Vos on the Covenant of Works and Sinai

In the midst of current debates over the precise relationship between the pre-lapsarian Covenant of Works and the Mosaic Covenant, it would do us good to remember that many of the Reformed theologians of the 17th, 18th, and 19th Centuries understood that the Law given at Sinai, with its promise of blessing and cursing in accord with its subsequent demand for perfect obedience, was  the reflection of the Covenant of Works. Because of developments in Covenant theology in the 20th Century in the writings of  Meredith Kline and John Murray, many have neglected to see the categorical relationship between the two. Geerhardus Vos, who some appeal to as rejecting such a relationship, made the following observation:

We can also explain why the older theologians did not always clearly distinguish between the covenant of works and the Sinaitic covenant.  At Sinai it was not the ‘bare’ law that was given, but a reflection of the covenant of works revived, as it were, in the interests of the covenant of grace continued at Sinai.1

1. Geerhardus Vos, Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1980), 255.

4 Responses

  1. I guess I have a hard time seeing what all the fuss is about. This is because most people are very confused about the basic terms “old covenant” vs “new covenant”. Rob Rayburn’s Ph.D thesis is crucial for this. He show clearly how Jeremiah, Hebrews, 2 Corinthians and Galatians can’t be talking about the Mosaic covenant, but instead the Covenant of Works. Even Calvin wanted to say the movement from Moses to Christ was one of good to better, but Paul won’t allow that. If “the letter” was the Mosaic Covenant, then it brought nothing but death (2 Cor 3:6). Instead, we have to understand many places in the NT where NOMOS is used to mean “legalism” or “the way the legalists use ‘The Law'”. I highly commend the dissertation to your reading (U of Aberdeen).

  2. Robert,

    Thanks for the comment. I think that the issues you have raised are applicable to some extent, but the substance of Vos’ quote centers on the precise relationship between the prelapsarian covenant and the Law in the Mosaic Covenant–not between the Old and the New Covenant. I will say, however, that the Old Covenant (as mentioned in Hebrews and Galatians), is not the Abrahamic Covenant, but the Mosaic. There is clearly a Law-Gospel distinction outlined in Galatians 3 and 4. I have never heard a man who rejects any form of republication adequately explain how Paul contrasts “Two Covenants” in Galatians 4. He does not simply contrast a misperseption of the Law, though that is clearly in view in Galatians. He is contrasting Two Covenants (i.e. Abrahamic/New and Mosaic).

  3. I think it is interesting to think of the Mosaic Law as a revival of the Covenant of Works – a term which, in my opinion, is called into dispute. I see in all of the Covenants (no matter what name is assigned to them) both “works” and “grace” and in all of them – particularly from the fall to Christ – I see in God’s plan a progressive move towards Paradise Lost, which is why Revelation 21-22 is so reminiscent of Genesis 1-2.

    Good thoughts in this post.

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