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Reformed Interpretation of the Mosaic Covenant - by Mark W. Karlberg

Covenant Theology - God's Master Plan to Give His Son Jesus Christ a Bride

Today, many Christians are turning back to the puritans to, “walk in the old paths,” of God’s word, and to continue to proclaim old truth that glorifies Jesus Christ. There is no new theology. In our electronic age, more and more people are looking to add electronic books (ePubs, mobi and PDF formats) to their library – books from the Reformers and Puritans – in order to become a “digital puritan” themselves. Take a moment to visit Puritan Publications (click the banner below) to find the biggest selection of rare puritan works updated in modern English in both print form and in multiple electronic forms. There are new books published every month. All proceeds go to support A Puritan’s Mind.

Check out these books on Covenant Theology.

A Simple Overview of Covenant Theology

When dealing with Covenant Theology “simple” is a good thing. After the Bible, this work is the FIRST that you should read, or one that you should introduce to a friend if they are struggling with covenant concepts.

Covenant Theology Made Easy

When dealing with Covenant Theology, making doctrine easy to under is important. This work is a great follow up to the “Simple Overview of Covenant theology” book.

A Masterful Work on Baptism

There is no better succinct, concise, precise and exegetically irrefutable work on infant baptism than Harrison’s work. It is not just about baptism – it’s about infant inclusion in the covenant of grace. It’s about church membership.

An historical/theological survey of how reformed thinkers (some of them) thought about the Mosaic Covenant.

Throughout the history of Christian doctrine, the problem of the relation between the Old and New Testaments has been central to the interpretive task of the Church. Indeed, this basic issue is one of the leading concerns of the New Testament writings themselves. The fundamental, biblical idea in both the Old Testament and the New is the covenant of God. The Old Testament writings explicate the Mosaic administration of the covenant of grace. The Gospels and Acts are concerned with the inauguration and establishment of the New Covenant through the coming of the Messiah, the Servant of the Lord, and the outpouring of the Spirit of Christ upon the Church at Pentecost. The Epistles and Revelation develop more fully the theology of the covenant and its implications for New Covenant ministry in life and worship.

The doctrine of the covenant of God, including the relation between Old and New Testaments, finds its first articulate spokesman after the apostles in Irenaeus, who defended Christian theology against the false teachings of Marcion, specifically the latter’s denial of the unity of the two Testaments.1 The chapters on the covenant of God in the history of doctrine, beginning with Irenaeus’ contribution, cover the entire history of the Christian Church. But it is not until the time of the Reformation, considered in its widest range from the second decade of the sixteenth century to the writing of the Westminster Standards (1648), that the doctrine of the covenant comes fully into its own. Consequently, when we speak of federalism, the synonym for covenant theology, we are thinking of that variety of theology in the period of the Reformation which is characteristic of the Reformed tradition.

In fact, the genius of the Reformed theological tradition is evident most explicitly (and implicitly) in its development of federalism. The concept of the covenant is determinative for both its exegetical and theological reflection. And the distinctiveness of federalism is its biblical-theological method, what Ludwig Diestel calls the “organic-historical method.”2 This remains true of Reformed theology today. Adherence to the traditional interpretation of the covenant doctrine serves to distinguish orthodox Reformed theology from neo-orthodox theology. One of the most important aspects of the traditional Calvinist teaching on the covenant is the use of the law-gospel distinction. The antithesis between law and gospel denotes two opposing principles of inheritance, appropriate to the Pauline teaching on the two Adams in Romans 5 . The forensic contrast between the order of law (creation) and the order of grace (redemption) is one of opposition. Regrettably, much of recent Reformed theology has openly denied the importance of the law-gospel distinction, substituting in its place the Barthian notion of “law in grace.” The neoorthodox school of interpretation maintains only one order or covenant, the covenant of grace, comprehending both creation and redemption. Otherwise, contend these neo-orthodox critics, the speculative and dualistic notion of law and grace (comparable to the scholastic nature-grace dichotomy) results in a faulty conception of God as Creator and as Redeemer.3 Others within the Reformed tradition have been less open in their rejection of the law-gospel contrast, but nevertheless are sympathetic to Barth’s viewpoint. Repudiation of the law-gospel antithesis, however, immediately registers itself in other critical and related areas of Reformed exposition, particularly that of justification by faith and the atonement of Christ. The result is a radical reinterpretation of Reformation theology.

The central issue in this present debate in Reformed theology, both within and without confessional orthodoxy, as it turns out, is the interpretation of the Mosaic Covenant. It is our contention that within the historic Reformed tradition the hermeneutical key to this issue is the proper biblical assessment of the symbolic-typical aspect of Old Testament revelation, and the recognition of the dual principles of law and grace operative in the Mosaic Covenant administration. The Mosaic Covenant is to be viewed in some sense as a covenant of works. This has been the conviction of the vast majority of Reformed theologians in the early history of federalism (up to 1648).4

Before we begin our historical survey of Reformed interpretation of the Mosaic Covenant, it is essential that we acquaint ourselves with certain aspects and particulars of the leading critical assessments of federalism, especially of covenant theology’s employment of the traditional contrast between law and grace, works and faith.

Critics of continental Reformed theology generally distinguish two types or varieties of federalism, one speculative and one biblical.5 The former is associated invariably with the rise of scholasticism in the period of Reformed orthodoxy. The latter is more compatible with the method of salvation history (the heilsgeschichtliche method). According to these critics, the speculative variety of federalism employs such terminology as the “covenant of nature,” the “law of nature” (otherwise called “natural law”), and the “covenant of works.” The covenant of nature and the law of nature conceptualizations, so the critics argue, rest upon the medieval, scholastic dualism between nature and grace.

Thomas Aquinas was the foremost expounder of the dichotomy between a state of nature and a state of grace. This dualism was applicable to both the period of creation and the period of redemption.6 The majority of medieval theologians taught as Thomas had that man by nature (at the time of creation) was endowed with certain inalienable rights. By nature man possessed intrinsic worth and dignity. As long as man exercised his gifts with wisdom and charity and was obedient to the law of God, he was worthy of blessing from God. Thus, in strict justice God was indebted to man. However, man by nature was in an unstable position. Although man by nature had the desire to do good (he was so constituted that his good inclinations might overrule his evil inclinations, which are not sinful per se ),nevertheless his spirit warred against his flesh. God was pleased to bestow upon man the additional supernatural gift of grace in order for man to attain unto the final state of glorification, the beatific vision of God. The fall of Adam into sin made supernatural grace all the more necessary.7

The “covenant of nature” and “natural law” terminology simply perpetuated the speculative dichotomy between nature and grace. The covenant of nature suggested the idea that man possessed an intrinsic worth to which God was indebted to reward in the way of the covenant. Similarly, the “covenant of works” concept was perceived by these critics to be speculative in origin. The forensic distinction between law and grace had no basis in the Scriptures. According to H. E. Weber, by the use of this legal contrast, the covenant idea became couched in juridical-rational terms. The covenant was viewed as a mercantile contract between God and man. 8 Because of the widespread adoption of the covenant of works conception, federalism thus served primarily as a conveyer of rationalism. 9 Gradually, the notion of the covenant of works (law) was associated with the Mosaic Covenant. Federalism continued to distort the biblical concept of the divine covenant of sovereign grace, especially with regard to the relation between the Old and the New Testaments.10

On the other hand, in sharp distinction from the scholastic, speculative type of continental federalism (which is by far the dominant variety in the period of Reformed orthodoxy) there is the biblical variety as discerned by the critics. Heinrich Heppe, one of the leading advocates in the nineteenth century for this supposition, identifies the German Reformed school as the chief center for biblical federalism. Whereas the scholastic method treats scriptural truth objectively as an object of speculation, biblical federalism places its theological reflection in the context of faith, and thereby is marked by its acutely practical and personal concerns for the life of the church. That is to say, biblical federalism gives expression to a practical, versus a theoretical, “science of faith.” Above all, biblical federalism avoids concentration upon the doctrine of double predestination.11

Critics of English federalism likewise discern two varieties of theology. Leonard Trinterud argues that the one is represented by the followers of Calvin, emphasizing the sovereignty and grace of God.12 The other view is the Rhineland-Puritan conception with its accent upon the mutual character of the covenant relationship and its stress upon ethical requirements (the conditionality of the covenant of grace). With marked enthusiasm and a sense of relief, Holmes Rolston affirms the opinion that the Confession of 1967 of the United Presbyterian Church in the United State of America signals the end of Reformed theology’s long tie to federalism. He writes, “Indeed, it has seldom been realised by those reared in the Reformed tradition that the two-covenant concept which dominates the organizational substructure of all later Reformed dogmatics is totally absent from Calvin. More seriously, its fundamental incompatibility with Calvin’s thought has gone all but unnoticed.”13

To what extent are the critics of English and continental federalism conveying an accurate picture of the theology of the early reformers? How valid is the distinction between two types of federalism, one speculative and moralistic and one biblical and genuinely Calvinistic? To answer these questions we turn our attention now to the writings of some of the leading federalists in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.14

I. Sixteenth-Century Covenant Theology

The sixteenth-century federalists were responsible for establishing the redemptive-historical structure of biblical revelation, and the covenant structure was the distinguishing mark of Reformed theological interpretation. Beginning as a term descriptive of the era of redemption, the covenant concept was broadened, in the interests of further systematic and historical reflection, to include the pre-redemptive period of biblical history. The entire development of the covenant idea was controlled and elicited by the Reformers’ understanding of justification by faith, in its fundamentally forensic sense, and the coordinate law-gospel distinction.

Huldreich Zwingli and Heinrich Bullinger

Huldreich Zwingli (1484–1531), the father of the Reformed church, was a man of remarkable talent and ability for both teaching and preaching. Unlike Luther, Zwingli had a keen, perceptive and constructive mind suited for the task of systematizing theology. One of the underlying motifs of his theology was the Pauline doctrine of the representative headship of Adam based upon the teaching of Romans 5 . This was highly significant, for it was indicative of a basic organic, historical point of view.

Zwingli teaches that in Adam all stand guilty. But what is lost in the first Adam by his transgression is restored in the second Adam, Jesus Christ, by way of his full and perfect obedience to the law of God. It is this obedience, viz ., the righteousness of Christ, which is imputed to the believer as the ground of his justification.15

This same organic-historical viewpoint governed Zwingli’s defense of infant baptism. The burning issue in the growing controversy between Zwingli and the Anabaptists had been the question of the relationship of the Old Testament to the New. Generally, the Anabaptists made use of the Old occasionally to illustrate the message of the New Testament, what they spoke of as the “simple gospel.” Like Irenaeus, Zwingli insisted upon the crucial unity of the two Testaments. Since the infant Israelites were heirs of the covenant promises, even more so were the infants of New Testament believers.16 The promises of the New Covenant were just as valid and trustworthy as in the days of Abraham. Zwingli perceived the unity of the Testaments precisely in terms of the unity of the covenant of grace.

While there is an element of truth to the suggestion that Zwingli begins his defense of infant baptism by simply referring to the practice of circumcision as the analogue of baptism, this is not to be interpreted finally as arguing from something less than the covenant itself. Understandably, he would begin by considering the sign of the covenant before proceeding to reflect more deeply, as he does, upon the nature and design of the establishment of the covenant of grace.17 Zwingli’s major contribution in federal theology is his emphasis upon the unity of the two Testaments, perceived explicitly in terms of the single covenant of grace.

In Heinrich Bullinger (1504–1575) we find a much fuller exposition of the theology of the covenant. Bullinger exercised an extremely influential role in the subsequent development of Reformed federalism.18 With an even greater ability to systematize the truths of biblical religion, he was an ideal successor to Zwingli. Bullinger’s theology was much more than an expansion and popularizing of Zwingli’s. His originality was especially evident in the further development of the federal idea. C. S. McCoy maintains:

The roots of the covenant theology in the Reformed churches are to be found especially in Zürich with Ulrich Zwingli and to a limited extent in Geneva with John Calvin, and use of the covenant notion is widespread in the Reformed tradition from the earliest years of the Reformation. The real beginning of federalism, however, is found in Heinrich Bullinger, successor to Zwingli at Zürich.19

Bullinger teaches that man as created in the image of God was perfect and good. God inscribed his holy law upon man’s heart, and man had the power and knowledge to perform that which was good and righteous. Bullinger gives expression here to the common Protestant interpretation of natural law. The function of the law of nature is to teach men what they are obligated to render to their Creator, as the apostle Paul affirms in Romans 2:14–16.20 The law of nature reveals, among other things, that fellowship between the Creator and the creature requires perfect compliance with the law of God on the part of the creature. At this point, the term “works” appropriately describes this legal demand which, by sovereign disposition, qualifies the relationship between God and man.21 Furthermore, Bullinger teaches that there is a fundamental continuity between the law of nature in creation and the law of nature as expressed in the Mosaic law. We need only mention here that this continuity resides in man’s natural obligation—his duty—to render obedience to his Creator. The fact that after the fall man as sinner is unable to please God does not eliminate his creaturely obligation.22 (From this teaching comes the idea of the hypothetical law principle which states that if man as sinner can render perfect obedience to God, thus satisfying the ethical and legal demand of creation in the image of God, then he is justified before God.)

Bullinger’s explicit use of the law-gospel distinction is usually associated with expositions of the doctrine of justification by faith and the doctrine of the Mosaic Covenant. Our primary concern is with the latter. Bullinger indicates quite clearly that the principle of law or works (antithetical to grace) functions in a characteristic and determinative way in the Mosaic administration of the covenant of grace. The law of Moses is in some sense a repetition of the life-principle in the order of creation, sometimes spoken of as the law of nature, originally given by God to Adam prior to the fall. Consequently, the exposition of the law feature of the Mosaic Covenant provides Bullinger with the opportunity to describe the similarities and differences between the Old and New Testaments.

Following the traditional pattern, Bullinger begins by emphasizing vigorously the essential unity of the Testaments. The substance of the covenant of grace pertains to the realization of the salvation of God’s people through the person and work of Jesus Christ. Bullinger affirms, “In the very substance, truly, you can find no diversity: the difference which is between them consists in the manner of administration, in a few accidents, and certain circumstances.”23 This common formulation of the essential nature of the covenant of grace is imbedded within the Reformed tradition. The employment of scholastic terminology is clearly evident, viz ., the terms “substance” and “accidents.” In substance there is unity; in accidents (the historical administrations of the single covenant of grace) there is diversity.

In his treatise, De Testamento seu Foedere Dei Unico et Aeterno , the first extended exposition of the doctrine of the covenant of grace, Bullinger proceeds to a discussion of Genesis 17 , the covenant made with the seed of Abraham.24 Like the covenant made previously with Adam after the fall and with Noah, the spiritual blessings are bestowed solely on the basis of God’s saving grace, not on the basis of man’s obedience to the law of God (“merit”).25 The spiritual seed of Abraham is restricted to the elect; they are the beneficiaries of the one and eternal covenant of grace. The elect of God comprises believing Jews and Gentiles, and this singular seed pertains to the “substance” of the covenant of grace. The salvation of the elect is the proper purpose of the covenant of grace.

While recognizing the proper purpose of the Mosaic Covenant as a distinct, historical administration of the one and eternal covenant of grace, Bullinger makes use of the traditional threefold use of the law (the civil, the pedagogical and the regulative) to define the characteristic feature of the Mosaic Covenant. Of the three uses, explains Bullinger, “the chief and proper office of the law is to convince all men to be guilty of sin, and by their own fault to be the children of death.” In this manner, he observes, “the law of God sets forth to us the holy will of God; and, in setting forth thereof, requires of us a most perfect and absolute kind of righteousness.”26 He concludes: “Therefore the proper office of Moses, and the principal use and effect of the law, is to show to man his sin and imperfection.”27 This is the pedagogical use of the law. The normative or regulative use of the law applies to those who have been justified and reconciled to God through Christ. The knowledge of Christ’s fulfillment and the abrogation of the law for justification is essential for understanding the nature of God’s saving grace. The ultimate purpose of the Mosaic Covenant is to stimulate and encourage faith and obedience to Christ; the administrative works-principle is subordinate. Based on the interpretation of Galatians 4:24 , Bullinger concludes: “Therefore the law did gender the holy fathers and the prophets unto bondage, not that they should abide bond-slaves for ever, but that it might keep them under discipline; yea, that it might lead them unto Christ, the full perfection of the law.”28 The Mosaic Covenant is not established exclusively on the principle of works. More importantly, there is the operation of sovereign grace and election. In preaching law and gospel, Moses leads God’s people to salvation in Christ. Whereas the Old Covenant is characteristically one of bondage and servitude in which the believer is restricted under the tutelage of the law, the newness of the New Covenant includes an exceedingly greater and fuller experience by believers of the saving benefits of union with Christ, a greater freedom and liberty as sons of God and covenant heirs.

John Calvin

The most popular and influential theological treatise to come out of the Reformation is the Institutes of the Christian Religion of John Calvin (1509–1564). But as important as the Institutes are, they require the supplemental investigation and research of his other numerous writings, particularly his commentaries, in order to attain a fuller knowledge of and appreciation for his theological and exegetical ability. He is especially gifted in Systematizing biblical theology. And the notable feature of Calvin’s theology is its pervasively biblical-theological orientation.

While upholding the goodness, integrity and perfection of man’s creation in the image of God, Calvin realizes that the original state is not the highest stage of man’s blessedness. Calvin discerns more clearly than Bullinger the importance of biblical eschatology for the doctrine of creation. There is a specific goal and purpose for God’s creative work, especially the creation of man in his own image. That goal is the glorification of the name and works of God. Although Calvin does not apply the term “covenant” to the original creation arrangement, nevertheless his doctrine is fully compatible with the later development of the covenant of works conception.

Unhesitatingly, Calvin perceives that the principle of works informs the order of creation. In commenting on Genesis 2:16 , Calvin cites 1 Timothy 1:9 (“the law was not made for the righteous”), but indicates that this statement is not applicable to the pre-fall state of Adam in innocence and uprightness. According to Calvin, the principle of works-inheritance governs the original state of integrity. The reward for faithfulness, based upon man’s obedience, is eternal life.29 In his interpretation of Hosea 6:7 , Calvin dismisses without further comment the suggestion that אדם be translated “Adam.” In his own conceptualization, Calvin restricts the term “covenant” to redemptive provisions. It appears that in this Hosea citation Calvin simply construes “covenant” as a reference to the Mosaic administration, thus explaining his rapid dismissal of the earlier suggestion that Adam was in view.30 Undoubtedly, his interpretation of Hosea does not imply that he would oppose speaking of the creation order in covenantal terms.

There is also a close correlation in Calvin’s thought between the place of law in the first state of man and the idea of natural law.31 The manifold revelation and experience of the graciousness of God in creation heightens man’s culpability. “So much the greater, then, is the wickedness of man, whom neither that kind commemoration of the gifts of God, nor the dread of punishment, was able to retain in his duty.”32

The ministration of law under the Mosaic Covenant serves to increase transgression in the economy of God’s dealings with his Old Covenant people. The law is Israel’s pedagogue until the coming of Christ. Like Bullinger, Calvin views the Mosaic administration in its characteristically pedagogical function. He is eager to maintain, at the same time, the substantial unity of the covenant of grace against the erroneous teachings of Servetus and the Anabaptists. The law is given by God through Moses

…in order to humble men, having convinced them of their own condemnation. But because this is the true and only preparation for seeking Christ, all his variously expressed teachings referring to the apostle Paul well agree. He was disputing with perverse teachers who pretended that we merit righteousness by the works of the law. Consequently, to refute their error he was sometimes compelled to take the bare law in a narrow sense, even though it was otherwise graced with the covenant of free adoption.33

Calvin speaks of the abrogation of the law in the sense that it no longer condemns those who are united with Christ by grace through faith. Yet the proper and necessary distinction between law and grace under Moses does not obscure the more important operation of saving grace in the Old Covenant. Calvin closely weaves together the pedagogical use of the law with the typological system of the Old Testament, so that “the gospel points out with the finger what the law foreshadowed under types.”34 Calvin reasons: “From this we infer that, where the whole law is concerned, the gospel differs from it only in clarity of manifestation.”35 As a result, Calvin distinguishes the whole law from the narrow law, Moses in his universal office from Moses in his particular office. In his exegesis of Romans 10:5–10 , Calvin expounds:

Paul now compares the righteousness of faith and the righteousness of works in order to make it clear how greatly they are at variance. The difference which exists between opposites is seen more clearly by a comparison between them. He is not referring to the writings of the prophets, but to the testimony of Moses, and for this reason alone, that the Jews might understand that the law had not been given by Moses in order to maintain their confidence in their works, but rather to lead them to Christ.

…The universal office which Moses had was the instruction of the people in the true rule of godliness. If this is true, it was his duty to preach repentance and faith. But faith is not taught without offering the promises, the free promises, of the divine mercy….

The promises of the Gospel, however, are found only here and there in the writings of Moses, and these are somewhat obscure, while the precepts and rewards, appointed for those who observe the law, frequently occur. The function, therefore, of teaching the character of true righteousness of works is, with justification, properly and peculiarly attributed to Moses, as is also that function of showing the nature of the remuneration which awaits those who observe it, and what punishment awaits those who transgress it. For this reason Moses himself is contrasted with Christ by John, when he says, “The law was given by Moses; grace and truth came by Jesus Christ” ( John 1:17 ). Whenever the word law is used in this restricted sense, Moses is implicitly contrasted with Christ. We are then to see what the law contains in itself when separated from the Gospel. I must, therefore, refer what I say here of the righteousness of the law not to the whole office of Moses, but to that part of it which was peculiarly entrusted to him.36

The principles of law and grace operated in various and distinct ways in the Old Covenant administration. The peculiarity of the Mosaic Covenant was seen in the emphasis on earthly and temporal benefits which served to direct the Israelites to the heavenly and eternal realities. This accounted for the status of childhood for the Old Covenant Church. The people of God were restricted under the tutelage of the law of Moses.37 Physical blessings and punishments were related to the principle of works-inheritance, appropriate to the typical sphere of the Mosaic administration. The typical punishments were “proofs of his the Lord’s coming judgment against the wicked.”38 The Old Testament types and figures pertained only to the “accidental properties of the covenant.”39 That is to say, the symbolic-typical system of the Old Covenant, coordinate with the principle of works-inheritance, was not to be construed to teach justification, i.e ., salvation, by the works of the law. If that were the case, the difference between the Old and New Covenants would be substantial, not merely accidental. The legal aspect of the Mosaic law itself was spoken of as a “covenant,” because it was the characteristic means of Old Covenant administration. Although this conception was not fully worked out in Calvin’s thought, the Mosaic covenant of law ( foedus legale ) was not equivalent to the idea of the covenant of works as that applied to the pre-fall creation arrangement. The classic formulation of the unity of the covenant of grace, although not original with Calvin, is found in the Institutes . “The covenant made with all the patriarchs is so much like ours in substance and reality that the two are actually one and the same. Yet they differ in mode of administration.”40 The unifying substance of the covenant of grace was a way of speaking of the exclusive way of salvation through grace, of justification by faith, not human works. Our redemption was secured by the meritorious work of Christ, whose obedience and righteousness is imputed to us as the ground of justification.41

The biblical doctrine of sin depends upon the validity and integrity of the original covenant of works. According to Calvin, who on this point is representative of all the Reformed theologians, sin is, in the first place, transgression of the law of God.42 The reason for the primary definition of sin in terms of law is to be seen in light of the importance of the forensic aspect of justification. There can be no fellowship and enjoyment of communion and life with God when there is the transgression of God’s holy and righteous law. Only under the provisions of redemption, i.e ., the order of grace, is there forgiveness and reconciliation.

Zachary Ursinus and Casper Olevianus

These two German Reformed theologians are widely recognized as the most prominent of the sixteenth-century federalists, noted particularly for their writing of the popular and widely received Heidelberg Catechism. They were both students of Calvin at Geneva and Peter Martyr Vermigli at Zurich.

In his Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, Zachary Ursinus (1534–1583) sets forth his views on the covenant of God, which like Calvin he restricts in application to the period of redemption. He conceives of the divine covenant with its two-party arrangement as an anthropological concept. It is not uncommon to speak of covenant as a mutual agreement between God and man comparable to those made between men. However, this mutuality is never construed in terms of equality of persons, as might be the case in certain human covenants.

Within the single covenant of grace, Ursinus perceives two aspects, depending upon the general or principle conditions of the covenant on the one hand, and the less general conditions on the other.43 The accidental aspect of the covenant of grace pertains to the less general conditions, “in order that the faithful, by their help, may obtain those which are general.” That is to say, the mode of administration is temporary and changeable according to God’s saving design, and is thus subordinate to his eternal and unchanging purpose for the redemption of his people. The general conditions refer to the essence of the covenant, which is its proper purpose. The less general conditions of the covenant determine its particular bistorical-covenantal administration. Ursinus provides us here with a vital contribution in the development of the biblical interpretation of the covenant. With respect to the definition of covenant, Ursinus insists upon the importance of recognizing the substantial unity of the covenant of grace, but attempts at the same time to do fuller justice to the varying administrations of the divine covenant. He does so by speaking of the twofold conditions , one general and the other less general. He is pointing to the valid and crucial hermeneutical distinction between the two spheres of “conditionality” within the Mosaic covenant arrangement. The law of God has multiple applications within the covenant of grace.

The promise of the law is conditioned on perfect obedience. Hence after the fall, the law works wrath, being a ministration of death and condemnation.44 Ursinus clarifies more precisely the sense in which the law of God is abrogated, and the sense in which it continues to be binding upon the people of God. The moral law has a distinct application appropriate to man’s fourfold state: (1) nature uncorrupted by sin (man’s state in creation); (2) nature corrupted (the civil and pedagogical uses of the law); (3) nature restored in Christ (the regulative use of the law), and (4) nature glorified (the eternal state).45

In his Summa Theologiae (1584), Ursinus makes his first application of the covenant idea to the original creation order.46 After the fall, God entered into the covenant with man a second time. The covenant of grace was made with the elect. In this catechism, Ursinus brings together the concept of the dual covenants and the traditional law-gospel distinction. The law pertains to the covenant of nature, i.e ., the covenant of creation with its dual sanctions of blessing for obedience and curse for disobedience, based upon man’s conformity to the law of God.47 Earlier in his Catechesis minor (1562), which preceded the writing of the Heidelberg Catechism, Ursinus made no use of the covenant terminology, except with respect to the subject of infant baptism and the Lord’s Supper.

In An Exposition of the Symbole of the Apostles , Casper Olevianus (1536–1587) expounds at length upon the theme of the kingdom of Christ with explicit application of the covenant idea. He weaves together the concepts of covenant and kingdom derived in large measure from Calvin’s thought.48 The foundation of the covenant of grace is the meritorious work of Christ, who satisfied the righteous demands of his Father as the second Adam, and thus delivered us from the curse of the law. In Christ there is forgiveness of sin and renewal in sanctification. In the opening pages of his extensive treatment of the kingdom of God, Olevianus emphasizes man’s culpability and guiltiness before the all-holy and righteous God. Christ, in his office of priest and king, reconciles man and God and establishes his kingdom with those whom the Father has given him. This kingdom is manifested in the way of the covenant, the sum of which is contained in the articles of faith. The covenant of grace and reconciliation is unlike the covenant made with our fathers when God brought them out of the land of Egypt. This latter covenant was made void by their disobedience, whereas the covenant of grace cannot be made void. God’s saving purposes for man’s redemption in Christ are certain and efficacious. The covenant of grace rests exclusively upon the merits of Christ imputed to the elect through faith, such that “this whole covenant consists in faith alone.”49

Perhaps the most important and influential treatise on the covenant to appear in the sixteenth century is Olevianus’ De Substantia Foederis Gratuiti inter Deum et Electos . At the very beginning, Olevianus contrasts the New Covenant with the Old, i.e ., the Mosaic Covenant. Once again he stresses that the New Covenant is unlike the Old which was voided by the disobedient Israelites. The covenant of grace, the proper purpose being election in Christ, includes both remission of sins and renewal in the image of God. Olevianus tries to clarify further the distinctions needed to explain the twofold aspect of the one and eternal covenant with the elect. First, there is the substance of the covenant pertaining to the elect alone, and second, the administration of the visible church. While Olevianus does not want to separate or abstract these two aspects of the one covenant, yet he desires to take full account of all the biblical material. Genesis 17 does not restrict the administration of the covenant to the elect. Yet the administration of the visible church is not to be interpreted so as to be a means of accommodating the non-elect within the covenant. There are simply the two inseparable, though distinct, aspects of the one covenant of grace, the substance and the outward administration.50

In addition to the contrast between the Old and New Covenants, Olevianus speaks of that “first covenant” between God and man made in the image of God.51 There is a fundamental similarity between the works-feature of the Mosaic Covenant and the works-arrangement in the order of creation. The covenant made with Israel rested “in part in their own strength.”52 Olevianus proceeds to speak of this legal aspect as a “covenant of law” ( foedus legale ), in which man is obligated to perform perfect obedience in his own strength. The law of God is the eternal norm for justification and approbation, reflecting the dual sanctions of blessing for obedience and curse for disobedience, the promise of eternal life and the threat of malediction. All reasonable creatures are required to be conformed to divine law by virtue of their natural debt to the Creator. The Mosaic foedus legale employs similarly the dual sanctions of the divine law covenant. The more usual manner in which Olevianus expresses this idea of the works-principle is in terms of the “law of creation,” rather than in explicitly covenantal phraseology. In the Mosaic Covenant, the law of creation is reestablished under Moses by way of the covenant ( ex pacto ).53

William Tyndale and Robert Rollock

M. M. Knappen contends that English Puritanism begins with William Tyndal (1484–1536). Tudor Puritanism “was not an indigenous English movement, but the Anglo-Saxon branch of a Continental one, dependent on foreign theologians both for its theory and for its direction in practical matters.”54 The covenant idea finds its earliest English expression in the writings of Tyndale. It may well be the case that Tyndale appropriated the concept when he was on the Continent. But that he applied it with some originality in his interpretation of the Scriptures is undeniable. In many respects, his formulation is closer to that of Ursinus than any other Continental federalist, although Tyndale and Ursinus developed their ideas independently from one another.

Tyndale was desirous not only to provide the Scriptures in the vernacular, but also to aid Christians in their own study of the Bible. Along with his translations, he provided various prologues to the books of the Bible. The most prominent feature of these introductions was the attention given to the matter of the relation between the Old and New Testaments. The Old Testament stressed the temporal promises which were offered to the Israelites on the basis of their keeping of the law of Moses. Leviticus 18:5 stated the governing principle of inheritance by works, which principle was characteristic of the Old Covenant. The purpose of the law was to drive the Israelites to Christ and his redemptive benefits.55

From the outset, however, there was the tendency in Tyndale, symptomatic of the later English divines, to emphasize unduly the law-function of the Mosaic Covenant in terms of the individual’s personal experience of conversion, rather than to discern the more basic redemptive-historical nature of Old Covenant administration. Perhaps the early beginnings of the later English federalist interpretation of the Mosaic Covenant (to be discussed below) can be traced back here to Tyndale. The principle of law under the Mosaic Covenant was defined in terms of the Jewish misapplication of the legal demand as the means of justification. Tyndale and the later English federalists taught that the Mosaic Covenant became a ministration of death and condemnation for the individual who misconstrued the place of the law of God in justification. (The predisposition to detail the conversion experience was exploited in the subsequent rise of casuistry in William Perkins and William Ames.)

What dominates Tyndale’s exposition of the difference between the two Testaments is the law-gospel antithesis.56 The period of the Old Testament (law) is the time of infancy and childhood of all believers who were before Christ. Tyndale’s interpretation of the uniqueness of the Old Testament includes an appreciation for the rich typological significance of its ceremonies and institutions. In this context, Tyndale warns against false allegorical interpretation of the Scriptures.57 The right use of types, insists Tyndale, must always reveal a legitimate Christological focus.

German Reformed federalism was conveyed to Scotland through Robert Howie, a close friend of Robert Rollock (1555?-1599) and student of Olevianus at Herborn.58 The leading Scottish federalist, however, in the sixteenth century was Rollock. In his Treatise of our Effectual Calling Rollock taught that the Word of God was to be understood explicitly in terms of the divine covenant. He made extensive use of the idea of the twofold covenant of God, the covenant of works and the covenant of grace. The former of these he identified as the legal or natural covenant, whose principle was summed up in Leviticus 18:5.59 The promise of the covenant of works was not righteousness, for this Adam possessed by virtue of his creation in the image of God, but eternal life.

The works of man required in the covenant of works proceed from his own nature, and are not grounded upon the works of another. This is the heart, the forensic fulcrum, of life in the covenant. In the covenant of works, life is grounded upon the obedience and righteousness of man (human righteousness), whereas in the covenant of grace life is grounded upon the righteousness of Christ imputed to the believer through the instrumentality of faith (God-righteousness). Christ is the meritorious cause of justification; faith is the instrumental cause.60

The repetition of the covenant of works in the subsequent period of redemptive history serves a peculiarly pedagogical purpose. The giving of the law of Moses is preparatory in nature.61 In fact, argues Rollock, “the greatest part of the Old Testament is spent propounding, repeating, and expounding the covenant of works.”62 But in all of this, the law administration does not alter the substance of the Mosaic Covenant, whose proper purpose is consistent with the one and unchanging covenant of grace, of which the Mosaic Covenant is a particular, historical manifestation.

Early Seventeenth-Century English Federalism

By the seventeenth century the doctrine of the two covenants, the covenant of works and the covenant of grace, was unanimously adopted by the Reformed dogmaticians. The law-gospel distinction was vital to their theological interpretation of the history of creation and redemption. As a corollary to their fundamental biblical-theological conception of the history of revelation, the majority of Reformed theologians maintained that the characteristic feature of the Mosaic Covenant, with respect to its accidents, not substance, was to be understood in terms of a covenant of works arrangement consistent with the progressive manifestation and realization of the covenant of grace made with Adam after the fall. The Reformed tradition emphasized the substantial unity and continuity of the one, eternal and unchanging covenant of grace in the era of redemption. The sixteenth-century federalists were unable to arrive, however, at a precise and detailed understanding of the way in which the Mosaic Covenant could be viewed as a covenant of works and a covenant of grace at the same time. All the essential and necessary ingredients for such an exposition, it should be noted, were already present in their thought. It required a further period of systematic and biblical-theological reflection before a more satisfying formulation of a complex issue would be reached. By and large, the Reformed theologians of the early part of the seventeenth century failed to progress beyond those formulations of the previous century. There were a few, notably among the English federalists, who contributed to a more consistent presentation of the Mosaic Covenant utilizing the traditional law-gospel contrast.63

During the period of the seventeenth century in England, the traditional Reformed interpretation of the Mosaic Covenant was applied to the political, socio-religious situation in new and startling ways. It is our contention that one must distinguish carefully between the theological conception of the Mosaic Covenant and biblical law on the one hand, and the application of the law of Moses, expressive of natural law, to the national institution on the other. The fact that the historical theologian must make such a sharp distinction between theological interpretation and application is indicative of a faulty and inconsistent perception of the essentially spiritual and ecclesiastical nature of the covenant of grace as the ministration of life, righteousness and blessing ( 2 Corinthians 3 ).

The English federalists taught that the Mosaic Covenant was one in substance with the New Covenant of grace, but that the peculiar law-principle operated in a restricted sense within the Mosaic administration. The primary purpose of the law was to reveal sin and to lead Israel to salvation in Christ. This law aspect terminated with the New Covenant. On the contemporary political level, the Puritans applied the civil laws of the Israelite nation to their own situation on the basis of natural law. From the perspective of the divine establishment of natural law, they discerned a basic continuity between Israel and England, the “New Israel.” The apparent confusion was bound to present problems for church-state relations. Greater theological consistency would come about in the long, protracted and agonizing period of tension and conflict during the seventeenth, eighteenth, and well into the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Among the leading English federalists in the beginning of the seventeenth century were James Ussher (1581–1656), William Perkins (1558–1602) and his most illustrious student, William Ames (1576–1633). The growing importance of the doctrine of the two covenants became evident by its inclusion in the Irish Articles of 1615, drawn up by Ussher. This confession of faith was the first to use explicitly the covenant of works terminology. In preparing the way for the writing of the Westminster Confession of Faith, the Irish Articles gave notable place not only to the federal idea, but also provided the basic order and structure for that of the Westminster Confession.64

It was in the context of the three major theological controversies in the early seventeenth century onwards, viz ., Amyraldianism, Arminianism and Antinomianism, that further reflection was given to the law of Moses. Central to the debates of Arminianism and Antinomianism was the place of law in the Christian life. One’s understanding of the law of God in turn determined his conception of the doctrine of the covenants and of justification.65 It was within this theological context that one must appreciate the Puritan emphasis upon the ethical requirements in the covenant of grace and upon the inseparability of justification and sanctification. Those who held Arminian tenets stood outside the Puritan (Calvinistic) tradition, while many of those who were labelled erroneously “Antinomian” by their opponents were nevertheless genuinely committed to the Puritan theology.

It is particularly this mislabeled group of Puritan “Antinomians” that we need to reevaluate in the interests of the Reformed hermeneutics of the Mosaic Covenant. The controversy between these two groups of Puritans, the majority of English divines and the so-called “Antinomians,” is analogous to the Lutheran controversy between those who stressed Luther’s second use of the law exclusively and those who maintained a third use of the law consistent with Luther’s theology. In part, then, these debates were semantic.

E. F. Kevan reduces the entire controversy between the Puritans and the mislabeled “Antinomians” to the failure of the latter to perceive the gracious character of the Mosaic Covenant. He contends that these Antinomians made a “wide separation” between the two Testaments.66 Nothing is further from the actual case of the matter. Although Kevan is correct in concluding that there was no substantial difference nor fundamental incompatibility between both groups, the precise nature of the debate did not involve any denial of the Mosaic Covenant as a covenant of grace. It is certainly true that many of the opponents of the Antinomians did accuse them of this very thing. But in the heated debates the opponents failed to acknowledge and recognize their full teaching. The most important of those mistakenly labeled “Antinomian” was Tobias Crisp. We begin our survey of early seventeenth-century English federalism with a consideration of his thought.

Tobias Crisp

Tobias Crisp (1600–1643), more than most in his time, strove to develop in greater fullness and clarity the precise sense in which the Mosaic Covenant had to be considered as a covenant of works. He began by relating the obedience of Christ to the first covenant of works in creation by reference to the “covenant of Christ.” But the two chief types of covenant in Scripture are the covenant of works and the covenant of grace. The foundation of the latter was the “delight of Christ with the sons of men.”67

Without jeopardizing the substantial unity of the single covenant of grace, Crisp urged us to take sufficient account of the difference between the two Testaments. “Though Christ is the subject matter, in general, of both, and remission of sins the fruit of both yet, such a vast difference is between them, that he makes them two several covenants.”68 The Decalogue was a summary of the covenant of works in terms of the characteristic feature of the Mosaic Covenant. According to Crisp, Hebrews 7–10 contrasted the two covenants of grace, the Mosaic and the New. He interpreted this contrast to mean that “though Christ is the subject-matter of the covenant of grace, whether old or new, and though there is remission of sins in both…yet, I say, there is such a difference between these two, that they are two distinct covenants one from the other.”69

What is outstanding in the Mosaic Covenant, Crisp contends, is the typical-sacrificial aspect of its law administration to which Christ is the proper subject. Although Crisp’s editor, John Gill, defends him against the false charge of antinomianism, Gill does not fully grasp the point that Crisp makes in distinguishing the two covenants of grace. The two covenants are not, as Gill indicates, two essentially different covenants. Rather, Crisp correctly desires to do justice to the principle of works in the symbolic-typical sphere of the Mosaic Covenant administration.70 In view of this consideration one must speak of a distinct Mosaic covenant of grace in relation to the New. As the writer to the Hebrews declares ( 7:11–12 ), the sacrifices of the Old Covenant, which were performed according to the principle of works operating in the symbolic-typical sphere, could not make atonement for sin. Atonement is accomplished only through the shed blood of Jesus Christ, whose blood was typified in the Old Covenant sacrifices.71 From the standpoint of the spiritual reality, i.e ., the core meaning (the substance or essence of the Mosaic Covenant), of the Old Covenant sacrifices, types and figures, these sacrifices are efficacious for the elect through the working of the Holy Spirit.

Similar to the Continental theologian Johannes Cloppenburg (1592–1652), although no doubt independently conceived, Crisp distinguishes between the experience of forgiveness of sins in the Old and in the New Covenants.72 The strictness of the peculiar covenant of works under Moses is made appropriate to the fallen situation by sovereign, divine disposition. In this regard the Mosaic covenant of works is most unlike the original covenant of works at creation. The Old Covenant sacrificial system is not thorough with respect to each and every sin. Those sins left behind, notes Crisp, are removed (typically) by the yearly sacrifice on the day of atonement. The very establishment of the Mosaic Covenant is rooted in and nourished by the unbounded mercy and grace of God in Christ. The distinctive “covenant of works” aspect of the Mosaic Covenant is thus identical with the original covenant of works with Adam in terms of the principle of inheritance . In the former under Moses the reward of the covenant is earthly and temporal, whereas in the latter the reward is spiritual and eternal. The way of blessing and reward, the confirmation of life and communion with God and the consummation of man’s creation in the image of God as the eschatological goal of creation, is that of works. It is of law, not grace (soterically defined).

The chastening of God’s people in the Old Covenant (typical punishment) is measured out in terms of the curse sanction of the Mosaic law. This is a crucial aspect of the operation of the law as a schoolmaster to Christ. With the coming of Christ at his incarnation, the full manifestation of God’s redeeming grace to sinners terminates the need for the pedagogical use of the law in the history of redemption. There is no longer any need, according to divine wisdom, for temporal, physical blessings and punishments meted out by way of law administration under the Mosaic economy.

Federal theology makes significant strides in light of Crisp’s theological formulation of the covenant of works conception and its application to the Mosaic Covenant. Crisp’s insistence upon the two distinct covenants of grace, unfortunately, was all too easily misconstrued even by the majority of divines who shared his belief that the Mosaic Covenant was in some limited sense a covenant of works. Although Crisp has made definite progress in theological formulation, he still falls prey to ambiguity and confusion at important points in his exposition. In the argument he presents, Crisp maintains that the old covenant of grace must be annulled before the new can be established. But is not the one and eternal covenant of grace that which cannot be made void? Elsewhere Crisp has answered this question in the affirmative. Federal theology yet awaits further development before it can attain to a mature and consistent position regarding the nature of the Mosaic Covenant.

David Dickson and Samuel Bolton

David Dickson (1583?-1663) is among the first, if not the first, of the English federalists to give full expression to the so-called misinterpretation view of the Mosaic Covenant. Once the covenant of works established at creation is broken by disobedience, it is no longer possible for man as sinner to obtain justification by the works of the law. It is impossible to reestablish the same covenant of works in a fallen situation.

Regarding the Mosaic Covenant, Dickson argues in favor of the Jewish misinterpretation of the law of Moses to explain the law-gospel antithesis in the Pauline epistles. According to Dickson, the carnal Israelites perverted the law by turning it into a means of works-salvation. The reason for the repetition of the covenant of works under Moses is the disobedience and unbelief of the Israelites who continued to misinterpret the divine purpose for the law of God. As a punishment, God promulgated the law on Mount Sinai as a repetition of the original covenant of works, though hypothetical in nature ( if you can do this, you shall live). For the same reason, Jesus repeated the legal demand of the covenant of works in his discourse with the rich young ruler.73

According to the traditional Reformed viewpoint, the giving of the Mosaic law is consistent with God’s ultimate purpose of redemption. The works-principle is subordinate to that of redemptive grace, and consequently, is never covenantally instituted as a means of justification, not even hypothetically as a punishment for unbelief.74 Dickson fails to realize that the judaistic error is the misapplication of the works-principle of inheritance in the typical, pedagogical sphere (where it does apply as an aspect of a divinely instituted administration) to the antitypical, spiritual sphere. Although it is evident that Dickson desires to recognize the works-feature of the Mosaic Covenant without obscuring the provisions of grace, he is left speaking of some vague formal works characteristic. Dickson’s interpretation of the Mosaic Covenant shows something of the great variety of expression within the Reformed tradition. The extent of his influence upon the subsequent theologians is difficult to ascertain.

Samuel Bolton (1606–1654) was numbered among the conveners of the Westminster Assembly. His treatise, The True Bounds of Christian Freedom , was directed primarily against the antinomians. Concerning the nature and extent of Christian freedom, Bolton maintained that the believer was freed from the moral law as a covenant “as that from which life might be expected on the condition that due obedience was rendered.”75

Through the vicarious, sacrificial work of Christ’s reconciliation and atonement, in which Christ as covenant head and representative rendered full and perfect obedience to the righteous law of God, he terminated the law as a curse, so that man is no longer under a covenant of works. In his exegesis of Col 2:14 Bolton maintained that the whole law, including the moral law, was abolished with respect to the curse (justification). The law no longer condemned one who was united to Christ in his death and resurrection. According to Gal 3:17 , the Mosaic law was given to Israel not as a covenant of works, but as a rule 430 years after the promise to Abraham. The law was not given as a means of justification, otherwise the law would make void the promise of God and prove God unfaithful to his word. “Our proposition is that there was no end or use for which the law was given which was incompatible with grace and which was not serviceable to the advancement of the covenant of grace.”76

Bolton presents the various interpretations of the Mosaic Covenant and then offers his own analysis of the biblical material. The main interpretations of the Mosaic Covenant are three in number: (1) as a covenant of works, (2) as a subservient covenant preparing for the advancement of the covenant of grace with the coming of Christ, and (3) as a covenant of grace more legally dispensed.77 Bolton contends, however, that there are only two distinct covenants in Scripture, not three. He expresses dissatisfaction with the idea of a third, subservient covenant ( foedus subserviens ), despite the appearance of the Mosaic Covenant as a repetition of the covenant of works. There are numerous reasons why it cannot be a legal covenant. On the basis of Jeremiah 31–33 , we learn that God is Israel’s husband, and that the covenant is established for the manifestation and realization of God’s purpose of salvation. There is no mercy in a covenant of works, and such a covenant would void God’s promise to Abraham. A covenant of works under Moses would indicate mutability in the will of God, or else contradiction in his acts. God does not offer life and justification by means of the law, otherwise the Israelites would have been saved under different circumstances and conditions than in the New Covenant ( Gal 3:18ff .). Thus, even the suggestion of a hypothetical covenant of works is wholly unacceptable ( Gal 3:21 ). Because of the sinner’s depravity, it would be contrary to the nature of a covenant to enter into such a solemn vow whereby one of the parties could not fulfill his part of the engagement.78 The true nature of a covenant is that it is between friends. Finally, the covenant of works is not capable of renewal once it is broken, whereas the covenant between God and Israel is renewed time and again. The idea of the subservient covenant of works separate from the ongoing revelation of the single covenant of grace does not satisfy these objections.

Positively, Bolton distinguishes from the covenant of grace the typical , subservient covenant under Moses. That is to say, the law-feature of the Mosaic Covenant has relevance only to the unique typical covenant which is of temporary duration. Bolton’s conception of the subservient, typical covenant is unlike the idea of a subservient covenant of works (hypothetical), which fails to understand the proper manner in which the administrative principle of works-inheritance operates in the Mosaic economy. The law principle, according to Bolton, has respect to Canaan and other physical and temporal blessings which are granted when and as Israel is faithful and obedient to the law of Moses (the principle of works). Bolton recognizes that his viewpoint is in the minority. He concedes that the majority of divines adopt the view of the two covenants, the original covenant of works and the subsequent covenant of grace, with the Mosaic Covenant considered to be more legally dispensed. The law-feature, in the majority view, is a bare principle , rather than an actual covenant administration. Bolton regards the subservient, typical covenant as an integral aspect of the Mosaic administration of the covenant of grace. (There is no inner connection in his thought, however, between the subservient aspect as typical and the grace aspect as antitypical.)

Bolton interprets the (normative) role of the law in the Mosaic Covenant as consistent with the covenant of grace, not the subservient covenant (works). Therefore, Lev 18:5 does not mean that we “shall live by them,” but rather we “shall live in them.” Bolton remarks: “We live in obedience, but we do not live by obedience. There is much difference between the two statements.”79 Primarily, Bolton refutes the opinion that Lev 18:5 as interpreted by Paul teaches a conditional works-salvation, hypothetical or not, under the Mosaic Covenant. As a result, Bolton’s exposition combines elements of both the traditional view and the so-called misinterpretation view of the Mosaic Covenant, though his overall position lies closer to the former.

Edward Fisher and John Ball

Edward Fisher (1627–1655) and John Ball (1585–1640) authored two separate, but highly important treatises published in London in the same year, 1645, two years prior to the convening of the Westminster Assembly. Neither were members, however, of that august body. (Ball died several years previous.) Most interestingly, they were representative of two distinct Reformed interpretations of the Mosaic Covenant.

Although Fisher’s The Marrow of Modern Divinity did not attract much attention when it first appeared, it was particularly important in the Marrow controversy in Scotland in the latter half of the seventeenth century. The heart of this controversy was not the nature of the Mosaic law per se , but rather the place and use of the law in preaching, i.e ., the second or elenctic use of the law in convicting the sinner of his guiltiness before God and his need for the grace of Christ. The immediate context for this controversy was the understanding of the doctrine of justification by faith alone. John Macleod describes here the rise of a reactionary Catholicizing movement which

…sought to make the faith that justifies a kind of fides formata , a thing so elastic as to find within its ambit room for repentance and the good works of the penitent. Then this extended faith was made out to be not the mere instrument of effecting union with Christ, but a strict condition, the fulfilment of which is called for that one may win acceptance before God by obedience to the law of faith set forth in the Gospel as a new law. Thus the righteousness of God which is by faith in Christ was set aside as the ground of our acceptance; and our new life as believers and penitents was looked upon as so much of the ground on which our acceptance is built.80

Although the members of this movement often guarded themselves against the charge of making good works meritorious or the ground of justification by pointing to the righteousness of Christ, they denied or obscured the distinctive role of faith in the article of justification. Fisher’s treatise served as an eloquent defense of the Reformed orthodox position.

The concept of works is critical to a biblical understanding of justification by faith and of the function of the Mosaic law instructing God’s people in the way of justification by faith. The first part of the work is a thorough and comprehensive treatment of the two covenants, works and grace, and the second part is an exposition of the ten commandments. Included among the extended list of names of theologians to whom Fisher is indebted are Ball, Bolton, Bullinger, Calvin, Luther, Perkins, Rollock, Tyndale and Ursinus.

Fisher carefully distinguishes between the principle of works in the Mosaic law and the nature of the covenant more broadly conceived. The law can be considered in its normative use or in its formal, covenantal establishment.81 Though the covenant of works once broken cannot be renewed, it is still binding upon all men, and for this reason all men are under the curse of the law.

The ten commandments delivered to Israel through Moses summarizes the covenant of works. Yet, as Fisher stresses, the giving of the law did not consist in a repetition of the original covenant of works.82 The law is not a substitute for the way of grace, although according to Gal 3:19 , it was added because of transgressions. “It was not set up as a solid rule of righteousness, as it was given to Adam in paradise, but was added or put to; it was not set up as a thing in gross by itself.”83 The covenant of works under Moses is not added by way of “ingrediency” as part of the covenant of grace “for then the same covenant should have consisted of contradictory materials,” but rather “by way of subserviency and attendance , the better to advance and make effectual the covenant of grace.”84

From this perspective of the subserviency of the Mosaic Covenant, believers and unbelievers are under the covenant of works, under the dual sanctions of blessing and curse which are brought to bear on the basis of their obedience to the law of God, rather than on the basis of the substitutionary work of Christ (grace). So it is, for example, that Moses and Aaron are not permitted entrance into the land of Canaan, the promised inheritance, because of their unbelief and disobedience. Both the blessings of this life and the calamities are inflicted upon God’s people on the grounds of their obedience or disobedience respectively.85

The Pharisees sought to attain the spiritual, antitypical blessings by means of their own works, and reduced the internal, heart aspect of obedience to mere external, mechanical observance of the law. With respect to the former, the Pharisees did not consider “the imperfection of the typical law, which, as the apostle says, made nothing perfect, would have led them to find perfection in Christ, Heb 7:19 .” According to Rom 9:31 , 10:3 , Exod 34:30 and 2 Cor 3:7ff ., the Judaizers did not use the law “as a pedagogy to Christ, but terminated their eye in the letter and shadow, and did not see through them to the spiritual substance, which is Jesus Christ.”86

The fullest treatment of English covenant theology appears in John Ball’s A Treatise of the Covenant of Grace , which Holmes Rolston speaks of as a “variant form” of covenant theology. The reason for and the accuracy of this description will become clear in the course of our discussion. The law of God serves as the same rule for life in both the covenant of works (creation) and the covenant of grace (redemption), although it differs in the manner or way of inheritance (law or grace). While both divine covenants are freely established by God in his goodness and grace (non-soteric), yet the supreme manifestation of his (soteric) grace and mercy toward sinners is unique to the redemptive arrangement, the so-called covenant of grace. When Ball addresses himself to the way of entrance into the covenant of grace, he reaffirms the traditional teaching on “justification by faith alone,” a metonymy for justification by the sole merit of Jesus Christ. The righteousness of Christ, the meritorious ground of justification, is apprehended by faith, and thus in this respect, faith is the alone instrumental cause of justification. The efficacy of the covenant of grace is restricted to the elect, whereas the administration of the covenant is of wider scope.87

The difference between the Old and the New Covenants is primarily one of promise and fulfillment. The substance of the covenant of grace, pertaining to the elect, remains the same. There is one Church throughout both Testaments. The meaning of Israel under tutors and governors is to be understood in the sense of preparation, rather than bondage under a law administration as such. According to Ball, the difference is more one of degree or intensity. His view stands in opposition to the interpretation of the Mosaic Covenant entertained by the majority of Reformed federalists in which the pedagogical, tutelary function of the law as a principle of works-inheritance is related in some way to the symbolic-typical sphere of Old Covenant administration.88 Rather, in Ball’s view, the temporal blessings which accompanied the spiritual benefits under the covenant of grace are merely greater in proportion to the spiritual, whereas the reverse is the case in the New Covenant.89

The purpose of the covenant with Moses is to manifest the superabounding grace and mercy of God to his elect people, Israel. By means of the law of Moses, the people of Israel are covenantally instituted as a nation. It marks the inauguration of the “state Covenant,” also called the Old Covenant because it was to pass away.90 In his exegesis of 2 Cor 3 and Gal 3 , Ball restricts the letter-law aspect to the moral law appropriate to the covenant of nature (the law of nature) “as it has necessarily affixed eternal life to the punctual performance, or eternal curse to the disobeyers in the least title.”91 The Apostle’s use of “law,” consequently, refers to the law of nature (a bare principle), specifically the principle of works which is separate from a covenant order. In Ball’s understanding, to speak of this bare “law” as a covenant would mean that the Mosaic Covenant taught justification by works. He does insist, however, upon recognizing the law element in the Mosaic Covenant.92 The Old Covenant ministration of death and condemnation is interpreted by Ball not in terms of the typical punishments for Israel’s disobedience, but in terms of the Judaizers’ misapplication of the law.

According to Ball, the words of Lev 18:5 , “Do this and live,” when abstracted from the covenant context denote the biblical idea of law as the principle of works. However, he contends that in its proper covenantal setting, what he believes to be the correct intent of Lev 18 , the law is consistent with grace, not antitbetical.93 The doers of the law are justified ( Rom 2:13 ), though he explains that faith alone justifies for “good works are opposed to faith in the matter of justification.”94 The Mosaic Covenant is wholly devoid of any administrative element of works-merit.95 Later, however, Ball concedes to the idea of a conditional element in the Old Covenant, e.g ., when God judges the house of David because of disobedience. The conditional element indicates blessing or judgment on the ground of man’s own obedience, contrasting with the surety of grace in Christ. “Nevertheless, the promise of God was firm and sure to all the seed, in respect of the things absolutely promised, for the infidelity of man cannot make the faith of God of none effect.”96

Quite clearly, Reformed theology is in need of clarification here. With good reason Daniel Fuller has remarked: “It is extremely difficult to grasp covenant theology’s explanations of how a line of thought, which has the structure of the covenant of works, nevertheless functions as part of the covenant of grace.”97

The Westminster Standards

The most definitive creedal statement to come out of the period of the Reformation is the Westminster Confession of Faith, along with the Larger and Shorter Catechisms. Since this Confession is unsurpassed both in its definition and comprehensiveness, and continues to be the creedal standard for a great many within the Reformed orthodox church today, it serves as an appropriate point of termination for our present historical survey. In light of the diversity of expression with respect to Reformed interpretations of the Mosaic Covenant and the concept of the covenant of works, what consensus were the Westminster divines able to attain? Do the standards attempt to define a narrow position or permit diversity of thought within the limits of the Reformed system of doctrine?

The federal structure of the Confession is by no means idiosyncratic, but rather is reflective of Reformed catholic doctrine in its deepest and most characteristic insight into biblical truth. Indeed, it is the architectonic principle of the Westminster Confession.98

After the chapters on the decrees of God, creation, providence and man’s fall into sin, the Confession defines the concept of covenant:

The distance between God and the creature is so great, that although reasonable creatures do owe obedience unto Him as their Creator, yet they could never have any fruition of Him as their blessedness and reward, but by some voluntary condescension on God’s part, which He hath been pleased to express by way of covenant (VII.1.).

The natural relationship between God and man is one of law: “reasonable creatures do owe obedience unto Him as their Creator.”99 Repeatedly, the Confession ties together the first covenant and the principle of works-inheritance (VI. 6, VII.2, VIII.4, 5, XI.3, XIX. 1, 6; cf ., especially the Larger Catechism, Q. A. 20, 38, 70, 71, and 93). The original covenant between God and man is a covenant of works, whose principle of inheritance is antithetical to that in the covenant of grace.100 This fundamental doctrine in the standards is vital to the exposition of justification by faith and the atonement of Christ. Peter Dejong remarks:

There is by no means an antithesis between the covenant and the forensic representations of man’s relationship to God. It is true that in Zurich, where the covenant idea first came up, the legal aspect of Christ’s work was not as clearly seen and concisely formulated as in the more strictly Calvinistic confessions. However, the covenant idea easily embraced the forensic representation and was thus itself enriched. It did precisely this in the Westminster symbols, which have been quite generally regarded as the most complete and mature development of Reformed theology in creedal form.101

The Westminster Standards reaffirm its commitment to the traditional Reformed understanding of the similarities and differences between the Old (Mosaic) Covenant and the New Covenant. The Confession concludes with the statement: “There are not therefore two covenants of grace, differing in substance, but one and the same, under various dispensations” (VII. 6; cf ., Larger Catechism Q. A. 33–35). The Confession stresses that the purpose of the law of Moses is as a rule of life and righteousness (XIX. 2). It has been commonplace in Reformed theology from the beginning to speak of the law as a “rule” for life both in creation and redemption. This is different from the use of the law with respect to the principle of inheritance in which there is an antithesis between law and grace and an abrogation of the law with respect to soteric justification. But the law of Moses also contained “several typical ordinances,” as part of the ceremonial laws which have all been terminated by Christ (XIX. 3). The civil or judicial laws have likewise expired, except as they can be applied now to civil legislation according to the principle of “general equity” (XIX. 4). The civil laws no longer carry any typological meaning as they did in the Old Covenant. With respect to the typological picture, these civil laws of Moses signify the eternal, antitypical state of consummation glory. The Westminster Confession has left the door open to a diverse range of interpretation in giving detailed expression to the law-character of the Mosaic covenant of grace. Kevan correctly observes: “All the Puritans were agreed, that, into whatever category the Mosaic Law had to be put, it was not given by God as a means of justification.”102

II. Recent Covenant Hermeneutics

In this second part we direct our attention to the leading biblical and systematic theologies of those in the orthodox Reformed tradition of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries who contend for the historical trustworthiness of the book of Genesis, essential to the very integrity of federalism. We highlight the more influential American Presbyterian and American-Dutch Reformed theologians. It is mainly to the credit of the Dutch Reformed theologians that federalism has continued to survive as a dynamic and vital expression of the Reformed faith. Our purpose is to explore the recent understanding of the concept of the covenant of works and its relation to the Mosaic Covenant as a further development in the history of federalism. By way of conclusion, we offer a brief biblical-theological exposition of the Mosaic Covenant.

Robert Dabney

Robert Dabney (1820–1898) adopts the popular misinterpretation view in his exegesis of the relevant New Testament passages which cite the law-principle in Lev 18:5 . The Jews misapply the law of Moses by attempting to obtain justification by the works of the law, and, consequently, the Mosaic covenant of grace becomes a ministration of condemnation and death. “In dealing with this subject theologians perpetually forget how necessarily the Apostles had to use the argumentum ad hominem against the Jews.”103 Dabney opposes the idea that the Mosaic Covenant is a species of the covenant of works, because such a recession counters the progressive nature of biblical revelation and redemption.

The problem is that Dabney can only conceive of the covenant of works functioning as a complete entity, i.e ., both in the typical and the antitypical spheres at the same time. From such a conception of the Mosaic Covenant, Dabney rightly detects a serious misunderstanding of redemptive revelation. According to Dabney, this is the similar opinion of Cameron and Amyraut back in the seventeenth century. This conviction led the Amyraldians to conclude that the Mosaic Covenant as a covenant of works had to apply, therefore, to the temporal, earthly sphere exclusively. In this manner, they avoided the erroneous conception of a hypothetical covenant of works-salvation. Dabney speaks of the Amyraldian’s “ingenious modification of the legal theory of Moses’ covenant.” He comments:

This is true, so far as a visible church-standing turned on a ritual obedience. But to the Hebrew, that temporal life in happy Canaan was a type of heaven; which was not promised to an exact moral obedience, but to faith. Were this theory modified, so as to represent this dependence of the Hebrew’s church-standing on his ritual obedience, as a mere type and emblem of the law’s spiritual work as a ‘schoolmaster to lead us to Christ’, it might stand.104

Dabney’s own view of the Mosaic Covenant, however, cannot consistently accommodate the legal element, which, in fact, he is willing to grant in the above citation. He concedes further:

The legal conditions of outward good-standing were made more burdensome and exacting than they had been before. This last feature was not a novelty (see Gen 17:14 ), but it was made more stringent…. For this stringency was designed to be, to the Israelite, a perpetual reminder of the law which was to Adam, the condition of life, now broken, and its wrath already incurred, thus to hedge up the awakened conscience to Christ.105

According to Dabney, however, all of this legal typology rests upon the misinterpretation of the law of Moses. To the spiritual Hebrew the temporal life in Canaan is promised to faith, not works. By name Dabney opposes the teachings of Calvin, Turretine and the Cocceian school regarding “the bondage, terror, literalness, and intolerable weight of the institutions under which Old Testament saints lived,” noting that such “will strike the attentive reader as incorrect.”106 Dabney stresses that the key is recognizing the use of the argumentum ad hominem : that is to say, the apostles “are speaking of the Mosaic institutions under the Jewish view of them.”107 The mistake of Dabney is that he is confused on the nature of the visible Church in the Old Covenant, isolating it from the core, spiritual house of Israel, the invisible Church. The necessary avoidance of defining the invisible aspect of the Church in the New Covenant in abstraction from the visible aspect applies equally to the definition of the Church in the Old Covenant as well. Dabney erroneously criticizes Calvin for distorting the sense of Gal 4 when he refers the time of bondage to the Mosaic dispensation.

As to the visible Church collectively, and its outward or ecclesiastical privilege, this was true; but not as to individual believers in the Church…. The time of tutelage was, to each soul, the time of his self-righteous, unbelieving, convicted, but unhumbled struggles. The time of the liberty is, when he has flown to Christ. This, whether he was Israelite or Christian.108

Dabney’s interpretation of the Mosaic Covenant as a pure covenant of grace is exegetically and theologically inadequate. He is driven to interpret the law-feature of the Mosaic Covenant psychologically, rather than redemptive-historically.

Charles and A. A. Hodge

Charles Hodge (1797–1878) teaches that the Mosaic Covenant is evangelical (that is to say, a covenant of grace), yet with the addition of the legal element, making it at the same time a legal covenant (a covenant of works). This law-feature is evident in the promise of national security and prosperity of Israel in the land of Canaan, and in the renewed proclamation of the works-principle (hypothetical), as found in the New Covenant as well ( e.g ., Rom 2:6 and Luke 10:25ff .).109

Charles’ son, Alexander Hodge (1823–1886), discusses the covenant idea at greater length and reveals a deep insight into and penetration of the role of the covenant of works in the history of creation and redemption. He maintains that, the covenant of works is consistent with man’s natural state. The covenant of creation is legal, conditioned upon man’s “perfect conformity to the law of absolute moral perfection.”110 It demands devolve upon man’s own being and acting.

The period between the fall and the consummation manifests the progressive, ongoing administration of the one and eternal covenant of grace. By regeneration and renewal in sanctification, the Spirit of Christ brings to realization the spiritual kingdom of Christ, a kingdom of priests and kings forever. The Mosaic Covenant serves a peculiar and pedagogical role in the administration of the covenant of grace. The “legal element” was added because of transgressions. The reference of the symbolic-typical element of the Mosaic Covenant is to Christ. Although the mode of administration differs, the substance of the covenant remains the same. The principle of works-inheritance, which functions according to divine intent and purpose in the typical sphere under Moses’ covenantal mediation, is the basis for all national blessings proffered to the Israelites. At the same time, Hodge says of the Mosaic signs and symbols: “in the symbolical and typical significance of all the Mosaic institutions, they were a clearer and fuller revelation of the provisions of the Covenant of Grace than had ever before been made.”111

Abraham Kuyper and Herman Bavinck

According to Abraham Kuyper (1837–1920), the Mosaic Covenant is unique and distinct from the original covenant of works. The law of Sinai belongs to the covenant of grace, although it is given in the form of the covenant of works, whereby the law affirms that the doer of these things shall live in them. The peculiar feature of the law under the Mosaic economy lies in its double purpose. On the one hand, it operates uniquely with regard to the dramatic-symbolic life of Israel. This is the meaning of the Old Testament typological system. Canaan typifies the heavenly inheritance, Jordan the entrance into that eternal rest. On the other hand, the law functions in a wholly different, antithetical manner in terms of the enjoyment of the spiritual, antitypical blessings of redemption in Christ, which belongs to the elect of God.112

The reward of eternal life is not a matter of works-obedience, but rather of the saving grace and mercy of God towards sinners.113 The biblical concept of merit is opposed to the idea of intrinsic worth ( cf ., the Thomistic nature-grace dualism). After the fall, the covenant of works (merit) is not abolished, but rather it is modified. Because of the consequences of sin, man is incapable of keeping the law of God. Yet, the law forever remains the rule or norm for life. The righteousness of Christ is the ground of salvation.

Principally in light of 1 Cor 15:45–49 and Romans 5:12–21 , Herman Bavinck (1854–1921) highlights the integral connection between the covenant established with Adam in creation and the eschatological goal of creation.114 The meaning of Adam as type of Christ is to be understood in terms of this eschatological perspective. The type refers explicitly to the reality of the covenant representation of the two Adams. This type differs from the pattern of typology associated with the Mosaic Covenant, although the two are related in certain respects. In point of fact, the system of typology under the Old Testament is valid only because of the prior pattern and parallel between the first and second Adams. The meaning of the Old Testament typology cannot be understood apart from the operation of the works-principle, particularly as that comes to expression in the Mosaic Covenant. To deny the legitimate and necessary operation of the principle of works in the Mosaic economy, by conceiving of it as a pure administration of grace and promise is to destroy in principle the system of Old Testament typology. The genius of the Reformed theological system finds fullest expression in the awareness of the essentially eschatological nature of God’s creative work.

The “positive purpose” in the giving of the law under Moses is to point to another righteousness, viz ., the righteousness of Christ. Referring to the works-principle in the symbolic-typical sphere of the Mosaic Covenant, Bavinck exclaims, “When we take this vantage point of the Apostle Paul, we get a delightfully illuminating view of the revelation of God in the Old Testament, of the religion of Israel, of the significance of the law, of history and prophecy, of the psalms and the wisdom books.”115 Sound biblical hermeneutics requires the recognition of and proper use of the law-gospel distinction in handling the relation between Old and New Testaments exegetically and theologically.

Louis Berkhof, Geerhardus Vos and Meredith G. Kline

Louis Berkhof (1873–1957) and Geerhardus Vos (1862–1949) were important links between Dutch and American Calvinism. Berkhof upholds the dominant Reformed view of the Mosaic Covenant, which sees it as a covenant of works in some restricted sense.

The Sinaitic covenant included a service that contained a positive reminder of the strict demands of the covenant of works. The law was placed very much in the foreground, giving prominence once more to the earlier legal element. But the covenant of Sinai was not a renewal of the covenant of works; in it the law was made subservient to the covenant of grace…. It is true that at Sinai a conditional element was added to the covenant, but it was not the salvation of the Israelite but his theocratic standing in the nation, and the enjoyment of external blessings that was made dependent on the keeping of the law, Deut 28:1–14.116

Vos recognizes this same legal element as operative in the symbolic-typical sphere of Israel’s covenant life.117 This idea remains in large measure undeveloped in Vos’ thought. Essentially this legal feature is construed as a bare principle, rather than as a covenant arrangement.

In the present day, no one has addressed himself more to this issue of the operation of the principles of law and grace under the Mosaic Covenant than Meredith Kline (born 1922). His chief works which take up this matter are Treaty of the Great King and By Oath Consigned , the former a commentary on Deuteronomy and the latter a theological study on the signs and seals of the covenant of grace.118 Both of these works reveal Kline’s exegetical and theological acumen. Commenting on the typical system of the Mosaic economy, Kline remarks:

Israel’s continued enjoyment of a habitation in God’s land, like Adam’s continued enjoyment of the original paradise, depended on continued fidelity to the Lord. Certain important distinctions are necessary in making such a comparison. Flawless obedience was the condition of Adam’s continuance in the Garden; but Israel’s tenure in Canaan was contingent on the maintenance of a measure of religious loyalty which needed not to be comprehensive of all Israel nor to be perfect even in those who were the true Israel. There was a freedom in God’s exercise or restraint of judgment, a freedom originating in the underlying principle of sovereign grace in his rule over Israel. Nevertheless, God did so dispense his judgment that the interests of the typical-symbolical message of Israel’s history were preserved.119

John Murray

In a concise, encyclopedic article John Murray (1898–1975) surveys the historical development of covenant theology and indicates his reservations concerning the notion of “works” in connection with the exposition not only of the Mosaic Covenant, but of the covenant concept itself. He objects to the notion of a “covenant of works,” since the combination of “covenant” and “works” involves, from his point of view, a contradiction in terms. His purpose in this article is to convince us of the need for a revised definition of the covenant idea. But it is his article entitled “The Adamic Administration” in his Collected Writings , which provides us with a more detailed exposition of his revision of the biblical concept of the covenant. Murray describes the first state of man created in the image of God as one of “perfect legal reciprocity,” a state which is by nature contingent and lacking the full-orbed communion with God. As a creature, man’s duty is to obey God; this comprises his natural relationship to the Creator. The second stage of God’s providential ordering of the life of man is properly called the Adamic administration. Although Murray’s preference is to restrict the term “covenant” to the provisions of redemption, he is not wholly adverse to speak of the second stage, the Adamic administration, as a covenant.120 However, Murray insists, it is most objectionable to call it a covenant of works. The concept of works in this arrangement does not do justice to the “elements of grace entering into the administration.”121

A second reason for Murray’s reservation in speaking of an original covenant arrangement with Adam is that Scripture does not identify this creation order as a covenant. Thus, it is preferable to employ the covenant terminology in relation to the provisions of redemption. The gracious character of the creation covenant, or rather the Adamic administration, is nonsoteric. Consequently, “Whether or not the administration is designated covenant, the uniqueness and singularity must be recognized.”122 It applies only to the state of innocence, and to Adam alone as representative head. At this point in his exposition Murray avoids the parallel with the second Adam. In fact, nowhere in Murray’s writings does he consider the work of Christ explicitly in terms of the original covenant. Apparently for the first time in Reformed theology, the kingdom of Christ is divorced from the covenant concept in the federal system. Murray will speak of Christ redeeming us from the law in the sense of the law of works, the principle of strict justice.123 But he does not relate Christ’s atonement to a works-covenant arrangement, simply because in his view there is no such thing as a covenant of works in Scripture. The blessing of confirmation which Adam hoped for and believers now experience in principle is incompatible with a covenant of works arrangement.

For Murray, “covenant” and “works” are antithetical concepts, a novel proposal in the history of federalism. Murray writes:

The view that in the Mosaic covenant there was a repetition of the so-called covenant of works, current among covenant theologians, is a grave misconception and involves an erroneous construction of the Mosaic covenant, as well as fails to assess the uniqueness of the Adamic administration. The Mosaic covenant was distinctly redemptive in character and was continuous with and extensive of the Abrahamic covenants.124

Murray fails to note that on the point pertaining to the Mosaic Covenant as “distinctly redemptive in character” and “continuous with and extensive of the Abrahamic covenants” all of the Reformed federalists were agreed: the substance of the covenant of grace (which includes the Mosaic Covenant) remained the same. Differences arise, however, in their explanation of the peculiar law-function in the Mosaic economy.

The condition of the special Adamic administration is obedience. The tree of the knowledge of good and evil points to the dual sanctions of the covenant, the blessing for obedience and the curse for disobedience. Murray is concerned to stress the gracious nature of the Adamic Covenant, in order to guard against the idea that the reward of blessing and confirmation is bestowed on the ground of man’s obedience, while agreeing that perfect and complete obedience is essential. Whereas the principle of works, “perfect legal reciprocity,” comes to bear in the order of creation, the first state of man as made in the image of God, the principle of (non-soteric) grace informs the entire, subsequent covenant arrangement in such a decisive manner that the concept of works is wholly irrelevant and misleading as a description of the creation order. Although the principle of works is always binding by virtue of man’s creaturely status, the concept of the covenant cannot be considered in legal terms. If the covenant of creation is devoid of the works-element, how much more so then are the covenants of redemption, particularly the Mosaic, devoid of any works-element.125 In his commentary on Rom 10:5–8 , Murray remarks:

The difficulty with the first Lev 18:5 is that in the original setting it does not appear to have any reference to legal righteousness as opposed to that of grace. Suffice it to say now that the formal statement Paul appropriates as one suited to express the principle of law-righteousness. It cannot be doubted but the proposition, ‘The man that doeth the righteousness of the law shall live thereby’, is, of itself, an adequate and watertight definition of the principle of legalism.126

Consequently, the apostle Paul abstracts the principle enunciated in Lev 18:5 out of the context of grace. Murray does not address the ensuing problem that in the event that the apostle is not representing the proper intent of the law-principle in his Old Testament citation, what does this say about the Reformation hermeneutic of the analogy of Scripture, that Scripture interprets Scripture?

Although Murray does not reject the law-gospel distinction entirely, such a distinction has no relevance to the history of covenant administration, covering the periods of creation and redemption. This recognition that the law-principle does characterize the state of nature, man’s natural relationship with God (however unfortunate though this dualistic conception is), safeguards his formulation of the doctrine of justification by faith and the doctrine of the atonement of Christ. Whereas Murray attempts to avoid the concept of works in the conception of the covenant of creation, he insists that it be recognized in the natural state. As a result, Murray’s theological system is essentially compatible with the Westminster Standards, even though his repudiation of the works-principle in the covenant of creation sets off his thought from that of all previous federal theologians. Nevertheless, his theology is seriously deficient with respect to the operation of the principles of law and grace under the Mosaic Covenant, and the fundamental contrast between the order of creation (law) and the order of redemption (grace). His conception of the covenant per se is thoroughly non-eschatological. Failure to relate the works-principle to the first and second Adams in their covenantal capacities as representative heads obscures the meritorious nature of Christ’s saving work in realizing the kingdom of God in the present semi-eschatological age of the Spirit.127

In order to develop consistently his idea of the uniqueness of the Adamic administration, Murray maintains the peculiar nature of Christ’s obedience to the law of God. “The obedience Christ rendered fulfilled the obedience in which Adam failed. It would not be correct to say, however, that Christ’s obedience was the same in content or demand. Christ was called on to obey in radically different conditions , and required to fulfil radically different demands .”128 Apparently, Murray allows this partial truth to obscure the covenantal parallel between Adam and Christ. The radically different conditions and demands are discerned in the distinctly redemptive mission of Christ to save his people from their sins through his death upon the cross. Where the first Adam failed as a covenant breaker, the second Adam succeeded in perfectly fulfilling the demands of the covenant by his active and passive obedience. The penal aspect of Christ’s atonement is meaningless apart from the curse sanction of the creation covenant. The representative principle is crucial.

It is now clear what Murray had in mind by way of a revision of the biblical concept of the covenant.129 While there is a marked degree of consistency in his systematic reflection on covenant and justification, it is most fortunate that his commitment to the theology of the Westminster Standards as expressive of Reformed orthodoxy restrained him from reinterpreting the vital doctrine of Christ’s atonement and justification by faith. Yet those who adopt Murray’s conception of the original covenant with Adam as a covenant of grace and at the same time deny the validity of the law-gospel distinction inevitably must radically redefine the Reformation doctrine of saving grace in the interest of systematic and biblical theology, as urged by such men as Holmes Rolston and Daniel Fuller.130

Conclusion: The Mosaic Covenant and the Concept of Works

The traditional distinction between law and gospel plays a crucial role in the Reformed exposition of justification by faith and the characteristic differences between the Old and New Covenants. The purpose of the giving of the law of Moses is to instruct Israel in the way of justification by faith. The majority of covenant theologians have attempted to do greater justice to the biblical teaching on the works-feature of the Mosaic Covenant. The popular misinterpretation view of the Mosaic law covenant finds its first full exposition in English federalism. The Westminster Standards sought to accommodate both viewpoints. Our study, however, has pointed out several problems with respect to this misinterpretation view which indicate failure to interpret adequately all of the relevant biblical texts and to present a consistent biblical-systematic theology of the covenant.

The critical supposition that there are essentially two different types of covenant theology in both Continental and English federalism is unfounded. The common root of all their criticisms, despite differences in argument and presupposition, is the rejection of the law-gospel contrast, which these critics regard as speculative, rather than biblical, in origin. The central focus in these discussions is the interpretation of the Mosaic Covenant.

Once we recognize and appreciate the full integrity of the biblical doctrine of the covenant of works as that which characterizes the first relationship between the Creator and the creature, we are prepared to consider the teaching of Scripture on the Mosaic Covenant as manifesting in some sense the features of the first covenant of works. Since the fall and the establishment of the covenant of redemption with Adam, the original covenant of creation is made of no effect, in that Christ is the exclusive meritorious ground of justification and life. Outside of Christ, all stand guilty before God on account of original sin and inherited depravity. They are all covenant-breakers. The covenant whose principle of life-inheritance is that of works can never be reinstituted. The operation of the works-principle, then, in the Mosaic Covenant cannot be interpreted so as to constitute the covenant under Moses as a covenant of works. Otherwise, the law which came four hundred and thirty years after Abraham would annul the promise of grace ( Gal 3 ). There is essential unity in the ongoing revelation of the covenant of redemption.

The principle of works-inheritance as an administrative element in the Mosaic Covenant is limited to the sphere of the symbolic-typical. Since the spiritual benefits of redemption in the Mosaic Covenant are purely a matter of sovereign, saving grace, the pedagogical function of the law of Moses is typical. The earthly, physical blessings point to the antitypical reality. The operation of the works-law-principle, antithetical to the faith-grace-principle, in the Mosaic Covenant applies to a restricted, though characteristic, pedagogical sphere of covenant life. At all times this works-principle plays a subservient role in God’s ultimate purposes of salvation for his people Israel.

The operation of this principle of works does not militate against the Reformed teaching that good works and faith are inseparable realities for the elect of God. As all of the theologians within the Reformed tradition maintain, saving faith is a working faith ( James 2 ). Nevertheless, under the Mosaic Covenant works are judged in the sphere of typology (typical inheritance) apart from the substitutionary work of Christ (the principle of grace). The guaranteed, antitypical blessings for the elect rest exclusively upon the meritorious work of Christ. The exile of the people of God to Babylon (having typical significance) is possible only on the basis of the covenant lawsuit of Yahweh against his people, not on the basis of the grace of God in Christ in whom the covenanted inheritance is secure and indefectible. The Old Covenant prophets’ call to repentance and obedience is not a call to Pharisaical self-righteousness, but rather to covenant faithfulness.131 In terms of the substance of the Mosaic Covenant, the calling out of God’s elect nation under the mediator, Moses, bespeaks grace and blessing of the highest order. The way of the covenant is the way of obedience, regardless of the fact that such obedience, in specific instances appropriate to the symbolic-typical picture in the old economy, is the ground of temporal judgment (blessing or curse). The pedagogical function of the law of Moses is directly associated with the principle of works-inheritance.

The error of the Judaizers was that they reduced the Mosaic Covenant to a religion of works-righteousness. They applied the works-merit principle from the pedagogical-typical sphere, where it did apply, to the spiritual-antitypical sphere where it did not apply ( Rom 9:32 ). That is to say, this legal principle which was operative in the Mosaic Covenant did not function in isolation from its broader redemptive context. Rather than reducing the Mosaic Covenant to a religion of works-righteousness, which was the fatal mistake of the Judaizers, who knew not the grace of God, we must recognize instead the restricted operation of the works-principle within the total covenant administration which Moses mediated, as enunciated in Lev 18:5 and affirmed by the apostle Paul.

In accordance with sound biblical exegesis, we must not reduce the Mosaic Covenant to a covenant of “pure grace,” with no element of works in its administration. The two opposing principles of law and grace, therefore, were administratively compatible ( Gal 3 and Rom 10 ). The law-principle was the more distinctive and characteristic, although certainly not more important, feature of the Mosaic Covenant. The law was not offered as a means of justification, but served rather to convict Israel of sin and to point her to Christ ( Gal 3:21–4:5 ).

The description of the Mosaic Covenant as one of bondage, death and condemnation ( 2 Cor. 3 ) is appropriate to the symbolic-typical aspect of the Old Testament economy, and is not to be explained away in terms of the popular misinterpretation view, which defines the legal characteristic in terms of the Judaistic perversion of the law. While elements of grace and promise are evident at every point in the historical revelation and encounter of God with his people Israel, one must do justice to the typical, pedagogical function of the works-inheritance principle. Old Testament typology viewed from the perspective of the Mosaic economy serves to instruct Israel in the way of redemptive grace and truth. This is the tutelary function of the law of God. The ministration of bondage and condemnation is pedagogical, convicting Israel of sin and leading her to Christ. Just as the ceremonial laws of Moses typify the work of Christ, so does the reward of temporal blessing for Israel’s obedience typify Christ’s ultimate fulfillment of the covenant of works broken by Adam. The Messiah to come is the true Servant of the Lord, the Son of the living God. From this perspective, we can better understand the meaning of Israel, servant of the Lord, son of God (see, e.g ., Judges 11:29–40 ; Psalms 7 , 11 , 18 and 24 in light of this understanding of the works-principle in the typical sphere). The work of Christ, in conjunction with the law-principle of inheritance, is depicted in the typological system of Old Testament revelation. At the same time, the law-principle has served as Israel’s pedagogue pointing her to Christ and training her in the way of faith-righteousness, which is unto eternal life (antitypical).

The law-gospel distinction, when properly perceived and applied, is far from being obscurantist. Only one who is committed to a modern, critical viewpoint could make such a conclusion. The biblical-theological exposition of the Old Testament, in order to be authentically Christocentric, must do justice to the operation of the works-law-principle in the Mosaic Covenant. Only in this way can one arrive at a proper conception of Old Testament typology. Failure to recognize this feature of Old Testament Christology will eventually militate against the New Testament doctrine of the atonement. The life of the Old Covenant people of God in the symbolic-typical sphere will be misconstrued and misapplied to the community of the New Covenant people. And a repudiation of the biblical concept of works (the law-gospel distinction) destroys the doctrine of the atonement of Christ and justification by faith.

Taken from WTJ 43:1 (Fall 1980)


1. Irenaeus, Against Heresies , in The Ante-Nicene Fathers , ed. A. Roberts and J. Donaldson, revised by A. C. Coxe (I; Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1885), Book IV.

2. Ludwig Diestel, “Studien Zur Föderaltheologie,” Jahrbücher für deutsche Theologie , 10 (1865), 210.

3. G. C. Berkouwer (in Sin , trans. P. C. Holtrop, Studies in Dogmatics (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1971), pp. 187-231) defends the usefulness of Karl Barth’s idea of the “Law in the Gospel.” From this perspective, there is no priority nor discontinuity between the principles of law and grace, but rather an equal ultimacy that cancels out any suggestion of antithesis. Precisely in this connection, Berkouwer commends De Graff’s rejection of the concept of the covenant of works and the related contrast between “merit” and grace. According to Berkouwer, it is not clear how those who adopt the idea of the covenant of works can offer decisive criticism against Rome’s teaching on the meritorious character of works. This indicates a total misunderstanding of the Reformation teaching, especially the doctrine of justification by faith. Berkouwer is forced to reinterpret the Reformation theology, which is exactly what he does in his book Faith and Justification , trans. Lewis B. Smedes, Studies in Dogmatics (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1971).

4. This article is an abbreviation of my dissertation, “The Mosaic Covenant and the Concept of Works in Reformed Hermeneutics: A Historical-Critical Analysis with Particular Attention to Early Covenant Eschatology” (Th.D. dissertation, Westminster Theological Seminary, 1980). It includes a discussion of such critical matters as the relation between natural law and the law of Moses (in light of the rising interest in theonomic politics), the medieval, scholastic nature-grace dualism and biblical eschatology, and theological method and the rise of Reformed scholasticism.
The terminology of the works-inheritance principle, which is used throughout, this article, must be clearly understood. It refers to the way in which God has established his original covenant with man. The confirmation of man in the way of glory, i.e ., in the state of consummation, is grounded upon man’s faithful obedience to the covenant of creation. The principle, then, which informs this arrangement is that of works. It stands in opposition to the principle of soteric grace in the covenant of redemption.

5. E.g ., Otto Ritschl, Dogmengeschichte des Protestantismus , vol. III (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1926); Gottlob Schrenk, Gottesreich und Bund im Aelteren Protestantismus Vornehmlich bei Johannes Cocceius (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1967); and Ernst Bizer, “Historische Einleitung des Herausgebers,” Die Dogmatik der evangelischreformierten Kirche by Heinrich Heppe, ed. E. Bizer (Neukirchen: Kreis Moers, 1958), pp. xvii-xcvi.

6. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae , ed. Thomas Gilby (16; New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, n.d.), p. 131. For a discussion of the historical context for the development of the nature-grace dualism and other similar philosophical dualisms from a theological and scientific point of view, see Thomas F. Torrance, The Ground and Grammar of Theology (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia. 1980).

7. See e.g ., Heiko A. Oberman, “ Facientibus Quad in se est Deus non Denegat Gratiam : Robert Holcot O.P. and the Beginnings of Luther’s Theology,” in The Reformation in Medieval Perspective , ed. Steven E. Ozment (Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1971); and his The Harvest of Medieval Theology: Gabriel Biel and Late Medieval Nominalism (revised edition; Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1967).

8. Hans Emil Weber, Reformation, Orthodoxie und Rationalismus , Beiträge zur Förderung christlicher Theologie (II, Gütersloh: C. Bertelsmann Verlag, 1951), p.. Cf ., James B. Torrance, “Covenant or Contract? A Study of the Theological Background of Worship in Seventeenth-Century Scotland,” The Scottish Journal of Theology , 23 (1970), 51–76; and Francis Lyall, “Of Metaphors and Analogies: Legal Language and Covenant Theology,” The Scottish Journal of Theology , 32 (1979), 1–18.

9. Weber, Ibid .

10. A growing number of university theologians are equating the Protestant law-gospel contrast with the subsequent rise of anti-Semitism, notably the Holocaust in Lutheran Germany. See e.g ., Leonard Swidler, “History, Sociology and Dialogue: Elements in Contemporary Theological Method,” in the Journal of Ecumenical Studies , 17 (1980), 60–1. This fallacious conjecture regarding an important doctrine in the history of theology might readily be ignored were it not for the seriousness of their point of view, motivated as it is by their passion for ecumenical dialogue and reassessment of religious particularism. Cf ., Paul Van Buren, Discerning the Way: A Theology of the Jewish Christian Reality (New York: The Seabury Press, 1980); and John A. T. Robinson, Truth is Two-Eyed (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1980).

11. Heinrich Heppe, Dogmatik des deutschen Protestantismus im sechzehnten Jahrhundert (I, Gotha, 1857), pp. 152f.

12. Leonard J. Trinterud, “The Origins of Puritanism,” Church History , 20 (1951), 37–57.

13. Holmes Rolston, III, “Responsible Man in Reformed Theology: Calvin Versus the Westminster Confession ,” The Scottish Journal of Theology , 23 (1970), p. 129.

14. For the early beginnings of the covenant idea in ancient and medieval theology, see chapter two of my dissertation, op. cit .

15. Huldreich Zwingli, The Latin Works and the Correspondence of Huldreich Zwingli , ed. Samuel Macaulay Jackson (II, Philadelphia, 1922), p..

16. Ibid ., pp. 48-9.

17. Cf ., Jack Warren Cottrell, “Covenant and Baptism in the Theology of H. Zwingli,” (Th.D. dissertation, Princeton Theological Seminary, 1971).

18. See Joachim Staedtke, Die Theologie des jungen Bullinger , Studien zur Dogmengeschichte und systematischen Theologie, 16 (Zürich: Zwingli Verlag, 1962).

19. Charles S. McCoy, “The Covenant Theology of Johannes Cocceius, (Ph.D. dissertation, Yale University, 1957), pp. 60-1.

20. Henry Bullinger, The Decades , ed. Thomas Harding for the Parker Society, trans. H. I. (I, Cambridge: University Press, 1849), p. 195.

21. For a critical discussion of the idea of natural law as a speculative theological concept, see the article of August Lang, “The Reformation and Natural Law,” in Calvin and the Reformation: Four Studies , ed. William P. Armstrong (New York: Revell, 1909), pp. 56-98. See my dissertation for a defense of the natural law idea, op. cit .

22. Some Reformed theologians adopted the notion of a perpetual hypothetical principle of law-inheritance, which was independent of any actual covenantal engagement in the era of redemption. It was so construed because of their adherence to the doctrine of the one and eternal covenant of grace.

23. Bullinger, Ibid ., III, p. 293. Cf ., his De Testamento seu Foedere Dei Unico et Aeterno, Commentarii H. Bullingeri in omnes Apostolicas epistolas (Basel, 1537), p. 162.

24. Bullinger, De Testamento seu Foedere , pp. 156ff.

25. There is a proper and necessary use of the term “merit” in theological formulation. Rightly used, it applies to the forensic aspect of the covenant relationship. Adam’s “merit,” the fundamental demand for perfect righteousness in order to enjoy fellowship with God, was a divine endowment, a vital aspect of man’s creation in the image of God. Since God cannot look upon sin, anything less than perfect righteousness nullifies man’s communion with God. With the entrance of sin into the human race, the ground or merit of justification shifts from the perfect righteousness of Adam (a human righteousness), which has now been lost, to the perfect righteousness of Christ, the imputed God-righteousness. Life, i.e ., communion with God along with the assurance of eternal life, is restored in Christ. The inseparability of the works-concept and the covenant underscores the inseparability of holiness and life with God.

26. Bullinger, The Decades , III, p. 237.

27. Ibid ., p. 239.

28. Ibid ., p. 296.

29. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion , ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, Library of Christian Classics, 20–21 (Philadephia: The Westminster Press, 1960), I.15.8.

30. Cf ., Anthony A. Hoekema, “Covenant of Grace in Calvin’s Teaching,” Calvin Theological Journal , 2 (1967), 133–161.

31. Calvin, Institutes , II.8.1, and II.2.22.

32. John Calvin, Commentaries on the Old Testament , reprint of the Edinburgh edition (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, n.d.), Genesis 2:16 .

33. Calvin, Institutes , II.7.2.

34. Ibid ., II.9.4.

35. Ibid .

36. Calvin, Calvin’s New Testament Commentaries , ed. D. W. Torrance and T. F. Torrance (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1972), Romans 10:5–10 .

37. Calvin, Institutes , II.11.9.

38. Ibid ., II.11.3.

39. Ibid ., II.11.4.

40. Ibid ., II.10.2.

41. Ibid ., II.17.1-6.

42. Ibid ., II.1.4.

43. Zacharias Ursinus, The Commentary of Dr. Zacharias Ursinus on the Heidelberg Catechism , trans. G. W. Williard (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1954), p..

44. Ibid ., pp. 104f.

45. Ibid ., pp. 612ff.

46. Question and Answer 10, in August Lang, Der Heidelberger Katechismus und Vier Verwandte Katechismen , Quellenschriften zur Geschichte des Protestantismus, 3 (Leipzig: A. Deichert, 1907).

47. On Ursinus’ use of the covenant idea, Lang suggests, “the most important motive why Ursinus had made the covenant the central idea of the Summa was the emphasis of the law as the unchanging, divine life-norm even for the converted” ( Ibid ., p. lxiv).

48. This was much more fully developed and explored in the thought of Cocceius. See especially, the study of Schrenk, op. cit .

49. Gasper Olevianus, An Exposition of the Symbole of the Apostles . trans. John Fielde (London, 1581), p. 122.

50. While it is certainly true that covenant theology sought to counter any bare speculation on the decrees, as was more common in the Lutheran tradition (many Lutherans were driven to Melanchthonian synergism in reaction), it is simply false to suggest that federal theology attempted to deny or minimize in any way or to any degree decretal theology. In fact, just the opposite is the truth of the matter. Covenant theology, with its doctrine of the two covenants, desired to work out more fully the meaning and importance of the doctrine of double-predestination.

51. Gaspar Olevianus, De Substantia Foederis Gratuiti inter Deum et Electos (Geneva: Eustathium Vignon, 1585), pp. 9f.

52. Ibid ., p..

53. Ibid ., p..

54. M. M. Knappen, Tudor Puritanism: A Chapter in the History of Idealism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1939), pp. 4-5.

55. The Works of the English Reformers: William Tyndale and John Frith , ed. T. Russell (London, 1831), I, pp. 21-2.

56. Ibid ., p. 23, and II, p. 492.

57. Ibid ., I, p..

58. G. D. Henderson, “The Idea of the Covenant in Scotland,” The Evangelical Quarterly , 27 (1955), p..

59. Robert Rollock, A Treatise of Our Effectual Calling , in Select Works , ed. W. M. Gunn (I; Edinburgh: Woodrow Society, 1849), pp. 34-5.

60. The scholastic term “instrument” is employed universally by the Reformers to specify the peculiar role of faith in soteric justification. Faith alone, apart from the ensuing fruit of good works, appropriates the righteousness of Christ. The term “instrument” is used in the interests of satisfying the need to distinguish the place of law and grace in the doctrine of justification, The sole instrumentality of faith in laying hold of Christ in justification does not obscure the necessity of good works as the fruit and evidence of saving faith. In terms of the logical priority of scholastic definition, good works consistent with grace follow, and are the evidence of, faith.
Those who reject the traditional law-gospel distinction also reject the scholastic definition of “imputed righteousness,” faith as “instrument,” “meritorious ground,” among many other terms, as no longer meaningful. Consequently, there is no difference in creation and redemption with respect to the principle of inheritance.

61. Rollock, op. cit ., p..

62. Ibid ., p..

63. Prominent Continental federalists include such representatives as Raphael Eglinus (1559–1622), Ludwig Crocius (1586–1659), Johannes Wollebius (1586–1629), Francis Gomarus (1563–1641), and Johannes Cloppenburg (1592–1652), among others.

64. A. F. Mitchell, The Westminster Assembly: Its History and Standards (London: James Nisbet & Co., 1883), p. 117.

65. While it is the case that there are different emphasis in the two English federalist lines (one stressing the sovereignty of God and the other the ethical requirements), it is wrong to conclude that there are two opposing theologies. Both viewpoints insist upon the importance of the doctrine of justification by faith as the governing principle which defines the peculiar character of the covenant of grace. That is to say, both stress the importance of the forensic aspect of justification and covenant. They are also concerned to recognize the necessary role of good works in the covenant way of life.
Although the difference between the dipleuric and the monopleuric conception of the covenant of grace is merely a matter of emphasis, it is an important one in the development of English Puritanism. The stress upon the conditionality of the covenant of grace resulted in the excessive concern for the preaching of law in order to quicken the guilty conscience and thus prepare him for grace. Puritan interest in the science of casuistry promoted the rise of preparationism, particularly in the latter part of the seventeenth century into the eighteenth. The Marrow controversy in Scotland was a response to this regrettable development in Calvinism.

66. Ernest F. Kevan, The Grace of Law: A Study in Puritan Theology , Twin Brook Series (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1976), p..

67. Tobias Crisp, Christ Alone Exalted , in Complete Works of Tobias Crisp , ed. John Gill, vol. II (seventh edition; London: John Bennett, 1832), p..

68. Ibid ., p. 246.

69. Ibid ., p. 250.

70. Ibid ., p. 251, the editor’s note; p. 253.

71. Ibid ., p. 257.

72. Ibid ., p. 259.

73. David Dickson, Therapeutica Sacra (second edition; Edinburgh, 1697), pp. 120ff.

74. See note 22 above. The hypothetical works-principle is entirely different from the notion of a hypothetical covenant of works under Moses. The latter undermines the continuity of the single covenant of grace throughout the period of redemption.

75. Samuel Bolton, The True Bounds of Christian Freedom (based on the 1645 edition; London: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1964), p..

76. Ibid ., p..

77. Ibid ., pp. 88ff.

78. Ibid ., pp. 90ff.

79. Ibid ., p. 102.

80. John Macleod, Scottish Theology in Relation to Church History Since the Reformation (second edition; Carlisle: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1942), pp. 133-4.

81. Edward Fisher, The Marrow of Modern Divinity , with notes by Thomas Boston (Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Pub., n.d.), p..

82. Ibid ., p..

83. Ibid ., p..

84. Ibid ., pp. 63-4.

85. Ibid ., p..

86. Ibid ., p..

87. John Ball, A Treatise of the Covenant of Grace (London: G. Miller, 1645), p..

88. Ibid ., pp. 34-5.

89. In failing to do full justice to the context of typology in the Old Testament, Ball is not accurate in his conception of temporal blessings in relation to the New Covenant. The temporal, earthly blessings are now bestowed by the Lord upon the just and the unjust (common grace). The typical blessings upon God’s Old Covenant people were peculiar to that special, theocratic arrangement with its principle of works-inheritance coming to bear in that restricted sphere of covenant administration.

90. Ball, op. cit ., pp. 92-3. Ball cites Hebrews 8:13 at this point.

91. Ibid ., p. 100.

92. Ibid ., p. 113.

93. Ibid ., pp. 136-7.

94. Ibid ., p. 137.

95. Ibid ., p. 142.

96. Ibid ., p. 154; see also pp. 152ff.

97. Daniel P. Fuller, Gospel and Law: Contrast or Continuum? The Hermeneutics of Dispensationalism and Covenant Theology (Grand Rapids: Win. B. Eerdmans, 1980), p.. Fuller is correct in making this assertion, but this difficulty in Reformed interpretation does not warrant his proposed rejection of the law-gospel contrast. Indeed, Reformed theology is in need of greater clarity of expression. Further, Fuller gravely misunderstands the Reformation hermeneutic of the analogy of faith. This hermeneutic maintains that Scripture interprets Scripture, not that the clearer teaching of Scripture is used to ignore the “literal” meaning of the more obscure or difficult text of Scripture, as Fuller contends (p. 62). This is especially true with regard to the New Testament use of the principle of law stated in Lev 18:5 . Fuller is guilty of the same mistake which he levels at those with whom he differs in the exegesis of such passages as Rom 10:5ff and Gal 3:12 . In terms of his own argument, he is unable to maintain with consistency his own variety of “literal” interpretation ( cf ., e.g ., his interpretation of Phil 3:9 and Rom 10:5ff .).
Dispensationalism and “biblical theology” (as Fuller labels his own position in distinction from covenant theology, p. 204) are two extreme hermeneutical schools of thought. In reaction to the traditional doctrine of covenant theology with respect to law and gospel, dispensationalism reduces the Mosaic Covenant to a conditional covenant of works with a principle of grace and Fuller’s “biblical theology” reduces the Mosaic Covenant to a conditional covenant of grace(!) entirely devoid of a works-merit principle, which principle he repudiates. The position of John Murray is in many ways analogous to that of Fuller (see the section on Murray below)

98. B. B. Warfield, The Westminster Assembly and Its Work (New York: Oxford University Press, 1931), pp. 56-7.

99. See my dissertation for a discussion of the Confession’s use of the scholastic nature-grace dichotomy, op. cit ., pp. 185ff.

100 100. John H. Leith, Assembly at Westminster: Reformed Theology in the Making (Richmond: John Knox Press, 1973), p.. Leith contends that this confessional novelty is a part of seventeenth-century Reformed scholasticism. So also, T. F. Torrance, The School of Faith: The Catechisms of the Reformed Church , trans. and ed. with an introduction by T. F. Torrance (New York: Harper, 1959), pp. xlixff.

101 101. Peter Y. DeJong, The Covenant Idea in New England Theology: 1620–1847 (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1945), p..

102 102. Kevan, op. cit ., p. 118.

103 103. Robert L. Dabney, Lectures in Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1972), p. 444. Cf ., however, pp. 454f.

104. Ibid ., p. 453.

105. Ibid ., pp. 453-4.

106. Ibid ., p. 457.

107. Ibid ., p. 458.

108. Ibid ., p. 460. This individualistic orientation accounts for the traditional interpretation of Rom 7:7–13 . For a reorientation to this crucial Pauline passage, see my “Law in Pauline Eschatology: The Historical Qualification of Justificatioon by Faith” (Th.M. thesis, Westminster Theological Seminary, 1977).

109. Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology (II; Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1973), p. 117.

110. A. A. Hodge, Outlines of Theology (edition of 1879; Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1972), pp. 310-11.

111. Ibid ., pp. 376-7.

112. Abraham Kuyper, Sr., Dictaten , Locus de Providentia, Peccato en Foedere (tweede druk; Grand Rapids: J. B. Hulst, 1910), vol. IV, p. 149.

113. Ibid ., pp. 109-10.

114. Herman Bavinck, Gereformeerde Dogmatiek (Kampen; J. H. Kok, 1928), II, p. 525.

115. Herman Bavinck, Our Reasonable Faith , trans. Henry Zylstra, Twin Brook Series (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1956), p..

116. Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (fourth edition; Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1941), p. 298.

117. Geerhardus Vos, Biblical Theology: Old and New Testaments (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1948), p. 143.

118. Meredith G. Kline, Treaty of the Great King: The Covenant Structure of Deuteronomy, Studies and Commentary (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1963); and his By Oath Consigned: A Reinterpretation of the Covenant Signs of Circumcision and Baptism (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1968).
I am personally indebted to Prof. Kline for his willingness to interact with my ideas on the covenant, especially in working toward a clearer understanding of the principle of works-inheritance in the typical sphere of the Mosaic Covenant administration.

119. Kline, Treaty of the Great King , p. 65; cf ., pp. 124ff.

120. John Murray, “The Theology of the Westminster Confession of Faith,” Scripture and Confession: A Book About Confessions Old and New , ed. John H. Skilton (Nutley: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1973), p. 146. See his “Covenant Theology,” The Encyclopedia of Christianity (Marshallton: National Foundation for Christian Education, 1972), 199–216.

121. John Murray, Collected Writings, 2 (Carlisle: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1977), p.. Murray’s distinction between the state of “perfect legal reciprocity” and the Adamic administration is equivalent to the scholastic nature-grace dichotomy.

122. Ibid ., p..

123. E.g ., John Murray, Redemption: Accomplished and Applied (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1955), p..

124. Murray, Collected Writings, 2 , p..

125. Ibid ., pp. 55-6.

126. John Murray, The Epistle to the Romans , The New International Commentary on the New Testament (II; Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1965), p..

127. Murray, Collected Writings, 2 , p.. The great difference between Murray’s view of covenant theology and Vos’ is apparent in the latter’s pervasively eschatological perspective. See especially Vos’ analysis of covenant theology in his “The Doctrine of the Covenant in Reformed Theology,” Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation: The Shorter Writings of Geerhardus Vos , ed. Richard B. Gaffin, Jr. (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1980), pp. 234-267.

128 128. Murray, Collected Writings, 2 , p.. Murray’s unique viewpoint is applied to the doctrine of justification. In the original state of creation, as long as righteousness and justification were maintained by means of man’s obedience this state was of perpetual duration. There could be no lessening of this mutable, non-eschatological condition. By the grace and condescension of God, He was pleased to enter into covenant with man, whereby he could be elevated to the state of glory and confirmation. This reward could never be granted on the basis of man’s works (merit). Such works could only merit in strict justice momentary justification and life. Repeatedly, Murray insists that “even perfect inwrought righteousness cannot ground the reward of eternal life” ( Ibid ., pp. 211-2). Cf ., his Redemption: Accomplished and Applied , p. 127; and The Epistle to the Romans , I, pp. 353ff. What is demanded is a God-righteousness, as opposed to a human righteousness. The gift of eternal life is granted to Adam on the basis of the faithfulness of God, a God-righteousness. This is an unfortunate confusion of the orders of creation and redemption. Certainly there is a qualitative difference between the human righteousness and the imputed righteousness of Christ, a God-righteousness, since, as Murray also asserts, “it is divine and therefore perfectly correspondent with the inherent justice of God it always elicits the divine approbation whenever it comes into operation” ( Collected Writings, 2 , p. 213). The work of Christ is intrinsically meritorious. The proper biblical conception of the role of human works in the covenant of creation, forensically conceived, is entirely exclusive of any intrinsic merit. Murray’s use of the expression “God-righteousness” as descriptive of the graciousness of the Adamic (covenant) administration is highly problematic. The failure to restrict the term to the soteric and forensic category raises serious questions which remain unresolved in Murray’s theology.

129. Murray, “Covenant Theology,” p. 201, reacts against what he sees as a continued controversy in contemporary Reformed theology regarding the nature of the covenant of grace, whether it is conditional or unconditional. According to Murray, the root of the problem is the concept of “law” as antithetical to grace. This first surfaced in Scotland during the days of the Marrow controversy (see note 65 above). In private conversation with James Torrance, I learned that in the view of Profs. Torrance and Murray this problem continues to afflict the Scottish Reformed Church today. Consequently, both have redefined the concept of the covenant largely in response to this situation in Scotland.

130. See Holmes Rolston, III, John Calvin Versus The Westminster Confession (Richmond: John Knox Press, 1972), and Daniel Fuller, “Paul and ‘The Works of the Law’,” The Westminster Theological Journal , 38 (1976), 28–42, in addition to their previously cited works. Contrast the article of Andrew J. Bandstra, “Law and Gospel in Calvin and in Paul,” Exploring the Heritage of John Calvin , ed. David E. Holwerda (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1976), pp. 11-39.
Fuller maintains that Reformed theology has always had difficulty with its antithesis between law and gospel. He approvingly cites John Murray in his similar objection to this dualistic interpretation of the Mosaic Covenant. Both Fuller and Murray argue that the Mosaic Covenant is no less gracious than the Abrahamic. “If Paul was not using nomos in the revelatory sense in Galatians 3:12 , then some substantial changes would have to be made in the theology which stresses sola scriptura along with sola fide ” (“Paul and ‘The Works of the Law’,” p. 42). Charles H. Cosgrove supports Fuller’s exegesis which “challenges the very foundation of the traditional Protestant law-gospel distinction” (“The Mosaic Law Preaches Faith: A Study in Galatians 3 , ” The Westminster Theological Journal , 41 [1978], p. 146). Cosgrove concludes: “No wonder Daniel Fuller closes his article with the suggestion that some substantial changes are necessary in the theology which stresses sola scriptura along with sola fide . In Galatians 3 the traditional law-gospel distinction vanishes” (p. 164).

131. This covenant faithfulness is not synonymous with faith-righteousness. The latter denotes the forensic nature of life in the covenant of grace. The former expression is general in meaning, and is equivalent to that faith spoken of, for example, in Hebrews 3:18–19 and 11 . Cf ., Fuller’s interpretation of Hebrews 11 in his study, Gospel and Law .

Covenant Theology Poster

The Puritans made many posters, even in their day, to aid church members in understanding Scriptural truth. I created this new poster to cover the Covenant of Redemption, Covenant of Works and Covenant of Grace.

Check Out these Books on Covenant Theology

Presumptive Regeneration, or, the Baptismal Regeneration of Elect Infants by Cornelius Burges (1589-1665)
A Discourse on Covenant Theology and Infant Baptism by Cuthbert Sydenham (1622-1654)
Infant Baptism of Christ’s Appointment by Samuel Petto (1624-1711)
Covenant Holiness and Infant Baptism by Thomas Blake (1597-1657)
The Manifold Wisdom of God Seen in Covenant Theology by George Walker (1581-1651)
The Covenant of God by Thomas Blake (1597-1657)
A Chain of Theological Principles by John Arrowsmith (1602-1659)
The Covenant of Life Opened by Samuel Rutherford (1600-1661)
The Covenant of Grace Opened by Thomas Hooker (1586-1647)
The Covenant of Redemption by Samuel Willard (1640-1707)
The Covenant of Works and the Covenant of Grace by Edmund Calamy (1600-1666)
The Doctrine and Practice of Infant Baptism by John Brinsley (1600-1665)
God’s Covenant and Our Duty By Samuel Willard (1640-1707)
God’s Glory in Man’s Happiness by Francis Taylor (1589-1656)
Infant Baptism God’s Ordinance by Michael Harrison (1640-1729)
Jesus Christ God’s Shepherd by William Strong (d. 1654)

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