A Vision for Covenant Community

Sharing life together changes the experience of everyone in our Seminary community

By President Craig Barnes

vision for covenant community

Worshipping in Miller Chapel always reminds me of what it means to be “in Christ.” In that sacred space, I see students, faculty and staff joining together to praise our Creator.

I see evangelicals and progressives, liberals and conservatives, Presbyterians and Baptists, and Lutherans and Pentecostals. They represent different races, nations and ages. Together they sing in one voice, united in praise to the amazing grace of God that centers our covenant community.  

president barnes
President Craig Barnes (Photo by John Emerson)

This has long been who we are as a seminary—a diverse group of Christians who gather to study and to worship. We remain committed to living out this vision of the kingdom of God on our campus.

One of the things I dearly love about Princeton Theological Seminary is our commitment to being a residential community of faith and scholarship. Although there are many viable ways of engaging in theological education today, at Princeton Seminary we are called to engage in rigorous academic inquiry while living alongside one another in a residential community. And sharing life together in this way changes the experience of everyone who is a part of our Seminary community.

While the classroom remains the formative educational experience for our students, we are also learning from each other in the dining hall, campus coffee shop, the dorms and apartments, and as we gather together for daily worship. What happens in sharing life together in this community is as important as what occurs when one is alone doing research in the library.

Like all communities of faith, we are clear in our aspirations for what love should look like among us, even as we are often flawed in our practice of it. Here we learn how to confess, forgive, and grow in our understanding of how to honor the different members of the body of Christ. This is a critical skill for anyone who aspires to leadership in today’s culture.

We engage in rigorous academic inquiry in order to know the mind of Christ. But it is impossible to know Christ without really knowing the various members of his body who have different first languages, ethnicities, genders, economic backgrounds, and very different stories of faith—but who all call Jesus Christ their Savior.

flag football prayer circle

At Princeton Seminary, we aspire to community life that is rooted in God’s covenant promises. Our understanding of community is shaped by the convictions that govern covenants in the Bible: commitment to God and to one another. Gathered in community, we are called to love one another because God first loved us. We seek to live together peaceably, to honor each other, to celebrate and learn from one another’s differences, remembering our common center in Jesus Christ.

Our school is defined by this common center in Christ who, as the apostle Paul said, “holds all things together.”

For the church, the Bible provides the normative witness for our understanding of how God relates to all the peoples of the earth, and how we are called to enter into relationships with each other.  All covenant relationships are rooted in God’s prior acts of deliverance, promises for the future, and desire for the flourishing of all people and all creation. For example, God promises to bless Abraham as a covenant partner in order that, “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:3).

In Jesus Christ, the church finds the ultimate expression of God’s covenant to give us not what we deserve in life, but the forgiving and renewing grace we desperately need to be fully alive. As the apostle Paul claims, “God who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved” (Ephesians 2:5). 

Paul then immediately begins to describe the ways this common need for the grace of God creates a community in which there are no dividing walls of hostility. “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone” (Ephesians 2:19-20). Paul concludes this chapter by claiming that a community built on the work of Christ is “a dwelling place for God.”

Christians cannot know God apart from the community that finds its common life in Jesus Christ. As Karl Barth claimed, “The Christ for me is first of all the Christ for us.” It is only as the Holy Spirit binds us together in Christ that we can understand the nature and work of the Christian life.

In the Bible as a whole, participation in community is a matter of belonging to the story of God’s covenant for redeeming the world.

In the Bible as a whole, participation in community is a matter of belonging to the story of God’s covenant for redeeming the world. If the community is holy, it is only because God dwells with us. The flaws of the community only make it clear that we are united in our common need for grace and the call to pursue more justice than we know.

The purpose of covenant community at Princeton Seminary is to advance our mission of educating Christians for lives of servant leadership. It is to promote both knowledge and faith so that we may grow as disciples of Christ in order to bless the world as agents of God’s love and grace. And it is all possible because God first loved us.

CRAIG BARNES, MDiv ’81, is president of Princeton Theological Seminary.