Berkhof on the nature of the biblical concept of covenant
One of the things I frequently do in preparation for teaching my Covenant Theology course at Reformed Theological Seminary (as I will do again at RTS Washington this week), is quickly re-read the relevant sections of Louis Berkhof’s Systematic Theology. Though a lot of very good scholarship has been done on the Bible’s teaching on the covenants in the seventy-five plus years since Berkhof first wrote, his summaries and judgments are remarkably durable and valuable.
Take for instance this passage. Berkhof is summarizing the meaning, the concept of covenant in the Old Testament and says:
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 [Italics mine]. 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. (Louis Berkhof (1938). Systematic Theology (262). Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.)
This is still an incredibly good and helpful assessment. And though we have made major advances in this field in the second half of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first, this remains a useful and reliable summary resource for pastors and theologians. An example of this is what he says here about whether a covenant is “monopleuric” (unilateral) or “dipleuric” (bilateral). Note that Berkhof judiciously opines: “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.”
Berkhof is helping you understand one of the big issues/debates pertaining to the Bible’s teaching on the covenants. Is the covenant of grace monopleuric (“one-sided”) or dipleuric (two-sided”), unilateral (“a one-sided divine enactment”) or bilateral (“an agreement with mutual obligations”), unconditional (“purely promissory”) or conditional (“requiring the fulfillment of conditions”)? Yes. But you need to understand specifically how, lest you fall into a kind of soteriological Pelagianism or semi-Pelagianism.
“A ‘covenant’ is an agreement enacted between two parties in which one or both make promises under oath to perform or refrain from certain actions stipulated in advance” [G.E. Mendenhall & G.A. Herion (1992). Covenant. In D. N. Freedman (Ed.), The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (Vol. 1, p. 1179). New York: Doubleday]. It is an “arrangement between two parties involving mutual obligations” [Elwell, W. A., & Beitzel, B. J. (1988). Covenant. In Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible (Vol. 1, p. 530). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House]. Those definitions, reflecting the latest scholarship, emphasize the bilaterality or mutual obligations of a covenant. But in the Bible, the unilateral or monopleuric aspect of the covenant of grace is also prominent. Hence, O. Palmer Robertson says: “a covenant is a bond in blood sovereignly administered” [Christ of the Covenants, p. 4]. It is “God’s commitment to, and requirement of, his people expressed in promise, law, judgment, faithfulness and mercy” [M.H. Manser (2009). Dictionary of Bible Themes: The Accessible and Comprehensive Tool for Topical Studies.]
So, for instance, in the Bible, covenants signify both  the way or means by which God’s promises are secured, and stand for  a relationship that is secured by means of a covenant. For example, God’s covenant of grace with Abraham (Genesis 12, 15, 17) is both  a divinely-provided commitment (Genesis 15:18) that secures the divinely-initiated gracious promissory relationship of Genesis 12:1-3 (a relationship that entails both blessing and obligation), and denotes  the unique relationship secured by means of God’s oathbound agreement with Abraham (Genesis 17:7).
All this means that a covenant by definition has conditions, or requirements, or obligations. There is simply no such thing as a covenant without conditions, requirements or obligations. To say that a covenant has obligations does not make it a “covenant of works” or commit you to some kind of salvation by works or effort scheme. Hence, the covenant of grace is both unilateral and bilateral; conditional and unconditional; wholly dependent upon God’s grace and power, and entailing our participation and response. Let me elaborate.
1. God sovereignly and graciously enters into and establishes the covenant of grace. He is not obligated to do so. He chooses to so of his own determinate counsel. His entering into the relationship is an act of goodness, love, generosity and liberality. He chooses man, not man him. In this sense, the covenant is unilateral (in its origin and initiation) and bilateral (it creates a relationship that entails mutual commitment).
2. God sovereignly and graciously administers the covenant of grace. Man does not bargain with God or choose his own terms. God is, as it were, the suzerain (Lord) and man the vassal. God declares the nature of the relationship and its attendant obligations. In this sense the covenant is unilateral (in divine initiation, establishment and administration), bilateral (there are two parties, there can be no covenant in solitude) and conditional (there are specified conditions or requirements or obligations to be fulfilled by the parties).
3. God sovereignly and graciously fulfills the conditions of the covenant of grace. Man, because of his sinfulness, cannot fulfill the conditions of the relationship. And so, God in his grace sovereignly elects to fulfill not only his own but also his people’s obligations. Hence, in the covenant of grace God bears the covenantal anathema. In this sense, the covenant is unilateral (God freely chose, neither under compulsion nor obligation, to save and sustain), bilateral (mutuality of relationship remains), conditional (the covenant’s conditions on both sides must be fulfilled), unconditional (towards the elect, in that God chooses to fulfill man’s conditions).
4. God sovereignly and graciously sustains the covenant of grace. Even with the conditions fulfilled, there are still requirements in the covenant of grace (faith, repentance, subsequent sanctificational obedience). Man is responsible for these, but God (by his Spirit) empowers his chosen ones to fulfill these requirements. Nevertheless, some parties externally included in the covenant of grace fail to discharge these requirements and, because these requirements are a sine qua non for full covenantal blessing, they fall under the curse. In this sense, the covenant is unilateral (God, in his grace, chooses to sustain), bilateral (mutuality of relationship), conditional (there are still requirements to be fulfilled [which some members of external covenant community fail to fulfill]), unconditional (the promises are yea and amen, for all those in Christ), monergistic (all requirements are fulfilled by the empowerment of the Holy Spirit working in accordance with God’s sovereign grace), and entails grace-enabled Christian activity (NOT meaning that the human will cooperates with the Holy Spirit in regeneration—“soteriological synergism,” which is a heresy of Romanism, Arminianism and semi-Pelagianism—but merely meaning that God’s people really do have a responsibility, they really do believe (when the Spirit enables us to believe, it is WE who believe, the Spirit doesn’t vicariously believe for us), repent, and subsequently obey by God’s grace, all by the work of the Holy Spirit in them).
5. In conclusion we might say that on the side of the fulfillment of the fundamental conditions the covenant of grace, it is wholly monergistic (Christ fulfills the Law, he obeys it perfectly, he pays the penalty for our violation of it, on our behalf), and on the side of our requirements in the covenant of grace, what God requires of us God’s grace provides and the Holy Spirit enables (faith, repentance, subsequent sanctification evidenced in loyalty to God, integrity, and obedience). God is sovereign and we are responsible, there is a two-sidedness in the relationship, but we work, as and because God works in us (Philippians 2:13).
All this to say. A Protestant theology of grace is not derived from the ANE background on covenants, but from the Bible’s teaching on the covenants. God’s grace is poured into these covenants, and we derive our theology of grace from the unique way he deploys his grace in the covenants as the vehicles of his purpose.