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Interpreting the Covenant of Works

by Rev. Ralph Allan Smith


The Westminster doctrine of the Covenant of Works is not a Reformed sine qua non, for though it was common to believe in a Covenant of Works by the 17th century, Reformed Confessions of the 16th century did not include the Covenant of Works. As John Murray explained:

Towards the end of the 16th century the administration dispensed to Adam in Eden, focused in the prohibition to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, had come to be interpreted as a covenant, frequently called the Covenant of Works, sometimes a covenant of life, or the Legal Covenant. It is, however, significant that the early covenant theologians did not construe this Adamic administration as a covenant, far less as a covenant of works. Reformed creeds of the 16th century such as the French Confession (1559), the Scottish Confession (1560), the Belgic Confession (1561), the Thirty-Nine Articles (1562), the Heidelberg Catechism (1563), and the Second Helvetic (1566) do not exhibit any such construction of the Edenic institution. After the pattern of the theological thought prevailing at the time of their preparation, the term 'covenant,' insofar as it pertained to God's relations with men, was interpreted as designating the relation constituted by redemptive provisions and as belonging, therefore, to the sphere of saving grace.[1]

Important as it is, therefore, to the theology of the Westminster Standards, the fact that other Reformed Confessions often neglect even to mention a Covenant of Works indicates that it should not, contrary to the opinions of some, be made a test of Reformed orthodoxy. Even if one wished to make it a test of orthodoxy, he would face the question of which version of the Covenant of Works should be the standard, for there is more than one interpretation of the Covenant of Works among those who hold it. Add to this that John Murray, one of the most important representatives of Westminster orthodoxy in the 20th century denied the Covenant of Works altogether.

In part due to the influence of John Murray, a great deal of recent debate about Reformed theology and the Gospel has centered in the doctrine of the Covenant of Works. If we include James Jordan — an important Reformed Biblical theologian whose views are distinct — and John Murray — and we must because his importance as a Presbyterian theologian and the impact he has had on American Presbyterian theology is far too great to ignore — there are at least four positions among orthodox Reformed thinkers and teachers. First, there is what appears to be the majority view that the Covenant of Works is a gracious covenant. Works are required, but the entire arrangement is so designed that we are most impressed with God's condescending goodness. Second, there is the view of Meredith Kline and his disciples that the Covenant of Works is a strictly legal covenant whose reward must be earned in terms of plain and pure merit. Third, there is John Murray's view which may be said to deny the language of the Covenant of Works more than the substance of the thing. Murray says there is no covenant in the Garden, but he obviously believes in the kind of Adamic headship that the Westminster Standards and other Reformed Confessions require. Fourth, there is the view of James Jordan, who has been influenced by Meredith Kline's view of creation as a covenantal act, but who understand the original covenant in a manner different from Kline. Like Murray, Jordan denies a Covenant of Works, but also like Murray, he affirms Adamic headship, a period of probation and other features of a Covenant of Works. These four positions are significantly diverse but all fall within the realm of Reformed and even Westminster orthodoxy.


[1] John Murray, Collected Writings of John Murray: 4, Studies in Theology, "Covenant Theology," (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1982), pp. 217-18.


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