Covenants, Adam, Modernity, and Context Pt 1 (HC 15)

15. What kind of a mediator and redeemer then must we seek?

One who is a true1 and righteous man, 2 and yet more powerful than all creatures, that is, One who is also true God.3

11 Cor 15:21, 22, 25, 26. 2 Jer 33:16. Isaiah 53:11. 2 Cor 5:21. Heb 7:15,16.

One of the more puzzling and overlooked features of the Barthian, neo-evangelical, and covenantal moralist (i.e. FV) denial of the doctrine of the pre-lapsarian covenant of works is that it tends to deny, or at least downplay, the righteousness of God and it basically re-tells the entire story of Scripture by changing the plot. Denying the covenant of works tends to make God appear to be arbitrary. To be sure, the God of Scripture is absolutely free to act according to his nature. We creatures are not authorized to determine in advance what God may or may not do except to say that he cannot deny himself and he cannot lie. He cannot be what he is not. Within those parameters there are a great number of things that God might do that we cannot predict. God’s ways are not our ways. His thoughts are not our thoughts. These are fundamental Scriptural data. To deny, however, that God is arbitrary is hardly to deny his freedom or, as some like to say, to “put God in a box.”

We don’t think of God as arbitary because we think of him as he has revealed himself in his Word. We don’t think that he has revealed himself exhaustively, of course. We understand from Scripture (e.g. Deut 29:29) that he has revealed himself sufficiently to allow us to speak about him truly. We cannot explain all that he has done or will do in his providence but we do know him truly and we can correlate what he has done in redemptive history with what he said about himself in the canonical Word.

According to the Reformed reading of Scripture, the God of the Bible entered into a covenant relation with humanity in creation, before the fall. This covenant relation was bounded by a law: love God with all your faculties and love neighbor as yourself. It was expressed in terms of trees. Adam was free to eat from any tree, even the tree of life, but he was forbidden from eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. This was a commandment, a law. Our Belgic Confession calls this the “commandment of life.” It seems undeniable that Adam was in a legal relationship with God. The law gave permission, “eat from any tree” and a restriction: “except for this one.” There was implied blessedness for obedience and this blessedness was symbolized by the tree of life. The curse of law breaking was explicitly revealed: “the day you eat thereof, you shall surely die.” Adam was in a covenant and it was a legal covenant. What was required of him was legal righteousness.

Of course Adam himself presents another great problem for modernity. We confess that Adam was an historical figure. We confess that because the Bible teaches it. The temptation of modernity has been to place ourselves in judgment over the narrative of Scripture and to say, in effect, “We know a priori that the Adam figure of the creation narrative, of the garden narrative, must be a mythic way of expressing a spiritual truth. Does the Bible tell us fables for the purposes of teaching moral and spiritual truths? No. We should be honest, modernity tempts to deny the historicity of Adam. Dame Moderna comes to us suggesting that if we will only renounce (like Barth) our allegiance to an historical Adam, we shall be regarded as ever so much more reasonable and hip. I keep saying “temptation” because that is exactly what it is. It’s a covenant. If we will do x (renounce a historical Adam), Dame Moderna will do y (accept us as equals).

We must ask ourselves, “Is the bargain worth it?” What do we gain by accepting the proposed covenant? Is this the end of the deal or will Dame Moderna come to us with other, subsequent covenants? Will she stop at Adam or will she press relentlessly for us to “cash in” the rest of redemptive-history? Of course the story of modern theology answers the question. Dame Moderna is not a only a temptress she is a tyrant. She has not been satisfied with doing away with an historical Adam. Starting with Adam she has ridden through the history of redemption, as it were, with an eraser doing away with very existence of the “Hebrews,” the Exodus, the flood (local or universal), and all forms of supernatural religion.

The other puzzling feature about the modern revision of Reformed theology is related to the first. It is an adaptation of the first. Just as the very idea of an historical Adam offends modern sensibilities, so too the idea of legal relation to God at the outset of human existence offends. The modern creed has a few basic tenets: the universal fatherhood of God, the universal brotherhood of man, and human progress. Implicit in the biblical story of a law-giving God and a law-breaking federal representative man is distinction. There is no reconciling the “law” story of the first man with the “grace” story of all men. If the first man was the legal representative of all humans and if he, and we in him, broke that original law, then it cannot be that all humans are now universally accepted by God. Indeed, according to Scripture the exact opposite is true. All humans are, in Adam, universally condemned by God.

Thus, to accept the biblical story as we have it is to place ourselves at odds with the whole sweep and spirit of modernity. For this reason we should be skeptical of anyone who, under the auspices of ostensibly being “more biblical” invites us to reject the reading of the Adam narrative as the story of a law-giving God and a law-breaking man.

To be continued

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  1. “Just as the very idea of an historical Adam offends modern sensibilities, so too the idea of legal relation to God at the outset of human existence offends.”

    Understanding our human relationships as primarily legal as well is offensive. Instead of, for example, seeing the marriage relationship being given its weight by the inclusive/exclusive vows taken the modern view is that the vows are given their weight by vows being fulfilled. Instead of simply understanding them to be unfulfilled vows it is thought that the vows were never substantive in the first place.

    Funny how much of this parallels modern pagan reasoning for various versions of fornication where one hears a lot of “mere pieces of paper” or “married in our hearts” speech.

  2. Hi Philip,

    Thanks! Yes, that was a typo. It is fixed.

    Hi Zrim,

    Yes, you’re exactly right. The juxtaposition of the legal and the relational is unnecessary and arbitrary. My relations to my family are legal. When I said, “I do” I entered into a binding legal relationship. That doesn’t make me any less married nor does it make the relationship any less intimate.

  3. Not only does legal relationship offend dame moderna, it offends fundamentalists, and those who impose so great a creator/creature distinction so as to propound an almighty God whose transcendence supercedes and eclipses all his other attributes. Over against medieval theologians Calvin argued against a fictional God whose power was such that He acted in discord with His own justice. “Is God good? Come and taste and know that He is.”

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