UNITY IN DIVERSITY: Reformed Churches and the Pre-Fall Covenant



Minister, United Reformed Church,
Grande Prairie, Alberta


What in particular distinguishes Reformed churches from others? It's not the so-called five points of Calvinism. They're taught and defended in many a Baptist church. It's not presbyterial church polity. Many evangelical churches in my neighborhood are elder-governed. It's not the liturgical emphasis on the means of grace. That's characteristic of many Lutheran churches. What especially distinguishes Reformed churches from others is the doctrine of the covenant. With this, all Reformed folk agree.

Agreement on the importance of the covenant, however, does not mean agreement on the nature of the covenant, or on all of its dimensions. The history of Reformed churches is replete with disputes and disagreements about the covenant.

In this article I would like to focus on one such dispute and describe how it has, is, and ought to be handled in Reformed churches. This particular dispute, from which the United Reformed Churches in North America (URCNA) are not immune (in light of the recent Classis Southwest U.S.A. overture to Synod 2001), concerns the pre-fall covenant with Adam.


What was the nature of the pre-fall covenant with Adam? Perhaps the most common view in the Reformed tradition is that this covenant was a covenant of works since it was characterized by a works-principle: something can be earned by doing.

In this sense, the covenant of works was essentially a labor contract in which man would receive wages in exchange for work. The wage to be earned was eternal life and the work to be performed, without the help of God's grace, was perfect obedience. By being perfectly obedient, Adam would meet the condition of the covenant and thereby earn eternal life.

This view of the pre-fall covenant with Adam has implications for one's understanding of the rest of Scripture. It is argued, for example, that the frequent contrast between law and faith (or grace or gospel) in Scripture is a contrast between the pre-fall covenant of works and the post-fall covenant of grace. These two covenants, it is maintained, constitute two antithetical ways of living, the former by doing and the latter by believing.

This position has enjoyed a rich history in Reformed churches and has been espoused in one form or another by a host of reputable theologians, the names of which include Abraham Kuyper, Charles Hodge, Herman Bavinck and Louis Berkhof, among others.


Especially in the past century, many have objected to certain formulations and terminology associated with the traditional presentation of the pre-fall covenant. It has been argued, for example, that the elements of grace in the prefall covenant make the description "of works" inappropriate. Some, therefore, have suggested replacing the terminology of "covenant of works" with "covenant of favour" to capture the pre-redemptive grace or favour present in the pre-fall context.

It has also been argued that the idea of earning something from God is neither fitting nor possible. Every breath Adam took was a gift of God. Every move he made was in dependence on God. And therefore every act of obedience was a grateful response to God's fellowship with, and goodness towards, man. In this view, even if Adam had been perfectly obedient, he still would have been an unprofitable servant, only having done what was his duty (Luke 17:10).

Those who argue for a covenant of favour do not deny that if Adam had been obedient, he would have been justified on the ground of his inherent righteousness, nor do they deny that after the fall, Adam was justified only on the basis of the imputed righteousness of the coming Christ. What they deny is that Adam could have earned something from God.

This view also has implications for one's understanding of the rest of Scripture. The contrast one frequently observes in the Bible between law and grace (or grace or gospel) is not a contrast between the pre-fall covenant and the postfall covenant, but between Jewish distortions regarding the function of the law - namely, obe-

dience to the law merits salvation and the proper function of the law--namely, obedience to the law is a condition of covenant life (Romans 10:5; Galatians 3:12; cf. Leviticus 18:5).

This position, which objects to certain formulations associated with the covenant of works, has also enjoyed a rich history in Reformed churches and has been espoused in one form or another by a host of reputable theologians, the names of which include Klaas Schilder, Herman Hoeksema, John Murray and Anthony Hoekema, among others.


How do we sort through these differences? Who is right? And what should be done? Should one view be codified as confessional and the other outlawed? Before turning to these questions, a more significant question must be asked - namely, what do the Three Forms of Unity say about this matter?

The answer, for some, is disappointing. You will search the Three Forms in vain for a reference td a covenant with Adam, let alone a covenant of works or a covenant of favour. But this does not mean that the confessions say nothing about this matter.

The confessions do speak about `merit' (Belgic Confession, Articles 21-24; Heidelberg Catechism, Lord's Days 7, 23, 24, 32; Canons of Dort, I, II, V) and those who advocate a covenant of works often make much of this, arguing in some cases that their formulation requires the embrace of all office-bearers.

But the issue is not solved that easily. The pressing question is, what do the confessions mean by 'merit'? Is it merit in the sense of earning something from God so as to put Him in our debt? Or is it merit in the sense of obtaining from God what He has promised? Or is it merit in the sense of worthiness (cf. BC, art.24 and art.26), as the word was often used in medieval and Reformation contexts?

If the latter is the case, an appeal to 'merit' in the confessions carries little weight because worthiness does not necessarily imply earning. A child can be worthy of his father's inheritance without having earned it. So the repeated appearance of the word 'merit' in the confessions settles nothing.

In fact, those who object to the terminology of covenant of works sometimes make appeal to article 24 of the Belgic Confession which speaks about man's sanctification and good works. In their view, the question this article presents is rhetorical: can man earn anything in relation to God? Of course not, the confession answers, we are indebted to God for the good works we do. This principle, which is certainly true for life in the post-fall covenant of grace, also holds true for life in the pre-fall covenant.


So what do we do in this case of a theological dispute which cannot be settled by the confessions? We have a number of options. We could draft a new confession to codify one view and outlaw the other. That's always a real possibility which ought not to be dismissed quickly. But there is another option: we could tolerate both views as confessionally legitimate, although not necessarily correct. It is this latter option that Reformed churches have consistently chosen in history.

In the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands (liberated), many rejected the terminology of the covenant of works, but charges were not brought against Pastor De Wolfe, who embraced it. In the Christian Reformed Church in North America, many embraced the terminology of the covenant of works, but charges were not brought against Professor Hoekema, who rejected it.

This kind of theological toleration regarding disagreements about the pre-fall covenant with Adam has also been exercised in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and in the Presbyterian Church in America. In fact, so far as I know, there is no Reformed denomination across the globe which does not tolerate both views.


Given this fact, that Reformed churches across the globe uniformly regard disagreements about the pre-fall covenant with Adam as intramural and non-confessional, the URCNA had better tread carefully. To codify one view as confessional and outlaw the other, at this point, would involve creating confessional boundaries where no other Reformed denomination has. This pathway too closely resembles sectarianism for UNITED Reformed churches to take.

There is diversity of opinion regarding the prefall covenant with Adam in the URCNA. But beneath this theological diversity, there is a rich confessional unity. We all wholeheartedly affirm the Three Forms of Unity as faithful summaries of Scripture. Confessional unity in the midst of theological diversity is a road well travelled among Reformed churches, especially as that diversity relates to the pre-fall covenant with Adam.

Let's keep it that way.


THE COVENANT: a Canadian Reformed Perspective


Professor, Theological College of the Canadian Reformed Churches, Hamilton, Ontario


Churches cannot avoid being partly determined by their history. That applies to the Canadian Reformed Churches, too. These churches have their origin in a doctrinal conflict in the Netherlands, in which the covenant played an important role. This controversy was played out, of all times, in the middle of the Second World War. Synod 1942 had to deal with a report on the covenant presented by a synodical committee. This report dealt with the relationship between covenant and election. In its decision, it recognized first of all that in the covenant, God not only made promises to the believers but also to their children (Gen. 17:7). We could call that the covenant line. But the decision continued by stating that God also reveals that not all who are of Israel, are Israel (Rom. 9:6). That could be called the election line. Both statements are scriptural, and both the covenant and the election were maintained.

The situation became problematic when the second statement was allowed to dominate the first. That happened in a further explanation added to this decision.

Here, the covenant was suddenly qualified by the word `outward': There are people who only outwardly belong to the covenant, but they are not really included in the covenant. The real participants in the covenant are the elect.

This further explanation caused a number of ministers and professors in theology to raise objections. This led to a great debate in the churches, even during the war. The covenant was obviously not seen as a minor issue, it was discussed as an important doctrine. Synod thought the covenant was so important that it had to clarify a point of doctrine, here. The opponents also thought this issue of sufficient important to resist the further explanation, and to present an appeal to the next general synod.

Things got out of hand when these 1942 decisions on the covenant were used as the doctrinal standard for the teaching in the church. That happened in 1943 and 1944, still during the war. In 1943, a candidate for the ministry was not admitted by classis because he did not want to state that he would teach and preach in agreement with the decision of Synod. He did not believe that baptized children who turn away from God when they grew up, never had belonged to the covenant. In his opinion, such people were breakers of the covenant, who for that reason would not receive its benefits. The refusal to admit this candidate was only the beginning of the measures to implement the decision on the covenant. In the following years, several professors and many ministers, elders and deacons were censured and deposed if they did not want to state agreement with the decision of Synod.

This history was the reason that the covenant became a crucial issue in the Canadian Reformed churches. We had to study and defend it. As a result, we often refer to it. We speak of our children as covenant children, and the teaching in the schools emphasize the covenantal responsibility of the parents and of the children. Parents have to train their children in the ways of the Lord, because they are covenant children of the Lord.


This does not mean that we as Canadian Reformed Churches have adopted our own statements on the covenant. We simply maintained our confessions, which speak about the covenant. A brief survey will show this.

the Belgic Confession speaks only once about the covenant, in the article on baptism. In the context of the defence of infant baptism against the Anabaptists, the confession remarks that the little children of believers ought to be baptized and sealed with the sign of the covenant (Art. 35). These children belong to the covenant, and they are by baptism assured that the great gifts of the forgiveness of sins and of the renewal are promised to them, as well. The covenant is the cornerstone in the Reformed defence of infant baptism.

The Heidelberg Catechism, too, mentions the covenant in connection with infant baptism. Actually, the word `covenant' is used four times in its explanation of infant baptism: infants of believers belong to God's covenant; baptism is a sign of God's covenant; circumcision was that sign in the old covenant; and baptism is that sign in the new covenant (Lord's Day 27, 74). The Catechism goes beyond the Belgic Confession when it also mentions the covenant in the explanation of the Lord's Supper. In connection with the cup, the catechism refers to the new covenant in Christ's blood, referring to 1 Cor. 11:25. Actually, the Catechism had already taken baptism and Lord's Supper together as sacraments in the new covenant (Lord's Day 25, 68). The confession and the catechism are limited in their use of the covenant. They only mention it in connection with the sacraments.

The Canons of Dort go one step further. It speaks of the covenant in connection with infants of believers who die in infancy. It says that these children are holy, not by nature but in virtue of the covenant of grace in which they are included with their parents. Believing parents can put their trust in God that he. will treat them as his children when they die before they are able to hear and respond to the call of the gospel. This is a comforting and heartwarming statement made by theologians who are sometimes accused of teaching a harsh doctrine of election.

Teaching election does not mean denying the reality and comfort of the covenant.

Beyond these statements, the Reformed churches do not bind to a specific doctrine of the covenant. The Canadian Reformed churches have a limited doctrine of the covenant.


In the reality of every day life, the covenant is used widely as the summary term for the relationship between God and his people. The covenant is not limited to receiving baptism or the Lord's Supper. These sacraments indicate that we have a covenantal relationship with God. We are his covenant people. Our covenant view is, in fact, based on Genesis 17, the covenant God made with Abram.

This can be used in two directions, for encouragement and for admonition. The comforting aspect is that God's people may know that they live under the daily care of God. In an evil and cursed world, they live in the certainty that God is there who protects them and guides them through life and all its ups and downs. When God established his covenant with Abram, he stated that he would be the God of Abram and his descendants (Gen. 17:7). This meant first of all that God would take care of Abram and his small clan in the foreign land of Canaan. They would be able to live there as foreigners. And later, at God's own time, they would even own the land of Canaan (Gen. 17:8). The covenant is God's way of assuring us that he will certainly fulfill all his promises to us, as he had done to Abram. The covenant is a great comfort for a small people of God in a sinful and often hostile world.

The other side of the covenantal relationship is that we should learn to live a life of gratitude. When God came to Abram with the covenant, he told him to walk before him and be blameless (Ge. 17:1). The life of God's people should make clear that they belong to God. If they break the covenant, in doctrine or life, and show that they do not want to live with God, they should be admonished and censured if there is no repentance and return.

The covenant is the gracious relationship which God establishes with the believers and their children. It determines the way they live, for they should show that they belong to this gracious God.