The Westminster Standards teach that the post-fall covenants in Scripture are gracious. Although the covenants are distinct and different in some respects, they are the same in substance. This is why the Standards speak of one covenant of grace “under various dispensations” and that one covenant “was differently administered in the time of the law, and in the time of the gospel.” Westminster Larger Catechism 101 says that the preface to the ten commandments teaches us that God “is a God in covenant, as with Israel of old, so with all his people.”
There are, however, a number of texts that would seem to contradict this confessional teaching. One such text is 2 Corinthians 3, where Paul refers to the old covenant as a ministry of condemnation and death. Meredith Kline, for example, has argued that it was only because Paul believed that the “old (Mosaic) covenant order” was “governed by a principle of works” that he could say that it was “an administration of bondage, condemnation, and death in contrast to the new covenant, which he characterized as one of freedom, righteousness, and life.”
A proper defense of the covenant theology of the Westminster Standards, therefore, cannot ignore or dismiss 2 Corinthians 3. Anthony Burgess, a leading member of the Westminster Assembly, understood this and addressed the passage in his book Vindiciae Legis, or, A vindication of the morall law and the covenants.
Burgess draws our attention to a number of points that we have to consider in order to properly interpret Paul’s negative statements on the old covenant in 2 Corinthians 3. One point is that if the Mosaic covenant was “rigidly” and universally a ministry of death, then the Socinian interpretation would be correct. The Socinians argued that “there was no grace, or faith, nor nothing of Christ, vouchsafed unto the Jewes.” But this is clearly wrong in part because “we reade that [the Jewes] had the Adoption.”
A second point to consider is the ceremonial law. When Paul spoke negatively of the old covenant, he spoke against circumcision, the Passover, and the sacrifices. In other words, Paul spoke against the sacraments of the Old Testament. But, as Burgess says, “all must confess, that circumcision and the sacrifices did not oppose Christ, or grace, but rather included them.” Indeed, “we constantly maintain against the Papists, that our Sacraments and theirs differ not for substance” and that the sacraments of the Old Testament “were spiritual means of faith, as truly as baptism and the Lord’s supper are (see also WCF 27:5).” Consequently, the old covenant administered the gospel of salvation “by promises, prophecies, sacrifices, circumcision, the paschal lamb, and other types and ordinances delivered to the people of the Jews (WCF 7.5),” and therefore, it was a ministry of life.
A third point for consideration is the connection death has with the gospel. The law is said to work death, but the gospel is also said to be the savor of death. Theodore Beza, Calvin’s successor at Geneva, observed that the Gospel without the Spirit is also a ministration of death because we can’t believe by our own strength.
In light of these considerations, how then can Paul contrast the old covenant with the new covenant in terms of life and death? He is able to do that because he sets the new covenant over against old covenant, not as it was given by God, but as it was misinterpreted by the Jews. God did not give the law to Israel “for their destruction because it’s said to work wrath, and to be the instrument of death.” The old covenant bore witness to Christ and administered Christ to OT saints. The problem was that the Jews set the old covenant in opposition to Christ. They viewed the law “as sufficient to save them without Christ” and thus they based their salvation on their observance of it. But the “law separated from Christ, did nothing but accuse and condemne, not being able to help the soul at all.” The Jews, therefore, turned the old covenant into “a killing letter, even as if we should the doctrine of the Gospel without the grace of Christ.” After all,
“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 ministery of death, would he not have been judged a blasphemer against the Law of Moses? The Apostle therefore must understand it, as seperated, yea and opposed to Christ and his grace.”
According to Burgess, Paul is not saying that the Mosaic covenant is not gracious, or that it did not administer salvation to the saints in the Old Testament. Paul is saying that the Mosaic covenant, as misinterpreted by his opponents, kills and is a ministry of condemnation. 2 Corinthians 3, therefore, does not contradict the Westminster Standards’ view that the Mosaic covenant is a gracious covenant.
D. Patrick Ramsey (@DPatrickRamsey) is pastor of Nashua Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Edinburg, Pennsylvania. He is a co-author (with Joel Beeke) of An Analysis of Herman Witsius's The Economy of the Covenants and author of A Portrait of Christ.