This series of posts has been years in the making and will take years to complete. While I intend to take issue with the Eastern Church, I’m saying up front, like what happened to the recently departed scholar Dr. Jaroslav Pelikan as he wrote his multi volume treatise on the early church, I may very well end up there before the series is finished. I don’t claim to have all of the answers nor do I claim my issues are insurmountable – incredulity is not a virtue.

A cautionary note: I am no scholar and since this is not a scholarly outlet I have every intention of straying into the realm of personal impression and perhaps without qualification. I have no doubt that what follows will be vague to many as it assumes a minimal background and at the same time rather basic and imprecise to others.

The occasion for this post is a conversation I was participating in on Perry Robinson’s blog energeticprocession, combined with the fact that I’ve been asked to stop “hi-jacking” threads by posting off topic comments – and I must admit to my detriment that’s what my comments became.

The Current Issue

Since the 1950’s various scholars of ancient, second millennium BC, near-eastern culture, have recognized a common form shared among what’s called the “Suzerain-Vassal Treaty” literature of the period and the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible. These discoveries have shed light on various passages of the old testament and broadened our understanding about how Israel viewed itself in relation to God. These “treaties” or “covenants” were not “law” in the sense we normally think about “law.” They were solemn and binding agreements that established the conditions for a relationship between a greater king (suzerain) and the people of a lesser king (vassal). The terminology is borrowed from a feudal system but this understanding doesn’t fully capture the relationship.

As Meredith Kline points out, when we hear the phrase, “the law” in reference to Israel, we more rightly understand it as “covenant” which is much broader than a simple legal statute. “Not law, covenant” he writes in his book Treaty of the Great King (partially reproduced in The Structure of Biblical Authority).

Keeping in mind this background, the pertinent portion of the previously mentioned conversation follows:

I had said:

That has no bearing on whether or not [the discovery of the Suzerain-vassal treaties of the 2nd millennium BC] shed more light on the covenant relationship between God and Israel by way of providing more meaning and context to “the law” so often referred to by Paul. My rhetorical point should have been clear; the Reformers view of covenant is strengthened by this *later* understanding, while the Eastern is weakened.

Mr Robinson responded:

And I just have to laugh at the suggestion that suh evidence weakens the Orthodox notion of Covenant. What great works on ORthodox notion of Covenant have you read? Please explicate the Orthodox view of Covenant for me and then contrast it with the Reformed view. I haven’t even mentioned on this blog what the Orthodox view of Covenant is and so I think you are confusing it with theosis. Seriously, it is obvious to me that you are blowing smoke.

To cast one of the major distinctions between the Protestant West and Eastern Orthodoxy in the simplest of terms (which surely will not do justice to the issues), Orthodox Catholic interpretation of all doctrines are almost exclusively in terms of ontological categories, while the West (including Protestants), though not exclusively, will view many doctrines within a “legal” or “judicial” framework.

In subsequent posts on this topic I will highlight the end results of this distinction but by way of explanation of my comments, this was primarily what I had in mind. Again, simplistically, the emphasis in the West is “being right with God” while the emphasis in the East is “union with God.” In the West the pivotal event in history would be the Crucifixion (and for a covenantally minded Reformed Christian, this event would include the Resurrection). In the East it’s the Incarnation; God’s nature united with human nature in the Person of Jesus Christ.

Hence the context of another sarcastic jab of mine in the same thread, of which the above quote is simply a restatement:

After all, any honest interpretation of these legal documents would lead one inexorably to the conclusion that they are treatises on the mystical union between the suzerain and the people of the vassal.

As a side: there are other ancient, near-eastern, 2nd millennium BC, documents that better approximate the modern understanding of “judicial” and “legal.” As Kline also points out, the most famous of these is “The Code of Hammurabi.” But this code doesn’t match the form of the literature of the Pentateuch nearly as well as the “covenant” literature of the period.

So the main question is, and the point of my quotes was, does this ancient literary form create more support for the Reformed notion of covenant or an ontological understanding of union? To me the answer is obvious simply in the broad notion of “covenant” as the definition of “union” itself, contrary to an ontological interpretation.

I will expound in future posts.