, because it demonstrates a sense of this holism. Because knowledge of a person—for T.F., knowledge of a person is constitutive of their personhood and is thus necessarily holistic and relational.
And Colyer—I love Colyer. Can you tell? Colyer’s definition of onto-relations is really helpful. He describes it as one in which “the relations between persons are deeply formative of the persons in those relations.” (That’s on page 55.) And this is an emphasis of Karl Barth’s too. Karl Barth would always say, God is who he is in his loving actions towards us.
So, we don’t separate out who Jesus is from what Jesus does. And of course, in dualism and in contract, those separations are inherent in the nature of the relationship. So, we would get a disconnection of Jesus from the rest of the Trinity. Jesus would be off doing something separate, and we would see an individualistic picture of who Jesus is rather than seeing him in relation to those relationships that are within the Trinity.
So, if that’s our framework, if we’re going to be holistic and if we’re going to hold to an integration of ontology and epistemology and keep all of those things together and intensely personal and relational, I just want to unpack some of the key differences between covenant and contract and their ramifications. And these are present on a few levels: the motivation, the parties, the place of Jesus and God, the Father, and also where we fit in it.
All of those elements are affected and are completely different between a covenant and a contract. So, think of a basic contract. I need a car. So, I’m going to buy it from you. I don’t know how we’ll pull that off because you’re in the USA, and I’m in Australia, but we’ll work it out. So: we have a contract.
The motivational basis, of course, is law. And this contract is not about either you or me; we’re the parties, sure. But the contract is about something completely separate from us. It’s about the car. I’m obliged to pay you. And you’re obliged to give me a car in a particular condition; and all of that, those obligations, create the relationship.
And once I bought the car from you, that’s it. I don’t then show up and demand to be invited to Christmas dinner or anything. I’m not your new bestie. It would be weird. But we’re done. We got what we needed from each other. We go our separate ways, and there’s nothing wrong with that, for a legal contract. They’re meant to work that way. That is not a problem for a legal contract, but it’s incredibly problematic for the gospel. As I said before, because contracts are dualist, we’ve got independence, separation, and equality of the parties at the heart of contracts.
There’re some exceptions to this, but contracts involve two parties who are equal in power and agency, previously unconnected and independent from each other. And they come together to create a legal relationship, which is delineated entirely by the terms of the contract and only lasts for as long as those terms do. Now, hopefully you’re already getting a sense of how problematic that would be if we put that onto a kind of contract between humanity and God. It would have disastrous effects.
To start with, it would elevate humanity and diminish Christ, in terms of our relevant positions. The two parties would be God – presumably God the Father, if we’re trying to work with a theological contract – the two parties would be God and humanity. Jesus would be relegated to being the one who does the work to drag God to the negotiating table.
On this model, he’s just the agent of salvation, right? He sorts out the thing that was getting in the way, and now we can have a relationship with God. Because that’s the other problem with a contract: its motivation is law. So, the problem of sin and the need for forgiveness takes center stage, and the aspect of God that is most prominent is his legalistic moral holiness, rather than his holiness that reflects his uniqueness.
But because of his holiness, this “contract” God can’t bear sin and can’t stand humanity unless sin is dealt with, so in comes Jesus to sort that out. And then after that, God loves us or something. It’s all a bit unclear, or at least inconsistent. So now we’ve got really important differences in the motivation, the parties, and the respective places of God the Father, and Jesus.
We get elevated. We’ve got an existence apart from God, and we’ve got the option of choosing to have God in our lives or not. And Jesus is really just the agent of salvation who paves the way and makes the introductions. The ramifications of these differences are staggering. Especially if we see how thoroughly dualist they are.
If our role in the relationship is bigger than that of Jesus, and we get to choose in and choose out, and we’ve got this existence that’s independent of God, then the other thing that happens—and hear me out on this—is we lose the Incarnation. We lose the Trinity. We still have a Jesus who becomes human, but the profundity of that, the meaning of that, is lost entirely. Jesus is no longer the one who unites humanity to the Trinity as the beloved Son of the Father, who reveals the truth of God to us. He’s not the one in whom the whole world exists, in whom we live and move and have our being. He’s not the Alpha and Omega because on a contractual individualistic model, we’ve got our own separate existence from God and we’re making a choice to enter into something. Maybe. And it’s all about the law, and it’s all external.
So, under the contract, the roles change. Jesus becomes the one who brings God to the table, but the players in the contractual model are God and us, and those are equal roles. Our say, our agency, our decisions are staples of this relationship. So, our decision for God, on a contractual model, becomes just as powerful as his heart towards us. Can you see the dualism in that?
We’re independent from God unless we need him, and then we asked him to do something for us. And Jesus is the agent of salvation and the contract with God—and this is where mechanistic, external relations is important—the contract with God becomes about obtaining forgiveness as a disconnected thing that we need from God, rather than forging an eternal relationship of love and being about sharing in that life of love. It becomes about creating an external connection rather than an onto-relational one that grounds our very existence as human beings. It is a stunning difference, especially because a “contract” God really only loves us because Jesus talks him into it.
And these are things that are partly lost because of that next aspect of a contract model. The obligations are different. A contractual model involves a continual focus on what we have to do and how we have to live once we convert, because it’s all about the law, right? Jesus forgives me because of Jesus and agrees—sorry, God forgives me because of Jesus and agrees to love me now and let me into heaven. That’s God’s side of the contract, and my bit is repenting and living as a Christian.
So that means under a contractual model, religious performance becomes the emphasis for Christian discipleship rather than living life in the Spirit, experiencing the love and freedom of Jesus, and knowing him more and engaging in his heart for the world as we share in his relationship with the Father. On a contractual model, Jesus got me saved, but now I become preoccupied with whether or not I’m doing the right thing, even though I know that it’s all because of grace, because forgiveness is a gift and Jesus did it all. Except it’s not quite clear how Jesus did it all.
And this is important too. It’s not exactly clear why the Father loves me or how much, because the “contract” God loves me only if he doesn’t look at me but looks through me and to Jesus or something. I know Jesus loves me because he went out and died for me before I even knew him. But on a contractual model, God the Father doesn’t love us in his own right.
Or at the most, God kind of loves us because he has to, because he’s God and that’s his job. And it’s only because Jesus has sorted out the sin problem that he can properly accept us and fully, really love us. So, the depth and richness of the heart and passion of the Father, Son, and Spirit for humanity right through eternity are just lost, on a contractual model.
T.F. Torrance told a story once about a soldier on the battlefield who was dying. I don’t know whether you’ve heard of this story, but when he was working as a chaplain, a dying soldier asked him, “Padre, is God really like Jesus?” And this right here – for me anyway – the contract issue is why there is that kind of confusion.
And I find myself wondering how on earth did we the Christian church, with the Trinity as the fundamental statement of faith, ever get to a place where anyone could be wondering whether God is like Jesus? And T.F. unpacks all of that through his theological method and his onto-relational epistemology.
Again and again, he and various others, will insist—and this is T.F.’s great phrase— “there is no other God behind the back of Jesus Christ.” Jesus himself insisted, if you’ve seen me, you’ve seen the Father. The other thing T.F. would often say, God is not one thing towards us in Jesus and another thing in himself. We can’t separate who Jesus is from what he does. That’s dualism.
We cannot accept a concept of God that is other than who God has revealed himself to be. And God reveals himself in Jesus as Father, Son, and Spirit, who has joined himself to humanity in the Incarnation and shares the Trinitarian life of God with us. And that Trinitarian life is a covenantal relationship of unconditional love.
So, to put it not only bluntly, if I may, but also mildly – but it’s blunt – the contractual model of God is a heresy. No such God exists. If I can take here a couple of minutes to contrast this a little more with some of covenant (now some of it we’ve covered already) but there are a couple of really significant differences here.
AM: Let’s hear it.
JR: Great. Thank you. Theological covenant is a relationship of unconditional love where the motive is to create a family and not to forensically deal with sin in a way that is detached from anything else. Law does not feature in the motivation or the content of the covenant. J.B. is very clear on that.
The second aspect of covenant (if we get back to those differences before, in terms of the motivation, the parties, the basis, our role, and the role of God and Jesus), in a covenant, God the Father has the same heart towards us as Jesus, right? The act of God in covenant is a Trinitarian act.
God the Father sent the Son. He is bringing us home through the Spirit. We see the homoousion from the Nicene Creed; the Father and Son are of the same substance and being. They are one in the Spirit. So, we don’t fracture the Trinity in a covenant. We don’t have Jesus individualistic, off doing something distinct from the heart of the Father.
And the last couple points about covenant indicate that other element that I highlighted earlier, what does it mean for humanity that God is covenantal and Trinitarian? Because there’s a key difference here in terms of covenant. And this has picked up in particular through T.F. God is on both sides of the table in this relationship. It’s a one-sided covenant (that’s JB’s explanation) – it is a one-sided covenant. God creates and sustains it.
We are not a party at all. This is a huge difference with contract. We’re not a party to this covenant. God is on both sides because this covenant is created and sustained in Jesus. In the Bible, Jesus is himself referred to as the new covenant. Through his incarnation, Jesus is the Mediator of this covenant, including us in his relationship with the Father; we share his Sonship.
We don’t forge our own relationship with God based on the strength of the sinner’s prayer. Jesus does it through the Incarnation. This is where T.F.’s work in The Mediation of Christ, and what that means for us in practice, is so critical.
So, it’s the vicarious humanity of Christ that is shared in this covenant. Jesus is the faithful covenant partner, not us. We have his righteousness, not our own. And wow, does our pride hate that! Contract centers us in our relationship with God, and it appeals to our pride. There is a draw in that. But in reality, our security, our place, our assuredness in this relationship comes from the certainty that it doesn’t depend on us to create or maintain the covenant.
We are freed to respond, but it doesn’t depend on us for its existence. A contract is a legal piece of paper, but covenant is not even a theological piece of paper. Can you see that? We can’t separate out who Jesus is and what he does, and this covenant is created and sustained in his very person.
It is onto-relational. That’s why it’s irrevocable and why it’s intensely relational. So, the other thing that comes out of that – because this is created and sustained in Jesus – is that we are not equal and independent beings who were separated from God and who exist in our own self-sustaining way with an option to have God in our life or not. In a covenant, in a covenantal understanding, we see the reality that the world is held together in Christ.
In him, we live and move and have our being. We don’t have life outside of Christ. It’s an impossibility. We’re not gods. We don’t sustain our own existence. Now, we can choose not to believe that, and we can choose not to see that. And all of those things are still possible within it, but we are not actually sitting outside and excluded from the love and beauty and glory of the life that exists within the Father, Son, and Spirit.
Everything that we have in our relationship with Father, Son, and Spirit involves the outworking in our own life of what has been brought to us and shared with us in the person and work of Jesus Christ as the Incarnate Mediator. He shares his relationship with the Father with us, and we participate in all of this by the Spirit, and that is sanctification. That is the obligations of covenant. That’s where they fit. That’s the bit that we do. We participate and we live that out through the Spirit.
And on that issue, let me add Alexandra Radcliff’s work expanding sanctification and participation in a Trinitarian, covenantal way rather than a contractual performative way, is just brilliant [The Claim of Humanity in Christ: Salvation and Sanctification in the Theology of T.F. and J.B. Torrance]. Get ahold of her book, too. She’s got a whole chapter on covenant and contract, and then she looks at how that’s outworked in relation to sanctification and discipleship later. Julie Canlis’ work, A Theology of the Ordinary, is brilliant here too. Geordie Ziegler’s work on participation and grace [Trinitarian Grace and Participation] are unpacking how all those things work out for us.
Our role is not as a party. But neither are we puppets. We get to quite literally wake up to the truth of who Jesus has made us to be, and to live in the freedom of this. That’s our role. We’re obliged, absolutely, but not performatively in order to earn our place, but relationally because of the truth and dignity of who we are in Jesus. This is why J.B. refers to the obligations of grace rather than the obligations of law.
So, what we do is profoundly important because we’re living as befits the beloved children of God, but it doesn’t create our security. And it certainly doesn’t create the relationship. Karl Barth always said, “We may, therefore we must.” This is where we’re thrown back on that glorious truth that Jesus is in himself humanity’s response to God. He loves the Father faithfully and properly. He’s the true covenant.
AR: Jenny, it strikes me that if you ever got passionate about this stuff, you’d do fine. It just exudes from you.
It’s vitally important because we do demand our own agency, right? In subtle ways and in big ways, we think contractually because we always start with ourselves in the center and our own experience, as opposed to starting with where reality truly exists. And that’s in the person of Jesus Christ who reveals the love of the Father—that we can truly wake up and smell the grace and walk assuredly in it.
It is such a beautiful thing and a beautiful picture that you’ve painted for us. Thank you.
JR: Wake up and smell the grace, I think that’s so true. And even understanding that waking up and smelling the grace, is repentance in so many ways. You might remember when you and I were chatting earlier, I talked about one of my favorite passages in The Mediation of Christ, page 94, where T.F. answers a question about, look, if Jesus did everything and if everything is wrapped up in him, how do we preach the gospel in a truly evangelical way? And he answers that question. (I’m not going to quote it; it’s too long.)
But he answers that question by saying something like, “God loved you so utterly and completely that he pledged his very being as God for you (which is the onto-relational bit). He has bound himself to you in such a once-and-forever way that he cannot go back on that without undoing the Incarnation. And even if you reject that (cause some people do), even if you reject that and damn yourself, his love for you will never cease. Therefore, repent and believe.”
It’s our minds that need changing, not the reality of what’s been accomplished. This is Calvin’s concept of evangelical repentance rather than legal. Grace comes before law. And both the Torrances emphasized that. It’s because of the profundity of God’s love that we can trust and believe.