The Covenant of the Heart

I picked up a book expecting one thing but getting quite another. The book is The Marrow of Modern Divinity by Edward Fisher (d. 1655). What it turned out to be was a very early Reformed exposition on grace primarily using the frame of the Covenant of Works vs the Covenant of Grace (ie, classical Covenant theology). His argument is familiar. Doing good things is not the essence of Christian piety because doing good things will not get you to heaven.

Fisher recognizes that when Christians equate piety with doing good things, having a good attitude, etc., the Christian in question is slipping back into a Covenant of Works frame. When this happens the Christian is negating the Gospel of “free grace” (a phrase Fisher likes) that is put forth by Paul in Romans and Galatians.

This sort of language is not commonly used in the Orthodox Church, but it is the normative language used among the people with whom I most commonly have theological discussions. A book such as this leaves me with the question of how I explain why what I do is not the sort of works religion that this book is describing.

While reading Fisher, a new category occurred to me that might be helpful. Let me begin by saying that at this point I am wandering off into what might best be described as a fantasia (the musical genre); I’m riffing on a Reformed theological theme and using the covenant frame to explore the doctrine of theosis. What I propose is a Covenant of the Heart (or Nous). The best of Covenant Theology will emphasize that there is only one overarching covenant between God and humanity. It had various expressions (Adam, Abraham, Moses, Jesus Christ) but each expression both offered more revelation of who God is and was based on a deeper understanding of God that those involved in the previous covenants did not have. Covenants are therefore a means of expressing God’s progressive revelation in a relational rather than rational context. I am proposing that the touchpoint of the Covenant of Grace is our justification while the touchpoint of the Covenant of the Heart is our sanctification.

With this in mind, my proposed Covenant of the Heart (Nous) – which I again want to be clear, is my own invention – is yet another expression based on better human understanding of God’s revelation. Here is a brief overview:

God desires, not only to reveal himself to us (knowledge), but enter into union with us. When God unites with us, we are transformed by what we might call the super-abundant life of God. But our dead, sinful, corrupt humanity resists this living transformation. We therefore need to make every effort to tear away the old skin, the scales, the shell (think of a snake shedding its skin so it can grow) so this process of transformation can, not only begin, but advance and even possibly near completion in this life.

The purpose of life is not only to be stewards of the earth … the purpose of life is not only to learn more about creation … the purpose of life is not only to know God and be known by him … the purpose of life is to be transformed into Christ’s likeness, to enliven the divine image which we all have, and thus allow it to expand and grow and ultimately to become united with God.

The potential of this process is best captured by Elder Sophrony’s contribution to Orthodox theology (as described by Fr Zacharias, his disciple). The true potential, in this life, of the transformation of our being by the Gospel is in the expansion of the “heart” (and here I come to that italicized word in parentheses). Nous is a Greek word that can be, and is often, translated as heart, intellect, or being. It is the true inner person. When we “invite Jesus into our heart” this is where we are inviting him. Similarly when Paul says our “mind” should be transformed (as most English translations phrase it), the Greek word is nous. It is a notoriously difficult word to translate because it has no English equivalent and is thus often left untranslated. Fr Sophrony, who despises the tendency of experts to use technical language that excludes people, almost always refers to it as “the heart.” Following his lead, I will speak of a Covenant of the Heart.

Elder Sophrony, through a lifetime of monastic experience, believed that the heart is the specific link between Creator and created, the divine and human. The heart therefore has the potential to be infinite, or like God. Through discipline, as the heart grows, it can “take in” (or “wrap its arms about,” or, “envelope”) an increasingly larger segment of reality. Thus, as we allow our heart to be expanded by the Spirit, we can love more of the world, pray for more of the world, actually care about more of the world, without losing the specificity of the particular. Ultimately, he surmises, a person’s heart can, through the enlivening power of the Spirit, become so alive and so stretchable, that it could expand to hold the whole world. If that were to happen, such a person would indeed become a “priest” (in the basic sense of the word, not in its ecclesiastical meaning) praying for and being an intermediary on behalf of the whole world.

But if this were to actually happen it would require every bit of dead and resistant “old self” (Eph 4:22f) to be stripped away … a painful and difficult process. This requires a remarkable amount of effort to prepare one’s own body, soul, and spirit to be transformed by the living power of the Holy Spirit. It’s why Paul, the champion of “free grace” is also the one who says we must be like spiritual athletes who force our bodies into submission in order to win the prize of the high calling of God.

And here’s the difference between the Covenant of Works and the Covenant of the Heart: All this effort is not aimed at making me acceptable to God … in other words, it’s not effort in the Pauline sense of “works of the law” … this effort is aimed at preparing the ground (Mt 13:8) for the Holy Spirit to create the miracle of the ever-expanding heart. In so doing I am not trying to make myself acceptable to God, rather I am removing all the impediments (the “old self”) that cause me to resist and reject God. This is the irony of extreme effort to open oneself to pure grace … the more extreme the effort, the purer the grace.

There is an undeniable tension between the utterly free gift of grace and the tremendous effort required to not resist the grace. (And yes, the concept that God’s grace is irresistible is considered a heretical idea in Orthodoxy because it reduces us to automata. The greatest expression of God’s freedom is his own willingness to circumscribe that freedom in his dealings with humans who are made in his own image. This is the inevitable wound of love.) Distinguishing between the Covenant of Grace and my newfangled Covenant of the Heart does not remove the tension, it rather breaks it into its constituent pieces in order to better understand the tension.

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One thought on “The Covenant of the Heart

  1. Pingback: Salvation as Descent | Just Another Jim

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