What is a Biblical Covenant? – Part Two

A Biblical Covenant is a thing of tremendous importance for the student of Scripture.  For one thing, these covenants (made e.g., with Noah, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Moses, David) were made by God Almighty Himself.  When God deigns to make a covenant with men one can be sure that He has some great strategic purpose in mind.  In which case it is crucial to pay close attention to what is stated, otherwise the intention of God forecasted in the covenant will be missed.

We saw in the last post that Covenant theologians impose extra-biblical covenants like the “Covenant of Grace” upon the covenants of Scripture.  This flattens out these covenants and allows the covenant theologian to pronounce them “one” while ignoring the details within.  We believe this to be a serious error.

Although helpful work has been done regarding the parallels between the OT covenants and ancient Near Eastern treaties, it should not be forgotten that, as Charles Scobie says, “Considerably more significant for the biblical understanding of covenant is the way the term is used in the OT itself.” – Charles H.H. Scobie, The Ways of Our God, 475.  The covenant made with Noah in Gen. 9:8-17 is obviously an unconditional covenant (it is made with the creation as well as with man).  God promises Noah, who found grace in His sight, that He would preserve the planet in perpetuity (see 8:22), thus ensuring there would be a history upon whose stage the events of the Old and New Testaments, together with their effects, would be played out.

Likewise the covenant with Abraham (see esp. Gen. 15) does not entail any stipulations on Abraham’s side to bring it to fulfillment (although it must be stressed that certain conditional elements like circumcision were necessary to remain within the bounds of the covenant – Gen. 17:1-14).  God promised Abraham that He would make him a great nation (Gen. 12:2; 17:8), that he would receive personal blessing and honor (Gen. 12:2-3a), would be the father of many nations (17:4), and that kings would come from him (Gen. 17:6).  He also promised him that his physical descendants would inherit the land to which he had been called (Gen. 12:7; 15:13-15; 17:8).  These promises were repeated to Isaac and Jacob (Gen. 26:1-5; 28:13-15) and they have not been, nor cannot be rescinded (e.g. Psa. 105:7-11; Jer. 33:23-26).  The same can be said with reference to the Davidic covenant “Royal-grant” (e.g. 2 Sam. 7:8-17; Psa. 89:20-37; Jer. 33:17-21).

We have examined only three of the seven biblical covenants, and the others should be studied on their own merits.  But there is one final point which should be made: that is, one can not go changing the plain meaning of covenants.  Covenants are contracts.  In fact, the LXX, the ancient Greek OT, translate the Hebrew word berith (“covenant”) with the more specific term diatheke meaning “testament.”  This is also the favored term in the NT.  If a covenant cannot be altered this is certainly true when it is a testament (Gal. 3:15).  We say, then that only a dispensational interpretation will allow the biblical covenants to say what they say, and will allow the student of Scripture to make sense of them without having to be concerned with whether they conflict with the demands of some external “Covenant of Grace.”

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