A Common Covenant Theology?

Thoughts on the Canadian Reformed Churches/United Reformed Churches Colloquium on Covenant Theology

Do the CanRCs and URCs have a common covenant theology? If the two presentations made in this colloquium are truly representative of both the Three Forms of Unity as well as our ministers, then I believe the answer is yes on the main outline, while in terms of the details, expressions, nuances, and practicality of preaching this doctrine the answer is we have work to do inter nos.


On November 13, 2012, I addressed the North American Presbyterian and Reformed Council (NAPARC) with a speech entitled, “From Reformed Dream to Reformed Reality: The Problem and Possibility of Reformed Church Unity.” In it I sought to further the “Reformed Dream” of one of my father’s in the faith, Dr. W. Robert Godfrey, to see more and more unity between Reformed and Presbyterian denominations and federations. In response to it at least one minister wrote in his denominational publication that I was another dreamer.”

As I write, the Synod of my federation, the United Reformed Churches in North America (URCNA), is meeting. One of the perpetual agenda items we have faced since Synod 2001 is uniting together with the Canadian Reformed Churches (CanRC). This has proven to be daunting and difficult for many reasons. From my side of the ecclesiastical fence, the biggest issue I have had over the years relates to covenant theology and in particular how it relates to the gospel promise of justification.

On the agenda for this Synod is a colloquium between two URC professors (Cornel Venema and Bob Godfrey) and two CanRC professors (Ted Van Raalte and Jason Van Vliet) on the doctrine of covenant in Scripture and the Three Forms of Unity. The goal is to explore commonality, differences, and/or perceived differences. Prior to Synod we were given a helpful 15-page interaction between these brothers. On the basis of this interaction (which I will cite and interact with below), I want to say the following:

First, insofar as Drs. Van Raalte and Van Vliet represent a “typical” CanRC understanding (p. 1), I am happy and satisfied with the main contours of their discussion. These are conscientious brothers who are laboring to be confessionally Reformed men in our a-confessional age. I respect that. Their writing is the clearest expression of how CanRC covenant theology relates to justification that I personally have read.

For example, concerning Adam pre-fall, they are not afraid to speak of “God’s covenanted reward…by way of Adam’s perfect obedience” (p. 10). They speak of the fact that what Adam would have received had he been obedient as meritum ex pacto, that is, “a reward for his obedience within the terms of his relationship with God” (p. 11).

For example, concerning the second Adam and justification, they unequivocally affirm “that Christ alone fully merited our salvation and that God imputes to his elect both the active and passive obedience of Christ” (p. 11). They say that as it relates to justification “law and gospel are antithetical concepts” (p. 11). They agree that we must “affirm […] the distinction and disjunction between the pre-fall and post-fall situations. Indeed, we affirm a radical discontinuity that must be strongly emphasized so as to avoid Pelagian errors” (p. 12). They speak of faith as it relates to justification “rel[ying] entirely upon, and accept[ing], the free gift of Christ’s perfect righteousness, satisfaction and holiness” and of faith as it relates to sanctification “produc[ing] the fruits of good works” (p. 14).

For example, concerning covenant and election they speak, albeit in a very qualified sense, of “a certain duality in the covenant” as it relates to believers and unbelievers, elect and reprobate within the historical administration of the covenant of grace (p. 13). They speak of the reality that some in the covenant are so “in a merely external and superficial manner” while others are so “genuinely…from the heart in true dedication” (p. 14). They speak of hypocrites who are merely in the church, or covenant, while not being of it (p. 15).

For example, concerning preaching to the baptized, they speak of the priority of calling our baptized children first to faith and then to holiness that flows out of faith (p. 14).

Second, it’s obvious that there are differences in terminology and differences in how covenant theology is preached and played out in the life of the local congregation, given the living historical consciousness of the CanRC. I believe, though, that what my brothers Van Raalte and Van Vliet have presented as “typical” can be discussed intramurally. They do not use the exact and precise terminology that I use, but the substance is the same per above. I think one of the reasons for this is the difference in speaking strictly confessionally as distinct from more broadly theologically. In light of this, I do have some intramural questions, in the spirit of iron sharpening iron.

With regard to Adam’s creation in the image of God and its relation to the pre-fall covenant, Godfrey and Venema cite Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A 6, which goes on to say the purpose of this was “so that” (German, aus dass; Latin, ut with the subjunctive verbs cognosceret, diligeret, and viveret) Adam might know God, love him, and “live with him in eternal happiness.” Godfrey and Venema cite this as evidence within the Catechism itself of an understanding that Adam was created for “something more,” which is one of the ideas incorporated later into the concept of a covenant of life or works.

Van Raalte and Van Vliet take issue with this and say it is taken out of context given that what the Catechism is dealing with “is not in the context of Adam doing good works but in the context of having been created good…Adam was created in true righteousness, not that he had to earn it” (p. 10).

My question for my brothers is why the false choice? Can Q&A 6 not be saying both? In fact, Zacharius Ursinus himself, chief author of the Catechism, said it was a “both/and” situation with Adam. In his lectures Ursinus took up the objection that “the felicity and happiness of man…are properties or conditions with and in which he was created…therefore they are not the ends for which man was created” (Ursinus, Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, p. 29). Ursinus’ answer was that the properties of Adam’s being created in the image of God was not only his “form” (forme) but also his “end”(finis) in which he was to continue. He went on to say that the question was not only about the “what” (qualis) of Adam but also about “for what” (ad quid) he was created (Corpus Doctrinae Orthodoxae, [1616], p. 34).

With regard to the issue of the relationship between law and gospel after justification in the life of believer, my brothers know this has been one of the thorny issues of theology since at least from the time of the era of high orthodoxy (ca. 1640ff.). Anthony Burgess said relating law and gospel was “one of the hardest taskes in all divinity” (Vindiciae Legis, p. 5). Van Raalte and Van Vliet echo Scripture (John 3:36; 2 Thess. 1:8; Rev. 3:14–22) and confession (Canons of Dort 5.14) in saying that the gospel is to be obeyed and that the gospel threatens. I do not disagree that this is what is said, but what precisely is meant? Would it be helpful to distinguish law and gospel: redemptive historically/theologically, properly/improperly, and narrowly/broadly considered? Granting the limitations of this particular colloquium, I think some more nuance would help further my brothers like me on this side of the fence.

With regard to how preaching is affected by covenant theology, I would appreciate some further clarity. I appreciate the focus on the two outcomes that arise among those within the covenant of grace per Scripture: blessing and cursing. Yet, there is a follow-up paragraph that states “there is more than a difference in outcomes, there is also a difference in the way that individual believers live within the covenant” (p. 14; emphasis original). The brothers go on to contrast those who “merely ‘go through the motions’ and live within the covenant in a merely external and superficial manner” with those who “live within the covenant genuinely…from the heart in true dedication to, and with fellowship with, the Lord.” (p. 14). I’m assuming there is a misprint here as I would never say those who go through the motions externally and superficially are “believers.” Am I missing something? Or is this a reference to believers who are backslidden, lukewarm, or slothful and who need to be revived? Further, in the final paragraph the comment is made in caution that we do not say “church members must at a certain point in time receive the Lord Jesus Christ in some kind of special conversion experience” (p. 15). Delete “special” and “experience” and would you agree that everyone within the covenant is called to conversion by repenting of sin and placing their faith in Jesus Christ? Is the promise of Christ and the command to repent and believe also proclaimed within the covenant promiscuously and indiscriminately and not just to those out there apart from the covenant? (Canons of Dort 2.5)

In conclusion, do the CanRCs and URCs have a common covenant theology? If the two presentations made in this colloquium are truly representative of both the Three Forms of Unity as well as our ministers, then I believe the answer is yes on the main outline, while in terms of the details, expressions, nuances, and practicalities of preaching and living out this doctrine the answer is we have work to do inter nos.

In the end, I remain a dreamer.

Daniel Hyde is Pastor of Oceanside Reformed Church in Oceanside, Calif.