Understanding and Critiquing Paleo-Covenant Theology: Do Contemporary Covenant Theologians Genuinely Represent Old School Federal Theology?

Heinrich Bullinger

Heinrich Bullinger

There has certainly been a resurgence of Reformed theology in the last ten to fifteen years or so; one notable, at a popular level is the so called: Young, Restless, and Reformed. The evangelical Calvinism that Myk Habets and I have promoted through our edited book (we have a volume two at the publishers), and what I have done here at the blog, is an aspect of this type of resurgence (of course ours is from a very distinct Barthian/Torrancean approach). And now we see Oliver Crisp with his two new books: Deviant Calvinism and Saving Calvinism also contributing to this type of resurgence of Reformed theology by attempting to alert folks to the expansive nature of Reformed theology itself (something we evangelical Calvinists are also interested in doing).

For anyone who has read our Evangelical Calvinism book, or for anyone who has read my blog with any kind of regularity you will know that evangelical Calvinists offer some material theological (as well as formal) critique  of what is generally understood to be representative of “classical Reformed” theology; i.e. the type we find articulated in the Westminster Confession of Faith, or at places like Westminster Theological Seminary, Westminster Seminary California, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Reformed Theological Seminary, etc. More than offering critique of the popular 5-Point Calvinism, it is more of a critique of “classical” Federal or Covenant theology; i.e. the Covenant of Works, and the Covenant of Grace (with the Covenant of Redemption included). To that end for the rest of this post we will engage with a historical sketch and critique of Federal theology, and how that seminally developed in the Zurich reformer, Heinrich Bullinger’s Covenant theology; and then how that impacted, in general ways, Post Reformation Reformed orthodox theology. What will concern us in this exercise will be the critique that someone like Thomas Torrance himself (along with his brother James) makes of the bilateral nature of the Covenant of Works and the Covenant of Grace[1], and how those two implicated each other in such a way that, at least for Bullinger and the orthodox, according to Stephen Strehle[2], there is a contingency built into the Covenant of Grace (i.e. its reception among the elect) such that the conditions of the Covenant of Works remain conditions to be met by the ostensibly elect person if and fact the elect person is truly one of the elect of God. Contemporary Reformed Federal theologians often push back at this, but I will contend, through reliance on Strehle’s research that they are not pushing back at me or the Torrance brothers, or Barth et al. but instead they are pushing back against the theology and the theologians they claim to represent themselves.

Strehle writes of Bullinger’s and the Post Reformed orthodox’s understanding of the Covenant of Works and Grace; here he is offering a fifth point of analysis in regard to Henrich Bullinger’s theology (at length):

Fifth, he so stresses a human component in the fulfillment of God’s work that he verges upon the synergism of humanistic teaching. In creation he speaks of God as working through certain creaturely means to achieve his end so that even if he is to be praised as the author of all good things in man, he does not accomplish his work without human cooperation. Following Augustine Bullinger is now inclined to employ the term “free will” (liberum arbitrium) as he recounts the stages of man’s relationship to God: 1) Adam is said to have been created with free will, 2) fallen man is said to do his evil through it, and 3) the regenerate is said to be renewed in it, “not by the power of nature but through the power of divine grace.” In salvation he speaks of man’s complicity in the entire process from his initial acceptance to his final perseverance. He can speak of repentance as a “preparation” for faith, faith as a “requirement” for receiving grace, and grace as less coercive and more resistible than that which Paul had experienced on the Damascus road. Once saved the faculty to serve God is said to be restored and the faithful are said to “actively,” not “passively” work with grace unto the salvation of the entire man. God as  our “helper” gives to us his cooperation (gratia cooperans), not to circumvent our participation or insure our perseverance but to provide what is necessary in a process that remains contingent upon us. We must therefore endeavor to work with God, for all is lost if we do not continue in the grace once received.

This synergism comes to a most definitive expression in his doctrine of a bilateral covenant between God and man. Zwingli had previously set forth a doctrine of covenant in order to unify the promises and precepts of God to man, but he never spoke as if this was a bilateral or contingent compact. It is Bullinger who decides to recast the doctrine in this way through the synergistic tendencies and thus coordinate what is promised by God and exacted of man. God and man are now to be understood as confederated into a relationship of mutual responsibility, contingent not only upon the faithfulness of God but also upon that of man. While God might have initiated the relationship, man has his “conditions” to fulfill in order to receive the blessings offered.

The text states the conditions under which they bound themselves together, specifically that God wished to be the God of the descendants of Abraham and that the descendants of Abraham ought to walk uprightly before God.

The second condition of the covenant prescribes to man what he should do and how he should conduct himself toward the initiator and his fellow member of the covenant (confoedo), namely God. “Walk,” he says, “before me and be whole.” They walk before God who purposes throughout their whole life to always say and do the will of God. This is what makes us “whole.” That wholeness is being produced by faith, hope, and love. In these things every duty of the blessed confederation is comprehended. [Bullinger]

While these conditions are found throughout scripture, the charge to Abraham is considered its most succinct and important form. And yet, regardless of the form, the same essential conditions are necessary to secure divine favor. According to Bullinger, upon fulfilling these conditions we are now in a position to expect God to fulfill his part and thus receive his blessings. If we spurn them, we become disinherited (i.e. we lose our salvation).

This doctrine of covenant, we cannot say, is central to the overall theology of Bullinger, but we can say that through his monumental work on the covenant, The One and Eternal Testament or Covenant of God (1534), it did become an important and permanent fixture of Reformed theology. The influence of Bullinger has already been noted among the Puritan elders of Massachusetts Bay and can be noted also among the Scholastics of Continental Europe. These Scholastics speak of the covenant in much the same way, even if more subtle in expression.

However, strictly and properly it denotes the covenant of God with man, through which God by his goodness promises above all eternal life and he demands from man in turn his service and worship, with certain outward signs which provided for confirmation. It is said to be two-sided or reciprocal because it consists from the reciprocal obligation of the two members of the covenant: from the side of God, a promise, and from the side of man, the demand of a condition.

In that covenant there is mutual obligation, both in regard to God to be gracious and in regard to man to present his penance.

The covenant generally speaking is a mutual pact between two parties by which one member binds himself to do, give, or receive something under certain conditions. In order to confirm this promise and make it inviolable, external signs and symbols are attached as a most solemn testimony. [Ursinus]

They can even speak of God as man’s debtor.

In the covenant of God with man, there is something which God does and another which man does. God by his most eminent right commands or demands from man a service, love of himself and compliance, and promises life to the one who loves and complies. By agreeing (astipulando) man promises to love and be obedient to God who demands and prescribes his duty, and by demanding in return (restipulando) from God he claims and expects with confidence life by right of the promise. [J. Heidegger]

The tensions between the doctrine of a bilateral covenant and other staples of Reformed orthodoxy, such as unconditional election and justification by faith—doctrines that exalt in divine grace—did summon their theologians to employ their skills in concocting some sort of a solution. Sometimes the sovereignty of God was invoked in order to emphasize that faith or whatever condition might be exacted of us does not arise out of our own strength but is a product of God’s work within us, making it, in their words, an a posteriori condition. Such a solution, however, did not eliminate the problem since divine favor was still made to depend upon a condition wrought within us—no matter how irresistible this grace was conceived. Luther and Protestantism had originally sought to eliminate any basis within man for his justification, and such a solution did raise this specter again. Other times a Franciscan concept of covenant was invoked in order to mitigate the value of any human contribution before God. In other words, faith and whatever condition might be exacted of man was seen to receive its reward, not so much in accordance with strict justice as if worthy of eternal life (meritum ex condign), but through a God who voluntarily condescends by his covenant to accept the mere pittance that we render to God beyond its just due. However, such a solution did not utterly eliminate the conditional force of the covenant, for something—no matter how disproportionate to its reward—must still be offered to God in exchange for salvation. Salvation was still made contingent on something we do.[3]

In referring to Bullinger, Ursinus, and others Strehle is depending upon the fathers, as it were, when it comes to Federal or Covenant theology. His point is basic, and demonstrable (which he does extensively by appeal to primary sources in the Latin in the footnotes): Bullinger’s and the Post Reformed orthodox Covenant theology, as a subsequent development (historically), offers a covenantal scheme of salvation that makes justification not simply contingent upon faith, but contingent upon keeping the conditions of the covenantal frame. In other words, there is a move away from a radically Christ-centered focus on salvation, and one that collapses into an eye toward the self.

Concluding Remarks

I have read people like Scott Swain et al try to reify this classical type of federal theology for today’s ears, but to me that is not really coming to terms or at least honestly presenting the rawness of what classical federal theology actually entails. It is understandable why contemporary Reformed thinkers, who are “federal” would want to soften the old Federal theology indeed; but again, let’s have an honest conversation about the component parts of what makes a federal theology. I think Stephen Strehle’s analysis helps us to do that, and allows us to see some serious pitfalls associated with old and I would contend new Federal theology.

Karl Barth saw these pitfalls, as did the Torrance brothers, and Barth in particular Christ concentrated and did indeed reify covenant theology in ways that Bullinger et al could never have imagined (see Barth’s little book The Humanity of God to see an example of how Barth uses covenant in a principled Christ focused way).

It would be great to get some push back to Strehle’s analysis, I’ve never seen any in print. To be clear, Strehle is not a Barthian, nor a Torrancean, nor a Brian Armstrongian, et al. he is making a case from direct engagement with primary sources and distilling that in his most excellent book. I would tell you to take up and read, except last I looked at Amazon Strehle’s book is going for around $1,100.

I think the reason this all matters is because it’s not just academic. I know some think that that’s what this is, but it is not. All of this type of stuff trickles down and impacts real life Christians and spirituality. We started this post out with notation of the fact that Reformed theology has and is making a resurgence. I’m hopeful that posts like this will help people to ask critical types of questions about just what genre of Reformed theology they are getting themselves into. Evangelical Calvinism and Crisp’s Deviant Calvinism, and the more resourcing mood those alternatives offer, have open arms. At the end of the day I cannot accept classical or contemporary Federal or Covenantal theology, but that’s not to say that I cannot accept Reformed theology. Indeed, Reformed theology is not monolithic, it is expansive with many tributaries and inlets. One common theme of Reformed theology is the primacy of God’s grace; this is a reality that we can all rally around. How that gets fleshed out later can remain one of intramural engagement, but that’s not to say we won’t have sharp and basic differences among ourselves.

 

[1] See Thomas Torrance Objects to Federal Calvinism, and So Do I!

[2] I would like to thank Ron Frost, a former seminary professor, and a mentor of mine, for turning me onto Stephen Strehle’s research.

[3] Stephen Strehle, The Catholic Roots of the Protestant Gospel: Encounter between the Middle Ages and the Reformation (Leiden/New York/Köln: E.J. Brill, 1995), 55-61.

Advertisements