Hermann Witsius on the Mosaic Covenant

Hermann_WitsiusHermann Witsius (1636-1703) was a Reformed theologian from the Netherlands. In his book Economy of the Covenants, where Witsius was trying to reconcile two camps of Covenant Theology, we find a great source for post-Reformation covenant theology. It is a work that all students of covenant theology should own and read. For more information you can go to this blog which is dedicated to him. There you can read his works (including those on the covenants) or purchase them here.

What does Witsius understand the function of the Mosaic covenant to be? And how does Witsius understand the relationship of the Mosaic covenant in the New Testament? In this post I want to argue that Witsius saw the Mosaic with more of a typological emphasis than Calvin. And he used this typological emphasis to aid his understanding of the function and purpose of the Mosaic. In other words, Witsius has a hermeneutic that Fesko describes in The Law is Not of Faith, as more redemptive historical contrasted with Calvin’s which is more historical-grammatical. While the substance of their views is the same (salvation by grace through faith in Christ), the difference is found in the different emphasis of the Mosaic one writer makes over the other.

Witsius recognized the Covenant of Works and Covenant of Grace distinction (terms of common use by the time of his writings). In the Covenant of Grace Witsius recognized two divisions, the Old and New Testaments. In these there were similarities (substances) and differences (circumstances).

The legal nature of the Mosaic economy was an area of emphasis for Witsius. He understood the legal nature to be primarily an “administration of the law with three aspects”.

  1. The Decalogue (10 Commandments) given in substance was the same as the law of nature
  2. Israel received this law as the Church. And in receiving this law they received the ceremonial laws that pointed to the person and work of Christ.
  3. Israel received the law as a peculiar people, in a theocracy and thus also the political laws (Economy 4.4.1-2; 2.162-163)

Witsius summarized the threefold understanding of the law here as moral, ceremonial and civil. All of which all find their ultimate fulfillment in the person and work of Christ.

Mosaic and Typology

How does Witsius use typology to help understand and explain the Mosaic? To start, Fesko cites that Witsius argued the Mosaic is a repetition of the Covenant of Works. (36) It is not a Covenant of Works in the sense that Israel was earning salvation or attaining it by obedience to the law. Rather it is a repetition of the Covenant of Works in the sense that the Mosaic is connected to both the ordo salutis (salvation by grace through faith in Christ) and historia salutis (differences in Old and New Covenants). I’ll give a brief overview of both.

The Mosaic in Witsius’ theology is connected to the ordo as a type of Covenant of Works pedagogically. Because it reveals sin and therein drives the sinner to Christ. Witsius cited Calvin’s commentary on Romans 10:4 (Rom 10:4 For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.) and both argued that if an Israelite thought their salvation was by their obedience they were in error.

The Mosaic in Witsius’ theology is connected to the historia as a type of Covenant of Works wherein it functions as a national covenant between God and Israel. A national covenant where Israel promises to be obedient to the commands contained in the covenant. The Mosaic as a national covenant has both eternal and temporal (security in the land) rewards for obedience. Witsius’ used typology here to interpret Israel’s presence in the Promised Land as 1) looking back to Adam’s probation in the garden and 2) looking forward to the person and work of Christ (the last Adam).

Thus Witsius saw the Mosaic as having a distinct relationship to both the Covenant of Works and the Grace. As a national covenant, the Mosaic presupposed both the Covenant of Works and Grace. A covenant that isn’t looking for perfect obedience but sincere faith that produces the fruit of faith, holiness. And in living out this national covenant, according to Witsius, Israel foreshadowed the person and work of Christ.

How did Witsius understand the difference between the Covenant of Works and Grace? Fesko quotes Witsius:

But with this difference; that under the covenant of works, this condition is required to be performed by man himself; under the covenant of grace it is proposed, as already performed, or to be performed by a mediator.(Law, 38; Witsius, Economy 4.4.57; 2:187)

What’s the summary? Witsius helps us to see that in the Mosaic Covenant there are elements of both the Covenant of Works and the Covenant of Grace. It functioned as a type of Covenant of Works because the “do this and live. do it not and die” sense of the Mosaic drives the worshipper to Christ (ordo salutis). And using typology, Witsius showed how the Mosaic has elements of the Covenant of Grace when it is pointing to the person and work of Christ in the future (historia).

Thus after the overview of Calvin and Witsius, the difference can be stated between the two. Calvin emphasized primarily the ordo while Witsius emphasized the works principle that was pedagogical and also the typological function. Calvin emphasized the works principle as aimed at the individual. While for Witsius the works principle was pedagogical (driving the sinner to Christ) but also typological in function (hence he called it a national covenant). Therefore, for Witsius the covenant does not require perfect obedience but sincere obedience.

To be clear, Calvin uses typology as well. Just not nearly as much as Witsius. In Calvin’s typology, the Promised Land is a foreshadow of heaven. In Witsius’ typology it is both the Promised Land and foreshadows Christ’s obedience (temporal and eternal).

Thus in conclusion, as Fesko notes, both Calvin and Witsius both affirm the ordo (by grace through faith in Christ) as continuous (both in the Old and New Testament). And that God made a covenant with Israel marked by grace. And both agree that the legal demands that are brought out by the Mosaic truly offer eternal life but because of the sinfulness of humanity, they are driven to Christ.