Chapter Eight



IN the Reformed Confessions of the sixteenth century Covenant-Terminology is seldom used. In fact there is only one example of the Covenant-concept occupying a place of prominence and that is in the title of the Second Scots Confession of 1580. This is designated the “National Covenant,” and for the first time we find a symbol of common agreement being described in this way. Probably the Old Testament record of covenants between the people and their king gave the necessary precedent for such a use.

But, although there are few explicit references to the covenant, the general Church-doctrine of Calvin was being warmly embraced. Nowhere, perhaps, does the true voice of the Reformation ring out with more joyful assurance than in the First Scots Confession of 1560. In this, the most notable of the early Reformed Confessions, there is no attempt to minimize the importance which the Church holds in the providential working of God in history. The Church is the community brought into being by God’s Promise. In the face of man’s defection, the Confession asserts, God made to Adam one most joyful promise, a promise which was made more and more clear and repeated from time to time. But those who have embraced the promise with joy, constitute the one Kirk of all the ages, a Kirk which God has preserved, instructed, multiplied, honored, adorned, and from death called to life throughout the history of mankind. This Kirk is distinguished from the rest of society by the three notes which had already become famous–the true preaching of the Word of God, the right administration of the Sacraments, and ecclesiastical discipline uprightly dispensed. These are the marks of the visible Church in the world. But the source and spring of the whole life of the Church is God’s Promise by which He called the new community into being and by which He renews and restores it from age to age.

With the turn of the century a significant change appears. The Covenant-conception begins to occupy an increasingly, important place in Reformed theology but it is interpreted in a way markedly different from that of earlier Reformed teaching. The new theory of the covenant comes to clear expression in the Irish Articles of 1615. First, reference is made to the Covenant of the Law ingrafted in man’s heart at creation whereby God did promise unto him everlasting life upon condition that he performed entire and perfect obedience to His commandments: but seeing that men broke this covenant of the Law, it was necessary for a second covenant to be inaugurated, the covenant of which Christ is the Mediator and whose purpose is man’s salvation. This is the framework which now receives ever fuller elaboration:– the Covenant of Works and the Covenant of Grace, each in its way a contract between God and man, each promising man life and salvation upon definite conditions. The outstanding difference between the covenants is to be found in the fact that whereas the first demanded unquestioning obedience, the second demanded unqualified faith. It is the same God who made each covenant and it may be assumed, therefore, that the purpose and general structure of each covenant is the same. In other words God is a God who enters into contract with men, who binds Himself to bestow blessings if only they will fulfill certain conditions. The supreme mark of His grace is that when men failed to keep the first covenant, He did not abandon them entirely. Instead He made a second compact, one moreover which might seem at first sight to demand less of man than the first. Obedience having proved impossible, obedience was replaced by faith. So the dialectic between Law and Gospel which Calvin sought to maintain is broken and instead we have two successive eras, in one of which God deals with man in one way, in the second of which He deals with him in another. In all this there is a serious danger of losing the vision of the One personal Living God who at all times and under all circumstances deals with man both in judgment and in grace.

The Federal Theology, as it has come to be called, seemed to provide just the system or schema that men were seeking in the period of consolidation after the revolutionary changes of the sixteenth century. A dialectical interpretation of reality does not lend itself to an easy formalization whereas a succession of contracts can be systematized within a legal framework. A covenant expressed in terms of direct personal relationships is a source of inestimable strength and comfort to the individual or to the struggling group whose only hope is in the mercy of God. But once a group is established and inspired with growing confidence, it tends to look for something more concrete, more definite, more constitutional and this is exactly what the developing Churches of the Reformation found in the doctrine of the Two Covenants. Robert Rollock1 in Scotland, William Ames in England, James Ussher in Ireland, Johannes Cocceius and later Hermann Witsius in Holland, all wrote treatises on the Covenant-and Puritan and Calvinist alike found in this one idea the necessary framework for a new theological and ecclesiastical system.


This system comes to classical expression in the great Confessional statement of the mid-seventeenth century, the Westminster Confession. A joint production of English Puritans and Scottish Calvinists, it was designed to produce "a covenanted uniformity in religion betwixt the Churches of Christ in the Kingdoms of Scotland, England and Ireland.” After a preliminary chapter on Holy Scripture, the source of that knowledge of God which is necessary unto salvation, the Confession proceeds to set forth its doctrine of God’s essential nature, His eternal decree, His creative and providential activity, and His judgment upon the transgression of man. Then comes Chapter 7 which may well be regarded as the center and turning point of the Confession. It gathers together what has already been said and opens the way to all that is to follow concerning the salvation which is in Christ. And it does this in definite and systematic fashion by its use of the covenant-concept.

Chapters 2-6 in the Confession have emphasized in no uncertain terms the "infinite qualitative difference" between God and man. God is infinite in being, in perfection, in holiness, in knowledge; His decrees are most wise, most free, most mysterious, most effectual, His power in creation and ‘ providence is absolute. Man on the other hand is a creature whose sole duty and responsibility it is to give to God "whatsoever worship, service or obedience" He is pleased to require. So, Chapter 7 begins, man could never have drawn near to God and found in Him his true blessedness save "by some voluntary condescension on God’s part" and it is this voluntary condescension which God has been pleased to express by way of covenant. At once the appeal of the Covenant–idea becomes manifest. In Chapters 2-6 of the Confession man could only behold the vision of the unapproachable majesty and the omnipotent power of God. In His hands are all the issues of life and death. His mysterious decree is glorious and immutable. On the other hand man is not only a creature, he is a fallen creature who has become dead in sin and wholly defiled in all the faculties and parts of soul and body. But now in Chapter 7 the first glimmer of light appears. God has come down, has revealed Himself, has begun to make His purpose known, has expressed His will "by way of covenant.” In its first form, the covenant is defined as a covenant of works,–God, as it were, pledging Himself to give life to Adam and to his posterity on condition that they would maintain an attitude of perfect and personal obedience. But this, we must urge, is no particular condescension on God’s part. Man by his very creation was bound to give perfect obedience to God, for the law of God was written in his heart and power to fulfill it was also there (4.2). If an explicit command was added this could only have been in the nature of a legal confirmation of something already known; it was not a covenant in the Biblical sense of the term. The so-called Covenant of works is really a fictitious invention which has no Scriptural foundation. It may have been an attempt to justify the ways of God to men but actually it introduced confusion and, most serious of all, it tended to give a false view of the nature of the Covenant of Grace about which the Confession was soon to speak.

Once the idea is accepted that a Covenant is in its essence an affair of strict conditionsif you will do something, I will do somethingthe heart of the Gospel has been lost. The very glory of the Covenant with Abraham is that God, out of His own pure grace, comes to man just as he is and promises to be His God. Such a Covenant must naturally involve conditions in its developed form, but the essence of the Covenant is not the ultimate condition but the initial promise. The difference may seem small but it strikes at the heart of evangelical religion. To promise oneself without explicit conditions–that is Covenant: to promise a gift upon explicit conditions–that is Contract. And there can be little doubt that in Chapter 7, Section 2 of the Confession, Covenant is interpreted as Contract and this interpretation was bound to affect every subsequent reference to Covenant which the chapter contained. The exposition of the Covenant of Grace contains nothing that could be called new. Through the Covenant God promises His Spirit to the elect to "make them willing and able to believe.” Through faith they can receive the gift of life and salvation by Jesus Christ. It is true that in this description of the Covenant there is a greater emphasis upon the’ free grace of God. Apparently without condition He promises to give His Holy Spirit to the elect, but now there seems to be no possibility of man’s personal response in faith. There is no real meeting and hence again no real covenant. The Covenant has even ceased to be a contract: it has rather become a deus ex machina automatically bringing life and salvation to the elect. This in fact is what tended to happen to the dialectic of Law and Gospel in all later Reformed Theology: it became a dichotomy of Contract and Compulsion. The first Covenant offered man life on condition: the second gave man life by compulsion. To be sure it often happened that the second was also interpreted as a covenant on condition: if a man would believe he would receive the gift of life and in this way the second covenant took on the exact pattern of the first. Nothing could more clearly show how hard it is to systematize and formalize dialectical personal relationships!

The Confession takes up the question of the difference between the Covenant in the Old Testament ,and that in the New and explains it is being due to a difference of administration. Under the Old it was administered by promises, prophecies, types and ordinances, all fore-signifying Christ to come and sufficient to build up the elect in the faith of the promised Messiah. Under the New, Christ the substance was exhibited and the covenant came to be dispensed in the preaching of the Word and in the administration of the sacraments. "There are not therefore two covenants of grace differing in substance, but one and the same under various dispensations" (7.6). Later in the Confession reference is again made to the covenant of works. It was not abrogated by the fall of man but continued to be a perfect rule of righteousness. As such it was actually delivered to man in the form of the Sinaitic code. No longer then does it serve as the final criterion for justification or condemnation–that criterion is to be found in the Covenant of Grace alone–but it is still of great use to believers as a rule of life. One cannot but feel that much of this reasoning is in the nature of an excuse for retaining the Ten Commandments in the Church as a standard of conduct. It does little to clarify the covenant relation between God and man.

In regard to the Church, the Confession says surprisingly little, and there is nothing to indicate that its ecclesiology was consciously dependent upon the Covenant-conception. Indeed, as Professor J. T. McNeill has pointed out in his valuable study of the doctrine of the Church in Post Reformation Reformed theology,2 the new emphasis on the two Covenants in the seventeenth century is reflected in the formal doctrine of the Church in only a quite limited fashion. The Confession proceeds to identify the invisible church with the elect and the visible church with all those throughout the world that profess the true religion, together with their children. Within the visible church the doctrine of the gospel is taught and the ordinances administered, sometimes more, sometimes less purely. But there will always be a visible church within which the saints can be gathered and perfected and outside this church there is no ordinary possibility of salvation. As the later chapter on Sacraments makes clear, the life of the Church is in some way dependent upon the covenant of grace but the nature of this connection is never made clear in the Confession. The meager reference to the Church in this definitive statement of doctrine contrasts strangely with the comprehensive treatment of the subject in Calvin’s Institutes. Thus our judgment must be that the doctrine of the two Covenants not only brought the whole idea of the Covenant into confusion, but also failed to retain it as the central principle of the Reformed doctrine of the Church.


The Longer and Shorter Catechisms which were also composed by the Westminster Divines add little to the Covenant ideas which the Confession itself contains. But another document became attached to the Confession and the Catechisms and this is of particular interest in relation to the development of Covenant theology. It is known as The Sum of Saving Knowledge and claims to be a brief sum of Christian Doctrine contained in the Scriptures and holden forth in the Confession of Faith. It is conveniently set out under four main heads and is remarkable for its consistent use of covenant terminology. It leaves us in no doubt that the Covenant schema is the essential framework of the Confession and it confirms what we have already suggested, that in the view of the Divines there was no real distinction between Covenant and Contract. Under Head 1 it is affirmed that our first parents had the law of obedience written in their hearts and therefore they had either to follow their true nature by obeying it or repudiate their true nature and die. God, however, brought this law into open expression. He made it into "a covenant or contract" whereby upon condition of perfect personal obedience they would gain life: if they failed, death would be their due reward. Thus what was unconscious in the natural order of things was made conscious and personal by the direct covenant of God. Life and death ceased to be natural consequences: they took on the character of reward or punishment as the case might be.

In Adam the whole of mankind fell, and “lost all ability to please God.” Yet a way of salvation has been revealed, the way of “the covenant of redemption made and agreed upon between God the Father and God the Son, in the council of the Trinity, before the world began.” Much more clearly than in the Confession itself, it is shown that the Covenant of Grace was in its essence a Covenant between the Father and the Son. On condition that the Son would humble Himself even to the death of the cross, the Father covenanted to give Him the elect to be by Him ransomed and redeemed from sin and death. This condition the Son accepted and fulfilled. "But by virtue of the aforesaid bargain, made before the world began, he is in all ages, since the fall of Adam, still upon the work of applying actually the purchased benefits unto the elect; and that he doth by way of entertaining a covenant of free grace and reconciliation with them, through faith in himself; by which covenant he makes over to every believer a right and interest to himself and to all his blessings." Thus Christ Himself has accomplished the full conditions of the covenant for the sake of the elect, and by outward means and ordinances preaching,–the sacraments, Church–government, and prayer–the elect are received, confirmed, hedged in and helped forward unto the keeping of the covenant. The effective agent in all this is the Spirit who applies to the elect the saving graces of the covenant and converts their persons so that they embrace Jesus Christ unfeignedly.

In this Sum of Saving Knowledge the seventeenth century conception of Covenant comes to formative expression. It is a contract established upon definite conditions. It can be made with a "public person" for the sake of his descendants. The contract with Adam failed but this failure had been foreseen by God and had been, as it were, forestalled by an earlier contract within the Divine council. There the contract made with Christ included His descendants but the conditions could be fulfilled by Him alone. Because He completely accomplished His side of the bargain, His seed, the elect, enjoy the benefits of His redeeming act. By the Spirit they are brought into actual enjoyment of the purchased benefits and thereby may be said to constitute a covenant community (though this phrase does not occur in The Sum). Actually the covenant terminology was already being freely used in reference to those who had pledged themselves to profess the true religion. 2 Kings I I: 17: "And Jehoiada made a covenant between the Lord and the king and the people, that they should be the Lord’s people; between the king also and the people" had become a key text and it was assumed that those who pledged themselves to an outward confession of faith could be regarded as belonging to the covenant-community even though, in the deepest sense, those only were the children of the covenant who had been effectually called into the Covenant of Grace made between the Father and the Son in the councils of the Eternal Trinity. In fact the “invisible” Church embraces those who were redeemed in Christ through the eternal covenant of the Father and the Son: the “visible” Church includes those who have pledged themselves to God and to one another by committing themselves to the Covenant of Grace in its outward form.


We have seen that from the beginning of the seventeenth century onward the Covenant-idea was gaining ground both, amongst the Puritan leaders in England and amongst Calvinists elsewhere. In England the men who exercised the greatest influence were William Perkins, William Ames and John Preston whose works were appearing between 1609 and 1643, but, as subsequent history was to show, their influence was not confined to England. Beyond the seas in New England the doctrine of the covenant was from the beginning, writes Perry Miller, "a fundamental tenet, the basis for much thinking which was ecclesiastical, political and social as well as theological.”3 Indeed it is not too much to say with H. Shelton Smith that in this idea there was found "the germ of both political and religious democracy.”4 If one idea held together the bands of the early colonists and gave them strength and patience to persevere in building up a new civilization it was the idea that God had covenanted Himself to them and that they were in covenant with Him.

It is the whole purpose of the fourth section of Perry Miller’s great book on The New England Mind to show that the Covenant-idea was the most potent factor in shaping the beliefs, the laws, and the social polities of the early settlers. He shows that Puritan theology was already finding it hard but necessary to steer carefully between the extremes of Arminianism and Antinomianism, each of which would have undermined the primary Puritan emphasis upon the majestic moral sovereignty, of God. And it was through the theory of the Covenant, he believes, that a way was found of upholding the moral law and at the same time of giving man the assurance he needed of his own individual salvation. The substance of the federal theology as it came to be expounded in New England has been set forth so admirably by Miller that we shall quote his chief summary at length.

He begins by an examination of the word "covenant" itself as it was used by the theologians. By it, he says, they understood "just such a contract as was used among men of business, a bond or a mortgage, an agreement between two parties, signed and sworn to, and binding upon both." It is entirely voluntary on both sides. There can be nothing of natural necessity about it but it must be the undertaking of utterly untrammeled wills. Being thus undertaken, it constitutes the strongest tie by which man can ever be bound. "In a covenant he is infinitely more liable than in a promise, more obligated than by a law, more involved than in a testament, more answerable than for his oath." And he continues . . . "An absolute monarch can change his laws every day, forswear his oaths, make promises and break them by the score, re-write his testament as often as he pleases, but once he enters a covenant, though with but the humblest of his peasants, he is held as with hoops of steel. One who owes a debt of money may abscond, or of friendship may prove false, the day laborer may go elsewhere to-morrow; but when a man has made a covenant with his landlord, his friend, or his employer, he can never escape his commitment. Starting from absolute independence, the covenant leads to mutual subjection; in a universe where nothing seems certain, it alone produces certainty; in a society where men cannot be relied upon, it creates reliability. It is the only point at which might and weakness can meet on a footing of right.

"the federal Theology appropriated this concept and fastened it upon both God and Man. . . . Out of His mere pleasure, God in the Covenant gives men something new, something over and above, their mere existence, something gratuitous, and then by affixing His seal to the grant translates the bestowed privilege into a right. He who might rule by fiat limits himself to a contract; He who could exact tribute to the last farthing consents to parliamentary taxation. The Covenant between God and man is an agreement of unequals upon just and equal terms, ‘in which God promises true happiness to man, and man engages himself by promise for performance of what God requires.’ It may be, as Preston said, a difficult point to grasp, ‘yet you must know it, for it is the ground of all you hope for, it is that that every man is built upon, you have no other ground but this, God hath made a Covenant with you, and you are in Covenant with Him.’"5

In their expositions of the Covenant theology the New England divines at first held closely to the, schema which we have already outlined. They spoke of the law of God written in man’s heart which had been made open and explicit in the Covenant of works, so that from the time of the making of the covenant disobedient man was involved not simply in a sin which could be called the denial of his true nature but also in deliberate guilt which was the result of his conscious rejection of the law of God. They spoke further of the Covenant of Grace, interpreting it as a contract like the first but as resting upon a condition of faith rather than of works. This second Covenant was a marvelous device of wisdom and of grace for it did not annul the first covenant or make it obsolete but provided a new context within which it could operate effectually. Those who carried the guilt of the broken law could receive forgiveness through the covenant of grace and could then apply themselves in a wholly new spirit to fulfill the covenant of works. But this did not complete the theological framework. In line with the teaching of The Sum of Saving Knowledge they laid great stress upon the archetype of the Covenant of Grace which they called The Covenant of Redemption. This Covenant had been made within the eternal counsels of God and it formed the pattern and the foundation of the Covenant of Grace. The Covenant of Redemption, they said, could be regarded as "the procuring cause of the Covenant of Grace" :6 in their view it had provided the way for God to reconcile sinful man to Himself without impugning His justice or infringing His law.

In the fully developed system of Covenant Theology, the very life of the Eternal Trinity is described (to use a famous distinction) not so much in terms of status as of contract. The emphasis does not lie upon the eternal relationship of mutual love within the Trinity but rather upon a definite mutual commitment within that life whereby the Son, acting as federal representative for the elect, voluntarily undertook the mission of redemption on their behalf and whereby the Father, of His infinite grace, voluntarily guaranteed the gift of life and salvation to those so redeemed. Thus in the life of God as well as in the life of man the Covenant was given the place of supremacy. Natural life might be the necessary preliminary but it was only a preliminary to be superseded as soon as possible. There was presumably a mutual relationship between Father and Son in the very nature of things: but it was far more acceptable to the Puritan thinker to conceive the relationship in terms of freely-willed contract rather than of organically-given nature. Similarly there was undoubtedly a moral law written originally in man’s nature, but it was altogether more desirable that this should be viewed as an open contract freely consented to rather than as an inner principle directing man’s being towards either life or death. Already the New England aversion to, fear of, recoil from, nature is apparent. Everything must be open to the light of day: it must be apprehensible by the intellect and obeyable by the will: it must be expressible in terms of free human commitment and solemn engagement. For all this the covenant-idea, when interpreted in contractual terms, gave the very pattern of thought that was needed.


The relevance of all this to the doctrine of the Church is obvious. "The heart of the church theory (i.e. of the New England Puritans) was the church covenant. Regenerate men, the theory ran, acquire a liberty to observe God’s commanding will, and when a company of them are met together and can satisfy each other that they are men of faith, they covenant together, and out of their compact create a church. Therefore each society is an autonomous unit, and no bishops and archbishops, no synods and assemblies, have any power, either from the Bible or from nature~ to dictate to an independent and holy congregation."7 That this theory was very different from that of the Church of England goes without saying. But it is important to notice that it is also very different from that of the Church of Scotland and indeed from that of the classical Calvinist tradition wherever it was held. According to the Calvinist theory God’s covenant was with a whole people and it was not for man to attempt to discriminate between those who were within and those who were without the covenant. Notorious sinners might be disciplined and excluded from participation in the privileges of the covenant. Yet the basic principle remained that the Church is one, sometimes more, sometimes less visible, but the same Church of God appearing in every place. It is true that there had already been occasions when those belonging to the true Reformed faith had pledged themselves to the covenant in the same way that the people under Jehoiada had engaged themselves afresh to the covenant of the Lord.

But there was no thought of this being a special covenant for a particular group in a particular place. Yet this is what the New Englanders were determined to have. In every place which became newly settled the all-important thing was that those who knew themselves to be within the Covenant and had given some evidence of the genuineness of their conversion, should join together in a solemn and public compact to walk together in such away as the Gospel of Christ required of the members of every Christian Church. This, they held, was the New Testament norm even though the actual Covenant-terminology was not employed therein in precisely this way. Indeed civil conditions were such in New Testament times that it had been impossible for the covenant-pattern to be developed in its fullness. But now on the virgin soil of New England it could be worked out ecclesiastically and politically. At the heart of each new township there was to be the church, consisting of all those who had committed themselves to the sacred covenant. They’ had the right to elect their own minister and to administer all godly discipline and to vote on all the chief issues affecting the welfare of the community. Outside the covenanted community there were the remainder of the inhabitants who were expected to support the church by attending services and paying taxes, though in the actual conduct of its affairs they had no voice. Such a conception of the church and its relation to society is clearly different from the sectarian ideal which was already gaining ground in Europe and was destined soon to have a tremendous influence upon the developing social life of America. The sectarians desired to form self-contained societies apart from the heathen world: the New England Puritans wished to make their societies in every case the living center of the unregenerate world. The sectarians were bound together into their particular societies by varying kinds of bonds–ecstatic, economic, visionary, functional: the New Englanders knew of only one all important bond–the bond of the covenant, openly and publicly declared in contractual terms. The New England exalted the intellect, the sectarians the emotions. The New Englanders sought for the establishment of the Divine society in this world: the sectarians looked for it in the world to come.

Thus in between the Presbyterian doctrine of the one Divinely created community of the Covenant and the sectarian theory of multifarious groups of Spirit-inspired devotees there arose the new theory of the autonomous local church whose members, though deriving their status from the one Covenant of Grace, had in addition freely and voluntarily bound themselves to one another and to God in a solemn covenant whose terms were openly known and declared. It is of vital importance that this threefold distinction should be recognized for it is often assumed that there are only two main strands within Protestant church theory. This is partly due to the fact that in the Old World there was always so much overlapping and interdependence that it was always hard to work out a new theory into actual social expression. But this was not the case in the New World, and for this reason alone it is only in the light of experiments carried on in the developing social life of America that we are able to see clearly what are the main types of church theory within the boundaries of Reformed Christendom.

F.W. Dillistone, The Structure of the Divine Society (Philadelphia, Westminster Press, 1949), 130-144. [Some reformatting, some spelling modified; italics original; bracketed footnote mine; and underlining mine.]


1[The original incorrectly has Robert Pollock.]

2J.T. McNeill, in The Journal of Religion, Vol. 22, pp. 251-69, Vol 24, pp. 96-107.

3Perry Miller, The New England Mind, p. 503.

4H. Shelton Smith, Faith and Nature, pp. 134-5.

5Miller, op. cit., pp. 375-6.

6Quoted Miller, op. cit., p. 406.

7Miller, op. cit., p. 435.

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6 comments so far


Fascinating. What does Dillistone mean by the phrase “A dialectical interpretation of reality?” I was wondering how he was using the word “dialectical.” Thanks!

April 23rd, 2013 at 11:53 am

Hey there,

On pages 196-7 he defines dialectics by way of classic Hegelianism: thesis, antithesis, synthesis, etc.

What exactly does Dillistone mean with regard to the law and the gospel is not that easy to discern. I gather he means that in the process of salvation-history, there was a process which he believes Calvin understood it as working out via a law-gospel dialectic. However, with the Federalist category of the Covenant of Works that dialectic is undercut because now we have two separate and discrete ages, where God dealt with man one way, with a distinct method and end-point (teleology), and then another way.

A Federalist might suppose that still there is a sort of dialectical process, but I think Dillistone’s point is that the end-point or teleology and the “salvation-means” are completely different. For Calvin, law was subsumed under the Covenant of Grace, as Gospel was, the only difference was one of emphasis (like lots of conditions versus a simple condition). Federalism breaks this up, by inserting a CoW “law” as purely intended as self-salvation. Of course, this would have to play havoc for those early Federalists who argued that the Mosaic Covenant was a formal (as opposed to material) republication of the CoW. [The Federalist concept of “pactum merit” would throw a monkey wrench into the works, I would think.]

At this point, this would be my initial surmising of what Dillistone was trying to get to.

Thanks for stopping by,

April 23rd, 2013 at 12:25 pm

Thanks, that’s very helpful.

April 23rd, 2013 at 12:52 pm

I would add too, that in the classic law-gospel distinction there is a tension present in the very process of salvation. For example, grace in law, and law in grace. As Allis points out in his classic work “Prophecy and the Church” there is grace in the Mosaic Covenant (MC) and there is law in the New Covenant (NC). That injects a sort of living dialectic into the life of the Christian.

Federalism, however, tends to flatten out this tension. I think we see a lot of this in many modern Reformed reactions to Federal Vision theology. Federal theology lends itself to sharp divisions or dichotomies, wherein Federal Theology wants to move away from sharp dichotomies. At least from my perspective watching the dialogue between the two camps.

Calvin would have had no significant problems with Federal Vision (at least not the ones many modern Federalists have), yet Modern Federalists do have a problem and I suspect because of the very core reasons Dillistone touched on.


April 23rd, 2013 at 1:43 pm

Yes, I quite agree. In my interaction with Lutheran friends, I’ve often maintained that the Law/Gospel paradigm is more existential than historical or worse, a hermeneutics.

April 23rd, 2013 at 2:56 pm

Hey there,

I am not sure I understand you there. As I understand the law-gospel distinction as used by post-Luther Lutherans, the tendency is to see greater discontinuity, whereas Calvin holds them both in tension because of his “third use of the law” concept.

I say post-Luther Lutherans because I recently read an article that suggested Luther did have a Calvin-like “third use of the law.”

What I like about some modern Reformed theologians like Berkouwer, Barth, O’Donovan, and others, is that they better recognize the newness of the NC. They are not stuck in trying to resolve the continuity vs discontinuity tension generated as a result of early Reformation/Reformed investigations.

I think Dillistone has his finger on the problem when he says this: “One cannot but feel that much of this reasoning is in the nature of an excuse for retaining the Ten Commandments in the Church as a standard of conduct.”

I think that is what has driven many questions related to this. I think Calvin’s concept of the Covenant of Grace, which enfolded a law-gospel distinction was one viable solution but it was too unstable, too dynamic. On the other hand, early or naive Federalism’s solution of juxtaposing the CoW with the MC, sub-suming the latter purely under the covenant of grace apparently solved the tension pregnant in the earlier and simpler law-gospel distinction. But as you probably know, the early Federalist synthesis soon began to unravel as question of whether or not the MC was a republication of the CoW and if so, in what sense. This threw the nifty Federalist solution back into flux. This flux is what has, in its turn, driven the opposing sides from Westminster west and Westminster east, ie, Klinean conditionalism vs Murrayite unconditionalism. And hence back to much of the anti Federal Vision, anti-NPP rhetoric.

From my reading, most of the modern skirmishes I see on blogs and academic literature arise for a big part in a lack of historical awareness regarding how critical questions have been “shaped” or how they have evolved over the years.


April 23rd, 2013 at 3:51 pm

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