The 16th and 17th Century Reformed Covenantal Roots of the 21st Century evangelical and Reformed Theological Understanding of a ‘Legally Strained’ Gospel

When I can, I like to highlight where the legalistic character of the contemporary evangelical and Reformed faith came from. I realize that for many, maybe even most at this point, doctrine doesn’t really mean much these days for evangelicals; but there are still obviously large segments of evangelical Christians who actually do care about what they believe and why—so I write posts for folks
like that in mind. It would be difficult to detail a kind of ideational genealogy in regard to tracing how something like Covenant theology has made its way into 21st century evangelical and Reformed systems of theology. So for lack of doing such genealogical work I will write towards people who are enamored with the theology that The Gospel Coalition distills for the evangelical masses.

If one were to go to TGC’s website you could read up on their confessional or doctrinal statement, and you’d pick up almost immediately—if you were so tuned—the type of legal framework for understanding salvation that they promote. Like I noted, we won’t be able to draw the hard and fast lines between the forensic Gospel promoted by TGC with its predecessor theology found in historical Covenant theology (in a lineament[al] type of way); instead we will just have to leave such linkage at a suggestive and inchoate level.

With the ground cleared a bit, for the remainder of this post I wanted to survey, with M. Charles Bell’s help, the whence from where legally oriented, performance based conceptions of the Gospel came from; to do that we will look at an early Scottish proponent of what is called Federal or ‘Covenant’ theology. Maybe you have never heard of Covenant theology before, but at its base it is made up of two covenants (as a hermeneutical construct): the covenant of works and the covenant of grace.

Robert Rollock was a Scottish theologian who operated in the late 1500s in the Scottish Kirk; as Bell develops, Rollock was one of the first Scots to propose and advocate for a Covenant theology in the Scottish Reformed church. As we look at Rollock’s take on Federal theology, my hope is that the reader will organically ‘get’ what I’m suggesting in this post in regard to the antecedent theology that funds the mood we find being promoted in theology offered by associates of The Gospel Coalition. Without further ado, here is Bell’s sketch of Rollock’s understanding of Covenant theology (and as you read others Rollock’s view of Covenant theology is quite standard when it comes to the basic structure and emphases).

The Covenant of Works

Rollock states that the covenant of works is a ‘legal or natural covenant’ founded in nature, and God’s law. For when God created man, he engraved his law in man’s heart. After the fall of man it was necessary to republish this covenant, which was done at Mt. Sinai when Moses delivered the written tablets of stone containing God’s commandments for his people. The substance of this covenant of works is the promise of eternal life for those who fulfill the conditions of holiness and good works.

In grounding this covenant in nature and the law, and making the substance of the covenant a conditional promise of eternal life, Rollock denies any place to Christ in this legal covenant. Christ is not the ground of the covenant, its substance or its mediator, he states. In fact, this covenant has no need of a mediator. This is so because the covenant was first made between God and Adam before the fall. Therefore, asserts Rollock, this covenant does not involve Christ in any way. It is not faith in Christ that is needed, but knowledge of the law and obedience to it. The covenant of works relates to Christ only as a means of preparing the individual to receive Christ in the covenant of grace. Rollock stresses time and again that law precedes grace or the gospel. First the covenant of works or the law, is set before us, and only when this works in us a feeling of our miserable, sinful estate are we ready to proceed to the next step of embracing the covenant of grace. The doctrine of the gospel begins with the legal doctrine of works and of the law.’ Rollock insists that if this preparationist ordo is not followed then the preaching and the promises of the gospel are in vain.

The Covenant of Grace

Although the covenant of works is the major concern within the Old Testament, Rollock insists that the ‘mystery of Christ’ is to be found in the Scriptures from Adam to Christ, thought this covenant of grace is expounded ‘sparingly and darkly’ in shadows. This covenant of grace is not entirely a new agreement between God and man, but is actually a ‘reagreement, and a renewing of an old friendship betweene two that first were friends.’ However, because of the breach between God and man since the fall, this second covenant is grounded upon the blood of Christ, and God’s free mercy in Christ. Moreover, the promise of this second covenant is not only that of eternal life, but, because of the fall of man, must involve also a promise of imputed righteousness which comes to us by faith and the work of Christ’s Spirit. On the other hand, like the first covenant, Rollock insists that the covenant of grace is conditional. The condition, however, is not one of works, but faith, ‘which embraces God’s mercy in Christ and makes Christ effectual in us’. Furthermore, this condition is not fulfilled naturally by us, but the required faith is itself God’s gift to us.

Rollock does not, however, do away with the requirement of works in the covenant of grace. The natural works of man have no part in this covenant, since the works of unregenerate man are of no value, and the covenant of works is abolished as a means of salvation for all who are in Christ. However, works are required of the believer not as merits on our part, or as ‘meritorious causes’ of our eternal life, but rather, as tokens of our gratitude and thankfulness to God for his grace. They can also be considered as the means by which we progress from our initial regeneration to eternal life, and so, in a sense, may be deemed ‘causes’, but only when they are first understood as themselves caused ore effected by ‘the only merit of Jesus Christ, whereof they testify’. Rollock is clear that these works do not proceed naturally from us, in our own strength, Rather, these works proceed from us, in our own strength. Rather, these works proceed from, and are produced by ‘the grace of regeneration’. They are God’s doing and not man’s. They are, as well, not perfect works, but merely ‘good beginnings’. Their perfection ‘is supplied, and to be found in Christ Jesus’.

Rollock attempts to make a strong case for the objective ground and nature of salvation in Christ, and the covenant of grace. He states that God’s grace is the ‘sole efficient cause’ of faith, hope, and repentance. Although in the ministry of reconciliation there are two covenant partners involved, Rollock stresses that the initiative for healing lies with God and not us. God the Father seeks and saves us. It is his love manifested in our healing. His call in the gospel comes to us; we do not seek it. Echoing Calvin, Rollock writes that the cause of our salvation lies in God alone, and ‘na pairt in man quha is saved’. Nevertheless, it becomes clear in his writings that because of his conditional covenant schemed and his preparationist ordo salutis, in which law precedes grace, he is forced to return to a subjective basis within man for one’s final assurance of salvation.[1]

There is a lot in there. Rather than attempting to unpack it all, I want to essentially let it stand as is and simply be a kind of proof of where evangelical and Reformed theology’s ‘legally’ flavored conception comes from; as I read it, it is rather self-evident.

To be clear, I am not wanting to suggest that in every detail the Gospel preached by something like TGC is corollary, one-for-one. Instead what I’m hoping the reader can see, especially if you have never been exposed to this, is where the roots are for contemporary 21st century understandings of evangelical and Reformed soteriology; one could also think of the resurgence of Reformed theology we find in the so called Young, Restless and Reformed. I’m not wanting to suggest that all of this type of retrieval and resurgence among the conservative evangelical and Reformed wings of today is one wherein a full blown recovery of Covenant theology is taking place (although for some that’s exactly what is happening). Instead, I’m hoping that the reader will be able to see the framework, in a general type of way, wherein a ‘legal’ performance based understanding of salvation comes from. Many of those retrieving the historical Reformed faith are Baptists; they typically are not Covenantal like what we find in someone like Rollock, or later in the Westminster Confession of Faith. Nevertheless, the forensic way for conceiving of salvation, whether someone is a flaming Federal theologian or not, for the evangelical, comes from something like what we see evidenced in the theology of Robert Rollock. This is, I would submit, the mood of theology that gives us the idea that the Penal Substitutionary Atonement is the theory of the atonement that is the bedrock Gospel understanding of what the Gospel actually is; I contend that without Covenant theology PSA would never have come to have the prominence it does for evangelical and Reformed theories of the atonement and the Gospel itself.

One other point, before we go; I think of the work that someone like Brian Zahnd is doing. His most recent book, Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God, is intended to offer an alternative conception of the Gospel wherein a Gospel of grace and love is presented; i.e. in contrast to the type of theology he is riffing on like what we might find in Jonathan Edwards’ sermon Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. Zahnd is all about critiquing the ‘legal strain’ sense of the Gospel we find say in the theology presented by TGC et al. But I really think that if he wants to offer a full blown critique he needs to engage with the antecedent theology informing the theology he is attempting to critique. He often attributes all of this to Calvin, as if Calvin was the founder of Calvinism. But that’s just not the case, and so his critiques often miss the target when he is attempting to critique a legal forensically styled Gospel. I think he would do better to engage with the type of Post Reformed orthodox theology (of the 16th and 17th centuries) that we are covering here in this post. It helps to provide more context for people in attempting to understand where this type of ‘legal’ quid pro quo Covenantal theology comes from. It also is more honest and truthful as it gets into the actual meat and development of theology that indeed does offer us the ‘legal’ categories for conceiving of salvation that we still work under today in the evangelical and Reformed world.

 

[1] M. Charles Bell, Calvin and Scottish Theology: The Doctrine of Assurance (Edinburgh: The Handsel Press, 1985), 53-4.

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