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.

The Diversity of “Covenant” in Early Reformation History

Before there was Federalism, there was Bullinger

When one thinks of Reformed theology, it is usually the case that federalism, or covenant theology, is part of this heritage. But the history of Reformed theology isn’t as monolithic as some may think when it comes to the idea of covenant. Indeed, J. Wayne Baker’s work in Heinrich Bullinger and the Covenant is subtitled, “The other Reformed Tradition.” What the other tradition shows is that what now prevails as Reformed orthodoxy wasn’t without its competitors.

Bullinger was a Swiss reformer acquainted with Calvin, but who’s views on the covenant were different than what later developed within Reformed theology. Calvin, and later theologians, conceived of the covenant between God and man as a unilateral pact. That is, that God is the ratifier of it, and the one who performs the stipulations of the covenant. Bullinger conceived of the covenant as a bilateral agreement between God and man, with man being bound to perform the covenant conditions.

How Bullinger worked this out in his own theology and how he viewed salvation history helps us understand some of what is behind the Second Helvetic Confession, a work that Bullinger mainly wrote.  It also helps understand the particularly Reformed flavor of Caesaropapism that Bullinger adhered to.

On the idea of covenant, Baker notes

“When most sixteenth-century theologians used the term covenant (foedus), they meant testament in the soteriological sense. Christ was the Testator as well as the promised inheritance, and the elect, the heirs. The idea of covenant as a bilateral, mutual agreement was often missing. Bullinger, on the other hand, used both terms, foedus and testamentum, to refer to a mutual pact or covenant. Although testamentum also carried the meaning of last testament and promise for Bullinger, God’s agreement with man included not only God’s promises but also certain conditions that man was obligated to meet. Thus, for Bullinger, testamentum was the broader term of the two: it included both the idea of promise and the meaning of foedus, mutual agreement or pact.”[1]

That Bullinger did not have the covenant as a primarily soteriological entity in his thought means that he viewed it as a way of administering society, a society where the boundaries of church and state were very porous indeed. So bound was he to the idea of a covenantal society that Bullinger believed everything needed to order society was to be found in the Old Testament, and in the law.

Marcion is notorious as a heretic of the early centuries who drew such a sharp distinction between old and new testaments, that he dispensed with the old as unnecessary, as antithetical to the ethics of the New Testament.

Bullinger manifests the opposite tendency. That is, he was convinced that the Old Testament contains everything Christians need, believing that God published no New Covenant, but only a ratification of the Old.

“Since all things become clear and complete in Christ, He spoke of a new testament. But he made no new covenant: ‘Now therefore when Christ calls this cup a new testament, no on shall imagine that God began a new covenant with the human race.’ Rather, it meant that Christ renewed and sealed the covenant with His death.”[2]

The other notable difference in Bullinger’s covenantal views is that he articulates no covenant of works with Adam. He does speak of a covenant with Adam, but it is a postlapsarian covenant, in Genesis 3:15, the proto-evangel. A covenant of works with Adam is a central feature of the Federal theology of later decades.  Weir summarizes the differences between what we now call federal theology and the “other tradition.”

Calvin and the Genevan theologians

  1. The covenant is unilateral.
  2. The covenant is God’s unconditional promise to man.
  3. The burden of fulfilling the covenant rests on God.
  4. The covenant is fulfilled in Christ’s Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection.

Zwingli, Bullinger, and the Rhineland theologians

  1. The covenant is bilateral.
  2. The covenant is God’s conditional promise to man and man’s response (a mutual pact or treaty).
  3. The burden of fulfilling the covenant rests on man.
  4. The covenant is fulfilled in the obedience of the individual.[3]

Point #2 among the Rhinelanders manifested itself in Bullinger’s great faith in godly magistrates, those who would rule society in a just and equitable way, but history—indeed, recent history—shows that putting faith in political leaders to do the just and equitable thing is naive and foolish.

Bullinger’s covenantal idea certainly didn’t win the day in Reformed theology, but he does demonstrate that uniformity wasn’t there in the beginning. I believe Bullinger fell short of the mark in his ability to properly interpret the history of redemption. If we fail to see that the law belongs to the Mosaic Covenant, then we bring elements of it into the New Covenant. Paul is explicit in 2 Cor 3 that the ministry of condemnation doesn’t belong alongside the ministry of righteousness—the New Covenant. Bullinger, along with others of his day, seemed to equate righteousness with the law, something Scripture does not do. Bullinger advocated a kind of Judaized society (and church) because he failed to see this distinction between Old and New Covenants.

The two-covenant idea (a covenant of works, and a covenant of grace) that developed shares something with Bullinger in that the covenant of works looks more like his idea of covenant. The law is central, it must be obeyed.  In other words, later federal theology imports the idea of covenantal obedience, but mitigates this by saying it is Christ’s obedience on our behalf. But, as Weir notes, the unilateral nature of the Genevan version ends up not being so different from the bilateral nature of the Rhineland version. “We see that the classical distinctions between the Old Testament and the New Testament (and the Mosaic Old Covenant and the Christian New Covenant) are subsumed under one covenant, the postlapsarian covenant of grace.”[4] Weir further notes that Christ took the place of Adam as federal head, faithfully obeying the first covenant of works where the first Adam failed: “The postlapsarian covenant of grace is really therefore the prelapsarian covenant of works in disguise, but a new Adam (Christ) was needed to keep the covenant which God had established with man at the beginning of the world. Once the prelapsarian covenant of works is established, it can never be broken.”[5]

What this means for our understanding of “covenant” is something I’ll take up in the next post on this topic.

[1] J. Wayne Baker, Heinrich Bullinger and the Covenant: The Other Reformed Tradition (Athens, Ohio University Press, 1980), xxiii.

[2] Baker, 9.

[3] David A. Weir, The Origins of the Federal Theology in Sixteenth-Century Reformation Thought (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1990), 22.

[4]Weir, 5


Headship and the Two Adams

First in a series on covenant theology
Headship is an important concept in Scripture, and few would argue that the Bible teaches there are two heads: Adam and Christ. Headship is, to use the vernacular, a package deal. What we get by being under one head or another is passel of things that, in some cases, are mutually exclusive. To be in Adam means to be under the condemnation of sin and death, to be in Christ means to be free from condemnation. It is therefore important to understand the concept of headship, as other things in Scripture (covenant, for example) are often bound up with it. 
Headship in Scripture
Scripture teaches that all mankind is under one of two heads: Adam or Christ. To be in Adam, we need do nothing, for all mankind descends naturally and physically from Adam. When Adam sinned in the garden, the effect of it was passed on to his descendants—all of us. The latter part of Romans 5 sets this forth. Sin came into the world through one man (v. 12) Many died through one man’s trespass (v. 15) because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man. (v. 17) and finally, one trespass led to condemnation for all men. (v. 18)
What is clear from these verses is that Adam was acting representatively, as the head of a race. No one escapes the condemnation and death of being under the headship of Adam, since we get it by simply being human. The other head spoken of in Romans 5 (and elsewhere) is Jesus Christ. Paul contrasts the sin of Adam with the righteousness of Christ. He speaks of the “free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many.” (v. 15) and that “the free gift following many trespasses brought justification.” (v.16) Finally, Paul speaks of the “one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men.” and that “by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.” (v. 18-19)
The Headship of Christ
Christ, too, acted as head, for the effects of his righteousness flow to all those who are in him and under him. The difference is that while we are naturally (we are born) under the headship of Adam, we are only supernaturally under the headship of Christ. (We must by born-again.)
1 Corinthians 15 is the other place where Paul expounds on the truths of headship. He says that “as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.” (v. 22) and he culminates in the comparison and contrast between Adam and Christ.
The first man Adam became a living being; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. But it is not the spiritual that is first but the natural, and then the spiritual. The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. As was the man of dust, so also are those who are of the dust, and as is the man of heaven, so also are those who are of heaven. Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven. (1 Cor. 15: 45-49)
Some have doubted this, or resisted it, saying that it is unjust to be counted a sinner just because of lineage. We should not have guilt imputed to us only because we are human! But this works both ways. The imputation of righteousness is a matter of headship, too. We get the benefit of that righteousness by being “in Christ” and under his headship. It is imputed to us, given to us, being something that we do not have in ourselves. In other words, if we accept that Christ’s righteousness is imputed to us, Scripture likewise teaches that Adam’s guilt is imputed to us. 
The Implications of Headship


They two heads differ in origin (earth/heaven) and they differ in kind (natural/spiritual) but they are also similar, that is, Paul refers to Christ as the second Adam. This is because he, too, acts representatively for believers. And our identity is tied to our head. Being in Christ means new life, new hopes, new power, and ultimately a different destination from those in the first Adam. Those in Christ possess all these things, but it is also clear that we still retain something of the Adamic. We are to reckon, or count ourselves to be dead to sin but alive to God. We are to put to death what is earthly in us. (Col. 3:5) Recall that Paul has said the first man is of the earth.
But it is also clear that being in Christ, our new head, means that we need not live under the power of the Adamic. Paul wrote to the Colossians in a parallel to what he wrote to the Ephesians. To the Ephesians he said “Put off the old man” but the Colossians he (fittingly) views as being with Christ in the heavenly places, seated with him. Thus he says “seeing that you have put off the old man with its practices and have put on the new man.” He views them as having already done it, having reckoned upon their identity as under the headship of Christ. This is where every Christian needs to live: in the knowledge and enjoyment of being in Christ, and recognizing all that it implies.  Confusing what properly belongs to one head, instead of another, leads to invalid conclusions. Next I’ll look at some of the variety in covenant views during the early years of the Reformation