In what way are the major divisions of the Bible “testaments” or “covenants”? Are “Old Testament” and “New Testament” just arbitrary titles, or are we really to understand them as somehow actually being covenants?
The other day I wrote about the biblical warrant for calling our two major divisions of Scripture the Old and New Testaments. I explained that 2 Corinthians 3:6, 14 is a solid basis for calling them what we do, either formally or at least informally. Today I want to peel back the onion one more layer. I want to get deeper into why we can and should call them covenants, beyond simply that the Bible itself calls them that.
For this I have to lean on a book I recently read, Michael Kruger’s Canon Revisited: Establishing the Origins and Authority of the New Testament Books. In a chapter on the apostolic origins of the New Testament canon, Kruger tackles exactly this question, concluding that canon is itself derived from redemption and covenant.
If you think about it, what are the most important sections of our two testaments? For the Old Testament, the important section is the Torah, the Pentateuch, the five Books of Moses, which tell of God establishing the old covenant with his people Israel through Moses as mediator. The important section of the New Testament is the four Gospels, which tell of a new covenant God has established with his people through Christ as mediator.
What about the rest of Scripture? Everything else in the Old Testament took place and was written in the context of the old covenant, and everything else in the New Testament was written in the context of the new covenant. Kruger explains, taking a cue from other scholars such as Meredith Kline, that the prophetic books of the Old Testament and the epistles of the New Testament function as “covenant lawsuits”, bringing charges against God’s covenant people for various offenses against the covenant. So these secondary documents even function as an important part of the written form of each covenant.
So our two collections of Scripture are certainly about covenants, but in what sense can we call them covenants or testaments in and of themselves? Here, Kruger helpfully explains that every covenant in the ancient near east included certain elements. One important element was the depositing of a written copy of the covenant to be kept by both parties in a safe place. A notable example of this custom is the ten commandments, written by God himself on stone tablets, being deposited in the Ark of the Covenant and kept in the tabernacle and later the temple in Jerusalem. Kruger argues, and I agree, what we have in our Old and New Testaments is nothing less than the written deposit of God’s covenants with man.
Given this function of these written texts, it is right not only to say they are about covenants, but to call them covenants in and of themselves. And isn’t this what we saw in my previous article? Paul considered the written text of the Old Testament synonymous with the old covenant when he said in 2 Corinthians 3:14: “when they read the old covenant”.