‘Covenant’?

This is an elaboration of some thoughts that I posted recently on an e-mail discussion list.

Recently I have begun to wonder whether it would be a good idea to try to wean myself off the word ‘covenant’. This decision has not come about through any abandonment of theology that I previously held. Rather, it is due to the increasing belief that the term is generally unhelpful in conveying my beliefs and could happily be substituted for by others. I am not suggesting a complete rejection of the term. What I am suggesting is that we give it a far more modest semantic range and use it in a more biblical sense.

On of the problems with the word ‘covenant’ is that the word has become particularly appropriated by a certain part of the evangelical church. It is probably the most popular buzzword in a Reformed and Presbyterian context and can be found on the covers of myriad publications and in the names of hundreds of churches and institutions. The word has become so associated with Reformed and Presbyterian theology, to the extent that in certain circles the word ‘covenant’ may be regarded as having sectarian connotations and be seen as threatening. For people who operate within a highly Reformed context, ‘covenant fatigue’ can set in when every initiative, theological idea or institution has to employ the word ‘covenant’ somewhere.

The word has also become the centre of a number of theological controversies. ‘Covenant’ is one of the most important and theologically loaded words in the Reformed vocabulary. Consequently, the stakes are very high when it comes to defining the term. The manner in which we define this term tends to have a significant effect on the entirety of our theology. All sorts of debates arise on this question. I am not sure that, given the far more limited use of the term in Scripture, this is an entirely helpful situation.

The Scriptures generally seem to be able to speak about so-called covenantal realities without using the term ‘covenant’. Where the word is employed in Scripture, it seldom, if ever, refers to an overarching and governing theological concept of ‘Covenant’ (such as one finds in chapter VII of the Westminster Confession of Faith, for instance) and more to one particular historical covenant or other. I think that it would be healthy if we tried to do the same.

The other impression that I get is that in Scripture the word ‘covenant’ is used to refer to the more formal aspects of God’s relationship with His people. Not all favourable relationships with God are ‘covenantal’. God’s relationship with people like Noah, Abraham and David preceded the more formal covenants that came later on in their lives. In the same way, there were certain aspects of their relationship with God that were particularly ‘covenantal’ and certain aspects that they enjoyed in common with other people who were not in any formal covenant relationship with God.

The place of blood in the formalizing of God’s relationships with His people is especially significant. Look at the NT references to the new covenant and you will notice that almost all of them make some form of reference to blood and, outside of the book of Hebrews where the New Covenant is spoken of in a more general sense, all but a couple of them have reference to the cup in the Lord’s Supper. Being in covenant with God is not merely a matter of believing in Him and reading His Word. It is a relationship that is formalized by blood.

Hebrews 9 speaks of the connection between blood and covenant:

Therefore not even the first covenant was dedicated without blood. For when Moses had spoken every precept to all the people according to the law, he took the blood of calves and goats, with water, scarlet wool, and hyssop, and sprinkled both the book itself and all the people, saying “This is the blood of the covenant which God has commanded you.”

The parallel with the language of the Eucharistic rite is strong (cf. Matthew 26:28; Mark 14:24; Luke 22:20; 1 Corinthians 11:25). The blood that formalized the old covenant was the blood sprinkled by Moses; the blood that formalizes the new covenant is the blood drunk in the Eucharist. This is one of the reasons why I think it surpassing strange when people talk about their children being in the covenant, yet prevent them from partaking of the Eucharist. Such a relationship is as suspect as an unconsummated marriage.

A further negative effect of the overuse of formal terms like ‘covenant’ is the shrinking of the reality to which they refer. The precise formal definition of the term is kept to the forefront of our mind and the complex realities to which it refers is consistently simplified, muting some of their most interesting aspects. I am not sure that one-size-fits-all terms like this are so helpful. I prefer when people vary their terms when referring to truths of Scripture. Rather than just speaking about ‘justification’, we start to use a number of different terms — ‘vindicated’, ‘set to rights’, ‘acquitted’, ‘rectified’, etc. — each of which captures aspects of the reality that the term ‘justification’ by itself is prone to obscure or leave unrevealed.

I feel that the term ‘covenant’, if used in isolation from other terms, lends itself to an over-formalized conception of our relationship with God. It needs to be used alongside other close synonyms and less formal terms like ‘relationship’, ‘communion’, ‘promise’, ‘bond’, ‘marriage’, ‘treaty’, ‘community’, etc., and needs to be supplemented with the terminology of participation, for example. ‘Covenant’ focuses too much on the formal aspects of a relationship, on the character of the bonds that hold people together, rather than on the bonded relationship itself.

The term ‘covenant’ is an overly-precise term if we seek to apply it as broadly as we generally do. It is too limited a tool to deal with the complicated realities that the Scripture presents us with. Used in a more limited domain and in concert with other terms it can be profoundly helpful, but outside of this area and in isolation from other terms it can do more harm than good.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
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7 Responses to ‘Covenant’?

  1. Byron says:

    Amen. Once again, you’ve expressed something I’ve been feeling. I’ve often had the experience of words becoming zombies – they still shamble along, but without life, indeed sucking the life of those around them, and feeding upon brains until zombies are multiplied.

  2. Al says:

    Wow. Good analogy!🙂

  3. son calvin says:

    merci a vous tous

    cela m’aide richement

    a profondir sur la connaissance biblique du theme(Alliance=Covenant)

  4. Daniel Kirk says:

    Well done, Alistair.

    One other reason I have done the same: the “definition” issue is not only freighted, it is circular. People carefully define “covenant” so that all the things they’ve previously decided are “covenants” fit into it.

    Strong post–many would do well to follow your path.

  5. solly gratia says:

    I agree, and have been drifting this way too. Covenant for me describes the internal workings of whatever God is up to.

    Any ideas for a substitute?

  6. Al says:

    Solly,

    I am not sure that any single substitute would do. I think that we would probably be better off spreading the weight of meaning over a number of complementary and slightly overlapping terms.

  7. Pingback: Ten Years of Blogging: 2005-2006 | Alastair's Adversaria

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