Robert Letham on the covenant of works

 Excerpts from Robert Letham's, The Westminster Assembly:

"WCF 7.2 introduces the covenant of works, made by God with man before the fall. This is the first major confessional document in which this covenant is expressly mentioned. In it, God promised life to Adam and in him to his posterity on condition of perfect obedience. Hence, in LC 20 the covenant is called the covenant of life, focusing on the promise held out to Adam. The term covenant of works draws attention instead to the means by which Adam was to attain the promise" (Letham, p. 226).

"While covenant theology in the Reformed tradition emerged with Zwingli and Bullinger in the 1520s, the term foedus operum (covenant of works) was not used until 1585, by the Puritan Dudley Fenner.6 Earlier, in 1562, in his Summa theologiae, the German Reformed theologian Zacharias Ursinus had written of a covenant of creation,7 so the idea had already been proposed. In the five years after Fenner's work, a spate of theologians adopted the pre-fall covenant --- including Caspar Olevian, Franciscus, Junius, Lambert Danaeu, and Amandus Polanus.8 By 1590, it was common. However, it was by no means universally taught at this time. Bucanus's Institutiones theologiae (1602) does not mention it. Some at the Assembly were hesitant about it and even opposed it.9 No confessional document prior to the Assembly had adopted it.

Neither in his Genesis commentary nor in the Institutes does Calvin describe the condition of Adam before the fall as covenantal, still less as a covenant of works. Peter Lillback argues that all the ingredients for such a view are present in Calvin, and that he has an inchoate (just begun) covenant of  works, but I prefer the word incipient (about to begin), since, while the elements for such a covenant are present, the formulation itself is not.10" (Letham, p. 227).

 6. Fenner, Sacra theologia.

7. A. Lang, ed., Der Heidelberger Katechismus und vier verwandte Katechismen (Leipzig: Deichert, 1967), 153, 156.

8. Caspar Olevian, De substantia foederis gratuiti inter Deum et electos (Geneva, 1585), 12-13, 48, 62-63, 90, 251-55, 270; Amandas Polanus, Partitiones theologiae (Basel, 1607), 152-53; Junius, Opera theologica, 1:1659-62. 

9. In chapter 12, we shall see that Thomas Gataker and Richard Vines indicated their opposition to it.

10. P.A. Lillback, The Binding of God: Calvin's Role in the Development of Covenant Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001), 276-304.
 "Arguments Against the Idea of a Covenant of Works/Life

 The idea of a covenant of works has come under sever criticism. Among the most notable opponents of the Westminster Assembly's construction is Holmes Rolston III.15 He argues that it was a radical departure from Calvin and had the effect of placing law prior to grace, in contrast with what had gone before in Reformed thought. 

Along similar lines, James B. Torrance is deeply critical of the development of federal theology, particularly in Scotland. He understands the covenant of works in Scottish theology to be a purely legal covenant, and so opposes it. He argues that this legal understanding bases God's primary dealings with man on law, not grace. In turn, this colors the covenant of grace, casting it in a legal framework and so subserving the ends of law, with disastrous consequences for both theology and piety. He states of the idea, 'God's prime purpose for man is legal, not filial, but this yields an impersonal view of man as the object of justice, rather than primarily the object of love.' He claims it led to a legalistic cast to the Christian faith and eclipsed the grace of God. He asks whether it is appropriate to interpret creation in terms of natural law and to restrict grace to redemption.16 He is prepared to see the pre-fall situation as covenantal, but not if it is construed in predominantly legal terms (Letham, pp. 228-229). 

15. Rolston, John Calvin Versus the Westminster Confession.
16. J.B. Torrance, "The Concept of Federal Theology --- Was Calvin a Federal Theologian?" in Calvinus Sacrae Scripturae Professor: Die referate des Congres International des Recherches Calviniennes (ed. W.H. Neuser; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), 15-40, esp. 35, 23; J.B. Torrance, "Covenant or Contract?" See also T.F. Torrance, Scottish Theology, 136, 214ff.
 "The Rationale for the Covenant of Works/Life

 The main point to note in support of this development is that the pre-fall covenant is an inference from the work of Christ as the second Adam. This is a frequent theme in the letters of Paul. It is particularly relevant in Romans 5:12-21. There Paul talks of two ages and two solidaric groups, headed by Adam and Christ, respectively. The first Adam, by his one act of disobedience, plunged the entire race into sin and death, since he was the head of all his posterity. On the other hand, the second man, Christ, by his obedience has brought righteousness and life to all with whom he is in solidarity. His actions have reversed the effects of the fall, with plenty of room to spare. His life one of testing and temptation, from which he emerged obedient. In turn, he endured the penalty of sin -- death -- on the cross. Following his obedience to God's law and his enduring of its curse on our behalf, he was raised from the dead and given eternal life. His obedient righteousness and everlasting life are granted to all who belong to him by the grace of God through faith. The connection between the pre-fall condition of Adam and the atonement by Christ is clear. The former is an entailment of the latter. For their part, opponents of the pre-fall covenant of works have often opposed any form of penal substitutionary doctrine of the atonement.

However, not all those with reservations about the covenant of works have had similarly hostile thoughts on the atonement. John Murray disliked the term 'covenant of works' because he did not find a covenant in Genesis 1-2 and since 'the elements of grace entering into the administration are not properly provided for by the term 'works.'' 17 He understood all of God's covenants to be sovereign administrations of grace.18 The simple solution to Murray's problem would have been to use the term 'covenant of life,' which the Assembly also approved. As for the absence of any mention of covenant in Genesis 2, the Pauline parallel between the first and second Adam argues that the creation administration of a covenant are present." (Letham, pp. 229-230)

17. J. Murray, "The Adamic Adminstration," in Collected Writings of John Murray, vol. 2: Select Lectures in Systematic Theology (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1977), 49.
18. J. Murray, The Covenant of Grace (London: Tyndale Press, 1954).
"For [Meredith--CD] Kline, Adam's obedience was to be meritorious. He would have earned everlasting life as a just reward for his compliance with the terms of the covenant of works. In turn, Christ the second Adam, by his perfect obedience, earned salvation for us meritoriously. This is applied to us by grace on the basis of Christ's having merited it for us. For Kline, a position on the covenant of works has as its entailment a particular view of the atonement. For the pre-fall situation to be construed other than in terms of law and merit leads inexorably to the abandonment of the meritorious obedience of the second Adam and an undermining of the atonement and justification by faith.20" (Letham, pp. 230-231).

20. See M.G. Kline, "Covenant Theology Under Attack," New Horizons in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church 15/2 (February 1994): 3-5, available at as of 24 July 2008.
"That a reading of the Assembly's doctrine of the covenant of works from Kline's perspective is mistaken is evident from a number of considerations. First, the Confession stresses condescension as underlying all God's covenants, including the pre-fall one. Whatever the place of law may be, it is in harmony with God's free and sovereign stooping down to do us a favor.

Second, for the Assembly, law and grace were not polar opposites; it saw no incompatibility between them. Law is present in the covenant of grace, both in the time of the law (WCF 7.5) and also in the time of the gospel. 21 In the covenant of grace, grace and law are not competing ways of salvation. Instead, they fulfill different roles. Grace constitutes; law regulates. The covenant is pervasively gracious, yet we receive the promise through the obedience of Christ, and the law continues to regulate the life of the Christian (WCF 20.2, 5-7). Hence, the Assembly insists that the uses of the law are not contrary to the gospel, "but do sweetly comply with it" (20.7). As John Leith indicates, reflecting on the Assembly's portrayal of the pre-fall covenant:
'This was not simply a covenant of merit, for the covenant itself was a gracious act of God, the great disparity between God and man prohibiting any possibility of man's works by their own merit earning salvation.' 22 

That Leith is correct here can be gauged from the important book by John Ball, A treatise of the covenant of grace (1645), published while the Assembly sat and received with much favor by the divines, which denied that Adam's works were meritorious and insisted on the grace of God permeating this covenant.23

 Kline's concern that Reformed theology is debased if it adopts a different perspective on the covenant of works than his is wrong from both historical and theological angles. First, Lutheranism had no covenant of works, yet that of itself did not precipitate a headlong flight from a biblical view of the atonement. Moreover, since the doctrine of the covenant of works developed over time, if Kline were correct, significant swathes of earlier Reformed theology would have proved defective before his full covenantal position was developed; that would include Calvin. Kline is historically inaccurate and theologically too blunt. On the absence of grace, Kline is simply wrong. The Westminster documents clearly affirm that grace was present before the fall. This no more undermines the doctrine of the atonement than Kline does. The divines were able to hold on to an orthodox view of the work of Christ. If Kline were correct, this could not have happened. (Letham, pp. 231-232; underlining mine--CD).

21. See the chapters on the mediatorial work of Christ (8.4-5), justification (11.3), and the law of God (19.1-7).
22. Leith, Assembly at Westminster, 92.
23. Ball, Treatise, 6-12.