Canon as Covenant: Why We Have A New Testament

Derek Ouellette —  September 3, 2010

The scriptures have come under serious attack in recent decades with the writings of Bart Erhman, Waltar Bauer and others. And of course orthodox Christians have stood up and written in defense. But Andreas Kostenberger has taken a unique approach to why we have a New Testament in the first place, and it has everything to do with Covenant Theology! I find this intriguing to say the least. Here is the argument in a nutshell.

The story which the scriptures tell is the story of a creation which has fallen out of God’s perfect order, and of a God who is driven to set things to rights; and Gods chosen method of setting things to rights is through a Covenant he establishes with humans. So the backdrop of the entire redemptive story found in the scriptures is the concept of covenant.

The biblical covenants were structured after the customs of the ancient world (Hittite’s in particular) and had five key elements: 1) Preamble: “I am the Lord your God”. 2) Historical prologue: “who brought you up from the land of Egypt”. 3) Stipulations: what each party agrees to do. 4) Sanctions: blessings for obedience to the covenant, curses for disobedient. 5) Deposit of written text of the covenant: both parties made a written document of the covenant. Kostenberger goes on to point out that the Old Testament is structurally similar (way beyond coincidence) to the ancient Hittite covenants and that post-exile Jews viewed their scriptures as the covenant documents.

When first century Jews read the word “covenant” in Jeremiah 31:31, (“behold the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah”), there can be no question they would have understood this in light of the structure of the culture in which their own covenant document was formed. So when a first century Jew heard the phrase, “new covenant”, this both assumed and anticipated a new document. When Jesus claimed to be the Messiah, established the “new covenant” through his blood then rose again, the early church – made up predominately of Jews – would have anticipated a new written document of the covenant as a natural outworking of that covenant.

Meredith Klein, who Kostenberger references here, shows that the New Testament – from the Gospels, through the Epistles and into Revelation – are inherently structured as a covenant document right down to “blessings” and “curses” (Revelation 22:18-19). “Thus, the New Testament canon, at its core, is a covenantal document” [p.112]. It seems that the reach of Covenant Theology has no end, for it runs through every aspect of this Christian faith.

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Derek Ouellette

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a husband, new dad, speaker, writer, christian. see my profile here.