Friday, March 9, 2012

Back to Biblical and Covenant Theology: the Mosaic Covenant

It's been a while since I've read biblical and covenant theology. It's hard for me to synthesize them with philosophical and systematic theology. J. V. Fesko has said that biblical theology is to building as systematic theology is to building inspector. That's the best way I can understand how they relate.

Anyways, a friend and I were discussing covenant theology recently, particularly whether or not the Mosaic covenant was an administration of the covenant of grace to individual Israelites and/or a typological republication of the covenant of works for corporate Israel. My friend thought that Galatians 4:24 was a direct reference to the covenant of works and that the reference to Mt. Sinai was to the eternal moral law of God (which always ought to be obeyed) rather than a synecdoche the Mosaic covenant, but I think I've convinced him that Galatians 3-4:20 sets the context for 4:21-31 to be understood as contrasting the Mosaic covenant with the covenant of grace. This would have interesting implications as to how we understand the purpose for which the Mosaic covenant was given. I was a little rusty while discussing this, so hopefully I can put some of my thoughts in order here.

The covenant of grace, while the same in essence throughout redemptive history, has been administered differently. As the Westminster Larger Catechism puts it:

Question 34: How was the covenant of grace administered under the Old Testament?

Answer: The covenant of grace was administered under the Old Testament, by promises, prophecies, sacrifices, circumcision, the passover, and other types and ordinances, which did all foresignify Christ then to come, and were for that time sufficient to build up the elect in faith in the promised Messiah, by whom they then had full remission of sin, and eternal salvation.

Question 35: How is the covenant of grace administered under the New Testament?

Answer: Under the New Testament, when Christ the substance was exhibited, the same covenant of grace was and still is to be administered in the preaching of the Word, and the administration of the sacraments of Baptism and the Lord's Supper; in which grace and salvation are held forth in more fulness, evidence, and efficacy, to all nations.

When the question is posed as to whether or not the Mosaic covenant falls under the rubric of the covenant of grace as administered in the Old Testament, in comparing the above exposition to Exodus 19:5-6, the answer appears to be negative. The purpose, rather, is to typologically revive the covenant of works.

Now, I have not committed myself to believing that the Mosaic covenant was a covenant merely superimposed onto the administrative history of the covenant of grace, for there are elements in it - especially the ritual laws which were fulfilled by Christ - which seem to indicate otherwise. But perhaps these only served to demonstrate that the covenant of grace was administered under the Mosaic covenant although not by it, since the Mosaic covenant was established upon but did not abrogate the Abrahamic.

If the essence of the Mosaic covenant is Exodus 19:5-6, then it would seem that the Mosaic covenant was with the nation of Israel rather than individual Israelites per se and typified the covenant of works, at least to the extent that such was possible for a collection of sinners. Adam, Israel, and Jesus are all uniquely connected to this covenant. Adam had Eden, Israel had the promised land of Canaan, and Christ has the promised land of new Eden. The former sons of God failed to meet the demands of the covenant of works, though there existence establishes a pattern which helps us to understand Christ's work. In the case of Israel especially, it was impossible for them to actually fulfill the covenant of works:

Even though they were not able to keep this law in the Pauline, spiritual sense, yea, even though they were unable to keep it externally and ritually, the requirement could not be lowered. When apostacy on a general scale took place, they could not remain in the promised land. When they disqualified themselves for typifying the state of holiness, they ipso facto disqualified themselves for typifying that of blessedness, and had to go into captivity. This did not mean that every individual Israelite, in every detail of his life, had to be perfect, and that on this was suspended the continuance of God's favor. Jehovah dealt primarily with the nation and through the nation with the individual, as even now in the covenant of grace He deals with believers and their children in the continuity of generations. - Geerhardus Vos, Biblical Theology pgs. 127-128

The point of "apostasy on a general scale" occurred when the nation as such acted in a sufficiently dissimilar manner to that which was necessary in order for there to be a recognizable connection to the obedience of one who actually rather than merely typologically attempted to fulfill of the covenant of works.

But strictly speaking, every Israelite was a sinner, so each broke this first covenant to which Paul refers in Galatians 4:24. So perhaps the Judaizers in Galatians 4 misunderstand the purpose of the Mosaic covenant by attempting to individualize its promises on the condition of general obedience. Or perhaps insofar as the Mosaic covenant typologically recapitulates the covenant of works, it would be more safe to say they understood its demands applied to themselves (which is true regarding the moral law) but misunderstood their own inability to meet its demands. In this case, they still misunderstood the purpose of the laws of the Mosaic covenant to be a means of salvation rather than a "tutor."

So I suppose all of this means I lean more toward a more Owenian (link) understanding of the Mosaic covenant, although Witsius' position could be arguable as well (cf. pgs. 35-39 here). Fesko's coming out with a new commentary on Galatians this month, so I'm looking forward to reading what more he has to say about this topic.


biblicalrealist said...


It seems to me that the Mosaic Law has elements of both the covenant of works and the covenant of grace. Its provisions of substitutionary atonement are pictures of grace, while its demands are pictures of law. It was a tutor not only to teach of grace and the Messiah who would come, but also to teach of law, sin, and the penalty due.

It was clearly a covenant with a nation, which is why none of its laws apply to any outside of that nation. The popular idea that sabbath and tithe can be extracted from that covenant and applied to current Christians is an error.

Although it was a national covenant for Israel alone, it's function as a tutor applied to individual Israelites, and it very pointedly illustrated God's wrath against individual sin, and His provision of grace through the offering in faith of an appropriate substitutionary victim.

You might find this post interesting:

Ken Hamrick

Brandon said...

Good stuff Ryan. Thanks for sharing your thoughts as you work through this difficult issue.

Here are a few articles I have found helpful in sorting through the issue:

Patrick Ramsey's "In Defense of Moses" does a very good job of explaining how the WCF views the Mosaic covenant (it rejects the typological republication/Owen view). The essay used to be available online, but Ramsey's blog has gone private.
I imagine it has gone private because of this: Overture Proposed to OPC Presbytery seeks Study on ‘Republication of the Covenant of Works in the Mosaic Covenant’

In my opinion it is clear that the WCF rejects Fesko's view. I have been very disappointed in how Fesko and others have tried to defend themselves from being contrary to the WCF. You referenced Michael Brown's essay. I found his attempt to squeeze Owen's view into the WCF to be troubling as well.

Fesko on Calvin
Iron Can't Sharpen Iron Without Honesty (Michael Brown)

Finally, I found this essay to be very helpful as it relates to this issue:
"Reformed Baptist Covenant Theology" Presentation by Samuel & Micah Renihan

Ryan said...

Thanks to both of you for the recommendations. I'm in learning mode here, so it's appreciated.

Brandon said...

It looks like Ramsey's article is now available here instead: along with several other essays.

(Note that Ferry's response to Ramsey -found in that link as well- is misleading in that he defends Kline based upon Kline's earlier views, which Kline later rejected... thus admitting that Kline's mature view is in fact rejected by WCF)

Nick said...

It seems to me the problem is this. Reformed Theology has conflicting views on how to understand the Mosaic Covenant because it does not fit into the Reformed presupposition of "Covenant of Grace" versus "Covenant of Works" dichotomy. Reformed Theologians get in trouble trying to put the Mosaic Covenant into either category.

The problem can be summarized as follows:

(1) If they say CoG, then why is Paul contrasting Moses to Christ if both are Grace? Thus, it cannot be CoG.

(2) If they say CoW, then how can they explain how those not in the Mosaic Covenant (such as Gentiles) are yet bound to the CoW demands for justification.

There is no good answer, and so the great Reformed Theologians must turn to 'hybrid' answers, which don't really answer the question and keep them disagreeing among eachother.

The cleanest and most elegant (and indeed Biblical and true) answer is that the Covenant of Works is false and fictitious concept.

An added problem some Reformed point out is that if Adam truly BROKE the CoW, it should be perpetually BROKEN and no longer offers Eternal Life, and thus the only alternative is the Cross.

Brandon said...

Nick, I would encourage you to read Owen's commentary on Heb 8:6-13. You neglected his interpretation of the Mosaic Cov (only about temporal blessings/cursings that reflect the eternal blessings/cursings of the CoW). Thus Owen answers (2) very well.

Ryan said...

"There is no good answer, and so the great Reformed Theologians must turn to 'hybrid' answers, which don't really answer the question and keep them disagreeing among eachother."

Like Thomism and Molinism?

Anonymous said...

If the Mosaic Covenant was a recapitulation of the Covenant of Works, and if the Gospel was preached beforehand to Abraham, then wouldn't Moses and the children of Israel have been guilty of apostasy in Exodus 19, when upon God's urging, they consented to the covenant?

Jeff Rojan

Ryan said...

I don't know if you read the post, but the Mosaic covenant only recapitulated the covenant of works typologically and at the national level. The covenant of grace is individual. That the Mosaic covenant recalls the covenant of works does not imply that the individual Israelites within that covenant were not necessarily in need of the covenant of grace, nor that there was anything "wrong" with the Mosaic covenant per se - except insofar that it couldn't save any individual.

Jeff said...

Types are given to to illustrate the terms of the covenant. If the Israelite understood the Abrahamic covenant as the gospel, by which he was saved apart from works, then to regress to a covenant of works would be apostasy similar to that of the Galatians. Whether this was an individual apostasy or national apostasy doesn't really matter.

No doubt, any presentation of the Gospel restates the terms of the covenant of works, "The wages of sin is death." But to present a sacramental system of works instructing the people in a way of salvation by works, is contrary to the Gospel. I believe, (with the majority of the Westminster Assembly) this is a dangerous misconstruing of the Mosaic covenant.

Ryan said...

" But to present a sacramental system of works instructing the people in a way of salvation by works..."

Where did I describe the Mosaic covenant in such terms? When I'm talking about the Mosaic covenant recapitulating the covenant of works, I have this passage in mind:

Galatians 4:21 Tell me, you who desire to be under the law, do you not listen to the law?
22 For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by a slave woman and one by a free woman.
23 But the son of the slave was born according to the flesh, while the son of the free woman was born through promise.
24 Now this may be interpreted allegorically: these women are two covenants. One is from Mount Sinai, bearing children for slavery; she is Hagar.
25 Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia; she corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children.
26 But the Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother.

Ken Hamrick said...


Have you considered the pre-Witsius/Cocceius position of Augustinian realism in lieu of federalism/covenant theology? Realism makes the Adamic covenant superfluous. Eating the forbidden fruit was sin in itself and needs no covenant to explain why Adam's nature was corrupted, his spirit died (was disunited from God), and he was under condemnation and wrath. And if God made man able to multiply after his kind in his entire nature, as every other creature was made, then both a sinful nature and an original participation would be propagated to all Adam's descendents, even without any covenant---and more justly so than under the covenant idea. Participation in Adam's sin by every man's immaterial moral nature is certainly a more just ground for suffering the consequences of that sin than a mere arbitrary representational covenant. And no covenant can transcend the greater moral framework of God. What's right and just is right and just; and what's wrong and unjust remains wrong and unjust whether or not a covenant is superimposed on the situation. Holding men accountable for the sin of a different man, with whom they have no tie connection other than the biological, would be wrong and unjust by any reasonable standard.