8. Comments on The Covenantal Gospel by Cornelis van der Waal
by James B. Jordan
This is an excellent book, and every Bible student should read and master it. Cornelis van der Waal was a Dutch theologian who lived much of his life in South Africa. He lived from 1919 to 1980. This was his last book and he died before completing it.
Thinking on the covenant has continued since his death, and the few comments I have included here are intended to express places where some slight improvements in his book can be made. These minor criticisms do not take away from the great value of the book. I shall proceed section by section, since the English translation will not have the same pages as the original Dutch.
Introduction section 2. The statement in 2 Cor. 3:14 about the “old covenant” does not refer to all the books of the Old Testament, but as the next verse shows, to “Moses.” We should really think of the Ten Words, the heart of the Sinaitic Covenant. We can say that there are two covenants, but we can also say that there is one covenant in two phases. Both phases are revealed and discussed in all the books of the Bible, but of course the second phase, the “new covenant,” receives the most attention in the New Testament books. Van der Waal sometimes writes of one covenant, and sometimes of two, but he always means one covenant in two historical phases.
1.1. Van der Waal often uses the word “treaty” as he gets into the subject of covenant. This word does not do full justice to the fact that God’s intra-trinitarian life is covenantal. It is not just a treaty. When God comes to us and applies this covenant to us, it can be much like a treaty, so van der Waal is right to speak of a treaty-aspect of the covenant. But we must be careful not to think of the covenant as basically just a treaty. It is a personal and structural life-bond.
1.2. Since Abraham was an evangelist, I think his covenant with Aner, Mamre, and Eshcol was more than just a military covenant. These men looked to Abram as their spiritual leader also.
1.4. Notice how van der Waal points out the objective and legal meanings of such words as “quarrel” and “peace.” This is one of the most important strengths of his book.
3.2. In Genesis 15, God passes between the parts of the animals. I do not think this is a promise that Yahweh will die if He does not keep the covenant, although this is a very common interpretation today. Rather, the two halves of the animals represent Abram and the land, from which Abram is estranged. God is promising to unite Abram to the land in the future, by being the bond of the covenant. God will link Abram’s seed to the land. God’s Spirit passes between the two parts to bring them back to life united in a bond of covenant. We should think back to Genesis 1 and 2, where God repeatedly divides things into two pieces and reunites them in a new unity with Himself as the bond. God put Adam into “deep sleep,” a coma, just like He did Abram in Genesis 15:12. Then He divided Adam into two parts. Then He brought Adam and Eve together in a new unity.
It may be that God was also saying, “May I be destroyed if I fail to keep this covenant with Abram,” but there is nothing in the text to indicate this.
3.10. Salt represents something that endures, so a “covenant of salt” is an enduring covenant. But salt also represents fire, the fire of God’s presence. A “covenant of salt” is a covenant maintained by God Himself within the covenant as the God of Salt.
3.13. It is sad that Dr. van der Waal did not complete this section. He would have looked at the Davidic covenant, and then perhaps have continued to examine the new covenants made through Elijah and in Zechariah 1-6, and others as well.
4.1. The comments here are good, but incomplete. It is true that Adam was not “man in general” but a specific man. But he was also the first man. All human beings are images of God, by definition. They may be “negative images,” as rebels and apostates, but they are still His images. Van der Waal later spends much attention on the curses and vengeance of the covenant. He is right, and it means that all man are related to God by covenant one way or another, in blessing or curse.
4.3. God told Adam and Eve that every tree would be theirs to eat from in the future (Genesis 1:26). So, eventually Adam would eat of the tree of good and evil. Van der Waal is right that this phrase refers to kingly rule, but wrong to say that human beings were never to eat of it. First we must affirm God’s kingship by staying away from this tree, but then, when we are mature, we are given the tree as princes under God’s kingship.
Adam was to grow up to become mature so that he could become such a prince under God. Van der Waal is wrong to complain against the idea that the Garden was a “child’s garden” and that Adam was a child. It is precisely because Adam was a child that God was merciful to him. God is not merciful to those who rebel against him with full mature awareness, as van der Waal himself shows at length later in his book.
I also think van der Waal is wrong when he says that Adam was kept from the Tree of Life to keep him away from blessing. The older view is right: Adam was kept away after he sinned so that he would not be sealed in his sinfulness. God was being merciful to him and protecting him from disaster.
5.3. He is right that Luther almost always spoke harshly about the Law of Moses. This was part of Luther’s struggle against the legalism of his age. We respect Luther’s heroic struggles at that time, but we want to improve on his insights. Calvin, who respected Luther as an “apostle born out of time,” did not have quite the same struggles, and was able to make some improvements. We continue to make progress in our understanding of the whole Bible today, and will continue to do so forever.
6.4. A weakness in van der Waal is that he does not fully realize that the movement from the old to the new is from childhood to maturity. He sees it mainly as a movement from type to truth. It is both. Thus, some of what Paul wrote “against” the Law is directed against Jewish legalistic perversions of the Law — the Law taken out of its true covenantal context — but some of it is a way of saying that the Law was for childhood and now we are adults in Christ. We still remember what we were taught in childhood, but we no longer live as children, “under” the Law.
7.1. “Bar mitzvah” is a custom that arose much later than New Testament times. It is not in view in Luke 2.
9.3. He rejects the notion that the sun, moon, and stars represented the rulers and authorities of the Jewish commonwealth, but he is wrong here. This is symbolism clearly established in the Old Testament.
Chapters 10-11. I agree that the miraculous signs of the apostolic age were designed to get the Church started, and are not part of the ongoing work of the Church — except when sometimes miracles briefly appear in new mission fields. I do not think that any of the gifts have “ceased,” however. They still exist, but in a general form. Whenever the Bible is translated, the “gift of tongues” is in operation in a general form. Similarly, when the Church meets to discuss what to do, the gift of prophecy, of being led by the Spirit, is in operation. Noting has been withdrawn. All is still here, but in more mature form.
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