Saturday, October 15, 2011

The Case of the Disappearing "Testament:" Modern Bible Translations and Covenantal Theology

[NOTE: This essay was originally published on Intrepid Lutherans in three parts: Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3. It is reproduced here in full for those desiring this essay as a single document.]

On Good Friday of this year, we at Intrepid Lutherans published a Good Friday sermon that was originally delivered by an important WELS theologian, Dr. Adolf Hoenecke, entitled, The Legacy of the Dying Redeemer. This sermon focuses on the seven last words of Christ on the cross as the seven provisions of His last will and testament, which are ours as His heirs.

It may have simply passed the reader’s attention, but the fact is Dr. Hoenecke’s sermon could not be preached today. It could not be preached. Why? Because the idea that God’s promise to mankind was given by Christ as a last will and testament – an idea which had been carefully guarded for almost two millenia – has been dropped from use in just the past 100 years. Completely dropped from use.

The complete disappearance of the term ‘testament’ from modern English Bibles... and from modern liturgies
Nearly five-hundred years ago, one of the greatest and most important works the English language, the King James Version of the Bible, conspicuously retained this idea:
    Likewise also the cup after supper, saying, This cup is the new testament in my blood, which is shed for you. (Luke 22:20)

    For this is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins. (Matt. 26:28)

    And he took the cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them: and they all drank of it. And he said unto them, This is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many. (Mark 14:23-24)

    After the same manner also he took the cup, when he had supped, saying, this cup is the new testament in my blood: this do ye, as oft as ye drink it, in remembrance of me. (1 Cor. 11:25)

    And for this cause he is the mediator of the new testament, that by means of death, for the redemption of the transgressions that were under the first testament, they which are called might receive the promise of eternal inheritance. For where a testament is, there must also of necessity be the death of the testator. For a testament is of force after men are dead: otherwise it is of no strength at all while the testator liveth. (Heb, 9:15-17)
Even the corollary of a ‘last will and testament’ is supported in this “old version of the Bible” – that such a bequest is left to heirs:
    The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God: And if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ; if so be that we suffer with him, that we may be also glorified together. (Rom. 8:16-17)

    And if ye be Christ's, then are ye Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise. Now I say, That the heir, as long as he is a child, differeth nothing from a servant, though he be lord of all; But is under tutors and governors until the time appointed of the father. Even so we, when we were children, were in bondage under the elements of the world: But when the fulness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law, To redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons. And because ye are sons, God hath sent forth the Spirit of his Son into your hearts, crying, Abba, Father. Wherefore thou art no more a servant, but a son; and if a son, then an heir of God through Christ. (Gal. 3:29-4:7)
Such inheritance – the same inheritance, in fact – was even applied to Old Testament believers:
    By faith Noah, being warned of God of things not seen as yet, moved with fear, prepared an ark to the saving of his house; by the which he condemned the world, and became heir of the righteousness which is by faith. By faith Abraham, when he was called to go out into a place which he should after receive for an inheritance, obeyed; and he went out, not knowing whither he went. By faith he sojourned in the land of promise, as in a strange country, dwelling in tabernacles with Isaac and Jacob, the heirs with him of the same promise... (Heb. 11:7-9)
Such natural corroboration – that to be an 'heir' there must be a 'testator' who has recorded his 'last will and testament' – has disappeared from recent translations, however. Along with the rise of the historical-critical method in the 19th Century came the notion that the Bibles generally received in the various languages, like the King James Version in English and Luther’s Unrevedierte Ausgabe in German, needed significant revision, and that such revision ought to proceed under the peculiar academic judgment of the translator(s) regarding what the underlying text actually was (once the layers of “human error” had been stripped from it) and once that was determined, what the text actually meant to say. Since the “scholars” were not and have not been unanimous, this has resulted in a plethora of “new and improved” translations under the guise of a “better idea” or “deeper insight” into the texts, their meaning, and relevance to contemporary society. At least one thing has been consistent, however: the terms ‘testament’ and ‘testator’ have been virtually eliminated – and in seemingly dishonest ways, in some cases. In the familiar references of Christ’s institution of the “new testament in His blood,” the term ‘testament’ has disappeared and has been rendered as ‘covenant.’1 This may seem to be just an “update” in English usage – even though the term ‘last will and testament’ is still very much in common usage, and is easily distinguished from the term ‘covenant.’ The case of Hebrews 9:15-17, however, very much tells of the convictions of modern translators. The Greek word diatithemai in its noun form means ‘testator’, and in its verb form means ‘to dispose of by will’ or to ‘assign one’s possessions to another’. The meaning here is almost impossible to escape. Nevertheless, in two modern translations we see diametrically opposed interpretations:
    For where there is a testament, there must also of necessity be the death of the testator. For a testament is in force after men are dead, since it has no power at all while the testator lives. (Heb. 9:16-17, NKJV)

    For where a covenant is, there must of necessity be the death of the one who made it. For a covenant is valid only when men are dead, for it is never in force while the one who made it lives. (Heb. 9:16-17, NASB)
In the case of the NKJV, we see the only appearance of the term “testament” and “testator” in any modern translation that I am aware of (outside of the 1988 edition of God’s Word to the Nations [GWN]), in a way that is perfectly consistent with our common understanding of these terms. Anyone who has sat through the reading of a will understands the terms used in this reference, as they are common in matters of probate – matters which everyone must face. In the case of the NASB (a Baptist translation) however, we are confronted with utter incoherence. Here we have a ‘covenant,’ which is not a ‘testament’ at all. Moreover, in ancient usage, death does not validate a covenant; it terminates it. But look what happened to the term ‘testator:’ it is rendered “the one who made it.” And this is the pattern we see in all other modern translations striving to avoid even the suggestion that Christ, as divine 'Testator' of the 'New Testament in His Blood,' issued a ‘last will and testament’ at all:
    For where a will is involved, the death of the one who made it must be established. For a will takes effect only at death, since it is not in force as long as the one who made it is alive. (Heb. 9:16-17, ESV)

    In the case of a will, it is necessary to prove the death of the one who made it, because a will is in force only when somebody has died; it never takes effect while the one who made it is living. (Heb. 9:16-17, NIV 1984)
Oddly, in these newer translations, this is the only reference where a ‘will’ is suggested – a term which does not recall the consistently and long-used ecclesiastical term ‘testament’ – and the context does not drive the reader to conclude that Christ is a ‘testator’ who has made of His life's work a bequest to be received by His ‘heirs’ through faith. The choice of words in these modern translations makes clear that there is an apparent struggle to avoid what the Church has understood for almost two millenia – while they are technically valid, they are not entirely honest, being deliberately emptied of significant meaning.

And this is unfortunate, because these translations all still retain the notion of heir-ship, that we inherit something. It is unfortunate because when one who thus thinks he is an ‘heir,’ goes looking for the terms of his ‘inheritance’ in the ‘last will and testament’ of Christ, he will not find it – for in modern translations we have no idea who the ‘testator’ is (since He is not directly named), nor do we know when and where He gave His “last will and testament!” There is some mild suggestion that a ‘will’ exists, but what are the terms of this will? Modern translations simply do not say.

Some modern liturgies have gone the same way. The liturgies of former generations retain wording in the terms accepted and used by the Church for millenia. For example, in the “old” The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) we hear the words of institution as:
    Our Lord Jesus Christ, in the same night in which He was betrayed, took bread; and when He had given thanks, brake it and gave it to His disciples saying, “Take, eat; this is My body, which is given for you. This do in remembrance of Me.” After the same manner also He took the cup when He had supped, and when He had given thanks, He gave it to them, saying, “Drink ye all of it; this cup is the New Testament in My blood, which is shed for you for the remission of sins. This do, as oft as ye drink it, in remembrance of Me.”
Likewise, in newer hymnals, in which a desire to “retain the pattern of sound words” accepted and profitably used by the Church for two millenia is evident, we read:
    In the same way also He took the cup after supper, and when He had given thanks, He gave it to them, saying: “Drink of it, all of you; this cup is the New Testament in My blood, which is shed for you for the forgiveness of sins. This do, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.” (Lutheran Service Book, 2006)

    In the same way also He took the cup after supper, gave thanks, and gave it to them saying: “Drink of it, all of you; this cup is the New Testament in My blood, which is shed for you, and for many, for the remission of sins. This do as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.” (Evangelical Lutheran Hymnary, 1996)
On the other hand, in cases where divergence from past usage seems to be prominent – perhaps dictated by a perceived requirement to quote verbatim from “officially adopted” translations of the Bible – we hear something quite different:
    Then he took the cup, gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you; this is my blood of the new covenant, which is poured out for you for the forgiveness of sins. Do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” (Christian Worship: A Lutheran Hynmal, 1993)

The Terms diatheke and berith in the biblical languages
The Greek word translated exclusively in modern versions of the Bible as ‘covenant’ is diatheke. The Hebrew word is berith. The history and etymology of these words is important to understand as it has direct bearing on how we understand God’s relationship to and with us, and how modern dogmaticians use (or misuse) this term in the development of their theology.

The Hebrew term berith, means ‘covenant’, and is generally understood as a conditional, two-sided arrangement that cannot be broken and which is perpetually binding on the parties involved until one of the parties is deceased. This is how we see covenants between people carried out in Old Testament, and how it is understood in its application between God and man, particularly in the Mosaic Covenant. The Abrahamic Covenant, and the prophecy of the New Covenant in Jeremiah and Ezekiel are to be understood differently, however, as the qualifying language surrounding this term in those contexts directs the reader to understand its use in those contexts differently. This is important to note as we look at the use of the correlative Greek term, diatheke, in the New Testament.

The Greek term diatheke was established in its meaning up to 400 years BC as last will and testament2. A ‘last will and testament’ requires no participation of the bequeathed and cannot be annulled – it is the benefit of the testator’s life work to the bequeathed and it is in effect in perpetuity from the moment of the testator’s death. It represents the blessing of the testator upon the bequeathed, which blessing belongs to the bequeathed once it has been received by him. It is thus a non-conditional and one-sided arrangement – the bequeathed, as a passive recipient of the gifts given to him in the ‘last will and testament’ of the testator, benefits from the work and life achievements of the testator after his death, simply because the testator wills it.

There is little if any evidence in extant, extra-biblical literature to indicate that the term diatheke was ever used to mean ‘covenant’, in fact there is little evidence to suggest that the idea of ‘covenant’ existed in the Greek culture; however, scholars indicate that the definition of the term is not so narrow as to exclude the idea of a ‘covenant’, strictly speaking3. Nevertheless, the first time diatheke appears in reference to ‘covenant’ is in the Septuagint – the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament, circa 250 BC4 – and we also see it used in the Greek New Testament, particularly as its authors quote the Old Testament from the Septuagint. This is where matters get difficult.

Old Testament covenants as ‘testamental’ in their descriptions
As we look at the language of the Old Testament describing the Abrahamic Covenant, and particularly the multitude of qualifications in the Old Testament surrounding the prophecy of the New Covenant, it is unmistakable that they are quite ‘testamental’ in nature.

Abrahamic Covenant
Genesis 17:1-12
    “And when Abram was ninety years old and nine, the LORD appeared to Abram, and said unto him, I am the Almighty God; walk before me, and be thou perfect. And I will make my covenant between me and thee, and will multiply thee exceedingly. And Abram fell on his face: and God talked with him, saying, As for me, behold, my covenant is with thee, and thou shalt be a father of many nations. Neither shall thy name any more be called Abram, but thy name shall be Abraham; for a father of many nations have I made thee. And I will make thee exceeding fruitful, and I will make nations of thee, and kings shall come out of thee. And I will establish my covenant between me and thee and thy seed after thee in their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be a God unto thee, and to thy seed after thee. And I will give unto thee, and to thy seed after thee, the land wherein thou art a stranger, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession; and I will be their God. And God said unto Abraham, Thou shalt keep my covenant therefore, thou, and thy seed after thee in their generations. This is my covenant, which ye shall keep, between me and you and thy seed after thee; Every man child among you shall be circumcised. And ye shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin; and it shall be a token of the covenant betwixt me and you. And he that is eight days old shall be circumcised among you, every man child in your generations, he that is born in the house, or bought with money of any stranger, which is not of thy seed.”
Here we see God making a covenant with Abraham and his seed. It is ‘testamental’ in nature in that God does all of the work (it is non-conditional and single-sided), while Abraham and his descendants merely observe the token of the covenant – circumcision. Observe:
    I will make my covenant between me and thee”,
    [I] will multiply thee exceedingly”,
    “a father of many nations have I made thee”,
    I will make nations of thee”,
    I will establish my covenant between me and thee and thy seed”,
    I will give unto thee … the land wherein thou art a stranger”,
    “and I will be their God”.
It is also ‘testamental’ given its perpetual nature,
    “I will establish my covenant … for an everlasting covenant”.
Yet, it does seem that Abraham and his descendents were obligated in some form or another under this arrangement:
    “the LORD appeared to Abram, and said unto him, I am the Almighty God; walk before me, and be thou perfect. And I will make my covenant…”,

    “[t]his is my covenant, which ye shall keep…
However, Hebrews 11:8-19, in commenting on God’s Covenant with Abraham, indicates that fulfilling the obligation to ‘walk before God and be perfect’ was accomplished in Abraham and his descendants through their faith, or belief in the covenant promises of God:
    “These all died in faith [Abraham and his descendants], not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off, and were persuaded of them, and embraced them [through their faith] … wherefore God is not ashamed to be called their God: for he hath prepared for them a city” (vv13,16b).
That is, God considered the faith of Abraham and his descendants as fulfillment of their obligations under the Abrahamic Covenant, through which He fulfilled his promises to ‘multiply them exceedingly’ (Heb. 11:12), and to ‘be their God’ (Heb. 11:16b). Furthermore, Galatians 3:6-18, also commenting on God’s Covenant promises to Abraham, makes it clear that these promises, in which Abraham and his descendants placed their faith, coalesced and were embodied in the Messiah, Jesus Christ (v16), and that such faith in God’s covenant promises is what constituted the righteousness God required of them (v6). And, thus, the circumcision required by God as a token of the Abrahamic Covenant, was nothing more than a token of the faith in God’s covenant promises that Abraham and his descendants were given by Him, through which God considered their obligations under His covenant fulfilled.

But they still had to ‘have faith’. Surely, this meant that they had to exercise some feat of intellect, or produce some profound work, to be confirmed in this faith and accredited the righteousness God required of them under the Abrahamic Covenant. Well, the so-called ‘work’ was circumcision, performed on 8-day old males by the hands of someone other than the one being circumcised, as a token of the faith (the fact that they were under the Covenant) that the circumcised already had (Gen. 17:11-12). The Covenant obligations of Old Testament believers were fulfilled by their faith (Gal.3:6-7; Heb 11:12-13), and the work of circumcision ‘sealed’ or marked the circumcised as having faith and thus under the Covenant that promised the Messiah (Rom. 4:11-13). Without circumcision, a man was in violation of and outside the Covenant (Gen 17:14).

So how did the circumcised receive faith? How did 8-day old males believe what they lacked the power of language and intellect to understand and affirm themselves? The same way that the New Testament believer receives faith through Baptism today: “Faith is the free gift of God” (Eph. 2:8).

Thus the Abrahamic Covenant is seen as ‘testamental’ in nature: God did all of the work, including the fulfillment of the obligations placed on man, by giving man faith and crediting it to him as the righteousness He required of him; and man was passive, receiving from God faith and the eternal blessings promised under His covenant as a result; and it is everlasting – all those with faith in the Messiah and His work were counted as children of the promise made by God to Abraham (Gal. 3:7,9,14).

Prophesies of the New Covenant
Jeremiah 31:31-34
    “Behold, the days come, saith the LORD, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah: Not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt; which my covenant they brake, although I was an husband unto them, saith the LORD: But this shall be the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel; After those days, saith the LORD, I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts; and will be their God, and they shall be my people. And they shall teach no more every man his neighbour, and every man his brother, saying, Know the LORD: for they shall all know me, from the least of them unto the greatest of them, saith the LORD: for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”
Jeremiah 32:36-42
    “And now therefore thus saith the LORD, the God of Israel, concerning this city, whereof ye say, It shall be delivered into the hand of the king of Babylon by the sword, and by the famine, and by the pestilence; Behold, I will gather them out of all countries, whither I have driven them in mine anger, and in my fury, and in great wrath; and I will bring them again unto this place, and I will cause them to dwell safely: And they shall be my people, and I will be their God: And I will give them one heart, and one way, that they may fear me for ever, for the good of them, and of their children after them: And I will make an everlasting covenant with them, that I will not turn away from them, to do them good; but I will put my fear in their hearts, that they shall not depart from me. Yea, I will rejoice over them to do them good, and I will plant them in this land assuredly with my whole heart and with my whole soul. For thus saith the LORD; Like as I have brought all this great evil upon this people, so will I bring upon them all the good that I have promised them.”
Ezekiel 37:21-28
    “Thus saith the Lord GOD; Behold, I will take the children of Israel from among the heathen, whither they be gone, and will gather them on every side, and bring them into their own land: And I will make them one nation in the land upon the mountains of Israel; and one king shall be king to them all: and they shall be no more two nations, neither shall they be divided into two kingdoms any more at all: Neither shall they defile themselves any more with their idols, nor with their detestable things, nor with any of their transgressions: but I will save them out of all their dwelling places, wherein they have sinned, and will cleanse them: so shall they be my people, and I will be their God. And David my servant shall be king over them; and they all shall have one shepherd: they shall also walk in my judgments, and observe my statutes, and do them. And they shall dwell in the land that I have given unto Jacob my servant, wherein your fathers have dwelt; and they shall dwell therein, even they, and their children, and their children’s children for ever: and my servant David shall be their prince for ever. Moreover I will make a covenant of peace with them; it shall be an everlasting covenant with them: and I will place them, and multiply them, and will set my sanctuary in the midst of them for evermore. My tabernacle also shall be with them: yea, I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And the heathen shall know that I the LORD do sanctify Israel, when my sanctuary shall be in the midst of them for evermore.”
Here we see God promising to Israel a New Covenant. Again, it is ‘testamental’ in nature in that God does all of the work (i.e., it is non-conditional and single-sided), while Israel simply and passively is considered by God to be His people by His work and decree, as follows:

…from Jeremiah 31 (above)…
    I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel”,
    I will put my law in their inward parts”,
    [I will] write it in their hearts”,
    I will forgive their iniquity”,
    I will remember their sin no more”,
    [I] will be their God”,
    they shall be my people”,
    they shall all know me”…
…from Jeremiah 32 (above)…
    I will make an everlasting covenant with them”,
    I will gather them”,
    I will bring them”,
    I will plant them in this land”,
    I will cause them to dwell safely”,
    I will give them one heart”,
    [I will give them] one way”,
    I will not turn away”,
    I will rejoice over them”,
    I will put my fear in their hearts, that they shall not depart from me”,
    I [will] bring upon them all the good that I have promised them”,
    I will be their God”,
    they shall be my people”…
…from Ezekiel 37 (above)…
    I will make a covenant of peace with them; it shall be an everlasting covenant with them”,
    I will take the children of Israel”,
    [I] will gather them on every side”,
    [I will] bring them into their own land”,
    I will make them one nation”,
    I will save them out of all their dwelling places”,
    [I] will cleanse them”,
    I will place them”,
    [I will] multiply them”,
    [I] will set my sanctuary in the midst of them”,
    I the LORD do sanctify Israel”,
    I will be their God”,
    they shall be my people”,
    they shall also walk in my judgments, and observe my statutes, and do them”…
Yet here again, it appears that Israel owes God some obligation of works, other than to simply be, by His work and decree, His people, as we read in the final notes from Ezekiel (above) that “they shall also walkobserve … and do…” But is this dictating to Israel its material obligations under the New Covenant with Israel, or is it stating the result of God’s work and decree? Notice that ‘walking’, ‘observing’, and ‘doing’ are all activities describing sanctification. Who sanctifies Israel (Ez. 37)? For that matter, Who cleanses Israel (Ez. 37), and Who puts the fear of God in their hearts, ‘that they should not depart from Him’ (Jer. 32)? That would be God, as stated above. Thus, ‘walking’, ‘observing’, and ‘doing’, if they are obligations placed on Israel, are fulfilled by God’s work in and for them, not by their own works for God.

‘New Covenant’ prophecy as ‘testamental’, given its qualifications
Notice also, the qualification on the New Covenant with Israel in Jeremiah 31: it was “[n]ot according to the covenant that [God] made with their fathers in the day that [He] took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt”. That is, the prophet distinctly says that this ‘new’ covenant was not going to be like the conditional, two-sided Mosaic Covenant. God considered this ‘old’ Mosaic covenant to be deficient (Heb. 8:6-8), and the prophet Jeremiah goes to great lengths to inform us that the ‘new’, better covenant was not going to be like it at all. This is especially evident in the prophet’s choice of the word ‘new’ to describe it. The Hebrew term for ‘new’ (chadash) qualifying the ‘New’ Covenant, not only means recent in age, but principally means newness of nature – ‘new’, ‘fresh’, or ‘unheard of’. Was this to be the same type of ‘covenant’ common in Hebrew culture, of the same type they had understood since Moses – the point of comparison in this reference? It seems that it was not even going to be close.

Hence, the New Covenant is seen as ‘testamental’ in nature – God does all of the work, making it nonconditional and single-sided, and it is everlasting, consistent with the definition of a ‘last will and testament’. In addition, the language describing the prophecy of the ‘New Covenant’ shows that if it wasn’t a ‘last will and testament’ it certainly was not going to be like anything the Hebrews were familiar with according to their common usage.

Testaments in the Old Testament?
So if the prophets meant ‘testament’ why didn’t they just say ‘testament’? Because the concept of a ‘last will and testament’ did not really exist in Hebrew culture – it certainly does not appear in the Old Testament scriptures – making such a ‘New’ Covenant ‘unheard of’ indeed! Thus, there is ample evidence in the Old Testament to cause the reader of it to imagine that the ‘New’ Covenant was something other than what was commonly understood by the ordinary use of the term, and, in fact, the modern reader can see very plainly that it seems to be describing a ‘testament’.

‘New Covenant’ for all who believe, not just for the nation of Israel
Finally, it may be observed that in the Old Testament the ‘New Covenant’ was issued to Israel, not to ‘the Church,’ and so it may be argued that our consideration of it in application to the Church may not be entirely relevant. However, as in the case of the Abrahamic Covenant, we have the clear and direct testimony of New Testament Scripture that the ‘New Covenant’ was established and fulfilled by Christ on behalf of the whole world of sinners, not just for Israel. At the institution of the Lord’s Supper, Jesus distinctly says that the ‘New Covenant’ was established in His holy and precious blood, given and shed for sinners for the remission of their sins (Matt. 26:26-28, Mk. 14:22-24, Lk. 22:19-20, 1 Cor. 11:24-25). Moreover, Romans 3:21-28 confirms that the “‘New Covenant’ in [His] blood” (Lk. 22:20) is valid for all those with faith in the propitiatory work His shed blood accomplished (v25), and that the righteousness of God is manifested (v21) unto and upon all them that believe (v22). Thus in the New Testament we are told, as the Old Testament also informs us, that God does the work of ‘walking’, ‘observing’ and ‘doing’ that is required under the ‘New Covenant’ (because mankind is unable to), that He did it in Christ for all of mankind (not just the nation of Israel), and that through faith mankind eternally benefits from Christ’s work (he is given Christ’s righteousness and his sins are forgiven):
    “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; Being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (v23-24, c.f. Rom. 4:5).
What is left for the sinner to “do” under the ‘New Covenant’? To passively receive the eternal blessings Christ’s work accomplished for him – in much the same way one would if named as the bequeathed in someone’s ‘last will and testament’. And so the Church is Israel now, the ‘New Covenant’ promises made to Israel having been fulfilled in the New Testament Church. Or is it a ‘covenant’ at all?

Is it a ‘covenant’ or a ‘testament’?
The question is, do the authors of the New Testament mean ‘covenant’ or do they mean ‘testament’ when they use the term diatheke? To answer this, one must ask, “What were the conditions at the time the ‘New Covenant’ was instituted?” On the night in which He was betrayed, did Christ institute a new ‘covenant’, or a new ‘testament’? Would a Man who knew He was about to die establish an agreement stipulating attending obligations and responsibilities that would, according to common usage and understanding, terminate with His death? Or would He write a last will and testament blessing the bequeathed with the benefit of His labour that would, according to common usage and understanding, be perpetually effectual subsequent to His death? It seems very likely that such a person would issue a ‘last will and testament’, not a covenant – and this fact was certainly not lost on the New Testament authors who were describing the events at the Last Supper according to terms that were in common usage at that time, and who were defining the nature of God’s relationship to man and to His Church.

History of Translation of the terms diatheke and berith
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
Yet, Zwingli was just being honest regarding the theological consequence of the Reformed doctrine of ‘Immediate and Particular Grace’. This doctrine states directly that God specifically works apart from any means whatsoever (e.g. Word and Sacrament), and that the Word of God is merely “an attending circumstance” in the spiritual regeneration of man, not an instrumental means through which the Holy Spirit works. Such teaching, if believed, prevents man from positively identifying any divine antecedent to his regeneration or sanctified works, and forces him to look to himself as the sole operative agent producing them, to the Law for his motivation, and to the ‘inner illumination’ of Unconditional Election (e.g., strict Calvinism) or to his own manifest volition (e.g., Arminianism) for his security. This is consistent with an understanding of diatheke and berith as a two-sided, conditional ‘covenant’ between God and man, requiring mankind to perform according to his obligations under the ‘New Covenant’ – which is man's natural inclination even if such is not always confessed in so many words.

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

  1. Compare Luke 22:20; Matthew 26:28; Mark 14:23-24; 1 Corinthians 11:25:
  2. Biblion Publishing. (1988). The New Testament: God’s Word to the Nations (GWN). Biblion: Cleveland, OH. pg 532.
  3. Ibid. pp. 532-533.
  4. Ibid. pg. 533.
  5. Biblion Publishing. (1988). The New Testament: God’s Word to the Nations (GWN). Biblion: Cleveland, OH. pg. 533.
  6. 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”

  7. 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.

  8. These issues were covered in greater detail in a relatively recent Intrepid Lutheran’s post: Differences between Reformed and Lutheran Doctrines
  9. Pieper, Francis. Christian Dogmatics, Vol 3. Concordia Publishing House: Saint Louis, Missouri. 1950. pg. 167.

1 comment:

JohnBrenz said...

Jesus said: "Birds have nests and foxes have dens, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head." Jesus owned almost nothing. What could he bequeath to his disciples - his heirs?
HIMSELF. Jesus bequeathed himself to us - his very body and blood! This was and is Jesus' last will and testament, and he gives himself to us in the Holy Sacrament. This is one of Martin Chemnitz' main points in his classic "De Coena Domini." (Prof. Wayne Miller made us study that book at Seminary - and I'm glad he did!)
Kenneth Hagen, Th.D., professor emeritus of historical theology at Marquette and internationally acclaimed Luther scholar, published a study of this matter in the theology of several major 16th century reformers in his article "From Testament to Covenant in the Early Sixteenth Century," Sixteenth Century Journal, III, 1 (April 197 2), 1-24.
Mr. Lindee, you have done a marvelous job on your essay above. You are spot on. Thank you!
Rev. David Peters

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