Examining the Nine Points: An Introduction

The Prologue to the Nine Points

Synod affirms that the Scriptures and confessions teach the doc­trine of justification by grace alone, through faith alone and that nothing that is taught under the rubric of covenant theology in our churches may contradict this fundamental doctrine. Therefore Synod rejects the er­rors of those:

This preface to the Nine Points is particularly important as it estab­lishes a fundamental point, a foun­dation, and conviction that guides the points that follow. Indeed, the Nine Points are really nothing more than an elaboration of this founda­tional truth.

Reformed theology is covenantal. Yes, Reformed theology must also be expressed in systematic and catechetical terms but covenant theology is the Reformed account of the history of redemption and it is substantially identical to what we confess in our Belgic Confession, Heidelberg Catechism, and Canons of Dort. Our understanding of the history of redemption and the pro­gressive revelation of redemption is also summarized in our systematic theology texts. In other words, we have one faith that can be ex­pressed in redemptive-historical (covenantal), systematic, or confes­sional terms. Because covenant theology is the shorthand way of saying, “the Reformed account of redemptive history” and it is that stuff that informs and controls what we teach in systematic theol­ogy and what we confess as churches, to change our account of the history of salvation is to change our faith. Covenant theology is inex­tricably bound up with our confes­sion considered narrowly as eccle­siastical documents and considered broadly as the Reformed under­standing of Christianity.

Though there is room for difference of opinion, the Reformed under­standing of Redemptive history is not endlessly elastic. For example, it is not possible to postulate that Adam was not the head of human­ity or if he was he was only an ex­ample and that nothing he did does anything more than set a bad ex­ample, and still call oneself “Re­formed.” That view would be the Pelagian not the Reformed view. According to the Reformed under­standing of redemptive history, it is not possible to say that God estab­lished for national Israel one way of being accepted by God as righteous and being delivered from sin and judgment, and that God established another way of acceptance with God and deliverance from sin and judgment for the New Testament church. These are two boundary markers on which all Reformed people must agree, if the word “Re­formed” is to have any fixed mean­ing.

Variety Within Boundaries in Reformed Theology

For most of the last ten years we have been told by proponents of the so-called Federal Vision theology that there were such great differ­ences of opinion among the Re­formed theologians of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries regard­ing their understanding of the history of redemption that it is virtually impossible to say with certainty what constitutes Reformed “cov­enant theology.”

This claim would surprise the ortho­dox Reformed theologians of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and it would also surprise their Arminian, Roman Catholic, Anabaptist, and Lutheran critics, all of whom believed that they knew the main lines of Reformed cov­enant or federal theology. Further, it would surprise those Reformed theologians in Europe, England, and Scotland to learn that there were fundamental differences in Re­formed covenant theology.

What one finds is variety in the way Reformed writers spoke about the covenant made with Adam before the fall. Most writers spoke of a covenant of works, others about a covenant of nature, and still others about a covenant of life. In most cases, however, these writers were saying the same thing in different ways. To speak about a covenant of works was to focus on the condition of the covenant. To speak about a covenant of life was to speak about the goal of the covenant and to speak about a covenant of nature was to speak about the circum­stance of the covenant. These were all complementary ways of explain­ing the covenant with Adam before the fall.

Before we move to the next two topics in covenant theology where one finds diversity in terminology

THE NINE POINTS OF (URCNA) SYNOD (SCHEREVILLE) 2007

Synod affirms that the Scriptures and confessions teach the doctrine of justification by grace alone, through faith alone and that nothing that is taught under the rubric of covenant theology in our churches may contradict this fundamental doctrine. Therefore Synod rejects the errors of those:

1. who deny or modify the teaching that “God created man good and after His own image, that
is, in true righteousness and holiness,” able to perform “the commandment of life” as the rep­resentative of mankind (HC 6, 9; BC 14);

2. who, in any way and for any reason, confuse the “commandment of life” given before the fall with the gospel announced after the fall (BC 14, 17, 18; HC 19, 21, 56, 60);

3. who confuse the ground and instrument of acceptance with God before the fall (obedience
to the commandment of life) with the ground (Christ who kept the commandment of life) and instrument (faith in Christ) of acceptance with God after the fall;

4. who deny that Christ earned acceptance with God and that all His merits have been imputed
to believers (BC 19, 20, 22, 26; HC 11-19, 21, 36-37, 60, 84; CD I.7, RE I.3, RE II.1);

5. who teach that a person can be historically, conditionally elect, regenerated, savingly united
to Christ, justified, and adopted by virtue of participation in the outward administration of the covenant of grace but may lose these benefits through lack of covenantal faithfulness (CD, I, V);

6. who teach that all baptized persons are in the covenant of grace in precisely the same way such that there is no distinction between those who have only an outward relation to the cov­enant of grace by baptism and those who are united to Christ by grace alone through faith alone (HC 21, 60; BC 29);

7. who teach that Spirit-wrought sanctity, human works, or cooperation with grace is any part either of the ground of our righteousness before God or any part of faith, that is, the “instru­ment by which we embrace Christ, our righteousness” (BC 22-24; HC 21, 60, 86);

8. who define faith, in the act of justification, as being anything more than “leaning and rest­ing on the sole obedience of Christ crucified” or “a certain knowledge” of and “a hearty trust” in Christ and His obedience and death for the elect (BC 23; HC 21);

9. who teach that there is a separate and final justification grounded partly upon righteousness or sanctity inherent in the Christian (HC 52; BC 37).

(and sometimes a genuine diversity of doctrines), in connection to this first point it will be useful to address the repeated assertion that the “covenant of works” (or covenant of life or covenant of nature or cov­enant of law) is a uniquely “Presby­terian” or British doctrine and not a “Dutch Reformed” doctrine. As a matter of the history of doctrine, this claim is baseless. The doctrine of the covenant of works was just as widely held among the Dutch (and other Europeans) as it was among the British Reformed theologians. For example, the Dutch theologian Herman Wits(ius) (1636–1708), one of the leading European Re­formed theologians of the second half of the seventeenth-century and widely regarded as a representative of the mainstream of Reformed orthodoxy wrote:

In the covenant of works there was no mediator: in that of grace, there is the mediator, Christ Jesus....In the covenant of works, the condition of perfect obedi­ence was required, to be per­formed by man himself, who had consented to it. In that of grace, the same condition is proposed, as to be, or as al­ready performed by a me­diator. And this substitution of the person, consists the principal and essential differ­ence of the covenants.

A second representative of Dutch Reformed theology from the same period should be enough to put to rest the claim that the “covenant of works” is not a “Dutch” doctrine. Wilhelmus ‘a Brakel (1635–1711) is widely recognized as one of the great theologians of the Nadere Reformatie (roughly, Dutch Puri­tanism) and no one in the period of Reformed orthodoxy was more vig­orous about the importance or ne­cessity of the doctrine of the cov­enant works than he:

Acquaintance with this cov­enant is of the greatest im­portance, for whoever errs here or 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. Such a person will very readily deny that Christ by His active obe­dience has merited a right to eternal life for the elect. This is to be observed with several parties who, be­cause they err concerning the covenant of grace, also deny the covenant of works. Conversely, whoever denies the covenant of works, must rightly be suspected to be in error concerning the cov­enant of grace as well.

The covenant theology of Witsius and ‘a Brakel was not exceptional. These two were mainstream Re­formed theologians and quite repre­sentative of Reformed orthodoxy across Europe and Britain. Further, we should not accept the premise that there was a distinctively “Dutch” Reformed theology any­more than we should accept the claim that there was a distinctive “German” or “British” Reformed theology in the sixteenth and seven­teenth centuries. Scholars of Re­formed orthodoxy have known for many years that Reformed theology was an international phenomenon. The British Reformed theologians were reading the Europeans and the latter were reading the former.

A second place where one finds some variety is in the way writers, particularly in England in the mid­seventeenth century, described the relations between the Mosaic cov­enant and the tenure of national Israel in the land. Some writers spoke of a works element relative to the land promises but others empha­sized the Mosaic covenant as an utterly gracious covenant focusing on its relations to the Abrahamic promise.

A third area of diversity, in the clas­sical period, concerned the way some writers related the eternal, pre-temporal covenant of redemp­tion between the Father and the Son (pactum salutis) to the covenant of grace. Many writers in the sev­enteenth century spoke of an iden­tity of the covenant of grace with the covenant of redemption and others distinguished them. Again, as in the case of the covenant of works, these two views are complementary. The same cov­enant of redemption can be reck­oned as a covenant of works rela­tive to the obedience required of the Son and it can be considered a cov­enant of grace in view of the salva­tion freely given to the elect.
The claim that there was a distinc­tively Dutch Reformed theology is what is known in logic as “special pleading.” In this case, this claim seems to have arisen during argu­ments in the Netherlands in the 1940s. The supporters of Klaas Schider, in reaction to what they perceived to be persecution by the Kuyperians, in the midst of a nasty theological and political fight, made the argument that they were the true heirs of the Afscheiding theol­ogy (the 1834 “Separating” by con­servative and confessional Re­formed folk from the national Dutch Reformed Church). In so doing, they cast their Kuyperian opponents as “scholastics.” This rhetorical move signaled to pastors and laity in their movement that the “scholastics” (i.e., the mainstream of sixteenth and seventeenth cen­tury Reformed theology) were somehow tainted and not to be trusted. By this same period, for different reasons, Reformed theo­logians in the North America had also come to be somewhat suspi­cious of their own tradition. As a consequence, much of the Re­formed world in the twentieth cen­tury lost contact with the sources of classical Reformed covenant theology.

Another reason that some readers have the idea that there was funda­mental diversity in Reformed cov­enant theology is that they read back into the tradition the idiosyn­cratic covenant theologies devel­oped in the twentieth century, dur­ing which time the orthodox or con­fessional view became the minority report. The reasoning goes this way: “I am Reformed. I think x. Ergo, x must be what we have al­ways believed.” Of course, when put this way, it is easy to see that such reasoning is completely falla­cious but that does not mean that it is not widespread. Some of our writers who revised the classical covenant theology were quite plain about what they were about. Oth­ers, however, have not signaled clearly that they were propos­ing a major revision of Re­formed theology.

Reformed Theology is Covenant Theology

Synod affirms that the Scriptures and confessions teach the doc­trine of justification by grace alone, through faith alone and that nothing that is taught under the rubric of covenant theology in our churches may contradict this fun­damental doctrine.

Reformed theology is covenantal. Not all “covenant” theologies are Reformed, however. There are a great many covenant theologies. The early and medieval churches had an account of the history of revelation and redemption that contained truths but also con­tained significant errors. Many of the fathers and virtually all the medieval theologians thought of Bible as containing two kinds of law, the old and the new. When these writers said “gospel,” they defined it as the “new law.” Ac­cording to the medieval church, the difference between old law and new law is the greater degree of grace available (via the Roman sacerdotal system) under the new law enabling Christians to obey the law toward final justification. The pre-Reformation doctrine of “old law” and “new law” was an explanation of redemptive history and a kind of covenant theology and it was rejected by all the Prot­estants as an inaccurate account of the Biblical doctrine.

The Reformation formulated a sig­nificantly different account of the history of revelation and redemp­tion. The magisterial Protestants agreed the Bible reveals that God entered into a legal relationship with Adam as the first head of humanity and, after the fall, he entered into a gracious relation­ship with sinners, in Christ. The Protestants confessed that, after the fall, God revealed progres­sively one story of salvation, by grace alone, in Christ alone, through faith alone. Luther, Melanchthon, Bucer, and Calvin (to name but a few) taught explic­itly that, relative to righteousness before God, the Bible has two ways of speaking to sinners throughout: “do” (imperative or law) and “done” (indicative or gospel). Thus, the relationship (covenant) that God made with Adam before the fall was funda­mentally legal: “the day you eat thereof you shall surely die.” Af­ter the fall, the relationship (cov­enant) into which God entered and the promises that He made to all those who would believe was fundamentally gracious.

This distinction between law and gospel was a fundamental struc­ture to the Protestant account of redemptive history, i.e. the story of the covenants in Scripture. An­other fundamental structure was the idea of the covenant of grace whereby God made promises in types and shadows (by illustration and foreshadowing) to save His people by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.

The sixteenth and seventeenth century Protestants, who devel­oped this covenant theology, this way of reading the history of redemption, also wrote our cat­echisms and confessions. They did not see any tension between their reading of redemptive his­tory and revelation and their sys­tematic reading of Scripture and their catechisms and confessions.

They saw these two ways of ac­counting for the biblical teaching as closely interrelated. They said what they did about Reformed system and they confessed what they did because of the way they read the history of redemption (covenant theology).

What distinguished the Reformed from the earlier Protestants is that they developed a covenant theol­ogy more intentionally and thoroughly, but it is important to un­derstand that, in the history of Re­formed theology, covenant theol­ogy was not regarded a highly specialized, technical, or mystical discipline that only a few illumi­nati could understand. Covenant theology was simply the Re­formed way of talking about the history of redemption and the pro­gressive revelation of salvation. Our covenant theology was not terribly complicated.

This is important because, in the modern period, there has been a concerted attempt to drive a large wedge between systematic theology, our confessions, and what has come to be known as “bibli­cal” or “redemptive-historical” (i.e. covenant) theology. Prior to the nineteenth century, however, there was no great dichotomy between these ways of doing the­ology. In the sixteenth century, one of the authors of our cat­echism, Caspar Olevianus (1536–87) wrote books on systematic theology, catechetical theology, and biblical or covenant theology. About the time of the Synod of Dort an Old Testament professor, Johannes Wollebius (1586–1629), wrote one of the more important handbooks of systematic theology. Later in the seventeenth cen­tury, the great theologian Johannes Cocceius (1603–69) wrote books on both the history of redemption and on systematic the­ology.

In the next issue we will conclude the explanation of the preface to the Nine Points by considering the question of the relations between biblical, systematic, and confes­sional theology. We will also reckon with the influence some types of biblical theology have had upon the doctrine of justifica­tion.

Dr. R. Scott Clark is an Associate Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Westminster Seminary in Escondido, California.

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