Backdrop for a Glorious Gospel: The Covenant of Works According to William Strong
Backdrop for a Glorious Gospel: The Covenant of Works According to William Strong. By Thomas Parr. Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage, 2020. 248 pp. $25.00, Paperback. ISBN 978-1601787712.
Book Review by Scott Lucky
Published by Midwestern Theological Review 21.1 [Spring 2022]
Most Christians today do not recognize Williams Strong’s name, but that has not always been true. William Strong (1611-1654) was an influential member of the Westminster Assembly and a reputable theologian and preacher. Thomas Manton called him a burning and shining light. He lived during the era of Oliver Cromwell and served as one of Cromwell’s Triers, which was “a committee of men who examined pastoral candidates for church ministry throughout England” (16). Unfortunately, his life’s work “is buried in obscurity, just like his body, which was exhumed from Westminster Abbey and cast into a mass grave in 1661” (1). Thomas Parr (Th.M., Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary) engages in a work of recovery to shed light on the covenant theology of William Strong. In Backdrop for a Glorious Gospel, Parr helps pastors and scholars consider the covenant of works—an important, though sometimes debated, aspect of covenant theology – and shows how Strong might assist pastors and the church.
William Strong’s magnum opus, A Discourse of the Two Covenants, began as sermon notes aimed at helping the people he pastored and was published posthumously in 1678. Like many treatises of this era, Strong’s book is as challenging to read as it is profound. Parr examines what Strong says about the covenant of works. Parr says, “Given the massive size and complexity of Strong’s tome, this book is limited to examining Of the Covenant of Works, which is the first ‘book’ out of the three in it” (xiii).
Since the book is so cumbersome for most modern readers to wade through, Parr must re-present Strong’s views of covenant theology in context. Parr traces Strong’s argument and quotes from him often to give readers a sense of what Strong believed about the covenant of works and original outline with headings and subheadings to serve as a corrective road map that eases navigation through Strong’s book that is “filled with organizational blunders and typographical errors” (xi). Parr also compares Strong’s ideas with recognizable Puritan covenant theologians like John Ball, Francis Roberts, Ezekiel Hopkins, Samuel Bolton, and John Flavel and sources like the Westminster Standards. This comparison allows readers to gain the historical and theological context of Strong’s views on covenant theology.
SUMMARY OF THE BOOK
After a biographical prologue, the eight chapters of Parr’s book correspond to the eight chapters of Strong’s book, outlining his insights into the covenant of works. Chapter 1 describes the reality of the covenant of works and the consequences for breaking this covenant. Strong defines covenant as “an arrangement between two parties that involves stipulations and that rewards conformity,” and the covenant of works as “that which teaches us Justification and life by doing” (23).
Chapters 2-4 focus on the psychological ramifications of being in the broken covenant of works (41). Tragically, those in Adam prefer the covenant of works to the covenant of grace, having a relentless desire to establish their own righteousness. The law irritates and aggravates sin in the lives of those in the covenant of works. People who do not have a heart that conforms to the law are doomed to fail since the stipulations for the covenant of works are perfect and perpetual obedience.
Chapters 5-8 highlight the necessity of being transferred out of the covenant of works and into the covenant of grace. These covenants are mutually exclusive, and transference occurs only through union with Jesus Christ by the Spirit and by faith. Since Jesus has satisfied the law for all united to Him by faith believers are free from the law’s condemnation. Furthermore, God made the covenant of works to serve the covenant of grace, and readers will find Strong’s discussion about the relationship of the Mosaic Law to the covenant of works nuanced.
WHY PASTORS NEED THIS BOOK
Not everyone will appreciate Strong’s reformed covenant theology. A variety of notable theologians – including Karl Barth, John Murray, J.B. Torrance, and N.T. Wright—have been critical of the doctrine of the covenant of works. Those with differing theological views on the spectrum between covenant and dispensational theologies might take issue with Strong’s covenant theology or his nuanced articulation of the covenant of works. While some Credobaptists may appreciate Strong’s views on congregational church polity, others may wonder about the usefulness of a Paedobaptist’s theological views on this subject.
Objections notwithstanding, Parr’s book is recommended for four reasons. First, Parr accomplishes his goal of recovering the covenant theology of William Strong. Parr plumbs the depths of Strong’s magnum opus and explains his view of the covenant of works in a way that modern readers can understand. Readers will find their interest kindled by Parr’s helpful introduction to the covenant theology of this influential Westminster Divine. After studying this book, preachers might search for a copy of Strong’s XXXI Selected Sermons Preached on Several Occasions (1956) to see how Strong applied his theology in his preaching to Parliament and his parishioners. Second, Parr is commended for his diligent research. A variety of Lengthy quotations, hundreds of footnotes, and a comprehensive bibliography provide ample further reading on this important topic without sacrificing clarity in writing.
Third, Parr helps the reader understand the context of Strong’s views by putting him in conversation with other Puritans. Comparing and contrasting Strong’s view 3with other notable theologians of the era helps readers discern the uniqueness of Strong’s contribution. Parr demonstrates that Strong has a very Christocentric emphasis when he deals with the covenant of works that could help pastors preach Christ to their congregations. This book may be combined with Adam and the Covenant of Works by J. V. Fesko (2021) to help pastors reach convictions about the nuances of God’s covenantal dealing with His people.
Fourth, Parr’s book, especially his conclusion, reveals that his scholarly research is geared toward the church. This book was a reformulation of his Th.M. thesis and is more academic than most books on pastoral theology. Still, theology is practical for Parr and Strong, and readers will find several wise sayings and pastoral insights. A brief illustration – some pastors and theologians who delight in theology face a problem. They do not speak in a way that the people in the pew can understand. Parr offers a corrective: “A modern theologian should strive to meet the people where they are a intellectually in order to raise them up to another level” (209). Furthermore, Parr points out Strong’s evangelistic and experiential contrasts between the two covenants throughout the book. These repeated contrasts can help preachers and theologians recover an urgency to see people converted and edified.
The way to eternal life for sinners is not found through the covenant of works but by the covenant of grace. The darker the backdrop of the covenant of works appears, the more beautiful and bright the covenant of grace and gospel shines. Pastors and theologians would do well to let Thomas Parr serve as their tour guide through a vital aspect of the covenant theology of William Strong.