John Owen On The Mosaic Covenant -- By: Thomas E. Hicks, Jr.
RBTR 6:1 (Jan 2009) p. 44
John Owen On The Mosaic Covenant
Thomas E. Hicks, Jr., is a Ph.D. candidate in church history at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and is currently serving as the Pastor of Discipleship at Morningview Baptist Church in Montgomery, AL.
Covenant theology has not been uniform in its understanding of the nature of the Mosaic covenant. While today many of the adherents of popular covenant theology speak as though “true” covenant theology interprets the Mosaic covenant to be a gracious administration of the covenant of grace, that way of speaking is historically inaccurate. Part of the reason for this one-sided expression may be covenant theology’s present orientation against dispensationalism. Dispensationalism teaches that the Mosaic covenant was a covenant of works and that it was only a killing, legal letter. In reaction to the dispensational insistence on identifying the Mosaic covenant with a covenant of works, some contemporary expressions of covenant theology have tended exclusively to assert the gracious character of the Mosaic covenant. In today’s academic literature on covenant theology, John Murray’s writings strongly advocate interpreting the Mosaic covenant exclusively as an administration of the covenant of grace, while Meredith Kline’s work favors the view that formulates the Mosaic covenant as a republication of the covenant of works at the earthly typological level on the principle of inheritance by works righteousness.1 The present dispute in covenant theology calls for historians to study what mainstream covenant theology actually affirmed in the past. The historical picture, however, is far from uniform, since covenant theology never really settled the question. The reality is that orthodox covenant theologians affirmed various positions on the nature of the Mosaic covenant.
Ernest Kevan, a scholar of Puritan theology, divided historic covenant theologians into two groups: those who affirmed that the Mosaic covenant
RBTR 6:1 (Jan 2009) p. 45
is a covenant of works and those who affirmed that it is a covenant of grace.2 Sinclair Ferguson, however, in a description of John Owen’s view of the Mosaic covenant, took Kevan to task on his assessment and wrote, “In view of this, and some of the statements quoted, Dr. Kevan might have more accurately divided Puritan opinion on the Sinaitic Covenant into three groups.”3 If Ferguson is right, John Owen is part of a third group, which held that the Mosaic covenant is neither strictly a covenant of works nor a covenant of grace, but a third kind o...
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