Fathers and Brethren, at the opening of our General Assembly for 1983 I propose to address you on the need for a reappraisal and a reaffirmation of Covenant or Federal Theology. In taking up this subject I entertain no pretensions of being able to shed any original light on a theme which has been so thoroughly and eruditely covered for centuries within the Reformed tradition. There are two things that move me to take up the subject. First of all the fact that our Confessional position has been under attack quite a lot of late. It is not a new thing for the Confession to be under attack. It has been relentlessly assailed for the last century and a half. But what is new is the form that the attack is taking. We are now told that the Confession, at least in part. is neither Biblical nor Reformed. When challenged in this way we must for our own peace of mind and integrity of faith test the truth or falsehood of the charge.
The historical aspect
Dealing first with the historical aspect of the subject there are two distinct, though closely related. matters to be considered under this division. Firstly, the question of the origin of Federalism. Secondly the order of its historical development in Reformed Dogmatics. We shall consider these two points and in the order stated. Johannes Cocceius. the Dutch divine of the mid-seventeenth century. has often been regarded as the father of Federal Theology. He has been accorded this distinction not only by people with scant acquaintance with historical theology but even in so respected a source as the Schaff-Herzogg Encyclopadeia of Religious Knowledge (Third Edition), the article on Cocceius by A. Ebrard could very well suggest the conclusion that Cocceius. by adopting the contextual method of exegesis, had furnished the church with a Federal Theology “de novo”. Upon assumptions of this nature the assertion has frequently been based that Covenant Theology is an extraneous importation into the theological thought of the church in our land. A more careful examination of sources will show conclusively that the covenant concept had taken firm hold of the theological mind of Scotland long before Cocceius had published his Sum ma Doctrinae de Foedere et Testamentis Dei.
Robert Rollock, who was Principal of Edinburgh University. published his Tractatus de Vocatione Efficacia in 1590; there was an English translation by Robert Holland published in London 1603. This translated edition was reprinted in 1849 for the Woodrow Society. Chapter 2 of the 1849 edition is entitled, “Of the Word of God or of the Covenant of God in General and of the Covenant of Works in Special”. Rollock’s work follows the method of treatment prevalent amongst divines of the time but is commonly regarded as being original in his development of some aspects of the Covenant of Works and is credited by many students of historical theology with deeper theological insights than perhaps James Walker’s summing up of him as “Neither brilliant nor powerful”, would seem to suggest. Somewhat later than Rollock, but still some time before the appearance of Cocceius’ work, the covenant scheme in respect of both Works and Grace was fully developed in the writings of second Reformation Theologians, such as Dickson. Rutherford and Gillespie. In a footnote to his histoty of the Westminster Assembly, Professor A. F. Mitchell states, “With respect to the doctrine of the Covenants, which some assert to have been derived from Holland, I think myself, after careful investigation, entitled to maintain that there is nothing taught in the Confession which had not been long before in substance taught by Rollock and Howie in Scotland and by Cartwright. Preston, Perkins, Ames and Bail in England”. He then goes on to say, “The work of Cocceius. in its final form was not given to the world till after the Confession had been completed and published nor was it put into the shape in which we now have it till 1654 by which time several other treatises had issued from the English press
The point is frequently made nowadays, by way of adverse criticism of our Westminster Confession, that the Covenant concept is not found in any of the earlier Reformed Symbols. As a historical fact this is generally accurate; though as Philip Schaff points out in his Creeds of Christendom, the covenant concept found a place in the Irish Articles of 1615, principally drawn up by Archbishop Ussher. These he states prepared the way for the doctrinal standards of the Westminster Confession. However the interpretation that is now frequently put by the critics on the absence of the covenant concept from Reformed Symbols prior to the Westminster Confession — that this proves that the Confession is not truly Reformed — is not correct. C. G. McCrie states in his Chalmers Lectures of 1906: “While there is a marked absence of Federalism in the Symbols of the churches up to the time of the Westminster Assembly that method of construing the divine relations and dealings as revealed in scripture had undoubtedly taken hold of the theological mind long before the learned and judicious divines of the convocation began their work of Creed construction. Among continental theologians Henry Bullinger made use of the federal scheme in his writings and his example was followed by Peter Martyr when lecturing at Oxford on the Epistle to the Romans; by Martin Bucer at Cambridge and John a Lasco at London.” A perusal of a work like Heinrick Heppe’s Reformed Dogmatics will confirm the correctness of Mitchell’s and McCrie’s account of the historical situation. Closer to home a careful reading of chapters 1 and 2 of The Marrow of Modern Divinity will evince the accuracy of their account. Chapter 1 deals with the Covenant of Works. Chapter 2 with the Covenant of Grace. They are full of references and paraphrasings of the works of men like Bullinger, Wolfgang Musculus, Zacharius Ursinus, not to mention Luther, Calvin and Beza, in support of a presentation of the gospel that is federal through and through.
A matter that we need to consider briefly is whether Covenant Theology is Reformed or Lutheran in its origin. It has been strongly argued that federal theology is an evolution of Melanchthonian teaching. The main plank in this argument is the important part played by Ursinus in its development. Ursinus, the co-author with Casper Olevianus of the Heidelberg Catechism was a pupil and friend of Philip Melanchthon and it is suggested that he derived his federalism from the later Melanchthon’s teaching. Heppe was the principal proponent of the theory of Melanchthonian origin. In his foreword to Heppe’s Dogmatics — Ernst Bizer’s edition — Karl Barth writes, “On Heppe’s historical outlook we should note that according to him, wonderful to relate, not Calvin but the later Melanchthon must have been the father of Reformed Dogmatics.” The accuracy of Heppe’s historical construction has been challenged by Geerhardus Vos in his article The Doctrine of the Covenant in Reformed Theology and more recently still by Peter Allan Libback in the 1981 Spring edition of the Westminster Theological Journal in an erudite article, Ursin us’ Development of the Covenant of Creation: a debt to Melanchthon or to Calvin? Both Vos and Libback have successfully established the inaccuracy of Heppe’s construction and proved that federalism is a truly Reformed concept originating not from Germany but from Switzerland.
Let us now look at the second aspect of the historical question: The doctrine’s development as distinct from its origin. As one would expect, the doctrine was not given to the theological world in its all-round completeness the moment that it was first enunciated. No doctrine of our faith was. Nor was the historical evolution exactly along the lines on which it is now arranged in works of Dogmatics. Initially the term covenant was restricted to the relation of God to man in the sphere of redemptive grace as revealed in history. It is generally accepted that the impetus for the development of the doctrine of the covenant in the sphere of grace derived from the need to assert and maintain the paedo-baptist position against anabaptist attack; just as Hugh Martin, in the last century recognised the futility of attempting a defence of vicarious atonement other than in the context of the covenant. The probability that this was indeed the case is substantiated by the fact that the earliest appearance of the covenant notion in Reformed Symbols is in connection with infant baptism (c.f. Heidelberg Catechism, 74; Belgic Confession XXXIV). The Catechism puts the question, “Are infants to be baptized?” The answer is, “Yes, for since they as well as adults are included in the covenant and church of God”. Ursinus in his commentary on the catechism says “They — i.e. the Anabaptists — manifestly detract from the grace of the new covenant, and narrow down that of the old, inasmuch as they refuse to extend baptism to infants”.
Initially the doctrine of the Covenant of Grace was limited to the sphere of Historical Revelation. Subsequently theologians included in their formulations of it the inter-trinitarian counsel for the redemption of sinners. By the time of Boston the Covenant was thought of primarily in terms of inter-trinitarian economy and only secondarily in the historical revelation of it. With the incorporation of the eternal counsel of God into the covenant scheme came the division of the Covenant of Grace into a twofold arrangement. The Covenant in its eternal dimension came to be known as the Covenant of Redemption, the covenantal arrangement of historical revelation as the Covenant of Grace. Many of the federal theologians objected to this bifurcation of the economy of grace. Also much discussion took place concerning whether the covenant was conditional or unconditional. This point was hotly disputed among theologians in England. As an example of the unconditional point of view one can read Boston on the Covenant of Grace. The conditional position is put by Charles Hodge in Volume 2 of his Systematic Theology. In a strange way these discussions had on both sides as their motif a jealousy for the Sola Gratia of Reformed Theology.
Frequently nowadays the Confession of Faith is faulted because the Covenant of Works is included in it as an article of faith, the argument being that the Creation ordinance is not designated a Covenant in scripture. But, though it may be a mere cliché to say so, neither is the term Trinity used to describe the tri-personalism of the Godhead yet all Symbols have the Trinity as an article of faith. Sometimes the objection is to the term Works. So far as the Confession is concerned its statement on this point of doctrine gives most felicitous expression to the sovereign goodness of God in His dealings with the first Adam. “The distance between God and the creature is so great, that although reasonable creatures do owe obedience unto him as their Creator, yet they could never have any fruition of him as their blessedness and reward, but by some voluntary condescension on God’s part, which he has been pleased to express by way of covenant” (Westminster Confession, Chap. VII. Sec. 1). It reminds one of Rollock’s manner of stating things: “God speaks nothing to man without a covenant”. In the seventeenth century there were further developments chiefly in two areas. The covenant came to be thought of more and more in terms of the prospect of the blessedness that God set before man, hence the use of the designation Covenant of Life in our two Catechisms. And perhaps more importantly, the forensic bond between Adam and his posterity was stressed in addition to the natural oneness between parent and seed. A perusal of Calvin’s commentaries on Romans and I Corinthians will show that it was the natural bond that was emphasised by the early Reformers.
These are but a few of the issues that marked the development of Covenant doctrine within Reformed cirles. So dominant did the notion of federalism become in Reformed Dogmatics that Johanan Heinrich Heideger asserts, “The marrow and as it were the sort of centre of the whole of scripture is the Berith to which as their most Target-like Target everything comprised in them must be referred.”
But by the middle of last century dramatic changes took place in the field of Biblical studies. The erosion of the Bible as the word of God is the root cause of the shift that took place and it was inevitable that federal theology, that took as its basic presupposition the divinity of the scripture, would be a certain casualty. Hugh Martin in his work on the Atonement, towards the close of last century. observed, “The federal theology is at present suffering a measure of neglect which does not bode well for the immediate future amongst us”. If this was not a prophetic statement it was at least far-seeing and accurate. However notwithstanding this decline in the present fortunes of federalism its reformed pedigree is unassailable.
Is covenant theology biblical?
There we must leave the question as to the history of this doctrine, and move on to our second division and consider the evidence that Covenant Theology is totally biblical. In volume 34, No. 3 of the Scottish Journal of Theology. Professor James Torrance has an article on the Covenant Concept in Scottish Theology and Politics and its Legacy. The article is interesting in its analysis of the three main strands of thought contained in the Socio-Political Philosophy of 17th Century Scotland. But in its treatment of so-called federal Calvinism we judge it to be very misleading. In the first instance from a historical point of view the mere absence of the federal scheme from the writings of Calvin and other first generation reformers cannot be taken as proof that their writings do not incorporate the doctrines of federalism. But more to the point here than the question of history is the claim that the federal scheme was built upon “a deep-seated confusion between a Covenant and a Contract, a failure to recognise that the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is a Covenant-God and not a Contract-God”; and that in this way “they inverted the biblical order of law and grace”. The motif of this criticism is quite clear. It is to devalue the Westminster Confession and to effect a disjunction between it and the teachings of the Reformers. We would reply that only a deep-seated theological bias could so represent the teaching of the Confession and of the federal theologians. Professor Torrance’s contrast of the marriage covenant (the type of the biblical covenant) and the legal arrangement (the type of the covenant of the federal theologians) is jejune. His quotation from Boston that he had no fondness for the conditionality of the Covenant of Grace is somewhat misleading since it does not bring out Boston’s distinction between the covenantal and testamentary aspects of that particular scheme of federalism. We have felt compelled to make this rather extensive reference to this particular article because its plausibility might unsettle some people’s confidence in the biblicalness of our Westminster Confession.
More frequently the origin of federalism has been otherwise explained as a reaction to a supposed scholasticism that crept into Reformed Dogmatics via Beza. John W. Beardslee III, the editor of a volume on Reformed Dogmatics, states in the introduction for that volume that Reformed theology came to ignore its own resources subsequent to Beza and allowed method to triumph over content and that it was as a result of this oversight that the work of Cocceius came on the scene. But that the idea of a God who dealt personally with man through a covenant filled the need. And that this covenant idea had been present in Reformed Dogmatics from the first. Thus federalism far from being scholastic is considered to be the antidote to scholasticism. The contribution of Cocceius to this development is described by J. Barton Payne as follows, ‘He sought to develop a Biblical approach to doctrine, as opposed to the prevalent dogmatic approach. Furthermore by arranging his thoughts around God’s successively revealed covenants, he indeed grasped scripture’s own key to the progress of divine revelation.” This may be an over-generous tribute to the distinctive part played by Cocceius in the matter. Geerhardus Vos expresses the matter somewhat differently. Speaking of the doctrine of the Covenant, he says. “With full force it lays hold of theological thinking. — i.e. of Reformed theological thinking — which in many cases it bends in a distinctive direction. The last mentioned phenomenon has caused some to be of the opinion that, the doctrine of the covenant was something new, which did indeed grow up in Reformed soil, but which nevertheless first came to light in Cocceius and his school. Cocceianism and covenant theology would then amount to the same thing. If that is taken to mean that Cocceius was the first to make the covenant idea the dominant concept of his system, then there is some truth to this opinion. Yet even then it cannot be fully agreed with. Cloppenburg and Gellius Snecanus had already come up with a covenant theology in the Netherlands, and the same can be said of Olevianus in Germany. What was new in Cocceius was not his covenant theology as such, but rather the historical conclusions for the economy of redemption which he drew from the covenant concept. When these conclusions became apparent, the struggle against Cocceianism was on”. This last remark I believe refers to Cocceius’ Arminian and antinomian tendencies and his disputes with Gisbert Voetius.
We have spoken of the plausibility of Professor Torrance’s representation of the issue. This plausibility derives from the fact that it is generally recognised that some federal theologians allowed their understanding of the Berith as a “dipleuric” arrangement to affect their formulation of the federal theology. But while the methodology which these men made use of may be subject to criticism this does not mean that the content of their theology was unbiblical. Professor Murray in his monograph The Covenant of Grace has made such a criticism, as one who was committed to the monopleuric nature of the Berith and though in this respect he parts company with many of the federalists he has not on that account rejected the content of their theology.
We make only a passing reference here to one the most controversial issues in Biblical Theology: what is the essential character of the Berith. especially of the Covenant of God with man? There are two questions at issue here. First, What is it that marks out a divine arrangement with man as a Berith? Vos in his Biblical Theology states it in this way: “The real reason lies in the fact that the arrangement spoken of is concluded by some special religious sanction. This, and not its being an agreement, makes it a Berith. And similarly in other connections. A purely one-sided promise or ordinance or law becomes a Berith, not by reason of its inherent conceptual or etymological meaning, but by reason of the religious sanction added. From this it will be understood that the outstanding characteristic of the Berith is its unalterableness, its certainly, its eternal validity.” Meredith G. Kline, in his book By Oath Consigned, defines it somewhat differently; “In general, then, a Covenant may be defined as a relationship under sanctions. The Covenantal commitment is characteristically expressed by an oath sworn in the solemnities of a covenant ratification.” Others place a greater emphasis on the cultic activities associated with covenant making. All these representations have much to offer in helping us to appreciate what constitutes a divine agreement with man a Berith but none of them leave us without questions on the basis of some Biblical data or other.
The second point here that demands consideration is of much greater significance to Federal Theology. What kind of an agreement is a covenant of God with man? What kind of an agreement between God and man is a Berith agreement? Much learned investigation has been expended on the etymology of the word Berith but the conclusion of the research is somewhat uncertain and it is now generally accepted that the etymology of the word does not offer much help in the way of understanding what is the precise nature of the Berith. Also there has been in recent times a great deal of investigation of the forms of Covenant found in extra-biblical literature. This is a very specialised field of scholarship and though its conclusions cannot be ignored in the end one has to come back to the text of scripture to be on safe grounds in our formulations. So far as Old Testament usage is concerned Berith does not have a uniform connotation. This is especially evident in covenants between men. But even in covenants between God and man it is recognised that it is used in more than one sense. In some instances it is used with the sense of an unconditional promissory covenant, what is nowadays called a Covenant of Grant. The Covenant of God with Abraham as recorded in Genesis 15 is generally cited as the classic example of this type of Covenant. In other instances it has the sense of a conditional law Covenant, what is now spoken of as a Suzerainty Covenant. The Covenant with Israel at Sinai recorded in Exodus 19-24 is cited as the classic example of this type of Covenant. Kline sums up the matter as follows, “Historical exegesis therefore contradicts any claim that might be made for the exclusive propriety of the use of Covenant for the divine dispensations of guaranteed promise. The evidence from all sides converges to demonstrate that the Systematic Theologian possess ample warrant to speak both of ‘Promise Covenant’ and, in sharp distinction from that, of ‘Law Covenant’.” However, we would point out that there are lines of Biblical reasoning that should make us cautious about effecting too great a disjunction between these two forms of divine Covenant administration. We refer here particularly to such a synthesis of biblical history as we have in places like Psalm 105. It is not apparent that the Psalmist sees so radical a distinction between the divine commitment in the one situation from the other as Kline might suggest.
One of the questions that has arisen in the consideration of the nature of the Covenant is whether there is an antithesis between the Old Testament Berith and the New Testament Diatheke. The substance of the argument that such an antithesis exists is derived from the contention that Berith in its Old Testament usage has as its predominant nuance of meaning the idea of contract, whereas it is maintained that Diatheke signifies primarily a testament or last will. In the first place we have already seen that contract is not by any means the exclusive meaning of the Berith, perhaps not even its primary meaning in a divine covenant. The case with Diath eke is somewhat more complex. It is generally agreed that in the papyri the meaning is well nigh exclusively testament in the sense of last will and that even in the classical period this meaning predominates. All sorts of conclusions have been drawn from this, perhaps the most reprehensible being that the Septuagint translators have been guilty of a happy blunder and that as a result we have had the much more anthropomorphic concept of contract replaced by the more religiously spiritual testament. This implies that the Old Testament notion of Covenant was a very puerile religious idea. However scholars are not ready to accept that Diatheke was so wedded to the “last will” signification that it could not mean something else. And indeed many hold strongly that it does have another meaning, namely, that of disposition. In his book, Hebrews the Epistle of the Diatheke, Vos states the matter as follows: “In most cases the idea associated with the Diatheke is that of a one-sided disposition made by God. In this the stress is laid on the sovereignty of divine grace. But this sovereignty is not felt by the writers as in any sense confined to the new dispensation. Both in connection with law and grace they find it expressed in the Hebrew Berith.” Another point bearing on this aspect of the question is the dual relationship of the Old Covenant with the New Covenant. Theologically we must not equate the Old Covenant with the canon of the Old Testament nor the new Covenant with the canon of the New Testament. In the epistle to the Galatians Paul from a theological point of view identifies the Abrahamic Covenant with the New Covenant and the Old Covenant with the Sinaitic administration. The question then has to do with the dual relationship of these two Covenants. There is a relationship of compatibility and of incompatibility. This must not be identified with the comparison and contrast between Adam and Christ in Romans 5. What then do we make of this dual relationship of compatibility and incompatibility between the two Covenants? It is by no means as easy question. May not the role of the compatibility of the Sinaitic Covenant with the Abrahamic Covenant be found in its very incompatibility. As Paul expresses it in Galatians 3: 24, “The law was our Paidagogos to bring us to Christ so that we might be justified by faith”. This is one of the hardest knots to untie in Biblical Theology.
We may sum up our thoughts on this aspect of the subject as follows. The idea of the covenant is present, not just in isolated texts of the Old and New Testaments but, as Hugh Martin would say, with his penchant for logic. ‘The federal theology may be justified as the inevitable result of a large and complete induction of particulars from scripture”. But we may say even more than this. The concept of the covenant is of all biblical ideas that which serves best as an organising principle for Biblical theology in not a few of its subjects. Geerhardus Vos in his study on Hebrews, traces the influence which the covenantal understanding of the relation between God and man has had on the theology of the epistle, especially on the doctrine of Revelation. After having considered the matter soteriologically he then relates the matter to eschatology and says, “The epistle does not content itself with dividing the history of revelation into two Diatheke from a purely soteriological point of view: it brings the covenant idea into connection with eschatology and by doing this introduces into it the breadth and absoluteness that pertains to the eschatological outlook. So long as the consciousness of redemption contents itself with living in the present moment, or ranges over a limited outlook backwards and forwards, the theological impulse may remain dormant and no desire need be felt to bring order and system into the wealth of divine acts and disclosures, as one after the other they enter into the cognition or experience of man. But the matter becomes entirely different when eschatology posits an absolute goal at the end of the redemptive process corresponding to an absolute beginning of the world in creation, for then no longer a segment but the whole sweep of history is drawn into one great perspective, and the mind is impelled to view every part in relation to the whole.” Two concluding remarks on this point will suffice. The biblicalness of our federal theology is not in doubt but the need for an ongoing study to explicate more and more the wealth of biblical data on the subject is mandatory.
From the point of view of the developments in Systematics in the twentieth century. to engage in a reappraisal of federal theology might seem to be as out of date as reintroducing Bleriot’s Airship into the modern world of Air travel. Though such derogatory analogies are frequently applied to traditional evangelical theology, yet they do not really apply for we are not comparing like with like. Twentieth century theology, other than the evangelical kind, is a different theological species. Whereas orthodox theological thought sought the systematisation of an objectively authentic revelation twentieth century Systematics is by and large, a categorisation of religious experiences and cultic practices. It is an attempt to arrive at a satisfactory and adequate description of religion as a human phenomenon. albeit as man is affected by a sense of deity. Even the so-called theology of the word is deeply affected by this factor; for none have escaped the dark spectre of Phenomenalism. But so long as we hold to the objective factuality and truthfulness of the inscripturated word of God then non-evangelical twentieth century Systematics will remain for us an illicit theology and the study of Federal Theology, as indeed every other aspect of Reformed Dogmatics, will be the legitimate and obligatory subject of theological investigation.
We may begin our reappraisal by way of a few observations on the more usual form in which we find federal theology arrayed in works on Dogmatics. But first a remark on the fact that a section on federalism cannot be an isolated and unrelated locus in the body of Dogmatics. Its influence will spread to every department and colour inevitably the whole of Theology. The covenant of works is usually subsumed under the section on anthropology; then under the locus on soteriology we have the Covenant of Grace, frequently sub-divided into two sections, Covenant of Redemption and Covenant of Grace. There are variations to this arrangement. In Berkhof’s Systematic Theology all aspects of Covenant theology are subsumed under the locus on anthropology, which he calls “The Doctrine of Man in Relation to God”. These differences in arrangement are not without interest to Dogmatics in general and to Covenant Theology in particular but the substance of the doctrine is not affected by these differences in arrangement to any appreciable degree. The arrangement. it will be seen, does not follow either the lines of historical development or for that matter that of Biblical Theology, strictly speaking, but it does follow the line of Bible History and this is not a small point in its favour. It shows that it is not solely the logic of Systematics that governs the arrangement. In our reappraisal we wish to consider not so much whether the sequence or arrangement is good but more importantly such matters as: Is it proper to speak of the pre-fall Adamic administration as a Covenant of Works? Is the Covenant of Redemption as a separate division from the Covenant of Grace biblically acceptable?
The late John Murray, though in close agreement with men like Hodge and Berkhof in his view of the substance of pre-redemptive revelation, yet did not favour speaking of it as a Covenant of Works. Murray’s hesitancy to adopt the traditional scheme went deeper than a mere caveat about the suitability of terms. Many object to the designation Covenant of Works because they feel the term Works does not adequately reflect the divine benevolence implicit in the agreement; but they are in full accord with viewing the initial Adamic administration as a Covenant. Murray’s objection is based on two considerations. First, that it is not so designated in scripture. Too much importance was not attached by him to this; he only considered it as favouring his own position. The real ground for his objection to the Covenant of Works notion was that he held that a Divine Covenant was an unconditional promise of God bound with sanctions and that the Adamic administration was not that kind of divine provision. The objection is valid only if Murray’s understanding of the nature of a Divine Covenant is correct and this as we saw is largely disputed.
Meredith G. Kline, on the other hand, on the basis of his analysis of the divine Berith — an analysis in which indeed he sees Law-Covenant as having the priority — puts forward a very strong case for maintaining that the divine arrangement with man, in his original state, is clearly of a covenant nature. Regardless of whether one accepts Kline’s position of the priority of Law-Covenant or of the Systematic Theology that he built upon that proposition, his case for the biblical validity of the concept of the covenant of works is a strong one.
First he shows how it fully corresponds with the Law-type of covenant; then he underscores the many comparisons between it and the Noachian economy, which is specifically designated a covenant; then he cites the “Two Adam” scheme of Romans 5 and I Corinthians 15 as further Biblical support that the original Edenic administration must be included in the total covenantal framework of systematics. And in conclusion he asserts “that failure on the part of Systematics to develop this synthesis already found in Scripture may deprive Dogmatics of the conceptual apparatus required for a satisfactory synthesis of the Redemptive Covenant”. A more philosophical argument is put forward by Geerhardus Vos in his article The Covenant in Reformed theology, to demonstrate that the Covenant of Works concept is of the very essence of Reformed Theology. In this article Vos shows how the Covenant of Works idea derives from the Biblical purity of Reformed anthropology as distinct from the Roman and even the Lutheran anthropology. And, in addition, that it enshrined the So/i Deo Gloria in its formulation as no other view of Man in his pristine state does in his relation to God.
The tendency to view the Edenic arrangement as an arbitrary imposition of the will of the Almighty on his creatures with catastrophic consequences for man, is a pitfall which many have not altogether escaped. How utterly different from this is the soul-satisfying perspective in which we find the matter presented in the construction of Covenant Theology. God owes man nothing, but of His mere good pleasure He reveals that it is His will that man should enjoy the blessedness of heavenly and unloseable communion with Himself. To this end He enters into covenant with man, appointing terms and conditions in perfect affinity with the nature that God had endowed him with and wholly consonant with his favoured position. For such reasons it has frequently been called the Covenant of Nature or the Covenant of Life. What could be more redolent of the divine benevolence than the way our Confession of Faith represents this scriptural doctrine in Chapter VII, Section I?
Continuing our reappraisal we now make some observations on the Covenant of Redemption. James Walker in his book Scottish Theology and Theologians notes that this was a matter of some dispute in Scottish Theology. “Dickson and Rutherford spoke of both the Covenant of Redemption and the Covenant of Grace or Reconciliation. Boston and Gib refused the distinction between the Covenant of Redemption and the Covenant of Grace asserting that there is no such distinction in the Bible, the covenant of redemption and the covenant of grace being only two names of the same thing.” Murray does not favour this construction either, because in his view a covenant is something that belongs to the sphere of history and not to the sphere of eternity. Kline also feels that it is an unnecessary bifurcation of the covenant of grace arising out of a failure to appreciate the priority of the Law-type of Covenant. On his scheme of the priority of the Law-type of Covenant the Pactum Salutis belongs to the essence of the Covenant of Grace and the promissory aspect of the Covenant which is the more specialised feature is then subsumed under the more general rubric. This is an interesting presentation of things but it raises many questions. Especially it poses the question whether there is not a danger of an unscriptural legalism involved in its basic presupposition. Nevertheless Kline’s systematisation of the covenant data deserves very careful study. The organising of the Covenant of Grace into two distinct though intimately related covenants had been attributed to Cocceius, indeed it is said that it is his one principal original contribution to Federal Theology. But Heppe disputes Cocceius’ originality in this matter. What is more important to us than its precise historical origin? Is it a biblical concept? The direct Biblical data brought forward in support of the Covenant of Redemption is quite well known: Such passages as Zechariah 6: 13, “The counsel of peace”; Psalm 89; those passages which refer to the “Counsel of God’s will” as Ephesians 1: 4; the passages in which Christ speaks of having been sent by the Father; and Psalm 40: 6-8 in the light of the commentary on it in the Epistle to the Hebrews. These are some of the better-known bible data cited in support of the Covenant of Redemption concept. But apart from such specific scripture passages it is generally maintained that only in God’s eternal counsel does the covenant idea truly achieve its perfection. Here again it is urged that the truly reformed principle of So/i Deo Gloria and the covenant principle are interlocked: inasmuch as the work of salvation is seen to be the work of God exclusively. The Lutherans also maintain that the work of salvation is the work of God exclusively but they hold this from the point of view of the assurance of faith only, whereas Reformed theology holds it from the nobler motive that all glory in salvation belongs to God alone.
One of the objections raised against the Covenant of Redemption is that it draws the Covenant back into the decree of predestination. But theologians like Owen and Hugh Martin carefully distinguished between the eternal decree and the counsel of peace. The dogma of the Covenant of Redemption is something more than a working over of the decree of election. Vos states it thus. “It is eternal in so far as it falls within the Trinity, within the divine being that exists in eternity, but not eternal in the sense that it is elevated above history”. If a principal motif can be discovered it is to concentrate the covenant in the Mediator and to demonstrate the unity between the accomplishment and application of salvation in Christ. A point of some controversy in our own time.
Though the larger number of theologians, particularly outwith Scotland have preferred the bi-fold covenant arrangement, yet they have always cautioned us that we do not have here two independent covenants but two modes of the one covenant of sovereign mercy. Here also we see the wisdom of not including mere nuances of interpretation in our Confession. The counsel of Redemption does not stand by itself alone; it is but the prelude and basis of the Covenant of Grace. The nexus between all covenant administration by God is historically manifested in the divine activity after the Fall of man. God seeks the guilty fugitive, to effect his Salvation from sin’s ruin. This manifestation of the divine mercy could only have been on the basis of a covenantal purpose to redeem sinners that predated the Fall. Indeed if there was no Covenant of Redemption there could be no Covenant of Grace. And here also we see that in establishing his Covenant of Grace with fallen man, the covenant of works is also confirmed by God both in the penalty inflicted and in the transfer of its obligations to the seed of the woman. There is an eternal purpose, which God has purposed IN Himself, according to which He works everything after His Eudokia. The arrangement of the different elements of the Covenant of Grace in a satisfactory manner is no small task and a full treatment is quite beyond the scope of this address. Only the briefest reference to one or two more relevant aspects can be made. The Covenant is Trinitarian. It is in covenant grace that the sublime truth of the tri-personalism of the Godhead is most gloriously manifested and more particularly this tri-personalism in their economical relations. And in accordance with the Father’s purpose to gather together in one all things in heaven and on earth in Christ, so we find the covenant concentrated in the Mediator. In the prophet’s words “He is given as a covenant to the people”. Sinners participate in the covenant by being united to Christ and in Christ united with one another. Disunity is not in accordance with covenant grace. The cumulative testimony of scripture, the significance of the sealing ordinance of baptism, and the declared purpose of the Holy Spirit’s ministry is to effect this union of life in Christ. It is effected, not impersonally, but through the conscious experience of the covenant members and so the whole Ordo Salutis is embraced by the covenant as declared in Jeremiah 31 and Hebrews 10.
Many today disdain federalism as some kind of theological fossil that is arid and contrary to evangelical zeal and missionary enterprise. But far from this being the case we see that it carries in its bosom the riches of divine grace because in a very real sense its substance is nothing other than the wealth of divine goodness and mercy dwelling in the blessed redeemer. To acquire proficiency in this branch of Reformed Dogmatics will demand of one to be a close student of the word of God and diligent in keeping abreast of modern Biblical studies. We cannot over-recommend this pursuit to the ministry of our Church.
The implications of a reaffirmation
I come now to my final section, What are the implications of a reaffirmation of Covenant Theology? If we could face up to the full implications of federalism, we shall need an abundant portion of the spirit of love and of power and of a sound mind. We must be fully established in the Reformed pedigree, Biblical validity and Systematic relevancy of the Covenant scheme; we must also be gracious and generous in our fellowship with one another for the task is challenging.
The first issue that we need to consider here is with whom does God make the Covenant of Grace? This has been one of the most debated points of Covenant theology. Our Larger Catechism is quite define on this: “The covenant of grace was made with Christ as the second Adam, and in Him with all the elect as His seed”. The Confession and the Shorter Catechism are less positive in their declaration. This difference of emphasis has been frequently noted. But the vast majority of theologians, though fully aware of the practical problems involved in it, have felt constrained through the cumulative testimony of scripture to adopt the position stated in our larger Catechism. May I add, in case someone should think that I am suggesting that the Confession is weak on the doctrine of election, that far from this being the case it is forthrightly and fully confessed in Chapter 3 “Of God’s Eternal Decree”. There are good biblical reasons why the doctrine of election was not subsumed under the section on the Covenant. That we must pass by at present. But to return from this digression. Many theologians did not favour speaking of the covenant in its historical manifestation as being made with the elect. Boston was one of those who did not favour this. His great objection to speaking of the covenant in its historical manifestation, as being made with the elect, was that this would make no allowance for the fact of covenant breakers. All of the elect have the covenant fully realised in their experience. But even those theologians who spoke of the covenant as being made with the elect yet recognised that there was a sense in which the covenant was also made with others besides the elect. All sorts of distinctions have been drawn to cope with this difficulty: An Inner and Outer Covenant; a Conditional and Unconditional Covenant; a Covenant in Essence and in Administration. All these suggestions for a solution are in some measure unsatisfactory. Principally they all suggest the existence of a covenant of which there is not a trace in scripture. The crux of the issue is that we have in scripture explicitly revealed to us the fact that covenant blessings are infallibly bestowed by God in accordance with an election from all eternity and that also we have blessings promised to believers and their seed and held out in the gospel to sinners of mankind at large. The problem then is to work out a coherent and faithful doctrine of the covenant. Out of a pastoral concern I must make two points here regarding election. It is not to be regarded as some kind of arbitrary decision by a capricious deity. There is no caprice with God. He is without partiality. Election is rather the root of our interest in, our assurance of, and our perseverance in the Grace of the Covenant. Failure to accept and appreciate it leads to formalism, legalism and may even lead to reprobation as with Israel after the flesh in large part. It is to election that we must look for our security and comfort, but for our hope of obtaining, for ourselves and for our children, an interest in the covenant we must look to the promise of God who says, “I will be a God to thee and to thy seed after thee”. Hence when we assert that the covenant belongs to believers and to their children we are not obscuring the fact of election.
Rather than raise the question, What is the import of Baptism? I should rather put the question: what is the import of the scripture teaching that the Covenant is made, not with believers but also with their children. In the first instance it means that baptism as the sign and seal of Covenant privilege belongs to them. It is not baptism that gives them an interest in the Covenant: rather it is because the Covenant is made with them that they are to be baptised. At this point we can do no more than assert this as an integral part of federalism. But we cannot limit the import of a Covenant interest to a mere right to external ordinances because the scripture does not limit it to this alone. This is the source of the unsatisfactory notion of an Outer Covenant. But what in addition does a covenant interest confer over and above the right to sealing ordinances? It is an interest in the promises of the Covenant: “The promises are unto you and to your children”. Two questions arise here: First, what promises? All the promises as set forth in Jeremiah 31 and particularly the promise of the circumcision of the heart in Deuteronomy 30: 1. The second question that arises at this point is the more difficult, What is the nature of the title to or the interest in the promises that the children of the Covenant have. This of all the practical and theological difficulties is the one that has occasioned the greatest amount of debate. All are in agreement that for the adult faith is necessary to the security of an interest in the promise. The question as related to the children of the Covenant is, What is the nature of their title to the promises before they come to actually and personally exercise faith?
The early Reformers were very emphatic that covenant children had a secure interest in Covenant grace and that the contrary should not be presumed unless through ungodliness they renounced their covenant principles. Calvin particularly states this very strongly in the Institutes and particularly in his Tracts on Infant Baptism. Later generations of Reformed Theologians spoke less forthrightly on this issue. They qualified somewhat more the Covenant title of the children to Covenant Grace. Another issue that arises here is, At what time of life is the right of the child secured? Some said even before baptism, others at baptism and still others and generally later groups of theologians, when they actually come to faith. These are but passing references to the issues involved. The following we may lay down as held by all. The title of the children to the promises is not in question; the promises are not empty terms but the trustworthy word of God who cannot lie. And though we acknowledge that much and continued study is required by the church in this area of scripture truth, the principle thing is that our reliance must be on the faithfulness of God. As believers we should so hope that our children will be saved, if we are faithful in Covenant obligation, that for this not to be realised — in God’s time — should be the unthinkable; yet always bowing before the sovereignty of the Holy One “who will have mercy upon whom He will have mercy and whom He wills He hardeneth”.
Our own practice in this respect is aligned to the position of an Inner and an Outer covenant, what I believe to be the worst of all alternatives put forward as the solution of the practical difficulty. The result is that neither the obligations of covenant membership nor covenant responsibility are properly appreciated by parents or children. I am fully aware that this is a contentious issue and I have no appetite for controversy but honesty compels me to refer to the matter because I feel that this is a causal factor in the church’s decline. I may also say that to concentrate the search for a solution on one very narrow, and to some extent intangible, point such as having the verbal adjective saving alongside of the noun faith is a blind alley up which I would refuse to go. My concern is with a far more fundamental and wider issue; namely the approach to the raising up of our children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. For myself I am persuaded that of all our shortcomings as a church this is the most culpable and the most damaging.
Our ministry to the youth and more so to adults in the church is limited almost exclusively to preaching. So far as the preaching is concerned it would be improper for me to comment other than to say that it would not be any the worse of a massive injection of federalism. My concern here is with the fact that preaching alone is not sufficient. I have suffered the pain of witnessing the loss of a whole generation of children that were baptised in our church, not only to our own denomination, but in most cases even to the faith. And whatever part culture and language played in that tragedy I am persuaded that the principal factor was lack of understanding of covenant obligations. These are not faults that are easily confessed but they are even more difficult to correct for all of us are to a great extent creatures of habit. The great fault is the neglect of Catechetics. I am not forgetting the excellent work being done in our Sabbath Schools and indeed an improved sense of priorities — to use a rather hackneyed expression — should make the Welfare of Youth Report the highlight of our Assembly, at least in terms of what is really important. Yes, I believe, more important than Foreign Missions or Religion and Morals. Even more important than Sustentation! My dissatisfaction with our present practice in Catechetics is that it is confined to the children. I suppose that to propose that Catechetical Sessions be arranged in our congregations for adults would be tantamount to committing congregational suicide. But must we not ask ourselves the question, Why should our children feel that they ought to learn the Catechism if their parents object to learning it? Does not this help to create the feeling that the whole exercise is infantile and spiritually superfluous? But does not the Catechism say that it is for those of weaker capacities! It is not likely that the reference is to intellectual incapacity; indeed is not the complaint constantly being made that it is wrong to teach the children the Catechism because it is too hard to understand and too difficult to learn. The reference is rather to spiritual immaturity and the whole purpose of Catechetics is practical. Its purpose is to communicate to the catechumen the basic knowledge of Christian truth to enable him or her to become a mature member in the church of Christ as a believer in the Lord. It is the duty of the church to undertake the task of teaching what is required for this purpose. If I have a complaint against our awards system in Sabbath School it is that it may obscure this aim of catechetics and thus defeat its real purpose. It is also, of course, the covenant obligation of the baptised person both to acquire this necessary knowledge of saving truth and to improve it spiritually to the establishing of their interest in the mercy and grace of the covenant of God. As far as I am concerned this is not only a prescription for our spiritual improvement. I am persuaded it is our chief hope of survival.
I believe that we have a duty appointed by God to engage in mission work at home and overseas. As Reformed believers, we cannot but desire that God shall be glorified throughout the length and breadth of the creation. And although the vision of the glory of God must always be our principal motive in living our lives as sacrifices presented to him in thankfulness for His covenant mercies we also feel equally deeply the urge that arises from a deep compassion for those that are lost. In this we but reflect the glory of the one who at one and the same time said that his meat and his drink was to do the will of his Father and commanded his disciples to pray that God would send out labourers unto His own harvest. But I am also persuaded that from the point of view of the continuity of the church, if not of its growth, the fact that God raises up a believing people to himself from the seed of His covenant people is the Church’s principal basis of confidence. This is a scriptural datum and also a fact of experience. To neglect therefore in any way our covenant obligations or to lose sight of our covenant privileges is both sinful and disastrous. And in practice we are guilty of this to an inexcusable degree. All our Mission work and all our church extension work will be to no avail if we fail to nurture our own people in the faith of the gospel. And without Catechetics, whatever be our methodology for practising it. I am persuaded that our preaching and our pastoral ministry will be largely vain.
Just in case I am suspected of trying to introduce some kind of pernicious novelty into our church life let me quote from no less a rock-solid Free Kirker than Dr Kennedy. “On Tuesdays and Wednesdays during winter and spring, the minister holds ‘Diets of Catechising’. The residents in a certain district are gathered into one place — the church, or school or a barn — and after praise. prayer and an exposition of one of the questions of the Shorter Catechism in course, each person from the district for the day, is minutely and searchingly examined. All attend and all are catechised. Each individual conscience is thus reached by the truth, the exact amount of knowledge of each of his hearers, as well as his state of feeling. is ascertained by the minister: a clear knowledge of the fundamental doctrines of the gospel communicated and valuable materials gathered for the work of the pulpit. On four evenings of the week the Catechist is employed in his peculiar work . . . his diets of catechising are almost conducted quite like those of the minister. Such was the ordinary weekly work in one of the Ross-shire congregations in the good days of the fathers.” Whatever we think of other aspects of the good old days of the fathers, what minister would not rejoice at such arrangements for the carrying out of his work in ministering to souls the gospel of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ?
Fathers and Brethren, I feel that at times that I have rambled a bit in this address but I have endeavoured to raise with you here what I consider to. be the major task that confronts us as a church. I have spoken to you on this subject in the way that I did because I believe with all my heart that this view of things is fully in accord with our peerless Confession of Faith. My conclusions as to what is the hope of the church are not study speculations but the result of painful experience that has at least been varied and extensive. I have seen the differences between a church that exercises itself diligently in the matter of instruction of its covenant members and those who adopt a cosy mysticism in their church work. And I need hardly tell you which one of these has prospered under God. Therefore what I have submitted to you for your consideration is not only the fruit of book research but also I hope, the judgment of faith that has, to some extent at least, put away childish things.
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