Sunday, September 22, 2013

The PRCA and what Reformed is

My previous church in Singapore, Covenant Evangelical Reformed Church (CERC), has a magazine ministry called Salt Shakers. At the time I was a member in that church, the church was exploring closer sister church relations with the Protestant Reformed Churches of America (PRCA). Given my disagreement with the PRCA on various doctrinal issues, I was obviously not happy with what would happen when such fraternal relations become official. As such, I would probably have left the church even if I have not moved on into the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC).

Recently, the Salt Shakers magazine issue 21 for July 2013 had an article by PRCA theologian Herman Hanko as it relates to being Reformed. The whole article is just sad only because of its total misrepresentation of the Reformed faith.

From the very beginning of Reformed theology with John Calvin, theologians that dealt with the doctrine of the Covenant and most continental theologians maintained these basic doctrines. It is true that some did not, but they were in the minority. The true line of Covenant theology held to the following truths:

  • God triune is in Himself a Covenant God.
  • He has chosen to reveal His own Covenant life through Christ.
  • Christ is the Head of the Covenant, and the Covenant is established with all those who are elect in Christ. Election, therefore, determines who are in the covenant and who are not.
  • The Covenant is established and maintained by God through Christ and his work of atonement and redemption. It is, therefore, an unconditional covenant.
  • That Covenant is established with believers and their spiritual seed.
  • Elect children of believers are, as a general rule, brought into the Covenant at birth, or even prior to birth – as was the case with Jeremiah and John the Baptist (Jer. 1:5, Luke 1:39-44). Baptism does not bring children into the Covenant, for baptism is a sign and seal that they are already in the Covenant.

Herman Hanko, "What is Reformed," Salt Shakers 21 (July 2013): 10-11

The problem with Hanko's position is that his definition of what "Reformed" means is basically what the PRCA thinks "Reformed" means. It has little to do with the actual historical definition of the adjective "Reformed." Hanko's definition of "Reformed" is anachronistic; whatever agrees with the PRCA is Reformed, whatever does not is not Reformed. Instead of approaching the definition of what "Reformed" means with a sincere seeking after truth, he already has an a priori definition of what "Reformed" means and then read all the Reformed theologians within that framework.

We note first of all that Hanko asserts that "[Reformed] theologians that dealt with the doctrine of the Covenant and most continental theologians maintained these basic doctrines." Which theologians? Herman Witsius? Johannes Oecolampadius? Zacharias Ursinus? Which mainstream Reformed theologian before Herman Hoeksema has ever denied the bi-covenantal structure of Scripture (Covenant of Works/ Covenant of Grace)?

The proper way to define what being "Reformed" is to to define it as the teachings of the Reformed Confessions. Defined this way, we find Hanko's revisitionist historical account more than a little problematic. The Formula Consensus Helvetica (1677) is a confession of the Continental Reformed tradition subscribed to by the Swiss Reformed Church and by people such as the Reformed giant Francis Turretin. This is what the Formula says regarding Covenant Theology:

Canon VII: As all his works were known unto God from eternity, (Acts 15:18), so in time, according to his infinite power, wisdom, and goodness, he made man, the glory and end of his works, in his own image, and, therefore, upright, wise, and just. Having created man in this manner, he put him under the Covenant of Works, and in this Covenant freely promised him communion with God, favor and life, if indeed he acted in obedience to his will.

Canon VIII: Moreover that promise connected to the Covenant of Works was not a continuation only of earthly life and happiness but the possession especially of eternal and celestial life, a life namely, of both body and soul in heaven, if indeed man ran the' course of perfect obedience, with unspeakable joy in communion with God. For not only did the Tree of Life prefigure this very thing unto Adam, but the power of the law, which, being fulfilled by Christ, who went under it in our place, awards to us nothing other than celestial life in Christ who kept the same righteousness of the law. The power of the law also threatens man with both temporal and eternal death.

Canon IX: Wherefore we can not agree with the opinion of those who deny that a reward of heavenly bliss was offered to Adam on condition of obedience to God. We also do not admit that the promise of the Covenant of Works was any thing more than a promise of perpetual life abounding in every kind of good that can be suited to the body and soul of man in a state of perfect nature, and the enjoyment thereof in an earthly Paradise. For this also is contrary to the sound sense of the Divine Word, and weakens the power of the law considered in itself.

As it will be seen, the Continental Reformed Covenant Theology agrees with the Presbyterian theology of the Westminster Standards on the issue of the Covenant of Works. The Formula Consensus Helvetica is not some novelty written and adopted by people as a repudiation of their supposed former "one covenant" theology. But let us look at Hanko's points first

Hanko's first point of Covenant Theology is that "God triune is in Himself a Covenant God." The problem here is that the PRCA and Hanko have redefined what "covenant" is. Before Hoeksema, Barth, Schilder and any of these 20th century innovators came along, who actually defines "covenant" without a reference to concepts such as "agreement," "stipulations/ conditions," "sanctions/ punishment" and "reward"? The PRCA redefinition of "covenant" merely means that they are claiming that the triune God have a loving relationship and bond among the persons of the Godhead, and nothing more. The question then becomes, "Do the Reformed historically teach the Covenant of Redemption, otherwise known as the Pactum Salutis?" If they do, do the PRCA agree that such a covenant relation complete with stipulations exist as a covenant arrangement distinct (not separate) from the intra-trinitarian love the persons of the Godhead have for each other?

Hanko's second point is that God "has chosen to reveal His own covenant life through Christ." Again, what does this mean? What is God's "covenant life" even? The historical understanding of "covenant" for the first 19 centuries of the institutional Church is that covenant refers to an agreement between two parties. So in the historical usage of the term, there is no such thing as "God's covenant life" for what is this even supposed to mean? God does reveal His covenant [of grace] through Christ, not His "covenant life."

Hanko's third point subsumes election under the covenant. Christ is the Head of the Covenant, and election determines who is or isn't in the covenant. Here, Hanko flattens Covenant theology and confuses election and covenant. In Hanko's (and the PRCA's) scheme, covenant is election and election is covenant. There is no such thing whatsoever that there can be someone within the covenant (externally) while being not elect. That is why in his fellow PRCA theologian David Engelsma's book The Covenant of God and the Children of Believers, Engelsma was left to grounding infant baptism in the promise God will save the elect children of believers although all are to be baptized. The Covenant must necessarily relate to election to the extent that infant baptism does not necessarily bring an infant into the covenant, but elect infants only. One wonders how one can say that baptism is the sign and seal of the Covenant of Grace, since a baptized infant is not necessarily in the Covenant of Grace in any sense unless he is elect! How does one deal with the circumcision of Ishmael in this system, since Ishmael is certainly reprobate?! Election, covenant, election is covenant.

Reformed theology on the other hand does not so tightly link election and covenant. We recognize that there is an external aspect to the covenant, so there are two ways of being in the covenant. The sign of the Covenant is to be applied to those in the Covenant regardless of whether they are elect. In other words, even if God somehow supernaturally revealed to the minister that baby X is not elect, we still baptize baby X, just as Abraham circumcised Ishmael. We do not so link election and covenant. True, God's promise of salvation extends to the children of believers, but our basis is not some expectancy about their elect status but as an expression of our faith in God's covenant promises regardless of their election status. We baptize infants because the covenant is to believers and their children, not because the covenant is to believers and their elect children! Hanko's fourth point is thus a distortion of Scripture. The promise is to "you and to your children" (c.f. Gen. 17:9-14), not to "believers and their spiritual seed." If the promise is to "believers and their spiritual seed," why baptize infants? Why not wait until they have made a credible profession of faith (thus having a greater possibility of them being actually elect) before baptizing them? Furthermore, if the promise is only to elect infants, one wonder how Hanko and the PRCA actually ascertain which infant is elect or not elect in order that they may be assured they are actually in the covenant of God!

The PRCA are historical revisionists of the Reformed tradition. As we can see, Canons 7 to 9 of the Formula Consensus Helvetica has a fully developed doctrine of the Covenant of Works. Canon 9 of the Formula even rejects the PRCA's doctrine of the Covenant! Among "Continental" theologians, Francis Turretin confessed the Covenant of Works, as do Herman Witsius, Herman Bavinck and Louis Berkhof.

Zacharias Ursinus is the writer of the Heidelberg Catechism, one of the documents that form the Three Forms of Unity, confessed also by the PRCA. Ursinus did use the phrase "one covenant" in his commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, but that was merely a teaching of the one covenant of grace [Zacharias Ursinus, Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism (Second America Edition; Colombus, OH, 1852; repr. Philipsburg, NJ: P&R, n.d.), 97-100]. Even here, we see Ursinus describe the covenant in legal terms as follows:

A covenant in general is a mutual contract, or agreement between two parties, in which the one party binds itself to the other to accomplish upon certain conditions, giving or receiving something, which is accompanied with certain outward signs and symbols, for the purpose of ratifying in the most solemn manner the contract entered in, and for the sake of confirming it, that the engagement may be kept inviolable. (Ursinus, 97)

In the same commentary, Ursinus showed that he does hold to some form of bi-covenantalism when he deals with the Law/Gospel distinction, which is the parallel principle to the Covenant of Works/ Covenant of Grace distinction:

According to the definition of the law, which says, that it promises rewards to those who render perfect obedience; and that it promises them freely, inasmuch as no obedience can be meritorious in the sight of God, it would seem that it does not differ from the gospel, which also promises eternal life freely. Yet notwithstanding this seeming agreement, there is a great difference between the law and the gospel. They differ,

1. As to the mode of revelation peculiar to each. The law is known naturally: the gospel was divinely revealed after the fall of man.

2. In matter or doctrine. The law declares the justice of God separately considered: the gospel declares it in connection with his mercy. The law teaches what we ought to be in order that we may be saved: the gospel teaches in addition to this, how we may become such as this law requires, viz: by faith in Christ.

3. In their conditions or promises. The law promises eternal life and all good things upon the condition of our own and perfect righteousness, and of obedience in us: the gospel promises the same blessings upon the condition that we exercise faith in Christ, by which we embrace the obedience which another, even Christ, has performed in our behalf; or the gospel teaches that we are justified freely by faith in Christ. With this faith is also connected, as by an indissoluble bond, the condition of new obedience.

4. In their effects. The law works wrath, and is the ministration of death: the gospel is the ministration of life and of the Spirit (Rom. 4:15, 2 Cor. 3:7)

(Ursinus, 499)

Note the language of clause 3 of the conditions. The law here, as a short-form for the Covenant of Works, "promises eternal life and all good things upon the condition of our own and perfect righteousness." That is the language of the Covenant of Works in a nutshell! Adam if he were to obey would merit eternal life, not due to some "ontic merit," but because he fulfilled the requirement(s) that God has set.

I would like to conclude with a paragraph from Richard Muller's address concerning the relation of the British and Continental traditions, which originally appeared in the Mar/ April 1994 issue of New Horizons:

Even so, there are only two Reformed confessional documents that teach the two-covenant schema of a covenant of works and a covenant of grace - the Irish Articles and the Westminster Confession- and the schema is, admittedly, a minor theme in the Irish Articles. Nonetheless, the two-covenant schema is a significant, even central, doctrinal motif in much Dutch Reformed theology, where it has never been a confessional theme. In the English Reformed tradition, the schema became a matter of confessional teaching - in the Dutch Reformed tradition, it did not. We might even hazard the guess that the difference is rooted purely in the historical development of Reformed theology and in the fact that the Dutch Reformed confessional development came to a close at the Synod of Dort, before the great flowering of Reformed covenant theology, while the Puritan Revolution brought about a confessional situation in England after that flowering had taken place. In any case, this confessional diversity does not mark a point of dissention in doctrine between branches of the Reformed faith. Terminology and interpretation of the prelapsarian covenant varies in the orthodox Reformed systems sometimes the concept is absent, sometimes it is present as a "covenant of nature," and other times as a "covenant of works." More importantly, the outworkings of the doctrine of the covenant of grace are clearly present in the baptismal teaching and practice of all the Reformed churches.

There is no sharp contrast between the "British Presbyterian" stream and the "Continental Reformed" stream. Difference in emphases, yes, but substantial differences no. Thus, the PRCA, with its substantial revision of history, the Reformed tradition and Reformed theology, is certainly not Reformed, regardless of what they proclaim themselves to be.

P.S.: See the quotes from Reformed sources on classical Reformed Covenant Theology here.


Charlie J. Ray said...
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Charlie J. Ray said...
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PuritanReformed said...


in case you have forgotten, you are banned from this site. And it is incredible how you managed to conflate "covenant life" with "covenant of life," two separate concepts.