Thursday, May 12, 2011

Bullinger and Hebrews

The previous post referred to Brian J. Lee’s monograph “Johannes Cocceius and the Exegetical Roots of Federal Theology: Reformation Developments in the Interpretation of Hebrews 7-10”. The following is a section from this book on Hebrews and the Old Testament and the Law:

“Two verses in particular provide opportunity for the heretics. The first is Hebrews 7:18, where the earlier commandment is called ‘weak and ineffectual,’ and the other is 8:8, where it is stated that the first covenant was not ‘faultless.’ For Chrysostom, the heretics were sufficiently refuted by pointing out that Apostle does no say that the Law was ‘evil’ or ‘vicious,’ but ‘weak and unprofitable.’ Chrystostom further concludes that the weakness was not in the Law itself, but in our own flesh, which was unable to fulfill his commands, a claim which is strengthened by correlating this weakness with Romans 8:3, ‘in that it (the Law) was weak through the flesh.’ Indeed, the citation of Romans 8 in comments upon Hebrews 7, either explicitly or by paraphrase, is common throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. One advantage of this approach is that it precludes the necessity of drawing precise distinctions with the old administration; to various degrees, not only the priesthood and ceremonial laws in particular, but also the entire old covenant are recognized to be unable to perfect due to the weakness of sinners themselves. While this solution defends the Old Covenant from the charge that it is evil, it continues to suggest some qualitative distinction between Old and New, such as the new Covenant would, in time, be bale to overcome this weakness of sinful flesh.

While Bullinger echoes aspects of Chrysostom’s view that the weakness truly resides in the flesh, he also identifies more narrowly what it is that is abrogated. God’s ‘Law’ is said to eb abrogated only by a synecdoche, that is, the whole is spoken of in order to refer merely to a part. By this synecdoche Bullinger isolates the ceremonial aspect of the Law as that which ahs been abrogated, in keeping with the text’s scope of the priesthood of Christ. The ceremonies are those things which are temporary and typical, pertaining to externalities. It is the shadows pertaining to the priesthood and sacrifices that are thus demonstrated to be done away with,and in this view he is followed by both Calvin and Junius.

But according to Bullinger, the figurative sense of Law operates on another level as well. By metonymy and metalepsis, ‘Law’ also represents what the Law did and manifested: ‘When it is thus said that the Law is abolished, it is the odium of the law, which was in the flesh before the Spirit was being imbibed […]. Thus by the law was sin and damnation made manifest, and so for sin and damnation the word ‘law’ is used.’ To illustrate this mode of speech Bullinger notes that we often say that the cross of Christ has liberated us from the law, when we really mean that it has liberated us from sin. Bullinger does not restrict this odium to the ceremonies, and from his examples it is clear that he has in mind a broader, soteriological category. According to Bullinger there are therefore two somewhat different, though not necessarily contradictory, strategies for narrowing the referent of ‘law’ in this chapter: by referring it synecdochally to the ceremonies of the law, or transferably to the wrath worked by the law…..

Bullinger’s postion allows him to maintain both a strong polemic against the ceremonies while developing the spiritual realities in view.

Bullinger’s synecdochal reading reflects the premise that the will of God ‘regarding what is to be done or predicted’ can in no way be abrogated, and indeed reflects a broadly traditional reading. Thus, when the New Covenant is said to be ‘written on hearts’ in 8:10, Chrysostom points out that the content of this writing, the ordinances themselves, do not differ from the old ordinances: ‘He makes no mention of any difference of ordinances, but points out the mode of its being given.’ Bullinger once again follows Chrysostom in identifying the modo tradendi (‘mode of instruction’) as what differs between the two covenants, and he calls the common ordinances the substantia foederis, or the substance of the covenant. While Bullinger is not exactly innovating on this point, he nonetheless stands at the head of a long line of Reformed commentators that will state essentially the same thing: the substance of the covenant is the same, the mode or form, or circumstances, differ. Calvin clearly takes this line, as do Johann Jacob Grynaeus and Zacharinus Ursinus.

Among the many commentaries surveyed, Bullinger produces perhaps the greatest overall argument for general continuity between the Old and New Testaments. Indeed, he treats Hebrews 8 as a locus which demonstrates how there is only one testament, and his marginal headings are suggestive of the outline of the De testamento seu foedere, the monograph on the same topic which he would compose two years later. The argument of the monograph is here already developed in outline form. In short, testaments or covenants are legal documents that set forth a series of conditions and promised blessings. These conditions and blessings arethe content of both testaments, the substantia, which remains unchanged despite the fact that the covenantal records, and the manner in which the substance is communicated, changes. Thus Bullinger argues for fundamental continuity between Old and new Testament eras on the basis of a continuity of the ‘covenant/testament,’ which he here treats in some detail. ‘Old’ and ‘New’ thus refer to two teachings (traditio) of the same covenantal reality.”

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