Prof. Engelsma is professor of Dogmatics and Old Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.
Nowhere has the doctrine of the covenant figured as prominently, or been so thoroughly developed, from the sixteenth century Reformation of the church to the present, as in the Dutch Reformed tradition.
For this the Christian church owes the Dutch Reformed tradition a huge debt of gratitude, inasmuch as the truth of the covenant is central to the Christian faith and life.
Covenant and Election
A fundamental truth of the covenant of grace was determined early in the history of the Reformed faith in the Netherlands. That God establishes the covenant with the elect only, particularly, with the elect children of godly parents only; that God directs the promise of the covenant to the elect only; that God is gracious in the covenant to the elect only; and that God gives all the covenant blessings and the covenant salvation to the elect only, on the basis of the covenant death of Christ for the elect only, was authoritatively decided in the time of the spread of the Reformation into the Netherlands in its distinctively Reformed form. This was roughly the period from about the middle of the sixteenth century to the meeting of the synod of Dordt in 1618/1619.
At this time, the very beginning of the Dutch Reformed tradition, the Spirit of truth led the Reformed church in the Netherlands to decide that election governs the covenant.
What this means is that God’s covenant grace is not wider than the eternal decree in Christ ordaining certain humans unto salvation, in distinction from others appointed to damnation. In arriving at this official decision, the Reformed church in the Netherlands simply applied the fundamental truth of the Reformation, namely, that salvation is by sovereign grace alone, to the reality of the covenant.
Two considerations seem to belie the assertion that the Reformed church in the Netherlands decided the doctrine of the covenant early and that it confessed the covenant to be governed by election. The first consideration is that the earliest Dutch Reformed theologians, for example Gomarus, and the “Three Forms of Unity” lacked a developed doctrine of the covenant. In fact, the covenant did not have a prominent place in the theology of the earliest Dutch Reformed theologians or in the “Three Forms of Unity.”
The second consideration is that the development of the doctrine of the covenant in the Dutch Reformed tradition after Dordt has taken place by a vigorous, even fierce, controversy. As C. Graafland has shown in his magisterial three-volume study of the “origin and development of the doctrine of the covenant in Reformed Protestantism,” Van Calvijn tot Comrie[Eng. tr.: From Calvin to Comrie] (Boekencentrum, 1992-1996), the issue in the controversy over the covenant in the Dutch Reformed tradition, as in Reformed Protestantism generally, has always been the relation of the covenant and election. More particularly, the issue has always been the question whether election governs the covenant. Summing up his study, Graafland identifies the “main line” as “the relation which the doctrine of the covenant has (had) to the doctrine of election” (Van Calvijn tot Comrie, vol. 3, p. 394; this and all subsequent quotations from Graafland’s three volumes are my translation of the Dutch).
E. Smilde, in his Een Eeuw van Strijd om Verbond en Doop [Eng. tr.: A Century of Struggle over Covenant and Baptism] (Kok, 1946), and C. Veenhof, inPrediking en Uitverkiezing [Eng. tr.: Preaching and Election] (Kok, 1959), have demonstrated that this controversy over the relation of the covenant and election continued in the Netherlands in the nineteenth century. This was the very same controversy that split the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands (GKN) in the 1940s and the Protestant Reformed Churches in America in the early 1950s.
This fundamental issue of the relation of election and the covenant confronts the entire Reformed community in North America at the present hour in the spreading heresy of the “federal vision.” The “federal vision” is a covenant doctrine, which for all its new developments, especially its bold advocacy of justification by faith as a human work and by other works of the sinner, is as old as the covenant theology of Coornhert (d. 1590), Snecanus (d. about 1600), Wiggertsz (d. 1624), Arminius (d. 1609), and Amyraut (d. 1664). The “federal vision” is a doctrine of the covenant that cuts the covenant loose from God’s eternal election in order to make election dependent on the sinner’s free and sovereign choice for or against God in the covenant. It is a covenant doctrine that denies sovereign grace in the covenant.
Controversy over the Covenant
If there was little development of, and indeed little emphasis on, the covenant in the early Dutch theologians and in the creeds, and if the subsequent history of the dogma in the Netherlands has been a fierce controversy between those who affirmed and those who denied that election governs the covenant, how can it be said that the doctrine of the covenant was established early in the history of the Reformed church in the Netherlands as a bond of salvation governed by election?
It is true that there has been a long, often bitter, struggle in the churches of the Dutch Reformed tradition over the covenant, particularly over the relation of the covenant and election. It is also true that there have been notable defenders of the truth that election governs the covenant. Graafland recognizes that Gomarus, like Zanchius and Beza, thought it of central importance “that participation in the new covenant of grace has been ordained only for the elect.” The reprobate are merely in “the external covenant,” or in the covenant “externally.” For Gomarus, the covenant was so dominated by election that it was “a part of election” (Van Calvijn tot Comrie, vol. 3, pp. 77, 78).
Similarly, the Dutch theologian Alexander Comrie (1706-1774) “in the most radical manner shifted the main truth of the covenant of grace from time to eternity.” Comrie “most radically limited the covenant of grace to the elect” (Van Calvijn tot Comrie, vol. 3, p. 376).
Smilde and Veenhof demonstrated that VanVelzen, the best of the theologians of the Afscheiding[Secession] in the nineteenth century, taught the same doctrine of the covenant. VanVelzen maintained that the phrase “sanctified in Christ” in the Reformed baptism form refers only to the elect children of believing parents.
In light of the history of the doctrine of the covenant in Reformed Protestantism, particularly Dutch Reformed Protestantism, 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 that this doctrine of the covenant has had no place in the Reformed tradition. But at the very least it must be acknowledged by every knowledgeable, honest scholar that the teaching that the covenant is governed by election has had a prominent, powerful, honorable place in the Reformed tradition.
On the other hand, as Graafland makes plain, the line of those in the Netherlands who defended a doctrine of the covenant “liberated” from the “oppressive weight” of the eternal decree runs through the humanists Coornhert, Veluanus, Snecanus, and Wiggertsz, and the heretics Arminius, vanLimborch, and Amyraut (Van Calvijn tot Comrie, vol. 3, pp. 88-278). The foes of predestination have always advanced a doctrine of the covenant that extends the grace of God in Christ more widely than does the “Calvinistic” decree of election. Thus, these foes, whether subtly or overtly, use the covenant to destroy, and bury, election, and with election the gospel of sovereign grace.
A Settled Issue
Although there has been controversy over the relation of the covenant and election in the Dutch Reformed churches from Dordt to the present, the issue was settled already in the early period of the Reformation in the Netherlands. It was settled officially. It was settled in such a way that Reformed Christianity, particularly Reformed Christianity in the Dutch Reformed tradition, is bound to a doctrine of the covenant that confesses that predestination governs the covenant.
The fundamental issue concerning the covenant, namely, that the covenant is governed by election, was established especially by two official, binding documents, the “Form for the Administration of Baptism” and the Canons of Dordt.
(to be continued)
Recommended works on the subject of this article:
—C. Graafland, Van Calvijn tot Comrie, 3 vols. (Boekencentrum, 1992-1996)
—E. Smilde, Een Eeuw van Strijd om Verbond en Doop (Kok, 1946)
—C. Veenhof, Prediking en Uitverkiezing (Kok, 1959)
—C. McCoy and J. Baker, Fountainhead of Federalism (Westminster/John Knox, 1991)
—D. Engelsma, The Covenant of God and the Children of Believers: Sovereign Grace in the Covenant (RFPA, 2005)