11 October 2007


Sorry once again for the sporadic blogging, but various obligations are taking up what little time I have. While cleaning out computer file folders, however, I did run across some notes for a Sunday School I taught several years ago. An extended excerpt follows:

According to the Westminster Standards and wider Reformed understandings of Scripture, sacraments are “signs and seals” of the covenant of grace. For some of us, those words may be so familiar, we gloss over them without really thinking about them. But what do they mean?

In following, I will focus on the notion of a “sign” in hopes that it will help us better understand these important signs of God's covenant.

Signs in General

First of all, what are signs? While the Scriptures refer in various places to the “signs” of the covenant, what does that mean? What does it mean for anything to be a sign? Pictures, actions, events, gestures, and so on can all be signs. So what exactly is one? And what, in particular, is a covenant sign?

Perhaps I should make a note at this point. In the following remarks I will be using the term “sign” in an exceedingly broad and loose way, so that the category includes all manner of things: acts, events, words, sacraments, images, rituals, gestures, and indeed the entire created order insofar as it is a symbolic disclosure of the divine. Nonetheless, a more careful discussion would require that we distinguish between various sorts of signs since the differences between, say, words and sacraments, are as important as their similarities, even if both are, broadly speaking, “signs.”

So, back to “signs.” What various sorts of signs do we encounter in the the course of a day? Sometimes we see the sort of signs that point to something else, somewhere else.

For instance, we are driving on the interstate, attempting to arrive eventually at our destination: Columbus, Ohio. Overhead we may see a sign that indicates that we should remain in this lane in order to get to Columbus. The sign itself, obviously, is not the city of Columbus. Indeed the sign might be many miles from Columbus. Yet it refers to Columbus and directs our minds - and hopefully our automobiles - towards Columbus, rather than Chicago or Memphis.

Another example. We sometimes say, “Where there’s smoke there’s fire.” In this case smoke signifies the presence of fire. There is a natural, causal connection between smoke and fire so that smoke isn’t simply a sign that points to a fire that is absent or somewhere else. Rather, smoke typically signifies the immediate presence of fire and there is a tight connection between the two, not just conceptually or by way of reference or similarity. The connection, when present, is causal and direct.

Still another example. In interpersonal relationships we often use signs to communicate our feelings, commitments, and desires. Thus, we might say that a hug is a sign of affection or a handshake is a sign of greeting or sitting by a sick person’s bedside is a sign of concern and care. In all these instances, however, it is not simply the case that there is a close connection between the sign and the thing signified or even that the sign points to something present and immediate. Those things are true, of course.

But in these interpersonal cases, the sign actually communicates what is signified so that the thing signified is internal to the sign and the sign itself partly constitutes the thing signified. Part of what it means to love someone is to hug that person, not merely as a sign that points to a love that lies somewhere else. Rather, even though the love is bigger and more extensive than simply the hug, the hug itself is one part of what that love consists in and is important to making that love what it is. Hugs carry that love forward, reinforcing it and giving it embodied form. Similar things might be said about handshakes, sitting at bedsides, exchanging gifts, taking vows, spending time together, sharing in material goods, and so on.

In each of these cases, the “sign” isn’t simply a symbol pointing to something else, somewhere else, or at some other time. Rather, the sign itself helps express, make present, communicate, and, indeed, constitute what is signified.

Part of the question, then, in discussing “signs of the covenant” is how those signs function. When we consider covenant signs such as circumcision, ritual washings, offerings at the tabernacle, baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and so on, do they function as signs like those on the interstate, like smoke where there’s fire, or like those used in interpersonal communication?

A Theology of Signs

Before addressing that question, however, let's back up. Let's ask the question of why it should be fitting for God to use signs at all? If God is a spiritual being, without body, parts, or passions, why would he even think to use signs in the administration of the covenants and in the economy of salvation? Couldn’t God’s self-communication have come in the form of some kind of direct experience of the divine or immediate awareness of his truth and will for us?

Perhaps so, but that is not, in fact, how God has revealed himself to us or brought us to salvation or chosen to administer his covenants. Rather, God uses signs, whether those are words, stories, events, material symbols, rituals, or what-have-you.

Sometimes this is explained in terms of God’s condescension or accommodation to human weakness, our finitude, and our bodily nature. Sometimes it is even implied that apart from sin and the darkness and blindness of our stubborn hearts and minds, such use of signs would be unnecessary.

But such suggestions can be problematic.

With regard to the effects of sin, we can observe that even before the fall God had created the heavenly bodies for signs and seasons, he had created humanity in his own image and likeness, and he had set apart the two trees in the garden as sacramental signs of his covenant with humanity in Adam. Moreover, it is clear from the opening chapters of Genesis, taken in the wider context of Scripture, that the entire created order functioned from the start as a symbolic disclosure of God, as a sign and image of who God is, of his dimension of reality, and of his future purposes for the creation. Thus, God’s use of signs cannot be attributed to the limitation introduced by sin.

Nevertheless, one might still suggest that such signs are granted by God in virtue of our finitude and bodily nature, a form of condescension to our weakness. There is some truth to this, of course, insofar as the signs God actually employs, in their particular character, partake of created finitude and materiality. Moreover, what God reveals to us through signs goes beyond what we might know simply in virtue of our creaturehood in his image, and thus is graciously gifted to us. But to explain signs in terms of condescension or accommodation might still be problematic if that's taken to mean that God, having chosen to unveil himself and his purposes, might have found some other, better way to reveal himself or administer his covenant, apart from signs.

We can venture further into God's use of signs by stepping back a bit and looking at the big picture, in fact, at the biggest picture of all: who God is as Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

In whatever manner we explain our theology of biblical covenants, by the time we get to the end of the biblical story, it is clear that the reality of “covenant” has its ultimate origins in God. In particular, it has its origins in a God who created human beings in his image and likeness in order that they might share together in his own life through faith - a life of union and communion within God, among the Persons of the Trinity.

Thus, whether we see the Trinity itself as covenantal in some analogical sense or whether we see the Trinity as the source and origin of God’s covenantal dealings with his creatures, it is nonetheless the ordered bond of love between Father, Son, and Spirit that is the ultimate ground of covenant theology. It is within the life of God as Trinity that we first find Persons committing themselves one to another in self-giving goodness, truth, faithfulness, and love.

If this is so, however, then it is significant that within the life of the Trinity the Second Person is not only the “Son” of the Father, but also, according to the Scriptures, he is the Word (or logos) of the Father and the Image (or ikon) of the Father. That is to say, the Son is the sign and symbol who communicates the Father in the Spirit, not only to us, but likewise within life of God himself.

If that is so, then God himself is never without signs. Thus, it should be no surprise that it is in and through signs that God makes himself known and communicates himself to his creatures. Any other, supposedly “better” way in which God might reveal himself would not, it turns out, be an adequate revelation of the God who is the Trinity of Persons who created heaven and earth. Thus we should not be astonished in the least that God’s self-communication in and through the biblical covenants involves the giving and receiving of signs.

An Ecclesiology of Signs

We can also note at this point that the biblical covenants are inherently social in character.

Adam was never simply an isolated individual, even before the creation of Eve, but also the covenantal head of the human race whom he represented. Indeed, when we first read of God’s creation of human beings in Genesis 1, created in God’s own image and likeness, we are immediately alerted to the fact that God created not just an individual, but a humanity - and not just a humanity, but a humanity divided into male and female. This establishes from the start that the human race was to exist both as a single humanity, imaging and reflecting God, and further that this humanity was always already one designed to include multiplicity and difference. God’s first command to humanity confirms this: be fruitful and multiply, that is, spread out and fill the earth in an ever expanding and diversifying human community.

As with the previous point about signs, none of this should be the least bit surprising from the standpoint of our own place in the biblical story in which we know God definitively as Father, Son, and Spirit, a community of Persons existing eternally in both absolute difference and complete unity. To be created in the image and likeness of this God necessarily involves being created as a single race of beings in natural and covenantal solidarity while nevertheless embracing diversity and difference.

If, however, the Trinity involves the eternal procession of the Son as the “Word” and “Image” of the Father, so that the life of God himself is eternally mediated through a Sign, then we would expect that part of what it means to exist in community must involve a sharing together in signs. To be a family, for instance, is not merely to have a biological connection (since, after all, families can be established by other means), but primarily to share in the exchanging of vows and commitments established and mediated through signs: shared stories, traditions, rituals, places, property, events, and so on. If this is true of even families, how much more it is the case with the life of communities, neighborhoods, tribes, ethnicities, and nations.

In this context we should note that God’s purposes in salvation do not involve merely the saving of isolated individuals, but the establishment of a new humanity in and through Jesus Christ by the Spirit, bringing the human race to the eschatological end for which he created us - and to do so precisely as a community of persons sharing together in God in a covenantal solidarity. That is to say, the church is not just a collection of saved people. Nor is it merely a means by which we receive salvation through the preaching and teaching of the Word and the administration of the sacraments, received in faith. Rather, the church as the renewed people of God, a new humanity bearing God’s glorified image, is the very goal of salvation.

As Robert Letham puts it, “Salvation therefore takes place into the church, in the church, and in connection with the church. Both the church and the salvation it proclaims and bears are together grounded in the saving efficacy of the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ. From all this, it is clear that soteriology and ecclesiology are integrally connected, both being outflows of the accomplishments of Christ…” (The Work of Christ 217).

Letham continues, “this connection should be given renewed expression in our own day. One way of doing this is to pay close attention to the biblical doctrine of Covenant as it comes to fruition and full expression in the work of Christ. In the covenant of grace, the individual finds his or her place in the community of the people of God. Corporate solidarity is most prominent, yet it is a solidarity that does not run roughshod over individual liberty. The Godly person, by definition, belongs to the community” (219).

Much more needs to be said here, but if we accept this overall perspective as fundamentally correct, then it helps us explain God’s use of signs in administering his covenants. As both Thomas Aquinas and Francis Turretin note, the place of sacraments in the economy of salvation is fitting and necessary because human communities cannot exist apart from the sharing of signs and the community of the church, in turn, is necessary for salvation since it is both the means and goal of salvation.

It also follows from these points that the signs shared together within the covenant community must be the sort that partly constitute what it is that they signify since part of their significance is the identity of the church herself. Moreover, since the church is the place where the Spirit dwells and works - bringing men and women to faith and salvation through the preaching and teaching of the Word and, indeed, through every aspect of the ministry of Christians one to another - then the signs shared together within the church not only point to and partly constitute what they signify, but they also communicate salvation and make it present to us.

These observations, I hope, help set the context in which we should consider, discuss, and explain the biblical signs of the covenant.