Dr. Michael Williams is Professor of Systematic Theology at Covenant Theological Seminary. His degrees are from Moody Bible Institute (Diploma), Calvin College (BA), Harvard Divinity School (MTS), University of Toronto (Ph.D.), and Grand Rapids Baptist Seminary (M.Div.). He has been at Covenant since 1996.
The book he has written is, like many other books, good in some places, and not so good in other places. Unfortunately, the not so good places have some rather significant implications for the current situation in the PCA. But we’ll start with the good things.
Firstly, there is a salutary emphasis on resurrection in this book. He holds to the literal resurrection of Christ from the dead, and he believes that this fact has enormous implications for the Christian life. In an age which has sometimes forgotten the resurrection, this is a good thing. He takes trouble to connect the cross and the resurrection together, which is always important to do. In reference to this, he notes that resurrection was not any less difficult to believe in the first century than it is now (p. 4). If Williams overstates the importance of resurrection by saying that it is “the best single term to catch the nature of redemption and the character of the Christian hope,” (p. 15) we can perhaps forgive him in the current climate. Later we find that he has not forgotten the cross.
Secondly, it is a helpful idea sometimes to start with the Exodus, before one deals with Genesis. One could argue that Genesis tells us what is wrong, while Exodus gives us a picture of the solution, and this is a valid point. However, it is not an exaggeration to say, with Williams, that Exodus provides the pattern for redemption.
Thirdly, Williams dismisses myth as an acceptable way of thinking about Scripture (p. 54).
Fourthly, he has a sound principle of authorial intention (p. 77). He argues that the text is our key to the authorial intention (which can be found!).
Fifthly, he seems to have a clear understanding of the difference between grace and obligation (p. 105).
Sixthly, his account of why the land of Israel was the promised land for God’s people in the OT is insightful (p. 115).
Seventhly, he definitively holds to the visible/invisible church distinction, as well as a distinction of sign and thing signified (pp. 130, 251).
Eighthly, his insight into Luke 4 is illuminating (pp. 243-245).
And, ninthly, his correspondence of Pentecost to Mount Sinai is also very interesting (p. 261).
And now for the criticisms.
Firstly, he gets off on the wrong foot defining covenant as relationship (pp. 45, 143, 236). Relationship is already established before the covenant is made (witness Abraham’s relationship to God well before Genesis 15 and 17, as well as God’s relationship to Adam before the terms of the covenant were made). Covenant is not relationship, but agreement. We might say that a wedding is a covenant ceremony, but there jolly well better be a relationship ahead of time!
Secondly, he is firmly monocovenantal. Here are some quotations: “But the human story from creation to new creation does change, and that affects how God administers his creation covenant” (p. 46), “We may view covenant history not as a series of disconnected installments but as a single line. Each new covenant presupposes and renews what went before. Specifically, God’s redemptive acts to not oppose or deny his creative intent, but come as restorative promises in relation to creation,” (p. 51), “Yahweh enters a covenantal relationship with his creation and with his people. He sovereignly initiates that relationship, choosing and binding himself to the recipients of his steadfast love. The relationship in no way depends on the prior performance of the chosen; it is, from the outset, wholly gracious…The covenant of creation thus provides for newly constituted Israel what it affords God’s people in every age: a full-bodied way of life that we are called to live before God and in the midst of the world” (p. 62), “Both before and after the fall, man was related to God in virtue of God’s grace” (p. 73), “We have so far considered the climactic and defining moment of the marriage (the resurrection), the story of how the couple first met and became involved (creation), how the hero saved the heroine (the flood, the exodus), and what they promised to each other in their wedding vows (the covenant words)” (p. 170). I would especially draw people’s attention to the quotation from page 73, for on page 74, Williams goes on to deny the substance of the covenant of works. He says, “Thus before the Adamic fall the terms of the covenant were addressed to man as creature. After the fall the covenant (note: the same covenant! LK) addresses man not only as creature but also as sinner in need of redemption…As both grace and law (love and holiness) are essential to God’s character, so the two are inexorably bound together and interdependent within the covenant…Legal obligation is not the precondition for life and relationship.”
We must be careful here. The Westminster Confession of Faith clearly advocates some aspect of God’s favor to man before the Fall, as the precondition for any kind of relationship. However, the question that needs to be asked is this: on what basis would Adam have had eternal life? The question is not whether there were any aspects of non-legal relationship between God and man. Most of the Reformed world has agreed that there are. The question is much more narrow than this, and refers entirely to the basis upon which Adam would have obtained eternal life. Was it by grace or by works? Williams says that Adam already had life (p. 72): “What I am suggesting here is that life in covenant relationship with God was something that Adam enjoyed by God’s grace. He possessed it as a gift. He could lose that gift by the misapplication of his responsible freedom, his disobedience, but he could not earn or merit it.” In other words, life was not promised to Adam; rather, he already had it. This raises several serious questions: if Adam already had it, then we cannot call it eternal life, can we? If we cannot call it eternal life, then God put Adam in a catch 22 situation, for Adam could not have gotten out of a state that had the perpetual danger of losing what he had. There was no way for him to progress beyond this state. None whatever. Williams rejects any and all aspects of a “merit-based” covenantal arrangement: “it is dangerously misleading to describe Adam’s relationship as merit-based” (p. 72). Of course, this begs the question of what kind of merit we are talking about: Williams never defines it. But it would seem that any kind of works that would be the basis for obtaining eternal life is rejected by his formulation, whether it is condign, congruent, or pactum merit. Hence, the covenant of works is rejected by Williams in all its essential aspects: there is nothing beyond his current state for Adam to obtain, and there is no way for him to obtain anything beyond his current state.
Further, Williams seriously confuses law and gospel. In fact, he advocates a kind of covenantal nomism as the proper understanding of all covenantal arrangements between God and man. This much is clear from pages 150-151. Here are the relevant quotations: “It is imperative that we see that in the giving of the law we witness the same relationship between grace and obedience that God has maintained from the beginning.” Now, in certain contexts, this could be true, except that he brings it back all the way back to creation. This is clear form what follows: “As he created Adam to obey his word, Yahweh redeems Israel to obey his word. There is no question of merit in either case…I cannot say this strongly enough. The law was never intended to be a means of earning salvation…In fact, we can speak of the law as a further act of grace, a gift to God’s people that serves his covenantal and gracious purposes. Thus the call of the law is to translate God’s grace into action. The law is the divinely intended means by which the covenant is nourished and maintained” (pp. 150-151). If the law was never intended to be a means of earning salvation, then Jesus Christ did not earn our salvation by means of law-keeping. Law winds up being grace, and grace winds up being law. This is not mitigated by his statement “Man’s obedience brings blessing; his disobedience brings curse” (p. 68), because he does not define the nature of the blessing or the cursing. Hence it is a statement with which almost anyone could agree.
This book is required reading for every single seminary student who goes to Covenant Theological Seminary, and is required in a class taught by Dr. Williams that is required of every student going through Covenant Seminary. The students are being taught a non-confessional view of the Covenant of Works in this class, and through this book, whereas our denomination has ruled strongly in favor of the Westminster Confession’s treatment of the Covenant of Works. While the book has some good things we can glean from its pages, it should not be used as a standard treatment of covenant theology.