We live in a world of broken promises. A fragile web of truthful communication and practical commitments connect us to one another, and when any part of that web comes under significant stress, the trust on which our relationships depend can easily break. Self-interest—that is, outright violation of our commitments (“what we have done,” in the prayer of confession)—isn’t all that tugs on this web; often the pursuit of things that are in themselves worthy but subordinate goods (“what we have left undone”) tug on it as well. Either way, we transgress the law of love.
As Jesus reminds us, there is an inseparable connection between the “two tables” of the Law: love of God (the vertical dimension) and love of neighbor (the horizontal). In the fall of humanity in Adam, recapitulated in the history of Israel, human relationships fray as a result of prior infidelity to their covenant Lord. Yet before, during, and after humankind’s broken promises, the promise-making and promise-keeping God is present and will not let the web fall apart.
God’s very existence is covenantal: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit live in unceasing devotion to each other, reaching outward beyond the Godhead to create a community of creatures serving as a giant analogy of the Godhead’s relationship. Created in the image of the Triune God, we are by nature outgoing, interdependent relationship establishers, finding ourselves in the other and not just in ourselves. Unlike the persons of the Trinity, we at one time did not exist. But when God did decide to create, his decree was not that of a lonely monarch, but of a delighted Father, Son, and Holy Spirit establishing a creaturely, finite analogy of their eternal giving and receiving relationship. We were not just created and then given a covenant; we were created as covenant creatures—partners not in deity, to be sure, but in the drama that was about to unfold in history. As covenant creatures by nature, every person has a relationship with God. What exactly the nature of that relationship happens to be after the fall will be taken up at some length in this book, but there can be no doubt: everyone has a relationship with God, and that relationship is covenantal. Since that is true, it stands to reason that we would want to know more about the nature of that relationship.
So what exactly is a covenant? Anticipating the definition in the next chapter, we can start by saying that from the most commonly used Hebrew word for this concept (berit), a covenant is a relationship of “oaths and bonds” and involves mutual, though not necessarily equal, commitments. As we will see shortly, some biblical covenants are unilaterally imposed commands and promises; others are entered into jointly. Some are conditional and others are unconditional. In other words, under the overarching concept of oaths and bonds we encounter a substantial variety of covenants in Scripture.
How remarkable it is that a great God would stoop not only to create finite analogies of himself, but that he would condescend still further to establish a partnership with them, commissioning them to exercise his own righteous and generous reign over the rest of creation.
My goal for this brief survey is to show the richness of this covenantal web and its centrality to the organization of the Bible’s diverse teaching. “Reformed theology is simply covenant theology,” according to I. John Hesselink. In other words, Reformed theology is guided by a concern to relate various biblical teachings to the concrete covenants in Scripture as their proper context. But is that the usual perception today? People readily associate “Reformed” (i.e., Calvinistic) theology with the so-called Five Points of Calvinism, with its famous TULIP acronym (total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, perseverance of the saints). Encountering the God of sovereign grace is one of the most life-changing experiences in the Christian life, but it is only the beginning of what Reformed theology is all about. While some friends and critics of Reformed theology have reduced Calvinism to “five points,” or further still, to predestination, the actual confessions, catechisms, and standard doctrinal works of the Reformed tradition all testify to a far richer, deeper, and all-embracing faith in the God of the covenant. Reformed theology is synonymous with covenant theology.
The last century of scholarship has helped to strengthen the traditional Reformed homage to the covenantal motif. In the mid-twentieth century, George E. Mendenhall, consolidating a number of studies by others, demonstrated the remarkable parallels between the Hebrew Scriptures (i.e., Old Testament) and ancient Near Eastern (i.e., secular) treaties. “The names given to the two parts of the Bible in Christian tradition rest on the religious conception that the relationship between God and man is established by a covenant.”1
Although secular scholars also have their own presuppositions and biases, it is unlikely that the recent consensus on the significance of covenant in the Scriptures is the result of a commitment to a central doctrine. One hobby of theologians is to pick out a central teaching in a given religion or theological system by which all of its doctrines and practices can be understood. So, for example, it is said that Rome begins with the doctrine of the church and deduces everything else from it; Lutherans do the same with justification, and Calvinists treat predestination and the sovereignty of God in that manner.
The impression is therefore given that a systematic theology is imposed externally on the biblical text, not allowing Scripture to speak for itself. That this has happened sometimes in Reformed as in other traditions is no doubt true. However, this whole approach to defining core beliefs has come under great suspicion for very good reasons in our day. It reduces a complex network of interrelated themes to a single dogma from which everything is logically made to follow. Although one can find some examples of this simplistic approach in Reformed circles, which always gives rise to various factions of those committed to this or that emphasis, one is hard-pressed to find much resemblance here to the mature development of Reformed theology in its most representative statements.
For example, while divine election is a crucial doctrine in Reformed theology, it is treated in the confessions and catechisms as an important doctrine alongside others. And it certainly never functions as a central dogma from which everything else can be deduced logically. Rather, it is articulated and defended within a web of associated beliefs, all of which are supported by careful exegesis (interpretation of the Scriptures).