Vos: The Covenant Of Grace Was Present In, With, And Through The Old Testament Types And Shadows

With An Extended Comment Replying To Some Recent Criticisms Of Reformed Theology

We shall now be prepared to understand how the recognition, that the two worlds exist and have existed side by side from the beginning, enables the author of Hebrews to solve the chief problem of the history of redemption and revelation. For it is in Hebrews that the first age and the first world are identified with the first covenant. When, therefore, the question is raised, how the Old Covenant can be identical in substance with the New, what is the common essence, that notwithstanding the great progress from one to the other, makes them two coherent stages in the expression and conveyance of the same spiritual reality, the answer is immediately forthcoming: the same world of heavenly spiritual realities, which has now come to light in the Person and work of Christ, already existed during the course of the Old Covenant, and in a provisional typical way through revelation reflected itself in and through redemption projected itself into the religious experience of the ancient people of God, so that they in their own partial manner and measure had access to and communion with and enjoyment of the higher world, which has now been let down and thrown open to our full knowledge and possession. In other words, the bond that links the Old and the New Covenant together is not a purely evolutionary one, inasmuch as the one has grown out of the other; it is, if we may so call it, a transcendental bond: the New Covenant in its preexistent, heavenly state reaches back and stretches its eternal wings over the Old, and the Old Testament people of God were one with us in religious dignity and privilege; they were, to speak in a Pauline figure, sons of the Jerusalem above, which is the mother of all.

This is a profounder solution than is offered in the well-known formula of Augustine: “The New Testament is latent in the Old, the Old Testament lies open in the New.” More profound because, together with the statement of the fact, it gives the reason for the fact. The latent existence of the verities and potencies of the Christian religion in the old dispensation are due to no other cause than that the Christian religion lived even at that time as redemptive truth and redemptive power in the heavenly world and from there created for itself an embryonic form of existence in the life of Israel. The writer of Hebrews would have subscribed to the belief that Christianity is as old as Abraham and as old as Moses, nay as old as Paradise, because it is heaven-born and not the child of earth.

Geerhardus Vos, Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation: The Shorter Writings of Geerhardus Vos, ed. Richard B. Gaffin Jr. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2001), 199–200.


Geerhardus Vos (1862–1949) was Dutch-Reformed theologian, who began his career at what was then the Theological College of the Christian Reformed Church (later Calvin Seminary). For the CRC he served as rector of the seminary and taught Dogmatics (systematic theology). He continued and finished his career, more famously, at Princeton Theological Seminary, where he became Professor of Biblical Theology. Unlike most of the German Biblical Theologians, who had hitherto dominated that field, Vos was well and deeply read in the Reformed tradition. He did not set biblical and systematic (dogmatic) theology against one another. Rather, he saw them as complementary to each other. In some ways, he was their heir of a tradition of orthodox biblical theology (though not called such) that had existed since the early 16th century. In its own way, Reformed covenant theology was a kind of biblical theology, an explanation of the nature and progress of redemptive revelation and salvation. Thus, his explanation of the relations between the Old and New Testaments, of the progress of redemptive revelation and history, and of the essential unity of the covenant of grace within the various administrations is classically Reformed. Here he distilled, in two paragraphs, what the Reformed have always taught and confessed.

His approach, as he followed classical and confessional Reformed theology, was quite distinct from that of most Baptists, including those Particular Baptists who think that their confession of the Old Testament revelation of a future covenant of grace (the New Covenant) and the subjective apprehension of that future reality is Reformed theology. It is not. The Reformed held that the covenant of grace was not merely revealed or merely subjectively apprehended by faith but that that the covenant of grace was objectively present in, with, and under the types and shadows of the Old Testament administration of the covenant of grace.

This is a point of genuine disagreement between Reformed theology and those who hold, as they do, that the New Covenant is substantially distinct from the Old Testament, that the New Covenant is the covenant of grace in a way the Old Testament was not. This is not Reformed theology. It is a denial of the substantial continuity of the covenant of grace under various administrations, which has been an essential part of Reformed theology since the Reformed began replying to the Anabaptists in the early 1520s.

Regarding the use of the prepositions in, with, and under: I began using these in my essay, “Engaging With 1689,” (see below) in order to explain the difference between the Reformed account of redemptive history and some  Particular Baptist views. Recently, a Particular Baptist critic has alleged that by using these prepositions I am advancing a Lutheran theology or teaching the doctrine of consubstantiation.

I thought that I had explained sufficiently how and why I was using these prepositions, typically associated with the Lutheran view of the Lord’s Supper but apparently not. First, I am not a Lutheran on the Lord’s Supper. Second, the Lutherans deny that they teach consubstantiation. Richard Muller has written that, in fact, it was William of Ockham (1287–1347) who taught consubstantiation and not the Lutherans.

I used and continue to use these prepositions this way in order to try to communicate how the Reformed understand the presence of the covenant of grace in the Old Testament. I suspect that one reason why some of my Baptist friends are having difficulty grasping the Reformed conception is because they assume that the two systems, the Reformed and the Baptist, must be essentially the same and that, therefore, what they think about the history of redemption must be what the Reformed said.

Must, however, is not a historical category of analysis. It is the product of a priori assumptions and not the product inferences drawn from the evidence. The overwhelming historical evidence (see the resources below) is to the contrary. The Reformed have always asserted one covenant of grace under multiple administrations. The Anabaptists rejected this view, of course, as did the Particular Baptists. This is a fundamental disagreement between all forms of (Ana) Baptist theology and Reformed theology. Remember, on this point, all Baptists agree with the Anabaptists.

Since, for the Reformed, there is one covenant of grace through all of redemptive history and since members of the covenant of grace actually participated in the external administration of the covenant of grace under types and shadows, the prepositional phrase, “in, with, and under” captures that relationship quite well. The Reformed have always used these prepositions to describe the presence of the covenant of grace in the Old Testament, as illustrated by the quotation from Vos above. We have not always used them together, which has the rhetorical force of emphasizing the objective presence of the covenant of grace in the Old Testament but we have always said that the covenant of grace was administered under types and shadows and in them and with them.

Thus, for the Reformed (as distinct from the Baptists), Esau was actually a member of the covenant of grace. It was not merely revealed to him nor merely apprehended by Jacob by faith. Both sons were actually in the covenant of grace though in two distinct ways. Esau had a real but external relation to the covenant of grace. He was initiated by circumcision into the visible covenant community. The benefits of the covenant of grace were offered to him. He refused them in favor of earthly goods. Contra the Federal Vision (and contra those who assume that the Federal Vision theology is merely just another variant of paedobaptist theology or just an “in-house” debate—it is not. The Reformed churches have soundly and formally repudiated the FV theology as a subversion of the gospel) those who are initiated externally into the covenant of grace are not provisionally elect, justified, or saved. Esau was never elect in any sense. A merely external relation to the covenant of grace is real but not saving, not even provisionally (see the resources below).

Jacob also had an external relation to the covenant of grace but, by divine favor alone (sola gratia), through faith alone (sola fide), he received the substance of the covenant of grace as well as the external administration of the covenant of grace. Unlike Esau, Jacob had a twofold relation to the covenant of grace: external and internal.

As the Apostle Paul says, in Romans 9, it is unconditional election that makes the difference between Jacob and Esau. The church, however, is not entitled to guess who is or is not elect and thus we follow the biblical pattern, present in both the Old and New Testaments, of administering to believers and their children the sign of  outward admission to the visible covenant community. As it has always been, both under the types and shadows and now under the reality of the New Covenant, we admit to the feast those who make a credible profession of faith.

This categorical distinction between internal and external is one that the Baptist tradition seems to lack or reject. This distinction marks a paradigmatic difference between the Reformed and Baptist traditions. This distinction is related to but not identical with the visible/invisible distinction, which Baptists affirm.

There are, after all, reasons why Baptists do not give to believers and to their infants the sign of external admission of the covenant of grace, why they do not follow the Abrahamic pattern, and why some of them have taken—despite all of the biblical evidence to the contrary—to describing the Abrahamic covenant as a covenant of works, something that the Reformed have simply not done. For us, the Abrahamic  covenant is the paradigm for the covenant of grace. For us, the New Covenant is the new administration of the Abrahamic covenant without the types and shadows.

According to the Reformed, the covenant of grace has always been present, not merely subjectively but also objectively, in, with, and under the types and shadows. The external administration of the covenant of grace has always been the means used by God the Spirit to bring his elect to new life and true faith. Under the Old Testament it was administered in, with, and under types and shadows. Through them the substance (see the resources below) of the covenant of grace, Christ and his benefits, was objectively present and offered to believers and to their children. In the mysterious providence of God, the elect have received the substance of the covenant of grace through the the types and shadows. One of the many blessings of the New Covenant is that we receive this same substance, Christ and his benefits without the types and shadows but it is, as Vos said, the same substance that was in, with, and under the types and shadows.

No system that denies that there is one covenant of grace with multiple administrations, including the Old Testament covenants, or that holds that only the New Covenant is really or actually the covenant of grace is consonant with Reformed theology or with what Vos says in the passage quoted above.


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  1. “The church, however, is not entitled to guess who is or is not elect…” This cannot be emphasized enough, particularly for individual believers. There is (and has been) a disturbing trend of some to claim to know who is saved and who is not. Knowledge of the condition of the heart belongs solely to God. This was the great failing of Job’s three friends, they spoke wrongly of God in that they usurped His throne by claiming (falsely) to know why Job was enduring suffering. I sojourned for years among the Baptists and was disturbed by many of them claiming to know who is saved and who is not, all based on externals.

  2. “No system that denies that there is one covenant of grace with multiple admin-
    istrations, including the Old Testament covenants, or that holds that only the New Covenant is really or actually the covenant of grace is consonant with Reformed
    theology or with what Vos says in the passage quoted above.”

    And that’s the gist of the matter, though there be continuities and discontinuities
    between the form and particulars (incidents) of the various Covenants, though
    never in the substance of them, which is Christ, 1689 Federalism is contra to the
    more orthodox 1689 Reformed Baptist Confessionalism which maintains the unity
    of the Covenants (which it derisively labels 20th Century Reformed Baptist
    Covenant Theology) and drifts further from Reformed Covenant Theology than
    New Covenant Theology, standing between it (NCT) and the newer form of Progre-
    ssive Dispensationalism!


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