In last month’s theme on Genesis 1–11, I dealt with the Noahic covenant in some detail by engaging David VanDrunen’s teaching on it in relation to the covenant of creation/works/human nature/law. I made the case there that I found his interpretation and application of the Noahic covenant to be far too modest, insofar as he teaches that it holds out no hope of attaining the new creation and is merely a stopgap for sin which preserves the first creation. In essence, he singles the Noahic covenant out so that it alone accounts for how God rules over creation universally post-fall until new creation, and in so doing he is guilty of counting the limited word count of the Noahic covenant, without weighing its role within the larger narrative of Scripture.
In this essay, I aim to briefly highlight the Noahic covenant’s placement and role within the larger metanarrative of Scripture from a Progressive Covenantalist perspective. I believe VanDrunen would largely agree with the first three points to be introduced in this article, but would have significant reservations on points four and five, which I will unpack in part two. This is because he sharply demarcates common and redemptive grace and sees the Noahic covenant as non-redemptive. I however believe it brims with the promise and hope of the protoevangelium (“first gospel” promise) from Genesis 3:15.
As I stated in the previous essay, we must read each biblical covenant on its own terms and in keeping with its placement within the biblical storyline. In the words of Stephen Wellum, “By tracing out the covenants in this fashion, we are able to see how the entire plan of God is organically related and how it reaches its culmination and fulfillment in Christ . . . we will rightly see how the parts of God’s plan fit with the whole.” To that end, I contend a proper understanding of the Noahic covenant is that it: (1) reaffirms the creation covenant, (2) reminds God and man of Yahweh’s promise to never destroy the earth in judgment again, (3) remains in force until Christ’s return, (4) renders two kingdoms, the kingdom of God and the kingdom of man, and (5) reveals Yahweh’s covenant faithfulness while anticipating the greater glory of the new covenant. Again, in today’s essay I will discuss the first three points, and in tomorrow’s followup essay I will unpack points four and five.
1. Peter Gentry and Stephen Wellum, Kingdom through Covenant: A Biblical-Theological Understanding of the Covenants (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2018), 657.
The word covenant does not appear in the opening chapters of Genesis until Noah enters the scene (Gen. 6:18; 9:9). Peter Gentry has highlighted the important difference between “creating a covenant” (karat berit) and “renewing/establishing a covenant previously created” (heqim berit). He also rightly observes that only the latter phrase heqim berit is used for the Noahic covenant (Gen. 6:18; 9:9, 11, 17) as opposed to the normal expression for the creation of a covenant (karat berit). For example, karat berit is invoked when Yahweh initiates the Abrahamic covenant, but by using the language of heqim berit in the Noahic covenant God’s means “to affirm (verbally) the continued validity of a prior commitment—that is, to affirm that one is still committed to the covenant relationship as established or initiated previously.”
2. Gentry and Wellum, Kingdom Through Covenant, 187.
This logic raises the question: if the first time(s) the word “covenant” is used in Scripture is Genesis 6 and 9, how can God speak of reaffirming a previous covenant? It is here that the Reformed tradition has rightly affirmed an original covenant of works/Adamic covenant, or what we Progressive Covenantalists would rather call the Creation covenant. A crucial prooftext for understanding the Noahic covenant to be a reaffirmation of a creation covenant is Hosea 6:7, which reads: “But like Adam [Israel and Judah] transgressed the covenant; there they dealt faithlessly with me.” Passages like this one give sound biblical and theological grounds to conclude God made a covenant with Adam as the vice-regent of creation, one that Adam failed to keep.
3. For more on why Progressive Covenantalists see scriptural warrant for a Covenant of Creation, see Stephen Wellum’s introductory essay from this month’s theme.
The Noahic covenant is thus Yahweh’s unilateral promise to uphold creation, and reveals that sin and the effects of the curse upon the earth will by no means thwart his purposes for those he created in his image or the rest of creation. Both humanity and creation itself will be renewed and glorified (Hab. 2:14; Rom. 8:19–25). As Wellum puts it, “The Noahic covenant is the reinstatement and upholding of God’s commitment to creation, now in light of sin.”
4. Gentry and Wellum, Kingdom Through Covenant, 685.
When Yahweh smelled the pleasing aroma of Noah’s sacrifice of clean animals and birds it is revealed to us that he said in his heart, “I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth. Neither will I ever strike down every living creature as I have done” (Gen. 8:20–21). Notice that Yahweh makes this covenant unconditionally, because mankind is totally depraved. Therefore, he swears by his own steadfast love and makes a covenant commitment to Noah and all his posterity to never again strike down all living creatures in judgment.
As a perpetual sign of this covenant commitment God makes, God says to Noah and his family:
This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you [plural] and every living creature that is with you [plural], for all future generations. I have set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and earth. When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you [plural] and every living creature of all flesh. (Gen. 9:12–15)
5. Abraham Kuyper rightly points out that “In the original text we read you as well as your seed, not in the singular but in the plural . . . God stated explicitly and in plain language that he establishes his covenant not only with believers, nor even only with Shem’s descendants, but also with Japheth and Ham, and with their descendants.” Common Grace: God’s Gifts for a Fallen World, Vol. 1 (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2015), 72.
John Calvin rightly comments that what God is communicating through the Noahic covenant is “[a] covenant of grace to all people and nations in common.” In this sense, the Noahic covenant gives institutional expression to God’s common grace, for he will cause “his sun [to] rise on the evil and on the good, and send rain on the just and on the unjust,” granting “seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night” (Matt. 5:45; Gen. 8:22). Whenever the sun’s rays refract through rain droplets to form a rainbow, we can stop and thank God for his blessed vow to never destroy the earth again with water. The sun rises and the rain falls on the just and the unjust, and by God’s grace the rain stops falling and does not destroy us all—because of the Noahic covenant.
6. Abraham Kuyper, Common Grace, 73.
7. Richard Muller helpfully defines Common Grace as: “nonsaving, universal grace according to which God in his goodness bestows his favor upon all creation in the general blessings of physical sustenance and moral influence for the good. Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017), 265.
8. For more on this biblical theme of God’s mercy displayed in the context of judgment, check out Jim Hamilton’s God’s Glory in Salvation Through Judgment.
An all important phrase is invoked in Genesis 8:22 that effectively provides a timestamp on the Noahic covenant. Yahweh promises this covenant will last “while the earth remains.” We are later told by the apostle Peter it is “by the same word” that deluged the earth with water, that God’s powerful word holds back the full expression of his wrath, as his covenant patience does not “wish that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2 Pet. 3:6–9). What this means is that the Noahic covenant will remain in force until Christ returns to mete out God’s judgment on the wicked and deliver those united to him by faith from this wrath (1 Thess. 5:9–10; Rev. 19:11–21).
Now, of course the “all” Peter mentions when he teaches God desires all to reach repentance cannot mean all people without exception, nor does it reveal to us that God wishes he could save everyone but is unable to. Rather the “all” here at the end of 2 Peter 3:9 are best understood as none other than God’s elect. We can be confident this is what Peter means because he teaches us just prior to this: “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you” (2 Pet. 3:9). It is crucial that we note the “you” is also plural here, and “toward you” would be better translated “on your account.” In other words, Peter is teaching us that the reason the Lord Jesus has not yet been “revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel” (2 Thess. 1:7-8) is because God is committed to fulfilling his promise to save all his elect. It is crucially important that Peter teaches “by the same word the heavens and earth that now exist are stored up for fire” (2 Pet. 3:7). This is said in the context of the promise of Christ’s coming and the judgment of the flood, signaling to us it is indeed the “word” of the Noahic covenant promise to never destroy the earth again with a flood that is the contextual background of 2 Peter 3.
Peter is clear that scoffers will scoff (as they are prone to do) in the last days regarding the promise of Christ’s return (2 Pet. 3:3). Their mockery and insolence is reminiscent of those who mocked God’s herald of righteousness, Noah, when he proclaimed the impending flood (2 Pet. 2:5). What then prevents the world from devolving right back into the horrific state we find in Genesis 3–6 until Christ’s return? Why is it that God is so patient with the hard-heartedness of mankind after the flood? In short: the Noahic covenant! Yahweh is clear that post-flood mankind still has the same heart problem that has wreaked havoc on the earth since the original transgression in the Garden. So, the fear and dread he puts in the animals towards humanity, combined with the death penalty for murder, as well as the command to be fruitful and multiply, are all concrete expressions of God’s common grace, whereby he promises to not wipe out humanity again in his wrath, and he curbs the effects of sin so that humanity does not destroy itself (see Gen. 9:1–7).
9. The language of “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed” (Gen 9:6) is idiomatic for lex talionis, or proportional justice.
In this essay, I have sought to show how the Noahic covenant functions in the unfolding storyline of Scripture. As I said at the beginning, I believe someone like VanDrunen would have no reservations agreeing with what I have argued thus far. These are standard conclusions for Reformed theologians. In a companion essay, I will move into where I believe differences begin to show between someone like VanDrunen and myself, when I make the case for the redemptive or special grace aspects of the Noahic covenant.