Alumni Interview: Brian Lee Part 3
5. Can you briefly summarize the overall subject of your doctoral thesis?
Probably not. The key word is “briefly,” and after ten years of practice, I’m still struggling with that… because I still find the story so interesting. So let me turn your question into a two-part exercise, first describing how I found the subject, and then summarizing it.
As I began reading Cocceius, the final ingredient in choosing my topic was provided by my doctoral advisor at Calvin, Richard Muller. This was a method of study, namely exegetical history, the tracing of theological development through sermons and commentaries. Muller has made a compelling argument that in the previous study of the Reformation biblical exegesis has been overlooked as a source of theological development.
The handful of studies on Cocceius had focused mostly on his most noteworthy work, his Summa doctrinae de foedere et testamento Dei, or “Sum of the doctrine of the covenant and testament of God.” These studies described Cocceius’s mature covenant theology and some of its unique features, but they didn’t really get at where it came from, or how it related to his predecessors, which was what I was curious about. Cocceius is writing a good hundred years after the first generation Reformers, and it was difficult to see on the surface how we got there from here.
I started to find a few answers to this question in Cocceius’s commentary on the book of Hebrews. When Cocceius came to the question of the abrogation of the Mosaic covenant by the new covenant in chapter 8, he stopped and told his readers that it was crucial to understand the history of the covenants, and which particular covenant had been abrogated. Then he proceeded to briefly recount the history of the covenants in the Old Testament in an extended excursus.
Well, that was the first layer of the onion. To understand what Cocceius was doing in his Hebrews commentary, I started looking at other commentaries. Fortunately, at this point in my research I had received a Fulbright fellowship to pursue my studies in Utrecht, the Netherlands. So I was sitting in a rare book room that afforded me the immense luxury of ordering up virtually every commentary written on the Epistle to the Hebrews written between 1500 – 1700, and a handful of earlier examples. (Like a character in a movie testing new-found magical powers, I ordered up Erasmus’ Greek New Testament of 1516, and an hour later the librarian set it on my desk. Heaven!) As I’m sure you have experienced, the despair of the scale of the project slowly gave way to recognition of some key patterns, and a clear, discernable picture arose from the materials.
5b. So, now can you summarize your subject?
In the Hebrews commentaries of the sixteenth and seventeenth century I discovered a debate about words, namely the key biblical words for covenant (Hebrew berith and Greek diatheke, and the latin terms used to translate them, pactum, foedus, and testamentum). This was a direct result of the humanist and Reformation return to the original biblical languages. In the case of covenant, this turn raised a real problem — the Old and New testament terms for covenant didn’t seem to agree. In short, a berith was a legal arrangement between two living parties, but a diatheke was a contract that came in force between a deceased individual and their heirs, one was mutual, the other was one-sided.
This debate about words was in fact a debate about things, and it was central to the very first stand-alone work written on covenant, Bullinger’s De testamento seu foedere Dei unico et aeterno. Turning to the original languages had caused a problem, and the Reformers sought to answer it. Bullinger’s title itself summarizes his argument, in short, testament (diatheke) and covenant (berith) are two interchangable words for a single, unified, eternal relation between God and man. This established the baseline for Reformed covenant thought — it was still being referenced over a hundred years later, when Bullinger’s book was used as an argument against Cocceius’s more dynamic covenant thought. Unfortunately (or fortunately), the “solution” to the “problem” of the apparent conflict between berith and diatheke was deeply flawed in its execution, if fundamentally sound in its conclusion. It was logically, linguistically, and theologically flawed, and these flaws provided the terms of sixteenth century debate, while also sowing a great deal of confusion for generations.
And I discovered that Hebrews is a flashpoint for this debate, because it is a key New Testament text on covenant, containing almost half of the New Testament uses of the word diatheke. Crucially, Heb. 9:16 uses diatheke explicitly in the sense of a “last will and testament,” which most Reformers thought was in sense contradictory with the Old Testament covenant idea. And the debate begins in the pages of Hebrews commentaries, and gradually migrates to more systematic works as its own chapter, “de foedere.”
Bottom line, in forcing his conclusion of unity Bullinger ran roughshod over the true diversity and progress in the biblical picture of the covenants, and his results proved to not satisfying later thinkers. Reformed covenant thought is an attempt to account more faithfully for this diversity, while still being true to God’s unifying saving purposes revealed in Scripture. Cocceius should be viewed as one endpoint of this development, a sort high-water mark of an increasingly precise and detailed system accounting for diversity and unity via a series of careful distinctions and technical terminology, using all the tools of scholastic theology.
To take but one example, while Bullinger frequently (even intentionally!) confused the latin terms for covenant, Cocceius uses each one in an precise manner, reflecting varying degrees of mutuality and merit. So the three classic covenants in the Reformed schema are for Cocceius entitled the pactum salutis, foedus operum, and novum testamentum — with pactum, foedus, and testamentum conveying the first full merit of Christ’s saving work, then the true mutuality and conditionality of the covenant of creation, and finally the graciousness and one-sidedness of the new testament established at the death of Christ for the benefit of the saints. And that barely scratches the surface.