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Previous article in this series: March 15, 2011, p. 273.

Unconditional Covenant 


Neither are election and covenant different with regard to their unconditionality. As a Reformed theologian, Bavinck held unconditional election. As a Reformed theologian, Bavinck also confessed that the covenant of grace is unconditional. Because the issue of the unconditionality or conditionality of the covenant is controversial in the Reformed churches, and because the vast majority of Reformed theologians like to leave the impression that the Reformed tradition overwhelmingly has taught that the covenant is conditional, dismissing the doctrine of the unconditional covenant as a “radical” aberration, it will be profitable to hear Bavinck on the issue.

In the beginning, Reformed theologians spoke freely of “the conditions” of the covenant. But after the nature of the covenant of grace had been more carefully considered and had to be defended against [Roman] Catholics, Lutherans, and Remonstrants, many of them took exception to the term and avoided it.¹

Bavinck continues: “In the covenant of grace, that is, in the gospel, which is the proclamation of the covenant of grace, there are actually…no conditions.” What Bavinck has in mind by “conditions,” as by the term “demands” (which he uses in the sentence just quoted as the equivalent—in the sentence—of “conditions”), he makes plain in his explanation. “For God supplies what he demands. Christ has accomplished everything…and the Holy Spirit therefore applies [everything].”²

Bavinck denies, absolutely, that the covenant is conditional in the proper sense of the term “condition,” namely, a decision or work of a member of the covenant upon which the covenant and its salvation depend. Bavinck denies, absolutely, that the covenant is conditional in the sense that the member of the covenant must make a decision or perform a work that is decisive for the maintenance of the covenant. Bavinck denies, absolutely, that the covenant is conditional in the sense that by performing a demand a member of the covenant makes himself to differ from others who, like himself, are objects of the covenant grace of God.

He [God] made it [the covenant of grace]…with the man Christ Jesus…. And in him, who shares the divine nature and attributes, this covenant has an unwaveringly firm foundation. It can no longer be broken: it is an everlasting covenant. It rests not in any work of humans but solely in the good pleasure of God, in the work of the Mediator, in the Holy Spirit, who remains forever. It is not dependent on any human condition; it does not confer any benefit based on merit; it does not wait for any law keeping on the part of humans. It is of, through, and for grace. God himself is the sole and eternal being, the faithful and true being, in whom it rests and who establishes, maintains, executes, and completes it. The covenant of grace is the divine work par excellence—his work alone and his work totally. All boasting is excluded here for humans; all glory is due to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.³

Whoever cannot say “Amen” to this, from the bottom of his or her heart, is no Reformed Christian.

Bavinck will speak only of the “conditional form” of the administration of the covenant: “In its administration by Christ, the covenant of grace does assume this demanding conditionalform.”4 By a conditional form, Bavinck refers, among other constructions, to the biblical exhortations and admonitions that use the preposition “if”: “If thou shalt hearken unto the voice of the Lord thy God” (Deut. 30:10); “If ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live” (Rom. 8:13).

By acknowledging a conditional form of the administration of the covenant, Bavinck does not give back with the left hand the error that he has just taken away with the right hand. A conditional form of the administration of the covenant is not the same as a conditional covenant. The conditional form of the administration of the covenant does not mean, for Bavinck, demands for a human work upon which the covenant depends, or for a human work that must make impotent covenant grace effectual in the case of the one performing the work.

The conditional form of the administration of the covenant rather refers to God’s dealings with “humans in their capacity as rational and moral beings…to treat them as having been created in God’s image; and also… to hold them responsible and inexcusable; and, finally, to cause them to enter consciously and freely into this covenant and to break their covenant with sin.”5

That for Bavinck this conditional form of the administration of the covenant does not mean a conditional covenant is confirmed by the fact that the very next sentence following Bavinck’s explanation of the covenant’s conditional form is the affirmation of the unilateral character of the covenant. “The covenant of grace, accordingly, is indeed unilateral.”6

A unilateral covenant is an unconditional covenant— a covenant accomplished from beginning to end, with regard to every aspect of it, by God alone. It is a covenant dependent from beginning to end, with regard to every aspect of it, upon God alone.

The covenant of grace is as unconditional as is gracious election.

Bavinck’s exposition and defense of the unconditionality of the covenant ought to give twenty-first century Reformed theologians and churches pause. Bavinck gives the lie to the popular notion that the doctrine of the unconditional covenant has no place in the Reformed tradition, or, at least, no place anywhere near the center of this tradition.

Bavinck suggests, on the contrary, that those who freely, indeed vehemently, contend for a conditional covenant have not very “carefully considered” the nature of the covenant of grace. Nor, evidently, are they concerned to defend the covenant of grace “against [Roman] Catholics, Lutherans, and Remonstrants.” On the other hand, those theologians and churches who take exception to the term “conditions” (of the covenant), rather than being reproached as hyper-Calvinists, or ignored as beyond the pale, ought to be credited with having carefully considered the nature of the covenant of grace and with a zeal for defending the gospel of grace against its foes.

Most importantly, Bavinck indicates the seriousness of the issue of the unconditionality or conditionality of the covenant. At stake is the gospel of free, sovereign (that is, unconditional) grace itself. For the “gospel…is the proclamation of the covenant of grace.”7 The doctrine of the unconditional covenant is the good news of grace. The doctrine of a conditional covenant is the false gospel of salvation by the will and works of the sinner. That is, the doctrine of a conditional covenant is the Arminian theology of the covenant.


Covenant Membership


God makes His covenant with the elect in Christ, and with the elect alone. The elect, and the elect alone, are members of the covenant. Bavinck teaches this in the statement, “The covenant of grace has been made with Christ…[and with] his own.”8 He reiterates and explains this when he comes to the matter of covenant membership at the conclusion of his treatment of covenant and election.

Bavinck sharply distinguishes two essentially different kinds of connection to the covenant of grace. There is the vital membership in the covenant itself of a true and living faith. This membership affords participation in the blessings of the covenant.

There is also, in radical distinction, a membership merely in the covenant’s “earthly administration.” This is the connection to the covenant of those who lack true faith. This membership does “not share in the covenant’s benefits.”

Here is Bavinck’s statement of the distinction: “It is self-evident, therefore, that the covenant of grace will temporarily—in its earthly administration and dispensation—also include those who remain inwardly unbelieving and do not share in the covenant’s benefits.”9

There are those (Bavinck is thinking especially of baptized children of believers) who are “in the covenant,” but not “of the covenant.”10 This is a strong statement of the qualitative difference between the two kinds of connections to the covenant. In the original language of his dogmatics, Bavinck uses two Latin expressions: “de foedere” (English: ‘of the covenant’) and “in foedere” (English: ‘in the covenant’).11 Some (baptized children) are of the covenant. The covenant is the origin of their true, spiritual life; they are born again by the covenant promise. They share the essence of the covenant. They belong to the covenant. The covenant identifies them. The covenant determines their life, experience, and behavior.

Other (baptized children) are merely in the covenant. By natural birth to believing parents; by the administration to them of the sacrament of the covenant; by their training under the word of God in a godly home, a true church, and a Christian school; more or less by their outward conduct (at least for a while); and even by their profession of faith (which does not arise from the heart), they are closely related to the covenant, as closely as a human can be without being “of” the covenant. But they are never part of it. Nor is it ever part of them.

The difference is that between a genuine, healthy cell of the human body and a foreign substance in the bloodstream.

In accordance with these two distinct kinds of covenant connection, Bavinck speaks of “the external and internal sides” of the one covenant of grace.12

Regarding covenant membership, therefore, Bavinck denies that all the baptized offspring of believers are in the covenant in the same way. Indeed, Bavinck denies that all the children are members of the covenant. If some children have membership merely in the covenant’s “earthly administration,” they are not members of the covenant in its essence.

What determines and governs this twofold connection to the covenant is God’s predestination. When Bavinck distinguishes the two radically different connections to the covenant as belonging to the covenant, for some, and merely being “in the covenant,” that is, being in the “earthly administration” of the covenant, for others, he obviously has his eye on Romans 9:6. In this passage, the apostle distinguishes two kinds of physical offspring of Abraham. Some are merely “of Israel,” that is, in Bavinck’s words, they are in the “earthly administration” of the covenant. Others “are…Israel,” that is, in Bavinck’s expression, they are “of the covenant.” And in Romans 9:6-23, the apostle accounts for the two distinct connections to the covenant by appeal to eternal predestination: “that the purpose of God according to election might stand” (v. 11).

But Bavinck does not leave to implication, clear and necessary as the implication may be, that the two essentially different connections to the covenant “proceed from God’s eternal decree,” as the Canons, I/6 puts it. In explanation of the reality that some are merely “in [the earthly administration of] the covenant,” whereas others are “of the covenant,” Bavinck appeals, explicitly, to divine election.

Here on earth they [those who are merely in the administration of the covenant] are connected with the elect in all sorts of ways, and the elect themselves…can as an organism only be gathered into one under Christ as their head in the way of the covenant.13

Those who are connected to the covenant by vital membership in the covenant itself—in the very essence of the covenant—are the elect, and election determines their covenant membership. That Bavinck should teach this is nothing strange. For he was a Reformed theologian. And the Reformed faith confesses that faith, which is the living bond of union with Christ and, thus, fellowship with the triune God—the covenant in essence—proceeds from God’s eternal election. “That some receive the gift of faith from God…proceeds from God’s eternal decree.”14

Those whose connection is merely the “external side” of the covenant, membership only in the “earthly administration” of the covenant, are, for Bavinck, the non-elect, the reprobate from eternity. This nonelection, or reprobation, determines their exclusion from the covenant. That Bavinck should teach this is nothing strange. For he was a Reformed theologian. And the Reformed faith confesses that the non-reception of faith (which alone constitutes living, spiritual union with Christ and communion with God), whether on the part of a contemporary heathen in the depths of San Francisco, or on the part of a baptized child of godly Protestant Reformed parents, proceeds from God’s eternal reprobation. “That… others do not receive it [faith], proceeds from God’s eternal decree.”15

Herman Bavinck repudiates the covenant doctrine that refuses to relate covenant membership to predestination, that deliberately banishes predestination from consideration in the matter of covenant membership, that will not find the source of covenant membership in God’s election. Bavinck condemns the covenant doctrine that teaches that all the baptized children of godly parents are in the covenant in the same way, at least originally, at baptism.

Bavinck exposes the doctrine of the covenant that rejects the teaching of two essentially different connections to the covenant as altogether outside and contrary to the Reformed tradition.

Bavinck not only approves of but also insists upon the distinction between two kinds of connection to the covenant, whether the distinction is called “internal/ external”; “covenant/administration of the covenant”; or “of the covenant/in the covenant.”

How the distinction is phrased is of no great significance. The distinction itself is fundamental. To disallow the distinction is to fly in the face of the Reformed tradition; to reject the apostolic doctrine in Romans 9:6-23; and, necessarily, to introduce the Arminian heresy into the Reformed doctrine of the covenant.

This last, the theology of the Federal Vision is demonstrating clearly, and practicing with a vengeance.


Conclusion 


In light of Bavinck’s doctrine of the covenant, it is a mystery why contemporary Reformed theologians so violently react against a doctrine of the covenant that closely relates the covenant and election, and relates them in such a way that election governs the covenant. These theologians assail such a doctrine of the covenant as illegitimate. Their dismissal of the “identification” of the covenant and election (which is their pejorative way of describing a doctrine of the covenant in which election governs the covenant) leaves the impression, if it does not intend to leave the impression, that this doctrine of the covenant has had no place in the Reformed tradition. But every knowledgeable, honest scholar must acknowledge, at the very least, that the teaching that the covenant is governed by election has had a prominent, powerful, honorable place in the Reformed tradition.

And then we might be able to carry on a profitable discussion why prominent, orthodox Reformed theologians, including Herman Bavinck, taught the close relation of covenant and election.

And thus, under God’s blessing, there would be defense and development of the truth of God’s covenant of grace in our day.


¹ Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 3: Sin and Salvation in Christ, ed. John Bolt, tr. John Vriend (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006), 229. I insert the word “Roman” in the quotation. The translator erred. Neither here nor elsewhere in his dogmatics did Bavinck refer to the Roman Catholic Church as the “Catholic” Church. Here the Dutch original has the word “Roomschen,” that is, ‘Romish’ (see Herman Bavinck, Gereformeerde Dogmatiek, vol. 3, 2nd revised and expanded ed., Kampen: Kok, 1910, 241). The Roman Catholic Church is not the catholic church of Christ. It is not even a catholic, or universal, church; it is a Romanchurch. This was the conviction of Bavinck.

² Ibid., 230; emphasis added.

³ Ibid., 225, 226.

4 Ibid.; emphasis added.

5 Ibid.

6 Ibid.

7 Ibid.

8 Ibid., 229.

9 Ibid., 231.

10 Ibid., 232.

11 Bavinck, Geref. Dog., vol. 3, 244.

12 Ibid., 232.

13 Ibid.

14 Canons of Dordt, I/6, in Philip Schaff,Creeds of Christendom, vol. 3 (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1966), 582.

15 Ibid.