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No. 81: Concerning Contracts and Covenants

BIBLICAL Horizons, No. 81
January, 1996
Copyright 1996 Biblical Horizons

Gary North has from time to time taken note of some of the differences between contracts and covenants. For him, one of the most important is the oath-character of a covenant. Naturally, the English terms "contract" and "covenant" can be used with varying nuances by different writers, and their zone of meaning overlaps considerably.

As a contribution to our ongoing reflection on this matter, here are some comments from Rosenstock-Huessy’s The Multiformity of Man (Norwich, VT: Argo Books [1936] 1973), pp. 54-55. Rosenstock-Huessy notes the four forms of nouns: singular, dual, plural, and collective. Since humanity is created in the image of the Word of God, human social life also manifests these four dimensions. The following remarks are from his chapter on dual relationships.

In a sale the two partners to the contract think of their own advantage. The whole content of a real marriage might be summed up in the statement that the two who are partners are each expected to care more for the other partner’s happiness than for their own! No marriage could survive twenty-four hours if the couple should apply the rule of the law of contracts to their common life. While in business everybody minds his own business, in any dual [relationship] one partner minds the other partner’s business. A wife shall care for her man’s health more than for her own, and her husband shall care more for her comfort than for his own. To judge a marriage on the basis of the law of contract is an aberration from logical thinking. There is another side to the question. The duties derived from a contract are fixed in the beginning. The duties in any true partnership are in permanent flux; they are the result not of the words spoken at the beginning but of the acts of the partners to the relationship while it lasts. These actions have a polarizing effect upon the two. The more you become my friend, the more I shall become yours. The mutual dependence is graded, and in the normal evolution of dual relations the two individuals are more and more encircled and transformed into the foci of one ellipse. Consequently, the action of each partner is shaping the form of the dual [relationship]. The polarity is established more definitely each time. Finally, the two are agents of a corporated body for which they stand, for from it they derive their activities. This becomes very clear in cases of absence or death of one partner. Then not only does one try to represent the other but also the general reaction of the partner who is left behind is that of stressing the point of view, the line of action, and the interest of the partner who has passed away. In a contract, however, I am free when the other party ceases of exist. It is a pluralistic or individualistic arrangement. Under the dual [arrangement] I am spellbound by the law of polarization. I remain the other half the more my second self is in decline or is prevented from taking his place. So we can say that a contract by which one party surrenders to the other would be void. Contracts are and must remain temporary arrangements for the individual forms of our existence, fleeting conglomerations for work and against nature outside. But in matrimony a wife surrenders her beauty and health to her husband for better, for worse. And the man surrenders his adventures, his infinite chances. How can such a perilous exposure of the whole being be treated as the result of a willful arrangement between two individuals? In a contract I try to get as much as possible, and to remain as unchanged as possible. In any partnership [covenant] I throw in my lot today without knowing where I shall be tomorrow.

Thus far Rosenstock-Huessy. A few comments of my own, now. First, as Jeffrey Meyers taught us in last summer’s conference, each member of the Holy Trinity humbles and sacrifices Himself for the glory of the other two. This is the ultimate root of the concept of sacrifice. And since this is who God is and what God, as God, does, then it is not really strange that God should humble and sacrifice Himself because of His love for His daughter and bride.

A true relationship among the images of God, then, has this characteristic also. This is the ultimate root of the realities to which Rosenstock-Huessy calls attention.

According to Rosenstock-Huessy, these are dual relationships. Applying this matter to God, it is not so much that the Son humbles Himself to glorify the Father & Spirit together, but rather that He humbles Himself to glorify the Father, with whom He has one dual relationship; and also that He humbles Himself to glorify the Spirit, when whom He has another dual relationship. Because the Father and the Spirit are infinitely distinct as Divine Persons, the Son cannot humble Himself before them both, because that would mean humbling Himself before an abstraction. Rather, the Son glorifies the Father, and also glorifies the Spirit. The same can be said for each of the other two Persons. (I shall return to this below.)

Second, these dual relationships can be official (formal), or unofficial (informal). Rosenstock-Huessy’s second point is discussed in terms of informal relationships, like friendship, but it applies to formal ones as well, like marriage. Marriage is, indeed, qualified by the covenant fixed in the beginning, but the relationship is not exhausted by it. Or, to put it another way, the marriage covenant establishes a total and unbounded relationship. Friendship, by way of contrast, has no official beginning point. But in both cases, mutual interaction causes the dual relationship to grow in strength. Thus, the Bible tells the husband to lay down his life for his wife, and that a loving man will lay down his life for his friend.

Thus, marriage is a covenant and friendship is not, but friendship partakes of the qualities of a covenant except for the oath and sanctions.

Third, and this is most interesting, Rosenstock-Huessy points out that in dual relationships there is representation, and that this representation is strengthened when one party is absent or dead. A newly widowed husband, for instance, will constantly think of what his wife would have done in a given circumstance, and will tend to honor her wishes over his own, even though she is no longer present in this life. The same is true when one partner is away for a season. Now, consider how this principle applies to the bride of Christ during the time that her Husband is away in heaven.

Fourth, it is a fact that men will sacrifice themselves not only for other individuals in a dual relationship, but also for groups, such as the church or their nation on the battlefield. I think that this is, or should be, only because such "institutions" are actually corporate persons. The Church is the body of Christ, and a nation is really a body politic. Both individual churches and nations have "faces" (for instance, Rev. 2-3). This is because God is Three and One, three Persons and yet, in some other way, one Person as well (yet not four persons). Thus, there is a dual relationship between an individual person and such corporate persons as churches and nations.

Fifth, this brings up the question we left off in my first observation above. I asserted that the Son, for instance, does not humble Himself to glorify the Father & Spirit together, but rather humbles Himself to glorify each one individually. If we don’t put it that way, when we have to say that Father & Spirit form one corporate Person distinct from the Son, which would give us a Heptameron rather than a Trinity, to wit:

God the Father
God the Father & Son
God the Father & Spirit
God the Son
God the Son & Spirit
God the Spirit

But there is no Biblical foundation for such a notion. It is only as three that God is one. Speaking in the midst of His sacrifice on the cross, Jesus did not address the Father and the Spirit together as one God, but cried out, "My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?" When David first prayed these words in Psalm 22, the reiteration was surely for emphasis; but when Jesus prays these same words, a trinitarian reference is inescapable. Jesus cannot have been praying to the One Person of God, for He would have been praying to Himself. Thus, His "My God, My God" implies a reference to the Father and to the Spirit.

And so finally, it seems to me that the dual relationship is deceptive. There is really always a third party, whose presence makes the two into three, and thus into one corporate person with one face. That third partner is God Himself. In history, God is present with every marriage and friendship, even though unacknowledged, and even among unbelievers, for God gives life to all. After the final judgment, all human relationships will self-consciously include God as the third party, while those who reject God will have no relationships with anyone at all.

Well, I hope that the thoughts in this essay advance your thinking about these matters. I have surely not written the last word on the subject!