Themes in Puritan Theology: Covenants
August 9, 2018
Moving on from God’s historical execution (past and present) of his eternal decrees (timeless), we consider the “special act of providence” that God the creator exercised toward man when he was created (WSC, Q&A 12). In other words, God stooped down to freely enter into a relationship with man who was created in his image. This stems from what the Puritans would have regarded as a fitting summary for the entire Bible, God is determined to have a people for himself, a people in a living relationship with him by way of a covenant. Let’s consider in general (with all of its diversity!) a Puritan theology of the covenants.
First, the Puritans manifested a mature covenant theology with connections to the development of such from the sixteenth century. Connections existed with such Reformers as Johannes Oecolampadius, Heinrich Bullinger, Wolfgang Musculus, John Calvin, Peter Martyr Vermigli, Zacharias Ursinus, Caspar Olevianus, Robert Rollock and William Tyndale. Rather than erecting something new, the English Reformed built upon groundwork already laid and without some supposed softening of the doctrine of predestination and in connection with such developments a two-covenant theology of works and grace associated with a two-Adam federal representation, an emerging emphasis on a pre-temporal covenant between the Father and the Son, the revelation in history of the covenant of grace immediately after the fall, election as the foundation for the covenant of grace and the unconditional yet bilateral nature of the covenant of grace. Prominent background figures for the emergence of a Puritan covenant theology include Robert Rollock (1555–1599), William Perkins (1558–1602), and William Ames (1576–1633). This seventeenth-century settlement of covenant thought can be seen in the Westminster Confession of Faith (1648) but also in related contemporary works such as Edward Fisher’s Marrow of Modern Divinity (1645), and John Ball’s Treatise on the Covenant of Grace (1645), both published as the Westminster Assembly sat. The Westminster Confession of Faith, exhibiting continuity with the Irish Articles (1615), in general sets forth the standard two-covenant approach in which God condescended to Adam in the covenant of works, which when broken made the covenant of grace in Jesus Christ necessary.
Second, God entered into a “covenant of life” with man at the time of creation through Adam as a federal head (WSC, Q&A 12). In the Scriptures, covenants were established by God and between him and man as relational agreements. In a covenantal relationship, he promised and determined to be the God of his people and promised that they would be (and should be determined to be) his people. This covenant of life, also known as a covenant of “works” (WCF 7.2) was founded “upon the condition of perfect obedience,” and was made with Adam as a federal or “common head and representative for all mankind” after him (Thomas Vincent, An Explicatory Catechism, 1678). For the Puritans in general, God condescended in grace (unmerited favor not redemptive grace as shown to sinners) to Adam in the covenant of works by offering him something for his perfect obedience that he could never truly merit. So John Ball, in his Treatise speaks of God covenanting in “free grace and love” and offering a reward for his obedience “in strict justice,” but not according to merit. God could give less to Adam without doing any sort of “injustice” to him.
Third, Adam sinned and broke this covenant of life, bringing man under the wrath of God and subject to death and eternal punishment. So, when Adam fell into sin (defined as a lack “of conformity unto, or transgression of, the law of God,” WSC, Q&A 14), all mankind “sinned in him and fell with him” (WSC, Q&A 16). The Puritans spoke of “original sin” in its historical orthodox understanding, which involved the “imputation” of Adam’s sin, as his “disobedience” has “become ours” through his representative headship (Ames, The Marrow of Sacred Divinity, 1627). In summary, the relationship established by the covenant of life (works) was broken with man having “lost communion with God” and coming under his wrath to be subject “to all miseries in this life, to death itself, and to the pains of hell forever” (Q19).
Fourth, God made a second “covenant of grace” to deliver perishing sinners through a Redeemer, Jesus Christ, by free grace and according to unconditional election (WCF 7.4, WSC, Q&A 20). Still, while there existed grace in the covenant of works, the covenant that followed manifested “grace” to fallen sinners through the strict merit accomplished by Christ as the Redeemer. So, WLC, Q&A 31 makes the two-Adam two-covenant theology prevalent among the Puritans very clear in stating that the “covenant of grace was made with Christ, as the second Adam, and in him with all the elect as his seed” (based on Gal 3:16; Rom 5:15-21; Isa 53:10-11; 59:20-21). Jesus Christ as the Second (“last”) Adam (1 Cor 15:45) and as the federal representative accomplished what the first Adam did not - perfect obedience to the covenant of works. Furthermore, he undid the failure of the first – taking the full wrath of God in death as punishment for sin (Isa 53:6; 2 Cor 5:21). Our sins are imputed to him and his righteousness imputed to us (see John Owen, "The Doctrine of Justification by Faith through the Imputation of the Righteousness of Christ," 1677). Thus, as John Owen attests, “the covenant of works, both as to its commands and sanction, in the obedience and suffering of the mediator” is accomplished within the framework of the new covenant as an administration of the covenant of grace (Exposition of Hebrews, 8:1-10:39 in Works, 22:89,90).
Fifth, the Puritans differed on how they viewed the Mosaic covenant in relation to the covenants of grace and works. The Puritans differed on how to understand the moral law, effectively written on the heart within the covenant of works, as set forth in the Mosaic Covenant given at Sinai. Was it 1) a restatement of the covenant of works, 2) a mixed one of nature and grace, 3) a third subservient one related to tenure in the land, or 4) in substance an administration of the covenant of grace? The last of these was most common and was manifested in the Westminster Confession of Faith, which sees the Mosaic Covenant in substance as the covenant of grace “differently administered in the time of the law” through the various types and shadows of the ceremonial law pointing ahead to the substance in Christ. Yet, even in such a scheme, it was possible to see the Mosaic Covenant depending on one’s status in Christ. In this way, “believers be not under the law as a covenant of works” (implying that unbelievers are) but only as “a rule of life” the duty in which they walk as conditions of the covenant of grace (WCF 19.6). This is the distinction that Anthony Burgess makes even as he sees the Mosaic Covenant in substance as a covenant of grace as he observes that the law “largely” considered relates to its presentation within the context of grace (“with the preface and promises adjoined”) and “strictly” considered relates to its presentation within the context of works as a “rule of righteousness” demanding “perfect obedience” (Vindiciae Legis, 1646, 222-223)
Sixth, the covenant of grace made with Christ implied an eternal “covenant of redemption” among the members of the Godhead. While an eternal covenant of redemption (pactum salutis) is implied in WCF 8.1 and explicitly stated in the otherwise identical section of the 1658 congregational Savoy Declaration (8.1), Puritans varied on the matter of covenant of redemption and whether it was the same as or distinct from the covenant of grace. WSC, Q&A 20 only says that God “did enter into a covenant of grace” without explicitly saying with whom. WLC, Q&A 31 gets more to the point and seems to imply an eternal covenant of grace made “with Christ as the second Adam, and in him with all the elect as his seed.” In his comments on this declaration, Vincent, sees an eternal covenant made with Christ as the mediatorial representative of the elect, which existed as “the foundation of all that grace that was afterward promised in that covenant of grace.” In the end, as J.V. Fesko (The Theology of the Westminster Standards: Historical Context and Theological Insights) points out, “from the earliest days of the reception and interpretation of the Confession” (and so Catechisms), we can safely conclude that “the covenant of redemption was viewed as compatible with” it (and so them).
Seventh, the Puritans in general viewed the covenant of grace as both absolute and conditional. In general, the source of the covenant of grace, notes John Von Rohr, the Puritans saw in the “trans-historical” covenant of redemption (made between the Father and the Son) with its emphasis on Christ, the second Adam, as the foundation (The Covenant of Grace in Puritan Thought, 43-44). In this way, those who participate in the covenant of grace historically are those “elected for this favor” by predestination, which “lies behind covenant composition” and in this way “the covenant of grace” is absolute. Yet, in a manner in which they sought to distance themselves from the antinomian tendency to speak of the absolute nature of the covenant of grace in an imbalanced manner, the Puritans also saw the covenant as conditional keeping promise and duty together. So, Watson says that “the main condition” for the covenant of grace “is faith,” with works required not “as the condition of life” but “as signs of life.” Still, the focus is on the condition of faith in order to “exclude all glorying in the creature.”