Calvin: The Abrahamic Covenant Was Spiritual, Not Earthly

To be a God unto thee. In this single word we are plainly taught, that this was a spiritual covenant, not confirmed in reference to the present life only; but one from which Abraham might conceive the hope of eternal salvation, so that being raised even to heaven, he might lay hold of solid and perfect bliss. For those whom God adopts to himself, from among a people—seeing that he makes them partakers of his righteousness and of all good things—he also constitutes heirs of celestial life. Let us then mark this as the principal part of the covenant, that He who is the God of the living, not of the dead, promises to be a God to the children of Abraham. It follows afterwards, in the way of augmentation of the grant, that he promises to give them the land. I confess, indeed, that something greater and more excellent than itself was shadowed forth by the land of Canaan; yet this is not at variance with the statement, that the promise now made was an accession to that primary one, ‘I will be thy God.’ Now, although God again affirms, as before, that He will give the land to Abraham himself, we nevertheless know, that Abraham never possessed dominion over it; but the holy man was contented with his title to it alone, although the possession of it was not granted him; and, therefore, he calmly passed from his earthly pilgrimage into heaven. God again repeats that He will be a God to the posterity of Abraham, in order that they may not settle upon earth, but may regard themselves as trained for higher things.

John Calvin, Commentary on the First Book of Moses Called Genesis 1.450.

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  1. Dear R. Scott Clark,

    BHS, Genesis 12:1-3,
    וַיֹּ֤אמֶר יְהוָה֙ אֶל־אַבְרָ֔ם לֶךְ־לְךָ֛ מֵאַרְצְךָ֥ וּמִמֹּֽולַדְתְּךָ֖ וּמִבֵּ֣ית אָבִ֑יךָ אֶל־הָאָ֖רֶץ אֲשֶׁ֥ר אַרְאֶֽךָּ׃
    וְאֶֽעֶשְׂךָ֙ לְגֹ֣וי גָּדֹ֔ול וַאֲבָ֣רֶכְךָ֔ וַאֲגַדְּלָ֖ה שְׁמֶ֑ךָ וֶהְיֵ֖ה בְּרָכָֽה׃
    וַאֲבָֽרֲכָה֙ מְבָ֣רְכֶ֔יךָ וּמְקַלֶּלְךָ֖ אָאֹ֑ר וְנִבְרְכ֣וּ בְךָ֔ כֹּ֖ל מִשְׁפְּחֹ֥ת הָאֲדָמָֽה׃

    Καὶ εἶπεν κύριος τῷ Αβραμ Ἔξελθε ἐκ τῆς γῆς σου καὶ ἐκ τῆς συγγενείας σου καὶ ἐκ τοῦ οἴκου τοῦ πατρός σου εἰς τὴν γῆν, ἣν ἄν σοι δείξω, 2 καὶ ποιήσω σε εἰς ἔθνος μέγα καὶ εὐλογήσω σε καὶ μεγαλυνῶ τὸ ὄνομά σου, καὶ ἔσῃ εὐλογητός, 3 καὶ εὐλογήσω τοὺς εὐλογοῦντάς σε, καὶ τοὺς καταρωμένους σε καταράσομαι, καὶ ἐνευλογηθήσονται ἐν σοὶ πᾶσαι αἱ φυλαὶ τῆς γῆς.

    Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

    Since Genesis 13:14-18; 15:1-16 (ratified by God in 17-21); 17:1-21; 22:11-18 state that God would give to Abraham both physical descendants and the land of Canaan. This covenant is also confirmed with Isaac in Genesis 26:23-25; and to Jacob in Genesis 28:13-16 (Jacob’s Ladder and Bethel).

    Where in the Abrahamic Covenant shown to be a spiritual covenant since there is a clear physical aspect to it?

    • Bryant,

      Your implied argument is a non sequitur. The Lord’s Supper is a material meal but it is also a spiritual meal, in which believers are fed by the Holy Spirit on the “proper and natural” (Belgic Confession) body and blood of Christ.

      I think your argument rests on a kind of sub-Christian spirit-matter dualism that we should not accept.

      As I have been saying, the Abrahamic covenant had typological aspects to it but all those typological aspects, e.g., the land promise, the seed promise, and the bloodshed of circumcision were typological administrations of a spiritual reality.

      You have not yet accounted for the way the New Testament understands these types or, indeed, Abraham himself.

  2. I would add that any attempt to reduce the Abrahamic covenant to a merely carnal or “mundane” covenant as Thomas Patient has done is to verge on blasphemy against God and His holy word. The Old Testament is ample clear through and through that God’s revealed will and the ultimate substance of it is that the Israelites would believe in God and His messiah to the saving of their souls. God in no way intended to just use Israel as a physical incubator for Jesus the Christ to be born. God does not make half-hearted promises and he is not satisfied in just a ceremonial obedience that is not truly accompanied by a regenerate heart.

  3. I do not see how the import of Bryant Williams’ comment constitutes a non sequitur, or a deviation into (gnostic) spirit-matter dualism.

    Simply because the Abrahamic covenant was a spiritual covenant does not render the land promises therein (i.e. earth/dirt with stated boundaries) something less than literal earth/dirt with stated boundaries.

    You have not accounted for the literality of the land promises by deflecting to typological fulfillment. Nor have you explained why a covenant with profound spiritual promises cannot also contain promises relating to land.

    On a more important note, thank you for your comments and posts disputing Piperian works-dependent soteriology.

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