Two Covenants

Are the two major divisions of the Bible really “testaments” or “covenants”?

In what way are the major divisions of the Bible “testaments” or “covenants”? Are “Old Testament” and “New Testament” just arbitrary titles, or are we really to understand them as somehow actually being covenants?

The other day I wrote about the biblical warrant for calling our two major divisions of Scripture the Old and New Testaments. I explained that 2 Corinthians 3:6, 14 is a solid basis for calling them what we do, either formally or at least informally. Today I want to peel back the onion one more layer. I want to get deeper into why we can and should call them covenants, beyond simply that the Bible itself calls them that.

Michael Kruger’s “Canon Revisited”
Michael Kruger’s “Canon Revisited”
For this I have to lean on a book I recently read, Michael Kruger’s Canon Revisited: Establishing the Origins and Authority of the New Testament Books. In a chapter on the apostolic origins of the New Testament canon, Kruger tackles exactly this question, concluding that canon is itself derived from redemption and covenant.

If you think about it, what are the most important sections of our two testaments? For the Old Testament, the important section is the Torah, the Pentateuch, the five Books of Moses, which tell of God establishing the old covenant with his people Israel through Moses as mediator. The important section of the New Testament is the four Gospels, which tell of a new covenant God has established with his people through Christ as mediator.

What about the rest of Scripture? Everything else in the Old Testament took place and was written in the context of the old covenant, and everything else in the New Testament was written in the context of the new covenant. Kruger explains, taking a cue from other scholars such as Meredith Kline, that the prophetic books of the Old Testament and the epistles of the New Testament function as “covenant lawsuits”, bringing charges against God’s covenant people for various offenses against the covenant. So these secondary documents even function as an important part of the written form of each covenant.

So our two collections of Scripture are certainly about covenants, but in what sense can we call them covenants or testaments in and of themselves? Here, Kruger helpfully explains that every covenant in the ancient near east included certain elements. One important element was the depositing of a written copy of the covenant to be kept by both parties in a safe place. A notable example of this custom is the ten commandments, written by God himself on stone tablets, being deposited in the Ark of the Covenant and kept in the tabernacle and later the temple in Jerusalem. Kruger argues, and I agree, what we have in our Old and New Testaments is nothing less than the written deposit of God’s covenants with man.

Given this function of these written texts, it is right not only to say they are about covenants, but to call them covenants in and of themselves. And isn’t this what we saw in my previous article? Paul considered the written text of the Old Testament synonymous with the old covenant when he said in 2 Corinthians 3:14: “when they read the old covenant”. 

Two Testaments

Where do we find biblical warrant for the terms “New Testament” and “Old Testament”?

Bible by Adam Dimmick
Photo credit: Bible by Adam Dimmick
Where do the terms “Old Testament” and “New Testament” come from? What do they mean? Is it right for us to name the two divisions of our Bible this way?

Melito of Sardis is widely regarded as the person who coined the terms “Old Testament” and “New Testament”. His is the earliest known canon (list of books) of the Old Testament (circa 180 CE). But I discovered recently that the New Testament itself spoke of the Old and New Testaments a century before Melito.

In 2 Corinthians 3:14, Paul refers to the “old covenant” as a written document (“when they read the old covenant”). It’s important to explain here that the word for “covenant” in this passage is the Greek διαθήκη (diathēkē), which variously means “testament” or “covenant”. Look at this same passage in the King James and you’ll find the word “testament” there in place of “covenant”. When Melito of Sardis coined the terms, he was writing in Greek and used exactly this word διαθήκη.

What’s remarkable is that just 8 verses back, in 2 Corinthians 3:6, Paul states that God has made him and the other apostles “ministers of a new covenant” (same word διαθήκη, and if you look at the KJV you’ll find “new testament” here). It’s hard to escape the implication that Paul knew he was contributing to a new collection of Scripture which he would at least informally have referred to as the “new covenant” just as he referred to the Jewish Scriptures as the “old covenant”.

It’s impossible to know for certain if this is where Melito got his terms for the Old and New Testaments, but I think it’s a remarkable coincidence if not. I think perhaps it would be better for us to call them the Old and New Covenants, but Testament is a valid translation of διαθήκη and it’s rather late to change our conventional English wording now. Whether we call them Covenants or Testaments, though, I see 2 Corinthians 3:6, 14 as a solid biblical basis for naming our two collections of Scripture as we do. 

On consistency between Biblical authors


I was explaining to my wife the other night that whenever I encounter a difficult passage in the Bible, I try to look for related information from the same writer. I don’t immediately jump over to passages in other books of the Bible, pitting one passage against another and letting them duke it out to see who wins. This kind of Bible bashing is, in my opinion, a fundamentally flawed approach and should not be employed by anyone who holds to the principles of perspicuity and inerrancy of God’s word. Instead, I try to understand the difficult passage in its own context, and by context I mean moving in concentric circles from the paragraph to the chapter to the book and then finally to other books by the same writer.

In our brief discussion, my wife agreed with me about context being important, but she found it curious that I would say that I look at statements by the same author and try to avoid other authors until I have a greater understanding of what that one author really meant. I’ve been approaching scripture this way for a while almost without thinking about it and without ever expressing or explaining it to anyone else, and her curiosity about it set in motion some introspection and self-reflection about why I do it. These comments are an attempt to set into words my thought process.

Why do I stay within single authors?

From the world’s perspective, the Bible was written by several individual men. From a Christian worldview, the various scripture books all had one author, namely God, notwithstanding they were written as God inspired those individual men.

If it can be shown that any Biblical author contradicts himself (is not internally consistent within his own writings) then we have really serious problems. Either (1) that author was of lesser intelligence and incapable of articulating cogent and consistent arguments or (2) that author was insane and actually concurrently believed contradictory truth claims, (3) that author changed his mind at some time or (4) at least some or all the documents claimed to be by that author are of dubious authorship and were therefore mistakenly included among the canon.

If it can be shown that the several Biblical authors are each internally consistent, but that they contradict each other, then we can conclude the Bible was written by intelligent but uninspired men who held to cogent and consistent but nevertheless contradictory and competing worldviews. It then becomes a contest as to which one of these authors’ systems of theology is inspired (and thus true) and which are wrong, or if they are all wrong together.

If it can be shown that each Biblical author is internally consistent and is furthermore externally consistent with all other Biblical authors, in other words, that the Bible taken as a whole is internally consistent, then that is possible cause for believing that God authored the scriptures. Considered another way, a necessary condition (but not a sufficient condition) for accepting the Bible as God-inspired is being able to show that the whole Bible is internally consistent.

It is in consideration of the above three “ifs” (the above three paragraphs) that I pay very careful attention to the various authors to make sure they are consistent within their own writings and also with the other authors. If one passage in the Bible seems to contradict the rest of the Bible theologically, I first look for instances from the same author where he is consistent with the rest of the scriptures. Then I consider why he may seem to be contradicting himself in the one passage in question. I try to consider that one author in a vacuum and interact with only his writings before I begin to look outside his writings.

Some working examples

So, for instance, when I look at a difficult passage for perseverance of the saints like Hebrews 6:4-6, I don’t immediately jump over to the best related verses by other authors in other books of the Bible (like John 6:37-40 or John 10:28-29), but I stay right where I am and notice Hebrews 6:9-12, where the author clarifies what he really meant in Hebrews 6:4-6 by stating that, “though we speak in this way,” he is confident that his audience won’t really fall away from faith. Moving further out, but staying with the same author, I find Hebrews 7:25; Hebrews 10:14; Hebrews 10:36-39; Hebrews 12:2 and Hebrews 13:5. Clearly the author of Hebrews positively affirms the doctrine of perseverance of the saints.

Another good example is a difficult passage for limited atonement, 1 John 2:2. Compare and contrast that to the almost word-for-word passage John 11:51-52. The parallel statement by the same author helps to clarify the author’s intended meaning. Additionally, passages like John 6:38-39; John 10:11; John 10:14-16; John 13:1; John 15:13; John 17:1-2, 9; 1 John 3:16 and Revelation 5:9 help to establish that John did indeed hold to the doctrine of limited atonement.

Not just for difficult passages

I should mention that this doesn’t apply only to difficult passages. For instance, as John Piper recently pointed out, 1 and 2 John are the best commentary you’ll ever find on Jesus’ new commandment in John 13:34-35.

A corollary to this whole idea is not only looking for consistency within authors but looking for consensus among several authors. For instance, in Sunday School at Jordan Presbyterian Church this morning, Pastor Reid found evidence for the historicity of the universal deluge by surveying various Old and New Testament authors. The author of 1 Chronicles includes Noah in Abraham’s genealogy (1 Chronicles 1:4) and Luke includes him in Jesus’ genealogy (Luke 3:36), so they both evidently believed Noah was a real person. Furthermore, Isaiah, Jesus (attested by both Matthew and Luke), the author of Hebrews and Peter all treat the flood as though it was a real historical event (See Isaiah 54:9; Matthew 24:37-39; Luke 17:26-27; Hebrews 11:7; 1 Peter 3:20 and 1 Peter 2:5). Whether you realize it or not, if you allegorize the flood then you are calling into question the credibility of all these Biblical figures.

Conclusion

So I hope I’ve helped you see why paying attention to authorship is a huge part of my hermeneutic—my way of learning from and interpreting the Bible. Realizing how the Old Testament prophecies of Jesus are so amazingly fulfilled in the New Testament was one of the things that made me recognize the authenticity of the Bible in the first place. Realizing further that the Bible was written by multiple authors and yet they are all consistent in what they believed and taught has really helped to solidify that belief for me. I hope I’ve encouraged you to look at the Bible in a different way as you consider the various authors and how they support each other. 

Photo credit: le vent le cri.

Web browsers and Bible translations

It occurred to me just now, while reading the comments on an article about Internet Explorer market share, that something from the tech realm is roughly analogous to something in the theology realm: web browsers and Bible translations.

Browsers

There are many different web browsers on the market today. They are all free, so cost is not a differentiating factor. What are the differentiating factors? Well, some browsers seem to care more about web standards and become the darlings of web designers. Some browsers care more about user features and become the favorites of web surfers and tinkerers, and some browsers come bundled with operating systems and become the default for people who don’t understand they have a choice.

Which browser do I use? Honestly, it depends on the mood I’m in. At work on my PC I go back and forth between Firefox and Chrome; at home on my Mac I go back and forth between Chrome and Safari. When I need my web development and debugging tools, I have to use Firefox. When I want something a little snappier for regular web browsing, I like Chrome and Safari. I’m kindof a snobby web designer, so I do try to avoid Internet Explorer, but honestly, I use it more than you might think. I do a lot of testing in IE, and I’ve even been known to use IE when I just need to look up something quick, or when I need to log into a different e-mail or Twitter account and I don’t want to log out of my main account in my other browser.

Bibles

There are many different Bible translations on the market today. Comparable paperback, hardcover, or leather editions usually sell at about the same price point no matter which translation you choose, so, again, cost is not a differentiating factor. What are the differentiating factors? Well, some Bibles care more about getting the Word into a mode of speaking that is more vernacular, closer to the ground, so to speak, closer to the language of the common man. These Bibles become the favorites of youth ministries and evangelical outreach ministries trying to put the Bible into the hands of folks who’ve never read it. Other Bibles emphasize accuracy and literal conformity to the original languages. These become the darlings of seminarians and theology snobs.

Which Bible do I use? Honestly, it depends on the mood I’m in. I go back and forth between the ESV and the NLT, and this year, due to the momentous anniversary, I’ve been reading the KJV. If I’m doing intense study of a book or chapter, I prefer the ESV or the NASB. If I’m just reading straight through, I like the NIV (I don’t have a problem with the 2011 update), the NLT, and I’ve even been known to use The Message when I get in a really particular mood for that kind of thing.

One more thing…

One last similarity between these two seemingly disparate things, and this is what I was reading this morning that made me think of this whole subject, is that there are people who swear by one browser or one Bible and refuse to use the others. These people get so militant and evangelistic that they try to convert other people to their camp. Me, I just use all of them. I see value in all of them for various situations and purposes. Browsers are just tools. They all access the same web, and are really only as good as their developers and development philosophies, and some are better than others for various reasons. Bibles are tools too. They are all translations of the same Word of God, and are really only as good as the translators and their translation philosophies, and some are better than others for various reasons.

Am I crazy to see these similarities? Am I crazy to use more than one browser and more than one Bible? Let me know what you think in the comments. 

Bible literacy

TIME Magazine Cover: Why We Should Teach The Bible In Public School - Apr. 2, 2007

I read a controversial article the other day in TIME Magazine: “The Case for Teaching The Bible”, which makes a clear call for courses teaching about the Bible in public high schools. The author, David Van Biema, TIME’s senior religion writer, carefully couches his call with some guidelines, namely that such teaching must be entirely secular and constitutional. The emphasis within the teaching should be on the Bible’s impact on Western history, literature, and culture.

The article mentions a couple of groups producing texts for such classes, including The Bible Literacy Project, which, in cooperation with The First Amendment Center, published a document in 1999 called “The Bible & Public Schools: A First Amendment Guide” and has more recently released a textbook called The Bible and Its Influence.

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