(ברית / διαθηκη)

The Greek word διαθηκη (diatheke), usually translated “covenant” in English versions of the Bible, is a legal term denoting a formal and legally binding declaration of benefits to be given by one party to another, with or without conditions attached. In secular contexts it was most often used of a “last will and testament.” In the Greek version of the Old Testament διαθηκη was used as the ordinary rendering for the Hebrew word ברית.

ברית (berith) is also translated “covenant” in English versions, but, like διαθηκη, it also refers to legal dispositions or pledges which may or may not have the character of an “agreement.” Sometimes a ברית is more in the nature of a one-sided promise or grant.

When English readers see the word “covenant” in the Bible, it is important to bear this in mind, because the true sense is often missed if readers suppose that the word must refer to a reciprocal “agreement” or “contract.” The issue is important because misunderstandings along this line can have some serious consequences for theology.

This problem of interpretation has received considerable attention from biblical scholars and theologians. We recommended to students the full discussion of the matter by Geerhardus Vos in his article Hebrews, the Epistle of the Diatheke, reproduced on a separate page of this site. Below we also provide some brief comments from the works of Herman Ridderbos and Louis Berkhof.

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Herman Ridderbos, The Epistle of Paul to the Churches of Galatia (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1953), pp. 130-31.

In the Septuagint διαθηκη is regularly used as the translation of the covenant of God (berith), rather than the apparently more available word συνθηκη. In this there is already an expression of the fact that the covenant of God does not have the character of a contract between two parties, but rather that of a one-sided grant. This corrresponds with the covenant-idea in the Old Testament, in which berith, even in human relations, sometimes refers to a one-party guarantee which a more favored person gives a less favored one (cf. Josh. 9:6, 15; 1 Sam. 11:1; Ezek. 17:13). And it is most peculiarly true of the divine covenantal deed that it is a one-party guarantee. It comes not from man at all, but from God alone. This does not rule out the fact, of course, that it involves religious and ethical obligation, namely that of faith and obedience (Gen. 17:9-10), and that thus the reciprocal element is taken up in the covenant. Still, such an obligation is not always named, and there is no room to speak at all of a correlation, in the sense that each determines and holds in balance the terms of the other, between the promise of God and the human appropriation of it. It is not the idea of parity, or even that of reciprocity, but that of validity which determines the essence of the covenant-idea. God's covenant with Noah, for example, lays down no stipulations, and it has the character of a one-party guarantee. It does of course require the faith of man, but is in its fulfillment in no respect dependent on the faith, an it is validly in force for all coming generations, believing and unbelieving (cf. Gen. 9:9). And in the making of the covenant with Abraham, too, in Gen. 15, the fulfillment of the law is in symbolical form made to depend wholly upon the divine deed. Abraham is deliberately excluded — he is the astonished spectator (cf. Gen. 15:12, 17). True, in the Sinaitic covenant, the stipulations which God lays down for his people sometimes take the form of actual conditions, so that the realization of the promise is conditioned by them (cf. Lev. 26:15 ff. and Deut. 31:20), but this structural change in the covenant-revelation can be explained in connection with the wider promulgation — it is to extend to the whole nation of Israel — of the covenant, by means of which the covenant-relationship takes on a wider and more external meaning. It comprises not merely the unconditional guarantee of God to those who walk in the faith and obedience of their father Abraham: it also lays down a special bond constituted by the offer of salvation, on the one side, and by responsibility, on the other side, for those who will not appear to manifest a oneness with their spiritual ancestor. Meanwhile, of course, the fact remains that in all the different dispensations of the covenant of grace, God's unconditional promise to Abraham constitutes its heart and kernel. Consequently, when the “new covenant” (Jer. 31:33) is announced, one thing is expressly made clear: namely, that the disposition which is indispensible for the human reception of the covenant-benefits will itself be granted as the gift of God Himself. In other words, that very thing which in the Sinaitic covenant was so plainly set down as a condition, belongs in the new covenant to the benefits promised by God in the covenant itself. The New Testament concept of διαθηκη lies quite in the line of that development, particularly as Paul thinks of it, as is evident in [Galatians 3 and 4], and in such a place as Rom. 9. That New Testament concept points to a salvation whose benefits are guaranteed by God and as a matter of fact are actually given, because in Christ and through Him the conditions of the covenant are fulfilled.

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Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, 1949), pp. 262-3.

1. IN THE OLD TESTAMENT. The Hebrew word for covenant is always berith, a word of uncertain derivation. The most general opinion is that it is derived from the Hebrew verb barah, to cut, and therefore contains a reminder of the ceremony mentioned in Gen. 15:17. Some, however, prefer to think that it is derived from the Assyrian word beritu, meaning “to bind.” This would at once point to the covenant as a bond. The question of the derivation is of no great importance for the construction of the doctrine. The word berith may denote a mutual voluntary agreement (dipleuric), but also a disposition or arrangement imposed by one party on another (monopleuric). Its exact meaning does not depend on the etymology of the word, nor on the historical development of the concept, but simply on the parties concerned. In the measure in which one of the parties is subordinate and has less to say, the covenant acquires the character of a disposition or arrangement imposed by one party on the other. Berith then becomes synonymous with choq (appointed statute or ordinance), Ex. 34:10; Isa. 59:21 ; Jer. 31:36; 33:20; 34:13. Hence we also find that karath berith (to cut a covenant) is construed not only with the prepositions ’am and ben (with), but also with lamedh (to), Jos. 9:6 ; Isa. 55:3 ; 61:8 ; Jer. 32:40. Naturally, when God establishes a covenant with man, this monopleuric character is very much in evidence, for God and man are not equal parties. God is the Sovereign who imposes His ordinances upon His creatures.

2. IN THE NEW TESTAMENT. In the Septuagint the word berith is rendered diatheke in every passage where it occurs with the exception of Deut. 9:15 (marturion) and I Kings 11:11 (entole). The word diatheke is confined to this usage, except in four passages. This use of the word seems rather peculiar in view of the fact that it is not the usual Greek word for covenant, but really denotes a disposition, and consequently also a testament. The ordinary word for covenant is suntheke. Did the translators intend to substitute another idea for the covenant idea? Evidently not, for in Isa. 28:15 they use the two words synonymously, and there diatheke evidently means a pact or an agreement. Hence there is no doubt about it that they ascribe this meaning to diatheke. But the question remains, Why did they so generally avoid the use of suntheke and substitute for it a word which denotes a disposition rather than an agreement? In all probability the reason lies in the fact that in the Greek world the covenant idea expressed by suntheke was based to such an extent on the legal equality of the parties, that it could not, without considerable modification, be incorporated in the Scriptural system of thought. The idea that the priority belongs to God in the establishment of the covenant, and that He sovereignly imposes His covenant on man was absent from the usual Greek word. Hence the substitution of the word in which this was very prominent. The word diatheke thus, like many other words, received a new meaning, when it became the vehicle of divine thought. This change is important in connection with the New Testament use of the word. There has been considerable difference of opinion respecting the proper translation of the word. In about half of the passages in which it occurs the Holland and the Authorized Versions render the word “covenant,” while in the other half they render it “testament.” The American Revised Version, however, renders it “covenant” throughout, except in Heb. 9:16,17. It is but natural, therefore, that the question should be raised, What is the New Testament meaning of the word? Some claim that it has its classical meaning of disposition or testament, wherever it is found in the New Testament, while others maintain that it means testament in some places, but that in the great majority of passages the covenant idea is prominently in the foreground. This is undoubtedly the correct view. We would expect a priorily that the New Testament usage would be in general agreement with that of the Septuagint; and a careful study of the relevant passages shows that the American Revised Version is undoubtedly on the right track, when it translates diatheke by “testament” only in Heb. 9:16,17. In all probability there is not a single other passage where this rendering would be correct, not even II Cor. 3:6,14. The fact that several translations of the New Testament substituted “testament” for “covenant” in so many places is probably due to three causes: (a) the desire to emphasize the priority of God in the transaction; (b) the assumption that the word had to be rendered as much as possible in harmony with Heb. 9:16,17; and (c) the influence of the Latin translation, which uniformly rendered diatheke by “testamentum.”