Covenant Theology: Zwingli et. al. Versus Luther I

Part 6 of 13

by Peter Lillback


Dr. Peter Lillback, president and professor, lectures in this church history course at Westminster Theological Seminary.

Art: Hans Holbein the Younger, John Calvin, circa 1530–1543


Let us begin our study today with a quick review. The first thing we want to remind ourselves is that we are trying to differentiate, uniquely, the reformed concept of covenantal theology. We have not taken a lot of time to pursue the other varieties, and we do not want to overlook the fact that there are covenantal theologies of sorts that we can find in the Anabaptist tradition, for example.

The primary focus is a development of the reformed system of looking at covenant theology until it ultimately expresses itself in the sense of federalism, which can be argued to be a denial of the earlier or continuity of it.

What we are looking at today is bringing the reformed development of the covenant under Zwingli and Bullinger directly into immediate contrast with Luther’s thought. We have hinted at the tensions that are there. There are some similarities, and yet, ultimately, they are in opposing directions, as I would see it, in terms of the idea of mutuality in the role of the law, the role of the covenant, as an organic notion. They are very different.

The battleground — even though it was never directly fought here, consciously — is really the way each of these theologians looked at Genesis 17. So, I have entitled this particular chapter in my study, the exegesis of the covenant in Genesis 17, the hermeneutical watershed between Wittenberg and the Swiss Reformation.

So, it is the idea that when you come to Genesis 17, you can see there really is a possibility of going in one of two directions, and Luther goes one way, and the reformed tradition goes another.

The History of “De Testamento”

Just two years before Calvin’s first edition of “Institutes of the Christian Religion” appeared, Bullinger published his treatise, “De Testamento,” in the month of October 1534.

Bullinger was standing upon the foundation built by Zwingli some nine years earlier when he had first coupled the continuity of the covenant with his defense of infant baptism. Zwingli’s work was really the first time where there is this idea of the organic union of Scripture being the basis of the covenantal life of the Church seen in the sacrament of infant baptism — kind of a mature reform paradigm of covenantal thought.

It brings together hermeneutics, theological assessment, historical continuity, sacramental life. It is all focused right on that point. That came right out of Genesis 17 in the prophecy lectures. And now, this is some nine years later from that time, from late 1525.

Now, in 1534, Bullinger has had the opportunity to interact and think on this, and he develops this particular treatise. Even though Bullinger was certainly aware of the events that had helped shape the reformed explanation of the covenant, in this treatise, he does not mention Zwingli nor the struggles of the previous decade.

One of the things that are fascinating is that Bullinger makes no direct connection with Zwingli by saying, “Well, as our mentor, Zwingli, has taught us.” Rather, he sees it as his own effort to interact with Scripture.

That is probably legitimate because some argument could be made that Bullinger also had been dealing with similar ideas of the covenant on unity, as seen in Oecolampadius and Zwingli. I think we can see it in Bullinger’s early commentaries also.

But it seems to me that, because of the centrality that Zwingli had given it, that probably is the impetus for Bullinger to make it, this central thrust, as he, himself, said in 1527, “The covenant is the chief point of religion.”

Some seven years earlier, Bullinger had already said, “This is the chief point of religion.” And when you think about this issue of Luther saying, “The sum of my divinity is the distinction between the law and the Gospel.” So, the law-gospel distinction in Luther’s divinity is his chief point of religion that he is trying to drive home. Bullinger, standing in this Zwingli tradition, says, “The chief of religion is the covenant.” This is their paradigm statement.

Remember, this is only 17 years after the Reformation officially began. So, this is an early reformed concept that is now becoming just as distinctively defined and developed as justification by faith or any other Reformation theme.

What Is the Heart of the Reformation?

So often, we wonder about what the slogans of the Reformation are. We think of Sola Scriptura, Sola Christo, Sola Fide, the priesthood of the believer. Well, from the Reformed tradition, we ought to say, also, the importance of the covenant, and yet we do not teach the Reformation that way. We teach it in a generic manner.

An honest statement is that coming from the Zwingli and the Swiss Reformation, one of the slogans of the Reformation is the importance of the centrality of the covenant, and we have lost sight of that by and large. So much so that the lingering theory still is that covenant theology really does not develop until the Puritans, for example. That is a common thing you will hear from all kinds of scholars.

And yet, here is this very early stage saying, “This is the heart of the Bible. This is what the Reformation is all about.” So that shows, to me, a little bit of how much we have lost sight of the handle of the early Reformation.

Defining Covenant Theology

Covenant theology is able to be defined in a number of ways. When we get to Calvin, we are going to be forced to define what just is covenant theology.

The essence of what makes a covenant or theology is the insistence on the organic unity of Old and New Testament — that they are not two different books but one book with organic development, and that in that organic unit, which is a historical hermeneutical consideration, the covenant is the central notion of defining the theological work of Redemption.

Somehow, that is the heart of what is going on, so there is a soteriological element, also a historical hermeneutical element. We could say that the Bible is one book, Old and New Testament. They are not two different covenants entirely distinct. Rather, there is one covenant that manifests itself in different ways in history.

In that historical unit, salvation is defined in covenantal terms, but that is the heart of it. So it is a redemptive-historical hermeneutic. To me, that is what makes a covenantal theology.

Others might say, “Well, you really need to have a Covenant of Works or you do not have a covenant theology.” Then I might say, “Well, maybe that is what you need to have to call it a federal theology, a conscious dialectic between a prelapsarian post-lapse here in the covenant.”

There are all kinds of basic arguments here. My approach is using the simplest approach that Moltmann used in his article on federal teleologiae. I remember reading that years ago and saying, “I think he is right.”

What makes a covenant theology is that we see a historical organic unit. So when we look at the Bible hermeneutically, we are always saying that this is one united book.

Different Approaches to Covenant Theology

The Lutheran model is uncomfortable with the concept of one united book. They try to set aside the Old Testament as a very different approach. Even though there is unity, there is a high discontinuity because of the law-gospel tension.

The Anabaptist tradition says, “No, you do not look to the Old Testament. You only look to the New.”

When you begin to see this emphasis on unity and continuity, you begin to see the heart of what makes the reformed tradition what it is. You can preach about the Old Testament without denying Christ. You are preaching Christ. And as you do that, there is the emphasis on the covenant, which is both holiness and law, as well as faith and the passive righteousness of Christ. They are both there.

So, that Redemptive model is very critical because, for example, the Roman Catholic tradition sees unity from Old and New Testament, following an Augustinian hermeneutic. There is a sense of looking to the Old and seeing much of the Church’s theology. Well, the difference there is they have a hermeneutical and historical unity to some extent.

Roman Catholics do not have a covenantal focus when it comes to Redemption. They have a pledge in covenantal focus rather than a gracious covenant. So, again, there is a different scheme that is at work.

That puts them into that late medieval covenantal theology as opposed to seeing the Redemption of the gracious gift of God in both sanctification and justification as distinguishable elements of the covenant. The Roman Catholic tradition blurs that distinction between sanctification and justification, and they give it a semi-pelagian ring, if not a pelagian ring.

So, when you take those two distinguishing points, I think you have what makes a reformed covenantal theology. All reformed theology will agree on that.

Now, out of that, there are going to be different developments, different shoots that will grow. But, that is what I would say makes a covenantal theology. You have that hermeneutical, historical component, focusing Redemption in covenantal terms, the chief point of religion, which is Bullinger’s phrase there.

Covenant of Works vs. Covenant of Grace

Covenant of Works and Covenant of Grace can be viewed as similar, but they must still be distinguished because, in the Covenant of Works, there is no atonement in view. There is no Savior being offered. It is rather just pure communion with God in faith and obedience.

Did not Adam have to believe God? Did not Adam have to obey God? Well, that is our duty, too, in the Covenant of Grace — to obey and to believe. There is no difference in that sense.

The difference is the object of our faith. It is now not only God, our Creator, and God, our Father, but it is also God, our Redeemer. Because of sin, the broken covenant changes its focus.

There is something inherently different even though there is a profound continuity between Covenant of Works and Covenant of Grace. Now that would sound very different if we took a Coccian model where the tension is profoundly an abrogation and denial. I think you can look at it very much as continuity.

That is where you get into some of the different streams of approach. It would be fascinating, for example, to compare the Covenant of Grace and Covenant of Works as opposed to Coccia’s.

Did Calvin Develop a Pre-Fall Covenant?

We have to get into the actual data of Calvin and say, “Did he develop a pre-fall covenant? What is the evidence for that?” To simply respond, I think he makes that contention, but he does not deal with the evidence. That is my basic point.

It is fine to make a charge to say there is no evidence. But when you know there is evidence and you do not take time to interact with that, that is a fairly weak rebuttal. I mean, that is kind of like a pontification, “Well, it is just not true.”

It may not be true, but you have to explain away the arguments that seem to argue exactly the opposite, and that is my concern, to the extent that he dealt with any of my work. He took it very lightly. He just kind of said, “Well, it is not there.”

My argument is that it is clearly inchoative. It is very much preparatory for a more mature form, but the seeds and concepts are clearly present, not just accidentally, but clearly present. They are not worked out in a full schematic form, but the concept is there, and he deals with it in some substantial ways.

It is not enough just to say, “Well, it is not there.” If you have evidence, you must deal with it. I know the evidence is not dealt with. That is my basic concern. So, if I were debating him, I would say, “Well, what about this? You have not answered this yet,” and it may be explainable. But until it is explained away, the gravamen is still there to say that we look to somebody else instead of Calvin.

John Murray’s Covenantal Thinking

I have to say this carefully here, but it seems to me that at least in one stream of Murray’s thought, for a period of time, he thought that the Noahic Covenant was the model. And in doing that, he had very much a testamentary notion at that time in his thinking.

I think you can find different nuances of covenantal thinking in John Murray. In his study of the covenant, where he goes back to the Noahic Covenant, he emphasizes very much the sovereign testamentary character, which fits very wonderfully with the reformed doctrine of sovereign election.

But what he does not deal with well is what happens with this mutuality that develops later. In my opinion, I do not think John Murray had a complete grasp of the development of reformed covenant thought in history. To some extent, he lost sight of the mutual element in the covenant in that part of his work.

I think you can see different streams. I do not want to put words in Dr. Ferguson’s mouth, but I think he would identify with that. I think he would say that you can find different covenantal emphasis in John Murray’s thinking — different stages in his research.

My sense is that his study on the covenant where he emphasizes Noah is probably something that steps out of the reformed tradition in a novel direction, that maybe he comes to see it in a different direction later. Probably, Dr. Ferguson would be the man you want to ask about John Murray at that point. Interact with him and see what he says.

I think it is clear that in Murray, you can see two streams of thought, and also, that his study of the history of covenantal theology is, to some extent, incomplete because he had never really gone back into the early Reformation and meditated on some of these issues.

One comment like that could suggest a certain amount of criticism. I do not intend a criticism. I am just a little sparrow standing on the shoulders of John Murray here, and I can pick up his research. In fact, I did long ago. I said that John Murray has got this right. And then, I stayed a little more and said, “Now there is more to be added here.”

Realize that every student is kind of biased to their own position. Recognizing that is important.

The Unique Translation of “De Testamento”

A couple of other points, as we complete our introduction to coming to Bullinger study, is that in the middle of page 184, you see that “De Testamento” was never translated into English. However, it was translated into Dutch and German.

As far as I can tell going back to this work, it was present in its Latin form as an appendix to Bullinger’s commentaries on the New Testament, but it never circulated as a popular treatise in English. Although, I think the influence of his thought can be found very early on in some of the development of the covenant in early English Puritan thought. I found that interesting.

However, it was made into the popular language of the Dutch and German reformed tradition. The English world has largely not had the advantage of an English translation of Bullinger until recent years.

Examining Bullinger’s Study

Let’s see what Bullinger actually tries to do in his study on page 185. He begins with the nomenclature of the covenant, where he will begin to talk about the words Testamentum, fedus, pactum — the Germanic words for “covenant.” There, he begins with this humanistic emphasis on etymology. And then, he begins to talk about the motive and the manner of a covenant.

In the first part of his work, he suggests the Latin word for covenant, fedus, actually has two meanings. With my primitive Latin knowledge, I did not realize that. I was kind of chasing down the word fedus in the institutes in Latin, saying, “Where is it? I cannot find it here.” Then suddenly, I realized it also means foul or something that is evil as well as a covenant. I said, “Well, that explains it.”

This was years ago. I am not much of a better Latin student today. But as I was pursuing that, I said, “What is going on?” Bullinger connects them. He says that they are really intended to be a common etymology.

Now, this may not be right, or it may be right. Of course, there is a lot of question about the legitimacy of getting meanings from etymologies. But the point for Bullinger was that an animal was slain in making a covenant. There was, if you will, something foul or evil that was done. There was death perpetrated on the sacrificial animal.

And so, a covenant was made by slaying or sacrifice. So he suggests that the two Latin nuances have come from the primal meaning of establishing a covenant. There was this evil act. There was actually the destruction of life to establish the reality of a covenant because that was the vow that was being taken — a self-maledictory oath, as Meredith Klein would put it. But that was the idea that, to some extent, Bullinger was dealing with in terms of the etymology.

The idea here is that the manner of making a covenant is pledging oneself to perform an act at the threat of one’s own life, and Bullinger suggests that seriousness of the vow goes into the language. In this treatise, if you have read through the translation of Baker and McCoy, maybe you have noticed this.

Later, he will mention that this goes back even to the Greek tradition, where Alexander, at one point, actually slew an animal and made his whole army march between the parts as they took an oath to him as the commander of the armies. He was essentially saying, “That is the threat of your life should you mutiny against me. You are taking a vow to be slain just like this animal.”

This is serious business, so a covenant in the blood is calling for a serious commitment.

He points out that there is a public record of the covenant — that covenants are not made generally in secret, but are made open to the world so that others are aware of it. He points out that there are parties of the covenant, and I think it is significant here that there is this mutual element, that there is a clear sense of where God enters the covenant.

He is the leader of the covenant, but He truly demands a response from the seed of Abraham that is now focusing on Genesis 17. The conditions of the covenant for God and man are placed there. God will not violate His word, nor will man, on pain of a sanction. So, the idea that there is the possibility of punishment that awaits if the covenant is violated. He talks about the parties and conditionality.

As Bullinger develops this early reform view of the covenant, he gets the idea of mutuality and responsible partaking of the human element. In the sixth section, he talks about the unity and eternality of the covenant, which probably is one of the most remarkable statements.

Hermeneutically, he will say, “All Scripture is referred to the covenant as its target.” That is the eighth section. In essence, he is saying that every Scripture that you come to must always be brought back to bear upon this question of the covenant. So for him, it has become a hermeneutical principle that when you read the Bible, you always ask the question, “How does it relate to the covenant,” which is quite a remarkable statement.

I am still working through 185 here. He goes on to say that there is a collation of all scripture to the heads of the covenant. Then he actually goes through the law, the prophets, Christ and his revelation, and the apostles. He shows how all of those revelatory epics all tie back into Genesis 17.

It is the heart of the Bible. Everything must be brought back to bear upon it. Then he emphasizes the great unity of the covenant, that this is all one covenant in history. It is all one.

And then he has to answer what has now become a great problem hermeneutically. He deals with the Anabaptist who said, “No, there are problems exegetically with seeing the covenant as one. Where did the names of the Old and New Testament arise? Why do you have an Old and New Testament if it is one covenant? How come there are two?

There are ways in which we excel the ancients. That is the Old Testament people. It is better to be a Christian than it is to be an Old Testament saint looking for Christ. Is not there an improvement in the new covenant?”

And then he deals with some specific objections that have been brought to argue for the discontinuity of the covenant. For example, in the Sermon on the Mount, “You have heard it said, but I say unto you.” Christ is clearly breaking up the Old and New Testaments. But Bullinger will deal with that.

Bullinger’s Response to Objections

2 Corinthians 3 says that the covenant that brought death had glory. Well, the new covenant brings us from glory to glory through the spirit. So there is that emphasis on the greater. He wants to answer the charge that we are not Ebionites, an ancient heresy that mixed law and gospel. That might be one of the charges he heard perhaps from the Lutheran tradition, where they are mixing together law and gospel into one.

The best answer to that is to say that there is not a confusion of law and gospel. He is going to respond by saying, for example, from a Lutheran hermeneutic, law and gospel must always be distinguished. That is the heart of Luther’s approach.

So, we know that law addresses the man as a sinner. The Gospel addresses man as the justified man. And the law does not come into the Christian’s life. He must be ignorant of that except as he sees himself as a sinner. He says, “That is my divinity. That is my theology. I must understand that.” He then would critique the reformed tradition by saying, “You do not keep this clearly distinguished. You are talking to the Christian about the importance of obeying the law.”

There is this sense of saying, “The law does have a different role to man as a non-Christian than it does to man as a Christian. The law, for Christian man, does not somehow diminish the role of Christ, but Christ’s grace enables man to keep this law as in this third use of the law sense as they guide into holiness in his life.”

His response is that we do not take away from Christ’s Redemption by insisting that the law is important for the believer. Rather, we say that Christ, in his Redemption, calls us to follow the pattern of obeying the law, that that very Redemption gives us the law in grace.

He’s trying to say that we are not taken away from Christ by teaching a law. Rather, we are saying that Christ leads us to a life of obedience to the law.

The Deuteronomy 5 passage is the one where it says that the Lord made a covenant with our fathers, and He did not make this covenant as He makes with us. So there is clearly something fresh and new about even the renewal of the covenant as they enter the promised land, and he interacts with the exegesis of that.

He responds also to the questions “What about the land of Canaan? Was not that specifically a unique issue for Israel that has no bearing on the Christian?” He develops again that idea of almost the sacramental character of the land. It was a picture of heaven yet to come that in their participation land, they were being called to a city whose Builder and Maker is God, picking up that Hebrews 11 passage.

Then he will come to the issue of circumcision, where he will point out that this is the sacrament of the covenant and how that points us to Christian baptism along similar lines. So, there is the sacramental issue.

He will finish up by talking about the written documents of the covenant, and he will say that the Scriptures are all a covenantal record for every covenant that is done publicly. They are finally put to print for the future generations to be able to appeal to as an authority.

He says, “And that is what the Bible is. It is the written record of the covenant so that future generations can look back and see the promises that have been made and they can appeal to them.” So there’s this idea of the Scriptures being nothing less than a testimony to God’s covenant, again, picking up that hermeneutical unity.

He argues in an epilogue at the end that the Christian religion is the oldest of all religions. It antedates Judaism. It antedates anything because the Christian religion is a religion of the covenant that goes all the way back to Adam. Covenantal religion is Christianity. And it has always been here. So that is pretty much a powerful treatise at this early stage and well worthy of our consideration.

Comparing Bullinger and Lutheranism on Genesis 17

Now, let us go onto page 193. Here, in the middle of the page, I want to give you what I call a comparison of Bullinger and Lutheranism on Genesis 17.

To my knowledge, Bullinger never sat down and said, “Now I am going to critique Luther’s commentary on Genesis.” He does not do that. And, as far as I know, Luther does not consciously have Bullinger in mind.

I am arbitrarily taking these two men and putting them together. I think it is legitimate to do it, though, because they both are commenting on this passage and have significant beliefs about it.

On the one hand, Bullinger says, “It is the heart of all the Bible. All of the Scripture must find Genesis 17 as its target.” In other words, you should aim to tie everything back to here. Now, we want to look and see how Luther deals with the same concept and what he does with it.

Luther’s Interpretation of Genesis 17

As we begin to work through this, let us turn to the next page, 194, at the significance of the seventeenth chapter of Genesis.

The heading says the importance of Genesis 17 for Bullinger can be seen in the fact that the entire explanation of the one eternal covenant or Testament of God is built upon Genesis 17.

On the other hand, what did Luther think of this passage? Luther, too, had strong feelings about Genesis 17.

Now, what I am doing is taking the statements on his commentary on Genesis and Luther’s writings. He writes, “This chapter, therefore, is outstanding because the institution of the circumcision which the Jews single out for unrestrained praise and are proud of beyond measure.”

So, one of the things that Luther is conscious of is that this is the chapter that Judaism comes back to and says, “God gave us this right. Gave us our distinguishable trait in history with this mark of a sacrament and covenant.”

He goes on to say, “Therefore, Paul attacks the Jews so vigorously in order to free them from this carnal presumption.” So he sees Genesis 17 as something that Paul had to attack because of the emphasis on circumcision that Judaism has.

He goes on to say, “If someone should diligently stress this chapter, he will find countless supporters and pupils, for, in it, Moses assembles such powerful arguments in favor of circumcision that Saint Paul had to resist with all his might.

He said, “Paul had to fight against this chapter with every ounce of energy and because of its emphasis on circumcision. Rather th”an diligently stress this chapter, one should first learn Paul’s arguments against circumcision.

If this is the case, then “there is no danger among strong Christians and those fortified by the word as some fanatic should insist on circumcision.” Luther, then avers, “among the weak, there is a great danger.”

It is interesting. He comes to this chapter and says, “We must be very careful in using it because it is dangerous for the new Christian, for the weak Christian, because he will get confused and think, ‘Well, did not God make the covenant of circumcision as an eternal covenant?’ and somehow entice them back into a Jewish way of life.”

That was Paul’s issue. Paul had to attack Judaism. He had to attack circumcision. So Luther says, “We must see how Paul resists it.”

Bullinger’s Interpretation of Genesis 17

It would be difficult to find two more differing views of Genesis 17 than those of Bullinger and Luther. While Luther insists that one must first be fortified by Paul before he reads this chapter, Bullinger believes that all Scripture aims at the covenant of this chapter.

He writes, “Further, in these most brief heads of the covenant the whole sum of piety consists, in fact, no other teaching of the saints of all ages through the whole Scripture exists than what is included in these heads of the covenant, except that by the succession of times each one is explained more extensively and more clearly.”

In other words, he said this is all the Bible, and everything develops more fully.

Bullinger is basically saying what Christians have often sung in the old gospel hymn — to trust and obey, for there is no other way to be happy in Jesus. In other words, trusting is what was emphasized ultimately in Genesis 15. Obedience is what is emphasized in Genesis 17, where it says, “walk before Me and be blameless.”

Abraham believed in God. It was credited to him as righteousness. What Bullinger is saying is, those are the hearts of all of theology. That that is justification and sanctification, trusting God and then seeking to have a holy life. All of the Bible will come back to emphasize that.

Bullinger, in chapter 9 of his “De Testamento,” actually tries what he labels the paragraph, “A collation of all of Scripture to the heads of the covenant.” In other words, he attempts to bring that all to bear.

The Relationship of Genesis 17 to the New Testament

Let us go on to the next section. The relationship of the covenant in Genesis 17 to the New Testament. Another significant question that we want to pose to both Luther and Bullinger here.

While Bullinger considers Genesis 17 to be the first expression of the one and eternal covenant that God made with His Church of all the ages, Luther considers it a covenant only for the Jews.

Okay, very interesting point. For Luther, Genesis 17 is a Jewish covenant and only a Jewish covenant. Whereas for Bullinger, it is the covenant of all the Bible, for all the Christian and Jewish believers of all time.

Listen to what Luther says on top of 196. It says here, “Thus God’s own words refute the argument of the Jews who maintain that circumcision is to continue forever and wanted to be imposed upon the Gentiles too. He expressly says you and your descendants shall keep your covenant. Hence, this covenant does not concern the Gentiles.”

In addition, he says, “Throughout their generation, that is as long as the kingdom and the priesthood continue to exist.” In other words, Luther says this forever emphasis in this chapter means only as long as there is a nation of Israel. And once that nation is set aside, Genesis 17 has passed off the scene of significance. It was intended for the Jews.

Notice further. It says, in fact, the very reason God did not reveal Himself as Elohim in Genesis 17 but instead used the name El Shaddai is so that the Jews would know that this covenant was only for them. In other words, He took a unique covenantal name.

Luther tries to give a little bit of the etymology of El Shaddai, pointing out that it can mean mountains. It can mean breasts. He suggests that it may have the idea of God’s special, unique nurturing and power to Israel.

Luther says as follows, “no matter what its origin may be, it seems to me that Moses did not want to use Elohim, the general term employed by the whole human race, but made use of this unique and new designation to indicate a mystery.” Namely, he does not want the whole world to be bound by this covenant of circumcision, which he commands here.

Circumcision pertains specifically to the descendants of Abraham. Therefore, Moses wanted to anticipate the rabid pride of the Jews, who maintained on the basis of this text that the entire world must be circumcised. El Shaddai means that God has a covenant only for historical Israel.

But listen to what Bullinger does with that name. Again, expounding Genesis 17, Bullinger will deal with the name El Shaddai, and he says as follows, “Now, we descended the conditions of the covenant. Indeed those who are connected by covenants are connected by certain precepts in order that each may know his particular office.

Indeed, what this one is responsible for to the other and what in turn that one may expect from the other. Thus, God, who, in this covenant, holds the chief place, first sets forth and produces His nature such as He wills to manifest Himself to us. And so, with eloquent words, and with great weight, He pronounces, I am God, all-sufficient, full, and the horn of plenty, that is that power and that good, which alone is able to be enough for man.

It means that He is the one who provides all things for all needs, nothing at all, who lives, moves, and works eternally by means of Himself. Indeed, all of this, at the same time, the Hebrew word ‘Shaddai’ signifies and comprehends in itself.

By this name, the Lord showed forth concisely, wonderfully, and fruitfully, both as unity and omnipotence, His goodness and all His virtues. That name means that God is the almighty God of creation and Redeeming Grace. For Luther, it is a name that means he is uniquely dealing only with Israel.”

Bullinger vs. Luther

Again, what a remarkable tension you can begin to feel between these two men. Since Luther believed that the covenant was only with the Jews, he also believed that the covenant of Genesis 17 was a temporal covenant. It is not an eternal covenant.

Remember how Bullinger defined it? He said, of the one and eternal testament or covenant of God, he said, this is eternal. Luther says this is temporal, temporary.

Again, we quote Luther. He says, “Moreover the Jews were not so blind. They should be especially impressed by the expression that the Lord adds here time and time again. I will establish my covenant between me and you and your descendants after you throughout their generations. You shall keep my covenant, you and your descendants after you throughout their generations likewise, and I will give to you and your descendants after you the land of your sojourning.”

This expression, “throughout their generations,” should be carefully noted. He could simply have said, “my covenant shall be everlasting between you and your descendants after you,” but because he adds throughout their generations, he indicates its continuance for a fixed time.

Therefore, the meaning is this covenant of circumcision itself will continue as long as your generation continues. It is also certain that Abraham’s descendants no longer continue to exist, for after the capture of Jerusalem, no kingdom, no people, no family and no sacrifice remained.

Luther’s hermeneutic, as you think about it, is the Pauline emphasis that circumcision added to the Gospel destroys the Gospel. And he says, that is all he can see in Genesis 17, something uniquely for Israel that we must set aside for a Gospel of grace and Christ. Whereas, the Old Testament movement of Bullinger goes back and says, no, this is, in fact, an eternal covenant.

Notice again, top of 198, quoting from Bullinger:

“Now, out of these things, there follows what is third in order, namely that this testament or covenant is both one and perpetual. Indeed, with plain words, the Lord himself says in the remaining words of the covenant, ‘and I will make My covenant between Me and you and between your seed after you and their generations as an eternal Covenant that I may be your God and the God of your seat after you.’”

We stop here for a moment just to note what our theology does to our exegesis here. Think about it. Luther says “throughout your generations” because he does not want this to last beyond the New Testament age. He says, “Well, that is because it is only while there is a nation. That is what ‘throughout their generations’ means.”

Bullinger sees this as a perpetual covenant of the Sovereign bestow of grace and the true response and grace of the believer. He says “throughout your generations” means as long as there is this succession, it is forever.

This is a good illustration of what all of us should do for an exegesis. It is hard to break our theological paradigm when we come to a text, is it not? You can see it right here at work, and these men are out there, looking at the data and saying, well, this is what it must mean because of what I believe.

My point here from the historical theological vantage point is to realize that we see a very different theological paradigm at work. What causes them to exegete the passage in this manner?

Why Do Bullinger and Luther Have Different Opinions?

For Luther, he is trying to keep the law, which is very much an Old Testament concept, distinguishable from gospel, which is very much a New Testament concept, even though we noted there is continuity of the Gospel in the Old. But that law-gospel distinction must stand.

Whereas for the covenantal thinking of Bullinger, we have to go back into the past and see how there is just a continual development, which I see is the heart of what I would call a covenantal theology.

In fact, when you go on, Luther will suggest that there are actually two covenants present in Genesis 17, which is a startling exegetical discovery when you think about it. I am going to betray my dispensational heritage here, but I remember being taught that there were two new covenants in Hebrews 8.

I do not know if any of you remember any of that, having been exposed to dispensationalism in the past, but I remember struggling and saying “How did they get out of this passage here?” Because we need to have a new covenant for the converted Israel of the future and a new covenant for the Church.

Well, that has been modified again since that, those old days of my seminary experience in Dallas. Luther is doing something very similar here. He says, “I have to figure out how I can have Abraham in the Covenant of Grace because he is the father of Faith, but I need to keep that covenant of Genesis 17 back in the Old Testament and not let it penetrate.”

So again, his theology forces him to exegete the text to protect himself from something because he has a paradigm that cannot allow this covenantal thinking to move in. I hope you can sense that I am not trying to impose a historical construction. I am trying to give you the data to let you wrestle with it.

This is Luther himself. I was startled to read this years ago when I came across this, but this is Luther. He does not want this. He is being consistent with his perspective.

Final Thoughts

My final thought is that, when we talk about the Reformation and the Reformational slogans from the reformed perspective, let us not be afraid to say there is a missing reform slogan.

If there is Sola Christo, Sola Scriptura, and Sola Fide, we also say Sola Covenant, Sola Fedus because that is also reformed theology. You do not say that if you interpret Reformation history with the Lutheran perspective. But if you interpret it from a reformed perspective, we need to add a new slogan, which is Sola Fedus — the covenant alone.

Peter Lillback

Dr. Lillback (PhD, Westminster) is president and professor of historical theology.

Next Course Lecture...

Covenant Theology: Zwingli et. al. Versus Luther II

Part 7 of 13

by Peter Lillback