D. Campbell’s Covenant vs. Contract Distinction

Many things that Douglas Campbell claims are controversial but arguably none are more controversial than his claim: Much of the church (post 1600) has built their interpretation of Paul’s soteriology upon a faulty understanding of how God relates to his people. Aided by Alan Torrence, Campbell makes the distinction between two fundamental ways God can relate to humanity: covenantally or contractually. For Campbell and Torrence the important distinction between the two lies in that the purpose of the covenant in the Hebrew Bible was, “to denote the Lord’s relationship to Israel as an unconditioned and unconditional covenant commitment to Israel grounded in love and characterized by hesed – God’s sustained and unconditional covenant faithfulness,”1 while a contract defines the basis of a formal relationship between two (or more) parties as being grounded in the agreement to meet certain conditions.  This distinction, though, is hard for many to swallow (or understand) due the fact that much of the material found in the Scriptures is ‘conditional,’ that is, God says that he will do X if Israel does Y. So, how exactly can Torrence and Campbell’s distinction be faithful to the material of the H.B.? Well, I don’t know if the distinction does keep, but what follows are what I think the most necessary points that still need to be made:

1) Conditional elements and/or language are found in both covenants and contracts. This can easily be seen in today’s world. A (Christian) marriage is (supposed to be) based upon a new relationship that is so strong it recreates one’s identity my means of merging with another. So, actions not in keeping with good faith do not void the relationship. The only time this contract can be voided is if one of the parties joins themselves to another party or dies (literally or effectively through abandonment).

2) Covenants had rules. The covenant was unilateral which means that one party makes all rules. Threats of judgment or the actual enforcement of the the threat did not end the covenant even though it may have for particular individuals. (See #3 for more on individual/corporate distinctions.) If a person, family or tribe was brought into judgment that did not mean that the King was no longer King of those people. In fact, the judgment was meant to be understood as being legitimate because of the king’s right to judge those who did not meat the obligations of the people.

3) We must be able to make some necessary distinctions between individuals and corporate entities. When two parties make a covenant the two actually become one entity. So the relationship is no longer one of convenience but of commitment. Usually though, a covenant has terms that if are broken evoke certain judgments on the offending individual(s). This judgment though, is not to be thought of as what we would call ‘punishment’2 but instead as ‘discipline.’3

4.) Obligations don’t change the nature of relationship, the relationship defines the nature of the obligations. (During the conference this distinction was talked about as being that of descriptive/prescriptive. That distinction was not very helpful for me.) So, say a king enters into a covenant with another land of course obligations came with it for both sides e.g., taxes, worship, support. The obligations do not make the basis of the relationship a contract, since a contract’s distinctive feature is that it is based on convenience, but the obligations make the relationship a reality. The obligations that are found in a covenant are to be understood as being for the mutual benefit of both parties.

5) Morality does play in keeping with contracts, but morality is the basis of for the obligations in a covenant.4 As I sit here, in the Raleigh-Durham airport, my flight was supposed to leave at 7:00am yet, due to mechanical and scheduling issues I cannot leave until at least 2:00pm. This failure does not make American Airlines morally bad or wrong since our relationship was one that was based on something other than personal commitment.  The more I think about this distinction the more I think it it may work. One problem remains for me, though. If the distinction holds true, it may not have the payoff that Campbell and Torrence claim? I guess that problem is for my next couple of weeks of reflection.

1 SJT 65(1): 82–89 (2012)
2 Punishment here refers to inflicting pain to a party without the purpose of this pain being changed behavior for the benefit of the person who is receiving the pain.
3 Discipline her refers to inflicting pain to a party with the purpose of this pain being that it aids the party in changing their behavior for their benefit. This does not exclude anger in the offended party.
4 A swindler is not morally wrong because he failed in his obligations but he or she is wrong due to lie that the relationship was based upon.