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Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility in Covenantal Context

The Covenantal Structure of the Westminster Confession of Faith

Written at the entrance of the temple of Reformed theology are the words: “God does not exist because of man, but man because of God.”[1] This Reformed principle of a relentless commitment to the preeminence of God’s glory—what Geerhardus Vos called Scripture’s “deepest root idea”—found its most natural expression in covenant theology.[2] Cornelius Van Til went so far as to say, “Covenant theology is Reformed theology.”[3] For “only covenant theology gives all the glory to God, and without giving all the glory to God there is no true religion.”[4] This covenantal schema is embodied in what B. B. Warfield called “the ripest fruit of Reformed creed-making,” the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF).[5]

This should come as no surprise for the Westminster divines were wholly committed to the glory of God as the chief end of man and self-consciously began with Scripture as their principium cognoscendi—the two ingredients of covenant theology.[6] So, as Vos observed, “The Westminster Confession is the first Reformed confession in which the doctrine of the covenant is not merely brought in from the side, but placed in the foreground and has been able to permeate at almost every point.”[7] Likewise Warfield is well-known for writing, “The architectonic principle of the Westminster Confession is supplied by the schematization of the Federal theology, which had obtained by this time in Britain, as on the Continent, a dominant position as the most commodious mode of presenting the corpus of Reformed doctrine.”[8] The covenant, then, is not a disparate chapter in the confession, but the structural framework around which the entire confession is built, manifesting a commitment to the glory of God above all else.

The Covenant, Van Til’s Representational Principle and God’s Eternal Decree

The above context is vital for understanding the way in which the confession relates God’s absolute sovereignty to human freedom without falling into the rationalism of either fatalism or deism in chapter 3 (“Of God’s Eternal Decree”). The first paragraph of this chapter reads,

God, from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass: yet so, as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established.[9]

The primary question of concern is this: How does the covenantal structure of the WCF inform its theological formulation of God’s sovereignty and human freedom? While this question could be considered from numerous vantage points, Cornelius Van Til provides an answer by way of his representational principle in continuity with the theology of the WCF. His representational principle pushes us beyond a superficial and impersonal understanding of the covenant idea, for it pushes us to its most basic foundation: the self-sufficient triune God of Scripture. Van Til writes,

The covenant idea is nothing but the expression of the representational principle consistently applied to all reality. The foundation of the representational principle among men is the fact that the Trinity exists in the form of a mutually exhaustive representation of the three Persons that constitute it.[10]

Notice, the covenant, according to Van Til, has an exhaustive impact on “all reality,” charging the whole of it with personality. Man does not operate or make choices in a vacuum or in an atmosphere of chance—such would render his will inoperative and his choices meaningless—but in an exhaustively personalistic environment, that is, within the comprehensive plan of God. “In him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). At all times and in all places man is coram Deo semper. The Trinity, in whom there is no residue of impersonality since the persons are mutually exhaustive of each other, provides the necessary ontological foundation for this personalistic environment, which is expressed in the covenant idea.

Critiquing Contemporary Non-Covenantal Formulations

We should note the relevancy of this exploration in the WCF and Van Til’s theology. There has been a welcomed resurgence to Reformed theology in recent years, which is a good sign of the church returning to Scripture and realizing its “root idea” of the glory of God. Unfortunately, Reformed theology is often reduced to the five points of Calvinism as found in the Canons of Dort[11] and so abstracted from its larger Reformed system, which is structurally covenantal. As Van Til said, “Covenant theology is Reformed theology.”[12] Richard Muller exposes this problem well,

Calvinism or, better, Reformed teaching, as defined by the great Reformed confessions does include the so-called five points. Just as it is improper, however, to identify Calvin as the sole progenitor of Reformed theology, so also is it incorrect to identify the five points or the document from which they have been drawn, the Canons of Dort, as a full confession of the Reformed faith, whole and entire unto itself. In other words, it would be a major error—both historically and doctrinally—if the five points of Calvinism were understood either as the sole or even as the absolutely primary basis for identifying someone as holding the Calvinistic or Reformed faith. In fact, the Canons of Dort contain five points only because the Arminian articles, the Remonstrance of 1610, to which they responded, had five points. The number five, far from being sacrosanct, is the result of a particular historical circumstance and was determined negatively by the number of articles in the Arminian objection to confessional Calvinism.[13]

At least two problems arise from this. First, many have embraced the five points abstracted from their covenantal context. This has led to a misunderstanding of Reformed theology by its opponents and a distortion of the five points by its proponents. The former waging accusations of fatalism or philosophical determinism, and the latter purporting some species of fatalism or philosophical determinism, despite explicit objections to such conclusions. Van Til and the WCF avoid these issues by means of situating the relationship between divine sovereignty and human freedom within its personalistic covenantal context.

Second, many have embraced the five points purely in reaction to Arminianism, but have not escaped the fundamental rationalism of Arminianism. So while they object to Arminian conclusions they continue to operate with the same methodology and merely end up on the opposite end of the same rationalistic spectrum. Fatalism is as much rationalistic as libertarianism. It is as much a problem to rationalize away God’s sovereignty as it is to rationalize away human freedom. In contrast, Van Til and the WCF operate on a different spectrum entirely and are able to maintain the tension between the two equally valid biblical truths of divine sovereignty and human freedom.


Van Til, in congruity with the WCF, avoids the rationalism of both Arminianism (and Lutheranism as he demonstrates in his Survey of Christian Epistemology) by way of his representational principle, which maintains a robust covenant theology that provides an exhaustively personalistic atmosphere in which the relationship between God’s sovereignty and human freedom can be properly understood. The self-sufficient triune God of Scripture, in whom unity and diversity are eternally harmonized and equally ultimate, is the foundation of the representational principle, which is expressed by the covenant idea that reaches all reality, charging man’s entire atmosphere with personality as he is always operating within the plan of God. The fact that God has foreordained whatsoever comes to pass is the only environment in which the will of man can operate and his choices can be meaningful. And so God’s sovereignty does not destroy or limit man’s freedom, but rather establishes it.

[1] Geerhardus Vos, “The Doctrine of the Covenant in Reformed Theology,” in Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation, 242.

[2] Vos considers three implications of this Reformed principle that substantiate this claim: “When this principle is applied to man and his relationship to God, it immediately divines into three parts: 1. All of man’s works has to rest on an antecedent work of God; 2. In all of his works man has to show forth God’s image and be a means for the revelation of God’s virtues; 3. The latter should not occur unconsciously or passively, but the revelation of God’s virtues must proceed by way of understanding and will and by way of the conscious life, and actively come to external expression” (“The Doctrine of the Covenant in Reformed Theology,” 242).

[3] Cornelius Van Til, An Introduction to Systematic Theology, 271.

[4] Van Til, Survey of Christian Epistemology, 98.

[5] Warfield, The Westminster Assembly and Its Work, 58.

[6] Westminster Confession of Faith 1.

[7] Vos, “The Doctrine of the Covenant in Reformed Theology,” 239.

[8] B. B. Warfield, The Westminster Assembly and Its Work, 56.

[9] Westminster Confession of Faith 3.1.

[10] Van Til, Survey of Christian Epistemology, 96.

[11] These five points are often summarized by the acronym TULIP: Total depravity, Unconditional election, Limited atonement, Irresistible grace and Perseverance of the saints. We should also note that the Canons of Dort were never understood to encapsulate the entirety of Reformed theology. Instead, they were received by the Reformed continental tradition along with the Heidelberg Catechism and the Belgic Confession.

[12] Van Til, An Introduction to Systematic Theology, 271.

[13] Richard Muller, “How Many Points,” 426.


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