Edenic Probation of Adam concerning the Covenant of Works.

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The Joyful Curmudgeon
Staff member
I thought this was a very good blog from Rich Barcellos on the Edenic Probation. It was helpful in helping me understand this a bit better.

Midwest Center for Theological Studies: Owensboro, KY

Edenic probation?

Richard Barcellos

“…God created man upright and perfect, and gave him a righteous law, which had been unto life had he kept it…” (2nd LCF 6:1; emphasis added)

Notice the words “unto life.” This seems to indicate that Adam could have arrived at a state or quality of life he did not possess at creation. This (and other factors) has caused many Reformed theologians to argue that eschatology precedes soteriology in the biblical scheme. For instance, here are some well-known words of Geerhardus Vos. “The eschatological is an older strand in revelation than the soteric”[1] “[T]he eschatological structure of history…was true before, and apart from, redemption.”[2] He goes on to say “[t]hat the… ‘Covenant of Works’ was nothing but an embodiment of the Sabbatical principle.” If the probation of the Covenant of Works had “been successful, then the sacramental Sabbath would have passed over into the reality it typified…”[3] In other words, protology is eschatological and eschatology precedes soteriology.

Pre-redemptive Special Revelation for Vos involves the disclosure of the covenant of works. Concerning the content of pre-redemptive Special Revelation, Vos says:

We understand by this, as already explained, the disclosure of the principles of a process of probation by which man was to be raised to a state of religion and goodness, higher, by reason of its unchangeableness, than what he already possessed.[4]

Notice Vos says “a process of probation.” He links the covenant of works with probation. Is this unique to Vos? Not at all.

Cocceius’ view of the covenant of works infused eschatology into his theology from the Garden of Eden.[5] “The covenant of works opened up the possibility of a history with an eschatological prospect.” [6] Paradise “was a symbol and pledge of a ‘better habitation.’”[7]

Nehemiah Coxe believed that Adam had “the promise of an eternal reward on condition of his perfect obedience to these laws.”[8] The tree of life functioned sacramentally as “a sign and pledge of that eternal life which Adam would have obtained by his own personal and perfect obedience to the law of God if he had continued in it.”[9] Adam’s violation of the positive precept of Genesis 2:17 was also a violation of “that eternal law that is written in his heart.”[10]

Witsius held similar views. The covenant of works, or nature, or of the law[11] is “an agreement between God and Adam…by which God promised eternal life and happiness…, if he [i.e., Adam] yielded obedience…”[12] Witsius sees Adam in a probationary state and capable of arriving at a higher, more blessed state of existence. He says:

That man was not yet arrived at the utmost pitch of happiness, but [was] to expect a still greater good, after his course of obedience was over. This was hinted by the prohibition of the most delightful tree, whose fruit was, of any other, greatly to be desired; and this argued some degree of imperfection in that state, in which man was forbid the enjoyment of some good.[13]

The more blessed state of existence was “eternal life, that is the most perfect fruition of himself [i.e., God], and that forever, after finishing his course of obedience…”[14] This promise of life flowed out of God’s goodness and bounty and not out of any strict necessity.[15] The Garden of Eden, according to Witsius, was a pledge, a type, a symbol, both temporary and anticipatory of a better state yet to be enjoyed.[16] In other words, protology is, as we have seen in other Reformed orthodox theologians, eschatological.

Concerning the doctrine of Edenic probation, John Owen says:

Neither did God offer any other reward for obedience when the covenant was revealed to Adam. What would have occurred when the fixed period of time had elapsed, and it became Adam’s reward to enjoy God uninterruptedly for*ever, has been the subject of much deep and dangerous dispute. Remember that God Himself knew full well that this would never be. We can go no further than what has been established; which is that the fountainhead of our race, if he had remained in his first state of sinlessness, would have, at length, obtained a reward for his fidelity, and that reward would have been undisturbed enjoyment of God as was revealed in the terms of the covenant.

Here we must stop, for neither the sacred page nor the events themselves give any clue to the time-scale of the probation or the way in which Adam would have passed from the possibility of sin and entered into the joy of the Lord forever.[17]

Note that a reward was offered for obedience as revealed in the covenant of works. The covenant of works, then, is pre-redemptive, Special Revelation and not strictly co-equal with the act of creation. This reward would have been given to Adam after the fixed time [i.e., “the time-scale of the probation”] appointed by God had elapsed. The reward was something Adam did not enjoy by creation – namely, uninterrupted and undisturbed enjoyment of God forever. Adam’s obedience would have brought him to that state of being which will be the lot of all those in Christ in the final, eschatological state – i.e., without the possibility of sin. The reward offered to Adam in the covenant of works (i.e., the undisturbed enjoyment of God), is the very same reward obtained by Christ in the New Covenant.[18]

“…God created man upright and perfect, and gave him a righteous law, which had been unto life had he kept it…” (2nd LCF 6:1; emphasis added). What Adam failed to do, Christ has done! Christ passed probation by his life-long obedience and went where no man had gone before – he entered into glory via the resurrection. It is that glory that Adam failed to attain and that glory which will be enjoyed by all in Christ.

[1] Vos, BTV, 140. It is of interest to note that this statement comes in the context of Vos discussing the Sabbath. Cf. Dennison, Jr., “Vos on the Sabbath: A Close Reading,” 68-70.

[2] Vos, BTV, 140.

[3] Vos, BTV, 140.

[4] Vos, BTV, 27. Emphases added.

[5] van Asselt, The Federal Theology of Johannes Cocceius, 264.

[6] van Asselt, “Structural Elements in the Eschatology of Johannes Cocceius,” 82.

[7] van Asselt, The Federal Theology of Johannes Cocceius, 264.

[8] Coxe and Owen, Covenant Theology, 44, 51. Coxe gives three proofs with discussion for the promise of an eternal reward on pages 45-46. “These laws” in the context of Coxe’s discussion refers to the moral law and “a positive precept in which he charged man not to eat of the fruit of one tree in the midst of the garden of Eden.”

[9] Coxe and Owen, Covenant Theology, 45. Coxe justifies this function of the tree of life as follows: “The allusion that Christ makes to it in the New Testament (Revelation 2:7). …The method of God’s dealing with Adam in reference to this tree after he had sinned against him and the reason assigned for it by God himself [i.e., Genesis 3:22ff.]. …This also must not be forgotten: that as Moses’ law in some way included the covenant of creation and served for a memorial of it (on which account all mankind was involved in its curse), it had not only the sanction of a curse awfully denounced against the disobedient, but also a promise of the reward of life to the obedient. Now as the law of Moses was the same in moral precept with the law of creation, so the reward in this respect was not a new reward, but the same that by compact had been due to Adam, in the case of his perfect obedience.” Here Coxe is articulating Owen’s (and others’) view of the function of the covenant of works under the Mosaic covenant.

[10] Coxe and Owen, Covenant Theology, 43, 51.

[11] Witsius, Economy of the Covenants, I:50.

[12] Witsius, Economy of the Covenants, I:50. Cf. Muller, “The Covenant of Works and the Stability of Divine Law in Seventeenth-Century Reformed Theology,” in CTJ 29 (1994): 75-101.

[13] Witsius, Economy of the Covenants, I:69; cf. also I:123-24.

[14] Witsius, Economy of the Covenants, I:73.

[15] Witsius, Economy of the Covenants, I:76ff.

[16] Witsius, Economy of the Covenants, I:106ff., esp. I:109.

[17] Owen, BTO, 25.

[18] Owen, BTO, 26.

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The Joyful Curmudgeon
Staff member
Here is another quote from Witsuis on probation. This topic use to bother me. I didn't understand it.
... That man was not arrived at the pitch of utmost happiness, but to expect a still greater good, after his course of obedience was over. This was hinted by the prohibition of the most delightful tree, whose fruit was, of any other, greatly to be desired; and this guard some degree of imperfection in that, in which man was forbid the enjoyment of some good.
Witsus Economy of the Covenants book 1:69 also see 1:123-124

Imperfection in this context most likely does not mean Adam wasn't created perfect but that he was not in a perfected state as of yet that he was suppose to attain by promise.

Think on this with me.


Puritan Board Doctor

Interesting stuff. Also, I've never come accross the word protology before (?)

Adam if he had passed the period of probation without sinning would have been rewarded by

(a) Somehow being confirmed in righteousness i.e. being made unable to Fall into sin forever i.e. his soul would be made "incorruptible"

(b) At the end of his probation/time on earth (?) his body would be made incorruptible i.e. incapable of corruption.

(c) Once Adam, Eve and their offspring had completed the Creation/Cultural Mandate, this Earth and all that they had achieved would be made incorruptible.

(d) At the end of the probation/his time in this world, Adam would be translated (?) into this incorruptible state of body and his world, and rest in God His Creator/Sustainer/Providential Governor, in a way he could only enjoy by resting in Him by faith each day, and in a special way enjoying his rest from his creative/pro-creative activities with His Creator on the weekly Sabbath.

(e) Adam and Eve would be rewarded with physically, mentally and - above all- spiritually perfect children. This may indicate that the probation would have to be completed before the conception of Adam's first child, if all his children would be sinless.

(f) The work of the Creation/Cultural Mandate by Mankind would continue long after the Probation by Adam, the First Man, was complete.(?)

(g) Did Adam and Eve know before they sinned that in God's mercy and grace, they were going to be spared and not immediately struck down and cast into Hell? Did they know that God would have a provision for sin?

Seems that the first Man, Adam, had a lot to lose by eating of the Tree!!

These things are all somewhat speculative but stimulated by what Randy has already posted.

Christ completed the Probation for us over a period of 33 or so years.

There's a sense in Scripture that along with Adam being capable of falling into sin, the Old Creation was made good but capable of corruption should Man fall into sin. This is exactly what happened.

On the other hand we are told that the New Creation will be "incorruptible, undefiled and that doesn't fade away" (I Peter 1:4; see also I Cor 9:25; I Cor 15:52; I Peter 1:23)
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