R.L. Dabney’s (Re?)definition of the Covenant of Works


I came across a somewhat strange formulation of the covenant of works (COW), expressed by R.L Dabney in his Systematic Theology. Dabney, a 19th century southern Presbyterian theologian, generally has some very intriguing and insightful comments on various loci of systematic theology. His approach to the COW, however, seems like a bit of a departure from the approach of most of the federal theologians from the Protestant scholastic period. Let me see if I can summarize it.

God’s act in entering into a covenant with Adam, if it be substantiated, will be found to be one of pure grace and condescension. (Systematic Theology, pg. 302)

Now the fact that Dabney speaks of grace before the fall should not surprise us (quite yet) since, after all, many of our older theologians spoke in this way. In fact, even the Belgic Confession speaks of God’s preserving of the un-fallen angels as an act of his grace (BCF 12). When the term grace is used regarding a pre-fall event, however, these writers generally are referring to God’s condescending act of relating covenantally to his creatures (though he is the creator), and to his goodness and beneficence toward those creatures. Grace in this sense is not referring to “de-merited” favor, the meaning which the term has post-fall. Is this what Dabney means, though?

He continues:

[God] might justly have held [Adam] always under his natural relationship; and Adam’s obedience, however long continued, would not have brought God into his debt for the future. (Systematic Theology, pg. 302)

Here is where things get a bit peculiar. Dabney seems to argue that the COW is something imposed upon Adam after his creation. (Whether Dabney sees this as logical posteriority or chronological posteriority, I don’t think it matters for this particular discussion.) Before God gave the COW, Adam was still bound to be obedient to God. Dabney seems to see two different legal covenants present in the beginning; a covenant of nature which demanded obedience to God with no foreseeable end or telos in view, and a COW which demanded that same obedience to God but this time with an end in view.

Thus, [Adam’s] holiness being mutable, his blessedness would always have hung in suspense. God, therefore, moved by pure grace, condescended to establish a covenant with His holy creature, in virtue of which a temporary obedience might be graciously accepted as a ground for God’s communicating Himself to him, and assuring him ever after of holiness, happiness, and communion with God. (Systematic Theology, pg. 302; emphasis mine)

This is quite odd. Dabney seems to be saying that prior to the COW, God demanded perfect and perpetual obedience of Adam. Under what covenant? I assume it is an implied covenant of creation that is legal in character. Otherwise Dabney sees a way for God to relate to mankind apart from a covenant relationship. But what is interesting is that for Dabney, the COW is a more gracious covenant because though it demands the very same obedience as the creation relationship, it requires a temporary version of this obedience. Adam would only have to obey for a limited period of time before earning the covenantal blessings of the COW (God’s communicating himself to Adam [Pg. 302]; I assume that Dabney means glorification).

Under the natural relation of man to law, there was room neither for mercy in case of transgression, nor for assured blessedness. This relation was modified by the Covenant of works, in three respects. First, a temporal probation was accepted, in place of an everlasting exposure to a fall under the perpetual legal demand. Second, the principle of representation was introduced by which the risques of the probation were limited to one man, acting for all instead of being indefinitely repeated, forever, in the conduct of each individual. Third, a reward for probationary obedience was promised, which, while a reward for right works, was far more liberal than the world entitled to; and this was an adoption of life, transferring man from the position of a servant to that of a son, and surrounding him forever with the safeguards of the divine wisdom and faithfulness, making his holiness indefectible. (Systematic Theology, pg. 302; emphasis mine)

Here again we see Dabney’s infinite vs. finite “time distinction” made between what he calls the “natural relation of man to the law” and the COW. Yet there again Dabney assumes that the COW is something that is imposed later upon an already existing relationship. God seems to change his (covenantal) dealings with pre-fall Adam. Rather than viewing the COW as the original relationship between God and Adam from the second of his creation, Dabney sees the COW as a later, somewhat easier to fulfill (after all, it is temporary) version of the original, natural relationship to God. This is quite a departure from earlier formulations of the COW. (For a summary, see Michael Horton, God of Promise: Introducing Covenant Theology, 83-104; see too Heinrich Heppe, Reformed Dogmatics, 281-300.) Dabney seems to be utilizing the confessional language of the COW while redefining it’s relationship to the covenant of grace (COG) and making it distinct from the covenant of creation.

He then writes:

Thus, the motive of God in this covenant was the same infinite and gratuitous goodness, which prompted him to the covenant of grace. (Systematic Theology, pg. 302)

I’m not intending to talk about Dabney’s view of justification here. He may well stand in essential continuity with the Reformed tradition on this matter. He may even have the law/gospel distinction down as well, I just haven’t read that far. Nevertheless, the idea that both the COW and the COG are motivated by the same kind of “gratuitous goodness” seems to open the door for a host of problems.

By the way, I’m not really trying to make an exegetical point here so please don’t offer exegetical critique in the comments. I am curious, however, if this is how others are reading this passage in Dabney and would covet your comments (from a historical-theological perspective) on whether you think I’ve accurately assessed Dabney on this matter.



3 Replies to “R.L. Dabney’s (Re?)definition of the Covenant of Works”

  1. I think Dabney’s actually in line with the Westminster standards here. The Shorter Catechism refers to the making of the covenant of works as a “special act of providence” on God’s part; since creation and providence are the two ways in which God executeth his decrees, this implies a distinction between creation and the entering into of the covenant of works. Also consider WCF 7.1: “Although reasonable creatures do owe obedience unto Him as their Creator, yet they could never have any fruition of him as their blessedness and reward, but by some voluntary condescension on God’s part, which he hath been pleased to express by way of covenant.” This contains the idea that man would still be bound to obey God even if there were no covenant, the same idea Dabney expressed in your quotes; also, “which he hath been pleased to express by way of covenant” indicates that covenant is not the only conceivable way that man could be related to God, it’s just the one that God chose.

    I’ve heard some Klinean/Vosian types express dissatisfaction with these passages in the Westminster standards before, on the grounds that they fail to appreciate that creation is _inherently_ covenantal. So if you think Westminster falls a little short here, you’re not alone. (Feel free to insert a gloat about the 3 forms at this point.) But it’s not just a Dabney thing.

    Also, I don’t find it the least bit troubling that Dabney would say the covenant of grace and the covenant of works are both motivated by God’s “goodness”.
    —begin rant—
    Westminster California can get a little too insistent on some of our peculiarities at times. In particular, I think we get too enamored of this idea that grace must be defined as DEmerited favor rather than UNmerited favor. Never mind that this narrowing of the term is a pretty recent development, such that both the “good guys” and “bad guys” from the history of theology are now “incorrect”. Never mind that the biblical use of the term charis is far broader than our narrow and specialized definition. It’s fine to invent new terms, or (if you absolutely must) to redefine old ones. It’s also fine when a word is given a narrower and more precise meaning in systematic theology than it has in the biblical text. However, it sort of gets my goat for us to redefine a common term in our own peculiar way, and then to insist that the traditional usage that other people continue to follow is “less accurate”.

    I understand that there’s a theological point being made–grace and works mustn’t be mixed. I’m even willing to reluctantly concede that, if one must, one can express this point by redefining a commonly used theological term to give it a narrower meaning. Otherwise there’s the danger that one will slide downhill from Murray, who insisted all covenants are gracious, to others who say there’s little difference between the prelapsarian and postlapsarian covenants. I get that.

    However, EVEN IF we assume for the sake of argument that “grace” MUST be used only for DEmerited favor, then we have to allow the use of some other term to describe God’s favor towards those who haven’t necessarily sinned. “Goodness” seems to fit the bill pretty well. We have to call it something.

    Maybe what troubles you is the statement that it’s “the same” goodness that extends both pre- and post-fall. But God is good to all his creations; “his tender mercies are over all his works” (Ps 145:9). When the objects of this goodness are sinful, we call it “grace”. When they’re not sinful we call it, well, just goodness I guess. But the distinction between demerited favor and unmerited favor is a distinction in the nature of the recipient, not the giver.
    —end rant—

    Whew. Had to get that off my chest. Not really aimed at you personally.


  2. I just wrote this in an email to Andrew, then realized that whoever else is reading this site might be interested as well.

    in case you’re wondering what my personal opinions on the relevant theological topics are:
    (a) Defining grace as DEmerited favor: slightly in favor.
    (b) Allowing a logical (not temporal) distinction between creation and the covenant of works, vs. insisting that creation is inherently covenantal: jury’s still out.

    Yeah, I guess you probably wouldn’t have guessed that’s where I stand from the content of my first post. :-) I guess I was more trying to make the point that (b) is an issue in the Westminster standards, and that we shouldn’t be too dogmatic about (a).


  3. Nice chat, men. You may want to check out Vos’ article “Doctrine of the Covenant in Ref’d Theology” (in Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation), especially pages 244-5, and then go to Bavinck II, 570ff. Note: Bavinck and Vos sound just like many of the Ref’d scholastics before them on this point.

    shane lems


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