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.

Monday, November 26, 2012

An Insight into 17th Century Christology


Mark Jones. Why Heaven Kissed Earth: The Christology of the Puritan Reformed Orthodox Theologian, Thomas Goodwin (1600-1680). Gottingen: Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, 2010. 255pp.

Reviewed by Ryan M. McGraw

This book has the honor of being the first published scholarly monograph on the theology of Thomas Goodwin (1600-1680). Jones’s thesis is stated as follows: “The central argument of this study posits that Goodwin’s Christology is grounded in, and flows out of, the eternal covenant of redemption, also known as the pactum salutis or ‘counsel of peace’” (13). The work serves as a means of filling the gap in studies of seventeenth century Christology in general (33). Its aim is to demonstrate what Reformed Orthodox theologians said on this subject and why they said it (14). It is comprised of ten chapters and an appendix that treats Goodwin’s views regarding eternal justification. Jones’s work provides a masterfully crafted window into the nature and scope of Reformed Orthodox Christology in relation to a Trinitarian construct of the covenant of redemption.

After surveying briefly the scope of research on Goodwin, the author notes that most of this literature has suffered from a lack of contextualization (21). By comparing carefully the text of the seventeenth century five-volume edition of Goodwin’s Works with the nineteenth-century twelve-volume edition, the author demonstrates that the later (Nichols) edition took considerable editorial liberties, making the older edition superior (21). His methodology follows the “Cambridge School” as outlined by Quentin Skinner (34). In the introduction, he highlights the fact that chapter 6 is the “most significant” part of the work. This chapter stresses the manner in which Goodwin’s Trinitarian conception of the covenant of redemption was the reason behind why God became man (36).

Chapters 2 and 3 establish the historical context of Goodwin’s life and times, together with the influences that shaped his theology. Among other features, the first of these chapters draws attention to the neglect of Goodwin’s role in the Westminster Assembly (44-46). The same chapter closes with the reasons behind classifying Goodwin under the epithet of Reformed Orthodoxy, rather than under the more problematic categories of Puritan or Calvinist. The corresponding chapter notes the influences of Reformed authors (57ff), the church fathers (59ff), scholastic theologians (60ff), and pagan philosophers (62ff) upon Goodwin’s thought. This section is rounded out with Goodwin’s critical interaction with Socinianism and Arminianism (69-74).

The fourth chapter considers the basic structure of Goodwin’s covenant theology and the way in which covenant theology became virtually synonymous with Reformed theology (76). In contrast to some of his contemporaries, he viewed Adam’s promised reward under the covenant of works as continued earthly existence rather than heavenly life (78). As an earthly man, Adam could inherit an earthly life only, whereas heavenly life comes only through Christ, who is the heavenly man (80). This meant that the promises of the covenant of grace far exceeded those of the covenant of works. Under his description of the covenant of grace, Jones helpfully notes the regulative importance of Genesis 3:15 for Reformed covenant theology and for Goodwin in particular. This text places the idea of Christ in union with his people as the central theme of redemptive history (80-82). After noting the diversity in the Reformed tradition over the place of the Mosaic covenant in redemptive history, the author turns to the general question of Reformed Orthodox hermeneutics and the exposition of Scripture (83-86). He draws special attention to authority of Scripture (87), the Analogia Fidei (88), the sensus literalis of the text (90), the “soteric unity” of the Old and New Testaments (94), and the place of reason and the work of the Holy Spirit in the interpretation of Scripture (95). This demonstrates the manner in which Reformed covenant theology both related to and influenced the understanding of Scripture. The section on the Analogia Fidei is flawed slightly, in that Jones conflates this concept with the Analogia Scriptura. Properly speaking, the former refers to the manner in which previously received doctrinal truths influence the exegesis of particular passages, and the latter describes how clear passages of Scripture affect the interpretation of texts that are less perspicuous.

The next chapter (5) is an insightful analysis of the knowledge of God as triune. There is very little secondary literature currently available on seventeenth century Trinitarianism. This chapter contributes to this field with significant insight and clarity. After illustrating the English polemical context as well as the basic doctrinal and exegetical foundations of the doctrine (99-106), the author deals with the mutual indwelling of the persons (circumincessio), the distinction of the persons in the works of God, and the thorny question of the eternal generation of the Son. He argues that most Reformed theologians considered the phrase “God of God” as an unchanging activity in the divine essence which entails an eternal communication of the divine essence, and not simply the personhood of the Son, as Calvin taught (111-112). While some theologians followed Calvin in asserting that the personal subsistence of the Son alone was eternally begotten by the Father, and other such as Ursinus denied that the Son was a se ipso, most of the Reformed adopted a “hybrid” position between these two poles (113). What this entailed was that each divine person was God in and of himself, but that the essence and personhood of both the Son and Spirit were rooted in the being as well as the personality of the Father. We cannot separate being and personhood in God. Because it is essential to the divine nature to be self-existent, each divine person must be divine a se. Yet because the persons that are begotten and spirated are divine persons, then this involves the eternal communication both of being and of personality. Jones concludes, “That most of the Reformed Orthodox were both ‘Nicenists’ and ‘Autotheanites’ seems to be a fairly accurate description in light of the evidence above” (116). This insight adds remarkable clarity to a complex seventeenth century question. Jones concludes with a treatment of the reception of the filoque clause of the Nicene Creed in Reformed theology (116-122).

Chapter 6 draws attention to the development of the pactum salutis or covenant of redemption. As noted above, the author views this chapter as central to his thesis (36). This covenant provides the ad intra basis in the Trinity for the plan of salvation (123). Goodwin’s development of the concept was explicitly Trinitarian and he commenced his treatment of Christology on this basis (127-128). Contra Carl Trueman’s assertions, Goodwin rejected the notion of eternal justification (131. See the appendix). Contrary to his friend John Owen, whose viewed changed over time, Goodwin rejected the absolute necessity of the atonement, making the manner of redemption dependent solely on the divine and sovereign will rather than upon divine justice (132-133). Christ accepted the terms of the covenant of redemption voluntarily, taking the elect as his promised reward (135-139). Goodwin’s significant contribution to the idea of the pactum salutis lay in his treatment of the role of the Holy Spirit in this arrangement. Because the works of God ad extra reflect his works ad intra, this covenant is a work of the entire Trinity (139-144). This chapter useful highlights the development of the growing Trinitarian implications of the covenant of redemption in the seventeenth century.

Chapter 7 details how Goodwin’s Trinitarian concept of the covenant of redemption shaped his views of the person of Christ. The temporal relationship between the Father and the Son in the economy of redemption reflects the pre-temporal Father/Son relationship (152). The inter-Trinitarian covenant demands the divinity of the mediator (154), and the fact that the Son is the middle person in the Trinity requires that he should be the mediator between God and men (155). Strangely, Jones contends that in contrast to John Owen, Goodwin rooted the adoption of believers in union with Christ’s person rather than in his work (156). However, in Communion with God, Owen includes adoption under the concept of union with Christ in his “personal grace,” which is a consequence of union with Christ in his “purchased grace.” Jones next sets forth the theological reasons why Christ must be God and man in one person for man’s redemption, together with the reason why the community of divine and human attributes in the incarnate Son, coupled with the unity of operation of both natures makes redemption possible. (156-165). He closed the chapter with the work of the Holy Spirit on the human nature of Christ in which the divine nature of Christ does not act immediately but immediately through the Spirit (165-168).

In the eighth chapter, Jones shows readers the importance of Christ’s vicarious work as the Second Adam and representative head of his people. This flows naturally from the previous two chapters on the covenant of redemption and the person of Christ. The treatments of the debates concerning the imputation of Christ’s active obedience at the Westminster Assembly (179ff) as well as the imputed merit of Christ’s obedience (184-185) are particularly noteworthy for their historical value. After briefly rooting Goodwin’s view of the extent of the atonement in the covenant of redemption (186-187), the author addresses Christ’s victory over evil and Satan (188-195). This is followed by Christ’s threefold office, believers’ union with Christ in his resurrection and ascension, and his continual intercession for them (196-201).

The last two chapters (nine and ten) move towards a conclusion. Chapter 9 notes Goodwin’s teaching on Christ’s native and his mediatorial glory, which are distinct, yet inseparable. This treatment ties together much of what precedes, serving as a prelude to the concluding chapter, which summarizes and analyzes Jones’s findings. He concludes, “Seventeenth-century Reformed orthodox Christology finds its most erudite expression in the two Congregationalist theologians, John Owen and Thomas Goodwin. This study has focused on the more neglected of the two – Goodwin” (229).

This book is essential reading for anyone interested in the serious study of seventeenth century Christology, Trinitarianism, and the development of Reformed covenant theology. It should simultaneously serve as a future starting point for studies on Thomas Goodwin and it provides a vital piece of research in the growing field of Reformed Orthodoxy or Protestant Scholasticism.


This review was first published in the Calvin Theological Journal, April 2012, Vol. 47, No. 1. pp. 159-162. Used with permission.