Researching the Covenant of Works in Ursinus with help from the Puritan Hard Drive

Of late, other responsibilities have kept me from blogging about my review copy of the Puritan Hard Drive, but as the drive kept staring at me from my bookshelf, I finally carved out a few minutes to look something up and decided to do a little musing, in addition to showing yet another great use for the Puritan Hard Drive.

The impetus for this post was a search of Zacharias Ursinus’Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism which has been OCR’d as part of the Puritan Hard Drive.  I searched the volume for “covenant” and slogged through the 156 references tagged in the search.  I had been wanting to look into this for some time and now the Puritan Hard Drive made my inquiry that much easier!

In recent years, mostly surrounding the debate over covenant theology in the Reformed tradition (e.g., the Federal Vision), some have either neglected the law/gospel contrast evident in Ursinus, or tried to down-play that distinction as some “Lutheran” remnant of his training under Philip Melanchthon.  What is more, the absence of the term “covenant of works” in the Heidelberg Catechism has led many to argue that Reformed theology can be maintained intact without reference to (or affirmation of) this pre-lapsarian covenant.

It should be noted that in his Larger Catechism, posthumously published (apparently against his wishes), Ursinus does speak using the classic distinction of creation and redemption covenants, the former requiring perfect obedience, the later requiring faith in God’s promise:

Q. 36: What is the difference between the law and gospel?

A. The law contains the natural covenant, established by God with humanity in creation, that is, it is known by humanity by nature, it requires perfect obedience to God, and it promises eternal life to those who keep it and threatens eternal punishment to those who do not.  The gospel, however, contains the covenant of grace, that is, although it exists, it is not known at all by nature; it shows us the fulfillment in Christ of the righteousness that the law requires and the restoration in us of that righteousness by Christ’s Spirit; and it promises eternal life freely because of Christ to those who believe in him.

(The Larger Catechism is published in full in Bierma et al, An Introduction to the Heidelberg Catechism: Sources, History, and Theology.)

Lyle Bierma makes some interesting points about this language both in the volume just cited, and in his essay “Law and Grace in Ursinus’ Doctrine of the Natural Covenant: A Reappraisal” (In the volume edited by Trueman and Clark on Protestant Scholasticism).  In both of these, he seems to posit a development in Ursinus’ thinking, a development away from a detailed articulation of the covenant of works to one that assigned a lesser role to the pre-lapsarian covenant of works.  Whether one agrees with this assessment or not, Bierma provides an excellent survey in the history of scholarship on this very point.

Bierma suggests that Ursinus’ Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, written after his Larger Catechism, demonstrates that much of the legal-covenantal speak is now omitted.  Though he interacts with several passages early in the volume, a noteworthy exception to this seems to be found on pgs. 609-610 (found thanks to the OCR’d volume on the Puritan Hard Drive!).

In this section, Ursinus begins his exposition of Q. 114 of the HC:

Q. But can those who are converted to God, perfectly keep these commands?

A. No; but even the holiest men, while in this life, have only small beginnings of this obedience, yet so, that with a sincere resolution, they begin to live, not only according to some, but all the commands of God.

Ursinus then entertains some objections against this Q&A; objection 4 is relevant to this post:

Obj.4. The severity of divine justice does not render good according to works which are not perfectly good. But Christ in the final judgment will render to every one, and so to the saints also, according to their works.  Therefore the works of the saints are so perfect that they will in themselves stand in the judgment of God.

Ans. There are here four terms; because the major must be understood of a legal reward of works, whilst the minor must be understood of a reward that is; evangelical; or to express it differently, we may say that the justice of God does not render good according to works which are imperfect, if he judges according to the covenant of perfect obedience to the law. But Christ, in rewarding the works of the saints, will not judge according to the covenant of perfect works, but according to the covenant of faith, or of his own righteousness imputed and applied to them by faith; and yet he will judge them according to their works as according to the evidences of their faith, from which their works have proceeded, and which they, as the fruits of this faith, declare to be in them.

Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, pgs. 609-610. (Bold emphasis and formatting added.)

I have a hard time reading this passage and seeing a lesser role for the covenant of works in Ursinus’ system.  I have an even harder time seeing the covenant of works as somehow impractical or too obscure to be pastoral.  After all, here he is commenting on a Q&A that gives believers great comfort when they struggle with besetting sin!  It is the covenant of works that situates the covenant-keeping work of Christ himself and enables believers to rest confidently in what he accomplished as their covenant head.

Bierma may well be right to note that Ursinus’ emphasis has moved toward emphasizing the continuity between different dispensations of the covenant of Grace, but Ursinus still seems to indicate that the covenant of works plays an important role in his articulation and practice of Reformed theology.


2 thoughts on “Researching the Covenant of Works in Ursinus with help from the Puritan Hard Drive”

  1. Thanks for the post, Andrew. I’ve been looking at the PHD for awhile, but haven’t been able to justify the cost yet. Are the files in pdf format so I could transfer them to my Kindle to read?

    I fully agree with your statement that the CoW is in no way impractical or too obscure to teach. The more I’ve become familiar with this doctrine, the more I see how it’s the glue that holds so much of what we believe together. I teach junior high sunday school, and as we go through the book of Romans and the Belgic Confession there is hardly a week that goes by that we don’t refer back to it. Nearly every one of my students could easily explain the relationship between the CoW and the CoG. It’s not just an academic answer for them… they begin to realize it’s the context of our entire salvation and new life in Christ. In the CoW God demands perfect righteousness in exchange for life, and that arrangement has never ceased, but is fulfilled on our behalf by Christ in the CoG.

    This knowledge is (or ought to be) one of the main components of our worldview, and as such I can’t think of anything more practical to teach.


  2. Thanks for the comment, CW. I second the thought!

    I’ve been struck that properly understanding Adam’s role under the COW helps us to understand Christ’s work fulfilling his own COW – that work which for us is the covenant of Grace – and shows that nothing can change our salvation since not only has satisfaction been made for our sin, but perfect obedience has been rendered as well!

    As for the PHD – yep, pretty much all the resources are .pdf so I’m sure you could transfer it to a nook or kindle or whatever. It is pricey, but I do see sales pop up fairly regularly.


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