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The One Eternal Covenant
Christians are following the oldest religion in the world, and are members of the one eternal covenant, which suffices now and throughout all eternity.
I’ve been committed to covenant theology for almost 40 years, and for much of that time to the species of it found in this book, which consists of (1) the editors’ introduction to A Brief Exposition of the One Eternal Testament or Covenant of God and (2) the slender book itself.
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Heinrich Bullinger was Zwingli’s successor in the Swiss Reformation in Zürich. He was one of the most important Reformation figures of the 16th century. His writings, many of which are available in English, are voluminous. You’ve likely heard less about the Swiss Reformation than about its German (Lutheran) or Genevan (Calvinian) counterparts, because the Swiss Reformation reflected different emphases at points. One of them was the overarching idea of the covenant. While there was a covenant theology of sorts in the medieval church, the Swiss Reformation was not indebted to it; and the notion that the covenant should govern all of life probably started first in the thinking of Bullinger. You can read about all of this in The Other Reformed Tradition.
While Luther, and, to a lesser extent, Calvin saw justification by faith alone as the central doctrine in salvation, Bullinger believed that pride of place belonged to the covenant. He understood justification by faith alone within the context of the covenant, and not vice versa. He writes:
The entire sum of piety consists in these very brief main points of the covenant [those he’d just enumerated]. Indeed, it is evident that nothing else was handed down to the saints of all ages, throughout the entire Scripture, other than what is included in these main points of the covenant. [emphases supplied]
The covenant is the entire message of the Bible. He can make this sweeping claim because he sees the Bible itself a covenant document (a thesis Meredith Kline verified in our own time). This biblico-covenantal message had distinct political implications.
Here I’ll just rehearse several of Bullinger’s leading themes.
The New Covenant Seed of Abraham
First, Bullinger begins with the Abrahamic covenant and identifies God’s covenant partners as those joined by faith alone to the seed of Abraham, Jesus Christ, which is just what Paul teaches in Galatians 3. The new covenant is the Abrahamic covenant brought to its zenith in Jesus Christ.
All of Grace
Second, God’s covenant with man is entirely of grace, and cannot be merited:
God offers this covenant, not in any way, because of the merits of humans, but rather out of the sheer goodness which is God’s nature.
The covenant is a sober, oath-bound promise that binds two parties as well as their successors. It contains conditions imposed on both parties, and blessings for fulfilling those conditions. And God alone bestows that covenant out of his gracious heart. Man neither devised it nor achieves it.
Third, the covenant is made not only with the original parties, but also their descendants (Bulliner’s book is directed largely against the anabaptists, who posited a radical discontinuity between Old and New Testaments). This means God the Father’s covenant with the saints binds also his eternal Son, and the covenant of all those united to that Son (Jesus Christ) binds their descendants also. The covenant is multigenerational.
Because the covenant is all-inclusive, it is not possible to sever physical promises from non-physical promises.
Fourth, the covenant, since bilateral, is conditional. God willingly binds himself to his covenant partners (the saints), and they willingly bind themselves to him. Each fulfills conditions and enjoys blessings. This does not mean the saints can fulfill these conditions of their own power:
… he [God] alone is that power and that good which suffices for humans. He who is in want of nothing supplies everything for everyone. [emphasis supplied]
Humans are to seek God and his law with all their heart, and if they turn their back on him, he will cut them off from the covenant:
It is our duty to adhere firmly by faith to the one God, inasmuch as he is the one and only author of all good things, and to walk in innocence [note: not sinlessness] of life for his pleasure. For anyone who has neglected these things and has sought false gods, who has lived shamefully or impiously, and who has worshipped God more with ceremonies or external things [he implies the medieval Roman church] than with true holiness of life, will be excluded, disinherited, and rejected from the covenant.
Faith-drenched devotion and consequent obedience are conditions for continuation in the covenant. God cannot abandon the covenant, but man can. These are not precedent conditions, but they are consequent conditions. We don’t get into the covenant by grace and stay in by works. We get in by a heart-felt, persevering faith and stay in by a heart-felt, persevering faith. We are saved by grace through faith and kept by grace through faith, but if we abandon our covenant God, he will abandon us. You don’t despise God and his covenant in Christ and still get to enjoy the blessings of that covenant.
Biblical Civil Law
Fifth, the Jews’ biblical civil laws are a part of the covenant law and bind all. Though some of the externals of the civil law were limited to the Jews’ residence in Canaan, the substance of those laws continues. In other words, the basic civil law of God is eternal and should be implemented in today’s society. (The Westminster Confession later termed this ongoing application “general equity.”)
Old Testament, New Testament, One Covenant
Sixth, there is one covenant encompassing both Old and New Testaments all the way down to our own time:
[T]he testament or covenant is both one and everlasting… [W]e have established nothing about true religion in relation to posterity [the New Testament era, as well as Bullinger’s own times] that the ancestors [Jewish patriarchs] had not already heard, certainly insofar as it pertains to the substance of the matter. Abraham was clearly justified by faith alone … [T]he times are different, but not the faith.
The sacrificial ceremonies of the old covenant have passed away now that Christ has come, but the true faith of Abraham and ancient Israel continues in the new covenant people of God.
Physical and Non-Physical Promises
Finally, because the covenant is all-inclusive, it is not possible to sever physical promises from non-physical promises. The idea that “nothing awaits [the church] except the cross and exile [a frequent anabaptist theme]” does not take the robust covenant seriously:
For no one denies that the promise of the land of Canaan … was bound to a specific place; but neither can anyone deny that the same promise, or rather a similar promise of earthly things, was made equally to all the [converted new covenant] Gentiles.
Just as it’s impossible to sever children from their parents in the covenant, so it’s impossible to sever physical from non-physical blessings in the covenant. Those who fear the Lord, despite hostility and persecution, will not lack any good thing, non-physical or physical.
Bullinger concludes this brisk, bracing work by assuring his readers that those who trust in Christ and follow him today are following the oldest religion in the world, and are members of the one eternal covenant, which suffices now and throughout all eternity.
If you’re going to embrace covenant theology, may I humbly suggest Heinrich Bullinger’s version of it.