A Fresh Look at God’s Covenant with Man

Reformed theology has historically been known for its keen interest in the doctrine of God’s covenant with man. It was the Reformed theologians, more than e.g. the Lutherans or the Roman Catholics, which developed this doctrine on the basis of the Biblical givens. Hence one cannot understand the Reformed faith or lay claim to being Reformed without a thorough acquaintance with the covenant doctrine. To ignore this doctrine would amount to cutting oneself off from the mainstream of Reformed thought and action. Even if, which is not very likely, the covenant doctrine should prove upon further investigation to be less central than Reformed theology has held it to be, it would nevertheless be necessary, for purely historical reasons, to be acquainted with it.

But there are more than just historical reasons for taking a new look at the doctrine of God’s covenant with man. The chief reason for our interest in this doctrine should stem from the fact that the Bible itself has so much to say about it. It is this fact which has prompted Reformed theologians of past centuries as well as of the modern period to speak so much about it. Herman Bavinck, a Dutch theologian of the early twentieth century, does not hesitate to call the covenant the essence of religion. And A. Kuyper, Bavinck’s older contemporary, remarks that religion docs not truly become religion until it is expressed in the form of covenant.

A brief look at some Scripture data may serve to illustrate the centrality of the covenant of God with man for Biblical thought. A passage in which this centrality is vividly illustrated is Deuteronomy 4:13. This passage equates the word “covenant” with the ten commandments. All Christians would readily admit that the ten commandments are of the utmost importance for Christian life and conduct. Yet it is this decalogue which is viewed as the very expression of the covenant, nay as that covenant itself.

But in our search for evidence of the centrality of the covenant in Biblical thought we are not limited to only those passages where the word covenant occurs explicitly. For there are many words in the Biblical vocabulary which are closely related to the covenant and hence cannot be understood without it. This is so because the covenant is such a pervasive idea that it permeates much if not everything of the relationships between God and man and between man and his fellow man. Typical covenant words are the words “peace,” “righteousness,” “mercy” (“lovingkindness”), and “truth.” Anyone of these words have a vital role to play in the vocabulary of redemption. That the word “peace” performs a central function in redemption becomes clear from the fact that Jesus Christ Himself is called “our peace” (Ephesians 2:14; cf. Micah 5:5). The same is true of the covenant word “righteousness.” For the promised Messiah will have as one of his names: “Jehovah our Righteousness” (Jeremiah 23:6). Grace and truth are also intimately related to Jesus Christ. He himself is the truth. Grace and truth have come by him (John 1:17).

There can be no doubt, therefore, about the outstanding significance of the covenant notion for the understanding of Biblical truth. Christian salvation simply cannot be understood without it. Neither can the principles of Christian conduct be properly formulated without a thorough acquaintance with the doctrine of God’s covenant with man. To neglect this doctrine. or to relegate it to a place of minor importance, will inevitably result in a great impoverishment of our understanding of Christian truth. Reformed theology has been fully justified in giving to this doctrine the prominent place it has.

However, it would be erroneous to assume that only Reformed theology has paid attention to this doctrine. In the current phase of Biblical studies which goes under the name of “Biblical Theology” the covenant is receiving a great deal of emphasis. For the time being we shall refrain from investigating the specific reasons why modern “Biblical” Theology is speaking so much about this subject. Speaking in general terms we may observe that the covenant simply is too prominent a phenomenon in the Biblical revelation to ignore it very long.

It will be the purpose of this essay to look into this recent revival of interest in the doctrine of the covenant on the part of modern “Biblical” theologians. To do so intelligently will require us to keep in mind the trends in modern Biblical studies in general. These studies, however stimulating they have been for the deepening of our understanding of God’s revelation to man, have not been without some serious Haws. Simply to hail the revived interest in the covenant doctrine as an unqualified support of Reformed theology would betray a great deal of theological naivete. Not every discussion about the covenant can automatically be expected to support the cause of the Reformed faith.

An outstanding example of an earlier discussion about the covenant which deviated from, rather than supported, the Reformed faith occurred in the seventeenth century in the Netherlands. A well known theologian by the name of Cocceius, who died in 1669, developed in great detail a covenant theology. Yet he was deemed to have deviated from the Reformed position. Later Reformed writers, with some very good reasons, trace the modem phase of Biblical criticism to the approach which Cocceius developed in his covenant theology.

Cocceius sought to develop the covenant doctrine historically. His interest was in the construction of what he thought would be a Biblical theology. This desire prompted him to put so much stress on the development and the progress of the covenant in history that he lost sight of the basic unity and the essential sameness which characterizes God’s covenant dealings with man. Cocceius failed to do justice to the unity of the two Testaments. In his system the Old Testament was demoted. As Bavinck observes, Cocceius, while seemingly making a great deal of the covenant doctrine, was in effect robbing this doctrine of its true significance, inasmuch as he viewed the covenant of grace as nothing more than a gradual abolition of the covenant of works. Thus the covenant became little else than a temporary and ever changing form of religion.

Cocceius’ failure to see the spiritual significance of the Old Testament was also characteristic of the Rationalists and of the great philosophers and theologians of the 18th and the 19th century. Spinoza, Kant, Schleiermacher, Hegel, and others, all failed to recognize the abiding significance of the Old Testament for thc Christian religion. Often they (deliberately?) confused the Old Testament with Judaism. This is a most serious mistake which is perpetuated into the present and which is probably more than a mere mistake but due to certain presuppositions of Biblical scholarship. The 18th and 19th century molders of human thought viewed the Old Testament as only a stage in the religious development of mankind. They held that the Old Testament law was inferior to the prophets. Ethical religion, untrammeled by law and ritual, was supposed to be the ideal toward which the Old Testament was striving. Thus a thoroughly unbiblical principle of selection was introduced into the study of the Bible. Until this very day this defect has not yet been overcome. Since much of what is being written about the covenant today is written from the point of view of a higher critical approach to the Bible it is well to approach this whole discussion ·with due caution.

But although the defects of the modern approach to the Bible are serious, this does not mean that in spite of its faulty methods it has not contributed to our understanding of the Bible. Already Abraham Kuyper in his justly famous Encyclopaedia of Sacred Theology gives full credit to the Biblical theologians of his day while at the same severely criticizing their anti-confessional point of departure.

As has already been pointed out, one of the positive results of the current revival of interest in the covenant doctrine is that we are now better prepared than we were heretofore to sec the pervasive influence of covenant thinking upon the Biblical vocabulary. One of the covenant words mentioned above was the word “peace.” The Danish scholar Johannes Pedersen in his important book Israel, Its Life and Culture devotes no less than two lengthy chapters to this notion. One of these chapters is appropriately called “Peace and Covenant.” The other bears the no less significant title: “Peace and Salvation.” Yet Pedersen’s book is anything but a theological treatise, let alone a book of meditations. A good deal of reorientation and reformulation is often necessary before anyone committed to the orthodox concept of Scripture can benefit from a book like this. In fact, the present writer acquired the copy of Pedersen’s work which he now possesses from a minister who had ventured to purchase this book, hoping to derive some benefits from it but failing to do so. Yet it is the author’s conviction that a judicious use of books such as that of Pedersen should stimulate Biblical preaching and understanding. The only thing necessary, and that is a great deal, is a proper understanding of the faulty methodology of these modern Biblical theologians.



Pedersen and other Biblical theologians have pointed out that the word “peace” used as a translation of the Hebrew word shalom does not do full justice to the basic meaning of the original. This meaning is basically that of totality. Well-being, harmony, the untrammeled, free growth of the soul, are some of the notions expressed by the Hebrew word shalom. “Peace” in the Biblical sense of the word involves the whole man in all of his relationships. This is also the reason why the notion of  “peace” goes hand in hand with that of covenant. The two are supplementary concepts. In Malachi 2:5 God says concerning Levi: “My covenant was with him of life and peace.” This triad, covenant-lifepeace, is of great significance. Peace is not a word for quietness and rest, it is not just the absence of turmoil or strife. It is positive in nature. In Psalm 29, a Psalm which is anything but peaceful in the ordinary sense of that word, God gives to His people strength and peace. The combination of these two concepts, found in the parallel clauses of the final verse of that Psalm, is again most remarkable.

Another instance of the close connection between covenant and peace may be found in the story of Joshua and the Gibeonites. The latter had made it appear as if they had journeyed from a far away country to make a covenant with Joshua. Joshua, probably flattered by this sign of respect and renown, proceeds to make a covenant with them. But note that the account tells us that “Joshua made peace with them, and made a covenant with them” (Joshua 9:15). Again it should be clear that the word “peace” at this point cannot be equated with the English notion of a cessation of warfare. For the Gibeonites had not made war with Joshua. They acted as if they had come from a distant country which presumably had not waged war with the Israelites but which had only heard of the great things which the Lord had done for Israel. Yet the word “peace” is not at all out of place here. For peace in the Bible is something else than the cessation of hostilities, or the quietness after strife.

This same intimate connection between covenant and peace is also found in Ezekiel 34:25 and 37:26. The expression used in those passages is “covenant of peace.” This expression essentially means a covenant consisting of pence. For peace and covenant, as Pedersen has correctly remarked, “are really denominations of life itself.”

In view of the examples cited it should come as no surprise that modem Biblical theologians have been giving so much attention to the idea of covenant. Vriezen, a prominent Old Testament scholar in the Netherlands, calls the covenant “the fundamental idea of the Old Testament message.” In view of the fact that many of the covenant words also continue to playa vital role in the New Testament one may say with every confidence that the covenant also is the fundamental idea of the New Testament message.

Another very interesting area of recent covenant research is that which pertains to covenant formulations. From a study of comparative materials taken from the Ancient Near East we have been able to form ourselves a better impression of the kind or language which was used in the making of covenants between the various kingdoms of the Biblical period. It appears that these covenants, treaties we would call them, employed certain stereotype forms of expression which have also been employed in the writing of some of the books of the Bible. Dr. Meredith Kline has worked out some of these data in connection with the structure of the book of Deuteronomy in his study entitled “Treaty of the Great King.” Others have applied this same approach to smaller units of Biblical revelation. All this goes to show that covenant language and covenant thought were quite pervasively used in the time when God gave His revelation to Israel.

This does not mean that the nations surrounding Israel thought of themselves as being in covenant with their god or gods. This idea of a covenant between God and people is distinctive for the religion of the Bible. The other nations thought of the relationship between themselves and their gods in terms of a natural bond.

Unfortunately a great deal of the positive gain one may reap from the current discussion about the covenant is offset by the subjectivistic setting within which this discussion is presently conducted. This subjectivistic starting-point makes it virtually impossible to give due recognition to the question whether this covenant between God and man and between God and Israel is only a convenient mode of expression, a mere product of theological reflection, or whether it actually represents a reality. Most writers in the area of Biblical Theology are careful to use terminology which leaves this crucial question untouched. In some instances this question is not just left untouched, but it is answered in such a way that the covenant becomes no more than the product of Israel’s theological reflection.

Let us analyze briefly a statement taken from a short pamphlet entitled The History of Salvation, written by a Roman Catholic author, Leonard Johnston. His approach is typical of that of many others, it does not matter of which religious orientation they may be. Johnston informs us that Israel’s first “encounter” with God at Sinai not only determined their notion of God, “it determined their notion of themselves also.” Johnston goes on to say: “What this notion was, is best expressed in the term the Bible itself uses, the single word in which it is all summed up: the Covenant” (op. cit. Paulist Press, N.Y., 1963, p. 9).

The question arises immediately: Was the covenant “notion” due to the “encounter” (a dubious word for revelation) with a God who actually revealed himself as the covenant-God or was this “notion” the product of theological reflection? In other words, does the covenant represent a real relationship between God and man or is it only the symbol of this relationship? Biblical theology of the current sort either avoids these questions, or it chooses its language in such a way that one must seriously doubt whether there is a actual covenant between God and man. Pursuing the above quotation a bit further we observe that Johnston continues in the following vain: “A covenant is an agreement, a treaty. God was like a great king with whom they had entered into an alliance—or rather, who had graciously consented to make a treaty with them. It was a peace-treaty: not that they themselves had been at war with God, but by this treaty God guaranteed their peace, their security, their prosperity.”

There is much in this quotation which expresses Biblical thought. The connection between covenant and peace is properly grasped, the notion of peace is also correctly understood. Yet the crucial question, whether there actually is a covenant between God and his people does not receive a satisfactory answer. One is left with the uncomfortable feeling that when Johnston informs us that “God was like a great king with whom they had entered into an alliance, or rather who had graciously consented to make a treaty with them” he is doing no more than to describe a “notion” which Israel developed under the impact of this “encounter” with the God of Sinai.

In this respect Johnston is only typical of the bulk of Biblical Theological writing today. The Biblical Theology of the modern type has embraced a scientific methodology which makes it impossible to do justice to the factor of revelation in the orthodox sense of that word. Biblical Theology thinks it can merely describe. It hopes that Systematic Theology will somehow transform this descriptive material (from which God and his authoritative revelation have been carefully screened out!) and turn it into something normative. What is forgotten is that the so-called descriptive method of Biblical Theology is itself due to a highly dogmatic starting point. This starting point is the assumption that one can truly understand what the Bible meant without a faith commitment to the message of the Bible and the God of the Bible. Some scholars try to solve this problem by making a distinction between describing what the Bible meant and describing or systematizing what it means. But it is doubtful whether that distinction is really helpful. The present meaning of the Bible is so much of a piece with its past meaning that one can hardly separate the two as neatly as has been suggested.

Thus many questions arise as one seeks to evaluate the newer approaches to the covenant found in current Biblical Theological writings. These questions are not just typical of the discussion surrounding the covenant concept. They are part of the total approach to the Bible as practiced in the Biblical Theology of our day.

In the meantime we, who do not wish to let the revelation of God to man be dissolved in mere human experience, and who must therefore continue to be opposed to Biblical Theology’s basic method, may yet take grateful note of the many stimulating insights which are being provided at the present time. And as Reformed believers we may enter with ever greater appreciation into the heritage of the Reformers who more than other Christian theologians made us see the wonderful treasure we have in the Biblical revelation concerning God’s covenant with man.

To keep up with all the recent Biblical studies which pour from the presses year after year is an impossible task. Dr. Woudstra of Calvin Theological Seminary, Grand Rapids, MI, puts us in his debt by summarizing and evaluating some the latest studies on God’s covenant with man, a theme to which Reformed believers have for generations addressed themselves.