Covenant Theology

The Diversity of “Covenant” in Early Reformation History

Before there was Federalism, there was Bullinger

When one thinks of Reformed theology, it is usually the case that federalism, or covenant theology, is part of this heritage. But the history of Reformed theology isn’t as monolithic as some may think when it comes to the idea of covenant. Indeed, J. Wayne Baker’s work in Heinrich Bullinger and the Covenant is subtitled, “The other Reformed Tradition.” What the other tradition shows is that what now prevails as Reformed orthodoxy wasn’t without its competitors.

Bullinger was a Swiss reformer acquainted with Calvin, but who’s views on the covenant were different than what later developed within Reformed theology. Calvin, and later theologians, conceived of the covenant between God and man as a unilateral pact. That is, that God is the ratifier of it, and the one who performs the stipulations of the covenant. Bullinger conceived of the covenant as a bilateral agreement between God and man, with man being bound to perform the covenant conditions.

How Bullinger worked this out in his own theology and how he viewed salvation history helps us understand some of what is behind the Second Helvetic Confession, a work that Bullinger mainly wrote.  It also helps understand the particularly Reformed flavor of Caesaropapism that Bullinger adhered to.

On the idea of covenant, Baker notes

“When most sixteenth-century theologians used the term covenant (foedus), they meant testament in the soteriological sense. Christ was the Testator as well as the promised inheritance, and the elect, the heirs. The idea of covenant as a bilateral, mutual agreement was often missing. Bullinger, on the other hand, used both terms, foedus and testamentum, to refer to a mutual pact or covenant. Although testamentum also carried the meaning of last testament and promise for Bullinger, God’s agreement with man included not only God’s promises but also certain conditions that man was obligated to meet. Thus, for Bullinger, testamentum was the broader term of the two: it included both the idea of promise and the meaning of foedus, mutual agreement or pact.”[1]

That Bullinger did not have the covenant as a primarily soteriological entity in his thought means that he viewed it as a way of administering society, a society where the boundaries of church and state were very porous indeed. So bound was he to the idea of a covenantal society that Bullinger believed everything needed to order society was to be found in the Old Testament, and in the law.

Marcion is notorious as a heretic of the early centuries who drew such a sharp distinction between old and new testaments, that he dispensed with the old as unnecessary, as antithetical to the ethics of the New Testament.

Bullinger manifests the opposite tendency. That is, he was convinced that the Old Testament contains everything Christians need, believing that God published no New Covenant, but only a ratification of the Old.

“Since all things become clear and complete in Christ, He spoke of a new testament. But he made no new covenant: ‘Now therefore when Christ calls this cup a new testament, no on shall imagine that God began a new covenant with the human race.’ Rather, it meant that Christ renewed and sealed the covenant with His death.”[2]

The other notable difference in Bullinger’s covenantal views is that he articulates no covenant of works with Adam. He does speak of a covenant with Adam, but it is a postlapsarian covenant, in Genesis 3:15, the proto-evangel. A covenant of works with Adam is a central feature of the Federal theology of later decades.  Weir summarizes the differences between what we now call federal theology and the “other tradition.”

Calvin and the Genevan theologians

  1. The covenant is unilateral.
  2. The covenant is God’s unconditional promise to man.
  3. The burden of fulfilling the covenant rests on God.
  4. The covenant is fulfilled in Christ’s Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection.

Zwingli, Bullinger, and the Rhineland theologians

  1. The covenant is bilateral.
  2. The covenant is God’s conditional promise to man and man’s response (a mutual pact or treaty).
  3. The burden of fulfilling the covenant rests on man.
  4. The covenant is fulfilled in the obedience of the individual.[3]

Point #2 among the Rhinelanders manifested itself in Bullinger’s great faith in godly magistrates, those who would rule society in a just and equitable way, but history—indeed, recent history—shows that putting faith in political leaders to do the just and equitable thing is naive and foolish.

Bullinger’s covenantal idea certainly didn’t win the day in Reformed theology, but he does demonstrate that uniformity wasn’t there in the beginning. I believe Bullinger fell short of the mark in his ability to properly interpret the history of redemption. If we fail to see that the law belongs to the Mosaic Covenant, then we bring elements of it into the New Covenant. Paul is explicit in 2 Cor 3 that the ministry of condemnation doesn’t belong alongside the ministry of righteousness—the New Covenant. Bullinger, along with others of his day, seemed to equate righteousness with the law, something Scripture does not do. Bullinger advocated a kind of Judaized society (and church) because he failed to see this distinction between Old and New Covenants.

The two-covenant idea (a covenant of works, and a covenant of grace) that developed shares something with Bullinger in that the covenant of works looks more like his idea of covenant. The law is central, it must be obeyed.  In other words, later federal theology imports the idea of covenantal obedience, but mitigates this by saying it is Christ’s obedience on our behalf. But, as Weir notes, the unilateral nature of the Genevan version ends up not being so different from the bilateral nature of the Rhineland version. “We see that the classical distinctions between the Old Testament and the New Testament (and the Mosaic Old Covenant and the Christian New Covenant) are subsumed under one covenant, the postlapsarian covenant of grace.”[4] Weir further notes that Christ took the place of Adam as federal head, faithfully obeying the first covenant of works where the first Adam failed: “The postlapsarian covenant of grace is really therefore the prelapsarian covenant of works in disguise, but a new Adam (Christ) was needed to keep the covenant which God had established with man at the beginning of the world. Once the prelapsarian covenant of works is established, it can never be broken.”[5]

What this means for our understanding of “covenant” is something I’ll take up in the next post on this topic.

[1] J. Wayne Baker, Heinrich Bullinger and the Covenant: The Other Reformed Tradition (Athens, Ohio University Press, 1980), xxiii.

[2] Baker, 9.

[3] David A. Weir, The Origins of the Federal Theology in Sixteenth-Century Reformation Thought (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1990), 22.

[4]Weir, 5


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