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?
[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.