Book Review: Johannes Cocceius on The Doctrine of the Covenant

Johannes Cocceius, The Doctrine of the Covenant and Testament of God, trans. Casey Carmichael, vol. 3, Classic Reformed Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2016). 408pp. Hardcover.
Johannes Cocceius (1603-1669) was one of the foremost figures in the so-called Dutch Further Reformation. He taught that doctrine alone could not save anyone (333), but that the truth must accord with godliness. Many who know his name today picture him as an early-modern proponent of biblical theology, as opposed to the logical deductions involved in what we call systematic theology. While this review will highlight the caricature involved in this assumption, The Doctrine of the Covenant and Testament of God represents the first English translation of his most famous (and partly infamous) book. This book is important because it provides English-speaking readers a glimpse into the development of Reformed covenant theology at its height. This review will illustrate some of Cocceius’ eccentricities, some of the potential benefits of his work, and assess the quality and use of the translation.
Some of Cocceius’ Eccentricities
By any account, Cocceius was an eccentric theologian. Contrary to some misconceptions, he was not an early father of modern biblical theology, who offered an alternative to systematic theology. As the late Willem van Asselt highlights in his introduction, Cocceius wrote his own Loci Communes and other seventeenth-century authors shared his concern for expounding the Bible in its historical context. The primary issues that divided Cocceian’s from the followers of his opponent, Gisbertus Voetius (1589-1676), were his teaching on paresis vs. aphesis (193, 228-230, 245, 295) and his teaching that the Sabbath required the sanctification of life rather than one day in seven (34, 203-205, 226). Later Cocceians often attempted to incorporate Cartesian philosophy into Reformed theology, which the Voetians opposed vigorously. Cocceius taught that the Old Testament saints received paresis, in which God passed over sins for Christ’s sake, but not aphesis, which entailed the actual forgiveness of sins. He argued that only under the New Testament did Old and New Testament saints receive both. His explanation of the covenant and testament of God was eccentric as well. He argued for five abrogations of the covenant of works that occurred through the introduction of sin (ch. 3), the introduction of the covenant of grace (ch. 4), the types introduced under Moses with their New Testament fulfillment (ch. 10), the death of believers (ch. 14), and the resurrection of the dead (ch. 15). In this way, he taught that the effects and power of the covenant of works were gradually abolished by the covenant of grace. He also distinguished sharply between common Latin terms for covenant in use in his day. Foedus was a generic term for covenants, while pactum and testametum described unilateral covenants. Foedus, by contrast, often referred to bilateral covenants. While these distinctions were not unusual per se, his overarching covenantal scheme was. He taught a standard view of the intra-trinitarian pactum between the Father and the Son in which the Son agreed to take on flesh to redeem the elect from the broken covenant of works, giving the Holy Spirit to them as a result. The covenant of grace, which began in Genesis 3:15, was a testamentum that found its highest expression in Abraham. However, the Mosaic covenant was another testamentum that was a legal administration of the covenant of grace (pages 205-226 provide 71 clarifications as to why this was not a covenant or works and why Cocceius retained a Reformed view of the law of God). The New Testament replaced this inferior testamentum, yet both testaments had subservient foedera attached to them requiring faith and repentance. Readers expecting a book that traces the gradual unfolding of covenant theology in Scripture along the lines of Herman Witsius (1636-1708) will be surprised, and possibly disappointed, by Cocceius’ presentation of the doctrine.
The Potenital Benefits of Cocceius
In spite of such peculiarities, Cocceius is worth digesting. He makes readers think carefully through biblical texts, for instance, when he presses the words of the doxology in Romans 11:33-36 as a test of sound doctrine (166-167). Cocceius’ ability to lead his readers to think through extended passages of Scripture in their original languages provides one of the greatest benefits of his text. His treatments of the sacraments of the Old and New Testaments are also superb, particularly in relation to Christ’s spiritual presence in them. Even his treatment of the five abrogations of the covenant of works has value, since he shows the gradual ways in which Christ removes every effect of the fall from His elect. While most readers will not likely choose to describe this process in terms of a five-fold abrogation of the covenant of works, the general idea is both sound and edifying. Cocceius is also historically important, since he was well respected and read widely even by those who disagreed with his teaching at points. In spite of the peculiarities noted above, he is actually relatively easy to digest and he offers much material that is calculated to stir up devotion to the Lord. His love for Christ is both clear and potentially contagious.
Comments on the Translation
As for the translation itself, it is generally readable, but often rough. The translator often attempted to shorten long Latin sentences by adding punctuation. However, this frequently results in incomplete sentences and arguments that can test readers’ concentration in following extended arguments. The translator often retains Latin diction as well and occasionally chooses ambiguous English words to render Latin terms into awkward English. He also sometimes translates pronouns as “he” when the context requires “she,” such as in the extended treatment of Ezekiel 16. In spite of these shortcomings, the translation still conveys the core of Cocceius’ thought while highlighting the fact that something will always be lost in translation.
This translation of Cocceius’ Covenant and Testament of God is an important benchmark in historical studies. While the Latin language makes most classic works of Reformed theology inaccessible to modern readers, it served as a means in the seventeenth century of securing an international exchange of ideas. While the gradual appearance of translations such as this one will (hopefully) spur some Reformed readers to learn how to read Latin, this book helps reveal a vital part of a vast treasure of classic Reformed literature. This is a heritage that is worth recovering.