Part 1: COVENANT: Covenantal Points – Chapter 1: True Transcendence

Ray Sutton

Narrated By: Devan Lindsey
Book: That You May Prosper


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Chapter Text

A. First Point of Covenantalism

(Deuteronomy 1:1-5)

Just as King Josiah sat on his throne, another king also sat on a throne, a chair like a miniature mountain in the midst of a sea of ornate wealth. He had conquered all that could be conquered. He had built the greatest city in the world. Through his palace window, he could see the beautiful landscaped “hanging gardens” on the walls of the palace-gardens so legendary that they have been included among the seven wonders of the ancient world. Out of the corner of his eye, he caught a brief glimpse of a chariot darting by on the top of the wall surrounding the city, a wall so thick that it could handle six chariots riding side by side with room to spare. Who could break through such a fortress? Who could topple such a king?

He was to learn the answer soon: the God Who sits above men’s fortresses.

His eyes then withdrew from the distance, distracted by the sun reflecting off the solid gold walls in the room where he was sitting. Old Babylon was truly one of the great wonders of the world, and this powerful king had been part of the creation of the empire. Then the old king began to think, “What’s left for me? How can I rise above myself and history? How can I become immortally great?” Instantly, words popped into his head, seemingly from nowhere, but definitely from somewhere other than his own imagination.

I will ascend to heaven;
I will raise my throne above the stars of God,
And I will sit on the mount of the assembly
In the recesses of the North.
I will ascend above the heights of the clouds;
I will make myself like the Most High.[1]

The words seemed right to him, yet they were horribly wrong. This king had been brought into covenant with God.[2] All of his greatness had come from God. Now the king had forgotten, and he desired to become more than man, even God Himself.

When God heard the king whisper these words in his heart, He said,

You will be thrust down to Sheol,
To the recesses of the pit.

God threw him down into hell because to attempt to be God was a denial of the covenant and specifically a denial of the first point of Biblical covenantalism, true transcendence. As we shall see, to err here was to break the entire covenant. Always.

That unnamed Babylonian king should have known better. He had the testimony of the greatest king of all before him: Nebuchadnezzar. We know from the life of Nebuchadnezzar what happens to men, especially great kings, when they elevate themselves in their own eyes to the very throne room of God. They are cast down by God. Adam learned this lesson in the garden of Eden when he was thrown out of it. Nebuchadnezzar learned it in the garden of Babylon, also when he was thrown out of it.

Nebuchadnezzar’s Lesson

Nebuchadnezzar had a dream. He dreamed of a great tree that reached to the sky. The beasts of the field found shade under it. But the tree was cut down, and only the stump remained.

The tree was a man. The stump was a great man “cut down to size,” so to speak. Seven periods of time passed over him. The dream informed the king:

This sentence is by the decree of the angelic watches, and the decision is a command of the holy ones, in order that the living may know that the Most High is ruler over the realms of mankind, and bestows it [earthly sovereignty – R.S.] on whom He wishes, and sets over it the lowliest of men (Dan. 4:17).

He asked Belteshazzar (Daniel) what the dream meant. It meant bad news for the king. The tree was the king himself. One of God’s angels would cut him down. He would be driven into the fields, to eat grass with the beasts, for seven years. But there was hope in that vision, Daniel said, for “your kingdom will be assured to you after you recognize that it is Heaven that rules” (Dan. 4:26b).

Daniel then offered the king a way out of this prophecy. The way out is always the same for every person: obey God. “Therefore, 0 king, may my advice be pleasing to you: break away now from your sins by doing righteousness, and from your iniquities by showing mercy to the poor, in case there may be a prolonging of your prosperity” (Dan. 4:27).

The king forgot, as men so often do. A year later, he was walking on the roof of his royal palace. He saw himself as if he were God Almighty – a familiar sin in the history of man, from Adam to the present:

The king reflected and said, “Is this not Babylon the great, which I myself have built as a royal residence by the might of my power and for the glory of my majesty?” While the word was in the king’s mouth, a voice came from heaven, saying, “King Nebuchadnezzar, to you it is declared: sovereignty has been removed from you, and you will be driven away from mankind, and your dwelling place will be with the beasts of the field. You will be given grass to eat like cattle, and seven periods of time will pass over you, until you recognize that the Most High is ruler over the realm of mankind, and bestows it [sovereignty] on whomever He wishes” (Dan. 4:30-32).

The dream’s promised judgment came at last. But so did the restoration. After seven years, the king’s sanity was restored to him by God, and he immediately praised God as the absolute Sovereign of the world: “For His dominion is an everlasting dominion, and His kingdom endures from generation to generation” (Dan. 4:34b). Then the king sat on his throne again: “…so I was reestablished in my sovereignty, and surpassing greatness was added to me. Now I Nebuchadnezzar praise, exalt, and honor the King of heaven, for all His works are true and His ways just, and He is able to humble those who walk in pride” (Dan. 3:36b-37).

But that was nothing compared to an even greater gift to that once-pagan Babylonian king. For what other king over a pagan empire ever had his own words recorded as the very Word of God to man? Not one. The fourth chapter of Daniel is the only chapter in the Old Testament written by a non-Jew. Nebuchadnezzar’s own words outlasted every kingdom of antiquity.

What was his theological lesson? First, he owed his position to God. Second, it is the essence of man’s rebellion to think, speak, and act as though man is God. Third, God casts down those who seek to elevate themselves to the throne of God. In other words, man falls when he seeks to rise in his own power. Fourth, God offers restoration to man through man’s grace-imposed humility and faithfulness to God’s Word. A man who faithfully rules under God will rule over the creation.

God was above Nebuchadnezzar, yet He was also with Nebuchadnezzar. He could raise him up or pull him down. He is transcendent over mankind, yet close enough to know mankind’s heart and to judge mankind perfectly. God, and God alone, is truly transcendent. The Biblical covenant starts with this point.

True Transcendence (Deut. 1:1-5)

The Deuteronomic covenant begins with a declaration of transcendence, when it says, “Moses spoke to the children of Israel according to all that the Lord commanded him to give to them” (Deut. 1:3). How does this statement indicate transcendence?

The Creator/Creature Distinction

Biblical transcendence means there is a fundamental distinction between the Creator’s Being and the creature’s being. The Deuteronomic covenant specifies such a distinction. Moses’ words are differentiated from God’s.[3] He speaks what God has given him. His words are not original. Thus, the covenant first declares God to be the Lord and Creator: the Creator of the covenant and everything else. Why Creator?

The same fundamental distinction is basic to the creation of the world. God did not create the universe out of His own substance; He created it out of nothing. God says of His creation covenant of the world,[4] “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth, and the earth was formless and void, and darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the surface of the waters” (Gen. 1:1-2). Space, time, matter, and history had a beginning. They are not eternal. Often God uses His transcendent creation of the world to make the point that He is Lord. Isaiah says,

I am the Lord, and there is no other; besides Me there is no God… The One forming light and creating darkness, causing well-being and calamity; I am the Lord who does all these (Isa. 45:5-7).

Paganism has always rejected this view of the origins of the universe. Pagans say that matter has always existed, whether they are primitive pagans (“the cosmic egg”) or Greek pagans (“the co-eternity of matter and form”) or modern scientific pagans (“the Big Bang”). They refuse to accept that God could and did create matter out of nothing. This would point to a God Who presently sustains His creation personally, which in turn points to the existence of a God Who judges His creation continually. Pagans seek above all else to escape God’s judgment.

The Biblical idea of creation involves God’s providential sustaining of creation throughout time and eternity. This is the meaning of providence. Because God made the world and personally sustains the world, He is present with the world, but is not part of the world. Because He is the Creator and Sustainer, He is also present (immanent) with us. This presence of God is equally an aspect of true transcendence. No other being is fully transcendent, so no other being is universally present. God alone is omnipresent (present everywhere).[5]

The following diagram (Figure 1) – one used by Cornelius Van Til, professor of apologetics at Westminster Theological Seminary (Philadelphia) for many years – pictures our definition of transcendence. The two separate circles show that each possesses a different “essence.” God’s Being is uncreated, and man’s is created. God is original, and man is derivative, which explains why God’s circle is bigger than man’s. God is independent (aseity) and man is dependent. God is God, man is man, and the latter is never able to become God, although God did become man in Jesus Christ. Furthermore, God is also “near” by means of the covenant.

Creator/Creature That You May Prospe

The covenant, as can be seen in the diagram, perfectly expresses a transcendent as well as an immanent view of God. Nothing but a Biblical covenant could adequately communicate both facets of transcendence. Such a covenant can be established only by a Creator God. Thus, at the heart of the Biblical doctrine of the covenant is the Biblical doctrine of creation.

The Fall as Covenant-Breaking

If man is not linked to God because of a commonly shared essence or being, then what is the link? Man is made in God’s image (Gen. 1:26). He is under God ethically. He can understand God’s Word and obey God. In the state of perfection in the garden, Adam was assigned the task of dressing and keeping (guarding) the garden as God’s agent. In other words, he was under a covenant.

But there is a huge problem with covenants: they can be broken. God says He will never break His, but that leaves man in a dangerous position. Break God’s covenant, and God breaks you. A transcendent God lays down the law.

Man broke the law. He wanted to be as God, knowing (determining) good and evil (Gen. 3:5). That put man at the mercy of God. The personal relationship between Adam and God was broken, because all of God’s personal relations with mankind are covenantal relations. They are not lawless relations. They are not random. They are personal because they are covenantal.

And Adam broke the covenant. He broke his personal relationship with God-a relationship of favor-and substituted a personal relationship of wrath. Understand, he did not move from a personal relationship with God to an impersonal relationship. God has no impersonal relationships with mankind. Man cannot escape the cosmic personalism of His Creator. Adam certainly could not escape. God returned to the garden, cross-examined Adam and Eve, and sentenced them. But He also offered them a promise of hope (Gen. 3:15), and then He clothed them before He cast them out.

Man’s post-Fall relationship with God is therefore one of judgment, promise, and preliminary mercy: time to repent and then rebuild the covenantal relationship. What man needs is not some program to become God; that was his original sin. Instead, he needs restoration of a right relationship with God. He needs a restoration inside the covenant. This restoration is judicial (meaning legal), and it is moral (meaning ethical). God lays down the law, and we obey. God declares, and we respond. It is God’s declaration which is fundamental. He judges, and we respond in terms of His holy judgments.

What fallen man needs, above all else, is a declaration from God, a declaration of “Not Guilty.” Only a transcendent God can make such a declaration.

Covenant By Imputation

The same verse in the opening section of Deuteronomy is declarative, “Moses spoke all the Lord commanded” (Deut. 1:3). This tells us something foundational about the covenant. Transcendence means the covenant is created by a legal declaration. As a result of this declaration, a certain legal status is imputed to the relationship. We can call this the doctrine of imputation, a legal term meaning “to apply to the account of.”

How does imputation work? God told Adam that the day that he ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, he would die (Gen. 2:17). He ate, yet he did not physically die at the precise moment he ate the “apple.” Then in what sense did he die? Some people try to explain his death as “spiritual.” But the Bible does not speak this way. A better explanation is that Adam’s death was covenantal, in that God imputed death to him. God counted him as dead because of the broken covenant. Then, as Adam experienced the burdens of history, he would draw closer and closer to physical and perhaps even eternal death. He would see the covenantal applications of death in history. Those manifestations of covenantal death would be all around him throughout his life. Imputation went from life to death: from Adam’s physical life to Adam’s eventual physical death.

Imputation worked the other way too: from death to life. How could Adam be allowed by God to live? How could he legally escape the immediate judgment of God? Because God looked forward in time to the death of Christ. Christ’s death satisfied God’s legal requirement that Adam be destroyed that very day, body and soul. Adam mayor may not have been saved in the sense of eternal salvation, but he surely was saved from immediate physical death. God imputed earthly life to him-the life which Christ earned on the cross. He then gave Adam and Eve a promise concerning the future (Gen. 3:15). Christ’s death had assured that future, and the promise spoke of Christ (the seed) crushing the head of the serpent.

We find this same concept of “applying to the account of” in the Biblical concept of redemption. What does it mean to redeem something? It means to buy it back. In the case of God’s redemption of His people, He applies Christ’s “account paid” certificate to each Christian’s debt to Him. He imputes Christ’s righteousness to us. And He could never impute redemption unless He is transcendent and possesses transcendent authority. This is why some of the Pharisees were so angry when Christ declared “Your sins are forgiven” to a man. They asked in their hearts, “Why does this man speak this way? He is blaspheming; who can forgive sins but God alone?” (Mark 2:7). They fully understood that He was claiming true transcendence for Himself.

Thus, covenant theology says that man’s relationship with God is based on a transcendent declaration, that is, a declaration which is both legal and ethical. By this, God imputes a certain status to the relationship. Nothing is “infused” into man to change his being and thereby make him acceptable to God. God does not stand like a cosmic physician with a giant syringe filled with righteousness, to inject a dose of it into this or that person. He certainly does not inject a spark of divinity into anyone. Man is judged by God as man, not as “almost a devil” or “almost God.” The Apostle Paul says that God declares us righteous:

…being justified [legally declared right with God) as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation [payment] in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed; for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. Where is boasting? …The one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned [imputed] as righteousness (Rom. 3:24-4:5).

When a man is saved, righteousness is laid to his account, and he is declared right, justified. This way, unrighteous men can have salvation. They do not have to become good before they can be saved. They cannot become good before they are saved. They are objectively saved because God declares them to be saved. They are objectively good because God declares them to be objectively good. He can do this in terms of His covenant because of Christ’s objective work of salvation in history. That objective work is imputed to the redeemed person by God’s grace. In theology, this is often described as the objective side of salvation. Always, the objective forms the basis of the subjective. Normally the term “objective” is applied to salvation, but this redemptive concept pulls over into all of life, making every relationship grounded in the legal or objective. That which is declared legal by God is therefore objectively legal.

We now have an answer to that old mind-twister: “Does God declare something good because it is objectively good, or is it objectively good because God declares it good.” The covenantal answer is that something is objectively good because God declares it to be good, and He can do this because God imputes Christ’s objective, covenant-obeying goodness to it. It meets God’s objective standards of goodness because Christ met God’s objective standards of goodness.

Understand, there is no conflict between objective and subjective in the mind of God. God’s subjective evaluation of His subjective standards carries objective meaning. Something can be objectively true only because the whole universe is sustained and interpreted by a totally personal, totally subjective Creator. Christianity destroys the false dualism between subjective and objective, between personal and impersonal.

Man’s covenant with God can only be declared by a transcendent legal act. All other covenants are formed on the same principle. Let us examine some cases in which this Biblical insight is the basis of social relationships.

Judicial Theology in Society

The principle is this: transcendent declaration is what officially creates or destroys a relationship; it imputes the status of covenant life or covenant death to the union.

Imputation of Covenant Death

Let’s begin with covenant death. If you were talking to me, and I dropped dead on the spot, would you immediately bury me? I hope not! You would need to call a coroner and have me declared legally dead. Is this some unnecessary “legal fiction”? No. This principle of declaring someone legally dead is built on the first point of covenantalism. Who knows, you might “think” I am dead, when in reality I might be in a deep coma. I could be buried alive. (This “legal” way of thinking makes good practical sense.) So life and death are covenantal. They are not primarily physically determined.

It is true that I am not objectively dead because the coroner declares me to be dead. He has objective standards to apply. What we must say is that God establishes life and death, and He defines life and death, and progressively as men discipline themselves to God’s covenantal standards, they can better apply these God-given standards in history. From a legal standpoint, however, society must delegate to someone the legal authority to declare someone dead. He may make a mistake, as men do, but he has the legal authority to make this mistake, for he has the legal authority to make the declaration. Without this delegated authority, a lot of murderers could escape earthly justice.

Is it possible for an institution to be covenantally dead, even though it still physically exists? Yes. Jesus says a church can become a “synagogue of Satan” (Rev. 3:9). The members are still physically alive, continue to meet, and go through all the motions of “churchiness,” but the church body is covenantally dead. Its preaching, prayers, and worship are satanic. To God this death is more real than the physical. Is this church hopeless? No. To continue as a true church, members and officers would have to renew their covenant with God. That is, the particular local or denominational church would have to be resurrected.

Why can’t we say this of other institutions? We can! They are also established on the basis of the covenant. If family governments and civil governments break it, they can covenantally cease to exist. And like the Church, to restore Biblical governmental authority to a family or a civil government, its members would have to renew the covenant and be resurrected. This would explain why Israel had to renew its national covenant before continuing as a nation (II Chron. 7:14; Neh. 8-9). This would also explain why nations are wiped off the face of the earth if they fail to renew their covenant after it is broken. Regarding the family unit, this would explain how marriages can be physically alive but covenantally dead. In fact, covenantal death is the whole rationale for divorce and remarriage.

Imputation of Covenant Life

Let us take another example of covenantal thinking. When is a marriage a marriage? Recently, a priest nullified a marriage between two quadriplegics. He reasoned that a marriage could not be a marriage unless it could be physically consummated. This implies that the physical relationship is the basis of marriage. But covenantal theology says that God’s legal, transcendent declaration forms a marital union. The couple can be legally married and even have legal children through another aspect of imputation, adoption.[6]

Also, this transcendent and legal foundation of marriage makes it more than just a human institution. God establishes marriage, in addition to the other institutions of society (State and Church). Men do not autonomously (self-law) create marriages, nor should they destroy them. Marriage is sacred. Jesus says, “What God has joined together, a man should not put asunder” (Matt. 19:6). Only the covenantal principle of transcendence makes it possible to declare or impute such a status to marriage.

Thus, society’s relationships are supposed to rest on what God declares to be legitimate (legal). They are formed and declared alive by covenantal transactions. As long as parties comply with the covenant, their relationship lives. Should they violate their covenantal arrangement, however, the declaration of life is challenged. Their relationship could be judged dead, and it would then come under a declaration of death. In either case, relationships are established and disestablished on the basis of some kind of legal declaration. The alternative is to base them on the physical (biological). Take the institution of marriage as an example. Sex, physical appearance, or even feelings (emotions) would be the basis of the relationship. They would also be the basis of its dissolution. Should one of the partners no longer be sexually appealing, the marriage could be dissolved. So, society’s relationships are designed by God to be founded on a judicial proclamation, and not the physical.

To summarize: I have established two points in this chapter thus far. Transcendence (distinction of being) means God creates covenants. And second, He does so by means of legal declaration, what I have called imputation. Let us now change direction. Let us consider the counterfeits of Biblical transcendence.

Counterfeit Doctrines

Because of God’s transcendent Being, man can relate to God only by covenant. This insight is the heart of Biblical religion. It has been neglected by Christians far too long. Christians have hardly bothered with such questions as transcendence and immanence. But anti-Christian religions have been quite aware of these issues. All rival worldviews have been forced to deal with the concepts of transcendence and immanence. But all anti-Christian worldviews deal with these issues in an anti-Biblical and therefore anti-covenantal way. They substitute a false doctrine of the relationship between God and man. They go right back to Adam’s sin: the desire to be as God. They declare that man and God are really of the same essence. Nebuchadnezzar’s lesson has been lost on them.

Fallen man wants either a transcendent god or an immanent god, but he does not want a personal God, for such a God is a covenantal God. Covenant means law, law means obedience, and disobedience means judgment. As I have said, fallen men above all want to escape God’s judgment. Why? Because they are disobedient.

Fallen man wants a substitute. He does not want a substitute perfect man to serve as the sin-bearer of the world. This would point to fallen man’s lack of divinity and his need of salvation. So instead of accepting Christ as man’s legal substitute, the ethical rebel substitutes a false god who cannot execute legal judgment. The doctrine of substitution is inescapable: fallen man simply wants a substitute god of his own creation rather than a substitutionary atonement and God’s imputation.

False Transcendence

Why do men want a transcendent God, but without a covenant bond linking such a God to man? Answer: to substitute a distant god of man’s creation for the all-too-present God of the Bible. The idea of a god’s transcendence in an anti-Biblical sense means distance, not God’s absolute personal authority. Such a distant god is the god of deism. Such a god is said to have created the world. He “wound it up” long ago like the spring in a new clock. He then removed himself completely from his creation. He allows it to work its way down over time. He does not interfere with its activities. And, above all, he does not judge it. He is so transcendent that he just does not care what happens to it. In short, this god is impersonal. (By the way, hardly anyone has ever really believed in the purely deistic eighteenth-century god of the history books, since such a god is just too far removed to be of assistance when people get in a crisis. He does not hear prayers or answer them. He is just too useless to be saleable.)

Guess who becomes the god of this world if this creator god of deism is far, far away? You guessed it! Man does. Man becomes the substitute god. The creator god is “on vacation.” He does not judge kings, kingdoms, or bureaucrats. When it comes to exercising judgment in history, he defaults. Man can speak; deism’s god is silent. Man’s word therefore substitutes for god’s word. Man substitutes himself for this substitute god. Man becomes the god of the system, knowing (determining) good and evil.

So, without the transcendent, personal, covenantal God of the Bible, man simply repeats the sin of Adam: to be as God.
The personal God of the Bible is too distinct for comfort. The impersonal god of deism is too distant to be taken seriously.

False Immanence

Virtually everyone has rejected such a deistic view of god. But what is the alternative? An immanent god. This is the god of pantheism, both Eastern and Western. This is the god who is immersed in his creation. He is the “true reality” of creation. In certain forms of Hinduism, he is the hidden unity that underlies the creation, and the creation is itself said to be an illusion, maya. But in all these pantheistic religions, man is endowed by a “spark of divinity,” and man will ultimately experience union with god. This is the god of monism. God cannot be distinguished from the creation.

Guess who becomes the god of this world if pantheism’s creation-immersed god is too, too close? You guessed it again! Man does. If god is immersed in the creation, then man becomes a substitute god. Man enjoys that spark of divinity. Man can also speak; pantheism’s god is silent. Man’s word therefore substitutes for god’s word. Man becomes the god of the system, knowing (determining) good and evil.

So, without the transcendent, personal, covenantal God of the Bible, man simply repeats the sin of Adam: to be as God.

The personal God of the Bible is too close for comfort. The impersonal god of pantheism is too close to be taken seriously.

Shared Being

All non-covenantal views of transcendence and immanence have one thing in common. They teach union of essence. God’s and man’s “beings” run together in some way. The god of deism is so like the world that when he separates himself from it, he can have no influence over it. He just isn’t transcendent enough to run the world system. Similarly, the god of pantheism is so like the world that when he immerses himself in it, he can have no influence over it. The key words for fallen mankind are no influence. So, when fallen man speaks of either transcendence or immanence, he means something completely different from what the Bible means. Cornelius Van Til’s comments explain the difference.

It is not a sufficient description of Christian theism when we say that as Christians we believe in both the transcendence and the immanence of God, while pantheistic systems believe only in the immanence of God and deistic systems believe only in the transcendence of God. The transcendence we believe in is not the transcendence of deism, and the immanence we believe in is not the immanence of pantheism. In the case of deism, transcendence virtually means separation, while in the case of pantheism immanence virtually means identification. And if we add separation to identification, we do not have theism as a result.[7]

False transcendence, defined as distance, totally removes God from any involvement with His creation, thereby making man his own “god.” After all, whatever happens on earth is left up to man or fate. False immanence (pantheism) coalesces the nature of God and the nature of man, so that some kind of “spark of divinity in every man” results. Man again ends up being a god. Theologically and practically speaking, both of these false views lead to man’s deification and God’s humanization. The root of all heresy is found here. Van Til writes: “All forms of heresy, those of the early church and those of modern times, spring from this confusion of God with the world. All of them, in some manner and to some extent, substitute the idea of man’s participation in God for that of his creation by God.”[8]

Metaphysical Religion

There are only two theologies in the world: covenantal and metaphysical. Metaphysical religion means a union “beyond” (meta) the physical. It can also be called “chain of being” religion, or “monism.”[9] The idea is that man and God are one essence, not two distinct essences joined by a legal covenant. This view is the archenemy of Christianity. This is the monistic monster that has many heads with one basic common denominator: continuity of being. Whenever men seek to discover the “underlying essence” of the universe without reference to the Creator God of the universe, they have adopted a form of monism.

Perhaps this counterfeit of the Biblical covenant is best pictured by the familiar totem pole image, the organizing symbol of the American Indians, which is found in most religions of the world in some form or another. It graphically portrays society as beings on a continuum, either vertically or horizontally structured. Notice the contrast between the following diagrams and the covenantal picture in the first diagram (p. 26).

Chain of Being - That You May Prosper

Continuity of being characterizes both diagrams. Life according to this system is a continuum. At the top is the purest form of deity. At the very bottom is the least pure. They only differ in degree, not in kind. God is a part of creation. Man, who is somewhere in the middle of the continuum, is god in another “form.” In other words, god is just a “super” man, and man is not a god… yet!

This kind of religion has expressed itself in many ways. The ancient Greeks, for example, officially worshipped Olympian gods who were nothing more than “larger-than-life” men. Such gods were not truly divine in the Biblical sense. They were not distinct from the creation. They married, committed adultery with other gods, came down to earth and committed more adultery with people, and so on. They were just an extension of man. This was the theology of legend and myth, and these myths were not taken very seriously by anybody in ancient Greece. The real religion of Greece was much worse: they worshipped the spirits of dead ancestors. [10] Families had to keep a ritual fire alive (“keep the home fires burning”) and offer meat and meal sacrifices from time to time, in order to keep dead family spirits from haunting them.

The Greeks did not believe that every dead person would become either a wandering spirit or a local spirit that had to be placated by religious rites by his descendants. They believed that some men could become true gods after death. These people were called heroes. They were local athletes or warriors or political leaders who were publicly invested with divinity after death.[11]

A more modern example of this sort of thinking, and one very close to home, is Mormonism. Mormonism teaches that man can evolve into God.[12] In fact, Mormonism teaches that “good” Mormons die, change into gods, and live on other planets somewhere. This is the modern equivalent of Greece’s hero worship.

Also, as for figure 2, there is a right and a left. Both sides express different methods of deification. The right side of metaphysical theology says “reason” is pure being: rationalism. Man becomes god through pure reason (logic). The left side holds that “mysticism” is pure being: irrationalism. Man becomes a god through experience. Sinful man tends to believe that he can know God through facts or feelings. He can “think” or “feel” his way to God. Although both forms of metaphysical religion appear in East and West, generally the West has drifted toward rationalism, and the East toward mysticism. Either expression of metaphysical theology and practice is pagan to the core. All ancient paganism holds to this diabolical theology: whether Ancient Egypt, Greece, or the Druids. The one common denominator is that God and man are of the same essence.

Figure 3

When we come to figure 3, we discover that it is figure 2 turned on its side. Science has called this religion “evolution.” Matter is eternal. Man does not “mature” as is taught in the Bible; instead, he evolves in his very essence. Man becomes a new creature, not in the Bible’s ethical sense, but rather through the generations, he literally becomes a new creature.

Ultimately, matter brings death and oblivion to mankind, for either the universe completely wears out over time (the “heat death” of the universe), or else it collapses and starts over again, wiping away all trace of mankind.[13] It goes forward into death, or else it oscillates and kills. Man is therefore like a parasite in a host that is dying, or else in a host whose actions will eventually kill him. Matter is therefore something to be escaped from, yet modern science knows of no way to provide an escape. But in the meantime, evolutionistic science affirms, things can change. Species can adapt to new environments. Life goes on. So, evolution is nothing more than the old ancient chain-of-being religion in disguise. Sociologist-historian Robert Nisbet has recognized this intellectual “missing link” between modern science and ancient religion and philosophy:

In the biological sciences also in the eighteenth century the ideas of the chain of being and plenitude prospered. In the writings of such notable biologists as Buffon, Cuvier, Maupertuis, Bonnet, and Erasmus Darwin, grandfather of Charles, the theory of biological evolution was first set forth lucidly and comprehensively. Although some held firmly to the separation of the species, envisaging evolution in the Aristotelian terms of intra-species, others anticipated Charles Darwin in stressing the linkage of the species in time through the emergence of one from the other. The Platonic vision of perfect, uninterrupted, absolutely continuous nature and plentitudinous nature reigned widely, though it is doubtful that any of the evolutionists had the remotest notion of the origin of their visions of the past and present. Breaks in the chain were as obvious to the naturalists of the eighteenth century as they had been to Aristotle, but this merely intensified the search for “missing links.”[14]

Modern man has fought hard to find biological “missing links.” He is religious, yet he does not want to relate to God through His covenant. He finds a replacement in either form of chain-of-being religion: vertical or horizontal. Man seeks self-transcendence upward (mysticism) or forward (power). He chooses not to seek the restoration of the covenant, for this would place him in ethical bondage to a truly transcendent sovereign God forever.


The introductory story of the Babylonian king sums up everything in the first point of coventalism. He claimed transcendence; he claimed to be God. And remember” he made this claim by legal declaration. He attempted to impute a certain status to himself. He said, “I will ascend…” (Isa. 14:13). He thus proposed a counterfeit form of transcendence.

There have been two parts to this chapter. First, I presented the concept of transcendence. It means distinction of being. Concerning Deuteronomy 1:1-5, I observed that God’s words are distinguished from Moses’. Right off, God is presented as transcendent. I drew two corollaries from this observation. One, He is the creator of the covenant. His creation did not come from His Being, but separate from it, out of nothing. Creation is at the heart of the covenant. Two, God creates the covenant by legal declaration. After man’s creation, he fell. He could only be restored by being imputed a certain status of righteousness, the doctrine of imputation. Adam did not immediately die as God had promised. His life was only sustained by the imputation of another life, Jesus’. God re-established covenant by imputation.

This led to a basic social application of the two points I made about transcendence. Transcendent declaration creates and de-creates relationships. It is supposed to be the basis of relationships. A marriage, for example, is formed by God’s declaration: “What God has joined, let no man put asunder.” So this legal declaration – not sex, not romantic feelings – forms the covenant bond. This brought me to the end of the first half of the chapter.

Second, I presented the counterfeit doctrines of transcendence. God is a personal God because He is a covenantal God. When men seek to escape the covenant’s bond, and therefore escape the judgment of God, they turn to concepts of God that are at bottom impersonal. An impersonal god always leaves man as the sovereign of the universe, by default. Man wants to be the sovereign of this world. This was Adam’s sin. This was Nebuchadnezzar’s sin.

True transcendence means there are only two systems of theology: covenant theology and chain-of-being theology. Since man is utterly distinct from God in his being, he must be united to God (and to other people) by a covenant. This union cannot be a union of “essence.” Essential union is called monism or the chain of being. There are vertical and horizontal expressions of this theology. Ancient religion takes the form of the vertical, while modern religion has been called evolution. Both are essentially the same: man becomes god, either directly or by god’s default.

In the second principle of covenantalism, we will turn our attention from transcendence to hierarchy, meaning the authority concept of the covenant. God is transcendent, and He establishes legal representatives who mediate life and death to earth. We will consider several questions. What is the authority structure of the covenant? What is the relationship between authority and history? Does God actually render judgment in history? What is the connection between what goes on among God’s people and what happens in the world?

[1] These are statements made by a king of Babylon (Isa. 14:13-14). Some commentators attribute them to others, even Satan himself.

[2] The Bible does not say which of the Babylonian kings made this statement. Since the Babylonian leader, Nebuchadnezzar, was converted to Biblical religion but his family was not (Dan. 2:46-49), this would explain his descendants’ familiarity with the covenant.

[3] Kline, Structure of Biblical Authority, pp. 135-136. Kline makes note that the Hebrew titles of books are not the same as the titles in our English versions. They derived their titles from the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew text (circa 200 B.C.). In the case of Deuteronomy, instead of receiving its name from Deuteronomy 17:18 (“A copy of this law,” or “This second law” from the Greek, to deuteronomion touto), the Hebrew name of the text would actually be the first words, “These are the Words of.” Since this phrase is clearly identical with the first lines of suzerain treaty covenants, Kline concludes that this way of naming the books of the Bible was a covenantal method of distinguishing the documents.

He also likens it to the phrase, “Thus saith the Lord.” I find this observation to be extremely helpful because it means that the “thus saith the Lord formula” is the beginning of miniature covenants, and explains why it is constantly used.

[4] It is significant that God created the world with “ten words” in the repeated phrase, “And God said” (Gen. 1:3, 6, 9, 11, 14, 20, 24, 26, 27, 29), just as He revealed His covenant-law with “ten” words (Deut. 4:13). Also, Jeremiah refers to creation as a covenant (Jer. 33:19-26). Both in literary form and covenantal principle we see that the creation covenant begins with true transcendence, making creation itself another manner in which this principle is declared.

[5] This becomes extremely important when we discuss the concept of hierarchy. Because Satan is not omnipresent, omnipotent, or omniscient, he must rely heavily on his covenantal hierarchy for information and power. God does not rely on His covenantal hierarchy; His people rely on it, but God does not. He voluntarily binds Himself to His creation by the terms of His covenant (Gen. 15), but He is not bound by any created hierarchy.

[6] In the Old Testament, the father could legitimatize a relationship between his daughter and another man who fornicated with her before marriage (Deut. 22:28-29). The man paid a dowry price, and if the father accepted, the marriage was legitimate. A legal transaction created the marriage, not physical consummation, in other words.

[7] Cornelius Van Til, The Defense of the Faith (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1972), p. 11. Emphasis mine.

[8] Van Til, Theology of James Daane (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1959), pp. 122-123.

[9] Arthur O. Lovejoy, The Great Chain of Being (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, [1936] 1964). This is difficult reading because his book was originally a series of lectures. But there is real “gold” in terms of insight. For a simpler but somewhat “heavy” presentation of “chain of being” religion is R. J. Rushdoony, The One and The Many (Nutley, New Jersey: Craig Press, 1971), pp. 36-62. Also see a more contemporary scholar, who attempts to define and extend Lovejoy, Francis Oakley, Omnipotence, Covenant, & Order (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1984), pp. 15-40, where he establishes that Lovejoy was cutting “against the stream” of the West. Lovejoy stood against the chain of being tendencies with covenant theology.

[10] Fustel de Coulanges, The Ancient City (Glouchester, Massachusetts: Peter Smith, [1864] 1979).

[11] Jane Harrison, Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion, 3rd ed. (New York: Meridian, [1922] 1955), ch. 7: “The Making of a God.”

[12] Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, ed. Joseph Fielding Smith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1958), pp. 346-347.

[13] Gary North, Is the World Running Down? Crisis in the Christian Worldview (Tyler, Texas: Institute for Christian Economics, 1987), ch. 2.

[14] H. Robert Nisbet, Prejudices (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1982), p. 38.