The Temporal Revelation of the Covenant of Works in Owen – Absolutely or Relatively Coeval with Creation?

Family Tree of Reformed

An excerpt from The Family Tree of Reformed Biblical Theology by Richard Barcellos

 

  • EXCURSUS: The Temporal Revelation of the Covenant of Works in Owen – Absolutely or Relatively Coeval with Creation?

 

Owen makes what may at first glance appear to be a perplexing statement. He says, “The covenant was coeval with mankind, but voluntary obedience was a means of signing and sealing it on Adam’s part.”[1] This appears to be saying that creation and covenant are strictly and absolutely temporally coextensive. In other words, it gives the appearance that the covenant of works is part of Natural Theology/General Revelation and not necessarily of pre-redemptive Supernatural Theology/Special Revelation. Rehnman sheds some light on this thorny issue. He argues that Owen teaches that divine covenants are unilateral in origin (i.e., monopleuric) and bi-lateral in execution (i.e., dipleuric).[2] In other words, God sovereignly imposes the covenant of works upon Adam and Adam takes upon himself its stipulations. But how did Adam come to know the stipulations? Rehnman argues that God revealed them to Adam. He says:

 

Theology was then, as noted, primarily but not exclusively natural, because it was from the beginning subject to augmentation by further revelation. Special revelation was necessary in addition to obedience, and God revealed the promise of the reward supernaturally to man. Thus, according to Owen, the covenant of creation or of works necessarily belonged to supernatural theology, for the gift of eternal life could only be known through the will of God.[3]

 

In Owen’s thought, the covenant of creation therefore belonged to supernatural theology, for the gift of eternal life could only be known through the will of God, namely through the sacramental precept concerning the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. This necessity of supernatural theology has in all likelihood to do with the end of man, for, as Owen contends, man is created for a supernatural end and needs a revelation adapted to this end.[4]

 

Taken in the wider context of Owen and seventeenth-century Reformed orthodoxy, the perplexing statement above should be understood as follows. (1) As noted, Owen elsewhere says of the revelation Adam possessed via creation that it was not “complete or fully in-born because it has always been subject to increase and clarification by revelation…”[5] The covenant of works was just such an increase. (2) ‘Coeval’ can and ought to be understood in a relative sense. For, in fact, Genesis 2:16-17 was revealed, strictly speaking, immediately subsequent to man’s creation. (3) Owen himself admits that “the covenant was revealed to Adam.”[6] (4) Owen is utilizing the concepts of monopleurism and dipleurism in this context. When he says, “The covenant was coeval with mankind, but voluntary obedience was a means of signing and sealing it on Adam’s part,”[7] he must mean relatively coeval because supernaturally revealed by God (i.e., monopleurically). The execution of the covenant by Adam in ‘signing and sealing’ it reveals the concept of dipleurism. (5) Owen’s confessional theology embodied in the Savoy Declaration makes a distinction between the creation of man and the revelation of the covenant of works. Savoy VII:1 says:

 

The distance between God and the creature is so great, that although reasonable creatures do owe obedience unto him as their Creator, yet they could never have attained the reward of life, but by some voluntary condescension on God’s part, which he hath been pleased to express by way of covenant.

 

This condescension is a monopleuric covenantal act of God. Savoy VII:2 goes on, “The first covenant made with man, was a covenant of works, wherein life was promised to Adam, and in him to his posterity, upon condition of perfect and personal obedience.” Genesis 2:17 is cited as Scripture proof. This paragraph reflects the Reformed orthodox understanding of both the monopleuric and dipleuric natures of the covenant of works. (6) The discussion in Chapter Six, “Federal Theology among the Reformed Orthodox and Beyond,” showed that several Reformed orthodox theologians (i.e., at least Cocceius, Coxe, and Witsius) viewed the covenant of creation or works as relatively coeval with creation and as an immediately subsequent form of Supernatural Theology.[8] In conclusion, Owen’s position is carefully nuanced and is not, therefore, to be understood as teaching that the covenant of works is absolutely coeval with Adam’s creation. The covenant of works in Owen, therefore, is a condescending act of God revealed to Adam immediately subsequent to his creation. Adam’s created and covenantal states can be distinguished but not separated.[9]



[1] Owen, BTO, 25.

[2] Rehnman, Divine Discourse, 167.

[3] Rehnman, Divine Discourse, 167-68.

[4] Rehnman, Divine Discourse, 84.

[5] Owen, BTO, 20.

[6] Owen, BTO, 25.

[7] Owen, BTO, 25.

[8] Cf. also the discussion in Ward, God & Adam, Chapter 4, entitled “Emergence of a post-creation, pre-fall covenant,” 59-66 and Chapter 11 entitled “Law and covenant: the two states of the pre-fall Adam,” 99-103. Ward adds several more names to the brief list mentioned above (i.e., Cocceius, Coxe, and Witsius).

[9] Ward, God & Adam, 99.