Covenant Squabbles and Christian Concord

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I've enjoyed the recent interaction between Mark Jones and Rick Phillips on the question of whether divine grace informed the covenant of works. I've also appreciated the generally cordial spirit of their interaction.

As both Mark and Rick know (and have reminded us), confessional theological traditions, by their very nature, permit a significant degree of difference on relatively important (or at least intriguing) issues. Confessional traditions, for those unfamiliar with such terminology, are those which look to one or several historic confessions of faith (the Westminster Confession, the Gallic Confession, the Augsburg Confession, etc.) to establish boundaries for appropriate theological expression. The original authors of such confessions -- for example, the Westminster Divines -- disagreed among themselves about quite a few things (See Haykin and Jones's Drawn into Controversie). Thus they purposefully produced statements of faith which were simultaneously inclusive of their divergent views and exclusive of views which, to their thinking, were sinister enough to require a severing of Christian fellowship. Present-day disagreement which occurs within the boundaries created by some common, historic Confession of Faith (such as the WCF) is, then, intramural (intra = within; muri = walls) and fraternal (fratres= brothers) by definition. That realization can and should inform the tone of such disagreement.

With that in view, I'd like raise a question or two in response to Mark and Rick's respective posts. I hope my questions will reflect the fraternal tone I've just advocated. I hope, more importantly, that they might serve to clarify where the boundaries actually lay -- for those who subscribe to the WCF -- for what's permissible and appropriate to say about divine grace and human merit vis-à-vis the covenant of works.

On Grace in the Covenant of Works

Regarding, first, the issue of grace in the covenant of works: I wonder if Mark hasn't overstated his case to some degree? Mark's done a masterful job of demonstrating that numerous seventeenth-century Reformed divines recognized the covenant of works as an essentially gracious arrangement, and/or acknowledged Adam's obedience, as long as such lasted in the Garden, as a product, ultimately, of divine grace. It would, I think, be irresponsible, in light of Marks' argument, to read the WCF as if it denied any present-day Reformed believer the freedom to refer to the covenant of works as a gracious relationship in which Adam's "perfect and perpetual obedience" might have secured (eternal) "life" for "Adam and... his posterity."

At times, however, Mark almost seems to suggest that recognition of grace in the covenant of works was unanimous among early modern Reformed thinkers, and -- consequently -- that the WCF's reference to every divine covenant per se being an instance of "voluntary condescension on God's part" was tantamount to naming the covenant of works as gracious in kind. So, for example, Mark advises those who "wish to maintain general agreement with the Reformed orthodox of the seventeenth century" to "be comfortable with (and perhaps insist upon) pre-Fall grace."

I'd like to point out, on this score, that there were early modern Reformed thinkers who very explicitly denied divine grace a presence or role in the pre-Fall covenant of works. Robert Rollock, the first principle of Edinburgh University and a pivotal figure in the history of Reformed covenant thought, comes to mind. In Rollock's 1596 catechism on the divine covenants he firmly insisted that those "works" which God required from Adam in the pre-Fall covenant were products of Adam's holy and upright nature, and so of his innate powers, not "works proceeding from grace." This, I take it, would distinguish Rollock from Ames. In his Treatise of Effectual Calling a year later, Rollock denied that divine grace served as the fundamentum -- the foundation or basis -- of the covenant of works, and named Adam's holy and upright nature and friendship with God as the proper foundation of said covenant. This, I take it, would distinguish Rollock from the multitude of writers Mark quotes who insisted on recognizing every covenant between God and man as an instance of divine grace per se. Rollock's analysis of the covenant of works is consistent with his own definition of "divine covenants" per se, a definition which omits any mention of grace.

It may be that Rollock was entirely alone in his refusal to place grace in the Garden of Eden. But I doubt it. Rollock was, by all accounts, a force to be reckoned with in the development of Reformed covenant theology, and I suspect that one finds his views on this matter reflected to some extent at least among his students and theological heirs. I suspect, moreover, that when the Westminster Divines spoke of "voluntary [divine] condescension" as the basis for each and every covenant, they were, with a view towards Rollock's opinion if not the man himself, more intentional in their avoidance of the term "grace" then Mark contends. The very carefully crafted wording of WCF 7 permits one to acknowledge grace -- not redemptive grace, but grace in some more general sense -- as foundational to the covenant of works as such. It certainly doesn't require anyone to acknowledge the covenant of works as a divinely established gracious relationship.

On Merit in the Covenant of Works

On the issue of merit in the covenant of works: I wonder if Rick hasn't misread the sources to some extent when he claims that "the [Westminster] confession restrict[s] merit to the person and work of Christ alone," and denies such (that is, merit) to anyone else, Adam included. There's no question that our Confession denies the possibility of fallen sinners meriting forgiveness and eschatological life (16.5), but, so far as I can see, the WCF never explicitly comments upon the issue of whether Adam's obedience could or would have been meritorious or not. 

Such lack of commentary on the issue of pre-Fall merit follows, I'd wager, from the diversity of opinions one actually encounters among seventeenth-century Reformed writers on this question. Rollock, whom I referenced above, specifically denied that Adam's obedience would have had the nature -- the ratio -- of merit because his work was owed to God in light of God's preceding goodness (not grace) to him. Others, however, insisted that Adam's obedience would have been meritorious, even if they labored to define "merit" in some way contrary to medieval notions of condign and congruent merit.

So, for instance, Johannes Braun wrote in his De doctrina foederum: "If Adam had remained upright and done everything which God required of him, he would indeed have merited his reward, but not condignly, as if either his own person or his works were equal in value to the reward. For no creature, no matter how perfect, can merit anything from God in that sense. [...] Rather he would have merited ex pacto, according to the stipulation of the covenant -- that is, according to God's good pleasure." One finds the same doctrine of pre-Fall merit in Francis Turretin, Benedict Pictet, and -- I presume -- in others of the period. 

I would contend, then, that diversity on the question of pre-Fall merit existed just as much as it did on the issue of pre-Fall grace. Thus, moreover, I would contend that persons affirming the meritorious nature of Adam's works in the pre-Fall covenant are no more "out of bounds" (as it were) than persons affirming/denying the presence of grace in the Garden.


I doubt that current debates over covenant theology can be effectively arbitrated by appeals to our Reformed "tradition," our historic confessions, or any singular Confession (say, Westminster). There's considerable diversity in our tradition (even with regard to something as specific as the covenant of works) and our historic confessions reflect that diversity by refusing to take sides on intramural squabbles. Contemporary debates over aspects of Reformed covenant theology are important and necessary, but they must be waged primarily on the fields of exegesis, biblical theology, and systematics. What our shared Confession of Faith can do in these debates is remind us of the unity we share despite our lack of complete uniformity in doctrine, a point which should in turn inform the tenor of our conversations.

Whatever parties exist on questions of grace and merit in the covenant of works, all who genuinely ascribe to the WCF affirm "the merit and intercession of Jesus Christ," and base their hope for eternal reward entirely upon the same. That truth bears repeating in the midst of (fraternal) discord. I'm reminded of Calvin's words to Bullinger in the 1540's regarding their differences on the Lord's Supper: "In whatever way I may hold the firm persuasion of a greater communication of Christ in the sacraments than you express in words, we shall not on that account cease to hold the same Christ and to be one in him. Some day, perhaps, it will be given us to unite in fuller harmony of doctrine."

Posted April 23, 2015 @ 4:55 PM by Aaron Denlinger

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