When the term “covenant” is used, the general educated reader needs to be told its religious meaning. The general reader, somewhat literate on matters religious and Christian, will likely think of the “covenant of grace”, which he will likely associate generally with Protestantism, and he may know it is especially associated with Calvinism and Puritanism.
The more specialized religious reader may know that though the “covenant of grace” is central, there are a number of other covenants in that system: covenants of redemption, works, and church and state. Jonathan Edwards was concerned with all of these, especially the covenants of redemption and of grace.
After an examination of Calvinism and covenants generally, I will briefly discuss the doctrine of the covenants as found in Edwards theology: the covenants of redemption, works, and grace, the covenant and children, the Half-way Covenant and the state covenant
Calvinism and the Covenants
In his Dissertation concerning the End for which God Created the World, Edwards goes back behind even the covenant of redemption, the ultimate covenant. “[T]o speak more strictly according to truth,” he writes,
we may suppose that a disposition in God, as an original property of his nature, to an emanation of his own infinite fulness, was what excited him to create the world; and so that the emanation itself was aimed at by him as a last end of the creation.
This very desire is what necessitated the redemption of sinners following man’s creation and fall into sin, and to that end the covenant of redemption was made. The fall made man desperately needy of it, and the mercy involved revealed God in His greatest glory to man. God and His Son in this covenant bound themselves to save a multitude of fallen mankind, and by the subsequent covenant of grace the Godhead bound itself to save the elect by Christ’s provision of salvation and their Christ-enabled faith to accept it.
Before I examine these covenants, we must face the fact that many modern scholars reject the very concept of covenant (God’s binding Himself) as alien to the predestinarianism of Calvinism and of Augustinianism. With Augustine it was not his covenantism but his ex opera operato doctrine of the sacraments that seemed to some to preclude his strong predestinarian doctrine. But just as obviously as God could, if He chose, use ex opera operato sacraments in carrying out His foreordained will, it seems obvious that God could, if He chose, use covenants.
Bronkema is one of the early modern opponents of Puritan covenantism claiming its activism to be incompatible with Calvinism. Perry Miller did not originate this notion, though he has gained greatest prominence exploiting it. In fact, the continental Calvinists have always been uncomfortable with the activism of the English Puritan Reformed theology. De Jong goes so far as to see Edwards, the Puritan, as having “no eye for organic relations” and makes a mysterious allusion to Edwards’ having “lost sight of the use which God made of His own ordinances.”
Perry Miller is the most prominent opponent of the covenant’s compatibility with Calvinism and especially with Jonathan Edwards. However, by 1956 after putting down those who “published the happy tidings, in my name, that the Puritans were not and never had been Calvinists,” he acknowledged that the Puritan way of interpreting the Bible must be called Calvinist.” Nevertheless, he concluded his “revision” with “What I meant to say, and miserably spoiled in saying, is only that Edwards brushed aside the (by his day) rusty mechanism of the covenant to forge a fresh statement of the central Protestant definition of man’s plight in the universe which God created.” This shows that Millers repentance needed repenting of. This “rusty mechanism of the covenant” was oiled, greased and made to swing Edwards’ whole theology. Millers essay on Solomon Stoddard was a further descent ad infernos so far as this point is concerned.
Miller, in fact, traced opposition to the covenant of grace all the way back to John Calvin, whose transcendent doctrine supposedly could never descend to anything as demeaning as covenant thought. Miller venturing into terra incognito stood the map on its head. Calvin was infinitely above covenant; the Puritans, though Calvinists after a fashion, condescended to men of low estate. They needed some sort of contract, from which mediocrity Edwards, reacting, joined Calvin in the heavenlies (a beautiful intellectual picture lacking nothing except correspondence with reality). In fact, Calvin had the doctrine in germ which was brought to precision by the Puritans and made the centerpiece in Edwards.
Following closely in the steps of Miller, R.C. Whittemores “Jonathan Edwards” has a God free of covenant obligations simply because Edwards fails to mention them. The fact that the text of “God Glorified” concentrates on the different roles of the three divine persons in human redemption seems to escape Whittemore’s notice. All redemption is by a divine agreement, and in this the redeemed can boast.”
While Edwards saw some grace in the covenant of works, many scholars cannot even see that there is any grace in the covenant of grace. Though Edwards saw grace in the covenant with the First Adam, some cannot see Edwards finding any grace in the covenant with the Second Adam.
So sure is Whittemore that he insists, “[w]hat Edwards was saying is that if man is utterly dependent on a sovereign God there can be no covenant because man by his fall has forfeited all rights, including that of obligating God.” It is true that Edwards certainly insisted that man of himself cannot obligate God, but the covenant of grace has God obligating God. Whittemore cites this 1731 sermon God Glorified as making “no mention of assurance of mercy through the covenant of grace.” Oddly enough that idea runs all through that sermon.
At the very outset, Edwards summarizes his whole sermon in what amounts to the covenant of redemption in everything except the title:
Thirdly, It is of him that we are in Christ Jesus, and come to have an interest in him, and so do receive those blessings which he is made unto us. It is God that gives us faith whereby we close with Christ.
So that in this verse is shown our dependence on each person in the Trinity for all our good. We are dependent on Christ the Son of God, as he is our wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption. We are dependent on the Father, who has given us Christ, and made him to be these things to us. We are dependent on the Holy Ghost, for it is of him that we are in Christ Jesus; it is the Spirit of God that gives faith in him, whereby we receive him, and close with him.
Later Edwards says, “we are dependent on the goodness of God for more now than under the first covenant. . . .” The “first covenant” is a reference to the covenant of works, and every minister knew that the “second” covenant implied was the covenant of grace. Just as Edwards did not need to say covenant of works, he did not need to tell Puritans that the “second” was the covenant of grace.
Again, “God is the Redeemer and the price; and he also is the good purchased. So that all that we have is of God, and through him, and in him.” All redemptive blessings are of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. How could that have been but by agreement or covenant (as Edwards always taught explicitly and implicitly). It may be mentioned in passing that Edwards uses the term “Trinity” only three times though talking about the Trinity in almost every paragraph. No one would have missed his profound Trinitarianism. Again, “all is of the Father, all through the Son, and all in the Holy Ghost” is nothing other than the covenant of redemption in its simplest terms. Any impairment of this as a “not so entire a dependence on the Holy Ghost for conversion, and a being in Christ, and so coming to a title to his benefits” is reprehensible as a partial denial of the covenant of redemption.
His conclusion is that this means that God contrived to glorify himself. What is that “contrivance” but an agreement among the persons of the Godhead?
The application or “use” of this definitive sermon is a grand summary of the entire ministry of Jonathan Edwards, showing his rock bottom Calvinism as he glorifies the work of Father, Son and especially Holy Ghost and reduces the sinner to moral zero which is the very meaning of the covenant of redemption applied to the elect as the covenant of grace. I quote in full:
1. We may here observe the marvellous wisdom of God, in the work of redemption. God hath made man’s emptiness and misery, his low, lost, and ruined state, into which he sunk by the fall, an occasion of the greater advancement of his own glory, as in other ways, so particularly in this, that there is now much more universal and apparent dependence of man on God. Though God be pleased to lift man out of that dismal abyss of sin and woe in to which he was fallen, and exceedingly to exalt him in excellency and honour, and to a high pitch of glory and blessedness, yet the creature hath nothing in any respect to glory of; all the glory evidently belongs to God, all is a mere, and most absolute, and divine dependence on the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. And each person of the Trinity is equally glorified in this work: there is an absolute dependence of the creature on every one for all: all is of the Father, all through the Son, and all in the Holy Ghost. Thus God appears in the work of redemption as all in all. It is fit that he who is, and there is none else, should be the Alpha and Omega, the first and the last, the all and the only, in this work.
2. Hence those doctrines and schemes of divinity that are in any respect opposite to such an absolute and universal dependence on God, derogate from his glory, and thwart the design of our redemption. And such are those schemes that put the creature in God’s stead, in any of the mentioned respects, that exalt man into the place of either Father, Son, or Holy Ghost, in any thing pertaining to our redemption. However they may allow of a dependence of the redeemed on God, yet they deny a dependence that is so absolute and universal. They own an entire dependence on God for some things, but not for others; they own that we depend on God for the gift and acceptance of a Redeemer, but deny so absolute a dependence on him for the obtaining of an interest in the Redeemer. They own an absolute dependence on the Father for giving his Son, and on the Son for working out redemption, but not so entire a dependence on the Holy Ghost for conversion, and a being in Christ, and so coming to a title to his benefits. They own a dependence on God for means of grace, but not absolutely for the benefit and success of those means; a partial dependence on the power of God, for obtaining and exercising holiness, but not a mere dependence on the arbitrary and sovereign grace of God. They own a dependence on the free grace of God for a reception into his favour, so far that it is without any proper merit, but not as it is without being attracted, or moved with any excellency. They own a partial dependence on Christ, as he through whom we have life, as having purchased new terms of life, but still hold that the righteousness through which we have life is inherent in ourselves, as it was under the first covenant. Now whatever scheme is inconsistent with our entire dependence on God for all, and of having all of him, through him, and in him, it is repugnant to the design and tenor of the gospel, and robs it of that which God accounts its lustre and glory.
3. Hence we may learn a reason why faith is that by which we come to have an interest in this redemption; for there is included in the nature of faith, a sensible acknowledgment of absolute dependence on God in this affair. It is very fit that it should be required of all, in order to their having the benefit of this redemption, that they should be sensible of, and acknowledge, their dependence on God for it. It is by this means that God hath contrived to glorify himself in redemption; and it is fit that he should at least have this glory of those that are the subjects of this redemption, and have the benefit of it. -- Faith is a sensibleness of what is real in the work of redemption; and the soul that believes doth entirely depend on God for all salvation, in its own sense and act. Faith abases men, and exalts God; it gives all the glory of redemption to him alone. It is necessary in order to saving faith, that man should be emptied of himself, be sensible that he is “wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked.” Humility is a great ingredient of true faith: he that truly receives redemption, receives it as a little child, Mark 10:15. “Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of heaven as a little child, he shall not enter therein.” It is the delight of a believing soul to abase itself and exalt God alone: that is the language of it, Psalm 115:1. “Not unto us, O Lord, not unto us, but to thy name give glory.”
4. Let us be exhorted to exalt God alone, and ascribe to him all the glory of redemption. Let us endeavour to obtain, and increase in, a sensibleness of our great dependence on God, to have our eye to him alone, to mortify a self-dependent and self-righteous disposition. Man is naturally exceeding prone to exalt himself, and depend on his own power or goodness; as though from himself he must expect happiness. He is prone to have respect to enjoyments aliene from God and his Spirit, as those in which happiness is to be found. -- But this doctrine should teach us to exalt God alone; as by trust and reliance, so by praise. Let him that glorieth, glory in the Lord. Hath any man hope that he is converted, and sanctified, and that his mind is endowed with true excellency and spiritual beauty? that his sins are forgiven, and he received into God’s favour, and exalted to the honour and blessedness of being his child, and an heir of eternal life? let him give God all the glory; who alone makes him to differ from the worst of men in this world, or the most miserable of the damned in hell. Hath any man much comfort and strong hope of eternal life, let not his hope lift him up, but dispose him the more to abase himself, to reflect on his own exceeding unworthiness of such a favour, and to exalt God alone. Is any man eminent in holiness, and abundant in good works, let him take nothing of the glory of it to himself, but ascribe it to him whose “workmanship we are, created in Christ Jesus unto good works.”
De Jong in his Covenant Idea made a mountain out of Miller’s relative mole hill. He found Edwards to be the chief underminer of New England covenant theology. The broad structure of his book and Jonathan Edwards’ place in it can be seen in the table of contents:
Part Two -- Development:
The Early Puritan Conception of the Covenant
The Beginnings of Change
The Synod of 1662: The Half-Way Covenant Adopted
Stoddardeanism: The Half-Way Covenant Modified
Jonathan Edwards: The Half-Way Covenant Attacked
The New Divinity: The Half-Way Covenant Overthrown
The Loss of the Covenant Conceptions
De Jong has many indictments of Edwards’ view of the covenant, which is seen to be a direct or indirect, conscious or unconscious, attack on the covenant as understood by De Jong.
Conrad Cherry confuses the situation somewhat, though improving on De Jong and Miller. He sees the Puritan doctrine of the covenant as a way of construing revelation so that it did not bind God to man. Cherry sees a problem that he imagines the Puritans suffered from, though his citations prove no such thing. The Puritans were supposed to be unable to conceive of God binding Himself to man by the latter’s faith because God and man are so unequal. Hence the doctrine of the covenant is thought to solve that problem. But instead of solving a “problem” Edwards sees the covenant as merely illustrating the way of God’s gracious acting.
The Rom. 9:18 sermon shows God at His deepest condescension without any requirement of covenant. The covenant is, in Edwards’ mind, the form the binding takes, but the binding is no way dependent on covenant. It is not covenant that makes binding possible, but binding that makes covenant necessary. That God could “become bound to us worms of the dust, for our consolation!” is what amazes Edwards, not the form that binding takes, except that the form of covenant by an oath shows the extremity of the condescension. Believers can actually demand salvation through Christ as a debt! The sermon ends with the emphasis on sovereignty. “This is the stumbling block on which thousands fall and perish; and if we go on contending with God about his sovereignty, it will be our eternal ruin.”
Cherry corrects Perry Miller effectively enough by showing that Edwards himself corrected him. Through the covenant of grace the sinner “may in justice demand delivery” Edwards had preached. Cherry also sees that God can be “tied up” to human claims. What he does not clearly see is that the elect sinner has no merit of his own, but only that God, in His sovereignty, does not acknowledge it to be such. Cherry states Edwards’ view in these words: “The possibility of the believer’s demanding salvation on the basis of his own godliness is precluded.” The sentence should read “The possibility of the believer’s demanding salvation on the basis of his own initial godliness is precluded.” But God Himself supplies the regenerate’s godliness.
Cherry, unlike Miller, gets a fundamental aspect of Edwards’ doctrine: “Man does not ‘tie up’ God, but God ties himself to man in the covenant.” However, immediately after this, Cherry sells the covenant short: “This is Edwards’ interpretation of the Incarnation. . . .” The Incarnation was, however, only the first step in the covenant of grace which was “finished” in the atonement, resurrection and ascension. Another error follows: this “demand” of the covenant beneficiary is “never through or on the basis of his own goodness or obedience.” But without that “obedience” the person is not in the covenant and cannot “demand” anything of God. Again, the point is that the blessing is not on the person’s benefiting from any merit of his own obedience.
Showing that he never gets completely out of the Millerian thicket, Cherry comments: “The notion of God’s indebtedness to man borders on blasphemy -- in fact it is a kind of ‘blasphemy of faith’.” No one could so write who understood Edwards’ work on Satisfaction which shows that Jesus Christ so perfectly satisfied divine justice that if God the Father questioned the Son’s work He would be blaspheming.
Cherry does agree with Miller at the very point he ought not to agree. He imperfectly critiques Miller’s attack on covenant only to agree with him on an even more egregious error -- Miller’s attack on “preparation.”
Cherry is as far from understanding the Puritan and Edwards’ doctrine of preparation or seeking as Miller was. Though he cites John Preston’s eloquent statement of the doctrine, Cherry still does not get the message. Preston (and Peter Bulkeley) have the convicted sinner pleading with God for covenantal mercy which Cherry interprets:
In other words, it is still [emphasis added] the sovereign God with whom the soul deals in the covenant-relation, but not the arbitrary God. God still has the power to withdraw his hand of mercy, but we have his sound testimony in Christ that He wills not to do so. He has the power to withhold salvation from the saints, but on the basis of his promise of salvation in Christ man may ‘pleadingly sue’ him for it with the assurance that he has freely bound himself to give it.
Every Puritan who ever lived, and Jonathan Edwards most of all, would have been apoplectic about such an interpretation of their doctrine. That a holy God would bind Himself and still have it in His “power” to break that promise is blasphemy to the Puritan mind. Miller was consistently wrong in this area; Cherry is sadly inconsistent.
Edwards is sometimes supposed to mitigate the imagined problematic nature of faith by distinguishing between the covenant of redemption and the covenant of grace. That there was first a covenant between the equal Father and equal Son is thought to make the covenant between the divine Christ and human sinners somehow tenable. Yet manifestly, if God could not bind Himself to infinitely inferior creatures, having made an a priori agreement with an equally infinite person would make it no more possible for the infinite condescension to man.
One more item should be noted in Cherry before we leave him on the covenant. He raises a question about the covenant of grace, the covenant of redemption and their bearing on human faith as a condition:
[H]ow determinative of grace is man’s act of faith -- the covenant of redemption between Father and Son notwithstanding? Put another way, how are the two distinct conditions -- Christ’s work and human faith -- related? Edwards’ answer appears to be that the covenant of grace and its condition are the implementation of the covenant of redemption. Yet this simply puts the problem at one remove; it does not explain to what extent faith is determinative of the efficacy of either covenant for the man of faith. If the covenant of grace (which has as its condition the act of belief) is the implementation of the covenant of redemption, does this mean, then, that the covenant of redemption is not applicable to a specific saint until the condition of the covenant of grace is performed by the saint? Edwards’ distinction between the two covenants leaves this question unanswered and hence does not clear him of the shortcomings, noted above, of viewing faith as the condition of the covenant.
Edwards would surely say that the covenant of redemption is “applicable” but not applied salvifically until faith is born in the elect’s heart. All God’s covenants are eternal and certainly applicable to whom they concern since God’s intention and power are as sure as He is. This includes the covenant of grace as well as the covenant of redemption. Cherry says that “Edwards’ distinction between the two covenants leaves this question unanswered and hence does not clear him of the shortcomings, noted above, of viewing faith as the condition of the covenant.” The only “shortcomings” of Edwards here would be the “shortcomings” of God who utterly guarantees that all conditions” will be met. If any theologian ever stressed that God provided all conditions and had no “shortcomings,” it was Jonathan Edwards.
Edwards and the Puritans generally never had any problem with God’s binding Himself to creatures if He chose to do so. The problem in this union was not because of the infinite difference but because of the sinfulness of man. Because of this a holy God could have no communion with unholy man. The problem was overcome by the Son undertaking and the Father appointing Him to His mediation for the elect, agreed to in the covenant of redemption, and applied to man in the covenant of grace.
Yet many of Edwards’ interpreters cannot seem to grasp this point. Some, as we have seen, even represent Edwards as virtually eliminating the doctrine, returning to the imagined purer Calvinism of Calvin. More recent studies of this subject, however, have begun to correct this persistent mistake. For example, Harry Stout, the present general editor of the Yale University Press edition of The Works of Jonathan Edwards, maintains that, “[Edwards] was every bit the federal theologian that his Puritan predecessors were.” This is a conclusion for which my Steps to Salvation gave extensive textual evidence as well as theological foundation as early as 1960, and for which Carl Bogue offered support on almost every one of the 312 pages of his 1975 book on the subject. Perhaps the reign of Miller’s mistake concerning Calvinism, Edwards and the covenant is finally drawing to a close.