The Outlook, June 2007,
Volume 57, No. 6, pp. 13-18
Covenant of Works in Dutch Reformed Orthodoxy
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
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 theologains
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.
Caspar Olevianus (1536-87) and Zacharias Ursinus
Although Ursinus and Olevianus perhaps are not true Dutchman,
so to speak, they have profoundly influenced Dutch Reformed churches
through the Heidelberg Catechism. Olevianus and Ursinus are not
as explicit concerning the covenant of works as the later Dutch
theologians are. The concept, however, is in their writings. We
probably should not expect them to have a fully developed doctrine
of the covenant of works; that would be similar to expecting the
first and second century church fathers to explain the doctrine
of the Trinity the same way that the sixth century church fathers
did. In other words, it would be wrong to think that this doctrine
should be mature at birth, so to speak. With this in mind, it is
difficult for one to read Ursinus and Olevianus and not see the
idea of a legal covenant with Adam before the fall.
Olevianus' doctrine of the pre-fall covenant God made with Adam
is closely tied to the reformer's distinction between the law and
the gospel. There was no gospel before the fall. The condition of
the covenant was "do this, and live." The pre-fall covenant, similar
to the Mosaic covenant, required perfect obedience that is rewarded
with life. Olevianus said that if Adam had willed, he "could have
remained in the righteousness of the law." In a short catechism
Olevianus wrote, he noted that even after the fall God "promises
eternal life on the condition that I keep the law perfectly my whole
life long." However, Adam failed and we fail; this is where the gospel
shines through. This is the gospel, that Christ kept the law that
Adam broke and merited salvation for the elect. He also, of course,
paid for the sin into which Adam brought humanity.
Ursinus was similar to Olevianus. They agreed on this issue of
the works principle. There was no gospel before the fall; there
was, however, law. In his larger catechism, Ursinus wrote, "What
does the divine law teach you?" Answer: "What kind of a covenant
God entered into with man at the creation and how man behaved in
the keeping of that covenant." In his commentary on the Heidelberg
Catechism, Ursinus wrote that God requires perfect obedience for
eternal life. The law contains "a promise of reward in ease of obedience,"
and a threat of "punishment in case of disobedience." Along with Olevianus, Ursinus made the law/gospel distinction which closely tied into the covenant of works
and the covenant of grace.
In speaking of obedience and reward, Ursinus directed the Christian
away from his own works to the works of Jesus Christ. Christians
embrace the obedience of Christ by faith, obedience which He has
performed on behalf of His people. Jesus' obedience to the law was
perfect. Ursinus did not shrink back from speaking of the merits
of Christ. Jesus' obedience was rewarded with life and all sorts
of blessings. Perfect obedience -- Ursinus knew this well -- is required
for eternal life. Jesus kept the law and merited eternal life for
Herman Witsius (1636-1708)
Herman Witsius, born in West Friesland in 1636, was another very
influential Dutch Reformed theologian. Witsius was ordained in 1657,
when he began his career in the ministry. He served several churches
in Holland until he went on to teach at the universities of Franeker, Utrecht and Leyden. J. I. Packer suggested that Witsius'
writings have "landmark status as summing up a whole era" of Reformed
theology. Scholars have repeatedly cited Witsius' literature on
the covenant of works. His popular four-volume work, entitled Economy
of the Covenants between God and Man, clearly explains the covenant
that God made with Adam before the fall as a covenant of works.
After discussing the term and concept of covenant in Scripture,
Witsius began his detailed discussion with the covenant of works.
Adam was the head, or representative, of the entire human race.
God promised eternal life and happiness to Adam "if he yielded obedience
to all His commands." On the other hand, punishment was threatened
for disobedience. This law that God gave Adam in the garden "is
the same in substance with the Decalogue." Witsius agrees with the
tradition before him by noting that perfect obedience is required
What kind of covenant would it have been if there were no reward
for Adam's obedience? Witsius asks. Adam did not have the highest
or most blessed life before the fall; there was more in store for
humanity than a pre-fall garden. What Adam needed was perfect obedience
to God's covenantal command. God, who is just, would reward this perfect obedience.
"We must affirm," wrote Witsius, "that the obedience of Christ
was accomplished by Him in our room [in our stead], in order thereby
to obtain for us a right to eternal life." The law admits none to
heavenly glory except on the condition of perfect obedience. The
gospel is that Christ performed this perfect obedience, and bestows
His earned blessings upon His people.
Wilhelmus a' Brakel (1635-1711)
Wilhelmus a' Brakel was a very influential, respected, and well
known Dutch Reformed theologian. To many scholars, he represents
the Dutch Second Reformation (Nadere Reformatie) near the end of
the seventeenth century. After pastoring congregations in Friesland
and Rotterdam, a' Brakel wrote a four-volume systematic and practical
theology that was dedicated to the Reformed churches in the Netherlands.
a' Brakel published this four-volume work in 1700 and it was edited
and reprinted twenty times in the eighteenth century alone. His
work is still respected by many in Dutch Reformed churches. Suffice
it to say a' Brakel was a major figure in the Dutch Reformed church.
"Acquaintance with this covenant [the covenant of works]," a'
Brakel wrote, "is of the greatest importance, for whoever. . . denies
the existence of the covenant of works, will not understand the
covenant of grace, and will readily err concerning the mediatorship
of the Lord Jesus." What is the covenant of works? a' Brakel defined
it as an agreement between God and Adam, the federal head of the
human race. God promised Adam eternal salvation upon the condition
of obedience and threatened eternal death for disobedience.
The law that God gave Adam in this covenant it is identical in
content to the Ten Commandments. The tree of the knowledge of good
and evil was Adam's test to see if he would fail or prevail. Even
among heathen men, a' Brakel noted, there is the notion of reward
for obedience and punishment for disobedience. Furthermore, as well
as other texts which discuss the fact that perfect obedience to
God's law is rewarded with life, a' Brakel quoted Jesus' discussion
with the young man in Matthew 19:16-17. The young man asked, "What
must I do to be saved?" Jesus replied, "If you want to enter
life, keep the commandments." a' Brakel also highlighted other texts which highlight
life for obedience (Lev. 18:5, Rom. 7:10, Ps. 19:11,etc).
a' Brakel wrote more on the covenant of works, to be sure. For
him it was a necessary Reformed doctrine that was of vital importance
for the whole of one's theology. Practically speaking, a' Brakel
wrote that this doctrine amplifies our sins and compels us to look
away from trying to keep it because we are steeped in sin. Since
we are often inclined to dwell upon our works as Christians, the
covenant of works makes us look away from our works to the covenant
of grace. Jesus is the mediator of the covenant of grace who not
only bore the sins of the elect but also obeyed the law on their
behalf, thus earning salvation for them. Not our works, but Jesus'
works are what merit eternal life, a' Brakel was clear that those
who deny the covenant of works very quickly "deny that Christ by
his active obedience has merited a right to life for the elect."
Herman Bavinck (1854-1921)
Most likely the name of this Dutch Reformed theologian who took
Abraham Kuyper ‘s chair at the Free University of Amsterdam around
the turn of the twentieth century is familiar to many of us. Bavinck
was and remains a giant in Dutch Reformed orthodoxy. As the theologians
we have already observed, Bavinck was not ambiguous as he spoke of the covenant
of works: "The doctrine of the covenant of works is based on Scripture
and is eminently valuable."
Adam's position in the garden was provisional and temporary:
it either had to "pass on to higher glory or to sin and death."
The penalty for transgressing the covenant of works was death; the
reward for keeping it was eternal life. Following a' Brakel, Bavinck
closely tied the covenant of works with the covenant at Sinai. The
covenant God made with Adam before the fall and with Israel after
the fall was one that conveyed eternal life upon the condition of
Bavinck traces the covenant of works from the early church fathers
in seminal form to the Reformation, including the Belgic Confession
(articles 14 & 15), the Heidelberg Catechism (Q/A 6-11), and
the Helvetic Consensus Formula of 1675. A strong emphasis of Bavinck's
is the reward involved in keeping this covenant. God created Adam
and Eve and showed them "their destiny and the only way in
which they could reach it:" by obedience.
Bavinck took it for granted that Reformed theology teaches that
"the covenant of grace, insofar as it was made with Christ, was
essentially a covenant of works." The covenant of works for Bavinck
is one of the main doctrines that separates the Reformed church
from Rome and the Lutheran church: Adam needed no superadded gift before the fall nor was his state
in Paradise the highest ideal. There was something more forAdam
right from the beginning; obedience leads to it, eternal life. After
the fall, this covenant way of life is still binding, yet no one
can perfectly and perpetually keep it because we are so plagued
by sin. Bavinck actually said that Arminius upheld the idea that
after the fall, man was no longer obligated to obedience for life.
In other words, Bavinck and Reformed orthodoxy say that payment
for sin and perfect obedience are necessary for salvation after the
fall. This Arminius denied by saying only payment for sin is necessary.
Bavinck knew the importance of the covenant of works: "The covenant
of works and the covenant of grace stand and fall together." Similarly,
"If there were no covenant of works, neither would there be a covenant
of grace." Indeed, the first Adam failed and plunged humanity into
the depths of depravity. The gospel is that we have a second Adam
who prevailed. He humbled Himself and willingly stooped to be under
the law which brings life for obedience and death for disobedience.
Not only did he pay for the sins of His people; He also obeyed the covenant
commands of God and thus merited eternal life for His people.
Louis Berkhof (1873-1957)
As with Bavinck, Berkhof is very well known in Dutch Reformed
churches. His Systematic Theology has been translated into several
languages and has been influential in many denominations and seminaries
for over fifty years. He is a giant in twentieth century theology.
By now, perhaps the descriptions of the covenant of works seem repetitious.
Without a doubt, they are. Clearly, the same concepts and terms
come up repeatedly as we observe Dutch theology from about 1550
Berkhof follows traditional Dutch Reformed orthodoxy on the covenant
of works. While briefly discussing the history of the doctrine,
he noted that at one time in the Netherlands a denial of the covenant
of works was considered a heresy. In the final edition of his Systematic
Theology in the 1940's, Berkhof wrote that many denied the covenant
of works, one of the first major Dutch theologians to make such
an observation. Thus, he set out to provide a thoroughly biblical
definition and defense of it. Although the opening chapters of Genesis
do not use the term "covenant," Berkhof agreed with the traditional
Dutch Reformed understanding that all the elements of a covenant
are present in the Genesis narrative.
In the covenant of works, Adam was the federal head of all humanity
who was temporarily put on probation. The covenant stipulations of life for obedience and death
for disobedience were active in this pre-fall covenant. "This covenant,"
wrote Berkhof, "enabled Adam to obtain eternal life for himself
and for his descendants in the way of obedience." Adam was not yet
in the highest and most blissful state: he was still able to sin before the fall. What he needed was
obedience; he needed to pass the probationary period. Berkhof is
not novel or new when he speaks of the covenant of works -- he is
simply following the Dutchmen who went before him.
As with the above Dutch Reformed theologians, Berkhof taught
that the law before the fall was "undoubtedly like the ten commandments."
Humans are obligated to keep this law perfectly in order to live.
No mere human after the fall, however, can perfectly keep God's
commands or pay for his own sin. Thus Christ, the last Adam, steps
in. "Christ met the condition of the covenant of works;" as a result,
He has merited life for His people. Jesus obeyed and paid. The last
Adam prevailed where the first failed.
These influential Dutch Reformed theologians spanning nearly
400 years vigorously upheld the doctrine of the covenant of works.
The covenant of works is not simply a Presbyterian doctrine. No
one can call the covenant of works a "new thing" in Dutch Reformed
theology, nor can they accuse any who hold to the covenant of works
of being out of line with mainstream Reformed orthodoxy. Actually,
one might make a solid argument that a denial of the covenant of works is the new and minority position
in our tradition.
Interestingly, those within the Dutch tradition who have reformulated
or denied the covenant of works have had little influence outside
of their respective circles. The most notable are Herman Hoeksema
Simon de Graaf (1889-1955), Klaas Schilder (1890-1952), Anthony
Hoekema (1913-1988),and G.C. Berkouwer (1903-1996). These five, we
must add, are quite recent theologians in Dutch Reformed history.
While these men may have been important in their day, none of them
have been as influential as the above named theologians.
This article is more descriptive than prescriptive, yet perhaps
the reader will bear with me to end with some practical observations
and comments. 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?
a' Brakel, Wilhelmus. The Christian's
Reasonable Service trans.
Bartel Elshout (Ligonier: Soli Deo Gloria, 1992).
Bavinck, Herman, Reformed
Dogmatics: God and Creation
ed. John Bolt, trans. John Vriend (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2004).
_______. Reformed Dogmatics: Sin and Salvation in Christ ed. John
Bolt, trans. John Vriend (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006).
Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996).
Clark, Scott. Caspar Olevian and the
Substance of the Covenant
(Edinburgh: Rutherford House, 2005).
Heppe, Heinrich. Reformed Dogmatics ed. Ernst Bizer, trans. G.
T. Thomson. (London: Wakeman, 1950).
Herman Witsius, The Economy of the Covenants between
God and Man (Escondido: The den
Dulk Christian Foundation, 1990).
Hoekema, Anthony. Created in God's Image (Grand Rapids:
Lee, F. N. Life and Works: God's Creation Covenant with
Adam (nl., 2003).
Olevianus, Caspar. A Firm Foundation trans. Lyle D. Bierma (Grand
Rapids: Baker, 1995).
Ursinus, Zacharias, Commentary on
the Heidelberg Catechism trans. G. W. Williard (Phillipsburg:
Vos, Geerhardus. Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation
ed. Richard B. Gaffin Jr. (Philipsburg: P&R, 1980).
Mr. Shane Lems is a graduate of Westminster Seminary in California. He is a member of
Trinity United Reformed Church in Caledonia, Michigan.
Update: Rev. Shane Lems (MDiv, Westminster Seminary California) is the pastor and church
planter at the United Reformed Church in