What Is Covenant Theology, and Why Should I Care?
Covenant. As anyone who has read the Bible knows, that word seems to be one of God’s favorites. Yet it is more than just a word that appears frequently (more than three hundred times); it is one of the most important themes of sacred Scripture. The book of Genesis is primarily about God’s covenant with Abraham and his descendants. The book of Exodus is in large part about God’s covenant at Mount Sinai with the nation Israel. Throughout the rest of the Old Testament—in its historical, poetical, and prophetical books—we find continual references to these two covenants: the Abrahamic and the Mosaic. We then come to the New Testament and read of Jesus instituting a new covenant, the same covenant of which the prophet Jeremiah foretold (Jer. 31:31–34). The apostle Paul and the writer to the Hebrews elaborate on the vital differences between the old (Mosaic) and new covenants (Gal. 3–4; 2 Cor. 3; Heb. 7–10). On top of this, the Bible also reveals how God made important covenants with Noah and David. What do all of these covenants mean? Does it really make any difference how well we understand them?
Answering those questions is the task of covenant theology. Covenant theology is a way of reading and interpreting the Bible through the lens of God’s covenants. It is not an interpretive grid that we impose upon Scripture, nor is it a system invented by Calvinists in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Rather, it is the Bible’s own method of interpreting itself. This is why covenant theology has enjoyed such a prominent place in the Reformed tradition. With its emphasis upon the authority of Scripture, the Protestant Reformation saw covenant theology as God’s prescribed method for interpreting his revelation, for covenant is the way in which God has chosen to relate to human beings. It is impossible, therefore, to interpret Scripture faithfully without understanding the meaning of these covenants. As J. I. Packer put it, “The Word of God is not properly understood till it is viewed within a covenantal frame.”1
This article is the first in a series that will concisely explore covenant theology. In each forthcoming issue of The Outlook, we will briefly examine one of the covenants revealed in Scripture, working our way chronologically from the covenant of redemption to the new covenant. If you find these short essays to whet your appetite for further study, consider reading Sacred Bond: Covenant Theology Explored, a book I wrote with co-author Zach Keele and published by Reformed Fellowship. That resource expands on the material found in these articles.
What Is a Covenant?
Before we begin our survey of the covenants, we must answer the question: What is a covenant? Covenant is not a word we use in everyday conversation. Yet, in Reformed circles we tend to toss it around quite a bit. We thank God for his covenant mercies. We talk about our children as heirs of the covenant. We even use it to give our local congregations names like Covenant Reformed Church. But what does the word covenant mean? We can define it like this: a covenant is an oath-bound relationship that implies sanctions. Some covenants are mutual agreements, while others are imposed unilaterally from one party to another. Some have equal parties, some unequal. The nature of the relationship between the parties can vary, depending on the covenant. Some covenants create an intimate relationship, while others an impersonal one. All covenants, in some fashion, involve oaths and promises and imply (if not explicitly state) consequences if the oath taker fails to keep his promise. In this sense, the relationship in the covenant has a certain legality.
If this sounds rather technical and complex, it may be helpful to reflect on the kind of covenants with which we are familiar in daily life. For example, consider the marriage relationship. Marriage is a covenant. A man and a woman formally commit themselves to each other by taking vows, pledging their love and undying loyalty to the other partner in the covenant. A marriage ceremony is essentially a covenant-making ceremony. The guests are there not merely to share in the joy of the couple but also to hear the vows and witness the making of a covenant. The oaths and promises that the bride and groom make result in the creation of a new relationship: the officiant pronounces them husband and wife. However, in order for the relationship to work, fidelity is required from those who took vows. If either party in the covenant is unfaithful to the oath he or she made to the other, there will be negative consequences: anything from a strained relationship to a messy divorce with costly lawsuits. This is what it means for a covenant relationship to have legality; sanctions are involved where there is unfaithfulness in the covenant.
We must be careful not to put legality in opposition to intimate relationships. For example, some might consider the relationship between parents and their children to have nothing to do with legality and to be only about love and nurture. But this is not the case. The love and intimacy of the parent-child relationship does not make it void of legality. In fact, it may increase its legal character. As Hebrews says, the father who does not discipline his children does not love them (12:7–8). Children are obligated to their parents at birth and vice versa. If children refuse to obey their parents, there are consequences. Likewise, there are consequences if parents neglect their children. Although the vast majority of these consequences are not dealt with in a court of law, they are nevertheless real and usually very painful: loss of privileges, loss of trust, anger, bitterness, and so on. There is no tension between the fact that a relationship can be both intimate and legal, that is, involving consequences. This is important to remember when we consider the biblical covenants.
Some covenant relationships, however, are less intimate. Think about the relationship between a bank and a borrower in a mortgage. Obviously this relationship is less personal and intimate than the covenant of marriage, yet it is still a covenant of sorts. This is a formalized agreement between two parties that states duties and consequences. The bank agrees to loan the borrower a great sum of money in order to buy a home. The borrower makes a promissory commitment to repay all the money plus interest over a long period. By signing his name to the mortgage documents, the borrower is giving his word that he will fulfill the conditions of the covenant. If he fails to keep his word, sanctions will follow. The house will go into foreclosure. His signature amounts to a self-maledictory oath whereby in essence the borrower says, “If I fail to keep my word, may the curses of this covenant come upon me!”
In one sense, the basic elements of covenant are present every time someone promises to do something for someone else. There are implied positive and negative consequences. If I promise my neighbor that I will collect his mail and put his trashcans on the curb while he is away on vacation, I have given him my word as an oath. If I keep my word, the positive consequence is that I will have gained more of my neighbor’s trust and appreciation. But if I forget, the negative consequence will be my embarrassment and shame. My promise, even in something small, implies sanctions. Our words can bind us to duties and to other people. Grasping this basic fact helps us to understand the nature of the biblical covenants, for a covenant in its fuller sense is a solemn formalization of commitments and promises.
Covenants in the Ancient World
In the ancient Near East, the use of covenants was essentially the same as in our modern world. They were commitments that created relationships with sanctions. Of course, the ceremonies and rituals associated with covenants in the ancient world were much different (and more gruesome) than ours. Instead of taking a self-maledictory oath by signing a contract, an ancient was typically required to participate in a ceremony that involved blood. Because the sanction for not keeping one’s covenant oath was the curse of death, the people making a covenant would kill animals as a symbol of their own death, serving as a warning to the oath taker. This imagery comes across vividly in the Hebrew idiom for making a covenant, which is literally “to cut a covenant.” The cutting referred to the ceremony of killing animals and cutting them in half. The person promising to fulfill the conditions of the covenant would then swear by a god that he would keep his word. Often, this included a dramatic ritual, such as passing between the severed animal or having its blood sprinkled before him. Added to this was a shared meal between the parties who made the covenant. They would eat the animals cut in the covenant ceremony. The meal was reflective of their committed relationship and a reminder of the oath made in the treaty. These rituals varied, however, according to the kind of covenant they accompanied.
The secular use of covenants in the ancient Near East provides us with important cultural background that is helpful for us to understand the religious covenants of the Bible. When God made covenants with his people in redemptive history, he did so in ways they could understand. As he brought Adam, Noah, Abraham, the Israelites, and David into particular covenants, he accommodated his language to fit their historical and cultural context. If God made a covenant with us today, we could expect him to use forms of treaties and legal agreements that are common to our society today. This does not mean that the biblical covenants are exhausted in their secular counterparts, but it does mean that our understanding of God’s covenants is greatly aided by our knowledge of the common ancient covenants.
Furthermore, the Lord’s accommodation to use covenant forms from the ancient world does not mean these are the original pattern for his covenants with his people. Reformed theologians have rightly observed that the original design for God’s covenants is the perfect communion found in the Trinity. As Louis Berkhof (1873–1957) pointed out, “The covenant idea developed in history before God made any formal use of the concept in the revelation of redemption.”
Covenants among men had been made long before God established his covenant with Noah and with Abraham, and this prepared men to understand the significance of a covenant in a world divided by sin, and helped them to understand the divine revelation when it presented man’s relation to God as a covenant relation. This does not mean, however, that the covenant idea originated with man and was then borrowed by God as an appropriate form for the description of the mutual relationship between God and man. Quite the opposite is true; the archetype of all covenant life is found in the trinitarian being of God, and what is seen among men is but a faint copy of this. God so ordered the life of man that the covenant idea should develop there as one of the pillars of social life, and after it had so developed, he formally introduced it as an expression of the existing relation between himself and man.2
We should not be surprised that God adopted covenant treaties for his own purposes, for covenant making among humans reflects the triune God in whose image they are made. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit live in unceasing devotion and commitment to each other. As creatures made in the image of the triune God, we then reflect this life by keeping our promises and committing ourselves to others in ordinary covenant relationships. God used this function of his creatures for his own redemptive purposes to communicate his promises to us. We should be eager, therefore, to grasp the significance of ancient covenants in order to appreciate God’s covenant relationship with us.
The Joy of Studying God’s Covenants
Studying God’s covenants should never be a dry academic exercise. Nor should it be for the purpose of debating and arguing with our brothers in Christ. Studying God’s covenants has one primary goal: to know God and understand our relationship with him more fully. In this way, covenant theology has immense pastoral and practical value for Christians. It revolutionizes our approach to Scripture, providing us with helpful categories to understand the relationship between the Old and New Testaments. It shows us that the Bible is one book with one story, told on the stage of real human history. It highlights the plot line and central point of Scripture, setting every story in the context of the larger story about Christ.
More importantly, covenant theology provides us with the deepest comfort as we learn that God accepts us not on the basis of our covenant faithfulness but on the basis of Christ’s. It sweetens our fellowship with the Father as we come to know of his oath and promises to us, promises that are yes and amen through the Mediator of the new covenant. It changes our view of the local church as we discover that we are part of God’s covenant community and worship him in a covenant-renewal ceremony every Lord’s Day. It transforms the way we see our children, namely, as the baptized members of God’s covenant of grace. It helps us understand that covenant is not a means to an end but it is the end itself—the communion between God and his people.
In the next issue, we will turn our attention to the covenant of redemption. Until then, my prayer is that you will find the study of God’s covenants to enrich your communion with the triune God and strengthen your assurance in his unfailing promises to us in Christ!
1. J. I. Packer, “Introduction: On Covenant Theology,” in Herman Witsius, The Economy of the Covenants Between God and Man (Kingsburg, CA: den Dulk Christian Foundation, 1990), 5–8.
2. Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1938; repr. 1996), 263.
Rev. Michael G. Brown is pastor of Christ United Reformed Church in Santee, CA. He is the editor and contributing author of Called to Serve: Essays for Elders and Deacons. and co-author of Sacred Bond: Covenant Theology Explored.