In a previous post, “Covenants and Contracts“, Jeff explained that when we define a covenant as “a two-way contract,” we are severely limiting our understanding of the true nature of covenants.
Neither I nor my spouse are independent contractors cunningly negotiating particular goods and services … whose ultimate goal is always to achieve the … most personally gratifying deal possible. Rather, … the one with whom I have entered into covenant is … a divine other to whom I am obligated and for whom I am responsibleâ€”before and beyond myself.1
Henry B. Eyring, in answering his seminary students’ question about why the Old Testament can seem so harsh, found his answer in Hosea’s description of the Atonement, not as a contract, but as a covenant:
At that early point in the story, in just two chapters, even my youngest students knew that the husband was a metaphor for Jehovah, Jesus Christ. And they knew that the wife represented his covenant people, Israel, who had gone after strange gods. â€¦
â€¦ All my life I had heard explanations of covenants as being like a contract, an agreement where one person agrees to do something and the other agrees to do something else in return. For more reasons than I can explain, during those days teaching Hosea, I felt something new, something more powerful. This was not a story about a business deal between partners, nor about business law. This was not a story of business. This was a love story. This was a story of a marriage covenant bound by love, by steadfast love. What I felt then, and it has increased over the years, was that the Lord, with whom I am blessed to have made covenants, loves me, and you, and those we teach, with a steadfastness about which I continually marvel and which I want with all my heart to emulate.2
Elder Eyring teaches in his speech that if we think of the Atonement only as a system of appeasing unfeeling laws—a contract—we will never fully understand it. When we think of it as a marriage covenant, only then do we begin to really understand what Heavenly Father offers and how he means to get us there.
The Effects of Misunderstanding
Elder Eyring mentions a warning in Hosea as well. The nation of Israel had apparently begun to think of their relationship with the Lord as a contract instead of a covenant. We can see this in the fact that the Lord clarifies, “For I desired mercy, and not sacrifice; and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings” (Hosea 6:6). There are several passages in the Old Testament that illustrate that many in ancient Israel thought they could do as they pleased, as long as they met the legalistic requirements of the covenants. For example, Saul thought that if he just sacrificed some commandeered livestock (all of which he had been commanded to kill), the Lord would be OK with him keeping the rest (1 Sam. 15:22). An attitude crept in that people could continue in any sin, as long as the appropriate offering was made. Repentance was less a deterrent as it was merely a price list. “This sin is fine, as long as you pay the bill. The commandments aren’t prohibitions, only a menu with some items more expensive than others.”
This approach to the gospel is like the approach many take to marriage today. “As long as I meet the agreed on terms and conditions, anything else goes. Pornography is fine as long as I don’t commit adultery. Divorce is fine as long as I have enough income to pay child support. No loss, just a calculated exchange.”
When we use the contract metaphor, faith is often understood as trust that the other person will keep their end of the bargain, and thus can be self-interested. When we talk about covenants, however, faith can be understood more as fidelity to the person with whom we’ve covenanted, be it God or our spouse, and can be selfless. For example, the main difference that Elder Eyring points out is steadfastness. Any contract can be severed, by the terms of the contract. Covenants are not meant to be severed; they endure for eternity. They may be unmet and unfulfilled, such as with any impenitent, but the relationship between the two parties endures forever. That is why “contract” does not fully describe the Atonement.4 And that is why “contract” does not fully describe marriage, either.
It seems significant that with all the legal, contractual metaphors available, Hosea used marriage to teach the true nature of the Atonement. We do ourselves a disservice when we think of either marriage or the Atonement as contracts; we prepare ourselves for deep joys when we think of them as covenants, and when we understand the differences.
1. Ed Gantt and Stan Knapp, â€œMarriage: Of Contracts, Commitments, and Covenants,â€ Brigham Young University.
2. Henry B. Eyring, “Covenants and Sacrifice,” The Nineteenth Annual Church Educational System Religious Educators Symposium (Brigham Young University, 15 Aug. 1995), p. 2.
3. C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: HarperCollins, 1952), p. 155.
4. In fact, the word only appears three times in the scriptures, all in the D&C. Two refer to mortal legal agreements, and the third is listed with covenants, implying that they are two separate types of things.