Getting the foundation right is not just of axiomatic importance for building a house, but also for building a system of theology. In the landscape of theological systems, there is disagreement over how to construe the original arrangement between God and man in the Garden. Nevertheless, the most robust foundation is found in rightly seeing that God covenants with his creation. Comparing and contrasting progressive covenantalism with dispensationalism and covenant theology on this topic will serve to highlight how the creation covenant is foundational for the rest of the bible.
No Creation Covenant in Dispensationalism
While there are some notable exceptions (including even the New Scofield Reference Bible), by and large dispensationalism has not affirmed any sort of creation/adamic covenant. The most common reason offered for this omission is simply the lack of the word covenant in the early chapters of Genesis. However, this is far from conclusive evidence for denying the reality of this important doctrine. Consider a few lines of evidence for the existence of a creation covenant.
First, the word covenant does not need to be present for a covenant to exist. The Davidic covenant illustrates this point. 2 Samuel 7 and 1 Chronicles 17 both narrate God making a covenant with David; however, the word covenant nowhere appears in those immediate contexts. Nevertheless, later scripture passages refer back to those promises between God and David as being a covenant (2 Sam. 23:5; 2 Chron. 13:5; Ps. 89:3, 28, 34, 39; 132:11-12; Jer. 33:21). Clearly the word is not needed to express the concept. The same reality is demonstrated with respect to marriage. Genesis 2:18-25 describes God instituting the creation ordinance of marriage in the Garden of Eden (cf. Matt 19:4–6). Again, the word covenant is not found in Genesis 2, yet later revelation explicitly describes marriage as a covenant union (Mal. 2:14; Prov. 2:17).
1. William J. Dumbrell, Covenant and Creation: An Old Testament Covenant Theology, revised and enlarged edition (Milton Keynes, UK: Paternoster, 2013), 12-20. See also Umberto Cassuto, La Questione della Genesi (Florence: Felice le Monnier, 1934), 112-116; idem., The Documentary Hypothesis and the Composition of the Pentateuch: Eight Lectures, trans. Israel Abrahams (Jerusalem, Magnes, 1961), 47-48; Jacob Milgrom, Leviticus 23-27, AB 3B (New York: Doubleday, 2001), 2343-2346.
In the case of the creation covenant, we have explicit textual evidence from later revelation attesting to its existence. Hosea 6:7 reads, “But like Adam they transgressed the covenant; there they dealt faithlessly with me.” Though the interpretation is debated, the most natural reading of the passage is that Israel, like Adam before her, has violated the covenant that God made with her. The covenant Adam transgressed was the creation covenant. Jeremiah could also be making reference to the creation covenant when he appeals to God’s “covenant with day and night” (Jer. 33:20, 25; cf. Isa. 24:5) as evidence for the certainty of God’s other covenant promises.
Another line of evidence for a creation covenant is found in the verbal distinction between to “cut” (karat) and to “establish” (heqim) a covenant. Cutting a covenant refers to covenant initiation, whereas establishing a covenant refers to upholding or re-affirming an existing covenant commitment. The word covenant first appears in the bible in Genesis 6:18 with the phrase “establish (heqim) my covenant.” Given the consistency of the verbal pattern, it is legitimate to conclude God’s covenant with Noah continues the preexisting covenant commitment already initiated with Adam in creation.
2. Peter J. Gentry and Stephen J. Wellum, Kingdom through Covenant: A Biblical-Theological Understanding of the Covenants (Wheaton: Crossway, 2012, 2nd ed. 2018), 184-195.
Other evidence could be marshalled to reinforce the reality of a creation covenant: the repetitive use of God’s covenant name, Yahweh, throughout Genesis 2; the acknowledgement of “image” and “likeness” (Gen. 1:26–27) as covenantal terms in the Bible and the ancient Near East; or the presence of all the constituent elements of a covenant in the creation account, such as the covenant partners, prohibition, punishment (covenant cursing), and implied promise (covenant blessing). In addition to the linguistic and exegetical evidence offered above, consider the theological necessity of a creation covenant. Adam and Christ serve as the representative heads of the human race (Rom. 5:12–19; 1 Cor. 15:20–21), but what undergirds and grounds that representational role for Adam in the dispensational system? Christ is the head of the new creation and mediator of the new covenant. Adam likewise serves as the head of the old creation and mediator of the creation covenant. Being “in Adam” or “in Christ” are covenantal realities.
3. Gen. 2:4, 5, 7, 8, 9, 15, 16, 18, 19, 21, 22; cf. Ex. 3:13-15.
The Covenant of Works in Covenant Theology
4. Peter J. Gentry and Stephen J. Wellum, Kingdom through Covenant: A Biblical-Theological Understanding of the Covenants (Wheaton: Crossway, 2012, 2nd ed. 2018), 216-238, 668-670; Peter J. Gentry, “Humanity as the Divine Image in Genesis 1:26-28” in Biblical Studies, Vol. 1 (Peterborough, Canada: H&E Academic, 2020), 1-23.
In contrast to dispensationalism, a creational covenant features prominently in covenant theology. While various terms can be found in the Reformed tradition, preference is given to describing it as the covenant of works. This name serves to underscore the main emphasis of covenant theology for this covenantal arrangement. God demands of Adam, and representatively all humanity, “personal, entire, exact, and perpetual obedience” (Westminster Confession of Faith 19.1). On condition of that covenant obedience, God promises eternal life, symbolized by the tree of life (Gen. 2:9; 3:22, 24; cf. Rev. 2:7; 22:2). However, Adam failed the probationary test and transgressed God’s covenant command (Gen. 2:16-17) which plunged all humanity into a state of sin, death, and condemnation.
5. “That covenant is variously known as the covenant of nature, the covenant of life, the Edenic covenant, and the covenant of works… [however] the name ‘Covenant of Works’ deserves preference.” Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, Fourth Revised and Enlarged Edition (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1941), 211.
In covenant theology the covenant of works provides the backdrop and foil to the covenant of grace, which is God’s saving promise for sinners in Jesus Christ initiated in Genesis 3:15. Progressive covenantalism does not disagree with this basic conception of the covenant of works, but rather finds it incomplete. Oftentimes proponents of covenant theology seem to reduce the entire creation covenant to the category of “law.” 
6. For a fuller description of the history and doctrine of the covenant of works in Reformed covenant theology, see this pair of books by J.V. Fesko, The Covenant of Works: The Origins, Development, and Reception of the Doctrine (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020); idem., Adam and the Covenant of Works (Fearn: Mentor, 2021).
Of course, the creation covenant delineates the demand for perfect obedience from God’s covenant partners, but there is also a horizontal relationship in addition to the vertical. The creation covenant installed Adam as God’s image-son and priest-king to mediate his rule to all creation in a relationship of love and faithful devotion. Additionally, the creation covenant defines marriage as foundational, not just as a building block for human society, but as the type or pattern to point to the covenantal relationship between God and his people that culminates in Christ as his new covenant people. The creation covenant also establishes many crucial patterns that are developed throughout the rest of the bible, such as rest, land/Eden, temple, etc. They all have an eschatological aim to drive the story forward and point to the goal of creation, namely the new creation in Christ.
7. See this critique explained in Stephen J. Wellum, “A Progressive Covenantalism Response” in Covenantal and Dispensational Theologies: Four Views on the Continuity of Scripture, eds. Brent E. Parker and Richard J. Lucas (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2022), 205.
While advocates of covenant theology acknowledge the presence of some, if not all, of these other creational realities, they are frequently left underdeveloped in discussions regarding the covenant of works, and even obscured by a singular focus on the role of the covenant of works as a foil to the covenant of grace.
The Creation Covenant in Progressive Covenantalism
Covenant theology sees the ratification of two distinct covenants in Genesis 1-3; first the covenant of works in Genesis 2 and then the covenant of grace in Genesis 3:15. The bi-covenantal schema of the covenants of works/grace serves to safeguard the central Reformational insight of the law/gospel distinction. Progressive covenantalism is not rejecting this framework as an ordo salutis (order of salvation) category. However, progressive covenantalism is arguing that the bi-covenantal framework is less useful as a historia salutis (history of salvation) category. Traditional covenant theology relies on the bi-covenantal schema of the covenants of works/grace to do double duty. Their covenants of works/grace framework serves as both ordo and historia salutis categories because all of the subsequent covenants after the covenant of works are united in substance as one covenant of grace. This framework protects the law/gospel paradigm, but it also leads to subsuming all the post-fall covenants under this one covenant of grace. Soteriologically there is one salvation in Christ throughout both the old and new covenants, but ecclesiologically there are real differences, especially regarding covenant membership (mixed vs. regenerate-only) and the application of covenant signs (infant circumcision vs. credobaptism).
Progressive covenantalism upholds these theological categories of “law” and “gospel” and maintains a clear pre-fall and post-fall distinction, but in a slightly different way than traditional covenant theology. In Genesis 2 God establishes a covenant relationship with Adam pre-fall, but post-fall Genesis 3 does not describe the ratification of a distinct covenant. Post-fall there is only one way of salvation, which is by grace through faith in Christ alone. However, Genesis 3:15 is better understood as God’s redemptive promise about Christ and the ultimate provision of the new covenant. This new covenant promise is progressively revealed through the biblical covenants. Everyone born post-fall is born a sinner “in Adam”, but those who believe this promise are reborn “in Christ” in the sense that they are looking forward to Christ’s coming redemption in the new covenant. However, in the unfolding of this redemptive promise through Old Testament covenants, these covenants retain a “mixed” membership of both those who are “in Adam” and those who are “in Christ.” It is not until Christ ratifies his new covenant that covenant membership now excludes all who are “in Adam” and only includes those for whom Christ is mediating these new covenant benefits.
The new covenant is the fulfillment, telos, and terminus of this redemptive promise begun in Genesis 3:15, but this “seed” promise had to develop over the history of salvation, step by step, progressively through all the subsequent covenants. The story we see played out in the pages of the Bible tells us of God’s demand for a perfect obedient son, starting in the creation covenant with Adam. From Adam on, regardless of the covenant, God demands obedience from his covenant partners (Adam, Noah, Abraham, Israel, David and his sons), yet they all fall short of this absolute demand. This vacancy of an obedient son who will keep God’s covenant creates a tension that drives the storyline forward until God unilaterally acts to meet this demand and also keep his own redemptive promise. The solution is the provision of Jesus Christ, the perfect obedient Son, who secured our redemption in his new covenant work.
8. For the relevance of this point for the active obedience of Christ and how progressive covenantalism illuminates this important doctrine, see Peter J. Gentry and Stephen J. Wellum, Kingdom through Covenant: A Biblical-Theological Understanding of the Covenants (Wheaton: Crossway, 2012, 2nd ed. 2018), 775-782.
Standing behind redemptive-history is the triune God’s eternal plan to redeem his people (i.e., the pactum salutis). But it is this redemptive-historical storyline that progressive covenantalism is keen to emphasize and highlight and not allow to be overshadowed by an extra-biblical theological framework. As Steve Wellum summarizes, “What covenant theology does not sufficiently attend to is how the covenants unfold from creation to Christ and how they progressively reveal, predict, and anticipate the coming of Christ and the entire new covenant era.” Jesus is not only the last Adam (1 Cor. 15:45), but also Abraham’s true seed (Gal. 3:16), the true Israel who obeys completely (Matt. 2:15; 3:15-17; 4:1-11), and David’s greater Son (Matt. 1:1; Rom. 1:3-4). All of these steps are crucial for developing the unfolding story of God’s kingdom through the progression of the covenants.
9. Stephen J. Wellum, “Reflections on Covenant Theology from a Progressive Covenantal View,” SBJT 26.1 (2022): 177. See his whole discussion on pp. 175-177 for a fuller critique of Reformed covenant theology’s conception of the covenant of works from a progressive covenantalist perspective.
From the progressive covenantalist perspective, there could be use in the speaking of the covenants of works and grace as dogmatic categories to describe the order of salvation. But to describe the history of salvation, they lose their usefulness as a biblical-theological framework. For the purpose of describing redemptive history, the covenant of works/grace architecture obscures how the bible unfolds God’s kingdom through the covenants, because it flattens out the progressive unfolding of that plan over time with covenantal development along the way.
As it concerns dogmatic theology, the creation covenant is a foil to the rest of the biblical covenants in that it establishes the demand for perfect obedience, which fallen creatures cannot achieve on their own. But as it concerns biblical theology, the creation covenant is the foundation for the rest of the biblical covenants in that it establishes the contours and goal of God’s plan to redeem his fallen creation. The creation covenant as described in progressive covenantalism is the proper foundation to build a system of theology.