Specifically as used by the Reformed theological tradition, what is meant by the term "covenant"? How is this different than other forms of agreements under assorted names in English like contract, agreement, pact, pledge, etc. How should the term be understood when used as an adjective, such as in "covenant theology"?

2 Answers 2


Many reformed theologians would begin a discussion on the topic of covenants with the way they understand the biblical covenants to be formulated. God uses language and objects we understand to relate His truth to us. Many Reformed theologians also believe that he used a covenantal structure called a suzreinty vassal treaty which was common among the Hittites at the time of Moses, to structure His covenant with His people so that they would better understand what he meant by it.

A SV treaty has a specific form and purpose which is well explained in the link above and this has a very high level of similarity to the Book of Deuteronomy and other parts of OT scripture.

The important issue here is that there is a distinct difference between this treaty or covenant and a contract. A contract is entered into by two (or more) parties who both come of their own free volition and they are generally at an equal level as they sign the contract. In sharp contrast with this is a SV treaty where the suzerain has either conquered or come to the defense of the vassal and imposes the structure of the covenant on the vassal.

On the other side, the suzerain not only imposes his will but also binds himself with duties toward the vassal. So basically it was something like this: I (suzerain) delivered you from your enemies, therefore you (vassal state) will pay me tribute and you will send men to serve in my army every year. In exchange for this I vow to defend you from your enemies.

Many Reformed theologians believe that the covenant God has made with His people is of a similar structure: I created you and even though you rebelled against me I sent my Son to die for you. I have conquered your enemy the Devil and will continue to defend you from him. Therefore you will serve me and offer me praise.

Reformed theologians believe that God has created this sort of a covenant with His elect people unilaterally, and that we only love God, because He first loved us and imposed His gracious covenant on our rebellious hearts.


Before getting to the specific difference you asked for, I think it's necessary to understand the various ways in which the term is used - particularly the legal definition. In Reformed theology, the relationship between God and His people is often couched in legal terms, particularly in relation to Covenant Theology.

In browsing all of the various definitions, the distinction appears to be generally a level of solemnity, where a covenant is a type of contract that is considered solemn.

In the legal definition of a covenant, this note is included:

Under the common law a covenant was distinguished from an ordinary contract by the presence of a seal. Because the presence of a seal indicated an unusual solemnity in the promises made in a covenant, the common law would enforce a covenant even in the absence of consideration. A Covenant is also used to describe a contract or a legally binding promise

Another phrase that came up in all of the definitions for the various types of covenant is this:

...affirmative, a promise to do something or negative, a promise to not do something

This is very similar to the definition of a Biblical covenant, where the covenant is between God and His people. I believe that this is also the Reformed theological traditions that you specifically asked for. Example (one of many):

2 Chronicles 7:14 (KJV)

If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land.

  • While the informal/formal covenant distinction aides in understanding, the LDS church doesn't make that distinction themselves in their canon lds.org/search?lang=eng&query=informal+formal+covenants
    – user23
    Nov 27, 2011 at 18:35
  • @JustinY - Thank you. I deleted it since it wasn't really relevant to the question anyway. It's been 12 years since I was in an LDS Church, and I only attended for a short time. There did seem to be a distinction that I have a vague recollection of, so I didn't question it when I saw it in that article. Although I think I had it confused with Temple Ordinances, now that I think of it. Nov 27, 2011 at 19:26

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .