What are the Terms of a Covenant with Adam?

I previously looked at the idea of headship, and concluded that Scripture teaches we are under one of two heads: Adam or Christ. Jesus taught that his blood is the basis of the new covenant, and the book of Hebrews twice states that Jesus is the mediator of a new covenant (“he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance”. 9:15, and “Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant.” 12:24) A covenant of which Jesus is the mediator is uncontroversial.

When we turn to Adam, the picture is not as clear. Does the fact that Adam functions as the head of unredeemed humanity mean he must have functioned as a covenant head? I believe Scripture doesn’t insist on this. In Romans 5, Paul clearly draws the parallels between the actions of both Adam and Christ, but he doesn’t necessarily cast this in covenant terms. They act representatively, yes, but that has to do with headship proper, rather than with a covenant, or more specifically, a covenant whose terms have obligation beyond Adam himself. The question I want to investigate is whether seeing the covenant with Adam as a covenant of works which still binds all of mankind is a correct reading of the evidence.  To further define the question, some within the Reformed community see a covenant with Adam before the Fall, while some see one in place only after the Fall.

To consider the first case, many have pointed out that the language of Genesis 1-2 doesn’t state Adam’s position in covenantal terms. When God places Adam in the garden and tells him to dress and keep it, and says that of any tree in the garden he may freely eat, except of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, it is not said “And God made a covenant with Adam.” The Hebrew word for covenant berith, is absent. But, the prophet Hosea gives us further information. God is speaking of Israel, but he makes a comparison with Adam.

“But like Adam they transgressed the covenant;
there they dealt faithlessly with me.” Hos. 6:7.

Does this verse teach Adam was under a covenant, and just as he broke the one he was under, so Israel has broken theirs? It’s not straight forward. One could read it thusly: “Just as Adam sinned, he transgressed the word God gave him not to eat of the tree, so Israel broke their covenant.” Stated differently, in transgressing the covenant, Israel acted like Adam: they sinned. The validity of the verse doesn’t require us to see Adam in a covenant relationship before the Fall to see comparison with Israel’s faithlessness.
Alternately, some believe “Adam” refers to a place, because of the second half of the verse. There they dealt faithlessly with me. Joshua 3:16 says “the waters coming down from above stood and rose up in a heap very far away, at Adam, the city that is beside Zarethan, and those flowing down toward the Sea of the Arabah, the Salt Sea, were completely cut off. And the people passed over opposite Jericho.” Under this reading, the people of Israel dealt faithlessly with God at Adam. However, this view suffers from a lack of any other corroborating verses. There isn’t any mention elsewhere of a breach of faith at Adam, unless a rather loose interpretation sees Achan’s sin as occurring in the region of Adam. This seems to put too much weight on a paucity of evidence.

Still another view sees God entering into a covenant with Adam after the Fall, specifically when the protoevangel of Genesis 3:15 is spoken. Ulrich Zwingli’s understanding of the covenant reflects this view. Commenting on Zwingli’s Elenchus, J. Wayne Baker says that this is where Zwingli “most clearly stated his covenant idea. The new element here was that Zwingli commenced his discussion with Adam, with whom God first made the covenant, in the protoevangelium (Gen 3:15). The same covenant was subsequently renewed with Noah, with Abraham, and finally with the entire nation of Israel (Exod. 19:5), each renewal clarifying the contents of the covenant.”[1]

As it developed later within Reformed theology, the covenant idea became more refined, and took a different direction. Specifically, that God entered into a covenant with Adam before the Fall, in the garden. We find the stipulation of this in the Westminster Confession of Faith. “God gave to Adam a law, as a covenant of works, by which he bound him and all his posterity to personal, entire, exact, and perpetual obedience, promised life upon the fulfilling, and threatened death upon the breach of it, and endued him with power and ability to keep it.”[2] It is also clear that, after the fall (sometimes referred to as the postlapsarian era) and the promise of a redeemer in Genesis 3:15, the obligation to obey this law remained. The Confession again states, “This law, after his fall, continued to be a perfect rule of righteousness; and, as such, was delivered by God upon Mount Sinai, in ten commandments, and written in two tables.”[3]

The point to note here is that the terms of this covenant with Adam are not the commandment to not eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

The Westminster Larger Catechism sets this forth in question 92:

Q: What did God first reveal to man as the rule of his obedience?

A: The rule of obedience revealed to Adam in the state
of his innocence, and to all mankind in him, besides a
special command not to eat of the fruit of the tree of the
knowledge of good and evil, was the moral law.[4]

This comes with assumptions that have too often been taken as part of the biblical record. These include the “moral law” being equivalent to the Ten Commandments. Scripture never uses the phrase “moral law”, nor does it divide the law into portions such as the traditional moral/civil/ceremonial. Assuming that what God gave to Adam in the garden was the moral law, or the Ten Commandments, is to use historical theology to read into the text what is not there. Paul is explicit that the law came 430 years after the promise to Abraham. (Gal 3:17) Paul’s timeline makes it impossible to see the Ten Commandments prior to Sinai.

One problem with the way the Adamic covenant is usually defined in Reformed theology (as a covenant of works) is the way in which it flattens these covenant distinctions, importing into the new covenant what belongs to the Mosaic covenant, and making the law the basis of righteousness. Galatians 3 sets forth a time prior to the law, a time of the law, and a time when the law does not apply to us as believers. We are no longer under the pedagogue.

Insisting that the covenant terms God (putatively) gave to Adam are the “moral law” and are perpetual makes the law the basis of our righteousness when Paul explicitly says otherwise. “If a law had been given that could give life, then righteousness would indeed be by the law.” (Gal 3:21) I understand that the claim is not that our law-keeping is able to bring righteousness, but it is the law-keeping of Jesus—his active obedience—that is the basis of our righteousness.

But here, too, there is no Scripture to support this. The one verse that is often cited for this is Romans 5:19. “For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.” Reading “the one man’s obedience” as the lifelong obedience of Jesus to the law is problematic in two ways. The first part of the verse highlighted Adam’s disobedience—a single act. It is a parallel to see act of going to the cross as the obedience of Jesus. Indeed, Moo comments, “But the focus is rather on Jesus death as the ultimate act of ‘obedience.’ This is suggested by the parallel with Adam’s [one] act of disobedience, Phil. 2:8 (Jesus ‘became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross’) and the consistent connection Paul makes between justification and Jesus’ death (Meyer; Dunn).”[5]

Secondly, it separates what God does not: forgiveness of sins and justification (or righteousness, since it is the same word in Greek.) They are viewed as one and the same in the New Testament. In Romans 4:25, Paul says our justification, our righteousness is based on the resurrection of Jesus. And in the next chapter, 5:9, we are justified, made righteous, by his blood. Nowhere in the New Testament is righteousness based on law, and Paul is frequently at pains to point out how it is absolutely not based on law. (Phil 3:9, to cite but one text: “and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith.”) Not Paul’s law-keeping, to be sure, but also not Jesus’ law-keeping; his death and resurrection. This is what our righteousness is based on.
To be sure, Jesus sinless life of obedience is vital. But it is a demonstration of his inherent righteousness which makes him fit to be the lamb without blemish, not the acquisition of a righteousness he then imparts to us.

What then, can we say about a covenant with Adam? God bound Adam to terms in the garden, but the terms of it were only what he spoke to him there. “And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, ‘You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.’” (Gen 2:16) The promise of life upon obedience to the covenant terms isn’t as clear as Reformed theology has made it. Indeed, there was the promise of death upon breaching the covenant, but Adam already had life. It was not a new state to him, and prior to the Fall there was no death. As F. W. Grant writes, “If I open Genesis, I find no hope of heaven held out to him there, no idea of being raised above the estate in which he was created. I find no works enjoined for which he was to be rewarded; one prohibition only of a thing which would have had no moral character attaching to it, had it not been forbidden. Created very good, he was to keep his first estate, not seek a new one.”[6]

Whether we view Adam as in a covenant has implications for anthropology, but our view of what the terms of that covenant are has implications for salvation, righteousness, and how we understanding our position in Christ.

[1] J. Wayne Baker, Heinrich Bullinger and the Covenant: The Other Reformed Tradition (Athens, OH., Ohio University Press, 1980), 3.
[2] Westminster Confession of Faith, 19.1.
[3] Westminster Confession of Faith, 19.2.
[4] Westminster Assembly, Larger Catechism, Q. 92.
[5] Douglas J. Moo, The Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1996.), 358.
[6] F. W. Grant, The Numerical Bible (Neptune, NJ, Loizeaux Brothers, 1892), 220-221.

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