The Church And Covenant Theology -- By: Morton H. Smith
JETS 21:1 (March 1978) p. 47
The Church And Covenant Theology
One of the pressing questions of our day has to do with the nature and mission of the Church. A wide variety of answers has been given to this question throughout the history of the Church. In the present study, an attempt will be made to survey the Biblical concept of the Church as it is revealed in that overall unifying theme of the Scriptures, namely, the covenants.
That the covenants are the unifying principle of Scripture may be seen in the way in which they begin in Eden and end in the final consummation. It shall be our purpose in this paper to outline briefly the overall covenant structure and to see how the idea of the Church is found in it throughout the ages.
In order to define “covenant” as used in theology, it is necessary to review briefly the history of the use of this term. Covenant theology itself is generally to be identified with the Reformed tradition. Though other branches of the Protestant Church have dealt with the covenants in their treatment of the Biblical concepts, it has been Reformed theologians who organized their theology around the covenants.
From the beginning of this development we find the term “covenant” defined as a contract or agreement between parties. For example, the Presbyterian Child’s Catechism defines it as “an agreement between two or more persons.” This definition is rooted in the earliest of Reformed writers on the subject. Ursinus says a covenant is
a mutual promise and agreement, between God and men, in which God gives assurance to men that he will be merciful to them … And, on the other side, men bind themselves to God in this covenant that they will exercise repentance and faith… and render such obedience as will be acceptable to him.1
Though this has been the case in the history of the development of covenant theology, there is a growing awareness among covenant theologians today of the necessity to re-examine the Biblical usage of the terms b,er~t and diath~k~ and to seek to come up with a better definition
*Morton Smith is professor of Reformed theology at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi.
JETS 21:1 (March 1978) p. 48
of the term “covenant” as actually used in the Bible. A survey of the various applications of the terms in Scripture reveals that they are used in such a variety of ways that a single concise definition is not able to cover all the applications. For example, on the one hand covenants sometimes include conditions, threats and promises, as in the case of the Mosaic...
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