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The Ghastly Spectre of Bicovenantalism

So, I hadn't realized how much I disliked the traditional Southern Presbyterian theology, or how far beyond it I'd gone, until I heard a textbook exposition of its covenant and sacramental theology this morning from the mouth of Dr. Morton Smith in our church pulpit (just filling in this morning--not our normal preacher). I finally understood bicovenantalism, in all its gloomy glory, and it seems that perhaps the reason I didn't understand before exactly what the anti-Covenant of Works people were so insistent about was that I never quite realized what the Covenant of Works people actually believed...or never really believed that they believed that. (none of this, by the way, to diss Dr. Smith, he is a good and godly man, and well-learned in his tradition; it's just his tradition I'm bashing)

What am I on about, anyway? Well, good question. I'm going to try to see how much I can clarify.
Let's see if I can synopsize their paradigm.
In the beginning, God created Man, and entered into a covenant with him ("covenant of works") as His creature. Man was a creature bound to obedience to God, upon fulfilment of which, a status of sonship might be earned. Now, man failed to obey this standard, to fulfill his side of the covenant. So God enters into a new covenant ("covenant of grace"), one which he will fulfill both sides of, so that this mess won't happen again. The purpose of this covenant is to atone for, that is, undo, the sin which destroyed the original covenant. Such atonement is found at last in the sacrifice of Christ, who, at the same time, by his perfect obedience, fulfills the original covenant, thus earning the sonship status. Both this atonement (passive obedience) and the active obedience are then imputed to believers, thus removing the barrier of their sin, and allowing them to partake in the status of sonship, just as if they had fulfilled the covenant of works. Now what? Well, they rest in this status, receiving it on no other ground than their faith in Christ to save them, and receive the additional benefits of grace which God bestows in this covenant--primarily, sanctification and glorification.

Nifty little system, isn't it? Surprisingly neat. Quite simple, actually. I don't know now if I ever held to this, or understood it really...or if I just progressed on to its contrary without ever holding and relinquishing it. Point is, that now, even as I typed it up, I saw problem after problem with it. Just riddled with problems. Problems oozing out of its dried-up pores. Of course, I also realized that all those problems, other smarter people had already pointed out, people like the inimitable Rich Lusk. So there's no point in going into them. But, since that's what I set out to do in this post, I will go into the two that hit me in the middle of the church service--like, gesticulate-violently-for-a-pencil-and-grab-it-and-scribble-down-in-all-caps-on-the-nearest-sheet-of-paper hit me.

The first is--did you notice what it says--the covenant of works is only with man as a creature, not as a son. The covenant of works is a state of pure nature. How is man special, then, distinct from the rest of creation...well, he has the image of God (of course, I would contend that this means he is ipso facto not in a state of pure nature). But, basically, this sets up the notion of a nature/grace dichotomy, which would otherwise be impossible. I mean, to me, the notion of man relating to God in a state of pure nature, not in the context of covenantal sonship, is unthinkable. But then, to some people, it might make perfectly good sense...I don't know. However, it's not just a toss-up--doesn't Scripture after all say, "and Adam was the son of God" (Luke 3:38)? Not, of course, that prooftexting is really the way to go. But I'm not going to attempt here to establish the case for why Adam be seen as in a covenant of sonship, only point out the implications of what's being set forth.
Because, here's another problem. Christ fulfills the covenant of works for us, but he does so in a relationship of sonship--Christ does not take the position of a natural man. So what's up here?

And, here's the worst part: all that Christ does, then, is gets us up to the point where Adam would've been anyway, if he hadn't sinned. Pretty much. That's all. That's nice, and all...but that's an awful lot of history that doesn't really go anywhere.

And this brings me to the next point...over-atonementism. Notice that, in this model, the main thing the covenant has to do is to undo the effects of sin, to atone for the sin so that it's no longer a barrier. That is the covenant's raison d'etre--atonement. Dr. Smith traced this throughout the Old Covenant, emphasizing throughout its key purpose as that of atonement, and particularly emphasizing the Day of Atonement. To which I respond: if that was the only point, why other sacrifices, like thank-offerings and fellowship-offerings? Why other festival days, like the Feast of Weeks or Feast of Booths?

If atonement is all that there is, all that God is concerned with, then the Bible has been sucked dry--the gospel has been spread thin. Of course, atonement is necessary, of course, it is glorious, of course, even if this were all that there was, it would be Good News of infinite proportions. But God gives us even more in Scripture, so much more. He is interested in doing more than covering our sins--he is interested in adorning our lives with beauty and holiness, of bringing us into Trinitarian fellowship with him, of making us partake of life, life in abundance. I always had trouble seeing growing up why exactly the Resurrection was _necessary_. If the Atonement's the whole point, then...well, Christ's death was sufficient, by itself (note that during the sermon, which was ostensibly on Communion, Dr. Smith represented the significance of communion as exclusively pertaining to the Atonement). Yet, "if Christ were not raised from the dead, we are of all men most miserable," says Paul. Yea, we are still in our sins, he says. Why? Because Christ did not merely fulfill the Covenant of Works on our behalf. He acted as God's son, living as the son that Adam was to be, and, in his resurrection, was justified, and glorified, and exalted to the right hand of God, so that in Him, we too might be justified, glorified, and exalted to the right hand of God, that the powers of the world to come might come down and transform history, which now, in this understanding, has a clear telos, the fulfillment of one covenant of grace, one covenant of sonship, one narrative of the glorification of the world.

3 comments:

And amen. Something I appreciated when I read Bavinck: when he posited the covenant of works, it was in order to show continuity between Adam's situation and ours. He uses it to show that man was never in a pure state of nature. But the "bicovenantal" view, as you explain it, uses the covenant of works to set up a dichotomy between Adam's situation and ours. That leads directly into undo-sin-ism, because everything is just about getting back to the garden. There is no idea of a city of God.

June 19, 2007 at 4:05 AM  

It seems like Bicovenantalism leaves us staring at the empty tomb of Christ instead of celebrating at His table. Sad and frustrating.

June 20, 2007 at 3:33 AM  

Very true, Hannah, though it might be better to say that it leaves us staring at his closed tomb--before his resurrection; too often that seems to be the attitude.

June 21, 2007 at 6:06 PM  

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