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. However, he argues for the presence of a creation covenant that is distinct from the covenant of works. 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. 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).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. 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. Reformed writers agreed about the nature of this covenant and they did not recognize another creation covenant distinct from it. 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.
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.
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, God bends over, speaks to Adam and Eve understandably, warmly, and meaningfully.
 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.
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.
 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
 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.
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…
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…
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.
SOME THOUGHTS ON “VOLUNTARY CONDESCENSION ON GOD’S PART” IN THE CONFESSION AND CONTEMPORARY THEOLOGY [No longer online]
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
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.”
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.
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.