WHAT IS COVENANT CREATIONISM?
by Charles S. Meek
revised June 29, 2017
Covenant Creationism (“CC”) is the notion that the creation account in Genesis is largely symbolic, and specifically DOES NOT SPEAK OF GOD’S CREATION OF THE PHYSICAL UNIVERSE. This idea is an add-on to preterist eschatology, because it says that since the “end times/last things” are about the end of the old covenant dispensation, the “first things” of Genesis must be about the creation of God’s covenants with mankind. Here’s how Jeffrey Vaughn, who is probably the most vocal advocate of covenant creationism (and co-author with Timothy Martin of the book Beyond Creation Science), put it in a Facebook forum:
“As for Scripture, how the universe, planet, life, and mankind came into existence, they are not issues the Bible is concerned with. God is able to be a deist god when he likes.”
I read Martin and Vaughn’s book and found it thought-provoking. Readers would benefit from the worthwhile insights and extensive research offered in this book. For example, the authors do a good job discrediting premillennialism. And, they make a credible case for a regional flood rather than a global one. However, I submit that debates about the flood’s extent—or the age of the earth—are debatable side-issues not directly related to eschatology, or indeed, not integral to God’s creation of the universe. A local flood does not demand local creation. Or, as put by Kurt Simmons, “Preterism no more refutes the global flood than it refutes the destruction of Sodom, the tower of Babel, or any other historic narrative of Genesis.”
The book also challenges, correctly I think, some “fundamentalist” Christians who think Genesis should be understood as a science textbook. While Genesis does not conflict with science, it is not a science textbook. It is primarily about theology. But as I was reading the book, I found myself making notes in the margin like: “that’s a stretch,” “doubtful,” “forced,” or “inconsistent.” Skepticism of many points of CC—certainly the version of it expressed in the quote above—is warranted. I think CCists have over-played their hand. Commentators, both futurists and preterist theologians, have challenged certain conclusions of CC. Indeed, some of the CC views are a serious departure from classical Christianity.
Here’s how covenant creationists reason: The “new heaven and new earth” of Revelation (and 2 Peter 3) is about the new covenant. Preterists generally agree. But, according to CC, the statement in Genesis 1:1 that God “created the heavens and the earth,” must therefore be a juxtaposed parallel, and is all about the creation of the old covenant—or creation of the nation of Israel (at the Exodus)—rather than about the physical universe. I submit that this is a conclusion based more on presumption than on sound exegesis.
To deny the basic theme of physical creation therein, replacing it with covenants, is a conclusion that breaks down upon inspection. Did God even make a covenant with Adam? Genesis does not say so, at least explicitly. In fact, it is the opposite of a covenant. A covenant is defined as a “coming together.” What happened at the Fall in the Garden was a separation (of mankind from God).
Some theologians describe God’s special relationship with Adam as a “covenant,” one that was conditional on Adam’s continued obedience. Whether it is suitable to describe that arrangement as a covenant can be debated. However it is labeled, the arrangement was soon violated resulting in a separation of Adam and Eve and their progeny from the Garden and from the presence of God. In due course, God introduced a covenantal framework that addressed the need for atonement for sin and reconciliation of sinners with their creator. The intimation of such a covenant can possibly be seen as early as Genesis 3, but that would not provide a basis for construing the preceding creation of account as covenantal rather than material.
CC teaches that the alleged covenant with Adam was the same as the covenant God made with Moses on Mt Sinai. CC therefore teaches that Old Covenant Israel began in Genesis 1, even BEFORE ABRAHAM, ISRAEL, or MOSES WERE BORN. That is quite a leap—not to mention that it is a direct contradiction to what Moses himself said in Deuteronomy 5:3: “The Lord did not make this covenant with our ancestors, but with all of us who are alive today.” St. Paul affirmed Moses in Galatians 4:24, saying, in reference to the old and new covenants: “For these are the two covenants. One is from Mount Sinai. . .” (Paul did not say, “For these are the two covenants. One is from the Garden of Eden.”)
Seems pretty straightforward to me. If there was a covenant with Adam, it is a different covenant from the one with Moses. They were overlapping, but not the same. They began at different times, ended at different times, were different in nature, and were for different people. The “covenant” with Adam was about man’s Fall and our eventual redemption in Christ. The Mosaic covenant gave laws specifically for the Jewish nation, while the Edenic (Garden of Eden) “covenant” was a story about all mankind. The Mosaic covenant ended in the first century, but the Edenic “covenant,” while resolved at the cross, has no end, as the gospel message has no end.
Covenant creationists, while their statements are inconsistent on this, often conclude that the Bible NEVER speaks about God creating the physical universe. (Since Genesis supposedly does not speak of physical creation, the rest of the Bible must not either, since all such statements about physical creation are likely based on Genesis.) Some covenant creationists affirm that God did indeed create the physical universe, but struggle to adequately say just where they find evidence for it, unless it is from science or pure assumption. I asked Jeffrey Vaughn this question in the same forum as the above quote. Here is more of the exchange:
Meek: “Do you believe that God created the universe and life?”
Meek: “On what base do you believe that?”
Vaughn: “Miracles. Absolute control.”
Meek: “Jeff, actually I am hoping that you can point to either science or Scripture or preferably both to support your contention that God created the universe and life.”
Vaughn: “Charles, I can point to a good deal of science to support my contention. Unfortunately, I see a problem using science, in that the arguments only mean something to people with a certain amount of science training. . . . As for Scripture, how the universe, planet, life, and mankind came into existence, they are not issues the Bible is concerned with. God is able to be a deist god when he likes, but he is also able to move in and out of creation and produce actions that demonstrate total control and total knowledge of the physical universe. That doesn’t prove he created it, but it proves he is capable of creating it and that he has the authority, ownership. That’s enough for me.”
(I would be glad to entertain comments from other CC proponents on where you reach the conclusion different from Mr. Vaughn, if you do, that God created the physical universe.)
While CC, at first glance, is seductive, it simply does not hold up biblically or theologically. My first concern is that CC denigrates and befuddles the nature of God and his power. Did God create the universe or not?
Covenant creationists tend to over-spiritualize the text at critical points. While they acknowledge that Adam and Noah were real people, animals are symbolically God’s people. The sea becomes gentiles, etc. In fact, not only do animals and water really mean people in their scheme, so do heaven, earth, and vegetation! How do they separate the physical from the symbolic? I think that arbitrariness and inconsistency are valid charges against CC.
Michael Bennett has spent a considerable amount of time discussing this with proponents of CC. Below is his “nutshell” simulated discussion with various CCists. Some CCists would probably disagree with these, but Bennett says he has quotes from CCists affirming all of these positions:
Bennett: What is heaven in Gen 1?
CC: God’s covenant people.
Bennett: What is earth in Gen 1?
CC: God’s covenant people.
Bennett: What is sea / water in Gen 1?
CC: God’s covenant people.
Bennett: What are animals in Gen 1?
CC: God’s covenant people.
Bennett: What are the people in Gen 1?
CC: God’s covenant people.
Bennett: God made the vegetation. Seed-bearing plants and trees on the land that bear fruit with seed in it. Are those really covenant people?
CC: I am not saying for sure. . . but you would be surprised there are places where plants are covenant people.
Bennett: But didn’t He make those plants for food for people and animals per Gen 1?
CC: Well, I did not say for sure! Not all of it has to be symbolic.
Me: Got it. Did He give those plants for food to the heaven, earth and sea too?
Let me offer five texts, using Scripture to interpret Scripture, demonstrating that at least some aspects of the early chapters of Genesis are literal/physical, not symbolic:
- Genesis 13:10: “And Lot lifted up his eyes and saw that the Jordan Valley was well-watered everywhere like the Garden of the Lord.” This comparison would make little sense if the creation account was not physical. This text is definitive. The Garden of Eden was a physical reality, not a metaphor. (CCists may acknowledge that the Garden was indeed a physical place. I would argue that CC is inconsistent here. If the Garden of Eden, the center-piece of the Genesis creation account, was a literal/physical place, which they may admit, on what logical basis would they spiritualize much of the rest of the creation account?)
- Deuteronomy 4:19: “and lest you lift up your eyes to the heavens, and when you see the sun, and the moon, and the stars, all the host of heaven, lest you should be driven to worship them and serve them, which YHWH your God has allotted to all nations under all the heavens.” God said here that things like the stars (created in Genesis 1:14-19) were given to all the nations under the heavens. This text proves that Genesis 1 is not about a “covenant” with Israel, nor is it about a “local or limited creation,” which covenant creationists also insist.
- Acts 14:15: Paul, speaking to a primarily Gentile audience, declared, “You should turn from these vain things to a living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them.” Here Paul is addressing Gentiles about God’s creation from Genesis. Gentiles would have had no concept of this other than the literal one, certainly nothing about covenants. So, Paul could not have been communicating anything other than the literal sense to the Gentiles.
- Acts 17:22-28: Paul here insisted, “For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, ‘To the unknown God.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though He needed anything, since He himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. And He made from one man every nation of mankind to live on the face of the earth.” This is a clear reference to a literal Genesis and a literal Adam.
- Romans 1:20: Here Paul discusses the creation of the world (Greek kosmos). If you insert “Israel” for “the world,” the text makes no sense. It would then read, “For in His invisible attributes, namely, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of Israel, in the things that have been made.” Really? Nobody could understand the nature of God until He created the nation of Israel at the Exodus?
Interestingly, Timothy Martin acknowledged seeing physical creation in Acts 14 above and elsewhere, in writings prior to the co-authored Beyond Creation Science, saying:
“There are some real textual challenges with rendering the creation account as the creation of Israel. First of all, even preterists recognize that not every use of the phrase ‘heavens and earth’ in Scripture must be covenantally based. A good example where a covenantal reading would be exceedingly difficult to maintain is Paul’s gospel presentation to the Gentiles at Lystra. (Acts 14:15) It seems clear in that passage that Paul is referencing God’s physical creation of the ‘heavens and earth and sea and everything in them’ as an apologetic for the truth of the gospel. The Gentiles, who were strangers to the covenant, could never have heard Paul in a Hebraic covenant context. The subject at least includes the cosmological creation.
Another example of a clear creational use of the ‘heavens and earth’ language is in the Law: ‘You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. Exodus 20:4. Clearly, a physical, creational reading is the right one. These examples of a creational, cosmological reading of ‘heavens and earth’ could be multiplied in the Psalms and prophets and wisdom literature. . . . A Local Creation interpretation is possible once we understand the covenant use of ‘heavens and earth’ but it is not textually required in Genesis 1 by the covenantal reading of ‘heavens and earth’ language elsewhere in Scripture.” 
“The great textual difficulty with the Local Creation View does not appear in Genesis 1. Indeed, the language in the Genesis account does uniformly use ‘erets’ [earth, land] which leaves the door open to regional events in connection with the covenant history of Israel. The textual problem is that there is a passage in the Old Testament which is an inspired commentary on creation which uses the Hebrew word ‘tebel’ [world] rather than ‘erets’ in reference to creation. ‘Tebel’ is very different than ‘erets’ in that it does denote universal scope and extent. Speaking of personified wisdom’s role in the creation of the ‘heavens and earth,’ Solomon writes:
I was there when he set the heavens in place, when he marked out the horizon on the face of the deep, when he established the clouds above and fixed securely the fountain of the deep, when he gave the sea its boundary so the waters would not overstep his command, and when he marked out the foundations of the earth. Then I was the craftsman at his side. I was filled with delight day after day, rejoicing always in his presence, rejoicing in his whole world [tebel] and delighting in mankind. Proverbs 8:27-31.
Proverbs 8 seems to makes a local creation interpretation in Genesis 1 highly doubtful.” [Emphasis Meek]
Perhaps Martin changed his mind on these points after this earlier book. That’s fine. All of us have changed our minds from time to time. But there are other places that I believe support a literal/physical Genesis. Paul affirmed the physical nature of Genesis in 2 Corinthians 11:3 and 1 Timothy 2:13-14. Peter likewise affirmed Genesis as literal/physical history in 1 Peter 3:20 and 2 Peter 2:4-9. John taught a literal/physical creation in John 1:1-3. The writer of Hebrews taught a literal/physical creation of the universe by God in Hebrews 11:3.
I personally take no position on the age of the earth, so my purpose is not to defend it. But, in their book, Martin and Vaughn make the hard-to-prove claim that young-earth creationism was absent in church history prior to about 1830. However, historic Judaism took much of Genesis literally. For example, Josephus quoted Genesis as though he accepted it as actual history, including: a literal six-day creation (Antiquities 1.1), Adam was the first man and was made from dust (Antiquities 2.1.1), long ages of people (Antiquities 1.2.3), a literal garden (Antiquities 1.1.4), etc.
Our Lord himself affirmed Genesis as literal history. Jesus did not allegorize these accounts, but took them as straightforward history. This should settle the question:
- He affirmed a literal creation (Mark 13:19-20).
- He affirmed the account of Adam and Eve as the first married couple (Matthew 19:3-6; Mark 10:3-9).
- He affirmed Abel as the first prophet who was martyred (Luke 11:50-51).
- He affirmed Noah and the flood (Matthew 24:38-39).
- He affirmed the experiences of Lot and his wife (Luke 17:28-32).
- He affirmed the judgment of Sodom and Gomorrah (Matthew 10:15).
It is noteworthy that Jesus did not take all of Scripture literally. For example, Malachi prophesied that Elijah would return before the Day of Judgment. Jesus taught a figurative fulfillment of that prophecy in John the Baptist (Malachi 4:5-6; Matthew 17:10-13). But there is no hint from the lips of Jesus that Genesis should be taken as allegory.
Of course, Jesus did not comment on every detail of Genesis, but the outline He gave us is that Genesis is to be understood, essentially, as literal/physical history. This does not necessarily demand that every detail of Genesis is to be understood literally (talking snake?). Even conservative scholars have approached Genesis from different perspectives. Some have seen Genesis as essentially literal, but with deeper symbolic meanings. Others have postulated a literary “framework” model in which Genesis describes actual historical creation in a way that describes the order of the universe, rather than a strictly literal, chronological account. But to completely dismiss biblical and historic thought on this is cavalier.
Certainly, some things in Genesis 1-11 are clearly quite literal. For example, the Tigris and Euphrates rivers mentioned in Genesis are actual rivers, since they still exist today. Noah and his family were certainly real people, which is acknowledged by CCists. Yet, to accept that Noah was a real person, while the animals on the ark are symbolic, as some CCists do, defies reason. The water of Noah’s flood was real water, so the “sea” could not likely be merely symbolic for something else, etc. CC raises more questions than it solves.
We should notice also that there is a structural difference between the old and new covenants. The Old Testament covenants were built on PHYSICAL grounds. The New Testament covenant is built on SPIRITUAL grounds. The expected rewards for Old Testament Jews were largely physical—land, children, wealth, political power. But in the New Testament, Jesus emphasized that the kingdom of heaven is not worldly. Note that the Old Covenant temple was physical. The New Covenant temple is spiritual.
All preterists, and most futurists too, agree that there are examples in Scripture of symbolic use of literal things, including: Genesis 37:9; Deuteronomy 31:28; 32:1; Isaiah 1:2-3; 13:9-11; 24:23; 50:3; 65-66; Ezekiel 17:22-24; 32:7; Joel 2:10, 28-32; Amos 8:9; Matthew 5:18; 24:29-35; Hebrews 12:22-29 (from Haggai 2:6-7); 2 Peter 3:7; Revelation 6:12-17; 12:1-2; 21:1.
But, there are numerous times in Scripture (in addition to Genesis 1:1) that we find statements about God’s creation of the PHYSICAL world and of life itself. Look up the following passages. I think you will agree that these are about real, historical things not figurative things: Genesis 2:1-3; Deuteronomy 4:19; Job 38; Psalm 8:3; 19:1; 96:3-10; 102:25-27; 104:5-19; 121:1-2; Psalm 136:5-9; 139:13-16; Isaiah 44:24-25; 51:13; Jeremiah 10:11-16 (“all things”); 31:35-38; Matthew 19:4-6; Mark 10:6; John 1:3 (“all things”); Acts 4:24; 14:15; 17:22-28; Romans 1:20; Philippians 2:10; Colossians 1:16-17. Other examples could be given.
Often, the more literal texts are historical narrative, while figurative usage is in future tense as prophecy. Historical narrative is a different class of literature than apocalyptics. However, literal and figurative concepts can even be used in the same passage. For example, in Jeremiah 31:31-38, the author used the enduring order of the physical universe to express the measure of God’s commitment to his people. In Hebrews 8, the writer used the heavenly temple of God (verses 1-2) as the original, after which the earthly tent and the temple were copied and applied as a shadow to the context of the new covenant (verses 3-13). In 2 Peter 3, Peter uses God’s creation of the physical universe, and its subsequent disturbance by Noah’s judgment flood, as a prototype to explain how big of a deal the coming judgment against Jerusalem would be (AD 70). Peter was using traditional Hebraic prophetic apocalyptic language—violent disturbances of the created order—to explain the significance of the coming dissolution of the visible fabric of the Old Covenant order.
Covenant Creationism is not only shallow and inconsistent in its exegesis, in my opinion, it leads to some dangerous doctrines. CC denies that Adam was the first man, and denies that mankind has a sinful nature resulting from Adam’s fall, or as stated by CCist Jason DeCosta: “We do not believe that all men are in Adam.” But Paul, in Romans 5:15-17 and 1 Corinthians 15:22, directly ties the Christ’s salvation work as the antidote to Adam’s curse and man’s sinful nature. This is a FUNDAMENTAL TENET OF THE CHRISTIAN FAITH.
The logical extension of the error of minimizing the importance of sin can potentially lead to the further errors of universalism and antinomianism. How so? If men are not inherently sinful, then all men can be saved (universalism), or at least Christ is not necessary for salvation. Likewise, it can also logically lead to legalism, which teaches that we can save ourselves. Some preterists have gone down these paths, and I wonder if CC has been a contributing factor.
A course correction is needed. The depth of man’s sin accentuates the magnitude of Christ’s victory. Christianity is the only worldview or religion that teaches that man’s nature is so deeply sinful that a Savior is necessary.
Covenant creationists muddle and confuse other important classical Christian doctrines—for example, the doctrine of heaven. They confuse the Hebraic idiom “new heaven and new earth” with heaven itself, or at least their writings confound the issue. This may lead to the idea proposed by some preterists that heaven is on earth now, that is, “heaven” is nothing more than man’s improved relationship with God in the new covenant. This is a serious error that denigrates the Christian hope of the afterlife.
Linguists recognize that a word or phrase has a semantic range. A word can mean any number of things, and context must determine what any particular word means. It also has connotations, applications, or adaptations by extension of that meaning. When doing a word study, one should consider all aspects of meaning: context, grammar, structure, audience relevance, cultural background, and everything that makes up the meaning of a text when you examine every occurrence of the word. If you do not do that, then you are isolating the word from its context. While covenant creationists argue that their views, in fact, do adhere to contextual analysis, they do not do so consistently, as the above illustrations prove. If a passage does not fit their paradigm, they gloss over it—or force a meaning into it.
Even in modern English, the biblical words or phrases “heaven and earth,” “heaven,” “heavens” can have different meanings ranging from literal, physical things—to metaphoric symbology, or even something outside of time and space. Just think for a moment about how such words are used in everyday English. So, this should not be a surprise. In every language, some words can have multiple meanings. “Heaven,” I argue, is not the same thing as “the new heaven and new earth.” “The heavens” (plural) is not the same thing as “heaven” (singular), as the former is about the visibly cosmos, while the latter is abode of God outside of time and space. Even the “heavens” plural (including the sun, moon, stars, etc.) is used both in a physical sense and in a symbolic sense. This is easily understood as the ancients were awed by the physical creation, as we are today, and sometimes—but not exclusively—used these physical things in literary ways. Again, I appeal to Timothy Martin’s own earlier writing, where he, very honestly, said:
“There are some theological challenges for a Local Creation interpretation as well. Preterists rightly emphasize the common biblical pattern in redemptive development of ‘first the physical, then the spiritual.’ The Bible unfolds by giving physical types first followed by the spiritual realities those types represent. The promised land is the antecedent of the promised land of Jesus’ salvation. The physical city of Jerusalem is the antecedent for the New Jerusalem from above. The physical nation of Israel is the antecedent for the holy nation of believers in Christ by faith. Many biblical themes follow this pattern. A Local Creation approach violates this Biblical pattern by limiting the original creation to covenantal and spiritual realities. A creational, cosmological reading of the ‘heavens and earth’ in Genesis 1 fits with the overall pattern in Scripture of ‘first
the physical, then the spiritual.”
How do we decide, when different meanings are possible? Sometimes simple common-sense and plain language are the best way to understand literature. Covenant creationists understand Genesis to be broadly symbolic, even the “swarms of living creatures,” the “beasts of the field,” the “fish of the sea,” the “birds flying above the earth,” “trees bearing fruit,” and so forth. Did God give us these words to confuse and confound us with hidden truths? A plain reading of Genesis reveals these things as literal to a significant degree. If God was speaking about the creation of the nation of Israel and His covenants with her, why didn’t He just come out and say it? Why veil it in symbolism?
It is noteworthy that the language in Genesis is different from, say, Jesus’ parables. Jesus had reasons to speak metaphorically because he was standing among His Jewish opponents, who were often the targets of his parables. What motivation would God have had to explain Genesis history in an allegorical way?
My overarching concern is that among some preterists, aberrant doctrines have emerged that depart too far from classical, biblical Christianity. I see three varieties of preterists—partial preterists (who do not take fulfillment far enough), hyper-preterists (who take it too far), and full preterists. I am persuaded that full preterism (“evangelical preterism”), properly understood, does not harm classical Christianity. Rather, it completes and enhances it. Covenant Creation is one of several aspects of hyper-preterism which you can explore further in articles #C7, #C8, #C9, and #C12 at my website below. Especially, note the quotes of hyper-preterists in #C8. While we ought not paint all the various views with the same broad-brush stroke, these quotes will raise the hair on the back of your neck, and serve as a cautionary
warning to other preterists:
Below are some articles from both futurists and preterists who object to Covenant Creation:
Here is a helpful lecture by full preterist Ed Stevens that discusses CC in relation to the Collective Body View of the resurrection:
- Some translations of Hosea 6:7 reference Adam as having transgressed the covenant. But, there are multiple possible interpretations of this passages. ↑
- Timothy P. Martin, Beyond Creation Science: How Preterism Refutes a Global Flood and Impacts the Biblical Origins Debate, 2nd Edition (Whitehall, MT, 2005), pages 101-103. ↑
- Timothy P. Martin, Beyond Creation Science: How Preterism Refutes a Global Flood and Impacts the Biblical Origins Debate, 2nd Edition (Whitehall, MT, 2005), pages 105-106. ↑
- Timothy P. Martin and Jeffrey L Vaughn, PhD, Beyond Creation Science, New Covenant Creation from Genesis to Revelation, 3rd Edition (Whitehall, MT, Apocalyptic Vision Press, 2007), Chapter 6. On page 95 there is this statement: “Young-earth creationism is a modern development. On page 96 they quote Gary North as saying, “In 1922 there weren’t any six-day creationists in the Protestant religion.” ↑
- http://www.documentacatholicaomnia.eu/03d/0037-0103,_Flavius_Josephus,_The_Antiquities_Of_The_Jews,_EN.pdf. The ancient Jewish document the Book of Jubilees is another example of taking Genesis largely literally. This book was written in about 300 BC, and was cited by Jewish sources, including Josephus and the Dead Sea Scrolls. Other examples could be cited. Interestingly, Martin and Vaughn appeal to Josephus to support a local flood, but ignore Josephus when his teaching conflict with their other views on Genesis. ↑
- Timothy P. Martin, Beyond Creation Science: How Preterism Refutes a Global Flood and Impacts the Biblical Origins Debate, 2nd Edition (Whitehall, MT, 2005), page 104. ↑