Forward by Pastor Andrew Lanning
In the following article, Prof. Hanko explains the doctrine of the covenant. The truth of the covenant is one of the most precious doctrines to learn, because it describes the relationship of fellowship between God and His chosen people in Jesus Christ. Even our earthly relationships are precious to us; how much more precious is the covenant relationship we have with God! Therefore, an article explaining the truth of the covenant is a welcome sight in this special report by the Salt Shakers.
However, not everyone is agreed on what the covenant is. There has been controversy for many years over important covenant issues. For example, who actually belongs to the covenant and enjoys fellowship with God? Only adult believers, or also infants of believers? All baptized church members, or only those chosen by God eternally in election? Or, for another example, how does the covenant relationship between God and man function? Does God sovereignly establish and maintain the relationship so that it depends on God alone, or must man cooperate with God in order to continue receiving the blessings of the covenant?
Different answers to these questions have produced two distinct camps. On the one hand, there are those churches that teach a conditional covenant. On the other hand, there are those that teach an unconditional covenant. The difference between these two camps is as vast as the difference between Arminianism and the Reformed.
In this essay, Prof. Hanko ably defends the Reformed doctrine of the unconditional covenant. He traces the history of the development of the doctrine, and then critiques the unbiblical doctrine of a conditional covenant.
An article such as this is timely for the church today. In our day, a gross covenant heresy called Federal Vision is sweeping Reformed and Presbyterian churches. The Federal Vision uses the conditional covenant as its platform for denying all of the major tenets of the Reformed faith. Eternal election, justification by faith alone, and Christ’s meritorious good works on our behalf all fall prey to the Federal Vision’s conditional covenant teaching. Reformed churches today that hold a conditional covenant, or those churches that wonder whether the doctrine of the covenant is all that important, do well to read this article and see where the teaching of a conditional covenant necessarily leads.
By God’s grace, may the Salt Shakers, as well as CERC and the Protestant Reformed Churches, continue to teach an unconditional covenant of grace. Our prayer is that God will use this article to establish his church in the truth of his sovereign, covenant grace.
[Andrew Lanning, "Foreword," in Herman Hanko, "The History of Reformed Covenant Theology — Conditional or Unconditional?" Salt Shakers: Special Report II (Nov 2014): 3-4]
Salt Shakers is the magazine (also an E-zine) produced by the youth of Covenant Evangelical Reformed Church (CERC) in Singapore. Throughout the years, CERC has been growing progressively closer to the PRCA (Protestant Reformed Churches of America), and it has now called a PRC minister in the person of Pastor Andrew Lanning. The PRCA of course exports her hobby horses wherever they go, and her redefinition of the word "covenant" is exported around the globe.
In this foreword to a succinct article written by Herman Hanko, Lanning puts forward the typical framework the PRCA works with with regards to the concept of "covenant." Either one must hold to a "conditional covenant," or one holds to an "unconditional covenant." The "conditional covenant" is linked with Justification by faith plus works, Arminianism and such "heretical" doctrines like "common grace" and is the error behind the Federal Vision. The "unconditional covenant" of course is THE truth, at least according to PRCA polemicists.
The problem here is that the PRCA is myopic in its discussion of the concept of covenant. Traditional Reformed Covenant Theology is bi-covenantal in structure, believing in a Covenant of Works AND a Covenant of Grace. The Covenant of Works IS conditional ("Do this and you shall live" c.f. Lev. 18:5, Gal. 3:12), while the Covenant of Grace is unconditional ("The righteous shall live by faith" c.f. Rom. 1:17, Gal. 3:11). The Covenant of Works- Covenant of Grace schema mirrors the Lutheran distinction (note: NOT separation) between Law and Gospel. Therefore through this bi-covenantal structure, both conditionality and unconditionality are encompassed. Conditions (excepting instrumental ones) are linked to the Covenant of Works or Law, while the free (unconditioned) promises are linked to the Covenant of Grace or Gospel.
The myopia of the PRCA lies in its refusal to deal with the traditional Presbyterian and Reformed understanding on its own terms. It refuses to understand what bicovenantalism actually means or entails, while it continues in its naivete in its sub-conscious defaulting to mono-covenantalism. As I have stated before, and will continue to state this, the difference between the PRCA and Federal Vision is that the former is Monocovenantal Antinomianism ("Unconditional covenant") and the latter is Monocovenantal Legalism ("Conditional covenant"). In my honest opinion, both sides deserve the other; they are opposite sides of the same coin. Both sides deny the Covenant of Works, the former by making it gracious, the latter by seeing works and putting it into the supposed gracious Adamic administration.
The issue is easy to discern: Hosea 6:7 speaks of the covenant God made with Adam, and that Adam broke the covenant. If Adam broke the covenant, does it mean that the covenant is conditional? The FV says yes, and thus the covenant of grace (which was already in the Garden) is breakable and conditional. The PRCA denies that the covenant is really broken, even though the text clearly says the covenant IS broken. This she does by making the covenant made only with the elect and no person visibly. But this raises a whole host of problems, for none of us know who the elect are. The main problem however is that one cannot break a covenant one is not a party to, and so logically the PRCA must state that there are no such persons as covenant breakers. Those who break covenant only seem to be doing so, but since they have not actually been part of the covenant, they did not break any covenant when they left the faith. Whereas for those in the [One] Covenant, nothing they do will ever remove them from the Covenant, thus the Antinomian slant.
In contrast, traditional Reformed Covenant Theology with its bicovenantalism speak of covenants as both breakable and unbreakable. Adam transgressed the Covenant of Works, and likewise in the arena of Duty-Faith, people can externally transgressed the Covenant of Grace. There is a real breaking of the Covenant of Grace, externally. Yet internally, the Covenant of Grace is unbreakable, being conditioned on the full satisfaction of Christ alone. True believers therefore can never break the Covenant of Grace. But note here the difference: In the PRCA view, covenant breakers do not actually exist (or at least logically should not exist). In the traditional Reformed view, covenant breakers do exist as partaking only of the external aspect of the Covenant of Grace, and thus they fell away from that. There is a real sense in which someone in the Church can fall away if they are not substantially partaking of the Covenant of Grace, while that is not possible in the PRCA scheme.
Another pet peeve of the PRCA is to attack the idea of "covenant" as being an agreement, with a swipe at the Latin translation of foedus. Perhaps the PRCA want to deal with the Greek diatheke instead? Instead of attacking the concept of covenant as contract because of the Latin word, perhaps they wish to actually deal with how the word diatheke was used by the Greeks, and also the ANE background behind Genesis 15. One does exegesis before theology, or rather one ought to do exegesis before theology. To do theology and then to insist that covenant is not agreement because of its supposed theological implications is to be put the cart before the horse.
Perhaps one day the PRCA will stop beating a dead horse and actually interact with what others are saying, but I'm not holding my breath for that to happen.