The Presbyterian Banner, October 2002.
Covenant theology in outline
The Bible is a covenant book, and its two parts could be better described as the Old Covenant and the New Covenant. The intended contrast is between the covenant with Moses at Sinai and the covenant fulfilled in Jesus Christ 1500 years later, which the old covenant foreshadowed. However, there are other covenant arrangements in the Bible to be considered as well.
Covenant theology understands that God’s relationship with humanity always involved a personal, loving, covenant bond, and that God’s intention in creation was the rich blessing of the creature he had made in his image. That blessing would come by way of obedience to God’s word, although the blessing would be of grace, not wages for work done. The covenant with the First Adam (generally called, if not entirely happily, the covenant of works) was broken, affecting not only Adam but those descending from him in the ordinary way, since humanity forms not merely a physical unity but a spiritual and ethical one also. Adam transmitted a corrupted nature but his sin was also imputed to his posterity. It was therefore necessary that the obligations of the covenant be met by another if God’s purpose for humanity was to be realised. The suitable substitute was Jesus Christ, the Son of God and the Last Adam. This was in accordance with the agreement or pact among the members of the Trinity (cf. John 6:37-40;17:1ff), usually called the covenant of redemption. It is the foundation of the covenant of grace made with believers by which, through faith in Christ, they are received back into God’s favour – not simply as if they had never sinned but as if they had fully obeyed, as indeed, in Christ they have.
This covenant of grace is God’s doing but on man’s part it calls for the response of repentance and faith issuing in obedience. Nevertheless, these requirements on man’s part are not strictly conditions in the sense of things supplied by man to obtain God’s blessing as a kind of business contract. Since we are dead in sin we cannot supply them anyway. Rather, they are themselves blessings of the covenant given to the elect on the basis of the work of Christ. The ground of salvation is thus Jesus Christ, God’s Son, the obedient Servant, crucified Saviour and risen Lord. Faith in this Christ is the instrumental cause of salvation, the means of receiving it; and good works are fruits of the new relationship, not means of establishing it.
The unfolding of God’s gracious covenant is progressive. Covenant theology at its best is keen to pay attention to this historical unfolding of God’s purposes. The covenant of grace was given in promise to Adam immediately after he sinned (Gen 3:15), was continued through Noah (Gen 6:18; 9:1-17) and formalised with Abraham in the covenant of circumcision (Gen 17). All believers are beneficiaries of the covenant with Abraham (Gal 3:7), and the special administration adopted in the covenant with Moses (Ex 19), did not annul the Abrahamic covenant or alter its gracious character (Gal 3:17ff). The covenant with David to establish his throne for ever (2 Sam 7:12) is also important, as is the promise of a new covenant made in Jeremiah’s time (Jer 31 & 33). Then Christ came in accordance with the everlasting covenant and ratified the new covenant in his blood (Luke 22:20), which brought to fulfilment the ancient promises.
The relationship of Adam and Christ is often poorly perceived today. Under pressure from currently popular scientific world-views, the account of Adam and Eve is regarded as a fictional story without historical basis, or else something a bit difficult to discuss for fear of embarrassment. On the other hand, many conservative Christians have a very exaggerated view of the original state of creation. They read the early narratives as if it they were designed to counter 21st century scientific atheists rather than to provide an historical prelude to God’s covenant with Moses in the 15th century BC. The Bible is not an encyclopaedia of the sciences but a distinctly covenant book to teach us the ways of God with humanity. The creation covenant or the covenant of works (or whatever we choose to call it) is a very clear indication that Adam’s perfection was not an absolute perfection. He did not yet possess eternal life. He was made as God intended and free from moral evil, but there was glory and honour in prospect too (cf. 1 Cor 15:44ff).
Let us now look at our subject theologically.
1. Kinds of covenants
Agreements in human society which enable close relationship and the discharge of mutual obligations may be called covenants. Perhaps we may divide these agreements into two kinds, some more suitably called contracts and the others covenants. Contracts may imply a certain degree of mistrust and may not imply friendship between the parties. Covenants can be thought of as agreements between friends who love each other. Thus, marriage is best described as a covenant rather than a contract. Doing so does not deny the obligation in the pledges made, but suggests a more adequate context for understanding the relationship as one of personal loving commitment.
Covenant is a term that also may be used to describe the relationship between God and his creation. It is used of God’s unconditional promise to Noah, and to the birds, livestock and wild animals with him in the ark, in the covenant of the rainbow (Genesis 9:12ff). It is also used of God’s commitment to the fixed order of day and night established at creation (Jeremiah 33:20ff. cf. 31:35). It is more commonly used of God’s commitments to people, and calls for appropriate response on their part. The term becomes one of the most significant words in the language of the Old Testament. The climax of a ‘new covenant’ is reached in Jesus. Indeed, the very terms Old Testament and New Testament are more accurately translated Old Covenant and New Covenant. The Bible is unique is this since other religious traditions do not speak of God making covenant with his creatures.
2. The Trinity and Humanity
God does not exist in a vacuum eternally alone. Love, fellowship and faithfulness are at the heart of God, for he eternally exists in a communion of love as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Made in his image, humans therefore are made to express their lives in love, fellowship and faithfulness to God and their fellow image-bearers. Such is the Christian confession.
Religions drawing from the Bible yet rejecting the Trinity have no consistently logical basis for these qualities of love, fellowship and faithfulness since, on their view, they are not reflections of what is true of God. For they will admit that God is not dependent on his creation. Creation is not eternal. Now if God has no eternal relationship with another, no one outside of creation to love, then love, fellowship and faithfulness cannot be among his essential attributes, and to be like God is to have a life without them. Hence, vital Christianity has always had an instinctive recognition of the Triune God, whatever difficulties in formal expression of the doctrine. Thus also she has always recognised the significance of human personality as reflecting the ultimate reality in God himself.
The Bible speaks of the three persons of the Trinity in terms of love and fellowship and faithfulness. In God himself there is an ordered relationship, a personal commitment of love, a covenant bond between the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Scripture assures us that this relationship issues also in binding agreements between the Father, the Son and the Spirit. Jesus speaks of an agreement with the Father in accord with which he has come into the world (John 6:37ff cf. Psalm 40:7-8, Hebrews 10:5ff). He also speaks of the Holy Spirit who is sent from the Father and the Son as a consequence of Son’s atoning work with a view to rendering it effective in the lives of those whom the Father gave him (John 16:7ff). All that he said and did reflected his undertaking with the Father (John 5:36; 17:4). The Son was ever in a loving relationship with the Father, but he also entered into binding undertakings with him. You have the familial but you also have the legal in what for substance is a covenant relationship, although the actual term is not used.
3. God’s covenant with creation
If we put the question, ‘At what point does God begin the covenant relationship with his creatures?’ we could answer in the following way:
When the first world is to be cleansed by a Flood so as to begin anew in Noah, God promises that he will ‘confirm’ his covenant with Noah (Genesis 6:18). The Hebrew term [heqim] in this context is that for continuing a relationship not commencing a new one.1 So there was already a covenant before Noah. When did that covenant begin?
(1) That covenant began with creation for, in the aftermath of Noah’s Flood, the words of blessing at creation (Genesis 1:28) are repeated (Genesis 9:1-7). By the judgment of the Flood God has given an illustration of what sin brings, and has begun again with Noah, a kind of second Adam, on a new and cleansed earth like that which had emerged from the waters in creation (Genesis 1:2ff). Hence the original promise in creation is repeated, and is described specifically as a covenant.
(2) To the same effect is Jeremiah’s reference to God’s ‘covenant for day and night’ (33:20ff). This passage refers back beyond Genesis 9:8 to Genesis 1 and God’s blessing of his good creation, as Jeremiah 31:35 makes clear. Thus we see God’s covenant commitment at the very beginning of creation.
(3) God has a plan for his creation, he is committed to it and he is its Ruler. Covenant in the sense of committed relationship applies to creation as such, and it comes to a specially focussed expression in the case of humanity.
We must not think of creation in the beginning as a natural order to which is added a supernatural order subsequently so that man can relate to God. A nature/grace dualism is not to be thought of. Rather, all creation is in a dependent relationship to God as its Sovereign, King and Lord. This is the same as saying creation as such is in a covenant relationship since all creation is to live in accordance with the charter given. For humanity, all of life is fundamentally religious because all is lived before the face of God, either obediently in his service or disobediently in the service of an idol.
There is an absolute difference between the Creator and the creation. God is its Originator and Ruler, and it is accountable to him. God administers his rule by way of covenant. As God was not under any obligation to create, and his decision to do so was an absolutely free one, we can speak of a voluntary condescension on God’s part. Many older writers, following a view suggested by the Westminster Confession (1646), refer God’s voluntary condescension to the act of entering into a covenant with humanity post-creation. This approach could imply humanity was created in God’s image but not in covenant, and that God could have withheld his covenant blessing from the creature. I think this would be a somewhat speculative construction that does not mesh well with a careful assessment of Scripture. It risks thinking in terms of a dualism unwarranted by Scripture.
4. Humanity’s unique position
Humans are created in the image and likeness of God, both male and female. In the world of Moses’ time the word ‘image’ can refer to a statue which represented the one imaged. It can also refer to the king as the adopted son of a god fulfilling the role of representing the god in a portion of his kingdom. Genesis shows that the humans are God’s in fact vice-regents of a sort2, called to represent God and to rule over his creation and subdue it to bring out its full potential. The first man is thus correctly recognised as the son of God (Luke 3:38), not his slave. Further, all humans are recognised as bearing God’s image, not just the rulers or the nobility. The image or likeness (the terms appear to be interchangeable) is not some spiritual part of man only, but his totality. Note the way Jesus is described as the express image of the invisible God (Hebrew 1:3).
The unique relationship with God involved in being God’s image, finds expression in the blessing in Genesis 1:28. The ordinance of work and rest provides for humanity’s proper relationship to the creation and to the Creator. Labour in God’s creation is a blessing not a necessary evil, and the day of rest is a blessing also (Genesis 1:28; 2:3), being made for man (Mark 2:27). Labour has a purpose, and creation has a goal. The seventh day shows that work is not an end in itself, but has its proper place when it is consecrated to God as we subdue the earth in his name. The seventh day represents the goal of history when humanity’s work is done and God’s rest is entered.3
5. Adam’s limitations
Creatures other than man are made of the dust of the ground (Genesis 1:24; 3:19) and have the breath of life (7:22) so that they are living beings (1.20; 9:10) as he is. The description in Genesis 2 of the making of the human does highlight the unique position of the man. Still, being from the earth he remains dependent on it. He needs and receives food as surely as fresh air. He needs and receives daylight for labour and night for sleep. He needs and receives a place of sanctuary, where he may worship and obey the LORD so that he may fulfil his task properly in the world beyond the garden with all its rich potential (2:8-15).4 He needs and receives direction for his life (2:16-17). He needs and receives a woman as a companion and covenant partner (2:18-25). The two become one and the race is multiplied. All these are rich blessings, but these blessings also speak of limitations, of that which is temporary in contrast to the promise of eternal life.
* The body of dust is capable of dissolution, unlike the incorruptible body of future glory, so in the final kingdom of God the perishable must be supplanted by the imperishable (1 Corinthians 15:50).
* The need for food will not exist in God’s ultimate order (1 Corinthians 6:13).
* The regularity of six days of work and one of rest will be superseded when humans enter God’s eternal rest that is creation’s goal.
* In the promised glory the possibility of disobedience, sin and death will not be present.
* Nor will there be marriage or procreation (Matthew 22:30).
Adam is at the beginning of a history with obedience to be given and a reward to be gained. What is natural is first, only later the spiritual (1 Corinthians 15:46-47). We must not idealise conditions in the world before sin. The state of innocence in paradise is far surpassed by the state of glory in the new Jerusalem. Put another way, we can say there was an eschatology before there was sin, that is, a glorious destiny was in view of which the tree of life in Genesis 2 was also a token. Creation at the beginning was not like it will be in the end, when it will be richer and more enduring.
6. God and the righteous Adam
The first Adam was created innocent and holy, in the image of God, with the law of God written on his heart, and therefore God delighted in him and loved him, and the creature likewise delighted in God. Likeness is the basis of fellowship and love. God cannot help loving such a creature just as he cannot but delight in himself. God wants that creature to be a close confident, a friend, a lover. Once he had determined to create such a creature he could not but desire to share his riches with him. God’s purpose with the man was always that there be a committed relationship of love. This kind of relationship is not something incidental or peripheral.
The covenant is the means by which God relates to his creation. The category of love is fundamental but so is the category of law. These categories are not mutually exclusive but complementary. Jesus as God’s Son speaks of the mutual love between himself and the Father at the same time as he speaks of obedience to the Father’s will. It is not suitable to describe the original relationship of God and Adam as one of love without law nor can it be described properly simply in contract terms. We do not make the separation in a marriage covenant, still less may we in the relationship with God. There are specific contract terms, and if there are blessings in Genesis 1, there is a curse threatened in Genesis 2. Yet the relationship is not and cannot be a mere formal and legal one. Adam had personal communion in righteousness with God from the beginning, and he was to be obedient in the covenant relationship.
The covenant relationship at creation is expressed in a highly focussed form in a specific arrangement with Adam described in Genesis 2:16-17. In this arrangement the common idea is present of a covenant as an agreement involving mutual faithfulness to the stated obligations, and for the lesser party (man), to receive a blessing of great richness from the greater party (God). It is true that the promise is not explicit in these verses, but the threat of death for disobedience implies the promise of life for obedience, and several features already noted in the context say the same. These include the blessing of humanity at creation (Gen 1:28), the blessing of the seventh day as representing creation’s goal, and the tree of life in the garden. One could add to them the remarkable use of the term LORD God (20 times) in Genesis 2/3. This is used only 16 times elsewhere in the Old Testament. The emphasis of the name is that the Creator (God) is also covenant partner of his people (LORD).5
One can look at the relationship from different angles. As the original relationship it may be called the covenant of creation. As it was to be fulfilled by man in the strength with which he is endowed it may be called the covenant 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. 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, covenant of obedience or covenant of works. Consideration of the tender love and generosity God showed may suggest the term covenant of favour. A more neutral term could be Adamic covenant.
I remain mindful of the problems of terminology, but the terminology is not the issue. The distinctive significance of the Adamic covenant is the issue, and it must be seen as one requiring obedience to the covenant terms as the principle required in order to the blessing. In Protestant theology covenant of works has been the common expression and is contrasted with the covenant of grace instituted after the entry of sin. The covenant of grace is not a separate covenant so much as that development necessitated by the fact that God, confronted by sin, does not abandon his covenanted commitment to his creation but relates to it redemptively.
7. God’s direction to Adam
Although the creature was very good, that is, just as God intended, it was possible for Adam to turn aside from his holy state. Life and death were set before him, blessings and curses, as we have seen. The other class of moral beings of which we have some knowledge, the angels, were in the same position too. However, they were not created as a race but as individuals. In their testing some fell and some stood firm (2 Peter 2:4). This suggests that a creature with a moral nature must freely say its ‘Amen’ to God if it is to be confirmed in its relationship to him. Put another way, we may reverently say that, so far as we are aware, God could not create a moral creature free from the possibility of disobedience. God is motivated by love: ‘God is love’ (1 John 4:6). The creature made in God’s image in turn responds to God not through force but in love and freely. But if the creature is free the possibility of disobedience exists.
How can humans be brought to a position where the possibility of disobedience no longer exists? Those who are required to obey God perfectly anyway, can never bring God under obligation. In this light, when the creature has done everything, he has, as it were, earned his keep but he has not put God in his debt. A long course of obedience would still leave the creature with the possibility of disobedience, so ultimate security and bliss could never be certain.
Now if God as the supreme Lover desires the best for the one he loves, an intimate and lasting friendship crowned with all the blessings he can bestow, he could grant a reward of eternal fellowship as a consequence of obedience to the covenant terms. For although we grant that man can never stand before God in his own merit as if he has acquired rights, he can stand before God as an obedient covenant son and claim the reward God promised when he bound himself to the man in covenant.
Suppose a father says to his son that although he is obliged to be obedient to him he will give him a special benefit if he is careful to be good during the holidays, has he done something unjust? He has not promised something as of right as a reward, but he has promised a reward in terms of a covenant. Has he acted in an arbitrary way? No, for a father loves his son and wants the fullest blessing for him. Just so, the Heavenly Father wants his son, made in his image, to have the fullest blessing. If the desire of the Father to bless his son is complemented by the son’s desire to please his father, then the covenant obedience is crowned by the promised blessing.
God love was met by Adam’s rebellion, and in him we also are condemned. But God remained committed to his purposes in creation. In his Son, the Last Adam, Jesus, he provided a substitute who fulfilled all righteousness and endured the curse due to us for our sin. In him we are freed from condemnation; in him we are made the righteousness of God; in him we can fulfil our calling in every area of life; in him we know the purposes of creation will be realised in the goal of that blessed rest with God. Christians have the sure promise of glory in a world that is the home of righteousness, serving God with joy and gladness for ever.
1 W.J.Dumbrell, Covenant and Creation (Carlisle: Paternoster, 1984) 25-26 offers a succinct case for this position.
2 More accurately one could use the term vice-gerent (vice-manager/ruler).
3 Karl Barth has at least this point right when he states: ‘the goal of creation, and at the same time the beginning of all that follows, is the event of God’s Sabbath freedom, Sabbath rest and Sabbath joy, in which man, too, has been summoned to participate.’ – Church Dogmatics III/1 (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1958) 98.
4 The fitting translation in 2:15 is ‘to worship and to obey’ rather than ‘to work and to keep it’. The standard Hebrew text reads ‘to work her and take care of her’ and the ‘her’ cannot be the garden since that is a masculine word. However, some Hebrew manuscripts lack the dot (mappiq) in the last letter and that makes the translation infinitive – ‘to work and to take care’ [See U. Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Genesis (Jerusalem: The Magnes Press, 1961) 122-123]. The usage of the two words for priestly duties – ‘to worship and to obey’ – is recognized by commentators such as Gordon Wenham although its significance is not always followed through adequately.
5 See the discussion in Gordon J. Wenham, Word Biblical Commentary 1: Genesis 1-15 (Waco: Word Books, 1987) 56-57. Note that neither the serpent nor the woman use this name in Genesis 3:1-5 when God’s faithfulness is being questioned.