Kline on the Covenant of Works

Kline on the Covenant of Works

Question

Do you have an official position on the "covenant of works" with Adam before the fall? Could you summarize Meredith Kline's teaching on this and offer a short critique or affirmation?

Answer

Yes, our official position is that of the Westminster Standards (WCF 7.2; 19.1,6; WLC 30, 97). That being said, we tend to understand that position somewhat differently than do some others within the Reformed tradition.

You may know that there is a variety of views regarding the covenant of works, including whether or not it should really be called a "covenant." We are comfortable calling it a covenant or not, so long as we define our terms. It seems to me that significant misunderstandings and disagreements have arisen because many have failed to define terms carefully. I believe some of Kline's statements fall into this category (I will explain below).

If we view a covenant as a formal agreement, that is, as an event whereby parties state and swear to stipulations, blessings and curses, then we do not have specific evidence of a covenant of works in Genesis. If, however, we understand covenant as a relationship, that is, as the association and bond that exists between God and man (i.e., God is man's king, and man is God's servant), then we may say that a covenant of works is evident in Genesis. In fact, the Bible uses the word "covenant" in both ways. It is also worth noting that Romans 5:12-19 indicates that the relationship between Adam and God parallels that between Jesus and God. So, if there is a covenant in Christ there is also one in Adam, per explicit New Testament Scripture if not per an explicit text in Genesis.

This flexibility in language sometimes creates confusion. For instance, the Westminster Standards speak of one covenant of grace (with Christ) and another of works (with Adam). But Reformed theology also implies that there is only one such covenant, that Jesus succeeded where Adam failed. If there were two distinct covenants, then Jesus didn't succeeded where Adam failed; rather, he succeeded somewhere else, in a similar but different covenant/arrangement. But if we recognize the flexibility in language, and that technical terms are often used in theology in ways that are different from their uses in the Bible, we shouldn't have much problem communicating (although we still might disagree!).

Part of the problem with Kline, I think, has to do with communication rather than with ideas. For instance, Kline wants to redefine "grace" and "covenant."

Regarding "grace," he wants it to refer not to unmerited favor (the traditional definition), but to favor in light of demerit. By his definition, "grace" cannot exist before demerit, but by the traditional definition it can. So, when Kline objects to theologians assigning measures of "grace" to the covenant of works, he is equivocating regarding the definition of "grace."

Regarding "covenant," Kline feels comfortable speaking of the covenant of works as an aspect of creation. This is essentially viewing covenant as relationship. But this is not how all other theologians always use the word. There are times when equivocation regarding this term can also get us into trouble.

For the record, there is legitimacy in Kline's assertion that the nature of creation is such that God is the creator and we are innately accountable to him, with or without an explicit covenant, and that this accountability is such that God rewards goodness with blessings and punishes evil with curses. But in both theology and Scripture, "covenant" usually means more than that. For example, there is nothing inherent in every father-son relationship that reckons the merit or demerit of the father to the son. Nevertheless, this was an aspect of Adam's relationship with his children, and it was an aspect that pertained because the relationship with Adam was covenantal. So, while creation explains some aspects of the covenant of works, it does not explain all of them.

But I suspect that if you are interested in Kline, you are really more interested in his use of the word "grace." Here I think Kline errs by creating a definition that those he criticizes do not use. It is worth noting that if his definition were the Bible's only definition, then Luke 2:52 would teach that Jesus had demerit prior to the imputation of sin to him on the cross, meaning that Jesus was born sinful and became less sinful over the course of his life.

Moreover, it is possible that Kline confuses (1) the category into which "works" or "law" falls, and (2) the category into which "grace" falls. He denies that there is a continuum between grace and works, and insists instead that the choice is binary. This seems to imply that works and grace are opposite sides of the same coin, that they are same in kind but of different value. But this is false.

That is to say, "works" identifies the means by which merit is generated, so that "saved by works" means "saved on the basis of the merit generated by our own works." The opposite of this is not "saved on the basis of the merit generated by our own grace." Rather, it is "saved on the basis of the merit generated by Christ's work." In theology, we use "saved by works" as shorthand for "saved on the basis of the merit generated by our own works" and we use "saved by grace" as shorthand for "saved on the basis of the merit generated by Christ's work." This may be what Kline means, but it is not entirely clear to me that this is so.

If this is what Kline means, he has a valid point, sort of: Either we obtain God's favor and blessing on the basis of our own effort, or we obtain it on the basis of Christ's effort graciously reckoned to our account. The Bible precludes any mixture of grace and works. Either we stand before God with our own identity and solely on the basis of our own works, or we stand before God cloaked in Christ's identity and solely on the basis of Christ's works.

But contrary to what Kline suggests, there are no Reformed theologians who would deny this (at least in my experience) — and it is not because they are inconsistent. The Reformed theologians who suggest that grace was part of the covenant of works do not mean that God's favor was obtained mostly by works and partly by grace. Instead, they mean that God's favor was obtained entirely by works — thus the term "covenant of works." Grace enters the picture not as a means of obtaining favor with God, and not as a description of the way man obtains salvation, but as a description of God's actions and attitudes toward man under the covenant of works. That is, the basis of reward is still human works and only human works. But there are other things besides covenant rewards in the equation, such as the conditions of the covenant itself, and these conditions can be described in some ways as gracious.

For instance, does man by his mere existence in creation merit a world that sustains his daily needs? Or is this condition of man's existence granted by God apart from man's merit? There is nothing in the structure of a covenant of works that suggests that the conditions/stipulations themselves may not include gracious elements. The only thing that is required is that the rewards be obtained on the basis of private merit.

God could be strongly rigorous, choosing to place on man impossible covenant stipulations, and that would be fair. Or, he could be lenient, placing on man relatively simply covenant stipulations. He could make the stipulations hard, or he could make them easy. Should he make them easy, it could fairly be said that God was gracious in establishing covenant stipulations.

Man did not deserve easy rules, but he got them nonetheless. Why? Because God wanted man to succeed. Why? Because God loved man. Why? In Christ. Why? Because it pleased him. Why? We don't know — that's God's hidden counsel. Is it gracious to give man easy rules on the basis of God's love for man in Christ? Absolutely. Does it change the fact that man is required to merit his covenant reward entirely on the basis of his own works? Absolutely not.

Now, Kline's systematic argument would seem to imply that God did not have the freedom to choose the rules of the covenant of works, that they existed by the mere fact of creation. I suppose he might also then be compelled to say that God's character compelled him to create, and to create precisely as he did. By that argument, since God had no freedom to create other rules, he exercised no grace in choosing lenient ones. I don't find the position scripturally defensible, though there are, no doubt, some Reformed theologians who take it.

The first problem with this approach is that it takes away God's liberty to act according to his character; or, in the alternative, it insists that the only way open to God by virtue of his character was creating precisely as he did. But such a mechanistic view of God does not agree with the kinds of freedoms and choices God exhibits in Scripture (e.g., the way he regularly changes his mind, indicating that at least two options are equally open to him; or the regular "who knows" refrain [e.g., 2 Sam. 12:22; Joel 2:14; Jon. 3:9]). The second problem is that it relies on an unbiblical definition of "covenant," and then applies the rules of biblical covenants to this other type of covenant — again, that's equivocation. The third is that we know God's character to be gracious, so that we should expect covenant stipulations necessitated by his character to include an element of grace (just as the law itself does; cf. Ps. 119:29; Hos. 6:6-7).

Finally, even if God's covenant with man had no grace in the stipulations, it seems clear to me that God administered the covenant graciously when God did not kill Adam and Eve when they sinned but offered them a savior. By allowing a second covenant to be made (to use the language of Westminster), which had not previously been stipulated, and not carrying out the death sentence, which had been previously stipulated, God responded graciously to man's sin under the covenant of works.

Besides this, I think that Scripture demonstrates that there is really only one covenant with man, under various dispensations, and that all the administrations of it reward only upon the condition of meritorious works, and are administered in a gracious manner. That is, I think Scripture demonstrates that Jesus and Adam were covenant heads of the same covenant, not of two different covenants. Jesus succeeded in keeping what Adam failed to keep, namely the terms of the covenant between man and God (Rom. 5:12-19). Under all administrations, the requirements on man are the same, and the need for grace is the same. The blessings are only obtained through personal merit. When we are united to Christ, his merit is counted as our merit, and we thereby obtain the blessings. So, in many ways, while I recognize the value of distinguishing between a covenant of works and a covenant of grace for pedagogical reasons, I don't think it is necessarily the most accurate way or the most helpful way to summarize the Bible's teaching on the matter.

Answer by Ra McLaughlin

Ra McLaughlin is Vice President of Finance and Administration at Third Millennium Ministries.