What Is COVENANT CREATIONISM?
by Charles S. Meek
Covenant Creationism (“CC”) is the notion that the creation account in Genesis is wholly symbolic, and specifically DOES NOT SPEAK OF GOD’S CREATION OF THE PHYSICAL UNIVERSE.This idea is an add-on to preterist eschatology, because it says that since the “end times/last things” are about the end of the old covenant dispensation, the “first things” of Genesis must be about the creation of God’s covenants with mankind. Here’s how Jeffrey Vaughn, who is probably the most vocal advocate of covenant creationism (and co-author with Timothy Martin of the book Beyond Creation Science), put it in a Facebook forum:
“As for Scripture, how the universe, planet, life, and mankind came into existence, they are not issues the Bible is concerned with. God is able to be a deist god when he likes.”
I read Martin and Vaughn’s book (2007 version) and found it thought-provoking. There are some worthwhile insights in their book. For example, they make a credible case for a regional flood rather than a global one. However, their arguments about this are a distraction. The debates about the flood’s extent—or the age of the earth—are debatable side-issues not related to eschatology, or indeed, not integral to God’s creation of the universe. As put by Kurt Simmons, “Preterism no more refutes the global flood than it refutes the destruction of Sodom, the tower of Babel, or any other historic narrative of Genesis.”
The book also challenges, correctly I think, some “fundamentalist” Christians who think Genesis should be understood as a science textbook. While Genesis does not conflict with science, it is primarily about theology. But as I was reading the book, I found myself making notes in the margin like: “that’s a stretch,” “doubtful,” “forced,” or “inconsistent.” Skepticism of many points of CC—certainly the version of it expressed in the quote above—is warranted. Reportedly, the authors have made changes in later editions of the book, but many commentators, both futurists and preterist theologians, have challenged much of the content of the book. Many of the CC views are a serious departure from classical Christianity, not that it matters to CC proponents.
Here’s how covenant creationists reason: The “new heaven and new earth” of Revelation (and 2 Peter 3) is about the new covenant. Preterists agree. But, according to CC, the statement in Genesis 1:1 that God “created the heavens and the earth,” must therefore be a juxtaposed parallel, and is all about the creation of the old covenant—or creation of the nation of Israel (at the Exodus)—rather than about the physical universe. I submit that this is a conclusion based more on presumption than on sound exegesis. While Genesis may set the stage for covenants that follow in the Bible, to deny the basic theme of physical creation therein is a conclusion that breaks down upon inspection.
Covenant creationists, as indicated in the above quote, are forced to conclude that the Bible NEVER speaks about God creating the physical universe. (Since Genesis supposedly does not speak of physical creation, the rest of the Bible must not either, since all such statements about physical creation are likely based on Genesis.) Some covenant creationists affirm that God did indeed create the physical universe, but struggle to adequately say just where they find evidence for it, unless it is from science or pure assumption. I asked Jeffrey Vaughn this question in the same forum as the above quote. Here is more of the exchange:
Meek: “Do you believe that God created the universe and life?”
Meek: “On what base do you believe that?”
Vaughn: “Miracles. Absolute control.”
Meek: “Jeff, actually I am hoping that you can point to either science of Scripture or preferably both to support your contention that God created the universe and life.”
Vaughn: “Charles, I can point to a good deal of science to support my contention. Unfortunately, I see a problem using science, in that the arguments only mean something to people with a certain amount of science training. . . . As for Scripture, how the universe, planet, life, and mankind came into existence, they are not issues the Bible is concerned with. God is able to be a deist god when he likes, but he is also able to move in and out of creation and produce actions that demonstrate total control and total knowledge of the physical universe. That doesn’t prove he created it, but it proves he is capable of creating it and that he has the authority, ownership. That’s enough for me.”
(I would be glad to entertain comments from other CC proponents on where you reach the conclusion different from Mr. Vaughn, if you do, that God created the physical universe.)
While CC, at first glance, is seductive, it simply does not hold up biblically or theologically. My first concern is that CC denigrates and befuddles the nature of God and his power. Did God create the universe or not?
Covenant creationists tend to over-spiritualize the text at critical points. Animals become God’s people (hmm, was it cannibalism when Adam ate animals for food?). The sea becomes gentiles (did the water from Noah’s flood = gentiles?), etc. In fact, not only do animals and water really mean people in their scheme, so do heaven, earth, and vegetation!
Let me offer five texts, using Scripture to interpret Scripture, demonstrating that at least some aspects of the early chapters of Genesis are literal, not symbolic:
- Genesis 13:10: “And Lot lifted up his eyes and saw that the Jordan Valley was well-watered everywhere like the Garden of the Lord.” This comparison would make little sense if the creation account was not physical. This text is definitive. The garden was a physical reality, not a metaphor.
- Deuteronomy 4:19: “and lest you lift up your eyes to the heavens, and when you see the sun, and the moon, and the stars, all the host of heaven, lest you should be driven to worship them and serve them, which YHWH your God has allotted to all nations under all the heavens.” God said here that things like the stars (created in Genesis 1:14-19) were given to all the nations under the heavens. This text proves that Genesis 1 is not about a “covenant” with Israel, nor is it about a “local or limited creation,” which covenant creationists also insist.
- Paul, in Acts 14:15, speaking to a primarily Gentile audience, declared, “You should turn from these vain things to a living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them.” Here Paul is addressing Gentiles about God’s creation from Genesis. Gentiles would have had no concept of this other than the literal one, certainly nothing about covenants. So, Paul could not have been communicating anything other than the literal sense to the Gentiles.
- Then, in Acts 17:22-28, Paul insisted, “For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, ‘To the unknown God.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though He needed anything, since He himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. And He made from one man every nation of mankind to live on the face of the earth.” This is a clear reference to a literal Genesis and a literal Adam.
- Paul discusses the creation of the world (Greek kosmos) in Romans 1:20. If you insert “Israel” for “the world,” the text makes no sense. It would then read, “For in His invisible attributes, namely, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of Israel, in the things that have been made.” Really? Nobody could understand the nature of God until He created the nation of Israel at the Exodus?
Another challenge to Covenant Creationism is that historic Judaism took much of Genesis literally. For example, Josephus quoted Genesis as though he accepted it as actual history, including: a literal six-day creation (Antiquities 1.1), that Adam was the first man (Antiquities 2.1.1), long ages of people (Antiquities 1.2.3), a literal garden (Antiquities 1.1.4), etc.
I am not suggesting that we must insist that all of Genesis is to be understood literally (talking snake?). Even conservative scholars have approached Genesis from different perspectives. Some have seen Genesis as essentially literal, but with deeper symbolic meanings. Others have postulated a literary “framework” model in which Genesis describes actual historical creation in a way that describes the order of the universe, rather than a strictly literal, chronological account. To completely dismiss historic thought on this would be cavalier. Certainly, some things in Genesis 1-11 are clearly quite literal. For example, the Tigris and Euphrates rivers mentioned in Genesis are actual rivers, since they still exist today. Noah and his family were certainly real people. The water of Noah’s flood was real water, so the “sea” could not likely be merely symbolic for something else, etc.
We should notice also that there is a structural difference between the old and new covenants. The Old Testament covenants were built on PHYSICAL grounds. The New Testament covenant is built on SPIRITUAL grounds. The expected rewards for Old Testament Jews were largely physical—land, children, wealth, political power. But in the New Testament, Jesus emphasized that the kingdom of heaven is not worldly. Note that the Old Covenant temple was physical. The New Covenant temple is spiritual.
All preterists, and most futurists too, agree that there are examples in Scripture of symbolic use of literal things, including: Genesis 37:9; Deuteronomy 31:28; 32:1; Isaiah 1:2-3; 13:9-11; 24:23; 50:3; 65-66; Ezekiel 17:22-24; 32:7; Joel 2:10, 28-32; Amos 8:9; Matthew 5:18; 24:29-35; Hebrews 12:22-29 (from Haggai 2:6-7); 2 Peter 3:7; Revelation 6:12-17; 12:1-2; 21:1.
But, there are numerous times in Scripture (in addition to Genesis 1:1) that we find statements about God’s creation of the PHYSICAL world and of life itself. Look up the following passages. I think you will agree that these are about real things not figurative things: Genesis 2:1; Deuteronomy 4:19; Job 38; Psalm 8:3; 19:1; 96:3-10; 102:25-27; 121:1-2; 139:13-16; Isaiah 44:24-25; 51:13; Jeremiah 10:11-16 (“all things”); 31:35-38; Matthew 19:4-6; Mark 10:6; John 1:3 (“all things”); Acts 4:24; 14:15; 17:22-28; Romans 1:20; Philippians 2:10; Colossians 1:16-17. Other examples could be given.
Often, the more literal texts are historical narrative, while figurative usage is in future tense in the form of prophecy. Historical narrative is a different class of literature than apocalyptics. However, literal and figurative concepts can even be used in the same passage. For example, in Jeremiah 31:31-38, the author used the enduring order of the physical universe to express the measure of God’s commitment to his people. In Hebrews 8, the writer used the heavenly temple of God (verses 1-2) as the original, after which the earthly tent and the temple were copied and applied as a shadow to the context of the new covenant (verses 3-13). In 2 Peter 3, Peter uses God’s creation of the physical universe, and its subsequent disturbance by Noah’s judgment flood, as a prototype to explain how big of a deal the coming judgment against Jerusalem would be (AD 70). Peter was using traditional Hebraic prophetic apocalyptic language—violent disturbances of the created order—to explain the significance of the coming dissolution of the visible fabric of the Old Covenant order.
Covenant Creationism is not only shallow in its exegesis, it leads to some dangerous doctrines. For example, they deny that Adam was a real man, or certainly not the first man. They see Adam as an allegory of Old Covenant Israel. Therefore, they deny that mankind has a sinful nature resulting from Adam’s fall, or as stated by one covenant creationist: “We do not believe that all men are in Adam.” But Paul, in Romans 5:15-17 and 1 Corinthians 15:22, directly ties the Christ’s salvation work as the antidote to Adam’s curse. This is a FUNDAMENTAL TENET OF THE CHRISTIAN FAITH.
The logical extension of the error of minimizing the importance of sin can potentially lead to the further errors of universalism and antinomianism. How so? If men are not inherently sinful, then all men can be saved (universalism), or at least Christ is not necessary for salvation. Likewise, it can also logically lead to legalism, which teaches that we can save ourselves. Some preterists have gone down these paths, and I wonder if CC has been a contributing factor.
A course correction is needed. The depth of man’s sin accentuates the magnitude of Christ’s victory. Christianity is the only worldview or religion that teaches that man’s nature is so deeply sinful that a Savior is necessary.
Covenant creationists muddle and confuse other important classical Christian doctrines—for example, the doctrine of heaven. They confuse the Hebraic idiom “new heaven and new earth” with heaven itself, or at least their writings confound the issue. This may lead to the idea proposed by some preterists that heaven is on earth now, that is, “heaven” is nothing more than man’s improved relationship with God in the new covenant. This is a serious error that denigrates the Christian hope of the afterlife.
Linguists recognize that a word or phrase has a semantic range. A word can mean any number of things, and context must determine what a particular word means. It also has connotations, applications, or adaptations by extension of that meaning. When doing a word study, one should consider all aspects of meaning: context, grammar, structure, audience relevance, cultural background, and everything that makes up the meaning of a text when you examine every occurrence of the word. If you do not do that, then you are isolating the word from its context. While covenant creationists argue that their views, in fact, do adhere to contextual analysis, they do not do so consistently, as the above illustrations prove. If a passage does not fit their paradigm, they gloss over it—or force a meaning into it.
Even in modern English, the biblical words or phrases “heaven and earth,” “heaven,” “heavens” can have different meanings ranging from literal, physical things—to metaphoric symbology, or even something outside of time and space. Just think for a moment about how such words are used in everyday English. So, this should not be a surprise. In every language, some words can have multiple meanings. “Heaven,” I argue, is not the same thing as “the new heaven and new earth.” “The heavens” (plural) is not the same thing as “heaven” (singular), as the former is about the visibly cosmos, while the latter is abode of God outside of time and space.
How do we decide, when different meanings are possible? Sometimes simple common-sense and plain language are the best way to understand literature. Covenant creationists understand virtually everything in Genesis to be symbolic, even the “swarms of living creatures,” the “beasts of the field,” the “fish of the sea,” the “birds flying above the earth,” “trees bearing fruit,” and so forth. Did God give us these words to confuse and confound us with hidden truths? A plain reading of Genesis reveals these things as literal to a significant degree. If God was speaking about the creation of the nation of Israel and His covenants with her, why didn’t He just come out and say it? Why veil it in symbolism?
It is noteworthy that the language in Genesis is different from, say, Jesus’ parables. Jesus had reasons to speak metaphorically because he was standing among His Jewish opponents, who were often the targets of his parables. What motivation would God have had to explain Genesis history in an allegorical way?
My overarching concern is that among some preterists, aberrant doctrines have emerged that depart too far from classical, biblical Christianity. I see three varieties of preterists—partial preterists (who do not take fulfillment far enough), hyper-preterists (who take it too far), and full preterists. I am persuaded that full preterism (“evangelical preterism”), properly understood, does not harm classical Christianity. Rather, it completes and enhances it. Covenant Creation is one of several aspects of hyper-preterism which you can explore further in Section C at my website list of articles:
 http://www.documentacatholicaomnia.eu/03d/0037-0103,_Flavius_Josephus,_The_Antiquities_Of_The_Jews,_EN.pdf. The ancient Jewish document Jubilees is another example of taking Genesis largely literally. Other examples could be cited.