Beginning at least in the 1560s, it was non-controversial for Reformed theologians to teach that God, before the fall, entered into a legal, probationary covenant with Adam, who was the representative of the whole human race, the condition of which was perfect obedience to God’s moral law and the promise of which was eternal blessedness. This is how Zacharias Ursinus, the major author of the Heidelberg Catechism, explained the traditional Protestant categorical distinction between the law and the gospel. The covenant of works, he wrote, is the law and the covenant of grace is the gospel.
Covenant theology did not begin in the 1640s or even the 1560s or even in the 1520s. The basic ideas that were expressed as a covenant of works existed from the earliest days of Christian teaching after the apostles. The idea that Adam was under the moral law was widely taught. The idea that Adam was in a conditional, probationary, legal relationship with God the promise of which was eternal blessedness was widely accepted. St Augustine, in The City of God, taught explicitly that Adam was in such a legal, probationary covenant with God before the fall.
In the 16th century, as Reformed Protestants, in contrast both to Rome and the Anabaptists, began to develop their law/gospel hermeneutic, their understanding of redemptive history, their anthropology (doctrine of humanity), they picked up these federal (covenantal) themes and used to them to create a coherent explanation of redemptive history (Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and David) and the common places (loci communes) of the Christian faith. They had been emphasizing the unity of the covenant of grace since the early 1520s as Huldrych Zwingli, and, in the 1530s Heinrich Bullinger, argued from our unity with Abraham that New Testament believers are under essentially the same covenant of grace that God established with Abraham. At the same time, Johannes Oecolampadius, a diligent student of the Fathers, was also laying the groundwork for a significant expansion of covenant theology. By the early 1560s the Reformed were teaching explicitly about the prelapsarian covenant of works (or covenant of nature or covenant of law or legal covenant). By the late 1560s, Reformed writers were implying that the covenant was not merely a matter of history but also a constituent of the intra-personal relations among the Trinity, that there was, from all eternity, a covenant of redemption (pactum salutis) between the Father and the Son regarding our redemption. This doctrine would, in the 17th century, become almost universally held as the background of the historical expression of the covenants of works and grace since, in the pre-temporal covenant there was a promise and condition of obedience (works) and a promise of reward and blessing to be bestowed freely upon the redeemed (grace).
These same Reformed theologians were also insistent that the same natural, creational law that God gave to Adam was, in substance, also revealed through Moses at Sinai. It was inherent to Protestants theology. This identity of the natural law, given to Adam, and the moral law, given to Moses was widely held by the magisterial Protestants. Luther, Melanchthon, Bucer, and Calvin all taught this doctrine explicitly. In that identity of the moral law with the Sinaitic lay the basis for the idea of republication. The idea of republication was suggested in the late 16th century but it became explicit and more elaborate in the 17th century. Orthodox Reformed writers regularly appealed to the moral law given to Moses as evidence of the existence of the prelapsarian covenant of works. This idea of republication, though it received a variety of formulations, was not particularly controversial in the period of Reformed orthodoxy. Indeed, it was repeated through the 18th and 19th centuries. Nevertheless, despite the strong attestation of this connection in the history of Reformed theology, today it is controversial.
In the 20th century, however, things changed rather markedly. By the mid-20th century it was quite difficult to find a notable Reformed theologian teaching the pre-temporal covenant of redemption. G. C. Berkouwer mocked it as destructive of the doctrine of the Trinity. The prelapsarian covenant of works was rejected by a number of Reformed writers as inconsistent with the idea of grace or significantly revised so as to blur the line between the covenant of works and the covenant of grace. The idea of a natural law came under near constant criticism, even among confessional Reformed writers who identified with the Reformed tradition.
Naturally, in the 20th century, the underpinnings significantly weakened, the doctrine of republication fell into disuse. By the late 20th century, there were no English-language surveys of covenant theology teaching the traditional three-covenant scheme of covenant theology. Simultaneous to this collapse, the historic Protestant and Reformed doctrine of justification by grace alone, through faith alone was also being seriously challenged even in ostensible bastions of Reformed orthodoxy. As a witness to this collapse of much of what was once regarded as basic, there has recently been published a systematic theology that is being lauded by leaders in the confessional Reformed world and by those who led and are presently leading the assault on the doctrine of justification.
While historic Reformed theology was falling on hard times, there were some bright lights. In the late 1970s, Richard Muller began publishing what would become a series of articles and books on the history of Reformed theology, including covenant theology, by going back to the original sources (ad fontes), in the original languages. His work, along with that of W. Robert Godfrey (1974), Jill Raitt (on Beza), and a few years later, Lyle Bierma, signaled a renewed interest in historic Reformed covenant theology. Today, there is a minor industry in publishing both original texts in English translation (as in the Classic Reformed Theology series at Reformation Heritage Books) and works on the history of Reformed theology, including covenant theology.
When I was a student in the early and mid-1980s, anyone who wanted to read Reformed theology in the original languages had to sit in front of microfiche/microform reader to try to decipher grainy texts. Now, my students have access to original texts, in original languages, via professional online databases and in a growing number of books. The secondary literature continues to grow.
There has been, however, a lag between developments in the academy and the understanding of the church and the laity. Since the mid-20th century, many pastors learned a story of the history of Reformed (including covenant) theology that was, frankly, defective. Many students were never told about the covenant of redemption. It was as if it was some sort of esoterica for the illuminati rather than basic Reformed theology. As recently as 25 years ago it was considered somewhat controversial to affirm the historic doctrine of the covenant works, despite the fact that it appears explicitly in the Westminster Standards (e.g., chapters 7 and 19 of the confession) and widely throughout the writings of the Heidelberg theologians 80 years before them and throughout the Reformed orthodox in the British Isles and Europe.
With that recent history in mind, it is not surprising that there is some controversy about the renewed appreciation for the doctrine of republication. Almost every aspect of traditional Reformed covenant theology has become controversial, even in ostensibly confessional Reformed circles. So, the Heidelblog presents this series in hopes of improving general understanding about this (now) controversial but quite traditional Reformed doctrine.
Here’s episode 50:
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