Last Updated: February 8, 2013   

A Thesis Submitted to the Faculty of WESTMINSTER THEOLOGICAL SEMINARY

in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Degree



Faculty Advisor : Dr. Sinclair B. Ferguson

Second Faculty Reader : Dr. Robert D. Knudsen

Chairman of the Field Committee : Dr. Robert D. Knudsen




Historical relevance of this topic
Thesis proposition
Plan of presentation


The Work of Cornelius Van Til
Theological Method and System

Common Grace

History as "Early" and "Later"
Ultimate and Remote Causality

Secondary Causation in Relation to Divine Sovereignty


The Nature of the Covenant


Relation of the Covenant to Adam and Christ
Relation of the Covenant to Election and Reprobation
Relation of the Covenant to the Sacrament's



Deuteronomy 29:29 and the Nature of the Covenant Situation
The Nature of Faith
The Warnings and Threatenings Given to the Covenant Community
The Place of Church Discipline





Many individuals have contributed to my learning and to my life.  I would like to express my gratitude to those who have taught, strengthened, or cared for me during my years at Westminster Theological Seminary.

I must first acknowledge the two authors who have influenced me the most: John Calvin and Cornelius Van Til.  Calvin is the greatest of Reformed theologians, and Van Til is the greatest of Reformed apologists.  In terms of their theological and apologetical breadth and depth they remain unsurpassed in giving me a proper grounding in theology.  May much fruit continue to grow from their labors.

Second, I must pay my highest regards to two instructors: Rev. Norman Shepherd and Rev. James R. Payton, Jr. I thank, Mr. Shepherd for his rich exposition of Reformed theology in the courses he taught at Westminster, and for his reminder to us always to have an open Bible before us as we meditate on the system of theology.  I thank Dr. Payton for his rich and faithful preaching of the whole counsel of God to the congregation of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Blue Bell.  Both together declared and demonstrated that the theology that is taught in Scripture is, without qualification, the Reformed faith.  May the Lord continue to bring forth further increase from their work of planting and watering.

Third, I must thank two friends: Peter Lillback and Ken Kok.  During our co-labors as security guards on the midnight shift I found and feasted on a cornucopia of biblical and theological insights.  They each served as embodiments of the verse in Proverbs, "As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another" (27:17 NIV).  Especially through them has my understanding of Calvin and the covenant been enriched.  May God bless them abundantly in their ministries.

Fourth, I owe a word of dankbaarheid to the Rev.  Karl Hubenthal for tutoring me in the rudiments of the Dutch language.  He sweated out the time between the examination and the reception of the results almost as much as I did.  May God reward him bountifully for his help and encouragement.

Fifth, I thank the congregation of the Reformation Church in Blue Bell (formerly the Orthodox Presbyterian Church).  They have encouraged me as we have worshipped in spirit and in truth and grown in faithfulness to the Scriptures.  Together, sustained by God's mercy, we endured many trials and temptations from January of 1983 until September of 1984.  May the Lord continue to enable her to remain faithful to His Word.

Last (though not last in my heart and thoughts), I must express appreciation to my family.  I thank my wife Sharon for ever encouraging me to "get this thing done," but done in such a way that it would be a worthy addition to the literature on the covenant.  Her assistance in editing and typing was greatly appreciated as well.  And I thank our four children: David, Julie, Brian and Timothy, who had to endure their Daddy's foolishness in thinking it more profitable to read Hoeksema than the Berenstain Bears.


To none but Reformed people is the doctrine of the covenant so precious. (1) It forms the spiritual and theological context into which they are born and nurtured.  The covenant is the context from which they learn to understand God and His works, the Church, the World, and themselves.

A question that has often vexed Reformed people is the question of whether, and if so, in what sense, there are conditions in the covenant idea according to Scripture.  The answer to this question has not been uniform throughout the history of theology.  Historical accounts even vary in their interpretation of what was meant by various theologians.  Even in our own century diverse answers are given.  This is the case even among those committed to the sui generis character of the Reformed faith.

As examples, there have been four occasions, in the last fifty years, where conflict has arisen concerning the relation of conditions to the covenant.  First, in the 1940's, in the Reformed Churches in the Netherlands (GKN), there was the "Case Professor Schilder" (Van 0ene 1975[1978], 41). (2) At the Synod of 1942, meeting in Utrecht, a decision was made concerning what was to be taught concerning the covenant and baptism (amongst several issues).  Only one particular view of the covenant was to be held: a Kuyperian view.  The Kuyperians hold that the covenant is unconditional.  Because of this the children of believers are to be presumed regenerate and sanctified in Christ, by virtue of God's promise.  Baptism is administered on the ground of the presumed presence of regeneration.  All children are to be viewed in this light unless, as they grow older, they manifest the opposite.  Schilder held that the covenant is conditional.  By virtue of God's promise all children of believers are to be baptized.  The baptism seals the promise, not the regeneration.  The person baptized is to be taught to live a life of faith, repentance and love in response to God's grace in establishing His covenant with them.

The Synod had "also decided that the Classes should make sure that every Candidate examined by them expressed his agreement with the pronouncements (Van Oene 1975 [1978], 38).  Thus these decisions were made binding on all, especially the office-bearers.  This Synod, meeting from 1939 to 1942, then called a new Synod to meet in June of 1943, (in violation of articles 30 and 49 of the Church Order.) (3) This Synod, on March 23, 1944, suspended Schilder as a professor and minister emeritus, on the ground of causing a schism (though this was contrary to article 79 of the Church Order (4)). And on August 3, 1944 Synod proceeded to dismiss Schilder as professor and depose him as minister-emeritus.  In the wake of this action many office-bearers and whole consistories were suspended and deposed.  Due to these actions, on August 11, 1944 there was the formation of the "Liberated" Churches (or Reformed Churches in the Netherlands maintaining article 31 of the Church Order.) (5)

Second, when members of this church emigrated to North America, particularly Canada, they were initially encouraged to become part of the Protestant Reformed Churches.  But, in 1950, a "Brief Declaration of Principles of the Protestant Reformed Churches" was put forward to the churches for consideration, with a view towards adoption. In 1951 this document was adopted at the Synod of the Protestant Reformed.  This document, the "Declaration of Principles" (6) completely proscribed the covenant views of the people from the Liberated Churches.  In place of their views there was put forward a view of the covenant very much like that made binding in 1942 in the Netherlands.  Because of this act of the Protestant Reformed, they and the Liberated (now the Canadian/American Reformed Churches) remain in separate ecclesiastical existence.

Third, there was within the Protestant Reformed a schism over some of these same issues around that time.  As Van Oene states:

Already during the years before the acceptance of the Declaration of Principles, not all members or officebearers in the Protestant Reformed Churches agreed with the teachings of the Rev.  H. Hoeksema regarding the Covenant of Grace.  Acceptance of the Declaration aggravated the situation within the Protestant Reformed Churches, and finally a split occurred (Van Oene 1975 [1978], 143; cf., articles by Hoeksema 1978, 80-81, 104-106 and Hanko 1978, 116-119).

Finally, during the late 1970's and early 1980's there was what was called the "Shepherd controversy" at Westminster Theological Seminary.  Professor Norman Shepherd sought to develop the covenant context in which we are to understand the doctrines of election and reprobation, the ordo salutis, and baptism.  The views he sought to develop can be briefly  set forth by the use of several theses Shepherd drew up in November of 1978. (7)

Thesis 10:

Although believers are justified by faith alone, they are never justified by a faith that is alone, because faith as a gift of the Holy Spirit is given together with all the other gifts and graces flowing from the cross and resurrection of Christ, and the exercise of faith is co-terminous with the exercise of the other gifts and graces so that when a man begins to believe he also begins to love God and to bring that love to expression through obedience to God (West. Conf. of Faith XI, 2).

Thesis 18:

Faith, repentance, and new obedience are not the cause or ground of salvation or justification, but are, as covenantal response to the revelation of God in Jesus Christ, the way (Acts 24:14; II Peter 2:2, 21) in which the Lord of the Covenant brings his people into the full possession of eternal life.

Thesis 23:

Because faith which is not obedient faith is dead faith, and because repentance is necessary for the pardon of sin included in justification, and because abiding in Christ by keeping his commandments (John 15:5, 10; I John 3:13, 24) are all necessary for continuing in the state of justification, good works, works done from true faith, according to the law of God, and for his glory, being the new obedience wrought by the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer united to Christ, though not the ground of his justification, are nevertheless necessary for salvation from eternal condemnation and therefore for justification (Rom. 6:16, 22; Gal. 6:7-9).

Thesis 32:

The election of God stands firm so that sinners who are united to Christ, justified, and saved, can never come into condemnation: but within the sphere of covenant life, election does not cancel out the responsibility of the believer to persevere in penitent and obedient faith since only they who endure to the end will be saved (Matt. 24:13; Mark 13:13).

Shepherd's opponents alleged that he relativized the scriptural teaching concerning the sole-sufficiency and all-sufficiency of the work of Christ on our behalf.  They were never able to establish this as being Shepherd's real meaning.  In the end, simply to end the controversy, the Board of Trustees of Westminster dismissed Shepherd on non-theological grounds. (8)

Continuously, throughout each case there was a definite exclusion of the view that favored conditionality. (9) And, lest the reader miss the gravity of the issue, note the statement of John Murray:

This formulation [of covenant as contract or agreement] became the occasion of ardent dispute when it was applied to the Covenant of Grace [in the 17th century].  This dispute concerned particularly the matter of condition, the question being: Is the Covenant of Grace to be construed as conditional or unconditional?  The controversy continues up to the present time, and it is not apparent that a solution can be obtained without a reorientation in terms of a revised definition of the Biblical concept of covenant (Murray 1982 IV:217).

Murray then proceeds to develop the history of the issue of conditions under the categories of "Covenant of Works," "Covenant of Grace," and "Covenant of Redemption."

Thus, the idea and the propriety of condition has been a part of Reformed thought from the beginning.  It is surely an important issue to be thought through today.

Notice the last statement in Murray’s quotation.  No doubt there is need for such revision here and in all areas of systematic theology.  Part of this work of revision needs also to be given over to understanding how a term is used.  The latter is more the concern of this thesis.  What is the meaning or intention of speaking of covenant as a mutual contract or agreement?  Do the words themselves carry the seeds of destruction within them?

It is part of the purpose of this thesis to show that this is not the case.  Through a consideration of how "condition" is used in relation to covenant a stronger sense of the connectedness of means to end will be gained.

One way in which this thesis might be formulated, is as follows:  The threat of apostasy is as real to the elect as the offer of eternal life is genuine to the reprobate. 

That is, just as with the reprobate the preaching of the gospel of free grace is an accurate index "that God delights that those to whom the offer comes would enjoy what is offered in all its fulness" (Murray 1982 IV: 114), so too, the threatenings preached to the elect are an index of God's real attitude toward their continuation in sin.

There will be four parts to the presentation of this thesis.  First, some "metatheological" (10) insights will be drawn from the works of Dr. Cornelius Van Til.  There will also be a discussion of God's decree and the concept of secondary causality.  Second, the nature of God's covenant will be presented. In nuce, the covenant is established monopleurically but administered dipleurically.  The idea of conditions will be discussed in conjunction with that of dipleuric administration.  These will be followed by discussions of the relation of the covenant to the first Adam and the Second/Last Adam, and to the doctrines of election and reprobation, and to the sacraments. Third, presentation will be made of Calvin's concept of apostasy.  This concept will be derived from his Institutes and his Commentaries.  Fourth, all of the above will provide a base upon which to set forth what might be called "Covenantal Context of Apostasy." (11) Standing firmly on the principle set forth in Deuteronomy 29:29 it will be seen that perseverance and apostasy are but the working out, in history (where the moment is significant), of the decrees of election and reprobation.  Particular stress will be made on the need to do theology in such a way that we "receptively reconstruct" or "analogically" formulate what Scripture says on these and other themes. (12)


Return1.) Cf. the opening remarks of G. Vos in his rectoral address, "The Doctrine of the Covenant in Reformed Theology": "At present there is general agreement that the doctrine of the covenant is a peculiarly Reformed doctrine. It emerged in Reformed theology where it was assured of a permanent place and in a way that has also remained confined within these bounds." Vos 1980, 234.

Return2.) For further details concerning this issue and the subsequent birth and life of the Canadian Reformed Churches cf. the whole of Van Oene 1975 [1978].

Return3.) Article 30 of Church Order as found in Book of Praise 1984, 662 reads: "These assemblies shall deal with no other than ecclesiastical matters and that in an ecclesiastical manner. A major assembly shall deal with those matters only which could not be finished in the minor assembly or which belong to its Churches in common. A new matter which has not previously been presented to that major assembly may be put on the agenda only when the minor assembly has dealt with it." Article 49, page 665 reads: "The general synod shall be held once every three years. Each regional synod shall delegate to this synod four ministers and four elders. A general synod shall be convened before the appointed time if, according to the judgment of a regional synod, such appears necessary."

Return4.) Article 72 of Church Order, Book of Praise 1984, 669-670

reads: "As serious and gross sins which are grounds for the suspension or deposition of office-bearers the following are to be mentioned particularly: false doctrine or heresy, public schisms, blasphemy, simony, faithless desertion of office or intrusion upon that of another, perjury, adultery, fornication, theft, acts of violence, habitual drunkenness, brawling, unjustly enriching oneself; and further all such sins and serious misdemeanours that rate as ground for excommunication with respect to other members of the Church.

Return5.) In Dutch--"GKN onderhoudende Artikel 31 K.O." By this name the "Liberated" Churches maintain that they are the true G.K.N. The reference to article 31 is to point out that they have been wronged by the above-mentioned synodical decisions.

Return6.) Cf. DeJong 1954, 16-32 for the complete text.

Return7.) Cf. Shepherd 1978. These 34 Theses were written as a basis for public discussion within the Philadelphia Presbytery of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. In the course of the discussion the Committee of the Whole found 30 of the theses in harmony with Scripture and Confession. Thesis 20 was found to be in harmony with the ordination vows of the OPC. No action was taken on theses 25, 26, and 27 as these simply state opinions on questions of doctrinal history.

Return8.) The official "Statement of the Board of Trustees of 'Westminster Theological Seminary Regarding the Dismissal of Norman Shepherd," adopted by the Executive Committee at the instruction of the Board and dated 21 November 1981, reads in part: "Mr. Shepherd is removed from his teaching position at Westminster Theological Seminary on the ground that 'the Board in its mature judgment has become convinced that such removal is necessary for the best interests of the Seminary. The Board makes no judgment whether Mr. Shepherd's views as such contradict or contravene any element in the system of doctrine taught by the Westminster Standards. Rather, the Board judges that, partly through its own indiscretions, partly through the indiscretions and at times one-sided allegations of others, partly because of deep inherent problems in the structure and the particular formulations of Mr. Shepherd's views, partly because of Mr. Shepherd's manner of criticizing opponents as non-Reformed rather than primarily incorporating their concerns more thoroughly into his own position in response, too many people in the Seminary community and constituency and the larger Christian public have come to judge that Mr. Shepherd's teaching appears to them to contradict or contravene, either directly or impliedly, some elements in that system of doctrine taught by the Standards . . . .

"The Board regrets, therefore, that it must remove Mr. Shepherd in order effectively to distance the Seminary from a controversy which otherwise might go on indefinitely. The Board pledges itself to try to make clear to the larger Reformed community the true grounds for its present action, in order that Mr. Shepherd's name may not be unjustly damaged beyond what has already happened."

Return9.) Note the concluding comment in Kuyvenhoven 1981, 6: "The action of the board [of Westminster] does appear to be a narrowing of the circle within our common Reformed tradition. Shepherd's constant appeal to John Murray, and C. Van Til's pleas to keep Shepherd, make us wonder if Westminster is not eliminating insights that are highly prized within our continentally Reformed tradition."

Return10.) Metatheology is "the theology of theology, the study of theological method and structure" Frame 1976, 7.

Return11.) With "apologies" to Norman Shepherd and his insightful article "The Covenant Context of Evangelism" in Shepherd 1976.

Return12.) Note the call issued in Shepherd 1978, 386: "Not only must attention be given to the individual proof-texts but also to the systematic context in which they function." Or, put in another way,"texts taken out of context are pre-texts.