Conversations in Reformed biblical theology

covenant theology (4)

God's covenant with Adam

What was the nature of God’s relationship to Adam prior to the fall? Throughout Reformed history, it has been widely held that God established a covenantal relationship between Himself and Adam. This relationship has received various designations, such as “the covenant of works,” “the covenant of creation,” or “the covenant of life.”

But what shape did this relationship take? In recent years, largely under the influence of Presbyterian Old Testament professor Meredith Kline, many in the Reformed world have come to view the original arrangement between God and man as one where Adam could merit eternal life on the basis of his works. This, however, is not the historic Reformed position, which usually held that Adam, as a creature, could never have merited anything from the hand of God. Still, the prevalent title “covenant of works” does indicate that it was widely held that Adam’s relationship with God was based upon works in some way. This thought, combined with the repudiation of merit, has led to apparent tensions within Reformed theology - tensions which Kline, for example, seeks to dispel by adopting a merit paradigm.

It is not so clear, however, that if it is necessary to dispel this tension, one should not look in the other direction. That is, perhaps we need to reevaluate what we mean in suggesting that Adam’s relationship with God was based upon works. Is this, in fact, a helpful way of construing the Adamic covenant? Or does it obscure several features of Adam’s original situation? Recent writers who oppose Kline’s merit paradigm draw attention to several such features. For example:

  1. Adam’s relationship with God began with divine favour toward him. This was therefore clearly unmerited and unmeritable.
  2. Adam’s relationship with God was designed to be lived by faith, and centering upon “perfect obedience,” as is usually done, mutes this fact.
  3. Adam’s required response to God did mean that he was bound to “perfect obedience,” as the Reformed tradition has held. But what is meant by “condition” in the suggestion that Adam was “promised eternal life on condition of perfect obedience”? If this is what defines the “covenant of works,” what does this suggest regarding the post-fall covenant(s) which God made with men? That they do not, in any sense, require obedience (however imperfect), other than the obedience which Christ Himself has rendered to the Father?

The early Reformed were not ashamed to insist that eternal life came only by way of a response of obedience. They maintained this, while also maintaining that faith was the sole instrument of justification. Obedience was seen, not as an instrumental condition of justification, but as a “necessary condition” - a sine qua non (“without which not”) of final salvation.

In connection with Adam, the question arises: what precise role did obedience play in his relationship with God? Is it true that it was the ground of acceptance, as the phrase “covenant of works” might seem to imply? Or was his perfect obedience analogous to post-fall imperfect obedience, as a necessary corollary of life with God?

It is remarkable that, despite biblical parallels between Adam and Israel, the narrative of Genesis 1-2 does not lay the expected accent upon perfect obedience. Adam and Eve are told to be fruitful and multiply - as are the other creatures; this is better described as blessing than as command. We are also told that he is commanded to “tend and to guard” the garden - language later used to refer to the tasks given to the priests and Levites with reference to their roles in the tabernacle/temple. This is indeed to be obeyed - but the referent is to calling, not to “morality,” which is the way “perfect obedience” is generally understood. This explains why neither the mandate to be fruitful and multiply, nor the calling to tend and guard the garden, generally receive much attention in connection with the question of Adam’s obedience.

Instead, focus is placed upon abstention from the tree of knowledge of good and evil as a “part for the whole” - Adam’s (and Eve’s) abstention from this fruit is symbolic of his perfect conformity to the “whole law.”

It can be questioned, however, whether this is particularly satisfactory. This construction places all the weight upon “obedience” and none upon faith. And it is questionable whether that reflects the realities which Adam faced. This is true for a number of reasons:

  1. The serpent’s line of questioning of Eve indicates that he seeks to undermine humankind’s confidence in the goodness and good-will of God. (“God knows that in the day you eat, you will be like God.”)
  2. The original creation of the trees is with the intention that man partake of them: “every tree whose fruit yields seed” was to be food for man (Gen 1.29). James Jordan argues that this implies that even the tree of knowledge of good and evil was ultimately intended for man.
  3. The name of the forbidden tree suggests the same implication: the knowledge of good and evil is not wicked in Scripture; rather it is reserved for the mature and wise. Thus it would appear that the prohibition of the tree has to do with the fact that man was not yet ready for it.

Taken together, what this suggests is that man’s primary and central response to God was faith - he had to trust that God meant the best for him, trust the reliability of God’s Word, and His purposes for himself.

Saying that faith was the primary issue does not, of course, suggest that obedience was not required - even perfect obedience. In truth, imperfect obedience would be a non sequitur in Adam’s situation as unfallen. But on the broader level, we must ask: is the fact that Adam’s faith needed, necessarily, to bear fruit in obedience so different from the post-fall situation, in which true faith necessarily must bear fruit in obedience?

Or, to put it another way: is it really the case that perfect obedience was the ground of Adam’s acceptance before God?

These are the sorts of questions - and more - that biblical theologians must grapple with as they seek to understand the Adamic covenant. It is widely agreed that the doctrine of the Adamic covenant requires further reflection. (The idea of a covenant of works was not, in fact, explicitly formulated until about the third generation of Reformers, although seeds can be detected in earlier writings.) The materials listed below are offered as, it is hoped, helpful tools toward such a review and re-articulation of the doctrine.


Disclaimer: inclusion of material in the bibliography implies neither endorsement of all views expressed in the material, nor that the author of the material endorses (or, if deceased, would have endorsed) the views of this web site. The criterion for inclusion of material in this list is genuine helpfulness to the discussion, not uniformity of viewpoint.

Tim Gallant: “The Covenant of Works:  Coordinates for Discussion.” Raises biblical data not often focused upon in discussions of the Adamic covenant.  (On-site article.)

Tim Gallant: “Monocovenantalism?  Multiple Covenants, No Adamic Merit. A brief defense of the view that the Adam’s acceptance with God was not designed to be grounded upon the basis of his works, suggesting an alternative paradigm for understanding the condition of perfect obedience.

Tim Gallant: “Paradoxology: The Trinitarian Grounding of Human Faith. Argues that human faith is an image of the intra-Trinitarian life of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and reflects upon this in connection with Adam’s creation in the divine image.

James B. Jordan: “Merit Versus Maturity:  What Did Jesus Do for Us?” (In The Federal Vision; Steve Wilkins and Duane Garner, eds. Monroe, LA:  Athanasius Press, 2004, pp. 151-200.) A thought-provoking essay which argues that what Adam lacked was not righteousness, but maturity, and that an important aspect of Christ’s redemption is related to maturity rather than merit.

Ralph A. Smith:  Eternal Covenant:  How the Trinity Reshapes Covenant Theology. (Moscow, ID:  Canon, 2003.) Among other things, a Trinitarian critique of the notion that the Adamic covenant was meritorious.  A helpful and refreshing book.

Peter Wallace: “Covenant and Inheritance.” An attempt to find a sort of via media in the contemporary debate regarding the covenant.

Rowland Ward:  God & Adam:  Reformed Theology and the Creation Covenant. (Wantirna, Australia: New Melbourne, 2003.)  A useful historical survey of the dominant views of the Reformed tradition regarding the covenant with Adam. Particularly helpful to show that the historical view denied that the Adamic covenant was meritorious. The provided citations, unfortunately, are too brief to evaluate individual thinkers at any level of depth.


It is a question here, whether in the first creation, good works in the covenant of works, were required of man as meritorious for the promised life? I answer, not so. But they were due in the creation as pledges of thankfulness in man to his creator, for that excellent work of his creation, and to glorify God his creator.

- Robert Rollock 1597, cited in Ward, God & Adam p 117

The former [covenant] is usually called a covenant of Works, the latter is called a covenant of Grace, though, indeed, the fountain and first rise of either was the free grace and favour of God.

- Thomas Blake (d. 1657), cited in Ward, God & Adam p 97