Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Covenant Theology 

Some thoughts about covenant theology from a recent presentation I gave:

Early in the Reformation, there was a difference within the Reformed camp about how to think about the Old Covenant.  Turretin outlines this disagreement well in Vol II, Twelfth topic, Q. 8 of his Elenctic Theology.  To summarize his argument, some Reformers (Calvin and Olevianus, among others) take the term “old covenant” in a broad sense, to mean everything that God did with His people from the fall to Christ.  They speak of this covenant as being one in substance, though different in accident, from the New Covenant in Christ.  Others (Turretin names Rollock, Piscator and Trelcatius among others) took the term “covenant” narrowly and strictly, to refer only to the legal covenant under Moses.  They speak of this covenant as a covenant of works, entirely different in substance from the New Covenant.  That covenant was given as a hypothetical offer of salvation on the condition of perfect obedience, in order to show men their hopelessness on their own and point them to Christ.  Turretin maintains that the difference between these two camps was only in terminology, in the way they used the term “covenant”- either broadly (the first group) or strictly (the second group).  Both agreed that the promises of the Messiah were taught in the Old Testament, though not as clearly as in the New. 

Both camps also agreed that there was a pure legal principle in the covenant with Moses that was opposed to grace and was there in order to convict the Jews of sin and show them their need for a savior.  Calvin says (ICR 2:7:2) that Paul in Galatians 3, in his statements about “law”, was referring to the law in its narrow and strictly legal sense in order to refute the Judaizing legalists of his day.  He therefore is agreeing that there is such a strict legal conception in the Mosaic Covenant, which was opposed to grace.  The difference is whether they were comfortable speaking of this as a separate “covenant of works” or not.  Turretin takes a position much like Calvin’s, speaking of the Mosaic covenant as a whole as of the substance of the covenant of grace, though it promulgates the law in order to convict the people.  Turretin’s handling of the subject is a wonderful presentation of Reformed consensus of the day.

In substance then the early Reformers were all largely agreed that there were two principles at work in the Mosaic economy.  There was a works principle, a hypothetical offer of salvation predicated on perfect obedience.  That legal element was placed there not because the Israelites would ever be able to fulfill it, but because they needed to be shown their need for a savior and convicted under the law.  It was, as Paul says, to make sin “exceedingly sinful.”  Because God knew they would not be able to keep these commandments, God also placed within the Mosaic economy gracious foreshadowings of Christ, the sacrificial system, and commanded them to make use of this sacrificial system whenever they fell into sin.  The Mosaic economy as a whole functioned within the broad plan of redemptive history.  But it did so by highlighting the requirements of God’s law and holding their guilt out to them.  Thus Peter speaks of it as a burden which “neither we nor our fathers could bear.” (Acts 15:10)  The Mosaic economy was also presented according to a particular form suited to the Israelite nation in order to enclose them and preserve them as a distinct people until the time of the coming of Christ and in preparation for that coming.

Turretin clearly acknowledges the existence of this legal principle in the Mosaic Covenant and has no major objection to calling it a “covenant of works”.  However, he insists that one cannot properly understand this legal principle outside of the scope of redemptive history and the gracious purpose for which it was given, and for this reason prefers to deal with it as just an element within the larger covenant of grace, rather than speaking of it as a covenant of works contrasted to the covenant of grace.  One difficulty with this insistence is that as Turretin and Calvin both admit, Paul does precisely this in Galatians 3-4, considering the “bare law in a narrow sense” (Institutes 2.7.2) in order to refute legalists. 

A big part of the reason for the insistence on the language of covenantal unity, according to Turretin (12th topic, q. 8, VIII), is because the Lutherans of the day taught that “the promise of grace is to be excluded from the Old Testament.”  (This came from later Lutherans, not Luther himself who clearly grounded pre-Christ salvation in faith in the promise of the Messiah.)  That is, they described the Old Testament, the entire dealings of God with His people from fall to Christ as being a covenant of works, and devoid of the promise of grace.  Many Reformers appear to have adopted a stronger monocovenantal language perhaps in part to sharpen the distinction between their theology and theology such as the Lutherans’ which denied the promise of grace entirely in the Old Testament.  One sees this same dynamic sometimes today in those who are intent on discriminating the Reformed view from the dispensational view which likewise denies that the promise of grace was present in the Old Testament period entirely. 

I believe the two-covenant language is to be preferred, as long as the proper caveats are made, because that two-covenant language is the language the Bible uses- Jeremiah 31:31-34, Galatians 4:24, “new covenant” language of the institution of the Lord’s Supper.  If you use that language, it is of crucial importance however to distinguish, to say that by the “Old Covenant” or “Covenant of Works” you are not referring to all of God’s dealings with His people before the coming of Christ, but only to the strict legal principle of the Mosaic economy, the Sinaitic covenant which said, “If you do this, you will be to me a people.”  The promise of the Messiah was clearly seen in the Old Testament throughout, and salvation in the Old Testament was by faith in the promise of God just as in the New. 

One advantage of speaking in this manner is that it allows you more clearly to separate the specific legal relation of the law from the moral principles contained therein.  Then we can say clearly that the law, as covenant, does not apply to the life of the believer in any sense, while still making clear that all of the moral principles taught in the law are just as valid today as they ever were.

It appears that speaking of the Mosaic covenant as an administration of the covenant of grace is the majority language, however, in the Reformed tradition.  The Westminster Confession in particular more strongly uses this language.  If the one-covenant language of Calvin is used, one must be careful (as Calvin is) to ensure that the works-principle present in the Mosaic economy is distinguished and separated from the overall promise of grace.  God’s people do not become God’s people by obedience to law, whether moral or ceremonial.  They do not “live” by the works of the law (Leviticus 18:5) but they live by faith in Christ.  The great risk is that in identifying the Mosaic covenant as an administration of the covenant of grace, one has unwittingly smuggled into the gospel a great deal of language speaking of blessings conditioned on obedience.

We ought not wrangle over words.  We should not present essentially terminological differences as being differences in core doctrines.  But whenever possible, Bibilical language is to be preferred, and the Bible speaks of the covenant of Moses and the covenant of grace in sharply antithetical terms in a number of places, most prominently Galatians 4, Jeremiah 31 and 2 Corinthians 3.

Matt, very helpful post!
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