Cornelius van der Waal, “The Covenantal Gospel”

The Covenantal Gospel was the last book written by the remarkable South African theologian and exegete Cornelius van der Waal. Two other works of van der Waal’s have been translated: Hal Lindsey and Biblical Prophecy, and Search the Scriptures.

Because this book was written in 1979, it does not include any interaction with the “five-point covenant model” advocated by Ray Sutton and Gary North, but in discussing the elements of the covenant in the Bible, van der Waal covers much of the same ground. And of course, the “five-point model” is not the only way the covenant is set forth in the Bible.

Van der Waal insists that the only way God relates to man is covenantally, which means personally. God speaks words to men, face to face, mouth to ear, and men are to listen. There is nothing more personal than such covenantal linguistic communication. In sin, however, men prefer to eliminate God’s words — His covenant — and substitute speculation, philosophy, mystical encounters, and contemplative ideas. Thus, the corruption of natural law theology invades the Church and diminishes the impact of God’s spoken-written Word. After all, in the Garden Adam did not rebel against morality, but against the idea that God could tell him what to do. He rebelled against the spoken law-word of the Person of God, not against “general ideas of morality.” General morality does not lead us to God, but to an impersonal substitute. For men to come to God, we must proclaim His Word and call men to bow the knee.

In Chapters 1-5 of his book, van der Waal surveys about twenty covenants in the Bible. This discussion is especially important for showing that such words as “love,” “hate,” “good,” “evil,” and “brother” have specific covenantal meanings, and not merely sentimental or moralistic ones. Van der Waal insists and proves that the Noahic covenant was redemptive, and not some “common grace” covenant, as is all too often taught in Reformed circles today. In fact, van der Waal strongly attacks the nominalistic notion that there are “law covenants” and “grace covenants,” “common grace covenants” and “special grace covenants.” Such Bible chopping is thoroughly rejected in the interest of a genuinely Biblical approach to the covenant. This is most refreshing since the neo-dispensationalism associated with the school of Meredith Kline has seemingly overwhelmed the American Calvinistic academic world. Similarly, van der Waal insists that the Mosaic covenant is simply one more expansion of the One Covenant, and that its provisions are transformed in Christ and still thoroughly applicable today.

The second half of the book contains one of the best statements of New Testament theology I have ever read. Too often, even Reformed exegetes take the New Testament as a series of “timeless truths,” instead of as God’s covenantal words spoken in a particular covenantal-historical situation, a situation of transition. The common view is that the Old Covenant was relevant for “then,” while the New Testament is for “now.” In fact, both sets of books were first addressed to “then,” and both are equally still relevant to “now.”

Particularly today, the vengeance aspect of the New Covenant is overlooked, since the school of Kline sees vengeance as postponed (compare the “kingdom postponement” of Scofield). Van der Waal does full justice to the revelation of covenant wrath upon the Temple and Jerusalem in A.D. 70, rightly seeing this event as the final close of the Old Covenant and as an integral part of the warp and woof of the New Covenant revelation.

Moreover, van der Waal rightly understands that as the Garden was the center and starting point of the land of Eden, and the Temple the center of Jerusalem, so the Church is the center and starting point of all renewed civilization. Thus, prophecy is centrally concerned with the Church, the sanctuary. Matthew 24 and the book of Revelation, he says, have to do with the opposition of true and false worship, not with politics. The “man of sin” of 2 Thessalonians 2 is an ecclesiastical phenomenon, not a political one.

The Covenantal Gospel deals with the transitional period between Pentecost and Holocaust in a thoroughly Reformed fashion, arguing for the cessation of tongues and other apostolic signs. Van der Waal calls for New Testament exegetes to take seriously the covenant-history-groundedness of the New Testament books, and to do better justice to the fact that all of them were written in a transitional period. In a valuable but too brief discussion, van der Waal argues that Romans 11 does not forecast a future conversion of “Israel,” but was fulfilled in the transitional period. Modern “Jews” are no different from anyone else covenantally. This certainly is an attractive exegetical position, and should caution postmillennialists against leaning too heavily on the Puritan approach to Romans 11.

Van der Waal closes by telling us that we need to “make the covenant into a fist.” (Sound tough?) He insists that we must sing all the psalms, including the imprecatory ones. We must preach the enthronement and crown rights of King Jesus, who extends grace but who also pours out wrath upon those who go too far. He calls on us to take the destruction of Jerusalem as a salutary warning for the Church of all times and in every specific place. “The snug and inane Christianity that no longer creates warriors in the true sense of the word, can only be healed by conversion to the true respect of the God of the covenant, who will not be mocked. Our God is a consuming fire” (p. 169).

One other quotation and I think you’ll agree that this is a book to buy and read: “Spineless Christianity has made itself ridiculous and is in retreat to the defense line. It is not realized that God’s wrath is invoked by all this, and that He more and more withholds the powerful prophetic guidance from His churches. The greyness of mediocrity has come up, a democratization that has more and more adapted the biblical truths to suit the man of the street. It is visible in the legion of Bible translations that become more and more dynamic, because thinking, too, is being `transliterated’ on a sociological level. A harmless Bible or a ventriloquized Bible is the end result of this development” (p. 168).

I strongly recommend this book. It would make a good guide for a serious Bible study. The translation is a bit rough in places, but only in a couple of places was I unsure of what was being said.

Having recommended it, I need to note briefly a few places where I disagree, for the record. On p. 118, van der Waal says that Jesus’ coming on the clouds is a coming to destroy Jerusalem. I believe on the basis of Daniel 7 and Revelation 4-5 that it was a coming to the Father, at the ascension, not a coming to the earth at all. Jesus told the Jews that they would see that He had come on the clouds — been enthroned — and the destruction of Jerusalem was one of the ways they would see (perceive) this fact. The destruction of Jerusalem was not a “coming,” but a revelation of His coming to the Father and what it entailed.

On p. 120, van der Waal relates Matthew 24:29-30, the fall of heavenly bodies, to the destruction of Jerusalem. The text says that these things happened after the destruction of Jerusalem, so that they actually refer to the shakedown of the nations of the world as the gospel went forth after A.D. 70. Here and other places, van der Waal does not seem to do enough justice to the theme that when the sanctuary-center is judged, the outlying world is also judged. Notice in Ezekiel that when Jerusalem was destroyed, then letters of judgment were also sent to all the nations.

In the same way, van der Waal sees the Beast of Revelation 13 as a Jewish figure associated with the Temple. I think he fails to see that the false Church (synagogue/Temple) is a harlot who fornicates with the Beast of paganism, and that this is a major theme in the Old Testament (see again the book of Ezekiel). In line with the Old Covenant, the Beast turns against the Harlot and devours her, only later to be destroyed himself. (Van der Waal wrote two commentaries on Revelation, one rather extensive, and perhaps it will be translated, or at least this portion of it, so that we can see the basis for his opinion at this point.)

Van der Waal sees the “man of sin” of 2 Thessalonians 2 as a “collective” reference to apostate Jewry. I think that the reference is first and foremost to the High Priest, who of course represented apostate Jewry.

These, though, are very minor reservations. This is one of the few books I have read in the area of Biblical theology that I can recommend with enthusiasm. Get it.

James Jordan is scholar-in-residence at Theopolis. This article originally appeared on Biblical Horizons