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 of works.
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 Caspar Olevian (1536–87), 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 (1534–83)
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 case 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 His people.
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 for salvation.
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 perfect obedience.
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 for Adam 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 to 1950.
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 (1886–1965), 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).
Berkhof, Louis. 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: Eerdmans, 1986).
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: P&R, n.d.).
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.