Peoples of the Covenants: Evangelical Theology and the Plurality of the Covenants in Scripture

Tom Greggs
University of Aberdeen


Engagement in inter-faith dialogue is never an easy task. It is born of difference, particularity and otherness to another who inevitably faces the same or similar concerns and questions as oneself. For evangelical Christians, engaging in inter-faith dialogue is more difficult than it is for many Christians. Following Bebbington’s classical fourfold definition of evangelicalism, [1] as well as being crucicentric (focusing theology on the atoning death of Jesus Christ) and activist (responding to that death in works of faith), evangelicalism is marked from other forms of Christian spirituality by its Biblicism (seeing Scripture as the final authority in all matters of faith and practice) and its conversionism (emphasizing the decision of faith and seeking the conversion of others to Christianity). [2] There is, therefore, for evangelicalism, a double exclusivity which can serve to undermine the potential for inter-faith engagement: the first of these revolves around revelation, with the Christian Scriptures being seen as God’s final and absolute authoritative word to humanity; the second revolves around issues concerning salvation and the need for response to God’s grace in the act of conversion. [3] For evangelicalism, there is an emphatic insistence on the plain sense of Jesus’ claim ‘I am the way, the truth and the life’, and this is expressed in terms of attending to the high authority of the Christian Scriptures and to a life which seeks to be in personal relationship with Christ. It is this characterization which provides evangelicalism’s identity as a trans-denominational movement, a movement focused on the uniqueness of Jesus Christ’s atoning death, as learned about in Scripture, and as responded to by conversion.

However, if evangelicalism is to take its claim to Biblicism seriously, there is a need to attend to all of the Bible, including those places in which one can identify some of the complexities found in the body of Scripture. [4] A number of such texts revolve around the place of the religious other within Scripture. While there are places in which there are clear binary separations of people (prophets of Baal do not seem to be prophets of the Lord!), there are other places in which it seems clear that God works outside of the two-fold classification of insiders and outsiders to His promise which often underpins evangelical approaches to the text. [5] These narratives involve the various Samaritans and pagans with whom Jesus engages, but also figures such as Rahab, Melchizedek, Jethro and Ruth. [6] Taking Biblicism seriously in these texts seems to demand questions of the traditionally-articulated evangelical attitude to the way in which God works with His people —usually expressed as only being a relationship with Christians and (in most evangelical articulations) with Jews. The text demands a more complex reading, and to be genuinely Biblicist involves attending to these. Crucially, while these themes are very much contemporary for a post-9/11 world, these complexifying elements do not arise external to the tradition, but are rather to be found through the plain sense of the texts of the Bible, whose unique status as the revelation of God must be affirmed by evangelical Christians. Recognizing the deep wealth of scriptural wisdom means that to be truly biblical (even in the plain sense) can never involve the hermeneutical naïveté of stating, ‘[t]he Bible said it, I believe it, that settles it.’ [7] There is a glorious complexity to the God of all the universe—so infinite that He is best honoured by silence—and it should not be a surprise to evangelicals that there is a glorious complexity to the Word of that God. [8] Sure, the Bible contains the simple message of God’s love and covenant with His people, but it also contains a depth of wisdom which grows ever deeper the further it is furrowed. As Richard Hays puts it, evangelical theologians must have the

willingness to grapple with actual close readings of the biblical texts and to acknowledge the presence of tensions and perplexities that stimulate careful scholarly study and interpretation. To treat the Bible’s complexity with this sort of alert respect is to grant it more, not less, authority than those interpreters who superimpose a priori propositional grids upon it … To acknowledge such complexities in both world and Scripture is not to be less evangelical, but to insist that the good news with which we are entrusted must truthfully acknowledge our created and fallen human condition and the historically contingent manner in which God has chosen to reveal himself to us. [9]

Furthermore, evangelical reading of Scripture is not engagement with a static, dusty textbook, but a recognition of the living and active Word of God. This determines that for evangelicals, the Bible should not be read simply as a means of confirming pre-decided norms, but should be read as a means of facilitating God’s personal encounters with His people to whom He still speaks by His Word and His Spirit. As Richard Briggs puts it:

What is the telos (goal, purpose, end) of evangelical reading of Scripture? It is attentiveness to the God mysteriously present in Scripture. It is discipleship illumined by this inspired text in incomparable ways, though of course in the midst of multiple other illuminations. It is transformation before the whole canon received as God’s providential ordering of many and various witnesses to his Word, the same ‘many and various’ voices which we saw brought together (mysteriously) in Christ in Hebrews 1:1–2. [10]

In the age of post-Christendom in which our neighbours (whom Christ in Scripture calls us to love as ourselves) are people of other faiths and none, the true evangelical is to seek from the Bible God’s purpose for lives of discipleship in this generation. Again, to quote Hays: ‘If we believe that the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword (Heb. 4:12), we should expect our encounter with that living word to challenge and change us.’ [11] Faced with the contemporary, political need for peace within our world between people of different creeds, it is the task of the evangelical theologian to seek for the ‘deep readings’ of the Scriptures which are so important and central to the life of evangelical faith: [12] while the conversionist impetus will undoubtedly remain within the evangelical psyche, the theologian must also attend to how properly to relate the conversionist impetus with an activist desire for the peace of the city. Central to this task is the engagement with these contemporary issues in a manner which is genuinely evangelical, speaking from within the tradition in order to shape and reform its engagement with the Bible, God and the world. Put sharply the question is this: how can we be evangelical and open to God’s presence with and promises for other people? This article seeks to offer just one potential example of such a theology.

As an evangelical who has wrestled with these themes, the practice of Scriptural Reasoning has facilitated a greater depth in the reading of my own Scriptures in light of reading with others. Such readings have made me have to question the presumptions I have brought to the text in light of more genuinely plain sense readings of those for whom the Christian Bible is not their Scripture. As an evangelical theologian, this has determined the need to ask questions both of the legitimacy of meeting with members of other faith communities to dialogue with them, and of the hermeneutics involved in learning more of oneself and one’s Scriptures in light of conversations with the other. [13] One such place in which this learning has taken place has been with regards to God’s covenants (plural) of grace found in the Bible. [14]

In this article, I wish to address these themes by examining the nature of covenant and covenants in Scripture, and to do this by entering into dialogue with the Swiss theologian, Karl Barth. The article will, then, offer a Scriptural Reasoning-style theological reading of the Ishmael and Abraham narratives around the theme of covenant and promise, finally drawing some tentative conclusions for evangelical attitudes to Islam.


There is much discussion in theology about God’s covenant (singular) with humanity. When spoken of in the singular, covenant involves God’s relational dealings with humanity, seen supremely in the person of Jesus Christ—for Christians, God’s full and complete covenant with humanity in whom all other covenants have their origin, meaning and end. Indeed, were one to insist on a central motif for the twentieth century’s greatest theologian, Karl Barth, it would no doubt have to be God’s covenant of grace with humanity in Jesus Christ—a theme which occurs at every point in his Church Dogmatics. This is hardly surprising when one considers that the word covenant ( berit in Hebrew or diatheke in Greek) [15] occurs in 260 verses in the Hebrew Bible, and a further 60 verses in the New Testament. Not all of these uses of the word describe the relationship between humanity and God, as in some uses the covenant is between human beings. However, there are a range of covenants in the Bible between God and humans. Within the Hebrew Bible, it is possible to identify a number of such discrete covenants with humanity, many involving differing ‘reaches’ of God (and levels of exclusivity). Among a notable number of others, these are sometimes identified as the Noahide, Abrahamic, Sinaitic, Davidic, and the new Ezekelic covenants. [16]

Systematic theology has recognized (if only in passing) this range of covenants. Indeed, Karl Barth, for whom the theme of covenant is so important, on eight different occasions points to the plurality of covenants in Scriptures, beyond the simple Christian recognition of the old and the new covenant. [17] Barth writes clearly and emphatically: ‘The one covenant achieves historical form in the making of a series of covenants. [18] For Barth, these covenants are not separate or distinct from the perspective of God, but are rather historical expressions of the one covenant—Jesus Christ. In this, Barth continues: ‘This covenant is fulfilled, however, in the existence of the one Jesus Christ’. [19] Although Jesus Christ is the one covenant God for humanity, this does not determine that there is not historical particularity and variance in the different historical instantiations of covenant before Jesus’ historical becoming flesh. This particularity and distinctiveness is not, furthermore, suspended by Christ’s incarnation for Barth:

Jesus Christ is already the content and theme of this prehistory, of the Old Testament covenant. As prehistory, as revelation in expectation, the Old Testament covenant is characterised by its division into several covenants side by side, equipped with the same marks, even with the marks of the same uniqueness. Before the Sinaitic covenant we admittedly find the covenant with Abraham underlying the election of Israel, and again, before the Abrahamic covenant, the covenant with Noah, in which the particular covenant with Israel, even before it became an event, is already carried beyond its particularity and raised to universality. So, although it is already a reality from that early beginning, Israel’s election is a present reality. In Deuteronomy we find that the covenant is to some extent a lasting ordinance, under which the Israel of the present stands, although it is still based upon the free love and lordship of God. [20]

According to Barth, and surely the tradition of God’s immutability, the promises of God last forever, and thus must include the present post-resurrection world.

Given theology’s propensity to speak in terms of ‘the’ covenant, or ‘the old’ and ‘the new’ covenant, it is appropriate for Barth to ask: ‘Which of these covenants is the covenant intended by the Old Testament, and meant to be understood and attested as the original, central and true covenant?’ [21] However, Barth’s answer is apposite for the biblical texts: ‘An answer in terms of the Old Testament texts themselves can only be to the effect that each one is in its own place and in its own way. For it is always the one covenant with the same direction and order.’ [22] The attestation of Scripture to the concrete plurality of covenants requires recognition. One could put this otherwise: if Jesus Christ is the primary objectivity of God’s revelation, then in the various concrete covenants of God with creation, one can detect the secondary objectivity of God’s revelation in concrete historical settings in which the covenant takes historical and contextual form. [23] Crucially, however, these contextual instantiations of God’s covenant are not passing in nature, but are preserved owing to the nature of God, and their being God’s promises. Barth helpfully states, discussing the nature of God as patient:

Does not the whole story of God’s covenant with man, the covenant with Abraham, and the covenant at Sinai, and everything that happens in connexion with them—above all does not the fulfilment of all the promises of all these covenants in Jesus Christ, depend upon the fact that this covenant with Noah was concluded and kept and will always be faithfully kept? Does not the grace and mercy of God depend upon the fact that there is also a patience of God, that He grants space to the sinful creature, thus giving Himself space further to speak and act with it? [24]

Although these covenants are promised in Jesus Christ, the integrity and veracity of them for those to whom they are promised remains. Because they are covenants in Jesus Christ, the faithful mercy and patience of God determines that they are preserved for all of those to whom they are promised. Those standing under the covenants to Abraham, Moses and (even) Noah remain under such promises of God, since they are the very promises of God, and (for the perspective of Christian theology) grounded in the very nature and person of God as Jesus Christ. [25]

Barth clearly affirms and addresses the plurality of covenants in Scripture, and their continued significance. However, this theme hardly makes a real impact in his theology. For Barth, there are 27 mentions of covenants (in the plural) in his corpus, including mentions when he addresses simply ‘old and new covenants’, compared to 3,278 uses of the word ‘covenant’ (in the singular). While he affirms—rightly for evangelical theology—that all instantiations of covenant are instantiations of the one covenant of God with humanity in Jesus Christ, it must surely be admitted that (given the various ways in which covenants appear in Scripture) he does not give due attention to the significance, even if only at the level of secondary objectivity, of there being a plurality of historical covenants, despite what he says about the plurality of covenants. The particularity and variance of God’s dealings with his peoples does not receive discussion, and the particularity of each of the covenants (while affirmed by Barth) comes simply to be subsumed in each covenant being part of God’s one full and complete covenant in Jesus.

While certainly Christian (and most especially evangelical) theologians must make the centrality of Jesus Christ key to all discussion of the univocity of Scripture, to attend to Scripture and to take Scripture seriously involves recognizing the particular way in which God’s covenant with humanity in Christ is established in concrete history. These instantiations of covenant need not, moreover, undermine God’s single word to humanity—Jesus—but may be understood as enhypostatic subsistences of God’s one eternal covenant with humanity in history. [26] To measure Barth by his own yardstick through judging him by Scripture, it is surely necessary to say that the more evangelical approach to these themes involves attesting the multiplicity of covenants that confront the faithful reader of the Christian texts.

Theologians (and to their credit often evangelical ones) have often addressed these themes with regards to Israel. In the next section of this article, however, I wish to attend to the covenanting promise of God with Ishmael; for God’s promises to Abraham are not simply worked out through Isaac, but also through his other son. For Ishmael and his descendants, the promise of God is sure, and God’s patience endures: for the promises are made by the one and same God, the God of Jesus Christ. Evangelical theologians cannot simply be selective with regards to the promises made in Scripture, but must surely give Scripture the true power and authority to address the reader and speak to her. As well as the Judaeo-Christian tradition of Ishmael being the father of a powerful nation, in The Tales of the Prophet, which is the first part of Mohammad’s biography, Ishmael is understood not only to be the father of the Arab nations but also the father of the greater Ummah of Muslim people. Attending to the texts around the promises made to him may enable evangelical Christians to see God’s purposes worked outwith the bounds of the Christian (or even evangelical) community.


The figure of Ishmael and the stories surrounding him in the Hebrew Bible are ambiguous. Clearly, he is a son of Abraham, who is circumcised (Gen. 17.23-25) and thereby a member of God’s covenant people: ‘So shall my covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant’ (emphasis added). As flesh from Abraham’s flesh and as a circumcised male, Ishmael is also a fulfilment of God’s promise to Abraham. Promises are also made, on various occasions, to Hagar and Ishmael: [27]

10 The angel of the LORD also said to her, ‘I will so greatly multiply your offspring that they cannot be counted for multitude.’ 11 And the angel of the LORD said to her, ‘Now you have conceived and shall bear a son; you shall call him Ishmael, for the LORD has given heed to your affliction.’ (Gen. 16.10-11)

And: ‘As for Ishmael, I have heard you; I will bless him and make him fruitful and exceedingly numerous; he shall be the father of twelve princes, and I will make him a great nation.’ (Gen. 17.20). These promises are repeated even when it seems that Ishmael may die of thirst, having been turned out of his father’s home:

And God heard the voice of the boy; and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven, and said to her, ‘What troubles you, Hagar? Do not be afraid; for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. 18 Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him.’ 19 Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water. She went, and filled the skin with water, and gave the boy a drink. 20 God was with the boy, and he grew up. (Gen. 21.17-20)

Promises are not simply made to Hagar but also to Abraham regarding his first born son: ‘As for the son of the slave woman, I will make a nation of him also, because he is your offspring’ (Gen. 21.13). However, it is also clear that Ishmael is not (from the perspective of the biblical narrative) the primary choice for God’s covenant. The narrative with Sarah makes this clear, and it is put emphatically by God thus: after the promise of Ishmael’s blessing (Gen. 17.20), God states, ‘But my covenant I will establish with Isaac, whom Sarah shall bear to you at this season next year’ (v. 21). [28]

It may seem strange, therefore, given the verse on berit (covenant) being established with Isaac (and by implication not Ishmael) to claim that these promises to Ishmael and Hagar are covenants as well. Gen. 17.21 is, indeed, a troubling verse, [29] because God has also just covenanted with Abraham that Ishmael shall be blessed. Furthermore, God has offered his everlasting covenant with all of Abraham’s descendants. Thus, it seems that God says something (in verses 20 and 21) like ‘I make a covenant with Ishmael, but my covenant shall be established with Isaac’. Although the word berit is not used for Ishmael, it is difficult to see what else the repeated promises can be. Covenant is not simply that which takes place only when the word is cited (nor indeed, since the word is also used of human treaties): to say that would mean that theology would be required to say that Jesus is God’s covenant only with regard to the places in which he is spoken of as diatheke. We do well here to note van Seeters’ argument that covenant in the Abrahamic material follows ‘a divine oath of promise rather than the so-called treaty pattern of Deuteronomy.’ [30] Issues (perhaps important to the concerns of evangelicals outside the Reformed tradition) such as the contingency of promise on the basis of response do not appear in the text. The promises made to Ishmael are certainly divine oaths. It is the very nature of God’s inability to break such oaths (because of his patient faithfulness) that is the essence of God’s covenant to humanity. [31] Even if the text does not use berit of the promises to Ishmael, there can be little doubt that they are indeed divine covenants with him and his offspring. What, then, is the significance of these promises to Ishmael?

Firstly, these divine covenants arise out of the great and everlasting covenant made with Abraham. That this covenant is made with Abraham and his descendants, rather than simply Isaac and his, is of significance for the plain sense of the texts. There is a clear level of continuity even for the son who is not chosen by his father. If evangelicals are to take Scripture seriously, we must ask why it is that the covenant is not simply made with Isaac’s offspring, but with Abraham’s, and what the significance of all of Abraham’s flesh entering into God’s covenant is. The promise is for Abraham’s and not simply Isaac’s descendants. It is hardly as if God is unaware of the added child of Abraham, and Ishmael is after all circumcised as Abraham enters into his covenant. Indeed, this is a point which is repeated on three occasions, at chapter 17, verses 23, 25 and 26. Ishmael is clearly a member of God’s covenant with Abraham. [32]

Secondly, that there is continuity with Abraham and Abraham’s covenant does not mean that there is not differentiation and particularity. A separate promise is given to Ishmael to that of Isaac. That there are many covenants in Scripture should surely remind the Christian theologian that God does not operate in the world in a monotonous or monochrome manner. There is a feast of variety and particularity in God’s dealing with all of His peoples in history. Even if there is a hierarchy in terms of the promises that God makes, as seems to be here with the preference of Isaac over Ishmael (and as is certainly the case for evangelical theologians with regard to God’s covenant in Jesus Christ), this does not mean that God does not make promises and involve Himself with others. As the providential Lord over all of creation, this is hardly anything that might be unexpected. In the case of Ishmael, there are glorious and specific promises which are made that are different to those made to Isaac. Reading the stories of these two brothers, evangelicals must be challenged to recognize the manner in which God works with others who seem to be outside the ‘chosen’ (or a particular chosen) people, and we must break down fences with those different to ourselves in order to realize God is on the other side already ahead of us. This involves no removal of commitment to the heritage of evangelical faith (just as a promise is still made directly to Isaac which is distinct to that made to Ishmael), but it should surely warn us against the pernicious evangelical tendency to confine God’s ways with the world simply to ways with evangelical communities. Certainly, the latter (evangelical communities) are true ways in which God relates to His people, but God—as the one Lord and the only God of all of the world—has other people with whom He operates differently as well. [33] The promise to Ishmael does not undermine the specificity and specialness of the promise to Isaac, but neither does the covenant with Isaac undo the distinctive promise to Ishmael. They stand in a non-competitive relationship, which is hardly surprising for a God who—as love—has an infinite amount of love from which to bestow His grace on people. Both covenants are separate and different, but both are the promises of God and mark His ways with His specific and distinctive peoples. When we move past, which we must, notions of seeing God as the ‘biggest thing in the world’ (which may be the definition of an idol, but never the Lord), the capacity to see God as an object of knowledge to know is denied, and we are able to recognize (as evangelical personalism and emphasis on individual relationship with God traditionally has done) that God is the Holy One to whom we relate. Just as human beings do not simply know each other in exactly the same way, but relate differently to different people, so too God’s relations with His people do not need to be the same, but are differentiated, as is the case with Isaac and Ishmael. [34] The story of Ishmael demonstrates, moreover, that this differentiation is not binary, in terms of saved-damned or elected-rejected: it is a differentiated positive relationship of God to these different children of Abraham. [35]

That Ishmael relates to God is, thirdly and furthermore, made exceptionally clear in the text: God, the Lord, is clearly the God of Ishmael as much as He is the God of Isaac. Genesis makes this abundantly evident (21.20): ‘God was with the boy, and he grew up’. Certainly, he fights with his brother (though not so much that he is not involved in Abraham’s burial in Gen. 25.9): God says, ‘He shall be a wild ass of a man, with his hand against everyone, and everyone’s hand against him; and he shall live at odds with all his kin’ (Gen. 16.12). However, we cannot and should not confuse enmity with his kin (which, given the manner in which he is cast out for the ‘favoured’ child Isaac, is perhaps entirely understandable) with enmity with God. That he does not get on with his kin does not mean that God is not his God, with whom he is in relationship. To seek to relate this point to the present situation, similarly, evangelicals today should not confuse the tensions that exist between Islam and Christianity as in any way indicative of a lack of relationship with God for Muslims. The children of Abraham not getting along together means neither that they are not children of Abraham, nor that they are not in a relationship of promise with God. The Isaac and Ishmael stories make that overtly clear.


If evangelicals are to take the whole of Scripture seriously, then Ishmael is a figure that they have to consider. The living and active Word of God with its authority in all matters of faith cannot simply be cast aside with the excuse of historical contextualization which is not relevant to present: this is surely the very thing evangelicals fear in liberal approaches to the Scriptures. The history that follows these Scriptures recounts how the God of all history has fulfilled his promise to Ishmael in the people of Islam. This is not the place in which to discuss issues of supersession, nor the place to discuss the veracity of truth claims or the adequacy of response for Muslim people. On these issues, there will always be family tensions, as there were between the patriarchs, Isaac and Ishmael. But these tensions do not mean that Ishmael and his descendants have not received the promise of God, who in His patience, mercy and faithfulness endures. Jesus’ reminder regarding Zacchaeus should be a reminder for evangelicals regarding Ishmael: ‘he too is a son of Abraham’ (Lk. 19:9).

The current article has done little more than point to the existence in Scripture of a plurality of covenants, which evangelicals especially need to take seriously; and has focused particularly on God’s promises regarding Ishmael. The purpose has not been to unpack what the implications of these promises might be for contemporary evangelicalism’s engagement with and understanding of Islam. On that we are at best only at the very beginning of the beginning, and there remains a huge amount of work to be done. The attempt has been made only to point to one place in the Scriptural account which potentially asks evangelicals for some degree of patient and humble complexifying of their account of the covenanting activity of God with his people in relation to interpretation of the Holy Bible. Space does not allow a thorough examination of what the precise nature of the covenant might be, nor what the outworkings of this interpretation of the Ishmael narratives might mean for evangelicals in relation to the way in which they understand salvation, prophecy, providence or revelation: for issues of this kind, much further enquiry and engagement would be required. For now, the following provisional conclusions will have to suffice in the hope that they might engender humility, carefulness and future engagement with the theological and practical implications that arise from theological exegesis of the Ishmael narratives.

Evangelicals would do well to remember that Christians, too, are not the honoured chosen heirs, born of Sarah, but are adopted children in the family, spiritual heirs to Abraham without being physical ones. [36] Furthermore, there is the need to realize that we are adopted into a family that does not have an only son, but another heir to whom an enduring promise is given. [37] Such a reminder may help to change attitudes to Islam’s perceived supersession of Christianity: Islam is not simply a newer religion than Christianity but has its basis on a much older promise—a promise made to Abraham and traced, not through Isaac, but through Ishmael. Evangelicals do, after all, tend make a similar move with regards to Judaism: as evangelicals, we tend not to question the promise God made in relation to Israel for rabbinical Judaism as opposed to templic Judaism, despite significant differences in religious practice. It may well be time to attend to God’s three families who have arisen from one great promise to Abraham—a great promise which for Christians is a prefigurement of Jesus Christ, and which has its truth in Him; a promise which continues in God’s faithfulness; and a promise made in Scripture, which—as evangelicals especially—we cannot ignore. In attending theologically to the full breadth and depth of such a promise in Scripture, we have the possibility of becoming more (and not less) evangelical.


[1] See David Bebbington, Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s (London: Unwin Hyman, 1989).
[2] Larsen also offers a helpful characterization of evangelicalism, effectively adding to Bebbington’s definition the condition that these are held in conjunction with orthodox protestant theology. See Larsen, ‘Defining and locating evangelicalism’, in Larsen and Treier (eds.), The Cambridge Companion to Evangelical Theology (Cambridge: CUP, 2007). For further discussion of issues surrounding evangelical identity, see S. J. Grenz, Revisioning Evangelical Theology: A Fresh Agenda for the 21st Century, Downers Grove: IVP, 1993, esp. ch. 2.
[3] These concerns clearly place evangelical theology in a different position than liberal theologies, such as that of John Hick. See, for example, his God and the Universe of Faiths: Essays in the Philosophy of Religion (London: Macmillan, 1973); God Has Many Names: Britain’s New Religious Pluralism (London: Macmillan, 1980); Problems of Religious Pluralism (London: Macmillan, 1985); and An Interpretation of Religion: Human Responses to the Transcendent (London: Macmillan, 1989). However, it also puts evangelical theology in a different position than tradition-based theologies, which emphasise the role of tradition in theology; for these, there is more opportunity to ‘change’ or (better) ‘develop’ the theological stance of their churches, as is perhaps the case with Vatican II’s Lux Mundi.
[4] The evangelical propensity towards selective reading of texts is marked: while it is outwith the confines of this article, it is notable how little attention is paid, for example, to texts regarding money, despite the prolific number of them within the body of Scripture.
[5] On such an approach, see, for example, Nigel M. de S. Cameron, ‘Universalism and the Logic of Revelation’, in The Best in Theology Vol. 3, ed. J. I. Packer (Carol Stream, Illinois: Christianity Today, Inc., 1989), esp. pp. 153 and 166; and David Fergusson, ‘Eschatology’, in The Cambridge Companion to Christian Doctrine, ed. Colin E. Gunton (Cambridge: CUP, 1997), p. 241.
[6] On this theme, see Gerald O’Collins, Salvation for All: God’s Other Peoples (Oxford, OUP, 2008).
[7] Richard Hays cites this as a worrying bumper sticker he has seen around America. See Richard B. Hays, ‘Postscript: Seeking a Centred, Generous Orthodoxy’ in Greggs (ed.) New Perspectives for Evangelical Theology: Engaging God, Scripture and the World (London: Routledge), p. 217.
[8] Evangelicals recognise this complexity which arises from the plain sense in such disputes over dispensationalism and the like: the multivocity of Scripture determines that the stronger the plain sense reading, the greater the level of hermeneutical or theological sophistication needed to allow that plain sense to stand.
[9] Hays, ‘Postscript’, p. 217. See further, Richard Briggs, ‘The Bible before us: Evangelical Possibilities for Taking Scripture Seriously’, in Greggs, New Perspectives for Evangelical Theology.
[10] Briggs, ‘The Bible Before Us’, p. 26.
[11] Hays, ‘Postscript’, p. 217.
[12] The term ‘deep reading’ is borrowed from Quash. ‘Deep Calls to Deep: Reading Scripture in a Multi-Faith Society’, in Remembering Our Future: Explorations in Deep Church, Bretherton and Walker (eds.) (Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2007)
[13] These are themes I have developed in a little more detail elsewhere. See my article, ‘Legitimizing and Necessitating Inter-faith Dialogue: The Dynamics of Inter-faith for Individual Faith Communities’, International Journal of Public Theology 4:2, 2010.
[14] By covenants in the plural is meant such covenants as the Noahide, Davidic and Abrahamic covenants (to name but three), which each have different foci and ‘reaches’. For a good overview of covenant and covenants in scriptural texts, see W. J. Dumbrell, Covenant and Creation: A Theology of the Old Testament Covenants (Carlisle: Paternoster, 1997); and Steven L. McKenzie, Covenant (St. Louis: Chalice, 2000), esp. pp. 4-7. In this article, the scope of discussion is only covenants between God and humanity. For covenants between humans and nations, etc., see D. J. McCarthy, Old Testament Covenants: A Survey of Current Options (Oxford: Blackwell, 1973), ch. 4.
[15] For an examination of the philology of berit, see D. J. McCarthy, Old Testament Covenants: A Survey of Current Options (Oxford: Blackwell, 1973).
[16] For a presentation of the range of covenants within the Bible, see Steven L. McKenzie, Covenant (St. Louis: Chalice, 2000); and W. J. Dumbrell, Covenant and Creation: A Theology of the Old Testament Covenants (Carlisle: Paternoster, 1997)
[17] The purpose of this paper is not to examine supersessionist implications of this, nor to examine the relationship between these two covenants; these issues require sensitive engagement beyond the scope of the present piece.
[18] Barth, Karl, Learning Jesus Christ through the Heidelberg Catechism (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1964), p. 52, emphasis added.
[19] Barth, Learning Jesus Christ.
[20] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1956-75), I/2, pp. 81-2, emphasis added. (Hereafter Church Dogmatics is cited by volume and part only.) Barth goes on in this section to recognize the covenant discussed in Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Deutero-Isaiah, as well as the covenant with David and Levi.
[21] I/2, p. 82.
[22] I/2, p. 82.
[23] On primary and secondary objectivity, see Charles Marsh, Reclaiming Dietrich Bonhoeffer: The Promise of His Theology (Oxford: OUP, 1994), pp. 31-3.
[24] II/1, p. 413.
[25] Indeed, Barth discusses the third use of the law under the covenants made to Israel: ‘The Church lives by the covenants made between God and Israel. Again and again new agreements and mutual obligations are made between God and the men of this people. The number of them shows how unilaterally they have been kept. And if there is a remarkable preponderance of divine warnings at the very making of them, even more so does their fulfilment seem to consist almost regularly and entirely in the occurrence of the corresponding penal judgments. The Church recognises the pure and full comfort of the one covenant of grace kept by man as by God. But what does it recognise in it but the meaning and the determined purpose of the many covenants made with Israel? The Church lives by the “lawgiving” which took place in Israel, regulating the life of the people with a view to the holiness required by the holiness of its Lord. The law of the Church is the faith which it has been given in the Lord by whose holiness the holiness of His people is created. Yet when it is obedient in this faith, it is doing no more than what is really required by Israel’s Law. The Church lives by the “worship” that is permitted and commanded Israel. The permission and the commandment consist in the priestly and sacrificial order which is given to the people and embraces its whole life. The Church exercises worship in spirit and in truth in view of the eternal High Priest and His sacrifice offered once for all. But it is the worship permitted and commanded Israel which is fulfilled in this way. The Church lives by the “promises” given to Israel according to which the people is to be blessed and numerous, to possess the land, to be rich and powerful and happy under its king, and finally to see all peoples united in Zion’ (II/2, p. 203).
[26] Webster discusses the ethical implications of Barth’s an-/en-hypostasis distinction. I am wishing here to say something akin to what Webster says about Christ’s humanity with regards to the covenant: because God’s covenant with humanity is real, reality is given to all other covenants of God with humanity. Cf. J. Webster, Barth’s Moral Theology: Human Action in Barth’s Thought. (Edinburgh: T &T Clark, 1998), pp. 88ff. On an-/en-hypostasis, see I/2, pp. 162ff., 216 ( anhypostasis only); & IV/2, pp. 44-50. See also, Eberhard Jüngel, God’s Being Is in Becoming (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 2001), pp. 96f.
[27] For an excellent and subtle discussion of texts surrounding Ishmael, and particularly surrounding Hagar, see Steven Kepnes, ‘Hagar and Esau: From Others to Sisters and Brothers’ in Peter Ochs and William Stacy Johnson, Crisis, Call, and Leadership in the Abrahamic Traditions (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), pp. 31-46.
[28] It is equally possible to translate the ‘but’ in this sentence as ‘and’, and certain translations do this. While this may seem to make the statement less exclusivist, the force of the exclusion is the statement about Isaac and Sarah, rather than which connective is inserted in the English.
[29] This may explain why there is remarkably little on this verse in either the tradition or in contemporary biblical scholarship.
[30] John van Seeters, Abraham in History and Tradition (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1975).
[31] Barth certainly sees God’s promise to Hagar about Ishmael as arising out of His election: ‘Even its [the covenant’s] rejected members (just because of the separation which excludes them) are not forsaken, but after, as before, share in the special care and guidance of the electing God’ (II/2, p. 217). Barth is stating here that there is a covenant for those outside the covenant.
[32] Thus one might note that, if evangelicals are to affirm something like a (to my mind entirely false, erroneous and unbiblical) differentiation between covenants fulfilled in Jesus Christ and those not fulfilled in Jesus Christ (but are still promises of God), it is worth their remembering that Ishmael’s promises are an outworking of the covenant with Abraham, a covenant which cannot but be seen to be a part of the one covenant of God in Jesus Christ.
[33] Evangelicals must be careful of the dangerous narrowing of God’s salvific work, which can sometimes display itself as ‘Only me and thee are saved, and I am not so sure about thee’.
[34] This is not only the case with Isaac and Ishmael, the extent of the covenant with Noah (all of creation), and with Moses (those gathered at Sinai) also demonstrates God’s varied relations with different people.
[35] On non-binary approaches to salvation, see my Barth, Origen, and Universal Salvation: Restoring Particularity (Oxford: OUP, 2009).
[36] James Dunn’s words seem wise here: ‘the old and new covenants should be seen not so much as two quite different covenants, but as two interpretations of the first covenant: the promise to Abraham. … Christianity is not so much an antithesis to Judaism as the means by which Gentiles were drawn into Israel (together with Jews) in fulfilment of Israel’s historic mission to the nations.’ James D. G. Dunn, ‘Judaism and Christianity: One Covenant or Two?’, in Cartledge and Mills (eds), Covenant Theology: Contemporary Approaches (Carlisle: Paternoster, 2001), p. 54.
[37] Nicholas Lash puts it thus: ‘Moses, Jesus, Muhammad: three individuals who stand, in very different ways, at the particular beginnings of the stories of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Behind all three of them stands Abraham…’ Nicholas Lash, The Beginning and the End of ‘Religion’ (Cambridge, CUP, 1996), p. 216.