Covenant Theology and the Westminster Tradition -- By: Mark W. Karlberg

Journal: Westminster Theological Journal
Volume: WTJ 54:1 (Spring 1992)
Article: Covenant Theology and the Westminster Tradition
Author: Mark W. Karlberg

Covenant Theology and the Westminster Tradition*

Mark W. Karlberg

* David A. Weir, The Origins of the Federal Theology in Sixteenth-Century Reformation Thought (New York: Clarendon, 1990. xvii, 244. $49.95).

One of the aims of David Weir’s study of sixteenth-century covenant theology is to provide a rationale for the transformation of early covenant theology into the scholastic form called “federal” theology that obtained confessional status in the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms written approximately one hundred years after the beginnings of the Reformation. Comparing the First Helvetic Confession (1536) with the Westminster Confession (1646), Weir observes:

There is a definite shift noticeable between these two confessions—two documents separated by a century of theological and ecclesiastical history. The first teaches that the Scriptures principally expound grace; the second teaches that the Scriptures principally expound duty. Even responding to God’s grace is a duty of all men, according to the Westminster standards. This shift in emphasis is largely the product of the federal theology, and its emphasis on the fundamental relationship between God and man as found in the Garden of Eden, articulated by the covenant of works, and characterized by Adamic duty which is binding upon Adam and all his descendants. The First Helvetic Confession is concerned only with the fallen world and the grace needed to correct this world, a grace revealed by Scripture. The Westminster documents are much more cosmic in character. [P. 154]1

Westminster Theological Seminary traces its roots to the assembly at Westminster (1643–49), while bearing close ties to Scottish and Dutch Calvinism.2 Significantly, the seminary in recent

years has produced, primarily through its graduate students, a steady stream of articles, theses, and dissertations on the history and theology of the covenants to which Weir devotes ample attention in his book. A critique of Weir’s monograph, which includes the most comprehensive bibliography to date on covenant theology (prior to 1750), provides this reviewer an opportunity to interact not only with the author’s research and evaluations but also with a number of other important writings, many of which have appeared in the decade following the completion of my doctoral study in 1980, relating to Weir’s subject of investigation.3 In the course of our review we will be citing extensively from the secondary literature.

The introduction, comprising the lo...

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