Covenant: God's Purpose, God's Plan

By John H. Walton
Grand Rapids : Zondervan (1994). 192 Pages.

Reviewed by
6.1 (Spring 1995) : 115-118

The author, Professor of Old Testament and Hebrew at Moody Bible Institute explores the purpose of the covenant. Following a biblical theological methodology, he probes the fundamental issue which serves as the basis for many divisions within Christianity:

From the systematic frameworks of covenant theology and dispensationalism, to the theologies of promise, liberation or theonomy, covenant would prove itself to be the single most important theological structure in the Old Testament (10).

Walton examines the covenant as promise, redemption, administration or relation, and vassal treaty or land grant. In so doing, he moves beyond much of the earlier covenant research which sought to compare ANE and OT covenant forms in order to find corresponding functions which would ultimately lead to some explanation for the purpose of scriptural covenants. Earlier studies have made far too much of familial terminology, with the assumption that such terms proved "relationship" was the purpose of covenant. This too is now explainable as political and strategic rather than indicative of purpose.

Walton's view is not so much a rejection of other theories of covenant, but more of an integration of their good points with his primary concern—God's program of revelation. In short, what others have considered as a secondary, tertiary, or other issue is actually primary. His thesis is as follows:

God has a plan in history that he is sovereignly executing. The goal of that plan is for him to be in relationship with the people whom he has created. It would be difficult for people to enter into a relationship with a God whom they do not know. If his nature were concealed, obscured, or distorted, an honest relationship would be impossible. In order to clear the way for this relationship, then, God has undertaken as a primary objective a program of self-revelation. He wants people to know him. The mechanism that drives this program is the covenant, and the instrument is Israel. The purpose of the covenant is to reveal God (24).

In short, Walton "sees revelation as the particular objective of the covenant program" (25). He faults covenant theology with attempting to force a redemptive element into every phrase of the covenant (ibid.) and, in so doing, exchanging what he sees as the goal for the smaller set of objectives which should lead to the goal. He cites many theologians who recognize God's revelation but fail to incorporate it into a larger view (28). After citing and contrasting his view as it pertains to particular aspects of others, Walton "interacts" with thematic "centers":

In my proposal both salvation and kingdom are important aspects of the covenant-relation program, but neither is the primary focus. They are both subsumed under the aegis of an overarching plan of God's revealing his character, his will, and his plan. In so doing, God provides a foundation for relationship with him (knowing God and being like him), a means by which that relationship might be achieved (salvation) and the structure that will define that relationship (Kingdom) (29).

This review has already noted that Walton reassesses kinship or familial terminology in order to move the focus of covenant away from relationship, where many place it, to revelation. A major reevaluation comes in understanding the Hebrew term yada, "know," relationally to "know about" as revelatory. Walton does not deny the nexus between knowing about God (revelation) in order to know Him (relationship). He does believe the latter has been overemphasized and draws upon a point of grammar to support his argument. In many passages that use yada, God is the direct object. But in many others, the Hebrew ki, "that," follows the verb, introducing a noun clause as direct object "know that." The shift is from knowing the person (possible, but ambiguous) to knowing something about the person. This leads us to the conclusion that "this phrase indicates at least a revelatory result or function, if not a revelatory purpose" (31).

The author anticipates the question regarding other optional meanings for yada with a nominal direct object clause:

I see no substantial difference between "know" and "acknowledge" in these contexts. "Acknowledge" involves at least a mental response. It may or may not involve a change in conduct or worldview and therefore is not an intrinsically relational concept (26 n. 19).

In brief, Walton sets forth a well-organized (charted) study of the substance of these noun-direct object clauses. They are combinations of God's demonstrations of judgment and grace so Israel and the nations will know (acknowledge) that he is YHWH. Thus, "Israel achieved its knowledge of God through his acting on their behalf, by his doing what he had promised to do."

Israel is God's instrument for revelation, a point made by Loraine Boettner (Loraine Boettner, R. G. Clouse, eds. The Meaning of the Millennium, 52-53), a point Walton concedes he discovered late in his own research (120 n. 5).

Walton's book is enjoyable reading, particularly for those interested in the pursuit of an OT theological center. His argument for the legitimacy if not the centrality of revelation is convincing. The reader will have to determine for himself whether it is convincing enough to be the purpose of the covenant or whether it is another major thematic strand (G. Hasel) in the rope of God's gracious covenant. But this reviewer feels Walton has rendered a great service by drawing attention to God's concern and His reasoning for revealing himself. This is a timely message, considering that both the character and the process of revelation is questioned.

The book is highly recommended to those interested in covenant research. Walton's very readable style, coupled with his desire to probe new ground, makes it delightful reading.