Thursday, November 14, 2013

The Role of the Mosaic Covenant

Michael Brown, Christ and the Condition: The Covenant Theology of Samuel Petto (1624-1711) (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2012), 139pp.

Reviewed by Ryan M. McGraw

The role of the Mosaic covenant in Reformed covenant theology has always been a difficult question. Members of the Westminster Assembly, such as Edmund Calamy and Samuel Bolton, even disagreed over how to classify the range of views among Reformed ministers. Michael Brown’s study on Samuel Petto contributes to the scholarly exploration of this question in the context of seventeenth-century Reformed orthodoxy. Brown is the pastor of Christ United Reformed Church in Santee, California. He argues that Petto’s view of the Mosaic covenant as a republication of the covenant of works was designed to safeguard the gospel. Although this work is generally well-researched, it lacks precision in discerning the range of seventeenth-century views of the Mosaic covenant. This reviewer hopes to clarify this subject by interacting with Brown’s treatment.

Petto was a Congregationalist and fifth Monarchist (15-18). Brown’s chapters set forth in order Petto’s life and context, his covenant theology in general, Reformed orthodox views of the Mosaic covenant, Petto’s treatment of the Mosaic covenant, and the implications of his teaching for the doctrine of justification. Brown’s title is well-chosen since Petto’s primary contention was that Chris fulfilled all of the conditions of the covenant of grace, making it entirely unconditional to believers. Petto rejected the distinction between the covenant of grace and the covenant of redemption and treated them as eternal and temporal aspects of the covenant of grace (27-33). He believed that this secured the unconditional character of the covenant of grace (111-115).

Petto’s view of the Mosaic covenant is the centerpiece of his book on the covenants. This review will address Brown’s historiography as well as the limitations of his assessment of Petto’s work.

The book is characterized by some historiographical problems. Brown cites Richard Muller as arguing that the Reformed orthodox were “the legitimate and faithful heirs of Calvin” (5). Yet Muller notes, “Calvin’s theology is referenced, not as a norm to be invoked for the examination of the later Reformed tradition, but as part of an antecedent complex of earlier Reformed formulations lying in the background of many aspects of the latter Reformed positions” (Richard A. Muller, “Diversity in the Reformed Tradition,” Michael A.G. Haykin and Mark Jones, eds., Drawn into Controversie: Reformed Theological Diversity and Debates Within Seventeenth Century Reformed Orthodoxy, Gottingen, Vandenhoeck and Ruprecth, 2011, 12). Moreover, he defines Puritanism almost exclusively in terms of ecclesiology and makes no mention of piety or holiness a central theme (9). However, in spite of the ambiguity surrounding the term, scholars almost universally recognize personal piety as a central element of Puritanism.

In addition, he treats an “eschatological goal” in the covenant of works as the standard Reformed position (36). However, he does not recognize the significant diversity among the Reformed orthodox regarding whether Adam’s reward was heavenly or earthly life (see Mark Herzer, “Adam’s Reward: Heaven or Earth?,” Drawn into Controversie, 162-182). Later he mentions Petto’s rejection of “monocovenantalist schemas” (39). This imports contemporary debates into historical theology. Brown gives no evidence that this terminology belonged to the seventeenth-century nor does he indicate who held such views. The Reformed orthodox would not have recognized this term in their debates.

At least two other items are worth noting. He attributes Petto’s citation of “Dr. C” potentially to Edmund Calamy, but in the context of Petto’s work, the reference is very likely to John Cameron’s book on the covenants (13, fn13). The reason for this is that Petto’s on the Mosaic covenant were most likely a variation of Cameron’s assertion that the Mosaic covenant was a “subservient” covenant that was neither the covenant of works nor the covenant of grace. Additionally, he mentions that Petto’s rejection of a distinct covenant of redemption fits better with the Westminster Confession than with the Savoy Declaration (30). However, even Savoy does not use the term “covenant of redemption.” It refers only to a covenant between the Father and the Son (Savoy 8.1). Petto’s position still fits this language just as easily as those who distinguished the covenants of redemption and of grace. Conversely, though the terms describing the covenant of redemption were new at the time of the Westminster Assembly, there is no tension between this idea and Westminster’s covenant theology.

This lack of precision with respect to the relevant issues in seventeenth-century Reformed orthodoxy affects Brown’s treatment of the Mosaic covenant. While he succeeds in establishing the general thesis of his book, the manner in which he describes Petto’s view of the Mosaic covenant in relation to the options available at the time is problematic.

To begin with, he notes that Petto “embraced both the old and new covenants, and qualified them as one covenant of grace . . .” (42). Yet this is directly opposed to Petto’s argument in chapters six and seven of his work. Petto argued that the “old covenant” was not the covenant of grace, but that it was the “legal condition” of the covenant of grace as it was the covenant of works published for Christ to fulfill (Samuel Petto, The Difference Between the Old and New Covenant, London, 1674, 112, 124, 127, 141, 186). Petto taught that the Old Testament saints were saved through the “one covenant of grace,” but he denied emphatically that the old covenant was an administration of the covenant of grace.

Brown’s treatment of John Owen is important, since Owen and Petto held similar views and Owen wrote a preface to Petto’s work. Brown asserts, “[Owen] saw it as a covenant of works, distinct from yet subservient to the covenant of grace” (44). He later distinguishes Owen’s view from Bolton (and Cameron), who regarded the Mosaic covenant as neither the covenant of works nor the covenant of grace (79). However, Mark Jones has demonstrated that Owen’s position has many commonalities with Cameron’s, even though he illustrates the nuanced differences between them (Jones, “The ‘Old’ Covenant,” Drawn into Controversie, 199-202). Even though Owen believed that the substance of the covenant of works was republished at Sinai, he explicitly called Sinai “a superadded covenant” that was essentially neither the covenant of works nor the covenant of grace (Owen, Works, XXIII, 70, 77-78. Goold edition. See Petto, The Difference, 162). This is probably the most serious criticism of Brown’s work, since it shifts the entire paradigm of understanding Owen and Petto’s covenant theology.

Regarding Petto’s view of the Mosaic covenant, Brown wrote, “Petto believed Sinai to be a republication of the covenant of works” (87). This statement is not very precise. Petto wrote, “In general it was a covenant of works to be fulfilled by Jesus Christ, but not so as to Israel” (Petto, The Difference, 112). His point is that at Sinai, the covenant of works was republished to Israel declaratively rather than convenantally (Jones, “The ‘Old’ Covenant,” 200). In other words, it was not the covenant of works as originally given to Adam, but it was the covenant of works as given to Christ as the second Adam (Petto, The Difference, 17). This is why Owen argued that Sinai contained the substance of the covenant of works without being the covenant of works stated simply. Brown has not adequately discerned the nuances of this position, which is admittedly subtle. He qualifies these statements later by noting that the law was not a covenant of works for Israel (95-96, 103), but the bald statement that the law was a republished covenant of works was one that neither Petto nor Owen was willing to make.

On a minor note, he misunderstands slightly Petto’s view on “conditional promises (41, 111-115). Petto believed that the gospel consists of unconditional promises to believers and that those promises which appeared to be conditional were merely rhetorical devices that were designed to incite faith (Petto, The Difference Between the Old and New Covenant, 312ff). Brown does not bring out Petto’s emphasis strongly enough. When Petto calls faith, repentance, and obedience conditions “improperly” speaking, he means that they are inappropriately called conditions, since they are merely duties within the covenant of grace (The Difference, 208).

The proper construction of Petto’s covenant theology is as follows: The Sinai covenant was not the covenant of works as God gave it to Adam. Neither was it an administration of the covenant of grace to Israel. Nor was it a mixed covenant that was partly a covenant of works and partly a covenant of grace. Instead, it was a covenant of works for Christ in fulfilling the “legal condition” of the covenant of grace. As such, it was “an addition or appendix to that with Abraham” (Petto, The Difference, 162). Israel had no relation either to the covenant of works or to the covenant of grace by virtue of the Mosaic covenant. This covenant brought them temporal blessings in the land of Canaan only (as Brown notices, 96). Brown gives the impression that Petto taught that the Mosaic covenant was not an administration of the covenant of grace, but that it was a republication of the covenant of works. Yet strictly speaking, he believed that it was neither.

Seventeenth-century debates over the Mosaic covenant differ widely from modern ones. Some believed that he Mosaic covenant was the covenant of grace. Most believed that it was the covenant of grace with a republication of the covenant of works as a subordinate element. A small number taught that it was neither the covenant of works nor the covenant of grace, but that it contained elements of them both. Few, if any, believed that the Mosaic covenant was merely the covenant of works. Brown’s work draws necessary attention to a virtually forgotten thinker in the seventeenth-century, but the conclusions of this work need to be sharpened in order to better contribute to contemporary discussions.


This review appeared first in the Mid-America Journal of Theology for 2012.