essays in biblical interpretation, theology, Christian living, and more

biblical studies center header

Covenant, predestination, and dogmatic method

A modest proposal on the role of theological inference


by Tim Gallant

There are more than "rumours of wars" floating around in the conservative Reformed and Presbyterian world, not least in connection with the question of the relationship between covenant and election. Some of it looks more like an all-out cat fight. This article cannot hope to introduce a way to put an end to all of this. I would, however, like to reflect upon the task of pastors, theologians and biblical scholars in connection with correlating some of the main lines of biblical data. For the purpose of this essay, I am focusing upon the two themes of predestination and covenant.

The Data

Predestination

The Bible teaches that God orders all that comes to pass. There is nothing that occurs apart from His sovereign plan. Even the most wicked acts of men must be included in this. As the Church prayed in Acts 4,

... truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place. (Acts 4:27-28 ESV)

The most murderous, unjust act in history, the slaying of our Lord Jesus Christ, was wickedly carried out by men - but their wicked intent coalesced perfectly with the perfect and righteous plan of God.

The Bible teaches further that the disposition of the salvation won by Christ is given according to God's own good pleasure. God predestines some for eternal salvation, and in His unfathomable wisdom passes by others. This is unavoidable; if God controls all events, as we have just seen, it is certain that He controls eternal destinies. The reason He can work all things together for God to those who love Him (Rom. 8:28) is because He works all things together to begin with.

It must also be added that the predestining decree of God is not contingent upon later events. It cannot be, for it is itself the ground of those later events. Thus God's eternal choice unto salvation, for example, is not grounded in the good works or even the faith of the chosen creature. Paul illustrates this principle in Romans 9:10-12:

Rebekah also, when she had conceived by one man, our father Isaac, the children being not yet born, having done neither good nor evil, in order that God's purpose might stand according to election, not because of works, but because of Him who calls, it was said to her, "The older will serve the younger."

The above outline has often been disputed by Christians. After all, if all this is so, how can man be responsible? We answer that man is responsible precisely because he confronts God at every turn. And that confrontation is rooted deeply in God's everywhere present self-revealing power. We cannot penetrate the mystery of divine sovereignty and human responsibility, but in agreement with Scripture, we confess that God's absolute authority, an authority which acts everywhere at all times, is the necessary foundation for the responsibility of man, God's imagebearer.

Covenant

Yet Scripture teaches us more about God's ways. This teaching challenges us, because as the riches of revelation unfold, we find it more and more difficult to hold everything together.

It is a clear datum of Scripture that justification (vindication as righteous in God's court) is by way of faith. And while from the point of view of predestination, we can recognize that faith itself is an object of the decree, so that God appoints both the means and the ends, yet it must be stressed that in Scripture, the call to faith is presented conditionally. It is presented as the call and demand to real human beings, with an "if." The gospel demand proclaimed to all is: "Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved" (see e.g. Acts 16:31). "If you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe with the heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved" (Rom. 10:9).

This "if" is present also in connection with the issue of remaining in Christ, or not: "If anyone does not remain in Me, he is thrown away as a branch, and dries up; and they gather them, and cast them into the fire, and they are burned" (Jn. 15:6). "If you keep My commandments, you will remain in My love" (verse 10). "You are My friends, if you do what I command you" (verse 14).

Paul says as much in Romans 11:22-23 (the whole broader passage is apropos):

Behold then the kindness and severity of God; to those who fell, severity, but to you, God's kindness, if you continue in His kindness; otherwise you also will be cut off. And they also, if they do not continue in their unbelief, will be grafted in; for God is able to graft them in again.

Nor does Paul present this as something hypothetical, only intended for church members who are at best questionable. To the contrary, he says of himself:

Therefore I run in such a way, as not without aim; I box in such a way, as not beating the air; but I buffet my body and make it my slave, lest possibly, after I have preached to others, I myself should be disqualified. (1 Cor. 9:27 NASB)

Although some have suggested that by "disqualified," Paul merely meant the loss of his ministry, the context refutes this notion. Paul uses himself as an example; in what immediately follows in 1 Cor. 10, he uses the example of Israel in the wilderness, and there it becomes clear that disqualification refers to covenant-breaking unto divine judgment (1 Cor. 10:1-12).

Paul employs even stronger language in Galatians. After assuring his hearers that having been baptized into Christ, they had everything in the way of sonship to God and possession of the promises (Galatians 3:26-29), Paul says bluntly, "You have been severed from Christ, you who are seeking to be justified by Torah; you have fallen from grace" (5:4). "Severed from Christ" presupposes prior union to Christ; thus "fallen from grace" cannot simply mean (as some would have it) "a declension from the doctrine of grace." Such readings are simply transparent efforts to evade the force of the text.

Many other passages could be cited, even as other biblical material could have been drawn from in defense of predestination. Our purpose here, however, is not to traverse the whole gamut of biblical material, but simply to introduce the issue by pointing to a few examples. Our primary interest is to ask the question: "Given what we know about e.g. predestination, and likewise, what we know about covenant, how ought we to relate these in our thinking?" To this issue we now turn.

Enfolding Covenant into Election

It is the stated preference of many orthodox men to subsume covenant under election. Covenant, after all, is the historical outworking of the decree. The data of covenant are to be understood in the light of the biblically-developed doctrine of predestination.

As a result, all the facets of covenant life must be integrated into a pattern consistent with what we know of the decree, since God's works are one. On this view, faith is not a "condition" for justification; it is simply an appointed instrument which God ineluctably gives to the elect. Since God's decree is decisive, only the eternally elect can truly be in the covenant, and these can never lose their status. They are permanently attached to justification, which is a one-time, irrevocable act. The warnings against apostasy are, in the case of the elect, hypothetical. In truth, they are hypothetical for the non-elect as well, since by the nature of the case, they cannot fall away from that which they do not enjoy.

Enfolding Election into Covenant

If there is possibility of enfolding covenant into election, there is also the possibility of the reverse. All passages speaking of predestination must be governed by the conditionality of the covenant. This essentially is the Arminian position. Passages which apparently teach predestination are taken to refer to God's decisions which were contingent upon men's later choices. God predestines men to eternal life, because He foresees that they will believe in Christ.

This essentially makes predestination hypothetical. God's choice is in any case conditioned upon man's choice. Although "predestination" occurs in eternity, it is not a free action of God, but merely a response to what He knows the creature will do.

A Case Study in Dogmatic Inference

We recognize the concerns of those who wish to hear the Scripture speak with one voice. The unity of Scripture is at stake. Scripture must interpret Scripture, in order that some sort of exegetical controls will keep us from arbitrary interpretations.

Yet we need to be very wary of how this vision of the analogia fidei (analogy of faith, referring to comparison of biblical texts with one another) is applied. A doctrine may be fully biblical, yet "obvious" inferences may not be.

An instructive example in this regard is the doctrine of the hypostatic union - i.e. the doctrine of the union of the two natures of Christ. (For an insightful discussion of this problem, see G. C. Berkouwer, The Person of Christ, pp. 211-223.)

There are biblical statements which indicate that Jesus did not know the hour of His return (Mk. 13:32; Mt. 24:36). Thomas Aquinas sets the standard in traditional Roman Catholic dogmatics on this and related questions. Following the exegesis of Gregory the Great, Aquinas virtually denies what the passage says: "He is said, therefore, not to know the day and the hour of the Judgment because He does not make it known, since, on being asked by the apostles (Acts 1.6), He was unwilling to reveal it" (Summa Theologica III.10.2). Jesus says the Son does not know; Thomas says the Son knows but does not wish to say. Rather than conceding that the human nature is ignorant, Thomas collapses everything in the "soul of Christ." The Church followed him:

In the year 1918 the Roman Catholic Church issued a decree from the holy office and rejected the opinion that Christ meant here that as a man he did not know the day of judgment. It also rejected the notion that it is uncertain that Christ's soul knew from the beginning all things in the past, present, and the future. The idea of any limitation to the knowledge of Christ cannot possibly be taught in view of the hypostatic union of the two natures. (Berkouwer, 213)

Something similar happens in connection with the Roman Church's views regarding Christ's suffering, His fear, faith and His hope. For example, on the issue of faith, Thomas says:

On the contrary, It is written (Heb. 11.1): Faith is the evidence of things that appear not. But there was nothing that was not manifest to Christ, according to what Peter said to Him (John 21.17): Thou knowest all things. Therefore there was no faith in Christ.... from the first moment of His conception Christ saw God's Essence fully, as will be made clear (Q. XXXIV, A. 1). Hence, there could be no faith in Him. (Summa III.VII.3; emphasis original.)

This does not sound at all like the biblical insight into Christ's faith-life. We think here, in particular, of Hebrews 5:7-8:

In the days of His flesh, He offered up both prayers and supplications, with loud crying and tears to the the One able to save Him from death, and He was heard because of His piety. Although He was a Son, He learned obedience from the things which He suffered. (NASB)

(For further thoughts on Christ's life of faith, see my article, "Paradoxology: Thoughts on the Trinitarian Grounding of Human Faith.")

In all of this, Berkouwer identifies the root of the problem thus: "In Roman Catholic thought there is continually observable a strong tendency to think inferentially from the personal union, viewed apart from the humiliation and work of Christ." (Berkouwer, 222; emphasis mine)

It appears very pious to disallow human weakness from Christ, and it also appears quite logical and reasonable, in light of the union of the human nature with the divine.

But it is nonetheless dangerously wrong, and robs us of a truly human Christ. We are here standing upon the verge of Apollinarianism. (Apollinarius held to a three-fold anthropology; in his view, Christ's body and soul were fully human, but His human spirit was replaced by the divine - a view that was rightly judged heretical by Constantinople in 381.)

What is particularly poignant with regard to this example is the strength of the parallels between the hypostatic union and the issue of covenant and decree. In the case of both, we are confronted with a juxtaposition of time and eternity. And in the case of both, the greater grounds the lesser.

Let me explain that last comment. Credal theology says that there are not two persons in the Mediator: one divine, one human. Christ has a full human nature, lacking nothing, yet that human nature finds its existence, its being, in the Person of the eternal Son. The Son existed in eternity without the human nature; the human nature has never existed and cannot exist apart from union with the eternal Son. Thus the "personhood" of the one Mediator is the Person of the eternal Son; there is no independent "human person" in Jesus. Put another way, the existence of the human nature is grounded in the eternal Son, not in itself.

So too it is with the covenant. The biblical covenant language continually appropriates predestinarian concepts and language for itself. There could be no covenant without the decree, just as there could be no human nature apart from the eternal Son. History is grounded in eternity; the covenant is grounded in election.

And yet the dangers of subsuming time into eternity are every bit as devastating to the covenant as it would be to the doctrine of the true humanity of Christ. The inferences may be supremely, manifestly logical, and yet do serious violation to the total biblical witness.
Thoughts on the Employment of the Data

We have recognized two closely-related strands of data in the biblical witness. We do not say that these data stand in opposition to one another. We say rather that all the biblical testimony coheres.

This, however, is not the same as saying that the nature of that coherence is necessarily transparent to us.

With our analogy to the hypostatic union, we saw that it is not enough to ground our dogma in Scripture. We readily grant that the doctrine of absolute predestination is thoroughly true. The difficulty arises when, for the sake of "consistency," we employ inference in a way that distorts the biblical witness to the covenant. We cannot simply infer the character of the human nature of Christ from the divine; nor can we simply infer the character of the covenant from the biblical characteristics of the decree. As soon as we begin to speak of God's eternal being or activities, we are in the realm of unfathomable mystery. If we subsume Christ's humanity under His eternal divine nature, we will lose the humanity, and if we subsume covenant under election, we will lose the covenant, and all human acts will lose meaning. God's confrontation with man in the covenant revelation will be in danger of being reduced to fatalism and dogmatic abstraction. We will be swallowed up in the mystery.

(From the foregoing, it is clear that something similar can be said in the other direction. If we subsume the divinity under the humanity, we will end up with a "theology from below" that cannot do justice to the biblical witness; indeed, we will lose the Christian confession. Likewise, if we merely subsume predestination under covenant, we will relativize all of God's acts and lose the very biblical grounding of all reality.)

Toward a resolution

I stress that my brief comments are moving toward a resolution. I am hoping to help us think in terms of a framework that will assist us in correlating the total biblical witness. That correlation as a whole cannot be accomplished here, but I wish to indicate what I believe to be a fruitful path to take toward that goal.

It is my thesis that dogma does not stand alone. This is true even of dogma which has clearly been derived from Scripture. When we arrive at a doctrine biblically, having come to that point, we need to get out of the habit of assuming that it is now self-referential.

What I am suggesting is that our use of a doctrine ought to be primarily shaped from its use in Scripture itself. This is an outworking of the well-tested maxim that Scripture interprets Scripture. If Scripture is our authority in constructing doctrine, it also ought to be our authority in employing doctrine.

On the basis of this thesis, I will provide below just a sketch of how I see predestination and covenant functioning in Scripture. I set these forth as claims to be tested and reflected on, not as the final word. The purpose of this sketch merely intends to clarify what sort of solution I envision.

The use of predestination in Scripture

As far as I can see, the Bible has essentially two categories of context in which the doctrine of predestination occurs: doxological and the justification of God. (It again must be stressed that I am not pretending to be exhaustive here; I am inviting the reader to test this proposition against the clear biblical texts teaching predestination and consider their overall purpose within the context. The treatment below is primarily illustrative.)

In the doxological texts, believers are called upon to praise God as total Saviour. These texts do not call upon us to speculate, but to acknowledge our absolute debt to God's grace in Christ. Here I am thinking of Ephesians 1 and similar passages. The monergism of salvation, the complete from-Godness of our calling impels us to praise Him for His goodness toward us.

In the second order of texts, there is a justification of the ways of God. We think, for example, of Romans 9. This is not a text intended to serve as a springboard from which we may reason regarding the likelihood of ultimate salvation for others. It is rather a retrospective look back that must answer the challenge: if God's Word is true, if He is faithful, then why is Israel, by and large, outside of the gospel of Jesus Christ? In answer to this question, Paul reaches back to the decree, and in truth, brings us to doxology once again at the hidden wisdom of God.

The use of covenant in Scripture

It is my position that the use of covenant is Scripture is considerably more prevalent than that of predestination. This ought not surprise us. There are limited ways in which mere creatures can appreciate and appropriate an eternal decree. God's historical dealings with men, which we cannot escape, come by way of covenant, and the Scripture is permeated through and through with promises, demands, and "ifs."

Hence, it would be rather difficult for me to assign myself the task of listing categories of texts. In a very real sense, everything in Scripture is covenantal. Even the predestination texts can only be appropriated by way of covenant.

I must stress that this is not the same as saying that predestination should be subsumed under covenant! The whole notion that we can simply subsume and make inferences from there is what I am opposing. I am simply saying here that our access to the eternal decree is by way of a covenant revelation.

Everything calling for a human response is calling for a covenantal response. But the whole Scripture calls for that response. And this too is where predestination impinges upon us: it calls for a response. Predestination is not revealed in Scripture to be a mere theological datum; it is revealed that we might glorify God. And that mandate of glorification of God is a covenantal demand. Covenant is the context for predestination to function on our side (which is the only side we can be on, inasmuch as we are not God).
The use of predestination and covenant together

In light of the foregoing, it is clear that we cannot banish the "use of predestination" and the "use of covenant" from one another. The conditional themes are woven in with the unconditional grace which grounds the message. The decree undergirds the covenant.

Even in terms of individual texts, the strongest conditional statements can take their place alongside strong predestinarian ones.

For example, while John 15 is a covenantal text which stresses conditionality, it is also the passage where Jesus tells His disciples that they did not choose Him; He chose them (verse 16).

On the other side, most of the predestination passages are addressed to the Church as a whole as the elect people of God, which places the issue into the context of the covenantal responsibilities that of necessity must be proclaimed to the Church. We think in this connection of the warnings of Romans 11 standing so much within the matrix laid out in Romans 9 (commentators almost universally see chaps. 9-11 as one section of the epistle).

While these sorts of phenomena may seem to complicate the picture, nonetheless the fundamental point which I have been seeking to drive home stands. We can never go wrong if we approach covenant, election and all the related issues in the way that Scripture itself does. I am not claiming to have accomplished that with this article; that can only be done through careful exegesis that does not "start at the end." But it is an approach to the texts that I believe will bear much fruit, not only in helping us learn to engage in theological dialogue as brothers, but also in enabling us to feed the sheep the riches of Scripture, rather than mere dogmatics and inferences.

May the Lord grant us the humility and the wisdom necessary for our task.

site design 2005 by Tim Gallant Creative