Understanding this then, when Jerome translated the Bible into Latin (~400AD) he translated the term diatheke as ‘testament’ exclusively. He even used the term ‘testament’ in the Old Testament, in places were the term berith was obviously ‘testamental’ in character. Thus, there seems to be evidence to suggest that the early church regarded the nature of God’s relationship with man as exclusively ‘testamental’. In fact, it was Jerome who gave us the titles “Old Testament” and “New Testament”.5
When Luther translated the New Testament into German, he had to wrestle with this issue. When did diatheke mean ‘covenant’ and when did it mean ‘testament’? Obviously, when the New Testament authors quoted the Old Testament, it meant ‘covenant’, but did they always mean ‘testament’ otherwise? His principle was, if diatheke referred to a promise not yet fulfilled, it was translated ‘covenant’, but if it referred to a promise fulfilled (like man’s redemption in Christ), it meant ‘testament’.6 Tyndale, whose translation of the Bible was the principle work consulted by the translators of the King James Version, was a student of Luther’s, and his translation follows Luther’s convention, as does the KJV.
So what? Theology. That’s what.
So what is the difference? So what if one term or the other is used? We see the difference very plainly in the development of theology, particularly in the difference between Lutheran and Reformed theology. Lutherans today use both terms; but are careful to note that the use of the term ‘covenant’, if used in reference to the ‘New Covenant’, is to be understood as a single-sided, non-conditional covenant (or really a testament) – something which is uncommon to Hebrew culture and thinking as we see it described for us in the Old Testament. Lutherans see God’s redemptive work as not only central, but necessary and exclusive. Man does not in any way participate in his own redemption – it is entirely God’s work. Thus, Justification is central to Lutheran doctrine, and all other doctrines depend on it.
Reformed and Baptists, however, use exclusively ‘covenantal’ language, and this is consistent with their understanding of God’s relationship to man. They admit that mankind enters into the ‘New Covenant’ by faith, but they insist that faith is insufficient to keep a person in that covenant. A person must produce works consistent with the mandates of the law, as proof to themselves and others that their faith is genuine. But they distinctly say that it is the works themselves that keep one within God’s covenant of grace, not the continuing faith of the believer which produces the works7. Thus, Sanctification serves as their central doctrine, all other doctrines conspicuously serving the necessity of human works, which explains their persistent focus on works and “Christian Living”.
The impact of Reformation issues on the adoption of ‘covenant’ or ‘testament’
It should also be noted that the character of Reformed/Lutheran theologies, and their adoption of covenant/testament or covenant-only language in contemporary times, is consistent with the conditions under which these theological systems were birthed. The German Reformation was lead by Luther, a monk and professional theologian who wrestled with the reality of his own salvation. When he discovered that the Church’s teaching under the Roman Pope was false and damnably misleading, he sought to return the Church to the true biblical and apostolic teachings. Thus the German Reformation under Luther was principally about man’s relationship with God (i.e., by God’s grace alone through faith alone in Christ’s redemptive work alone), the importance of pure Scripture doctrine to maintain the correct view of that relationship (Scripture alone), and the subordinate role of human reason to the authority of Scripture. The resultant separation from Rome and loss of visible unity was something that was necessary due to Rome’s obstinacy, but which was neither planned nor desired.
This was not the case in Zurich. The Swiss Reformation under Zwingli (and later under Calvin), being shielded in many ways by the ruckus in Germany caused by Luther, was about philosophy and social change as much as it was about doctrine. Thus Zwingli, a well known priest and activist in the Humanist movement of the time, planned from the start to separate from Rome, locking himself in his house in order to “develop a true philosophy of Christ” that would influence “social and political change”. Calvin, who was not a priest at all, but a lawyer and a radical activist in the Humanist movement prior to his participation in the Swiss Reformation, succeeded Zwingli, and was the principle systematizer of Zwingli’s theology. Hence, the hallmarks of Reformed theology are the exaltation of human reason, being carried over from the humanist activism of the Swiss reformers (demonstrated in their denial of the dual nature of Christ, their denial of the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, their denial of the Means of Grace, their denial of baptismal regeneration, their insistence on double predestination and eternal security, and other ‘doctrines’ they hold or don’t hold because the dictates of human reason require/forbid it over against the clear testimony of Scripture), and a central focus on Sanctification rather than Justification – Sanctification centric teaching being more efficient at bringing about the human works necessary to realize Zwinglian social/political change.8
Such statements sound like they question the faith of the Swiss reformers. Even if they do, such questioning is not without precedent. Martin Luther, who was a contemporary of Zwingli, who had corresponded with him often and had formed a generally good opinion of him since they “agreed on so many good items”, also, in the end, questioned Zwingli’s faith when he discovered that Zwingli, in his Exposition of the Christian Faith, ranked “…Hercules, Theseus, Socrates, Aristides, Numa, et al., with the saints of the Old and New Testaments, with Isaiah and Elijah, with Peter and Paul, among the saints in heaven”, as follows:
- “Tell me, you who would be a Christian, what need is there of Baptism, the Sacrament, Christ, the Gospel, or the Prophets, and Holy Scripture, if such godless heathen, Socrates, Aristides, even the dreadful Numa, who through the devil’s instigation was the first to institute the idolatry of all nations at Rome, as St. Augustine reports in De civitate Dei, and Scipio, the Epicurean, are blessed and saints with the patriarchs, Prophets, and Apostles in heaven, though they knew nothing of God, Scripture, the Gospel, Christ, Baptism, and the Sacrament, or the Christian faith? What can such a writer, preacher, and teacher believe of the Christian faith other than that it is on a level with all religions and that everyone can be saved by whatever he believes, even an idolater and epicure like Numa and Scipio?”9
Observations on modern use of ‘covenant’ and ‘testament’ and theological impact
And so, the exclusive use of the term ‘covenant’ in modern versions of the Bible, being undoubtedly influenced by the domination of Reformed and Baptist exegetes in Bible translation and editorial committees (and with the complicity of minority representation by Lutheran exegetes who don’t consider the term ‘covenant’ to necessarily be an improper translation of diatheke, as long as it is understood correctly by the reader), has bred severe misapplication of the term ‘covenant’ in pop-church Evangelicalism of today, and conspicuously serves the modern aberrations of Reformed and Baptist theology. How many times has one heard, from Evangelical sources, the term ‘covenantal relationship’, referring to God’s relationship to man? How many times has this term been explained in terms of man’s obligation or debt to God for what He has done for mankind? – It's a covenantal relationship, you need to hold up your end of the deal if you expect to be honored by God! This is Law, pure and simple, being used to bind Christian consciences to its dictates and coerce specific Christian works out of fear, pious obligation, or hope for special reward – and worse, in many cases it is cast by pop-church Evangelicals as some sort of Christian privilege, turning God’s gracious Gospel into a billyclub for the Law.
A true Lutheran, on the other hand, understanding his relationship with God ‘testamentally’, as solely the result of God’s gracious attitude towards him and all sinners and of His atoning work on behalf of all of mankind, is motivated in his Christian works by the Gospel rather than the Law (his doctrine being centered on Justification rather than Sanctification), and looks solely to his joy and gratitude for the manifold blessings that are his exclusively through faith alone in Christ as his reason for labouring in the Lord. For the Lutheran, such works permissibly vary in expression from person to person (from obvious and unmistakable to virtually unnoticeable), based on the relative strength of the believer’s faith and his capacity and giftedness for specific forms of expression and service. He is saved, and remains so, by faith, and by His grace God’s Gospel promises are valid on this basis alone. The Lutheran does not have to frantically work to prove it – not to himself, to God, or to anyone else. The objective promise of salvation in Christ is his through faith, and this promise is sufficient surety, his works flowing from this blessed fact and giving cause to his brothers in Christ for rejoicing with him. This is true freedom in Christ.
A return to ‘testamental’ languge would be a welcome thing – not only for us Lutherans who are without such terms in our modern Bibles and liturgies, but for Evangelical Christianity itself, which has long been suffering under the onerous burden of Covenantal Theology.
Mr. Douglas Lindee.
- Biblion Publishing. (1988). The New Testament: God’s Word to the Nations (GWN). Biblion: Cleveland, OH. pg. 533.
- Ibid. pg. 533-534.
- “Martin Luther followed Jerome’s diatheke or ‘last will and testament’ approach, but not blindly. He knew the writings of the church fathers well. Church fathers, such as Chrysostom, had spoken consistently of Christ’s ‘last will and testament.’ Reformers like Martin Chemnitz, ‘the Second Martin (Luther)’, continued this tradition. Though such reformers occasionally interchanged testamentum (when the wrote Latin) with pactum or foedus (the regular words for ‘covenant’), their writings clearly indicated why they were using testamentum in the narrow sense in particular contexts. In such passages, they contended, diatheke referred to a ‘last will and testament,’ not to a ‘covenant’ in the wider sense.
“Luther, in his German Bible, displayed amazing insight as he skillfully moved back and forth between Bund (‘covenant’) and Testaments in his New Testament. (He did, however, consistently use Bund to translate berith throughout his whole Old Testament.) Luther’s writings ably explain his methodology. Whenever the diatheke was a mere promise, he used Bund that is, when the context implied that the promise had not yet been fulfilled. Whenever a context dealt with the fulfillment of a ‘covenant’ promise, especially in terms of Jesus’ death and His work as the God-Man, Luther used some form of Testaments.
“For Luther the berith of the Old Testament was, in essence, the Gospel-promise of Jesus Christ, while the diatheke was the Gospel-promise completed in the Christ who was already born, sacrificed, risen, and who was coming again to give His people the ultimate inheritance: forgiveness of sins in heaven. This is why he writes: ‘And so that little word testament is a short summary of all God’s wonders and grace, fulfilled in Christ’ (LW:XXXV:84).
“Luther knew that every faithful Bible translator also has to be a capable exegete. This means letting ‘Scripture interpret Scripture.’ Hebrews 9 and Galatians 3, therefore, settled much of the diatheke question for Luther: ‘Between a testament and a promise there is this difference: a testament is made by someone who is about to die; a promise, however is made by someone who expects to continue living... Since God in the Scriptures again and again calls his promise a testament he means to announce thereby that he will die;... A testament is nothing but the last will of one who is dying, telling how his heirs are to live with and dispose of his properties after his death... The testator is Christ, who is about to die’ (LW:XXXVI:179).
“Luther clearly distinguished between the ‘old covenant’ and the new ‘last will and testament’ (cf. Ex. 24:8; Jer. 31:31; 1 Cor. 11:25). The ‘old’ was picturesque, physical, outward, and temporal; the ‘new’ was real, spiritual, inward, and eternal (LW:XXXV:84f). This comprehension was gained from the whole of Scripture in general and from 2 Corinthians 3:7-15 in particular”
- Grudem, Wayne. Systematic Theology. Intervarsity Press: Leicester, England; Zondervan: Grand Rapids Michigan. 1994 and 2000. pg. 519
- “The condition (or requirement) of participation in the covenant is faith in the work of Christ the redeemer (Rom. 1:17; 5:1; et. al.). This requirement of faith in the redemptive work of the Messiah was also the condition of obtaining the blessings of the covenant in the Old Testament, as Paul clearly demonstrates through the examples of Abraham and Avid (Rom. 4:1-15). They, like other Old Testament believers, were saved by looking forward to the work of the Messiah who was to come and putting faith in him.
“But while the condition of beginning in the covenant of grace is always faith in Christ’s work alone, the condition of continuing in that covenant is said to be obedience to God’s commands. Though this obedience did not in the Old Testament and does not in the New Testament earn us any merit with God, nonetheless, if our faith in Christ is genuine, it will produce obedience (see James 2:17), and obedience to Christ is in the New Testament seen as necessary evidence that we are truly believers and members of the new covenant (see 1 John 2:4-6).”
In all fairness to strict Calvinists, it should be pointed out that Grudem is a Reformed Evangelical, who, in the Preface to his Systematic Theology self identifies with what can be characterized as essentially a Calvinist, as opposed to Arminian, perspective.
- These issues were covered in greater detail in a relatively recent Intrepid Lutheran’s post: Differences between Reformed and Lutheran Doctrines
- Pieper, Francis. Christian Dogmatics, Vol 3. Concordia Publishing House: Saint Louis, Missouri. 1950. pg. 167.