Friday, March 4, 2011

Lillback on De Testamento

Peter Lillback’s The Binding of God: Calvin’s Role in the Development of Covenant Theology (Baker: Grand Rapids, 2001) has an extended section of Bullinger’s De Testamento which was Bullinger’s work on the covenant (1534). Lillback’s book represents a careful study of the primary sources. The book is based on his doctoral dissertation of the same title which has attached his translation of De Testamento. In The Binding of God LIllback makes several helpful observations and his book is helpful mine of information. However, I would humbly disagree with some of his conclusions.

The following extract (p113) is the concluding summary of Lillback’s assessment of De Testamento:

“Bullinger does not discuss the pre-fall relationship of God and Adam. There is no word of a covenant of creation or a covenant of works. Or does Bullinger consider the issue of covenant and election as Zwingli had done in his final work against the Anabaptists. There is no idea of a pre-temporal covenant of redemption. There is however, a full consideration of the one covenant of grace throughout the successive ages of redemptive history. Bullinger’s indebtedness to Zwingli can be seen by comparing Zwingli’s chart of Genesis 17 with Bullinger’s outline of his discussion of the covenant.

Zwingli’s Chart

1. God all-sufficient is our God.
2. We should walk uprightly before Him.
3. He is also the God of our see.
4. God has sent the Savior to us.
5. Covenant signs: baptism of young children and adults.
6. We teach the children when they are old enough.

Bullinger’s Outline

1. The Parties of the covenant.
2. The conditions of the covenant for God and Man.
3. Who are the seed of Abraham?
4. Unity and centrality of the covenant.
5. Circumcision, sacrament of the covenant.
6. The written documents of the covenant.

Bullinger’s exposition of the covenant is an amplification of the outline of Genesis 17 Zwingli presented in his reply to Hubmaier’s Book on Baptism.”

A few comments are in order here. Firstly, like many other scholars Lillback is in danger of reading into Bullinger the terminology and categories of later covenant theology rather than seeking to understand Bullinger on his own terms in his particular historical context. Closer comparison with The Old Faith (1537) and Bullinger’s extended references to the covenant in sermons and 3.viii of The Decades will indicate that Bullinger’s focus on the covenant is on the postlapsarian heilsgeschichtlich plan of salvation which climax is the coming of the promised Messiah or promised seed of Adam and Eve resulting in justification by faith as an expression of God’s grace. Secondly, the comparison between “Zwingli’s Chart” and “Bullinger’s Outline” vis-à-vis Genesis 17 is somewhat contrived and is used by Lillback to reinforce the incorrect conclusion (in my view) that Bullinger followed Zwingli’s lead on the covenant and subsequently developed what Zwingli had already expounded.

These comments notwithstanding the following extract from The Binding of God (p112) is a summary that is spot on in providing a succinct and accurate understanding of De Testamento:

“Genesis 17 is an eternal covenant that is always the same in substance. The New Testament teaches that there is only one people of God made up by those of Old and New Testament who were in His church. The differences between the Old and new Testaments are explained by the ways God dealt with His people under different circumstances. The Old is ‘old’ because it was the preparation for Christ’s coming, and the New Testament in ‘new’ because Christ has now come. Yet the unity throughout the Testaments is unmistakeable in God’s provision and requirement of man’s faith and love. Even in the Old Testament there was the spiritual Israel and the Israel of the flesh, even as now there is a true Israel and a false Israel of the flesh. This distinction does not refer to the Old and New Covenants as though the Old is only the covenant of the flesh, and the New is the only covenant of the Spirit. Since the New Testament has come there are many things in which the Christians are more excellently blessed by God. These include the absence of all of the ceremonies, the full truth instead of shadows, the full blessing of the Holy Spirit, and the universal gospel witness. Matthew 5 is in no way contrary to the continuity of the covenant. Christ does not attack Moses, but the errors of the common people. Similarly, Paul in 2 Corinthians 3 is dealing with the false prophets’ views of Scripture. The contrast of letter and Spirit is not to be referred to the whole law, but only to those things which have been done away with by Christ. Nor is this the Ebionite error, since this view does no insist on carnal ceremonies with faith in Christ for salvation. The Deuteronomy 5 passage that states that this covenant was not made by God ‘with our fathers’ is to be explained as Augustine does. It is a synecdoche in which the fathers refers only to those who perished in the wilderness. In summation, John Oecolampadius’ phrase says it best. ‘That eternal covenant is one with God, which He arranges differently in various times.’ Finally,, to those who see the Old Testament Jews’ triumphs and victories in war as incongruent with the sufferings of the Christan, several things can be said. First, the Old Testament is filled with hardship, as is seen in Abraham himself who never received the promised land. If one thinks of the lives of Jacob, Moses, and David, he will see that they suffered greatly. The old time had its tyrants such as the Pharoahs, Ahab and Joaz, even as the early church had to face the Roman persecutions. Further, many Christians have lived obediently to the Lord throughout their lives and did not ever suffer persecution. Suffering is more than physical persecution.”

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