Friday, July 20, 2007

Reflections on the God of the covenant in light of chapter 3 of Gustavo Gutiérrez's The God of Life

“The covenant that God makes with the people is a central theme of the Bible,” writes Gustavo Gutiérrez at the beginning of the third chapter of his book, The God of Life (pg 33). But the indefinite article could easily be changed to the definite article to state that the covenant that God seeks to enter into with all people is the central theme of the Bible. In fact, this is precisely what the father of liberation theology sets out to show in the third chapter of The God of Life.

The covenant is the initiative of the One God who is love, which makes God the God of life because love is life-giving. It is through this covenant, which takes the form “I will be your God, and you shall be my people” (Jer. 7.23), that God seeks to give us life. As Christians we often think that it was not until the Incarnation of Jesus Christ that God is revealed as the God of love. While Jesus Christ is the definitive and explicit sign and symbol of divine love, which constitutes reality, Gutiérrez demonstrates how, beginning in the Hebrew Scriptures, God is unveiled. This revelation is perhaps best expressed in the form of a syllogism: if to give life is to love, to form community, to relate to others, then the God of life must love and must somehow be relational. It is here that the very essence of the divine life into which God seeks to draw each one of us and all of us together is love.

Nothing in our experience is more life-giving than conjugal relations between a man and a woman. This act is used time again as more than a metaphor to describe the covenant initiated by God. The author of the New Testament letter to the Ephesians, undoubtedly borrowing this image from the Hebrew Scriptures, also used this image to describe the Church, the people of the new covenant (Eph. 5.22-33). This primal image is used by the prophets time and again because, not only does love pick up where knowledge leaves off, love is the intellect’s point-of-departure. The urge to give life precedes life and life, in turn, precedes any self-conscious reflection.

Knowing God is not, in the first instance, an intellectual exercise, something learned by study, or earned by hard work, it is an apprehension at once more basic and more existential. This reality is well-expressed in the description of theology as faith seeking understanding. Therefore, true religion, which is the outward form and visible symbol of the relationship into which God seeks to draw us, is not reserved only for those who have the leisure and the means to study, but for all, and in a privileged way, the poor and the oppressed. Neither do we apprehend or perceive God on our own. Despite “the abiding temptation to understand faith as something purely individual,” we can apprehend God only in relation to others in the context of community. Hence, it is never a “question of a thou and an I, but of a thou and a we” (pg 34).

While a bit anachronistic, using to the conjugal image to describe God’s covenant-making puts us in mind of a sacrament, if by sacrament we mean a visible and tangible sign of God’s presence, not just in, but for the world. After all, what is more expressive of giving life than the act by which two people affect and effect a new person? By using the conjugal image to describe how God seeks to relate to humanity we see that sacraments do not come from above but originate from below, from God’s good creation, from the creatures who God loves and who God seeks to make children. As children we are to love our parent, God, who is father and mother, as well as each other. The insight that God is love, expressed by the covenant that has as its image the conjugal union, aids us because our faith, being our free response to God’s initiative, arises from our longing for completeness, for connectedness, and for community. Our free response is nothing other than receiving what God freely offers us, which is life. This is precisely why faith can never be individual. Faith is relational and it gives rise to community. The use of the conjugal image to describe the relationship that God longs to enter into with all humanity, even in the Hebrew Scriptures, which features as another of its great themes, along with God’s covenant-making, that profession of faith, “The Lord is our God, the Lord alone” (Deut. 6.4), leads us to conclude that God, in order to be love, must also be relational.

Because God is love, we are free to accept or reject the life into which God wants us draw us. Once we respond to God the covenant, like a marriage, is based on fidelity to the One God, who alone is Lord. Nonetheless, it is only because this God who reaches out to us in covenant is faithful, even when we, the people to whom it is offered, are not, that it is not broken. Hence, the continuation of the covenant rests on God’s fidelity, not to the covenant, which is abstract, but to the people God loves “with an everlasting love” (Jer. 31.3).

Saint Mary, Abraham and Sarah, Bride of God
1699 by Ulrich Utiger

The point that needs to be stressed, insists Gutiérrez, is that this profession of faith “in Yahweh makes it possible for Israel not only to know its religious status but also to assert itself as a people” (pg 34). To dig a bit deeper on this point, it is precisely the covenant, initiated by God, and not heredity, or purity of blood that gives this people their identity. After all it was a “mixed crowd” that was liberated from Egypt (Exod. 12.38). So, the covenant “is made with a people, with a human group,” a mixed group, “not an individual person” (pg 34).

That God enters into covenant with a people and not an individual, or even many individuals separately, is a point of biblical revelation that requires some explanation because God did enter into a covenant with an individual person: Abraham, our father in faith. “I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous," God says to Abram just prior to changing his name to Abraham. The name change is made because the man from Ur has already been made by the God of life “the ancestor of a multitude of nations” (Gen. 17.2-5). The upshot is that God’s liberating and redemptive action, because it takes place in history, had to start not somewhere, but with someone. This someone of necessity had to be two people. Therefore, it is Abraham and his wife Sarai, who became Sarah because she is also our ancestor, not just by the fruit of her womb, which bore only Isaac, so our pre-historic, but revelatory, story goes, who are the progenitors of a multitude of nations (Gen. 17.2-5,16). So, from the beginning, “faith is something that lives within a community, the individual’s life of faith is put right, regulated, and judged by the entire people called to covenant with the Lord” (pg 34).

Because we are called into covenant as a people, as God’s people, and because God, while “tenderly loving” and always faithful, is also a demanding and even jealous covenant partner, the question, in what does this life-giving faith, this response to God, which response necessarily takes place in a community, consist, forces itself upon us. “One expression of the jealousy of this God,” writes Gutiérrez, “is the necessary connection between worship and the practice of justice, between sacrifice and fellowship among human beings, between religious offering and the work of liberation” (pg 45). There are “two fundamental dimensions of Christian life: contemplation and commitment” (pg 47). An integrated life consists in connecting these two dimensions. One concrete way of connecting worship and justice is forgiveness, which is gratuitous and brings about reconciliation. The gift of life is only fully realized when, once forgiven, we, in turn, practice justice. Our worship is only authentic if we practice justice, which, among its many implications, means standing ready to forgive, and to be members of a reconciling community, which is the only kind of authentically Eucharistic community. Being a truly Eucharistic community means standing in solidarity with the poor and the oppressed, who are formed as people by their “hunger for God” and “hunger for bread” (pg xii). “Solidarity with the poor and the oppressed should be a source of joy, not a strain” (pg 47).

This is a pre-residency paper I wrote for a Foundations in Theology class at St. Mary's University.


  1. Excellent post. "The God of Life" is next on my Amazon list. Thanks.

  2. Prepare to be challenged in many ways. Gutiérrez has a penchant for not making us comfortable!