January 5, 2002

Zwingli on Covenant and Election

Category: Theology :: Permalink

Wouldn’t you know it? Just when I’ve finished preparing my lecture on covenant and election, I’ve found some more information. This is what Zwingli wrote about covenant children:

For when he includes us under Abraham’s covenant this word makes us no less certain of their election than of the old Hebrews’. For the statement that they are in the covenant, testament and people of God assures us of their election until the Lord announces something different of some one. 

Elsewhere, Zwingli adds: “Indeed it is my opinion that all infants who are under the testament are doubtless of the elect by the laws of the testament.” Notice what Zwingli is saying. He’s not saying that every child in the covenant is going to persevere to the end. He goes on to talk about Esau, who apostatized. Nor is Zwingli saying that we are merely to presume that the child is elect. He’s talking about “the laws of the testament,” by which he means God’s way of speaking about our children in His covenant.

Peter Lillback, who cites Zwingli’s comments in his The Binding of God: Calvin’s Role in the Development of Covenant Theology, sums up Zwingli’s view this way:

Instead of the pious agnosticism of the divine decree advanced by Cellarius, Zwingli asserted the concept of the revealed law of God and its promise that enabled one to consider his children who had been baptized into the covenant as elect, until they proved otherwise…. Zwingli believed that infant baptism was a sign of the covenant which brought a promise of salvation to the children. The very covenant sign for Zwingli was critical because it was an attestation of the decree of election for the parents and their child. One might later prove that he was not truly one of Christ’s by not manifesting the faith that was the fruit of election. But to assume that of any infant, or even to remain in an uncertain state as taught by Cellarius, was to deny the law of God which undergirded the covenant sign (p. 108). 

One of these days, I’m going to have read Lillback’s book. It seems to me that Zwingli picked up on something which later got warped (e.g., into presumption) or lost. Later writers, in line with Zwingli’s contemporary Cellarius, don’t seem to emphasize God’s promise — God’s authoritative, covenantal pledge — in connection with election. Instead, they speak of being “internally” or “externally” in the covenant, as if the covenant is really with the elect alone, and the rest are only in the sphere of the covenant. And then people started thinking that we need to “presume” a child is elect and therefore in the covenant (e.g., Abraham Kuyper) or they worried about whether they were really elect. Where do you look for assurance when you can’t look to God’s objective promise?

Posted by John Barach @ 12:25 pm | Discuss (0)

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