Deciphering Covenant Theology (Pt.5)

Part Four

The Covenant of Works (2)

According to covenant theologians the Covenant of Works was what Adam and Eve were under in the Garden of Eden. As it was a covenant of “works” this means that they were under obligation to maintain “perfect obedience” (Witsius, The Economy of the Covenants Between God and Man, I. 158; cf. Robertson, The Christ of the Covenants, 85). For the CT this is necessary because it is to be paralleled by Christ’s perfect obedience; an obedience which as “active obedience” is accrued to us alongside of Christ’s work on the cross.

In my view the biblical doctrine of the atonement does not require a doctrine of Christ’s “active obedience.” The fact of the matter is that the Bible does not say that Christ’s perfect life atones in any way for either Adam’s sin or for our failure to live righteously. Furthermore, I do not see how there could be a substitutionary aspect to Christ’s “active obedience.” I do admit that there may well be a representative aspect, but this is not the same thing.

The question that comes up is whether the Covenant of Works is deemed to be in place today or whether it was abolished. Certainly, if what is written above about the importance and value of Christ’s “active obedience,” from the CT point of view it would seem a “good and necessary consequence” for this “covenant” to be in force still. As well as this, if it is claimed the Covenant of Works has been removed then that would leave unsaved men under no covenant at all in this approach. This would be problematic because CT’s conflate the requirements of the Covenant of Works with the Law, and CT’s represent unbelievers as law-breakers; or in the words of Cornelius Van Til “covenant-breakers.”

And indeed, the writings of CT’s reveal that they hold this covenant to indeed be in force. Belcher says

“When Adam broke the covenant, the probationary test came to an end, but the obligation to perfectly fulfill the terms of the covenant remained…Human beings are held accountable to God and subject to death on the basis of the terms of the original covenant…The descendants of Adam are held accountable by God for what Adam did because of the special relationship that Adam had as a representative of his descendants in the Covenant of Works.” – The Fulfillment of the Promises of God, 33.

Notice here the role of Adam as our representative. That is the basis of our “special relationship” to Adam (although some CT’s believe we have a seminal link to Adam which is important). This is the teaching called “Federalism” which I shall go into in a later post. But federalism needs the Covenant of Works (and the Covenant of Grace).

Still, there is a sense in which the Covenant of Works has been abrogated. Herman Witsius says that the Covenant of Works does not now operate as a means to obtain eternal life as it did in Paradise (Witsius I. 158-159). This is important for non-covenant theologians to grasp because I have come across some misunderstanding here. One example is the book Forsaking Israel, 182 n. 29, where a short quotation of Witsius implies that he thought that the Covenant of Works is not ongoing. This misreads Witsius as a reading of the above references would show (overall the treatment of the Covenant of Works in this book is very good, although it does appear to make the Covenant of Works the most “dominant” of the three theological covenants, which is not the case – Ibid, 176ff.).

As for the biblical merits of the Covenant of Works it has to be said that they are slim. The arguments that are constructed for it out of Scripture and reason are all propounded on the basis of eisegesis. That is to say, the texts of Scripture are not being expounded to see what they say in the places where they say it, but are being located and dug-out of their contexts (which are often clearly pointing to biblical covenants like the Mosaic and the Davidic) and are being seconded to function in a way that is foreign to their original contexts. One well-known example is Hosea 6:7. To quote from The Words of the Covenant: Old Testament Expectation,

“As far as the famous covenant passage in Hosea 6:7 is concerned I have already addressed the
issue in chapter seven of this work. In summary, (a) the standard interpretation of covenant and new
covenant theologians that the prophet is referring to the biblical Adam and some covenant in Eden is both question-begging and indeterminate. Even if Hosea was speaking of such a covenant, the impossibility of locating the terms of the oath, make it a vain effort to follow this view. (b) It is the opinion of many that the town of Adam (Josh. 3:16) is being referred to. This would require some historical defection at Adam to which Hosea is alluding. In that case the covenant he speaks of is the Mosaic covenant (as per Hos. 8:1). (c) The third explanation is to translate adam as “dirt” and interpret the prophet as saying that the people have treated the (Mosaic) covenant like dirt. (d) The fourth view translates the Hebrew phrase as “like men” and interprets it as referring to the sinful human bent to transgress God’s Law. Hence, in three of the four views the identity of the covenant in Hosea 6:7 is the Mosaic covenant, or at least its universal aspects (which predate it). The notion that it looks back to a nebulous covenant in Eden seems as unnecessary as it is indeterminable and fruitless.” (235-236).

I also included a footnote which is worth reproducing here:

“Here in Hosea [berit] “covenant” appears only for the second time. In 2:20 [in the context of marriage] the term denoted the future universal covenant. In the present passage the Mosaic covenant is clearly at issue.” – Douglas Stuart, Hosea – Jonah, 111.

Here again we have an example of deductive reasoning being smuggled in as exegesis.

4 thoughts on “Deciphering Covenant Theology (Pt.5)”

  1. Excellent series, Dr. Henebury. A few years back I read David A. Weir’s book, “The Origins of the Federal Theology in Sixteenth-Century Reformation Thought,” and was struck by what he said with respect to the relationship between the covenant of works and the covenant of grace in Reformed thought.

    “The postlapsarian covenant of grace is really therefore the prelapsarian covenant of works in disguise, but a new Adam (Christ) was needed to keep the covenant which God had established with man at the beginning of the world. Once the prelapsarian covenant of works is established, it can never be broken.”
    It’s easy to see how this then leads to the necessity of the active obedience of Christ within the CT system.

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