Considering Exceptions: Covenant or Testament?

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In the intro to this short series of posts, we began to look at a few common differences with the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms stated by some of the elders in the PCA. The purpose of these posts is not to tread ground covered by other, more able, men regarding major issues (days of creation, paedocommunion, etc.); rather, it is to examine a few places in our standards that garner less attention. Today, we begin with WCF 7.4--which reads:

"This covenant of grace is frequently set forth in Scripture by the name of a testament, in reference to the death of Jesus Christ the Testator, and to the everlasting inheritance, with all things belonging to it, therein bequeathed."

The common objection to this section of the confession is due to the phrase, "frequently set forth in Scripture by the name of a testament." Most modern translations, along with most modern commentators, recognize (at most) one place in Scripture where the word διαθηκη should be translated either will or testament. Once is not frequent, not by any measure. As such, 7.4 is an inaccurate statement. Or, so this commonly stated difference goes.

By starting here, I am not saying that this is the most controversial difference. Further, I don't know anyone who would argue that this stated difference is hostile to our system of doctrine or strikes at the vitals of religion - in fact I doubt anyone has been granted an exception for this difference that rises above "merely semantic." Indeed, one could argue that this is the poster child for merely semantic exceptions. Yet it is precisely for this reason that I wish to begin here.

Having studied WCF 7.4, I have personally decided again stating a difference with this section of the Confession, concluding that it is important and correct both as a historical document and for continued use in the contemporary church. I will therefore look at this section from these two perspectives.

When the divines originally wrote the phrase, "frequently set forth in Scripture by the name testament," it was wholly accurate. As pedantic as it may sound, 7.4 does not make reference to a Greek word, but an English one. That is, the divines were not so much commenting on the proper (or improper) translation of διαθηκη as they were commenting upon the phenomenon of the word testament in the King James Version of the Bible. It is vital to remember that the divines did not seek to write a confession merely for theologians or academics. Rather, they wrote these documents for the church (indeed, for their church). Therefore, while the confession instructs us to consider controversies by way of the Old Testament in Hebrew and the New Testament in Greek, the divines sought to present the church's confession in the language of the pew.

When a Christian in the 17th Century read the book of Hebrews or heard the words of institution for the Lord's Supper, he or she would come upon the word testament. We might even say that he or she would do so frequently, as the word occurs in the King James Version some fourteen times in seven different books. To gloss over this phenomenon would have been a disservice to the version of Scripture the members of their churches read.

At the same time, the divines were certainly aware that covenant and testament in the King James Version were variously translating a single Greek word. But they would also be aware that not every person reading their Bible or hearing a sermon would know this. Therefore, they sought to make the connection between covenant and testament explicit in the confession. Whenever a Christian read testament, the divines wanted them to realize that this inheritance bequeathed to them through the death of Jesus Christ is not something set alongside the covenant (i.e., tangential to or beside it) but is an integral aspect of the Covenant of Grace. And this is all the more important because the notion of inheritance belongs more properly to testament than to covenant. That is, the link between inheritance and covenant is found in the promises that God repeatedly makes, rather than in the nature of a covenant itself. We do not inherit eternal life in Christ because of the concept of a covenant in general, but because of the content of this specific covenant. Therefore, one could say that in a world in which the most commonly read English Bible was the King James Version, 7.4 becomes immensely important to the covenantal theology of the church.

Of course, times have changed and the current situation in our churches is very different. But have they really changed all that much? According to organizations that track such things, the King James Version of the Bible has outsold all other versions every year for all but the most recent years. Even in the years that the KJV has been surpassed, it still comes in at number two. Plus, at least one research site found that over half of the Christians they surveyed stated that the version of the Bible they read regularly was the King James. In other words, there is a collective impact of the KJV being the top seller year after year after year. As such, it is highly likely that any time you preach, any time you teach, there will be a few King James Versions in the pews or seats in front of you. And that means that, more likely than not, some of the people to whom you minister will need the instruction that takes place in 7.4. They will need the instructive reminder to think covenant whenever they see the word testament. And everyone - regardless of the version they prefer - will need the reminder that the concept of testament (no matter if or how many times the word itself is used) is vital to our understanding of the covenant promises our God has made and our Savior has fulfilled.

But doesn't that just mean that the church as a whole needs this instruction. And isn't that the point of a confession in the first place - to provide instruction the church as a whole needs? Therefore is it not preferable for me, whose preferred Bible version does not even have the word testament once, to confess this section of our subordinate standards precisely because the point of our confession is not to reflect my personal preferences but the needs of the church at large? Like the divines, I am not confessing what translation of διαθηκη I think is most accurate - I am confessing a reality of the current state of translation in the English versions of Scripture.

Posted April 4, 2018 @ 7:34 AM by Steve Tipton

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