Ranging three centuries, McCoy and Bakers attempt to trace the development of federalism from 16th-century Reformers until the start of political federalism with promulgation of the United States Constitution. They try to retrieve the role that has had federalism in modern society (political/philosophical federalism) and in theology (covenant theology), pointing it out Heinrich Bullinger as the first one to start this tradition. Grosso modo, federalism highlights the importance of covenants in the relation between God and humankind, even it can be applied to the relation between humans or social groups, for instance. In this regard, if McCoy and Baker are right, the implications of their historical study would be noteworthy not only for theology but for sociology and political sciences as well. To support their claim, they study Bullinger’s most known works such as pastoral treatise titled the Decades looking for clues and passages that might confirm their controversial thesis. McCoy and Baker’s thesis can be summarized as following: Bullinger was not only the first one to use the covenant theme in his writings, but also such a theme is a leading and organizing principle in his theological thought. In other words, Bullinger should be consider the first covenant/federal theologian or father of covenant/federal theology.
McCoy and Baker start noting the role of Bullinger’s notion of a bilateral covenant in sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation. For them, Bullinger’s role is one of three ways Protestant faith highlighted the belief of salvation by faith besides Luther’s contrast of the law vs gospel and Calvin’s development of the doctrine of predestination. Because McCoy and Baker argue that Bullinger disagreed with both, Luther’s interpretation of the law vs. gospel and Calvin’s twofold understanding of predestination, they affirm that such disagreement gave birth to two kinds of traditions: Calvinism which would highlight the doctrine of predestination and Federalism which would emphasize the importance of the covenants in historical salvation. In theory, these two traditions compete against each other where Calvinism represents the Genevan theological school of thought where Calvin was a major theological influence, while Federalism represents the Zurich school where theologians followed Zwingli and Bullinger’s theology.
After Bullinger’s death, McCoy and Baker claim, the federalist tradition continued developing and added new areas of interest such as the existence of two covenants (covenant of works and covenant of grace). The covenant of works would apply to Adam and Eve and the covenant of grace would be applied to those who believe or have faith. Similarly, the Calvinist tradition continues developing themes, although separating from Calvin’s theology in some sense. During the rest of the 16th century and 17th century, both traditions developed even further. Because some of 17th-century federalist theologians advanced the idea that the covenant of grace might be unconditional, McCoy and Baker claim certain theologians fixed the mistake returning to Bullinger’s conditional view of the covenant of grace. They interpret this situation as a proof that indeed Bullinger was the one who started the covenant tradition, at least implicitly. In a similar note, they argue, Bullinger was also the source of political federalism, at least roughly, since he dedicated a section in his treatise to judicial law and made the connection with the idea of covenant. Although they admit that later political federalism does not follow Bullinger in its totality, at least the basics can be found in his thought, McCoy and Baker affirm.
If we interpret McCoy and Baker’s first claim as meaning that Bullinger was the first theologian in writing a full treatise about the covenant, their claim is true. The problem arrives with the second claim that such a theme or motif organizes Bullinger’s theological thought. (Cf. Lyle Bierma). With a deeper study of Bullinger’s the Decades, it does not seem that the covenant motif is an organizing principle at all since only in some sections such as baptism, the theme of covenant is discussed. Richard Mueller also made an important criticism of McCoy and Baker’s thesis and their interpretation of the covenant development in Reformation.
Mueller believes that McCoy and Baker commits a serious sin in their study of federalism: they have embraced the old school misunderstanding of creating an artificial tension between John Calvin versus his followers and the next generation of Calvinist theologians. For Muller, claiming that Bullinger developed his theology around a covenant motif misreads him and such a claim should be considered an overstatement. While Mueller agrees that Bullinger in his works, such as the Decades and De testamento, discusses the notion of a covenant, his covenant discussion is not enough to argue for a leading or organizing theme in those works. Even, the mere inclusion of the testamento to Bullinger’s commentaries can’t be considered a solid proof either. To support his criticism, Mueller offers a solid argument: the radical tension between predestinarian Calvinism vs. federalist Calvinism is inadequate and artificial. Muller claims that this tension was a misunderstanding made by the old theological school. First, there were several Reformers such as Olevianus and Ursinus who write extensively about predestination and also dedicated significant space to the theme of the covenant. Second, even McCoy and Baker’s study of Coecceius might support certain tension in some sense, it is never as McCoy and Baker presents it. This is so because Cocceius’s theology shows significant continuity with earlier Reformed theology, as Mueller observes.