Sometimes exponents of a “covenantal” understanding of the Bible or of Christian theology refer to their framework using the term “federal”. In this view, “covenantal” and “federal” are essentially synonymns. I think that this is a mistake, because it imposes a particular and narrow understanding of what a “covenant” is upon the more variegated biblical idea; and it may therefore lead to a misreading of the words and concepts associated with the biblical covenants. This is particularly serious when such “federal” ideas are made into the organising principle for reading the entire Bible and for doing Christian theology.
When we hear and use the word “federal” today, we are usually thinking about legal relationships between or amongst social groups. These legal relationships usually entail particular obligations and benefits for the various parties involved (I immediately think, for example, about the Federal Government of Australia). In theology, the word “federal” is seen to be helpful because it implies a quasi-legal relationship between a group (e.g. humanity, or the church) and a representative “federal” head (e.g. Adam or Christ). In “federal theology” the federal concept is extremely important, because one’s eternal damnation or salvation is intimately connected with whether one’s “federal head” is Adam or Christ. The danger with using the word “federal” is that it can illegitimately elevate ideas traditionally associated with “federations”, i.e. social belonging, social obligations and social activities, into the very serious plane of salvation and damnation.
The biblical concept of the “covenant”, however, is far more pluriform than the “federal” idea. Indeed, many of the biblical “covenants” are not connected with eternal damnation or salvation at all, in any straightforward way. The biblical word “covenant” does not simply mean “a salvific relationship with God”, nor does it necessarily involve concepts of social belonging. The biblical word “covenant” means “an elected, as opposed to natural, relationship of obligation under oath”, and may therefore be applied to many different kinds of situations, some of which focus far more on a person’s vocation than on their salvation.
The New Testament uses the word “covenant” seldom. Paul uses the plural, implying that the covenants are pluriform (e.g. Rom 9:4, Eph 2:12). Usually the New Testament authors use the word to refer to one of the various different kinds of covenant between God and human beings in the Old Testament. Here is a list of some of the covenants in the Old Testament and in other Jewish writings which may be relevant to the New Testament:
- A covenant between God and Abram (and his seed), to make him into a geopolitical nation (Gen 15), cf. Luke 1:72-75.
- A related but distinct covenant between God and Abraham (and his seed), to bring about international blessing contingent upon Abraham’s loyalty (Gen 17), cf. Acts 3:25, 7:8, Gal 3:17.
- A covenant of law with the nation Israel, related to the covenant of Genesis 17. Cf. Gal 4:24.
- A covenant of mediation between Moses and God, upon which the covenant with Israel becomes contingent (Exod 33-34, e.g. Exod 34:27).
- A related covenant of mediation between God and the Levitical priesthood (Num 25:11-13, Neh 13:28, Jer 33:21, Mal 2:4). This involved offering sacrifices and teaching the law. NB This is emphasised as a covenant of great glory in Sirach 45. Cf. 2 Cor 3:6, 14.
- The servant of Yahweh, who is “a covenant [for the] people” and “a light [for the] nations” (Isa 42:6, 49:8). Cf. perhaps Luke 22:20.
- A covenant between God and redeemed Israel, that they will minister to the nations from a new Jerusalem (Isa 59:21-60:3 and foloowing), cf. Gal 4:24, 26-27.
- The “new covenant” between God and Israel/Judah mentioned in Jeremiah 31:31 (cf. Hebrews 8-10)
As you can see, although some of these “covenants” may involve some elements of the “federal” idea, the biblical covenants are really far more varied than the “federal” concept implies.
I am deeply grateful to the work of many theologians and biblical scholars who see themselves as operating within a “covenantal” framework. Nevertheless, I would urge them to strictly limit their use of “federal” concepts. I believe that a concentration on “federal” ideas can cause covenantal theologians to drift away from their biblical roots and to construct their theological edifices and consequent ministry practices upon an unbiblical vision.