Catholic Encyclopedia (1913)/Divine Promise (in Scripture)

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Catholic Encyclopedia (1913), Volume 12
Divine Promise (in Scripture)

by James F. Driscoll


The term promise in Holy Writ both in its nominal and verbal form embraces not only promises made by man to his fellowman, and by man to God in the form of vows (e.g. Deut., xxiii, 21-3), but also God's promises to man. A complete study of this phase of the subject would require a review of the whole question of Old Testament prophecy and also a discussion of several points pertaining to the subject of Divine grace and election. For God's every word of grace is a promise; man's willingness to obey His commandments brings him many assurances of grace. When the children of Israel were commanded to go in and "possess the land", it was practically already theirs. He had "lifted up His hand to give it to them"; their disobedience, however, rendered of no effect the promise implied in the command. There are, moreover, many examples of promises of which the Patriarchs themselves did not receive the outward fullness. Among these may be mentioned, the full possession of Canaan, the growth of the nation, universal blessing through the race. For: "All these died according to faith, not having received the promises, but beholding them afar off" (Heb., xi, 13). On the one hand we find that Abraham, "patiently enduring. . . obtained the promise" (Heb., vi, 15), because the birth of Isaac was the beginning of its fulfillment. On the other hand, he is one of the fathers who "received not the promise", yet with a true faith looked for a fulfillment of the promises which was not granted to them.

The New Testament phrase "inherit the promises" (Heb., vi, 12; cf. xi, 9; Gal., iii, 29) is found in the apocryphal Psalms of Solomon, xiii, 8 (70 B.C. to 40 B.C.). It is believed that this passage is the first instance in extant Jewish literature where the expression "the promises of the Lord" sums up the assurances of the Messianic redemption. The word "promise" is used in this technical sense in the Gospels only in Luke, xxiv, 49, where we find that the promise of the Father refers to the coming of the Holy Ghost. In passages which make mention of promises of which Christ is the fulfillment, the Epistle to the Hebrews especially abounds. St. Paul indeed both in his speeches and in his Epistles looks at the Christian Gospel from the same point of view. And we see that it was by a contemplation of Christ that men ultimately discovered what the "promise" meant. The New Testament teaching on the subject might be summed up under three heads: that which the promise contained, those who were to inherit it, and the conditions affecting its fulfillment. The contents of the "promise" are always intimately concerned with Christ, in Whom it has found its perfect fulfillment. In the preaching of St. Peter it is the risen Jesus, "both Lord and Christ", in whom the "promise" has been fulfilled. The forgiveness of sins, the gift of the Holy Ghost, the partaking of the Divine nature through grace (II Peter, i, 4), all the Divinely bestowed possessions of the Christian Church, may be said to be its contents. Passing to St. Paul we find a general conception of the same character. Christ and the "promise" are practically synonymous terms. The promises of God are all summed up in Christ. A conception of the "promise" which was distinctively common to the early Christians is set forth in I John, ii. 25-"And this is the promise which he hath promised us, life everlasting." Concerning the inheritors of the "promise", it was given at first to Abraham and his seed. In Hebrews, xi, 9, we find Isaac and Jacob referred to as "co-heirs of the same promise". A controversy existed in the primitive Church over the interpretation of the expression "the seed of Abraham". St. Paul speaks frankly concerning the prerogatives of Israel, "to whom belongeth. . . the promises" (Rom., ix, 4). Of the Gentile Church before admission to Christianity, he says its members had been "strangers to the covenants of the promise", consequently cut off from all hope. It was his work, however, to show that no physical or historical accident, such as Jewish birth, could entitle one to a claim as of right against God for its fulfillment. It is his teaching in one instance that all who are Christ's by faith are Abraham's seed, and heirs according to promise. He is concerned, however, with the fact that the promise is not being fulfilled to the seed of Abraham (referring to the Jews); yet his heart is evidently on the side of those against whom he argues. For to the last the Jew was to St. Paul "the root, the first fruits, the original and proper heirs". The echoes of this conflict die away in later writings: as instinctively Christ is felt to be the Lord of all, the scope of the promise is universalized.

Spontaneity on the part of the promiser is among the primary conditions on which the promise is fulfilled (e.g. Acts, ii. 39). As the promise is of grace, St. Paul shows that it is subject to no pre-existing merit on the part of the Mosaic law, or of works of the law. The promise was given to Abraham and to his faith four hundred and thirty years before the law was heard of. It is fulfilled not in works of law, but in a living faith in Jesus Christ together with the love and works that are the fruits of such a faith. Having God's promise to go upon, it is part of the function of faith to maintain a strong conviction that the promise objectively is "the substance of things to be hoped for, the evidence of things that appear not" (Heb., xi, 1). But if the first grace leading to the fulfillment of the promise is gratuitous, a supernatural gift bestowed without regard to merit in the natural order, co-operation with this and ulterior graces is required for the realization of the fulfillment. Through lack of the co-operation no less than from lack of faith have the Divine promises often proved of no avail in the Old Testament as well as in the New (see GRACE).

CORNELY, Comment. In Epistolam ad Romanos in Cursus Script. Sac. (Paris, Lethielleux, 1896), 203, 467-95; FOUARD, Saint Paul and His Missions (New York, 1894); TOUSSAINT, Epitres de S. Paul, I (Paris, 1910), 216 sqq.; SANDAY, Epistle to the Romans (New York, 1903), 6, 18, 109 sqq.

James F. Driscoll.