13 December 2013

The Covenantal Contours of Limborch's Compleat System

The efforts of self-identified Arminian (or Wesleyan) theologians in recent decades who debate over the heart of “Arminianism” have mostly aimed to undermine the mischaracterizations prevalent among those with whom they disagree on important soteriological issues but who nevertheless share with them in the communion of saints (read: Young, Restless & Reformed).1 The church at large ought to be grateful for this work to that end, for it has ably shown that Arminius is rightly to be distinguished (but perhaps not separated) from, say, Philip van Limborch (1633–1712), the subject of this brief descriptive summary. While no discernible difference exists, for example, in the way Limborch lays out the order of God’s eternal decrees as compared to Arminius,2 there are a few when it comes to other matters related to the accomplishment and application of God’s redemption in time. Any comparisons on this score, however, are beyond the scope of this post.3

In what follows, I will quickly cover the historical-covenantal contours of Limborch’s theology as they appear in the Compleat System, Book 3, starting with his discussion of the relationship between Adam and his Creator in the garden, then moving on to the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants, and ending with the new covenant of Christ Jesus. It is worth mentioning at the outset that as a Dutch theologian, Limborch, by the time of his appointment in 1668 as professor of theology at the Remonstrant seminary in Amsterdam, had inherited a robust, if not one-sided, federal-covenantal theological tradition (whether scholastic or narratival), one in which he could find many examples that were to his mind worth challenging (e.g., Gomarus, Trelcatius, Cloppenburg, or Cocceius).

Before the specific chapters that deal with the history of redemption, Limborch remarks in passing during his discussion on providence that God’s first act of governance is “legislation, or making a law, whereby God prescribes bounds to the will of man” (157), without which humans would will unrestrained to their detriment. There is a history to this legislation, as Limborch notes (158):
This law was prescribed to man at the very creation: And tho afterwards the more especial revelations of the divine will were made to Abraham and his posterity, and a particular law enacted upon promises and threatnings was given to the Jews by the hands of Moses; yet still the rest of mankind had the law of nature written in their hearts, to inform them of the difference between good and evil. But the most perfect law which God prescribed to mankind, was that which he made by his Son Jesus Christ.
Here we see a glimpse of Limborch’s entire system as it relates to the unfurling covenantal narrative of Scripture: humanity was (and is) endowed with a law of nature, and then along came the more revealing covenants of Abraham and Moses, all of which culminate in “the most perfect law” of the new covenant.4 For Limborch, there is no entertaining the idea that a covenant can be unilateral or unconditional; it is, by definition, a pact—what God promises to another party if she carries out the conditions of that covenant (bilateral and contractual). With respect to prelapsarian man, God did not make a covenant in any federal sense with Adam (e.g., 187, 197–98). Rather, he was endowed with natural law, an innate knowledge of his creator’s will, and on that basis was given one positive command, with only a threat attached to it (and thus no covenant).

As a result of Adam’s fall, humanity lost this actual knowledge of the divine will, being born with a tabula rasa (144); nevertheless, God still left them the “light of right reason, whereby to discern betwixt good and evil” (210). Even those who exist outside of God’s later covenants are still potentially included in the prospect of eternal life because of this residual law of nature (219).5

Upon the arrival of Abraham on the scene, we begin to see God engaging humanity in terms of covenant, clearer than natural law in its precepts, promises, and curses. The Mosaic covenant (though temporary and for Israel alone) was simply a greater and sharper revelation than the Abrahamic. Both were conditional, and both promised blessing and threatened condemnation (temporal and spiritual) based squarely on obedience or disobedience. As with natural law, so too were those living under the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants, for the sake of Christ (whose future sacrifice permits a less demanding application of the law to humanity), justified on the condition of sincere obedience to the precepts under (not by) which they lived (214–15, 229–30). But in the end, natural religion and the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants show themselves to be ineffectual in restoring humanity and delivering them from sin and death (e.g., 230–31). Only the new covenant mediated by Jesus Christ accomplishes this.

In short, Limborch argues that the gospel of the new covenant in Christ Jesus is a new law—but of faith not works (298–99). Like the previous covenants, the new covenant also promises salvation depending on one’s meeting the covenantal stipulations; but now, however, the demands are easier to meet because of the appeasement of the Son (via perfect obedience) to his Father (195). God has decided in his mercy and because of the Messiah’s work to accept imperfect faithful obedience for righteousness rather than perfect law-keeping. To be sure, such faithful obedience finds acceptance through grace, but the legal principle remains, albeit less strict and applied with less rigor (270–71; see also 5.74.7). The new covenant, in other words, is little more than a relaxed old covenant, a little less law and a lot more grace.

1 There’s a similar battle among the Reformed, couched in terms of “Calvin vs. the Calvinists,” that has raged for a few centuries. With the publication of R.T. Kendall’s Calvin and English Calvinism to 1649 (OUP, 1979) and Paul Helm’s response, Calvin & the Calvinists (Banner of Truth Trust, 1982), the debate received renewed popular attention, and has shown little signs of going away (even if with finality debunked through the ongoing work of Richard Muller, the sentiment is nevertheless sticking around).

2 See Compleat System 4.1, pp. 343–44. Earlier in the treatise, Limborch takes umbrage with the ordo decretorum as delineated by theologians who most raise his ire—all forms of unconditional election that tell us “God by one, single act of his will has at once decreed all things, and that there is no prius or posterius in the divine decrees.” But they are also those who posit—in response to Limborch’s doctrine of conditional predestination—that God has necessarily decreed salvation “prior to his foreseeing their faith and obedience” (118). Instead of belaboring the problems he sees with such thinking at this point, he decides to move on from this “nice subject” (119). Note that nice in its seventeenth-century context could have meant “foolish, stupid, or senseless” just as much as “precise, careful, or agreeable.”

All quotations are taken from Philip Limborch, A Compleat System, or, Body of Divinity, both Speculative and Practical, founded on Scripture and Reason (London: William Jones, 1702). Subsequent citations will be noted in parentheses in the text.

3 A good place to start on some of those differences is with Roger Olson, Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities (IVP Academic, 2006). A more exhaustive (but perhaps overstated) treatment can be found in John Mark Hicks, “The Theology of Grace in the Thought of Jacobus Arminius and Philip van Limborch: A Study in the Development of Seventeenth Century Dutch Arminianism,” PhD diss., Westminster Theological Seminary, 1985.

4 This could be little more than what the pre-Reformation church had taught for some time with respect to the history of redemption: the triplex model of natural law, old law, new law. See Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologi┼ô I–II.91.2, 5. At the very least, it is in opposition to the “decretal” and bi-covenantal perspective of the federal theologians.

5 The imago Dei, however, remains intact, because for Limborch, that image only consists in the “power and dominion which God has given to man over all the works of his hands” (2.7.6, p. 142). Traditionally (at the time, at least), the image of God was defined in terms of faculties and nature of the soul (reason, emotions, etc).

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