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Prof. Hanko is professor emeritus of Church History and New Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.

Introduction


Our concluding study of heresies that have appeared in the history of the church of Christ is a brief survey of more modern heresies that are present in the church in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

The task of choosing which ought to be included in these articles is not an easy one, and the choices we have made are, admittedly, somewhat arbitrary. The difficulties are especially two. The first is that heresies are without number in post-Reformation times. If we were to describe and refute them all, we would have to write a number of volumes. Because of the sheer number of heresies, I have chosen to discuss, though briefly, those heresies that have had an impact on the church of Christ, especially as represented in our own Reformed tradition. By “impact” I mean to limit our discussion to those heresies that have constituted a threat to the doctrinal integrity of the church and that had to be warded off; but also to heresies that were, themselves, the spur to further doctrinal development in the truth.

This choice led to another problem: there are many heresies that have had an impact on the church, but concerning which much material and many books have been written. I refer, in a broader sense, to such heresies as postmillennialism and preterism; and in the narrower sense, to such heresies that have produced a large amount of literature in the history of our own Protestant Reformed Churches. Examples of such heresies would be the gracious and well-meant gospel offer and a conditional covenant. Whether to write on all these heresies or to refrain in the light of the wealth of material is a question not easy to answer.

In the interests of being as complete as possible, I have decided to say at least a few words concerning most of these heresies on which much has already been written.


The Doctrine of the Covenant


Some History

The doctrine of God’s covenant of grace had its origins in Switzerland. The reformers Zwingli and Bullinger were especially involved in the early development of the doctrine, for they were opposing the error of Anabaptism, and they found that the scriptural truth of the covenant was the foundation upon which the doctrine of infant baptism could be maintained.

The difficulty was that, from the inception of the doctrine, the covenant was defined in terms of an agreement between God and man. Why this definition became the accepted one is not known with certainty. It may be because the Latin term used for covenant, foedus, means treaty, compact, agreement. Thus the biblical idea of the covenant that God establishes with His people was spoiled by the meaning of the Latin word for covenant.

However that may be, the truth of the covenant was, not that long after the Reformation, combined with what has become known as federalism. The basic idea of federalism concerns the legal relationship between Adam, our first father, and the human race, which came from him. In his position of federal head of the human race, Adam’s faithfulness or transgression had legal consequences for the entire human race. If Adam remained obedient, his obedience would be imputed to all who followed. If he sinned, the guilt of his sin would be imputed to the entire human race that he represented.

This federal idea was first advanced by theologians in the Palatinate somewhere between 1560 and 1590. Our readers will be reminded that our own Heidelberg Catechism was written during this period, for the date of its publication is 1563.

The combination of the covenant as a pact or treaty plus the federal relationship in which Adam stood to the human race led rather naturally to the idea of the covenant of works. One of the chief promoters of this view was Zacharius Ursinus, who with Caspar Olevianus was the author of the Heidelberg Catechism. We may very well take Ursinus’ view as typical of the general idea of the covenant of works.

Ursinus defined a covenant in his Catechesis Religionis Christianae.

Question 18. What the covenant of God is. A. A covenant in general is a mutual pact between two parties, where one obligates the other to certain conditions for doing, giving, or receiving something, employing signs and external symbols for solemn testimony, as a confirmation that the promise may be inviolable. From here certainly the definition of the covenant of God is deduced. For it is a mutual pact between God and men.

This general idea of a covenant was applied to the relation in which Adam stood to God before he fell.

D.A. Weir writes:

The foedus made with Adam before the Fall is a covenant which deals with creation and nature. Through it, man stands before God on his own merits (The Origins of the Federal Theology in the Sixteenth Century Reformation Thought, D.A. Weir, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990, p. 62).

He goes on to say:

The distinguishing feature of federal theology is the application of covenantal status to the paradisal state, with Adam as the responsible federal or covenant head who makes a decision for all of the creation (Weir, p. 99).

The elements of the covenant with Adam, and by implication with all men, are as follows.

1) The conditions: The command not to eat of the forbidden tree, and the command to rest on the seventh day; thus, obedience to God.

2) The parties, which are God and man.

3) The conditions controlling both God and man. Ursinus believed that the covenant of grace was unconditional: man did not keep the covenant, but God keeps the original covenant in Christ.

4) The covenant was binding on Adam and his descendants, whether Adam sinned or remained obedient.

5) The sign of the covenant with Adam was the tree of life. After the fall, the sign was first circumcision, then baptism.

6) The promise of God to Adam, upon condition of obedience, was eternal life. This view of the covenant dominated for centuries, although from time to time some differences in emphasis and/or ideas appeared. It was quickly adopted by Presbyterian theologians in the British Isles, Germany, and the Netherlands. It is basically the idea referred to in the Westminster Confession, and we may be thankful that it does not appear in any form in our Reformed creeds.

A more recent view of the covenant of works differs very little from that of Ursinus. Louis Berkhof describes the covenant of works as including:

The Covenanting Parties. A covenant is always a compact between two parties. In the case of the covenant of works there was … the triune God…. And, on the other hand, there was Adam, the representative of the human race….

The Promise of the Covenant. The great promise of the covenant was the promise of life in the fullest sense of the word, that is, not merely a continuance of the natural existence of man, but life raised to the highest development of perennial bliss and glory….

The Condition of the Covenant. The promise in the covenant of works was not unconditional. The condition was that of perfect, unconditional obedience….

The Penalty of the Covenant. The penalty that was threatened in case of transgression was death….

The Sacrament of the Covenant…. In all probability the tree of life was an appointed symbol and pledge or seal of life… (Louis Berkhof, Manual of Reformed Doctrine, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1933, pp. 131- 133).

To sum up the doctrine, we conclude that the idea of the covenant of works includes the following elements:

1) It is always related to the federal headship of Adam in his relationship to the whole human race.

2) It is based on the idea that any covenant between God and man is an agreement, contract, pact, or treaty.

3) It is always a conditional covenant; that is, it is established and maintained only on the condition that man agree to the provisions of the covenant and remain faithful. Unfaithfulness carries with it the penalty of death.

4) The promise of God to Adam is that, after a certain period of time, conditioned on Adam’s obedience, Adam and his posterity would have gone to heaven.

We postpone a further discussion of this idea to our next article.