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Communio Sanctorum: Augustine on the Covenant of Works

20 October, 2008

‘Communio Sanctorum’ means ‘the communion of the saints’. We’ve decided occasionally to feature juicy excerpts and reflections from the earliest ages of the church as they weigh in upon Reformed theology and practice; the one from Hippolytus is definitely rich, and there are several scattered throughout our archives. Here’s another.

Augustine on the Covenant of Works

Although full and carefully worked out discussions of covenant theology didn’t begin to arrive until shortly after the beginning of the Reformation, covenant theologians have always argued that their views are true to the broader Christian tradition. When we recognize that the Bible itself not only consistently speaks in covenantal terms but is even arranged covenantally, it’s not a leap from there to the recognition that this has been part of the tradition from earliest times (even if not always in the foreground).

But it’s often assumed that the Reformed covenant theologians didn’t just bring the covenantal architecture of the Bible into the spotlight, but speculated well beyond the biblical accounts. The doctrine of the covenant of works is often presented as a good example of such ‘novelty’.

So has the Christian tradition in general taught that Adam was in a special relationship with God on behalf of all humanity, and that this relationship threatened everlasting death on pain of Adam’s disobedience and rebellion, and promised everlasting life on condition of Adam’s faithful obedience — again, on behalf of all humanity? In other words, is the covenant of works lower-case ‘c’ catholic?

Well, in a word, yes. There are many examples to offer from the church fathers, but here’s just one from Augustine, arguably the most influential.

Speaking of human rebellion and its consequences in his City of God, Augustine wrote that

…even the infants, not personally in their own life, but according to the common origin of the human race, have all broken God’s covenant in that one in whom all have sinned [see Rom 5:12, 19]….For the first covenant, which was made with the first man, is just this: “In the day ye eat thereof, ye shall surely die.” (XVI, 27).

This is in the context of explaining why uncircumcised infants are said to have broken the LORD’s covenant (see Gen 17:14). Augustine appeals also to (among other texts) Rom 4:15 (‘Where no law is, there is no prevarication’), arguing that there are ‘two great’ covenants, ‘the old and the new’. It is this first/old covenant even infants have broken in Adam, necessitating their regeneration in the second/new covenant:

And thus, because circumcision was the sign of regeneration, and the infant, on account of the original sin by which God’s covenant was first broken, was not undeservedly to lose his generation unless delivered by regeneration, these divine words are to be understood as if it had been said, ‘Whoever is not born again, that soul shall perish from his people, because he hath broken my covenant, since he also has sinned in Adam with all others.’ (ibid.).

  1. 20 October, 2008 11:03 am


  2. Darren permalink
    21 October, 2008 12:42 pm

    Yeah, when I finally got around to reading City of God, I was struck by how much he said lined up so well with our take on the covenant of works. Nice to know that others saw this sort of thing in Scripture long before the 16th century.

  3. creedorchaos permalink*
    22 October, 2008 2:40 am

    It’s true. I think if in the broader tradition any time we saw ‘original sin’ we recognized that it means ‘guilt and corruption because of Adam’s sin’, any time we saw ‘Christ’s redemption’ we recognized it fundamentally has to do with redemption ‘from guilt and condemnation in Adam’, and so on, I think the continuity would be clearer.

    That said, I think there were certainly very important developments during the Reformation that, while they didn’t come up with anything ‘new’, they certainly helped to work the basics of the two Adams/two covenants approach more thoroughly and consistently throughout our thinking.



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