Prof. Engelsma is professor of Dogmatics and Old Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary. Previous article in this series: April 15, 2008, p. 318.
Graafland on Covenant and Election in Calvin
In his magisterial study of the origin and development of the covenant in Reformed Protestantism, Van Calvijn tot Comrie(English translation: From Calvin to Comrie, 3 vols., Boekencentrum, 1992-1996; all quotations from this work that follow are my translation of the Dutch), the Dutch theologian C. Graafland acknowledges that in Calvin’s theology election governs the covenant of grace.
At the outset of his study of Calvin’s doctrine of the covenant, Graafland recognizes that the fundamental issue in understanding Calvin’s doctrine of the covenant, as it is the fundamental issue in the entire development of the doctrine of the covenant in Reformed Protestantism, is the “relation between covenant and election” (Van Calvijn, vol. 1, p. 81). For Calvin, says Graafland, “election is the heart of God’s church. This has the result that when Calvin speaks about the covenant, he does so in direct connection with election” (Van Calvijn, vol. 1, p. 82).
According to Graafland, Calvin “allows the covenant to be governed by election. The covenant is merely ‘means’ for the realizing of election. Election is the main thing, and the covenant stands in the service of election” (Van Calvijn, vol. 1, p. 131; see also p. 148). Indeed, for Calvin, the covenant is governed by the double decree of predestination and is the means both of salvation and damnation.
The covenant as means of salvation and damnation [in Calvin’s theology] still has an important function. Not for nothing is the covenant called God’s “means” by which He performs His work of salvation. If it finally is fulfilled in or must give way to the relentless electing and reprobating action of God on the ground of His eternal counsel, it still has fulfilled an important function, exactly in the service of the execution of God’s counsel. That function appears then to be as well a positive one as a negative one. It is positive for the elect. The covenant with its offer of salvation and the summons (demand) to enter into it gives to the elect the way along which they, by recognition of their own weakness and unworthiness, are made receptive to the need of God’s Spirit in order to come to faith and salvation. For the reprobate this same covenant with the same offer of salvation and demand to believe has the function to expose their obstinate disobedience and thus to render them guilty before God, who on the ground of this disobedience is then also just in the execution of His decree of reprobation, which was taken already from eternity, and in His actual condemnation [of them] (Van Calvijn, vol. 1, p. 169).
Graafland sums up Calvin’s view of the covenant this way:
The most characteristic aspect of this vision [of the covenant by Calvin] appeared to be that in it election and covenant stand in an intense relation of tension. Calvin tries to do maximum justice to the historical dealing of God with Israel and the Christian church in this world, but with this he yet repeatedly allows this history as it were to be dominated by eternity. It is the tension between the “unreal” (time) and the “real” (eternity), in which the first [“unreal time”] is the vehicle of the last [“real eternity”]. This structure Calvin has worked out in his doctrine of the covenant, according to which the intrinsic worth of the covenant appears to lie in this, that it is the “means of salvation,” the means for the realizing of the salvation that has been considered and decreed by God from eternity and that realizes itself throughout time in order (anew) to flow out into eternity (the eternal, heavenly life) (Van Calvijn, vol. 2, p. 7).
The Dutch Reformed theologian returns to Calvin’s doctrine of the covenant at the very end of his three-volume study of the doctrine of the covenant in Reformed Protestantism. He emphasizes even more strongly and bluntly that in Calvin’s theology election governs the covenant.
Calvin proceeds to subject the doctrine of the covenant to the doctrine of election. The covenant is part of election, and indeed in this sense, that the covenant is viewed as very definitely under election [Graafland plays on the Dutch word for “part” in the preceding phrase, “The covenant is part of election.” The Dutch word is “onderdeel.” The Dutch is: “Het verbond als onder-deel wordt gezien. Graafland emphasizes that for Calvin the covenant is very definitely subjected to election]. Election is the main thing, and within the framework of election the covenant receives its place as the general form of election. This general election serves to the end of realizing special election.
[Calvin] saw the decisive factor of the covenant locked up in the eternal, divine decree of election and reprobation. Because others (humanists) did not want to know anything of this, Calvin lays even heavier stress on it (Van Calvijn, vol. 3, p. 395).
Criticism of Lillback Graafland is sharply critical of Peter A. Lillback’s presentation of Calvin’s doctrine of the covenant as divorced from, or, as Lillback conceives it, “unhampered” by, election (see Peter A. Lillback, The Binding of God: Calvin’s Role in the Development of Covenant Theology, Baker, 2001). Lillback’s comparison of the covenant doctrine of Bullinger and the covenant doctrine of Calvin is “drastically deficient,” according to Graafland. Lillback states that Calvin “stands in full union” with Bullinger on the covenant. The truth is that whereas Bullinger treats the doctrine of the covenant without any mention of election, “this…is for Calvin impossible.” “When Calvin speaks about the covenant, he does that in a direct connection with election” (Van Calvijn, vol. 1, p. 82).
Still more devastating is Graafland’s criticism of Lillback for proposing that Calvin viewed election as governed by the covenant.
It is noteworthy [writes Graafland] that Calvin exactly in his commentary on
speaks frequently about the covenant (39 times). For P. A. Lillback this is a proof that Calvin’s doctrine of election is governed by the covenant…. It will actually become plain in the continuation of our investigation [of Calvin’s doctrine of the covenant] that the truth of the matter is precisely the other way round, namely, that from this study it appears that Calvin’s doctrine of the covenant stands entirely in the service of his doctrine of election. With regard to Calvin’s exposition of
, it is plain in any case that (in contradiction of the judgment of Lillback) Calvin’s doctrine of the covenant is full of references to election (Van Calvijn, vol. 1, p. 88).
Graafland exposes Lillback’s forcing of Calvin’s doctrine of the covenant into the mold of a doctrine of the covenant that is “liberated” from God’s election.
A striking gap in the study of P. A. Lillback of Calvin’s doctrine of the covenant is the virtually complete lack of attention paid to the pneumatological [having to do with the work of the Spirit of Christ] dimension of the covenant, which is exactly of decisive significance for Calvin. The cause of this is to be found in the fact that he [Lillback] one-sidedly emphasizes the mutuality and conditionality of the covenant in Calvin. Also by this pneumatological deficiency, the relation between covenant and election in Calvin is not correctly understood by him [Lillback].
What Graafland finds strangely and seriously lacking in Lillback’s study, Graafland supplies, as the teaching of Calvin: “The positive reply [to God’s offer of grace] in connection with the covenant takes place by the accompanying working of the Spirit as fruit of God’s election” (Van Calvijn, vol. 1, p. 150).
Looking for Covenant Deliverance to Saumur!
What makes Graafland’s honest analysis of Calvin’s doctrine of the covenant especially compelling is that Graafland himself wants nothing of a covenant governed by the eternal decree. Graafland is as opposed to election’s governing the covenant as are Peter Lillback, the men of the federal vision, and the disciples of Klaas Schilder and Benne Holwerda. Graafland indicates his own opposition to Calvin’s doctrine of the covenant in typical contemporary Dutch Reformed fashion. Graafland speaks of the “shadow” that election casts over the covenant. Election “threatens” the covenant. There is “tension” in Calvin between election and covenant (this “tension” describes Graafland’s feeling, not Calvin’s).
To one important chapter, Graafland gives the worrisome title, “Het verbond onder druk van de verkiezing” (“The Covenant under [Oppressive] Pressure of Election”).
O, that dangerous, frightening, troublesome decree of election!
Such is Graafland’s opposition to a doctrine of the covenant that has the covenant governed by election that when, at the very end of his study, he looks about for a doctrine of the covenant that will allow the Reformed churches to “break through” this “oppressive” covenant doctrine he proposes the covenant doctrine of Saumur. “In my view the Saumur doctrine of the covenant has made a serious attempt to give a new and liberating perspective” (Van Calvijn, vol. 3, p. 402).
In order to “liberate” the covenant from the “oppressive” decree of election, the Reformed churches must turn to the theology of Amyraut!
This was the teaching that God conditionally elected all men without exception, that Christ conditionally died for all men without exception, and that God is conditionally gracious to all men without exception. God’s decisive election of a man to salvation (in distinction from His earlier conditional election), and therefore the final salvation of everyone who is saved, depend squarely upon that man’s performance of the condition of faith.
Graafland is right. The covenant theology of Saumur will certainly “liberate” the covenant from election. This is exactly what the Saumur school intended, in deliberate opposition to the Canons of Dordt. And the purpose was to bring God’s election into bondage to the will and work of the sinner in the covenant.
In this context, Graafland makes the telling observation that “in the recent past it has been particularly K. Schilder who in his own way has pursued this track [of the doctrine of the covenant of Saumur]” (Van Calvijn, vol. 3, p. 403). Again, Graafland is right. Both Saumur and Schilder cut the covenant loose from election. Both Saumur and Schilder extend the gracious covenant, the gracious promise of the covenant, the grace of the covenant, and the gracious benefits of the covenant more widely than only to the elect. And both Saumur and Schilder make the covenant grace of God in Jesus Christ dependent upon the faith and obedience of the sinner. That is, both Saumur and Schilder teach universal, conditional, resistible grace in the covenant.
This was not Calvin’s doctrine of the covenant, as Graafland freely acknowledges. It was not Calvin’s doctrine of the covenant because such a doctrine of the covenant violently contradicts the gospel of salvation by grace alone proclaimed by the sixteenth century Reformation of the church.
Luther’s Suspicion of Covenant
In his zeal for the glory of God in the gospel of sovereign grace, Luther, who in his early years emphasized the covenant, came to give the covenant a minimal place in his teaching. The reason was that the medieval theologians had seized upon the doctrine of the covenant to teach that man and God cooperate in salvation. For Luther, the promise of God, rather than the covenant, served to express the sheer sovereignty and grace of God’s salvation of sinners.
With Luther we see the covenant increasingly recede into the background and eventually disappear from his horizon…. Luther came increasingly to the insight that the word “covenant” was not the most felicitous expression to describe God’s gracious workings of salvation in Christ. It does not declare the gracious character of salvation in Christ plainly and radically enough. This becomes understandable especially when we have an eye for the background [in medieval theology] out of which Luther’s theological existence proceeded…. Also in [medieval theology] the covenant (pactum) played a great role. But [in medieval theology] this conception [of the covenant] has exactly the tendency, within the framework of the sovereign self-limiting of God, to confer a positive and creative significance upon man and his merits. In ecclesiastical and spiritual practice, this meant that the emphasis fell on the cooperation of man in his own salvation. It is particularly this essentially semi-Pelagian feature that accompanied medieval thinking about the covenant. Exactly against this [semi-Pelagian heresy], Luther was determined to turn with his theology of the cross, [the gospel] of God’s grace alone, through the death of Christ (Van Calvijn, vol. 1, pp. 39, 40; see also pp. 48, 49).
We may disagree with Luther’s reaction against the semi-Pelagian corruption of the doctrine of the covenant. Indeed, we do disagree with Luther’s reaction, as does the Reformed tradition, although we understand his reasons for the reaction. The covenant of grace is too prominent in Scripture, too important for the life of the church and Christian, too precious to Christ, too fundamental for God’s revelation of Himself, to be allowed to fade into the background of the teaching of the church. The doctrine of the covenant must be central. But it must be the doctrine of a covenant governed by election. Only this is a covenant doctrine that is faithful to, indeed an essential aspect of, the gospel of grace. Only this doctrine of the covenant does justice to Luther’s valid concerns.
Very early in their history, the Reformed churches in the Netherlands confessed that the covenant is a covenant of sovereign grace. They confessed that election governs the covenant. They confessed this in two official documents, the “[Reformed] Form for the Administration of Baptism” (1574) and the Canons of Dordt (1618/1619).
In making this confession, the Reformed churches in the Netherlands simply applied the Reformation gospel of salvation by grace alone to the truth of the covenant. They based their confession on Scripture, especially Romans 9:6ff. The Reformed churches in the Netherlands were heavily influenced by John Calvin. Even though he did not develop the doctrine of the covenant, Calvin clearly taught that election governs the covenant of grace.
The effect of this confession by the Reformed churches in the Netherlands is to bind all churches and theologians having the “[Reformed] Form for the Administration of Baptism” and the Canons of Dordt as their creeds to the doctrine of a covenant of sovereign grace, that is, the doctrine of a covenant governed by election.
Nevertheless, Reformed theologians and churches holding these two creeds have embraced a doctrine of the covenant that divorces the covenant from election. This doctrine of the covenant maintains that God’s covenant grace and salvation extend more widely than the decree of election and that they depend, not upon God’s election, but upon conditions that must be performed by the sinner.
For hundreds of years, this doctrine of the covenant has opposed the confessional doctrine in the Reformed tradition. Again and again, the controversy has resulted in schism in the Reformed churches. Today, the doctrine of a covenant of universal, conditional, resistible grace takes fully developed form in the teaching in Reformed and Presbyterian churches that calls itself the “federal [covenant] vision.” This covenant doctrine openly denies every one of the doctrines of grace, beginning with justification by faith alone. Thus is exposed, finally, by its ripened, bitter fruits the age-old error of a covenant “liberated” from, and “unhampered” by, election.
By the rank heresy of the federal vision, God sharpens His call to the Reformed churches, especially in the Dutch Reformed tradition, to renounce, once and for all, the doctrine of a covenant of universal, conditional, resistible grace. They must return to their roots in the “[Reformed] Form for the Administration of Baptism” and the Canons of Dordt; in Calvin; and in the Reformation gospel of salvation by sovereign grace alone. They must embrace and confess a doctrine of the covenant in which the covenant is governed by election—the covenant of sovereign grace.
Then all of us must do more.
We must develop this doctrine of the covenant. We must develop it with regard to the demand of the covenant upon the members, with regard to the warnings, with regard to the full, active life of the covenant, with regard to covenant obedience and covenant unfaithfulness on the part of the covenant people, with regard to the important part of the people of God in the covenant, with regard to divine rewards and chastisements, with regard to the genuine mutuality of the covenant.
All of these aspects of the full reality of the covenant, and more, must be developed, not in “tension” with election, but in harmony with election, as the very outworking of the eternal decree.
For election’s governing of the covenant is not stifling, restrictive, and oppressive, as though election will not permit the covenant and its life to be all that they can be, and all that they should be. No more is this true of the will of God regarding the life of His covenant family than it is of the will of the godly husband and father. The will of the godly husband and father governs his marriage and family. But it does not stifle, rigidly restrict, and oppress the rich, active fellowship of the marriage and the full, exuberant, joyful life of the family. On the contrary! The ruling will of the Christian husband and father purposes the rich, active, joyful life of the family, takes pleasure in such a life, and, inasmuch as God blesses this will, effects such a life.
No less is this true of the gracious, eternal will of our covenant God.
Election allows for full, rich, active, joyous, fruitful, abundant covenant life.
Election has purposed such a life for the spiritual family of God.
The electing God takes pleasure in such a life.
Election effects this covenant life.
And just as children bless their godly father and praise his governing will for all they have enjoyed and become by that lordly, beneficent will, so does the church—thetrue church—bless the electing God and praise His election for all she has, all she enjoys, and all she is in the covenant of grace.