Owen and the New and Old Covenants and Republication

The old covenant referred to in Hebrews 8:6 does not have reference to the covenant of works, according to Owen, because the old covenant (diatheke) "was such a covenant as was a testament also." A testament requires a death, which explains a fundamental difference between the covenant of works and the old covenant. Accordingly, for Owen, the old covenant is "not a covenant properly and strictly so called, but such a one as hath the nature of a testament also [ ... ] the first covenant made with Adam was in no sense a testament also." Owen identifies, as the majority of Reformed theologians did, certain parallels between the covenant of works and the old covenant, and he even maintains that the old covenant "revived, declared, and expressed all the commands of [the covenant of works] in the decalogue."92 However, he indicates that the moral law was revived declaratively and not covenantally at Sinai.93 If the Israelites had been placed under the covenant of works, as Adam was, the promise given to Abraham would have been annulled (Gal 3: 17). All of this suggests that the old covenant operated alongside of the covenant of grace and, unlike the covenant of works, was also a testament. Owen aims to remain consistent and therefore argues that the new covenant is not strictly co-extensive with the covenant of grace. During the Old Testament, beginning with the protoevangelium (Gen 3:15), the covenant of grace consisted only in a promise. The "full legal establishment of it, whence it became formally a covenant unto the whole church, was future only." The law given at Sinai became a covenant only with the blood of sacrifices. In the same way, the covenant of grace did not have the formal nature of a covenant or a testament (Heb 9:15-23) until the death of Christ. He adds that the "covenant of grace" implies salvation; "yet by 'the new covenant,' we intend its actual establishment in the death of Christ." This manner of understanding the various covenants in Scripture helps explain not only Owen's position, but also why this debate has historically been covered in confusion.

For Owen, all persons indefinitely considered are guilty before God by virtue of the federal nature of the covenant of works. But, for the elect, they are saved according to the fulfilled promise of the covenant of grace. Framing it this way, Owen advocates a dichotomist reading of redemptive history. However, he also maintains the view that the old and new covenants are real covenants, that is, they are also testaments. Neither the covenant of works nor the covenant of grace, considered simply as promises in the Old Testament, is a testament. Thus there are, properly speaking, only two covenants mentioned in Scripture, the old and the new. The old covenant was confirmed by the death of sacrificed animals; the new was ratified by the death of Christ. Understood this way, one can understand why Owen persists in the opinion, even if it runs counter to the majority, that the old and new covenants "can hardly be accommodated unto a twofold administration of the same covenant." Reconciliation could never come by virtue of the old covenant since it lacked the death of an atoning sacrifice, and was never intended to save the church. Believers in the old covenant were therefore "reconciled, justified, and saved, by virtue of the promise, whilst they were under the [old] covenant." In terms of covenant-testaments, Owen is a dichotomist. In terms of soteric principles, only two covenants could ever save, the covenant of works and the covenant of grace. The idea that Owen holds to a trichotomist reading of redemptive history only works if one allows that the covenant of grace flowers into the new covenant whereas the old covenant is abrogated by the new covenant and remains distinct from the covenants of works and grace.


92
Exposition of Hebrews, 23:77. The idea that the old covenant was "in some sense" a revival or renewing of the prelapsarian covenant of works was widely held among the Reformed orthodox. What they generally had in mind was the idea that the moral law engraven on Adam's heart was "republished" at Sinai on tables of stone. This seems to be the intent of the Westminster Confession of Faith (ch. 19).
93
Exposition of Hebrews, 23:77. Note his comments elsewhere: "God did never formally and absolutely renew or give again this law as a covenant a second time. Nor was there any need that so he should do, unless it were declaratively only, for so it was renewed at Sinai." Justification by Faith, 5:244. Goodwin likewise argues that the old covenant "was truly the promulgation of the covenant of nature made with Adam in paradise (in the moral part, the ten commandments)." The work of the Holy Ghost in our salvation, 6:354.
 


Anthony Burgess and the Ceremonial Law in the Covenant of Grace

In addition to the moral law, the ceremonial law also provides evidence that the old covenant was part of the covenant of grace. Burgess makes the point that all divines reduce the ceremonial law to the moral law, "so that Sacrifices were commanded by vertue of the second Commandment."48 The sacrifices, according to Burgess, did not oppose Christ, or the grace of God, but included them, a point that carried a lot of significance for confirming him in his opinion. Moreover, the ceremonial law foreshadowed Christ's person and work; "it typically pointed further [ ... ] to Christ."

 


The Protestant form of the donum superadditum

the Protestant form of the donum superadditum enters here: in no condition, not even in the state of original righteousness, can any "creature be, or conceived to be capable of doing anything independent of the Creator." Thus, God not only "furnished" the first pair "with sufficient powers" to stand "pure and inviolate," he also acted to "preserve those powers by the continual influence of his providence.

 

Richard Muller, The Theology of Herman Witsius and Wilhelmus A Brakel

Covenantal Original Sin

the concept of a covenant of creation, nature, or works provided nascent Reformed theological system with an alternative to the traditional Augustinian view of the transmission of sin as resting on an inherent concupiscence: the Pauline statement that all people sinned "in Adam" could now be interpreted federally, with profound ramifications for Christology and soteriology.

 

Richard Muller, The Theology of Herman Witsius and Wilhelmus A Brakel

Covenant as Promise

This initial analysis of the meaning of berith and diatheke is both more exegetically sophisticated and more linguistically refined than indicated by the studies of Torrance and Poole, which attempt to argue that the translation of berith and diatheke as foedus (or, in German, as Bund) misunderstand and misrepresent the biblical concept as a legal contract rather than as a promise, an oath, a pledge, or a command.

 

Richard Muller, The Theology of Herman Witsius and Wilhelmus A Brakel

Moses and Grace

the Puritans clearly saw how inconceivable it was to suppose that the Mosaic Covenant could be a cancellation of grace or a reversion to a basis of salvation by works. They contended, therefore, that the Mosaic Covenant could not possibly be inconsistent with grace.

 


Analytical Reformed

With an analytical method, one first considers the building itself in general; the point of departure is the whole. From there each element is considered, brick by brick, in order finally to arrive at the foundation. The synthetic method, on the other hand, implies that one first consider the foundation. Then all the other parts follow until one finally has an impression of the entire building.

...

After an initial preference for the analytical method, over the course of time few Reformed theologians—certainly in comparison to the Lutherans—chose to follow it. This led to the remarkable situation in which Lutheran theologians oriented themselves after the Heidelberg Catechism, which has an analytical structure, while the majority of Reformed theologians—who had an analytical catechism in their background—followed the synthetic method.

...

It may well be that Reformed thought holding up the salvation of mankind as the end of theology went too far. Theology ought, after all, to be concerned with God.

 


Divine Accommodation

For who is so devoid of intellect as not to understand that God, in so speaking, lisps with us as nurses are wont to do with little children? Such modes of expression, therefore, do not so much express what kind of a being God is, as accommodate the knowledge of him to our feebleness. In doing so, he must, of course, stoop far below his proper height.

 

Calvin, Inst 1:13:1