Covenant Overload


I read Dr. Stek's article "Covenant Overload in Reformed Theology," published in CTJ 29(1994):12-24. His understanding of "covenant" is much different from the tradition in Reformed theology. The covenant is one of the most important themes in Old Testament and Systematic theology in the reformed tradition. What is your response to Dr. Stek's article?


I hadn't read Stek's article, but I was able to glance over it after receiving your email. I don't have time for a thorough response, but here are my first impressions:

1. I think that Stek is asking for too much precision in the definition of covenant. Covenant in Scripture is a fairly vague idea associated with various elements: sovereign lordship, obligations incurred by past favors, promises, laws, sanctions, oaths, blood sacrifice, constitutional documents, reinforcement of a relationship in difficult times (Stek) etc. Some of these are prominent in some covenants, others in others. These covenants have what Wittgenstein called a "family resemblance." Not every feature is present in every one, but each has a number of the important characteristics.

2. I agree that the pre-Fall and post-Fall relationships between God and Adam are not called covenants, but they contain a number of the features of covenants. So they are analogous to covenants, perhaps sufficiently analogous to be called "covenants." As for the eternal agreement between the members of the Trinity (the "pactum salutis"), I think the analogy is much fainter. But there are analogies even there, and I don't fight with people who think this may be the divine origin of what is called "covenant" in human history.

3. In my own work, I define the covenant relationship from Exodus 3 and 19-20, with special emphasis on the giving of the divine name, which is to be God's "memorial name for all generations." That name is commonly translated "Lord," which is appropriate, since Exodus Presents Yahweh as head of a covenant. But of course Lordship is found not only in the Mosaic covenant or the new covenant, but also in earlier covenants, and in the ontological relationship between God and man. It is in this sense that I use covenant (contrary to Stek) as a meta-concept, an organizing principle in Scripture. "God is Lord" is the center of the Old Testament (Deut. 6:4ff.), and "Jesus is Lord" is the center of the New Testament (Rom. 10:9; 1 Cor. 12:3; Phil. 2:11). So, I take it that covenant Lordship is a central theme of Scripture, and I find it even in eras (such as pre-Fall) in which "covenant" itself is not mentioned. The application of this to the Trinity (pactum) is questionable. Is there an analogy of covenant Lordship in the pactum? I'm not prepared to say one way or the other.

Answer by Dr. John M. Frame

Dr. John M. Frame is Professor of Systematic Theology and Philosophy at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, FL.