Federal Theology in the Sixteenth Century: Two Traditions? -- By: Lyle D. Bierma

Journal: Westminster Theological Journal
Volume: WTJ 45:2 (Fall 1983)
Article: Federal Theology in the Sixteenth Century: Two Traditions?
Author: Lyle D. Bierma

Federal Theology in the Sixteenth Century:
Two Traditions?

Lyle D. Bierma

The last thirty years have seen a remarkable growth in interest in the early history of Reformed federal (or covenant) theology. Modern historians of Christian thought have acknowledged the Zwinglian roots of this theology ever since the mid-nineteenth century, but it is only relatively recently that the subject has gained the attention of a wider circle of scholars. What sparked this new interest was in large part the research of Perry Miller, whose essay “The Marrow of Puritan Divinity” (1935) and first volume of The New England Mind (1939) demonstrated the significance of the covenant idea for the life and thought of seventeenth-century Puritanism. Since then an increasing number of scholars have been investigating the origins of covenant thought on the continent and the extent of its influence across the channel.

The subject of this essay is a hypothesis that over the years has come to dominate much of this recent scholarship. It was first proposed on the pages of Church History in March 1951 in an article by Leonard J. Trinterud entitled “The Origins of Puritanism.”1 Trinterud’s basic thesis was that at the heart of Puritan political and religious thought lay the notion of covenant; that the origin of the covenant idea in Puritanism could be traced in its secular form to the natural law, social contract theory in English medieval thought, and in its theological form to the early English Reformers Tyndale and Frith; and that whatever influence continental federal theology exerted on Puritan thought came not from Geneva and John Calvin but from Zurich and the Reformers of the Rhineland. Tyndale’s reading of Zwingli and Oecolampadius, Hooper’s two-year stay in Zurich, the flight to England of several prominent Rhinelanders following the Augsburg Interim of 1548, and the escape of many of the Marian

exiles to the Rhineland in the 1550s, all put the earliest Puritans in touch with a developed covenantal scheme on the continent with which traditional English preaching and piety were blended.2 The last part of Trinterud’s thesis is based on the argument that there were actually two distinct strains of covenant theology emerging in sixteenth-century Reformed Switzerland—one with Calvin in Geneva, the other with Zwingli and Bullinger in Zurich and the Rhineland. The differences Trinterud discerned between them can be summarized as follows:


Zurich/Rhineland Refo...

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