Foundations: No.78 Spring 2020

John Owen’s Taxonomy of the Covenants: Was He a Dichotomist or a Trichotomist?

Owen’s understanding of the biblical covenants provides structure and a considerable degree of coherence to his theology. It is a theme that runs from one end of his writings to the other. It is of great assistance to anyone wishing to understand his work, and his expression of Reformed theology generally, to understand his view of the covenants. This article briefly explains Owen’s understanding of the eternal Covenant of Redemption, the temporal Covenants of Works and Grace, and the several historical manifestations of those over-arching covenants that found fulfilment in the New Covenant. It then interacts with a recent debate over whether Owen’s view of the covenants may be understood as “dichotomistic”, in the sense of seeing the principal distinction as being between the Covenants of Works and Grace, or “trichotomistic”, wherein the Mosaic Covenant is regarded as an third arrangement that stands on its own. The conclusion is that those labels detract from what Owen has already made clear.

John Owen, perhaps the leading English theologian of the seventeenth century, devotes significant attention to the biblical doctrine of the covenants.[1] Owen said: “All theology is… based on a covenant.”[2] It is “the very centre wherein all the lines concerning the grace of God and our own duty do meet, wherein the whole of religion doth consist”.[3] His view of the covenants, carefully drawn from Scripture and consistently expressed, forms what Willem van Asselt calls the “constitutive structure and controlling idea of [his] whole theological enterprise”.[4]

Owen himself regarded the subject as being “wrapped up in much obscurity, and attended with many difficulties”, requiring “the best of our diligence [for it to be] distinctly apprehended”.[5] Indeed, to avoid mis-construing Owen’s own view of the covenants similar diligence is required. One area of potential misunderstanding concerns the nature of the Mosaic Covenant: Did Owen regard it as an expression of the redemptive “Covenant of Grace”, or of the Adamic “Covenant of Works”; or as being distinct from both? If it was merely an expression of one of those other covenants then his understanding might be called “dichotomous”. If it was a distinct third kind, then the label “trichotomous” might be appropriate.

On this point Joel Beeke and Mark Jones describe Owen’s covenant theology as “so complex that any attempt to label him dichotomous or trichotomous inevitably misses some of the nuances of his thought”.[6] They refer to essays by Sebastian Rehnman and Brenton Ferry, who assert that Owen’s theology is trichotomous.[7] I aim to show in this article how his thinking may be straightforwardly explained without resorting to either of these complexity-adding labels. Before interacting with their writing, I summarise Owen’s thinking on the principal covenants. I include a depiction of his schema as an Appendix.

I. The Meaning of “Covenant”

Covenant theology has been regularly criticised for asserting the existence of covenants that are not expressly referred to in Scripture.[8] Owen anticipates the criticisms by defining his terms and using them with consistency. Rather than insisting upon the term “covenant” where Scripture does not, he identifies five general criteria for a “compact, covenant, convention or agreement, as depends on personal service”.[9] In essence: (i) two or more persons should agree voluntarily to bring about a “common end” acceptable to them both; (ii) the “principal engager” should prescribe some works of service to accomplish that end; (iii) the principal engager should make such promises as are necessary to support, encourage and “fully balance” the other’s works; (iv) the one undertaking the works should carry them out, looking forward to the prescribed reward; and (v) having completed the work to the satisfaction of the engager, the common end should be brought about and established.[10] If these things are present, we may “call it a covenant”.[11]

Owen is untroubled if others wish to refer to an arrangement having those characteristics as a mere agreement, compact or exercise of divine counsel.[12] It is not as if “covenant” has such a fixed contrary meaning, that one is abusing the English language by using it as Owen does.[13] Moreover, he has given detailed consideration to the meaning of

the Hebrew בְּרִית, and the Greek διαθήκη, whose signification and use alone are to be attended to in the business of any covenant of God; and in what a large sense they are used is known to all that… have made inquiry into their import.[14]

So he is satisfied that these terms, translated “covenant”, have a sufficiently broad semantic range in Scripture to support his use of it.[15]

We turn now to each of the important covenants that Owen finds described in Scripture, and see how his five criteria apply to the covenants that are not expressly described as such.

II. The Covenant of Redemption

The Covenant of Redemption, or pactum salutis, is the eternal foundation and cause of the temporal Covenant of Grace, as finally expressed in the New Covenant. In Vindiciæ Evangelicæ Owen speaks of it as the “great foundation” of the whole work of Christ.[16] This work was written in 1655, at the request of Cromwell’s Council of State, to refute the anti-Trinitarian Socinian heresy that had been gaining ground at that time. In it, Owen describes the Covenant of Redemption as

that compact, covenant, convention or agreement that was between the Father and the Son for the accomplishment of the work of our redemption by the mediation of Christ, to the praise of the glorious grace of God.[17]

In eternity, Christ willingly accepted the obligations which he executed in time. As a contemporary of Owen, Patrick Gillespie, put it: “[there is] nothing… here transacted in time which was not from eternity concluded in the counsel of God’s will”.[18]

These obligations included the requirements that Christ assume the human nature of those he was to save, and that, on behalf of his elect, he keep those laws of God that they had failed to keep; and so by suffering the punishment due to them, he would achieve their salvation. The Father, having in eternity promised to assist the incarnated Son in the performance of the work, graciously promised to accept the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to the elect. On that account, believers would justly be accounted righteous; and the Son would be rewarded with glory.[19]

Owen finds each of the five criteria outlined above to be “eminently expressed in the Scripture… in the compact between the Father and the Son whereof we speak”.[20]

Taking each in turn:

(i) He regards the covenant as being essentially between the Father and Son. That is because Christ was thereby eternally appointed to the role of mediator between God and man, a role which would involve subordination, condescension and humiliation. This subordination was only in the economy, meaning God’s activity vis-à-vis the created order, not within the personal relations or very being of God. Owen always insists on the ontological equality of the persons of the Trinity, thereby rejecting not only Socinian subordinationism, but all forms of subordinationism.[21]

Owen insists too that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit have a single divine will, even as they covenant together, since they are of one divine essence or nature. He is willing to speak of the “will of the Father” and the “will of the Son” as that single will is applied to their distinct personal actings in the economy:

The will of God the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost is but one… but in respect of their distinct personal actings, this will is appropriated to them respectively, so that the will of the Father and the will of the Son may be considered [distinctly] in this business.[22]

Thus, the one will of God has distinct applications to the distinct ad extra acts of each person of the Trinity.

Owen does not say that the Holy Spirit is a party to the covenant, as such. That is because only the Son was to take on human nature, an act which for God must necessarily involve condescension and humiliation, thereby bringing into being “a new habitude of will in the Father and Son towards each other that is not in them essentially.”[23] That is not the case with the Spirit. The role of the Spirit in this covenant is one of eternal concurrence, which manifests itself in time in his work of applying to believers the benefits won for them by Christ’s work. In eternity, the Spirit concurs with the plan of the Father and the Son; temporally he is intimately involved at every point in its outworking.[24]

Why does Owen call it a covenant when it could simply be referred to as a divine decree? Owen’s answer is that it is “more than a decree”.[25] Decretal language is fitting when we speak of the work of the undivided essence of God; covenantal language is fitting when the focus is on the persons of the Trinity and their intra-Trinitarian relations – and especially when the personal willingness of the Son is vital for the efficacy of the work of redemption and substitutionary atonement which he undertook. Salvation of fallen man, for the maximal glory of God, was the “common end” which Father and Son each voluntarily engaged to accomplish; and in that, there was no “imposition of one upon the other”.[26]

(ii) As for the Father’s prescription of works of service for the Son to accomplish, Owen sees this as Christ accepting the mediatorial office of prophet, priest and king. In order to fulfil the priestly role, he must “take on him the nature of those whom he was to bring to God”;[27] for “A body thou hast prepared for me”.[28]

Owen finds further scriptural support for this in Christ’s several declarations that he “came to do the will of him who sent me”.[29] According to Hebrews 10:7, quoting Psalm 40:7-8, Christ declares “I have come to do your will, O God.” Owen says that the covenant is here “most clearly expressed”.[30] Isaiah 53:10 says “it was the will of the LORD to crush him… when his soul makes an offering for guilt he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days; the will of the LORD shall prosper in his hand.” Taken together, Christ’s incarnation and work of atonement were pursuant to the will of the Father and consent of the Son.

When was that will formulated and established? A doubter could be forgiven for saying “Did not Christ say ‘I have come to do your will’ when he ‘came into the world’, Hebrews 10:5? How is that evidence for an eternal covenant?” But the writer of Hebrews was not speaking of God’s will as a temporal, post-incarnation event. His will is eternal; it must have been formulated in eternity. Given his omniscient and immutable attributes, the plan of salvation cannot have been concocted temporally, as if in reaction to events as they unfolded in time. God would not be God if his plan of salvation had not been settled upon before time began.[31] Nor were these merely temporal assertions from a man who, during his incarnation, came to realise his mission in life. Rather, they were his “perpetual profession”.[32] Owen sees no inconsistency in the Son declaring “I have come to do your will” and there being a divine intention, settled in eternity, underlying that temporal declaration.

(iii) Owen says that the Father promised to support, encourage and “fully balance” the works that Christ would do.[33] These promises Christ could plead in prayer during his trials, that he would be sustained to do his Father’s will.

[He] would not be wanting in any assistance in trials, strength against oppositions, encouragements against temptations and strong consolation in the midst of terrors… Hence arose that confidence of our Saviour in his greatest and utmost trials, being assured by virtue of his Father’s engagement in this covenant… that he would never leave him nor forsake him.[34]

The Father made promises too that the work of salvation should succeed.[35]

(iv) Upon such terms, Christ undertook the work:

By his own voluntary consent, he came under the law of the mediator; which afterward… he would not [and] could not decline… he was legally subject to all that attended it… he became responsible [as surety] for the whole debt.[36]

Hence Christ was legally bound to perform and complete his mission.

Did Owen need to go so far as to call it a “legal” obligation? Surely it is inconceivable, given his divine nature, that he might default and become liable to an intra-Trinitarian law-suit? If the idea of an enforcement action by the Father against the Son must be purely hypothetical or even blasphemous, is this an argument against the use of any legal language, including “covenant”? One answer is that it is a problem that does not derive from the use of legal language per se, but from the unnecessary importation of human legal concepts into the consideration of it. Human covenants require law enforcement mechanisms because humans breach their covenants. A God-given promise is no less legal just because God does not break his promises. It matters not that the notion of enforcement is wholly hypothetical in the context of Christ’s obligations. They are legal obligations because they are binding promises.

(v) The last criterion, of God approving and accepting Christ’s finished work and of Christ laying claim to the promises made, are “fully manifest in this compact”.[37] By his resurrection, God “declared [him] to be the Son of God in power”.[38] God gave him the nations as his inheritance, and gave him “as a covenant to the people”, so that his “salvation may reach the end of the earth”.[39]

Owen is careful to distinguish between the conception of the Covenant of Redemption in eternity, and the bestowing of salvation “in [its] due time towards us [as] we are united to Christ by the communication of his Spirit to us”.[40] In human experience we must be born “by natural generation” before we can be “dead in sin and obnoxious to eternal death”; similarly, we must be born and united to Christ by faith before we experience the benefits of his priestly work. The Covenant of Redemption does not support the notion of eternal justification.

Therefore, all of the five criteria are satisfied. Owen leaves little ground for the objection that it cannot be a covenant because it is not expressly identified as such. The necessary support is present in Scripture – just as it is for the Trinity, though that term is also not found.[41]

Owen notes the usefulness of the Covenant of Redemption in rebutting “the Socinian clamour concerning the unrighteousness of one man’s suffering personally for another man’s sin” – and hence their objection to penal substitutionary atonement.[42] It is unjust for one man to be punished for the crime of an unrelated man; but Christ is the federal head of the elect, and voluntarily accepted the task of redeeming them. “It is no unrighteousness, if the hand offend, that the head be smitten… Christ is our head; we are his members.”[43] By virtue of the Covenant of Redemption, the complaints of unfairness and injustice fall away.[44] The doctrine is similarly useful today in responding to arguments such as Steve Chalke’s against penal substitutionary atonement.[45] The silliness of the charge of “cosmic child abuse” stands in stark contrast with Owen’s conclusion that “Father and Son… were fully agreed upon the whole matter”.[46] It is not for us to stand in judgment upon their agreement, but rather to admire it: “We can never sufficiently admire the love and grace of… Christ in undertaking this… This is the grace, the love, the mercy of God.”[47]

III. The Covenant of Works

One might be tempted to proceed from discussion of the Covenant of Redemption directly to its implementation in the Covenant of Grace, and thence to its full outworking in the New Covenant. But the temporal history of redemption and its revelation in Scripture proceed progressively, laying necessary foundations upon which the church of God will be built. According to Owen, the first-revealed covenant between God and man was the Covenant of Works.[48] It was first in time, and logically precedes the Covenant of Grace.

Owen’s five criteria may again be considered.[49] Again, he is not troubled that it is “not expressly called a covenant” because “it contained the express nature of a covenant”.[50] Each of his five criteria set out in Vindiciæ Evangelicæ is present in his analysis:

(i) The parties were God and man, and their “common end” was that man should serve and glorify God through their mutual relationship and man’s obedience.

(ii) God prescribed laws, briefly stated in Genesis 2:15-17, to accomplish that end. It “was a consequent of the nature of God and man [that some] law was necessary”.[51] Man was created to honour and respect God. Even pre-fall, he was to serve God as God required, not as he pleased.

(iii) Law is one thing; a covenant, according to Owen, involves promises, not just rules.[52] God specified “promises and threatenings of reward and punishment”: of eternal life upon perfect obedience; and of death upon disobedience.[53]

(iv) Until the fall, it was not in Adam’s nature to reject God’s gracious proposal of friendship or its terms. He “was required [to] accept of this law… by the innate principles of light and obedience concreated with his nature [by which he] universally assented unto the law”.[54]

(v) The final criterion was of God’s acceptance of man’s work following his accomplishment of the work and man’s concomitant receipt of the promised eternal life.[55]

God instituted this covenant to display something of his nature that would not otherwise be displayed. “Had he treated with us merely by a law, he had therein only revealed his sovereign authority and holiness”;[56] whereas his grace, love and mercy are displayed by the giving of promises that he was under no obligation to give.[57]

Adam stood to gain infinitely more than he deserved by his mere obedience: “The reward proposed in the promise doth infinitely exceed the obedience performed.”[58] But he was not content with that, instead counting equality with God a thing to be grasped.[59]

When a covenant is broken, its promises and rewards are forfeited. But its obligations are not thereby abrogated; so it was with the Covenant of Works. Adam forfeited the promise of life and brought down upon himself the curse of death: immediately dying spiritually, as he was expelled from God’s presence and garden temple, then dying physically. Thus, the covenantal benefits of “acceptation with God, life and salvation ceased… at the entrance of sin”.[60] The requirement of perfect obedience remained in place, as later expressed in Leviticus 18:5: “keep my rules and statutes [and you shall] live by them”.[61] Adam was obliged to do what he was no longer capable of doing. Worse still, as federal head of mankind, he forfeited the covenant benefits for all his kind.[62] Yet every obligation of the covenant “doth remain in full force and efficacy, not as a covenant, but as a law.”[63] All men were condemned as law-breakers, and thereby liable – unless somehow pardoned – to experience the penalty that God had specified.

It is in this sense that the Covenant of Works logically precedes the Covenant of Grace. Its obligations remained in full force and effect, awaiting a second Adam who would keep them perfectly, for the benefit of all who were under his federal headship.[64] This keeping of the Covenant of Works by Christ would be an essential part of the next over-arching temporal covenant to be revealed.

IV. The Covenant of Grace

If the Covenant of Works displayed something of God’s sovereign authority and infinite grace, how much more does the Covenant of Grace, which is “the promise of grace in and by Jesus Christ”?[65] The original creation, being “wholly good”, was insufficient for displaying either the depth of God’s love, or his “patience and forbearance”.[66] Nor could it adequately display his great wisdom:

A design in Christ shines out from his bosom, that was lodged there from eternity, to recover things to such an estate as shall be exceedingly to the advantage of his glory, infinitely above what at first appeared, and for the putting of sinners into inconceivably a better condition than they were in before the entrance of sin.[67]

That design “from eternity” was the Covenant of Redemption; it “shone out” from there, in time, as the Covenant of Grace.

Again, we may consider Owen’s five covenant criteria:

(i) The direct parties to the Covenant of Grace were, as with the Covenant of Redemption, the Father and the Son. But that does not make them the same covenant.[68] The Covenant of Redemption concerned Christ’s appointment as mediator. The Covenant of Grace is the means by which the benefits of the Covenant of Redemption are temporally extended to the elect. Unlike in the Covenant of Works, which had no mediator, it was no longer fitting after Adam’s fall for God to deal directly with man: “it became not the holiness or righteousness of God to treat immediately with [man] any more”.[69] So the Covenant of Redemption provided for God to deal with man in history upon the terms of the Covenant of Grace, through a mediator, Christ.[70] A Christian is not directly a party to the Covenant of Grace; he is only a party in so far as he is “in Christ”.

(ii)-(iii) The terms of the Covenant of Grace – both obligations and promises, and the central role of its mediator, were first revealed in embryo, “unto our first parents immediately after the fall”, Genesis 3:15.[71] This was the first indication of a remedy for the fall coming from God, by grace alone.[72] The difference between this covenant and the Covenant of Works is not that the latter required perfect godliness from man whereas this one did not. The Covenant of Grace also required perfect godliness from man. The difference is that that perfect godliness would be performed by the God-man, Christ Jesus. Hence, in the Covenant of Grace, “the undertaking of God [is] on both sides in this covenant”.[73] This covenant “hath a mediator and surety… to do for us what we could not do for ourselves, and not merely to suffer what we had deserved.”[74]

(iv) Owen’s fourth criterion requires the one undertaking the obligations of a covenant to perform all that is required under the covenant. Christ temporally undertook all of the things which we “could not do for ourselves”: both atoning for our own sin, inherited from Adam and perpetrated personally; and keeping God’s law in perfect righteousness. He “underwent and performed all that which, in the righteousness and wisdom of God, was required”.[75] Christ undertook the undiluted obligations of the Covenant of Works, on behalf of the elect.

Does that leave nothing for man to do? Owen’s answer avoids Pelagian works-righteousness, Libertarian antinomianism and Baxterian neo-nomianism:

I do not say that the Covenant of Grace is absolutely without… duties of obedience which God requireth of us in and by virtue of that covenant; but [those duties] are not… remunerative of our obedience in the covenant.[76]

Obedience follows and corroborates salvation; it does not earn it.

What about faith? Is that not a condition antecedent?

Although faith be required in order of nature antecedently unto our actual receiving of the pardon of sin, yet is that faith itself wrought in us by the grace of the promise… the pardon of sin is [not] the reward of our faith.[77]

Faith is necessary, but is itself a gift of grace.

(v) Following the accomplishment of the work, Christ claims the promised reward. As mediator he did all things on behalf of the elect. Therefore, the elect, through him, with humility and gratitude but also confidence, do claim what has been promised.

The Covenant of Grace is not an abstract notion, but was revealed and enacted in history. Owen therefore proceeds to consider the various historical covenants that give effect to it and are expressly spoken of in Scripture.

V. The Abrahamic Covenant

Owen describes the Abrahamic Covenant as an “external administration” of the Covenant of Grace,[78] and as a “renovation” of it.[79] It was made in an external sense with those people who were expressly named as parties: “Abraham and his seed”, meaning his biological descendants, believing and unbelieving.[80] In this external sense, the promises were of a physical land and a visible multitude of nations.[81] In this sense also, there were obligations: “walk before me and be blameless”; “every male among you shall be circumcised”.[82] So far, this seems reminiscent of the Covenant of Works.

But Owen also shows that this covenant operates in an internal, spiritual sense. For believers it was an “effectual dispensation of the grace of the covenant… peculiar to them only who are the children of the promise”.[83] In this sense, “Abraham’s seed” has a different meaning: in the full, spiritual sense it means Christ;[84] he is a party to the Abrahamic Covenant.[85] As an early manifestation of the Covenant of Grace, it could not be otherwise; once again, “it became not the holiness or righteousness of God to treat immediately with [man] any more”.[86] Abraham could not be a party to, or a beneficiary of the Covenant of Grace were Christ not a party as the true mediator, and had Abraham not been a man of faith and hence “in Christ”. Only in that capacity can Abraham be called “father of the faithful”.[87] Abraham is made party to the Abrahamic Covenant “with respect unto all believers [as] representative”.[88] In the internal, spiritual sense, the promises are “the same [as] all believers receive… All the blessings that from God are conveyed in and by his seed, Jesus Christ.”[89]

Hence Owen recognises the continuing principles of the Covenant of Works and the Covenant of Grace in the Abrahamic Covenant. The obligations of the first condemn, unless performed perfectly. They condemn those who are merely outward, visible members of the covenant. Such were the unbelievers in the family of Abraham. But the Covenant of Grace promises eternal life in Christ – because he is the true mediator of it and the only keeper (as surety for the elect) of those obligations. The salvation of Abraham and all true believers in his family apparently depended on the Abrahamic Covenant; but truly and actually they were saved in accordance with what it represented: The Covenant of Grace.

VI. The Mosaic Covenant

How then did Owen regard the Mosaic Covenant and the way in which it related to the Abrahamic? Did it build on it, or was it wholly independent? His principal propositions are these:

  1. It was established so that “the whole church-state of the Jews” should know how they must relate to God; they “depended wholly on the covenant that God made with them at Sinai”.[90]

  2. It was intended as a temporary covenant “wherein the church of Israel walked with God until such time as this better [i.e. New] covenant was solemnly introduced”.[91] As such, it was a temporary “dispensation” specifi-cally for them; in time it would be “removed out of the way”.[92]

  3. It required a mediator since, like all fallen men, the Jews “found themselves utterly insufficient for an immediate treaty with God”.[93] Moses was that mediator, prefiguring Christ.[94]

  4. It is referred to in Hebrews as “the first covenant” to distinguish it from the New Covenant; but also to distinguish it from the Covenant of Works, which might also be called “first” except that that one was not enacted as a formal testament, διαθήκη.[95]

  5. It did not serve to bring the Jews back under the Covenant of Works, in such a way as to cancel the promise of the Covenant of Grace that had been given to them in the Abrahamic Covenant: “No law could afterwards be given or covenant made that should disannul that promise, Galatians 3:17.” If it had done so, then they all would have “perished eternally: which is openly false”.[96]

  6. But it did incorporate the Covenant of Works principle: “do this and live”.[97] It did not in itself abrogate the Covenant of Works, but “in sundry things… re-enforced, established and confirmed that covenant”, in that it “revived, declared, and expressed all the commands of that covenant in the Decalogue; for that is nothing but a divine summary of the law written in the heart of man at his creation”.[98] Though the Covenant of Works could not offer fallen men a path to eternal life, its obligations stood, and were expansively expressed in the Mosaic obligations. In that sense the Mosaic “law contained the whole of the Covenant [of Works]”.[99] Furthermore, to “subdue the pride” of the Jews, it burdened them with “a multitude of arbitrary precepts” which were “hard to be understood and difficult to be observed”.[100] It reiterated the threat of death for transgression, as well as the promise of eternal life upon perfect obedience; but “because none could answer its demands, or comply with it therein, it was called ‘the ministration of death’, causing fear and bondage, 2 Cor. iii. 7”.[101]

  7. Yet there is also much in the Mosaic Covenant which was consistent with the Covenant of Grace:

The new covenant… as it was administered from the foundation of the world in the way of a promise [i.e. the Covenant of Grace, not the New Covenant as finally established]… was consistent with that covenant made with the people in Sinai… There was no interruption of its administration made by the introduction of the [Mosaic] law.[102]

The Mosaic Covenant bore a “figurative relation unto the covenant of grace”, apart from which “none was ever eternally saved”;[103] it “declare[d] the doctrine of justification and salvation by Christ”.[104] It was a covenant “super-added unto the promises” of the Covenant of Grace.[105] Its underlying principle was internal and spiritual, not external: “Thou shalt love the LORD thy God with all thy soul.”[106] It “put forth [the] efficacy [of the new covenant] under types and shadows” until such time as the antitype was revealed.[107] In its institutions of worship and other “outward, typical things”, and in the threatenings of judgment and promises of mercy in its teachings, it served a usus pedagogicus role, directing men to Christ: “The law was our school-master to bring us to Christ.”[108] Hence those who trusted the promises as put forth in the type were counted as having faith in the antitype, and so “enjoyed the way of life and salvation in the promise”.[109]

  1. Owen does not regard it as a “mere administration” of the Covenant of Grace.[110] “It is said that the… new and the old [covenants] were not indeed two distinct covenants as unto their essence and substance, but only different administrations of the same covenant”. However, “there is such express mention made… of two distinct covenants or testaments, and such different natures, properties and effects ascribed unto them, as seem to constitute two distinct covenants.”[111] That said, he comments irenically that this disagree-ment with the “one covenant, two administrations” formula “seems rather to be a difference about the expression of the same truth than any real contradiction about the things themselves”.[112]

  2. It served a particular purpose in ensuring that all could see that God had kept the promises that he had given to Abraham. He had promised that the blessing to the nations would come from among his descendants. To that end, it was necessary that God should preserve the Jews as a distinct nation until Christ had come. If they had been “scattered abroad on the face of the earth” God might still have raised up Christ from Abraham’s posterity, but he desired that that “accomplishment should be evident and conspicuous”.[113]

We can compare Owen’s view of the Mosaic Covenant with that of the Abrahamic Covenant given above. The similarity is striking. Again, the principles of both the Covenant of Works and the Covenant of Grace were affirmed. They flowed through to, underpinned and were expressed in the Mosaic Covenant. The one, as republished through Moses, continued to condemn unless performed perfectly. The other, which it represented “figuratively” and held out through “types and shadows”, continued “uninterrupted” to promise eternal life in Christ. As a manifestation of the Covenant of Grace “the way of reconciliation with God, of justification and salvation, was always one and the same”.[114]

VII. The New Covenant

The New Covenant was the Covenant of Grace “legally established” (νενομοθέτηται). What had been a promise, “which is an oath”, became a formalised covenant: that is, a blood-ratified testament (διαθήκη). The promise was “now solemnly sealed, ratified and confirmed in the death and resurrection of Christ”.[115]

In the Covenant of Redemption, Father and Son agreed that Christ would come as saving mediator and surety. In the Covenant of Grace, the promise of that coming was put into effect, through Christ, for the salvation of the elect. In the New Covenant, the promise was ratified. Christ had now come; Christ had now died and been raised; the gift of salvation was “signed, sealed and delivered”.

This is not to say that the New Covenant was only effective upon its institution in time. It was always the way of salvation for all true believers: “There was grace given in an eminent manner unto many holy persons under the old testament, and all true believers had true, real, saving grace communicated unto them.”[116] But from its “solemn confirmation” it became the fulfilment of all that had gone before. It became “the entire rule of the church’s faith, obedience and worship in all things”.[117] The church then “enjoyed all the spiritual benefits of the promise”.[118] No longer did believers need to live or worship under the burdensome Mosaic Covenant. This had served its purpose and was abrogated – without annulling the underlying principles of the Covenants of Works (requiring perfect obedience) and Grace (applying Christ’s obedience to his people). The new and only way of worship was “spiritual, rational and plainly subservient unto the ends of the covenant itself”.[119]

Owen’s main burden, in his commentary on Hebrews 8:6, is to explain how the New Covenant is superior to the Mosaic Covenant. He finds seventeen differences, as he compares their dates, place and manner of execution; their mediators and subject-matter; their formalising; their priests and sacrifices; their ends and effects; the grant and dispensation of the Holy Spirit; their external and internal kingdoms; their shadowy and real natures; their extension among the nations; their efficacy; and their duration.[120]

He finds the New Covenant to be superior in every respect. The one merely “discovered” (revealed) sin and pointed to Christ, while threatening death for those who neglected him or pursued self-salvation in works of the law. The other brought people to the Christ who had accomplished for them all that the Covenant of Works required, through his obedience and suffering.[121] It gave freedom and liberty to the subjects of his kingdom, by declaring “the love, grace and mercy of God… [therewith giving] repentance, remission of sin and life eternal.”[122] It granted them the “unspeakable privilege” of the indwelling Holy Spirit, who brought about the great expansion of the church from one small nation to “all nations under heaven”.[123] In all these things, “the state of the church under the New Covenant excels that under the old”.[124]

The New Covenant is then the end of the logical and temporal progression described above – at least, almost.[125] It was founded eternally in the Covenant of Redemption. It was founded temporally in and upon the Covenant of Works and Covenant of Grace. It was manifested in the “proto-evangelium” of Genesis 3:15, the Abrahamic Covenant and then the Mosaic Covenant. It was formally and fully established and ratified by the death and resurrection of Christ.

VIII. Was Owen, then, a dichotomist or a trichotomist?

We may return now to the question of Owen’s allegedly ambiguous position on the Mosaic covenant. Was it an expression of one of the two over-arching covenants, or in a class of its own? Beeke and Jones seek to answer the question, “Is Owen’s federal theology dichotomous or trichotomous?”[126] They lean away from the conclusions of Rehnman and Ferry that it is trichotomous, saying that in one sense “Owen is better understood as a dichotomist rather than a trichotomist”. [127] A page later, with some reservations, they say “Owen may possibly be described as a trichotomist”; but there they also suggest that his schema may “actually [be] fourfold or fivefold, if the… covenant of redemption is included”.[128] Their final conclusion is that “the customary labels may not be helpful in describing the thought of one who produced his own ‘minority report’ among the various interpretations of the seventeenth-century orthodox reformed”, suggesting that his theology, because of its complexity, really stands on its own.[129]

The arguments of Beeke and Jones, Rehnman and Ferry do not sit easily with my summary of Owen’s view of the covenants outlined above.[130] I will explain my disagreement with each in turn, taking Rehnman first because Beeke and Jones refer to his terminology.[131]

1. Rehnman

In his essay, Rehnman states: “Owen follows the trichotomist federal theology, possibly in particular the Cameronian version… He formulates a distinct and separate covenant for the Mosaic era and thus adheres to the threefold covenantal structure.”[132] John Cameron was a Saumur theologian, who argued that “there is one covenant of nature, one of grace, and one subservient to the covenant of grace (which in Scripture is called the ‘old covenant’).”[133] According to Rehnman, Cameron wished to distinguish between the Covenant of Works, the Covenant of Grace as it existed merely in the form of a “promise” (meaning the Mosaic Covenant) and the Covenant of Grace in its final form as it was “promulgated and confirmed” (meaning the New Covenant). Cameron’s motive was to “pave… the way for a distinct and lower status for the old covenant [and] emphasise the supreme revelation of grace in Christ”.[134]

Owen shared that motive. Indeed, that was the major theme of his commentary on Hebrews 8:6. He also regarded the Mosaic Covenant as a distinct and formally-enacted covenant, not merely a promissory covenant and not a “mere administration” of the Covenant of Grace, as Rehnman rightly notes.[135]

But is that enough to establish Rehnman’s assertion that Owen is a trichotomist? I do not think so. The Cameronian view as presented by Rehnman suggests that the Covenants of Works, Moses and Grace represent God’s way of dealing with man in three successive post-lapsarian dispensations: the first requiring works; the next promising grace; the last delivering grace. But emphasising this dispensation-trichotomy has the effect of understating the soteriology-dichotomy that is of greater significance. It also blurs the distinction between the Covenant of Grace and the New Covenant that Owen carefully maintains.[136] Owen strongly maintains the superiority of the New Covenant. But his structure also gives full weight to the antithetical yet co-foundational principles of Covenants of Works and Grace, which principles then flow through all of the distinct historic covenants until they find fulfilment in the New Covenant.[137] The four covenants that Rehnman discusses cannot be reduced to three without loss, nor can Owen be squeezed into Cameron’s mould without loss.

2. Beeke and Jones

Analysing the position of Beeke and Jones is difficult because they use “dichotomous” in different senses in different places. In one place, they say that Owen has a “dichotomous view of the old and new covenants”.[138] Elsewhere they say that the dichotomy is between the Covenants of Works and Grace.[139] As they are interacting – and disagreeing – with Rehnman (for whom “dichotomy” sets the Covenant of Works against the Old and New Covenants of Grace) it would have been preferable to keep to the latter sense. In that latter sense – distinguishing between the Covenants of Works and Grace – the term “dichotomous” then expresses “the majority view of Reformed theologians”, being that “the Sinaitic covenant and the new covenant were not different covenants, but only different administrations of the one and the same covenant of grace”.[140] In other words, they say that the “majority view” was that the Mosaic Covenant was merely an expression of the Covenant of Grace.

Beeke and Jones do not state Owen’s position on this entirely accurately, with the result that the difference between Owen and “the majority” is exaggerated. First, they say that his argument was “that the old and new covenants are not different administrations of the covenant of grace, but two distinct covenants”.[141] In fact Owen is quite willing to say that the Mosaic and New Covenants are “different administrations”.[142] But what he consistently says is that they are not “only” or “merely” different administrations. That is because Scripture “plainly and expressly” calls them distinct testaments or covenants.[143] He is not willing to call them “mere administrations” for the sake of emphasising the unity of Scripture, because it is not faithful to Scripture to do so. It may seem a small point, but it is not a trivial one for Owen. As Rehnman notes, he uses “emotive language” in refuting it.[144] I will come back to its significance.

Secondly, Beeke and Jones say that Owen understands the Mosaic Covenant as “coincid[ing] with the covenant of works” and being “abstracted from [Christ]”. They contrast him with Turretin, who saw that the Mosaic Covenant could also be understood “in order [i.e. relation] to Christ”. Turretin (unlike Owen, they imply) saw that abstraction as unwarranted because he understood that the Mosaic Covenant had a usus pedagogicus, driving sinners to Christ. They say, “Owen separates Sinai altogether from the covenant of grace because he understands the old covenant only in its legal aspect.”[145] But in so saying that they have overly focussed on those parts of Owen which emphasise the discontinuities between the Mosaic and New Covenants. It is true that Owen’s primary purpose in his exposition of Hebrews 8:6 was to show the superiority of the New; but they have given inadequate weight to what he says about the continuities,[146] although their subsequent discussion of “Sinai’s function” is essentially accurate.

In the circumstances it is perhaps not surprising that Beeke and Jones struggle to reconcile Owen’s supposedly trichotomistic exposition of Hebrews 8:6 and with his soteriologically-dichotomistic exposition of Hebrews 7:9-10.[147] I have already stated the solution to the puzzle in the context of Rehnman’s essay: the dichotomistic principles of the Covenants of Works and Grace flow through all of the distinct historic covenants until they find resolution and fulfilment in the New Covenant. It is true that the Mosaic Covenant is a distinct and inferior covenant; but Beeke and Jones have understated the crucial lines of continuity that Owen insists upon. Four covenants cannot be squeezed into two any more successfully than they can be squeezed into three.

What alignment, then, is there between Owen and “the majority”? Is he out on a limb, as Beeke and Jones suggest? Not really: he would have had no difficulty in endorsing the soteriologically-dichotomistic Articles 7.2-7.4 of the Westminster Confession of Faith.[148] He led the drafting of the Savoy Declaration, along with Thomas Goodwin who attended the Westminster Assembly. There is no doubt that Owen approved the modest revisions of the Westminster Confession, whether or not the wording was all his.[149] In any event, these articles are consistent with his taxonomy as summarised above.

Westminster Confession Articles 7.5-6 say “There are not… two covenants of grace differing in substance, but one and the same under various dispensations”; and they refer to the “law” administration of Moses “called the Old Testament” and to the “gospel” administration “called the New Testament”. This aligns with the “one covenant, two administrations” formula of the majority of divines. But does it thereby exclude Owen’s view, of one Covenant of Grace issuing in two administrations, the administrations themselves being in the form of formal διαθήκαι? Not at all. The Savoy version of Article 7.5 is shorter, but still refers to one Covenant of Grace issuing in Old and New Testament administrations.

It seems, therefore, that Beeke and Jones’ suggestion that Owen was out on a limb is over-stated. Owen insisted on calling a covenant a covenant, where Scripture does so; subject to that, his own assessment appears correct: that the difference concerns “expression of the same truth [rather] than any real contradiction”.[150]

3. Ferry

The difference between Owen and “the majority” is also over-stated by Ferry. He argues that, for Owen, the discontinuities between the Mosaic Covenant and the Covenant of Grace “are so antithetical as to require extracting the Mosaic covenant from the stream of the covenant of grace”.[151] His reasoning, drawn only from Owen’s Exposition of Hebrews, is similar to that of Beeke and Jones, discussed above. His conclusion, like Rehnman’s, is that Owen can be aligned with Cameron as a trichotomist.[152] I dissent for the reasons given above.

IX. Conclusion

Owen’s view of the covenants is not simplistic, nor simple, but is exegetically driven and consistently expressed across his works. He explains the necessity and purpose of the one eternal and over-arching Covenant of Redemption, which leads to two over-arching temporal covenants reflecting the only two routes to salvation that God has ever proposed to man, those of Works and Grace. Upon these foundations are established the various historically-enacted covenants that are “expressly called covenants” in Scripture, each reflecting the Works and Grace principles.[153] These culminate in the New Covenant, under which Christ performs on behalf of his people all of the works required of them under the Covenant of Works, thereby graciously bestowing upon them all “excellent and glorious… privileges”, though in themselves they are unworthy sinners.[154]

By distinguishing between the over-arching covenants and the historic covenants we can better understand and teach the continuities and discontinuities between them. We can avoid the reductionism implicit in the dichotomous and trichotomous assessments that are discussed above. And we can rejoice, as did Owen, in the great plan of salvation, settled and promised before all ages according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will: Soli Deo Gloria.

Appendix: Owen’s taxonomy of the covenants

New Covenant diagram


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