Interaction with URCNA Report on FV (5): Imposition of Westminster Confession of Faith

In point 3.A.3, the URCNA FV Report talks about the pre-fall covenant. Interestingly, the exposition of this doctrine significantly borrows from the Westminster confessional tradition, even though office-bearers in the URCNA are not required to subscribe to the standards of that tradition. On p. 3 the report provides reasons why the FV Study committee decided not to reproduce the findings of other denominational reports on FV.

"However, since our churches subscribe to the three Forms of Unity, not the Westminster Standards, it was the Committee's judgment that our mandate called for an independent report that would evaluate the FV understanding of justification and other related teachings from the standpoint of the Scriptures and these confessional standards" (emphasis mine, BDJ).

By the time we reach p.13 it seems that judgment is all but forgotten. When the so-called covenant of works is explained there's conspicuously no reference to or citation of the Three Forms of Unity (there is a reference in footnote 19 to BC Arts.21-22 which don't mention a covenant of works). What we do encounter, however, are generous citations of the Westminster Confession of Faith VII:1-3. All of this of course begs the question, if this is so important for URCNA office-bearers to embrace, why isn't it found in the doctrinal standards of the URCNA?

The Report states, borrowing language from the Westminster Confession, "The aim of this covenant was to grant to Adam and his posterity the blessing of eternal life and glorification in unbreakable commuion with God 'upon condition of perfect and personal obedience.' The promise of this original covenant relationship was an implicit promise of eternal life, which was sacramentally signified and sealed by means of the "tree of life" in the Garden of Eden (Gen.3:24)."

I find it interesting that the late Dr. Jelle Faber who contested the doctrine of a meritorious covenant of works in several Clarion articles some years ago cited Belgic Confession, article 24 which states, "Therefore we do good works, but not for merit. For what could we merit. We are indebted to God, rather than He to us, for the good works we do." (So we can't locate support for a meritorious covenant of works in the Three Forms, but we can locate an argument against it.)

Surely, this applies just as much to the prelapsarian context as it does the postlapsarian context. John Calvin thought so. In his commentary on Romans 11:35, he writes, "Even if man were perfect, he could bring nothing to God by which to procure His favour, because as soon as man begins his existence, he is already by the very law of creation so bound to his Maker that he has nothing of his own. We, therefore, fail if we endeavour to deprive God of His right to do freely what He pleases with the creatures whom He has made, as though it were a matter of mutual debt and credit."

It seems the report doesn't want to find any grace in the prelapsarian context. John Calvin was insistent, interestingly, that the tree of life stood in the garden as "a sacrament of God's grace." The sign of the tree of life was intended to lead Adam 'to the knowledge of divine grace' (Comm.
Gen.2.9).

In his essay, "Law and Grace in Ursinus' Doctrine of the Natural Covenant: A Reappraisal" in Protestant Scholasticism: Essays in Reassessment (eds. Carl Trueman and R. Scott Clark. UK: Paternoster, 1999) Lyle Bierma writes: "Ursinus too always presents this primal relationship in the context of divine grace — in both the Cat. maior and the commentary on Heidelberg Commentary." The prelapsarian relationship is "surrounded by grace." When Adam and Eve fell, "they robbed themselves and all their descendants of that grace of God." voluntaria inobedientia se et universam posteritatem suam illa Dei gratia spoliarunt (From Lang, Der Heidelberger Katechismus).

I find it curious that on page 14 the report put terms such as "wages," "due" and "merit" in quotation marks. This is a striking admission that in this prelapsarian context we're not talking about wages, dues and merit, strictly speaking. But this is the issue!!!! I'm sure the FV folk would gladly sign on.

The report (p.13) also indicates that eternal life was something promised to Adam upon the condition of obedience. This begs the question, wasn't the life Adam was living before the fall "eternal life"?

I suspect the difficulties FV folk have with the covenant of works is either with the formulation in the Westminster Confession or with Klinean insistence on strict merit. I'm quite sure all FV folk would heartily agree that there was more in store for Adam than the life he was living prior to his fall and that he had to be obedient in order to be translated into that "more in store." There you have all the important elements in the so-called covenant of works.

The FV take on the covenant of works is no different than Calvin's, Bavinck's, De Graaf's, Hoekema's, Hoeksema's, Murray's and Faber's. Looks like a pretty impressive list of Reformed theologians to me.

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