[Book Review] Christ and Covenant Theology by Cornelis Venema

The doctrine of the covenant, in the words of Anthony Hoekema, is “the vertebrate structure which holds all the doctrines of Reformed theology together.”[1] The structural importance of the covenant for Reformed theology has given rise to areas of dispute and controversy. From one viewpoint this is healthy as it reflects the present desire for the refinement and advancement of such a vital doctrine. Some of the most heated questions of our day are case in point: Was Adam in a covenant relationship with God before the fall? Is the Mosaic Law in some sense a republication of the covenant of works? What is the relationship between election and the covenant of grace? How should the recent teachings of Federal Vision on justification and covenant membership be evaluated?

These questions have flowed like magma, but Cornelis Venema, with Bavinck-like fairness and sagacity, handles them like cooled off igneous rock in his recent publication, Christ and Covenant Theology: Essays on Election, Republication, and the Covenants (amazon; wtsbooks). Venema is president of Mid-America Reformed Seminary, where he is also professor of doctrinal studies. In this volume he brings his last two decades of study and writing to bear on these crucial issues, demonstrating himself to be a Reformed theologian of the highest order. In fact, Richard B. Gaffin Jr., endorsed the book, saying, “No one today is better qualified to address the perennially important issues of covenant theology than Cornel Venema.”

Christ: The Center of Covenant Theology

Following a helpful forward by Sinclair Ferguson, there is a concise introduction in which the importance of the doctrine of the covenant and its central relationship to Christ is elucidated. “The burden of my argument throughout,” writes Venema, “is that Christ, and Christ alone, is always the One through whom God’s gracious intention to enjoy fellowship with his people finds its beginning and end” (xxiv). This is a consistent note that Venema strikes often and strikes well throughout this work. The covenant is not an abstraction, nor is it an impersonal contract or merely an impetus for divisiveness; rather, it furnishes the possibility of true religion for it has as its substance the personal and real fellowship of man and the triune God. The central, driving promise of the biblical drama, “I will be your God and you will be my people,” is consummated and enjoyed in Christ alone. In him all the promises of God find their Yes and Amen (2 Cor. 1:20). In him we have the sure hope of a new creation in which the eternal dwelling place of God is with man (Rev. 21:3).

Following the introduction, the book is divided into three major parts: (1) The Covenant of Works and the Covenant of Grace; (2) Covenant and Election; and (3) Covenant Theology in Recent Discussion. I’ll simply summarize some of Venema’s conclusions with the hope that you will read the book for yourself to get his careful argumentation and exegesis.

Part 1: The Covenant of Works and the Covenant of Grace

Part 1 consists of three essays honing in on the bi-covenantalism codified in the Westminster Confession of Faith. By this time in the historical development of covenant theology, a distinction was formed between a prefall covenant of works and a postfall covenant of grace. Venema then goes on to argue at length that the view that the Mosaic administration of the covenant of grace included a republication of the covenant of works in some sense was a minority position in the orthodox period. He primarily engages the essays found in The Law is Not of Faith, being critical of their conclusions, while also recognizing the diversity and difficulty of the topic (see esp. pp. 139–44). His discussion of the typology in the Mosaic covenant was especially informative as he expounds various insights from Geerhardus Vos, Meredith Kline and O. Palmer Robertson. He writes regarding the obedience required of Israel,

“Consistent with the pattern of biblical typology, the promises and demands of the Mosaic economy are ‘typical’ of the promises and demands of the new covenant economy. The redemption promised in the covenant of grace always requires the response of faith and sincere, albeit imperfect, obedience on the part of the people of the covenant. As it was in the covenant administration of Moses, so it is in the covenant administration of Christ” (129).

Part 2: Covenant and Election

In Part 2 Venema takes up the relationship between covenant and election. It was previously understood that election supplied Reformed theology in the orthodox period with a kind of organizing principle. As such it injected both abstraction and austerity into the entire Reformed system of doctrine. Accordingly, a unilateral (or monopleuric) formulation of the covenant based on election arose, which diminished its mutuality and conditionality. However, another formulation arose which gave greater emphasis to the history and mutuality of the covenant relationship between God and his people. After expounding the covenant theology of Herman Bavinck, Venema concludes, relating the covenant of redemption and the historical covenant of grace,

“Since the covenant of redemption is a pretemporal compact in which the triune God arranges the covenantal means to secure the salvation of the elect, there is an intimate and necessary connection between these doctrines. In broad terms, the covenant is the divinely-appointed instrument whereby the triune God achieves his saving purposes in time and history. If election is the doctrine that describes God’s sovereign and gracious purpose to redeem his people in Christ, then covenant is the doctrine that describes God’s chosen means to accomplish this purpose in time. Just as God displays his mercy and justice in his eternal decree to save the elect in Christ and to leave others in their sins, so God displays his steadfast faithfulness and intra-Trinitarian communion in his covenantal administration of the history of redemption” (182–83).

Venema also considers in Part 2 the pastoral implications of the relationship between covenant and election for parents who lose their child in infancy as it is stated in the Canons of Dort 1.17,

“Since we are to judge of the will of God from His Word, which testifies that the children of believers are holy, not by nature, but in virtue of the covenant of grace, in which they together with the parents are comprehended, godly parents ought not to doubt the election and salvation of their children whom it pleases God to call out of this life in their infancy (Gen. 17:7; Acts 2:39; 1 Cor. 7:14).”

For more on the Canons of Dort, see Venema’s book But For the Grace of God: An Exposition of the Canons of Dort.

Part 3: Covenant Theology in Recent Discussion

In the final part, Venema summarizes and assesses what has come to be termed “Federal Vision.” His assessment focuses on whether or not the views purported by the Federal Vision camp agree with the Three Forms of Unity (i.e., Heidelberg Catechism, Belgic Confession and Canons of Dort). He concludes that Federal Vision is as much at odds with the Three Forms as it is with the Westminster Standards. He also draws out the ways in which this new teaching compromises the doctrine of justification by grace alone through faith alone on the basis of Christ’s work alone, with a particular engagement with N. T. Wright and Romans 5:12–21.

Recommendation

I would especially recommend this book to pastors, scholars, and interested church members because of its relevance for many contemporary issues. However, anyone willing to follow Venema in his deft articulation of the covenant will be the better for it. With clarity and exactness, Venema leads you into the swirling waters of these covenant debates and proves a helpful and trustworthy guide. And while we can get so fixated on the swirls, Venema brings us beyond to enjoy the everlasting ocean of covenantal fellowship in Christ with the triune God in whose presence there is fullness of joy and at whose right hand are pleasures forevermore.

You can purchase the book here.


[1] Anthony Hoekema, Herman Bavinck’s Doctrine of the Covenant, 360.

Leave a comment



Jeff Lynch

1 month ago

Daniel,
Thank you for an excellent review on Dr. Venema’s book. I am currently taking Covenant Theology at RTS from Dr. Duncan and Dr. Waters, and your review will help me hone in on the specifics of “Christ and Covenant Theology,” a book I own but have not read much of as of yet.
Hope to see you at the RFTC in October.
In His peace,

Daniel Ragusa

1 month ago

Hi Jeff,

I hope you enjoy the RTS course and the book. I look forward to seeing you at the conference!

Blessings,
Dan

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