Samuel Bolton’s Survey Of Opinion On The Mosaic Covenant

brown-pettoMy friend and colleague Mike Brown published a revision of his excellent MA (Historical Theology) thesis (Westminster Seminary California) in 2012 as Christ and the Condition: The Covenant Theology of Samuel Petto (1624-1711). As part of the background to explaining Petto, Mike takes us through a quick survey of Reformed thought on the status of the Mosaic covenant from Calvin to Witisius.  Under the heading Samuel Bolton (1616-1654), a Westminster Divine, he gives us a bullet point summary (pp. 66-67) of Bolton’s survey of the state of the question (spelling updated). This survey is a valuable reminder of the diversity of views that existed in the 1640s and 50s in the British Isles alone (not to mention the Dutch, German, Genevan, French, and Swiss theologians who wrote on the Mosaic covenant). Bolton himself held to option #4. Even with the diversity, however, there are only shades of differences between some of the views. This survey is also a good reminder of how widely accepted was the notion that the Mosaic covenant was, in some sense, a republication, re-statement, recapitulation of the prelapsarian covenant of works. Thanks to Mike for his excellent work.

  1. Some would have it a Covenant of Works, and yet will not have it opposite to the Covenant of Grace.
  2. Some would have it a Covenant of grace, but more legally dispensed.
  3. Some again would have it mixed Covenant, mixed of the Covenant of Nature, and of Grace.
  4. Some again would have it a subservient Covenant; a Covenant given to them in way of subservience to the Gospel and Grace.
  5. And others would have it no Covenant, but rather the repetition of the Covenant of works made with man in the Innocency. And that God in giving of the law, did but repeat the Covenant under which we did, and do stand, till we come over to Christ…And this God did with merciful purposes, to drive us out of ourselves; and to bring us over unto Christ.

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  1. “Christ and the Condition”, not “Christ and the Covenant”, which latter is perilously close to the title of a book by O. Palmer Robertson.

  2. If there is so much variance as to how the MC stood re the covanent of works and grace, why does the OPC report suggest only the smallest sliver, the ‘administration’ sliver, as compatible with the WCF. What might motivate such a narrow acceptance? I have read elsewhere that this is because of the influence of Murray and his unique views on the covanents. In other places, I have read e report’s finding was necessary to make Shepard/Gaffin theology seem more acceptable. I don’t even know how to consider those issues, but it does seem to me that the fourfold distinction in the report is missing some planks in their structure. Even Pascal Doumont’s small book acknowledged the variance that existed in the 17th c. I found the quotes of S.Petto in that book to be quite compelling…does that mean I am not longer able to subscribe to the WCF? Some people seem to want the answer to be an emphatic Yes’. I am looking forward to reading Mike Brown’s book. Is this issue as prevalent in the URC, since it doesn’t need to ‘abide’ by the WCF?

    • BJ,

      WCF 19.1 speaks of the law that God gave to Adam before the fall. It describes that law as a covenant of works. WCF 19.2 says, “this law” was given to Moses at Sinai. The word “this” is a demonstrative pronoun. It has an antecedent. What is the antecedent? “This law” in 19.2 refers to the law given to Adam. Thomas Boston said that he could not understand how anyone could not see that WCF 19.2 is teaching that the Mosaic law is a republication of the covenant of works given to Adam.

      Republication may not be popular now but it was quite popular when the confession was written. Those who affirm republication are well within their historic and confessional rights to do so.

    • I read it that way as well. I think the average Joe reads it that way. And yet…
      I am curious as to what has changed. Typically, a POV that has historical precedent wins the debate in almost every P&R face-off that I can think of; why is that not occurring in this issue? Couldn’t there at least have been a minority report, like there was with the paedo cummunion issue? I mean, prudence dictates leaving a little wriggle room on non essentials, so as not to unnecessarily bind the conscience. Some critics argue that this report is more strict so that the wriggle room can be preserved for those who think justification has some kind of works component. Obviously, no one is coming right out and saying that, and I don’t know the merits of the critique. But I do know it would be easy to have a conversation that looked at the issue of how grace manifests itself in all the post fall covanents, and in that conversation it would be surprisingly simple to show that, 1. Very few disagree that the mosaic contained grace, 2. That there are probably quite a few sensible yet diverse ways to describe what being an administration ‘of grace’ means. In my opinion, if the republication conversation had ventured into that arena more often, the report would have looked a bit different than the one we have.

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