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The Answer in Search of a Question

10 August 2011 by David Kjos

Editor's Note: There are no presbyterians or hard-reformed guys on the blogging team here at the Calvinist Gadfly. So in that sense, there are no hard-core covenantal theologians on this team, and that may be a defect in our mix from one perspective. I am probably the closest thing we have to a covenantalist (as opposed to a dispensationalist), and I have already admitted that while I see serious limits to the covenantalism of confessional catechisms [holy cacophany, Gadfly!], I also would rather retreat there than to dispensationalist view(s).

Now, that said, David Kjos has always been one of my favorite bloggers (except on the subject of Santa Claus, which we will not get into), and he had a version of this post which I asked him to come at again in order to get this very post.  It will fly into your covenantal ear and make the most horrific buzzing.

Enjoy.

I want to make one thing clear: I understand the importance of covenant in redemptive history. I have read Hebrews, and I know what Jesus did in the upper room. My only objection is to covenantal language applied to the pre-Fall command of God in Eden (the so-called “covenant of works”), and the post-Fall curse on Satan with the redemptive promise (the so-called “covenant of grace”). This will be explained below.

In preparing this post, I have referred to Berkhof’s Systematic Theology. I trust Berkhof will be an acceptable representative of Covenant theology.

Berkhof admits “that the term ‘covenant’ is not found in the first three chapters of Genesis,” but counters with the assertion “that this is not tantamount to saying that they do not contain the necessary data for the construction of a doctrine of the covenant.” He then cites the trinity as an example of an obvious biblical doctrine that stands without the word itself, or any equivalent, appearing anywhere in Scripture. I agree with Berkhof that the absence of a word does not necessarily equal the absence of a doctrine. However, I don’t think his comparison to the Trinity fits as well as he thinks it does, for these reasons:
  • Though the word is never used, the doctrine of the Trinity is explicit. The covenant of works is, at best, only implicit. The covenant of grace is somewhat more readily derived, but seems to me to be dependent on a previous covenant being in force.
  • The word “trinity” is never used, nor is any equivalent term. That is, God chose not to give his three-in-oneness a convenient theological title. “Covenant” is used many times in Scripture. It is, I think (correct me if I’m wrong), used in conjunction with every post-Edenic covenant. It seems odd that the word is omitted from the first covenants, especially in the case of the “covenant of grace,” which would presumably lay the foundation for every covenant to come.
You could argue that those reasons do not disprove the Edenic covenants, and you would be correct. I would answer that I am under no obligation to prove a negative. You must prove the positive. And if your proof depends upon the a priori assumption of a theological construct unknown (says Berkhof) to Calvin, Luther, and the Fathers, you should consider your question-begging ways.

Addressing each “covenant” individually, let’s look at the Scriptural foundation for each.

The covenant of works, Genesis 2:16–17
The LORD God commanded the man, saying, “From any tree of the garden you may eat freely; but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you will surely die.”
In the explicit covenants, God offers something to be fulfilled in the future that the second party does not already possess. He does not merely promise what is already given. In this case, nothing new is promised. A command is given, along with the threat of death for disobedience. Berkhof claims that eternal life as a reward for obedience “is clearly implied” in the threat of death for disobedience, but the threat of death is meaningless to someone who is already facing death. Life without the threat of death is eternal life. Adam already had life, without the threat of death, in perfect fellowship with God. In opposition to this view, Berkhof makes this rather odd assertion:
It has been objected that this would only mean a continuation of Adam’s natural life, and not what Scripture calls life eternal. But the Scriptural idea of life is life in communion with God; and this is the life which Adam possessed, though in this case it was still amissible [liable to be lost]. If Adam stood the test, this life would be retained not only, but would cease to be amissible, and would therefore be lifted to a higher plane.
Now, if that isn’t an answer looking for a question, I don’t know what is. Prior to the tree test, Adam’s life was liable to be lost. If he passed the test, the life he had would no longer be liable to be lost. This, of course, assumes that the test would, at some point in time, end. God would have to uproot, chop down, or render fruitless the tree. As long as the tree stands and produces, the situation continues in which Adam lives as long as he doesn’t eat the fruit. At what point has he obeyed long enough to be “lifted to a higher plane”? This is the invention of a theologian desperate to validate a shaky doctrine.

The covenant of grace, Genesis 3:15
I will put enmity
Between you and the woman,
And between your seed and her seed;
He shall bruise you on the head,
And you shall bruise him on the heel.
I have, you’ll be happy to know, much less to say about this. You would think that, in a covenant, the first party would address the second. If this is a covenant with Adam, it is oddly formulated, addressed to Satan in the form of a curse. Contained therein is a cryptic messianic prophesy, a promise of redemption, but no word of a covenant. But even aside from the absence of the word, the language is unlike any of the other covenants.

I call this the promise of redemption, and am satisfied with that. If you want to call it a covenant of grace, that’s fine with me. Berkhof states that “the covenant of grace is simply the execution of the original agreement by Christ as our surety.” That is, Christ was obedient where Adam was disobedient, and he did it for us. Take away the covenant language, and I’ll agree with that to the letter.

You’ll have to excuse me, though, while I vehemently object to anything like a covenant of works. Some very non-Reformed folks I have known have held to a doctrine of “saved by grace, kept by works.” If this is any other than that, I’d like to know how. As I see it, life has been all of grace from the very beginning.

The next six questions in the catechism deal with the covenant of grace. How will I approach them? At first, I thought I would just sit them out and watch my covenantal brothers play with them. But looking closer, I saw that while Question 31 is on the covenant of grace, its answer clearly looks to the Abrahamic covenant. So it’s no sweat; I’ve even got a handy commentary on that, called Galatians.

Comments

Matt Gumm

No comments?! Is anyone out there? Maybe we need to blog the controversy--bring the Jolly One back out.

Shamgar

Yeah, we're out here. However, as much as I love Kjos (TTT is easily one of my favorite blogs) this is somewhat disappointing. :-) Love you man, but this isn't even compelling enough of an argument to make it worth responding to.

It doesn't begin to do justice to Berkhof's argument, and divorces it from the larger body of covenental work that it fits within. If you're going to question Berkhof's handling of it, that's fine - but if you want to argue against the covenental framework you're going to have to put in a little more effort if you want to be taken seriously. :-)

Frank Turk

I love that: you have to be more serious than to point out that the place where there's an alleged "covenant of Grace" established, God is talking to Satan, not Adam.

My on-going opinion, as a card-carrying member of the internet Calvinism brigade, is that you know you have really poked the Truly Reformed in the eye when they don't say anything.

Hey Shammy: since you dropped by, is the framework of a "covenant of works" and a "covenant of Grace" from Calvin, or from someone else? If it's someone else, are they later than Calvin, or prior to Calvin? IT seems to me -- and I could be wrong here, so help a brother out -- that Calvin believed in God as a covenantal God, but that he didn't oversimplify that by saying that there are only two covenants. Surely he maintained the Law/Grace distinction (a protestant fundamental in some ways; it might be the 6th "Sola" if a "Sola" could be worked out), but this framework for talking the strict terms of the God's work didn't really turn up until the "second" generation of reformation, after the death of Calvin and maybe not really until Owen and Turretin.

Thoughts?

David Kjos

OK, Shamgar, I wasn’t even going to read these comments, but I accidentally did, and now I can’t resist. You asked for it.
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[Your comment] is somewhat disappointing.* [Since it makes no] argument [at all], [it’s not really] worth responding to.

It doesn't begin to do justice to [my] argument, [failing to interact substantively at all]. If you're going to question [my] handling of it, that's fine — but if you want to argue against [my propositions] you're going to have to [counter with a proposition or two of your own] if you want to be taken seriously.
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*Actually, it wasn’t disappointing at all. My expectations of blog comments are really low.

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