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No. 52: Thoughts on the “Covenant of Works”, Part 1

BIBLICAL Horizons, No. 52
August, 1993
Copyright 1993, Biblical Horizons

David A. Weir, The Origins of the Federal Theology in Sixteenth-Century Reformation Thought (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990).

Reviewed by Rev. Jeffrey J. Meyers

A thorough reevaluation of the federal theology is desperately needed today. John Murray, in his introduction to The Covenant of Grace (1953) appropriately reminds us that it is of the essence of being "Reformed" that we courageously subject even our most treasured theological schemes to intense scrutiny against the touchstone of biblical authority.

The federal theology is one such "architectonic" theological scheme that has dominated the Reformed theological landscape now for over 400 years; one that has resisted many attempts at recasting. Murray seems to hint that it is precisely this covenantal model that needs overhauling. The federal theology survives essentially unaltered in the Westminster Standards, which still command the subscription of thousands of Presbyterian officers. I use the term "the federal theology" to refer to the classical Reformed scholastic theological structure which is oriented around a bipolar covenantal scheme—the covenant of works and the covenant of grace. Of course, "the federal theology" is equivalent to "the covenant theology," the Latin foedus being used by the Reformed scholastics to translate the biblical terms for covenant.

Some degree of confusion often arises when theologians use the words "covenantal" or "covenant theology" to refer simply to the prominent use of the biblical covenant idea in one’s theology. Thus there are some who use the covenant idea in their biblical theology, even giving it a central position, but yet they do not adhere to "the covenant theology" because they reject the usual formulation of the twin covenant tectonics that is so basic to classical federal theology. For example, James B. Jordan’s Through New Eyes (Wolgemuth & Hyatt, 1988) is without question "covenantal" since the biblical covenants play such a foundational role in his exposition of redemptive history; nevertheless, since he deviates at critical points from the formulations of classical federal theology (most notably his failure to give a central place to a meritorious prelapsarian covenant of works), his system may not be categorized as a variation of "the covenant theology," but as an attempt to recast and refine covenantal theology.

The federal theology is summarized well in the Westminster Larger Catechism (qq. 20, 32-36, & 39) and the Westminster Confession of Faith (ch. 7). Nevertheless, the power of the federal paradigm is such that it pervades all aspects of one’s theology and so its exposition cannot be isolated to these portions of the Westminster Standards. Two covenants, a foedus operum and a foedus gratia, undergird the Confession’s theological structure. The first covenant was made with Adam before the fall and promised eternal life to Adam upon condition of meritorious works of perfect obedience to God’s law. The covenant of grace is a postlapsarian arrangement made necessary by Adam’s breach of the covenant of works, founded upon Christ’s satisfaction of the justice of God as well as his perfect legal obedience, the elect being sovereignly and freely made parties to the covenant of grace through God’s mercy.

The history of the development of the covenant theology is the subject of Weir’s book. His purpose is "to find the origins of the prelapsarian covenant concept, and therefore of federal theology, and to show its importance for future generations of Protestant Reformed theologians and laity, especially as they developed their ecclesiology, sacramental doctrine, church and state relations, confessions and catechisms, evangelistic methods, and moral and ethical standards within the matrix of the federal theology" (vii).

To avoid misunderstanding, and at the risk of unnecessary repetition, Weir speaks of "the covenant theology" or "the federal theology" because he has in mind not some vague tradition of covenantalism, but the specific system of covenant theology as it developed in the sixteenth and seventeenth century and is best articulated in the Westminster Standards.

According to Weir (and I believe he’s correct), the appearance of the prelapsarian meritorious covenant of works was the catalyst for the development of the full-blown bipolar covenantal system of the federal theology. This is why analysis of the historical development of this doctrine is so important. Weir virtually equates the emergence of the federal theology with the emergence of the foedus operum: Origins is ". . . a study in the origins of federal theology, and therefore a study in the origins of the prelapsarian covenant with Adam." When Weir refers to "the prelapsarian covenant" he means the "covenant of works."

Before the development of the covenant of works others had conceived of God’s relationship with Adam in covenantal terms, but the distinctive meritorious and strictly legal relationship associated with the classical prelapsarian covenant which appeared in the 1560’s appears to have had little or no antecedent in the history of theology. The bipolarity of the early Reformers’ covenantal theology revolved around the old and new covenant distinction, not the covenant of works and the covenant of grace. The development of a meritorious pre-fall covenant, which, as Weir strongly argues, was absent from the early Reformers (Calvin & Beza), was foundational in the development of the theological system we now know as the federal or covenant theology.

This theological shift from the early Reformers, who articulated a theology of the covenants centered upon the biblical distinction between Old and New Covenants, is intriguing. What factors led second and third generation reformers like Zacharias Ursinus and Casper Olevianus, between 1560 and 1590, to construct such a theological superstructure whose foundation was so novel? It is precisely this transformation in theological thinking that Weir seeks to investigate and explain.

Weir’s thesis is that "the prelapsarian ‘covenant of works’ or ‘covenant of nature’ emerged as the key identifying feature of federal theology" in the period from 1560-1590 (vii). Furthermore, the reason for the development of such a doctrine lies in the need to answer certain troubling questions about the justice of God that arose out of controversy concerning the sovereignty of God and Adam’s fall. "The prelapsarian covenant with Adam was a means by which orthodox Calvinists of the late sixteenth century, some of whom adopted the Bezan Form of explaining predestination, could maintain the tension between prelapsarian Adamic human responsibility and divine sovereignty…. [T]he prelapsarian covenant with Adam did not ‘soften’ the decree of God concerning the Fall; rather, it affirmed it, expanded it, explained it, and worked it out" (16). "It is the contention of this book that the idea of the covenant of works, or prelapsarian covenant, was introduced by Reformed theologians to help resolve the question of God’s providence and Adam’s original sin" (22).

Weir, however, does enter this caveat: "While we cannot document an absolutely certain relationship between this controversy and the proposal of the prelapsarian covenant idea, we can ascribe a high degree of probability to this relationship. The controversy surrounding the fall is the only doctrinal controversy dealing with Adam that I can find in Reformed thinking during the years preceding 1562" (viii). Nevertheless, "The proposal of a covenant before the Fall in Eden must be seen as part of a series of discussions concerning the sovereignty of God" (155).

It is shortly apparent that Weir writes from the same perspective as James Torrance, Basil Hall, and R.T. Kendall, interpreting the development of scholastic Calvinism and classic covenantal theology as a significant modification of Calvin’s theological position. This is the now commonplace "Calvin against Calvinism" and "Calvin against the Westminster Confession of Faith" platform articulated by recent historical theologians. This platform is not without problems.

Weir builds upon the definition and conception of Reformed scholasticism articulated by J.S. Bray in Theodore Beza’s Doctrine of Predestination and B.G. Armstrong in Calvinism and the Amyraut Heresy. Weir’s preliminary discussion of the theological concepts and terminology of Reformed Scholasticism evidences a strong reliance on these men (16-22). For example, after discussing how Reformed theologians understood God’s predestinating sovereignty, both in providence and election, Weir introduces the distinction between single and double predestination, labeling the former as a "more moderate doctrine." Weir implies that double predestination was something new, something that arose because of a rationalizing tendency in Reformed Scholastics. "High Calvinism held to double predestination" (18). He then goes on to discuss the rise of supra- and infralapsarianism.

There are a number of problems with Weir’s discussion. First, Weir never adequately defines "High Calvinism." Sometimes it seems to refer to those who hold to double predestination, sometimes to a Bezan conception of the order of the decrees, sometimes to a combination of the above rooted in a quasi-Aristotelian logical methodology, and sometimes to some vague combination of these.

Second, his discussion of supra- and infralapsarianism is stilted and inadequate. He relies too heavily on Karl Barth (Church Dogmatics, 2.3). By suggesting that the issue between the two standpoints was whether God in His eternal counsel looked on man as an uncreated being or as a sinful being, Weir biases the case against supralapsarianism and clouds the genuine issues. "High Calvinism" unjustly suffers under Bray’s and Weir’s superficial analyses.

Third, by claiming that "Arminianism was considered by High Calvinism to be a heresy, and was condemned at the Synod of Dort" by High Calvinists (20), Weir implies that moderate, infralapsarian Calvinists did not commit themselves on the question of the heretical nature of Arminianism, an assertion too silly to comment on. Weir is setting up High Calvinism for a knock-down punch. His thesis concentrates on the connection between scholastic High Calvinism and the development of the prelapsarian foedus operum. Weir argues that the development of the covenant of works at Heidelberg was intended to soften High Calvinism, causing federal theology to appear "milder, less deterministic, and more pietistic in emphasis" (108). That the first appearance of the covenant of works idea occurred at Heidelberg, Weir supports quite convincingly. That the motivation for its introduction into Reformed dogmatics was that the Heidelberg theologians "were pursuing more ‘pietistic’ emphases in quiet and subdued opposition to the extreme supralapsarianism of Bezan High Calvinism" (156) remains a questionable thesis.

Weir’s pejorative definition of Reformed Scholasticism hampers his analysis. He fails to even mention Richard A. Muller’s recent criticism of Brian Armstrong’s definition, which Weir appears to adopt uncritically (see Muller’s Christ and the Decree and Post Reformation Dogmatics). Martin Klauber made this observation in his review of Weir in the Sixteenth Century Journal (XXII, no. 2, 1991). Klauber accuses Weir of being unaware of the current debate over the definition of Reformed scholasticism or at least not nuancing his discussion in such a way that he shows an awareness of it. Weir does not even refer to Armstrong’s own modification of his original thesis.

R. T. Kendall, Basil Hall, Armstrong, and others have maintained that seventeenth century dogmatics and English Puritanism strayed from the theological foundations of the first "Reformed" Reformers: Calvin, Bucer, Bullinger. Without a doubt there was theological development. Federaletheologie, as it is found in the great seventeenth century systematizers, such as Coccieus and Witsius, and as it was creedalized in the Westminster Confession of Faith, is surely something more elaborate and concatenated than anything we find in Calvin or Bucer, for example. More than that, there are new ideas and motifs in federal theology that did not occur to Calvin or Bucer. One school of thought believes this development to be a degeneration, the other sees it, on the whole, as a positive development of principles and tendencies present in the earliest reformers. (Two recent works that argue the latter position: Peter Lillbeck’s "The Binding of God: Calvin’s Role in the Development of Covenant Theology" [Diss. Westminster Theological Seminary, 1985] and Mark Karlberg’s "The Mosaic Covenant and the Concept of Works in Reformed Hermeneutics: A Historical-Critical Analysis with Particular Attention to Early Covenant Eschatology" [Diss. Westminster Theological Seminary, 1980).)

What Weir seems to miss is that there is precedent in Calvin for a strong contrast between law and gospel, works and grace. That is why, despite the undisputed fact that Calvin never uses the term covenant to refer to Adam’s pre-fall relationship to God, Reformed scholastic theologians were able to appeal to Calvin’s law/grace polarity to support the twin covenant scheme. Some of Calvin’s comments on the Mosaic law, for example, no doubt had some formative influence on the federal theological conception of the Mosaic covenant as in some sense a "republication of the covenant of works." This law/grace dichotomy in Calvin surely contributed to the law-covenant/grace-covenant dichotomy in Calvin’s followers; and yet it remains unexplored by Weir.

The real questions for modern covenant theologians have to do with the legitimacy of the development of the federal theology according to the rigid categories of works and grace. Closing our eyes to real doctrinal development and acting as if it didn’t happen won’t accomplish anything. The fact of doctrinal development is here to stay. There’s no denying it. The issues for us are: Did the development of the covenant of works represent a legitimate, biblically rooted progress in Reformed systematics or was it a theological cul-de-sac. Is the twin covenants hermeneutics really scriptural or has it been imposed upon the Bible in order to justify other systematic concerns (as Weir argues)? Then there are all the questions that have to do with the very idea of a covenant between God and man whereby man’s essential relationship to God is defined as legal and dependent upon meritorious acts. Can Adam’s relationship with the Lord be captured in the business-like language of a contractual agreement? Shouldn’t the whole covenant of works idea be reevaluated?

The Origins of the Federal Theology is a thought-provoking historical work. It raises some important theological problems that concern the prelapsarian covenant of works. For those interested in the history of covenant theology it is a must. His endnotes are extensive, although their length borders on pretentious at times. At no extra charge (the Oxford University book retails for $59!) Weir includes a comprehensive bibliography of the federal theology and the covenant idea that runs a full 63 pages. This includes both primary sources as well as books, articles, and dissertations.