Covenant is firmly established in Christian theology, but among mainstream denominations Methodism gives it particular emphasis. Dating from the time of John Wesley and adapted from seventeenth century Puritan ideology, the annual covenant service is an established part of Methodist tradition. In some quarters it has been welcomed as part of Methodism’s distinctive contribution to the World Church. Grounded in both the Old and New Testaments, covenant theology is surely beyond reproach. Or is it?
It’s fair to say that the origins of covenant thinking are distinctly dubious to a present day understanding. Moses is said to have got the better of God in an argument (Exodus 32:14), the Lord consequently repenting of the evil he had intended against his people. Hm… A bargain was supposedly struck whereby the Lord would be the God of the Jews (and no-one else) and the Hebrew people would prosper at the direct expense of their neighbours providing they remained diligent in observance of the law (Torah).
Needless to say it didn’t work. When did righteousness ever guarantee an easy ride? Despite their best endeavours the Jews fell successively victim on a grand scale to the Assyrians and the Babylonians. In due course Jeremiah proposed a new covenant, but forty years after the death of Jesus unprecedented disaster followed at the hands of the Romans.
Thereafter the shattered nation became a wandering and frequently persecuted people across the face of the earth culminating in the unspeakable horrors of the Holocaust. Only in 1948 was the modern state of Israel established, to remain a bone of contention to this day. If such is the penalty for breach of covenant, we had better watch out!
Covenant became deeply ingrained in the Hebrew psyche. Hence it was virtually inevitable that early Jewish Christians, recalling Jeremiah, would resort to the model of a new covenant in their attempts to interpret the death of Jesus. The Apostle Paul, a trained Pharisee, unsurprisingly made reference to covenant, while the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews elaborated a new covenant sealed with blood. For good measure it appears graphically in the words of institution of the sacrament of Holy Communion.
Did Jesus actually say ‘This is my blood of the new covenant’, or was this a later reading back by the evangelists, writing many years after the event, into the significance of that final meal? We cannot be sure; but it may be that Jesus as a faithful Jew in distant times did indeed regard himself in that light. If so, are we obliged to accept that view in perpetuity?
It is clearly commendable to begin the year with renewed commitment and dedication regardless of what the future may have in store. But the Methodist liturgy goes much further. Taken at face value in traditional form it strongly implies that our misfortunes may arise at the divine behest (‘Put me to what thou wilt, put me to suffering’ etc.) Would we suggest that to a friend in distress or to someone entrusted to us for counselling? I hope not. Rather our conviction is that God is our comforter in time of trouble rather than the author of life’s woes.
Indeed we may legitimately ask whether the essential concept of covenant as a mutually binding contract (‘now you are mine and I am yours’) has been inappropriate from the very outset as a symbol of divine grace. By definition covenant goes beyond simple promise, conferring rights on an injured party in the breach. It stems from our fickle human nature, demanding guarantees and imposing conditions. Witness contemporary covenant practice legal and commercial.
The marriage ceremony is likewise a case in point. Couples are properly required to make vows, not least because their future conduct is potentially prone to err. As a further precaution the union is undergirded in law. How can we presume to conceive an eternally faithful God in such terms, projecting our own fallibility and predicating a relationship as much in law as in love? Can covenant language be credibly strained to shed its fundamental connotations both ancient and modern? When we assert that God is love, do we feel a but coming? And is forgiveness finally reduced to the level of a commodity to be purchased?
Surely not! In Jesus we have seen unconditional love and the power of forgiveness in action, and at our best we are capable of it ourselves. Do we not love our children without reserve even when they break our hearts? Love at its finest is unconditional. As Paul reminds us, love keeps no score of wrongs. ‘But we make his love too narrow by false limits of our own’, sings the poet Frederick William Faber. Shall we imagine anything less for God, or do we accept what theologians call the theory of penal substitution and concede the moral high ground to the Merchant of Venice?
Furthermore the notion of covenant is morally less than altruistic. Invariably there is something in it for us. It surfaces specifically in the Methodist covenant service; ‘and the covenant now made on earth, let it be ratified in heaven.’ The stakes could hardly be higher. It’s hardly pure spirituality.
There has to be a more excellent way, and a hymn attributed without certainty to Francis Xavier points towards it:
‘My God, I love Thee – not because I hope for heaven thereby.’ And in case we didn’t get it the first time, the point is repeated and expanded: ‘Not with the hope of gaining aught; not seeking a reward; but as Thyself has lovèd me, O ever-loving Lord.’
We trust that the Spirit leads us into truth. Is our calling therefore to adhere to the past or to grow from it? In prospect may lie a more generous spirituality and a nobler view of divinity.