The covenant of works is important because it provides us with a window into the church’s understanding of God’s initial interaction with humanity. As such, we have much to learn from the church’s collective wisdom and insight.
Why is the history of the covenant of works an important topic of study? To answer this question, we should first briefly define the doctrine and, second, rehearse its origins, development, and reception. We will then be able to reflect on why the history of the covenant of works is worthy of our study. The simplest definition of a covenant comes from the Children’s Catechism, which defines a covenant as an agreement between two or more people.
In this case, the covenant of works is God’s agreement with Adam that he would grant him eternal life on the condition of his obedience to his commands: to fill the earth and subdue it (Gen. 1:28), and not to eat from the tree of knowledge (Gen. 2:16-17). Obedience would bring great blessing, but disobedience would bring death for Adam and his offspring. So, then, how does the history of this doctrine unfold?
The Doctrine’s History
As early as the inter-testamental period, Jewish extra-canonical books such as Ecclesiasticus explains that when God gave Adam the command not to eat from the tree of knowledge that he entered into a covenant with man: “All living beings become old like a garment, for the covenant from of old is, ‘You must surely die!” (Eccl. 14:17, RSV; cf. Gen. 2:16-17). This was an important piece of the puzzle for St. Augustine which caused him to conclude that God and Adam were in a covenant. Other patristic theologians such as Jerome translated Hosea 6:7 in his well-known Vulgate as, “But they like Adam transgressed the covenant.” This means that by the sixteenth century, the idea of an Adamic covenant was a common, evident by the fact that Roman Catholic and Protestant theologians alike advocated the doctrine.
Theologians at the Council of Trent spoke of the first covenant that the Lord made with Adam; another Roman Catholic theologian, Ambrogio Catharinus, argued that in the Adamic covenant God imputed Adam’s sin to his offspring. Similarly, Protestants such as Ulrich Zwingli explained that God and Adam were in covenant; John Calvin maintained that all of God’s covenants had sacramental signs; he tellingly notes that the tree of life was a sacramental sign of life, which implies that God and Adam were in covenant. Other sixteenth-century Reformed theologians such as Zacharias Ursinus, William Perkins, and Robert Rollock, echoed these themes, and the doctrine of the covenant of works took shape. The doctrine was not a uniquely Reformed or Protestant phenomenon but had catholic roots.