Of Covenants (1) – Works

James Walker is surely correct to note that “The old theology of Scotland might be emphatically described as a covenant theology” (James Walker, The Theology and Theologians of Scotland 1560-1750 (Rept. Edinburgh: Knox Press, 1982), 73.  To this generalisation James Durham in no exception.

As noted in the last post Durham embraced a threefold covenant scheme:

  1. A covenant of works (between God and Adam)
  2. A covenant of grace
  3. An covenant of redemption on which the covenant of grace is founded

This was the standard covenant theology of the later mid 17th century as Richard Muller notes:

“The reformed scholastics … develop[ed] the structure of the pactum salutis [covenant of redemption], foedus operum [covenant of works] and foedus gratiae [covenant of grace] as one of the central architectonic patterns of their systems”
Richard Muller, Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2004), 120.

This first post on Durham’s covenant theology will focus on the covenant of works.  This covenant receives no extended formal discussion in Durham’s works but it is important as it is “for Durham, foundational  to a proper understanding of the covenant of grace.” (Holsteen, Nathan. D. “The Popularization of federal theology: conscience and covenant in the theology of David Dickson (1583-1663) and James Durham (1622-1658).” Ph.D. thesis, Aberdeen University, 1996, 221).

Defenition

To understand the covenant of works we must go back to the garden:

The covenant of works between God and Adam. In that there was made an offer and promise of life on condition of perfect obedience so that, if he did that which was commanded him, he would live.
Unsearchable Riches, 254

So the parties to the CoW were God and Adam.  God promised Adam eternal life on condition of good works:

… as Adam had … the promise of life by the covenant of works; the condition of that covenant, viz. perfect holiness and obedience…
Heaven Upon Earth, 359

Now Adam was the “root of mankind” and so “he entered into a covenant or contract with them, and their posterity in them, to give them eternal life, upon condition of perfect personal obedience; withal threatening death in case they should fail. This is the covenant of works.” (Sum of Saving Knowledge, Head 1:2).  So Adam did not stand or fall alone but as a covenant head with “his posterity in him.”

In the CoW the reward promised goes beyond what Adam could have earned based on simple obedience:

If we look to works with respect to the Covenant of Works, even so works have no proper merit, nor proportion unto the things promised … therefore it is called a Covenant of Works: not because of the merit of the works; but in respect of the formality of the condition thereof, to wit, doing…
Revelation, 307

To summarise:

The sum of the covenant of works, or of the law, is this: ” If thou do all that is commanded, and not fail in any point, thou shalt be saved: but if thou fail, thou shalt die.” Rom. 10:5. Gal. 3:10,12.
Practical Use of Saving Knowledge

Sacraments

As an aside Durham viewed the tree of life as a ‘sacrament’ of the covenant of works as follows:

Thus the covenant of works had its sacraments; Adam had the tree of life for a sacrament to confirm him in the faith of that covenant…
Ten Commandments, 82

I shall give them to eat of the tree of life etc. Its an allusion to that tree planted in Eden, Gen 2.3. That tree was called the tree of life, etc. not for any physical efficacy that was in it, as the Papists gloss [comment] here (though God might have made it instrumental as a means on it) therefore, when sin entered, there was no use of that tree; neither could it do anything, but it was so called, to hold forth to Adam sacramentaly the eternity of life, which he might expect by keeping the Covenant of Works; that tree was given him to signify and seal up that life to him, on condition of obedience.
Revelation, 103

Broken

Adam fell.  The condition to inherit eternal life by the covenant of works was not met and Adam knew the reality of the threatening “if thou fail, thou shalt die.”  And we all know the effects of this for the curse of the CoW stands over us too.

…the covenant of works, which God made with man at the beginning, when he gave to him the promise of life upon condition of obedience … the first covenant was broken by Adam, and … this made him and all his posterity liable to the curse, as being guilty of his transgression.
Christ Crucified, 543

There is a sentence discovered, standing against them, and over their heads, by the covenant of works.
Chist Crucified, p562

Our first parents, being enticed by Satan … did break the covenant of works … and their posterity, being in their loins, as branches in the root, and comprehended in the same covenant with them, became not only liable to eternal death, but also lost all ability to please God; yea, did become by nature enemies to God, and to all spiritual good, and inclined only to evil continually. This is our original sin, the bitter root of all our actual transgressions, in thought, word, and deed.
Sum of Saving Knowledge, Head 1:3

That albeit the apostle himself, (brought in here for example’s cause,) and all other true believers in Christ, be by nature under the law of sin and death, or under the covenant of works, (called the law of sin and death, because it bindeth sin and death upon us, till Christ set us free; )
Practical Use of Saving Knowledge IV

Difference

Durham’s other key teaching on the CoW is that it is radically different from the Covenant of Grace.  They offer two entirely different ways of obtaining eternal life.  In the one we obtain righteousness before God by “doing” and in the other by “believing.”

But the Scripture does clearly difference the covenant of grace, and the covenant of works … The covenant of works respects the inherent righteousness, as the condition; the covenant of grace respects faith, taking hold of the righteousness of Christ…
Christ Crucified, 535

Consider how the apostle opposes the two covenants, the covenant of works made with Adam, and the covenant of grace made with believers in Jesus Christ … the Apostle opposes these two covenants … in this, the righteousness of the one covenant is doing, and the righteousness of the other covenant is by believing…
Christ Crucified, 586

This riddeth marches between the righteousness of the two covenants, that the one is inherent and consisteth in Works … the other is without us, and cometh by imputation… Philip. 3.9.
Revelation, 297

Understanding the distinction between the covenant of works and grace will lead us to say “Therefore I cannot be justified, or have righteousness by the works of the law” (Practical Use of Saving Knowledge II) and to flee from works righteousness to that salvation offered in the covenant of grace which is “by grace, through faith, not of ourselves but the gift of God.”

To close on a slightly controversial note I absolutely love John Murray as a theologian.  Aside from his brilliant general theological and exegetical work (esp. his Romans commentary) his emphasis on Sabbath observance, Psalm singing and (not least!) the free offer of the gospel are much needed in the reformed church of today.  Plus he was a highlander!  But this must be said, his tinkering with “one of the central architectonic patterns” of the reformed system in rejecting the covenant of works was, in my view at least, not helpful for reformed theology.  To be sure, for him, the difference was over terminology and not substance but terminology is not unimportant and in the hands of lesser mortals terminological differences can soon become theological ones.

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4 Responses to “Of Covenants (1) – Works”

  1. neilrobbie Says:

    Hi James

    I love Iain Murray, as a brother in Christ, and as a theologian, but would like to go a step further in rejecting the covenant of works in substance. I believe the reformers overlooked the sacramental function of the tree of life as a means of grace, where the promise of eternal life would be sealed as they ate by faith in the word of God from that tree.

    I’ve blogged a bit on this at
    Transforming Grace

    Your brother in Christ

    Neil

  2. Donald John MacLean Says:

    Hi Neil

    Welcome to the blog. I love John Murray’s work but I think that the drift of Reformed theology that saw a covenant of works in Eden was absolutely right. Of course it was also gracious for there to be such a covenant in the first place but we must not obscure the fact that righteousness in the garden was by doing and now by believing (apart from works). (Not suggesting you are doing that!)

    How would you differ from Durham’s understanding of the sacramental nature of the tree of life above?

    Every blessing
    DJ

    PS In the middle of a house move right now so didn’t realy have time to read our post. Will rectify that once things calm down a bit!

  3. neilrobbie Says:

    Hi Donald

    Durham writes:

    it [the tree of life] was so called, to hold forth to Adam sacramentaly the eternity of life, which he might expect by keeping the Covenant of Works; that tree was given him to signify and seal up that life to him, on condition of obedience.

    I would differ with Jordan by saying:

    it [the tree of life] was so called, to hold forth to Adam sacramentaly the eternity of life, which he might expect by keeping the Covenant of Grace; that tree was given him to signify and seal up that life to him, on condition of faith in the word of God expressed in that tree.

    In other words, the tree of life functioned as a reformed sacrament, sign and seal of the thing signified (eternal life), not a Zwinglian memorial of what was promised upon condition of perfect obedience.

    Had Adam exercised faith in the word of God in that tree, he would have received the superadded benefit of eternal life.

    Instead, Eve and he desired, against the decretive will of God, to take and eat from the other tree and so deserved death (mot tamut – execution by royal decree).

    You might need to read my post. Sorry it’s a bit long!
    I hope the house move goes well. I just moved in February, to our eighth house in 14 years of marriage!

    Your brother in Christ

    Neil

  4. James Durham on the Covenant of Works « Transforming Grace Says:

    […] an exchange of comments with the blog author, Donald MacLean, I made the following comparison between an understanding of […]

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