IIIM Magazine Online, Volume 1, Number, 6 April 5 to April 11, 1999

Part 1 of 2

by John M. Frame

Reformed theologians have commonly found in the covenant motif a helpful way to show forth the unity of the Bible. Traditionally, these writers have found in Scripture two major covenants, sometimes called the covenant of works and the covenant of grace. The former embraces the pre-fall period. In it God offers an eternal life of blessedness (symbolized by the tree of life) to Adam and Eve on the condition that they abstain from the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. After the fall into sin, God sets forth the covenant of grace: a promise of redemption through the divine messiah received through faith alone.

The covenant of grace, in turn, encompasses, on the traditional view, all the post-fall historical covenants including those with Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, and the “new covenant” effected by the blood of Jesus himself, of which the earlier covenants are but anticipations.

On this understanding, the whole Bible, diverse in content as it may appear at first sight, can be seen as a story of God making covenants and man responding to them. The books of law show what God expects of his covenant people. The books of history indicate man’s actual response. The Psalms contain the praise, the laments, the questionings, the blessings and cursings which should be on the lips of a covenant people. The wisdom books contain applications of the covenant law to human problems. The prophets bring God’s covenant lawsuit against the covenant breakers while at the same time promising covenant renewal. The Gospels and Acts present the history of the new covenant, which is applied to believers and to world history in the epistles and Revelation.

Recently, Meredith G. Kline has made some significant additions to our knowledge of the nature of biblical covenants. In his Treaty of the Great King1 and especially in his The Structure of Biblical Authority2 he has noted some important relations between covenants and the nature of the Bible.

His view is that “covenant” in Scripture often refers to a specific literary form common in the ancient near east, of which a number of extra-biblical examples (especially from the Hittite culture) are extant. Covenants between Yahweh and Israel, says Kline, are most closely analogous to the Hittite “suzerainty treaties” of the second millennium B.C. These are treaties between a great king and a lesser king, and they have a fairly standard form consisting of the following elements:

  1. Name of the Great King
  2. Historical Prologue
  3. Stipulations (Laws)
    1. Exclusive loyalty (=love)
    2. Specific requirements
  4. Sanctions (Blessings and Curses)
  5. Administration

Kline finds this literary form in the Decalogue (Exod. 20:1-17), and he identifies the Book of Deuteronomy as a whole as a suzerainty treaty between Yahweh and Israel.

Section A makes clear that the great king, not the vassal, is the author of the document, and that its provisions are his own will. So Yahweh in Exodus 20:2 announces, “I am Yahweh your God.” Note also the emphasis on the divine authorship (even divine publication!) of the document in Exodus 24:12; 31:18; 32:15ff.; 34:1,27ff.,32; Deuteronomy 4:13; 9:10ff.; 10:2-4.

Section B indicates the previous benefits conferred upon the vassal by the suzerain: “who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.”

Section C shows how the suzerain expects the vassal to respond to these benefits: “You shall have no other gods before me,” etc. The First of the Ten Commandments is a love commandment; for “love” was the term used for the kind of exclusive covenant loyalty required in the covenant law. This is followed by various specific commandments spelling out how one should behave if he is exclusively loyal to Yahweh.

Section D indicates the consequences of obedience (blessing) or disobedience (curse). In the Decalogue, these are not put into a separate section (although they are in Deuteronomy: see chapters 27, 28), but are found in and with other commandments, e.g. curses in the Second and Third, blessings in the Fifth. Note that one’s good standing in the covenant relation depends on his obedience or disobedience to the written covenant document.

Section E indicates how the covenant is to be administered. Copies of the covenant document are to be placed in the religious sanctuaries of suzerain and vassal (cf. Deut. 31:26), there is provision for periodic public reading (31:9-13), there are rules of dynastic succession (31:1-8). The covenant document stands as a witness: not man’s fallible witness concerning God, but God’s infallible witness against his disobedient people (31:26). Again, the emphasis is on the divine authority of the document.

Here we find the first clear scriptural references to a written document divinely authored, which because of its divine authorship bears full divine authority. Not surprisingly, Kline finds here the origin of the idea of an authoritative canon. Seen in this way, the concept of an authoritative written word of God does not begin with twentieth century fundamentalism, nor seventeenth century orthodoxy, nor medieval scholasticism, nor post-apostolic defensiveness, nor late Jewish legalism. Rather, it is embedded in the original constitution of the people of God and is assumed throughout Scripture.

Kline holds that the original covenant document, the Ten Commandments, written by the finger of God (Exod. 31:18; 32:16) on two tables of stone, is the seed of the biblical canon. Additional writings were added to the covenant document as history progressed (see Josh. 24:25ff.). These described the history of Israel’s response to the covenant (Genesis – Esther); the covenant servant’s praises, laments, questions (Psalms); covenantal wisdom (Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs). The prophetic books describe, as we saw earlier, God’s covenant lawsuit and promises of covenant renewal. Kline offers a similar analysis of the New Testament which, nevertheless, he regards as a new and separate canon directing a “new” covenant.

This covenantal model of canonicity is enormously helpful in dealing with questions concerning biblical authority, infallibility and inerrancy. On this model, God is the ultimate author of Scripture,3 and we vassals have no right to find fault with that document; rather we are to be subject to it in all our thought and life.

What I would like to do now is to show that Kline’s thesis is also helpful to our understanding of the unity of Scripture. Let us assume for now that Kline’s model is correct; those who have doubts may pursue his arguments for themselves. And then let us ask what that model implies with regard to the unity of the biblical text.

The treaty form, as described above, is certainly a diversity-in-unity. It is a single document, with a single purpose, to govern a vassal people in the name of a Great King. Yet to accomplish this single purpose, five different sections are necessary, as we have seen. These five sections define five types of revelation found within Scripture:

  1. Revelation of the name of God
  2. Revelation of God’s mighty acts in history
  3. Revelation of God’s law
    1. Love
    2. Specific requirements
  4. Revelation of God’s continuing presence to bless and curse
  5. Revelation of God’s institutional provisions: Scripture, church, sacraments, discipline, etc.

Name-revelation (A) is an important form of revelation in Scripture. In a narrow sense, we may think of God’s names as the various words used to designate him: Yahweh, Elohim, Adon, Theos, etc. Those names are an important aspect of scriptural revelation. Dramatically, God appears to Abram and says, “I am God Almighty El Shaddai; walk before me and be blameless” (Gen. 17:1). Inaugurating another era of revelation, God comes to Moses in the burning bush and declares his name to be “I am that I am” (Exod. 3:14) and Yahweh (verse 15, evidently related in some fashion to the verb “to be”; cf. Exod. 6:1-3). God performs his mighty acts “that they may know that I am Yahweh” (Exod. 14:18; 1 Kings 8:43; Pss. 9:10; 83:18; 91:14; Isa. 43:3; 52:6; Jer. 16:21; 33:2; Amos 5:8). As El Shaddai marked God’s covenant relation with Abraham, so Yahweh marks the covenant relation between God and the nation Israel. All of God’s mighty acts he performs in order to proclaim, display, and advance that covenant relation. In the new covenant, it is the name of Jesus into which people are to be baptized (Acts 2:38), in which we trust (1 John 3:23), through which we are to pray to God (John 16:23ff.), and in which we perform all our labors (Col. 3:17).

God’s names also have meaning. Yahweh, for instance, connotes God’s sovereign control over the world, his ultimate authority to determine standards for intelligent beings, and his covenant solidarity and presence with his people.4 When God reveals himself as Yahweh, he stresses those elements of his character.

In a still broader sense, God’s “name” (shem or onoma, without a proper name) is a way of referring to God himself in all his self-revelation (cf. Josh. 7:9; Ezek. 20:9). In this respect it is a near synonym of the “word of God.” To praise the name of God is to praise him; to dishonor the name is to dishonor him. Note the unity between the name of God and God himself in passages such as Exodus 33:19; 34:6ff.; Psalms 7:17; 9:10; 18:49; 68:4; 74:18; 86:12; 92:11; Isaiah 25:1; 26:8; 56:6; Zechariah 14:9; Malachi 3:16.

The second form of revelation (B) is also prominent in Scripture. Scripture may be called the story of God’s mighty deeds performed for the salvation of his people. Whether called “signs,” “wonders,” or “mighty acts,” God does amazing works to accomplish the redemption of his people and the judgment of the wicked, from the flood of Genesis 6–9 to the final judgment. In the biblical history, especially important roles are given to the deliverance of Israel from Egypt and to the greatest miracle, the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. This is, essentially, the message of God’s grace. It tells us what God has done for his people; it enumerates his free gifts. It includes all of what is called redemptive history, but also creation and providence: Pss. 104; 136:4,25; 145:4-6,12.

Law-revelation (C) is also important within Scripture. The torah is the heart of the Old Covenant, giving instruction in God’s standards, which are invoked throughout the Old Testament. Throughout the historical, poetic, wisdom and prophetic books, God calls his people back to obey his commandments. The written torah is that law in which the righteous man meditates day and night (Ps. 1:2); it is the law which is “perfect, restoring the soul” (Ps. 19:7). It is the word of God to which praises are sung in Psalm 56:4,10; 119:161ff.; etc.

Jesus also comes bringing commandments which his disciples are to obey. Though rejecting the attempt to save oneself by keeping the law, the New Testament nevertheless stresses our obligation to keep the commandments of Jesus (Matt. 7:21ff.,28ff; Mark 8:38; Luke 8:21; 9:26ff; John 8:47; 12:47ff; 14:15,21,23ff.; 15:7,10,14; 17:6,17; 1 Tim. 6:3; 1 John 2:3-5; 3:22; 5:2ff.; 2 John 6; Rev. 12:17; 14:12.

Sanction revelation (D) can also be found throughout Scripture. God’s covenants are two-edged. Those who are faithful to the covenant receive blessings; those who are not faithful receive curse. Many in Israel falsely trusted in their covenant membership, as if being children of Yahweh they could sin with impunity. But God responded to them with devastation and exile, preserving the faithful remnant. In time it becomes evident that only Jesus is the perfectly faithful remnant. He bears the curse for his people — for all who are joined to him by God’s election (Gal. 3:13; Eph. 1:4). Yet even under the new covenant there are those who attach themselves to God’s church who later prove to be devoid of true faith and outside of God’s electing love. Those receive exceptionally severe curses as those who rebelled against Christ in the face of intimate knowledge (Heb. 6:4-6; 10:26-31). Biblical writers never tire of presenting the enormous consequences of faith or unbelief: the rewards coming to God’s people, the dreadful judgments upon the wicked.

Finally, Scripture is also concerned with the continuing life of God’s people, with those arrangements (E) by which the word of God is preserved and applied to each generation. The original covenant document was placed by the ark of the covenant, the holiest place among the people of God. It was, as we have seen, to be read publicly from time to time. God established prophet, priest and king to rule his people according to his word. In the new covenant, Jesus fulfills these offices; but he too is concerned that his church be built on a firm foundation (Matt. 16:18ff.). He appoints the apostles to remember his words (John 14:26) and to convey new truth from the spirit (John 15:26; 16:13). The apostles, in turn, establish the offices of elder and deacon (Acts 6:1ff.; 1 Tim. 3:1ff.; etc.)

Therefore, even if we have reservations about Kline’s thesis that the Scripture historically developed from the original covenant document, we must admit that the five major elements of the covenant form each represent an important aspect of biblical revelation.

1.Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1963.
2.Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972.
3.But meaningful human participation in the production of Scripture is by no means excluded; see Exod. 34:27ff. in comparison with verse 1.
4.See my Doctrine of the Knowledge of God (Phillipsburg, N. J.: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1987), 15ff. I expect to argue these points in more detail in my forthcoming Doctrine of God.