Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Covenant of Works and the Westminster Confession of Faith (3)

I've been reading and really appreciating Dr. John Fesko's new book, The Theology of the Westminster Standards: Historical Context and Theological Insights. As the title indicates, Dr. Fesko sets out, and I'll say succeeds, to set the Westminster Standards in the context of their times - culturally, politically, and theologically. Too often we import unawares our own modern debates and doctrinal concerns back into the divines' words, failing to grasp the concerns and issues surrounding the Assembly during that period of history. The focus in this current post isn't to review the book, but to look at a few quotes from the Covenant and Creation chapter which touch on the relationship between the Covenant of works and the Mosaic covenant. As is today, this was a much debated topic in the 17th century. And by 1640 there were several variations and nuances being employed by theologians in order to Scripturally grapple with it.

In chapter five Covenant and Creation, after recounting the theological/historical development of Covenant theology up to the time of the Westminster Assembly and then reviewing the teaching of WCF chapter 7: Of God's Covenant With Man, Dr. Fesko begins to look at the first two sections of Chapter 19: Of The Law Of God which states:
1. God gave to Adam a Law, as a Covenant of Works, by which he bound him and all his posterity to personal, entire, exact, and perpetual obedience, promised life upon the fulfilling, and threatened death upon the breach of it, and endued him with power and ability to keep it.
2. This Law, after his fall, continued to be a perfect rule of righteousnesse; and, as such, was delivered by God upon Mount Sinai, in ten Commandments, and written in two Tables: the first four commandments containing our duty towards God; and the other six, our duty to man.
On p. 145-146, Fesko writes:
The Confession then proceeds to situate the moral law in subsequent redemptive history: "This Law," referring to the law given to Adam "as a Covenant of Works," "after his fall, continued to be a perfect rule of righteousnesse, and, as such was delivered by God upon Mount Sinai, in ten Commandments, and written in two Tables" (19.2). The divines also acknowledge that "this Law," that which was delivered to Adam and subsequently to Israel, is "commonly called Moral" (19.3).
Was there an unified view taught in the Assembly as to how the Covenant of works relates to the Mosaic covenant? The short answer is no. Yet there were different views that had developed since the 16th century which were taught by various orthodox reformed theologians.  The confession doesn't endorse any one in particular. In fact the only view highlighted in the confession is the only one rejected outright by the divines (19.5), that of Tobias Crisp who taught that the Moral law had been swept away with the Mosaic covenant and was no longer binding on New Testament believers (p. 158). Among the views held by the divines were ones that taught that the Covenant of works was "revealed" or "annexed" in some manner to the Mosaic covenant.

On p. 150:
[Jeremiah] Burroughs contends that the administration of the Law, the Mosaic covenant, had different elements "annexed" to the covenant that New Testament believers no longer live under. He makes this point clearer as he propounds the nature of the Mosaic covenant:
"The Law that was first given unto Adam and written in his heart, afterwards even obliterated, then it was transcribed by the same hand in tables of stone and given unto them chifly to shew them their misery, and their need of Christ; to be a preparation for Christs coming into the world; and with this one addition beyond what we have in the new Testament, that there was a temporal covenant annexed unto it, that concern'd their living prosperously in the Land of Canaan, (& so far we are delivered even from the Law as it was given by Moses, that is, from the connexion of the Covenant that was added unto the delivering of the Law) concerning their happy and comfortable condition in the Land of Canaan upon the keeping of their Law."
On pp. 151-152:
George Walker (1581-1651), one of the Westminster divines, held this view: "For the first part of the Covenant which God made with Israel at Horeb, was nothing else but a renewing of the old Covenant of works which God made with Adam in Paradise." But Walker also believed that there was a second part of the Mosaic covenant, which was more obscurely given in the Levitical laws, the tabernacle, and the ark, which were types of Christ. This dimension of the Mosaic covenant was more clearly set forth in the Deuteronomic version of the covenant and "was nothing else but a renewing of the Covenant of grace which he [God] had before made with their Fathers, Adam, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
Other theologians of the period, such as Peter Bulkeley (1583-1659), made distinctions similar to Walker's. Bulkeley believed that the "Covenant of workes was then revealed and made knowne to the children of Israel, as being before almost obliterated and blotted out of mans heart, and therefore God renewed the knowledge of the Covenant of worke to them." Key to Bulkeley's statement is that the covenant of works was revealed, not that it was readministered. He also employs the wide-narrow distinction vis-a-vis the covenants of works and of grace as they both relate to the Mosaic covenant: "The Law is to be considered two wayes: First, absolutely, and by it selfe, as containing a covenant of works; Secondly, dependently, and with respect to the covenant of grace.
Yet others such as Samuel Rutherford opposed such views of the Mosaic covenant described as subservient. "One of the reasons Rutherford argued against this view was that he believed the Mosaic covenant was not a covenant of works; he based his argument upon a number of different texts from Scripture. On such text was Deuteronomy 30:6 and the promise of a circumcised heart" (p.152). Yet as noted by Dr. Fesko there were distinctions expressed by other theologians of that time that didn't preclude the Mosaic covenant from being considered part of the Covenant of Grace. "But as did Bulkeley and Walker, Blake also acknowledges the broad-narrow distinction when dealing with the Mosaic covenant:"
There are those phrases in Moses, which are ordinarily quoted, as holding out a covenant of Works, and in a rigid interpretation are no other; yet in a qualified sense, in a Gospel-sense, and according to Scripture-use of the phrase, they hold out a covenant of Grace, and the termes and conditions of it. (p. 152)
Given how the issue of the Covenant of works and its relationship to the Mosaic covenant is being hotly debated again today I can't help but think that these words of Anthony Burgess, cited by Fesko, are meant to apply to our time as well: "I do not find in any point of Divinity, learned men so confused and perplexed (being like Abrahams Ram, hung in a bush of friars and brambles by the head) as here" (p.153).

1 comment:

  1. Without at all wanting to defend the idea of Tobias Crisp that there is justification before faith or justification without faith, I do want to affirm the priority of God's imputation of Christ's death before regeneration and faith. And it is very possible to deny that the Ten Commandments are "the moral law", and yet at the same time affirm that God still has new covenant standards as the law for those who have been justified. "The law" in many texts means "the mosaic covenant".

    Lee Irons---Exegetical study of Paul’s teaching on the Law has convinced me that it is impossible to separate the stipulations of the Law from the sanctions. The very fact that the stipulations are telling you to do something or warning you against disobedience implies that they are speaking to you apart from your union with Christ, as if you were not doing what the Law required or as if you might be tempted not to. The Law of Christ speaks to us from a totally different, new covenant ethical framework. It speaks to us in a voice which implies that the Law’s demands have already been completely satisfied. . Since the Law’s demands have been fully satisfied by us in Christ, the Law has no more to say to us, no more to demand of us. “Or do you not know, brethren, … that the Law has jurisdiction over a person only as long as he lives?” (Rom. 7:1). “Through the Law I died to the Law, in order live to God” (Gal. 2:19).

    Because these things are true by virtue of covenantal union with our Law-fulfilling Surety, the believer nevertheless continues to sustain a relationship to the Law in Christ. Otherwise, if the Law itself has been abolished in an ontological sense, we would be saying that the merit of Christ has also been abolished. Thus, as Paul argues so eloquently in 1 Cor. 9:21/Rom. 7:1-6, we have died to the Law, not in order to be anomos, as if we were now widows without a husband, but in order to be ennomos Christou, married to another.