The Covenantal Cast of the Biblical Canon

otThe covenantal character of Scripture challenges the idea of the Bible as a textbook. ‘For the Christian conception of God the Bible is our only textbook. In its pages we have the self-revelation of God.’ Without doubt, the Bible teaches us about God. It has a key didactic function: if we are to respond to God in the area of truth, we need to be instructed in the truth. But we also need to do justice to its covenantal nature, its function of finding us and holding us for God through its promises. The promissory nature of Scripture means that it gives us information about the plans and purposes of God. The Bible is God’s many-sided provision for his covenant people.[1]
– Peter Jensen –

In his book The Structure of Biblical Authority, Meredith G. Kline makes the case a canon is not a product of the church, but the product of God’s people in an ancient Near Eastern context. In other words, the biblical canon (i.e., what books are included as authorized Scripture) did not come after the Apostles, or for that matter, after the Old Testament Prophets. Rather, from the beginning, the canon has been a “closed” covenant document between God and his people.

In the first chapter of The Structure of Biblical Authority, Kline shows how ANE covenants had “canons.”

To sum up thus far, canonical document [sic] was the customary instrument of international covenant administration in the world in which the Bible was produced. . . . While it has been acknowledged [by critical scholars] that the Israelites at a relatively early time recognized certain written laws as divine revelation, the meaning of this for the history of the canon concept in Israel has been obfuscated. (37, 39)

He argues that a better understanding of “covenant” will correct our doctrine of canon:

The origin of the Old Testament canon coincided with the founding of the kingdom of Israel by covenant at Sinai. The very treaty that formally established the Israelite theocracy was itself the beginning and the nucleus of the total covenantal cluster of writings which constitutes the Old Testament canon. (43)

From this covenantal origin, the canon grew as the covenants of God with his people developed over time.

“Our conclusion in a word, then, is that canon is inherent in covenant, covenant of the kind attested in ancient international relations and the Mosaic covenants of the Bible. Hence it is to this covenant structure that theology should turn for its perspective and model in order to articulate its doctrine of canon in terms historically concrete and authentic” (43–44).

According to Kline, God’s people have always had a canon to document their covenant with God. In truth, this canon was not codified until Sinai, when Moses wrote down God’s Words (after God himself etched his law in stone). But from the beginning, God’s people had a clear and sufficient word that established his covenant rule. From this beginning, we shouldn’t be surprised to see that the Bible is and has always been cast in the mold of covenant.

Eight Evidences of the Bible as God’s Covenant Document

Kline, in his second chapter, shows from Scripture how the canon is a covenantal document, to be read as a progressively-developed whole, not a pastiche of various books later unified. In what follows, I summarize some of his arguments and add a few of my own.

1. The New Testament speaks of an Old Covenant.

First, the Scriptures of Israel and the Apostolic writings are both called “testaments,” the latin word for covenant. Though such nomenclature came after the prophets and apostles, it is not a mistake to treat the Old and New Testaments as covenantal documents. In 2 Corinthians 3:6, Paul speaks of the “new covenant,” and a few verses later he juxtaposes this with the Law of Moses, as God’s “old covenant” (v. 14).

Likewise, in the New Testament the “Law” is often more than just the five books of Moses (e.g., Matthew 5:18; Luke 16:17; John 10:34; 12:34; 15:25; Romans 3:19; 1 Corinthians 14:21). In these passages, “Law” consists of the whole Old Testament. In taking this view, it identifies all the Scriptures in terms of the  law-covenant. Thus, it is appropriate to see what began in covenantal terms (the Law), continued to be read covenantally in the Prophets and Writings, on into the period of the new covenant. See point #8 below.

2. God’s authorship makes for a covenantal Bible.

John Frame and others have stated axiomatically: Every relationship God has made with man is mediated by a covenant; and, it is in his nature to relate to everything in a covenant. If this is true, then of course the Bible must also be considered covenantal. Indeed, as Peter Jensen has rightly argued, Scripture is far more than a holy handbook.

Therefore, if we take seriously the divine authorship of the Old Testament (cf. 2 Timothy 3:14–16), Kline argues,

We will see the Old Testament as more than an anthology of various types of literature produced by a series of authors across a span of centuries. We will understand that it all issued ultimately from the throne room of Israel’s heavenly King and that all its literary forms possess a functional unity as instruments of Yahweh’s ongoing covenantal oversight of the conduct and faith of his vassal people. (46)

Indeed, just as God handed down his covenant to Moses on Sinai, so he has given every generation a divinely inspired covenant document tendering his promises and teaching his stipulations. All in all, God’s authorship makes Scripture a covenantal document.

3. Israel’s authorship comes from the caste of covenant.

At the same time, it would be gross negligence to miss the central role covenant played in the life of Israel, or the New Testament church. Indeed, in both Testaments we find people whose culture is filled with covenants. In the last century, historians have written volumes on the way ancient Near Eastern treaties impacted (and now reveal) the content of Scripture. This is not to deny the unique inspiration of Scripture; it is to affirm the way in which God’s providence and man’s provenance used the covenantal context of biblical authors to shape the text of Scripture.

For this reason, Kline observes,

Because the cultic and cultural structures of Israel which were the immediate Sitz en Leben [situation in life] of the various parts of the Old Testament were thus so thoroughly covenantalized, it follows that all the inspired literature deriving from it and related to that cult (the ritual legislation and hymns) and associated with that culture (like civil law, national history, diplomatic messages of prophets, and instruction of sages) served the covenant and inevitably bore its stamp. (47)

4. The deposition of the covenant document signifies a covenant, as does the inscripturated curse.

Whenever covenants were ratified in the ancient Near East, two copies were made to remind both parties of the covenants stipulations. Thus, Kline observes that when “the direction for the deposition of the Mosaic treaties” into the house of the Lord (Exodus 25:16, 21; 40:20), they “are given in the documentary type of clause which is closely associated in the extrabiblical treaties with the inscriptural curse, the brand mark of canonicity” (36). Likewise, “the duplicate tables of the covenant written at Sinai reflect the custom of preparing copies of the treaty for each covenant party” (35). In short, the deposit of the covenant into the ark of the covenant suggests the covenantal nature of God’s word. See also Exodus 31:18; cf. 24:12; 32:15, 16; Deuteronomy 4:13; 5:22; 9:10, 11.

5. The reading of the covenant signifies a people under covenant with God.

Additionally, the word of God is also to be read as a reminder to God’s people of their covenantal commitment to the Lord. Expressing this covenantal repetition, Deuteronomy 31:9­–13 reads,

Then Moses wrote this law and gave it to the priests, the sons of Levi, who carried the ark of the covenant of the Lord, and to all the elders of Israel. 10 And Moses commanded them, “At the end of every seven years, at the set time in the year of release, at the Feast of Booths, 11 when all Israel comes to appear before the Lord your God at the place that he will choose, you shall read this law before all Israel in their hearing. 12 Assemble the people, men, women, and little ones, and the sojourner within your towns, that they may hear and learn to fear the Lord your God, and be careful to do all the words of this law, 13 and that their children, who have not known it, may hear and learn to fear the Lord your God, as long as you live in the land that you are going over the Jordan to possess.

On this verse, Kline observes, “This periodic public reading of the text . . . is a vassal obligation found in the international treaties too, was assigned to cultic officials (Deut. 31:9­–13)” (50). Just like vassal treaties required the servant to re-read his obligations, so Israel as God’s son (Exodus 4:22) had to remind themselves of their covenantal obligations. Additionally, the priestly office was instituted among other things to instruct the people of God about their covenantal obligations (see Leviticus 10:11; Malachi 2).

6. The polyvalent nature of Scripture (i.e., its multiple genres) is best described as a covenantal document.

Kline observes that,

The several major kinds of literature—history, law and wisdom, prophecy and praise—as they are employed in the Old Testament all function as extensions . . . . of some main section or feature of the foundational treaties [i.e., covenant documents] . . . Our thesis is then that whatever the individual names of several major literary genres in the Old Testament, as adopted in the Old Testament their common surname is Covenant. (47)

Instead of seeing Scripture as library of diverse genres, it helps understand the unity of Scripture to understand how any covenant contains an historical prologue, legal stipulations, instructions for reconciling a broken covenant, promises of blessings, warnings for curses, etc. While each different genre needs to be read on its own terms, it is evident to see how each genre enhances a “thick” understanding of God’s covenant revelation. Even more, consider Michael Horton’s observation that the whole Bible is organized as one unified covenant document.

The diverse Old Testament literature coheres in a covenantal pattern, with Genesis and Exodus serving as a historical prologue for the covenant.  With God’s mighty acts in history made known, the suzerain justifies the assertion of his rights over those whom he has liberated.  The covenant proper is then stipulated, rehearsed in confessional praise (in the Psalter), and its curses invoked against wayward Israel in the prophets; the same prophets promise the Messiah more clearly and definitely.  The New Testament, by its very designation, is understood as a ratification of this gracious covenant and the inauguration of its new covenant administration, with the apostles as “ministers of the new covenant” (2 Cor. 3:6) who have, unlike the false prophets of Jeremiah 23:21 “stood in the council” of the Lord during his earthly ministry.  Like the historical books, the Gospels expose the founding events that will establish “a new Israel” redrawn around the heavenly temple who has come down to earth.  Thus these apostles are sent out as legally authorized witnesses and representatives of the divine court.[2]

However you take Horton’s proposal, it is certain there is more to the covenantal shape of the Bible than is at first grasped. And this is only intensified as we look more closely at each type of genre.

7. Each of the various genres can also be described by and best understood in light of its covenantal context.

If the seeds of the Bible (i.e., the ten commandments and the law first delivered to Moses on Mount Sinai) are covenantal (“the book of the covenant,” Exod 24:7), then it follows that everything else is covenantal too. In time, all documents arising from, depending on, fulfilling the promises of the “covenant seeds” would produce the seasonal fruit of the old covenant and eventually the well-aged wine of the new covenant.

In truth, a covenantal reading of every genre  could take up a whole book. For now, lets just make a couple observations about the covenantal contours of five genres (e.g., law, history, wisdom, prophecy, and praise).

Law. Of all the genres, the law is most classically covenantal. Everything about the law, from its prologue, to stipulations, to sacrifices, to blessings and curses, to its witnesses and deposition in the tabernacle, was covenantal. Indeed, Exodus 19–24 and Deuteronomy both follow in large parts the covenantal framework of a Hittite Treaty. For instance:

The Book of Deuteronomy as a Covenant Document 

1–4      Historical Prologue
5­–26    Stipulations Israel’s relationship with Yahweh
–  General Stipulation (5-11)
–  Particular Stipulations (12-26)
27–28  Establishes Blessings & Curses
29–30  Ratification of the Covenant
32­–34  Moses Benediction

History. The historical narratives of Scripture are filled with covenants, whether between humans (e.g., personal: Genesis 2:24; 21:22–34; 31:44; 1 Samuel 18:3; 23:18; or national: Joshua 9; 1 Kings 5:12; Jeremiah 34:8–10), between God and man where God takes initiative (Adam: Hosea 6:7; cf. Romans 5:12–14; Noah: Genesis 6:18; 8:1–9:17; cf. Isa 54:9–10; Jer 33:19–20; Abraham: Genesis 12, 15, 17, 22; Israel: Exodus 19–24; Deuteronomy; or David: 2 Samuel 7; Psalms 89:3, 28, 34, 39), or between man and God where man takes initiative to renew his covenant (e.g., individual: Jehoida (2 Kgs 11); Josiah (2 Kgs 23); Asa (2 Chr 15); corporate – Joshua 9:19; 24; Ezra 10; Nehemiah 9–10).

Yet, the covenantal nature of God’s historical books is not just found in the fact that they are littered with covenantal fragments. Rather, they contribute to the covenant makeup of the Bible itself. As Kline observes, “The literary combination is a formal indication of the covenantal nature of the Pentateuchal narratives and legislation alike. For this unusual union of history and law was distinctive in treaties.” Moreover, the way in which the historical books, like 1–2 Chronicles, make moral lessons based on the faithfulness of David’s sons to God’s covenant is an indication that this history is not just reporting information; it is part of a larger covenantal framework.

Prophecy. Even if “the word ‘covenant’ is not prominently on display in [the prophet’s] writings, the complex of ideas associated with covenant is present as an invisible framework” (60). For starters, the prophets like the narratives are filled with references to the stipulations of the law and promises that will be fulfilled when the new covenant arrives. For instance, in addition to general appeals to the Law-covenant of Moses, every one of the ten commandments is mentioned in the Prophets.

  1. No other gods before me – Jeremiah 2:10-11, 13; Hosea
  2. No carved images – Isaiah 40-48 (esp. 44:6-20); Isaiah 6:9-13 (cf Ps 115); Hosea 8:4, 6; 9:10
  3. No blasphemy – Jeremiah 5:12; Amos 5:21, 23-24; Zephaniah 1:12
  4. Rest on the Sabbath – Isaiah 58:13-14; Jeremiah 17:19-27;Amos 8:15
  5. Honor Mother and Father – Ezekiel 22:7; Micah 7:5-6; Malachi 1:6
  6. You shall not murder – Amos 8:4; Micah 6:12; Habakkuk 1:2-4
  7. You shall not commit adultery – Jeremiah 5:7-8; Amos 2:7; Ezekiel 16 & 23 (esp. 23:47-48)
  8. You shall not steal – Isaiah 1:23; 10:1-2; Habakkuk 2:6-7; Malachi 3:6-9
  9. You shall not bear false witness – Hosea 10:4; Jeremiah 5:12; 9:3-6, 8-9, 11
  10. You shall not covet – Amos 2:6; 3:12, 15; 4:1; 5:11; 6:4-7; 8:4-7

Clearly, the prophets are not creating their own laws and promises. Rather, under the leading of the Holy Spirit (2 Peter 1:19–21), they dip their quills in the ink well of Mosaic covenant. At the same time, as exile approaches greater stress is laid on a new covenant that both continues and supersedes the old covenant ( Jeremiah 31:31­–34; cf. Isaiah 42:6; 49:8; 54­–55; Ezekiel 36­–37; Joel 2:28–32). This prophesied “new covenant” will ultimately shape everything Christ did (as he lived under the old covenant) and define all that he now does (as he mediates the everlasting covenant promised of old and fulfilled through his humiliation and exaltation).  

Praise. There are many ways the Psalms display a covenantal shape. First, the whole Psalter follows the covenantal history of David—historical David in Books 1–3 and the need for and rise of an eschatological David in Books 4–5. Second, Kline observes, “The Psalter opens with an echo of the treaty blessings and curses…” (64). Third, the temple was the focal point of worship and the origination of many Psalms, hence “the covenant is the Psalter’s sphere of explanation” (62). Fourth, the five books of David (some have argued) are meant to function for David, like the five books of the Law did for Moses. More covenantal connection could be found in the royal nature of the Psalter, its attention to the Word (Pss 1, 19, 119), and its penchant for righteousness and wisdom, which takes us to another genre.

Wisdom. Succinctly, Kline states, “The function of wisdom literature of the Old Testament is the explication of the covenant” (64–65). From just a few observations we can see how this is true.

First, obedience to the Law covenant is for wisdom and displays wisdom. As Deuteronomy 4:5–6 says, “See, I have taught you statutes and rules, as the Lord my God commanded me, that you should do them in the land that you are entering to take possession of it. Keep them and do them, for that will be your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.'”

Next, the Proverbs begin with ‘fear of the Lord,” as Proverbs 1:7 famously states, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.” This wisdom corresponds with the covenantal wisdom of Deuteronomy 10:12–13, which reads, “And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you, but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, 13 and to keep the commandments and statutes of the Lord, which I am commanding you today for your good?”

Last, after Israel failed to walk in the fear of the Lord, the New Covenant promises to grant what Israel could never maintain. Hence, Jeremiah 32:40 reads, “I will make with them an everlasting covenant, that I will not turn away from doing good to them. And I will put the fear of me in their hearts, that they may not turn from me.” In truth, the wisdom commanded in Proverbs coheres with covenantal stipulations of Deuteronomy, and both find their fulfillment in the fullness of time when the Spirit of wisdom and power is poured out from on high (cf. Isaiah 11; Acts 2; Ephesians 5:17–18).

8. Christ is born under the old covenant and dies in order to inaugurate a new covenant.

Biblically, Hebrews 9:15–17 makes plain that Christ is the mediator of a new covenant and that he inaugurates this new covenant by receiving in himself the penalties of the old covenant. Turned around, by suffering in the place of his people, he puts to death the death promised by the old covenant. And then in the same act, he establishes a new covenant. Accordingly, because everything in Scripture leads to Christ (John 5:39; Luke 24:27) and because he will unify all things in himself (Ephesians 1:10), it makes sense that Scripture carries a covenantal message about Jesus Christ.

In truth, we find testimony that the covenantally-minded Law and Prophets bear witness to him (Acts 10:43; Romans 3:21). The gospel itself is a covenantal message (see Peter Jensen, Revelation of God, 81–83). Baptism in the church is a public identification of a disciples submission to Jesus; hence it is the oath-sign of the new covenant (cf. Bobby Jamieson, Going Public, ch. 4). And, most explicitly, the Lord’s Table is a covenantal meal of remembrance (Luke 22:22; 1 Corinthians 11:25).

The Biblical Canon Is More Than a Book about Covenants; It Is God’s Covenantal Document for God’s New Covenant People

From these eight evidences, it seems unmistakable that the canon of Scripture is a covenantal document inspired to reveal God, his Son, and the covenantal relationship God longs to have with the people made in his image. Of course, following the contours of redemptive history—Creation, Fall, Redemption, New Creation—this progressive revelation does not contain just one covenant. Rather, it contains a series of covenants which find their terminus in Christ and the new covenant. Because of this, all Scripture with its promises, laws, types, and shadows are necessary for understanding the nature of the new covenant. Still, the Bible is not just a document about covenants; it is in itself a covenantal document for his new covenant people.

With that in mind, we should approach the Bible not simply as a storehouse of facts (my apologies to Charles Hodge) or a holy handbook. Rather, we should see the covenantal mold of the whole Bible and read it accordingly. In truth, God has not called us to be people who know things about him, nor has he given us the Bible to fill our minds with disparate truths alone. He has revealed himself in his word, so that we might enjoy an everlasting covenant with him through the sacrifice of his son and the power of his Holy Spirit. Scripture tells us that good news, and what we have found in this study, is that when we look carefully, we find that nature of that spiritual relationship is defined by God’s covenant unfolded in time and written down in the Bible.

May God give us Spiritual grace to see his Son in all parts of his covenantal word and to delight in knowing him through the new covenant of his Son, Jesus Christ.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds


[1] Peter Jensen, The Revelation of God (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2002), 83. Citation: R. A. Finlayson, “God,” in J.D. Douglas (ed.), The New Bible Dictionary.

[2] Michael Horton, Covenant and Eschatology: A Divine Drama. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2002], 135.

One thought on “The Covenantal Cast of the Biblical Canon

  1. Pingback: Salt and Light: What Y’All Are, When You Are in Christ (Matthew 5:13–16) | Via Emmaus

Comments are closed.