The Mosaic Covenant, Was a Type of Works Principle, According to Calvin

John_Calvin_2When the subject of the covenant God made with Moses (The Mosaic Covenant) comes up it raises a number of questions. Questions such as, “What was the purpose of the Mosaic covenant?” “What purpose does the Mosaic covenant have for New Testament Christians?” or “How are we to understand the function of the Mosaic covenant in relation to the work of Jesus?” I hope to explore some of these questions and use/recommend the book The Law is Not of Faith Essays on Works and Grace in the Mosaic Covenant to facilitate the discussion.

At the start it should be stated that I do not find that there was an overall consensus on this subject. J.V. Fesko, in his chapter, quotes one of the Westminster Divines Anthony Burgess (d. 1664) speaking to this

“I do not find in any point of divinity, learned men so confused and perplexed (being like Abraham’s ram, hun in a bush of briars and brambles by the head) as here.” (Law is Not of Faith, 25)

Some of the different views were that the Mosaic Covenant was:

  1. a covenant of works
  2. a mixed covenant of works and grace
  3. a subservient covenant to the covenant of grace
  4. simply the covenant of grace

As I work through this complex subject I will explain in more detail some of these terms. I like that Dr. Fesko starts the book with an overview/summary of John Calvin’s articulation of the Mosaic covenant then compares his views with that of Herman Witsius. While Calvin needs no or little introduction, Witsius may and therefore in the article on Witsius I will provide a brief introduction. In this first article I will give a summary of the overview given by Fesko on Calvin’s view of the nature and place of the Mosaic covenant.

Before looking at Calvin’s view of the Mosaic, Fesko rightly briefs Calvin’s view on soteriology in the Old Testament. In Institutes 2.10 entitled “The resemblance between the Old Testament and the New” and 2.11 “The difference between the two Testaments” the primary sources where Calvin articulates the similarities and dissimilarities of the two Testaments. For Calvin the old and new dispensations are really one, though they were administered differently.

“The covenant made with all the patriarchs is so much like ours in substance and reality that the two are actually one and the same. Yet they differ in the mode of dispensation.” Institutes 2.10.2

What changes is not the covenant but rather the form or administration of the covenant (Institutes 2.11.13)

One of the distinctions of Calvin’s explanation from Witsius is that he employs these Aristotelian categories of “form” and “substance”. These categories of substance and form, while helpful, are not always used by all Reformed thinkers (such as Witsius) and also not by many lay people. But the point should come across clearly. How we are reconciled to God has not changed (By grace through faith) the administration of the covenant has changed (example: no longer is there a temple or sacrifices). This basic summary provides a lens through which we can understand Calvin’s view of the place and function of the Mosaic.

Calvin sees in the Mosaic covenant two “ministries” or two covenants within a covenant. The ministry of Moses and the ministry of Christ. (Institutes 2.11.4) The Epistle to the Hebrews explains this difference as does Galatians on how the Law was our schoolmaster bringing us to Christ (Gal 3.24,19).

The Mosaic covenant promises eternal life to Israel by their obedience, but Israel is not able to fulfill the requirements of obedience because they are sinners. More on this is read in section 2.7 entitled “The Law given, not to retain a people for itself, but to keep alive the hope of salvation in Christ until His advent”. Calvin comments on 2 Cor 3:6 “not of the letter but of the Spirit. For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life”:

“The former passage intimates, that it is in vain to teach righteousness by precept, until Christ bestow it by free imputation, and the regeneration of the Spirit. Hence he properly calls Christ the end or fulfilling of the Law, because it would avail us nothing to know what God demands did not Christ come to the succour of those who are labouring, and oppressed under an intolerable yoke and burden.” (Institutes 2.7.2)

The Mosaic functioned as a type of covenant where reward is given for keeper of righteousness (2.11.7) and threats of punishment to those who transgressed. This is a covenant of works that is described. The idea of “do this and be rewarded or don’t do it and die” is the governing principle of the Mosaic. Continuing with this thought brings out another question in the mind of the worshipper, “Who can do this perfectly?”  The promise of eternal life that is hindered because of an inability in the worshipper.

Israel was a childlike version of the New Testament church and God treats them as such. Therefore they are given simple terms, ceremonies and visual sacrifices. But these are all appendages. (2.11.4) And as the Church matures they are removed but the crucial aspects are still there, faith in the God who promises. Therefore Calvin writes:

“God willed that, for the time during which he gave his covenant to the people of Israel in a veiled form, the grace of future and eternal happiness be signified and figured under earthly benefits, the gravity of spiritual death under physical punishment” (2.11.3)

The Mosaic covenant, for Calvin, was characterized by a works principle. Redemption by obedience. But their constant awareness of their shortcoming would open their eyes to the severity of their sin and the requirement for reconciliation.

Fesko provides a six point summary of Calvin here:

  1. Salvation has always been by grace through faith in Christ
  2. All of God’s people (OT or NT) participate in the same spirituale foedus that began with the first patriarchs
  3. In the OT the spirituale foedus had a different outward administration than in the NT
  4. The outward OT administration of the spirituale foedus is marked by shadows and types of Christ.
  5. The Mosaic administration of the law is specifically a foedus legale in contrast to the foedus evangelicum (ministries of Moses and Christ)
  6. The foedus legale is based upon a works principle but no one is able to fulfill its obligations except Christ

2 thoughts on “The Mosaic Covenant, Was a Type of Works Principle, According to Calvin

  1. Fesko talks about variations of those 4 views of the Mosaic Covenant among Westminster Divines in his new book The Theology of the Westminster Standards: Historical Context and Theological Insights.

  2. I read “The Law is Not of Faith” last year and found it helpful in articulating some of the nuances in Reformed views. Thanks for tackling this!

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