Divine revelation Soteriology

The harmony of translating “torah” as “covenant obligation” with accessibilist soteriology

McKnight’s suggested translation of torah

A few weeks ago, I very much enjoyed a podcast by Scot McKnight, regarding his translation project for the “second Testament.” I heard many interesting comments on decisions he had been making, but one particularly caught my attention. I was especially delighted with his suggestion that “covenant obligation” is the best way to render torah.

The framework of accessibilist soteriology

I particularly appreciate that translation because it fits so beautifully within my accessibilist soteriology. I believe that absolutely everyone (in all times and places) lives in covenant relationship with God. But we do not all relate to God within the same covenant, because there is a very significant difference between one’s place historically, within covenant history, and one’s place existentially. The latter is determined by the revelation God has given of himself to an individual, not only objectively, but particularly subjectively.

Every human being lives within the covenant determined by God’s self-revelation to them. So, it is the form of divine self-revelation which a person has received which determines what covenant that person lives within. And that covenant, in turn, determines the person’s moral obligations and the nature of the faith which would please God and bring about their justification. It is according to those covenant obligations, as they understand them, that their conscience testifies, either condoning or condemning their thoughts and their behavior. Some might live within the creational covenant (made with Adam and renewed with Noah), and they could be saved by acknowledging God as creator and giving him thanks (Rom 1:21). I doubt, however, that there are many people in this position, because the existence of further revelation, communicated communally or personally, is evident in the testimony of many who accept the gospel when it is brought to them.

Furthermore, I am convinced that everyone’s conscience will be the criterion according to which God will judge them in the final day. No one will be able to question the justice of God’s judgment, because God only needs to remind them of every moment when they did what they believed to be moral wrong (sin), and their own consciences will then attest to their guilt. In other words, people will be held accountable for the degree of their fulfilling covenant obligations, torah as it pertains to the particular covenant within which they relate to God.

For example, observant Jews who live now, historically within the new covenant, may be existentially relating to God within the Abrahamic covenant. This might be true, even if some Messianic Jew or Gentile Christian has told them about how God is in the process of fulfilling his promises to Abraham and David (as well as Adam, Noah, and the whole creation), through Jesus of Nazareth whom God raised from the dead and exalted to sit at his right hand, ruling in the world as Messiah and Davidic king, through his providential work and acts of the Spirit of God within the world. This wonderful gospel truth may have been proclaimed to some Jews, even repeatedly, but the Spirit of God has not given them the illumination which he gave to the apostle Peter, who confessed Jesus as “Messiah, the Son of the living God” only because this had been revealed to him by the Father in heaven (Mt 16:16-17).

So, these Jews live historically in the new covenant age but, if the Holy Spirit has not revealed to them the truth of the gospel concerning Jesus, then they still live within the Abrahamic covenant. That covenant defines their obligations to God and their neighbor and, even more importantly, it defines the nature of the faith response which would please God. Some of them may have the faith of father Abraham and be justified by that faith, as Abraham was, if their Father in heaven has not made known to them that Jesus is the Messiah, Son of God. They might have rejected the Christian gospel but not have rejected Jesus. Since God’s inner work in another person’s life is hidden from us, we are not capable of judging accurately the person’s relationship with God. At best, we can discern whether they are currently moving toward or away from God in obedience/disobedience, faith/unbelief, relative to their covenant obligations, as they understand them, given the revelation they have received and the work of God’s Spirit within their hearts and minds.

McKnight’s suggested translation of torah as “covenant obligation” fits wonderfully within this accessibilist soteriology, in which God gives everyone revelation which is sufficient for their salvation, and which will be effective if they respond in the obedience of faith and with faithful obedience, according to the covenant within which God relates to them.


By Terrance Tiessen

I am Professor Emeritus of Systematic Theology and Ethics at Providence Theological Seminary, Canada.

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