The Covenant Of Works In Late-17th Century English Reformed Theology

QUESTION II. What ground we have to speak of “God’s covenant with Adam,” and to call it “a covenant;” there being no mention of it here in the text, nor elsewhere in scripture do we read of “God’s covenant with Adam.”

ANSWER. However the name be not here, yet the thing is here and elsewhere, comparing scripture with scripture. It is a nice cavil in Socinians to call for the word “satisfaction;” others, for the word “sacrament;” others, for the word “Trinity;” others, for the words “faith alone justifying;” others, for the word “sabbath” for Lord’s day, etc.; and thence to conclude against satisfaction, sacraments, Trinity, justification by faith alone, and sabbath, for want of express words, when the things themselves are lively set down in other words. So, in this case of God’s covenant with Adam, we have:

  1. God’s command, which lays man under an obligation.
  2. We have God’s promise upon condition of obedience.
  3. We have God’s threatening upon his disobedience.
  4. We have their understanding it so, as appears in Eve’s words to the serpent. ( Gen. iii. 3.)
  5. We have the two trees as signs and symbols of the covenant.
  6. We have a “second covenant” and a “new covenant;” therefore there was a first and old covenant: a covenant of grace supposes one of works.

OBJECTION. If any shall say, “By ‘first and old covenant’ was meant God’s covenant with Israel, and not with Adam; and so, by ‘covenant of works’ the same is meant; namely, that which the Lord made at Mount Sinai:” (Heb. 8:7—9:)

ANSWER. Hereunto I answer, There is a repetition of the covenant of works with Adam in the law of Moses; as in that of the apostle to the Galatians: “The law is not of faith: but, The man that does” these things “shall live in them.” (Gal. 3:12) So likewise to the Romans: “Moses describes the righteousness which is of the law, That the man who does those things shall live by them.” (Rom. 10:5.) Thus it was with Adam principally and properly: therefore he was under a covenant of works, when God gave him that command in my text.

QUESTION III. Wherein, then, does this covenant of works consist? What is the nature, tenor, and end of it, as such?

ANSWER 1. This covenant required working on our part, as the condition of it, for justification and happiness; [and is] therefore called “a covenant of works.” Thus before: “The man that does” these things “shall live in them.” (Gal. 3:12) Working, indeed, is also required under grace now; but, (1.) Not to justification; (2.) Not from our own power; (Eph. 2:8) (3.) Not previous to faith, which “works by love,” (Gal. 5:6) and lives by working; (James 2:20;) but man lives by faith.

2. A second characteristic sign of the covenant of works is this,— that in and under it man is left to stand upon his own legs and bottom, to live upon his own stock and by his own industry; he had a power to stand, and not to have fallen. This is meant, when it is said, “God created man in his own image.” (Gen. 1:27) And again: “Lo, this only have I found, that God made man upright.” (Eccles. 7:29)

3. In the first covenant, namely, that of works, man had no need of a mediator; God did then stipulate with Adam immediately: for, seeing as yet he had not made God his enemy by sin, he needed no daysman to make friends by intercession for him. After man’s creation God said, he “saw every thing which he had made, and, behold, it was very good.” (Gen. 1:31) And after the covenant made in Gen. ii., it is said, “They were naked, and were not ashamed:” (verse 25:) that is, they had not contracted guilt by committing of sin, from whence only arises shame. Therefore under the covenant [of works] there needs no mediator. And hence Moses’s law was not properly a covenant of works, because that law was given “in the hand of a mediator.” (Gal. 3:19)

4. The covenant of works once broken, God abates nothing of his justice, no, not upon repentance; but the soul that sinned, died. Mark our text: “Thou shalt die the death;” by which doubling of the words in the Hebrew idiom of speech, is meant vehemency and certainty;  which was effected, and so had continued inevitably, without the help of another covenant, hinted in that first promise, Gen. 3:15. For the first covenant gives no relief to a poor sinner, when he hath broken it; but leaves him hopeless and helpless, under “a fearful expectation of” wrath “and fiery indignation.” (Heb. 10:27)

5. The Lord in the covenant of works accepts the person for the work’s sake: that is, he mainly looks at the work, how adequate it is to the command and rule; which he so exactly heeds, that upon the least failure his justice breaks out in wrath, neither can any personal excellency in the world salve the matter: “Cursed is he that continues not in all the words of the law to do them. And all the people shall say, Amen;” (Deut. 27:26; Gal. 3:10) a doleful Amen! And, “Whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all.” (James 2:1) Note that “whosoever;” God respects no man’s person in that case.

6. The covenant of works, in performance of the condition, leaves a man matter of boasting and glorying in himself, and makes God a debtor to him: “Where is boasting? It is excluded. By what law? of works? Nay.” (Rom. 3:27) As if he had said, “The covenant of works affords matter of boasting to him that workS to justification by his own personal power and righteousness.” “Now to him that works is the reward reckoned, not of grace, but of debt;” (Rom. 4:4) that is, it obliges God to pay it him as a due; which is the language of Pharisees and Papists; which were justly challenged and claimed, (1.) Were we indeed under a covenant of works, and not of grace; (2.) Were our works perfect; (3.) Did we not lie at God’s mercy, for our guilt:—all which declare man impotent, and grace necessary; and, withal, Jews and Papists to be enemies to the cross of Christ and covenant of grace, and under a covenant of works, of which more anon.

7. The covenant of works leaves a man still in doubt while resting in it, in that state; because it is a mutable state at best. He had all in his own hands, and then Satan cunningly rooked him of all. God puts him into a good bottom, and leaves him to be his own pilot at sea: the devil assaults him, and sinks him. And therefore the second covenant takes all into God’s hands, that it may continue safe under his fatherly care and custody; (1 Peter 1:4, 5; John 10:28, 29) and so gives the soul good security against death and danger, which Adam had not while he stood: much less can any rich or honorable man, in his fool’s paradise here in this world, say, his mountain is unmovable, his glory unchangeable; seeing it “passeth away” as a “pageant.” (1 Cor. 7:31) If Adam’s Paradise was so mutable, much more theirs: if he stood not in his integrity, how shall they stand in their iniquity?

8. The covenant of works was made with all men in Adam, who was made and stood as a public person, head and root, in a common and comprehensive capacity; I say, It was made with him as such, and with all in him:

[Quo mansit remanente, et quo pereunte peribat; “He and all stood and fell together.” For even the elect may say, “We are all by nature the children of wrath, as well as others;” and that of St. Paul: “We know that what things soever the law saith, it saith to them who are under the law: that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God.” (Rom.3:19) But the covenant of grace is a discriminating thing; it takes-in some, and leaves out others. Christ is not a head in covenant with all, as Adam was; but of his elect only: for we find many in the world under the headship of Satan and antichrist and old Adam, who are out of Christ; not only because unconverted, as saints themselves are before regeneration; but out of Christ in the account of God’s election, donation, and covenant; who have none of his special love, nor ever shall have.

Thus I have briefly opened the distinguishing characters of the covenant of works; which might have been more enlarged by those of the covenant of grace, which is easily done by way of opposition and comparison one with the other….

—Samuel Annesley (1620–96), The morning exercises at Cripplegate 1679–81, ed. James Nichols (London: Thomas Tegg, 1844), 5.96–99. [Spelling and Punctuation modernized]

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  1. Hmm. 1679 is not late 16th century, but rather late 17th century. Personally, I don’t think the covenant with Adam as you define it was ever expressed by the early English Reformers, at least with the 17th century precision that you prefer. That doesn’t mean they wouldn’t largely agree in retrospect, but it’s just not there in the place and time you want.

  2. Scott. “Early English” refers to a time just before, during and after the Marian exile, to Reformers in Geneva and in upon their return to England. You have found the “covenant of works” in William Perkins, but that’s later, and I’m not sure it’s totally the same. It’s certainly an interesting question, and not just for England. Can you find it spelled out clearly in any of the early Reformed confessions (1553-70)? I think you’ll find it to be an evolving, not a static idea, and really doesn’t have much shape until well into the 17th century.

    • The substance of the covenant of works far antedates the Reformation. It is essentially a Patristic notion (e.g., Irenaeus, Augustine). Aspects of it were preserved through medieval theology but it began to emerge in the early 16th century. It’s arguably in Tyndale and the substance is in Luther well before the terminology began to develop more fully c. 1560-61. The turning point for the terminology is in Ursinus’ Summa theologiae but it also appeared in his lectures on the catechism. Ursinus’ doctrine was fairly well developed as was Rollock’s after him. The main lines of the covenant of works were well established before the 17th century. The English were quite aware of these developments. Ursinus lectures on the catechism was a required text at Oxford.

      Ursinus’ Summa was a used in the seminary in Heidelberg though it did not have ecclesiastical status. Yes, it was a developing idea but it certainly existed in the 16th century.

    • Did you catch that comment about the substance of the covenant? The terminology mainly came up later as a result and consequence of ideas that were clearly previously presented, ultimately derived from the Bible. So while specific terminology may not have been there the concept very much was. This is certainly nothing new or outlandish to orthodox biblical and theological thinking. Very similar to the word “Trinity”, it is found nowhere in Scripture yet no one can claim to be an orthodox Christian who doesn’t hold to the Trinity. We derive the substance of the Trinity from good and necessary consequences, from ideas that were clearly put forth in God’s Word though that specific terminology was not used.

      All that said, I can understand the concern for making deductions via good and necessary consequences into a kind of waxed nose. Although I don’t know for sure if that’s what your concern is but I certainly can understand it and I would acknowledge it is a legitimate concern as this happens too often, even in Reformed circles. However, that is simply not the case here. The reformed concept of covenant is sound.

      • Scott.

        1. Can you help define the path from Calvin/Bucer to the Heidelberg Catechism in respect to these ideas? Calvin, Bucer and the HC were well respected in the early English Reformed tradition, but I’m not sure about Summa Theologiae. Does it make any difference that it is not directly in the English timeline, which I think was what you were trying to prove?
        2. Thanks for the reference to Dudley Fenner which I didn’t know about, but his points of view arrive in the Puritan era. I am not trying to disparage the thesis itself. I only believe it was not well defined by English Reformers (before the Puritan split).

        Irrelevant side note: I find people even today arguing aimlessly about “covenant” simply because of their lack of precision and agreement on terminology.

        • Hudson and Jack,

          I’m still working on the genealogy. It’s a difficult kind of story to compile because it requires so much synthesis. The picture is mixed. Not everyone arrived at the same place at the same time. Here’s a sketch:

          1. Zwingli mentions a covenant with Adam in passing. His real interest is in refuting the Anabaptists and thus the stress is on the unity of the covenant of grace. In that respect his debates were much like ours with the Baptists/evangelicals today. The main lines of the argument over continuity with Abraham have not changed. Nevertheless, that he could speak of a covenant with Adam in passing suggests that the idea was more widely accepted at an earlier date than many previously thought.

          2. Bullinger did not speak much about a covenant with Adam. Like Zwingli, his main interest in his treatise on covenant theolgy was on the continuity of the covenant of grace.

          3. Calvin had a covenant theology but it was inchoate. The metaphor/imagery seems not to have captured his imagination as the primary way of articulating the faith though it was more important than has sometimes been recognized. Bear in mind that Calvin’s influence has been over-stated in the modern period post-Barth.

          4. The same is probably true of Bucer. Remember, he’s really a 1st generation and transitional figure. I hesitate to say too much about Bucer because he hasn’t been an area of focused attention.

          5. Ursinus’ students in the Collegium would have transmitted the covenant theology he taught them from both the Summa and in the lectures on the catechism. Those lectures were very influential. Joel Beeke and I sketched this in the late 90s in one of the Westminster Confession into the 21st Century volumes.

          What I see in Heidelberg is a more focused, deliberate attempt to work out biblical theology or a covenant theology, which expressed the gains of the Reformation in what we would call redemptive-historical terms. Still, the terminology is fluid. What Ursinus called a covenant of works, Olevianus called a covenant of nature or a covenant of law. As I mentioned before, students transmitted those ideas widely. There’s a direct link between the Palatiate and Rollock and from Rollock to the Divines. Of course, Fenner, and Perkins, and Ames and others are also major tributaries into the Westminster Standards.

          This really comes down to the tests one establishes. If one says, “they must say the words,” that produces one result. If one takes a broader view and looks for the substance of the doctrine, a quite different picture emerges in which the terminology had to catch up with the substance. Our perception of things is also colored by the fact that we more or less settled on one expression (covenant of works) when, in the 16th and 17th centuries there were at least three terms used interchangeably.

    • My memory betrayed me. In his Catechismus Maior/Summa theologiae (Larger Catechism) c. 1561 he wrote:

      36 Q What is the difference between the law and the gospel?

      A The law contains the covenant of nature established by God with man in creation; that means,
      it is known by man from nature,
      it requires perfect obedience of us to God,
      and it promises eternal life
      to those who keep it
      but threatens eternal punishment to those who do not….

      He called it a covenant of nature (foedus naturale) but this is certainly a covenant of works. The terminology varied. The WLC used “covenant of life” for “covenant of works.” Nature = setting. Law = terms. Life = outcome. They all refer to the same covenant.

      “Nature” in Ursinus and other writers, in this context, stands for “natural law.” Olevianus taught this very thing (prelapsarian natural law) repeatedly. Olevianus also spoke of a “covenant” with Adam.

      The first place I find the actual term “foedus operum” (covenant of works) is in Dudley Fenner’s Sacra theologia (1585) where it was used to describe the covenant made with the Jews (p. 123). F. Gomarus, Prolegomena (1594) described the covenant of works as a covenant known by natural revelation, which, he wrote, was repeated to the Jews at Sinai.

      Your question caused me to do a search I had not done for a while (the database continues to grow when I’m not looking). It turns out that Zwingli was writing, in 1527, about a covenant with Adam (Annotations in Genesis) and in Catabaptistarum Strophas Elenchus. Musculus was writing about a covenant with Adam in his commentary on Genesis in 1554. Bullinger wrote of a covenant of friendship with Adam and Noah and the rest of the patriarchs (1565; Daniel Sapientissimus Dei Propheta).

    • I’d also be curious as to any covenantal influence via Bullinger’s writings given the reference in one of Scott’s replies concerning Zwingli and “a covenant with Adam.” Bullinger (Zwingli’s successor) was probably more studied in Elizabeth’s England than even Calvin.

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