Paul R. Williamson, Sealed with an Oath: Covenant in God’s Unfolding Purpose, NSBT 23 (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2007), 200 pages.
I would like to thank IVP for providing me a review copy.
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Sealed with an Oath is the 23rd volume of the series New Studies in Biblical Theology, edited by D.A. Carson. I have really appreciated other books in this series—those that I have read were excellent models of “Biblical Theology,” and Williamson’s book is no exception.
Williamson writes that “the aim of [this book] is to highlight the significance of covenant for biblical theology, and explore the role of this concept within God’s unfolding purpose” (11). Later he expresses his hope that his study of covenant will also illustrate the unity of the Bible amidst its diversity, though this is not his primary purpose (19). Demonstrating an awareness of the danger of arguing for a “center” to biblical theology, Williamson is careful to insist that he is not arguing that “covenant” is the comprehensive theological theme, but rather is “one of Scriptures major theological themes.” He sees this as an important admission, since much of the Bible does not seem to relate directly to the idea of “covenant” (e.g., wisdom literature; see 32).
The first chapter lays the groundwork for his subsequent discussion. He interacts with previous scholarship on the concept of the covenant, including Reformed (i.e., Covenantal) Theology, which he critiques for imposing the distinction between the Covenant of Works/Life and the Covenant of Grace (28). In this chapter he also defines “covenant” (berit in Hebrew and diatheke in Greek) as “a solemn commitment, guaranteeing promises or obligations undertaken by one or both parties, sealed with an oath” (43). Two things are worth noting about this definition: (1) Williamson emphasizes the importance of the oath, as indicated by the book title, and (2) he argues that a covenant does not initiate a relationship (contra Reformed Theology), but rather “ratifies an already forged or existing elective relationship” (43).
Williamson discusses “covenant and God’s universal purpose” in chapter two, which has Genesis 1–3 mostly in view. He critiques the notion of a pre-fall covenant with Adam in this chapter, though he does tie God’s “universal purpose” to many of the passages that are normally considered to be indications of an Adamic covenant. In other words, the relationship between God and Adam, on which he bases much of what he says about God’s “purpose,” sounds very much like a covenant (or like what other people say about the Adamic covenant), but Williamson insists that is it not, largely on the basis that berit does not occur in Genesis 1–3 and there is no solemn oath, which he sees as integral to a Biblical “covenant.”
Chapters three through nine deal with the major biblical covenants, from Noah (ch. 3) to the patriarchs, especially Abraham (ch. 4), Israel—including the Levitical priesthood—(ch. 5), David (ch. 6), and the New Covenant in the Prophets (ch. 7), inaugurated by Jesus (ch. 8), and consummated in the eschaton (ch. 9).
I have much to commend in this study: Williamson is careful and judicious. When discussing a passage, he cogently explains the relevant issues, such as grammar and syntax. His insights are often helpful and his chapter on Noah is particularly filled with great content. I remain unconvinced, though of some of his conclusions. For instance, he rejects the pre-fall covenant with Adam, seeing it as unnecessary and untenable. He notes that berit (‘covenant’) does not occur in Genesis 1–3 and he disputes that Hosea 6:7 supports the notion of a covenant with Adam (55–58). However, it seems unwise to put much weight on the fact that berit does not occur in Genesis 1–3. After all, it does not occur in 2 Samuel 7 either, though in that case Williamson argues that its use is unnecessary. In fact, several of Williamson’s arguments in support of a Davidic covenant were the same arguments that he rejected when critiquing the pre-fall covenant theory. For example, on the first page he writes: “Undeniably some features associated with covenant-making elsewhere are missing” (120). Admittedly, other passages unambiguously teach a Davidic covenant, whereas Hosea 6:7 is the only passage that might teach a pre-fall covenant, so I do not deny that a covenant is in view in 2 Samuel 7 or that a pre-fall covenant with Adam is less certain. My point is only that Williamson is willing to make moves with the Davidic covenant that he rejects when it comes to the Adamic covenant.
Williamson’s chapters are largely extended exegetical comments on particular passages. His comments are helpful and often tie the particular covenant into the bigger picture, which he described in chapter two. However, there isn’t much discussion of the rest of the Bible or of the numerous places that berit occurs outside of the few biblical chapters that he discusses. Admittedly, he fulfilled his stated goals, but I think his project would have been strengthened with a slightly broader focus.
This is a good book, which could be considered an invaluable reference for anyone interested in the biblical topic of “covenant” or for anyone doing work on the major covenant chapters (e.g., Genesis 12, 15, and 17; 2 Samuel 7; etc.). It is a quick read and well worth the time and money to anyone interested in this topic. Williamson does interact with the Hebrew and Greek, which might make it intimidating for the lay-person. I would recommend this book for seminarians, pastors, and scholars. I give the book 3 ½ stars, if only because I felt his rejection of the Adamic covenant was poorly argued and inconsistent, and because of the exclusive focus on the major covenants, to the neglect of the rest of the canon and the occurrences of “covenant” therein.