Has the New Covenant Been Established?

It’s seems like a strange question to ask when the New Testament seems so clear about it. But John Goldingay offers an important qualification on the issue in his new release Do We Need the New Testament? (IVP Academic).

“My point involves recognizing a paradox within Hebrews itself. It declares that the new covenant of which Jeremiah spoke has been established, through Jesus (Heb 8:7-13; 10:15-18). Yet a moment’s reflection confirms that this statement involves some oversimplification. The new covenant was to effect the writing of God’s revelation into people’s minds, with the result that they no longer needed to teach each other. Thus another of the contrasts between the Testaments that I listed in the introduction to this volume is that God’s teaching is now written into our minds rather than written only on stone. Yet the very existence and contents of Hebrews shows that God’s revelation is not written into people’s minds. Hebrews addresses an audience that needs basic instructions on matters such as love, hospitality, faithfulness in marriage, contentment and the role of their leaders in teaching them (Heb 13:1-25). Those instructions are not far from being a restatement of the Ten Commandments. The instruction that the audience needs is basic indeed. People who have experienced that of which Jeremiah 31 speaks would not be vulnerable to the comment about needing their faculties to be trained to distinguish good and evil (Heb 5:14). Whatever new potential there is in Jeremiah’s new covenant, it is not realized in the congregation that Hebrews addresses, nor in other New Testament congregations such as that at Corinth. Nor does the church today look like an embodiment of the new covenant. In this sense, the new covenant has surely not been established.”

“There is a converse point. Jeremiah 31:31-34 was a promise made to Israel on the verge of the fall of Jerusalem into exile. It would not be particularly good news to its hearers if it was destined for fulfillment only six centuries later. Indeed, it did not wait six centuries. Within a few decades, there was again a worshipping community in Jerusalem living as Yahweh’s people with Yahweh as their God, one that in due course showed itself to be a community with quite a lot of Torah written into its minds–people no longer worshiped other gods, made images, neglected the Sabbath and so on. I don’t know that they avoided adultery or other covetousness, but then, neither does the church in the New Testament, or today.”

“The fact that the new covenant has not been effectively implemented in the church means that we are not in so different a situation from that of Israel. Our lives do not look to be morally superior to Israel’s, nor do we seem to have a closer relationship with God than the one the First Testament speaks of. Hebrews itself speaks in this way in its telling exposition of Psalm 95. When it refers to the way the wilderness generation failed to enter God’s rest, and goes on to take ‘rest’ as an image for salvation in Christ, one might have expected it to be implying that the church has entered this rest, but in fact it urges people to make sure that they don’t follow the wilderness generation’s example. They could fail to enter this rest as that generation did, and as in effect later generations of Israel could, notwithstanding their being physically in the land. Believers in Jesus are not in a less vulnerable position that Israel’s. They are in the same position. . . . It is worth noting that Paul also quotes Jeremiah 31:31-34, in Romans 11:27, and does so in connection with what God will do at the End, not what God has already done.” (pp. 97-99)

Do We Need the New Testament? is a paperback with 184 pages and sells for $22.00.

John Goldingay (PhD, University of Nottingham; DD, Archbishop of Canterbury at Lambeth) is David Allan Hubbard Professor of Old Testament at Fuller Theological Seminary. He was previously principal and a professor of Old Testament and Hebrew at St John’s Theological College in Nottingham, England.

Do we Need the New Testament

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About Louis

I am a 1997 graduate of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.
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2 Responses to Has the New Covenant Been Established?

  1. Lindsay says:

    This is a bit of an odd comment since he cuts the quotation short, which goes on to specify what we won’t need to teach each other: “Know the Lord” (Heb 8:11). Why not? “for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest”.

    Rather than these verses teaching perfect knowledge or obedience in the New Covenant, it seems to be clearly saying those in the NC will be regenerate. That is, they will all know the Lord. No one in the New Covenant will need to evangelize another NC member, unlike in the Old Covenant mixed situation.

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  2. johntjeffery says:

    If the existence of external texts written by inspired authors proves the non-realization/establishment of Jeremiah’s New Covenant in the 1st century churches, it does so as well for the Jewish “worshipping community in Jerusalem” that Goldingay references in the second paragraph cited as the near “fulfillment” of the promise communicated through Jeremiah! His insistence on positing externally recorded revelation against the promised internalization begs the question. The two are not mutually exclusive as he seems to assume.

    Based on the teaching in the New Testament concerning the fulfillment of the New Covenant in the 1st century (Mt. 26:28; Mk. 14:24; Lk. 22:20; 1 Cor. 11:25; 2 Cor. 3:6, 14; Heb. 7:22; 8-10; 12:24; 13:20; etc.), Goldingay’s premise and conclusion is weighed in the balances and found wanting. Q.E.D. Whatever follows in his attempt to prove his contention is moot at best, and ultimately irrelevant.

    There is no textual basis for what Goldingay proposes in the second paragraph cited. Nowhere in the inspired records of the events he refers to is there any indication that this either was, or was viewed as, the fulfillment of the New Covenant promises revealed through Jeremiah. Therefore, he has no revelatory authority for pointing to the events recorded in Ezra and Nehemiah as the fulfillment.

    In fact, the basis for Goldingay’s objection to agreeing with the New Testament Scriptures for a 1st century fulfillment, as I indicated previously, argues equally against such a fulfillment for this community of the Return despite any degree of Torah obedience that may be brought forward as evidence. This community needed instruction from the external Law just as the recipients of the book of Hebrews did. The explicit affirmation of this, which Goldingay fails to reckon with, may be seen in the inspired record of their discovery of the content, and submission to the external copy of the Law read and explained publicly in Ezra 7 and Nehemiah 8-9.

    Furthermore, Goldingay’s basic reason for insisting on a 5th-6th century B.C. fulfillment of the New Covenant is specious and objectionable. Whatever delay God imposes in fulfilling this prophetic promise must not be seen as a reason for speculating about some “near fulfillment.” If we begin with Genesis 3:15, and work our way through the Scriptures examining all of the prophecies and promises of God with regards to the temporal gaps between promise and fulfillment, Goldingay’s premise falls to the ground. Short term fulfillments, i.e., those fulfilled within the lifetimes of the recipients of a promise or the hearers of a prophecy were not unknown, but are the exception rather than the rule. Indeed, in such cases they are usually pronouncements of a judgment or curse, rather than a blessing. The onus probandi is on Goldingay to apply the same speculative reasoning as he has done here: 1) to a vast body of fulfilled prophecies separated by many centuries from the First Advent, for example, plus 2) the numerous unfulfilled prophecies that await the Second Advent and beyond.

    Goldingay seems in the final paragraph cited to assume what needs to be proved. Once again, he is faced with the insurmountable task of explaining away the New Testament documentation concerning the 1st century fulfillment of the New Covenant (see above). His judgmental perspective of the New Testament Church, and assumption of the “vulnerable position” of believers in Jesus flies directly in the face of Paul’s teaching in Romans 5-8 (and in numerous passages elsewhere in the Pauline corpus). The glaring inconsistency of Goldingay’s resort to Romans 11:27 while insisting on pointing to the worshipping community of the Return six centuries before Christ does not seem to faze him, but to characterize it as unreasonable and confusing would be kind.

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