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The Black List – God’s Everlasting Covenant of Grace
Critiqued by Dr. C. Matthew McMahon
God’s Everlasting Covenant of Grace
by Herman Hanko
Reformed Free Publishing Association
Grand Rapids: MI, 1988.
Paperback, 229 Pages.
An Overview and short critique of Herman Hanko’s God’s Everlasting Covenant of Grace.
By C. Matthew McMahon
When inquiring into the history of the development of Covenant Theology we should affirm the importance of the Covenant of Grace. The doctrine of the covenant remained in an important place among the founders of the Reformation, and subsequent to that era. In defining the idea of covenant, Hanko believes that it was a grave mistake to cause the covenant to have a conditional status. He does not believe that it should have a conditional nature at all, but that it is, in fact, and everlasting covenant of grace that is unilaterally placed upon men and is gracious. He believes that as one were to hold to infant baptism and require a condition upon entrance into the covenant, then children could never fulfill this (much less infants) and the whole covenant would be overthrown. When one has an incorrect conception of the covenant, then infant baptism will be overthrown and Presbyterians will not be able to defend it.
In chapter one, Hanko defends God as a covenant God. The triune Godhead is involved in each step of His sovereignly ordained covenant. God contains covenant life in Himself, and it is this “life” that those who are graciously given entrance into the covenant partake. God cannot be known by any efforts that man may introduce or produce. He must be known by grace. Hanko seems to define “covenant” by saying it is the revelation that God speaks of Himself, particularly of the covenant life that He lives in Himself.
Chapter two attempts to define more clearly what Hanko means by “covenant.” It seems his devotional thoughts in chapter one were not as adequate (and this writer agrees completely). Hanko rejects the idea that covenant means “a pact between two parties.” He is not sure how this concept crept into the church, but is going to spend the rest of his book attempting to prove that this is incorrect (though he fails miserably). Hanko says that the Reformed orthodox position holds to this view of a bilateral covenant, but he is persuaded this is wrong. So in taking an opposite stance, a different stance to the Reformed position, he offers that this covenant is gracious, unilateral, and sovereign. If the Reformed view is held, then a host of problematic questions arise that concern where man will enter the covenant, whether Christ actually secured anything, and how conditions on behalf of men are met if it rests on their activities. Hanko says that God is always faithful to keep His covenant because He is the sovereign administrator of it.
In chapter 3 Hanko says, “God’s covenant was first established with Adam.” He believes that it is a wrong association to say that Adam was in a Covenant of Works. Rather, Adam simply has a certain administration of the Covenant of Grace called the Covenant of Life. Hanko says the idea of a “Covenant of Works” only goes back to Olevianus and Cloppenburg in the seventeenth century. Hanko disagrees with the Westminster Confession of Faith when it defines covenant as an agreement, and instead puts forth his own ideas again. Instead of Adam being under a covenant status, rather, he was blessed to have the promise of eternal life given to him. Hanko calls this the Covenant of Life instead of a Covenant of Works.
In chapter 4 Hanko describes the fall of Adam. The fall did indeed bring upon mankind disastrous consequences: death and spiritual death. Adam was created as the father of the human race, and was a representative for them in the garden. This seems to contradict Hanko’s idea that Adam was in a covenant of life graciously given to him of the Father, and rather speaks of a covenant and federal head who must uphold the law in order to gain a permanency in the garden. In any case, Hanko correctly makes it known that because of one sin, just one, Adam fell and the whole race of mankind with him. All men, then, are totally depraved and are deserving of hell. Hanko then makes a statement that Christ must come and complete what Adam failed to do. This does not seem like a covenant of Life, but rather, one where the Law Covenant must be upheld. Hanko believes that Christ fulfills what Adam did not fulfill.
In chapter 5 Hanko describes the salvific reality that it is only through Jesus Christ and the covenant that He fulfills when we are saved. He is going to survey the Old Testament and how this covenant worked its way through the lives of the saints of God in the old age of the patriarchs. The first revelation of the Covenant of Grace in the Old Testament is the Genesis 3 narrative and the proto-evangelium given in Genesis 3:15. The history of the old dispensation is the revelation of the promise of God until the time of the Redeemer to come. There is a constant forward motion from the inception of the promise to its fulfillment, and this covenant gradually progresses in the amount of divine revelation given to men as God brings it to pass. This revelation is the reality of the Spirit of Christ applying the death of Christ to his people and by sending the fullness of the Spirit upon the church in the day of the Messiah.
In chapter 6 Hanko describes the time-period of warfare that eclipsed the earth in murder and wickedness before the flood. Immediately after the fall Cain was born, and then Abel, and even between these two brothers Cain rose up and murdered the first martyr of the Christian church. Cain hated the ways of God and because Abel loved them he killed him. This warfare continued until the whole earth was filled with violence. The seed of the woman, though, would not be quenched. Though Abel was killed, God raised another (Seth) in his place. Other men in this saintly line were preserved by God, such as Enoch. Though the devil attempted to destroy man from the earth, and gain victory through bloodshed over the seed of the woman, God preserved that line until the first reckoning – the deluge.
In chapter 7 Hanko describes the covenant with Noah. This line of the woman followed its path through generations to Noah. In Noah’s day God destroyed the earth and made a covenant with Noah and his three sons, and their wives. God had Noah build an ark, which took him 120 years. After the ark was built, God sent the animals to Noah to keep in the ark until after the deluge. Hanko asserts that the flood meant God’s favor to the church and that He would do everything to demonstrate the glory of the church over the seed of the serpent. The ark is a picture of Christ, as the water is a picture of baptism; it serves the church. Noah emerged from the ark and released the animals. He then sacrificed to God, and God made a covenant with him and all flesh. God placed the sign of His bow in the sky, and vowed never to destroy the earth by a flood. This demonstrates that Satan will not be able to overcome the seed of the woman, and that God is going to be steadfast in keeping His gracious promises, even in redeeming back creation.
In chapter 8 Hanko again asserts that the covenant concepts God makes with men are unilateral and gracious, and have no conditions. The covenant God made with Abraham is no different, in his opinion. If the covenant is conditional, then man is the determining factor. Hanko rests this interpretation upon the Genesis 15 narrative that speaks of God, not Abraham, passing between the pieces of the sacrifice and establishes, sovereignly the covenant with His chosen vessel. God has established unswervingly that all his promises are closely connected with His covenant. In the same way that God has Abraham cut the pieces of the sacrifices for Him to pass through, so in like manner God cut His Son to pieces as a sacrifice under His fearful wrath.
Chapter 9 explores the question, “Who is the true seed of Abraham?” Some believe that the Jews are the seed of Abraham, and others that believers and Jews are made of the seed of Abraham. Hanko asserts that Christ is the Seed that Abraham bore in his lineage and is the Seed that is discussed in the New Testament. It is true that the child Isaac came as a promised “seed” but this seed pointed to the greater Seed that is Jesus Christ. Isaac was simply a type of Christ to come. If Christ is the true heir of Abraham, then only those in Christ can be true seeds of Abraham. It is only for the heirs of the promise that Christ died, and only for them that are children of God. Christ is the true heir to the promises given to Abraham, and all those in Him are co-heirs.
Chapter 10 deals with the believers and their seed. All those who are in Christ are also true seeds of Abraham. Dispensationalists are wrong when they make a division between Israel and the church in this case, for all children of Abraham are considered the church. The church is constituted of the Gentiles and Jews as heirs to the kingdom and seeds of Abraham. Also, Hanko says it is important to consider how children are continually part of the covenant instead of casting them out because of a dispensational change. He says we should remember that the church in the Old Testament and New Testament is one. If there is only one covenant, then there is only one sign of the covenant (circumcision in the Old Testament and baptism in the New Testament both point to regeneration). God gave Abraham an everlasting sign to the covenant. That is why there is no mention of the baptism of infants in the New Testament because we see the same hermeneutic of “households” being baptized as they were inducted by circumcision in the Old Testament.
In chapter 11 Hanko covers the topic of covenant children. Why does God command the baptism of the children of believers? Baptists say that we should baptize only believers, but Baptists have no test to ensure that is what they are doing in reality. Many have denied the faith after being baptized, so appealing to a profession does not warrant excluding children. Others, Hanko says, say that the children baptized are in covenant with God, and so they should be considered as covenant members. But then Hanko questions this in that some grow up to be apostate (and thus he seems to side with the Baptists as to how to reconcile this quagmire). He then says that children receive the external mark of the sign, but not the inward salvation that is represented in the sign. Then Hanko asks, “Does God really promise what He says to those who are baptized and sealed by the covenant sign?” This is where he believes many make the covenant conditional, and so escape the problem. Hanko retreats to texts that say God’s promises are for the regenerate alone, and believes he has escaped the problem. Instead, Hanko says that the answer lies in organically looking at the problem. If one understands that God uses societies of people, and not just individualism, then infant baptism makes perfect sense.
In chapter 12, Hanko covers the idea of how the covenant interrelates to predestination. Hanko brings up again his ideas surrounding the Reformation and the Reformed view of predestination in relation to the covenant. He again despises the idea that the covenant could be conditional because this simply does not fit with predestination. Hanko says that men like Turretin did not give to the covenant the prominent place in their theology that it ought to have. Hanko believes the covenant is a bond of friendship, not a bilateral agreement. He then asks, if God is faithful to His bond of friendship, why are not all the children of believers saved – does predestination fail? He says that God always accomplishes His purposes. He answers by saying that it was never the purpose of God to save all the children of believers, and cites Jacob and Esau as examples. God loves Jacob and hated Esau sovereignly. Predestination and Reprobation are sovereign acts of mercy tied to no genealogical line. God saves whom He wills, though the covenant sign should seal all children of believers.
In chapter 13 Hanko discusses the bondage of Egypt and the Israelites. Hanko discusses the historical data where Jacob’s sons, Joseph, and finally Moses comes into play, and that Pharaoh would not allow the Israelites to leave their hard bondage. Egypt was a picture of sin. God lead the fathers into Egypt and into hard bondage to illustrate this to all Christians.
Chapter 14 deals with the deliverance from Egypt and the prototype or symbolization of sin. The Passover lamb, and the deliverance of the people of Israel in the Red Sea demonstrate the truths we hold dear now. All were baptized in the Sea and the blood of Christ covers all those who are saved by His death. Christ fulfills everything that His elect could not do, and then sends the spirit to help us keep that Law to His glory. God’s covenant at Sinai after the Israelites’ deliverance was to point us to Christ and His deliverance for us from the schoolmaster so that we may be able to learn from Him through His Spirit.
Chapter 15 covers the Mediator of the Covenant. Though Moses is seen as the typological mediator of the old covenant, Christ is the real Mediator of the New Covenant in His blood. The incarnate Son of God came in the flesh to do the work we were unable to accomplish. Christ, the servant, came to do the Father’s will in humility and bound Himself to the law in order to fulfill what Adam did not, and we could not. Christ is the Head of the covenant, and satisfies the demands of the Father’s justice for sinners. He is the organic Head of His people and the Surety of this covenant – it is impossible that He would fail. In His resurrection His work is sealed, and in His ascension He sent the Spirit to commune with His church.
Chapter 16 covers (in a strange order) the entrance into Canaan by the Israelites as typological of Christ and the Sabbath. The Israelites fought to enter the promises land and did not achieve the complete victory that they should have captured. Instead, their lives were marked by turmoil. Christ, though, after finishing His work, gives His people rest. Those who attempt to work for a certain day (as the Israelites did and as Seventh Day Adventists do) try to conjure up a works righteousness that will never satisfy the covenant. Christ has fulfilled this rest for us instead.
Chapter 17 holds an interesting title for Hanko, “Our Part in the Covenant”, but he does not disappoint in being consistent in his thesis. Hanko does not want his reader to fall into Arminianism, which he has been belaboring through the book, though he misuses the idea of a “conditional covenant” in the manner of the Reformed understanding. Instead he says that by grace we can and will do our “part” in the covenant. This is dubious, but he says this is not the same as “having two parties in the covenant.” In any case, he says that by faith and obedience, we should keep covenant with God, though God is the one who sovereignly oversees His covenant and its faithfulness. We are to keep faith in Christ, and be obedient, but by sovereign grace.
Chapter 18 covers the covenants relationship to the Kingdom of God. The establishment of the monarchy holds typological information for us in terms of how God’s covenant works. Instead of having a kingdom in which God is sovereign, the Israelites wanted their own king and kingdom and paid dearly for it. Christ is seen in the true monarch, David, in which the victory psalms of the king of Israel demonstrate the victories of the Messiahs’ reign for His people in salvation. The kingdom of God, as Christ said, suffers violence and the violent take it by force, seen in the works of John the Baptist. This demonstrates the working of Christ to advance His kingdom in the saints of His kingdom. Hanko, though, says that the Kingdom actually “came to His people” at Pentecost. It is at that point that the Spirit was outpoured on the church. It is the coming of the spiritual kingdom that came on that day in contrast to the typological kingdom of the Old Testament. Christ rules His kingdom over all, both wicked and just as a right rule of justice. Yet, there will be a day of consummation which will end the earthly travail and bring in a completely spiritual kingdom. What we realize in part now will be perfected in heaven.
Hanko concludes his “study” in chapter 19 with an overview of what he has taught us in this book. The Triune God has made an unconditional, sovereign covenant with His elect servant and the co-heirs that have been bought by Him on the cross. Adam did not retain his good standing in the life he had in the garden, and fell. In turn God supplied men with a gracious covenant that enabled them to be saved through grace. The Old Testament demonstrates types and shadows of the coming Seed who is Jesus Christ. He lived perfectly, died on the cross, rose from the dead, ascended into heaven and sent His Spirit to fill His church. In Christ we are all part of the family of God’s grace. The sovereign covenant of God, though, is the key to unlock the mysteries that Christ has accomplished for us in the Everlasting Covenant of Grace.
Short notation in brief:
This book is “what is wrong with covenant theology today.” It is not the intention of this writer to set forth a lengthy critique. Some footnotes noted certain misguided theological maxims that twist the whole of redemptive history into a poorly construed matrix for Hanko. His answers in ratifying infant baptism were horrific, and illogical at best. “Reformed” Baptists would laugh at his work in this book as arguments to win them over to his side. His denial of the Covenant of Works is the first and greatest problem he has. Next is his linguistical misuse of the idea of “covenant.” For if he rejects pivotal and critical concepts at the beginning of the study, then the study he is going to pass off as a right view of “covenant” is something quite different than what God has intended. You cannot twist the beginning of the Covenant of Works and think the rest of the story will fit. His conception of predestination and how the covenant intertwines was poorly illustrated. If a Baptist reads this book, he will be more confused even if he follows Hanko, than to be lead by a proper understanding of Reformed orthodoxy. One would imagine that Hanko would have come to realize that he was off base in this from the beginning. His historical citations were almost non-existent, and his exegetical work was nowhere to be found. Not one of his covenant arguments “held water.” It is typical that books published by Reformed Free Publishing Association tend to present themselves as those where the authors write with a chip on their shoulders. (Engelsma’s “Hyper-Calvinism and the Call of the Gospel” and Hanko’s “Ready to Give an Answer” come to mind.) Hanko writes in this manner with his arguments against the Reformed Faith and the historical arguments for true covenant concepts, and seems to largely overplay his opinionated and unfounded references about Arminianism (i.e. he simply gives his opinion about how Arminianism has plagued the church instead of giving evidence as to why, or any historical data to help the reader see the truth of it). This writer must admit, he is happy to be “done” with reading the book, and would reread Witsius anytime over Hanko’s eisogetical conjecture.
 This writer must admit at the outset that Hanko is dreadfully wrong in his conception of “covenant.” Linguistically his position is unattainable across the board. To negate the conditional character of the covenant demonstrates that Hanko really has no clue as to the structure and purpose of divine covenants at all. It is because he is an inept theologian on this issue (which is characteristic of most Presbyterians and Dutch Reformed today) that he has trouble understanding the Reformed position on this topic. This is evident from his misunderstanding of the texts he mentions throughout the book on covenant, and his questions revolving around what others have said on this topic (though such quotes are far and few between.) His exegetical work is non-existent, and his general treatment is going to confuse people rather than help them.
 Hanko mentions Turretin as an example, and says that he does not really treat the covenant much at all. This is an amazing statement since Turretin spends over 100 pages on this topic in his second volume. Has Hanko even read Turretin? It seems not.
 Hanko again demonstrates his inept historical theology. Both Augustine and Irenaeus talk about Adam in this relationship and in this idea (as does the Apostle Paul in Romans 5). The very reality that allows Christ to be in covenant with God is the same idea paralleled as He is the second Adam. What Adam failed to do in earning eternal life, so Christ fulfills.
 This should place Hanko in a very strange position. If Christ fulfills, in covenant, by law, what Adam fails to do, how, then, can he non-contradictorily state that Adam was not in a covenant where he needed to uphold the Law or that was not in a probationary period? This would overthrow the idea that Christ is the second Adam altogether, for Christ, then could not “fulfill” by covenant what Adam was never “in.”
 Hanko asserts that it had not rained on the earth until this time of the flood. There is no warrant in Scripture to say that it never rained, even though, in the primeval garden, before Adam and Eve fell, God watered the garden by a mist that came up from the ground. This does not mean that the weather conditions stayed the same after the fall, or that it never rained.
 It is not strange that Noah has two of every unclean animal and seven of the clean. If Noah took babies of these species, he would have had more than enough room to house everything from birds, to dinosaurs, to things that creep on the ground, as well as all the food necessary to keep them alive for over 100 days.
 This kind of thought process is what is damaging to the whole concept revolving around “covenant”. Hanko has so contaminated the Hebrew idea of covenant, and his preconceived notions surrounding the Covenant of Works are so skewed, everything from that point on will place his mind in a twisted and distorted view of what “covenant” actually means. The covenant can be both conditional and sovereign at the same time, but in different senses. This is what Hanko is completely missing.
 This really does not answer the question, but Hanko believes it does.
 This is a completely fallacious line of reasoning, but in order for Hanko to “secure” his one unconditional covenant schematic, he must retreat here.
 It should be noted at this point, that Hanko is propagating a full-blown Baptistic and dispensational idea surrounding the manner of the covenant. He has completely departed from the Reformed position (which he has said in a number of ways through the book thus far.)
 The more this writer reads this book, the more he is persuaded that men like this ruin the solid foundations of Reformed Covenant Theology. Hanko does not know what he is talking about historically, or exegetically here, and Turretin is the last person he should be quoting. It seems his limited use of historical data presses him to pick on Turretin, and even then, he is misusing the man’s theological views. Again, Turretin not only spent considerable time in the first volume of his systematic theology to cover predestination, but takes up one fifth of his second volume and explains the twofold economy of the Covenant of Grace (see my paper on Turretin).