Sunday, 29 November -0001 18:42

The Covenant of Works in Recent Discussion

Written by Rev. C. Pronk
Whatever goes around comes around. This is also true of theological controversies, including those dealing with the doctrine of the covenant. The high point, or should I say, low-point of covenantal discussions in Dutch Reformed circles, was reached in the 1920Õs and 30Õs. Our older readers will remember the heated exchanges between Rev. G.H. Kersten and Rev. J. Jongeleen (representing the NRC and FRC denominations respectively) about the question whether Scripture teaches two or three covenants. The focus in that controversy was on the question whether the Covenant of Grace should be distinguished from the Covenant of Redemption or whether the two must be viewed as identical in essence. Another issue that drew a lot of attention in those days had to do with the Covenant of Works.

While most within the Reformed community agreed that some kind of covenant relationship was established with Adam before the fall, there was and still is no agreement as to the precise nature of that relationship. Although discussions on this subject have been dormant for a number of decades, they have recently heated up again, especially in North America. The debate centres on the question whether it is biblical to speak of the covenant with Adam as a Covenant of Works. Can eternal life ever be earned by man? Was Adam before the fall not the object of GodÕs grace too, be it in a different sense than after the fall? These are important questions, which have enormous implications for the way we view GodÕs way of salvation. The key question here is this: Has our relationship with God ever been built on human works, achievement, or merit? It is not possible to answer this question with a simple ÒyesÓ or Òno.Ó

The Covenant of Works in History
The term covenant of works is not found in Scripture. The Bible does speak of works as distinguished from grace when, e.g., Paul emphasizes that we cannot be saved by our works, more specifically works of the law, but only by grace through faith in Jesus Christ who has kept the law for His people. If the Word of God does not speak of works as a way to salvation, much less of a covenant of works, when and how did the idea of such a covenant emerge?

From church history we learn that the term covenant of works as such was not used until after the Reformation. But there are hints of such a covenant in the writings of the Church Fathers and the Reformers. Augustine referred to the relationship that Adam had with God as a covenant (pactum). Calvin did not teach a covenant of works, but he did recognize a pre-fall arrangement with features that can easily be interpreted as laying the foundation for what later was developed into a full-blown covenant of works doctrine. This development took place under the direction of theologians such as Bullinger, and Olevianus, one of the authors of the Heidelberg Catechism.

By the last quarter of the 17th century, the doctrine of the covenant of works was well entrenched and formalized in various Reformed creeds, for example the Westminster Standards and the Second Helvetic Confession. In Chapter VII of the Westminster Confession we read that Òthe first covenant made with man was a covenant of works, wherein life was promised to Adam and in him to his posterity upon condition of perfect and personal obedience.Ó And in Section III of that chapter we read, ÒMan by his fall having made himself incapable of life by the way of that covenant, the Lord was pleased to make a second, commonly called the Covenant of Grace.Ó

In time this covenant of works-covenant of grace scheme also became popular in the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands. For about four centuries, covenant or federal theology, reigned supreme in Presbyterian and Reformed denominations around the world.

Contemporary Criticism
In recent years, this theology has come under a great deal of criticism, both from outside the Reformed community as well as from within. The main objection raised against federal theology is that a covenant of works implies that eternal life had to be earned by man.

Karl Barth rejects the very notion of a covenant of works because for him, God never dealt with man on any other basis than grace. In Christ, God made a covenant with the human race as created and there was nothing in that covenant that called for human works or efforts. Barth and others of the Neo-Orthodox school have influenced many in the Reformed and Presbyterian community.

Holmes Rolston III: In the 1960Õs a book was published entitled John Calvin versus the Westminster Confession. In this book, the author, Holmes Rolston III, claims that the Westminster Confession with its federal or covenant theology represents a serious departure from John Calvin who, he claims, knew nothing of a covenant of works and its corollary, the Adam-Christ representative headship idea based on what he considers a wrong interpretation of Romans 5. Rolston maintains that the relationship God established with Adam was one of grace alone. He takes sharp issue with the Federalists for saying that God did not come to primal man in a relationship of grace on the grounds that man did not yet need that grace but stood by his works (p.17).

Rolston belongs to the liberal wing of the Presbyterian Church, so one can expect such criticism. The troubling fact is, however, that increasingly one can hear similar sounds coming from those who have a reputation for being soundly Reformed.

Klaas Schilder: In the 1930Õs, certain scholars in the Netherlands devoted much time and effort to the doctrine of the covenant of works in hopes of formulating a better terminology that would do justice to the biblical facts. One of these scholars was Dr. Klaas Schilder. In his lectures on the covenant he wrote: ÒMany think that in the covenant of works man earned his own salvation and that now Christ does this for us. But the contrasting of work and grace has caused much confusionÉ Man can never earn anything with God; the law promises salvation under the pact of faith. We cannot speak here of merit. God has freely determined that it would be done in this manner. In freedom he connected merit to works, just as he connected summer to springÓ (Het Verbond, pp.13ff., cited by Clarence Stam, The Covenant of Love, p.50).

According to Schilder, everything depends on GodÕs sovereign grace, both before and after the fall. It is interesting, however, that he distinguishes between grace and favour. ÒThere was favour in Paradise,Ó he states, Òbut grace in the strict sense of that word after the fallÓ (Ibid., p.51). The idea is that grace can only be shown when there is sin. Says Schilder, ÒAs God showed his favour in Paradise, he gave his grace after the fallÓ (Ibid.). By using these two words, favour and grace, which really are quite similar, Schilder hoped to safeguard the emphasis on GodÕs grace after the fall, while at the same time focusing attention on GodÕs (unmerited) favour before the fall.

Recent Reformed Views
Similar statements can be found in the writings of such authors as S.G de Graaf, J.C. Woelderink, C. Vonk, and more recently, Norman Shepherd and Clarence Stam.

Because of this fear, lest Adam be thought of as earning or meriting eternal life, many have avoided the term covenant of works and replaced it with a variety of alternatives such as covenant of favour, covenant of life or love, the covenant with Adam, the Edenic covenant, the Adamic administration and several others. I believe this is a mistake. I will go further and say that something very important is at stake in dropping the word ÒworkÓ as descriptive of this covenant. While I can appreciate the concern of these theologians to defend the principle of grace against the danger of attributing merit to anything man can do in the way of obedience even before the fall, this concern is misplaced. The problem, as I see it, stems from confusion about the meaning of grace. If we take seriously the biblical portrayal of Adam as sinless and holy, in what sense can we speak of him as an object of grace? To substitute the word favour does not really help here because as even those who wish to substitute the word ÒfavourÓ for ÒworksÓ admit, the expression Òcovenant of favourÓ is problematic because the difference between favour and grace is one of degree rather than essence.

It is true that the Westminster Confession recognizes an element of grace in the establishment of the covenant of works when it says that it was Òby some voluntary condescension on GodÕs partÓ that He was Òpleased to enter into covenant with man.Ó In other words, God took the initiative in establishing this covenant of works, Òwherein life was promised to Adam and in him to his posterity upon condition of perfect and personal obedienceÓ (Art. VII,1,2). But once this covenant was established with man, he was able to do what was required of him and the promise was that if he did so he would receive his reward. He was, after all, created upright and endowed with original righteousness and thus able to offer to God perfect obedience and deserving the continuance of the eternal life which he enjoyed in terms of the principle enunciated by the apostle Paul, ÓTo him that worketh is the reward not reckoned of grace, but of debtÒ (Rom. 4:40). Those who insist that any relation between God and man excludes the possibility of merit are wrong. As Donald MacLeod wrote many years ago in The Banner of Truth magazine:

Paul in his polemic against legalism never argues that the
idea, ÔDo this and live!Õ is intrinsically ungodly. It
constitutes an impossible arrangement for man now, because of his
spiritual inability. But in itself there is no absurdity in the
idea that the man who fulfils the law shall, live by it. Indeed,
to say that the idea of merit is inherently inadmissible is to
strike at the relation between God and Christ, which was
certainly one of meritorious obedience. (Italics, mine, C.P)
(ÔFederal Theology-An Oppressive Legalism?Õ in The Banner of
Truth, No.125, Feb.1974, p.23).*

MacLeod here hits the nail right on the head. Most of the attempts to change the term covenant of works to something else seem to be motivated by a determination to do away with federal theology which views Adam and Christ as heading up two categories of descendants, the first Adam representing all of mankind and the Second or Last Adam (Christ) representing His elect Body, the Church. It is significant that much of the opposition to the covenant of works idea comes from neo-Calvinists both in the Netherlands and North America.

Let me quote from an article written by Dr. J. Faber, for many years professor of Systematic Theology at the Theological School of the Canadian Reformed Churches in Hamilton, Ontario. In this article he defends Dr. Norman Shepherd whose views on the covenant of works and especially justification are creating quite a controversy in Presbyterian and Reformed circles. Faber first calls attention to the fact that there is a difference between the Westminster Standards and the Three Forms of Unity when it comes to covenant theology. The Three Forms of Unity, he states, do not contain a doctrine of the so-called covenant of works. In Lord's Day 3 of the Heidelberg Catechism or in Article 14 of the Confession of Faith one would look in vain for the word covenant, let alone for the expression covenant of works. Faber then writes:

The Rev. C. Vonk, in the first volume of his De Voorzeide Leer, I
a, (The Aforesaid Doctrine) wrote a section about the so-called
covenant of works. He discusses the elaborate exposition by
Herman Witsius in The Economy of the Covenants between God and
Man. According to Witsius, the law of Moses was, at least in some
respect, a repetition of the covenant of law in Paradise. The
Rev. C. Vonk rejects this identification powerfully. Witsius
falls into the trap of the Jewish adversaries of Paul who removed
the Christ from the good Thora of MosesÉ Rev. C. Vonk does not
want to know anything of such an identification of the good Law
of Moses and the so-called Covenant of Works about which Witsius
has given such a broad and speculative analysis. Rev. Vonk grants
another the freedom to speak of a covenant between God and Adam,
but such a private opinion should not be aired as if it were an
official confession. According to him, the simple prohibition of
Genesis 2:17 is too small a basis for a complete covenant (Dr. J.
Faber, article downloaded from Spindle Works).

While Faber does not agree with Vonk as far as the use of the word covenant is concerned, because in his view the relationship between God and Adam may very well be indicated by the term covenant, he does agree with VonkÕs rejection of any idea of works in the pre-fall relationship between God and Adam, as well as the notion that a covenant of works or covenant of law had been re-established at Sinai. In his view, the term Òcovenant of works,Ó used in the Westminster Standards in distinction from the expression "covenant of grace," can only lead to misunderstanding.

I agree with Faber and Vonk that the Mosaic economy should not be construed as another covenant of works. But it does not follow from this that therefore the pre-fall covenant should be construed as a covenant of grace. To blur the distinction between these two covenants, as many within the Reformed community are doing, is dangerous and threatens the very gospel of grace.

Federal theology, as expressed in the Westminster Standards and espoused by the men of the Second Reformation in the Netherlands, understood this. Although they acknowledged the grace aspect of the pre-fall covenant, they did not, for that reason, deny that AdamÕs obedience constituted a potentially meritorious work.

They did so because they recognized the vital importance of the Adam-Christ parallel set forth by the apostle Paul in Romans 5:12-25. The point of that parallel is to compare and contrast the obedience of Christ and the disobedience of Adam in terms of the requirements of the Law The important thing to remember in this connection is that ChristÕs passive and active obedience is to be viewed as the fulfillment of the terms of the covenant made originally with Adam. It is this covenantal context, in which Christ performed his atoning work, which is being denied by many. But this in effect destroys the Pauline parallel. No longer is the obedience required of Adam and Christ viewed as obedience to GodÕs law, but as an expression of thankfulness for His grace. Thus, by insisting that Adam could never have earned eternal life by his obedience, the opponents of federal theology Òend up with a very different conception of ChristÕs active obedienceÓ (Karl W. Karlberg, Covenant Theology in Reformed Perspective, p. 215).

Norman Shepherd, the leading spokesman for this Ònew perspectiveÓ on the covenant, puts it this way:

God always treats human beings on the basis of his sovereign
grace and promise. Just as children never ÔmeritÕ their fathersÕ
favor by their good works, so human beings never ÔmeritÕ GodÕs
favor by their obedience to covenant obligationsÉ What God
required of Adam, he requires of Abraham and all believers,
including Christ. (The Call of Grace, pp. 39ff.)

Cornelis Venema, reviewing this book, comments:

In his description of ChristÕs saving work, Shepherd uses the
same language that he earlier used to describe AbrahamÕs
faith: ÔHis [ChristÕs] was a living, active, and obedient faith
that took him all the way to the cross. This faith was credited
to him as righteousnessÕ (p. 19). By this language Shepherd
treats Christ as though he were little more than a model believer
whose obedient faith constituted the ground for his acceptance
with God in the same way that AbrahamÕs (and any believerÕs)
obedient faith constitutes the basis for his acceptance with God.
In his zeal to identify the covenant relationship between God and
man in its pre-and post-fall administrations, Shepherd leaves
little room to describe ChristÕs work as Mediator of the covenant
that honors the uniqueness, perfection and sufficiency of
ChristÕs accomplishment for the salvation of his people.

Needless to say, this Ònew perspectiveÓ on the covenant of works has ramifications for the way other doctrines of Scripture are viewed, especially the doctrine of justification. Federal theologians such as Wilhelmus a Brakel understood this very well. Convinced of the interrelatedness of the covenant of works with the doctrines of grace, he writes

Acquaintance with this covenant is of the greatest importance,
for whoever errs here or denies the existence of the covenant of
works, will not understand the covenant of grace, and will
readily err concerning the mediatorship of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Such a person will very readily deny that Christ by His active
obedience has merited a right to eternal life for the elect. (The
ChristianÕs Reasonable Service, Vol. I, p.355).

*Be aware that Dr. MacLeod has become a controversial figure in the Free Church of Scotland. Allegations against his personal conduct have resulted in the formation of a new denomination, the Free Church of Scotland (Continuing). The article quoted here was written in 1974 when Dr. MacLeod was still regarded as a very able Reformed theologian whose frequent contributions to the Banner of Truth magazine were greatly appreciated.

Next month, D.V., we will take a closer look at Dr. Norman ShepherdÕs view on justification.

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