Scholastic theology is often derided for the subtle distinctions it makes.
Seemingly unable to provide a simple “yes” or “no” regarding disputed theological questions, the common scholastic reply, “we distinguish,” sounds more like the response of a slick politician than that of a dutiful shepherd. Distinctions, however, are essential to sound theology. Indeed, much in trinitarian theology and Christology hangs on the difference between “distinctions” and “separations.” The three persons of the Godhead are distinct from one another but not separate, for they are one consubstantial deity. The two natures of Jesus Christ are distinct from one another but not separate, for they belong to one person. Distinctions can be helpful in other areas of theology as well, ensuring that we do not exchange the Bible’s own intrinsic complexity (see Heb 5.11) for simplistic, but ultimately harmful, solutions.
One of the trickiest and most complicated questions for theology, whose answer holds profound implications for theology’s biblical, systematic, and pastoral dimensions, concerns the nature of “membership” in the covenant of grace. With whom is the covenant of grace established? The answer may seem straightforward: God binds himself to believers (or the elect) in the covenant of grace. However, biblical teaching–New Testament teaching–on this topic suggests that things are not that simple. On the one hand, the New Testament portrays the church as the place where the new covenant promises of Jeremiah 31 are being realized (e.g., Heb 8.8-10.18). On the other hand, the New Testament suggests that members of the covenant community may fall under God’s eschatological judgment, thus forfeiting their participation in the blessings of the new covenant (e.g., Heb 10.26-39, esp. v. 30: “The Lord will judge his people“). The church seems to be the place where fellowship with the triune God is realized (2 Cor 6.16-18; Gal 4.4-7; 1 John 1.3) and the place whose membership includes those who will ultimately perish (1 John 2.19). What are we to make of this? Drawing upon Geerhardus Vos’s discussion in Reformed Dogmatics, volume 2, I want to suggest that the question of membership in the covenant of grace is one of those places where subtle distinctions prove enormously helpful.
In Question 18 of his treatment of the covenant of grace, Vos asks: “With whom is the covenant of grace established in this Mediator?” After briefly rehearsing a number of responses provided by leading Reformed theologians, Vos observes that this question is “the great difficulty” of the covenant of grace. Not only does this question confront the challenge presented by the biblical texts mentioned above, it also confronts the challenge presented by the fact that (at least on Reformed hermeneutical principles) the covenant of grace applies not only to elect sinners but also to the children of believers, regarding whose election we may not presume.
Before presenting what he regards as the most appropriate distinction for dealing with the Bible’s complex witness to this question, Vos rules out two overly simplistic solutions. The first solution posits two separate covenants of grace, an “external covenant of grace” whose membership is made up of both the regenerate and the unregenerate, and an “internal covenant of grace,” whose membership is made up only of regenerate believers. The problem with this solution, according to Vos, is that it inevitably results in dualism, with deleterious consequences for the Christian life. The second solution ruled out by Vos regards the elect as the sole recipients of membership in the covenant of grace.
Having ruled out solutions that fail to accommodate the complexity of biblical teaching, and therefore that inevitably result in negative pastoral consequences, Vos begins building toward a better solution. He does so by interacting with three additional ways of addressing the question of covenant membership, each of which posits helpful distinctions but which ultimately proves unsatisfactory by itself. Vos finally lands on a distinction that allows him to account for the witness of the whole counsel of God regarding covenant membership. According to Vos, participation in the covenant of grace, on the one hand, can refer to “a relationship between two parties with reciprocal conditions” (e.g., promises and warnings on God’s side, faith and repentance on ours). Participation in the covenant of grace, on the other hand, can refer to the actual living fellowship that results between God and his people within the covenant of grace. In other words, the covenant of grace involves both a formal relationship of mutual obligation and (when that relationship realizes its purpose) a living fellowship between those bound by mutual obligation in the covenant of grace. Note well: Vos’s distinction does not posit two different covenants of grace but rather a twofold sense of membership in the covenant of grace.
Several payoffs follow from Vos’s distinction. First, Vos’s distinction allows us to acknowledge the existence of those who are covenantally related to God as “his people” (Heb 10.30) but who nevertheless do not enjoy a living fellowship with God in Christ (e.g., Simon the Magician in Acts 8; the branches broken off in John 15; the apostates of the Johannine community in 1John 2.19) and therefore who do not enjoy the graces of justification, sanctification, and glorification. Also in this regard, Vos’s distinction allows us to take the warnings of the new covenant administration (e.g., Col 1.21-23; Heb 6.4-8; 10.26-39; etc.) with utter seriousness without requiring us to deny the perseverance of the saints. Second, and more importantly, Vos’s distinction allows us to appreciate the organic connection between a formal covenant relationship with God (entered into by adult believers through baptism and confession, entered into by the children of believers on the basis of the covenant promise “to you and your offspring” [Gen 17.7-8; Acts 2.39]) and the living covenant fellowship that, by God’s grace, follows therefrom in the case of the elect. Specifically, Vos’s distinction helps us see that the former is the divinely ordained means to the latter. It is through the formal covenant relationship, administered by means of Word and Sacrament, that God brings the elect into a living covenant fellowship with himself. “[I]n this covenant of grace, God in fact makes promises that enable the members of his covenant to really live in the covenant, to receive its essence, to make it a reality.” Third, and following from the second, Vos’s distinction addresses how we should view covenant children vis-à-vis the question of covenant membership, arguing (rightly, I think) that we may neither assume that they are merely formally related to God in the covenant (given, e.g., texts such as Ps 22.9-10; Luke 1.41, 44) nor that they are certainly elect recipients of covenant fellowship (given, e.g., texts such as Romans 9). He argues instead that we should claim the covenant promises for them in baptism and raise them, within the context of these covenant promises, in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, because we are confident that the formal obligations of the covenant (God’s promises and warnings, our faith and repentance) are the means and way whereby God realizes his gracious purpose of election.
Though its basic message of salvation is simple, the Bible is a complex book that raises complex questions. When faced with such questions, we do well to draw upon the subtle distinctions that theology provides. “Distinction without separation” is not only a sound Christological principle. It’s also a sound theological means for not rending asunder things that God holds together.
This article first appeared on Reformation 21