Covenants: One or Many?

Dr. Jeffrey Niehaus recently wrote an article entitled “An Argument against Theologically Constructed Covenants,” (June, JETS) in which he challenged the idea that the Bible sets forth a singular, overarching covenant in God’s relationship to man. Critiquing two main proponents of this monocovenantal approach, W.J. Dumbrell and Scott J. Hafemann, Niehaus insists that these scholars have imposed a “theologically constructed covenant” upon the Bible as a whole. Instead, he argues for an interpretation of the biblical covenants in terms of special and common grace. Hafemann’s articulation of a single covenant approach can be found in the fine, newly edited Central Themes in Biblical Theology.

According to Niehaus, the covenant with Adam and Noah is a covenant of “common grace,” affecting the whole of humanity, while the rest of the biblical covenants, Abraham to the New Covenant, are covenants of “special grace,” focused particularly on the elect of God. He states that the common grace covenants are part of the same “legal package.” The problem with Niehaus’ alternative is that it, too, is theologically constructed. In a brief email response to Niehaus’ article, Hafemann wrote: “So it is not a matter of being theologically construed or not; rather it is a matter of which theological construal is most biblical.” The notion of common and special grace, though arguably biblical notions, are in fact theological constructs.

Diving deeper, Niehaus’ main critique of the monocovenantal approach is that it does not make the proper distinctions between covenants and covenant renewals in the Bible (following ancient Near East convention). So, for Hafemann and Dumbrell, all covenants “confirm or formalize a relationship that already exists between two parties.” Not so for Niehaus. Instead, he argues that there are covenants (new relationships) and there are covenant renewals (renewed relationships).

To quicken to the implications, if all covenants confirm a pre-existing relationship, then no matter who makes it—Adam, Moses, David, etc—then God works the same way in all times with all people. As Hafemann has argued, creation is the Historical Prologue, the Grace of God that enables Adam’s obedience in the Garden. READ= no covenant of works. Meredith Kline, Niehaus and others strongly aver that there are two covenants, two new relationships between God and man, one based on works (Adamic, Mosaic) and one based on grace (Abrahamic, New Covenant).

In forthcoming posts, I will develop the deeper layers of the exegetical issues involved in answering the question: “Is there One Covenant or Many?”


11 comments so far

  1. Steve on

    One of the main critiques I had with this article in its nascent form (I have not seen it in its published form) was that Niehaus consistently misconstrued the mono-covenant paradigm. He argued against a one-covenant scheme rather than a single covenant structure for all covenants (bar Noah): historical prologue, commands, blessings (there are more ingredients, but those are the main ones for mono-cov guys/gals). Since, you have read it, is that still the case?

    By the way, I want to go on the record and say that I thought your responses to some of the feedback you received for your questions about 1 Cor and Piper’s new book where extremely graceful (much better than I would have done in your place), while certain of those who wrote you seemed quite rude and disrespectful – how dare you ask questions about justification. Did you not know that was settled long ago?

  2. jdodson on

    Thanks, Steve. Interesting critique.

    In the article, Niehaus critiques Kline’s two covenant scheme (grace/works) in the same way he critiques Dumbrell/Hafemann for the the single covenant scheme. Basically he doesn’t like an “overarching formula..which unites different covenants under one aegis.”

  3. blake white on

    Good post. I recently read Hafemann’s chapter and his popular book and left thinking that the newness of the new covenant was not full appreciated. I don’t think the author of Hebrews would be okay with calling the new covenant a ‘renewal.’ Hafemann does have a lot of excellent insights though!

  4. jdodson on

    Possibly, though I recall him affirming the new covenant quite strongly in his Biblical Theology course during my ThM. His interpretation of “new” may differ from some readings. It is closely tied to the giving of a new heart by the Spirit in Ez 36 & Jer 31, such that the NC is new not in nature, but in fulfillment among the people of God, such that we become “new covenant keepers of the law by the Spirit.”

  5. […] contributed to that discussion with a clarifying comment here and the discussion has continued here. […]

  6. […] has kindly contributed to that discussion with a clarifying comment here the discussion continues here. Posted by: Jonathan @ 12:32 pm | Trackback | […]

  7. Jeffrey Niehaus on

    I don’t know how often I will enter the discussion here, but I think that one more comment, at least, would be appropriate, and, I hope helpful.

    The posted comment reads in part, “The problem with Niehaus’ alternative is that it, too, is theologically constructed. In a brief email response to Niehaus’ article, Hafemann wrote: ‘So it is not a matter of being theologically construed or not; rather it is a matter of which theological construal is most biblical.'”

    First, as I mentioned in my email of yesterday, I have no problem with theological constructs (or construals) per se, and have not written against them per se. Certainly the concepts of common and special grace are old theological construals which, I believe, do a good job of capturing some essential truths in two brief phrases. When applied to biblical covenants this ought to be obvious. It is surely beyond dispute that everyone lives under the Noahic covenant, for example, since the terms are such in Genesis 9, so the Noahic covenant is a good specimen of God’s common grace – his grace extended to all people. By contrast, it is equally obvious that not all people lived under the Mosaic covenant, so that covenant is a good example of God’s special grace, or special revelation, extended to a people whom God himself called chosen or elect out of all peoples.

    There is a big difference, though, between such a restating of the biblical data, on the one hand, and the attempt which uncovenantalists make, on the other, to make all of the biblical covenants into one. It is rather like comparing apples and oranges, and to lump them together as construals that vie on the same grounds for our approval seems to me to border on obscurantism.

    I certainly agree with my good colleague Scott Hafemann when he says that what we want is the most biblical way of construing the data. The difference – or one difference – between our views is, that I have portrayed a distinction between the covenants which God has extended to all people, on the one hand, and those which he has extended to his elect on the other, whereas, so far as I can make out, Dr. Hafemenn maintains that “one covenant relationship” exists in all of these covenants. But, this is at best an unfortunate choice of wording. We all recognize, I hope, that the same (“one”) covenant relationship does not characterize the relationship to God of a non-believer, who lives under the Noahic covenant, and a believer, who has entered into the New Covenant relationship with God through faith in Christ. Another difference between Dr. Hafemann and myself has to do with the idea that a covenant confirms an already existing relationship. I would hope that what I have already written in the JETS article makes it clear that this cannot be an adequate description of what newly initiated covenants do, either in the ancient Near East or in the Bible.

    Again, I hope these comments contribute some clarity to the conversation.

  8. jdodson on

    Thanks for weighing in here, Dr. Niehaus.

    I am not sure that Hafemann would agree with that representation of his covenantal view. He certainly sees differences between the covenants, just not in structure. As you point out, the Noahic covenant is unconditional; whereas other covenants have conditions. On this, Hafemann would agree.

    The meaning of berith and covenant renewal is, of course, up for debate.

  9. Jeffrey Niehaus on

    Thanks for your comments. They lead me to conclude that some further clarification is necessary.

    First, I do understand that Dr. Hafemann sees some difference in the covenants. The problem, I suspect, lies in the phrase “one covenant relationship,” which is unclear and thus unhelpful. I will address again (as I did partly in my article) the matter of structure and relationship below.

    Second, there are issues which have actually been well understood for a long time, yet which still remain, in many quarters, “up for debate.” Covenants and covenant renewals are among them. Berith means covenant. Whether a berith is a renewal covenant or not depends, not on the term, berith, but on the verb which is used in connection with it. In particular, as Dumbrell himself has noted, the idiom, hqym bryt (usually translated “establish covenant”) is actually used for covenant renewals, and so he rightly concludes that the Noahic Covenant is a renewal of the Adamic, in part because its institution employs that verb, hqym (in his book, Creation and Covenant).

    For public interest, I am including, below, material which I have developed as a result of reading Dr. Hafemann’s chapter in the new book (Central Themes in Biblical Theology). This material will eventually be included in an article on covenants. I believe it should be of interest on methodological grounds. But a few other comments first.

    Dr. Hafemann gave the impression, in The God of Promise, that he considered “one covenant relationship” to exist throughout the Bible. He repeats that idea in his new book, but now also says that “one covenant relationship” actually exists in the redemptive covenants, and I take that to be his meaning. This is consistent with a conversation he and I had on the difference between the Noahic Covenant and the redemptive covenants, a couple of years ago.

    However, if it turns out that what he means by “one covenant relationship” is nothing more than the fact that the biblical covenants share the same structural elements (and this does sometimes seem to be the case when one reads his materials), then it seems to me to be, at best, an unfortunate choice of phrase, since structure and relationship are not the same thing (please note that all second millennium Hittite treaties share the same structural elements as the OT divine-human covenants).

    The fact that two covenants have the same structural elements (e.g., title, historical prologue, stipulations, witnesses, blessings, curses – or, the reduced format which Dr. Hafemann mentions in The God of Promise, and which I discuss in my article) does not at all mean that the parties to one of those covenants have the same “covenant relationship” as do the parties to the other covenant. For example, our relationship to the Lord under the New Covenant is not the same relationship that people under the Mosaic Covenant had with the Lord. Paul writes extensively about this in Romans and Galatians (and cf. 2 Cor 3). We have a freedom that they did not. We are temples of the Spirit and serve in “the way of the Spirit and not the written code.” And who of us now has to sacrifice bulls and goats? I am very grateful that the “covenant relationship” which the Lord and I (and all believers) have is very different from that of an Israelite (good as that was by comparison with, say, a Babylonian, who only “related” to the Lord under the Adamic and Noahic Covenants). So, in sum, a “covenant relationship” is not the same as a “covenant structure,” and I think the failure to understand and clearly state the difference is producing unnecessary confusion.

    Anyway, here is the material I mentioned at the outset, which I hope may be of some help in its own right:



    “McCarthy points to thirteen examples of covenants ratifying an existing relationship as well (see Hugenberger, Marriage, p. 169 n 5). In fact, ratifying an existing relationship may be the typical use of covenant making”

    – Scott J. Hafemann, “The Covenant Relationship,” in Scott J. Hafemann and Paul R. House, eds., Central Themes in Biblical Theology (Baker: Grand Rapids, 2007), p 26 n.20.


    “D. J. McCarthy summarizes the pattern of some 13 older accounts of ‘secular’ covenant making within the Bible: Gen 21:22-34 (J and E); 26:23-33; 31:25-32:5 (at least 2 narratives); Josh 9:1-10:1; 1 Sam 11:1-3; 18:1-4 + 20:5-8; 20:11-17 + 23:16-18; 2 Sam 3:17-21 + 5:1-3; 3:12-21; 1 Kgs 15:19, 20:31-34; 2 Kings 11 (// 2 Chronicles 23) (Treaty and Covenant, [1981] 19f.) McCarthy concludes, ‘the negotiations…begin regularly with an affirmation that a real though general relationship already exists between the parties.”

    – Gordon Paul Hugenberger, Marriage as a Covenant (New York: Brill, 1994),
    p 169 n 5.

    Hugenberger’s remark, to which his n 5 is attached:

    “In other texts, far from creating a relationship de novo, the making of a covenant seems to presuppose an existing relationship, to which explicit appeal is made during the negotiations to make the covenant. This seems to be the case, for example, in the covenant between Abraham and Abimelech in Gen 21:22ff.”

    It appears to me that Dr. Hafemann has misstated Dr. Hugenberger’s remarks. Dr. Hugenberger notes that “the making of a covenant seems to presuppose an existing relationship, to which explicit appeal is made during the negotiations to make the covenant.” This is indeed the case. The same is true in ANE treaties. Some sort of relationship, however minimal, exists between the parties before they enter into covenant. That prior relationship is normally reviewed in the historical prologue of the treaties, the purpose of which is to document the historical basis for the covenant. This is where, to use Hugenberger’s words, “explicit appeal is made during the negotiations to make a covenant.” (One might say that even the Gibeonites had some minimal relationship with Israel in Joshua 9, even though that relationship was predicated on the Gibeonites’ false presentation of themselves). So McCarthy rightly notes that the covenant “negotiations…begin regularly with an affirmation that a real though general relationship already exists between the parties.”

    However, to say that a relationship forms the background of a covenant is one thing. To say that a covenant “ratif[ies] an existing relationship” (Hafemann, p. 26 n 20) is quite another. It is important to understand the difference.

    To affirm that a relationship forms the background of the covenant means simply to recognize the existence of a relationship prior to the covenant, a relationship which forms a historical basis for the treaty / covenant. On the other hand, to ratify that prior relationship by a covenant means to confirm that existing relationship and make it a legal and binding reality so that the same, prior, relationship now continues with the legal protection of a treaty or covenant.

    Covenant renewals do confirm / ratify existing relationships. Covenants do not. Covenants do more than simply declare that a previously existing relationship now has legal status. Marriage is a good example. The marriage covenant does not simply ratify the relationship of persons who have been engaged. If it did, it would simply declare them legally and permanently engaged. Rather, the marriage covenant allows them legally to enter into a more intimate relationship, with new privileges and responsibilities. That new relationship does certainly build upon the premarital / precovenantal relationship, but it also far surpasses it, so that it is indeed a new and substantially different relationship. The marriage covenant is a good illustration, because married persons can immediately see and agree that there are such differences involved, as can most other people.

    The same is true of international treaties / covenants. Two nations may have some background of relationship before they enter into a treaty / covenant. The commitment to the treaty, however, now means a new relationship between them, with new privileges (e.g., perhaps free trade), as well as new responsibilities (e.g., perhaps mutual defense).

    The same is true of the divine-human biblical covenants. As Paul remarks in Romans 7, for example, a person’s life under the law was quite different from what it had been before the law was given. The person, that is, has a different life because he / she has a different relationship with the Suzerain because of the law (the stipulations of the Mosaic Covenant, or, to use Paul’s metaphor, the “law of marriage”) that he has instituted.

    The fundamental distinctions in this discussion are important. Uni-covenantalists argue that covenants usually confirm existing relationships. Why do they take this view? Perhaps because it comports with the argument that all of the divine-human covenants are one. If all divine-human covenants are one, or constitute “one covenant relationship,” then any one of them confirms that “existing relationship.” Such, however, is not the case with the biblical covenants, except in cases of covenant renewal (the Noahic / Recreation Covenant, which renews the Adamic / Creation Covenant, and Deuteronomy, which enshrines the renewal of the Mosaic Covenant, Dt. 29:1).

  10. Benjamin Bronson on

    Forgive me if I oversimplify or am simple, but my understanding is that there are three theological covenants: redemption, works and grace.

    Is it not because of God’s grace that He performed a work to redeem Adam and Eve in the garden by making the first sacrifice to clothe them, covering the shame of their sin and allowing a renewal of relationship to begin in the wilderness?

    • Jonathan Dodson on

      The covenant of works is debated. A three covenant structure is debated. Some say one. Others say two. These posts should clarify.

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