Sunday, April 05, 2015

Sacred Bond: Contra Engelsma (Part 1)

One of the works referenced in the book Moses and Merit is a review of the book Sacred Bond by Micheal G. Brown and Zach Keele. Brown is the pastor of Christ URC in Santee and Keele is my pastor at Escondido OPC. I have heard rumors of this review by David Engelsma, but this was my first time reading the review by myself, which can be found in the Protestant Reformed Theological Journal [PRTJ 46:1) (Nov 2012): 117-22 ] (here). I wasn't expecting a lot from that review, and sure enough, it did not disappoint me in the misrepresentations and falsehoods it perpetuates.

In this and subsequent posts, I will move through the review article, showing how Engelsma misrepresents Sacred Bond and correcting any errors in Engelsma's review as we go along.


The imprecision and inconsistency concern, chiefly, the definition, or basic description, of the covenant, no minor matter. The title of the book suggests the correct definition and right description: the sacred bond (of communion) between God and His elect people in Jesus Christ. Here and there, throughout the book, the authors renew the description of the title, referring to the covenant as a "relationship" and as "communion."

But the formal, authoritative, and controlling definition identifies the covenant as an “agreement that creates a relationship with legal aspects” (11). The emphasis throughout on conditions and conditionality indicates that the authors meant by “agreement” what the word signifies.

An agreement is not a sacred bond, or relationship. As the definition expresses, at best an agreement can create a relationship. When its mutual stipulations are violated, an agreement can also destroy a relationship. (David Engelsma, 117)

The first error we see is Engelsma's (and the PRCA in general) view that covenant is defined as friendship, as relationship. The problem with this definition is that it is totally ahistorical. We note here that we are dealing with the definition of the word "covenant," which means one has to do things like word studies among others to decipher the meaning of the word as people have used it throughout time, words like ברית and διαθηκη.

The meaning of words are rooted in General Revelation, in the way cultures have used the term. The Hebrew term berith did not descend directly from heaven with the meaning "relationship," but rather it had a meaning even before Sinai. That is why Ancient New-East (ANE) studies are important, not to relativize biblical revelation, but to situate the context in which the people of Israel live and move and have their being. God's revelation to Israel is special, but the language He uses is not part of special revelation, for otherwise no human will be able to understand it. This reliance on General Revelation is even more pronounced in Greek, as the Greek culture has had centuries wherein the term diatheke was used in non-Christian settings before the Jews and then the Christians utilized the term.

The definition of a term is the definition of a term. If one wishes to speak about the term as used in a particular setting, then one should utilize a phrase with modifiers to the basic term. Therefore, in Reformed Covenant Theology, we call the covenant God made with His elect the "Covenant of Grace," not "covenant," because the definition of "covenant" is not the meaning of the "Covenant of Grace." This is just basic word usage, and it is rather embarrassing that one has to mention such basic stuff. One has no right to redefine the meaning of an established word any way one wishes, especially when it has a long-established tradition of usage.

The next problem with Engelsma's approach is that it has a strange view of what constitutes a "sacred bond." In Engelsma's view, an agreement is not a bond, even though as anyone knows, a legal oath to adopt a child does in fact constitute a bond between the two parties. Agreements bounded by oaths are in fact bonds, and since the bond is with God as one party, then it must necessarily be "sacred." Englesma is therefore in error as to what constitutes "sacred bonds" and his relational thrust and how everything must be "personal" should preclude bonds such as adoption and even justification from being considered "bonds," since these are not "personal" enough. That Engelsma does not go there is irrelevant to our point, in that his idea of what constitutes a "bond" is false.

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