The Covenant of Works in Reformed Theology and an Alternative Covenantal Frame Provided by evangelical Calvinism

I have had a little interaction, recently, on Twitter, with Derek Rishmawy in regard to his affirmation of the Protestant Reformed Federal theology covenant of works. As such I am returning to this post I originally wrote up at least a couple of years ago, a post that offers a full explanation of the history and development of the covenant of works; and then offers an evangelical Calvinist alternative informed by none other than Karl Barth. This is also in response (but only in acknowledgement) to a forty page paper I read from David Gibson where he critiques the type of critique I offer up in my first paragraph following this one (which is informed by T.F. Torrance’s type of critique of Federal theology). Gibson argues that the three points I make in my following paragraph are weak and misunderstand Federal theology; his response isn’t directly to me, but to Torrance and Rolson in particular.

The Covenant of Works/Grace in classic Covenant Theology ultimately provides us with a God who 1) becomes shaped by Law as Grace, in relation to His creation (primarily the gem of His creation: humanity); 2) cannot efficaciously love His ‘elect’ people until the legal conditions of the Law are met; 3) and who ends up with a rupture in His subject (or person in the Son), as the Son’s jesuscreatorlife is shaped by the decrees in creation when He agrees (in the pactum salutis or Covenant of Redemption) to meet the conditions of the broken-Law by redeeming and purchasing the ‘elect’ humanity by incarnating (enfleshing), actively obeying (meriting), and dying on the cross.

I think these above stipulations and observations all represent theological problems that most Christians, by way of piety, would want to repudiate, because these observations about God in classic Covenant Theology do not actually end up cohering with the conception of God as love and grace that becomes so apparent in God’s first Word of original creation in Genesis 1, and His continuous exemplification of this in the manger of Christmas, and so forth.

Beyond trying to further engage with the inherent theological problems that I find plaguing classical Covenant Theology, for the rest of this expose, as it were, what I would like to do is attempt to substantiate my claims by simply quoting post Reformed orthodox scholar, par excellence, professor Richard Muller on what gives classical Covenant Theology its purported shape;  both in its etymology and synchronic historic development, and in its contemporary expression in our current situation. So, be prepared to read for about the next five to seven minutes or so, and then reflect upon what Muller articulates as the focal points of what constituted, and thus of what constitutes the particular and global realities of what makes classic Covenant Theology, classic Covenant Theology. [ps. The following is not for the faint of heart, take off your blog hat, and put on your paper reading hat, the following is made up of approx. 3600 words]

[G]iven these relationships between law and grace, the two covenants, and the problems of sin and salvation, it should not be surprising that a central issue addressed in the Reformed doctrine of the covenant of works was the issue of federal headship and, therefore, the parallels between the first and the second Adam, the federal heads of the covenants of works and of grace. It is at this point that the soteriological ground of the doctrine of the covenant of works is most clearly presented, particularly in terms of its relationship to the doctrine of Christ’s mediatorial headship and work of satisfaction.

mullerAdam, in the covenant of works, “stood as the head of mankind [caput totius generis humani],” in his person “representing” the entire human race. By the same token, as indicated by the Apostle in Romans 5:11-15, Christ as the antitype of Adam stands as the representative of humanity in the covenant of grace and the “surety” of fulfillment or substitute for mankind before the law of God, in effect, in fulfillment of the demands of the violated covenant of works. After all, the violation of the covenant of works abrogated the law as a covenant, not as the ultimate “rule of life.” It is both the permanence of the divine promise of fellowship and the stability of the divine law as the standard of holiness and righteousness and, therefore, as the basis for fellowship with the holy and righteous God, that relates the covenants to one another: “the law declares, that there is no admission for any to eternal life, but on the account of a perfect and absolutely complete righteousness; [and] also, that every sinner shall undergo the penalty of death, the dominion of which is eternal” unless the penalty of sin is paid and “the dominion of death … abolished.”

Drawing on the epistles to the Romans and the Galatians, Witsius argues the equivalency of the promises of the two covenants. Paul, he notes, “distinguishes the rightness of the law from the evangelical” while at the same time indicating that “life” is promised under both covenants. Concerning legal righteousness, Paul writes “that the man which doth these things shall live by them” (Rom. 10:5) and concerning evangelical righteousness, “the just shall live by faith” (Rom 1:17). Even so,

On both sides, the promise of life is the same, proposed in the very same words. For the apostle does not hint by the least expression, that one kind of life is promised by gospel, another by the law…. But the apostle places the whole difference, not in the thing promised by the law to the man that worketh, which he now receives by faith in Christ. But to what man thus working was it promised? to the sinner only? Was it not to man in his innocency? Was it not then when it might truly be said, If you continue to do well, you shall be the heir of that life upon that condition. Which could be said to none but to upright Adam. Was it not then, when the promise was actually made? For after the entrance of sin, there is not so much a promise, as a denunciation of wrath, and an intimation of a curse, proposing that as the condition for obtaining life, which is now impossible. I therefore conclude, that to Adam, in the covenant of works, was promised the same eternal life, to be obtained by the righteousness which is the law, of which believers are made partakers through Christ.

The identical point is made by Brakel with reference to the same texts.

Arguably, both theologians here manifest the central reason for the doctrine of a covenant of works and its fundamental relationship to the doctrines of justification by grace through faith and Christ’s satisfaction for sin: the issue is not to hammer home a legalistic view of life and salvation but precisely the opposite, while at the same time upholding the stability of divine law. There can be no salvation by works, but only by a means that excludes works—in short, through faith in Christ. Nonetheless, the law is not void. Indeed, the law remains the representation of divine goodness, holiness, and righteousness placed in the heart and mind of Adam even as he was created in the image of God. Given the fact of sin, such a law can no longer hold forth its original promise of fellowship with God, but it remains the condition of fellowship just as it remains the temporal indication of the goodness, holiness, and righteousness of God. The covenant of works takes on for the fallen Adam the function of the second or pedagogical use of the law—precisely the function of the Mosaic law understood as the legal covenant or covenant of works: “The Lord willed,” Brakel writes, that Adam “would now turn away from the broken covenant of works, and, being lost in himself, would put all hope in the seed of the woman, which was promised to him immediately thereafter.”

The covenant of works, then, was not violated and made void from the human side by the sin of Adam and Eve, rendering the promises of the covenant inaccessible to their posterity—but it was also, Witsius argues, abrogated from the divine side in the sense that God has clearly willed not to renew or recast the covenant of works for the sake of offering to fallen humanity a promise of life grounded in its own personal righteousness. In other words, God will not now, in the context of human sinfulness “prescribe a condition of obedience less perfect than that which he stipulated” in the original covenant of works. Nontheless, so far as the promise of eternal life is concerned, all of mankind remains subject to its “penal sanction”: thus, sin does not render void nor the divine abrogation of the covenant of works remove “the unchangeable truth” of God’s “immutable and indispensable justice.” Even so, Calvin had argued the “perpetual validity” of the law and had insisted that “the law has been divinely handed down to us to teach us perfect righteousness; there no other righteousness is taught than that which conforms to the requirements of God’s will.”

The divine abrogation of the covenant of works, then, does not abolish the promise of God or the condition of holiness and righteousness required for the fulfillment of the promise. And it is precisely because of this coordinate stability of promise and law that the covenant of grace becomes effective in Christ alone. When the Apostle Paul writes, “Do we then make void the law through faith? God forbid: yea, we establish the law,” he indicates both that “the covenant of grace does not abrogate, but supposes the abrogation of the covenant of works” and that

the covenant of grace is not [itself] the abolition, but rather the confirmation of the covenant of works, inasmuch as the Mediator has fulfilled all the conditions of that covenant, so that all believers may be justified and saved according to the covenant of works, to which satisfaction was made by the Mediator…. The very law of the covenant, which formerly gave up the human sinner to sin, when his condition is once changed by union with Christ the surety, does now, without any abolition, abrogation, or any other change whatever, absolve the man from the guilt and dominion of sin, and bestow on him that sanctification and glorification, which are gradually brought to perfection, which he shall obtain at the resurrection of the dead.

The stability of the law, guaranteed in the divine maintenance of the terms of the covenant of works, points not to a legalistic view of salvation but to the fullness of Christ’s work of sanctification and to the totally unmerited character of the salvation provided by grace through faith to believers. “Recognize,” writes Brakel, that “the Lord Jesus placed Himself under” the “same law Adam had … and thereby He merited redemption and adoption as children for the elect.”

The ultimate relationship of the covenant of works to the covenant of grace and, equally so, of Adam to Christ as the old and new federal heads of the humanity, is established and outlined by Witsius, Brakel, and virtually all of the major Reformed covenant theologians of the seventeenth century in their discussion of the “covenant of redemption” or pactum salutis between God the Father and God the Son. Here, also, as in the case of the covenant of works, we encounter a doctrinal construct, elicited according to the terms of the older Reformed hermeneutic, from the collation and exegetical analysis of a series of biblical passages. The doctrine itself probably originated with Cocceius, but its roots are most probably to be found in the earlier Reformed mediation on the trinitarian nature of the divine decrees. While not attempting to offer a discussion of the entire doctrine of the covenant of redemption, we can note here its function with respect to the two other covenants. In the first place, it is the eternal foundation of the covenant of grace, according to which Christ is established, in the depths of the Trinity, as the Redeemer, the new federal head of humanity, and the surety and sponsor of humanity in covenant: in short, the covenant of redemption is an “agreement between God and his elect. The covenant of grace thus also “presupposes” the covenant of redemption and “is founded upon it.”

In the second place, the covenant of redemption established the eternal remedy for the problem of sin and ensured the full manifestation and exercise of the divine righteousness and justice both in the covenant of works and beyond its abrogation. As Brakel comments, “The fact that God from eternity foreknew the fall, decreeing that He would permit it to occur, is not only confirmed by the doctrines of His omniscience and decrees, but also from the fact that God from eternity ordained a Redeemer for man, to deliver him from sin: the Lord Jesus Christ whom Peter calls the Lamb, “who was foreknown [voorgekend] before the foundation of the world. By the covenant of redemption, the Son binds himself to the work of salvation and, therefore, to the fulfillment of the condition of fellowship with God for the sake of God’s covenant people. Thus the promises, the conditions, and the penalties for failure to fulfill the conditions remain—but the conditions are met and the penalties satisfied in Christ. As eternally guaranteed by the covenant of redemption, “conditions are offered, to which eternal salvation is annexed; conditions not to be performed again by us, which might throw the mind into despondence; but by him, who would not part with his life, before he had truly said, “It is finished.”

After excoriating Thomas F. Torrance, Rolson, and Poole for naïvely deconstructing this kind (the above aforementioned by Muller) of classical Covenant theology through a ‘Barthian’ misunderstanding and caricature (of classical Covenant Theology, as described by Muller above); Muller concludes thusly:

[…] The purported legalism of the continuing covenant of works as presented in the demands of the law is nothing less than permanence of the original divine intention to ground the fellowship in the nature of God and in the imago Dei. Witsius and Brakel recognized in their debate with seventeenth-century Arminian and Socinian adversaries that as long as covenant refers to a relationship between God and human beings, law must belong to covenant as much as promise. They also understood—as we should perhaps recognize in the theological presuppositions of the contemporary critics of the doctrine—that the denial of the covenant of works, the attempt to deny the legal element of covenant in general (and, today, the attempt to pit the Reformers against their successors), represent not only an alternative view of the original relationship between God and human beings but also an alternative theory of Christ’s atonement and a theology that, at best, is less than traditionally Reformed.

The elements of the Reformed doctrine of the covenant of works that I have described here indicate the result of a process of doctrinal development in the Reformed tradition. As such, the language of the doctrine is certainly different from the language of the Reformers and even from that of earlier successors to the original Reformers such as Ursinus and Olevian or, indeed, in a slightly later time, William Perkins. Yet, the fundamental points of the doctrine, that the work of redemption must be understood both in terms of law and of grace, that human beings were created in and for fellowship with God under terms both of promise and of law, that Adam’s fall was a transgression of God’s law, that human inability after the Fall in no way removes the standard or the demands of the law, and that the gift of salvation through Christ’s satisfaction for sin both sets believers free from the law’s condemnation and upholds the laws demands, remain virtually identical. The free gift of grace in the one covenant respects the stability of law in the other, while the presence of law under different uses in both covenants echoes both the immutability of the divine nature and the constancy of the divine promises.[1]

Muller’s explication of the history, development, and contemporaneous reality of classical Covenant Theology is quite clear. As he develops this it becomes clear that for classical Covenant Theology, the touchstone for the subsequent redemptive-historical narrative development in the Old Testament, in particular, is Genesis 3; wherein ‘Law’ is elevated as locus classicus for interpreting God’s relation to tim-kellerhumanity in the imago Dei, and further, for exegeting how ‘Grace’ functions as an adjunct of ‘Law’ in the divine determination and decree.

Bringing this into application: In reference to my post on Timothy Keller’s book, Gospel Theology: Center Church, what bubbles up for me, and becomes pretty apparent (especially understanding the background of Keller’s theological education at Westminster Theological Seminary, where he also has taught as Adjunct Faculty), is that even if Keller is not a theological technician, such as Witsius & Brakel are in the history, or as Richard Muller, Carl Truemen, Scott Clark, et. al. are presently, he (Keller) is a practitioner, and I would suggest not a naïve one, as some would like to understandably suggest. Keller’s theology in general, and soteriology in particular, have an ‘informing theology’, as Walter Kaiser imbibes in another (and in his own biblical studies) context. And while Keller might not dot all of his “i’s” and cross all of his “t’s,” like Muller & co. do, he still has these “i’s” and “t’s” present and underwriting his practical theology (I think my post on him illustrates that to a “t”).

An alternative to all of the above, the alternative that we offer in our so called, Evangelical Calvinism, can be indicated by Karl Barth’s reification or recasting of Covenant Theology by starting the order of things not in Genesis 3, but in Genesis 1 as reinterpreted by John 1:1. The relation of God to His creation is ‘protologically’ grounded personally (not decretively) in His first and final Word of grace to be for us  barthglassesand with us (as the archetypal imago Dei & imago Christi in the original creation and apocalyptic re-creation) in and through His Self-determined (gracious) free choice to not be God without us, but only with us. Barth’s reordering of things, in this regard is captured well as he opines in (and more commonly as he applies this contour of thought throughout his theological oeuvre):

He [God] wills and posits the creature neither out of caprice nor necessity, but because He has loved it from eternity, because He wills to demonstrate His love for it, and because He wills, not to limit His glory by its existence and being, but to reveal and manifest it in His own co-existence with it. As the Creator He wills really to exist for His creature. That is why He gives it its own existence and being. That is also why there cannot follow from the creature’s own existence and being and immanent determination of its goal or purpose, or a claim to any right, meaning or dignity of existence and nature accruing to it except as a gift. That is why even the very existence and nature of the creature are the work of the grace of God.[2]

Barth sees the Covenant [of Grace], as do I, as the ‘internal basis for creation’ and ‘creation as the external basis of the covenant’[3]; Michael Allen writes:

[…] Faithful to his doctrine of election, he [Barth] considers creation within the bounds of his ‘Christological concentration’. The next paragraph (§41) considers the link between creation and covenant, noting that they are intertwined with ‘creation as the external basis of the covenant’ and ‘covenant as the internal basis for creation’….[4]

I will have to leave this kind of suggestive alternative for later (and simply refer you to other posts on my blog where I have engaged with the ‘alternative’ further, and to our edited book: Evangelical Calvinism: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church).

Conclusion

This paper (of sorts) has covered a lot of ground (about 3,500 words of ground). I started this “paper” out with a few points of theological critique in regard to classical Covenant Theology and its implications. I then turned to Richard Muller, and quoted him at length for the purposes of illustrating how I might have come to my conclusions which are based upon the kind of historic classical Covenant Theology that Muller & co. articulates, embraces and defends. I then turned this depiction of classical Covenant Theology towards the pastoral theology of Timothy Keller as he has articulated it in his book Gospel Theology; and I included, therein, that Keller, while not a technician of classical Covenant Theology, is in fact a practitioner of classical Covenant Theology in its most basic and thematic expression. After all of this, I offered an alternative to classical Covenant Theology by alerting the reader to Evangelical Calvinism’s ‘informing theology’ provided by Karl Barth (and I would add here, Thomas F. Torrance). And I have had to leave it here, because of space and time restraints.

My hope is that, at the least, even if you disagree with my conclusions and the way forward in regard to engaging with Covenant Theology, that you will at least arrive at the one conclusion; and that is that classical Covenant Theology (made up as it is of the covenant of works, grace, and redemption, respectively) elevates ‘Law’ as the touchstone—even if one wants to argue is couched in ‘Grace’—for how Covenant Theology believes that God relates to humanity, even in His ‘dearly beloved Son’. If Grace is contingent upon Law and Law is contingent upon Grace, then it becomes very hard to conceive of a way to disentangle them as distinct things or realities; indeed, Muller and the classical Reformed position does not want to do so. And so grace is really law, and law is really grace. And I must leave it here.


[1] [emboldening mine] Richard A. Muller, After Calvin: Studies in the Development of a Theological Tradition (Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 185-89.

[2] Karl Barth, CD III/1.95

[3] See R. Michael Allen, Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics: An Introduction and Reader (New York: T&T Clark International, 2012), 115 (nook edition, chapt. 8, first page).

[4] Ibid.

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