Reformed Interpretation of the Mosaic Covenant -- By: Mark W. Karlberg

Journal: Westminster Theological Journal
Volume: WTJ 43:1 (Fall 1980)
Article: Reformed Interpretation of the Mosaic Covenant
Author: Mark W. Karlberg


Reformed Interpretation of the Mosaic Covenant*

Mark W. Karlberg

Throughout the history of Christian doctrine, the problem of the relation between the Old and New Testaments has been central to the interpretive task of the Church. Indeed, this basic issue is one of the leading concerns of the New Testament writings themselves. The fundamental, biblical idea in both the Old Testament and the New is the covenant of God. The Old Testament writings explicate the Mosaic administration of the covenant of grace. The Gospels and Acts are concerned with the inauguration and establishment of the New Covenant through the coming of the Messiah, the Servant of the Lord, and the outpouring of the Spirit of Christ upon the Church at Pentecost. The Epistles and Revelation develop more fully the theology of the covenant and its implications for New Covenant ministry in life and worship.

The doctrine of the covenant of God, including the relation between Old and New Testaments, finds its first articulate spokesman after the apostles in Irenaeus, who defended Christian theology against the false teachings of Marcion, specifically the latter’s denial of the unity of the two Testaments.1 The chapters on the covenant of God in the history of doctrine, beginning with Irenaeus’ contribution, cover the entire history of the Christian Church. But it is not until the time of the Reformation, considered in its widest range from the second decade of the sixteenth century to the writing of the Westminster Standards (1648), that the doctrine of the covenant comes fully into

* In the notes, slight grammar and spelling changes have been made with some of the older English writings, but without changing in any way their thought.

its own. Consequently, when we speak of federalism, the synonym for covenant theology, we are thinking of that variety of theology in the period of the Reformation which is characteristic of the Reformed tradition.

In fact, the genius of the Reformed theological tradition is evident most explicitly (and implicitly) in its development of federalism. The concept of the covenant is determinative for both its exegetical and theological reflection. And the distinctiveness of federalism is its biblical-theological method, what Ludwig Diestel calls the “organic-historical method.”2 This remains true of Reformed theology today. Adherence to the traditional interpretation of the covenant doctrine serves to distinguish orthodox Reformed theology from neo-orthodox theology. One of the most important aspects of the traditional Calvinist teaching on the covenant is the use of the la...

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