Controversy and Confusion over the Covenant: Is it not time to settle it? (2)

Previous article in this series: March 1, 2011, p 244.

The doctrine of God’s everlasting covenant of grace is central to the Reformed faith, which is to say, it is the heart of Reformed doctrine. It is an essential doctrine of salvation. All the doctrines of salvation by grace come together, are harmonized, in the doctrine of the covenant. It connects God’s decrees, the atoning work of Christ, the sovereign grace that saves, justification, sanctification, and preservation unto everlasting life. The covenant also brings a warmth and personal experience to the doctrines of sovereign grace.

That is not merely my opinion. Herman Bavinck is representative of Reformed theologians on the significance of the covenant. Bavinck wrote:

For dogmatics as well as for the practice of the Christian life, the doctrine of the covenant is of the greatest importance. The Reformed church and theology have grasped this fact more clearly than the Roman Catholic and Lutheran churches. Basing itself on Scripture, it consistently viewed the true religion of the Old Testament and the New Testament as a covenant between God and man….

For that reason it is particularly reprehensible that so much confusion exists in the Reformed church world on this central doctrine, and so little agreement. Adding to the opprobrium is the fact that heretics are taking occasion to introduce serious, gospel-denying heresy into Reformed churches—heresy based on unbiblical covenant theology.

How is it possible that confusion over a doctrine, a truth of the Bible, could exist in the church? Why cannot the Reformed believer simply open the Bible and settle the matter—define the doctrine of God’s covenant of grace, explain the necessary elements, and reject the erroneous views?

The answer, first, is that the Bible is not that kind of a book. The Bible is not an encyclopedia with an index so that one can simply look up a doctrine—be it creation, the atonement, or the covenant—and turn to the chapter or the section that defines and explains the doctrine. The truth of God must be drawn out of the infallible Word, then organized and defined through hard work and careful study. This does not happen overnight. The doctrines ordinarily go through a process of development. Hence it is possible to study the history of a doctrine, as it is drawn from the Bible, sharpened, refined, and finally accepted by the church as an established dogma.

Allow me to explain further that idea of a history of dogma.

God gave a complete revelation of Himself in Jesus Christ, in whom dwells “all the fullness of the Godhead bodily” (Col. 2:9). Jesus could say to the disciples, “he that hath seen me hath seen the Father” (John 14:9). God also raised up holy men (II Pet. 1:10, 21) infallibly to write down that revelation, and the result is the holy and inspired Scriptures.

In the old dispensation, the revelation of God was often very direct— God gave the words to the prophet, and the prophet wrote them down. Although there were false prophets in the old dispensation who opposed God’s perfect revelation, the test for a false prophet was clear. If the prophecies of a man did not come true, then he was a false prophet, and must be put to death (Deut. 5:8). And if anyone sought to turn Israel from serving the Lord to an idol, he must likewise be put to death (Deut. 13:9).

In the new dispensation, with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, the church entered a new phase. The church, i.e., all believers, possess the promised Spirit of Jesus, of whom Jesus prophesied that He would guide the church into all truth (John 16:13). That work of the Spirit of truth was manifest, first, in His inspiration of the New Testament writers, completing the canon of Scripture about A.D. 100 with the book of Revelation.

The second aspect of the Spirit’s guidance is ongoing. He enlightens the hearts and minds of believers, motivates them to study the Bible, and leads the church to set forth God’s truth in a clear and logical way. He guides them into all truth.

This activity of believers often takes place under the pressure of heretics and their damnable heresies. That is, as heresy would arise, the church would be forced to study the Bible, reject the error, and then set forth the truth in a deeper and clearer way.

This process of battling heresy, and setting forth the truth, is the history of dogma. This is the work God gives to His church, in harmony with the figure of the church as “pillar and ground of the truth” (I Tim. 3:15). Without going into the whole figure, suffice it to say that, as pillar and ground of the truth, the church is called to defend God’s truth over against the lie, to set forth His truth plainly, and then to proclaim that truth boldly in the preaching.

It follows, then, that there is a certain development of doctrine though the ages. All the doctrines were not established at once.

God is in control of the process of development. He is sovereign over heretics and heresies. God did not allow the new dispensational church to be flooded with every form of the lie, all at once. God determined when error would arise, and He determined which error. The study of the history of dogma reveals His wise determination and providential control. Early in the new dispensation, God raised up a Marcion, who rejected large parts of the accepted inspired Scriptures. In the same century arose Mantanus, claiming that he and his followers received new revelations from God. This forced the church to establish the canon of Scripture, and to insist that God’s revelation was complete. All that the church needed to know for faith and life was set forth in the Bible.

God next raised up an Arius, who denied the deity of Christ, and thus that God is triune. Years of struggle gave rise to the clear explanation of the doctrine of the Trinity in the Nicene Creed. Next, through a series of battles over various errors, the doctrine of Christ was developed—that He is very God and very man, one person, two natures, united indivisibly in that one person of the Son.

Next in God’s providence, Augustine battled Pelagius and his heresies on natural man’s depravity, God’s saving grace, and sovereign predestination. The battles over the doctrines of grace were taking shape. Sad to say, Augustine’s hard fought battles for truth were gradually buried under the perversions of the truth in the Middle Ages, resulting in the church apostatizing and becoming the whore ruled by godless usurpers, the popes.

But God reformed His church through the mighty work of the reformers, reestablishing the doctrine that salvation is of God alone— justification by faith alone, and salvation through grace alone, by faith alone, in Christ alone. Yet, not long after, the heresies of Arminius attacked these truths, and the Reformed churches came together to root out “the old Pelagian error out of hell,” and set forth the truth of sovereign grace in the Canons of Dordrecht.

The point I am making is that there is a certain development of doctrine, perfectly and wisely guided by God.

The question is—where does the doctrine of God’s covenant of grace fit in this history?

From a certain point of view, the doctrine of the covenant is a very early doctrine, in that the church understood the importance of the doctrine. Adam lived in covenant with God, and after Adam’s fall, God maintained His covenant, evidently by the promise of the Seed of the woman. God indicated something of the scope of His covenant when He established His covenant with Noah and the creation. God further revealed the riches of His covenant as He established His covenant with Abraham and his seed, in their generations. God took Israel as His covenant people. The whole history of the Old Testament is a history of God unfolding His covenant. In fact, the whole of God’s revelation is cast in terms of the covenant—the Old Testament (or Covenant) and the New Testament (Covenant).

As to the development of the doctrine, it begins slowly. A diligent search of Augustine’s writings (early 400s) uncovers isolated references to God’s covenant life with His people. The scholastic theologians of the Middle Ages wrote little on the covenant, but what they did develop was a covenant in harmony with their doctrine of salvation, that gave part of the work of salvation to man. There was really very little development of the doctrine of God’s covenant of grace for the first 1,500 years of the new dispensation.

But the doctrine of the covenant began to come into its own as the reformers Luther and Calvin made reference to it, though not as a separate doctrine. The Swiss Reformers Heinrich Bullinger and Johannes Oecolampadius wrote separate treatises devoted to the doctrine of the covenant. Zacharius Ursinus and Caspar Olevianus, authors of the crown jewel of Reformed catechisms, the Heidelberg Catechism, were covenantal theologians. Steeped in Calvinism, they wove into their writings the glorious doctrine of God’s covenant of grace.

Together with their other writings on the covenant, the Catechism profoundly affected Reformed theology in the Netherlands. Dutch theologians majored in this vital doctrine, and the development began in earnest. Johannes Cocceius and Herman Witsius are two such early theologians. From them issues a line of Reformed giants who placed heavy emphasis on the covenant—including Simon VanVelzen, Abraham Kuyper, Herman Bavinck, G.H. Kersten, and Klass Schilder.

The development continued in the Reformed churches in America. In the Christian Reformed Church, William Heyns. In the Protestant Reformed Churches, Herman Hoeksema. Among the Presbyterians, Meredith Klein. Most recently, Douglas Wilson, John Baruch, and others have developed a covenant theology that goes by the name Federal Vision.

I do not say that all this development is positive, biblical, and Reformed. Some in fact ought to be declared heretical—contrary to the Reformed confessions. Some of the views of the covenant flatly contradict other views. And yet all, or at least most, claim to be within the bounds of the confessions. This leads to the confusion and the controversy.

Sad to say, after almost 2,000 years of doctrinal development in the church, and almost 500 years since the Reformation, this vital, central doctrine is not yet established.

Is it not time to settle this?

¹ Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 3: Sin and Salvation in Christ, ed. John Bolt, tr. John Vriend (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006), 212.