Bavinck the Dogmatician: The Doctrine of the Covenant (part 1)

(Author’s note: In this and subsequent articles on Herman Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics, I will address Bavinck’s view of the covenant, including its relation to the doctrine of election. Though I am skipping over for now the section on the doctrine of creation, including the creation of man in God’s image, I will return to this topic at a later point, D.V. Due to the continued diversity of opinion among Reformed believers on election and covenant, I believe this part of Bavinck’s dogmatics is of special importance. CPV)

In Bavinck’s view of God’s counsel or decree, the doctrine of election deals with God’s eternal purpose to save his people in Christ. In his purpose of election, God intends nothing less than the redemption of a new humanity within the context of his comprehensive work of re-creation. In Bavinck’s treatment of the doctrine of the covenant in distinction from that of election, he focuses upon the manner in which God accomplishes his purposes for human beings in the course of history before and especially after the fall into sin.

Bavinck treats the doctrine of the covenant primarily in two places in his dogmatics. The first occasion for a consideration of the covenant between the triune God and human beings follows Bavinck’s consideration of the creation of man in God’s image. The covenant is not to be regarded merely as a post-fall means whereby God restores fallen sinners to fellowship with himself. Rather, the covenant is the divinely appointed instrument whereby from creation onward the triune God chooses to enjoy communion with his image-bearers. The second occasion, which provides a considerably more lengthy treatment of the doctrine of the covenant of grace, is Bavinck’s introduction to the doctrine of the person and work of Christ.

As was true of our summary of Bavinck’s handling of the doctrine of election, our summary of his doctrine of the covenant will only identify the most important features of Bavinck’s view. Once we have a clear sense of Bavinck’s respective doctrines of election and covenant, we will take up the critical issue of their interrelation.

The Covenant with Adam (“Covenant of Works”)

Bavinck introduces his discussion of the covenant before the fall into sin between the triune God and all of humanity in Adam by noting that, in the original state of integrity, Adam did not possess the image of God in isolation from the organic unity of the human race. Nor did Adam possess immediately the image of God in the fullest sense. In the scriptural conception of humanity, a clear distinction is evident between Adam and Christ, the second or last Adam. Even in the state of his original integrity, the first Adam did not yet possess the fullness of life that is only secured through Christ in the final state of glory. “As such, Adam, by comparison to Christ, stood on a lower level. Adam was the first; Christ the second and the last. Christ presupposes Adam and succeeds him. Adam is the lesser and inferior entity; Christ the great and higher being. Hence, Adam pointed to Christ; already before the fall he was the type of Christ. In Adam’s creation Christ was already in view” (RD 2:564). This relationship between the first Adam and Christ, the last Adam, is of special importance to a proper understanding of the original covenantal relationship between God and humanity. Only through the work of Christ, the second Adam, does the fullness of God’s dwelling and communion with humanity—first given in the original covenant relationship between God and man before the fall—find its eschatological realization and fulfillment.

In his introductory comments on the pre-fall covenant relationship, Bavinck observes that the doctrine of the pre-fall covenant is based upon several scriptural and theological themes that have deep roots in the history of Christian theology.

In the scriptural representation of Adam’s relationship with God before the fall, it is apparent that Adam’s condition was “provisional and temporary and could not remain as it was. It either had to pass on to higher glory or to sin and death” (RD 2:564). When Adam was placed by God under a probationary command of obedience (Gen. 2:16–17), he was threatened with death in the event of his transgression, and he was simultaneously promised a reward of life in the event of his obedience to this command. The reward of eternal life that was set before Adam is consistently regarded throughout the Scriptures as the goal and outcome of the original covenant and as well the covenant of grace (cf. Rom. 6:23; Rev. 2:7).

Even though the express language of “covenant” is not used in the Genesis account of Adam’s relationship with his triune Creator, Bavinck notes that it may be termed a covenant in Hosea 6:7, and it is certainly the case that the apostle Paul draws a clear parallel between Adam and Christ in Romans 5:12–21. Just as the disobedience of the first Adam brings condemnation and death to the whole human race whom he represented as covenant head, so the obedience of Christ brings justification and life to those whom he represented as covenant head in the covenant of grace. In the history of Reformed theology, the formulation of the relationship between God and Adam in terms of the idea of covenant was largely based upon theological reflection that sought to do justice to this parallel between Adam and Christ. Though Christian theology did not always recognize the implications of this parallel for the formulation of the original relationship between God and Adam as a covenant relationship, it was always implicit in the long-standing tradition since Augustine of distinguishing Adam’s state before the fall and the believer’s state in Christ after the fall. The Augustinian distinction between Adam’s ability not to sin (posse non peccare) and not to die (posse non mori) before the fall, and the inability to sin and die (non posse peccare et mori) that is graciously granted to the elect in Christ, requires the formulation of a pre- and post-fall covenant (RD 2:566–7).

In the history of Reformed theology, the pre-fall covenant between God and humanity in Adam has been variously designated. Sometimes it is termed a “covenant of nature,” since this covenant required obedience to the moral law of God that man knew by nature and was able to obey by virtue of the created gifts and integrity with which he was originally endowed. However, it is most commonly designated a “covenant of works,” since the eternal life promised in the covenant was only able to be obtained “in the way of works, that is, in the way of keeping God’s commandments” (RD 2:567). Bavinck admits that the terminology of a pre-fall “covenant of works” is not employed in the Reformed confessions as it is in the Westminster Standards. However, the absence of this terminology does not alter the fact that all of the elements or components of the doctrine are present “materially” in Articles 14 and 15 of the Belgic Confession, in Lord’s Days 3 and 4 of the Heidelberg Catechism, and in Head of Doctrine III/IV of the Canons of Dort. In these confessional articles, clear testimony is provided of the original state of humanity in Adam, the obligation of perfect obedience to the law of God, the promise of life upon condition of such obedience, and the consequence of Adam’s sin and fall for the whole human race. Because Adam transgressed the covenant, he forfeited for himself and all his posterity any possibility of eternal life in unbreakable communion with God. Now the only way to obtain such life is through faith in Christ, the last Adam, who alone is able to grant the fullness of glorified life to those who belong to him. In Bavinck’s estimation, the fact that the Scriptures do not explicitly term the pre-fall state as a “covenant” relationship should not deter Reformed theologians from employing this term. In the Scriptures, it is common to speak of “covenant” as the “fixed form in which the relation of God to his people is depicted and presented” (RD 2:560). Therefore, however much the word may be in dispute, it ought to be acknowledged that the “matter is certain” (de vocabulo dubitetur, re salva).

After his introductory comments on the propriety of viewing the original pre-fall relationship between God and man as a covenant, Bavinck offers several significant arguments for regarding all of the triune God’s dealings with his image-bearers as covenantal in nature. The doctrine of a pre-fall covenant of works expresses a truth that is basic to the whole teaching of Scripture, namely, that “[a]mong rational and moral creatures all higher life takes the form of a covenant” (RD 2:568). Whether in marriage, family, business, science or art, human social relationships and interaction invariably take the form of covenants in which there is mutual obligation and inter-communion. This is no less true of the highest and all-embracing relationship that obtains between God as Creator and man as his creature and image-bearer. Indeed, there is no possible way whereby human beings could enjoy blessedness in fellowship with God other than by way of a covenant relationship.

In the first place, the “infinite distance” that obtains between God as Creator and man as creature confirms that there is no possibility of communion with God without covenant. In order for God to commune with his image-bearer, not only as a “master” to “servant” but also as “Father” to “son,” he must “come down from his lofty position, condescend to his creatures, impart, reveal, and give himself away to human beings” (RD 2:569).

In the second place, the idea of covenant always implies a relationship of mutual obligation and commitment. As a mere creature, however, man does not possess of himself any “rights” before God. The creature may never place the Creator in his debt or under obligation, unless God first freely and graciously grants him rights within the context of a covenant relationship. “There is no such thing,” Bavinck argues, “as merit in the existence of a creature before God, nor can there be since the relation between the Creator and the creature radically and once-for-all eliminates any notion of merit. This is true after the fall but no less before the fall” (RD 2:570).1 In the pre-fall covenant as well as the covenant of grace after the fall, God grants, by virtue of his condescending goodness and unmerited favor, rights and privileges that would otherwise be beyond man’s reach.

And in the third place, Bavinck argues that the idea of covenant corresponds to the nature of man as a moral and rational creature, whom God treats and with whom he interacts in a way that respects the unique capacity of his image-bearer to respond to God in the way of free and heartfelt obedience (RD 2:570–1). In all of his dealings with his image-bearers, God never treats human beings as he would an irrational or inanimate object. The beauty of the covenant is that it provides a framework within which a fully personal and responsible engagement may transpire between God and human beings, which is similar to the engagement of a husband and wife, or of a parent and child.

Bavinck argues, in the concluding section of his consideration of the pre-fall covenant, that Reformed theology alone has adequately captured the biblical understanding of this covenant. In historic Roman Catholic theology, the doctrine of man’s state before the fall included the idea that God as Creator added to man’s natural state the “free gift” (donum superadditum) of original righteousness and the promise of eternal life. Though this idea bears some formal resemblance to the Reformed understanding of the covenant of works and rightly acknowledges that eternal life remains an “unmerited gift of God’s grace,” it differs from the Reformed view by its radical distinction between nature and grace and particularly by its reintroduction of the idea of “condign merit” in the context of man’s free cooperation with God (RD 2:571–2). In the Reformed conception of the pre-fall covenant, greater recognition is given to God’s sovereign initiative in the “unilateral” origin of the covenant relationship and in his gracious promise of eternal life. In the Reformed view, man as creature remains wholly dependent upon his Creator and finds a greater blessedness of glorious communion with God only in the way of obedience to the moral law of God.

Moreover, unlike the traditional view of Lutheran theology, namely, that Adam possessed in his original state of integrity the “highest possible blessing,” the Reformed view never exaggerated the original state of Adam. In the Reformed conception, which alone does justice to the emphasis upon covenant as the means of communion and blessing for man in relationship to God, salvation in Christ brings more than the restoration through the forgiveness of sins of fallen man to his original state (RD 2:572). Rather, through the work of the last Adam, all who belong to him by faith and participate in the blessings of his saving work are granted the fullness of glory in the immutable state that is eternal life. Only in the Reformed conception do we find a proper understanding of the parallel between the first Adam and Christ.

Christ does not [merely] restore his own to the state of Adam before the fall. He acquired and bestows much more, namely, that which Adam would have received had he not fallen. He positions us not at the beginning but at the end of the journey that Adam had to complete. He accomplished not only the passive but also the active obedience required; he not only delivers us from guilt and punishment, but out of grace immediately grants us the right to eternal life. (RD 2:573)

An interesting feature of Bavinck’s treatment of the doctrine of the pre-fall covenant is an emphasis that we previously observed in his consideration of the doctrine of election. Just as God’s purpose of election terminates not upon an aggregate of individuals but upon the whole organism of a new humanity in Christ, so God’s intention in the covenant is to bring the whole of humanity to its appointed destiny in unbroken and glorious communion with himself. The image of God, which Adam possessed but in a less-than-perfect or consummate form, is only fully expressed in the whole human race in its organic unity. Adam was not created alone or as an isolated individual, but he was created and ordained by God to be the covenant representative of the whole human race. God’s journey with mankind begins with Adam, but this beginning is not to be confused with God’s intended goal, which was that his image would be perfectly expressed only in his “fully finished image.” “Only humanity in its entirety—as one complete organism, summed up under a single head, spread out over the whole earth, as prophet proclaiming the truth of God, as priest dedicating itself to God, as ruler controlling the earth and the whole of creation—only it is the fully finished image, the most telling and striking likeness of God” (RD 2:577).

The whole of humanity was by God’s ordinance united both juridically and ethically in the first Adam. Therefore, by virtue of Adam’s sin and fall, the entire human race has come under the judicial sentence of condemnation and death, and all of Adam’s posterity has inherited a sinfully corrupted human nature. This also provides an explanation for the unity of God’s covenant with humanity, whether before the fall in the first Adam or after the fall in the last Adam. Christ, who is the one Mediator of the covenant of grace, is the “antitype” of the first Adam. By virtue of Christ’s mediatorial work of perfect obedience to the Father and substitutionary endurance of the penalty of violating the law of God, all those who belong to Christ by faith constitute the new humanity in which God’s original and abiding purpose is realized. In Christ believers are restored to union and communion with God, and upon the basis of his entire and perfect obedience are entitled to eternal life in consummate blessedness. Thus, Bavinck concludes that “[t]he covenant of works and the covenant of grace stand and fall together. The same law applies to both” (RD 2:579). In the overarching purpose of God, Christ is the appointed Mediator who redresses all of the consequences of Adam’s sin and transgression, and procures for believers the fullness of their covenant inheritance, which is life in unbreakable and perfected communion with the living God.

The Covenant of Grace

The way Bavinck concludes his treatment of the pre-fall covenant between God and all humanity in Adam provides a natural link with his subsequent treatment of the covenant of grace in the context of an extended consideration of the person and work of Christ as Mediator in the third volume of his Reformed Dogmatics. Rather than viewing the work of Christ merely as a remedy in the post-fall situation for the consequences of Adam’s sin, Bavinck views the work of Christ as the realization of God’s original intention for covenant communion with his image-bearers. Through Christ, the last Adam and the only Mediator of the covenant of grace, fallen human beings are restored to covenant fellowship with God and obtain the consummate blessing of indefectible life in the community of Christ’s body, the church. By means of the salvation of the elect in union with Christ, all of the great and encompassing purposes of God in creation and in redemption reach their fulfillment and goal. Before we turn to Bavinck’s particular handling of the relation between God’s purpose of election and the covenant he establishes with his people in Christ, therefore, we need to consider at this point the principal elements of Bavinck’s conception of the covenant of grace.

As the language of “covenant of grace” clearly indicates, the first principal feature of this covenant in its historical manifestation is that it reveals God’s favor and disposition to enter into renewed communion with undeserving and fallen sinners. Through the sin and disobedience of Adam under the pre-fall covenant of works, all of his posterity has been plunged into ruin and despair. There is no way back to communion with God by the covenant of works. However, God in his undeserved grace takes the initiative, immediately after the fall into sin, to restore his fallen image-bearers to union and communion with himself. In this the uniqueness of the Christian religion is exhibited over against all forms of paganism. Rather than the fallen creature working to enter into communion with God, the great emphasis of biblical teaching rests upon the initiatives of God’s grace in coming to his fallen creatures to redeem them from the consequences of their sin and misery. “[I]n Scripture the grace of God comes out to meet us in all its riches and glory. Special revelation again makes God known to us as a Being who stands, free and omnipotent, above nature and has a character and will of his own” (RD 3:197). Because Adam transgressed the law of God and forfeited for himself and his posterity any right under the original covenant to obtain the inheritance of life in communion with God, the grace of God after the fall always comes to expression in the form of a new and gracious covenant that “arises, not by a natural process, but by a historical act and hence gives rise to a rich history of grace” (RD 3:197).

Following a long-standing tradition in Reformed theology, Bavinck appeals to the account of God’s dealings with Adam after the fall in Genesis 3, especially verse 15, as the first and embryonic revelation of the covenant of grace in history. Indeed, though the terminology of covenant is not found in this passage, it contains in seed-form something of a foreshadowing of the entire history of the covenant of grace and its ultimate realization in Christ, the true “seed of the woman,” who would finally crush all opposition to and enmity against God. When God comes to Adam after the fall, he pronounces his curse, to be sure, but he does so in the context of a promise of blessing that triumphs over human sin. Through the fall into sin, Adam and Eve, in a manner of speaking, “covenanted” with Satan, the arch-enemy of God. Through the “mother promise” of Genesis 3:15, however, God declares that he will break the bond of fellowship between Satan and the seed of the woman, his people, and join this people to himself in an irrevocable communion of life and blessing. In doing so, “God graciously annuls it [the covenant between Adam and the power of evil], puts enmity between the seed of the serpent and the woman’s seed, brings the seed of the woman—humanity, that is—back to his side, hence declaring that from Eve will spring a human race and that that race, though it will have to suffer much in the conflict with that evil power, will eventually triumph” (RD 3:199). In the promise made to Adam, God assures him of the continued propagation, development and salvation of the human race. When Adam embraces this promise with childlike faith, God reckons his faith to him as righteousness. And so begins the course of redemptive history, which is the history of God’s work of salvation in Christ and by means of the covenant of grace.

Though it is not germane to our purpose to provide a complete account of Bavinck’s tracing of the covenant of grace throughout history, it is significant that Bavinck, also following the tradition of earlier Reformed covenant theology, gives special attention to the meaning of the language of “covenant” in the Scriptures. Contrary to the trajectory of critical biblical scholarship in his day, which often argued that the theme of covenant emerges for the first time late in the history of Israel, Bavinck maintains that the idea of the covenant emerges at the inception of God’s work of redemption. Upon the basis of a careful analysis of the usage of the Old Testament term for “covenant” (berith), Bavinck concludes that, when it refers to God’s covenanting with his people, it contains three principal features: “an oath or promise that includes the stipulations agreed upon, a curse that invokes divine punishment upon the violator of the covenant, and a cultic ceremony that represents the curse symbolically” (RD 3:203). When God enters into covenant with his people, he establishes a relationship of fellowship with himself that, by virtue of the accompanying oath of self-malediction, places his people “under the protection of God and so achieves a kind of indissolubility” (RD 3:203).

To the question whether the covenant relationship is a kind of mutual “agreement” between parties (bilateral) or a sovereign disposition or grant (unilateral), Bavinck answers that it depends upon how we view the nature of the covenant parties. Since the covenant of grace is initiated and sovereignly established by God, it must be regarded as entirely unilateral in its origin and administration. God graciously bestows his covenant blessing upon his people, imposes simultaneously the obligations of the covenant, and upholds the covenant in faithfulness in spite of the faltering and unfaithfulness of his people.

In this firmness and steadiness of the covenant of grace lies the glory of the religion we as Christians confess . . .  If religion is to be a true fellowship between God and humanity, fellowship in which not only God but also the human partner preserves his or her independence as a rational and moral being and along with his or her duties also receives rights, this can come into being by God’s coming down to humans and entering into a covenant with them. In this action God obligates himself with an oath to grant the human partner eternal salvation despite his apostasy and unfaithfulness, but by the same token, the human partner on his or her part is admonished and obligated to a new obedience, yet in such a way that ‘if we sometimes through weakness fall into sins we must not despair of God’s mercy, nor continue in sin,’ since we have an everlasting covenant of grace with God. (RD 3:204–5)

Because the covenant of grace is unilateral in origin and ultimately rendered effective unto salvation by virtue of God’s abiding faithfulness, the most common rendering of the Hebrew term in the Septuagint is diatheke (“disposition”) and not suntheke (“agreement”) (RD 3:205). This linguistic convention confirms that the covenant is ultimately a sovereign bestowal of God whose faithfulness ensures the inviolability of the covenant relationship and guarantees that its promises will be realized in spite of the frequent infidelity of God’s people. In this connection, Bavinck also observes that, though the language of the covenant is only infrequently rendered by the term, “testament,” which suggests the guarantee of the reception of an inheritance upon the death of the testator, the biblical understanding of the covenant of grace includes the idea of a “testamentary disposition.” In the sovereign working of God, Israel’s unfaithfulness did not prevent the God of the covenant from gathering in her place “the spiritual Israel, which according to God’s election was gathered from all peoples, receives the goods of salvation from the Son as by a testamentary disposition, stands in a child-Father relation to God, and expects salvation from heaven as an inheritance” (RD 3:206).


In Bavinck’s understanding of the teaching of Scripture, the doctrine of the covenant is of central and abiding importance. From the beginning to the culmination of God’s dealings with human beings, communion and fellowship between the triune God and his people has always been mediated by way of covenant. In the pre-fall relationship between God and the human race in Adam, the covenant head and representative of all his posterity, God sovereignly (without any human deserving) placed Adam in a relationship of union and communion with himself. In doing so, God treated Adam, whom he created as a moral and rational (and, therefore, responsible) creature, not merely as a servant but also as a son. In the administration of this covenant relationship, God required from Adam perfect conformity to his moral law, promised him eternal life in unbroken communion with himself upon such obedience, and threatened him with (spiritual and physical) death in the event of his disobedience. In the original covenant relationship between God and Adam, we already see that God’s intention for the human race was to be realized only in the way of a covenant of friendship and communion between himself and his people. Though the pre-fall covenant was only a beginning and not the perfection of this covenant fellowship, it already prefigured the fullness of human life in unbroken, eternal life communion with God.

In Bavinck’s understanding of the pre-fall covenant, Adam was only a “type” of Christ, the last Adam, in whom God’s intention for fellowship between himself and his people would ultimately be realized. After the fall into sin, all of Adam’s posterity were subjected to God’s just condemnation and spiritual death. Only through the work of Christ, the Mediator of the covenant of grace, is it now possible for any of the sons and daughters of Adam to be restored to covenant favor and fellowship with God, and to be the rightful recipients of the covenant inheritance of eternal life. Christ, the last Adam, is the One through whom a new humanity will be restored and perfected in fellowship with God. Despite the sinfulness and unworthiness of his people, the triune God has graciously condescended in Christ to obtain the perfection of glorified life for his people in the covenant. Through his perfect and entire obedience, both to the positive precepts and the negative sanctions of the law, Christ has secured for those who are joined to him by faith the blessings of acceptance into favor with God and the sure promise of unbroken fellowship with him. In this way, the covenant of grace is the means whereby the triune God intends to realize his purpose for the renewed organism of the human race.
1. Bavinck rejects the idea of “merit” in the relationship between the creature and the Creator, particularly the traditional Roman Catholic distinction between two kinds of merit, “condign” and “congruent” (meritum de condigno, meritum de congruo). In Roman Catholic teaching, “condign” merit is true or full merit and is based upon the good work of the Holy Spirit in the individual believer; “congruent” merit is a half-merit or human work that does not truly merit God’s grace, but receives its reward on the basis of God’s generosity. See Richard Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1985), pp. 190–2. Bavinck does not deny, however, that, whether we use the term “merit” in this context or not, the creature does have a right to the promised inheritance by virtue of the conferral of this right through the divinely initiated covenant relationship. Though Bavinck shies away from using the terminology of “merit” in the pre-fall covenant relationship, his position is consistent with earlier writers of the Reformed tradition who spoke qualifiedly of a kind of “covenant merit” (meritum ex pacto). Bavinck does not hesitate to employ the language of “merit,” however, to describe the obedience of Christ as the last Adam, who fulfills all of the obligations of the law on behalf of his people and thereby justly procures their covenant inheritance. For a summary of the traditional Reformed view that Bavinck affirms, see Francis Turretin, Elenctic Theology (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1992), 1:569–86, esp. 2:712–24. Turretin allows that we may speak broadly and improperly of “merit” in the relationship between Adam and God, if we mean only to say that, by virtue of the covenant relationship, Adam’s obedience would justly secure his inheritance of eternal life.

Dr. Cornelis Venema is the President of Mid-America Reformed Seminary in Dyer, Indiana. He is also a contributing editor to The Outlook.