I’ve been slowly working my way through TLNF one chapter at a time. I’m about half way through. I really enjoy the book. There is a lot of great material – particularly Brenton C Ferry’s Taxonomy and Bryan D Estelle’s chapter on Leviticus 18:5 and Deuteronomy 30:1-14. However, I have been concerned from the outset that the book is handicapped by fear.
While I find much biblical merit for what they say, I have become rather convinced that their position is contrary to the WCF. That doesn’t matter for me, cause I’m just an ignorant 1689 babtist. But it does mean I’m sensitive to how the thesis and arguments of TLNF are muddied because of their desire to remain within the bounds of the WCF.
One example is the almost absolute silence about John Owen. Owen has written perhaps the very best articulation and defense of republication in his commentary on Hebrews 8:6-13. Owen’s argument is thorough (150 pages on those 7 verses) and very convincing. So why not rely upon him in TLNF? Because in the course of his argument he rejected the opinion of the “reformed divines” and WCF 7.6, saying “Having noted these things, we may consider that the Scripture does plainly and expressly make mention of two testaments, or covenants, and distinguish between them in such a way as can hardly be accommodated by a twofold administration of the same covenant.”
So Owen provides an excellent argument for republication, but in a book devoted to republication, he is silenced because he believes republication is contrary to WCF 7.6. So clarity is sacrificed for tradition.
Fesko on Calvin
All this is simply a preface to what I want to comment on. A very lengthy 150 page review of TLNF was published in the Kerux journal. Apparently there is all kinds of history I should be aware of regarding Kerux, as R. Scott Clark’s blog series “Consider the Source” implies (and I’m sure he’s probably right). He asserts quite strongly that no one should waste their time reading the review, saying “After re-reading ONLY the first breathless page of the review I do not and cannot repent of anything I said earlier. Indeed, the review is more poorly written, more amateur, and more shoddy than I remembered. There is so much that is objectionable on the first page of the review alone, I stop there.” And he refers to it as an “ill-begotten waste of time passing itself off as a review.”
Now, to be clear, I agree with the idea of republication – but that doesn’t mean I can’t learn from the Kerux review, and it doesn’t mean the Kerux review can’t be right in its critique of TLNF. I approached Patrick Ramsey’s essay in WTJ and his blog posts in the same way, and learned a lot by doing so https://contrast2.wordpress.com/2010/02/11/confusing-law-and-gospel-and-the-wcf/
I was working on another blog post after reading W. Gary Crampton’s “From Paedobaptism to Credobaptism” where he references a passage of Calvin’s Institutes (2.11.10). I read the passage and others around it, which I had read before – but something seemed different from what I had remembered about it. I went back and looked at Fesko’s chapter from TLNF where he references a similar passage (2.11.4) and was immediately struck by how inaccurate Fesko’s representation of Calvin was and how confusing he had made a rather clear statement from Calvin.
Here is what Calvin said:
…For through animal sacrifices it could neither blot out sins nor bring about true sanctification. He therefore concludes that there was in the law “the shadow of good things to come,” not “the living likeness of the things themselves” [Heb 10:1]. Therefore its sole function was to be an introduction to the better hope that is manifested in the gospel [Heb 7:19; and Ps. 110:4; Heb 7:11; 9:9; 10:1].
Here we are to observe how the covenant of the law compares with the covenant of the gospel, the ministry of Christ with that of Moses. For if the comparison had reference to the substance of the promises, then there would be great disagreement between the Testaments. But since the trend of the argument leads us in another direction, we must follow it to find the truth. Let us then set forth the covenant that he once established as eternal and never-perishing. Its fulfillment, by which it is finally confirmed and ratified, is Christ. While such confirmation was awaited, the Lord appointed, through Moses, ceremonies that were, so to speak, solemn symbols of that confirmation. A controversy arose over whether or not the ceremonies that had been ordained in the law ought to give way to Christ. Now these were only the accidental properties of the covenant, or additions and appendages, and in common parlance, accessories of it. Yet because they were means of administering it, they bear the name “covenant,” just as is customary in the case of other sacraments. To sum up then, in this passage “Old Testament” means the solemn manner of confirming the covenant, comprised in ceremonies and sacrifices.
Because nothing substantial underlies this unless we go beyond it, the apostle contends that it ought to be terminated and abrogated, to give place to Christ, the Sponsor and Mediator of a better covenant [cf. Heb 7:22]; whereby he imparts eternal sanctifications once and for all to the elect, blotting out their transgressions, which remained under the law. Or, if you prefer, understand it thus: the Old Testament of the Lord was that covenant wrapped up in the shadowy and ineffectual observance of ceremonies and delivered to the Jews; it was temporary because it remained, as it were, in suspense until it might rest upon a firm and substantial confirmation. It became new and eternal only after it was consecrated and established by the blood of Christ. Hence Christ in the Supper calls the cup that he gives to his disciples “the cup of the New Testament in my blood” [Luke 22:20]. By this he means that the Testament of God attained its truth when sealed by his blood, and thereby becomes new and eternal.
So Calvin is talking about the two administrations of the single eternal covenant [of grace]. He calls one administration (Moses) the covenant of the law and he calls the other administration (Christ) the covenant of the gospel. He insists that the difference between the two is only accidental (meaning non-essential appearances), and not in the “substance of the promises.” Finally, he says the covenant of the law and the covenant of the gospel are successive, not concurrent.
Now, is this what we find in Fesko’s summary of Calvin’s teaching on the covenant of law and the covenant of the gospel?
Given Calvin’s explanation of soteriology in the OT, one has a framework in which to understand the place and function of the Mosaic covenant in his theology. Calvin explains that with the dispensation of the Mosaic covenant there are two separate covenants, the foedus legale and the foedus evangelicum, the ministries of Moses and Christ (2.11.4). There is a sense in which Calvin sees these two covenants in an antithetical relationship to one another, as the law functions within the foedus legale only “to enjoin what is right, to forbid what is wicked; to promise a reward to the keepers of righteousness, and threaten transgressors with punishment” (2.11.7). In other words, Calvin is not afraid to say that the Mosaic administration of the law sets forth a covenant governed by a works principle, namely, eternal life through obedience: “We cannot gainsay that the reward of eternal salvation awaits complete obedience to the law, as the Lord has promised” (2.7.3). The problem, however, with this covenant of obedience is, because of man’s sinfulness, “righteousness is taught in vain by the commandments until Christ confers it by free imputation and by the Spirit of regeneration” (2.7.2). Calvin, therefore, sees the Mosaic covenant characterized by the promise of eternal life which can be obtained by Israel’s obedience, yet because of her sin, Israel is unable to fulfill the requirements of the covenant – only Christ was able to do this.
In this sense, then, the foedus legale and the foedus evangelicum are antithetical, in that they both extend the promise of salvation, the former through obedience and the latter through faith in Christ.
Wow. Was that anything close to what we just read from Calvin? No. Fesko misrepresents Calvin to make Calvin say exactly what the entire volume of TLNF is attempting to argue. How convenient. Fesko first twists Calvin’s words regarding a foedus legale and a foedus evangelicum to say they were two different covenants both operating during the Mosaic dispensation. Calvin nowhere says that. He says they are two successive administrations of the one covenant. Fesko then moves out of Calvin’s 2.11.4 passage where Calvin uses the term “covenant of law” and uses quotes where Calvin is talking about the moral law narrowly and apart from the Mosaic covenant. All this in an attempt to make Calvin say the Mosaic covenant operated on a works principle. Note Fesko’s “in other words” because he can’t find any actual words from Calvin to say what he wants Calvin to say.
This was a very disappointing realization for me as I have really enjoyed Fesko’s “Justification: Understanding the Classic Reformed Doctrine” and I must now question everything I have read in that book. The authors of the Kerux review were spot on in their critique of Fesko on this point:
What then, does Fesko say is Calvin’s view of the Mosaic covenant? According to him, “Calvin explains that in the dispensation of the Mosaic covenant there are two separate covenants” (30). What evidence does Fesko provide to support this view? He appeals to Calvin’s linguistic distinction between a foedus legale and a foedus evangelicum, arguing that there is “a sense in which Calvin sees these two covenants in an antithetical relationship to one another” (30). The primary difference, for Fesko, is that the foedus legale “sets forth a covenant governed by a works principle, namely, eternal life through obedience” (30).
However, there is a problem with Fesko’s analysis. The terms foedus legale and foedus evangelicum are almost always (for Calvin) terms used to describe the various administrations of the covenant of grace, not a “separate covenant,” characterized by a “works principle” operative in the Mosaic administration. This is clearly the case in 2.11.4 of the Institutes (which Fesko cites to defend his analysis), where Calvin writes (commenting on Heb. 7-10):
Here we are to observe how the covenant of the law (legale) compares with the covenant of the gospel (evangelicum), the ministry of Christ with that of Moses. For if the comparison had reference to the substance of the promises, there would be great disagreement between the Testaments. But since the trend of argument leads us in another direction, we must follow it to ﬁnd the truth.
For Calvin, the foedus legale and foedus evangelicum are not “two separate covenants” as Fesko states, but they are in fact two names for two different administrations of the same covenant. The comparison between the foedus legale and the foedus evangelicum does not refer to the “substance” of the covenants. Rather as Calvin goes on to explain in the same section, the two terms only refer to a twofold way of administering the same covenant:
Let us then set forth the covenant that he once established as eternal and never-perishing. Its fulﬁllment, by which it is ﬁnally conﬁrmed and ratiﬁed, is Christ. While such con- ﬁrmation was awaited, the Lord appointed, through Moses, ceremonies that were, so to speak, solemn symbols of that conﬁrmation. A controversy arose over whether or not the ceremonies that had been ordained in the law ought to give way to Christ. Now these were only the accidental proper- ties of the covenant, or additions and appendages, and in common parlance, accessories of it. Yet, because they were means of administering it, they bear the name “covenant,” just as is customary in the case of the other sacraments. To sum up, then, in this passage “Old Testament” means the solemn manner of conﬁrming the covenant, comprised in ceremonies and sacriﬁces (2.11.4).
In 2.11.4, Calvin is not teaching that the Mosaic covenant should be viewed as a “separate covenant” governed by a works-principle. In fact, Calvin makes the opposite point in this very passage, namely, that the Mosaic covenant is essentially a covenant of grace, though differently administered.
Fesko also appeals to Calvin’s Institutes 2.11.7 to support his interpretation of the foedus legale. The reader should note the jump: the ﬁrst quote comes from 2.11.4, while the second comes three sections later. The two are then woven together in a way that makes them appear like a seamless garment. But in 2.11.7, Calvin is not speaking of a “separate covenant” during the Mosaic administration, but rather of “the mere nature of the law” abstracted from that covenant. Calvin is analyzing the words of Hebrews and Jeremiah, whom he says “consider nothing in law, but what properly belongs to it.” As the very next section (2.11.8) clearly demonstrates, Calvin understands Jeremiah to be speaking simply of the moral law itself, not of a “separate covenant” operative in the Mosaic administration: “Indeed, Jeremiah even calls the moral law a weak and fragile covenant [Jer. 31:32].” In other words, Fesko’s error is that he applies what Calvin says about the moral law to a separate covenant in the Mosaic administration. This is very strange, considering that he himself had told us at the start of the article that—“When one explores Calvin’s understanding of the function of the law, he must therefore carefully distinguish whether he has the moral law or the law as the Mosaic covenant in mind” (28). Well said. But when it comes to one of the most crucial points in his reading of Calvin, he chooses to ignore that distinction and applies what Calvin says about the moral law to the Mosaic covenant itself.
The signiﬁcance of this mistake cannot be underestimated. It is the only primary document evidence that Fesko gives to support this key aspect of his thesis. On page 33, he summarizes in six points his thesis regarding Calvin’s view of the Mosaic covenant. To points 1-4, we say “Amen.” But for the reasons outlined above we cannot agree with points 5-6.
(5) The Mosaic administration of the law is speciﬁcally a foedus legale in contrast to the foedus evangelicum, the re- spective ministries of Moses and Christ; and (6) the foedus legale is based upon a works principle but no one is able to fulﬁll its obligations except Christ (33).
What Fesko should have said is that for Calvin, the moral law, narrowly considered, promises eternal life for perfect obedience. To say that the “Mosaic covenant is characterized by a works principle” (32) is only to confuse what Calvin keeps clear. The moral law itself may promise life for perfect obedience, but Calvin does not speak this way about the Mosaic covenant or the foedus legale.
If the Kerux review is a “poorly written, amateur, and shoddy ill-begotten waste of time” then what is TLNF?
Fesko states: “Calvin uses the distinction between form and substance to explain that the Mosaic covenant, as to its substance, is part of the spirituale foedus, but as to its form, its administratio is a foedus legale.” This is accurate, but the problem is that Fesko misrepresents (or perhaps misunderstands) what “substance” means. As already noted, Calvin says precisely the opposite of Fesko. Fesko claims “Calvin is not afraid to say that the Mosaic administration of the law sets forth a covenant governed by a works principle, namely, eternal life through obedience.” And yet Calvin argues the exact opposite, saying “if the comparison had reference to the substance of the promises, then there would be great disagreement between the Testaments.”
Saying that one covenant promises eternal life upon personal obedience, and the other promises life upon faith in Christ is to say that they differ in substance – according to Calvin (and everyone else who used the term). And this is precisely the point of dispute regarding the entire TLNF volume. Fesko has muddied the waters in an already confusing debate. For the sake of tradition, he has forsaken clarity. I agree with the Kerux review when it says:
Fesko misinterprets and misrepresents Calvin’s position by suppressing the above-mentioned aspects of his teaching. In so doing, Fesko makes Calvin sound more like one of his (and the other authors) favorite contemporary covenant theologians: Meredith G. Kline. In fact, in our opinion, he appears to be doing nothing more than Mark Karlberg did before him: reading a form of Kline’s view onto Calvin. Kline taught that in the Mosaic administration there were two separate covenants: one of works, and one of grace. The former was superimposed upon the underlying substratum of the Abrahamic covenant of grace. Again, Fesko’s interest in vindicating his own view (Kline’s) of the Mosaic covenant seems to have created a roadblock in his efforts for an “accurate contextualized historical theology.”
Personally, I think that Kline’s formulation is more biblical than Calvin’s. But we shouldn’t be afraid to say it is different.
P.S. (This does not mean Kerux is correct in everything it says or that R. Scott Clark is wrong in all he said in response to it)