V. The Covenant of Works Christologically Understood
It has been persuasively argued by biblical scholars that the original human beings expressed their divine image-bearing natures as priest-kings. Thus, Adam and Eve were to tend the garden of God, which was in fact a temple-garden, and cultivate this garden as it spread into the untamed wilderness. The functional approach to being divine image-bearers takes pains to place the priestly and kingly roles of humanity as what being “the image of God” primarily denotes. Yet, we would suggest that Adam and Eve functioned in this way because of their ontological identity as a son and daughter of God, respectively. That is to say, as children of God they were to trust in their father, namely, God, and, by doing so in the face of evil and temptation, receive an inheritance, namely, life forever, with all the benefits and privileges that come with it.
Now, as the reader may suspect, this is a programmatic statement, one which pulls together those threads which we, albeit briefly, have touched upon. So, with that, we will bring together prior thoughts and apply them to that prelapsarian scene oft-called the covenant of works (CoW).
In our first post, we argued that the Bible does not cast positive light on the notion that any activity that is pleasing to God can be so if it is not preceded by faith or trust in God for “everything apart from faith is sin” (Rom 14). In the second post, we hinted at a connection between Israel as God’s son and his priestly and kingly roles given by and for God. This then was followed by the NT connection between Christ as God’s son and God’s image. In addition to this, it is beyond dispute that Christ also fills and indeed fulfills the role of priest and king. Here, we can see protology and eschatology kiss; or, more specifically, the protological and eschatological man, Adam and Christ, respectively.
With all the points made, it is our contention that for Adam and Eve to bear God’s image meant that they were God’s own children. Israel, as a priest-king nation and God’s son, was a recapitulation of Adam and Eve; Christ, as a priest-king and God’s Son, was the new and better Adam (Rom 5; 1 Cor 15) and the true Israel. Hence, following Girardeau, the 19th century Southern Presbyterian, we would argue that Adam was a son of God who as a consequence of the first sin became a disinherited son.
Thus, we can reimagine Gen 1-3 in this way. God created male and female in his image, he created them to be in filial relationship with him. Since evil already existed, as is indicated by the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and the serpent, God called Adam to trust in him who is invisible (and whose appearance in the garden was therefore likely a theophany) despite what they see. We recall that Heb 11:1-3 and 2 Cor 5:7 that faith is contrasted with that which we apprehend with our senses or even understanding; yet, in Gen 3:6 we read, “So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise …”. Notice the words “saw,” “eyes” and “desired” (cf. vv. 5, 7: “eyes … opened”). This ‘sight’ contrasts with the childlike trust in a heavenly and good father that relies on God despite what is ‘seen.’
One of the reasons we would suggest why Christ is portrayed as the antitype to Adam is this: Christ was the faithful son who believed in his father despite temptation (Matt 4 // Luke 4) and the prognostication of immense suffering (Matt 26 // Luke 22), that is, despite what circumstances or senses may dictate. Thus, there is continuity between Adam and Christ. Both knew God before sin, both were sons of God who had a filial relationship with their father, and both are representatives of a broader collective. Yet, there is discontinuity as well. Christ is the image of God in virtue of his divine sonship, whereas Adam is made in God’s image as a created being. Moreover, Christ as divine son became also a human son who did not lose trust in his Father. In sum, Christ fulfilled, as it were, the CoW.
Something else must be highlighted at this point. Adam and Christ had the same prelapsarian faith in their father. That is to say, they both had a truth in their father (or at least an opportunity thereof) that preceded any activity good or bad. No other human beings have been in such a position of trust in God the Father; no other human beings can existentially conceive of a trust that exists prior to their own sin or, in the case of Christ, lack thereof. This is, we would suggest, one reason why Adam and Christ stand as representatives of large swaths of human beings for only Adam and Christ were, as humans, in this unique position of trust in relation to God. This furthermore highlights the reasons why this one sin brought death to all of Adam’s progeny.
God created Adam to be his son. “Trust in me,” he called. “Believe in me though you cannot fully see or comprehend me. Trust in me for you are my child. Look, I have given you every good thing on this earth; I have given you life.” (There is evil in my creation that will confront you and challenge my goodness and love.) “So, trust in me!” To break trust then with the Father was to admit a rupture into their filial, dare we say, covenantal bond. God knew and knows though that a single even seemingly infinitesimal breach was to undo the very psyche, the very sanity, the very moral aptitude of the first man. Such a breach was to, in truth, turn to an idol, which is what can be seen, grasped, and comprehended.
Now, there is another layer to this. Christ is said to be the image of God. We have already enlisted this to support our contention that Adam should be understood as made to be a son of God. Further nuance should be teased out at this point. Adam was in fact made to be the image of Christ for Christ is the true son of God the Father. The unbreakable filial bond that the Son experiences with his Father, the eternal generation which is the mysterious result of Son’s relationship to the Father (if result is the proper word), was to be experienced and imaged by the created son Adam. He was to reflect this bond between God the Father and God the Son for, though created and indeed generated (we hasten to add in time and not eternally), he was created in order to have such a deep, intimate bond with his God and Father, reflecting, in turn, in a limited, creaturely yet nonetheless true way the bond shared with the true divine image of God, the Son of God, with his Father. Therefore, just as it is inconceivable for God the Son to break filial bond with his Father so it is inconceivable that God’s creaturely image, Adam (and Eve), would rupture this bond without the direst of consequences: death, a spiritual seed giving way to totalizing effect.
It is in this way that the CoW still stands. The penalty for its rupture, its violation, is death. Death has not yet been fully defeated though the beginnings of its defeat has been assured and sounded by the resurrection from the dead of the son of God/Man. Here, we must flesh out the importance of the CoW. It is clear that this covenant is not devoid of faith on the part of man (or, at least the necessity thereof), nor, we would suggest, is it devoid of grace for God’s grace is not some energy or substance abstracted from God himself, but rather grace is found in by being in the presence of God.
So, if grace and faith are characteristic of the CoW, then one might ask how this differs from the covenant of grace usually seen as distinct from the CoW. We would understand the difference in this way: with the CoW, the failure on the part of the first humans to trust in their father resulted in a dramatic break in the divine-human relationship with such a break requiring a powerful, drastic act on the part of God– namely, Christ incarnate, crucified, resurrected and ascended–to remedy this and restore man back to God. The CoW, while having some continuity with the covenant of grace, is to be distinguished by the penalty resulting from the break of this covenant. The covenant of grace–or Christ’s person and work–is the answer to (or resolution of) the death resulting from the breaking of the first covenant (which is, as we’ve mentioned, failure to trust God) and, as such, the two must be distinguished.
To conclude, the CoW, rightly, that is, Christologically understood, pays great theological dividends. By reframing Adam’s divine image-bearing nature in a manner that is equivalent to Adam’s sonship with God, we avoid reducing humankind’s essence to a functional, priest-king anthropology instead recognizing that Adam was a priest-king because he was first a son. Moreover, we do not relegate Christ’s person and work narrowly to the eschatological breaking-in of God’s kingdom, but recognize that Christ is the eschatological man because he was first the proper protological image of the protological man; that is, Adam pointed to Christ, as type to antitype, but, perhaps more fundamentally, Christ lay behind Adam as the true son which the created son was called to reflect. If Adam had not broken trust with his Father, he would have, after a short trial/temptation (cf. Gen 3), enjoyed eternal fellowship with the Triune God. Thus, this man of the dust would have been joined with the image, the son of heaven.
In addition and lastly (though much more could be said), the richness of Christ’s person and work is brought into even sharper relief with the CoW as we’ve described it. God the Father loved his creaturely son so much that he sent his son to assume a human nature, in turn, having a life-long, creaturely trust in his heavenly Father that remained unbroken even in the face of trials and temptations beyond anything the first creaturely son could have imagined. Yet, even more, he assumed the penalty of death which the first son received in the stead of the first son, undeservingly yet willingly. By assuming this penalty and overcoming/undoing it, he radically opened the way for the covenant of grace whereby man could be restored back to filial, covenantal relations with the Father despite man’s weak and fleeting faith, which is so often overcome by trials and temptations, so-called sight and understanding. It is a covenant of grace because those human partners of this covenant trust in one who fully trusted in and continues to trust in his Father on their behalf; their faith is not in their own faith, their faith is in Christ’s, the image/Son of God’s, faith.
These dividends, to bring it around to the beginning of our series on this topic, is congruent with and in fact, we would argue, taught by representative expressions of the CoW such as that found in the Westminster Standards. Now, this contention does not minimize the fact that the truths summarized above are not always emphasized or placed in the forefront as they should be by those who adhere to a CoW, but this failure on the part of some is not necessary to or indicative of the CoW as it is expressed confessionally. Thankfully our faith is one defined by a living, personal God and not mathematical formulae; or, for that matter, merit-earning devoid of grace and faith.