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]

    Post authored by:

  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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  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,

  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.


  4. Dr Clark.

    I’m currently preaching on Noah and value your comments here. However i struggle with your making a distinction between Gen 6 and 9 as two separate covenants. 6:18 clearly has a future aspect to it, i.e. the LORD is telling Noah about a covenant that he will make with them , which, of course is the covenant made in Gen 9.

    I think the covenant of grace appears here in that God preserves a righteous man and his family that the seed may come from, hence the promise is still able to be fulfilled.

    I’m relatively new to covenant theology so if im totally off-base here please be patient! I would still value your insight.


    • Richie,

      Not everyone distinguishes between Gen 6 and 9 but many do. One reason to do so is that 9 is universal or common. It is not redemptive or saving. It is a re-institution, after the flood, of Gen 1:28, which is universal (not particular) and not redemptive. We’re looking at the re-institution of the natural order, the creation of a stage as it were, on which the drama of redemption is about the play out. It is part of the secular sphere, not the sacred, to execute justice on murders, Being fruitful isn’t unique to believers. It’s a creational ordinance.

      To be sure the covenant that God makes with Noah here is not entirely disconnected from redemption since it is the promise that God will exercise mercy and forestall cataclysmic judgment until the end. This is it. The stage is set. The Redeemer is to come forth from this little company and judgment will be with held until redemption is accomplished and applied to all the elect.

      Second, the covenant in ch. 6 is particular. There is no mercy for the reprobate. It is a picture of the final judgment. Only the elect, believing remnant is saved, in the ark, in Christ.

      Obviously, creation and redemption are not utterly separate or hermetically sealed from one another since redemption and its application are described in scripture as a new creation and we look forward to the new heavens and the new earth but there is still a distinction to be made between the universal/common/secular sphere in view in ch. 9 and the particular/redemptive/sacred sphere in view in ch. 6.

  5. Dr Clark you (among many) recommend Horton’s ‘Introducing Covenant Theology’ But very worryingly, one book reviewer quotes from page 182 as follows: (Quote) ‘Horton proclaims that “the New Testament lays before us a vast array of conditions for final salvation” (p. 182). Added to faith and repentance is perseverance, based on the book of Hebrews. But I would contend that perseverance is the evidence and fruit of salvation, not a condition for such. If final perseverance is a condition for salvation then assurance of our salvation can never be secured in this life—a most unhappy thought.’ (end quote) Surely (hopefully!) this is not an acceptable idea in Reformed theology?!

    • Allan,

      1. I don’t recall any worrying language. Has anyone in our time been clearer about justification sola gratia, sola fide than Mike Horton?

      2. There are two kinds of conditions, antecedent and consequent. Christ has met the antecedent condition: righteousness for us. There are consequent conditions in the covenant of grace. Having been saved sola gratia, sola fide, we are morally obligated to respond in grace, in union with Christ, by striving to obey God’s holy law.

      3. Have you looked at the book for yourself? In my experience reviewers are not infallible.

  6. Dr Clark

    You say; ‘There are consequent conditions in the covenant of grace. Having been saved sola gratia, sola fide, we are morally obligated to respond in grace, in union with Christ, by striving to obey God’s holy law.’ My question is; What of those who do not respond well enough? How well is enough? How much striving will be enough? Where in this is the assurance Paul offers in Romans 8:31-39?

    • Allan,

      I don’t think you’re quite grasping the distinction between antecedent and consequent conditions. There is no “what if” in consequent conditions. The is the “gratitude” of which the apostle Paul speaks in the 2nd half of his epistles, of which we speak in the 3rd part of the catechism. It’s what believers do. If one is utterly uninterested in sanctity, then, like James (ch. 2) we have a right to question such a person’s claim to believe but if one believes, then one seeks, in grace, in union with Christ, to die to self and to live to Christ (per Romans 6) with the knowledge (per Romans 7) that we often fail. We struggle in light of the blessed assurance of Romans 8. Our sanctification is the work of God’s grace (WSC Q/A 35).

      Christ has met the “what if” conditions for us. We respond out of gratitude for all that he has done. What if there is no response? Then we say, “Repent and believe in the Lord Jesus Christ!”

      See these resources on conditions.

  7. what’s your view on consistency with inerrancy in the matter of biblical astronomy vis a vis science and the adjustments we have made and applying that same consistency to what science tells us about the flood and creation with respect to being an account about universality of both events? Because if you think about it intelligently – the traffic has not been in reverse – biblical texts have not created scientific principles – any thoughts would be really helpful

    • What is “biblical” astronomy? Some modernists read the Bible with the same literalistic tendencies as the most flaming fundamentalist.

      A good bit of the content in the Bible is perspectival. It expresses matters in the way people perceive reality, which most present-day folk do also; and not in “scientifically precise” ways. “The sun rose,” isn’t likely a biblical description of an event that was ever intended–not even by Moses–to state a reality affirmative of geocentricism. Nor when we use the same description are we usually living in denial of a heliocentric concept of our solar-system home.

      People now–as in past eras–make mistakes in text application, make mistakes in interpreting the material as it relates to the vagaries of perception; not to mention presumed undeniable axioms of knowledge current in some age–which have gone on to be denied by a later generation of secular investigators.

      Some “straightforward” biblical readings comport more easily with modern scientific observations than with earlier, intermediate opinions about scientific questions. In other words, the text doesn’t change, while the picture we glean of the universe around us is changing all the time.

      The “arrogance of the modern,” looking back at ancient times, reads his sense of superiority into everything. So, for instance, an ancient schematic representation of the world/universe–which might incorporate pillars at the limits and a dome-shell overhead–is often treated as an ancient “pre-scientific” literal understanding of reality. When in fact, it was simply representational and literary.

      Modern stuffed-shirts, lacking imagination, impose their narrowest of vision upon the past, reserving intellectual sophistication for themselves. When confronted with ancient sophistication, they ignore the evidence. Which then paves the way for those with no balance whatsoever to make up conspiracy theories about space aliens on the evidence.

      The Bible is not a source for scientific principles; that’s not and never has been its purpose. On the other hand, historians of science such as Jaki ask interesting questions such as, “Why was science stillborn over and over until dramatic advances in the Christian west?” Could it have anything to do with a particular worldview predicated on an intelligible and intelligent revelation from the Creator, something that actually harmonizes best with the world we actually live in?

      So, perhaps in fact the Bible is one significant factor in the development of modern scientific principles. Perhaps it achieves this, in spite of the failures of many who have tried wielding it to a strange end. What the skeptics lack are bona fide contradictions of empirical, verifiable data in the ancient text. What are typically asserted as insurmountable contradictions are elements the Bible already treats as supernatural! The Bible already considered miracles as events overriding otherwise natural courses.

      So it is simply an apriori antisupernaturalism in most cases, trotted out as evidence the Bible contradicts good science. Haven’t we heard this before? Like with Celsus?

  8. Dr Clark, serious question: does the Noahic covenant prohibit the eating of blood products on a perennial basis, unmodified by our Lord’s making all things clean?

    • Because I’m likely in the minority on this issue, but realise you know far more about covenant theology than I do, so would be glad of that perspective; and yes, I think so, given that it’s a covenant made with humanity (and creation) in general, and I think confirmed in Acts 15. I think our Lord is referring to Mosaic law when he modifies how we should understand that law. But I would be glad to hear your thoughts. And it’s almost haggis season.

      • Crawford,

        As I read Gen 9, it’s a sort of recapitulation of the creation narrative. After the deluge, mutatis mutandis, it’s as if the story is starting over. There’s a sort of basic primeval law, which mirrors the creational law. Traditionally Adam & Eve were thought to have been restricted from meat before the fall. Then, of course, there is a sort of fall, judgment, and exile.

        vv. 3 and 4 must be taken together:

        Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you. And as I gave you the green plants, I give you everything. But you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood (ESV).

        The traditional understanding of Gen 9:4 is that we are given dominion (again) over all things and given to eat “moving” things, i.e., animals. The restriction in v. 4 is from the pagan practice of eating blood in the animal and particularly for the purpose of gaining power. Luther interpreted this verse as a restriction from eating things that were still living. Calvin wrote,

        Wherefore, the life and the blood are not put for different things, but for the same; not because blood is in itself the life, but inasmuch as the vital spirits chiefly reside in the blood, it is, as far as our feeling is concerned, a token which represents life. And this is expressly declared, in order that men may have the greater horror of eating blood. For if it be a savage and barbarous thing to devour lives, or to swallow down living flesh, men betray their brutality by eating blood. Moreover, the tendency of this prohibition is by no means obscure, namely, that God intends to accustom men to gentleness, by abstinence from the blood of animals; but, if they should become unrestrained, and daring in eating wild animals, they would at length not be sparing of even human blood. Yet we must remember, that this restriction was part of the old law.

        I have not understood the restrictions of Acts 9:15 to be part of the Mosaic law. Why would the council rightly refuse to put the Mosaic ceremonial law on the Gentile Christians except for this one bit? The ambiguity is that it is also the prohibition against eating blood is the law of Deut 12:23 but the prohibition (if indeed, it is the very same prohibition) was Noahic first. In other words, it is more basic than the Mosaic ceremonial laws, which have been fulfilled and abrogated. In his exposition of Acts 15:20, Calvin appeals both to Deut 12 and Gen 9:4. As above, he did not distinguish much between Noah and Moses on these points. I would distinguish.

        I wasn’t raised eating blood pudding and the like and so I’ve not had to face this question personally. I’m reasonably sure about the intent of Gen 9 and Acts 15, to distinguish the believers from the pagans. The general sense is, “You’re not under the Mosaic law but you’re not free to live like a pagan.”

        I’m not sure that blood pudding and the like is really in view. Were someone to pour out chicken blood into a bowl and present it for dinner, however, I would not participate.

  9. Thanks for that – very helpful. I appreciate you rooting out these sources. I’ve heard of Jewish expositors echoing Luther on the point he makes above. And should you ever come over for dinner …

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