Book Review

If I Were a Horse - "Kinship by Covenant: A Canonical Approach to the Fulfillment of God's Saving Promises"

Bryan D. Estelle
Scott W. Hahn
Thursday, March 1st 2012
Mar/Apr 2012

Scott Hahn has written a useful volume for the academic community with a well-researched book on the subject of covenant. The final product of years of sustained labor and reflection, this is a reworking of Hahn's doctoral dissertation and will be of immense interest to all students of the Bible, professional and otherwise, because it engages such a central topic’arguably a topic that is the very backbone of the Bible.

Well-informed readers will notice an openness to source criticism (that is, the idea that the Bible was manipulated by editors long after the events described in the Bible had taken place) similar to that of the pontifical commission's view of biblical hermeneutics. (1) Hahn, however, seems even more interested in biblical theology and claims that his entire project "can be described aptly as one vast exercise in biblical-theological correlation" (23). All of this will not be surprising for those that know Hahn's own spiritual pilgrimage from Wittenberg to Rome. (2)

Hahn's scholarship is eclectic: Roman Catholics, Protestants, Jews, higher critics, pre-critical scholars, and conservative Calvinists are all incorporated and synthesized. It is evident that Hahn attempts to engage these different traditions judiciously. Even so, Hahn insists that "the familial nature of covenants is their unifying factor" (333, emphasis added), and he ends up aligning himself theologically with Roman Catholicism in the end. Building on the work of retired Harvard professor Frank Moore Cross and new trends in scholarship, Hahn argues that the "root metaphor" of kinship is crucial for a correct understanding of covenant in the Bible. In fact, he begins to show just how important this category is for his system when he says that these root metaphors "underwrite the father-son relationship between Yahweh and Israel throughout the various Old Testament traditions and periods of salvation history" (42).

Hahn argues that the three covenants in the patriarchal period, as exemplified in Genesis 15, 17, and 22, move in parallel to the three most significant covenants in the Old Testament: the Sinaitic; the Deuteronomic (made on the plains of Moab); and finally the Davidic covenant, which has its focus on Zion. After stating this thesis (112), he then proceeds to refine and develop the complex relationships between these Old Testament covenants in Part One, since "each covenant in Israel's history, in a sense, anticipates and finds fulfillment in" the "Davidic Covenant Fulfillment in Luke’Acts"; the "Covenant, Oath, and Divine Sonship in Galatians 3’4"; and then "Covenant, Oath, and Royal Priestly Primogeniture in Hebrews 1’9."

Having discussed all this material in the Old and New Testaments, Hahn concludes with a chapter offering far-reaching theological reflections on the biblical data he has engaged. From this reviewer's viewpoint, Hahn has written a book that will be frequently consulted as a resource, especially since it gathers so much material on biblical covenants in one place. The book, however, is subject to a number of criticisms.

First, Hahn's demonstration of the importance of the kinship material is commendable; nevertheless, his work exhibits methodological flaws that influence his conclusions. In the Ancient Near East, covenants rested on a personal basis and were often expressed in terms of fatherhood or brotherhood (i.e., kinship). Between vassals and suzerains, vassals were to love and be faithful to their suzerains. Between rulers of equal status, the covenant agreements formed between parties were sometimes cloaked in personal language between brothers. The fact of the matter is, however, that while this may have been true generally, we simply do not know that the ancients held the concept of kinship as in any way primary. Here is where Hahn's system stumbles, as he presents strong conclusions about kinship that seem to engulf and minimize any legal aspect of these covenants. This is what E. E. Evans-Pritchard called the "if I were a horse" mentality. (3)

What is meant by this is an imaginative "attempt at introspection from a distance," which is very much a hazardous task because of the difficulty of weighing and assessing intention and emotion in history. (4) In short, by foregrounding and prioritizing the personal and familial elements of kinship as Hahn does, he forces his own preferences on the past and does not give proper respect for legal categories. This is the methodological issue that creates further problems.

A second criticism is that Hahn makes grace primary in his evaluation of biblical covenants. This is a fatal flaw and the theological Achilles' heel of his book. Hahn writes,

The gift of life from father to son is unmerited, and thereafter a father will love his son unconditionally. Yet it is precisely because of his unconditional love that the father wishes his son to practice the virtues he himself possesses, and thus become like the father and so enjoy deeper communion with him. When this familial model is applied to the theological concepts of grace and law, we see that divine grace’the unconditional love of the father’is always primary, and the divine law’the virtue required of the son to be in the image of his father’flows naturally and necessarily from that grace. Once these covenant relations and obligations are reexamined in the light of the natural complexity of kinship relations and obligations, there is no need to posit any inherent tension between unconditional grace and the conditions of law, or between unilateral or bilateral covenant relations. (335)

Hahn has flipped the biblical paradigm upside down here, and so betrays the quintessential problem in making the essence of the covenant "unconditional promise." The reader should ask whether there is a place for "conditional promises" in such a system. If the Bible communicates that the covenant at creation in the garden was a covenant in which God assigned a stipulated work to Adam as the representative head of the human race with the promise of a reward upon the condition of performance of that work, and if creation precedes redemption, then law must be the foundation of any biblical covenantal system.

In short, Hahn has hoisted his construction of biblical covenantal theology on a petard of his own making because he has predetermined that unconditional promise be the foundation of his system. It has to be noted, however, that the Bible portrays God as "father" but also portrays God as "judge." God is Lord of the covenant, and as such he is both judge and father. By focusing almost exclusively upon kinship categories, it seems that Hahn's position represents a reduction in the clarity and fullness of the Bible's teaching.

Thankfully, in the final section Hahn is clear and forthright in his views. There he boldly concludes that by adopting his familial model it is possible to transcend older debates about whether biblical covenants are bilateral or unilateral, conditional or unconditional (355). For Hahn, these debates miscarried because of theological abstraction and "competing doctrinal presuppositions and ecclesiastical traditions" (335). But as noted at the beginning, it is well known that Hahn himself made a pilgrimage from Protestantism to Roman Catholicism, and in the process became an enthusiastic apologist for his new religion. The fact of the matter remains that in this transition, Hahn came to reject two cardinal tenets of the Reformation: sola fide and sola scriptura. It is therefore no surprise that after 334 pages of exposition on the covenants, he declares his view that the familial model will allegedly dissolve the biblical tension between divine grace and law, with obvious implications for the Reformation-era debate.

Indeed Hahn sounds antagonistic toward judicial and legal categories in this section of the book, at least according to any Protestant construal of how God satisfies his justice (see 336). This is noteworthy. For readers familiar with the controversy on justification surrounding Norman Shepherd at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, it should be noted that during Hahn's exit from Protestantism he came to agree with Shepherd who was, in Hahn's own words, "about to undergo a heresy trial for teaching the same view of justification that I was expounding"(31).

In sum, the important question to ask is whether Hahn is successful in this large-scale project of biblical-theological correlation. Did he discover an organizing paradigm that emerges from Scripture itself, or superimpose one that is foreign to the biblical material? In spite of the strengths of this significant book, if the goal of such a project is to incorporate all of the most important biblical material touching on the subject of covenant, then this reviewer must answer the question with an emphatic no.

1 [ Back ] See Joseph A. Fitzmyer, "The Biblical Commission's Document 'The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church': Text and Commentary," Subsidia Biblica 18 (Rome, Italy: Editrice Pontificio Istituto Biblico, 1995).
2 [ Back ] Scott and Kimberly Hahn, Rome Sweet Home: Our Journey to Catholicism (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1993).
3 [ Back ] See Douglas Davies, "An Interpretation of Sacrifice in Leviticus," Anthropological Approaches to the Old Testament, ed. Bernhard Lang, Issues in Religion and Theology 8 (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985), 154 (see also 151'62).
4 [ Back ] Davies, 154.
Thursday, March 1st 2012

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