On the Biblical Covenants

This is a repost of an article I wrote in 2010.  I shall follow it up with a new post on the subject of ambiguity  faith.

As some of you know, I am Founder of TELOS INSTITUTE & TELOS MINISTRIES, an online seminary dedicated to educating God’s people in solid dispensational and presuppositional theology at a low cost.  This ministry also provides me with an outlet for my ongoing development of what I call “Biblical Covenantalism” (see here, and here): a more far-reaching and theologically balanced type of Dispensationalism.

One of the things we do at TELOS is to place a lot of emphasis on understanding the meaning of God’s covenants.  These covenants are easily located in the Bible.  They are the Noahic (Gen. 9:8-17); Abrahamic (Gen. 12:1-3; 15:7-21); Mosaic (Exod. 24:3-8); Priestly (Num. 25:10-13); Land (Deut. 30:3-10); Davidic (2 Sam. 7:4-17); and New (Jer.31:31-36).  The Noahic Covenant provides the time and space framework for history and providence needed for the accomplishment of God’s purposes on this earth.  The Abrahamic contains the seed, land and kingly promises for Israel (thus supporting the Priestly, Land, and Davidic Covenants).  The Mosaic Covenant serves to set apart Israel from the nations while also demonstrating the necessity of a better, New Covenant, by which all God’s plans and promises will be fulfilled through Jesus Christ.  It is because of the tremendous cosmic implications of the outworking of these biblical covenants that we think they should be given more prominence than many others have given them in the past.  Quite simply, we do not think these implications have been examined and set out in a systematic way.  With this in mind it is surely not inappropriate to remind ourselves of some of the considerations involved in “thinking through the covenants.”

1.      When God made a “covenant” – be it unilateral or one-sided (e.g. Noahic) or bilateral, that is, two-sided (Mosaic), there was of necessity a human response to the revelation.  Although it almost seems remedial to say it, we ought to take notice of this necessity of a human response.  For the covenants were made to elicit that response from people!  The one who said “Let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes’ and your ‘No’ be ‘No’” didn’t need to make covenants for Himself!  He always thinks and speaks perfect truth and never has to recant it.

2.      Granted this is self-evident, the real issue is whether the human response is of any import. If the covenant is unilateral the answer is “not really,” unless in acknowledgement of God’s gracious revelation.  For example, God will never bring another global flood upon the world regardless of anyone’s response to His word.  But in the case of a bilateral covenant however, the response of those to whom the covenant is addressed obligates that party to the terms of the covenant.  They must carry out their part.

3.      In both cases the terms are drawn up by the Superior Party (the ‘Suzerain’ or Ruler). In the unilateral treaties in the OT it is the Suzerain (e.g. God) who obligates Himself, while no obligation to bring about the fulfillment of the terms of the covenant come upon the second party (e.g. Abraham in Gen. 15 or Israel in Jer.31). And even though the unconditional covenants may have subsidiary conditions appended to them (like circumcision for example), these conditions in no way absolve God from His obligation to bring the wording of His covenant to pass.

4.      The various contexts in which the OT covenants were “cut” do not allow for much ambiguity. Always the divine initiative is to the fore, and always a trajectory, in line with God’s overall purpose, is announced and usually set in motion. As most of God’s covenants are one-sided in character (Noahic, Abrahamic, Land, Priestly, Davidic, New), Divine obligation becomes a sort of “test” of God’s own Self-revealed nature (e.g. His veracity, omnipotence, immutability, righteousness). These things must be kept in mind when interpreting the New Testament.  It is because these matters are lost sight of that many Christians ignore God’s responsibility to do exactly what He has obligated Himself to do.

5.      As an example of this we should note that the word employed by NT writers to denote a covenant (“diatheke”), abandons its standardized Greco-Roman meaning of “disposition” (in the sense of legal settlement), or “last will and testament” (a meaning the writer of Hebrews may momentarily exploit in Hebrews 9:16-17), and instead we must allow the Bible to define its own use of terms so as not to misread it.  In the Book of Hebrews the central quotation from Jeremiah 31 in Hebrews 8:8f. (taken together with Christ’s allusion to it at the Last Supper) is decisive.

As D. Hillers rightly says,

The point worth noting is that the death of Jesus has suggested the meaning he [the writer of Hebrews] attaches to diatheke, “covenant,” and not the reverse. – Delbert R. Hillers, Covenant: The History of a Biblical Idea, (1994), 182

Moreover, once it is understood that the LXX or Septuagint, which was the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures often used by the Apostles, uniformly uses the one-sided term “diatheke” instead of the more usual two-sided term “syntheke,” to translate the Hebrew word for covenant (“berith”), then clearly the choice of diatheke deliberately lays stress upon God’s liability to accomplish His promises.

6.      Personally speaking, I don’t see why dispensationalists have pulled their hair out over the New Covenant. To me at least, the language of Luke 22:2, made as it was with those who were to become “foundations” of the church (see Eph.2:20), and repeated imperturbably by Paul in I Corinthians 11:25; when taken with the argument in Hebrews, decisively shows that Jesus, “the Mediator of the New Covenant”, made the New Covenant with the Church!  If one is expecting to find that truth in Jeremiah or Ezekiel then one is not a dispensationalist. Those prophets did not envisage “the Body of Christ,” so naturally they did not write about the relationship of the New Covenant to the Church.

Does this necessitate two separate new covenants? No indeed! It means only that the same new covenant was given to the Church as shall be given to Israel.  The New Covenant promises to Israel are not the New Covenant promises to the Church.

7.      That the Church does bear a relationship to the Abrahamic Covenant is certain.  Paul, in fact, shows this by quoting Genesis 12:3 (“in you [Abram] all the families of the earth will be blessed”) in Galatians 3:8, using it as a basis for his doctrine of justification!  But if the Church is related to the Abrahamic Covenant (at least via Gen. 12:3), how does the Church gain access to this promise?  There is no mechanism within the Abrahamic Covenant that can deliver its provisions to the rightful recipients, whether Israel or the Church.  And that is where the New Covenant comes in!

8.      We ought not to speak of the New Covenant as revealed in the OT as possessing distinct blessings which are absent from the Abrahamic Covenant. There simply is no way into those blessings without the New Covenant. And it is the same for the Church. The same New Covenant is needed for the Church to enter into its blessings (e.g. Gal. 3:6-9).


7 thoughts on “On the Biblical Covenants”

  1. Dear Paul,

    I have really enjoyed reading your blog articles. As someone coming from the covenant theology side and wanting to explore Dispensationalism I starting looking for a Systematic Dispensationalism which I have never found. Lots of books on prophecy but not much else.
    For someone wanting to read about covenant theology there is any number of good self contained books. Sadly this is not the case for Dispensationalism.

    Perhaps it is time for you to write a book on Biblical Covenantalism?

    I appreciate your recommended book list and I just finished Erich Sauer’s The Dawn of World Redemption but it would be nice to have a medium level book in Dispensationalism that deals with other topics in addition to eschatology. The cost of entry to Dispensationalism is rather high. One has to read a number of different books, aritcles etc to get a full treatment.


    1. Well John,

      I am actually writing just such a book, although I wouldn’t call it popular, and perhaps not ‘medium level.’ I have to include enough explanation of method and presuppositions to give it a grounding. Anyway, DV it will be ready in about a year.

      I appreciate your comment!

      Your brother,

      Paul H

    1. Slowly! I’m at Noah and am dealing with whether it is the first covenant, and am also writing a digression on the understanding of “covenant” in CT, NCT, TD, and PD.

  2. Dr. Henebury, thank you for your ministry, it has so greatly benefited and blessed me. I have two questions of clarification.

    If you say that the New Covenant did not have any provisions for the church in the original promise of it to Israel in the OT, but that the New Covenant is made with the church also now in the NT, at the Last Supper… how do you respond then to those who say the same thing has happened with the Abrahamic Covenant… for example, in Eph. 2, we used to be excluded from citizenship in Israel, but now we are made citizens. It can sound from this passage, as well as Gal. 3:29, as though we, since we are in Christ, are parties to all the covenants now since we are the seed of Abraham by virtue of being in Christ.

    Also, if it is the same New Covenant given to Israel and the Church, what do you mean by “The New Covenant promises to Israel are not the New Covenant promises to the Church.” it certainly seems that the church recieves the spiritual blessings promised to israel in the NC (new heart; final forgiveness of sins; indwelling Holy Spirit).

    1. Thanks for the questions. Here are my (quick) thoughts:

      1. My position is that covenants cannot be made to mean something other than what they say. This means that no covenant can be altered so as to replace one group of designated people with another different group. However, the covenant, either the whole or in part may comprehend other parties if they are explicitly included later, but without at all contravening the original oath(s). This is precisely what we find with both the New covenant and the Abrahamic covenant.

      With the NC we see the “new man”, the church, which is not mentioned in the OT, included in the provisions of the NC, and that explicitly. It is very important to note that all the other covenants must run through the NC to be fulfilled. Because this is so, the church’s inclusion in the NC does not give them the right to the Priestly or Davidic promises or the specific promises of land and nation given to Israel. It does give them salvation in Christ.

      With the AC we have only one aspect of the three provisions given to the church. The other two (land and nationality) are left unaffected. again, this is delineated in the NT where Paul is careful to quote only those aspects of the AC which correspond with Genesis 12:3.

      I think I need to be clearer on these questions than I have been, so you may expect an article from me at some point. I appreciate the prodding.

      God bless you and yours,

      Paul H

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