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Book 1 - Chapter 2: Of the Contracting Parties in the Covenant of Works - by Herman Witsius

The Economy of the Covenants Between God and Man by Herman Witsius

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Herman Witsius (1636-1708)

Arguably known for the best work on Covenant Theology in print (at least in the top 5).

Herman Witsius (1636-1708) was Professor of Divinity in the Universities of Franeker, Utrecht, and Leyden. A brilliant and devout student, he was fluent in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew by the age of fifteen, when he entered the University of Utrecht. He was ordained at twenty-one and served in several pastorates, filling both the pulpit and the academic chair over the course of his life.

This, his magnum opus, is a reflection of some of the most fruitful and mature thinking on federal theology during the seventeenth century, and still holds a preeminent place in our own day.

Chapter II: Of the Contracting Parties in the Covenant of Works

I. WE begin with the consideration of the covenant of works, otherwise called, of the law and of nature; because prescribed by the law, requiring works as the condition, and founded upon and coeval with nature. This covenant is an agreement between God and Adam, formed after the image of God, as the head and root, or representative of the whole human race; by which God promised eternal life and happiness to him, if he yielded obedience to all his commands; threatening him with death if he failed but in the least point: and Adam accepted this condition. To this purpose are these two sentences, afterwards inculcated, on the repetition of the law, Lev. 18:5, and Deut. 27:26.

II. The better to understand this subject, these four things are to be explained: 1st. The contracting parties. 2dly. The condition prescribed. 3rdly. The promises. 4thly. The threatening.

III. The contracting parties here, are God and Adam. God, as Sovereign and supreme Lord, prescribing with absolute power, what he judges equitable: as goodness itself, or the chief good, promising communion with himself, in which man’s principal happiness lies, while obeying and doing what is well-pleasing to him: as justice itself, or sovereignly just, threatening death to the rebel. Adam sustained a two-fold relation: 1st. As man. 2dly. As head and root, or representative of mankind. In the former relation, he was a rational creature, and under the law to God, innocent, created after the divine image, and endued with sufficient powers to fulfil all righteousness. All these things are presupposed in man, to render him a fit object for God to enter into covenant with.

IV. Man, therefore, just from the hands of his Maker, had a soul, shining with rays of a divine light, and adorned with the brightest wisdom; whereby he was not only perfectly master of the nature of created things, but was delighted with the contemplation of the supreme and uncreated truth, the eyes of his understanding being constantly fixed on the perfections of his God; from the consideration of which he gathered, by the justest reasoning, what was equitable and just, what worthy of God and of himself. He also had the purest holiness of will, acquiescing in God as the supreme truth, revering him as the most dread majesty, loving him as the chief and only good; and, for the sake of God, holding dear whatever his mind, divinely taught, conceived as pleasing to Him, and like to, and expressive of his perfections; in fine, whatever contributed to the acquiring an intimate and immediate union with him; delighting in the communion of his God, which was now allowed him; panting after further communion, raising himself thereto by the creatures, as so many scales or steps; and finally setting forth the praises of his most unspotted holiness as the most perfect pattern, according to which he was to frame both himself and his actions to the uttermost. This is, as Elihu significantly expresses it, Job 34:9, “delighting himself with God.” This rectitude of the soul was accompanied with a most regular temperature of the whole body, all whose members, as instruments of righteousness, presented themselves ready and active at the first intimation of his holy will. Nor was it becoming God to form a rational creature for any other purpose than his own glory; which such a creature, unless wise and holy, could neither perceive nor celebrate, as shining forth in the other works of God; destitute of this light, and deprived of this endowment, what could he be but the reproach of his Creator, and every way unfit to answer the end of his creation? All these particulars the wisest of kings, Eccl. 7:29, has thrown together with a striking simplicity, when he says: “Lo! this only have I found, that God hath made man upright.”

V. What I have just said of the wisdom of the first man, ought, I think, to be extended so far, as not to suppose him, in the state of innocence, ignorant of the mystery of the Trinity. For it is necessary above all things, for the perfection of the human understanding, to be well acquainted with what it ought to know and believe concerning its God. And it may justly be doubted, whether he does not worship a God entirely unknown, nay, whether he at all worships the true God, who does not know and worship him, as subsisting in three persons. Whoever represents God to himself, in any other light, represents not God, but an empty phantom, and an idol of his own brain. Epiphanius seems to have had this argument in view, when, in his Panarius, p. 9, he thus writes of Adam: “He was no idolater, for he knew God the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost: and he was a prophet, and knew that the Father said to the Son, ‘Let us make man.’ ”

VI. These last words furnish a new argument: for since God, in the work of the creation, manifested himself a Trinity, “the Father made the worlds by the Son,” Heb. 1:2, the Holy Ghost cherished the waters by brooding upon them, and the whole Trinity addressed themselves, by mutual consultation, to the creation of man, it is not therefore credible that this mystery should be entirely unknown to the Protoplast or first parent; unless we can suppose Adam ignorant of his Creator, who was likewise the Son and the Holy Ghost. It cannot certainly be without design, that the Scripture, when speaking of man’s Creator, so often uses the plural number: as Isa. 54:5, בעליך עשיך, which literally signifies, “thy husbands, thy makers;” Psa. 149:2, ישמח ישראל בעשיו, “Let Israel rejoice in his makers;” nay, requires man to attend to this, and engrave it on his mind, Eccl. 12:1, זכד את בודאיך, “Remember thy creators.” It is criminal when man neglects it; and says not, Job 35:10, איה אלוה עשי, “Where is God my makers?” Which phrases, unless referred to a Trinity of persons, might appear to be dangerous. But it is impossible to suppose Adam ignorant concerning his Creator, of that which God does not suffer his posterity to be ignorant of at this time; especially as God created man to be the herald of his being and perfections in the new world. But it certainly tends to display the glory of God, that he should particularly celebrate, not only the divine perfections, but likewise how they subsist in the distinct persons of the Deity, and the manner and order of their operation. Admirably to this purpose speaks Bazil of Seleucia, Sermon II.: “Take particular notice of that expression, ‘Let us make man.’ Again, this word used plurally, hints at the persons of the Godhead, and presents a trinity to our knowledge. This knowledge, therefore, is coeval with the creation. Nor should it seem strange, that afterwards it should be taught: since it is one of those things, of which mention is made in the very first creation.”

VII. I own, Adam could not, from the bare contemplation of nature, without revelation, discover this mystery. But this I am fully persuaded of, that God revealed some things to man, not dictated by nature. For, whence did he know the command about the tree of Knowledge, and whence the meaning of the tree of life, but by God’s declaring it to him? Whence such a knowledge of his wife’s creation as to pronounce her flesh of his flesh, and bone of his bone, but from divine revelation? Seeing, then, God had revealed to man many things, and those indeed not of such moment, can we believe he would conceal from him a thing, the knowledge of which was so highly expedient to the perfection of man, and the glory of God? That learned man, therefore, was mistaken, who insisted, that the knowledge of the Trinity exceeded the happiness of Adam’s state, which was merely natural. For it was not so merely natural, that Adam only knew what the alone consideration of nature could suggest. The contrary we have just shown. And it must be deemed natural to that state, that innocent man, who had familiar intercourse with his God, should learn from his own mouth what might render him fitter to celebrate his praises. The learned Zanchius observes, in his book De Creat. Hom. l. i. l. § 12., that “most of the fathers were of opinion, that Adam, seeing he was such, and so great a friend of God before his fall, had sometimes seen God in a bodily appearance, and heard him speak.” And adds, “But this was always the Son of God.” And, a little after, “Christ, therefore, is the Jehovah, who brought Adam, and placed him in Paradise, and spoke with him.” Thus the ancients believed that the Son of God did then also reveal himself to Adam, and conversed with him.

VIII. And it seems rather too bold to affirm, that the economy subsisting between the three persons, is so principally taken up in procuring the salvation of mankind, that the knowledge thereof could not pertain to the state of innocence; in which there was no place either for salvation or redemption. For, Moses declares the economy of the divine persons at the very creation. And, while the gospel explains that admirable economy, as taken up in procuring the salvation of mankind, it, at the same time, carries our thoughts up to that economy as manifested in the first creation of the world. If now, it is so useful and pleasant to think, that the Son of God, our Saviour, “is the beginning of the creation of God,” Rev. 3:14, “by whom were created thrones and dominions, things visible and invisible, that he might have the pre-eminence in all things,” Col. 1:16–18, both of the works of nature and of grace; and that the Holy Spirit, now fitting up a new world of grace in our hearts, did at first brood on the waters, and make them pregnant with so many noble creatures; and thus to ascend to the consideration of the same economy in the works of creation and nature, which is now revealed to us in the works of salvation and grace; who can refuse that Adam in innocence had the same knowledge of God in three persons, though ignorant what each person, in his order, was to perform in saving sinners? Add to this, that though in that state of Adam, there was no room for redemption, yet there was for salvation and life eternal. The symbol of which was the Tree of Life, which even then bore the image of the Son of God (see Rev. 2:7), “for in him was life,” John 1:4; which symbol had been in vain, if the meaning thereof had been unknown to Adam.

IX. In this rectitude of man principally consists that image of God, which the Scripture so often recommends; and which Paul expressly places in knowledge, Col. 3:10; “in righteousness and true holiness,” Eph. 4:24. In which places he so describes the image of God, which is renewed in us by the spirit of grace, as at the same time to hint, that it is the same with which man was originally created. Neither can there be different images of God; for, as God cannot but be wise and holy, and, as such, be a pattern to the rational creature; it follows, that a creature wise and holy is, as such, the expression or resemblance of God. And it is a thing quite impossible, but God must own his own likeness to consist in this rectitude of the whole man, or that he should ever acknowledge a foolish and perverse creature to be like him; which would be an open denial of his perfections. It is finely observed by a learned man, that ὁσιὸτης της αληθειας, true holiness, is not only opposed to τη ὑποκρισει, hypocrisy or simulation, or to τῆ τυπικῆ καθαροτὴτι, typical purity, but that it denotes a holy study of truth, proceeding from the love of God; for, ὁσιος, to which answers the Hebrew חסיד, signifies in Scripture, one studious in, and eager after good. This ὁσιὸτης της ἀληθείας, true holiness, therefore denotes such a desire of pleasing God as is agreeable to the truth known of and in him, and loved for him.

X. But I see not, why the same learned person would have the δικαιοσύνη, righteousness, mentioned by Paul, Eph. 4:24, to be a privilege peculiar to the covenant of grace, which we obtain in Christ, and of which Adam was destitute; meaning by the word righteousness, a title or right to eternal life; which, it is owned, Adam had not, as his state of probation was not yet at an end. In opposition to this assertion, I offer these following considerations. 1st. There is no necessity, by righteousness, to understand a right to eternal life; for that term often denotes a virtue, a constant resolution of giving every one his due: as Eph. 5:9, where the apostle, treating of sanctification, writes, “For the fruit of the Spirit is in all goodness, righteousness, and truth.” The learned person himself was aware of this, who elsewhere speaks thus (on Gen. 5 § 9), “Righteousness is, first, the rectitude of actions, whether of the soul or of the members; and their agreement with sound reason: namely, that they may easily avoid condemnation or blame, and obtain commendation and praise. So Titus. 3:5, ‘Works of righteousness.’ And hence the denomination of just, or righteous, denotes a blameless or a praiseworthy person.” Since, then, that word signifies elsewhere such a rectitude, why not here too? Especially as it is indisputable that such righteousness belonged to the image of God in Adam. 2dly. It ought not to be urged, that here righteousness is joined with holiness, and therefore thus to be distinguished from it; as that the latter shall denote an inherent good quality, and the former a right to life. For, it may be answered, first, that it is no unusual thing with the Holy Spirit to express the same thing by different words. “It is to be observed,” says Ursinus, qu. 18, Cat., “that righteousness and holiness were in us the same thing before the fall; namely, an inherent conformity to God and the law.” Nor does the celebrated Cocceius himself speak otherwise on Psa. 16. § 2. “But צרק, righteousness, if you consider the law of works, signifies, in the largest sense, every thing that is honest, every thing that is true, every thing that is holy.” 2dly, Suppose we should distinguish righteousness from holiness, it follows not, that it is to be distinguished in this manner; for there are places in which no such distinction can take place: as Luke 1:74, 75, “Serve him—in holiness and righteousness before him;” and 1 Thess. 2:10, “Ye are witnesses, and God also, how holily and justly, and unblameably, we behaved ourselves among you that believe;” and 1 Kings 3:6, “He walked before thee in truth and in righteousness, and in uprightness of heart;” where righteousness, though added to holiness, can signify nothing but a virtue of the soul, and the exercise of it. Thirdly, if we must absolutely distinguish these two things; it may be done many ways. 1st. So as to refer holiness to God; righteousness to men. Thus Philo, concerning Abraham, says, “Holiness is considered as towards God; righteousness as towards men.” And the emperor Antonius, book vii. § 66, says of Socrates, “In human things just; in divine, holy.” 2dly. Or so as to say, that both words denote universal virtue (for even righteousness is spoken of the worship of God, Luke 1:75; and holiness referred to men. Maximus Tyrius, Dissert. xxvi. says of the same Socrates, pious towards God, holy towards men), but in a different respect; so as holiness shall denote virtue, as it is the love and expression of the divine purity, as Plato explains holiness by the love of God; righteousness, indeed, may signify the same virtue, as it is a conformity to the prescribed rule, and an obedience to the commands of God: “whether it be δικαιον, right, (righteous) to hearken unto God,” Acts 4:19. 3rdly, Ursinus quest. 6, Catech., speaks somewhat differently, saying, that righteousness and holiness, may, in the text of Paul, and in the catechism, be taken for one and the same, or be distinguished; for righteousness may be understood of those internal and external actions, which agree with the right judgment of mind, and with the law of God; holiness be understood of the qualities of them. So that there is nothing to constrain us to explain righteousness here of a right to life; but there are many things to persuade us to the contrary. For, 1st. That image of God, which is renewed in us by regeneration, consists in absolute qualities, inherent in the soul, which are as so many resemblances of the perfections of God; but a right or title to life is a mere relation. 2dly. The image of God consists in something which is produced in man himself, either by the first or the new creation; but the right to life rests wholly on the righteousness and merits of Christ, things entirely without us; Phil. 3:9, “Not having my own righteousness.” 3rdly. The apostle, in the place before us, is not treating of justification, were this right should have been mentioned; but of sanctification, and the rule thereof; where it would be improper to speak of any such thing. 4thly. They who adhere to this new explanation of righteousness, appear without any just cause to contradict the Catechism,* quest. 6, and with less force to oppose the Socinians, who maintain that the image of God, after which we are regenerated in Christ, is not the same with that after which Adam was created. And yet these learned men equally detest his error with ourselves. These considerations make us judge it safer to explain righteousness, so as to make it a part of the image of God, after which Adam was created.

XI. But if we take in the whole extent of the image of God, we say, it is made up of these three parts. 1st. Antecedently, that it consists in the spiritual and immortal nature of the soul, and in the faculties of understanding and will. 2dly. Formally and principally, in these endowments or qualities of the soul, viz., righteousness and holiness. 3rdly. Consequentially, in the immortality of the whole man, and his dominion over the creatures. The first of these was, as one elegantly expresses it, as precious ground on which the image of God might be drawn, and formed: the second, that very image itself, and resemblance of the divinity: the third, the lustre of that image widely spreading its glory; and as rays, not only adorning the soul, but the whole man, even his very body; and rendering him the lord and head of the world, and at the same time immortal, as being the friend and confederate of the eternal God.

XII. The principal strokes of this image, Plato certainly knew, who defines happiness to be ὁμοιωσιν τω Θεῶ, “the resemblance of God:” and this resemblance he places in piety, justice, and prudence; this last to temper and regulate the two former. His words are excellent, and deserve to be here transcribed:—”τὴν δέ θνητὴν φύσιν, καὶ τόνδε τον τόπον, τὸ κακὸν περιπολε͂ι ἐξ ανάγκης: διὸ καὶ πειρᾶσθαι χρη ἐνθένδε ἐκε͂ισι φέυγειν. Ὅτι τάχιστα φυγὴ δὲ ὀμόιωσις Θεῶ κατὰ τὸ δυνατόν. Ὁμόιωσις δὲ δίκαιον καὶ ὅσιον μετὰ φρονήσεως γενέσθαι. “This mortal nature, and this place of abode, are necessarily encompassed with evil. We are, therefore, with the utmost expedition to fly from it. This flight is an assimilation to God as far as may be; and this assimilation is justice and piety, accompanied with prudence.” Vid. Lipsii Manuduct. ad Stoicam Philosophiam, Lib. ii. Dissert. 13.

XIII. God gave to man the charge of this his image, as the most excellent deposit of heaven, and, if kept pure and inviolate, the earnest of a greater good; for that end he endowed him with sufficient powers from his very formation, so as to stand in need of no other habitual grace. It was only requisite that God, by the continual influx of his providence, should preserve those powers, and excite them to all and each of their acts. For, there can be no state conceived in which the creature can act independently of the Creator; not excepting the angels themselves, though now confirmed in holiness and happiness.

XIV. And thus, indeed, Adam was in covenant with God, as a man, created after the image of God, and furnished with sufficient abilities to preserve that image. But there is another relation, in which he was considered as the head and representative of mankind, both federal and natural. So that God said to Adam, as once to the Israelites, Deut. 29:14, 15, “Neither with you only do I make this covenant, and this oath; but also with him that is not here with us this day.” The whole history of the first man proves, that he is not to be looked upon as an individual person, but that the whole human nature is considered as in him. For it was not said to our first parents only, “Increase and multiply;” by virtue of which word the propagation of mankind is still continued. Nor is it true of Adam only, “It is not good that the man should be alone.” Nor does that conjugal law, “Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and they shall be one flesh,” concern him alone; which Christ still urges, Matt. 19:5. Nor did the penalty, threatened by God upon Adam’s sinning, “Thou shalt surely die,” affect him alone; but, “death passed upon all men,” according to the apostle’s observation, Rom. 5:12. All which loudly proclaim, that Adam was here considered as the head of mankind.

XV. This also appears from that beautiful opposition of the first and second Adam, which Paul pursues at large, Rom. 5:15, &c. For, as the second Adam does, in the covenant of grace, represent all the elect, in such a manner that they are accounted to have done and suffered themselves what he did and suffered in their name and stead; so likewise the first Adam was the representative of all that were to descend from him.

XVI. And that God was righteous in this constitution, is by no means to be disputed. Nor does it become us to entertain any doubts about the right of God, nor inquire too curiously into it; much less to measure it, by the standard of any right established amongst us despicable mortals, when the matter of fact is evident and undisputed. We are always to speak in vindication of God; “that thou mightest be justified when thou speakest, and be clear when thou judgest,” Psa. 51:4. He must, surely, be utterly unacquainted with the majesty of the Supreme Being, with his most pure and unspotted holiness, which in every respect is most consistent with itself, who presumes to scan his actions, and call his equity to account. Such a freedom no earthly father would bear in a son, no king in a subject, no master in a servant. And do we, mean worms of the earth, take upon us to use such freedom with the Judge of the whole universe? As often as our murmuring flesh dares to repine and cry out, “The ways of the Lord are not equal;” so often let us oppose thereto, “Are not thy ways unequal?” Ezek. 18:25.

XVII. However, it generally holds, that we more calmly acquiesce in the determinations of God, when we understand the reasons of them. Let us, therefore, see, whether here, also, we cannot demonstrate the equity of the divine right. For what if we should consider the matter thus? If Adam had, in his own and in our name, stood to the conditions of the covenant; if, after a course of probation, he had been confirmed in happiness, and we, his posterity, in him, if fully satisfied with the delights of animal life, we had, together with him, been translated to the joys of heaven; none, certainly, would then repine, that he was included in the head of mankind; every one would have commended both the wisdom and goodness of God: not the least suspicion of injustice would have arisen on account of God’s putting the first man into a state of probation in the room of all, and not every individual for himself. How should that, which in this event would have been deemed just, be unjust on a contrary event? For, neither the justice nor injustice of actions is to be judged of by the event.

XVIII. Besides, what mortal can now flatter himself, that, placed in the same circumstances with Adam, he would have better consulted his own interest? Adam was neither without wisdom, nor holiness, nor a desire after true happiness, nor an aversion to the miseries denounced by God against the sinner; nor, in fine, without any of those things by which he might expect to keep upon his guard against all sin: and yet he suffered himself to be drawn aside by the craft of a flattering seducer. And dost thou, iniquitous censurer of the ways of the Lord, presume thou wouldst have better used thy free-will? Nay, on the contrary, all thy actions cry aloud, that thou approvest, that thou art highly pleased with, and always takest example from that deed of thy first parent, about which thou so unjustly complainest. For, when thou transgressest the commands of God; when thou settest less by the will of the Supreme Being than by thy lusts; when thou preferrest earthly to heavenly things, present to future; when, by thine own choice, thou seekest after happiness, but not that which is true, and, instead of taking the right way, goest into by-paths; is not that the very same as if thou didst so often eat of the forbidden tree? Why, then, dost thou presume to blame God for taking a compendious way, including all in one; well knowing, that the case of each in particular, when put to the test, would have proved the same?

Bible Verse:

“I am Almighty God; walk before Me and be blameless,” (Gen. 17:1).

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