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Covenant Theology and the Question of Inference

July 20, 2009

For those interested, there is an interesting essay at Zao Thanatoo.

The author speaks to the inferential manner in which Covenant Theology seeks to anchor itself in Scripture.

A key comment has to be:

Most of the literature which I’ve seen presupposes the doctrines as part of Covenant Theology’s confessional framework and interprets Scripture in such a way as to show that it comports with those presuppositions. However, demonstrating that certain (even many) biblical statements can comport with a presupposition is not enough to establish a presupposition as biblical. It must be “explicitly set down or implicitly contained in the Holy Scripture.”

I can see his point. For example, when Federal theology was taking off, there was an attempt to anchor Federalist categories more deductively in Scripture.

Two examples come to mind.  Firstly, Richard Muller highlights one of them:

Beza, by way of contrast, moves the text into new doctrinal associations by way of pililological issues and re-translation. He renders the text “Ego vero discordant vobis, prout pactus est tnihi Pater meus regnum,” rendering diatithemi as paciscor, “to make a covenant” and, given the tenses of the verbs, we have, “I make a covenant with you [present] … as my father has made a covenant with me [past].”  Richard Muller, “Toward the Pactum Salutis: Locating the Origins of a Concept,” in Mid-America Theological Journal, 18 (2008), 40.

Of  course, if the original is justly translated covenant, then Federalist constructs are solidly grounded in Scripture. However, we know that the better more accurate translation is kingdom.

The second example comes from Berkof. Berkoh notes that the early Federalists took Zechariah 6:13

“Yes, it is He who will build the temple of the LORD, and He who will bear the honor and sit and rule on His throne. Thus, He will be a priest on His throne, and the counsel of peace will be between the two offices.”‘

as a reference to a covenant between the Father and the Son (Systematic Theology, 266). However, as he notes, we now recognise the problem with that interpretation. However, following Coceius, Witsius and others used this verse as a critical proof-text.

There are a couple of other lesser examples of this. For more reading, consult the Muller article (as cited above).

The author of the blog also puts to his readers the following question:

While my familiarity with the literature on Covenant Theology is by no means exhaustive, I have never seen a valid formal argument with true premises presented for any of the three covenants mentioned above (or even an attempt at such argumentation). If anyone can point me to an example of such an argument I’d be grateful.

This is an honest question, yet I am not sure there can be an answer. The method used to establish the various Federal categories are not even properly inductively established by, as he says, by way of congruency and by way of tendentious arguments, as this author points out

Needless to say, the fact that we know of these two, and other critical exegetical errors, do not, in and of itself, invalidate Federalism as a construct.

Provocative stuff for sure.

David

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. July 20, 2009 10:00 pm

    I’m glad to see my article was of some interest to you.

    Witsius’ Economy has become something of the standard historical work on the Federal perspective, though (in my humble estimation), it was rather tendentious in all the important places. Bullinger was the first to write a complete treatise from the Federalist perspective, and his emphasis on the Abrahamic covenant as the lens through which the rest of Scripture must be viewed has persisted within classically Reformed churches ever since (it is, after all, the supposition upon which the entire edifice of paedobaptism rests).

    It’s interesting to note that Calvin’s Institutes were structurally Trinitarian (theocentric), with repeated warnings about the impropriety of prying into the eternal mysteries of the Godhead. However, the subsequent Reformers focused their theology quite heavily on lapsarianism and eternal federalism (“mysterocentric” – to coin a term).

    The seeds of both issues can be found in Calvin (as Paul Helm has shown), but he wisely limited his own speculations on such matters, while his theological progeny had no such inhibitions. Meanwhile, the very nature of the issues surrounding the eternal decree and proposed eternal federalism are such that one’s conclusions on those matters will necessarily exert a tremendous influence on all other theological and exegetical endeavors.

    And, as Calvin so often warned us, extra-biblical intuitions regarding infinite, eternal matters from a finite, temporal perspective ought not to hold any sway over our exegesis of Scripture, much less become fundamental axioms of our hermeneutic.

    So, as a friend of mine is fond of saying, that is why I am not a cessationist regarding semper reformanda. I don’t think the “canon of theology” was closed in 1647 (or 1689 for that matter). It’s just the simple truth of sola Scriptura; the fact that this doctrine is still provocative today shouldn’t be surprising to us.

    Cheers!

  2. Flynn permalink*
    July 20, 2009 11:32 pm

    Hey there ZT,
    You say: I’m glad to see my article was of some interest to you.David: Your points were spot on. The weakest point in Federal thology is at the inferential level.
    I will try to track down an interesting article which makes much of the same points in the Masters Seminary Journal.
    You say:
    Witsius’ Economy has become something of the standard historical work on the Federal perspective, though (in my humble estimation), it was rather tendentious in all the important places. Bullinger was the first to write a complete treatise from the Federalist perspective, and his emphasis on the Abrahamic covenant as the lens through which the rest of Scripture must be viewed has persisted within classically Reformed churches ever since (it is, after all, the supposition upon which the entire edifice of paedobaptism rests).David: Just to be clear, Federalism and Covenant Theology are not identical. Federalism is a sub-set of Covenant Theology. One could be a Covenant Theologian but without being a Federalist. Federalism has to do with the idea of the covenant as a contract, and which then locates contractual arrangements between God and Adam, and the Father and the Son. Federalism sought to create the legal basis for imputation of adamic sin, and the economic transactions of the Trinity. But these ideas of contractual arrangements with Adam, or between the Father and the Son were not known until about the 1580s. And even after that, some of the Reformed were not Federalists, like Bucanus.  Bullinger has no concept of a covenant of works with Adam or of a contractual transactionalism between the Father and the Son. Merchantilist categories were also absorbed into emerging Federalism, post Ursinus.  While Calvin did at times define the covenant as a contract, he does not locate one Adam or between the Father and the Son.
    Its these ideas which interest me as a budding historical theologian.
    You say:
    It’s interesting to note that Calvin’s Institutes were structurally Trinitarian (theocentric), with repeated warnings about the impropriety of prying into the eternal mysteries of the Godhead. However, the subsequent Reformers focused their theology quite heavily on lapsarianism and eternal federalism (”mysterocentric” – to coin a term).
    David: Sure, Federalism and lapsarian were like keys that opened up “redemptive history” which gave the human observer a sort of bird’s eye view of this history from God’s perspective. Where Calvin, Luther, Bullinger, Musculus, et al, sought to describe that history from the point of view of the human in space and time.
    You say: The seeds of both issues can be found in Calvin (as Paul Helm has shown),
    David: Umm? Helm as an historian has been disappointing me lately.
    You say: but he wisely limited his own speculations on such matters, while his theological progeny had no such inhibitions. Meanwhile, the very nature of the issues surrounding the eternal decree and proposed eternal federalism are such that one’s conclusions on those matters will necessarily exert a tremendous influence on all other theological and exegetical endeavors.
    David: Sure, Calvin hinged the discussions around the secret will, which was for him, functionally the same as Luther’s Deus Absconditus.
    You say: And, as Calvin so often warned us, extra-biblical intuitions regarding infinite, eternal matters from a finite, temporal perspective ought not to hold any sway over our exegesis of Scripture, much less become fundamental axioms of our hermeneutic.David: In some ways we have out-Romanized the Catholics. We have a paper-Pope today: and quite a few of them. ;-)
    You say: So, as a friend of mine is fond of saying, that is why I am not a cessationist regarding semper reformanda. I don’t think the “canon of theology” was closed in 1647 (or 1689 for that matter). It’s just the simple truth of sola Scriptura; the fact that this doctrine is still provocative today shouldn’t be surprising to us.

    David: Exactly. Ive always used that expression myself.

    Thanks and take care,
    David

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