Bavinck the Dogmatician: The Doctrine of the Covenant (Part 2)

In my previous article on Bavinck’s doctrine of the covenant, I summarized the main features of Bavinck’s view of the covenant with Adam before the fall (commonly called “the covenant of works”) and the covenant of grace after the fall. As we noted, in Bavinck’s treatment of the biblical doctrine of creation and redemption, all of God’s dealings with human beings, whom he created in his image for fellowship with himself, are covenantal in nature.

After his general treatment of the importance of the covenant of grace to the biblical understanding of redemption, Bavinck devotes the remainder of his consideration of the doctrine of the covenant to five topics: 1) a survey of the history of the development of the doctrine of the covenant in Christian, and particularly, Reformed theology; 2) a relatively brief description of the doctrine of a “covenant of redemption” (pactum salutis); 3) the distinction 
between the covenant of grace in its broader and narrower sense; 
4) the unity and differences between the various administrations 
of the covenant of grace throughout redemptive history, 
especially the difference between the “old” and 
“new” covenant; 5) the relation between the 
pre-fall covenant of works and the post-fall 
covenant of grace; and 6) the relation between 
election and covenant. Not all of these 
topics are of equal importance to an 
understanding of Bavinck’s doctrine of 
the covenant. However, before taking 
up directly Bavinck’s view of the 
relation of covenant and election, 
we need to consider the topics 
of the “covenant of redemption” 
and the relation between 
the covenants before and 
after the fall of Adam 
into sin.

The “Covenant of Redemption” (Pactum Salutis)

Within the context of his evaluation of the history of covenant theology, Bavinck takes up the subject of what Reformed theologians termed the “covenant of redemption” or pactum salutis. Bavinck observes that Reformed theology, more than the Roman Catholic or Lutheran theological traditions, has distinguished itself historically by the way it fully developed the biblical conception of God’s covenant. In the course of its reflection upon the way God initiated and administered the covenant of grace throughout history, Reformed theology also pursued the question in what way this covenant should also be regarded to belong to God’s eternal counsel. For Reformed theology, with its characteristic interest in the all-comprehensiveness of God’s eternal counsel, it is not enough to view the covenant of grace merely in terms of its administration throughout history. The question has to be raised regarding the foundation of the historical covenant of grace within the eternal counsel of the triune God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The answer of historic Reformed theology to this question was given in the form of its distinctive formulation of the doctrine of an eternal, intra-Trinitarian covenant between the three Persons of the Trinity, which constitutes the basis for the realization of this covenant in time.

In his reflection upon the doctrine of the “covenant of redemption,” Bavinck affirms the essential components of the traditional formulation, though he also expresses some misgivings regarding what he terms the “scholastic subtlety” of some of its expressions (RD 3:213). In spite of some questionable appeal to scriptural texts such as Zechariah 6:13 and the use of extra-biblical legal categories drawn from the realm of traditional jurisprudence, Bavinck affirms that the principal components of the traditional doctrine express a scriptural idea. Within the life and communion of the three Persons of the Trinity, we may posit the existence of a compact or agreement (a true suntheke or mutual concurrence of will and purpose) between the Father, who appoints the Son to be the Mediator of his people whom he chooses to give to him, and the Son, who willingly subjects himself to the Father’s will, and the Spirit, who promises to furnish the Son with the power and gifts to accomplish his mediatorial task. In this “pact of salvation” between the three Persons, we witness, according to Bavinck, the “relationships and life of the three persons in the Divine Being as a covenantal life, a life of consummate self-consciousness and freedom. Here, within the Divine Being, the covenant flourishes to the full” (RD3:214).

Whereas in the doctrine of the decrees of God, the unity of the Trinity is particularly emphasized, the doctrine of the “covenant of redemption” emphasizes the diversity of the respective works of the three Persons of the Trinity. The work of salvation, which is accomplished through the historical administration of the covenant of grace, is a work in which each of the three Persons of the Trinity performs, in accordance with the covenant between them, a distinctive task. In the same way that the work of creation involved the respective and unified operations of the three Persons of the Trinity, so in the work of re-creation each Person fulfills a particular role upon the basis of the eternal covenant of redemption. Thus, we should not regard the historical administration of the covenant of grace as a kind of “emergency” or ad hoc remedy for the redemption of the elect, but rather as the realization in time of what the three Persons of the Trinity eternally resolved to accomplish.

The pact of salvation . . . further forms the link between the eternal work of God toward salvation and what he does to that end in time. The covenant of grace revealed in time does not hang in the air but rests on an eternal, unchanging foundation. It is firmly grounded in the counsel and covenant of the triune God and is the application and execution of it that infallibly follows. (RD 3:215)

As this statement of Bavinck’s understanding of the covenant of redemption indicates, we should not think of this covenant and the covenant of grace as though they were two covenants.1 Rather, we should regard the covenant of grace as the covenant of redemption coming to fruition in the course of the history of redemption. It is no accident of history that God the Father should send his Son in the fullness of time to fulfill the promises of the covenant of grace made prior to his incarnation. Nor is it an accident of history that the Son should choose to assume human flesh and undertake his work as Mediator. Nor is it an accident of history that the Spirit should furnish Christ with the gifts required to the fulfillment of his office as Mediator, or apply the benefits of Christ’s mediation to the elect. All of the respective operations of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in the accomplishment of God’s saving purpose stem from what was eternally covenanted between the Persons of the Trinity in the pactum salutis. Because the covenant of grace is founded upon this intra-Trinitarian compact, it can be understood in its unity and diversity. Furthermore, as an expression of the eternal covenant of redemption, we can also affirm the inviolability and effectiveness of the covenant as the God-appointed instrument of redemption. The redemption that the covenant of grace effects for the covenant people of God, is a redemption that is of, from, and through God. Just as there is one God and Father of all who truly belong to the people of God, so there is one Son and Mediator, as well as one Spirit. Communion with the triune God, which is the goal to which the covenant of grace is ordained, is possible only upon the basis of the work of all three Persons in perfect unity and triune diversity (RD 3:215–6).

The Relation between the Pre-fall Covenant and the Covenant of Grace

Following his discussion of the covenant of redemption, Bavinck briefly argues that the historical administration of the covenant of grace should not be viewed too narrowly, as though it terminated solely upon the salvation of the elect.

In the Scriptural representation of the covenant of grace, the first use of the term “covenant” occurs in connection with the “covenant of nature” that God established in the context of the worldwide flood in the days of the patriarch, Noah. The breadth of the promise that God makes in conjunction with the event of the great flood is a reminder, in Bavinck’s judgment, that God’s purposes of redemption are as wide as creation in their scope. The whole of the cosmos and all of the nations directly benefit from God’s purpose to redeem his people. The creation is preserved, the nations are enabled to prosper and develop, human culture advances, and the human sciences are advanced—all within the framework of God’s overarching purpose of re-creation. With the redemption of his people in Christ, which is the principal goal of the covenant of grace in history, God also works to renew and enlist the fruits of humanity’s fulfillment of the cultural mandate in the accomplishment of his great purposes of redemption. In Bavinck’s own words, “[n]ature and grace, creation and re-creation, must be related to each other in the way Scripture relates them. . . . Common grace and special grace still flow in a single channel” (RD 3:216). God’s purpose of redemption, accordingly, is a purpose to redeem a new humanity, and that purpose does not exclude, but includes, the re-creation of the cosmos. Re-creation, including the redemption of a covenant people, does not repudiate nature, but perfects it.

Of special importance to Bavinck’s insistence that the covenant of grace is founded upon an eternal covenant of redemption and that it perfects rather than abandons God’s work in creation, is his handling of the question of the relation between the pre-fall covenant of works and the post-fall covenant of grace. We should not view the covenant of grace as though it were at odds with, or in some fashion contradicts, the so-called covenant of works. The covenant of grace, rather, “was from the moment of its revelation and is still today surrounded and sustained on all sides by the covenant of nature God established with all creatures. Although special grace is essentially distinct from common grace, it is intimately bound up with it” (RD 3:225). In order to appreciate the relation between these covenants, we need to have a clear understanding of the differences and similarities between them.

The essential difference between the pre-fall and post-fall covenants is evident in that the latter is purely and only an expression of God’s grace. All the blessings of the covenant of grace are to be understood in the strictest sense as “undeserved and forfeited blessings” (RD 3:225, emphasis mine). Though the covenant of works was indeed an expression of God’s grace and favor toward humanity, which conferred covenant rights that man as creature did not deserve, it was nonetheless a covenant that required perfect obedience to the law of God as the way to blessing and eternal life. In the covenant of works, man is treated as a responsible creature who is able to do what the law of God requires and thereby obtain the blessings of the covenant. The forfeiture of the blessings of this covenant occurs as the result of Adam’s sin and disobedience. Indeed, in Adam the entire human race stands under the abiding obligation of perfect obedience and the sanction of condemnation and death on the basis of his failure to fulfill the righteous requirements of the law. “God stands by the rule that those who keep the law will receive eternal life. He posits this in his law, attests it in everyone’s conscience, and validates the statement in Christ. But human beings broke the covenant of works; now they are no longer able to acquire life by keeping it. By the works of the law no human being can be justified” (RD 3:225).

Contrary to the “legalistic” character of this pre-fall covenant, we must understand the post-fall covenant to be purely “evangelical.” Everything that was forfeited under the terms of the pre-fall covenant is obtained and guaranteed in the post-fall covenant by the provisions of God’s grace in Christ.

In distinction from and contrast to the covenant of works, God therefore established another, a better, covenant, not a legalistic but an evangelical covenant. But he made it, not with one who was solely a human but with the man Christ Jesus, who was his own only begotten, much-beloved Son. And in him, who shares the divine nature and attributes, this covenant has an unwaveringly firm foundation. It can no longer be broken: it is an everlasting covenant. It rests not in any work of humans but solely in the good pleasure of God, in the work of the Mediator, in the Holy Spirit, who remains forever. It is not dependent on any human condition; it does not confer any benefit based on merit; it does not wait for any law keeping on the part of humans. It is in, through, and of grace. God himself is the sole and eternal being, the faithful and true being, in whom it rests and who establishes, maintains, executes, and completes it. The covenant of grace is the divine work par excellence—his work alone and his work totally. All boasting is excluded here for humans; all glory is due to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. (RD 3:225–6)

The essential difference between the pre- and post-fall covenants, therefore, is that in the covenant of grace every blessing that is bestowed through Christ, the Mediator of the covenant, is an undeserved and assured blessing that answers to what was lost and forfeited (demerited) under the covenant of works (RD 3:225). There is an important difference between a covenant that is based upon grace in the sense of unmerited favor and a covenant that is based and rendered effective by grace in the sense of favor shown to undeserving sinners who have forfeited every covenantal claim upon that favor.

According to Bavinck, this difference between the covenants before and after the fall does not mitigate the fact that in both the law of God is fully upheld. Because God is unchangeably holy and righteous, the demand of his holy law is maintained, not only before the fall under the covenant of works, but after the fall in the administration of the covenant of grace. No human being can find favor with God without doing what the law of God requires; this is as true in the covenant of grace as it was in the covenant of works. Therefore, in the covenant of grace, God does not act capriciously or arbitrarily. He always acts in a way that maintains and upholds the righteous requirements of his holy law. Indeed, after the fall into sin, the whole human race comes to stand “under the law” in two respects: first, all remain obligated to do what the law requires in order to be pleasing to God; and second, all now come under the law in terms of its liability and penalty. After the fall into sin, the requirement of perfect obedience in order to obtain eternal life remains, but it has now been complicated by the additional requirement that payment be made for the debts or demerits that disobedient sinners now owe God for their sins. “After the fall, therefore, God lays a double claim on humans: that of the payment of a penalty for the evil done and that of perfect obedience to his law (satisfaction and obedience)” (RD 3:226).     

Because the covenant of grace fulfills and meets the abiding obligations of obedience that were first stipulated in the covenant of works, it restores God’s people to favor with God and secures their inheritance of eternal life in communion with him. Christ, as the Mediator of the covenant of grace, is the “anti-type” of Adam in the covenant of works. Adam, the original covenant head of the human race, is “exchanged for and replaced by Christ,” who is the covenant head of the new humanity (RD 3:226–7). Only within the history of Reformed theology has this correspondence and relationship between the covenant of works and the covenant of grace come to full development. In the historical development of Reformed theology, it was soon recognized that Christ’s work as Mediator of the covenant of grace obtained that righteousness and life for his people that was no longer able to be obtained through the covenant of works. Moreover, it was also emphasized that the covenant of grace, so far as Christ’s work is concerned, was for Christ a covenant of works. Christ’s entire obedience and sacrifice constitute the basis for restoring his people to favor and fellowship with God in a way that fully accords with the demands of God’s righteousness. According to Bavinck, the “double claim” of God’s law was fulfilled by the “passive” and “active” obedience of Christ, who not only suffered the penalty of the law but obeyed its precepts on behalf of his people.

In the further exposition of the doctrine of the covenant, Reformed theology also argued that the work of Christ in the covenant of grace was itself the fulfillment of the eternal “counsel of peace” (pactum salutis) in which Christ was appointed and willingly assumed the office of Mediator. Some in the tradition of Reformed theology went so far as to identify the covenant of redemption and the covenant of grace, and argued that, in the strictest sense, these two were essentially identical. By virtue of the foundation of the covenant of grace in the covenant of redemption, we may conclude that the covenant of grace is properly a covenant between God and Christ and “in him with all his own” (RD 3:227).

In his evaluation of these developments in the history of Reformed theology, Bavinck hesitates to identify without qualification the covenant of redemption and the covenant of grace. His hesitation to do so is of particular significance for the question of the relation between election and covenant. Since Bavinck’s commentary on the relation between the covenant of redemption and the covenant of grace is of particular significance to this question, it is worth quoting at length.

Indeed, there is a difference between the pact of salvation and the covenant of grace. In the former, Christ is the guarantor and head; in the latter, he is the mediator. The first remains restricted to Christ and demands from him that he bear the punishment and fulfill the law in the place of the elect; the second is extended to and through Christ to humans and demands from them the faith and repentance that Christ has not, and could not, accomplish in their place. The first concerns the acquisition of salvation, is eternal, and knows no history; the second deals with the application of salvation, begins in time, and passes through several dispensations. (RD 3:227)

Summary

We will have occasion to consider the implications of this important comment in subsequent articles, when we take up directly Bavinck’s conception of the relation between election and covenant. However, it is clear that this comment is of direct significance for this topic. In Bavinck’s understanding, the covenant of redemption, which expresses the purpose of the triune God to save the elect and to do so by means of the different operations of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, expresses the divine counsel or plan for the salvation of the elect. In the covenant of redemption, the “parties” are the triune God and all the elect in Christ; the non-elect are not party to or directly contemplated in the covenant of redemption. In the covenant of redemption, Christ fulfills as guarantor all the “conditions” and demands that must be met in order to accomplish the salvation of the elect. However, in the covenant of grace, which represents the historical execution in time of God’s counsel of redemption, the situation is more complicated. Though Christ is the Mediator of the covenant of grace and secures all of its blessings for his own people, the parties of this covenant are the triune God and his covenant people (believers and their children, as well as all whom the Lord calls to himself) who are obliged in the covenant to respond to God’s grace in the way of faith and obedience (RD 3:227–228).

Lest this distinction between the covenant of redemption and the covenant of grace be misunderstood, Bavinck adds that there remains a fundamental unity and connection between them. Just as Adam was the covenant representative and head of the human race before the fall, Christ is the covenant representative and head of the new humanity after the fall. Unlike the first covenant, which could not secure the covenant inheritance of eternal life, the second covenant, because it is based upon the sure and perfect work of Christ as the covenant head and representative of his people, guarantees and infallibly secures what it promises. “The covenant [of grace] is certain as a testament; it is a covenant of testaments and a covenantal testament. It involves no principle and is relatively immaterial whether one highlights the duality or the unity of the pact of salvation and the covenant of grace, provided it is clear that in the pact of salvation Christ can never even for a second be conceived apart from his own, and that in the covenant of grace believers can never even for one second be regarded outside Christ” (RD 3:228).2
            
1. The close link between the “covenant of redemption” and the “covenant of grace” is also underscored in Bavinck’s Saved by Grace, p. 77 (108): “The covenant was established already in eternity with Christ as the Surety of His own. It did not come into existence for the first time within history. The covenant is rooted in eternity. Rather, the covenant existed at that point also in truth and in reality between the Father and the Son, and therefore immediately after the Fall the covenant could be made known to man and be established with man. Therefore, that covenant of grace, existing from eternity to eternity, functions within history as the instrumentality of all the redemption, the route along which God communicates all of His gracious benefits to man.”

2. Due to the unity and distinction between the eternal “covenant of redemption” and the historical execution of this covenant in terms of the “covenant of grace,” Bavinck vacillates in his use of the language of Christ as the “head and representative” of his people. In the “covenant of redemption,” Christ is certainly the “head and representative” of the elect. The situation is more complicated in respect to the covenant of grace, however, since this covenant in its historical manifestation may be viewed in two ways: either in terms of its substance and reality (in which case, it is a covenant that obtains between the triune Redeemer and all the elect who truly belong to Christ by faith) or in terms of its administration (in which case, it is a covenant that obtains between the triune Redeemer and all believers together with their children, not all of whom are elect).

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