Challenging Covenantalism: The Covenant of Works-pt. 2

The last post posed a question: “Was there a Covenant of Works?” That is a legitimate question, given the weight that is attributed to this covenant. Since it becomes the foundational brick in the wall of Covenant Theology (CT), it must be examined and identified as true or false. To assume either way is detrimental to the revelation of God and will harm His glory.

We saw last time that CT asserts that God made a covenant with Adam in which if Adam were obedient, he would inherit eternal life. If he were disobedient, he would die. Or to put another way, if he obeyed, he would be blessed. If he disobeyed, he would be cursed. The backdrop for this reasoning is the assertion that the components of covenants are present in the narrative of Genesis 1-2. “the substance of covenant is the stuff that forms the contents of Genesis 1-3” (Meredith Kline, “Two Adams, Two Covenant of Works”, selected readings from Kingdom Prologue, 2000, p.1). These components also are present in the Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) treaties identified in archaeological finds over the years. In comparing those finds, including significant discoveries like the treaties of the Hittites and the Ebla Tablets, with the biblical texts, it is believed that God followed the same pattern as those treaties and covenants as written in the ANE discoveries in the creation of the world.

  • I would like to challenge that assumption and clarify a few things concerning this hypothesis. Specifically, I do not believe that Moses is writing as one would from the structure of ANE treaties. Further, the components of a covenant are not present in the text of Genesis 1-2.

First, it is important that we insert a foundational tenant of Scripture, namely the doctrine of inerrancy. Inerrancy states that the Scriptures, in the autographs, are inspired by God through the instrument of human authors and as such the resultant text is infallible, true, and authoritative. Also, the basis of the inerrancy of Scripture, and the veracity of the resultant copies of those inerrant letters/books, is that God, who cannot lie (Titus 1:2), is the source of the information contained therein. That is, although man may have used sources other than dictation from God (e.g. Luke 1:1-4), the resulting text of Scripture is nonetheless truth and has God as the source of that information. Inerrancy is also claimed by CT as well. Why is inerrancy significant to our discussion? Because, when speaking of covenantal language in Genesis 1-2, A) does history interpret the event of creation, or B) does creation define and interpret history? The only correct answer is B, Scripture, and its account of creation, defines and interprets history. Therefore, let us consider the assertion that all the components of ANE treaties are present in the creation narrative of Genesis 1-2 as patently false. There are a number of reasons, which I will give below, but begin by considering that God did not follow the conventions of culture (of ANE or otherwise) when He established the foundations of the earth. If it is asserted that God’s work in creation followed the pattern of ANE treaties/covenants, then we have committed eisegesis saying that God’s creation work was patterned after ANE cultural norms. Surely, inerrancy cannot be maintained with that assertion since creation came before the Hittites.

Second, the components of a covenant/treaty are not present in Genesis 1-2. The general components of the covenant of works are usually listed as preamble/prologue, contractual parties, stipulations, blessings for obedience, curses for disobedience, and concluding remarks usually calling upon witnesses to the agreement. Michael Horton, author and host of White Horse Inn, a Christian radio show from a Reformed perspective, also describes a “typical” covenant arrangement and attributes that back into Genesis:

" In addition, the literary elements of covenant-making seem to be present in the Genesis narrative, especially as interpreted by the rest of Scripture. Even in Genesis 1-3 we recognize the features of a covenant that we have delineated: a historical prologue setting the stage (Genesis 1-2), stipulations (2:16-17), and sanctions (2:17b) over which Eve and the serpent argue (3:1-5) and which are finally carried out in the form of judgment (3:8-19) (Michael Horton, God of Promise [Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2006], 90).

Kim Riddlebarger, professor at Westminster Seminary California and pastor of Christ Reformed Church, Anaheim, CA., lists them in summary form as:

“Although the term “covenant of works” does not appear in the creation account, all of the elements of such a covenant are clearly present in Eden. First, there are two parties involved (Adam and his creator), with God sovereignly imposing the terms of this covenant upon Adam and his descendants. Second, there is a condition set forth by God as spelled out in Genesis 2:17–“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.” Although this condition comes in the form of a specific prohibition (if you eat from the tree you will die), it can also be framed as a positive theological principle which describes the very essence of this covenant: “Do this [i.e., obey by not eating] and live.” Third, there is a blessing promised upon perfect obedience (eternal life) as well as a threatened curse (death) for any act of disobedience. If Adam obeys his creator and does not eat from the tree, then he will receive God’s promised blessing–eternal life. But should Adam eat from the tree, then he will come under the covenant curse–which is death (Westminster Seminary California, blog,, accessed 9/4/2012).


If we simply use these writings as our starting points, we will discover that the ideal of the Covenant of Works is, in fact, the philosophy of man and not a true explanation of what God actually did.

First, Michael Horton indicates that the entire narrative of Genesis 1-3 fits into the ANE structure. Unfortunately, he does not seem to comprehend that the creation of the world and the cosmos does not fit into covenantal/treaty structure.  Although Moses wrote during the time when the Near East was not ancient, creation occurred before ANE culture. When these things are read into the biblical text, the text is treated as some literary piece and not actual history. Such is the common failure of CT.

Second, Dr. Riddlebarger, who has done much to confuse the Scriptures, states that if Adam would obey God, he would receive access to the Tree of Life. Once eating the fruit, he would then live forever. It is further stated that Adam is on a kind of probation to prove his obedience. There are a few problems with that teaching, however. Most CT teachers repeat Genesis 2:17, “…but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you will surely die.” Along with this verse is the usual statement that this indicates a kind of test for Adam. In fact, this “condition” becomes the hinge pin for much in CT. Adam failed to maintain the condition by breaking the covenant, and thus he died as per this verse. The converse, they reason, is also true. If Adam does obey, then he will receive blessing. One glaring problem is the fact that the biblical text says in the previous verse, “The Lord God commanded the man, saying, “From any tree of the garden you may eat freely…” (v.16). Adam already had access, free access, to any other tree in the garden, including the Tree of Life. In fact, both eating of every other tree in the garden and not eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil are all under the umbrella of a “command” (v.16). It is just as much a command to eat freely as it is to not eat. This is also verified by the fact that the Tree of Life needed to be guarded from Adam and Eve after the fall (Genesis 3:24). He did, in fact, have access to that tree even after his disobedience! The reasoning with CT is that if Adam exhibits perfect obedience to the command (the stipulations of the “covenant”), then by not eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil he will then, in time, be able to have access to the tree of life, by the sheer fact that he will still be alive to do so. This conditional existence of Adam, according to CT, is the basis for the rest of their assumptions in theology. However, there were no conditions in the garden, and thus there was nothing for Adam to agree to. This is not a contractual agreement between two parties. In fact, is was not a “royal grant” either since God does not promise to benefit Adam in the least. Adam was already blessed, already possessed life, and already walked with God:

Let me reiterate. Adam already had free and unhindered access to the tree of life (Genesis 2:16). There was no condition, whatsoever, for Adam to be able to go up to that tree and take of its fruit and eat. He was already given free access by the Creator.

This is crucial to realize. Since there was no contractual condition for which Adam must attain, then there was no covenant. Since there was no covenant, this arrangement in the garden does not follow ANE treaty structure, or anything of the sort. God’s work in creation is simply an expression of His will. To assert and teach that Adam’s eating of the tree of life is based upon not eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is to 1) miss the actual words of the text, 2) misrepresent what God has done in creation, and 3) diverge from sound biblical revelation on the matter, and thus maintain an apostate position, thereby harming the church for whom the truth of Scripture belongs (1 Timothy 3:15).

Third, CT also asserts that God would bless Adam if he obeyed, and curse Adam if he did not. That is not true. As already stated, God already blessed Adam (Genesis 1:28). He already had life (Genesis 2:7). In fact, the restriction to the tree of life post-fall indicates that he would have been confirmed in some kind of perpetual physical life that could be sustained forever. That is not to say, however, that he would have inherited “eternal life” such as we have in Christ (i.e. partaking of the divine nature – 1 Peter 1:3). We know this because God indicates that if Adam and Eve, in their punished, fallen state, would have eaten of that tree, they would have been confirmed in that state. The tree itself, having properties that sustained and strengthened (see Revelation 22:2; cf. Ezekiel 47:12), did not possess the quality of eternal, divine, life since Adam and Eve would have been sustained in their fallen condition if they would have eaten of that tree. Therefore, to say that if they would have obeyed, they would have satisfied the covenantal agreement with God and would have been given access to the tree of life so that they would live eternally is false. Adam already had access to the tree of life (Genesis 2:16). Adam and Eve were already blessed of God (Genesis 1:28a). The tree of life simply perpetuated physical life forever, which is not the same thing as the quality of divine life that CT attributes to it.

In none of these arrangements do we see conditions placed upon the man. God did not say, “Adam, if you obey Me, I will give you to eat of the tree of life.” He already had access to that tree under no grants or conditions. God simply created the tree for Adam and his offspring. Nor did He say to Adam, “If you obey Me, I will bless you.” God had already established a blessed state for Adam and his wife. There were no conditions, and thus no covenant. The text of inspired Scripture indicates that God blessed them (Genesis 1:28) and that was not contingent upon obedience. They already had it! It was the will of God. Once again, since nowhere in the text is there indication of conditions for blessing or access to the tree of life, then there is no covenant. Covenants are based upon conditions. Even unilateral covenants, such as with Abraham (Genesis 12:1-3; 17:4-6), require a certain attainment of righteousness, albeit provided by Jesus Christ. However, all we have in the actual text of Scripture in Genesis 1-2 is God creating and giving freely to the man, the woman, and their children of His provision without cost or covenant. To say that the command to not eat from the tree presupposes a covenant is reading into the text to a detrimental degree. If anything, the command of God to not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was a demonstration of the desire for Christ-like obedience from Adam since he was made in the image of God. How? Because the obedience would have been generated from love and subjection to the Father in the same way that the Son loves and subjects Himself to the Father (John 15:10; 1 Corinthians 11:3). Again, love does not need a law (Galatians 5:22-23). This is why Luke describes Adam as a “son of God” (Luke 3:38).

Since the influence of CT is widespread, especially throughout the Young, Restless, and Reformed people, there needs to be accountability for the mishandling of Scripture in such a fashion as is demonstrated by Covenant Theology. From beginning to end, it is not based upon proper exegesis of the actual text of Scripture, but rather the philosophical musings of men throughout the centuries which have dealt a harmful blow, overall, to the Scripture. Although the gospel itself was recovered by the Reformers, the need to continue a reformation stands. There needs to be a recovery of the authority of the Scripture once again. This authority is only understood and perceived through a hermeneutic of the grammar of a text and the historical context in which the text exists. Once the foundation of CT is laid down as truth, the Scripture cannot hardly be recognized since, by and large, its veracity and literality is compromised many times over, especially in such areas as creation, and eschatology. Both the beginning and the ending of God’s Word suffer a harmful blow by the likes of CT to the degree that we do not understand from whence we came, nor for what we have to look forward. Let us truly “keep reforming” and return to a proper, text-centered, study of God’s holy, inerrant, and precious, Word.