Supplemental: Interpreting the Bible Through the Lens of Covenant

As we read through the Bible over the course of the next two years, I want to do everything I can to ensure that you get the most out of what you’re reading. Now, don’t get me wrong, God’s Word is living and active. It’s sharper than any two-edged sword. God’s Word will always accomplish God’s purposes, and you don’t have to be a scholar to understand the essentials of the faith. As our confession says, “All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all: yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed for salvation, are so clearly propounded, and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them.”[1] Some things in Scripture may be difficult to understand, but the essentials are so clearly communicated that you can have confidence that you will be able to understand them.


Yet my job is, in part, to help you with the things that “are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all.” That’s why I’ve committed to writing these posts each week, so that I can walk beside you and hopefully help you see things a little more clearly. Most of the time, that assistance will take the form of me walking through a chapter of the Bible with you, giving my commentary, and suggesting application. But occasionally we need to take a step back and look at some more “big picture” issues, what biblical scholars call “hermeneutical principles.”


Now, hermeneutics is just a fancy word for interpretation. Think of hermeneutics as lenses through which we view the text of Scripture. Everyone has them. For instance, Lutherans view Scripture through the lenses of “Law and Gospel.” They ask, “Is this passage telling us an obligation that we have towards God, or is it giving us a promise from God?” Another popular hermeneutical framework in America is what’s called “Dispensationalism.” This view asks the question, “To whom is this passage written? Is it written to the ‘grace age’ or to the ‘law age’?” Now, you can pretty easily see how a different hermeneutical framework will make a Lutheran and a Dispensationalist come to wildly different conclusions when reading, say, the text from Matthew 5 that yesterday’s post addressed. A Lutheran would have an interpretation almost identical to my own, whereas a dispensationalist might look at Christ’s teaching on the law and conclude that he was speaking to the church under the dispensation of law, and on that basis say that Christ’s teaching in Matthew 5 is not binding on the church today.[2]


The Reformed Hermeneutic: Covenant

When the Reformed approach Scripture, one of our most important hermeneutical principles is Covenant Theology. Covenant Theology is so important for the Reformed that Ligon Duncan says, “Reformed theology is covenant theology.”[3] Understanding the covenantal structure of Scripture is, from the Reformed view, indispensable if one is to rightly handle the Word of truth. Richard Belcher puts it this way:


There are many concepts in Scripture that cannot be understood properly without understanding the covenant. Jesus used covenant terminology at a Passover to explain the significance of His death (Luke 22:20). Paul uses the language of covenant curse in explaining the importance of participating in the Lord’s Supper in a worthy manner (1 Cor. 11:25, 29). The book of Hebrews speaks of a covenant mediator in reference to the high priestly work of Christ (Heb. 8:6). Covenant is so central to the outworking of God’s plan of salvation that the gospel needs the framework of covenant theology. Covenant explains the work of Christ on the cross, the administration of salvation in the Old Testament, the administration of salvation in the New Testament in the covenant signs of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and the relationship established between God and His people. Covenant give assurance to God’s people that a relationship with God is secure through covenant promises (see God’s response to Abraham in Genesis 15 and 17).[4]


Next week, in our Old Testament readings we will come to what’s called “The Abrahamic Covenant.” In order for you to understand what you’re reading, I want to give a brief introduction to Covenant Theology, just some general guidelines to serve as a framework for interpreting Genesis 12-22. You may remember that wrote a brief Introduction to Covenant Theology a year ago. Well, here’s a bit more introduction to Covenant Theology.


What is a Covenant?

O. Palmer Robertson defines a covenant as “a bond in blood sovereignly administered.”[5] Dr. Robertson goes on in his book, The Christ of the Covenants, to explain why each part of that definition is important. A covenant is a bond. It joins two parties together. Michael Horton rightly observes, “As covenant creatures by nature, every person has a relationship with God.”[6] We have a relationship with God because God has made a covenant with humanity (more on that below).


This bond is in blood, in other words, it’s life or death. Kim Riddlebarger (following Meredith Kline) speaks of a covenant as a “relationship under sanctions.” There are blessings for obedience and curses for disobedience.[7] Robertson argues the very nature of a covenant entails obedience upon pain of death. He writes, “A covenant is a ‘bond-in-blood,’ committing the participants to loyalty on pain of death. Once the covenant relationship has been entered, nothing less than the shedding of blood may relieve the obligations incurred in the event of covenantal violation.”[8] Finally, this bond in blood is sovereignly administered. Robertson writes, “No such thing as bargaining, bartering, or contracting characterizes the divine covenants of Scripture. The sovereign Lord of heaven and earth dictates the terms of his covenant.”[9]


Richard Belcher lists the following as essential elements of a covenant. In other words, for there to be a covenant, these must be present:


  1. Parties – Since a covenant is a bond, there must be two sides bonded together.
  2. Conditions – The relationship will be governed by certain conditions, obligations which one (or both) of the parties will take an oath to uphold. The oath will be very important in the covenant with Abraham. Whether these conditions are met will lead to…
  3. Blessings and Curses – If the conditions are met, there are blessings. If the conditions are not met, there are curses.
  4. Representative – When the United States enters into a treaty relationship with another country, the entire populace doesn’t negotiate the treaty. A small team of representatives of the U.S. will reach an agreement with representatives from the other county, after which another group representing the people of the U.S. will ratify the treaty. The same is true in covenants. Adam represented all mankind. Abraham represented all his descendants. Moses represented the nation of Israel. Christ represents all his people.
  5. Signs – Things that “point to the blessing of the covenant relationship.” These would be things like the rainbow, circumcision, the Passover meal, baptism, and the Lord’s Supper.[10]


How Many Covenants are There in Scripture?

There are two covenants in Scripture. Now, just in case any of my pastor friends read this, I’m simplifying things a bit. Theologians are not in agreements on many of the details (what to call the two covenants, for instance). And, some of you may be wondering why I said there are two covenants and not three. Perhaps you’ve heard people talk about the “Eternal Covenant of Redemption.” Well, to make a long story really really short, I’m following O. Palmer Robertson in seeing two covenants in Scripture. God had a decree to save his people from their sins, but that was his decree, not a covenant.[11] The common names for these covenants are the Covenant of Works and the Covenant of Grace.


In the Garden God made a covenant with Adam (the parties). God required perfect obedience from Adam (the conditions). He promised him life for obedience and death for disobedience (the blessings and curses). Adam was then given the responsibility to instruct his wife, and any descendants who would follow, regarding the nature and terms of this covenant (representative principle). And, finally, God placed the tree of life in the midst of the Garden (the sign of covenant blessings). Adam, of course, broke this covenant, and the covenant curse of death spread to all his descendants.


Every successive covenant recorded in Scripture is what we call an “administration” of the one Covenant of Grace. This Covenant was given immediately after the fall in Genesis 3:15, where God promises that one day the seed of the woman would crush the head of the serpent. Each successive covenant is the outworking of that one promise. In the various administrations, the elements listed by Belcher will be somewhat different. The representative, for instance, changes a couple of times, but the substance of the covenant does not. As Robertson writes, “Diversity indeed exists in the various administrations of God’s covenants…But the diversity ultimately merges into a single purpose overarching the ages.”[12]


So, as we encounter the story of Abraham next week, try to keep this covenantal framework in mind. Who are the parties? What are the conditions? What are the blessings and curses? Looking for these essential elements of a covenant will help you understand the account better. If you have questions, please ask. If you have my email from when we sent out the Bible reading plan, don’t hesitate to send me your questions. If you don’t, contact one of the elders, and they’ll provide it to you. Or, better yet, ask me on Sunday. Let’s all, as a church, be thinking about, discussing, and growing to know more and more about the things of God.

[1] WCF I:7

[2] “The ‘dispensation of grace’ stands out quite distinctly as an epoch with a concrete beginning and ending. It begins with the rejection of Christ by the Jewish nation and ends with the establishment of the millennial kingdom.” O. Palmer Robertson, The Christ of the Covenants (Phillipsburg: P&R, 1980), 222. I suppose I should stress that not all Dispensationalists would say this, but it is a perfectly consistent position to hold within Dispensationalism.

[3] Ligon Duncan, “Forward,” in Covenant Theology: Biblical, Theological, and Historical Perspectives, ed. J. Nicholas Reid Guy Prentiss Waters, and John R. Muether (Wheaton: Crossway  2020), 23. Italics mine.

[4] Richard P. Belcher Jr., The Fulfillment of the Promises of God: An Explanation of Covenant Theology (Fearn: Christian Focus, 2020) 17-18.

[5] Robertson, The Christ of the Covenants, 4.

[6] Michael Horton, God of Promise: Introducing Covenant Theology (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 2006), 10.

[7] Kim Riddlebarger, A Case for Amillennialism: Understanding the End Times, Expanded Edition. ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2013), 59.

[8] Robertson, The Christ of the Covenants, 11.

[9] Ibid. 15.

[10] Belcher, The Fulfillment of the Promises of God, 24-26.

[11] “The intention of God from eternity to redeem a people to himself certainly must be affirmed. Before the foundation of the world God set his covenantal love on his people.

But affirming the role of redemption in the eternal counsels of God is not the same as proposing the existence of a pre-creation covenant between Father and Son. A sense of artificiality flavors the effort to structure in covenantal terms the mysteries of God’s eternal counsels. Scripture simply does not say much on the pre-creation shape of the decrees of God. To speak concretely of an intertrinitarian ‘covenant’ with terms and conditions between Father and Son mutually endorsed before the foundation of the world is to extend the bounds of scriptural evidence beyond propriety.” Robertson, The Christ of the Covenants, 54.

[12] Ibid. 61.