At this point it is good to stop and summarize what we have done. Essentially, I have attempted to define the covenant by using Deuteronomy as a model.
Perhaps the reader notices that I have not resorted to any particular “etymological” or word study. I agree with O. Palmer Robertson’s conclusions, former professor of Old Testament at Westminster Theological Seminary, when he says, “Extensive investigations into the etymology of the Old Testament terms for ‘covenant’ (berith) have been proven inconclusive in determining the meaning of the word.” Trying to “word study” one’s way to a conclusive understanding of the covenant is, as Delbert Hillers has pointed out, “Not the case of six blind men and the elephant, but of a group of learned paleontologists creating different monsters from the fossils of six separate species.” In short, this is “dry bones” scholarship!
Even so, we are not left in the dark about this basic concept. I have used a broader and more contextual approach. Deuteronomy is so systematic that it has been the basis of my conclusions. Five principles have been isolated by comparing Deuteronomy with suzerain treaties and reflecting on the details of the Biblical text itself.
- First Point of Covenantalism: True Transcendence
All covenants begin with a statement of Lordship by distinguishing God from man one of three ways: creation, redemption, and revelation. The key statement of Lordship in this section is, “Moses spoke… all that the Lord had commanded him to give to them” (Deut. 1:3). The covenant declares God’s Lordship by distinguishing God’s words from Moses’. True transcendence lies in this distinction of essence. At the same time, the proper view of transcendence leads to immanence: God is present. True transcendence is personal.
This covenantal declaration at the beginning also establishes a legal basis for forming a covenant, called the doctrine of imputation. All covenant arrangements are rooted in the legal. Man cannot connect with God in His “essence.” If God and man are not joined in their essence, then they have to relate covenantally and ethically. Christianity is not like a totem pole religion with false oaths, rites of passage, and secret societies. This first point of the covenant lays out the parameters to understand the covenant.
- Second Point o f Covenantalism: Hierarchy
Biblical hierarchy is the representative principle (Deut. 1:6-4:49). God and man are distinct. Therefore, God makes His transcendence known through visible authorities. They mediate His judgments. To reject them is to reject God’s judgment. But this authoritative structure is not a complete top-down bureaucracy. There are accountability principles for everyone. Each person is responsible to submit to someone. At the same time, this submission is not absolute. God creates an appeals system to handle disagreements.
All of this has historical consequences. The second section weaves history and authority together (Deut. 1:6-4:49). The world turns according to man’s response to God’s mediated system of judgment manifested in His appointed authorities. History is the outworking of this redemptive program. God’s Revelation has similarities. He always works by means of His covenant. Yet, there are dissimilarities. The progressive nature of God’s Revelation brings about change, due to the historic shift from wrath to grace at the cross. Everything that happens relates directly to this program of redemption. If God’s people rebel, they are judged by the world. If they submit, the covenant community passes judgment on the world and converts it. History is covenantal. Events are not random, nor are they disconnected from what happens in the covenant. Everything transpires according to God’s redemptive purposes.
- Third Point of Covenantalism: Ethics
There is an ethical cause and effect relationship. Things do not happen mechanically, manipulatively, or magically. Covenant-keeping leads to blessing. Covenant-breaking results in cursing. Fulfillment of righteousness is the ethical core of the covenant. Deuteronomy 5-26 summarizes the Ten Commandments, sometimes called the “stipulations” section (Deut. 5-26). This ethical relationship is not just external compliance. God expects proper motivations (faith), standards, and situational applications.
- Fourth Point of Covenantalism: Sanctions
The covenant is ratified through the reception of the sanctions of blessing and cursing by means of a self-maledictory oath. God takes an oath by His own Trinitarian name. He pledges to fulfill the covenant on Himself. This form of covenant-cutting expresses that God fulfills His own standard of righteousness, but it also states that the participant is expected to live consistently with the covenantal stipulations. Should he fail to do so, one of the dual sanctions take force: cursing. Thus, the covenant is unconditional, but there are terms of unconditionality.
Symbols are part of this process of entrance by oath. They are real symbols. They are not nominal, having only symbolic value. They are not realistic, infusing grace. They are covenantal claims of God. Their meaning and power are in His name who stands behind them. They claim a person to life or death, depending on whether he lives according to the terms of unconditionality. Because these symbols represent God’s Trinitarian name, which is One and Many, they are applied to individuals and households, which are one and many.
Finally, the ratification process is actually an adoption. A change of name occurs. God becomes the true Father by covenant. Man ceases to be a covenantal orphan.
- Fifth Point of Covenantalism: Continuity
After ratification, the true heirs should be confirmed. Normally this legitimization takes place in three stages. First, the heirs are confirmed by covenant renewal, the laying on of hands at a meal.
Second, the heirs are confirmed when they take possession of their inheritance by obedience to the covenant. Third, the future heirs have to sustain the inheritance through the discipleship of the next generation.
A breakdown in confirmation leads to discontinuity. First, if the covenant is denied, or not confirmed, there is no succession from the historic past. Second, failure to obey leads to defeat. Third, permissiveness toward the future accounts for the loss of inheritance in the next generation.
This is the covenant, and this is the model we shall be using throughout the book. Perhaps, however, the reader might wonder, “Is there any way of evaluating this model to see if it is an ‘exceptional’ case? On what basis can I conclude that this structure of the covenant holds true for the rest of the Bible?” The only way is to check and cross-check with other Scripture. One of the checks is “covenants within covenants.”
Covenants Within Covenants
The Bible is a covenant document. We have only looked at one expression. But at the outset, it should be understood that “covenant” is so much a part of the warp and woof of man and God’s world that there are covenantal patterns within the various parts of the covenant. In the covenant model of Deuteronomy, the same five-fold structure is within the individual points on a much smaller scale, confirming the larger model.
For example, in the continuity section, we find the basic overall covenantal pattern. Moses’ “Song of Witness” follows the five points of covenantalism: Preamble (32:4-6), historical prologue (32:7-14), rebellion to stipulations (32:15-18), sanctions (32:19-43), and transfer of the covenant to Joshua (32:44ff.).
Also, although the covenant can be broken down into five parts, it is not unusual to see elements of each one under one of the main points of the covenant.
Deuteronomy chapter five falls in the ethical section. But it mentions some of the sanctions of the covenant. Does this mean our selection of principles is arbitrary? No, the overall context of Deuteronomy five is in the ethical category.
Moreover, using the ethical point of covenantalism as an example, we could say that each part of the covenant is ethical. It is not as though only the third point is ethical. How do I make distinctions then? Again, the key is context. Even though we might find an aspect of one of the points of covenantalism out of place, or see each point in every category, the broader context follows the five-fold pattern of Deuteronomy. Furthermore, the repeated use of the five points of covenantalism becomes a cross-check on itself.
Deuteronomy has been used as the model of covenantalism, because it is the most systematic presentation in Scripture. It is to the covenant what Romans is to doctrine. But is this structure practical? How does it shape our view of the world? I have tried to show in these brief introductory chapters how the covenant relates to other parts of the Bible. Now I want to shift our focus to how the covenant works in society. I believe it is the model for how the Christian is to live in and evangelize society. Let us begin with a brief introduction to this idea. Let us start with perhaps the most basic commission given to the Christian, the Great Commission. In the next chapter we will see that our Lord presents it in the very covenantal framework we have been studying. This means the mandate of Christ is really dominion by covenant.
 O. Palmer Robertson, The Christ of the Covenants (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1980), p. 5. Robertson has an excellent summary of various etymological findings in such sources as Moshe Weinfeld, Theologisches Worterbuch zum Alten Testament (Stuttgart, 1973), p. 73; Leon Morris, The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross (London, 1955), pp. 62ff.; Martin Noth, “Old Testament Covenant-Making in the Light of a Text from Mari” in The Laws in the Pentateuch and Other Essays (Edinburgh, 1966), p. 122; E. Kutch, “Gottes Zuspruch und Anhspruch. Berit in der alttestamentlichen Theologie,” in Questions disputees d’Ancien Testament (Gembloux, 1974), pp. 71ff.; Kutch simply revives the basic idea of one of the earliest covenant studies by Johannes Cocceius. See study by Charles Sherwood McCoy, The Covenant Theology of
Johannes Cocceius (New Haven, 1965), p. 166. Anyone wishing to see the various views that have been taken on the basis of pure etymology can consult these sources.
 Delbert R. Hillers, Covenant: The History of a Biblical Idea (Baltimore, 1969), p. 7.
 See appendixes one through six for a complete study of other passages that serve to cross-check my study of Deuteronomy.