In This Article Covenant

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Seminal Contributions in the History of Scholarship
  • Biblical Theologies
  • Covenant in the Second Temple Literature and Dead Sea Scrolls

Biblical Studies Covenant
by
John Bergsma
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 September 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393361-0225

Introduction

The precise definition of covenant (Heb. b’rith, Gk. diatheke) is a matter of scholarly debate, but many contemporary scholars would agree that it denotes a sacred relationship of obligation established by means of an oath. The oath could be expressed in words, rituals, or both. The resulting obligations were sometimes expressed as laws in a text documenting the covenant relationship. Many are also convinced that covenant was, in essence and origin, a legal means to extend kinship bonds to a party not related by blood. Therefore, familial language (“father,” “son,” “brother”) and affective terms (Heb. ahaba, “love”; hesed, “faithfulness”) were often used to describe or prescribe the relationship of the parties. Other scholars would define covenant in a more limited fashion, as a “solemn promise made binding by an oath,” or even merely as a synonym for “duty” (German Pflicht) or “obligation” (German Verplichtung). Covenant is certainly a central theme in biblical literature, biblical theology, and biblical religions. A series of covenants between God and central figures of sacred history (Noah, Abraham, Moses, David) structures the so-called “Primary History” of the Hebrew Bible (Genesis through Kings). Covenant themes and motifs are significant, even dominant, in the Psalms and (Latter) Prophets. Only in the wisdom literature is the covenant theme muted, though it is often present subtly and implicitly. The New Testament presents Jesus as the anticipated “anointed one” come to establish the new covenant promised by the prophets (cf. Jer. 31:31; Luke 22:20). Rabbinic thought everywhere presupposed (and presupposes) a covenant between Israel and God, as discussed in Sanders 1977 (cited under Covenant in Paul Generally). Likewise, various early Church Fathers recognized the divine economy (i.e., salvation history) as divided into stages marked by covenants with key biblical figures. Explicit discussion of the covenant or covenantal concepts faded in the medieval period, but again became a major theological topos in the Reformation, especially within the Reformed (Calvinist) tradition, which continues to produce a disproportionate amount of scholarship on biblical covenants. The Dispensationalist movement in American Protestantism likewise takes great interest in covenant as an organizing principle for the stages of salvation history. Within Catholic theology since the mid-20th century, there has been a revival of interest in the covenant and its significance for biblical studies, sacramentology, and liturgy. There was a flurry of interest in covenant in critical scholarship in the mid-20th century, when parallels between ancient Near Easter covenant texts and those in the Old Testament were first recognized. Enthusiasm has since waned, but research continues steadily, albeit more slowly.

General Overviews

All of the following are short book-length treatments of the idea of covenant in the Bible and/or biblical religion, accessible to the educated reader without presupposing specialized knowledge. An effort has been made to choose works of authors from a variety of confessional traditions: mainstream Protestantism is represented in Hillers 1969 and Brueggemann 1999; the Reformed (Calvinist) tradition in Dumbrell 1984, Horton 2006, and Williamson 2007; Evangelical Protestantism in Walton 1994; Catholicism in Guinan 1975 and Faley 1997; and Judaism in Levenson 1985. Most of these books would be suitable as an introduction to the general field of covenant studies for an interested reader, or for use in an undergraduate course in Bible or biblical theology. Persons interested in an even shorter introduction to the field should also feel free to consult the dictionary and encyclopedia articles listed under Reference Works.

  • Brueggemann, Walter. The Covenanted Self: Explorations in Law and Covenant. Edited by Patrick D. Miller. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1999.

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    A collection of essays by one of the foremost biblical theologians in mainstream Protestantism. Interprets the scriptural text in conversation with the “object relations theory” of modern psychology, which views human growth through the lens of our capacity for interpersonal relations, which Brueggemann calls “othering.” Psychology enables Brueggemann to develop the biblical notion of covenant in nonlegalistic terms, involving “revolutionary discipline, devotion, and desire.” Perhaps a challenging read for the undergraduate student.

  • Dumbrell, William J. Covenant and Creation: A Theology of Old Testament Covenants. New York: Thomas Nelson, 1984.

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    Dumbrell sees a primordial covenant present from creation, which is renewed and reconfigured through salvation history in the various covenants of the Old Testament and ultimately into the New Covenant in Christ. Thus, there is fundamentally one divine-human covenant established in creation, which finds its eschatological fulfillment in the New Creation.

  • Faley, Roland J. Bonding with God: A Reflective Study of Biblical Covenant. New York: Paulist, 1997.

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    A conventional study reviewing the last century of covenant scholarship, especially focused on the Sinai covenant. Faley argues that covenants ritualized saving events, and always included both affective and bilateral elements, even when such are not explicit in the biblical text.

  • Guinan, Michael D. Covenant in the Old Testament. Chicago: Franciscan Herald, 1975.

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    An older, very brief Catholic introduction to covenant thought in Scripture, Guinan is notable for his succinct threefold typology of covenants: “an obligation can be taken up oneself, imposed on another, or mutual obligations may be assumed.” He places the various biblical covenants in these categories.

  • Hillers, Delbert R. Covenant: The History of a Biblical Idea. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1969.

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    This classic work summarizes the approach to covenant of the “American school” of Old Testament archeology (W. F. Albright and his students) and biblical theology at the height of its influence in the mid-20th century. Biblical covenant texts are treated not canonically, but in the order in which the American school thought they were composed.

  • Horton, Michael. God of Promise: Introducing Covenant Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2006.

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    A distinctly Reformed (Calvinist) approach to biblical covenant theology, which combines advances in modern scholarship (e.g., the discovery of ancient Near Easter covenant-treaties) with a commitment to theological categories formulated in the Reformation. For Horton, covenant is a relationship of oaths and bonds involving mutual commitments. He fits the biblical narrative into a traditional Reformed theological construct of three eras: covenant of works, covenant of law, covenant of grace.

  • Levenson, Jon D. Sinai and Zion: An Entry into the Jewish Bible. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1985.

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    Valuable for both Jewish and Christian readers, this book is a perceptive introduction to covenant theology of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament from one of the world’s foremost Jewish biblical theologians. Levenson argues that a creative tension between the Mosaic-Sinai covenant emphasizing the obligation of the law and the Davidic-Zion covenant of eschatological promise together give the Jewish Scriptures their characteristic dynamic.

  • Walton, John H. Covenant: God’s Purpose, God’s Plan. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994.

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    A conservative Evangelical overview of covenant theology that tries to move beyond some stalemated positions in both traditional and dispensationalist Protestant scholarship. Walton advocates a “revelatory” view, in which the purpose of the covenant is God’s self-revelation oriented to establishing a relationship with humanity.

  • Williamson, Paul R. Sealed with an Oath: Covenant in God’s Unfolding Purpose. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2007.

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    A careful and sophisticated canonical reading of the biblical covenants from Genesis to Revelation, broadly in the Reformed stream but interacting with the best of critical scholarship. Williamson acknowledges but deemphasizes the kinship aspect of covenant. He denies an Adamic or creation covenant, but enumerates Noahic, Patriarchal (i.e., Abrahamic), National (i.e., Mosaic), Davidic, and New covenants in the rest of Scripture. His concept of eschatological covenant consummation needs further development.

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