SOME THOUGHTS ON COVENANT THEOLOGY
AND ON JUSTIFICATION #1
Rowland S. Ward
The Presbyterian Benner – March 2002
The origins of the doctrine of the Adamic covenant
In the early years the Reformation the relationship of God to Adam was not developed in terms of the covenant idea. It was recognised that through Adam sin and death had entered the world and that death had passed on all men since all had sinned (Romans 5:12). However, this was not understood at first to have involved a breaking of a pre-fall covenant in Eden but to have been a natural transmission to Adam’s posterity. The period following the fall of man was viewed as a period in which God related to his people through a covenant of grace, a covenant in germ in Genesis 3:15, and greatly elaborated in the covenant with Abraham which is fulfilled in Christ. The law given to Israel through Moses some 400 years after Abraham, was viewed as a particular administration of the covenant of grace.
The authors of the great Heidelberg Catechism (1562), Zachary Ursinus (1534-83) and Caspar Olevianus (1536-87) were important in the development of covenant thinking. As early as 1562 Ursinus spoke of a ‘covenant of nature’ in reference to the law of nature including the moral law given at creation. Olevianus also speaks of a ‘covenant of creation’ broken in Eden and renewed as a ‘legal covenant’ to Israel at Sinai. The gifted young Englishman Dudley Fenner (ca.1558-87), employs the expression a ‘covenant of works’ to describe the covenant with Israel. However, it is only in the 1590s that the covenant of works with Adam attains real clarity in Reformed thought. The Scotsman Robert Rollock was a pioneer in 1597.
The Adamic covenant is not a revolutionary departure from the views of early Reformers such as Calvin, since Christ’s work as the Last Adam is clearly a covenantal work. Jesus himself refers to ‘the new covenant in my blood’, and passages such as Romans 5:12ff, and 1 Corinthians 15:22, 44-49 draw parallels between Adam and Christ. It was thus an easy and logical step to recognise the First Adam as also standing in a covenantal relationship with God. Thus the covenant requiring obedience which was broken by Adam was seen as fulfilled by Jesus Christ, who obtained salvation for his people by his perfect obedience to the Father. The covenant with Israel at Sinai was seen as an administration of the covenant of grace, although not without aspects that illustrated the principle of inheritance of God’s blessing through obedience.
The nature of the Adamic covenant
The very idea of a covenant suggests an agreement involving mutual faithfulness to the stated obligations, and for humanity, the lesser party, to receive a blessing of great richness in which the world given to his care would share, a blessing not otherwise open to him. One can look at the relationship from different angles. As the original relationship, to be fulfilled through use of the endowments given him, it may be called the covenant of creation or of nature. Being made with Adam before sin it may be called the covenant of innocence. As made between parties who were friends it may be called the covenant of friendship or of love. The blessing in view may lead us to call it a covenant of life, while the requirement of obedience to God suggests the term legal covenant or covenant of law or of works. Consideration of the tender love and generosity God showed may suggest the term covenant of favour. A neutral term would be Adamic covenant.
The terminology is not the issue but the distinctive significance of the Adamic covenant, particularly that eternal life could only be had in the way of obedience. It is unhelpful and unwise in my opinion to speak of the pre-fall covenant as one of grace, since grace has its proper definition only in the context of human demerit. We should reserve that term to the post-fall reality of redemptive love.
In Protestant theology ‘covenant of works’ has been the common expression for the pre-fall covenant, and is contrasted with the covenant of grace instituted after the entry of sin. Since the moment of Adam’s disobedience salvation by works is impossible to us; we are shut up to reliance on another, even Jesus Christ, the Last Adam. His obedience is the ground of our righteousness before God. A living faith lays hold of Christ who has secured deliverance from condemnation, and an everlasting righteousness which is reckoned to the account of every believer.
The significance of the Adamic covenant
The concept of the covenant with Adam is not academic but highly significant.
1. It reflects the intimate bond of love between God and humanity. Emphasis on the stipulations by God and the obligations on humanity must not lead us to caricature the covenant as a mere commercial contract. This would be a gross distortion. God is love. He cannot help but love the innocent creature made in his likeness.
2. The covenant with Adam opens the way through God’s goodness for humanity’s full potential to be realised because it provides the means by which God may crown the creature made in his image with glory and honour such as he could never attain in any other way. After all, no creature can claim rights over against his Creator as if he could earn blessings. However, God can promise a rich inheritance by his covenant, and he does so.
3. God’s covenant relationship with creation and particularly with humanity assures us of a predictable world and a consistency in God’s relationship with it. The power of God as the Creator and his authority as Governor of all things might suggest insecurity, if there was no covenant relationship.
4. The covenant also more adequately accounts for the spread of sin to Adam’s descendants than natural transmission, for it operates on the principle of representative or federal headship and imputation, as is also the case with Christ and believers. ‘For just as by one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so also by the obedience of one man the many will be made righteous’ (Rom 5:19).
The covenant with Adam is implicit in the fundamentals of historic Christianity, but is explicit most adequately in reformed theology. While it is not explicit in the 16th century Reformed creeds it is largely implied in them. It is expressed in the Irish Articles composed by Archbishop Ussher in 1615, and is thoroughly elaborated in the Westminster Confession (1646). The Savoy Declaration (1658) of the Independents and the London Confession (1689) of the Baptists only slightly modify Westminster’s language. It also found a place in the Helvetic Consensus (1675), although for other reasons this Creed did not have the general acceptance of those already mentioned. It is referred to in the Articles of the Dutch Classes of Walcheren (Zeeland) in 1693, while an interesting statement of the doctrine is found in the Welsh Calvinistic Methodist Confession of 1823. These statements each reflect the level of consensus at the time of their composition, and there is room for varieties within the species of covenant theology to exist legitimately. No doubt it is proper to avoid over-elaboration where Scripture is not explicit. However, the danger in our time is more likely to be an under-emphasis than anything else.