Was Louis Berkhof A Heretic?

At Sinai the covenant became a truly national covenant. The civil life of Israel was linked up with the covenant in such a say that the two could not be separated. In a large measure Church and Sate became one. To be in the Church was to be in the nation, and vice versa; and to leave the Chuch was to leave the nation. There was no spiritual excommunication; the ban meant cutting off by death.

The Sinaitic covenant included a service that contained a positive reminder of the strict demands of the covenant of works. The law was placed very much in the foreground, giving prominence once more to the earlier legal element. But the covenant of Sinai was not a renewal of the covenant of works; in it the law was made subservient to the covenant of grace. This is indicated already in the introduction to the ten commandments, Ex. 20:2; Deut. 5:6, and further in Rom. 3:20; Gal. 3:24. It is true that at Sinai a conditional element was added to the covenant, but it was not the salvation of the Israelite but his theocratic standing in the nation, and the enjoyment of external blessings that was made dependent on the keeping of the law, Deut. 28:1-14. The law served a twofold purpose in connection with the covenant of grace: (1) to increase the consciousness of sin, Rom. 3:20; 4:15; Gal. 3:19; and (2) to be a tutor unto Christ, Gal. 3:24.

Louis Berkhof | Systematic Theology, 4th edn, 298 (emphasis added).


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  1. Dabney spoke much to the same effect (interestingly, in a section in which he was arguing for the unity of the covenant of grace):

    To remove the cavil [“against our identification of the Mosaic and Abrahamic dispensations”] founded on each text quoted against us by a detailed exposition, would consume too much space. It is not necessary. By discussing one of the strongest of them, we shall sufficiently suggest the clue to all. The most plausible objection is that drawn from Jer. 31:32, where the prophet seems to assert an express opposition between the new covenant, which Heb. vii indisputably explains as the Covenant of Grace, and that made with Israel at the Exodus. There is unquestionably, a difference asserted here, and it is the difference between law and grace. But it is the Covenant of Sinai viewed in one of its limited aspects only, which is here set in antithesis to the Covenant of Grace. It is the secular theocratic covenant, in which political and temporal prosperity in Canaan was promised, and calamity threatened, on the conditions of theocratic obedience or rebellion. The justice and relevancy of the prophet Jeremiah’s, and of the apostle’s logic, in selecting this aspect of the Sinai Covenant to display, by contrast, the grace of the new covenant, are seen in this: that self-righteous Jews, throwing away all the gracious features of their national compact, and thus perverting its real nature, were founding all their pride and hopes on this secular feature. The prophet points out to them that the fate of the nation, under that theocratic bond, had been disaster and ruin, and this, because the people had ever been too perverse to comply with its legal terms, especially, inasmuch as God had left them to their own strength. But the spiritual covenant was to differ (as it always had), in this vital respect; that God, while covenanting with His people for their obedience, would make it His part to write His law in their hearts. Thus He would Himself graciously ensure their continuance in faith and obedience. Witsius happily confirms this view, by remarking that, in all the places where the secular, theocratic compact is stated, as a Covenant of Works we see no pledge on God’s part, that He “will circumcise their hearts,” as in Deut. 30:6. There, the ensuing compact is interpreted by St. Paul (Rom. 10:6) as the Covenant of Grace. So, in Jer. 31:33, 34. God engages graciously to work in His elect people the holy affections and principles, which will embrace, and cleave to the promise. But in all such places as Leviticus 18:5; Ezek. 18, the duties required are secular, and the good gained or forfeited is national. In truth, the transaction of God with Israel was twofold. It had its shell, and its kernel; its body, and its spirit; its type, and its antitype. The corporate, theocratic, political nation was the shell: the elect seed were the kernel. See Rom. chaps. 10 and 11. The secular promise was the type: the spiritual promise of redemption through Christ was the antitype. The law was added as “a schoolmaster,” to bring God’s true people, the spiritual seed mixed in the outward body, to Christ. This law the carnal abused, as they do now, by the attempt to establish their own righteousness under it.

    –Robert L. Dabney, Systematic Theology

  2. But the covenant of Sinai was not a renewal of the covenant of works; in it the law was made subservient to the covenant of grace.

    Right in line with the mainstream!

    • And every advocate of republication, of which I’m aware, agrees that the covenant of works was not republished in the same way as it was initially revealed to Adam. That is the distinction that critics typically overlook.

      So, you don’t have any difficulty with his doctrine of a conditional Israelite tenure in the land?

  3. Yikes. This hurts. The overwhelming bulk of what I know about systematic theology I know from the following sources:

    Louis Berkhof

    The Westminster Standards

    The Three Forms of Unity

    I gather that the “heresy” of Berkhof pointed out in this post is that he sees the Sinaitic covenant as somewhat less than gracious? Do I gather that David R., in his comment on Dabney, is saying that if Berkhof is a heretic, so is Dabney?

    I’m also reminded of discipline as a note of the church in Reformed theology. Is not this something of a “conditional” matter, that one’s standing in the church depends on certain “works” of practical and intellectual hearing (since it seems that most places in the Old Testament, we are exhorted to “hear”[sh’ma]” rather than “obey”)?

    I haven’t been reading much systematic theology recently. Please enlighten me.

    John Calvin’s _Institutes_

    • Kepha,

      No, Berkhof was not a heretic at all. I ask that question to provoke thought. There are a noisy few who are saying that the substance of what Berkhof wrote here is heresy, though they don’t seem to be aware that he wrote it.

      Berkhof is generally and rightly regarded as a pillar of orthodoxy. In this passage he was repeating a view that has been widely held in the Reformed tradition.

      Some, however, want to make it so that it’s heresy to say what Berkhof said.

  4. Dr. Clark, saying there are conditions in a covenant does not render it a republished covenant of works “in some sense”. Berkhof explicitly rejects that concept.

    As for the “sense” in which the advocates say it is a republished covenant of works, it appears that the “critics” are still searching for a clear meaning of that sense from its proponents. As you probably know, the OPC will be taking up an overture to study the doctrine due to the current confusion.

    In my own reading on this, I have found the most clear and honest sense that necessarily flows from this doctrine is put forth by T. David Gordon’s essay in “The Law is Not of Faith”, in which he pities the poor Israelites for having to live under the merit/works- based Mosaic covenant (as he sees it). Yet, this can’t coherently account for Israel’s continued tenure in the land since it had to be by grace, not merit/works– just as you pointed out in another post!

    • Frank,

      He didn’t only write that there are conditions in the covenant of grace. The substance of what Berkhof wrote is what is most hotly contested today by some as heresy. He made tenure in the land conditional upon obedience. There’s no material difference between this language and what T. David wrote. This is the “in some sense” that you so adamantly oppose.

      If you’ll go back and listen to Heidelcast ep 46 and if you’ll listen to Heidelcast ep 47, you’ll hear me spending an entire hour defending the propriety of conditions in the covenant of grace.

      When he wrote that it not the covenant of works, EVERY contemporary (and classical) advocate of republication agrees—in the sense in which he rejected republication. Even the author of the article that sparked our previous discussions conceded that there was formal republication and that WCF 19 clearly teaches republication in some sense.

      Look, you’re entitled to your view and there are difficulties with EVERY view re the Mosaic covenant. It’s the single most difficult question in the history of covenant theology.

      You, however, are being unreasonable and the discussion is therefore becoming tedious and I won’t go round the same tree endlessly.

  5. I always appreciate it when you quote something actually on my shelf! This will come in handy in the coming debate in my communion (OPC).

    What do you think would be the consequences, doctrinal or otherwise, if the OPC comes out against not only the book, but the concept itself?

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