* Paper delivered at the Conference with the Brethren of the Reformed Church in the U.S., Sept. 1945.
Since the time of the Reformation, the doctrine of the covenant has occupied an important place in Reformed theology, and a dominating position in the life of the Reformed churches. It is a peculiarly Reformed heritage, even more distinctively so than the doctrine of sovereign predestination, for while the latter truth. Is held by other than Reformed churches, the truth, of the covenant was developed exclusively by them. And we can agree with Dr. G. Vos when he finds the reason for this. In the strong emphasis which Reformed theology places on the glory of God as the end of all things, for the realization of the covenant is, indeed, the highest self-revelation of God as the implication of all infinite perfections, and as the Triune, who within Himself lives a covenant life of friendship. (1).
This development of and. emphasis on Is not to be traced to Calvin, as Its source, and certainly not to Melanchton, the synergist, as some would contend, but rather to Bullinger and the Swiss theologians, Calvin does, indeed, speak of the covenant, both in his Insistence of the unity of the Old and New Testaments, (2) and in his defense of paedobaptism (3); but he does so rather in passing. It was through their contact with Zurich that Olevianus and the Reformed theologians of Germany gave the doctrine of the covenant and integral place in their theology (4); and through the same contact this truth received a place in the theological system of the theologians of Reformed persuasion in the Netherlands, such as Junius, Gomarus, Trelcatius Sr. and Jr., etc. and in England, of whom may be mentioned the names of Thomas Blake, Perkins, and James Ussher. (5). The development seems to have been thus that the idea of the covenant was applied, first of all, to the relation between God and His elect in Christ, and to the way of salvation, and later to the relation between God and Adam in the state of rectitude. The former became known as the covenant of grace, the latter was known by various terms, such as the covenant of works, the covenant of nature, the covenant of the law.
This latter development of the idea of the covenant with Adam is evident from the Reformed Confessions. For while some of the earlier Confessions, such as the Confessio Belgica and the Heidelberg Catechism do speak of the covenant of grace, they fail to mention the covenant of works. (6). And not only are they silent concerning the covenant relation between God and man in the state of rectitude, but it is a striking fact that, in their explanation of original sin they follow the organic line, and omit the idea of the imputation of Adam’s guilt to all his posterity altogether. (7). This is all the more important in view of the fact that Reformed theologians generally adopted the creationist view of the origin of the individual souk Even the Canons of Dordrecht, 1618-19, attribute the corruption of the human nature wholly to the propagation of the fallen and corrupt nature of our first parents: the idea of federal imputation is not so much as suggested. (8). Only when we come to the Westminster Confession, which dates from the middle of the seventeenth century, do we find mention of the covenant of works, and, in close connection therewith, of the imputation of original guilt as a basis for the corruption of all mankind. (9). Since that time, however, also the idea that the original relation between God and man was that of a covenant, was generally accepted and developed by Reformed theologians everywhere. The covenant idea occupies an essential place in any Reformed system of dogma. Reformed theology is federal theology.
Now, in this essay we are to answer the question: what is the idea of the covenant? By idea, I take it, is meant something similar to general conception. The term is derived from the Greek idein, to see, and refers therefore to a mental image of anything, whether sensible or insensible. My subject, therefore, concerns the proper conception of the covenant in all its essential elements, such as might be expressed in a definition. Besides, the subject as it was assigned to me tacitly implies that there is one, general idea or concept of the covenant that is common to every form this relation between God and man may assume. Taking my subject somewhat broadly, I shall try, after having given a historical review of the question, to answer three questions, viz., 1. What is the covenant relation? 2. What is its deepest ground? 3. How is it finally realized?
When we consult our Reformed Confessions, we find little or nothing that can be of aid to us in defining the idea of the covenant. The Heidelberg Catechism merely declares that infants (DUTCH REMOVED), but does not define the idea of the covenant. The Confessio Belgica declares of the children of the believers: “lesquels nous croyons devoir etre baptises et scelles du signe d’alliance.” Our Baptism Form speaks of an “eternal covenant of grace” which God the Father seals unto us, and of two parts in the covenant, our part consisting in this, that we are “obliged unto new obedience, namely that we cleave to this one God, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost; that we trust in him, and love him with all our hearts, with all our souls, with all our mind, and with all our strength; that we forsake the world, crucify our old nature, and walk in a new and holy life; and it declares that “baptism is a seal and undoubted testimony that we have an eternal covenant of grace with God.” And children of believers are said to be entitled to baptism “as heirs of the kingdom of God and of his covenant” (10). All this is, indeed, significant, but it offers no definition of the covenant.
The Westminster Confession reflects the later development of the covenant idea in English theology. It describes the covenant with Adam as something added to his relation to God as creature, and as “a covenant of works, wherein life was promised to Adam, and in him to his posterity, upon condition of perfect and personal obedience”; and speaks of the covenant of grace as a second covenant, “wherein he freely offered unto sinners life and salvation by Jesus Christ, requiring of them faith in him that they may be saved” (11). Here we meet with the idea of the covenant as something additional and secondary, a way to a certain goal, a means to an end. And it is this notion that has become rather prevalent in Reformed theology.
Thus Turrentine defines the covenant as follows: (DUTCH REMOVED) that is: “Strictly and properly the covenant denotes a pact of God with man, through which God promises his blessings, particularly eternal life, to that one, and in like manner from man requires due obedience and loving worship, certain external signs being employed for the sake of confirmation; which is called bilateral and mutual, because it is established by a mutual obligation of the covenanting parties, here by the promise on the part of God, there by the keeping of the condition on the part of man.”
Van Maestricht defines the covenant as (DUTCH REMOVED). And he defines the “covenant of works” as (DUTCH REMOVED) (13) The covenant, according to him, is strictly bilateral, has two parties, that enter into a mutual treaty: God and the Church (14). And according to Brakel, the covenant of grace is (DUTCH REMOVED) etc. (14). And the “covenant of works” he defines as an (DUTCH REMOVED (15). According to Prof. W. Heyns, the essence of the covenant is the “belofte om u te zijn tot een God.” This promise, according to him, gives to all that are born under the covenant, the objective right to the inheritance of salvation, but their actual coming into possession of that inheritance, and the application by the Spirit to them of all the blessings of salvation, depends upon their consent by faith to the covenant (16).
In the more recent Dutch theologians one finds the glimmer of a deeper and richer notion of the covenant. Dr. A. Kuyper Sr. begins to emphasize the fundamental truth that God is a covenant God in Himself, and that the relation between the three persons of the Trinity is a covenant relation. He finds in this covenant life of the triune Jehovah the basis for all covenant dealings of God with man. And he even speaks of the covenant as a relation of friendship, in which God eats and drinks with man, and speaks with him as a man with his brother, as a friend with his friend (17). “VerbondssMting is een daad van vriendschap” (18). Yet, ultimately, he does not transcend the notion of the covenant as a means to an end, as an agreement or pact or alliance between God and man (19). The idea of the covenant is, according to him, expressed in the definition that it is an alliance between two parties against a third. (20).
Also Dr. Bavinck emphasizes that the covenant rests in the covenant life of God Himself: “DUTCH REMOVED) (21). He even finds in the covenant the very essence of religion, as fellowship with the living God (22). But also he ultimately considers the covenant as a means to an end, as a way of salvation. The covenant of grace (DUTCH REMOVED) (23). And Dr. G. Vos defines the covenant of grace as “the gracious pact between the offended God and the offending sinner, in which God promises eternal life in the way of faith in Christ and the sinner accepts this believingly”(24). And identically the same definition may be found in the “Dogmatiek” of Prof. F. M. Ten Hoor (25).
All these definitions of the covenant have this in common that they describe the covenant as a means to an end, not as an end, the highest end in itself. They differ only in their denotation of the essence of the covenant, some emphasizing the idea of an agreement or pact or alliance, others that of the promise, still others that of a way unto salvation. They differ, too, in their description of the parties of the covenant, and their relation to each other. According to some, the covenant is strictly unilateral, according to others it is completely bilateral, while still others prefer to speak of the covenant as unilateral in its origin but bilateral in its operation. And again, some identify the pactum salutis with the covenant of grace, while others consider the covenant of redemption as the basis for the covenant of grace. Some insist that the covenant of grace is established with Christ, others call it a pact between God and the elect, while some prefer to speak of it as an agreement between the offended God and the offending sinner. But always the covenant is essentially a means to an end, a pact or agreement, and the essential elements are always the promise of eternal life and the conditions of faith and obedience.
There are several grave and serious objections against this presentation of the idea of the covenant. First of all, how can man ever be a party, a contracting party, in relation to the living God? God is God, the infinite, eternal, self-existent One. He is the Lord, the absolute sovereign, out of whom and through whom, and unto whom, are all things. There is none beside Him. And man is the creature, that owes all that he is and has, body and soul, all his powers and talents, his entire existence, every moment, to his Lord and Creator. God is the fount, and man is the creature that drinks from that Fountain of good, God is the all-sufficient I AM, man is completely and constantly dependent for his whole life and existence upon Him,. There is no obligation man can assume apart from that which is incumbent upon him by reason of his being a creature: to love the Lord his God with all his heart, and with all his soul, and with all his mind, and with all his strength, every moment of his existence. He can bring nothing to God, whose is all the silver and the gold, and the cattle on a thousand hills. He can do nothing for the Most High, who is perfectly self-sufficient. All the good man has is a gift of grace, of free and sovereign favor, from his God, Even if he may love and serve his Creator, it is a gift of divine goodness, for which man owes Him thanks. How, then, can the relation of that creature to his Creator ever be or become an agreement or pact, according to which man may merit something higher than he has already attained, even eternal life? Shall I make an alliance with the worm that crawls at my feet? Can the man that owes me a thousand dollars merit some other good that I am able to bestow upon him, by paying his debt? Can man, then, be a contracting party with, the Most High, and merit anything with Him to whom he owes all? God forbid! The covenant between God and man can never be a pact with mutual stipulations, conditions, and promises.
Reformed theologians have felt this objection. And, therefore, they usually add that this form of dealing on the part of God with man, is due to His condescending grace and mercy. By grace man is put in a position in which he is a party with God, and is able to merit or attain some higher good, particularly eternal life. But I object that God cannot deny Himself, and that even by grace He cannot so condescend to man that the latter becomes a party next to Him, so that he has the prerogative to make his stipulations, and to demand eternal life on the basis of anything that he has done. The declaration of the law: “do this and thou shalt live” is for ever true, to be sure, because obedience is the sole way of God’s favor, and in His favor is life; but it does not, and can never mean that by keeping God’s precepts man in the state of righteousness could attain to that higher state which is called life eternal, and which is attainable only through the Son of God. And it is true, that in the covenant of grace, as in all covenants, there are, indeed, two parts, and that our part of the covenant is that we love the Lord our God with, all our heart, and with all our mind, and with all our soul, and with all our strength; but let me remark, first of all, that “parts” is not the same as “parties”; and, secondly, that our part of the covenant is not a condition which we must fulfill in order to enter into the covenant of God, but rather our expression, as rational and moral creatures, of the covenant relation which God establishes with us by His grace. The covenant is first, established with us through “God’s part” and our part follows, and is the fruit of that gracious act of God.
Nor do we ever read in Scripture of a mutual transaction between God and man, in which God stipulates certain conditions, which man accepts, and by fulfilling which, he may make himself worthy of eternal life. The covenant of works is usually described as consisting in a promise, a condition, and a penalty. The promise is said to be eternal life, the condition is obedience in regard to the probationary command not to eat of the forbidden tree, and the penalty is death. But, first of all, let it be noted that Scripture does not speak one word, in the first three chapters of Genesis, of a mutual agreement between God and Adam. It is God that acts, and He alone. He plants the tree of knowledge of good and evil in the garden, and He gives Adam the command: “thou shalt not eat of it.” The command is in no wise contingent upon Adam’s agreement or consent. He is under the law. Secondly, the idea that God promised Adam eternal life in case he obeyed this command, is a pure invention. Scripture does not speak of such a promise, nor suggest it. The notion of such a promise is deduced from the threatened penalty: death. It is argued that, since death was the penalty on disobedience, eternal life was the implied promise. And, it may be granted, Adam would not have died had he remained obedient to God’s command, but this does not imply that he would have attained to eternal life, and to heavenly glory. He would have been confirmed in the state of life in which he had been created. Moreover, we may safely state that eternal life is a form of fellowship with the living God which Adam could never attain. It is a form of life that has and requires for its basis the union of God and man established in the incarnation of the Son of God, and that has its central realization in the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. No promise of eternal life, therefore, was, nor could have been, extended to Adam, nor was the keeping of the probationary command presented to him as a condition unto that higher, heavenly life.
Nor is that other manifestation of the covenant that is called the covenant of grace ever presented in Scripture as a pact or agreement. Uniformly we read that God establishes His covenant. When, after man had violated God’s covenant, He continues and maintains it, He reveals this act of grace in a sovereign declaration: “I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed, it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel” Gen. 3:15. On man’s consent this realization of the covenant depends in no wise. Both before and immediately after the flood, the Lord says to Noah that He will establish His covenant with him, and with his seed.
The covenant is God’s, and He alone establishes it.
. The same expression is used to denote God’s covenant with Abraham. . And thus it is throughout Scripture. Through Isaiah Jehovah says to His people: “I will make an everlasting covenant of peace with you.” ; and through Jeremiah: “I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel.” ; . And the unilateral character of the covenant is clearly revealed in the vision of Jehovah to Abraham recorded in ff. Abraham, is commanded to take several sacrificial animals, divide them Into halves, and lay the pieces In a row over against each other. Jehovah then, under the symbols of a smoking furnace and a burning lamp, passes through the midst of the pieces. The meaning of this ritual of passing between the halves of the sacrificial animals must have been well known to Abraham. It symbolically expressed that the covenant was inviolably ratified, and that he that so ratified it, guaranteed it with his life, would rather go through death than annul it. Now, while in performing this ceremony the covenanting parties usually would pass through the pieces, because a covenant could not be of one, in the vision of Genesis 15 the Lord alone performs this act, thus indicating that He is His own party, and that He alone establishes His covenant. This is probably the reason, why the word BERITH is usually rendered by the Greek diatheke, which emphasizes the one-sidedness of this covenant.
To this we may add the consideration that this follows also from the fact that the covenant is historically established in the line of continued generation, and that infants as well as adults are comprehended in the covenant of God. How could they be Included in the covenant if the establishment of it were a pact, and depended upon the consent of the covenanting parties? Reformed theologians generally have felt that it is absurd to speak of the covenant as an agreement, a mutual alliance between the infinite God and the speck of dust that Is man, and, therefore, they usually admit that it is unilateral in its establishment. But if this be true, it depends throughout on God alone. It is no longer a pact. It has no conditions. God sovereignly performs all that belongs to the establishment and realization of the covenant. He alone and sovereignly determines who are to be received into covenant relation with Him. And on His faithfulness alone it is based. God is faithful! That is the reason why the covenant is eternal. He maintains it. That is why it cannot be broken. It is an everlasting covenant!
And here lies another reason why the Scriptural idea of the covenant cannot be correctly represented by those notions of it that make, it a way to salvation, or a means to an end. It is an everlasting covenant. “I will make an everlasting covenant of peace with you,”. “I will make an everlasting covenant with them,” . “And I will make an everlasting covenant with them, that I will not turn away from them, to do them good; but 1 will put my fear in their hearts, that they shall not depart from me.” . “Moreover I will make a covenant of peace with them: it shall be an everlasting covenant with them: and I will place them, and multiply them, and will set my sanctuary in the midst of them for evermore.” . Similarly, our Baptism Form speaks of an eternal covenant of grace. Now, a way is not everlasting. When the destination is reached the way is come to an end. A means is not eternal. When the thing to be effected by it has been attained, the means has served its purpose. An everlasting covenant, therefore, is not a way or means, but is the destination, the end itself. It is not accidental, but essential
(to be continued)
1. Dr. G. Vos, De Verbondsleer in do Gereformeerde Theologie, p. 15. H. Bavinck, Geveformo.erdo Dogmatiek, III, 216ff.
2. Calvin, Institutio, II, 10, 1ff.
3. Calvin, Institutio, IV, 16, 1-6.
4. G. Vos, Op. Cit. p. 6, ff.
5. Bavinek, Op. Cit. ITT, 217.
6. Coni. Belg. art, 34; Heid. Cat. qu. 74.
7. Heid. Cat. qu. 7; Conf. Belg. art. 15; Can. of Dordtrecht, III, IV, 1-3.
8. Cap. HI, IV, 1-3.
9. Westm. Conf. Cap. VI, 3.
10. Baptism Form, Doctrinal Part.
11. Westminster Conf. Cap. VVI, 1-3.
12. Institutio Theologian Elenctioae, Fr. Turrettinus, I, 517. Edinburgh, 1847.
13. P. Van. Maestricht, Beschouwende en Praktikale Godgeleerdheit, Vol. II, book III, 7 ff.
14. Idem, Vol. Ill, Book VII, 2 ff.
15. Brakel, Redelijke Godsdienst, I, 292, 353,
16. W. Heyns, Genadeverbond, p. 11, ff.
17. A. Kuyper Sr. De Leer Der Verbonden, I, II, ff.
18. A. Kuyper Sr., De Geineene Gratie, I, 287,
19. A. Kuyper, De Leer Der Verbonden, I, p. 26.
20. A. Kuyper, De Gemeene Gratie, I, 288 ff.
21. H. Bavinck, Gereformeerde Dogmatiok, III, 222,
22. Idem, II, 611, III, 211,
23. Idem, III, 241.
24. G. Vos, Systemabisehe Theologie, Compendium, p. 115.
25. F. M. Ten Hoor, Dogmatiek, p. 119.