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The Noahic Covenant: Is it Part of the Covenant of Grace? (Lesson 4.2)

1. AN INTRODUCTION TO KUYPER'S VIEW: Before we really get into studying this covenant with Noah, we need to spend a little time learning about and responding to a view that actually denies that God's Covenant here with Noah was one of the Old Testament manifestations of the Covenant of Grace. Indeed, the proponents of this view see God's covenant with Noah as something actually quite different.

2. A SUMMARY OF KUYPER'S VIEW: Abraham Kuyper is the best known proponent of the view that the covenant with Noah doesn't belong to the Covenant of Grace.1 Kuyper was, among many other things, a Dutch Reformed theologian. And he wrote many things, among which was a massive 3-volume discourse on the doctrine of common grace. Significantly, he actually began this treatise by writing around one hundred pages on God's covenant with Noah in Genesis 9.2 Kuyper believed that God's covenant with Noah did not belong to the Covenant of Grace, but was something entirely different.3 For Kuyper, God's covenant with Noah in Genesis 9 doesn't teach us about redeeming grace—rather, it teaches us about common grace.4 For him, the covenant with Noah doesn't consist of gospel promises to God's redeemed people—rather, it consists solely of temporal promises to all humankind.5 Kuyper described his view with statements like this: “In this Noahic covenant there is. . .nothing that intentionally or primarily pertains to saving grace.”6 And again he writes: “The promise. . .includes nothing spiritual whatsoever.”7 Rather, Kuyper asserted: “[The] content of the Noahic covenant lies entirely within the sphere of natural life, envisions temporal and not eternal goods, and applies to unbelievers just as much as it does to those who fear God.”8 So emphatic was Kuyper's position on the Noahic Covenant that he even wrote at one point: “To identify this content in a spiritual manner and to wish to explain it in a redemptive way is therefore preposterous.”9 To put it simply: Kuyper's view was that God's covenant with Noah was only natural, not spiritual; pertained solely to the temporal, not eternal; was made with all human kind, not just believers; and therefore, cannot properly belong to the Covenant of Grace.10

3. THE REASONS FOR KUYPER'S VIEW: Kuyper held to this view of God's covenant with Noah primarily for two reasons:11 First, the covenant in Genesis 9 isn't just made with Noah, but also with his three sons with him, along with their “seed” after them (verse 9). Kuyper reasons that since all humanity would come forth from the “seed” of Noah's three sons, the covenant that God is making here in Genesis chapter 9 does not only extend to believers, but indeed, to the entire human race. The Covenant of Grace is only made with a particular people called out from the world; but here in Genesis 9, it seems that God is making a covenant with all humanity without exception. Kuyper's question is in effect: If this covenant is also made with unbelievers, how can it be part of the Covenant of Grace? Secondly, noting that the covenant promises of Genesis 9 extend even to the animals, Kuyper is at a loss to understand how any covenant that involves animals can relate to the Covenant of Grace. He draws out the fact that no less than six times, God includes living creatures in the covenant. He also notes that this covenant seems even to extend to the earth itself (9:13). For these reasons, Kuyper concludes that this covenant in Genesis 9 cannot belong to the Covenant of Grace at all, but must indeed be something entirely different.

4. OUR RESPONSE: At first glance, Kuyper's arguments are quite convincing. And though we don't agree with his conclusions, still we've done our best to argue his case as strongly as possible, because we believe that it's important to wrestle through viewpoints that are different than ours. But in short, though Kuyper's explanation is important for us to wrestle through, we believe there's an explanation of Genesis 9 that's even more convincing; one that understands the Noahic Covenant as belonging to the Covenant of Grace. It's this view that we'll be unpacking at length over the course of this lesson. And it will take us the entirety of the lesson to flesh out the many reasons for why we do take the Noahic Covenant as belonging to the Covenant of Grace. In this respect, we ask for your patience, as it will require more time to respond fully to Kuyper's view. But as for Kuyper's two objections, we would respond in this way:

A) Answering Kuyper's FIRST objection: Kuyper's first objection was that God's covenant in Genesis 9 seems to be made not just with believers, but indeed with all humanity. We'll say more about this later, but for now we would just point out that Kuyper, in fact, only deals with the covenant in Genesis 9. The problem with this is that he fails to deal in any way with the covenant God made earlier with Noah in Genesis 6. This is a problem, because it is these two covenants that make up the Noahic Covenant. You can't separate them; just like you can't separate the several covenants that were made to Abraham and make up the Abrahamic Covenant. These two covenants, the one in Genesis 6, the other in Genesis 9, are inseparable. And they're inseparable, not only because they both relate to Noah, but also because God uses the same name to describe them. When God makes the covenant with Noah before the flood, in Genesis 6:18, He calls it, “My covenant.” And when God makes the post-flood covenant with Noah, his sons, their seed, and the animals, He calls it by the same name: “My covenant” (9:9,11,15). So, since Genesis 6 and 9 are two manifestations of the same covenant, the essential meaning must be the same.12

Now, in unnaturally separating the covenant of Genesis 6 from that of Genesis 9, Kuyper fails to realize something really important: The covenant that God makes in Genesis 9 isn't with all humanity without exception—it's rather with all humanity inside the ark. Remember, all humanity was actually destroyed in the flood. It was only Noah and his family that were spared—and it's with Noah and his family that God makes this second covenant in Genesis 9. So, the covenant in Genesis 9 can't be interpreted apart from the covenant God had made earlier with Noah in Genesis 6. And the covenant in Genesis 6 was about salvation from God's judgment: God saves a certain people from judgment before the flood—and God again covenants with those same people after the flood. So, in Genesis 9, God isn't addressing ALL people—He's addressing HIS REDEEMED people; He isn't addressing the WORLD—He's addressing those He's saved OUT OF THE WORLD; He's not addressing ALL humanity without exception—but a NEW humanity, the few that He had preserved inside the ark to come forth and inherit the new world.13 This of course points us to truths contained in the Covenant of Grace. And, in this respect, this covenant in Genesis 9 is “universal” only insofar as it applies universally to the particular ones He has redeemed.14

B) Answering Kuyper's SECOND objection: Kuyper's second objection had to do with the fact that the covenant in Genesis 9 extends even to the living creatures with Noah. Again, we'll say more about this later, but for now, just think about it this way: It wasn't just humankind that was directly effected by the fall, but the earth itself and all of creation has come to feel the effects of the curse of Adam's sin. The Lord told Adam in Genesis 3:17, “Cursed is the ground because of you. . .” In a sense then, it wasn't just all humanity that was cursed with Adam when he disobeyed, but also the earth itself. Likewise, Paul tells us in Romans 8:20 that all creation has been “subjected to futility” through the fall. Now again, think of it, when God sent the flood, in Genesis 6, who was it who perished? It wasn't just mankind. It was every living thing of all flesh. The animals perished too. Now, no one says that the animals perished in the flood because they too had become wicked. No. It was mankind alone that had become wicked. But the animals perished along with man.15 And not just the animals, but even the earth itself, for Scripture tells us specifically that when God sent the flood, it didn't just come to destroy every living creature, but also the earth with them: “behold, I am about to destroy them [all flesh] with the earth (6:13). So then, it was man alone who sinned; but both in the fall, and in the flood, all creation suffered the consequences.

Well, it's the same thing in the Covenant of Grace. All creation is comprehended, in a sense, in the Covenant of Grace. This is so, because the Covenant of Grace deals primarily with redeeming man, but it also deals secondarily with all creation. To put it simply: Just as all creation suffered the consequences for man's sin in the fall and the flood, so too, the healing of redemption will one day extend, in turn, to all creation. In Christ, men are coming out from under the curse of God and entering into His blessing. But the creation itself also groans for the day when it too will be set free from its corruption, when Christ ushers in the new heavens and the new earth, in which righteousness dwells.16 As Paul says in Romans 8:19-23: “For the anxious longing of the creation waits eagerly for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now. And. . .even we ourselves groan. . .waiting eagerly for. . .the redemption of our body.”17

5. CONCLUSION: Kuyper himself, as he wrote the things he did about the covenant with Noah in Genesis 9, seems to acknowledge that his position was not, in fact, the majority position.18 Most Reformed theologians before him and after him have affirmed that the Noahic Covenant is indeed part of the Covenant of Grace.19 Now, this doesn't mean that we have to disagree with everything that Kuyper said. And we don't have to deny that there were indeed temporal elements in God's covenant with Noah. Those elements are clearly there. God made a real promise to never again flood the earth in a physical way, and that promise extends to us all. But what we're saying is that even these temporal elements of God's covenant with Noah were there for a much greater purpose: to teach us about things eternal.

This is, after all, what Scripture itself explicitly teaches us—not only as it relates to God's covenant with Noah before the flood in Genesis 6, but also as it relates to God's covenant with everything that came out of the ark after the flood in Genesis 9; for we read in Isaiah 54:9-10 God's own commentary of His covenant promise in Genesis 9: “'For this is like the days of Noah to Me, when I swore that the waters of Noah would not flood the earth again; so I have sworn that I will not be angry with you nor will I rebuke you. For the mountains may be removed and the hills may shake, but My lovingkindness will not be removed from you, and My covenant of peace will not be shaken,' says the Lord who has compassion on you.” As Thomas Goodwin wrote long ago: “the story of [Noah] and his waters or flood, and God's covenant with him. . . though in the letter the semblance they bear was but of the temporal salvation and deliverance from the flood, yet in the mystery thereof they were. . .intended as figures of God's eternal covenant and mercies unto his elect church, which were to come out of Noah's and his sons loins. . .”20

In the end, Kuyper's mistake was to forget that the interweaving of the temporal and the eternal is a truth that reveals itself over and over again in each successive stage of the Covenant of Grace. We learned about this in the first lesson. In each of the Old Testament manifestations of the Covenant of Grace, the eternal is wrapped up with the outer shell of the temporal. Eternal gospel truths were wrapped, as it were, with an external husk. Gospel truths were pictured and promised in all these covenants with Noah, Abraham, Israel, and David—but they were wrapped with an earthly, temporal shell. God made promises to Abraham of a land, a seed, and blessing; at face value these were temporal and earthly things, but they were actually gospel promises. God gave instructions to the Israelites concerning the tabernacle, the shedding of the blood of animals for sin, instructions about feasts throughout the year, the priesthood, and many other things. But though, strictly speaking, these things only related to the temporal and earthly, they yet conveyed gospel truths—they point us to Jesus and the gospel. God made covenant promises to David, that he would set one of his descendants on his throne, and that his throne would endure. Looking merely at the outside husk, these were all earthly, temporal promises. But when we pull back the husk, we begin to realize that the inward kernel was always about Christ and the gospel. This is true of each of the Old Testament manifestations of the Covenant of Grace: temporal and earthly on the outside; but pure gospel on the inside. And it was no different with God's promises to Noah.21

Kuyper's main emphasis was that God's covenant with Noah served to preserve the earth for the coming of Christ and the advance of the gospel. This promise to Noah would make redemption possible, in that it would preserve the earth until God had enacted His plan of redemption. We don't disagree with this one iota. We just affirm that, while this covenant conveyed these truths—it also conveyed so much more.

So, what gospel truths in particular do we learn from the Noahic Covenant? We'll take them one by one:

1. The BACKDROP of the Covenant of Grace: We learn why we need salvation

2. The AUTHOR of the Covenant of Grace: We learn about the character of God

3. The NATURE of the Covenant of Grace: We learn how God saves sinners

4. The SUBSTANCE of the Covenant of Grace: We learn of what we have been given in Christ

5. The BASIS of the Covenant of Grace: We learn how God lavishes His grace on sinners

6. The STABILITY of Covenant of Grace: We learn about the security we have in Christ

7. The SCOPE of Covenant of Grace: We learn who salvation is for

8. The SIGN of Covenant of Grace: We learn about the picture of God's promise

9. The FRUIT of the Covenant of Grace: We learn about the heart of the Christian life

10. The REQUIREMENTS of the Covenant of Grace: We learn how grace and obedience fit together

11. The PRIVILEGE of the Covenant of Grace: We learn about the mission God has given His people

12. The OUTCOME of the Covenant of Grace: We learn of the sure hope we have in Christ

1 See Ronald Cammenga's article: Common Grace or Cosmic Grace, p2. Cammenga makes clear that Kuyper did not invent the view, but was responsible for introducing this view into the Dutch Reformed Churches (and by doing so, in large measure, also became responsible for introducing the view to the church as a whole). He notes that before Kuyper had popularized the view, Wilhemus A' Brakel, a leading theologian in the Dutch Reformed church, had held this view. Herman Bavinck, a contemporary (and co-laborer) of Kuyper's, also shared Kuyper's view of the covenant with Noah, and later Louis Berkhof expressed the same general sentiments, with the result that, as Cammenga says: “A large portion of the Dutch Reformed church, both in the Netherlands and in the United States, as well as American Presbyterianism, has been influenced by Abraham Kuyper's teaching concerning the covenant with Noah. In fact, th