The Doctrine of the Covenant and Testament of God by Johannes Cocceius

David R. Holmlund

The Doctrine of the Covenant and Testament of God, by Johannes Cocceius. Translated by Casey Carmichael. Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage, 2016, xxxviii + 408 pages, $50.00.

Last year Reformation Heritage Books published a brand-new English translation of one of the classics of Reformed covenant theology—Johannes Cocceius’s The Doctrine of the Covenant and Testament of God—a fitting selection to stand as the third volume in their Classic Reformed Theology series. Casey Carmichael translated Cocceius’s work from the original Latin text Summa Doctrinae de Foedere et Testamento Dei (first published in 1648) into a form which is quite useful in English while also maintaining Greek and Hebrew citations for biblical exposition along with English renderings. The introduction to the book and a short biographical sketch is supplied by Willem J. van Asselt, the world’s leading expert on Cocceius and one of the finest scholars of Post-Reformation theology in the past generation. All of those involved in producing this fine volume deserve to be highly commended for what is now available to the English reader interested in the history of covenant theology.

Cocceius—while lacking some of the name recognition belonging to other theologians of the Post-Reformation period—is one of the greatest of the seventeenth-century Scholastics who systematized orthodox Protestant theology in the period between the Reformation and the rise of rationalism. A native of the north German city of Bremen, he studied and taught in the Netherlands first in Franeker and later at Leiden—centers of world class scholarship and international influence in the era. With a mastery of Hebrew and Semitic languages, Cocceius was fundamentally a biblical exegete whose voluminous writings stretched from philology to biblical exposition to systematic formulation.

As a member of the Dutch Reformed Church, Cocceius subscribed to the Three Forms of Unity and remained in good standing in the church throughout his life. However, particularly today, his name is also synonymous with sometimes controversial assertions of the nascent field of federal (covenant) theology among those who were confessionally orthodox in the Post-Reformation period. His great rival in the Dutch Reformed Church of the seventeenth century was Gisbertus Voetius of Utrecht, who—as something of a Dutch expression of that century’s puritan theology—believed Cocceius’s theological methods undermined important aspects of Christian doctrine and ethics. Their clashes over justification and Sabbath requirements in the new covenant were not unlike similar controversies across the English Channel, although it is possible to argue that the clearer theological argument happened in the Dutch context. With Roman Catholicism officially removed from the Dutch Reformed Church by the start of the seventeenth century, this era now affectionately known as the gouden eeuw (golden age) in the Netherlands had its greatest theological controversy in the clashes between the Voetians and the Cocceians throughout the latter half of the century.

The structure of The Doctrine of the Covenant and Testament of God is not vastly different from other more recent books of covenant theology which are more widely known today. He defines what a covenant is; he argues for the covenant of works with Adam; then he gives a full elaboration of the covenant of grace, which shows continuity and discontinuity over the whole course of redemptive history. And yet, as a book, it is decidedly different in its flavor and content than Vos, Robertson, Clowney, Horton, and the rest.

One difference is that Cocceius gives frequent reminders of his seventeenth-century context. He spends considerable time interacting with theological opponents like Robert Bellarmine (a Roman Catholic controversialist) or Hugo Grotius (an Arminian sympathizer and perennial critic of the Reformed orthodox) even though Cocceius clearly stands in the mainstream of the Reformed tradition. This reminds us that polemics was a large part of systematic theology in the Post-Reformation era, as any reader of other Post-Reformation texts has already discovered.

The other difference is crucial to understanding the importance of the book. Beyond simply contrasting the covenant of works with the covenant of grace established through the second Adam, Cocceius argues that the covenant of grace unfolds as the series of five “abrogations” of the covenant of works throughout redemptive history (nicely summarized on pages 58–59 as well as in the book’s chapter divisions). In the first abrogation, which precedes the inauguration of the covenant of grace, the possibility of receiving eternal life and blessedness through obedience is removed through the event of Adam’s sin in the Garden of Eden. By the second abrogation, the consequence of condemnation for sin is overturned through the first proclamation of the Gospel and the gift of faith for believers. In the third abrogation—by far the most controversial both in the seventeenth century and today—the terror and bondage of sin under the law is removed with the arrival of the new covenant following the finished work of the Savior. Through the fourth abrogation, sin’s corruption expires at the death of the believer in Jesus Christ. Fifth and finally, the general resurrection is understood as an abrogation of all that remains from the covenant of works so that the course of redemptive history is entirely framed by the passing away of the covenant of works through participation in the benefits of life in Christ until believers share only in the covenant of grace forever.

The thoughtful reader is forced to wonder what bearing Cocceius’s formulation ought to have upon our covenant theology today. Cocceius goes into considerably greater detail than one would find in either the Westminster Standards (WCF chapter 7 and various catechism answers) or the Three Forms of Unity. Moreover, apart from a few obscure books in the Dutch Reformed context, the Cocceian approach is quite different from what is taught in the Reformed community today on the topic of covenant theology in which the covenant of works is generally contrasted with the covenant of grace—not phased out with the gradual arrival of the benefits of Christ, as in Cocceius. This book raises anew that old question about just how important historical theology is for systematic theology.

The appearance of this work in English is a timely reminder that good historical theology helps us to appropriate the best of biblical interpretation as we arrive at the best systematic formulation possible. This is where Cocceius is so useful. For example, in the third abrogation with the new covenant, he has some very good passages about the role of the law written on the hearts of God’s people in the new covenant (243–45). He also argues for a contrast between the paresis (passing over) of sins in the old covenant and the aphesis (full remission) of sins with the arrival of the new covenant, contrasting Romans 3:25 and Matthew 26:28 (227–30). He even offers a short examination of the doctrine of the Christian Sabbath, as opposed to the Sabbath of the old covenant, in the context of Christ’s fulfillment and the greater measure of grace which is now known in the new covenant (226).

When a theologian starts probing into questions of Sabbath practice or discontinuities in justification or finer points to the covenant of works, it can become controversial very quickly. Indeed, some of the same fault lines of Reformed covenant theology remain roughly the same some three and a half centuries after Cocceius because our secondary standards are rather sparing on the topic of the discontinuities which emerge over redemptive history. Because the confessions are so restrained, we end up with various expressions of Cocceians and Voetians continuing to battle it out in every new generation of the church.

Knowing Cocceius’s monumental Summa Doctrinae is part of the hard work of understanding the Reformed exegetical tradition. Yet, the more we do this as a church, the better we will be able to understand our Reformed heritage, articulate the fault lines of historic debates, and discern the possibilities for consensus in holding to the riches of covenant theology as a united church. I therefore recommend adding Cocceius to the body of required reading for Reformed covenant theology in the OPC and in other similarly confessional bodies of like faith and practice.

David R. Holmlund is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church serving as Regional Home Missionary for the Presbytery of Philadelphia. Ordained Servant Online, May 2017.

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