Wednesday, November 28, 2012

An Historical Starting Point for Covenantal Theology Debates


Brian J. Lee. Johannes Cocceius and the Exegetical Roots of Federal Theology: Reformation Developments in the Interpretation of Hebrews 7-10. Gottingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2009. 215pp.

Reviewed by Ryan M. McGraw

Johannes Cocceius (1603-1669) is one of the most controversial figures in post-Reformation theology. Brian Lee has noted that Cocceius’s covenant theology is not only difficult for modern students to grasp, but that his nuanced approach to defining covenant terminology in connection to the relationship between the Old and New Testaments often troubled and confused his contemporaries as well (179). Lee has not only sought to explain Cocceius’s theology of the covenant, but he has attempted to fill a significant gap in the study of the relationship between historic Reformed Orthodox theology and biblical exegesis (19). He contends that dogmatic explanations of the development of the covenant doctrine are either insufficient or misleading (14). He gives focus to his work by examining the vital importance of Hebrews 7:1-10:18 in Reformed theology and in Cocceius in particular. This book will help students better understand the exegetical development behind the formative period of Reformed covenant theology. This study is valuable for the history of exegesis, and it may contribute to contemporary discussions of the exegetical formulation of the doctrine.

The first part of this book develops the importance of Hebrews in Reformed exegesis. The second part explores the peculiar contribution of Johannes Cocceius. The purpose of Lee’s thesis is to examine Cocceius’s federal theology in light the questions that surrounded the text in his time. Hebrews 7:1-10:18 was the key locus of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century covenant theology for two reasons. First, Heb. 9:16 appears to use the term “covenant” in a manner that is inconsistent with Old Testament terminology (20). Second, Hebrews 8 was the standard text for discussing the differences between the Old and New Testaments. Lee wrote, “Hebrews is thus seen to be a key text both for Cocceius and the federal tradition in general” (21). Lee primarily examines Cocceius’s commentary on Hebrews and then he relates this commentary to his dogmatic works.

Chapter 2 addresses the development of covenant terminology in Reformed exegesis. The prominent difficulty was how the terms berith and diatheke relate (23). Lee interacts with several authors including Luther, the Latin Vulgate (28), Erasmus (29ff), Bullinger (31ff), the Roman Catholic Sebastian Castellio (37ff), Calvin (41ff), Beza (44ff), Junius (49ff), Gomarus (53ff), Pistcator (55ff), Cornelius a Lapide (56ff), Grotius (58ff), and prominent Socinians (60ff). He closes the chapter by examining Cocceius’s heavy interaction with Grotius and the Socinians on defining relevant Latin terminology (62-70). He concludes that whereas most of the Reformed viewed the Old and New Testaments in terms one unifying foedus that included a testamentary idea, Cocceius reversed this order, viewing the Scriptures in terms of one testamentum that is administered under various foedera (71). The significant point is that Cocceius distinguished covenant and testament into two concepts, and that testament took precedence over covenant.

Chapter 3 examines how the book of Hebrews became the key locus for developing covenant terminology in Reformed Orthodoxy. Protestant exegetes shared broadly agreed that sinners were saved by the gospel rather than by the law and they upheld the hermeneutical agreement between the Old and New Testaments (78). The primary question in Hebrews 7:1-10:18 was what law was abrogated under the New Testament (80). Most agreed that the abrogated law referred to the ceremonies of the Old Testament as well as to wrath due to sin (80). While there were nuances among the Reformed, they shared the idea that there was both continuity and discontinuity between the Old and New Testaments. Authors such as Bullinger and Calvin stressed continuity, whereas later writers such as Piscator and Junius allowed more room for discontinuity. Continuity consisted in a single covenant of grace; discontinuity allowed a different measure of the work of the Holy Spirit in the Old and New Testaments. However, Cocceius’s views were largely unique. Lee concludes, “Combining developments in terminology with more nuanced reflection about the covenants, Cocceius will deploy both covenants and testaments as different legal relations which enable him to localize with greater precision both continuity and discontinuity” (97. Emphasis original).

Chapter 4 expands the historical context of Cocceius’s exposition of Hebrews. He wrote the work in a polemical context, responding to Jews, Papists, and Socinians (102-103). His contemporary, Johannes Hoornbeeck, had responded to each of these groups under the loci theology. However, Cocceius intentionally responded primarily in his biblical commentaries, of which his work on Hebrews held first place (108, 111). His apologetic and polemic approach was to demonstrate that the New Testament was the perfect fulfillment of the Old Testament promises (112). Lee observed that it is not correct to view Cocceius as an exegetical theologian in contrast to those who were polemic or scholastic theologians. Instead, Cocceius merged polemic and scholastic theology with his exegetical labors (164-165). While this observation is valid, it runs the risk of downplaying the uniqueness of Cocceius’s method, since most Reformed orthodox theologians included polemic and scholastic theology in their exegetical works.

Chapters 5 and 6 are the heart of Lee’s thesis. In it, he examines Cocceius’s view on what was abrogated according to Hebrews 7:1-10:18. The first thing that was abrogated was the Aaronic priesthood by virtue of Christ’s priesthood (115ff). Reformed theology agreed on this point. However, Cocceius added that the “weakness” of the old dispensation referred to the entire Mosaic order, and not simply to the ceremonial law (118). Due to the complexity of Lee’s analysis of Cocceius’s position, this reviewer will attempt to synthesize his findings below.

God made a testamentum in Christ by virtue of the eternal pactum salutis (118). Genesis 3:15 announced this testament, and it was propagated through various historically unfolding foedera (124). This testament is rooted in the unchangeable and eternal decree of God (121, 168). Testaments are unconditional and covenants are conditional. They are related in that the unconditional testament in Christ is administered through the various covenants of Scripture (177). The point of common ground between testament and covenant is Christ as the sponsor for his people in both (121-122, 148). Abraham received the eternal testament in Christ with a second testament added to it. While this additional testament did not require Israel to obey the covenant of works, staying in the land was contingent upon their repentance and obedience. However, they violated this testament by lacking faith. The New Testament provides faith as a gift under the administration of the new covenant (132). When the book of Hebrews contrasts the Old and New Testaments, what is in view is the additional testament given to Abraham regarding the land of Canaan and not the eternal testament that goes into effect through the death of Christ (125. See 130-132). In this sense, the Old Testament is abolished entirely (see pp. 151-156 for how this relates to Cocceius’s controversial doctrine of “abrogations”). The contrast in Hebrews 8 implies that the Old Testament saints had a promise of the forgiveness of sins only (paresis) without the actual removal of sins (aphesis) (156-158, 160. Lee does not adequately define these terms in his treatment). Lee does not clarify how or if Cocceius believed that the Old Testament saints entered heaven and experienced forgiveness of sins, but he notes that, in Cocceius’s view, the Old Testament saints had justifying faith and sanctification in a vague sense (147-148). The one eternal testament existed prior to the “Old Testament” and it is the unifying principle of Scripture. The various covenants (foedera) emphasize the discontinuity of the Old and New Testaments, including the additional “Old Testament” that God gave to Abraham (149, 179). While the Old Testament is not equated with the covenant of works, it pointed to the weakness of the flesh resulting from that covenant (152). The Decalogue is the standard of sanctification under both testaments, but the Golden Calf incident permanently transformed the Old Testament saints into a covenant-breaking people (129). Therefore, the New Testament in Christ abolished both the Old Testament and the covenant of works without confusing the two ideas. Lee rightly concludes, “Cocceius is almost more of a ‘testamentary theologian’ than a ‘federal theologian’” (166). While most of the Reformed orthodox taught that there was one covenant of grace that unified the Old and New Testaments, Cocceius believed that there was one eternal testament, one subordinate and temporary testament, one New Testament that brought the eternal testament to fruition, and diverse foedera in which the eternal testament was administered (177-179).

It is difficult to determine whether the lack of clarity in Cocceius’s federal theology resides in an inadequate explanation on the part of the author or in the inherent difficulty of Cocceius’s views. Lee notes that the complexity of Cocceius’ scheme made it difficult for his contemporaries to accept it. In addition, his Latin and scholastic style doomed his views to failure outside of the schools (179). This study is indispensable to those who desire to trace the roots of Reformed federal theology and the views of Cocceius in particular. As contemporary Reformed theology continues to debate the definition of the terminology of covenant theology, this volume provides a historical starting point for ongoing discussions.


This review was first published in Presbyterion, Fall 2012.