February 28, 2007

DeGraaf on the Pre-Fall Covenant

Category: Theology :: Permalink

Remember when it was okay for Reformed writers to speak like this?

We are accustomed to speaking of this covenant as the covenant of works. However, we should not take this name to mean that man was expected to earn eternal life as a reward for doing good works, as though eternal life was man’s payment for services rendered.  Because man owes everything he is and has to God, we may never speak of man earning wages paid out by God.  Therefore it might be wiser to speak of the covenant of God’s favor. — S. G. DeGraaf, Promise and Deliverance 1.37.

Today, people seem to get all worked up if you suggest that God’s covenant with Adam wasn’t a meritorious “covenant of works,” in which Adam was required to earn God’s blessing.  Well, some may have been upset by DeGraaf, too.  I don’t know.  But there was a time when Promise and Deliverance was widely read by Reformed people and they didn’t freak out at statements like this one.

It’s good to remember, in the midst of today’s polemics, that things weren’t always this way in the Reformed church.  And by God’s grace, they won’t be this way in the future.

Posted by John Barach @ 6:06 pm | Discuss (7)

7 Responses to “DeGraaf on the Pre-Fall Covenant”

  1. Chris R Says:

    I see what you’re saying but remember when it was ok to not have a fully ironed out doctrine of the Trinity, of redemption, etc?
    Now that time has gone on and those doctrines have been worked on and have matured would it still be ok to talk as if they hadn’t?

    Not being sarcastic…truly trying to work through all this.



  2. John Barach - Remember when it was okay… « Blah Log Says:

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  3. John Barach Says:

    Thanks for the interaction, Chris. A few comments in response:

    1. There’s a world of difference between something like the Trinity and something like the view that Adam was in a covenant where he was required to merit something by his good works.

    The doctrine of the Trinity has been agreed upon by the whole church. It’s foundational.

    But this particular understanding of the pre-fall covenant with Adam is hardly foundational and hardly something held by the whole church. It isn’t even something held by the whole Reformed church. For instance, it isn’t in the Three Forms of Unity. For that matter, it isn’t even something held by the whole Presbyterian church. Though the Westminster standards do speak about a “covenant of works,” they don’t specify that in this covenant Adam was required to merit something.

    So what we have here, even if it is theological progress (which I dispute), has never officially been adopted as a dogma. It’s just one theological opinion among many about the pre-fall relationship between Adam and God.

    2. My point in my blog entry was not that I wish we could go back to a time when we hadn’t developed our doctrines as much as we have now.

    Rather, I’m pointing out that there was a time in the Reformed world when it was okay to voice dissenting opinions relating to theology (as opposed to dogma) and to the interpretation of passages of the Bible and even, sometimes, to point out flaws in the church’s confessions.

    John Murray did this kind of thing in his writing, challenging the Westminster Confession’s distinction between “visible” and “invisible church.”

    Cornelius Van Til did this sort of thing a lot. It’s not for nothing that Jim Jordan refers to Van Til as the greatest exorcist of the 20th century. Van Til cast out the demon of Greek thought that held so much theology — so much Reformed theology — captive.

    Klaas Schilder challenged several theological slogans. In line with DeGraaf and with some of the American Sessession theologians, he challenged the particular view of the “covenant of works” I mentioned in my blog entry.

    He also challenged the traditional distinction between the church triumphant and the church militant, since, after all, the church is heaven is still involved in the fight in some ways and hasn’t reached full bliss yet (not till the resurrection!) and the church on earth is already triumphant, “more than conquerors,” as Paul says.

    Schilder taught that we ought to approach the confessions both sympathetically and critically, wanting to uphold them (sympathetic) but also willing to examine them anew in the light of Scripture (critical).

    That’s the kind of spirit I miss in much of the Reformed world today. I miss the kind of spirit that let Schilder and Holwerda work as colleagues even though they disagreed on the interpretation of some passages relating to the doctrine of election. I miss the kind of spirit that allowed a pastor like DeGraaf to challenge a particular view of the “covenant of works.”

    In other words, in today’s polemics, I often get the sense that certain people think that their view and only their view is the Reformed position, even though their view isn’t spelled out in the Reformed confessions. I hear guys in the URCNA, for instance, talking heatedly about the covenant of works, though the Three Forms of Unity don’t breathe a word about it. I hear people warning against deviating from “classic Reformed theology,” whatever that is, as if we subscribe to “Reformed theology” and not to the confessions. And I hear some people responding to arguments that appeal to Scripture by quoting the confessions instead of Scripture, so that the big question to them appears to be “What do the confessions say?” instead of “What does the Bible say?”

    My blog entry was intended to say, “Things weren’t always that way.” Yes, Van Til and Schilder and others generated controversy. But there was a time when debate and dissent were tolerated, permitted, and sometimes even encouraged in the Reformed world, when men went back to the Scriptures to see if things were as others said they were.

    And I believe there will be such a time again.

  4. Chris Rehers Says:

    Thank you Rev. Barach that was very helpful and thank you for taking the time to answer that.


    Chris R

  5. duane vandenberg Says:

    Interesting discussion! I think the reason little discussion points turn into dividing points is that we are not united in a common goal or fight as so many of our ancestors were, ie. in the reformation they were all united against the Pope and his heirarchy. I’ve been reading some of Calvin’s commentary lately, and it’s really shed light on that point- it’s fascinating how so many things in the passages of Genesis which I’ve been reading lately turn into tirades against the Pope. I think that unified purpose, and trying to stay alive in the face of persecution, would have prevented a lot of petty arguements.


  6. Bill C. Says:

    Dear Mr, Barach, In which book or article James Jordan, refers to Van Til as the greatest exorcist of the 20th century.???? Please let me know.

    Thank you.

    Bill C.

  7. John Barach Says:

    Bill, I don’t know if Jim has said that in any published article or book. I got it from an e-mail discussion with him.

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