Covenant & Testament distinction (Vos)

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Working through Covenant Theology, I've had the question of distinguishing between covenant and testament. I'm currently reading Vos' Biblical Theology and seem to have found my answers, but it raised more questions. For those familiar with the topic:

(1) Is the below typical of Reformed Theology?

(2) Is the following timeline correct (taken from last paragraph):
a. Covenant of Works: Adam prior to the fall.
b. Covenant of Grace containing two testaments: Adam after the fall.
b1. Old testament preface: Adam after the fall to Moses
b2. Old testament proper: Moses to Christ
b3. New testament: Christ to eternity

(3) The underlined section:
a. The first sentence he's talking about English words testament vs. convenant and then says the (Hebrew) word "berith may be employed..." Does he mean 'covenant'?
b. What does this section mean?

(4) Was the difficult arising from the idea of the death of God (underlined later) in using diatheke only a problem because Christ had not yet died? It's not a problem for us now considering Christ is the testator? If yes to both questions, why does he quote New Testament passages (Heb. 9:16, Gal. 3:15), written after the Septuagint diatheke discussion?

(5) Similar to question (4), since Reformed Theology has formulated two testaments, is there no instance in the Old Testament that the word 'berith' should be translated 'testament'? Why not Jer. 31:31 as Vos' uses this passage to distinguish old and new?


Permission to post the below section of Biblical Theology: Old and New Testaments (Geerhardus Vos), pages 23-26, was granted by Banner of Truth USA on 4 Sept. 2013. Please let me know if there are typos.




This what we call in dogmatic language 'The Covenant of Grace', whilst the pre-redemptive Special Revelation is commonly given the name of 'The Covenant of Works'. Care should be taken not to identify the latter with 'The Old Testament'. The Old Testament belongs after the fall. It forms the first of the two divisions of the Covenant of grace. The Old Testament is that period of the covenant of grace which precedes the coming of the Messiah, the New Testament that period of the covenant of grace which has followed His appearance and under which we still live. It will be observed that the phraseology 'Old Testament' and 'New Testament', 'Old Covenant' and 'New Covenant', is often interchangeably used. This creates confusion and misunderstanding. For this reason, as well as for the sake of the subject itself, the origin and meaning of these phrases require careful attention. The Hebrew word rendered by the above nouns is berith. The Greek word is diatheke. As to berith, this in the Bible never means 'testament'. In fact the idea of 'testament' was entirely unknown to the ancient Hebrews. They knew nothing of a 'last will'. From this, however, it does not follow that the rendering 'covenant' would be indicated in all places where berith occurs. Berith may be employed where as a matter of fact a covenant in the sense of agreement is referred to, which is more than can be said for 'testament'. Only the reason for its occurrence in such places is never that it relates to an agreement. That is purely incidental. The real reason lies in the fact that the agreement spoken of is concluded by some special religious sanction. This, and not its being an agreement, makes it a berith. And similarly in other connections. A purely one-sided promise or ordinance or law becomes a berith, not by reason of its inherent conceptual or etymological meaning, but by reason of the religious sanction added. From this it will be understood that the outstanding characteristic of a berith is its unalterableness, its certainty, its eternal validity, and not (what would in certain cases by the very opposite) its voluntary, changeable nature. The berith as such is a 'faithful berith', something not subject to abrogation. It can be broken by man, and the breach is a most serious sin, but this again is not because it is the breaking of an agreement in general; the seriousness results from the violation of the sacred ceremony by which its sanction was effected.


With the Greek word diatheke the matter stands somewhat differently. The rendering of berith by this word amounted to a translation compromise. Diatheke at the time when the Septuagint and the New Testament came into existence not only could mean 'testament', but such was the current meaning of the word. It was, to be sure, not its original meaning. The original sense was quite generic, viz., 'a disposition that someone made for himself' (from the middle form of the verb diatithemi). The legal usage, however, referring it to a testamentary disposition had monopolized the word. Hence the difficulty with which the Greek translators found themselves confronted. In making their choice of a suitable rendering for berith they took a word to whose meaning of 'last will' nothing in the Hebrew Bible corresponded. And not only this, the word chosen seemed to connote the very opposite of what the Hebrew berith stood for. If the latter expressed unchangeableness, 'testament' seemed to call up the idea of changeableness at least till the moment when the testator dies. Moreover the very term 'testament' suggests the death of the one who makes it, and this must have appeared to render it unsuitable for designating something into which God enters. When notwithstanding all these difficulties, they chose diatheke, weighty reasons must have determined them.

The principal reason seems to have been that there was a far more fundamental objection to the one other word that might have been adopted, the word syntheke. This word suggests strongly by its very form the idea of coequality and partnership between the persons entering into the arrangement, a stress quite in harmony to the genius of Hellenic religiosity. The translators felt this to be out of keeping with the tenor of the Old Testament Scriptures, in which the supremacy and monergism of God are emphasized. So, in order to avoid the misunderstanding, they preferred to put up with the inconveniences attaching to the word diatheke. On closer reflection these were not insurmountable. Though diatheke meant currently 'last will', the original generic sense of 'disposition for oneself' cannot have been entirely forgotten even in their day. The etymology of the word was too perspicuous for that. They felt that diatheke suggested a sovereign disposition, not always of the nature of a last will, and restored this ancient signification. And in this way they not merely overcame an obstacle; they also registered the positive gain of being able to reproduce a most important element in the Old Testament consciousness of religion.

The difficulty arising from the fact of God’s not being subject to death is a difficulty only from the standpoint of Roman law. The Roman-law testament actually is not in force except where death has taken place, cp. Heb. 9:16. There existed, however, in those times a different type of testament, that of Graeco-Syrian law. This kind of testament had no necessary association with the death of the testator. It could be made and solemnly sanctioned during his life-time, and in certain of its provisions go into immediate effect. The other objection arising from the mutability of the Roman-law testament fell away likewise under this other conception. For not only was changeability foreign to it; on the contrary, the opposite idea of unchangeableness entered in strongly [cp. Gal. 3:15].

From the Septuagint the word diatheke passed over into the New Testament. The question has long been under debate whether here it should be rendered by ‘covenant’ or by ‘testament’. The A.V. in as many as 14 instances translates diatheke by ‘testament’, in all other cases by ‘covenant’. The R.V. has greatly modified this tradition. In every passage, except Heb. 9:16, where the statement allows no escape from ‘testament’, it has substituted ‘covenant’ for the ‘testament’ of the A.V. In all probability an exception ought likewise to have been made for Gal. 3:15, where, if not the explicit statement of Paul, at least the connection leads us to think of ‘testament’. The Revisers were obviously guided in this matter by the desire to assimilate as much as possible the modes of statement in the Old Testament to those in the New Testament. This was in itself a laudable desire, but it seems that in certain cases it prevented due consideration of the exegetical requirements. Since the R.V. was made, the tendency of scholarship has on the whole favoured ‘testament’ rather than ‘covenant’. There are passages still under debate, for instance those recording the institution of the Lord’s supper, where a further return to ‘testament’ may seem advisable.

The distinction between a ‘former berith’ and a ‘new berith’, or an ‘old diatheke’ and a ‘new diatheke’, is found in the Bible in the following passages: Jer. 31:31; the words of institution of the supper; and a number of times, with varying phraseology, in the Epistle to the Hebrews. It is, of course, in none of these passages a literature distinction, corresponding to our traditional distinction between the two parts of the canon. It could not be this, because when these passages were written no second division of the canon was yet in existence.

Sometimes 2 Cor. 3.14 is quoted as a Biblical instance of the canonical distinction: because Paul speaks of the 'reading' of the old diatheke. It is assumed that to the reading of the old diatheke a reading of a new diatheke must correspond. In that case we should have here a prophetic foreknowledge on Paul's part of the approaching formation of a second, a new, canon. This, while not impossible, is not likely. Vs. 15 shows why Paul speaks of a 'reading' of the old diatheke. It is the reading of Moses, i.e., the reading of the law. Since the law is frequently called a berith, a diatheke, Paul could call its reading a reading of the old diatheke, and yet not suggest that a second canon was in the making. There was an old berith, which existed in written form, there was likewise a new berith, but the latter is not yet represented as likewise destined to receive written form.

The comparison is between two equally completed things, not between two things of which the one possesses completeness, the other still awaits it. The whole distinction is between two dispensations, two arrangements, of which the one is far superior to the other. The designation of the two canons may later have support in this Pauline passage; nevertheless it rests on an inexact interpretation. At first, even long after Paul, other terms seem to have been used for distinguishing the two parts of Scripture. Tertullian still speaks of the old and New 'Instrument'.

Finally, it should be noted that, when the Bible speaks of a two-fold berith, a twofold diatheke, it means by the ‘old’ covenant not the entire period from the fall of man to Christ, but the period from Moses to Christ. Nevertheless, what precedes the Mosaic period in the description of Genesis may be appropriately subsumed under the 'Old Covenant'. It is meant in the Pentateuch as a preface to the account of the Mosaic institutions, and the preface belongs within the cover of the book. Likewise the 'New Testament' in the soteric, periodical sense of the word goes beyond the time of the life of Christ and the Apostolic age; it not only includes us, but extends into and covers the eschatological, eternal state.
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