Covenant theology is something we often discuss but rarely define. Dr. John Tweeddale describes four terms that define covenant theology.
The great preacher Charles Haddon Spurgeon said that “the doctrine of covenant lies at the root of all true theology, so he that understands it is a master of divinity.” That was Spurgeon’s opinion. The problem, however, with covenant theology is that it is something that we often discuss but rarely define. So when we are thinking about covenant theology, it is helpful to take a step back and for us to define our terms—just to think about the basic nuts and bolts of covenant theology. And here, like most things, we just need to define our terms. A little bit of language knowledge goes a long way. Let me give you just four terms that really define covenant theology.
The first is a Hebrew term, ברית (berith). This simply means to cut a covenant. It speaks to the fact that in the ancient world covenants were often confirmed through blood sacrifice. So one biblical scholar O. Palmer Robertson very famously defined a covenant as a bond in blood sovereignly administered. The classic case for this is found in Genesis 15 where God ratifies or confirms His covenant with Abraham through a sacrifice. So the first term is berith. It refers to the fact that God cuts a covenant or confirms a covenant through sacrifice.
The second term is a Greek one, διαθηκη (diatheke). It means a pact, agreement, or testament, a last will that someone might draw up for the benefit of their heirs. If you’ve ever had a last will and testament drawn up, you understand that the benefits of your state are given to your heirs upon your death. Throughout the Bible, we understand that the benefits of the covenant are secured for us through the death of the Lord Jesus Christ. And so, the book of Hebrews uses this word diatheke to help us understand that a testament is basically pointing to the fact that God’s covenant is secure through the death of the Lord Jesus Christ. And so we have an Old Testament and a New Testament.
The next term is the term foedus. It’s a Latin term. We use this when we talk about the federal government. A federal government is one where a representative represents or speaks on behalf of the people. Covenant theology is sometimes called federal theology. It’s a relationship through representation. And we actually read in the Bible that there are two covenants and two representatives. Adam represents the covenant of works; Christ represents the covenant of grace. So covenant theology is a theology or relationship through representation.
The last word is pactum. Very similar to foedus, it is a Latin term that points to the fact that the members of the Godhead entered into an eternal pact to secure our salvation. So all of these terms point to the fact that covenant is at the heart of the Bible. As John Owen famously said, “All theology is founded on covenant.”
Dr. John Tweeddale is academic dean and professor of Theology at Reformation Bible College.