G.K. Beale on the Presence of a Covenant in Gen. 1-3

Alright, I finally cracked open G.K. Beale’s 962 page beast, A New Testament Biblical Theology: The Unfolding of the Old Testament in the New.  It’s been staring at me, tempting me with it’s theological awesomeness, so I finally gave in. At about 60 pages in I can safely say this is going to be a watershed work in New Testament studies. Describing the project in a short blog-post while doing it any sort of justice is next to impossible, especially when you consider the fact that Beale’s own description takes him about 25 pages. Still, the title alone points us to fact that one of the main thrusts of Beale’s work is to show how the New Testament can only be understood as the unfolding of the grand story-line of the Old Testament.

In order to do so, he opens with a summary and theological analysis of that story-line, beginning with a focus on the first 3 chapters of Genesis. He pays special attention to Adam, the concept of the Image of God,  and the eschatological thrust of the creational command to “conquer and subdue” the earth and “be fruitful and multiply” (Gen. 1:28), themes of crucial importance for understanding the rest of the tension and story-line of the OT.

It’s at this point that I ran across a very helpful passage discussing the presence of a “covenant” in Gen 1-3. After some careful examination of the texts Beale notes that there are a number of considerations that point us to the idea that it is possible, indeed necessary, to speak of a “covenant” relationship between God and Adam in the Garden, despite the objection that the word “covenant” is not used in the passage. The passage is worth quoting at length here:

In light of these observations, we can speak of the prefall conditions as a “beginning first creation” and the yet-to-come escalated creation conditions to be a consummate “eschatologically” enhanced stage of final blessedness. The period leading up to the reception of these escalated conditions is the time when it would be decided whether Adam would obey or disobey. These escalated conditions indicate that Adam was in a covenant relationship with God. Although the word “covenant” is not used to describe the relationship between God and Adam, the concept of covenant is there. God chooses to initiate a relationship with Adam by imposing an obligation on him (Gen. 2:16-17). This obligation was part of the larger task with which Adam had been commissioned in Gen 1.:28: to “rule” and “subdue” creation and in the process to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.” Adam’s “ruling and subduing” commission included guarding the garden from any threat to its peaceful maintenance. In light of Gen. 2:16-17 and 3:22, Adam would receive irreversible blessings of eternal life on the condition of perfect faith and obedience, and he would receive the decisive curse of death if he was unfaithful and disobedient. Thus, the discernment of irreversible escalated creation conditions discussed above is the best argument for such a covenant notion.

Consequently, the argument that the word “covenant” is not used in Gen. 2-3 does not provide proof that there is not covenant relationship, just as Adam and Eve’s marriage relationship is not termed a “covenant” in Gen. 2:21-24 but expresses covenantal concepts and, in fact, is identified as a covenant elsewhere. Likewise, it is profitable that God’s covenant with Adam is referred to as a covenant elsewhere in the OT. The essential elements of a covenant are found in the Gen. 1-3 narrative: (1) two parties are named; (2) a condition of obedience is set forth; (3) a curse for transgression is threatened; (4) a clear implication of a blessing is promised for obedience. It could be objected that there is no reference to either party reaching a clear agreement or, especially, to Adam accepting the terms set forth in this so-called covenant. However, neither is this the case with Noah and Abraham, with whom God made explicit covenants. –A New Testament Biblical Theology: The Unfolding of the Old Testament in the New, pp 442-43

Again, these conclusions come after a solid examination of the texts (pp. 30-41), and is followed by reinforcing argumentation (pp. 43-46). Still, I found this passage to be helpful in showing that to speak of God’s creational covenant with Adam, or a “covenant of works”, is not an obvious imposition of foreign concepts onto the text in order to fit it into a theological grid, as is so often charged.  Rather, something like this is positively required by a close, narratively-oriented reading of the text.

As I continue to dive into this ambitious, and already thoroughly rewarding work, I’m sure more excerpts and summaries will follow this.

Soli Deo Gloria

4 thoughts on “G.K. Beale on the Presence of a Covenant in Gen. 1-3

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