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The Puritans on the Mosaic Covenant: Anthony Burgess (Lesson 7 Appendix)

It's been said that the most difficult point in all the study of divinity is understanding the covenant that God made with Israel at Sinai. Is it a legal covenant? Or is it a gracious covenant? Is it a Covenant of Works, or is it a Covenant of Grace? It's difficult to deny that Sinai belongs to the Covenant of Grace. But for those who accept it as such, there are difficult questions to grapple with. One of the most difficult questions is this: If the Mosaic Covenant truly belongs to the Covenant of Grace, how do you explain that the requirement of the Law was perfect obedience? Here's why this question is so difficult: What God requires in the Covenant of Grace is faith; and actually, faith alone. That's God's requirement in the Covenant of Grace. But though some try to deny it, it's obvious from a clear reading of passages such as Galatians 3:10-12 and Romans 10:5 (cf. Deuteronomy 27:26 and Leviticus 18:5) that at Mt. Sinai, God was indeed requiring perfect obedience of Israel. Faith and perfect obedience are two mutually exclusive systems. So, how do you reconcile the tension? How can you defend the fact that Sinai was indeed part of the Covenant of Grace (requiring faith), if it's clear that God required perfect obedience under Moses? Most people don't know it, but the Puritans wrote extensively about this issue in particular. One of them was Anthony Burgess, who spoke of this issue at some length in his Vindiciae Legis (The Vindication of the Law), 1647.

The most relevant and substantive section in Burgess' work, Vindiciae Legis, is found in Lecture 24, and in particular on pages 231-237. Burgess begins this lecture by proving that the Ten Commandments were indeed given as a covenant (pp229-231). Having done this, Burgess goes on to set forth a taxonomy of the major different views among the learned as to how to understand the Mosaic Covenant. This is probably the most quoted passage from Burgess' work, as it lays out such a clear and concise synopsis of the major views of his time. In his words: “Having proved it is a Covenant, all the difficulty remains in declaring what Covenant it is; for here is much difference of judgements, even with the learned and orthodox; and this does arise from the different places of the Scripture, which, although they be not contrary one to another, yet the weakness of our understandings is many times overmastered by some places. Some (as you have heard) make it [IE, the covenant at Sinai] a Covenant of Works, others a mixed Covenant, some a subservient Covenant, but I am persuaded to go with those who hold it to be a Covenant of Grace; and indeed, it is very easy to bring strong arguments for the affirmative, but then there will be some difficulty to answer such places as are brought for the negative; and if the affirmative prove true, the dignity and excellency of the Law will appear the more.” (pp231-232).

So, Burgess makes it clear that his position is that the Mosaic Covenant was an administration of the Covenant of Grace. But what Burgess goes on to say after this is by far what is most significant. Having affirmed that Sinai was part of the Covenant of Grace, Burgess proceeds to set forth—not this time a taxonomy of the different views of Sinai among the learned—but rather a taxonomy of the different positions among those who take Sinai to be part of the Covenant of Grace. In particular, Burgess begins to address the question of the tension in the Mosaic Covenant: how is it explained by proponents of the Majority View, that the Mosaic Covenant was indeed part of the Covenant of Grace, when throughout the Law we seem to be confronted with the fact that perfect, personal obedience is set forth as the necessary condition of eternal life? He later sets forth the tension in this way: “although the Law, given by God to the Israelites, was a Covenant of Grace, yet in some sense the Law and Gospel do oppose and thwart one another.” (p240). And to explain how this may be resolved, Burgess gives some common explanations, along with his own thoughts on the matter. And so he begins: “Now, before I come to the arguments, which induce me hereunto, consider in what sense it may be explained, that it is a Covenant of Grace:

1) “Some explain it thus, that it was indeed a Covenant of Grace, but the Jews, by their corrupt understanding, made it a Covenant of Works, and so opposed it unto Christ and therefore, say they, the Apostle argues against the Law, as making it to oppose the promises and grace; not that it did so, but only in regard of the Jews' corrupt minds, who made an opposition where there was none. This has some truth in it, but it is not full.” Notice here that Burgess somewhat affirms this but is not wholly satisfied.

2) “Some make the Law to be a Covenant of Grace, but very obscurely, and therefore they hold the gospel and the Law to be the same, differing only as the acorn while it is in the husk, and the oak when it's branched out into a tall tree. Now if this should be understood in a popish sense, as if the righteousness of the Law and the gospel were all one, in which sense the Papists speak of the old Law and the new, it would be very dangerous and directly thwarting the Scripture.” Burgess doesn't like this.

3) “Some explain it thus: God (say they) had a primary or antecedent will in giving of the Law, or [and?] a secondary and consequent. His primary will was to hold out perfect and exact righteousness, against which the Apostle argues, and proves no man can be justified thereby; but then God knowing mans impotency and inability, did secondarily command repentance, and promise a gracious acceptance through Christ, and this may be very well received, if it be not vexed with ill interpretations.” So far, this is the view that Burgess most heartily affirms. But he continues to cite one more position:

4) “But lastly, this way I shall go: The Law (as to this purpose) may be considered more largely, as that whole doctrine delivered on Mount Sinai, with the preface and promises adjoined, and all things that may be reduced to it; or more strictly, as it is an abstracted rule of righteousness, holding forth life upon no terms, but perfect obedience. Now take it in the former sense, it was a Covenant of Grace; take it in the latter sense, as abstracted from Moses' administration of it, and so it was not of grace, but works. This distinction will overthrow all the objections against the negative.” This is Burgess' preferred explanation.

We should pause to note here that this was not the first time Burgess had spoken of the Law as both largely and strictly understood. In Lecture 15, Burgess had expressed himself this way: “the word 'Law' may be used in diverse senses; and, before this or that be asserted of it, you must clear in what sense you speak of the Law. . .for we may either take the word 'Law' for the whole dispensation and promulgation of the commandments: Moral, Judicial, and Ceremonial; or else more strictly, for that part which we call the Moral Law; yet with the preface and promises added to it; and in both these respects the Law was given as a Covenant of Grace (which is to be proved in due time); or else most strictly, for that which is mere mandative and preceptive, without any promise at all; and in this sense, most of those assertions which the learned have concerning the difference between the Law and the Gospel, are to be understood; for, if you take (as for the most part they do) all the precepts and threatenings scattered up and down in the Scripture, to be properly the Law; and then all the gracious promises, wheresoever they are, to be the gospel, then it's no marvel if the Law have many hard expressions cast upon it.” (p147).

Now coming back to Lecture 24, Burgess continues, “Nor may it be any wonder that the Apostle should consider the Law so differently, seeing there is nothing more ordinary with Paul in his Epistle, and that in these very controversies, then to do so; as for example, take this instance, Romans 10:5-6, where Paul describes the righteousness of the Law from those words, 'Do this and live,' which is said to have reference to Leviticus 18:5—but we find this in effect, [IE, of the same kind, namely] Deuteronomy 30:16—yet from this very chapter the Apostle describes the righteousness which is by faith. And Beza does acknowledge, that that which Moses speaks of the Law, Paul does apply to the gospel. Now how can this be reconciled, unless we distinguish between the general doctrine of Moses which was delivered unto the people in the circumstantial administrations of it, and the particular doctrine about the Law, taken in a limited and abstracted consideration? Only this take notice of, that although the Law were a Covenant of Grace, yet the righteousness of works and faith differ as much as heaven and earth.” (pp232-233).

Let's try to unpack this a bit. In this paragraph, Burgess is seeking to prove what he had just previously affirmed, which is the explanation that he believes to best reconcile the tensions stated earlier; namely, to understand the Law as both largely and strictly taken. He begins by stating that it is an exceedingly common thing for Paul to distinguish between the Law in this way; IE, as largely taken or strictly taken. To cite one example then of how Paul does this, Burgess refers to Romans 10:5-6. Now in verse 5, Paul speaks of the righteousness of the Law; whereas in verse 6, he speaks of the righteousness of faith. And in Romans 10:5, Paul refers to Leviticus 18:5 (“Do this and live”) and understands it as speaking of the righteousness of the Law. Burgess then affirms that this same language of “Do this and live” is found also in Deuteronomy 30:16. And yet, going back to Romans 10:6, Burgess points out how Paul, in this verse, appeals back to the very same chapter of the Law (Deuteronomy 30) to explain the righteousness of faith. Now how can it be, that according to Paul, Deuteronomy 30 on the whole describes the righteousness of faith, and yet Deuteronomy 30:16 (that uses the same language as Leviticus 18:5) describes the righteousness of the Law? At this point Burgess cites Beza, but not necessarily in an approving way. For in his second explanation above, Burgess vehemently disagrees with any teaching that equates the Law and gospel (as an acorn in the husk), calling it popish. And indeed, Beza seems to do just this, asserting that the same Scripture Moses speaks of the Law—Paul then applies to the gospel (cf. p97). This Burgess sees as ridiculous—but how else can one resolve this tension? By this same precious distinction. For though strictly taken, Leviticus 18:5 (and Deuteronomy 30:16) do describe the righteousness of the Law, yet largely taken, Deuteronomy 30, and indeed the whole of the Law, describe the righteousness of faith.

Burgess goes on to clarify one further issue: “But the papists, they make this difference: The righteousness of the Law (says Stapleton, in hunc locum) is that which we of our own power have and do by the knowledge and understanding of the Law; but the righteousness of faith, they make the righteousness of the Law, to which we are enabled by grace through Christ. But the righteousness of faith they [thus] make [into] the righteousness of the Law, to which we are enabled by grace through Christ; so that they compare not these two together, as two contraries (in which sense Paul does) but as an imperfect righteousness with a perfect. But we know that the Apostle excludes the works of David and Abraham, [and even those works] that they did in obedience to the Law, to which they were enabled by grace; so necessary is it in matter of justification and pardon to exclude all works, anything that is ours. . .Nor does it avail us, that this grace in us is from God, because the Apostle makes the opposition wholly between anything that is ours, howsoever we come by it, and that of faith in Christ.” (pp233-234).

To summarize so far: Burgess recognizes that there is a very real question that needs answering for those who take Sinai as being part of the Covenant of Grace; namely, how do you explain the fact that the Law seems to require nothing short of perfect obedience, cursing all who fall short and rewarding with eternal life those who might attain to this impossible standard? Burgess says that among those who take Sinai as being part of the Covenant of Grace, there are at least four sub-views as to the reason for the opposition between Law and Gospel in the New Testament. The first of these seems to be the position that John Ball often refers to (cf. pp120-121); namely, that Paul's opposition was not directed against the Law, but rather against the Jews who perverted the Law, making it into a self-willed Covenant of Works in order to earn righteousness thereby. The second seems to be a particular way of explaining exactly how it was that the Law revealed the gospel only obscurely. No one objected that the Law revealed Christ and the Covenant of Grace obscurely, but Burgess seems to be calling out a particular explanation for why this was the case, that seemed to lump Law and gospel together as the same kind of righteousness. Burgess calls this view dangerous, clarifying later why he uses such strong language when he says, “although the Law were a Covenant of Grace, yet the righteousness of works and faith differ as much as heaven and earth” (p233). The third explanation is that in the Mosaic Covenant, God promises eternal life on the grounds of two contrary and opposite conditions; the one being perfect obedience; the other being faith in Christ. It's of note that John Ball seems to refer to this same explanation in his work (cf. Ball, p96); where he describes how eternal life was set forth plainly on the condition of perfect obedience, while it was also set forth more obscurely on the condition of faith in Christ. It's also of note that while Ball ends up largely rejecting this view (at least he says he does, p101, though he seems to contradict himself later), Burgess embraces it. But Burgess finishes by fourthly advocating the common Puritan distinction of the Law being both largely taken on the one hand and strictly taken on the other. John Ball indeed also advocates this distinction and heartily embraces it. And Francis Roberts later defines this view perhaps most clearly as he expounds Romans 3:21-22, telling us that the righteousness that is based on faith is both “apart from the Law” (as strictly taken) but also no less “witnessed by the Law” (as largely taken). That is, the Law bears witness to Christ over and over again. But within the Law largely taken, there is also a more strict sense, the sense where the Law truly does demand exact obedience as the hypothetical condition for eternal life. Burgess tells us that this is ultimately the best way to reconcile the tension.

A few things are of note here. First, Burgess does not completely reject the first three explanations in favor of the fourth. He in fact agrees with some of them (to differing degrees), which tells us that one is not bound to hold to just one of these explanations. Secondly, Burgess does not indeed equally affirm each of these four explanations. Though he does tentatively agree with the first of them, we would be misrepresenting Burgess to say that this is how he ultimately resolves the tension (cf. Kevan, The Grace of Law, p132). Thirdly, and perhaps most significantly, though Burgess is an ardent advocate of the Majority view—that the Mosaic Covenant was indeed without question a manifestation of the Covenant of Grace—still, he ultimately defends most strongly the notion that the Law is to be both largely and strictly understood (see above); which means that Burgess sees no contradiction in saying that though the Mosaic Covenant belongs to the Covenant of Grace, yet the Law still demands perfect obedience. Burgess in fact uses the strongest language possible in speaking of wrongly equating the righteousness of faith and works.

Burgess proceeds on pages 234-237 to lay out a case for taking the Mosaic Covenant as belonging to the Covenant of Grace. He argues that this is proven by these truths: 1) the privileges at Sinai were the same as the Covenant of Grace; 2) the presence of God's mercy and forgiveness at Sinai is the same as the Covenant of Grace; 3) the duties imposed at Sinai were gospel duties as in the Covenant of Grace; 4) the ceremonial law points to the Covenant of Grace; 5) the ratification of the covenant with blood points to the Covenant of Grace; and finally that, 6) the essence or substance of the covenant at Sinai is manifestly the same as that of the Abrahamic Covenant, which was a manifestation of the Covenant of Grace.

Burgess lastly gets back to the tension at hand and adds a few final considerations. He numbers these final thoughts from first, second, etc; but because they seem to be further answers to the same original question, we continue the numbering from earlier. He says, “Now to all this, there are strong objections made from those places of Scripture, where the Law and faith, or the promise, are so directly opposed, as Romans 10, before quoted, so Galatians 3:18; Romans 4:14; so likewise from those places, where the Law is said to be the ministry of death, and to work wrath. Now to these places, I answer these things:

5) “First, that if they should be rigidly, and universally true, then that doctrine of the Socinians would plainly prevail, who from these places of Scripture do urge, that there was no grace, or faith, nor nothing of Christ, vouchsafed unto the Jews; whereas they read they had the adoption, though the state was a state of bondage.” In other words, though Law and gospel are indeed separate, they are not wholly opposed.

6) “In the second place consider that as it is said of the Law, it works death, so the gospel is said to be the savor of death, and men are said to have no sin, if Christ had not come; yea they are said to partake of more grievous judgements, who despised Christ, than those that despised the Law of Moses; so that this effect of the Law was merely accidental through our corruption; only here is the difference, God does not vouchsafe any such grace, as whereby we can have justification in a strict legal way; but he does whereby we may obtain it in an evangelical way.” Burgess here says something significant that may be somewhat original. Though others (such as Roberts) assert that the Jews turned the gospel into a ministry of death through perverting it's teaching; Burgess says something a bit differently here; namely: Paul is not saying that they turned the gospel into a ministry of death to others—but that the gospel functioned as a ministry of death to themselves; not through the perversion of their teaching, but because of their own unbelief.

7) “Thirdly, consider that the Apostle speaks these derogatory passages (as they may seem to be) as well of the Ceremonial Law; yet all do acknowledge here was Christ and grace held forth.” Burgess goes on,

8) “Fourthly, much of these places is true in a respective sense, according to the interpretation of the Jew, who taking these without Christ, make it a killing letter, even as if we should the doctrine of the gospel, without the grace of Christ. And certainly, if any Jew had stood up and said to Moses, 'Why do you say you give us the doctrine of life [?]; it's nothing but a killing letter, and the ministry of death'—would he not have been judged a blasphemer against the Law of Moses? The Apostle therefore must understand it as separated, yea and opposed to Christ and his grace.” See again Burgess' first explanation for more here.

9) “And lastly, we are still to retain that distinction of the Law in a more large sense, as delivered by Moses; and a more strict sense, as it consist in precepts, threatenings and promises upon a condition impossible to us, which is the fulfilling of the Law in a perfect manner.” (p237). This is his conclusion.

And this point Burgess continues to emphasize once again just a few pages later: “still remember to carry along with you the different use of the word [Law] as to this point; for if you take Law strictly, and yet make it a Covenant of Grace, you confound the righteousness of works, and of faith together, as the Papists do; but if largely, then there may be a happy reconciliation.” (p240).

This then, is a summary of Anthony Burgess' view. He gives us several things to think about as it relates to the tension at hand. With some of them he disagrees (such as the second explanation); with most of them he agrees; but he sets forth one of them in particular as the primary explanation for understanding how to reconcile Paul's statements in the New Testament that seem to put the Law and the gospel at odds with one another: We must learn that Scripture speaks of the Law both as largely and strictly understood.


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