What About Noah and Covenant Theology?

Taylor asks the question on the PB. My reply below:

There are resources on covenant theology here. I would especially encourage you to read this collection of quotations from older writers on CT. There is a brief history here. My own views are summarized here.

For an alternative to Robertson you should Mike Brown and Zach Keele’s Sacred Bond and then read (slowly) Mike Horton’s Introducing Covenant Theology. There are aspects of Reformed covenant theology (not all covenant theologies are Reformed, e.g. “New Covenant” theology or the Federal Vision—see below) that Robertson ignores or rejects such as the “covenant of redemption” between the Father, the Son, and (implicitly) the Holy Spirit whereby the Son volunteered to become our substitute and redeemer, which covenant he fulfilled in his active suffering all his life and especially in his death (Heidelberg Catechism #37).

You’ll soon run into the Federal Vision nonsense, if you haven’t already. See the stuff here.

On Noah:

  1. The first Noahic covenant (Genesis 6:17-19) was particular and an administration of the covenant of grace.
  2. The second Noahic covenant (Genesis 9:8-17) was a universal non-soteric covenant promising the restraint of judgment until the last day.

It’s helpful if we distinguish between the two covenants made with Noah. They have distinct features and objects. The first covenant with Noah is saving and limited to elect. The second covenant is common and promises the restraint of judgment (Matt 24:37; Heb 11:7; 1 Pet 3:20; 2 Pet 2:5) but it doesn’t promise salvation. For all who believe the ark becomes a picture of our salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ (the ark) alone. It also pictures God’s patience, as it were, in effecting the salvation of his elect and the concomitant restraint of evil in the world and providential preservation of it until he effects the deliverance of his people.

It’s true, as Mr Murray pointed out, that Gen 6 is the first (formal) occurrence of covenant (Berith) in Scripture, but historically Reformed theologians have noted that the substance or essence or stuff of a covenant exists in Gen 2, in the covenant of works between God and Adam (WCF 7; 19).

Neither Paul nor Reformed theology used the Noahic covenants as the paradigmatic covenants in Scripture. Following Paul (Rom 4; Gal 3), Reformed theology used Abraham (Gen 12, 15, 17) as the paradigm for the covenant of grace. They (usually) saw not only a covenant of works before the fall (aka a covenant of life, nature, and law) but also a sort of covenant of works with Moses and Israel relative to their national status (Deut 5; Exod 20).

There are lots of excellent classical texts in Reformed covenant theology. Herman Witsius, Economy of the Covenants is a great place to begin. Many of the approaches to covenant theology in the modern period (esp. in the 20th century) were unsound and incomplete in one way or another and should not be read as “the” covenant theology.

Covenant theology isn’t complicated. The overview is that there are three distinct, but related, covenants revealed in Scripture:

The covenant of redemption, from eternity, between the Father, Son, and (implicitly) the Holy Spirit to accomplish the redemption of Christ’s people and to apply that redemption to them.

The covenant of works was instituted before the fall, whereby Adam was to act as the representative of all humanity (Rom 5), obey the law, and enter into glory. He sinned and failed that to keep that covenant.

The covenant of grace is that free promise of God to sinners whereby he promises to provide a substitute, a second Adam who will keep the covenant of works for his people and he promises to redeem his people through faith alone in the one Mediator Jesus.

The history of redemption is the history of the outworking of the covenants of redemption and grace. Christ, the Second Adam, fulfilled both the covenant of redemption and the covenant of works for us and is the ground of the covenant of grace between God and the elect.

The covenant of grace is one through all the history of redemption but administered to all those who profess faith and to all their children (Gen 17; Acts 2:39). Before Christ, the typological sign/seal of initiation into the covenant people was circumcision (Col 2:11-12; Rom 4) and the new covenant sign/seal of initiation is baptism. Participation in the administration of the covenant of grace is no guarantee of election or salvation. Only the elect will come to faith but all of the elect shall come faith (Rom 9) and be justified by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone (Rom 2-8; Gal 2). It was this way under Noah, Abraham, Moses, and it is this way under Christ. The Christians under the types and shadows (Heb 2, 7-10) looked forward to the fulfillment and we look back to it.

There are two great principles at work in Reformed covenant theology, works and grace or law and gospel (Rom 11).  The covenant of redemption is law for the Son and grace for us. The covenant of works is law and the covenant of grace is gospel.

[This post first appeared in 2008 on the HB and has been slightly revised]

4 Comments

  1. Dr. Clark,

    Thank you for this post. As I understand it the only way I can biblically get to a covenant of works and covenant of grace is through the Covenant of Redemption, and so as I read Robertson and others that remove this I must say it weakens their overall arguments. In reading (excerpts) from Owen’s commentary on Hebrews and examining the argument of the Epistle the case for the Covenant of Redemption screams out.

    I would like to ask a quick question vis-a-vis Vos’ statements concerning the Noahic Covenant in his Biblical Theology. He avers that the covenant lacks any stipulations and is a Royal grant. I have not read widely enough within Reformed Covenant Theology to know, but would this be a standard interpretation thus reading over the stipulations of lex talionis, avoiding blood, etc. as being covenant requirements for humanity, with the implied covenant curse of revocation of the covenant blessing, i.e. not to wipe out all flesh by a flood, with an unstated covenant curse. As someone who is working on covenant blessings and curses in my dissertation, this is a question that comes to the fore in my mind when I read the various covenant establishment texts within the Bible.

    Thank you,
    David

  2. Hi David,

    I can see reading the covenant in Gen 6 as a Royal Grant covenant but I’m not sure about Gen 9.

    I wonder whether either the suzerain/vassal or RG categories work for Gen 9 since it’s not a redemptive or strictly legal covenant. It’s about the suspension of judgment and common life in the interim, before cosmic judgment. In other words, perhaps its a a tertium quid?

    Where are you doing your diss?

  3. Dr. Clark,

    I am doing my dissertation at TEDS on Leviticus 25-26 as a typological window into the nature of eschatological rest. I am hoping to have my first draft finished sometime this spring and defend by early fall.

    David

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