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If typological hermeneutics served to develop a unifying framework for divine revelation along covenantal lines, the theological battles of the Reformation and post-Reformation eras tended to harden that framework. The transition from a loose covenantal framework in the early period of the Reformation, which focused almost exclusively on the idea of a covenant of grace, to a more hardened system comprised of a prelapsarian covenant of works and postlapsarian covenant of grace that is administered under various dispensations is difficult to trace.

What is known is, “Whereas John Calvin (1509–64), in his Institutes of the Christian Religion, spoke of an Old Covenant which extended after the fall to Christ and then a New Covenant which extended from Christ to the Day of Judgment, the Westminster Confession of Faith, written eighty years later, spoke of a covenant of works and a covenant of grace.”[1] Weir notes that, “Calvin makes no mention in any of his works of a prelapsarian covenant with Adam. However, there is evidence that, at least to a certain degree, Calvin considered the Edenic relationship between God and Adam to be covenantal in nature.”[2] Concerning the caveat, Weir includes it because of what Calvin says of what he calls “natural sacraments.” Calvin says that one example of a natural sacrament is “when he gave Adam and Eve the tree of life as a guarantee of immortality, that they might assure themselves of it as long as they should eat of its fruit.”[3]

The reason this is significant is that, “For Calvin, a sacrament is a sign of a covenant between God and man.”[4] So, ostensibly, Calvin viewed the Edenic relationship in covenantal terms: as there was a sacrament (a natural one) involved in the relationship. However, Calvin’s view of Hosea 6:7 should be taken into consideration. Hosea 6:7 has been a popular verse for those who hold to a prelapsarian covenant of works. Hosea wrote, “But like Adam they have transgressed the covenant…”[5] Calvin says of this verse,

Others explain the words thus, “They have transgressed as Adam the covenant.” But the word, Adam, we know, is taken indefinitely for men. This exposition is frigid and diluted, “They have transgressed as Adam the covenant;” that is, they have followed or imitated the example of their father Adam, who had immediately at the beginning transgressed God’s commandment. I do not stop to refute this comment; for we see that it is in itself vapid.[6]

In light of comments like this it is unlikely that Calvin put much stock in a covenant of works as developed as that of the WCF. However, it is clear from the comment on Hosea 6:7 that there were men at the time who apparently taught as much. Clark contends that Zwingli (1484–1531) “taught a covenant of works before the fall and a covenant of grace after the fall.”[7] However, Weir notes that Schrenk[8] “traces the history of the idea of the covenant from Zwingli up to Ursinus and Olevianus, but he realizes that the true federal theology consists of a prelapsarian covenant with Adam and then a postlapsarian covenant of grace…Schrenk correctly identifies Ursinus as the first person to utilize this idea in any systematic manner.”[9]

Weir surmises that one motivation for forming the concept of a prelapsarian covenant of works was that, “The federal theology potentially provided an adequate base for the reconstruction of northern European society and culture. With the loss of the traditional institutions of the Church and its sacraments, and the demise of canon law, European society was searching for an adequate base for its social ethic.”[10] The question would have been, “How could men be forced to live a Christian life-style when you were not sure they were under the covenant of grace and that their hearts were ‘turned unto the Lord’?”[11]

A prelapsarian covenant of works provided just such a base. For, in federalist thinking, “The covenant of works reflects the fact that the most fundamental obligation of man the creature to his God his Creator always has been, is now, and always will be obedience to the will of the Creator.”[12] This means that “man is always ultimately related to God on a legal (covenantal) basis. Accordingly, while the covenant of works is no longer in force as a probationary framework for mankind, it is still normative…”[13] As such, the prelapsarian framework could be used to force all men to live a Christian life-style whether they identified with Christ or not because the stipulations of the covenant of works were in force upon all men of all times. After the Fall men were simply not in a probationary status under the covenant whereby they could merit for themselves by works eternal life.

According to Weir, the primary controversy agitating the Reformed world that served as the backdrop for the development of a prelapsarian covenant with Adam was “the problem of reconciling God’s providential sovereignty and the Fall of Adam.”[14] Weir explains, “The doctrine of a foedus with Adam developed in response to this problem as a ‘milder’ orthodox elaboration and explanation of the seemingly harsh decretal doctrines of Theodore Beza.”[15] Weir traces this development to the feet of Ursinus. Weir claims, “[He] is the theologian who first utilized the idea of a prelapsarin covenant to any great extent in the sixteenth century.”[16] Weir goes on to claim, “It seems that the prelapsarian covenant emerged in Ursinus’s thought as a means of articulating the problem of theodicy.”[17] Though Weir does not describe exactly how a prelapsarin covenant would resolve the problem of theodicy in Eden, it would apparently remove the Fall from being simply a necessity by decree. Instead, it could be claimed that Adam was placed in a covenantal situation where there was the real possibility for him to succeed in fulfilling the terms of that covenant. It was by an act of Adam’s free will that brought the Fall and ended any possibility of man thereafter to fulfill the terms of the covenant on his own.

Karlberg argues that Weir has erroneously made a distinction between CT and federalism,[18] but Weir seems to have in mind labeling stages of development, not stark division. Karlberg, however, does point out that it was not just the doctrine of predestination that served as a catalyst for the creation of a prelapsarian covenant, but also there was “the question of the relationship between the two testaments – a subject urged upon the Reformers by the Anabaptists…The issues of infant baptism and civil magistracy sparked debates among these early disputants.”[19] Karlberg is certainly correct, but his comment only serves to show the nature of the development of CT. It was not a calmly constructed theology based on sound exegesis of Scripture. It was a theology forged in the fires of controversies of the Reformation. To be sure, the ideas which lay behind CT are not unbiblical per se, but the framework that was developed seems to have been hastily put together by extrapolating various biblical concepts in a direction that proved expedient in the midst of the various controversies. As such, it is unlikely that anyone will ever be able to find the “father” of CT in the annals of church history.

Continue reading Covenantal Critique of their hermeneutics.

[1] D. A. Weir, The Origins of the Federal Theology in Sixteenth-Century Reformation Thought (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1990), 1.

[2] Ibid., 10.

[3] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, in 2 vols, Library of Christian Classics vol. XXI, trans. by Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1977), 2:1294.

[4] Weir, Origins of the Federal Theology, 10.

[5] Hosea 6:7a, NASB.

[6] John Calvin, Commentaries on the Twelve Minor Prophets, Calvin’s Commentaries, 22 vols, trans. by John Owen, repr. (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 2003), 13:235.

[7] R. Scott Clark, A Brief History of Covenant Theology, Westminster Seminary California, http://clark.wscal.edu/briefhistorycovtheol.php (accessed April 10, 2011).

[8] Cf., Gottlob Schrenk, Gottesreich und Bund im älteren Protestantismus, vornehmlich bei Johannes Cocceius (BFCh Th.M 5; Gütersloh, 1923). Due to my ignorance of German I am unable to verify Weir’s findings.

[9] Weir, Origins of the Federal Theology, 24.

[10] 7.

[11] 7–8.

[12] Robert L. Raymond, A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith, 2nd ed. rev. and updated (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 1998), 439.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Weir, Origins of the Federal Theology, 63.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid., 101.

[17] Ibid., 107.

[18] Karlberg, Covenant Theology, 112–13.

[19] Ibid., 113.