Skip to content

The Importance of the Covenant of Works

Why is the history of the covenant of works an important topic of study? To answer this question, we should first briefly define the doctrine and, second, rehearse its origins, development, and reception. We will then be able to reflect on why the history of the covenant of works is worthy of our study. The simplest definition of a covenant comes from the Children’s Catechism, which defines a covenant as an agreement between two or more people.

In this case, the covenant of works is God’s agreement with Adam that he would grant him eternal life on the condition of his obedience to his commands: to fill the earth and subdue it (Gen. 1:28), and not to eat from the tree of knowledge (Gen. 2:16-17). Obedience would bring great blessing, but disobedience would bring death for Adam and his offspring. So, then, how does the history of this doctrine unfold?

The Doctrine’s History

As early as the inter-testamental period, Jewish extra-canonical books such as Ecclesiasticus explains that when God gave Adam the command not to eat from the tree of knowledge that he entered into a covenant with man: “All living beings become old like a garment, for the covenant from of old is, ‘You must surely die!” (Eccl. 14:17, RSV; cf. Gen. 2:16-17). This was an important piece of the puzzle for St. Augustine which caused him to conclude that God and Adam were in a covenant. Other patristic theologians such as Jerome translated Hosea 6:7 in his well-known Vulgate as, “But they like Adam transgressed the covenant.” This means that by the sixteenth century, the idea of an Adamic covenant was a common, evident by the fact that Roman Catholic and Protestant theologians alike advocated the doctrine.

Advocates regularly profess that the covenant of works was about God’s love for Adam and, conversely, Adam’s love for God. Click To TweetTheologians at the Council of Trent spoke of the first covenant that the Lord made with Adam; another Roman Catholic theologian, Ambrogio Catharinus, argued that in the Adamic covenant God imputed Adam’s sin to his offspring. Similarly, Protestants such as Ulrich Zwingli explained that God and Adam were in covenant; John Calvin maintained that all of God’s covenants had sacramental signs; he tellingly notes that the tree of life was a sacramental sign of life, which implies that God and Adam were in covenant. Other sixteenth-century Reformed theologians such as Zacharias Ursinus, William Perkins, and Robert Rollock, echoed these themes, and the doctrine of the covenant of works took shape. The doctrine was not a uniquely Reformed or Protestant phenomenon but had catholic roots.

In the seventeenth century the doctrine continued to spread with advocates in England and continental Europe. It was first codified in the Irish Articles (1615), written by James Ussher, the Archbishop of Armagh, which set the stage for its incorporation into the well-known Westminster Standards (1648). But as common and accepted as the covenant of works was, by the beginning of the eighteenth century there was a shift in the perceived importance of the doctrine.

The Doctrine’s Decline

There were two contributing factors to the doctrine’s decline. First, fatigued by theological disagreement, religious warfare and violence, theologians sought to reduce confessional commitments to foster greater ecumenical cooperation, and thus the covenant of works was one of the doctrines thrown overboard in an effort to appease the seas of controversy. Second, a number of theologians set aside Reformation principles of biblical interpretation. Advocates of the covenant of works were fully aware that the term covenant did not appear in the first three chapters of Genesis, but they read these opening chapters in the context of the greater canon of Scripture: within the Pentateuch, the rest of the Old Testament, and the New Testament. Critics of the doctrine were no longer persuaded by such an interpretive strategy and demanded that the term covenant appear in in Genesis 1-3 to validate the doctrine.

This is not to say that Reformed theologians abandoned the doctrine en masse, but that the doctrine no longer enjoyed widespread acceptance. There were still, however, a cadre of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century theologians including Thomas Boston, John Colquhoun, and the Marrowmen, who promoted the doctrine. In the twentieth century the divide over the doctrine sharpened. Critics included Karl Barth, John Murray, and Herman Hoeksema; proponents included Abraham Kuyper, Herman Bavinck, Geerhardus Vos, and Louis Berkhof.

The Doctrine’s Importance

The covenant of works is important because it provides us with a window into the church’s understanding of God’s initial interaction with humanity Click To Tweet What can we learn from the history of the origins, development, and reception of the covenant of works? First, the Adamic covenant is a catholic idea, that is, theologians throughout the history of the church have promoted it. Second, the debate between critics and advocates of the doctrine reveals that they employ different hermeneutical principles. Detractors require that the term covenant appear in Genesis 1-3, whereas promoters read Genesis 1-3 within a larger canonical framework and bring more than a dozen different biblical texts to the table to substantiate the doctrine’s legitimacy. Third, modern historians and theologians have characterized the covenant of works as a bare, cold, legal transaction between God and Adam. But when you read primary sources, advocates regularly profess that the covenant of works was about God’s love for Adam and, conversely, Adam’s love for God.

Many of the criticisms and rejections fall short because they fail to engage both the exegetical and theological concepts connected to the doctrine. As a matter of history, therefore, the covenant of works is important because it provides us with a window into the church’s understanding of God’s initial interaction with humanity. As such, we have much to learn from the church’s collective wisdom and insight. Moreover, if Adam was a type of the one who was to come (Rom. 5:14), namely the last Adam, Jesus, then giving ear to the church’s understanding of the proton will give us a thicker understanding of the eschaton. Understanding the nature of Adam’s work will provide us with the tools to understand Christ’s work. Studying, therefore, the history of the covenant of works is a worthwhile and instructive endeavor.

J. V. Fesko

J. V. Fesko (PhD, University of Aberdeen) serves as professor of systematic and historical theology at RTS Jackson. He has been an ordained minister since 1998 in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church serving as a church planter, pastor, and now teacher. Dr. Fesko has authored or edited more than twenty books including Reforming Apologetics: Retrieving the Classic Reformed Approach to Defending the Faith, The Trinity and the Covenant of Redemption, Death in Adam, Life in Christ: The Doctrine of Imputation, Justification: Understanding the Classic Reformed Doctrine, and The Covenant of Works: The Origins, Development, and Reception of the Doctrine (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020).

Back to Top