Unity and continuity in covenantal thought : a study in the reformed tradition to the Westminster Assembly

Woolsey, Andrew Alexander (1988) Unity and continuity in covenantal thought : a study in the reformed tradition to the Westminster Assembly. PhD thesis, University of Glasgow.

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The Westminster Assembly is a useful starting point for detailed discussions of the development of covenantal thought, particularly in view of the direction taken by recent studies which place a strong dichotomy between the early Reformers and their seventeenth-century successors, notably between John Calvin and those who have traditionally been designated 'Calvinists'. The most extreme, or virulent, of these is an unsparing attack upon the Westminster Confession as one of the principal reservoirs of 'a plague that had long infected the Reformed churches'. In seeking to overthrow what he described as 'the treasured confession of my mother church', the author made the astonishing claim, which puts this basic issue in a curious nutshell: 'It was Calvin who rescued me from the Calvinists". And the deadly virus identified as the cause of this plague was the Confession's covenantal statements, of which it was said, 'Calvin knew nothing, for these theological innovations were the work of his successors'.

In order to set the scene, therefore, Part One of the thesis has been devoted to a consideration of the background to the Westminster Assembly and its documents, and examination of the sources and content of the theology of the covenant expressed in the standards, and also a critical survey of the historiography of the covenant from around the middle of the last century to the present time. The historical background to the Assembly as it relates to both the English and Scottish churches is designed to get the feel of the general ecclesiastical climate and theological orientation in which the divines and their immediate predecessors lived and moved, while the examination of sources and content more particularly indentifies the direction from which the doctrine of the covenant came to be embodied in the Confession and Catechisms, and also the issues which are emphasized in, and immediately related to, the chapters dealing specifically with the covenant.

The scriptural origin of the Reformed doctrine of the covenant is indisputable , so that serious research in this area has never been considered necessary. The temptation to include a section on Scripture in this study has likewise been resisted, but its importance has been kept in mind throughout. In order to demonstrate that the idea of the covenant as held by the Reformed church, even in many of its particular aspects, was no new thing, Part Two picks up some of the threads offered by forerunners in the field. These include several of the church fathers, notably Augustine. The survival and use of the idea in both its political and theological applications during the medieval period has not been overlooked. It was found that the idea of the covenant had specific government, hermeneutical and sotcriological functions in medieval thought which were by no means despised or abandoned in the reaction of the Reformation against medieval scholasticism.

Among the early reformers, Luther's theology held firmly to the basic concepts underlying covenantal theology, but it was in the Reformed camp that the importance of the doctrine was chiefly recognized and utilized in the controversies of the tome, first by Occolampadius and Zwingli and then more distinctly by Bullinger, whose little monograph De Testamento seu fordere tlei unico el aelerno was the first to appear on the subject. The findings of this research into Bullingcr's work interact strongly with those studies which regard Bullingcr's view of the covenant as strictly bilateral and consequently portray him as the founder of a separate Reformed tradition, distinct from that which emanated from Calvin and the Genevan school.

Part Three is devoted entirely to Geneva, showing the seminal influence of Calvin's work in the development and transmission of covenantal though. In demonstrating that the covenant in both its unilateral and bilateral aspects was an essential part of Calvin's overall theological structure, the disputed questions as to whether Calvin was a 'convenant theologian', and whether he taught a covenant of works is carefully considered in its proper theological context and not merely with respect to the use of terms.

For the first lime in any study of covenantal thought, detailed sttention has been given in this research to the work of Theodore Beza. Beza has been consistently singled out by those who oppose the Calvinists to Calvin, supralapsarian, scholastic orthodoxy which diverged manifestly

from Calvin's warm, christocentric, humanistic, biblical theology. Just as consistently he has been denied any interest in the theology of the covencnt, with the result that 'covenant theology' has been interpreted as a reaction against Bezcan orthodoxy in an effort to recover a place for responsible man in the economy of salvation. The evidence, however, supplied by a wider consultation of Beza's works than his merely controversial writings, supports a contrary argument. Beza's basic fidelity to Calvin becomes apparent in controverted areas and the warm heart of a concerned pastor is heard to beat in his sermonic material. More importantly for this research Beza is found to have a keen interest in the covenant both unilaterally and bilaterally, particularly in relation to the doctrine of the union between Christ and his church, just as Calvin had before him and the Calvinists after him.

In the final part of the thesis the issues and arguments already raised are followed through in representative writers from three main interrelated locations of post-reformation development in Reformed theology. One is the influence of the Heidelberg theologians, Ursinus and Olevianus, in the Palatinate Church of Germany. The others arc the English Puritan movement, dominated mainly by the influence of Willian Perkins, and the Scottish connection in the writings of Knox, Rollock anf Howie.

It is the conclusion of this research that while covenantal theology inevitably underwent a process of refining and expansion, and was given fuller defination and varying emphases by later writers, that it nevertheless remained true to the central idea or ideas of the covenant as taught by the Reformers. Such a process cannot be constructed as constituting a fundamental shift or departure from the theology of the early Reformers. Rather there is a general agreement, a unity which makes the Westminster divines in this respect the worthy successors of Calvin and his colleagues.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Qualification Level: Doctoral
Subjects: B Philosophy. Psychology. Religion > BR Christianity
B Philosophy. Psychology. Religion > BL Religion
D History General and Old World > DA Great Britain
Colleges/Schools: College of Arts & Humanities > School of Humanities > History
Supervisor's Name: Kirk, Dr. James
Date of Award: 1988
Depositing User: Geraldine Coyle
Unique ID: glathesis:1988-773
Copyright: Copyright of this thesis is held by the author.
Date Deposited: 15 May 2009
Last Modified: 10 Dec 2012 13:26
URI: https://theses.gla.ac.uk/id/eprint/773

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