Monday, August 18, 2014

Covenant Theology in the Reformation Era

Jordan J Ballor, Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus, vol. 3, Refo500 Academic Studies. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012. 270pp. Hardcover. $117.00.

Reviewed by Ryan M. McGraw

Covenant theology is a vital component of historic Reformed theology. As historians have increasingly recognized that Calvin was not the founder of a tradition, but an important figure among other significant theologians, some of these lesser-known theologians are becoming the subject of Ph.D. dissertations. Jordan Ballor contributes to this trend in his study of the theology of Wolfgang Musculus, who was the first Reformed author to include a distinct locus on the covenant in his theological system. Musculus was a well-known German contemporary of Calvin who was widely read in his time. Ballor renders a great service to English-speaking readers by writing the first book-length study of Musculus’s covenant theology in English.

As the title suggests, Ballor’s work shows the interrelation between covenant, causality, and law in Musculus’s theology. After introducing the Medieval and Reformation context of each of these ideas, the main chapters of the book trace them through Musculus’s Loci Communes and his relevant biblical commentaries treating each theme in turn. Each section compares Musculus’s exegesis primarily with one representative each from the Early Church, Medieval, and Reformed orthodox periods. He concludes that Musculus’s general and special covenant scheme was not identical to the later covenant of works and covenant of grace construction, but represented a broad covenant of nature (Noahic) and a special covenant of grace (Abrahamic). The section on “Causality” treats divine power and the divine and human wills. The last section addresses Musculus’s views of law in relation to natural law, covenant theology, and the power of civil magistrates. Musculus was a precursor to the later Erastian movement, in which the state exercised discipline and appointed ministers in the church. Ballor concludes that the connection between these topics in Musculus’ thought illustrates that some authors have wrongly pitted the categories of covenant, predestination, and law against each other in describing various strands of Reformed thought.

The general weakness of the book relates to an inadequate development of Musculus’s historical context. Ballor barely makes reference to the social and political context in seventeenth century Germany or to who Musculus was, how he became a professor of theology, etc. Neither does he define key historical terms, such as “scholastic” or “Reformed orthodox.” It would have been helpful to know if Musculus had any theological opponents or personal struggles with individuals that might have affected the topics he treated or how he treated them (For instance, like Tim Cooper’s study on why John Owen and Richard Baxter did not like each other). Ballor’s treatment of Musculus’s four divisions in his exegetical work on Genesis provides a tangible example of such contextual deficiencies. Two of these divisions included a “spiritual sense” and a “moral application” of the text (81). This would have been a fruitful opportunity to mention the fourfold interpretation of Scripture (quadriga) from the Medieval period and how Reformed authors collapsed this fourfold sense into varied applications of the single sense of Scripture. This omission is striking since he later describes Musculus’s comments as predominantly “tropological” (143), without any reference to the fact that this represented one fourth of the quadriga. Ballor explains what Musculus thought and how his thought related to the Reformed tradition in general terms, but he does not adequately demonstrate why Musculus chose to develop a distinct locus on the covenant, while Calvin and others deemed it sufficient to incorporate covenantal ideas where appropriate into their writings. He does not ignore the context entirely, but he leaves many questions unanswered.

This study introduces readers to an important figure and a key component in the development of the Reformed tradition. Readers will need to fill in the historical and theological context to some extent, but this book is a good introduction to English-speaking readers who are interested in the development of covenant theology to an under-appreciated Reformed author.

This review is also appearing in print in The Puritan Reformed Journal.