On Defining Covenant

One of the factors of the current covenant conundrum that is casting an ominous fog over Reformed churches is the difference in defining “covenant.”  Very recently, some such as A. Hoekema and H. Hoeksema before him have defined covenant as a redemptive relationship or salvific friendship.  In other words, these two men (and others with them) in the 20th century limited their definition of covenant to only include redemption and salvation.

How has the Reformed church defined covenant – generally speaking – throughout the ages?  Let’s go back and see.

 1) Zacharius Ursinus (d. 1583): “A covenant in general is a mutual contract, or agreement between two parties, in which the one party binds itself to the other to accomplish something upon certain conditions, giving or receiving something, which is accompanied with certain signs and symbols, for the purpose of ratifying in the most solemn manner the contract entered into, and for the sake of confirming it, that the engagement may be kept inviolate.”  (Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, p.  97).

2) Francis Turretin (d. 1687): “It denotes properly a pact and agreement entered into between God and man, consisting partly in a stipulation of duty…and partly in the promise of a reward…” (Institutes, II. 172; cf. also I.574).

3) Wilhelmus a Brakel (d. 1711): A covenant is “a mutual, binding obligation between two or more individuals, who, contingent upon certain conditions, promise certain things to each other” (A Christian’s Reasonable Service, I.429).

4) M. J. Bosma (d. 1912) “A covenant is an agreement” (Exposition of Reformed Doctrine, 91).

5) Herman Bavinck (d. 1921): “Generally, a covenant is an agreement between persons who voluntarily obligate and bind themselves to each other for the purpose of fending off an evil or obtaining a good” (Reformed Dogmatics, II.568).

See also Herman Witsius, Geerhardus Vos, and Louis Berkhof (and others!) for very similar definitions.  Note the concepts that keep coming up: binding, agreement, two parties, obligations, and so forth.  All of these are general and not necessarily redemptive terms.  It is clear that an overly narrow definition of covenant leads to errors – sometimes very serious errors, such as a denial of the covenant of works. 

shane lems

sunnyside wa

8 Replies to “On Defining Covenant”

  1. Shane,

    Don’t forget Owen: “[A covenant] is a convention, compact, and agreement for some certain ends and purposes between the holy Creator and his poor creatures”. Works, VI, p.470. Interestingly, he also speaks of marriage as a covenant in vol XI, and somewhere (I forget which volume) as church membership as a covenant.

    And I think Mike’s definition of a covenant needs honorable mention too: “…a covenant is a relationship of ‘oaths and bonds’ and involves mutual, though not necessarily equal, commitments…some biblical covenants are unilaterally imposed commands and promises; others are entered into jointly. Some are conditional and others are unconditional. In other words, under the overarching concept of oaths and bonds we encounter a substantial variety of covenants in Scripture.”


  2. Mike, thanks. Any more? I meant to add Kline in the opening of KP, but my copy of KP is not here right now.

    RubeRad – nice! My 5 year old could have told me that one, but I forgot (not that you’re a 5 year old…are you?).

    Keep the definitions coming!

    shane lems


  3. Definition of “COVENANT”: a formal agreement, contract, testament, or treaty between two parties, with specific obligations on each side:

    ancient terminology: Hebrew berith, Greek diatheke, Latin testamentum
    used 285 times in the Hebrew Bible (first use at Gen 6:18) and 33 times in the New Testament.
    covenants often promise specific benefits, rewards, or blessings for people who keep the terms of the covenant;
    but they also threaten sanctions, punishments, or curses for people who break the terms of the covenant.
    covenants need to be ratified formally, usually sealed with blood, and thus often involve animal sacrifices;
    concrete symbols or “signs” are also often exchanged to remind the two parties about their agreement.
    the parties involved might be individuals, families, states, kings, or even God;
    the parties might be on the same level (two families, two kings) with mutual obligations agreed upon freely
    or they might be on different levels (God and humans; a large empire and a smaller nation) with the stronger party imposing the conditions on the weaker party (obedience, taxes, tribute) in exchange for certain benefits (protection)
    some scholars distinguish between “contract” (an exchange of goods and services) and “covenant” (an exchange of persons; for example in a marriage, or when Israel is called God’s “firstborn son” in Exod 4:22)
    Catholic Resources


  4. Shane,

    You said that Hoeksema “defined covenant as a redemptive relationship or salvific friendship” and I was wondering if you could reference this. In my reading of him you would be correct to say he saw the covenant to be of the very essence of friendship and communion but he saw the covenant as an end in itself as opposed to a means to an end.

    It is also clear from reading volume 3 of Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics that Hoeksema was making use of Bavincks own concept of covenant.


  5. Rjs1: Sure – Read Hoeksema’s Dogmatics where he deals with the pre-fall state/nature of Adam. Friendship is his primary term; I didn’t want to get into the end/means discussion, however.

    Concerning your Bavinck/Hoeksema statement, I only agree with that if you are clear to note that though some parts sound the same, for the most part Hoeksema is quite different than Bavinck on covenant (don’t forget vols I and II!). And “quite different” may be an understatement. Some continuity, perhaps, but much more discontinuity is what we find between Bavinck and Hoeksema (i.e. see my Bavinck posts on Covenant of Works as well as the recent one, Bavinck and the Noahic covenant – these are two areas that Hoeksema would very violently outright reject Bavinck’s definition/discussions of covenant).

    Thanks for the interaction – and I appreciate your Psalms blog.

    shane lems


  6. Shane,

    I read “The Covenant of Works in Dutch Reformed Orthodoxy” when Scot Clark posted about it on his blog but did not make the connection with you till now…names are not my strong point ;-)

    Whilst HH certainly disagreed with a certain conception with the CoW he certainly affirmed that a covenant existed between God and Adam. His disagreement was about the nature of the covenant and this same disagreement led him to reject their conception of the pactum salutis. He was honest enough to admit that whilst these great men agreed with a certain conception of the CoR he held to another. The question is of course whether his development was valid or not. Whilst Scot Clark notes HH’s break with the traditional Dutch conception I do think that it was not out of nothing, by that I mean, he developed upon what others (such as Bavinck and Kuyper) had said previously. See for example Bavinck’s RD vol 3 pp 204: “…when God makes a covenant with humans, this unilateral character comes repeatedly to the fore: the parties, after all, are not equal, but God is sovereign who imposes his ordinances on his creatures”. HH also works with Bavinck’s treatment of the pactum salutis (pp. 212-216) and develops on Bavinck’s conception of the covenant as being organic (pp. 231). Of course HH was by no means uncritical of Bavinck but I do believe we do HH an injustice if we say that his developments came from nowhere. They came, in my opinion, from the Dutch Calvinist tradition he was working within.

    I have HH’s Reformed Dogmatics on my shelf, when you said that he “defined covenant as a redemptive relationship or salvific friendship” I may have misunderstood what you were saying for you seemed to be saying HH’s view was that the covenant was a result of redemption or a means to effect redemption by prefixing “redemptive” and “salvific” to “relationship” and “friendship”.

    You are correct to say that “Hoeksema is quite different than Bavinck on covenant” but it does depend upon what aspect you are refering to. One of the biggest problems I have, more todo with the fact I can’t quite see how it works, is HH’s saying that when Christ referes to his “Father” he is refering to the Triune God as opposed to the first person of the trinity. I am not saying he is wrong to say that, I am just not sure how he would deal with Eph. i.3 “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” for example.

    Thanks for your kind comments regarding my blog!

    Kind regards,



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