Paul’s Enthymemes on the Law (Gal 4:4-5)

One of the questions that comes up for those studying 1689 Federalism is whether or not the Mosaic Covenant (which was a covenant of works) offered eternal life as a reward for obedience to the law. Historically, some have said yes, while others no. I (following Coxe, Owen, Renihans, Barcellos, etc) say no, the Mosaic Covenant only offered temporal life and blessings. However, two passages in particular seems to suggest I am mistaken and that the Mosaic Covenant did in fact offer eternal life and that Christ in fact earned our righteousness through the Mosaic Covenant.

For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith.” But the law is not of faith, rather “The one who does them shall live by them.” Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”—so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith. (Galatians 3:10-14 ESV)

But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. (Galatians 4:4-5 ESV)

What are we to make of these passages which seem to teach that our blessings were earned by Christ as a reward for obedience to the Mosaic Covenant (“the law”)? Well, we need to understand Paul’s rhetoric as an enthymeme. An enthymeme is “a syllogism in which one of the premises is implicit.” Britannica explains:

in syllogistic, or traditional, logic, name of a syllogistic argument that is incompletely stated. In the argument “All insects have six legs; therefore, all wasps have six legs,” the minor premise, “All wasps are insects,” is suppressed. Any one of the propositions may be omitted—even the conclusion; but in general it is the one that comes most naturally to the mind. Often in rhetorical language the deliberate omission of one of the propositions has a dramatic effect.

Wikipedia refers to it as an “informal syllogism”

Here is an example of an informal syllogism, an enthymeme:

  • Socrates is mortal because he’s human.”
The complete formal syllogism would be the classic:
All humans are mortal. (major premise – assumed)
Socrates is human. (minor premise – stated)
Therefore, Socrates is mortal. (conclusion – stated)

While syllogisms lay out all of their premises and conclusion explicitly, enthymemes keep at least one of the premises or conclusion unsaid. The assertions left unsaid are intended to be so obvious as to not need stating.

I highly recommend that everyone take some time to listen to John Robbins’ mp3 course on logic (Course 11). Education in logic used to be a prerequisite to any formal study of a subject (such as theology). The Westminster Assembly produced The Directory for Publick Worship which includes the following rule for examination of a pastor:

He shall be examined touching his skill in the original tongues and his trial to be made by reading the Hebrew and Greek testaments and rendering some portion of them into Latin. And if he be defective in them, inquiry shall be made more strictly after his other learning and whether he hath skill in logick and philosophy.

page 72

I never received any formal logic instruction, so I’m doing my best to play catch-up. We all need to play catch-up. Logic is not common sense. It’s not something everyone knows and understands. Logic is “the rules of proper thought” or “the science of necessary inference.” It is a study of the proper way to think, and it’s something a lot of us are ignorant of (and we correct this by studying how God thinks by studying Scripture and thereby developing proper rules of thought – not by looking to “natural theology”). But back to enthymeme (from Robbins’ second lecture “Definition of Terms”):

It means an argument in which one of the premises is omitted, or understood. And he [Clark] gives the illustration of a youngster convincing his parents to let him to buy some gloves. And he doesn’t express the full argument. Most of our ordinary conversations in life are enthymemes. Some of the premises are not stated, they’re understood. It would be very burdensome, very tedious, if every time we wanted to talk to someone to repeat all the premises and ask them to agree to the conclusion. So we operate on the premise that some things are understood. It’s an ellipses, as it were, in the argument.

Some people have charged the bible with committing logical fallacies, and what they normally have in mind are enthymemes. Perhaps they’ve run across an argument in Paul’s letters where he leaves out a premise as being understood. And they say, “Look, the bible can’t be the Word of God, there’s a logical fallacy.” And all Paul has done is written down an enthymeme. The bible is written in ordinary language. It’s not written as a logic textbook or a botany textbook or a geology textbook. It’s written in ordinary language and in ordinary language, ordinary conversation, usually the complete argument is not stated. Sometimes it is.

In one of the lectures I’ll talk about Paul’s use of logic. Particularly in Romans and 1 Corinthians he states the full argument, on several occasions; no enthymemes. But you need to be aware of the existence of enthymemes when people say the bible has logical blunders in it. Then you can say, ‘Well, perhaps its just an enthymeme that perhaps you’ve overlooked.’ That will drive them to their dictionary.

Bryan Estelle shows an example of this in Galatians 3:10-12

Paul has two arguments in these verses. His first argument is in verse 10 in the form of an abbreviated syllogism. Stated most simply, the argument of Galatians 3:10 assumes the following form:

PREMISE: Cursed is everyone who does not observe and obey all the things written in the book of the law.

CONCLUSION: All who rely on the works of the law are under a curse.

The implied reconstructed minor premise would then possibly look like this:

All who rely on the works of the law do not observe and obey all the things written in the book of the law.

Paul then goes on to make another argument in verses 11 and 12, which stated most simply assumes the following form:

MAJOR PREMISE: The one who is righteous by faith shall live (v. 11b).

MINOR PREMISE: The law is not of faith (v. 12a, reinforced by v. 12b).

CONCLUSION: No one is justified (= receives life) by law (v. 11a).

Let the reader understand the apostle’s line of reasoning here. After stating the cursed condition of every person in his first argument (v. 10), the apostle states the conclusion of his second argument first (v. 11a – “no one is justified, i.e., receives entitlement to heaven, by law”) and then asserts justification is by faith (v. 11b), and furthermore, law and faith are antithetical (read = incompatible, 3:12). The logic is lucid and insuperable: Habakkuk 2:4 and Leviticus 18:5 are “two mutually exclusive soteriological statements.”

Leviticus 18:5 and Deuteronomy 30:1-14 in Biblical Theological Development (133-4)

Much of exegesis involves reconstructing the logic implicit in Scripture, making it explicit and therefore easier to understand.

Returning to Galatians 3:10-14 that we started with, the question we are addressing is how Paul can use “the law” as a reference to the Adamic Covenant in distinction from the Old Covenant. For the sake of argument, assume that I am correct in stating that only the Adamic Covenant of Works offered eternal life upon the condition of obedience to the law, and the Mosaic Covenant blessings were limited to temporal life and blessing in Canaan upon the condition of obedience to the law. (For more on this, see here)


Paul is then appealing to the written law of the Old Covenant as representative of the law of the Covenant of Works (which was unwritten and therefore could not be quoted). In doing so, he is not claiming the Old Covenant offered eternal life. He is using the principle of works established in the Old Covenant to make a point about the obedience required from those seeking to earn by their works. A reconstruction of Paul’s enthymeme might look like:

P1 Though the rewards differ (and thus the covenants are distinct), the law was given in both the Adamic and the Old Covenants as a covenant of works (meaning they operate upon the same principle of works).

P2 I cannot quote from the Adamic Covenant because it was not written down for us.

C1 I can quote statements about the conditions of the law in the Old Covenant in order to explain the conditions of the law in the Adamic Covenant (while keeping the two covenants distinct).

P3 I can quote statements about the conditions of the law in the Old Covenant in order to explain the conditions of the law in the Adamic Covenant (while keeping the two covenants distinct).

P4 “The law” can be used as shorthand reference for the Old Covenant law principle.

C2 “The law” can be used as shorthand reference for the Adamic Covenant law principle (while keeping the two covenants distinct).

We can then unpack the logic of the verses in question to demonstrate they are not teaching that Christ earned eternal life for us through the Old Covenant.

P5 “The law” can be used as shorthand reference for Adamic Covenant law principle (while keeping the two covenants distinct).

P6 Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us.

C3 Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Adamic Covenant (in distinction from the Old Covenant).

P7 Christ was born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law

P8 “the law” can be used as shorthand reference for the law principle found in the Adamic Covenant.

C4 Christ was born under the law principle found in the Adamic Covenant.

P9 Christ was born under the law principle found in the Adamic Covenant.

P10 The law principle itself (do this and live) can be distinguished from a specific covenant.

C5 Christ was born under the principle of “Do this and live” although he was not born under the Adamic Covenant.

Long story short, understanding Scripture requires unpacking the logic implicit in the explicit statements. The simple fact that the law often has reference to the Old Covenant does not therefore mean that Christ earned our reward via the Old Covenant. Contextual clues help us know which covenant/law Paul is referring to, such as the fact that Gentiles were never under the curse of the Old Covenant, and thus could not be redeemed from it. And of course all of this assumes a distinction between the moral law itself and the moral law as a covenant of works.

See also:

Additional Answers to Founders Conference Q&A (Is the Abrahamic Covenant “of works”?)

The 2015 Founders conference was on Baptist Covenant Theology. There was a Q&A Panel with Pascal Denault and Jeffery Johnson. Below are my thoughts on the questions that were asked.

Genesis 15 seems to be an unconditional covenant wherein God takes the obligation upon Himself to fulfill it. How is this only a promise in the Old Covenant, and not a covenant within the Old Covenant? How does this fit into the Old Covenant/New Covenant?

I would say that this was a covenant. The distinction is not between promise/covenant, but between promised/established. So the New Covenant was promised throughout the Old Testament, but it was not established until Christ’s death. But there was clearly a covenant established in Genesis 15. A few things should be considered:

1) God is swearing by an oath that what He promised will be fulfilled. Abraham wanted to know how he could be sure, so God re-assured him in this vision of a covenant oath.

2) In Gen 15, God is not promising to Abraham the blessings of the New Covenant: forgiveness of sins, regeneration, etc. He is swearing to fulfill what was promised to Abraham: that he will have numerous descendants, that they will inhabit the land of Canaan, and that in him all nations of the earth would be blessed. This last promise can be seen as a promise that Christ will come and establish the New Covenant to grant forgiveness of sins, etc. Thus we can say that the Abrahamic Covenant promises the future establishment of the New Covenant. It is not itself the New Covenant. Abraham was justified when he believed this promise, as it was a promise of Christ. But Abraham was not justified by the Abrahamic Covenant. As Owen notes “When God renewed the promise of it [the New Covenant] unto Abraham, he is said to make a covenant with him; and he did so, but it was with respect unto other things, especially the proceeding of the promised Seed from his loins.”

3) God does not say this promise will be received through faith alone apart from works.

4) In fact, God specifically says that work was required to bring about the fulfillment (Gen 17:2, 9-14; 22:16-18; cf Gal 5:3; Acts 15:10). As John Murray states “The obedience of Abraham is represented as the condition upon which the fulfilment of the promise given to him was contingent and the obedience of Abraham’s seed is represented as the means through which the promise given to Abraham would be accomplished. There is undoubtedly the fulfilment of certain conditions… At the outset we must remember that the idea of conditional fulfilment is not something peculiar to the Mosaic covenant. We have been faced quite poignantly with this very question in connection with the Abrahamic covenant. And since this feature is there patent, it does not of itself provide us with any reason for construing the Mosaic covenant in terms different from those of the Abrahamic.” And the Mosaic is of works (Lev 18:5; Gal 3:12; Rom 10:5).

Meredith Kline notes “How Abraham’s obedience related to the securing of the kingdom blessings in their old covenant form is a special question within the broad topic of the role of human works under redemptive covenant… His faithful performance of his covenantal duty is here clearly declared to sustain a causal relationship to the blessing of Isaac and Israel. It had a meritorious character that procured a reward enjoyed by others… Because of Abraham’s obedience redemptive history would take the shape of an Abrahamite kingdom of God from which salvation’s blessings would rise up and flow out to the nations. God was pleased to constitute Abraham’s exemplary works as the meritorious ground for granting to Israel after the flesh the distinctive role of being formed as the typological kingdom, the matrix from which Christ should come… The obedient Abraham, the faithful covenant servant, was a type of the Servant of the Lord in his obedience, by which he became the surety of the new covenant.”

Coxe says “It is noteworthy that in this transaction of God with Abraham we first meet with an express injunction of obedience to a command (and that of positive right) as the condition of covenant interest. It is all ushered in with this prologue (Genesis 17:1), “I am the Almighty God; walk before me and be perfect.” First in these words, the all-sufficiency of God is revealed for the ensuring of the promises. Then a strict and entire obedience to his precepts is required in order to inherit the good things that were to be given by this covenant. In this mode of transacting it, the Lord was pleased to draw the first lines of that form of covenant relationship in which the natural seed of Abraham was fully stated by the law of Moses, which was a covenant of works with its condition or terms, “Do this and live.”” p. 91

5) And thus Gen 15 is properly part of the Old Covenant, which includes the promise that Christ will come from Abraham (Rom. 9:5).

6) And it relates to the New Covenant in that it promises the future establishment of the New Covenant, and it typologically reveals information about it.

See also Is the Abrahamic Covenant Conditional or Unconditional?

How do you respond to dispensationalists who say Israelites occupy the promised land today because of the Abrahamic Covenant?

Johnson and Denault rightly noted that Israel’s tenure in the land of Canaan was conditional. They were exiled to Babylon for their disobedience to the Mosaic Covenant, and then after Christ’s death, they were finally cut off completely from the land with the abrogation of the Old Covenant (Hebrews 8). Augustine said “And it was fulfilled through David, and Solomon his son, whose kingdom was extended over the whole promised space; for they subdued all those nations, and made them tributary. And thus, under those kings, the seed of Abraham was established in the land of promise according to the flesh, that is, in the land of Canaan, so that nothing yet remained to the complete fulfillment of that earthly promise of God, except that, so far as pertains to temporal prosperity, the Hebrew nation should remain in the same land by the succession of posterity in an unshaken state even to the end of this mortal age, if it obeyed the laws of the Lord its God.”

Dispensationalists might object by saying that God promised this land to Israel unconditionally and as an everlasting possession. First, note the answer to the previous question with regards to works and the Abrahamic Covenant. Furthermore, if God gave them the land unconditionally, how could God have set conditions upon Israel in the Mosaic Covenant? How could he have exiled them? How could he have kept them out of the land for 2,000 years if it was promised unconditionally? The answer is that it was not promised unconditionally. Furthermore, as Paul explains in Romans 9, even this conditional promise to Abraham’s offspring regarding the land was never made to all of Abraham’s physical offspring. It was made to Isaac, not Ishamel; to Jacob, not Esau; and on down through history God sovereignly chose who this promise extended to, until it extended only to Christ who fulfilled it typologically, and thus it was made only to Him (Gal 3:16).

Regarding the language of “everlasting” Coxe notes “Now it is evident that they have for many ages been disinherited of it. But the solution to this doubt will be easy to him who consults the use of these terms in other texts, and the necessary restriction of their sense when applied to the state or interests of Abraham’s seed in the land of Canaan. For the priesthood of Levi is called an everlasting priesthood (Numbers 25:13) [even though it was abrogated Heb 7] and the gates of the temple, everlasting doors (Psalm 24:5). This is the same sense that Canaan is said to be an everlasting inheritance. No more is intended than the continuance of these for a long time, that is, throughout the Old Testament economy until the days of the Messiah, commonly spoken of by the Jews under the notion of the world to come. In this a new state of things was to be expected when their old covenant right and privilege was to expire, its proper end and design being fully accomplished.” (87)

Would the part of the Abrahamic seed concerning the fallen seed be considered of works or conditional? If so, how can we say it was of works and grace?

See the two previous answers.

How much of a threat is NCT?

I agree with both Johnson and Denault’s answers. I wouldn’t phrase it as “a threat.” I do believe that the implications of NCT rejection of the moral law of God is unbiblical and has significant ramifications to systematic and biblical theology, as well as in the practical life of the Christian. However, there are also points of agreement we have with NCT over against Westminster Federalism, which need to be acknowledged and emphasized. Here are some of my posts on NCT.

Why is covenant theology important?

Because Scripture organizes itself according to the covenants that God makes with men. Therefore the way we understand them has systematic implications for how we understand all of Scripture. As just one example, current debates in reformed circles over the doctrine of justification and the place of works is directly related to how people view the covenants in Scripture.

Did Jesus tackle the Old Covenant/New Covenant distinctives?

In addition to Denault and Johnson’s good answers I would add that John 15:1-6 is a very good articulation of the distinction between the two. See my post on that here.

Who is the federal head of Israel?

We need to be careful in how we talk about federal headship. It is true that God establishes covenants with representatives, but that does not mean that those representatives always fulfill the exact same function as heads/representatives of other covenants. With regards to Israel, we can say that to a large degree Abraham was their federal head. Note especially Kline’s comments above: Abraham’s obedience secured Israel’s initial entrance into the land of Canaan (and as I explain here, this “drove away the birds” ie it held off Israel’s curse). But under the Mosaic Covenant, Israel’s obedience as a nation became the focus, and this requirement for obedience was then later focused on a representative head as king of Israel in the Davidic Covenant, such that the kingdom rose or fell in accordance with the obedience of the king – which is typological of Christ’s kingship.

In Gal 3:17 it seems the promise and covenant wording is used interchangeably.

I don’t necessarily agree with Coxe on this point (his view is complicated). I believe there may be a better way to understand and articulate Galatians 3:17. I am not convinced that “promise” in this passage is being used as synonymous with the New Covenant. It may appear this way because Paul contrasts inheritance via the law vs inheritance via the promise, which we interpret to mean works vs faith. However, I think Paul’s argument is actually more nuanced than that. I think his argument starts all the way back in 2:21

“[I]f righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose.” (2:21) “And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “In you shall all the nations be blessed.”” (3:8) “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”—so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith.” (13-14)

If righteousness were through the law, then Christ would not have to die (establish the New Covenant). But God confirmed to Abraham (via a covenant oath) that Christ would die and bless all the nations. Therefore, God did not later establish a means of obtaining righteousness through the law, because that would nullify his previous confirmation that Christ would eventually come to establish righteousness (inheritance) through His death. If righteousness were through the law, it would be pointless to promise a future Christ. God promised a future Christ, therefore righteousness is not through the law.

This does not mean the Abrahamic Covenant is the New Covenant. It simply means that God promised the New Covenant, so he therefore did not establish an alternative means of salvation.

To elaborate on the distinction above between the Abrahamic Covenant and the New Covenant, consider the example (recognizing that all analogies fail at some point) of this wedding covenant/contract. If you click the link, you will see that it is not a marriage covenant, but a contract regarding the performance of the wedding.

This contract defines the terms and conditions under which The Salem Herbfarm and
___________________________ (hereafter referred to as the CLIENT) agree to the CLIENT’s use of The Salem Herbfarm’s facilities on __________________________ (reception/event date). This contract constitutes the entire agreement between the parties and becomes binding upon the signature of both parties. The contract may not be
amended or changed unless executed in writing and signed by The Salem Herbfarm and the CLIENT.

Once signed, this covenant confirms that the wedding will take place. Once confirmed, the contract is binding and cannot be amended or changed. “To give a human example, brothers: even with a man-made covenant, no one annuls it or adds to it once it has been ratified.” But the actual wedding still has to be performed, because this wedding covenant is not the marriage covenant, it simply guarantees the marriage covenant will occur. If a couple signs this contract, they will not sign a different contract that says the wedding will take place somewhere else. That would violate this contract.

To give a human example, brothers: even with a man-made covenant, no one annuls it or adds to it once it has been ratified. Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, “And to offsprings,” referring to many, but referring to one, “And to your offspring,” who is Christ. This is what I mean: the law, which came 430 years afterward, does not annul a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to make the promise void. For if the inheritance comes by the law, it no longer comes by promise; but God gave it to Abraham by a promise. Why then the law? It was added because of transgressions, until the offspring should come to whom the promise had been made, and it was put in place through angels by an intermediary. Now an intermediary implies more than one, but God is one. Is the law then contrary to the promises of God? Certainly not! For if a law had been given that could give life, then righteousness would indeed be by the law. But the Scripture imprisoned everything under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe. (3:15-22)

So, in short, I believe Gal 3:17 teaches that God promised, via the Abrahamic Covenant, that the New Covenant would be established to grant sinners eternal life. Therefore God did not establish the Mosaic Covenant to offer sinners eternal life.

Owen contra Piper on Justification & Heaven

In my last post I listed several disastrous implications that follow from statements that John Piper made. Piper’s root error is that he separates justification from heaven, denying that justification is “the judgment of the Last Day regarding where we will spend eternity, brought forward into the present and pronounced here and now.” (New Geneva Study Bible, 1995, p. 1852)

But be sure you hear this carefully and precisely: He says right with God by faith alone, not attain heaven by faith alone. There are other conditions for attaining heaven, but no others for entering a right relationship to God [bold added]

Such a view is completely incoherent because it renders justification meaningless. What is justification if not entitlement to heaven? As Owen explains:

There is a justification of convinced sinners on their believing. Hereon are their sins pardoned, their persons accepted with God, and a right is given unto them unto the heavenly inheritance. This state they are immediately taken into upon their faith, or believing in Jesus Christ. And a state it is of actual peace with God. These things at present take for granted; and they are the foundation of all that I shall plead in the present argument. And I do take notice of them, because some seem, to the best of my understanding, to deny any real actual justification of sinners on their believing in this life. For they make justification to be only a general conditional sentence declared in the gospel; which, as unto its execution, is delayed unto the day of judgment. For whilst men are in this world, the whole condition of it being not fulfilled, they cannot be partakers of it, or be actually and absolutely justified. Hereon it follows, that indeed there is no real state of assured rest and peace with God by Jesus Christ, for any persons in this life. This at present I shall not dispute about, because it seems to me to overthrow the whole gospel, — the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and all the comfort of believers; about which I hope we are not as yet called to contend. (289)

Well, now we are called upon to contend. So gird up the loins of your mind.

“[J]ustification is the way and means whereby such a person does obtain acceptance before God, with a right and title unto a heavenly inheritance.” (25)

“Wherefore, until of late it might be truly said, that the faith and doctrine of all Protestants was in this article entirely the same… that it is the righteousness of Christ, and not our own, on the account whereof we receive the pardon of sin, acceptance with God, are declared righteous by the gospel, and have a right and title unto the heavenly inheritance.” (90)

“Wherefore, notwithstanding the differences that have been among some in the various expression of their conceptions, the substance of the doctrine of the reformed churches is by them agreed upon and retained entire. For they all agree that God justifies no sinner, — absolves him not from guilt, nor declares him righteous, so as to have a title unto the heavenly inheritance, — but with respect unto a true and perfect righteousness; as also, that this righteousness is truly the righteousness of him that is so justified; that this righteousness becomes ours by God’s free grace and donation, — the way on our part whereby we come to be really and effectually interested therein being faith alone; and that this is the perfect obedience or righteousness of Christ imputed unto us: in these things, as they shall be afterwards distinctly explained, is contained the whole of that truth whose explanation and confirmation is the design of the ensuing discourse.” (94)

“[T]o be justified is to be freed from the guilt of sin, or to have all our sins pardoned, and to have a righteousness wherewith to appear before God, so as to be accepted with him, and a right to the heavenly inheritance. Every believer has other designs also, wherein he is equally concerned with this, — as, namely, the renovation of his nature, the sanctification of his person, and ability to live unto God in all holy obedience; but the things before mentioned are all that he aims at or designs in his applications unto Christ, or his receiving of him unto justification.” (158)

“[Justification] comprises both the non-imputation of sin and the imputation of righteousness, with the privilege of adoption, and right unto the heavenly inheritance, which are inseparable from it.” (177)

“Justification is at once complete in the imputation of a perfect righteousness, the grant of a right and title unto the heavenly inheritance” (195)

“[W]e need not much inquire how a man is justified after he is justified.” (210)

“This proposition, — that God… gives… a right unto the heavenly inheritance, according to their works, — is not only foreign to the gospel, but contradictory unto it, and destructive of it, as contrary unto all express testimonies of the Scripture, both in the Old Testament and the New, where these things are spoken of…” (213)

“The substance of the inquiry wherein alone we are concerned, is, What is that righteousness whereby and wherewith a believing sinner is justified before God; or whereon he is accepted with God, has his sins pardoned, is received into grace and favor, and has a title given him unto the heavenly inheritance? I shall no otherwise propose this inquiry, as knowing that it contains the substance of what convinced sinners do look after in and by the gospel.” (270)

“This, therefore, is that which herein I affirm: — The righteousness of Christ (in his obedience and suffering for us) imputed unto believers, as they are united unto him by his Spirit, is that righteousness whereon they are justified before God, on the account whereof their sins are pardoned, and a right is granted them unto the heavenly inheritance.” (271)

“That justification does give right and title unto adoption, acceptation with God, and the heavenly inheritance, I suppose will not be denied” (341)

“From what has been discoursed, it is evident that unto our justification before God is required, not only that we be freed from the damnatory sentence of the law, which we are by the pardon of sin, but, moreover, “that the righteousness of the law be fulfilled in us,” or, that we have a righteousness answering the obedience that the law requires; whereon our acceptance with God, through the riches of his grace, and our title unto the heavenly inheritance, do depend. This we have not in and of ourselves, nor can attain unto; as has been proved. Wherefore the perfect obedience and righteousness of Christ is imputed unto us, or in the sight of God we can never be justified.” (345)

“Faith is expressed by the receiving of Christ; for to receive him, and to believe on his name, are the same. It receives him as set forth of God to be a propitiation for sin, as the great ordinance of God for the recovery and salvation of lost sinners. Wherefore, this notion of faith includes in it, —…
5. There is nothing required on our part unto an interest in the end proposed, but receiving of him, or believing on his name.
6. Hereby are we entitled unto the heavenly inheritance; we have power to become the sons of God, wherein our adoption is asserted, and justification included.
What this receiving of Christ is, and wherein it does consist, has been declared before, in the consideration of that faith whereby we are justified. That which hence we argue is, that there is no more required unto the obtaining of a right and title unto the heavenly inheritance, but faith alone in the name of Christ, the receiving of Christ as the ordinance of God for justification and salvation.” (390)

“1. It is of the justification of men, and their right to eternal life thereon, that our Savior discourses. This is plain in verse 18, “He that believeth on him is not condemned; but he that believeth not is condemned already.”
2. The means of attaining this condition or state on our part is believing only, as it is three times positively asserted, without any addition.” (391)

“A justification by the remission of sins alone, without a righteousness giving acceptance with God and a right unto the heavenly inheritance, is alien unto the Scripture and the common notion of justification amongst men… by faith in him we have adoption, justification, freedom from judgment and condemnation, with a right and title unto eternal life” (391-392)

“As to the scope and design of the apostle Paul, the question which he answers, the case which he proposes and determines upon, are manifest in all his writings, especially his Epistles unto the Romans and Galatians. The whole of his purpose is, to declare how a guilty, convinced sinner comes, through faith in the blood of Christ, to have all his sins pardoned, to be accepted with God, and obtain a right unto the heavenly inheritance; that is, be acquitted and justified in the sight of God. “ (490)

(quotes from the Doctrine of Justification; page references to this PDF):

Piper’s Foreword

I’ve written in the past about some of Piper’s erroneous statements regarding justification. Justin Taylor recently posted a Foreword Piper wrote to Thomas Schreiner’s new book on Sola FidePiper says:

As Tom Schreiner says, the book “tackles one of the fundamental questions of our human condition: how can a person be right with God?”

The stunning Christian answer is: sola fide—faith alone. But be sure you hear this carefully and precisely: He says right with God by faith alone, not attain heaven by faith alone. There are other conditions for attaining heaven, but no others for entering a right relationship to God…

Such faith always “works by love” and produces the “obedience of faith.” And that obedience— imperfect as it is till the day we die—is not the “basis of justification, but . . . a necessary evidence and fruit of justification.” In this sense, love and obedience—inherent righteousness—is “required of believers, but not for justification”—that is, required for heaven, not for entering a right-standing with God…

Thus Schreiner closes his book with a joyful testimony—and I rejoice to join him in it: ”My confidence on the last day . . . will not rest on my transformation. I have too far to go to put any confidence in what I have accomplished. Instead, I rest on Jesus Christ. He is my righteousness. He is the guarantor of my salvation. I am justified by faith alone, in Christ alone, to the glory of God alone.”

A few logical implications follow:

  1. Being righteous before (“right with”/justified) God is insufficient to attain heaven.
  2. Christ’s righteousness is insufficient to attain heaven.
  3. Justification is not “the divine verdict of the Eschaton being brought forward into the present time and rendered here and now concerning the believing sinner.” (Reymond, p. 743)
  4. There is not therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.
  5. Justification is meaningless.
  6. I cannot rest in Christ alone on the last day, but must hope in my transformation.


See follow-up posts:

The Silent Shift on 7.1

Lord willing, this will the first in a series of four posts.

In a previous post Nehemiah Coxe on Merit in LBCF 7.1 I quoted covenant theologian Nehemiah Coxe explaining WCF/LBCF 7.1 and how it teaches the concept of covenantal merit. He was very clear about its meaning – so much so that it makes you wonder why theologians today aren’t as clear on it. Samuel Renihan has helpfully paraphrased the meaning of 7.1


But there seems to be a lot of confusion. In his critical review of John Frame’s Systematic Theology, Ryan McGraw gives us a clue as to why.

Frame’s treatment of covenant theology is more traditional in some respects than some modern approaches, and less so in others. In contrast to many contemporary authors, Frame defends an intra-trinitarian covenant (pactum salutis or covenant of redemption) standing behind all historical covenants.[30] However, he argues for the presence of a creation covenant that is distinct from the covenant of works.[31] This relates to the third Lordship attribute, which is God’s covenant presence. In other words, God is not Lord if he is not present, and his presence is inherently covenantal. In Frame’s view, the fact of creation results in a creation covenant.

Early Reformed orthodoxy identified two covenants: a covenant of works and a covenant of grace. High orthodoxy added the eternal covenant of redemption to this scheme. Some Reformed theologians treated the Mosaic covenant as a covenant distinct from the covenant of grace.[32] The results were that most Reformed thinkers held either to one eternal covenant with two primary historical covenants (works and grace), or to one eternal covenant with three primary historical covenants (works, grace, and Mossaic).[33]Reformed authors generally equated the creation covenant with the covenant of works. Some, such as Herman Witsius, argued that the covenant of works was coeval with man’s creation.[34] Others, such as Thomas Goodwin, argued that God instituted the covenant of works when he prohibited Adam to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.[35] Reformed writers agreed about the nature of this covenant and they did not recognize another creation covenant distinct from it.[36] They tended to regard passages such as Jeremiah 33, in which the prophet referred to God’s covenant with day and night, as metaphorical expressions.[37]

While Frame is not alone in identifying a creation covenant as distinct from the covenant of works, this is an appropriate place to notice the silent shift that has taken place in Reformed covenant theology. This does not make the shift right or wrong, but it raises the questions when it occurred and how it affects the system of Reformed doctrine. Westminster Confession of Faith 7.1 acknowledges that man could not enjoy God as his fruition or reward apart from a ‘voluntary condescension’ by way of covenant. Yet even apart from this “voluntary condescension,” mankind owed obedience to God and related to him as creature to Creator. It seems problematic biblically to equate the Creator/creature relationship with a covenant. In Scripture, all covenants involve relationships, but not all relationships are covenantal. Covenants affect the quality of the relationship between God and people, but the Creator/creature relationship would still exist without covenants. In Frame’s case, an additional creation covenant appears to be a theological result of his Lordship paradigm.[38]

McGraw’s point is that man has a natural relationship to God apart from any covenantal condescension. Man naturally owed obedience to God and man knew God apart from any covenantal condescension. Again, see my previous post for an elaboration.

The silent shift that McGraw is referring to is the idea that everything about man’s relationship to God via creation is covenantal, including his knowledge of God – that all his revelation is covenantal condescension, apart from which man can have no knowledge of God. But that is not the historic reformed position at all. An example is found in this brief article from David B. Garner commenting on 7.1:

Yielding to the Bible’s teaching on God’s transcendence—He is infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, the Confession rightly affirms the infinite incongruence between God and man… Apart from the Creator God establishing a covenant, we remain outside the fruition zone! Even before the corruption of sin, mankind’s essence as creature disqualifies him to expect anything from God, to hope for anything from God, or to aspire to any sweet fellowship with his Maker. No covenant, no relational realization. No covenant, no hope. No covenant, no sweet fruition. Creator and creature remain out of reach.

While Garner is mostly on point, but he makes a common slip. 7.1 is referring to the reward that Adam could expect for his obedience. By creation, he could expect nothing, but God voluntarily offered Adam a reward via covenant. Garner correctly captures this aspect by recognizing that the reward was “permanent fellowship with the Creator,” that is, confirmation in righteousness. However, that is all it is talking about. 7.1 does not teach that “Creator and creature remain out of reach” apart from covenant. It teaches the exact opposite. They have a relationship apart from covenant: man is a slave to God (he knows God and what is required of him) and can expect no reward for doing what is required. Perhaps Garner only meant to imply that permanent fellowship with the Creator remains out of reach for the creature, but it is not clear, and it is further confused by what he says later. Garner continues:

Since we could in no way get to him, he came to us. He chose to lower himself to our level, and did so out of his own pleasure and wisdom (see Ephesians 1:3–14). His stooping instrument of choice was the covenant…

Adam and Eve’s Garden of Eden fellowship with their Creator came because God stooped down to his image-bearers by a creation covenant. Like a nanny whispering into the ear of a small child in words the young one could understand,[4] God bends over, speaks to Adam and Eve understandably, warmly, and meaningfully.

[4] John Calvin employs this nanny-with-child metaphor as an analogue to God speaking with us. See John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (ed. John D. McNeill; 2 Volumes; Philadelphia, 1960), 1.13.1.


Notice Garner’s attempt to connect 7.1 to Calvin’s concept of God’s revelatory stooping. This is the heart of the confusion and the silent shift. Garner is claiming that God’s voluntary condescension in the Adamic Covenant refers not simply to the generous reward for obedience Adam already owed, but also to God’s manner of revelation to mankind. God must reveal Himself covenantally in order to bridge the Creator/creature gap so that “the young one could understand.” But this is not what 7.1 is referring to. Neither is it what Calvin is referring to.

1. The doctrine of Scripture concerning the immensity and the spirituality of the essence of God, should have the effect not only of dissipating the wild dreams of the vulgar, but also of refuting the subtleties of a profane philosophy. One of the ancients thought he spake shrewdly when he said that everything we see and everything we do not see is God (Senec. Praef. lib. 1 Quaest. Nat.) In this way he fancied that the Divinity was transfused into every separate portion of the world. But although God, in order to keep us within the bounds of soberness, treats sparingly of his essence, still, by the two attributes which I have mentioned, he at once suppresses all gross imaginations, and checks the audacity of the human mind. His immensity surely ought to deter us from measuring him by our sense, while his spiritual nature forbids us to indulge in carnal or earthly speculation concerning him. With the same view he frequently represents heaven as his dwelling-place. It is true, indeed, that as he is incomprehensible, he fills the earth also, but knowing that our minds are heavy and grovel on the earth, he raises us above the worlds that he may shake off our sluggishness and inactivity. And here we have a refutation of the error of the Manichees, who, by adopting two first principles, made the devil almost the equal of God. This, assuredly, was both to destroy his unity and restrict his immensity. Their attempt to pervert certain passages of Scripture proved their shameful ignorance, as the very nature of the error did their monstrous infatuation. The Anthropomorphites also, who dreamed of a corporeal God, because mouth, ears, eyes, hands, and feet, are often ascribed to him in Scripture, are easily refuted. For who is so devoid of intellect as not to understand that God, in so speaking, lisps with us as nurses are wont to do with little children? Such modes of expression, therefore, do not so much express what kind of a being God is, as accommodate the knowledge of him to our feebleness. In doing so, he must, of course, stoop far below his proper height.

Institutes 1.13.1

Calvin is very clear that he is not speaking about all of God’s revelation to man, but specifically dealing with that portion of revelation which “treats sparingly of his essence.” His comments about God “stooping” to “lisp with us as a nanny” do not refer to all of God’s revelation with creatures, but only with “certain passages of Scripture” that describe God after the manner of men via anthropomoprhism. (For an excellent discussion of passages like these, including anthropopathisms, and how to approach them, please see A Position Paper Concerning Divine Impassibility, ARBCA).

Garner is not alone in his mistaken application of Calvin’s comments to all of God’s revelation to his creatures. It is commonplace today. In his essay “Janus, the Well-Meant Offer of the Gospel, and Westminster Theology” R. Scott Clark claims:

John Calvin (1509-64) accepted Luther’s fundamental distinction tinction between God hidden (Deus absconditus) and God revealed (Deus revelatus). In Institutes 1.17.2 he argued from Deuteronomy 29:29, 30:11-14, and Romans 11:33-34 (among other places) that there is a distinction to be made between God’s will as it is revealed and his will as it is hidden (voluntatem abscon- ditam) from us. Whereas the hidden, secret, providential, decretive, tive, mysterious will of God is like an abyss (abyssus), such is not the case with God’s revealed will, which becomes to us a “school of truth” (veritatis schola ).19 The Sophists (i.e., the Roman Catholic theologians of the Sorbonne) argue about God’s “absolute will” (absoluta voluntas), in which they “separate his justice from his power,” but we respect the boundary between the secret and the revealed.20 Thus, Calvin required the Christian theologian to adhere to the “rule of modesty and sobriety” (modestiae et sobri- etatis regulam), that is, those things revealed in Scripture.” According to Calvin, religion is either true or false.22 That which is according to the Bible is true; that which is not according to the Bible is false. We only know what God has willed to reveal to us, and all revelation is accommodated to our weakness: it is “baby talk.”23 Despite the fact that all revelation is necessarily accommodated and analogical, it is nevertheless true and that theology that conforms to Holy Scripture is also true.

[23] Calvin, Institutes 1.13.1. “Quis enim vel parum ingeniosus non intelligit Deum ita nobiscum, ceu nutrices solent cum infantibus, quodammodo balbutire?” (OS, 3.109.13-15). See Ford Lewis Battles, “God Was Accommodating Himself to Human Capacity,” Interpretation 31 (1977): 19-38.

That is certainly not what Calvin said in 1.13.1.

Paul Helm notes:

[I]t is clear, as we have already seen, that Calvin does not hold that all language about God is non-literal, for the accommodated language is controlled by literal truths about God’s essence. So in highlighting the place of divine accommodation Calvin is not claiming that we will not be able to speak of or understand God at all unless he accommodates himself to our understanding and refers to himself in human-like, activistic and inter-activistic ways…

So it would be wrong to think of Calvin’s remarks about accommodation as signalling a reductionist thesis, as if all expressions about God as he is in himself [much less all revelation about anything] must be translated into anthropomorphic terms before they can be understood.

John Calvin on Divine Accommodation


Another contemporary theologian, K. Scott Oliphint, mis-reads Calvin’s comments in 1.13.1. Here we can begin to see the direct misapplication to WCF 7.1

That distance, the Confession notes, was so great that we as God’s human (“reasonable”) creatures could not even render the obedience due him, nor could we enjoy him as our Creator, unless he determined to be known and to be in a relationship with us. He did so determine, and that determination is helpfully set out in this section as “voluntary condescension.” I will elaborate more on this as we go along, but I should affirm here that any relationship we have to God, and he has to us, we have only because of his free (“voluntary”) choice to come down to us (“condescension”)12 and thus to establish a relationship with us. It is only by virtue of God’s activity, therefore, and his initiation that we are able to be in a relationship with him.13

[13] In this first section of chapter 7, the Confession is not yet concerned with our sinful rebellion against God. It will begin to address that problem in section 3. We should keep in mind, therefore, that our relationship to God, quite apart from sin, depends on God’s activity, not ours, given his absolute uniqueness and our inability as creatures to comprehend who he is. The problem of sin greatly complicates this inability, but it does not initiate it.

What, then, is the principle of the covenant? In order for God to relate to us, in order
for there to be a commitment on the part of God to his people and more broadly to
his creation, there had to be a ‘voluntary condescension’ on God’s part. In order for
us to have anything to do with God whatsoever, God had first to ‘come down,’ to
stoop to our level. So, says Calvin:

‘For who is so devoid of intellect as not to understand that God, in so speaking,
lisps with us as nurses are won’t to do with little children? Such modes of
expression, therefore, do not so much express what kind of being God is, as
accommodate the knowledge of him to our feebleness. In doing so, he must,
of course, stoop far below his proper height.’

God With Us: Divine Condescension and the Attributes of God (14)

Elsewhere, he summarizes:

What the Confession asserts in section one of Chapter 7 has massive and profound implications, first, for theology proper, then for our understanding of God’s activity in history, and the order of these two is crucial…

As infinite in being, as immutable, immense and eternal, God is wholly other; he is beyond anything that mere creatures can think or experience. We cannot conceive of what God’s infinity is; our minds cannot grasp or contain what God’s eternity is…

It is incumbent on the Christian to recognize this before, and in the context of, our thinking about God’s covenantal relation to creation.

Part One

It is worth noting, as we saw yesterday, and it is a master-stroke of theological genius, that the Confession begins its section on covenant, as it must, with the majestic and incomprehensible character of God. This must be the starting place for all thinking about God and his relationship to creation…

Part Two

We have seen, in the last two posts, that the Confession rightly begins its discussion of covenant with the incomprehensibility and aseity of the Triune God. That must be affirmed before anything else can be understood, especially with respect to God’s relationship to creation and to His creatures…

When the Confession affirms God’s voluntary “condescension,” then, this is, in the main, what is meant. It means that God took on characteristics, properties and attributes that He did not have to take on (remember this condescension is voluntary) in order that He might relate Himself to the creation, and to His creatures…

Part Three

Oliphint mis-reads Calvin’s comments about “certain passages of Scripture” and applies it to all of God’s dealings with creation. He then misapplies that to WCF 7.1 and thereby misunderstands 7.1, claiming it is a statement about our inability to comprehend God, rather than a statement about our inability to earn reward for obedience to God’s commands.

James Dolezal explains:

WCF 7.1 is about the disproportion between God and the obedience rendered to him by creatures. No amount of creaturely obedience (to which man is obligated as creature) can naturally enable him to obtain an infinite God as his reward and eschatological beatitude. In order to give himself to man as man’s eschatological blessing, God lovingly condescends to inaugurate a covenant that gives a reward (i.e., himself) infinitely disproportionate to man’s obedience. A finite obedience could only be properly proportionate to a finite reward. This is why the article opens with an emphasis upon the “distance between God and the creature.” God, as divine creator, has a natural right to possess the creature, but man has no natural right to possess God, not even if he perfectly fulfills his natural obligation to obey God.

There is nothing in WCF 7.1 that suggests ontological condescension on God’s part, but only the condescension of offering (via covenant) a reward disproportionate to natural human action. This is called “voluntary condescension” because God is in no way naturally obligated–not even by the fact that he has created man–to offer himself as man’s reward. The content of the entire chapter suggests this article is about how man might receive God as his eschatological beatitude. The point, then, is not about the Creator-creature relation as such. That relation is presupposed in the article. Moreover, insisting that it is about the creator-creature relation in general, as Oliphint does, (10) tends to obscure the clear emphasis upon the disproportionality between creaturely works and divine reward. The condescension spoken of is meant to address that particular situation and is not intended here as a framework for explaining God’s relationship to the world generally or ontologically. Plainly put, the ratification of the covenant (of works) by which man might receive infinitely more than he could ever naturally lay claim to as an obedient creature simply is the condescension of God spoken of in this article. Indeed, the plainest reading of this text would seem to indicate that this wonderful condescension is something God undertakes beyond the establishment of the created order as such. (11) This covenantal action may very well be coincident and concomitant with God’s act of creation, but it does not appear to be coextensive with it according to this article. (12)

Objections to K. Scott Oliphint’s Covenantal Properties Thesis

Richard Barcellos likewise offers helpful comments on WCF/LBCF 7.1 in response to Oliphint:

Some argue that, in order for God to relate to creation, He had to assume or take upon Himself the means to do so… Dr. Oliphint bases his position, in part, on the WCF. By attempting to ground his proposal of voluntary condescension by God in the WCF at this point, it may be contended that he misuses it… God’s “voluntary condescension” is not an act of pre-creation (i.e., the creation of the covenantal properties of God), the act of creation itself, or other subsequent acts of creating, but the revelation of a covenant—the covenant of works (cf. WCF 7.2). God’s first covenantal act toward Adam as a public person (i.e., a federal head) was one of revelation, not the creation of properties for Himself that would enable Him to reveal Himself or to create. Dr. Oliphint seems to confuse categories, utilizing the WCF in a manner not intended by that confession.


When it Occurred

Since WCF/LBCF 7.1 is quite clearly referring to reward in the covenant of works, not to all of God’s dealings with creation with regards to his incomprehensibility, McGraw asks when this shift occurred.

Our first clue is R. Scott Clark’s previously mentioned essay. He opens the essay with the following:

It is a pleasure to contribute to a festschrift for my teacher, colleague, league, and friend, Bob Strimple. One of the most important moments in my theological education was hearing him present the exegetical and biblical-theological case for the well-meant offer of the gospel. His explanation of the 1948 majority report to the Fifteenth teenth General Assembly of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC) by John Murray (1898-1975) was a turning point in my hermeneutic, doctrine of God, and theology of evangelism.’ He helped me to appreciate Scripture as an accommodated revelation, the distinction between God “in himself” (in se) and “toward us” (erga nos), and that the proper motivations for the free, serious, well-meant meant offer of the gospel are God’s glory and the salvation of the lost. The Murray-Strimple approach provided a clear biblical, exegetical, and theological rationale for the proclamation of the gospel.

It seemed impossible to me, a naive student, that confessional Reformed folk should not embrace the doctrine of the well-meant offer, but as influential as it has been among some of us, it has not found universal acceptance in either contemporary Reformed theory or our practice. In the Three Points of Synod Kalamazoo (1924) the Christian Reformed Churches in North America (CRC) came out solidly for the well-meant offer of the gospel.’ In reaction, the well-meant offer came under sustained criticism from Herman Hoeksema (1886-1965) and his followers, who contended that the well-meant offer is a form of Arminianism.’ One of their theologians recently identified this issue as “the chief point of controversy” between themselves and proponents of common grace.’ The doctrine of the well-meant offer has also been rejected by the followers of Gordon Clark (1902-85), and his opposition to the well-meant meant offer played a major part of the Clark-Van Til Controversy in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church in the 1940s.5

Note well: the well-meant offer drove R. Scott Clark’s mis-reading of Calvin and it played a major part of the [Gordon] Clark-Van Til controversy. Gordon Clark comments:

I’ll make a little remark there. As you know, there has been a little rather theological upheaval at Westminster in the recent past over Professor Shepherd. And I have read some of the published material and the actual doctrine which is under discussion with Dr. Shepherd is the doctrine of justification by faith. But those who are opposing him have tried to tie this in with the doctrine of the incomprehensibility of God. I think this is one of their pet themes at Westminster and they drag it in whenever they think they can even though it doesn’t have much bearing on the subject matter.

Lecture: John Frame and Cornelius Van Til (audio, transcript)

I mention this only to show that Clark saw this misapplication of the doctrine of God’s incomprehensibility as a distinguishing mark of Westminster Seminary – and something they misapplied in a variety of contexts.

Oliphint tells us where he learned his mis-reading of 7.1.

Because what Van Til was arguing had its roots in historic, Reformed theology, it would be natural to delineate his apologetic approach simply as Reformed. However, there is a breadth and depth to the adjective Reformed that may make it too ambiguous as a modifier for apologetics. I propose, in light of the above, that the word covenantal, properly understood, is a better, more accurate, more specific term to use for a biblical, Reformed apologetic. I hope in what follows to explain Van Til’s presuppositional apologetics and in the process to make a case for a terminology switch, a switch to a covenantal apologetic.

To understand this approach to apologetics, as well as to justify the change in terminology, we need a clear understanding of the word covenant. For that, we begin with the Westminster Confession of Faith 7.1, “Of God’s Covenant with Man”:

The distance between God and the creature is so great, that although reasonable creatures do owe obedience unto Him as their Creator, yet they could never have any fruition of Him as their blessedness and reward, but by some voluntary condescension on God’s part, which He has been pleased to express by way of covenant.

We need to highlight the most important ideas in this section. First of all, we are reminded that, in the beginning, and quite apart from the entrance of sin, the distance between God and the creature is “so great.” But just what is this distance? Is it an actual spatial distance between God and humanity? That doesn’t seem possible, given that God is everywhere; there is no place where he is absent. So the “distance” referred to here must be metaphorical. It should not be interpreted as primarily spatial.

Rather, it might be best to think of it as a distance based on the character of God himself in relation to the character of man. The “distance,” in other words, might be analogous to the distance between man and a snail. There are similarities between a man and a snail—both are capable of physical motion, both depend on the necessities of life. But it is not possible for a snail to transcend its own character in a way that would allow it to converse, communicate, and relate to man on a human level. We could call this an ontological difference; a difference according to the being of the snail relative to the being of man. Or, perhaps better, there is a necessary and vast distinction between the two kinds of beings.

This is the case as well with respect to God and man, according to this section of the Confession. There is a vast, qualitative distinction between God’s character and ours, between God’s being and the being of man. God is One “who is infinite in being and perfection, a most pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts, or passions; immutable, immense, eternal, incomprehensible . . .” (WCF 2.1). He is not restricted or confined by space; he is not subject to the passing of moments; he is not composed of anything outside of his own infinite character; he does not change; he cannot be fully understood.

We, however, are none of those things. We have no analogies of what those attributes are, and we are unable completely to comprehend them. We are finite, bodily, mutable, and constrained by time and space. This disparity is impossible to state adequately, but it is a difference, a vast difference, and one that includes a kind of “distance” between us and God.

There is a great chasm fixed between God and his creatures, and the result of such a chasm is that we, all of humanity, could never have any fruition of God, unless he saw fit, voluntarily (graciously), to condescend to us by way of covenant. 5 That condescension includes God’s revealing himself in and through his creation, including his word, to man. We begin, therefore, with respect to who we are and to what we can know, with a fundamental distinction between the Creator and the creature.

Contrary to some opinions, God is in fact Totally Other. But there is nothing intrinsic to this truth that would preclude God from revealing himself to his creatures. Since God is Totally Other from creation, our understanding of him and our communication and communion with him can take place only by his initiative. That initiative is his condescension, including his revelation. Such revelation, as the exclusive means of knowledge of and communion with God, assumes rather than negates God’s utter “otherness.”

Covenantal Apologetics: Principles & Practice in Defense of Our Faith

Van Til

In 1946, P&R published The Infallible Word: A Symposium by the Members of the Faculty of Westminster Theological Seminary as a collection of essays on the Westminster Confession. Van Til’s essay “Nature and Scripture” attempts to expound upon the doctrine of revelation found in the Confession. His burden is to repudiate the natural theology of Aquinas (“the natural theology of Greek origin”) with the natural theology of the Confession. His basic argument is that Greek natural theology errs because it looks to natural revelation in isolation from special revelation, which contradicts the Confession’s view that the two have always been given together as God’s single covenant revelation.

It is therefore of the utmost importance that the two forms of revelation—revelation through nature and revelation in Scripture—be set in careful relationship to one another… It is well known that Reformed theology has a distinctive doctrine of Scripture. It is our purpose in this chapter to show that for this reason it has an equally distinctive doctrine of natural revelation. To accomplish this purpose we shall limit ourselves largely to the Westminster Standards.

Oliphint notes (in a discussion on the Reformed Forum) “Van Til is framing all of his discussion about revelation and theology and everything else in that covenantal context. Anything that’s not covenantal is, by definition autonomous… So one of the first things he wants to do, you can see it in the language, he’s actually jumping to Confession 7.1 in order to articulate Confession 1.4-5. So he actually moves to the covenantal categories in order to articulate what natural theology and natural revelation is. And I think that has to be highlighted in what Van Til is doing.”

Van Til:

The first point that calls for reflection here is the fact that it is, according to Scripture itself, the same God who reveals himself in nature and in grace…

Saving grace is not manifest in nature; yet it is the God of saving grace who manifests himself by means of nature. How can these two be harmonized? The answer to this problem must be found in the fact that God is “eternal, incomprehensible, most free, most absolute.” Any revelation that God gives of himself is therefore absolutely voluntary. Herein precisely lies the union of the various forms or God’s revelation with one another. God’s revelation in nature, together with God’s revelation in Scripture, form God’s one grand scheme of covenant revelation of himself to man. The two forms of revelation must therefore be seen as presupposing and supplementing one another. They are aspects of one general philosophy of history.

Note: Though convoluted, Van Til’s argument is that the same God is revealed in nature and in Scripture, but Scripture contains information about God that nature does not. Therefore, in order for nature to reveal the same God, it cannot be understood on its own. Natural revelation must be interpreted with special revelation, from the beginning of creation, otherwise it will only reveal an idol, a false god (which is precisely his argument against Greek natural theology). And natural revelation with special revelation together form God’s one covenant revelation of Himself.

The philosophy of history that speaks to us from the various chapters of the Confession may be sketched with a few bold strokes. We are told that man could never have had any fruition of God through the revelation that came to him in nature as operating by itself. There was superadded to God’s revelation in nature another revelation, a supernaturally communicated positive revelation. Natural revelation, we are virtually told, was from the outset incorporated into the idea of a covenantal relationship of God with man. Thus every dimension of created existence, even the lowest, was enveloped in a form of exhaustively personal relationship between God and man. The “ateleological” no less than the “teleological,” the “mechanical” no less than the “spiritual” was covenantal in character.

Being from the outset covenantal in character, the natural revelation of God to man was meant to serve as the playground for the process of differentiation that was to take place in the course of time…

Here then is the picture of a well-integrated and unified philosophy of history in which revelation in nature and revelation in Scripture are mutually meaningless without one another and mutually fruitful when taken together…

Proceeding now to speak of the sufficiency of natural revelation as corresponding to the sufficiency of Scripture, we recall that revelation in nature was never meant to function by itself. It was from the beginning insufficient without its supernatural concomitant.

Thus Van Til argues that the natural theology of the Confession teaches that natural revelation is “insufficient” to reveal the same God found in Scripture. What is necessary is God’s voluntary condescension to covenantally reveal Himself.

Without commenting on the debate regarding the timing of natural revelation vs God’s revelation of the covenant of works (see here), the precise point at hand is that Van Til has misunderstood and misapplied the Confession. His essay is about our knowledge of God Himself (and thus anything at all, per his critique of Greek philosophy). He argues that natural revelation itself is insufficient to give us knowledge of God (and thus anything at all) and he calls upon 7.1 for support: “We are told that man could never have had any fruition of God through the revelation that came to him in nature as operating by itself.” Natural revelation was “insufficient” to give us knowledge of God and was therefore “meaningless” by itself. God’s solution was to voluntarily condescend by providing a “covenant revelation of himself to man.” That is not what 7.1 says, contrary to Van Til’s claim.

Note the confusion in the comments section of the Reformed Forum episode trying to reconcile this with what 7.1 actually says. Note also that many of the comments are arguing about the timing of the revelation of the covenant of works when the real issue in 7.1 is what is being revealed (Barcellos: the revelation of a covenant—the covenant of works; Oliphint/Van Til: the revelation of God’s incomprehensible essence and everything else).

As this was a foundational element of Van Til’s thinking, he addressed it throughout his works, but most notably in the collection of essays titled Common Grace and the Gospel where he expounds his conception of this “covenant revelation” as wholly accommodated and therefore wholly anthropomorphic. In the Foreword to the recent republication, Oliphint explains

To reiterate our point above, when VanTil encourages fearless anthropomorphism, he is not using that phrase in a vacuum. The notion itself, as he reminds us, must be understood within the context of a Reformed doctrine of God and of his covenant with man: “A fearless anthropomorphism based on the doctrine of the ontological trinity, rather than abstract reasoning on the basis of a metaphysical and epistemological correlativism, should control our concepts all along the line” (p. 111). The “fearless anthropomorphism” of which Van Til speaks has its foundation in the ontological Trinity.

Van Til’s presuppositional critique of natural theology argued that the solution to the philosophical problem of finding truth (problem of the one and the many) is found in presupposing God in all our reasoning. If we do not presuppose God, we cannot know anything at all. However, God (the “ontological trinity” in whom we find the unity of the one and the many) is incomprehensible to man. Therefore, in order for man to know anything, God must condescend covenantally to reveal Himself. But because man cannot know God as He is, this covenantal revelation is an accommodation: an analogy of the truth. This does not simply apply to God’s revelation of Himself, but to God’s revelation of anything at all, since everything finds its foundation in Him, and He is incomprehensible.

With this in mind, Oliphint notes (again in the Foreword)

it is a masterstroke of theological genius, that the Confession begins its section on covenant, as it must, with the majestic and incomprehensible character of God. This must be the starting place for all thinking about God and his relationship to creation… His three-in-oneness is the foundation for the interplay in creation of the one (universal categories) and the many (particular things). The triunity of God is indeed a mystery, and that mystery has its analog in all of creation as his creatures recognize both unity and diversity in the world God has made. Creation, then, is mysteriously analogous to the triune God’s character.

Van Til elaborates in Common Grace and the Gospel (page references are to this PDF version):

God dwells in light that no man can approach unto. This holds of His rationality as well as of His being, inasmuch as His being and His self-consciousness are coterminous. It follows that in everything with which we deal we are, in the last analysis, dealing with this infinite God, this God who hideth Himself, this mysterious God. In everything that we handle we deal finally with the incomprehensible God. Everything that we handle depends for what it is upon the counsel of the infinitely inexhaustible God. At every point we run into mystery. (10)

The ontological trinity will be our interpretative concept everywhere. (46)

That is to say, it then appears that all the facts of this world, including the facts of man’s own consciousness as well as the facts of his environment, must be seen in the covenantal perspective in which, as was pointed out, the Scriptures put them in order to exist at all. (76)

From the beginning all the facts surrounding any man in the entire course of history were set in the framework of the covenant that God made with man. If they are in any wise separated from the framework then they become subject to the manipulation of the false logical and experiential requirements of the apostate man. (77)

We need at this point to be fearlessly anthropomorphic. Our basic interpretative concept, the doctrine of the ontological trinity, demands of us that we should be so… we would say that we are entitled and compelled to use anthropomorphism not apologetically but fearlessly. We need not fear to say that God’s attitude has changed with respect to mankind. We know well enough that God in himself is changeless. But we hold that we are able to affirm that our words have meaning for no other reason than that we use them analogically. (52)

Van Til took Calvin’s concept of accommodation with regards to anthropomorphisms and applied it to all of revelation, making all of revelation anthropomorphic and therefore “analogical.”

Summing up what has been said in this section, we would stress the fact that we tend so easily in our common grace discussion, as in all our theological effort, to fall back into scholastic ways of thinking. If we can learn more and more to outgrow scholasticism in our notions about natural theology and natural ethics, we shall be perhaps a bit more careful both in our affirmations and in our negations with respect to common grace. We shall learn to think less statically and more historically. We shall not fear to be boldly anthropomorphic because, to begin with, we have, in our doctrines of the ontological trinity and temporal creation, cut ourselves loose once and for all from correlativism between God and man. (65)

Van Til’s Source

In a 1973 essay “Historic Calvinism and Neo-Calvinism” in the WTJ, William Young argues that one slight error in Kuyper’s thought departed from Historic Calvinism and has led, over the years, to the apostasy of Neo-Calvinists. He qualifies that “A distinction must be made between Kuyper’s own views and the consequences of a certain line of thought emphasized by him.”

What differentiates Neo-Calvinism in Kuyper’s line from historic Calvinism? The presumptivist [regeneration] system stands out most prominently, but it is simply the visible appearance of a life-and-world view that often parades itself as the Christian life-and-world view, but which may with propriety be named Hyper-Covenantism, a synonym for Kuyper-Calvinism or Neo-Calvinism. As the name suggests, Hyper-Covenantism is an exaggeration of the historic Calvinist doctrine of God’s covenant with man, a classical formulation of which is to be found in the Westminster Confession, chapter VII…

Thesis I: Covenant is a metaphysical category, under which all relations between man and God, man and man, and man and nature, may be subsumed.

This thesis may not previously have been formulated in these terms and is not being ascribed as such to any member of the Hyper-Covenant school. Yet on reflection one can discern this thesis to be the metaphysical presupposition of Hyper-Covenantism, metaphysical both in the sense of defining a category of being taken universally, and consequently in the sense of transcending the limits of created or temporal being. It is not to be condemned simply because it is metaphysical, but it ought to be subjected to scrutiny in the light of Scripture and with due regard to the historic Reformed confession as to God’s covenant with man…

Thesis II: The covenant relation between God and man was an essential element of man’s original state entailed by the creation of men in God’s image.

This thesis is a theorem necessarily following from thesis I. It is, however, contrary to the historical account in Genesis, where the covenant of works is represented as, in G. Vos’ terms, ‘pre-redemptive special revelation’,(24) or, one may say, as a positive divine institution, presupposing a natural law according to which man is under obligation to obey all the commandments of God. The Westminster Confession provides a scriptural philosophy of the covenant relation, in which justice is done both to the sovereignty of God and to the antecedent obligation of the moral law, prior to the covenant of works. “The distance between God and the creature is so great, that although reasonable creatures do owe obedience unto him as their Creator, yet they could never have any fruition of him as their blessedness and reward, but by some voluntary condescension on God’s part, which he hath been pleased to express by way of covenant.”

Young notes that this thesis is not clearly formulated by Neo-Calvinists, but upon analysis is found to be a presupposition foundational to their entire outlook. Young specifically mentions that this Hyper-Covenantism is present in Van Til’s thought.

Van Til makes reference to Vos with regards to his view of natural and special revelation:

Whether he reasoned about nature or whether he looked within, whether it was the starry heavens above or the moral law within, both were equally insistent and plain that God, the true God, stood before him. It should also be recognized that man was, from the outset, confronted with positive, as well as with natural, revelation. Dr. Vos speaks of this as pre-redemptive special revelation. (Notes on Biblical Theology of the Old Testament) God walked and talked with man. Natural revelation must not be separated from this supernatural revelation. To separate the two is to deal with two abstractions instead of with one concrete situation. That is to say, natural revelation, whether objective or subjective, is in itself a limiting conception. It has never existed by itself so far as man is concerned. It cannot fairly be considered, therefore, as a fixed quantity, that can be dealt with in the same way at every stage of man’s moral life. Man was originally placed before God as a covenant personality.

But Vos was not making Van Til’s point (as Young noted above). Vos was simply articulating the correct understanding of 7.1: that man was created to obey, but a covenant of works was added to reward this created obligation. In The Family Tree of Reformed Biblical Theology, Richard Barcellos succinctly states:

Pre-redemptive Special Revelation for Vos involves the disclosure of the covenant of works. Concerning the content of pre-redemptive Special Revelation, Vos says:

We understand by this, as already explained, the disclosure of the principles of a process of probation by which man was to be raised to a state of religion and goodness, higher, by reason of its unchangeableness, than what he already possessed.*

*Vos, BTV, 27. Here Vos clearly articulates concepts (i.e., probation and Edenic eschatology) already noted in the doctrine of the covenant of works in various federal theologians of seventeenth-century Reformed orthodoxy. Cf. Lawrence Semel, “Geerhardus Vos and Eschatology,” 28-30 for a brief discussion of the content of pre-redemptive Special Revelation in Vos.

Furthermore, Jim Cassidy notes:

Fast forwarding to Van Til, the great apologist built on his professor’s work and showed how the Bible does not allow for any “brute facts.” That is to say, God does not give us uninterpreted facts. But Van Til went deeper than Vos. He applied the latter’s insights about God’s redemptive-historical events to God’s act of creation. So, not only does God interpret his acts in redemptive history, but he also interprets his act of creation. In his great article “Nature and Scripture,” Van Til pushed God’s covenantal, revelatory Work back before the fall.

So we cannot find precedent for Van Til’s interpretation of 7.1 in Vos.

Van Til does appeal frequently to Bavinck in support of his doctrine of God’s incomprehensibility. However, Bavinck correctly interprets 7.1 as dealing with man’s fellowship with God and the question of merit (RD, II, 570), not the question of incomprehensibility. While Van Til’s view of incomprehensibility and accommodation does find precedent in Bavinck, his application of it to 7.1, and thus to covenant, does not.

Van Til’s unique contribution was his version of presuppositionalism. On this point he sees himself building upon elements in his predecessors, but also necessarily rejecting some of their views and replacing it with his own construct.

It appears anew from this treatment of the “proofs” that Bavinck has not altogether cut himself loose from non-Christian forms of reasoning… This position of Bavinck, it will be noted, is very similar to the old Princeton position, and both are very similar to the Scholastic position… For all his effort to the contrary, Bavinck sometimes seems to offer us a natural theology of a kind similar to that offered by the church of Rome… We must, accordingly, frankly challenge the Roman Catholic notion that the natural man knows truly of God. And we should challenge the procedure by which the natural theology of Rome is obtained. (Common Grace and the Gospel PDF 35-36)

And the solution to Bavinck’s error, the error of all natural theology, is to presuppose God’s covenant revelation.

it is well that a word be said here as to what Christian apologists were doing during the period of rationalism and empiricism. The answer is that by and large Protestant apologists followed closely after the pattern set by Thomas Aquinas… Whatever there is of true Christianity in Rome, or in such positions as those of Butler and Paley, is there in spite of rather than because of the Aristotelian form-matter scheme that controls the formation of their natural theologies. A true Biblical or covenant theology could not be based upon such foundations as Butler and Paley laid… The natural theology of the Confession, derived as it was largely from the theology of Calvin, stands over against the natural theology as it has come from Aristotle through Rome into much of Protestant, even orthodox Protestant, thought. These two types of natural theology are striving for the mastery in our day. (Nature and Scripture, 17)

Thus the evidence suggests that the silent shift on 7.1 began with Van Til. More precisely it began with the application of his view of God’s incomprehensibility to his presuppositionalism, rooted in the assumed Hyper-Covenantism of his Dutch tradition.

The system of Reformed doctrine

We have answered McGraw’s question of when the shift occurred, but he also asks “how it affects the system of Reformed doctrine.” To this, we will let “the first and foremost Van Tillian scholar” answer:

This insistence on being fearlessly anthropomorphic is virtually absent in the history of theology proper. There have been many, I think too many, who call themselves reformed, or in some cases Augustinian, but who have not been careful to insist on a fearless anthropomorphism… We have to ask why these solid and orthodox, brilliant theologians want to speak in such terms about God. The reason, at least in part, is In each of the examples cited, each of these theologians failed to be fearlessly anthropomorphic. They committed themselves, even if inadvertently, to abstract thinking… We have, even in the reformed tradition, I think, failed to be fearlessly anthropomorphic. And so, much of systematic theology that’s done, especially in theology proper,needs a complete revision and re-write. 

K. Scott Oliphint lecture Theological Principles from Van Til’s Common Grace and the Gospel

At the conclusion of the Reformed Forum episode on Van Til’s Nature and Scripture, Camden Bucey notes

It’s very important to get our prolegomena correct… If you don’t get those things right, those foundational items, you’re just going to go all over the place.

In the next post we will look at Van Til’s presuppositional critique of natural theology to see if presuppositionalism necessarily entails Van Tillianism or if there is a presuppositionalism that also affirms and retains the system of Reformed doctrine.

Post Script

Some might ask how Kline’s view of covenantal creation fits in with all of this. Jim Cassidy explains:

Kline dedicated his great work The Structure of Biblical Authority to his professor, Cornelius Van Til. That was appropriate as the work was thoroughly Vosian and Van Tilian. But while he hints at how God’s Word and creation relate in that book (thinking here of chapter 2), the full development of his thought would have to await his Kingdom Prologue. In that book, very early on (i.e., pp. 14-41 of the W&S edition), Kline introduces the concept of God’s “covenantal fiat” in the act of creation. This means, in short, that God’s act of creation IS covenantal. To create is to reveal himself in and to the very creature he calls into existence by the mere power of his Word. So, for Kline, he advances Van Til even further.

The difference is that Kline knew he was rejecting 7.1. “It is not the case, as some theological reconstructions would have it, that the covenant was superimposed on a temporally or logically prior noncovenantal human state.” (KP 17) See Kline’s Covenant Creation & WCF 7.1. However, although Kline (at least late in his life) properly understood and therefore rejected 7.1, most disciples of Van Til continue to be confused by Van Til’s misunderstanding. They believe 7.1 is merely a statement about God’s revelation, not about merit, so they cannot understand why some critics of Kline argue that he is unconfessional on this point. David VanDrunen is one of the leading Klineans today. Note what he says in a bizarre essay arguing that “covenant” must be the unifying architectonic structure that undergirds systematic theology:

All of the basic realms that systematic theology investigates are defined in covenantal terms… The Westminster Confession of Faith, 7.1, for example, speaks of the impossibility of finite man bridging the chasm between himself and an infinite God. He has no knowledge, no relationship with God by his own efforts or by any resource in nature, abstractly conceived. Man does enjoy knowledge of and relationship with God, however, because he never exists according ing to nature in the abstract; instead, God has been pleased to condescend to man “by way of covenant.” From the very outset of history, God has relationship with man, and covenant is the way in which this relationship functions. Covenant defines all relationship with God, and thus all knowledge of God – which is precisely what “theology” is – is necessarily covenantal… In this light, prolegomenon is thoroughly covenantal. Human beings know God in covenantal relationship by means of covenantal revelation.

“A System of Theology? The Centrality of Covenant for Westminster Systematics” in The Pattern of Sound Doctrine: Systematic Theology at the Westminster Seminaries (Kindle Location 2054).

And to bring this full-circle: John Frame, like Kline, was a student of Van Til.