Posted in covenants, Editorial Comments, grace
The Answer in Search of a Question
10 August 2011 by David
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.
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 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.
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