One of the enduring Latin phrases of the Protestant Reformation is the impressive sounding ecclesia semper reformans, semper reformanda. In plain English, this means “the church is always reformed and always reforming.” This simple principle is one that is most often forgotten in modern discussions about theology, where a surefire way to end a disagreement is to pull out something written by Luther, Calvin, or even Spurgeon and show that they said much the same thing. Although the Reformers themselves were quite emphatic that they were not the final word (hence the “always reforming”), contemporary Christianity seems to be convinced that dead theologians should be the authoritative standard of interpretation.
Please don’t misunderstand me, I am grateful for and rely heavily upon the theological writings and expositions of Scripture by these and countless other men who lived and died hundreds of years ago. On the rare occasions that I find myself in disagreement with them, I tend to count myself as the one who doesn’t get it, not them. Differences in theological interpretation will always be an issue for the Church, but when groundbreaking discoveries in the biblical text are dismissed or ignored because they were not found at least 200 years ago, we must question whether theologians have any real interest in “reforming.” If 21st century biblical scholarship remains enslaved to writings of the 16th and 17th century, how can any progress ever be made?
One such recent “discovery” is Ray Sutton’s five-point model of the covenant, which is extensively detailed in his book, That You May Prosper. If you spend any amount of time in the Church, you will certainly hear the word “covenant” thrown around quite a bit. Covenant is central to a proper understanding of the biblical text. God makes covenants all throughout the Old Testament and in the New Testament, the book of Hebrews tells us that Jesus is the “mediator of a new covenant” (Heb. 9:15). Jesus himself tells his disciples at the Last Supper, “This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in My blood” (Luke 22:20b). If covenant is so important to the Christian faith, then why is it so difficult to get a clear answer from theologians about just what a covenant is or isn’t? The back-cover copy of That You May Prosper puts it this way: “To borrow from Will Roger’s comment on the weather, ‘Everyone talks about the covenant, but nobody does anything about it.'”
In 1987, Ray Sutton did do something about it, he wrote That You May Prosper, a jaw-dropping book that finally defines the covenant as no book has, before or since. Sutton’s book is brilliant in its simplicity, yet remarkable for its depth. A seasoned pastor, Sutton knows how to present his material in such a way that everyone can understand it. He then builds upon this basic knowledge brick-by-brick so that by the time the reader completes the book, he has taken an intermediate course in biblical theology without even realizing it. Understanding Sutton’s five-point covenantal model will revolutionize your Bible study and comprehension, and the perplexing and downright confusing parts of the Bible will finally begin to make sense.
But what exactly is the five point covenant model, you ask? It is nothing more than a biblical framework that provides a hermeneutical method for understanding the Bible on its own terms. Huh? Not a good enough answer for you? Try this one instead:
Pick up your Bible and ask, “How do I get hold of the message of this Book? How do I apply it to life — not just my life, but to all life in this complex world in which we live?” Many approaches to “dividing the word of truth” have been proposed. Both complex and simple systems have been developed, propagated, and tried out. Tried, but found wanting. That You May Prosper is not just one more experimental system for organizing Bible content. It clearly expounds and applies the Bible’s own structure in a way that demonstrates its intent. (From the Foreword by Milton C. Fisher, retired Professor of Old Testament, Philadelphia Theological Seminary)
In simple terms, every relationship is a form of covenant. God makes covenant with his people, just as his people make covenants with each other. Covenants make living in God’s world reasonable and predictable. Covenants are similar to contracts, but what makes them unique is that they include a self-maledictory oath before God. Without covenants, any man could do what was right in his own eyes, and be justified in doing so. Because of this, covenants will be found in each of the four realms of human government: self, family, church, and civil. Every form of government makes a covenant with God — either for or against Him — and stakes its own life on its decision (the self-maledictory part). The five points that are found in every covenant are: transcendence, hierarchy, ethics, sanctions, and continuity. These five points will be a part of every covenant, i.e. every dealing between God and man and between man and man. Sutton explains each of these five points in enough detail to make his point in the first 100 pages or so, and then spends the better part of the book providing example after example of how the five points can be found all throughout Scripture, in both Old and New Testaments.
It is not my intention in this short review to provide an in-depth example of how the five points work, but I can give a bit more meaning to each of the five points by restating them as questions. Remembering that the five points apply to all dealings between God and man, as well as man and man, think of a relationship and ask these simple questions: 1) Who’s in charge? (transcendence); 2) To whom do I report (or answer to)? (hierarchy); 3) What are the rules? (ethics); 4) What happens if I obey (or disobey) the rules? (sanctions); and 5) Does this relationship have a future? (continuity). Every covenant will have an answer for each of these five questions and the answers should be carefully considered before entering into a covenant. Jesus warns us to “count the cost” (Luke 14:25-35) before making a decision and seeking the answers to these five questions is certainly a large part of the “counting” process.
That You May Prosper was written more than 20 years ago, but its contents are as timeless as the Bible itself. The leaders of the Protestant Reformation were insistent on following what Augustine called the “analogy of faith.” This phrase means that the clear portions of the Bible should help to interpret the unclear portions, or, put simply, Scripture interprets Scripture. The Reformers believed that the Bible itself held every interpretive key that was needed to understand it. That You May Prosper follows this same method, deriving its five points from the Bible, not from outside of it. Sutton’s simple key, extracted from the pages of Scripture itself, will open the Bible to generation after generation, aiding the Church in its mission of being always reformed, yet always reforming.
Article posted July 23, 2009