If you asked this of someone who had read a theological book, they might answer by telling you that God is ‘immutable’, and they’d mean that he is unchanging.1 But a common objection people have towards the way that Christians talk about God is how he appears to be so different in the Old and New Testaments: a stern judge of strict laws and demanding animal sacrifices in the former; and a loving father welcoming sinners in the latter.
One early Christian author who wrote a defence of the continuity of God across the Old and New Testaments was Irenaeus of Lyon. His idea was that there were four covenants made between God and humanity: ‘one, prior to the deluge, under Adam; the second, that after the deluge, under Noah; the third, the giving of the law, under Moses; the fourth, that which renovates man, and sums up all things in itself by means of the Gospel, raising and bearing men upon its wings into the heavenly kingdom.’2
Is God creating covenants randomly? Why do some have conditions while others are unconditional? Are they all running at the same time, or is there only ever one current covenant?
The idea behind this was that God appears to us as if he is different because a new covenant has been brought into effect, and we interact with him via the terms of those agreements. The God who makes and keeps the covenants does not change, but our perspective on him does.
During the Reformation, this idea was taken in a slightly different direction in order to address the specific apparent difference between the Old and New Testaments, in which God’s agreements with people were grouped into ‘covenants of works’ and ‘covenants of grace’.3 God’s ‘sudden’ generosity in the New Testament now had a precedent in the promise he made to Abraham (Gen. 12:1-3) as an agreement between himself and a man that entirely consists of him giving gifts, and not requiring the other party to keep lots of regulations.
This is helpful in letting us understand why God may appear to be different at different times, but it doesn’t give us any overall sense of God’s plans. Is God creating covenants randomly? Why do some have conditions while others are unconditional? Are they all running at the same time, or is there only ever one current covenant?
To find the unchanging God behind the many covenants, a new term was borrowed out of the Bible: ‘dispensation’. (See Eph. 1:10 NKJV. Other modern translations use the word ‘administration’, or sometimes simply ‘plan’.) Understanding the Bible using this perspective is called Dispensationalism, defined as: ‘…a system of historical progression, as revealed in the Bible, consisting of a series of stages in God’s self-revelation and plan of salvation.’4
A man who owned his own bakery planned to give the business to his daughter once she grew up. When she was a child, she wasn’t ready to be up early in the morning to cook the bread that the morning’s customers would be buying, but she could decorate some of the confections that passing schoolchildren bought in the afternoons.
Once she started going to school herself, she was away in the afternoons and couldn’t do this. Instead she was given chores for when she got back, like washing the equipment. During the school holidays, her dad started to treat her like an apprentice, teaching her how to make some of the types of bread they sold.
Many years later, she stopped working in the bakery at all for a few years, spending time working at a patisserie in another town, and studying at a business school. All these experiences prepared her for working alongside her dad for a few years before he retired and left her in charge of the family business.
Over time, the baker’s daughter was several things: a dish washer, an apprentice, a schoolchild, a student, and, for a short time, someone who had no association to the bakery other than the fact that she would one day inherit it. Sometimes she was many of these at the same time, and other times she was one that excluded all the others. The only thing that remained constant was the fact that she was the heir to the bakery, and it was this that motivated all the other roles that she held. The types of roles fit the level of maturity that she had, and each built on the last until she understood everything that she needed to know to run the bakery alongside her dad.
Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, “And to offsprings,” referring to many, but referring to one, “And to your offspring,” who is Christ. This is what I mean: the law, which came 430 years afterward, does not annul a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to make the promise void… Why then the law? It was added because of transgressions, until the offspring should come to whom the promise had been made, and it was put in place through angels by an intermediary… Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed. So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith… And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise. I mean that the heir, as long as he is a child, is no different from a slave, though he is the owner of everything, but he is under guardians and managers [lit. administrators] until the date set by his father. In the same way we also, when we were children, were enslaved to the elementary principles of the world. But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.Galatians 3:16-4:5
When Paul talks about our present covenant with God, he doesn’t just tell us what each side’s obligations to this covenant are, but instead writes of an ongoing narrative: a progressing understanding of who God is and what he has planned. He phrases it as these are like being under different administrators – in other words, these are different dispensations. God’s promises to Abraham weren’t just an example of a time he was generous in the Old Testament; they were an early phase of his plan of redemption through Jesus Christ, akin to some of those early jobs done by the baker’s daughter. In this case, God was nominating someone to be the forefather of the Messiah who was to come.
Next up is the Law given via Moses: a covenant that God established with the children of Abraham. Paul emphasises that this covenant didn’t alter or usurp God’s promise to Abraham: it was an additional agreement, like when the baker’s daughter was learning multiple things in the bakery at the same time. This covenant also had the purpose of instructing people as to what sin is and acted as a ‘guardian’ for those sons of Abraham, as it kept them closer to the pattern of life that pleased God while they waited for Christ Jesus, who is the fulfilment of the promise of a deliverer from sin.
Paul writes the same way to the Ephesians:
He made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His kind intention which He purposed in Him with a view to an administration suitable to the fullness of the times, that is, the summing up of all things in Christ, things in the heavens and things on the earth.Eph. 1:9-10 NASB
All those previous covenants made by God with mysterious purposes are tied up and have their purposes made clear through the work of Jesus Christ. He wasn’t sent as an emergency solution to the problem of sin, but as the appropriate, intentional completion of God’s eternal plans to deal with it.
By understanding that the previous covenants are not in effect any longer because of their being summed up in Christ, we see that they had a purpose in preparing for the revelation of God’s plans now shown. From this we gain a mindset by which we can understand what rules are good to be carried forwards into the New Testament. For example, the Ten Commandments were part of the agreement between God and the people of Israel, so we could say that those rules don’t apply to Christians because that covenant doesn’t apply to Christians. But all ten of the commandments tell us things which displease God, and we’re still required to avoid such behaviour5, so we should be keeping those commandments voluntarily, even if we’re not strictly bound by them.
[T]he Ten Commandments were part of the agreement between God and the people of Israel, so we could say that those rules don’t apply to Christians because that covenant doesn’t apply to Christians. But all ten of the commandments tell us things which displease God, and we’re still required to avoid such behaviour…
Other commandments obviously specifically apply to the context of that Old Testament people. Christians have no reason to celebrate the Passover, for example, because they’re not necessarily descended from those people rescued from Egypt. Furthermore, that event was a foreshadowing of Christ’s death to set us free from sin, so now that he has completed that work we keep the commandment of our present covenant by breaking bread together. The Old Testament’s Passover demonstrated that the principle of remembrance is important to God, and our practice of breaking bread keeps that principle in a way that makes sense in our present dispensation. Therefore the Old Testament and its laws continue to instruct us in what is righteous, even though we haven’t given our oath to keep them as the Israelites did at Sinai.6
In addition to the rule of the covenant not carrying over, the promises we see in the Old Testament don’t necessarily carry forwards either. For example, the inheritance of the land promised to Abraham makes sense as a promise to his descendants, but it doesn’t make sense as a promise to the New Testament people of God because Jesus could say that ‘his kingdom is not of the world’.7 But the idea that the principles carry forward is one we can use when looking at some of the promises given to the Israelites. For example, Jeremiah 29:11 is part of a promise given to the people of Israel that Christians have often found comforting. The promise itself doesn’t apply to Christians because it relates to a different covenant, but as part of the progressive revelation of the person and character of God we can take the promise as an indication of the way that God works and treats the people with whom he has a covenant relationship. This gives us faith in the fact that we will be able to rely on him for similar faithfulness towards us.
In all this, then, we should have enough to help us resolve that opening tension as to how it might seem that God has changed even while it taught that God is unchanging. God deals with humans in covenants, so that we might have sets of rules we can understand that we know he will keep: this allows us to understand someone who is otherwise very much beyond our understanding. The benefit of being at the end of the process is that we can look at all the covenants that have gone before, as well as the new covenant, and so piece together a fuller understanding of who God is and what he is like by seeing what his purposes are through many administrations throughout all of history. As we do this, we’re able to see the generosity he shows in the Old Testament and his judgement in the New, and therefore see the consistency of all his dealings with humanity.