Home | Downloads | About CWI | Donate | Site Map | Contact
Covenant Worldview Institute Home


Interpreting the Covenant of Works

by Rev. Ralph Allan Smith


I have outlined here four views of the Covenant of Works, or, to speak more strictly, four views of God's relationship in the Garden of Eden. From the perspective of Kline's view, the other three views threaten to undermine the Gospel of grace. This may seem unduly harsh, but in fact, Morecraft has implied something quite similar by his quotation of Wilhelmus à Brakel at the beginning of his article on the Covenant of Works.

Acquaintance with this covenant is of the greatest importance, for whoever errs here or denies the existence of the covenant of works, will not understand the covenant of grace, and will readily err concerning the mediatorship of the Lord Jesus.[15]

Here we are told that to err in understanding, which Kline presumably does from Morecraft's perspective, or to deny the existence of the Covenant of Works, which both John Murray and James Jordan do, is a serious problem. Interpretations other than Morecraft's all fall under Brakel's condemnation as views that will not understand the covenant of grace or the mediatorship of Christ, a condemnation essentially similar to Kline's.[16]

John Murray did not condemn all competing views as distortions of the Gospel or as dangerous errors, but he did make a clear call for reformation. He courageously called his fellow Reformed theologians to reconsider a doctrine included in the very structure of the Westminster Confession's view of the covenant.

Theology today must always be undergoing a reformation. The human understanding is imperfect. However architectonic may be the systematic constructions of any one generation or group of generations, there always remains the need for correction and reconstruction so that the structure may be brought into close approximation to the Scripture and the reproduction be a more faithful transcript or reflection of the heavenly exemplar.[17]

In another place, Murray pointed to the problems that exist in Reformed formulations of the Covenant of Grace, which, like the Covenant of Works, has more than one interpretation in Reformed history.

This formulation became the occasion of ardent dispute when it was applied to the Covenant of Grace. This dispute concerned particularly the matter of condition, the question being: Is the Covenant of Grace to be construed as conditional or unconditional? The controversy continues up to the present time, and it is not apparent that a solution can be obtained without a reorientation in terms of a revised definition of the Biblical concept of covenant.[18]

Murray's point is well-taken and it applies to the present controversy. When those attempting to be faithful to Reformed orthodoxy find themselves condemned by their zealous brothers for reasons that fall far short of persuasive demonstration, we are either facing a duplicitous distortion of the Reformed faith so profound that it defies explanation, or a crisis in the traditional covenantal paradigm. Kline's denunciation of Morecraft, Murray, and Jordan as men whose views deny the Gospel does not stand up to investigation. None of these men hold views which take away a parallel between Adam and Christ, deny representation, imputation, or monergistic grace. The excess of zeal producing these condemnations and the frantic spirit displayed in the sloppy haste of their formulation — I am referring here especially to Baldwin — suggest the desperation of one facing a painful paradigm breakdown.

What we really need, as John Murray suggested, is a fundamental reformulation of the Reformed view of the covenant. The place to begin, in my opinion, is with our understanding of the covenant among the Persons of the Trinity, for the doctrine of God must always be the heart of a truly Biblical and Reformed systematic theology.[19]


[15] "The Covenant of Works" in The New Southern Presbyterian Review, vol. 1, no. 2, Fall, 2002, p. 112.

[16] Remarkably, Morecraft quotes frequently from John Murray as if Murray did not deny the existence of a Covenant of Works. He even puts the expression "covenant of works" in brackets beside the expression Murray uses for his revised view, "the Adamic administration." Morecraft, "The Covenant of Works," pp. 127-128.

[17] The Covenant of Grace

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

[19] For a fuller critique of Kline's view and more extensive argument for a reformulation of the doctrine of the covenant, see my book, The Eternal Covenant: How the Trinity Reshapes Covenant Theology (Moscow, Id.: Canon Press, 2003).

Table of Contents

 site design and maintenance
BERITH.ORG  —  Copyright © 2002 by Ralph Allan Smith.  All rights reserved.