Monday, October 9, 2023

Heinrich Bullinger on Covenant Theology

Heinrich Bullinger was a Reformer who succeeded Ulrich Zwingli in Zurich, Switzerland. His book on systematic theology, published in 1551, is called The Decades, because it is composed of five series of ten sermons each. I have been reading it and recently came across the following passage on covenant theology and the covenant of grace in particular. (This passage can be found in the midst of his 90-page "sermon" on the ceremonial laws of the Old Testament.)
"And therefore, when God's mind was to declare the favour and good-will that he bare to mankind, and to make us men partakers wholly of himself and his goodness, by pouring himself out upon us, to our great good and profit, it pleased him to make a league or covenant with mankind. Now he did not first begin the league with Abraham, but did renew to him the covenant that he had made a great while before. For he did first of all make it with Adam, the first father of us all, immediately upon his transgression, when he received him, silly wretch, into his favour again, and promised his only-begotten Son, in whom he would be reconciled to the world, and through whom he would wholly bestow himself upon us, by making us partakers of all his good and heavenly blessings, and by binding us unto himself in faith and due obedience. This ancient league, made first with Adam, he did afterward renew to Noah, and after that again with the blessed patriarch Abraham. And again, after the space of four hundred years, it was renewed under Moses at the mount Sinai, where the conditions of the league were at large written in the two tables, and many ceremonies added there-unto. But most excellently of all, most clearly and evidently, did our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ himself shew forth that league; who, wiping away all the ceremonies, types, figures, and shadows, brought in instead of them the very truth, and did most absolutely fulfill and finish the old league, bringing all the principles of our salvation and true godliness into a brief summary, which, for the renewing and fulfilling of all things, and for the abrogation of the old ceremonies, he called the new league, or new testament."
As later writers on covenant theology will do, Bullinger traces the continuity of this covenant of grace from post-fall Adam, to Noah, to Abraham, to the people under Moses, to the coming of Jesus. There has always been one way of salvation for fallen man, one covenant of grace, although the administration of it has varied as it has been progressively unfolded over time, culminating in the new covenant. 

Something here (at least in this English translation from 1587) that I appreciate and have also noticed in John Knox’s writings is how “league” is used as a synonym for “covenant.” I think league, alliance, and bond are helpful terms to describe the biblical concept of covenant.

Notice also how Bullinger speaks of the Ten Commandments as being published as obligations of this covenant of grace. This makes sense, since they begin by introducing God as our God and Redeemer. They are not a rule by which we are justified or condemned, but they are the way we ought to live as God’s covenant people, redeemed by his grace.

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