Re-Publication of the Covenant of Works (1)

As Michael Horton acknowledges in his work on covenant theology, one of the more difficult issues in covenant theology is how to relate the Mosaic Covenant to the earlier Abrahamic Covenant and the New Covenant. Complicating matters is the old Dispensational doctrine that there are different ways of salvation under different “dispensations.”

I recognize that the more modern Dispensationalists abandoned that doctrine, but the damage has been done. It is virtually impossible, rhetorically, for the Reformed to use the word “dispensation” without creating suspicion and confusion—even though the Reformed have previously used it regularly, and it is quite a useful word in describing the progress of redemptive history. There are, however, many out there who read the Bible atomistically (chopping it up), and who think that we Christians have nothing to do with Abraham. Dispensationalism has also created a layer of difficulty by generating a reaction against itself, which has caused reluctance among some Reformed to recognize any differences between the Old (Moses) and New (Christ) Covenants. In their own ways, both the Dispensationalists and those who react against it flatten out the hills and valleys of redemptive history. The short story is that the continuity in the Bible is not so much between Moses and Christ (2 Cor 3; Heb 4–7), but between Abraham and Christ. Moses belongs in that continuity insofar as those under the Old Covenant also participated in the Covenant of Grace.

One of the interesting and useful features of the older (classic) covenant theology of the seventeenth century was the doctrine of “re-publication.” It was widely held among seventeenth-century Reformed theologians that, in certain ways, the giving of the Law at Sinai was a “re-publication” of the Law given in the garden to Adam as part of the Covenant of Works (as John Owen, Herman Witsius, Turretin as presented by Leonard van Rijssen, Johannes Marckius, Peter Van Mastricht, and Thomas Boston taught it). They took the promulgation of the law at Sinai as evidence of the Covenant of Works in the garden with Adam. They taught it this way because they had a doctrine of natural or creational law, meaning there is a moral law that was given in the garden that is reflected in the law given at Sinai.

This re-publication of the Law was not a new “dispensation” of salvation or way of being justified. Rather, the Mosaic national covenant with Israel was regarded by the Reformed as operating on multiple levels at the same time. As Paul says in Galatians 3, the Abrahamic covenant is the administration of God’s saving grace. It was and remains a Covenant of Grace. Paul’s argument is that nothing about the Mosaic national covenant changes God’s promises made to and through Abraham. Hence, Paul says that Abraham (Rom 3–4) is the father of all believers, circumcised and uncircumcised (i.e., Jew and Gentile) before Moses, during the Old Covenant, and since.

Thus, before, during, and after the Mosaic national covenant, all the elect were saved and justified by grace alone (sola gratia), through faith alone (sola fide), in Christ alone (solo Christo). So what was unique about the Mosaic national covenant? Three things:

1. It was a national covenant. Neither the Abrahamic Covenant nor the New Covenant were or are national. The Mosaic covenant had a civil and religious/ceremonial code embedded in it. The Mosaic covenant constituted Israel as a national people temporarily. The national covenant was very much about “insiders” and “outsiders.” That is not to say that Gentiles could not be initiated. Quite to the contrary, they certainly were, but in so doing, they had to become ritually Israelite through circumcision. This national (civic and ceremonial) aspect distinguishes the Mosaic covenant from the Abrahamic and the New Covenants which were and are not national but transnational.

One of the more important conclusions from this doctrine that our seventeenth-century forefathers did not recognize very clearly is that the idea of a national covenant is defunct. God does not enter into national covenants with any national entity since the crucifixion. Christ’s kingdom, expressed in his visible, institutional church through the preaching of the gospel, the administration of the sacraments, and the exercise of discipline, knows no national boundaries (Gal 3:28; Col 3:11; Eph 2). The dividing wall (the civil and ceremonial laws, circumcision) has been broken down in the body of Jesus, the true Israel of God. After the expiration of the national covenant, the kingdom of God has no civil administration. Attempts to resurrect the Mosaic civil administration, whether in theocracy or theonomy, are fundamentally misguided. It is a puzzle how we can see so clearly that the Roman attempt to resurrect the ceremonial aspect of the Mosaic covenant is wrong, but some cannot see how wrong it is to try to resurrect the Mosaic civil administration.

2. It was a legal covenant not relative to salvation or justification but relative to Israel’s status as the temporary national people of God. In Exodus 24, Israel swore a blood oath that she, as a national people, would keep the law. It was on this legal basis that Israel was ultimately expelled from the promised land, and on which basis she lost her status as the national people of God. Another layer of difficulty in this regard is that, as it seems to me, Israel broke this national covenant before the terms of the agreement were even delivered down the mountain. That pattern continued throughout her history, so that the only reason that Israel retained the national covenant at all was the forbearance of God. Certainly, Israel did not strictly merit retaining the national covenant. See Iain Duguid’s chapter in Covenant, Justification, and Pastoral Ministry.

3. It was temporary. The Mosaic national covenant was instituted about (depending on the date of the Pentateuch) fifteen centuries before the Advent of Christ, and it expired with the crucifixion of Christ. The New Testament makes clear (e.g., Acts 10; 15; 2 Cor 3; the book of Hebrews) that the Mosaic Covenant is finished. It was, as Paul says in Galatians 3, a “pedagogue,” like a harsh school teacher with a stick in his hand. Its function was to drive the Israelites to Christ through the promulgation of the 613 commandments. At every point in their daily lives, the Israelites were reminded of their sin and need for a Savior. Corporately, Israel served as the world’s largest and longest and most colorful sermon illustration. Thus the writer to the Hebrews (ch. 2) says that Moses worked for Jesus. Moses’ whole reason for being was to serve as a pointer to Christ (and as a pointer to the ultimate realities in heaven; see Heb 11).

Finally, it has been argued by some that the doctrine of re-publication is “unconfessional.” To this, I appeal to the logic implied by the grammar of WCF 19.1 and 19.2. In WCF 19.1, it reasserts the doctrine of 7.2, that 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.” 19.2 says, “This Law, after his fall. . . was delivered by God upon Mount Sinai, in ten commandments. . . .” (Articles, 30–31). The phrase “Covenant of Works,” in 19.1, is appositive to the noun “Law.” Thus the “Law” is reckoned here as a Covenant of Works. Thus when 19.2 establishes “this Law” as the subject of the verb “was delivered,” the antecedent of “this Law” can be none other than the “Law” defined as a Covenant of Works in 19.1. This reading of the confession caused Thomas Boston, in his notes in E. F., The Marrow of Modern Divinity (Scarsdale, NY: Westminster Discount Books, n.d.), 58, to exclaim, “How, then, one can refuse the Covenant of Works to have been given to the Israelites, I cannot see.” These same theologians also held that Moses was an administration of the Covenant of Grace. The doctrine of the unity of the Covenant of Grace and the doctrine of re-publication were regarded as complementary not antithetical.

I realize that what I am offering here is a revision or expansion of the older doctrine, but what I am saying is certainly built on the foundation laid by a host of orthodox writers who advocated a version of the doctrine of re-publication. If you want to research this here are some leads:

See Herman Witsius, The Economy of the Covenants Between God and Man, trans. William Crookshank, 2 vols. (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 1990), 1,336–337; Leonard van Rijssen, Compendium Theologiae (Amsterdam: 1695.), 89. John Owen, An Exposition of the Epistle to the Hebrews, ed. W. H. Goold, 7 vols., The Works of John Owen (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1991), 6.85. Johannes Marckius, Compendium Theologiae Christianae (Amsterdam, 1749), 345–346; Peter Van Mastricht, Theoretico-Practica Theologia, 3 vols (Utrecht: 1699), 3.12.23.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.


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9 comments

  1. Is there anything to the idea that many in the P&R camp who are so vocal about Republication not being confessional, going all the way back to the OPC study, are that way because of the Particular Baptists and New Covenant/Progressive Covenantalists? That is many Particular Baptists are using Kline/Republication as a defense for their position of Sinai being administratively a law covenant only. It is almost as though if they concede a temporal works element, then they lose the whole use of the use of the law. I used the “parenthetical covenant” language recently and I was looked at as though I had two heads by a PCA elder.

    • Hi Bill,

      That’s part of the story but I think a more basic part of the answer is the resistance to/antipathy toward the very idea of the covenant of works that took hold in the early 20th century.

      Barth et al rejected the very idea and a surprising percentage of otherwise orthodox Reformed folk, including a number of influential theologians, also rejected it as “legalistic.”

      The very criticism confuses the law and the gospel and a lot of unfortunate defenses of the covenant of works accepted the premise of the criticism and tried to defend it as “gracious.” That was a mistake. The covenant of works legal. That’s the point: it’s law. The answer is to say: the covenant works is law but the covenant of grace is gospel. Let’s not confuse the two.

      Another part of the problem people have with republication is that they think it gives aid and comfort to Dispensationalism but they only think that because they’re reacting and they may not know much about the history of the discussion and doctrine. Like the covenant of works, we lost the doctrine of republication and thus when it was resuscitated it (like other resuscitated aspects of classic Reformed theology) frightened people. That, of course, said more about us than it did about Reformed theology.

  2. It seems to me the animal sacrifice system, practiced by Abel onward (maybe Adam onward, although not explicitly stated, since they had animal hides as coverings after they sinned), interestingly in the ceremony of the Abrahamic covenant, where God walked between the pieces of animal, commanded in Leviticus specifically for the forgiveness of sins, and continued until Jesus, pointing to the perfect Lamb of God, ties everything together well. How does that concept of the shedding of innocent blood for the forgiveness of sins factor into your thinking about the different covenants.

    • Jeff,

      I think you might be assuming things I am not, hence the possible difficulty.

      As I understand redemptive history, the covenant of works co-exists with the republished covenant of works under Moses.

      I agree that there were sacrifices after the fall, which were shadowy and typological indications of the presence of the covenant of grace and of a future fulfillment to come.

      So, in my view, Moses was both an administration of the covenant of works and an administration of the covenant of grace.

      The works principle was pedagogical, as Paul says in Gal 3. It was to teach them the greatness of their sin and misery and to drive them to the grace of Christ.

  3. RSC: I read with interest the following sentence in your response to Jeff Slenker: “So, in my view, Moses was both an administration of the covenant of works and an administration of the covenant of grace.”

    It seems to me that your sentence expresses in an admittedly limited way the contrast between Moses (Israel) and Adam, or am I wrong? God’s pre-fall covenant with Adam was not an administration of the covenant of grace, but was simply an administration of the covenant of works. There was no provision of atoning grace in the pre-fall covenant with Adam.

  4. “The doctrine of the unity of the Covenant of Grace and the doctrine of re-publication were regarded as complementary not antithetical.”

    This is not popular, but it’s just true. The OPC’s Republication Report really helps on this.

  5. Doesn’t the preamble to the 10 Commandments put them squarely in the 3rd use (response of obedience) category rather than as a works system which they would be if they were an expression of the Covenant of Works. The WCF chapter on the law puts the 10 Commandments clearly in this 3rd use category.

    • It is in the 3rd use insofar as this was spoken to the covenant assembly but the the word of law always has different uses, depending on audience. To the unbelievers in the covenant assembly it could only be in the 1st use or perhaps the 2nd.

      In any event, the prologue remains gospel and the law remains law.

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