Over the years, I have been asked by a number of folks if they could access my PhD thesis, done at the University of Edinburgh, New College, under a towering scholar of early Christianity, the late David F. Wright. The topic was the use of “covenant” in the writings of key early Christian writers, prior to the time of the Council of Nicea (AD 325 – thus the “Ante-Nicene” in the title above). I have given a number of its chapters as papers at scholarly societies (like the North American Patristic Society), and a number of its chapters have been published in books and journals. But I’ve never readied the whole thing for publication, and now it demands 20 years of new interaction with the happily proliferating secondary literature in the field. Alas, one day. A colleague asked me about it today via social media, so I am going to post the abstract, to give you an idea of what I found and what I argue.
The Covenant Idea in Ante-Nicene Theology
University of Edinburgh, 1995
This thesis argues that the covenant idea was more significant in the writings of particular ante-Nicene theologians than has generally been admitted in patristic research or general surveys of the history of the covenant idea in the Christian tradition. Indeed, this survey of the covenant idea in the ante-Nicene period demonstrates a significant usage, development, and modification of the covenant concept as it is found in the OT and NT writings, and early Judaism. This investigation reveals that the covenant idea functions in several arenas of early Christian thought. It is employed (1) to stress moral obligations incumbent upon Christians; (2) to show God’s grace in including the Gentiles in the Abrahamic blessings; (3) to deny the reception of these promises to the Israel of the flesh, that is, Israel considered merely as an ethnic entity; (4) to demonstrate continuity in the divine economy; and (5) to explain discontinuity in the divine economy.
In reviewing the role of early Christian covenant thought in these areas, this thesis argues that (1) the pre-Nicene theologians usually take OT covenant passages (not NT passages) as the starting point in their applications of the covenant concept to Christian living.
(2) The early Christian use of the covenant idea evidences that they understood the covenant to be both unilateral and bilateral, promissory and obligatory, to bring divine blessings and entail human obedience.
(3) These writings also show that, from the very earliest times, Christian authors (following OT and NT examples) have employed the covenant concept as a key structural idea in their presentations of redemptive history.
(4) Contrary to the suggestions of previous studies, there is no evidence of a gap in the usage of the covenant idea after the era of the NT writings.
(5) The covenant idea was closely linked to the early Christian self-understanding as the people of God.
(6) The covenant idea is not monolithic in the thought of the authors surveyed. It is employed with differing emphases and takes on varying shades of meaning in their respective writings.
(7) Genetic connections in specific usages of the covenant idea can be found in different pre-Nicene authors (e.g., Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Tertullian).
The argument of this thesis proceeds by first reviewing the role of the covenant idea in the writings of the NT, Apostolic Fathers, and Justin (as well as Josephus and Philo). This provides background for comparison and contrast with subsequent theological reflection on the covenants in Christian theology. Then we consider, in turn, the covenant idea in Melito, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Cyprian, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Hippolytus, and Novatian. In each, specific employments of the covenant idea are inventoried. In the epilogue, our findings are summarized and conclusions are drawn.
This study is significant for at least these following reasons. (1) It confirms current research on the Jewish matrix of early Christianity, from a vantage-point not yet exploited. (2) It reviews in greater detail the early Christian covenant thought which is now being acknowledged to have been influential on the sixteenth-century Reformers (such as Bullinger and Calvin). (3) As the first extensive patristic survey of the covenant idea, it fills a significant lacuna in the history of ideas. (4) It lays the groundwork for more detailed considerations of the covenant concept in the pre-Nicene and post-Nicene eras.