Prof. Hanko is professor emeritus of Church History and New Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary. Previous article in this series: March 1, 2007, p. 249.
The doctrine of the covenant in post-Reformation thought never quite got off on the right foot. From the beginning of its development in Switzerland, by Zwingli and Bullinger in their battle against the Anabaptists, the covenant was defined in terms of a compact or agreement between God and man. This serious misunderstanding of the covenant, in connection with the emerging doctrine of the federal headship of Adam in his relation to the human race, led to the notion of the covenant of works. It was probably first proposed, at least on the continent, by Zacharias Ursinus, a co-author with Caspar Olevianus of the Heidelberg Catechism.
The idea of the covenant of works, both in Europe proper and in the British Isles, was firmly rooted in a conception of the covenant as a compact or agreement between Adam and God. It was defined in terms of a condition that had to be fulfilled for the covenant to be established and to remain in force: Adam’s obedience; a threat to Adam that disobedience would result in death; and a promise that obedience would result in everlasting life in heaven.
That idea persists to the present and dominates all thinking about the covenant.
It ought to be clear that the whole idea of a conditional covenant in general and a covenant of works in particular necessarily includes in it the idea of merit. The defenders of such a conditional covenant have frequently tried to avoid the notion of merit, but without success. Presbyterian defenders of the covenant of works have not been averse to the notion of merit, although they attempt to give it a sound interpretation.
Although the prevailing view of God’s covenantal relation to man was almost universally defined in terms of a contract or agreement, some in the history of the Reformed churches also spoke of somewhat different views of the covenant.
Calvin, for example, while speaking extensively of the covenant, tended to emphasize its unconditional character and its relation to election. (See below for more on this.) In speaking of the place of children in the covenant, an extremely vexing question that received a variety of answers, Calvin was strong on the idea that elect children born in covenant lines belong fully to the covenant.
Olevianus, while holding to the covenant as an agreement or compact, spoke of the covenant as being also a bond of friendship. The same was true of Cocceius, who even saw the truth that the covenant was rooted in the Trinitarian life of God.
Herman Bavinck, a late nineteenth century Dutch theologian, also spoke of the covenant as a bond of friendship, an idea later to be fully developed by Herman Hoeksema.
Nevertheless, those who spoke of the covenant in terms of friendship added this idea to the conception of the covenant as an agreement or pact.
Even the covenant of works was not universally accepted. An interesting quote from Thomas Goodwin, Puritan, member of the Westminster Assembly, and president of Magdalen College, Oxford, wrote:
Much less can the grace of a mere creature (or ever could) merit a higher condition; to do which is more than to confirm the continuance of the present condition. Adam could not earn a condition of a higher rank, nor by all his works have bought any greater preferment than what he was created in. To compass it was ultra suam sphaeram (“above his sphere”); he could never have done it. As, for instance, he could not have attained that state in heaven which the angels enjoy. What says Christ? “When you have done all you can, say, You are unprofitable servants” (Luke 17:10).
This he could no more do than other creatures by keeping those their ordinances can merit to be “translated into the glorious liberty” which they wait for, and shall have at the latter day. The moon, though she keep all her motions set her by God never so regularly, yet she cannot thereby attain to the light of the sun as a new reward thereof. And thus no more can any pure creature of itself, by all its righteousness, obtain in justice a higher condition to itself. And therefore the angels, by all their own grace, have not to this day earned a better condition than they were created in. And yet all this falls short of satisfying for sin, as we shall see anon (Thomas Goodwin, Christ Our Mediator, Grand Rapids: Sovereign Grace Publishers, 1971, pp. 82, 83).
It is not our intention to enter into a detailed criticism of the covenant of works in this article. Perhaps the most complete analysis of the doctrine of a covenant of works was made by Herman Hoeksema in hisReformed Dogmatics. (See Herman Hoeksema, Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 1, 2nd edition, Grand Rapids, RFPA Publishing, 2004, pp. 308-312.) I shall briefly sum up Hoeksema’s arguments. The reader will find them cogent and compelling.
It must be remembered, however, that Hoeksema’s objections to the covenant of works is based on an entirely different conception of the covenant than underlies the covenant of works. But I shall wait with this aspect of the question till later in the article.
1) The doctrine has no support in Scripture. Even Louis Berkhof, in attempting to find biblical support for the doctrine, is hard pressed to find it and simply deduces it from various other ideas that Scripture gives in connection with Adam’s creation. One such biblical truth is God’s command to Adam not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for the punishment for disobedience is death. One can hardly base an elaborate conditional covenant that has the reward of heaven on this command. Hoeksema points out that a command is no covenant.
2) The whole idea of merit is foreign to Scripture, and most continental theologians have thrown it far from them in the interests of the sovereignty of salvation. Hoeksema quotes the same passage from Luke 17 that Thomas Goodwin quoted.
3) The promise of eternal life creates all kinds of problems. How long would Adam have had to be faithful to earn eternal life? Would his posterity also inherit eternal life? Would Adam have had to live until the last of his posterity was born? Would the probationary command apply to all Adam’s descendants, even though they were not in the position of federal head?
But here also the idea of eternal life is contrary to Scripture. For Scripture is clear that eternal life is immortality, and that can be gained only through the perfect work of Christ, who conquers sin and death for His people. (See I Corinthians 15.)
4) The covenant of works makes the covenant an incidental part of Adam’s life, added after his creation when he received the command of God not to eat of the forbidden tree.
5) The covenant of works makes God’s purpose in Christ to save His elect a sort of necessary alternate plan of God, when His original purpose to glorify Himself in Adam’s obedience met with disaster. Thus the covenant of works presents a view unworthy of God.
Seriously Wrong Developments
From a wrong conception of the covenant as a treaty or agreement has developed various erroneous ideas. It is well to give brief consideration to these, so that we may see that a wrong principle leads to wrong conclusions and produces wrong doctrine.
In the development of the covenant among the Reformed churches, one of the great problems has been the place of children in the covenant. It is not a mystery why the place of children in the covenant is a problem. The doctrine of infant baptism goes back to the apostolic church and was held by the Roman Catholic Church as well as by all the reformers. Furthermore, there has never been a question about the biblical truth that baptism is a sign of the covenant. When these two ideas are joined, it is obvious that children in the covenant become a great problem, for if the covenant is a compact or an agreement, infants, quite obviously, cannot enter into the covenant.
Various solutions have been proposed over the centuries, and a large library of books have been written concerning this question. We must remember, however, that, in general, orthodox theologians had no real problem with the question, but simply insisted on the fact that the elect children of the covenant belong to it from infancy and are, generally speaking, regenerated in earliest infancy. The truth that we hold as Protestant Reformed Churches is not a novelty.
Calvin held this view already. And it is incorporated into our confessions, both major and minor. Our Baptism Form, a minor confession dating back to the middle of the sixteenth century, clearly contains this truth. In the first question asked of parents who present their child for baptism, we find these words: “Whether you acknowledge that although our children are conceived and born in sin, and therefore are subject to all miseries, yea to condemnation itself; yet that they are sanctified in Christ, and therefore, as members of His church ought to be baptized?” (emphasis is mine, HH).
Further, in the prayer with which the sacrament is concluded, the church prays: “Almighty God and merciful Father, we thank and praise Thee that Thou hast forgiven us and our children all our sins through the blood of Thy beloved Son Jesus Christ…” (emphasis is mine, HH).
The Heidelberg Catechism, which dates from 1563, says, “Are infants also to be baptized? Yes; for since they, as well as the adult, are included in the covenant and church of God; and since redemption from sin by the blood of Christ, and the Holy Ghost, the author of faith, is promised to them no less than to the adult; they must therefore by baptism, as a sign of the covenant, be also admitted into the Christian church…” (Question & answer 74).
There has been a tradition, throughout the entire development of the Reformed faith, that has held firmly to the truth that elect children of believers are truly and fully members of God’s covenant.
But if the covenant is a conditional compact, by virtue of this definition no place can be given to children of believers. And so various ideas have been proposed to explain this strange anomaly. The most common idea was proposed by Prof. William Heyns, who taught in Calvin Theological Seminary in the beginning of the twentieth century. After including a rather traditional view of the covenant of works (William Heyns,Manual of Reformed Doctrine, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1926, pp. 67-72), he goes on to talk of the covenant of grace. (SeeManual, pp. 123-147.)
To sum up this rather lengthy treatment of the covenant, we may note that while Heyns attempts to maintain a unilateral (one-sided), unconditional covenant, he nevertheless develops his ideas along quite different lines. He speaks of an objective or external and a subjective or internal covenant, the former of which is established with all children baptized, and the latter is established only with those who accept and fulfill the conditions of the covenant. Thus all children born of believing parents are in the covenant externally and possess all the promises of the covenant. Only when they come to years of discretion and fulfill the conditions of faith and obedience do they actually enter the covenant in its full blessedness.
Heyns even speaks of a general subjective grace (Manual, pp. 136, 137) given to all the children of the covenant who are baptized to enable them to accept or reject the conditions imposed on them at baptism. In this way the administration of baptism becomes like the preaching, when the preaching of the gospel is considered as a well-meant gospel offer to all who hear, in which all the hearers receive grace to accept or reject the overtures of Christ.