John Murray and the Covenant of Works (2 of 4)

by | Feb 5, 2019 | Systematic Theology

Part 1

In my first post I noted the important connection between orthodox views of the Covenant of Works and the doctrine of justification.  This brings me to John Murray.  John Murray famously questioned the traditional terminology or verbal description of the relation between God and Adam as a Covenant of Works.  Over the years I have come to believe that his caution regarding the traditional description of the relation between God and Adam as a Covenant of Works was unnecessary.  I believe that the relation between God and Adam may be described as a “Covenant.”  I believe that (properly understood and clarified) this relation may even be described as one of “Works.”  At any rate, I am willing to acknowledge the historical momentum of this terminology, Covenant of Works and use it happily. Clearly, however, Murray’s hesitations about this terminology have misled some with regard to the true tendencies of his theological trajectory.  I think—and always have thought—that for substance Murray holds everything essential to what was called the Covenant of Works.  I certainly do not believe that his hesitations about the traditional terminology led to any error or heterodoxy regarding the doctrine of justification.


These two assertions require some defense.  Let me now provide that.


First, Murray’s concerns about the terminology, Covenant of Works, must be properly understood and not exaggerated.  We must not react to his hesitations without appreciating their nature.  Murray expresses these hesitations in two major places.  They are expressed in an article entitled, “Covenant Theology.”[1]  This article may now be found in volume four of his Collected Writings.  They are also and more briefly expressed in the introduction to his article entitled, “The Adamic Administration.”[2]  This may now be found in volume two of his Collected Writings.  Let me say several things about these hesitations.


  • In “The Adamic Administration” the first thing that Murray says about the terminology, Covenant of Works, is that it is not “felicitous.”[3] No one perhaps has ever used the English language more carefully than Murray.  Thus, his description of this terminology as not “felicitous” must be carefully noted.  This is not a scathing or wholesale rejection of the terminology or what it represents.  The terminology is in his view simply not “happy.”
  • The reason for the unhappiness of this terminology is that for Murray “the elements of grace entering into the administration are not properly provided for by the term ‘works’.”[4] For Murray, ‘works’ connotes the idea that the reward promised in the Adamic Administration was strictly merited or earned.  Murray is of the opinion, and I think that he is right in this opinion, that the reward of life would have been in no way strictly earned by the obedience of Adam.  In “Covenant Theology” Murray remarks: “The promise was that of the greatest felicity in heaven.  The obligation which God assumed in this promise was wholly gratuitous.  God had no debt, strictly speaking, from which a right could belong to man.  The only debt was that of his own faithfulness to the promise.  And as for man, he could not, strictly and properly, obtain merit from his obedience, and could not seek the reward as a right.  The worthiness of works could bear no proportion to the reward of life eternal.”[5]  I think that Murray’s reasoning is irrefutable.  Further, it appears to be seconded by the Westminster Confession (and the 1689 in almost the same language) when in chapter 7, paragraph 1 the Westminster says:  “The distance between God and the creature is so great, that although reasonable creatures do owe obedience to 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.”  The only question about this is whether the term ‘works’ needs to imply such a strict idea of meriting the reward of life.
  • Murray goes on to say in “The Adamic Administration” that this administration is not designated a covenant in Scripture. Murray may perhaps be strictly speaking correct about this (depending on your interpretation of Hosea 6:7).  His deeper concern is that the Adamic Administration does not meet what he regards as the proper definition of covenant.  For Murray “Covenant in Scripture denotes the oath-bound confirmation of promise and involves a security which the Adamic economy did not bestow.”[6]  I am not carried by Murray’s argument here.  I question his definition of covenant in Scripture.  I also think it is possible for there to be a covenant properly defined where the exact terminology of covenant is not used.[7]
  • Murray is correct, however, to note that the terminology of Covenant of Works is a somewhat later development in Reformed theology. While the major ideas later summarized under this rubric date back with good evidence to Calvin himself, the actual terminology—Murray thinks—cannot be found until the last decade of the 16th  Even then various ways of describing this covenant may be found.  It is variously called the covenant of life, favor, and nature.[8]


The fundamental lesson to be drawn from all this is that Murray’s rejection of this terminology must not be turned into something it was not.  Even such a stern critic of John Murray as Mark Karlberg in Covenant Theology in Reformed Perspective freely admits and concludes: “This recognition that the law-principle does characterize the state of nature, man’s natural relationship with God … safeguards his formulation of the doctrine of justification by faith and the doctrine of the atonement of Christ. …. As a result, Murray’s theological system is essentially compatible with the Westminster Standards …”[9]

[1] John Murray, Collected Writings, Volume Four: Studies in Theology (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 192), 216-240.

[2] Murray, Collected Writings, Volume Two, 47-59.

[3] Murray, Collected Writings, Volume Two, 49.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Murray, Collected Writings, Volume Four, 222.

[6] Murray, Collected Writings, Volume Two, 49.

[7] Gonzales, Robert R., Jr. “The Covenantal Context of the Fall: Did God Make a Primeval Covenant with Adam?” Reformed Baptist Theological Review IV:2 (2007): 5-32.

[8] Murray, Collected Writings, Volume Four, 217-221.

[9] Mark W. Karlberg, Covenant Theology in Reformed Perspective (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2000), 45.

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