Meredith G. Kline, “Comments on the A.A. Hodge One-Covenant Construction of the Redemptive Order”

This is a transcript, by the Rev. Bill Baldwin, of handwritten notes prepared by Dr. Kline in the Spring Semester of 1993 for some of his students at Westminster Theological Seminary in California. These notes were not intended for publication, and Dr. Kline retains the copyright. Text enclosed by

[brackets] are original. Text in {braces} has been added by Mr. Baldwin where necessary. For convenience Hodge’s comments have been reproduced immediately following.

I. Scripture records an historical process of redemptive administrations in the form of a series of “covenants” – Abrahamic, etc., culminating in the “new covenant.”

Scripture also points to a divine arrangement behind the Messiah’s advent and mission. For example: “I came down from heaven not to do my will but the will of him that sent me” (John 6:38 – c.f. the elaboration of the point in my Kingdom Prologue [1991], 86-88). This arrangement was one of {the} commitments made by the Father and Son and thus divinely sanctioned, commitments to fulfil tasks and to give rewards (as reflected in Jesus’ claim: “I have glorified you on earth; I have finished the work you gave me to do. And now, Father, glorify me with yourself with the glory I had with you before the world began” [John 17:5, 6]). Such a commitment transaction is precisely what constitutes a “covenant” in biblical usage. To refuse (like Murray) to call such an arrangement a “covenant” on the grounds that the Bible (allegedly) doesn’t happen to apply that label to it is methodologically wrong-headed and totally arbitrary (c.f. my discussion of this in Kingdom Prologue, 10-14 and 86). Moreover, Jesus (in Luke 22:29, 30) likens to one another the intratrinitarian arrangement and his own administration of the new covenant to his disciples, denoting both transactions by the verbal source of diatheke. In fact, this text not only provides specific biblical warrant for calling the intratrinitarian arrangement “covenant,” but provides precedent as well for distinguishing the two covenantal arrangements within the total redemptive order.

II. There are several major differences between the two covenantal arrangements (differences with respect to fundamental matters like their parties and governing principles) which demand different labels for the two (for present purposes: “eternal covenant” and “covenant of grace”).

1. In the covenant of grace (as clearly seen in its new covenant administration) Christ is the Lord of the covenant who administers it to the covenant servant-community. But in the eternal covenant Christ is assigned the role of covenant servant whom the Father-Lord covenantally commissions.

2. In the series of administrations of the Covenant of grace the covenant is made by the Lord with those who confess the faith and their children; the covenant membership includes others than the elect – they are not all (elect) Israel who are of (covenant) Israel. But the eternal covenant is made by the Father with the Son in his appointed status as second Adam and thus (in keeping with the parallel between the federal headship arrangements in the covenants with the two Adams) with those represented by Christ as federal head, i.e., the elect, and them exclusively.

It may be observed here that although Hodge’s construction is supposed to be in the interest of bringing out the parallel between the covenants with the two Adams, it actually obscures it by merging the eternal covenant with an arrangement including some not represented by {the} 2nd Adam.

3. In the covenant of grace the principle governing reception of the kingdom blessing is grace. But in the eternal covenant it is works.

III. In his one-covenant construction. A. A. Hodge is obliged eventually to take account of the major differences between the eternal intratrinitarian arrangement and (what he calls) “the several modes of administration.” But his effort to integrate these contrary features into his “eternal Covenant of Grace” is not successful. They are alien features there, awkward contradictions forcibly intruded where they do not fit. He succeeds only in making covenantal hash out of two distinct covenant dishes.

The Bible’s own example indicates the wisdom of distinguishing the two redemptive arrangements as two distinct covenants. For in the divine wisdom the Scriptures distinguish as different covenants the Abrahamic, Mosaic, and New covenants (changed by Hodge to “modes of administration”) in spite of their continuity and unity. The Scriptures do so because of certain differences between them, even though these are relatively slight compared to the fundamental differences we have noted between the eternal covenant and the covenant of grace.

Through its failure to distinguish satisfactorily the two very different arrangements in the redemptive order and the resultant blurring together of contradictory elements, the one-covenant construction of A. A. Hodge (and WCF/WLC) has at least these liabilities:

1. It leads to a definition of the covenant community (church) in Baptistic terms as consisting of believers or the elect, contrary to the Presbyterian doctrine that the church consists of those who profess Christian faith and their children.

2. Arguably (as I suggested at the faculty forum), it has contributed by its formal fusing of the works and grace principles to the confusion of the two and even the repudiation of the works principle in the teachings of Fuller, Shepherd, et. al.

Even if the one-covenant construction actually possessed the advantage of better displaying the kind of interrelationship that exists between the eternal covenant and the covenant of grace, that advantage would be far more than offset by the disadvantages of its obscuring the significant differences that obtain between these two covenants and its liability for serious errors arising from such confusion.

Appendix: A. A. Hodge’s Comments on WCF VII.4

(From The Confession of Faith, pp. 126-128)

“For the sake of simplicity, some Calvinist theologians have set forth the divine method of human redemption as embraced in two covenants. The first, styled the ‘covenant of redemption,’ formed in eternity between the Father and Christ as principal, providing for the salvation of the elect; the second, styled the ‘covenant of grace,’ wherein life is offered to all men on the condition of faith, and secured to the elect through the agency of Him who, as ‘surety of the new covenant,’ insures the fulfillment of the condition in their case.

“Our Standards say nothing of two covenants. They do not mention the covenant of redemption as distinct from the covenant of grace. But evidently the several passages which treat of this subject (Conf. Faith, ch. 7., s. 3; L. Cat., q. 31; S. Cat., q. 20) assume that there is but one covenant, contracted by Christ in behalf of the elect with God in eternity, and administered by him to the elect in the offers and ordinances of the gospel and in the gracious influences of his Spirit. The Larger Catechism in the place referred to teaches how the covenant of grace was contracted with Christ for his people. The Confession of Faith in these sections teaches how that same covenant is administered by Christ to his people.

“The doctrine of our Standards and of Scripture may be stated in the following propositions:

“1. At the basis of human redemption there is an eternal covenant or personal counsel between the Father, representing the entire Godhead, and the Son, who is to assume in the fullness of time a human element into his person, and to represent all his elect as their Mediator and Surety. The Scriptures make it very plain that the Father and the Son had a definite understanding (a) as to who were to be saved, (b) as to what Christ must do in order to save them, (c) as to how their personal salvation was to be accomplished, (d) as to all the blessings and advantages involved in their salvation, and (e) as to certain official rewards which were to accrue to the Mediator in consequence of his obedience ….

“4. Christ, as mediatorial King, administers to his people the benefits of his covenant; and by his providence, his Word, and his Spirit, he causes them to become severally recipients of these blessings, according to his will. These benefits he offers to all men in the gospel. He promises to grant them on the condition they are received. In the case of his own people, he works faith in them, and as their Surety engages for them and makes good all that is suspended upon or conveyed through their agency. In the whole sphere of our experience every Christian duty is a Christian grace; for we can fulfill the conditions of repentance and faith only as it is given to us by our Surety. All Christian graces also involve Christian duties. So that Christ at once purchases salvation for us, and applies salvation to us; commands us to do, and works in us to obey; offers us grace and eternal life on conditions, and gives us the conditions and the grace and the eternal life. What he gives us he expects us to exercise. What he demands of us he at once gives us. Viewed on God’s side, faith and repentance are the gifts of the Son. Viewed on our side, they are duties and gracious experiences, the first symptoms of salvation begun — instruments wherewith further grace may be attained. Viewed in connection with the covenant of grace, they are elements of the promise of the Father to the Son, conditioned upon his mediatorial work. Viewed in relation to salvation, they are indices of its commencement and conditions sine qua non of its completion.”