Saturday, February 27, 2010

Article: The Covenant of Works in Dutch Reformed Orthodoxy

The mono-covenantalists (both Legalists and Antinomians) deny the very idea of the Covenant of Works. Some of those from the Dutch Reformed tradition have even come close to historical revisionism in postulating a new antithesis of Reformed versus the Puritans. According to this revisionist understanding, the Continental Reformed with their 3 forms of unity (Heidelberg Catechism, Belgic Confession of Faith, Canons of Dordt) do not believe in the Covenant of Works. It is rather the *evil* Puritans who introduced the concept of "merit" and as such formulated the Covenant of Works, giving it confessional status in the Westminster Confession of Faith.

In this article by Pastor Shane Lems, the historical record is set straight. As written:

The doctrine of the covenant of works has come under fire once more in Dutch Reformed churches. Some Dutch Reformed Christians have called the covenant of works an unscriptural theory that must be rejected outright. The covenant of works, they say, has traces of Arminianism or Roman Catholicism in it. Of course, the battle rages elsewhere as well, but Dutch Reformed church history has volumes to add to this debate.

Despite recent criticism of the covenant of works within Dutch churches, it is very clear that the covenant of works is both a Presbyterian and Reformed — indeed Dutch Reformed — doctrine. The main point of this essay is simple: the Dutch Reformed church has taught the covenant of works since the Reformation. While we may owe much to our Presbyterian brothers and sisters, we did not adopt the covenant of works from the Westminster Standards. Rather, the English and Dutch Reformed theologians were influenced by each other, and stood side by side on the covenant of works.

Those in Dutch churches who deny the covenant of works today usually only use a select few recent Dutch theologians to help disprove it. Alternatively, they suggest that the covenant of works is foreign to Dutch Reformed theology, as if there were no major Dutch theologians before the turn of the twentieth century who taught it. But what about the 350 years of Dutch Reformed theology before the late twentieth century? Is Dutch Reformed theology from 1900-1940 the norm for our understanding of the covenant of works today?

For the sake of space, only a few major Dutch Reformed theologians will be mentioned. This article is designed to be a descriptive walk through Dutch Reformed history beginning in the mid sixteenth century. We will look at Caspar Olevian (1536-1587), Zacharias Ursinus (1534-1583), Herman Witsius (1636-1708), Wilhelmus a' Brakel (1635-1711), Herman Bavinck (1854-1921), and Louis Berkhof (1873-1957). All these influential Reformed thinkers clearly demonstrate that the covenant of works is a teaching that is not unique to Presbyterianism.

We should note that not every major Dutch theologian since the Reformation taught the covenant of works. At the same time, an impenetrable case can be made that the vast majority did teach it. I have tried to be as brief as possible in the following summaries. I leave it to the reader to follow these leads and look at the details of each theologian's description of the covenant of works.


Denial of the Covenant of Works, while not by itself outrightly heretical, has very serious consequences. As the essay concludes:

... First, it is necessary for those of us who uphold and defend the Three Forms of Unity to admit that the covenant of works is neither a Roman Catholic nor an Arminian construction. We must be honest with all this church history and openly declare that it is thoroughly a Reformed - even Dutch Reformed - doctrine.

Secondly, those who deny the covenant of works must not ignore Dutch Reformed theology that precedes the late nineteenth century. To paraphrase what Geerhardus Vos wrote in 1891, if one has the "historical sense" to be able to separate the mature development of a doctrine from its beginnings, there should be no trouble in recognizing the "covenant of works as an old Reformed doctrine." The covenant of works flows through the veins of Dutch Reformed churches; this much is clear.

Finally, the present day opponents of the covenant of works have to be careful when attacking it. By calling it an unscriptural theory, Arminian construction, or medieval Roman Catholic doctrine, one indicts the above Dutch theologians. I trust no one who loves the confessions would want to accuse any of the above theologians as being anything but confessional, orthodox, and Reformed.

To conclude on a practical note, as a' Brakel and Bavinck indicated, the covenant of works directs us away from our own works and drives us to trust in the works of another, the second Adam, Jesus Christ. He has merited salvation for the elect and paid for their sins. Jesus has agreed to the stipulations of the covenant of works: "Do this and live" applied to the last Adam, the true Israel, Jesus Christ. Praise God that Jesus has obeyed and paid, that our salvation depends not upon our merit, but on His. Jesus has done this and lives; therefore, we live with Him. Praise God that where we have failed, He has prevailed and covered our sins with His sacrifice. It is clear why both a' Brakel and Bavinck understood that a denial of the covenant of works can quickly lead to a misunderstanding or denial of the covenant of grace, of the gospel. After all, without Jesus' perfect obedience to the law credited to our account, how could we stand righteous before God?


Nick said...

Two quick questions:

(1) I as a Catholic deny the CoW, but how does that make me a Legalist or Antinomian?

(2) You said denial of the CoW is "not by itself outrightly heretical," yet how can it not be outrightly heretical both in regards to consequences such as "Legalst or Antinominan" and in regards to a framework for justification? If the CoW is denied/untrue, Sola Fide has no foundation.

PuritanReformed said...

Hi Nick, interesting to see you are still around.

1) The traditional Protestant position is that Roman Catholics because they deny Sola Fide embrace a form of Legalism as they believe in salvation by faith and works. Of course, it is expressed nicely in terms like "a living faith, or a faith that works through love".

2)There is a difference between a teaching, and the logical consequences of that teaching. Monophysitism for example is not outrightly heretical; it is heretical because of the logical consequences entailed by a denial that Jesus is both perfectly human and perfectly divine.

If the CoW is denied/untrue, that does not necessarily mean that Sola Fide has no foundation. It only makes any teaching of Sola Fide into Antinomianism, thus turning it into the caricature your Catholic theologians have always accused us Protestants of teaching - licentiousness.

Nick said...

Thank you for your response, sorry for the late reply.

How is monophysitism not outrightly heretical? Of course it is, by it's very nature (no pun intended). Just like Arianism, by it's very nature, is outrightly heretical.

The way I understand the CoW, if it is untrue, then the very framework SF relies on is not there. The framework is "Keep these commandments and live eternally," if that's not there then Jesus keeping the commandments has no bearing on entitling one to Eternal life. The antinomianism issue doesn't really make sense if the CoW is denied. Also, antinomianism is more a misunderstanding/caricature than outright error. The truth is, in Calvinism, the justified cannot be condemned by any sinful act and thus in a real sense not bound by law. The caricature is thinking that the believer is free to satisfy his sinful appetites, when that's not necessarily true, and infact contrary to classical Protestantism. This is because the believer is called to live a holy life from the heart and divine charity, keeping God's commands in a father-son relationship rather than a master-slave.

PuritanReformed said...


Monophysitism is the belief that Christ has only one nature. Now, how many people even understand what the term "nature" means? In fact, did any of the church father ever defined the term?

That is why monophysitism is not outrightly heretical. In the case of Arianism, it is quite obvious as it claims that Jesus is not God but a god (small letter g). But is it not so obvious in the case of Monophysitism since the terms used are all philosophical jargon which must be defined first.

I would agree that the CoW provides the framework for Sola Fide, but this conviction is not necessarily shared by other Protestants.

As with regard to the doctrine of Sola Fide and Antinomianism, this ties in with my latest post on eternal justification, a topic not exactly easy to understand.

I must hand it to you that you know at least somewhat of what classical Protestantism teaches with regards to good works. But you do know that the 'Sola' in the phrase means that we envision that in the Protestant scheme, good works flow out of salvation rather than contributing to salvation.

Nick said...

Whether someone understands the term or not is irrelevant, the only thing it would change is whether it is formal or material heresy: someone could be mistakenly embracing monophysitism, but it would still be heresy, even if they are not fully culpable. As for fathers defining the term 'nature', I'd say yes, many did, for that's a key notion to defining and explaining the Trinity.

Refuting Arianism also required the use of "philosophical jargon," notably the dogmatic term "homoousios" (consubstantial, same nature).

If that conviction re CoW is not shared by other Protestants, then they're embracing a SF other than what the Reformers taught and intended, and thus contrary to Scripture; another gospel by definition. One thing I've learned in my study of SF is that it is overall very logical, but only as classically framed and classically taught; anything else is a deviation from what "true Sola Fide" means.

PuritanReformed said...


>Whether someone understands the term or not is irrelevant

On the contrary, I think that it is important for someone to understand and define their terms first. The error of monophysitism lies not in the words used, but rather in the concept(s) described by the word(s) used.

>As for fathers defining the term 'nature', I'd say yes, many did

I would love to see some examples. Thanks in advance.

>Refuting Arianism also required the use of "philosophical jargon," notably the dogmatic term "homoousios" (consubstantial, same nature).

The terms homoousia and homoiousia were indeed used in the creeds, but that is because the Arians used all the right biblical terminology while redefining the terminology of the faith. In order to stop their deceitful sophistry, these terms were used to draw a line between the orthodox and the Arian understanding of Scripture.

The monophysite controversy however depends a lot on the term "nature", a philosophical term not found in the Bible in such a usage. Therefore, it is possible for others to define the term differently.

>If that conviction re CoW is not shared by other Protestants, then they're embracing a SF other than what the Reformers taught and intended

While logically I am convinced tht that is the case, not everyone is as logical and consistent.

>... and thus contrary to Scripture; another gospel by definition

Woah... I thought you are a Roman Catholic?

Nick said...

I should clarify, what matters is not ultimately a word, but what the concept behind it is. Mormons use the term "Trinity" but radically redefine it.

The *concept* of monophysitism is heretical, even if one is unintentionally embracing it.

As for Church Fathers using and defining the term 'nature', you can find this in virtually any writing addressing the Trinity or Christology.
St John of Damascus goes into such details in his most famous work:

Both the Arian controversy and Mono controversy had to know what 'nature' meant, else they'd be equivocating.

I agree not everyone is logically consistent, but denial of CoW still entails heresy even if the denier is unaware.

p.s. Regarding 'another gospel' comment, I am Catholic, I was just speaking from a classical Protestant view when I said that.

PuritanReformed said...


I agree. The concept is the thing that is important. The Mormons are heretical in spite of their usage of the word "Trinity", but because they deny the concept of the Trinity.

I also agree with you that the concept of monophysitism is heresy, but I do not think that it is the case that many people deny the concept but rather mis-interpret the words used. Since that is the case, it is not overtly heretical.

I've checked out the article by John of Damascus, and while he assumed much of what nature is, he did mention this:

"...but the nature viewed in the individual, which is identical with that viewed in species. For He took on Himself the elements of our compound nature..." (Chapter 11)

Yet it seems that John of Damascus likewise states that man has "two nature, soul and body". (cf Chapter 16), and "two distinct natures" too. Furthermore, in the same paragraph, he states that "Since, then, every man is composed of soul and body, accordingly we speak of man as having one nature". A blatant contradiction as it can be seen.

So while John of Damascus does describe more or less the orthodox doctrine of the Incarnation to some extent, he assumes more than he defines the concept of nature. The best definition he offered was "elements", which is extremely vague. From the quote provided in the Chapter 16, to avoid contradiction he must be using the word "nature" in two different ways. Either way, the word "nature" is not defined properly.

>Both the Arian controversy and Mono controversy had to know what 'nature' meant, else they'd be equivocating.

I am sure they have some inkling of what they mean, but having a vague idea of the meaning does not mean that they have defined it well.

PuritanReformed said...

>I agree not everyone is logically consistent, but denial of CoW still entails heresy even if the denier is unaware

I do not take the position that all errors are worthy of the label of heresy.

>p.s. Regarding 'another gospel' comment, I am Catholic, I was just speaking from a classical Protestant view when I said that.

I see. For once I thought you have changed - oh well one can only hope and pray.

Nick said...

I would be slow to accuse St John of Damascus of inconsistency or heresy. That book of his is a classic patristic 'textbook' of Christian theology.

I'm not expert in his thought, but I understand 'compound nature' as that of soul+body.

He gets at the heart of all major Christological errors with this sentence: "this is what leads the heretics astray, viz., that they look upon nature and subsistence as the same thing"
In plain English, St John is saying: The heretics conflate and confuse 'nature' and 'person'.

Just looking into the 'contradiction' you said you've found in chapter 16, it seems that you overlooked some key information right inbetween the sentences you quote:
"if man should at any time be said to have one nature, the word "nature" is here used instead of "species," as when we say that man does not differ from man in any difference of nature. But since all men are fashioned in the same way, and are composed of soul and body, and each has two distinct natures, they are all brought under one definition"

In otherwords, the term "nature" is sometimes used loosely, rather than strictly. He is not equivocating, and he knows the potential for misunderstanding.

PuritanReformed said...


I am not accusing John of Damascus of heresy at this point. What I am saying is that his definition of "nature" is vague and inconsistent.

>In otherwords, the term "nature" is sometimes used loosely, rather than strictly. He is not equivocating, and he knows the potential for misunderstanding.

I am sure he is not equivocating, or at least he doesn't intentionally does it. Yet, in using the word "nature" here is so many senses of the term, the word is made even more vague and udefined.

godwordistruth said...

Hi Daniel,
Hope you well.

From recent interaction with a number of brethren at CERC, the position held by CERC is a denial of the Covenant of Works.

Is your own position on the COW then differ from that of CERC ?


PuritanReformed said...


Yes, it is different.