Questions for the CanRC (5)

5. It is common for Schilder-influenced theologians to speak of the prelapsarian covenant as a “covenant of favor.” The noun “favor” has often been a synonym for “grace” in Reformed theology. In light of that tradition, how do the CanRCs understand the language of the Belgic Confession Art. 14, when it says, “commandment of life”? Do the CanRCs agree with the declaration of the URCs that “we reject the errors of those…who deny or modify the teaching that “God created man good and after His own image, that is, in true righteousness and holiness,”" able to perform “the commandment of life” as the representative of mankind”?

It is common for Schilder-influenced theologians to speak of the prelapsarian covenant as a "covenant of favor." This is also the preferred term for many in the URCNA, including Rev. Mark Vander Hart, whose section on the covenant with Adam in his Bible study on Genesis 1-11 is entitled, "The covenant of God's favor" (see, Genesis 1-11, Grand Rapids: Reformed Fellowship Inc., 2007, p.60). By using the term 'favor' these scholars distinguish the prelapsarian covenant from the postlapsarian covenant of grace while recognizing the infelicity of calling it a covenant of works.

Jelle Faber, in his article "The Covenant of Works" published in Clarion during the early 80s, rightly pointed out that the Three Forms of Unity, in distinction from the Westminster Standards, have no doctrine of a so-called covenant of works. Moreover, Faber objected to the nomenclature of "works" to describe this covenant because it intimates a legalistic or meritorious conception of human righteousness and fails to recognize the impossibility of humanity to earn or merit anything from God.

This is very much in line with what Calvin says in his commentary on Romans 11:35: "And Paul not only concludes, that God owes us nothing, on account of our corrupt and sinful nature; but he denies, that if man were perfect, he could bring anything before God, by which he could gain his favor; for as soon as he begins to exist, he is already by the right of creation so much indebted to his Maker, that he has nothing of his own. In vain then shall we try to take from him his own right, that he should not, as he pleases, freely determine respecting his own creatures, as though there was mutual debt and credit."

Lyle Bierma argues that Calvin saw the prelapsarian covenant with Adam as gracious. The sign of the tree of life was intended "to lead him to the knowledge of divine grace" (Comm. Gen.2.9). This view was shared by Ursinus, the primary author of the Heidelberg Catechism: “Ursinus too always presents this primal relationship in the context of divine grace — in both the Cat. maior and the commentary on HC.” The prelapsarian relationship is “surrounded by grace.” When Adam and Eve fell, “they robbed themselves and all their descendants of that grace of God.” Latin: voluntaria inobedientia se et universam posteritatem suam illa Dei gratia spoliarunt (From Lang, Der Heidelberger Katechismus).

Bierma concludes: Ursinus “consistently places this relationship in the context of divine grace. For him grace is not just a redemptive concept; it is manifest already in the original righteousness conferred by God at creation and repudiated by us at the fall. . . . Calvin’s emphasis on divine grace in the prelapsarian relationship with Adam clearly resurfaces in Ursinus.” This is from Bierma's essays,“Law and Grace in Ursinus’ Doctrine of the Natural Covenant: A Reappraisal” in Protestant Scholasticism: Essays in Reassessment, ed. Carl Trueman and R.S. Clark, UK: Paternoster Press, 1999.

Summing up John Owen's position, Sinclair Ferguson writes, "Eternal life by the covenant of works would not give a man ground for boasting, since that life would be his because of God's promise, not because of his merit. . . . This emphasis on grace on Owen's part is all the more significant in view of the strictures sometimes passed on federal theology" (in Owen on the Christian Life, Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1987, p.23). Many Can Ref folk see the covenant with Adam along the lines of De Graaf, Berkouwer, Hoekema, Hoeksema and Murray.

How do the Canadian Reformed understand "the commandment of life" in Belgic Confession, article 14? If one sees the next sentence as epexegetical--a likely interpretation-- "transgressing the commandment of life" means "breaking away from God, who was his true life." God had commanded Adam not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and to violate that command was to invite death.

Lastly, Do the CanRCs agree with the declaration of the URCs that “we reject the errors of those…who deny or modify the teaching that “God created man good and after His own image, that is, in true righteousness and holiness,”" able to perform “the commandment of life” as the representative of mankind”? I can't think of any reason why a Can Ref minister would not find this perfectly acceptable.

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