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Saturday, April 4, 2009

The Structure of Salvation History, Part 1: Defining "Covenant"

Although the structure of salvation history is not at the heart of the larger controversy, it is an aspect of the discussion; and, one's approach to structure will determine the light in which his “big picture” is set. Any discussion regarding this structure must involve “units” (covenants, dispensations, etc.) and these units must be defined. The way in which one defines his unit of emphasis will determine how and where that unit is applied, and this can have significant ramifications.

Recognizing the importance of this, we must ask, what is a covenant? The word is used over 300 times in Scripture, yet it is used in such a multiplicity of ways that we have a difficult time nailing down a definition. That notwithstanding, there is only one Hebrew word (berith) and one Greek word (diatheke) translated “covenant.”

As we survey the multifaceted uses of covenant in Scripture, it quickly becomes apparent that we must boil “covenant” down to a common denominator, and “arrangement” is a good place to start. “Arrangement” is a broad enough term to include every use; indeed our own use of the word can be legal-contractual, relational, promissory, imposed or volitional, etc. Along similar lines, Blaising says, “the word used in the Bible to refer to a variety of formal or legal agreements.”

A covenant-arrangement is usually promissory, although “promise” may capture the meaning of one arrangement better than the next. A strait-forward promise is a kind of arrangement, but not every arrangement is a strait-forward promise. Some arrangements are promissory only in the sense that each parties' intent to “keep his end” is implicit.

In the ancient world, covenants could be of either the “grant” variety or the “suzerain-vassal" (Lit. “king-subject”) variety. The former was unilateral, involving an unconditional promise; the latter was bilateral, involving a conditional promise.

Some covenant-arrangements are not really promissory at all. For instance, Jerimiah 34:8-10 demonstrates that the range of meaning for “covenant” is broad enough to include a law or command.

Covenants are sometimes relational. Of course, they are always relational in the sense that any arrangement creates some kind of relationship (political, legal, etc.). But I mean more than this: sometimes, covenants create intimate, familial relationships (Jer. 31:32).

A covenant-arrangement involves stipulations; but, again, “stipulation” may communicate the way one arrangement works better than the next. For instance, in Genesis 17, God imposes a stipulation (circumcision) on the other party; but, some other arrangements have stipulations only in the sense that one party places a “stipulation” on himself by promising to do something.

Covenants are binding impositions—sometimes imposed on one party by a greater, sometimes imposed on one party by himself—but either way, they are never portrayed an anything less than a binding imposition.

Just how binding are covenants? The answer is that they are made “in blood,” which is to say that they are made “to the death.” Berith is popularly thought to be a derivative of the verb “to cut,” bara. Indeed, the word translated “make” in the phrase “make a covenant” is always this word for cut, so that the phrase literally reads “cut a covenant.” This almost certainly refers to the customary cutting of an animal in the making of a covenant, which symbolically communicated, “may this be done to any party that breaks this covenant.”

One final note is that, apparently, a covenant does not need to be named as such in order to be one: Hosea 6:7 refers to God's works-arrangement with Adam (obey and live, disobey and die) as a covenant.

So, having approached “covenant” both inductive-contextually and lexically, I conclude that a covenant is a “binding arrangement.” Adding to this definition may exclude some Scriptural uses of the word. However, one's understanding of this definition should be filled out by everything discussed above.

1 comment:

Michael.Gabriel said...

Acknowledging the fact that there have been a few covenants "cut" in redemptive history, I assume that you would still recognize the legitimacy of the use of the word "dispensation" or "economy" in the sense that God has given His people a number of responsibilities to be carried out in a number of ways within the various covenants, right?

Maybe you could expound in a later post how you would fit these "dispensations" into the covenants?

Dramatized Exegesis