Texts Examined in their Theological Interrelationship

Some time ago, Shane did a post looking at Richard Muller’s summary of how the Westminster Divines defended the doctrine of the covenant of works.  This is from the book Scripture and Worship: Biblical Interpretation & The Directory for Worship.  Just today I pulled this volume down to read through chapter 4, “Either Expressly Set Down … or by Good and Necessary Consequence.”  I found his comments on the exegetical method used in this formulation to be very interesting.

(Note: when I sat down to blog on this, I didn’t realize that Shane’s post also commented on this very issue.  Since the quote I wanted to include comes from 20 or so pages earlier than the ones he shared, I figured I’d go ahead and post this even though there is a little bit of overlap in subject matter!)

The doctrinal statements of the Westminster Confession concerning covenant and, in particular, the covenant of works have been the focus of a large amount of discussion, most of it of a highly theological or even dogmatic nature – and, oddly enough, given the biblical claims of the more negative of the writers, very little of it having a genuine exegetical dimension.  When the Westminster Standards are examined in the light of various major antecedent thinkers and documents, however, a significant exegetical pattern emerges – not a patter of proof-texting, but a pattern of exegetical inquiry that employed, quite strictly, the interpretive models of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in order to move from the text of Scripture to the doctrinal point.

In the light of this fundamental interpretive sensibility of the formulators of the doctrine and the framers of the confession, it is of utmost importance to recognize that the doctrine of a prelapsarian covenant was in process of definition in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and that the brief definition found in the Westminster Standards represents not a strict finalization of a dogma rigidly propounded, but a historical marker in an ongoing development.  The formulators of the doctrine allowed for a significant flexibility in terms and definitions, and they consistently noted that the doctrine was not definitively offered by a single text in Scripture, but was, rather, a matter of inference.

The initial formulators of the concept of a covenant of works – writers like Fenner, Polanus, and Perkins – focused their attention not only on Genesis 2:7, but also on various passages from the Pauline letters, notably Romans and Galatians.  Fenner’s exposition of the doctrine cites Genesis 2:17, Romans 3:19-20, 7:7-11, and 11:32, Galatians 3:8-10, 15-17, 23, and 5:23.  Polanus looks to Genesis 2:17, Galatians 3:19-20, and 7:7-11, and Perkins emphasizes Galatians 4:24-25, but notes such texts as Romans 10:5 and 67:14 as foundational to the doctrine.  Rollock focused his attention on Genesis 2:17, Galatians 3:10 and 12, and Romans 10:5 as grounds of the doctrine of the covenant of works.  What is evident in all four of these early covenant thinkers is that the doctrine of a prelapsarian covenant arises not out of a single statement of Scripture, certainly not out of a potentially controverted text like Hosea 6:7, but out of a complex of texts examined in their theological interrelationship.

Pgs. 69-71

Muller ties it all together with this summary:

Of interest here is that all of these writers understood the primary ground of the covenant of works, apart from Genesis 2:17, as Pauline and as found in Romans and Galatians.  None of these writers looked to Hosea 6:7, although they surely knew of its long tradition of covenantal interpretation.

Pgs. 71-72

The history of exegesis is a topic that is often neglected, leaving people with an impoverished understanding of how biblical texts have been interpreted by Christians of different generations.  These quotes by Muller make me think that the history of hermeneutics is also often neglected.  This volume, coupled with Muller’s second volume in Post Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, offers a nice glimpse into the history of biblical interpretation during the Reformation.

R. Andrew Compton
Christ Reformed Church (URCNA)
Anaheim, CA

One Reply to “Texts Examined in their Theological Interrelationship”

  1. Hi Andrew,
    Muller is quite good on the subject of Reformation/Post-Reformation biblical interpretation. (Though I’ve never read this particular book.)

    My sense, when I was doing some work indirectly related to the covenant of works (as you may recall), was that the covenant of works was an outworking of the Reformed exegetical imagination. Not in the sense that they “made it up,” but in the sense that the practitioners of the tradition reflected on the various Pauline statements in Romans and Corinthians and then returned to Genesis with a thick theological interpretation that they then wove into their reading of the first three chapters. In many ways, it is classic pre-critical, synchronic exegesis.

    At the end of the day, the covenant of works is an aesthetic theological formation, and it is the aesthetic nature of the synthesis that is both its greatest asset and greatest weakness. On the one hand, it offers a vantage point from which to view the sweeping story of redemption. On the other hand, it is not actually present “in” the text of Genesis 1-3, and can only be deduced from a certain kind of biblical reading.


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