Who Said What about the Covenant of Works?

If you are confused about recent discussions involving the covenant of works, this reference guide can help you. I’ve listed some of the most significant theologians who have written on the doctrine, including a brief bio for each theologian, a summary of their position on the covenant of works, and recommended further reading. Enjoy!

John Calvin (1509-1564)

  • Who was he? A French lawyer who led the Protestant Reformation in Geneva. He is best known for his systematic Institutes of the Christian Religion.
  • What did he say? Calvin did not have an explicit covenant of works, although he affirmed Adam as the unique progenitor of the human race, whose sin brought about the universal corruption of human nature. It is debatable whether Calvin affirmed Adam’s federal headship, as would later Reformed scholastics. He referred to Adam’s state in the garden as a “trial of obedience” (later called “probation;” Inst. 2.1.4) leading to a heavenly perfection, but denied that the terms of this probation were meritorious.
  • Further reading: Peter Lillback, The Binding of God: Calvin’s Role in the Development of Covenant Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2001), 276-304; Aaron Denlinger, “Calvin’s Understanding of Adam’s Relationship to His Posterity: Recent Assertions of the Reformer’s ‘Federalism’ Evaluated,” Calvin Theological Journal 44 (2009): 226-250.

Zacharias Ursinus (1534-1583)

  • Who was he? Early German Reformed theologian and coauthor of the Heidelberg Catechism, one of the Three Forms of Unity (the confessional standards of the Continental Reformed churches). Studied under Philip Melanchthon, successor of Martin Luther.
  • What did he say? He (with Caspar Olevianus) is credited with being the first to explicate the idea of a pre-fall covenant (credit for the exact term “covenant of works” probably goes to Dudley Fenner). Drew the distinction between the pre- and post-fall covenants along the lines of law and gospel, but also saw the gospel as empowerment to observe the law as a rule of gratitude.
  • Further reading: Lyle Bierma, “Law and Grace in Ursinus’ Doctrine of the Natural Covenant: A Reappraisal,” in Protestant Scholasticism: Essays in Reassessment, ed. R. Scott Clark and Carl Trueman (Wipf & Stock, 2007).

Robert Rollock (c. 1555-1599)

  • Who was he? Early Scottish Reformer, considered to be foundational in developing the contrast between the covenant of works and the covenant of grace (bi-covenantalism), and in bringing covenant theology to the British Isles.
  • What did he say? The covenant of nature/works promised life to Adam under the condition of good works proceeding from his nature (this excludes works proceeding from grace). This works principle is restated in the Mosaic Covenant (Lev. 18:5) to expose sin. Not a meritorious arrangement, since Adam’s works were obligatory and merit is supererogatory. Consequently, Christ’s active obedience was not meritorious (nor is it imputed), although his passive obedience was meritorious.
  • Further reading: Aaron Denlinger, “Robert Rollock’s Catechism on God’s Covenants,” Mid-America Journal of Theology 20 (2009): 105-129.

Westminster Divines (1643-1649)

  • Who were they? The Westminster Assembly was appointed by the English Long Parliament to reform the doctrine, polity, and worship of the Church of England. It consisted of 30 laymen and 121 divines (clergymen). They produced the Westminster Confession of Faith, Larger Catechism, and Shorter Catechism, which would all become the confessional standards of most Presbyterian churches.
  • What did they say? The divines affirmed a covenant of works (WCF 7) but had differing views as to its precise nature. All affirmed the federal headship of Adam. The majority view (e.g., Samuel Rutherford, William Bridge, and William Gouge) was that it was a gracious covenant, and Adam’s obedience was not strictly meritorious. Nevertheless, “life” was promised upon condition of Adam’s perfect and perpetual obedience. Such life was either understood as continuation in the blessings that Adam already enjoyed in the garden (Thomas Goodwin, William Gouge, Jeremiah Burroughs), or as a future heavenly reward (William Bridge, Anthony Burgess). No explicit mention of a garden probation.
  • Further reading: Joel Beeke and Mark Jones, Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage, 2012).

Francis Turretin (1623-1687)

  • Who was he? A Swiss-Italian theologian who wrote at the height of Reformed scholasticism. He is best known for his Institutes of Elenctic Theology, which summarizes and refines the covenant theologies of his day.
  • What did he say? Adam’s relationship to his posterity is both “natural” and “federal,” and his fall led to both the corruption and guilt of humanity. The covenant of works is understood in contractual terms. Adam’s obedience during his probation was a condition for blessing, leading to a heavenly reward/inheritance. It was meritorious not as a matter of strict justice, but because God graciously called it so (congruent/nominalist, not condign/realist).
  • Further reading: Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology 2:263.

John Murray (1898-1975)

  • Who was he? Professor of Systematic Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia.
  • What did he say? Adam’s pre-fall relationship with God was an “administration” but not a “covenant,” since covenant is defined as an unconditional, redemptive arrangement. This administration included provision for Adam’s passing from a contingent, probationary state to confirmation in perfect obedience (indefectibility). This provision was still a gracious condescension on God’s part, and not earned as a matter of strict justice/merit. Adam is federal head for humanity. (Identical to Anthony Hoekema’s view.)
  • Further reading: Murray, “The Adamic Administration,” available online here: http://www.the-highway.com/adamic-admin_Murray.html (accessed October 7, 2013); Murray, The Collected Writings of John Murray (Banner of Truth, 1991), 2:49, 130.

G.C. Berkouwer (1903-1996)

  • Who was he? Dutch Reformed theologian who taught at the Free University in Amsterdam. Best known for his 18-volume Studies in Dogmatics. Followed in the thought of S.G. De Graaf (1889-1955) and Klaas Schilder (1890-1952).
  • What did he say? Affirmed a “covenant of creation” or “covenant of God’s favor” but rejected the perceived legalistic implications of a covenant of works. He argued that a merit-based arrangement with Adam would erroneously imply a “nomological ur-existence of man,” which undermines the priority of life in fellowship with God. Adam’s relationship with God was primarily filial rather than legal. Denied probation, diminished federalism.
  • Further reading: Berkouwer, Studies in Dogmatics: Man: The Image of God (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1962), 332-46; idem, Studies in Dogmatics: Sin (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1971), 206-8; Cornelis Venema, “Recent Criticisms of the Covenant of Works in the Westminster Confession of Faith,” available online here: http://www.grebeweb.com/linden/Venema_Criticisms_of_Cov_of_Works.htm (accessed October 6, 2013)

Meredith Kline (1922-2007)

  • Who was he? Professor of Old Testament at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. His approach to covenant theology is often contrasted with John Murray’s approach.
  • What did he say? The covenant of works was strictly legal. God’s original disposition toward Adam was gracious in a broad sense, but the administration of the covenant itself excluded grace (“grace” being narrowly defined as the substitutionary application of the merit of Christ’s active/passive obedience). Adam was in a state of probation, and would be confirmed in a glorified state of indefectibility by the merit of his perfect obedience. This reward is not graciously bestowed, but is earned as a matter of strict justice.
  • Further reading: Kline, “Covenant Theology Under Attack,” available online here: http://www.upper-register.com/papers/ct_under_attack.html (accessed October 6, 2013)

Norman Shepherd

  • Who is he? Former professor at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, who provoked controversy in the 1970’s over his covenant theology. This controversy reverberates today.
  • What does he say? Acknowledged a pre-fall covenant with Adam, but flattened the distinctions with the covenant of grace, leaving him open to the charge of “monocovenantalism.” The conditions for every covenant involve the “works of faith” or “obedient trust.” Rejected not only Adamic merit, but also the merit of Christ. Denied probation.
  • Further reading: http://trinity-pres.net/study/normanshepherd.php (accessed April 24, 2014); “A Critique of Professor Norman Shepherd’s Theology,” available online here: http://basketoffigs.org/NewPerspectives/Jones.htm (accessed April 24, 2014)

O. Palmer Robertson

  • Who is he? Taught Old Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary, Westminster Theological Seminary, Covenant Theological Seminary, and Africa Bible Colleges in Malawi and Uganda.
  • What does he say? Prefers the term “covenant of creation,” which has a general and a focal aspect. The general aspect concerns Adam’s responsibilities as vice-regent and image-bearer (creation ordinances), while the focal aspect concerns the probationary test which leads to confirmation in indefectibility. Believes that emphasizing the focal aspect at the expense of the general aspect leads to a reductively anthropocentric/ecclesiocentric understanding of redemption. Adam is federal head.
  • Further reading: Robertson, The Christ of the Covenants (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1980), 67-92; Robertson, “Current Reformed Thinking on the Nature of the Divine Covenants,” Westminster Theological Journal 40.1 (Fall 1977): 63-76.

Henri Blocher

  • Who is he? French evangelical theologian. Taught Systematic Theology at Wheaton College.
  • What does he say? Rejects the imputation of Adam’s guilt (federalism), but acknowledges the transmission of a corrupt nature (habitus) from Adam to all his posterity. Adam had free and regular access to the Tree of Life in the garden, which sacramentally signified continuing communion with God. Rejects a “garden eschatology” (along with accompanying ideas of probation and merit) as counterfactual speculation, but affirms a gracious Edenic covenant.
  • Further reading: Blocher, “Old Covenant, New Covenant,” in Always Reforming: Explorations in Systematic Theology, ed. A.T.B. McGowan (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2007), 240-70. Blocher, Original Sin: Illuminating the Riddle (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2001).

A.T.B. McGowan

  • Who is he? Principal of the Highland Theological College in Dingwall, Scotland, where he lectures in systematic theology.
  • What does he say? Prefers “headship theology” to covenant/federal theology. There is an Adamic Administration and a Messianic Administration in an overarching covenant of grace, but no covenant of works. Highlights the priority of grace. Law did not exist pre-fall (in starkest contrast to Kline’s denial of pre-fall grace). Adam was created in the singular knowledge of God’s will (indwelt by the Spirit), but his fall into the knowledge of good and evil brought “law.”
  • Further reading: McGowan, “In Defence of ‘Headship Theology,’” in The God of Covenant, ed. Jamie Grant and Alistair Wilson (Apollos, 2005), 178-199.

Michael Williams

  • Who is he? Professor of Systematic Theology at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri. Best known for his book Far as the Curse Is Found, an introduction to covenant theology.
  • What does he say? Like Robertson, he prefers the term “covenant of creation” and emphasizes its general aspect (Adam as vice-regent for all creation). Unlike Robertson, he ascribes a much less prominent role to its focal aspect, questioning the existence of a garden probation. Grace, blessing, and life take precedence over law. In the covenant of creation, law-keeping serves the purpose of nurturing prior relationship, but it does not merit further reward—relationship is the reward. Affirms Adam’s federal headship.
  • Further reading: Williams, “Adam and Merit,” Presbyterion 35/2 (Fall 2009): 87-94.
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