Reconciling the Two Covenants in the Old Testament: A Review Article

Brian J. Lee

Ordained Servant: April 2010

God's Profitable Word

Also in this issue

Hearing the Word in the Modern World, Part 2

In What Sense? A Review Article

Review of God's Word in Servant-Form

Review of Exploring the Origins of the Bible

Seven Stanzas at Easter

The Law is Not of Faith: Essays on Works and Grace in the Mosaic Covenant, eds., Bryan D. Estelle, J. V. Fesko, and David VanDrunen. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2009, 358 pages, $16.99, paper.

Covenant theology is one of the key distinctives of Reformed theology, and you'd be hard pressed to find a Reformed believer who didn't consider themselves in some sense to be "covenantal" in their approach to Scripture. The problem is, what that means today isn't entirely clear. "Covenantal" is a term that can be so elastic as to mean practically anything, with the result that it means nothing.

The Law is Not of Faith is an important book because it identifies a particular understanding of works and grace in the Mosaic economy to be constitutive of Reformed covenant theology. The authors of this book bring many different perspectives to this task, but they all share the conviction that at Sinai the Lord in some sense reestablished the merit-based probation of the Garden of Eden, as a grand and conclusive demonstration of sinful humanity's plight under the curse of the law. All this, while simultaneously holding forth in shadowy form the gracious Abrahamic promise of the coming Messiah who would deliver from the curse of the law. Furthermore, they all believe that this view of works and grace in the Mosaic economy is crucial for a right understanding of the work of Christ and the gospel, and is the mainstream historic view of those that have subscribed to the Reformed confessions.

If you think you are covenantal but aren't sure whether you agree with that last paragraph, or don't know if you've ever even heard such a thing before, you should buy this book and read it. One of the hallmarks of covenant thought in the Reformed tradition is diversity, so I am not naïve enough to insist that every office-bearer that subscribes to the Reformed confessions must also subscribe to this book, or its view of the covenants. But the fact that many ministers and elders are unaware of such a mainstream view in our tradition is unacceptable.

If you are not convinced, I hope in the following pages to give you further reason to take and read. In this review essay, I attempt to present in some detail the strongest essays in this collection, while also identifying some of the challenges inherent in a project of this nature. The eleven essays of this volume are divided into historical (3), biblical (6), and theological studies (2), and the editors encourage the reader to tackle the material in the order of its presentation. These distinctions are helpful, and the breadth of expertise reflected by our authors is a real strength of this volume. While I agree with the editors' presentation of the material (it makes particular sense for newcomers to the topic), for the purposes of this review I will invert the order of reading, beginning with the last essay, and moving to the first.

The Contrast between Sinai and Zion

Michael Horton's essay, "Obedience is Better than Sacrifice," is one of the best in the volume, though not self-evidently on topic. However, once you understand how it relates to this topic, you probably are a long way along the road to grasping the significance and rationale for the republication thesis. And that rationale is to faithfully express the contrast between Sinai and Zion in the eyes of the New Testament, without undermining the fundamental continuity and coherence of redemptive history.

Horton identifies a crucial aspect of that contrast in his contribution—the "obedience" and "sacrifice" of his title, which can also be expressed as the contrast between the freedom of Zion opposed to the bondage and merit of Sinai. What is valuable about his approach is that he demonstrates the explanatory force and value of covenant theology in a way that moves outward from the person and work of Christ. This reflects the historical development of covenant theology itself, which was not an abstract exercise but a concrete attempt to explain the work of Christ.

This essay also shows that the contrast that covenant theology seeks to articulate is much broader than the Pauline contrast between law and gospel, or works and faith. Of course, there is nothing wrong with developing a theology from a Pauline foundation; his writings are central to and constitutive of the New Testament canon. But building exclusively on a Pauline law/gospel foundation for covenant theology lends credence to the view that proponents are suffering from a Lutheran hangover. It also makes covenant theology particularly susceptible to the reappraisal of Paul's thought that we are currently experiencing.

Horton's obedience/sacrifice contrast draws upon Paul's Sinai/Zion contrast, but it really moves from the thought of the Psalmist (Ps. 40) to the Epistle to the Hebrews (Heb. 10). And this demonstrates a recurring theme of this volume: the republication thesis is an attempt to articulate a series of contrasts that exist within the Old Testament canon itself. It is a common misinterpretation of covenant theology that it relates primarily to the relation between the Old Testament and New, or the Old Covenant and the New, or between the Jew and the Christian. But it is far more fundamentally an attempt to reckon with the contrast between Abraham and Moses, and their respective covenantal administrations.

Understood in this way, Paul's law/gospel schema is not an imposition on Old Testament data; it is rather a fundamental wrestling with the single greatest challenge to the interpretation of the Old Testament presented by the gospel of the risen Christ. Paul is the first in a long line of federal theologians wrestling with the Old Testament data.

Finally, Horton's essay reflects the eschatological aspect of the republication thesis. The eschatology of the New Testament places the believer in Christ on the far side of the probation, in the Sabbath rest, something that neither the first Adam nor Israel ever attained. The republication of the covenant of works is a typological re-establishment of the probation; it is a dramatic re-staging of the tragedy of the Garden. It could just as well be called the "re-probationing." In the context of God's saving message, it makes absolutely clear that salvation will be no mere parole for good behavior.

David VanDrunen in the other theological essay in this book seeks to demonstrate how the natural law undergirds both the Adamic and Mosaic covenants. The use of the term "natural law" remains off-putting to many, despite the efforts of VanDrunen and others to demonstrate its place in our tradition. This is unfortunate. VanDrunen's thesis boils down to a simple fact, agreeable to many: the testimony of our conscience, the law written on man's heart in creation (Rom. 2:15), testifies to the basic principle that God rewards obedience and punishes disobedience. This is the works principle in a nutshell: Do this (obedience) and you will live (reward), and implicitly, don't do this (disobedience) and you will die (punishment). The claim that the works principle was republished in the Mosaic administration suggests that Israel served as a microcosm of the whole world, illustrating the basic predicament faced by sinners under the demands of a perfect law. That such proclamation of the law could at the same time have a gracious effect—driving sinners to Christ—strikes this reader as unobjectionable.

Interestingly, I think the instinctual opposition of many contemporary Calvinists to natural law bolster's VanDrunen's case. I gather that opponents suspect that categories of natural law put the gracious, spiritual character of the Christian faith at risk, and suggest a purely natural knowledge that points the way toward man's ascent to God under his own power. But the Reformed tradition locates natural law precisely at those places where the ascent to God is shut off, where human efforts at self-salvation are shown to be futile. Indeed, Eden and Sinai are the two moments in redemptive history where the terms of natural law are explicitly published, resulting in a written sentence against us. In covenant theology, therefore, natural law is explicitly distinguished from the gospel, and salvation, in a way that the Catholic tradition fails to do.

Two Covenants or One

Rightly or wrongly, many people will judge the success of the case The Law is not of Faith upon the biblical essays. They are, on the whole, quite good, and taken together they make a very strong case for the republication thesis. They are, however, challenging, and most of them will be far more easily understood by the seminary graduate than the layman.

Evenly balanced between Old Testament and New, they cover most of the key territory. I would argue that Jeremiah 31 and/or Hebrews 7-10 should have been included to explicitly address the biblical data suggesting in some sense the abrogation of the Mosaic administration due to its weakness and impotence. Republication suggests discontinuity, both from what came before (Abraham) and what comes after (Christ).

T. David Gordon's essay on the contrast of Abraham and Sinai in Galatians 3 is the best essay in the volume. It is not coincidentally also the most accessible, being the one biblical chapter that could profitably be read by most laymen. To be fair to the other contributors, Gordon also has the easiest task in the book, that of describing how and why Paul distinguishes between the two covenants he finds in the Old Testament.

Gordon prosecutes this case flawlessly, with spare, elegant writing, and a clear argument. First, he introduces the five differences between Abraham and Sinai presented in Galatians 3. Another reason this essay is clear is because he identifies his opposition early on as John Murray, and engages him in direct argument. This is polemics at its best, affirming and denying clear propositions to bring about greater clarity and understanding with great force and charity. He articulates the Pauline counter-argument in Galatians against Murray's claim that "the Mosaic covenant in respect of the condition of obedience is not in a different category from the Abrahamic." Gordon writes in lawyerly style,

"Promise" does not differ from "law"? Is not promise, by definition, unconditional? "Blessing" is not different from "cursing"? "Those of faith" are not different from "those of works of the law"? A covenant that justifies is not different from a covenant that does not? (253)

Pressing the polemic, Gordon continues,

I raise these questions gratefully, rhetorically, and instructively ... grateful that John Murray, to my knowledge, never wrote so much as a paragraph about the Galatian letter. He could have made no sense of the letter, and anything he might have written about it would therefore have been obfuscatory in the highest degree.

Horton's essay demonstrates that Paul's argument is not the only one for republication; that the broad thrust of biblical data supports this view. Gordon's essay shows that Paul's argument for republication is still the best. As Gordon notes, "If Paul says 'these are two covenants,' (Gal. 4:24), how can there be only one?"[1] Gordon uses Murray as an illustration of how it can be difficult for interpreters and preachers to make sense of Paul's frank talk on the covenants. Because of this, interpreters often assimilate Paul's arguments before fully understanding them and allowing them to speak with full force.

Bryan D. Estelle's essay is also one of the most important essays in the collection. This chapter —and its 157 footnotes—is more challenging to read than Gordon's, but well worth the effort. Estelle manages to capture precisely how the two opposing principles of works and grace coexist in the Mosaic economy. This is a crucial aspect of Meredith Kline's legacy that unfortunately was never as clearly conveyed in his writings as it was in the classroom. In each class, Kline would demonstrate through a close reading of the text how both works and grace were woven together in the Mosaic economy, while yet remaining clearly distinct. The monocovenantal error is to fail to allow the two principles to stand alone and distinct, instead reconciling and conflating them at every turn.

As Estelle puts it (quoting Sprinkle), "Habakkuk 2:4 and Leviticus 18:5 are 'two mutually exclusive soteriological statements.' " Note, again, the recurring theme of this volume: the republication thesis is about explaining a covenantal contrast that exists within the pages of the Old Testament.

The strength of Estelle's exegesis (and Kline's before him) is in finding the law/gospel distinction in the Old Testament text on its own terms, the same law/gospel distinction that Paul will describe in his epistles. The experience of reading them allows you to "see" it in your own reading of the Old Testament (speaking anachronistically) before reading Paul's description of it.

Richard P. Belcher's chapter serves a similar purpose, and connects nicely with Horton's contribution in its description of covenantal themes in the Torah and the righteous king in the Psalter. This is important, because the language of righteousness in the Psalter often serves as a source of confusion on the matter of law and gospel, seeming to hold forth the personal piety and righteousness of the worshiper as the key to his standing before the Lord. But Belcher shows that the themes of Torah and kingship combine in such a way that the king is held forth as the federal head and champion of the people. Thus, Christ the King is the subject and speaker of the Psalter, and we understand and take his words of worship on our lips through our federal union with him.

The remaining three biblical studies, by Byron Curtis on Hosea 6:7, Guy Waters on Romans 10:5, and Steve Baugh on Galatians 5, each provide important contributions to the volume's overall argument. Yet their scope is narrower, and they are quite technical in their handling of matters of detail. On the whole, they are less accessible and less compelling to read than the essays above. Curtis makes a good case for the traditional reading of Hosea 6:7, "they, like Adam, have transgressed the covenant," and explains how the comparison of Adam and Israel as breakers of a similar covenant would have made sense to Hosea's audience. Waters, like Horton, makes it clear that properly understanding the legal nature of the Mosaic covenant is crucial to Paul's argument in Romans, and therefore crucial to the gospel of justification by faith. Baugh provides a detailed reading of Paul's teaching of the law, and in so doing addresses the "so-called New Perspective" interpreters of Paul.

The Historical Case

The three historical essays in this volume are all solid works of scholarship that contribute to the fundamental thesis of the book, but in my opinion none of them are as powerful and satisfying as the Gordon or Horton chapters. This is in part by design; no one essay is intended to be a comprehensive argument for the republication thesis, so none delivers a comprehensive conclusion. Instead, each essay is illustrative, contributing a piece of the puzzle to build an overall picture of the Reformed tradition on the question. In this sense, The Law is not of Faith doesn't lead with its strongest case when it puts the historical material first, though it might make the most pedagogical sense. Readers who aren't committed to this project may not be drawn in, and may give up before getting to the biblical material if they slavishly follow the prescribed order of presentation.

J. V. Fesko's presentation of the views of Calvin and Witsius is reflective of the illustrative nature of these essays, and reflects a broader pattern in historical scholarship on covenant theology. The body of data is so large that scholars are often forced to illustrate trajectories by selecting exemplars. This is a perfectly reasonable method, and as exemplars go, Calvin and Witsius are well chosen. Calvin's significance as founder of the Reformed tradition is beyond question, and Witsius stands at the back end of the period of Reformed orthodoxy and the high water mark of federal theology. As an added bonus, Witsius was also translated into English early on and circulated in the North American colonies, and thus was both influential on the broader tradition and is easily available to readers today.

Fesko shows that both Calvin and Witsius exhibit the Reformed drive to articulate the presence of both legal and evangelical elements in the Mosaic economy. There is in this a great deal of fundamental agreement over a span of more than a century. However, Witsius does exhibit a greater theological and terminological refinement, borne of generations of ironing out difficulties, and a greater tendency to deploy typology in the explication of the Old Testament.

Yet the presentation of one example, and then another, with a closing comparison does not produce a compelling narrative. The result is primarily descriptive—importantly so—but lacking in an explanation of how or why these two data points are connected in this way.

Brenton Ferry also takes up Reformation views in his taxonomy of Reformed views, though his scope is widened down to the present day. Like Fesko, Ferry's task is primarily descriptive, looking at how Reformed thinkers have answered three questions: How does the Mosaic covenant relate to the new covenant? How does the Mosaic covenant relate to the covenant of works? And finally, how does the Mosaic covenant relate to the covenant of grace? In the case of each question, Ferry presents the range of answers that have been offered by the Reformed, and the various distinctions that have been deployed in terms of describing contrasts and continuities. The result is another static and necessarily repetitive treatment of the material.

This treatment of the material demonstrates the diversity of positions in the tradition, as well as showing how common trajectories have manifested themselves through five centuries of thought. It presents a lot of data, which is a good starting point to understanding how this question has been addressed, but it doesn't take an active role in organizing it. Unfortunately, the organizing principle that is applied—the framing up of the questions that form the spine of the taxonomy—introduces biases which aren't necessarily inherent in the sources. Ferry assumes that the relevant terms of comparison are the Mosaic covenant, works covenant, new covenant, and covenant of grace. These are indeed important terms of comparison, but note how they are unmoored from the central biblical question of the Abrahamic vs. Mosaic covenants, as identified by other contributors.[2]

Darryl Hart's essay on Old Princeton is more adventurous, if still at the end of the day making a mostly indirect contribution to the thesis of this volume. Hart's essay concludes that the best way to make sense of Princeton's twin veins of Scottish Common Sense Realism and Orthodox Reformed Federalism is by recognizing that the natural law operated as a common term underlying the Princetonian understanding of the covenant of works and the covenant of Moses. In this sense, Hart's essay provides further historical support for VanDrunen's contention that natural law is at home in the Reformed tradition, and is closely related to the covenant of works in the creation and Mosaic economies.

But Hart's essay ranges well beyond this conclusion, and is frankly more interesting than I make it seem. It stands alone as a contribution to the literature on Old Princeton, and I commend it to readers interested in that subject. Importantly, Hart's broader narrative situates Princeton in the context of the New England theology and the heirs of Jonathan Edwards, showing how Edwards sowed the seeds of federal theology's demise. This is an area that could definitely be explored further, in terms of exploring whether or not the spirit of Edwards is alive and well in contemporary opponents of federal theology.

These three historical essays add data points for the reader who is considering the plausibility and prevalence of the republication thesis in the Reformed tradition, but they fail to connect them to the rest of the volume in a compelling fashion. This is not a failure of the historians, but a measure of the difficulty of the task.

What is lacking here on the historical front is a more comprehensive argument for how and why federal theology—and by extension, the republication thesis—developed in a distinctive way among the Reformed. Many unsuccessful attempts at such an explanation have been made, by the likes of David Weir, J. Wayne Baker, Steven Strehle, and Peter Lillback, but these efforts have been extremely limited at best and too often tendentious.[3]

I know it is an exceedingly difficult task, from my own experience trying to place the covenantal thought and exegesis of Johannes Cocceius (1603-1669) in the context of Reformation exegetical trajectories. The best studies on the development of thought in this era tend to be small bore, focusing on a single author or work (or a few chapters in a work, when the skills of the scholar are particularly lacking). This kind of work is necessary, but the time is long overdue for a more comprehensive effort to craft a narrative of federal origins that tells a real story without running roughshod over the great diversity in the tradition.

My own belief is that exegesis is extremely important to this historical development, and in a sense the best chapters in this volume reflect accurately the kind of exegetical trajectories that we see in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.[4] To borrow a phrase from Hart's essay, there are in the Scriptures "notions about law and grace that apart from covenant theology look antithetical" (75). The Reformed doctrine of the covenants—including the republication thesis, which is central to it—is the result of a centuries-long search for the redemptive historical structures in the text that tie it all together.


As a long time student of Reformed federal theology, I still struggle when people ask me to recommend a single book describing the topic. This book goes a long way toward accomplishing that goal, particularly for readers who already possess some familiarity with this material. One of its strengths is the great breadth of the contributors, and their mastery of their respective fields. In this breadth, the volume manifests what has always been true about the Reformed doctrine of the covenant: there has always been a diversity of opinions striving to express a central cluster of ideas.

This strength is also a weakness. One reason "The Book" on covenant theology doesn't yet exist is because very few single authors today possess the historical, biblical, and theological tools and training to tackle all of these crucial aspects of its development and significance today. A collection of essays is not a monograph, and the lack of a central voice is a necessary weakness of this volume. I can imagine a similar volume written by an imaginary author, possessing all of the historical, exegetical, and theological skills of our contributors. It would have the clarity and rhetorical force of Gordon, the creativity and redemptive focus of Horton, and the exegetical richness of Estelle. And the disparate pieces of the puzzle would be assembled to present a unified picture of works and grace in the Mosaic economy.

But that book doesn't exist yet. This one provides an excellent foundation in the interim, and makes a compelling case. I encourage both proponents and opponents of covenant theology to read it and wrestle with its claims.


[1] This line is similar to one Johannes Cocceius (1603-1669) used against monocovenantal brethren. Cocceius notes how some of his Reformed brethren err when they say that "the two Testaments are one Testament... I ask, what should we say to the Socinians, who urge the difference between the two Testaments? Should we persuade them that two equals one?" (Moreh Nebochim, §107-108). Like Gordon, Cocceius felt that it was impossible to deny that there were two testaments in the light of Galatians 4:24 and Hebrews 8:13, but he also felt that a "monocovenantal" view forfeited all hope of convincing the erring (in Cocceius's case, Socinians, in Murray's, Dispensationalists). Much better to accurately portray the clear distinction maintained by Scripture, and articulate its rationale.

[2] Or, to take an example I happen to be familiar with, they completely fail to capture distinctions that someone like Cocceius draws between the Testaments and Covenants of God, which are crucial for his covenantal scheme. This is not a fault of Ferry's work; it would be impossible to grasp the nuance of so many authors on the point. But that is precisely the limiting factor of this kind of analysis. See Brian J. Lee, Johannes Cocceius and the Exegetical Roots of Federal Theology: Reformation Developments in the Interpretation of Hebrews 7-10 (Vandenhoek & Ruprecht, 2009), 123-138.

[3] David A. Weir, The Origins of the Federal Theology in Sixteenth-Century Reformation Thought (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990); J. Wayne Baker, Heinrich Bullinger and The Covenant: The Other Reformed Tradition (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1980); Charles S. McCoy and J. Wayne Baker, Fountainhead of Federalism (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1991); Steven Strehle, Calvinism, Federalism, and the Covenant: A Study of the Reformed Doctrine of the Covenant (Bern: Peter Lang, 1988); Peter A. Lillback, The Binding of God (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2001).

[4] See Lee, Johannes Cocceius and the Exegetical Roots of Federal Theology, 23-97.

Brian J. Lee serves as the pastor and church planter of Christ Reformed Church (URC) in Washington, DC. He has taught as a part-time instructor at Reformed Theological Seminary in Washington, DC and Atlanta. Ordained Servant Online, April 2010.

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Ordained Servant: April 2010

God's Profitable Word

Also in this issue

Hearing the Word in the Modern World, Part 2

In What Sense? A Review Article

Review of God's Word in Servant-Form

Review of Exploring the Origins of the Bible

Seven Stanzas at Easter

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