Monday, June 9, 2014

Concerns with the Covenant of Works

     "The disadvantage of the phrase covenant of works is that it has led to a controversy over the nature of the covenant agreement between God and Adam. Two problems especially have entered the discussion: (1) The terminology is reminiscent of a commercial exchange. This suggests that eternal life is a kind of commodity, and that if Adam pays the price, "perfect obedience," "works," or "merit," God will turn that commodity over to Adam and his posterity. (2) The works are Adam's works, not God's, so one gets the impression that Adam is left entirely on his own. These two contentions are used to maintain a clear contrast between works and grace.
     "Certainly the focus of the Edenic covenant is on what Adam does rather than on God's action as the ground of Adam's blessing or curse. And certainly whatever blessing Adam received would have been appropriate to his obedience: he would have deserved the blessing. But it would be wrong to claim as in issue 2 above that had Adam successfully resisted temptation, God would have had nothing to do with it. It was God who created Adam and all his surroundings. God made him in his image and made him his vassal king over the earth. God gave him abundant food and drink, a wife, and above all fellowship with himself. And indeed Adam's decision was foreordained by God, as we will see. As for issue 1, Adam did not earn any of these things by his works. These were gifts of God's unmerited favor. So if Adam had passed his test successfully, he would not have boasted as if he had done it all on his own. he would have praised God for his unmerited favor. The term covenant of works, therefore, may mislead us by suggesting that Adam possessed an autonomy that no other creature has ever possessed. Best to regard this covenant, like the others, as a sovereign blessing of God, calling Adam and Eve to respond in obedient faith.
     "There is, however, nothing wrong with what the Westminster Standards actually say about the covenant of works. So we say nothing wrong when we use the phrase as did the Westminster divines. But when we choose extrabiblical language to describe biblical truths, we should take into account the impressions that this language would be likely to make on contemporary readers. And indeed there are some problems of possible misunderstandings and misuses of this language, such as issues 1 and 2 above. I do not, therefore, object to the phrase covenant of works as long as the use of that phrase is kept within the limits of the Westminster definitions, but I prefer to refer to the covenant under discussion as the Edenic covenant." John Frame, Systematic Theology, p. 65.