Remaking the covenant
Religion & Liberty Online

Remaking the covenant

Some theologians have taken a troubling interpretation of the Noahic covenant to support a heterodox agenda. The World Alliance of Reformed Churches, in its attempts to call a status confessionis, called various study groups and forums to report on the “global crisis of life.”

To this end, both the south-south member churches forum (held in Buenos Aires, Argentina, April 23-26 2003) and the south-north member churches forum (held in London Colney, UK, February 8-11 2004) affirm that:

God has made an all-inclusive covenant with all creation (Gen 9.8-12).
This covenant has been sealed by the gift of God’s grace, a gift which is not for sale in the market place (Is 55.1). We reaffirm that God made a covenant to liberate from the imperial powers (Babylon and Rome). God’s covenant is over and against any contract, which is the “law” of domination and exploitation. It is an inclusive covenant in which the poor and marginalized are God’s primary partners.

The reduction of the Noahic covenant merely to a covenant made “with all creatures,” and the abstracting out from that the working assumption that God places equal value on human and animal life is simply unbiblical, and smacks of neo-pagan pan(en)theism.

The Buenos Aires faith stance also stated that:

We repent from believing that Christians have an exclusive relationship with God. We have excluded people because of their class, race, sex, ethnicity or religion, and in our beliefs about salvation we have excluded people outside the Christian community and also the non-human world.

These faith stances played a large part in the formation of the task force report to last year’s WARC General Council in Accra, Ghana. The task force report reads, in part:

In the covenant, God put God’s own self into all creation. In the covenant that God has made with the whole of creation, all members of creation are put into one another’s place.

In the context of life threatened, communities dismantled and the truth distorted, we must reaffirm and renew the covenant that God made with all creation, that Christ made new and promised would never be broken, and that the Holy Spirit continues to renew even today.

The context of the entire passage surrounding the Noahic covenant is critical to proper interpretation.

If the WARC theologians would only look also to the first seven verses of Genesis chapter 9, they would see that God makes the covenant first with Noah and his sons, who is placed as the federal head (thus the common reference to the Noahic covenant). Indeed, God clearly places animals in a position of lower importance than humans when he states, “The fear and dread of you will fall upon all the beasts of the earth and all the birds of the air, upon every creature that moves along the ground, and upon all the fish of the sea; they are given into your hands. Everything that lives and moves will be food for you. Just as I gave you the green plants, I now give you everything” (Gen. 9:2-3 NIV).

This understanding of the higher value and placement of human beings over the rest of creation is affirmed throughout Scripture, especially in the concept of human stewardship over creation, which involves the human identity as image-bearers of God. Jesus himself states that humans “are worth more than many sparrows” (Matt. 10:31 NIV).

Far from devaluing animals and reducing them to merely functional entities, this biblical understanding of the hierarchy of creation properly values animals and “all creation.” Animals, plants, and earth are not of no value, but neither are they of the infinite value of the human person created in God’s image.

The statements of the WARC committees seem to be attempts to rehabilitate a sort of “Green Gospel,” which twists Scripture in support of a broader environmental agenda. This is in sharp contrast to other recent Christian efforts at defining environmental stewardship, which attempt to properly identify rather than to confuse biblical categories.

For example, even where the Evangelical Environmental Network’s Evangelical Declaration on the Care of Creation (which has its own problems) refers to the Noahic covenant, in which God “promises care in a covenant with all creatures (Gen. 9:9-17),” it does so only in support of the statement that “the Creator’s concern is for all creatures.”

To the extent that the WARC membership and leadership has abandoned Reformed confessional orthodoxy, it should be seeking to return to its tradition rather than engage in new theologizing. Who better than John Calvin to orient a proper Reformed interpretation of the Noahic covenant?

Here’s an excerpt from Calvin’s Commentary on Genesis, chapter 9, verse 10:

Although the favor which the Lord promises extends also to animals, yet it is not in vain that he addresses himself only to men, who, by the sense of faith, are able to perceive this benefit. We enjoy the heaven and the air in common with the beasts, and draw the same vital breath; but it is no common privilege, that God directs his word to us; whence we may learn with what paternal love he pursues us. And here three distinct steps are to be traced. First, God, as in a matter of present concern, makes a covenant with Noah and his family, lest they should be afraid of a deluge for themselves. Secondly, he transmits his covenant to posterity, not only that, as by continual succession, the effect may reach to other ages; but that they who should afterwards be born might also apprehend this testimony by faith, and might conclude that the same thing which had been promised to the sons of Noah, was promised unto them. Thirdly, he declares that he will be propitious also to brute animals, so that the effect of the covenant towards them, might be the preservation of their lives only, without imparting to them sense and intelligence.

Jordan J. Ballor

Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is director of research at the Center for Religion, Culture & Democracy, an initiative of the First Liberty Institute. He has previously held research positions at the Acton Institute and Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, and has authored multiple books, including a forthcoming introduction to the public theology of Abraham Kuyper. Working with Lexham Press, he served as a general editor for the 12 volume Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology series, and his research can be found in publications including Journal of Markets & Morality, Journal of Religion, Scottish Journal of Theology, Reformation & Renaissance Review, Journal of the History of Economic Thought, Faith & Economics, and Calvin Theological Journal. He is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary and the Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity & Politics at Calvin University.