What was Adam’s reward? A summary/commentary of Francis Turretin

One of the ongoing intramural Reformed debates centers on what would have happened to Adam if he hadn’t fallen into sin. Would he have continued in an earthly paradise? Or would he have been elevated to a higher, heavenly stage? Would his obedience have counted as “merit”? Does that make Eden a kind of temporary “probation” for Adam? Some theologians have questioned the value of speculating over such questions, which, in the words of Henri Blocher, “swim in the dangerous waters of unreality, whether another stage is affirmed or denied.” [1] On the other hand, most early Reformed theologians argued that such questions can be reasonably answered.

What follows is my attempt to summarize the answers offered by one of the leading Reformed Scholastics, the Genevan theologian Francis Turretin. This is taken from his Institutes of Elenctic Theology Vol. 1, Topic 8 (The State of Man before the Fall and the Covenant of Nature), Question 6: “Whether Adam had the promise of eternal and heavenly life so that (his course of obedience being finished) he would have been carried to heaven. We affirm.”

Statement of the question.

Turretin begins by setting out the alternative views, starting with the extreme position taken by the Socinians, a contemporary heresy that combined Arianism, Pelagianism, and rationalism. The Socinians held that, far from heaven being his reward, Adam’s natural course would have led him to death—even if he had never sinned! On their view, while the covenant with Adam offered no more than the promise of earthly blessings, the promise of eternal life came only with the New Testament.

Closer to orthodoxy were the Amyraldians (four-point Calvinists of the Huguenot Academy of Saumur), who held to a threefold categorization of the covenants:

  • The natural (Edenic) covenant promised only the fullest earthly blessings (although the Amyraldians rejected the Socinian belief in Adam’s mortality).
  • The legal (Sinaitic) covenant promised only earthly blessings in the land of Canaan.
  • The evangelical (new) covenant alone promises heavenly blessing.

Although Turretin doesn’t mention them, many British Reformed thinkers held something close to the Amyraldian view, including Westminster divines Thomas Goodwin, William Gouge, and Jeremiah Burroughs. [2] Nevertheless, Turretin refers to his own view as “the received opinion among the orthodox,” while still respecting the minority Amyraldian position as that of “learned men.” He proceeds to offer six main arguments in defense of heaven as Adam’s reward:

  1. Turretin sees a “law of works” in certain passages of Scripture: Leviticus 18:5 (“the one who does these things shall live by them”), Matthew 19:16-17 (“if you would enter life, keep the commandments”), and Romans 7:10 (“the commandment that promised life”). In each text, Turretin believes that the promise contained in the law, rightly understood, was heavenly life. But since the law is impossible for fallen man to obey, the promise must have originally been given to unfallen man. It is worth pointing out that many modern interpreters (such as O. Palmer Robertson and Walter Kaiser) dispute Turretin’s reading of these texts: Leviticus 18:5 in its original context deals with the maintenance of earthly life and blessing in the land of Canaan, and Paul’s use of this passage in Romans 10:5 and Galatians 3:12 may simply be a rhetorical concession to his opponents who legalistically misinterpreted it. Jesus may be doing something similar in his response to the rich young ruler in Matthew 19:16-17. The Pharisees certainly expected to attain eternal life through the law; whether Scripture actually supports such an expectation (even on a hypothetical or prelapsarian level) is less clear. And as I will argue below, I do not think that merit attaches to law-keeping taken absolutely (or simpliciter, as the Scholastics say), but only under special circumstances (or secundum quid).
  2. Turretin’s second argument, while not relying directly on biblical prooftexts, carries a bit more weight. Christ acquired for us heavenly and eternal life, and he did this through his perfect obedience to the law. Further, he did this to regain what Adam had lost. So it follows that Christ’s reward is the same as that offered to Adam. Turretin sees supporting evidence of this in the presence of the tree of life both in Genesis 2 and Revelation 22. I believe this point is key, because it maintains the unity and coherence of the biblical storyline, in which humanity moves from a state of posse peccare (able to sin) to non posse peccare (unable to sin). Otherwise, the telos of creation becomes separated from the telos of redemption. At worst, this would mean that Adam’s failure was inevitable.
  3. Turretin then argues for a parallel proportionality between the punishment threatened and the reward promised in the covenant with Adam. If Adam was threatened with eternal death in hell, would it not follow that he must also have been promised eternal life in heaven? After all, if human legislators are inclined to inflict milder punishments on the guilty and reward the obedient more fully, then how much more would God, who visits iniquity to the third and fourth generation but shows steadfast love for a thousand generations (cf. Ex. 34:7), desire to reward far beyond the measure of his threat to punish?
  4. God, who is himself spiritual and immutable, cannot be enjoyed to the fullest degree except in a spiritual, heavenly manner. His goodness is far beyond what humans could experience in their earthly mode of existence. It follows that the most intimate communion between God and man required man’s elevation to a higher state of existence; otherwise man would be eternally limited to a sub-optimal enjoyment of God.
  5. Related to the previous point, humans are wired with a heavenly longing (cf. Eccl. 3:11), which can never be fully satisfied on earth. According to Turretin, nothing less than the heavenly beatific vision can satisfy this longing. Or as C.S. Lewis famously put it, “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.” Also note that Turretin describes our highest enjoyment of God as an “immediate and absolute fruition,” and the language of “fruition” is also used in the Westminster Standards to describe the fullest blessing of a covenant relationship with God (WCF 7.1; WLC 90).
  6. Lastly, Turretin argues that there should be a difference between the state of the way (status viae) and the state of the native country (status patriae). The terminology can be a little confusing here, but “native country” (also translated “homeland”) refers not to Adam’s place of origin, but his final destination. Eden, on the other hand, is just a stopping point along the way; it is the place of “contest and trial,” not of “reward and wages.” This is necessarily so, says Turretin; otherwise it would mean that no good was promised to Adam other than what he already had before any obedience.

Almost as an aside, Turretin also touches on the logical problem of overpopulation that Eden would have eventually faced, were Adam and his posterity not taken to heaven (though evidently he thought this point too weak to highlight as one of his main arguments).

Sources of solutions.

Turretin then makes a number of clarifications that help to resolve some of the difficulties with the idea of heaven as Adam’s reward. Due to the influence of the Westminster Standards, most Reformed thinkers today refer to God’s original covenant with Adam as the “covenant of works.” Turretin prefers to call it a “covenant of nature,” but he recognizes a terminological difficulty here: if Adam’s reward was supernatural (that is, heavenly), then why call the covenant natural?  Turretin specifies that the covenant is called natural because it depended upon Adam’s natural powers to fulfill, not because of the reward it offered. This distinguishes Turretin’s view from the Roman Catholic doctrine of the donum superadditum, whereby Adam received a supernatural gift of holiness enabling him to merit the beatific vision. Further, for Turretin, Adam’s merit need not be taken in the sense of strict justice, as if his obedience were at all proportional with the reward promised. God’s promise graciously went far beyond what Adam’s obedience properly deserved; thus Turretin’s view on Adamic merit is best described as congruent or ex pacto rather than condign.

Turretin also thinks that the promise of a heavenly reward would have been sufficiently evident to Adam, even if it doesn’t exactly leap off the pages of Genesis. The strongest textual evidences Turretin finds for this are the logical inference from the threat of eternal death (see argument #3 above) and the sacramental seal of the promise by the tree of life.

Turretin then anticipates a charge of legalism, responding that for sinners, the promise of eternal life is only through faith in Christ, but for Adam it was offered on condition of perfect obedience, according to the (gracious) terms of the covenant. This then raises the question, how is it that the new covenant can be said to be “better” (Heb. 8:6), if it promises nothing more than what the covenant of works had promised to Adam? Turretin answers that it is better because it is offered not to the worthy (as Adam would have been by his own obedience) but to the unworthy, and the promises are secured for us unfailingly (whereas Adam in his natural state was capable of falling, the elect persevere by supernatural grace).

Turretin then anticipates the objection that Paul contrasts the first Adam as a “living soul” and the second Adam as a “quickening spirit” (1 Cor. 15:45-46). If their telos was the same, then why the contrast? Turretin replies that this has nothing to do with what was promised to either; rather, it indicates only their condition, and what they could communicate to their posterity. But the contrast between them shouldn’t be exaggerated, as if Christ were purely heavenly (which would be the heresy of Docetism) or Adam purely earthly (as if he wasn’t capable of exercising his spiritual gifts to attain heavenly life).

Turretin concludes this section by acknowledging that “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor. 15:50). However, this expression should not be taken physically or substantively (otherwise we would be forced to deny the resurrection of the body) but rather morally or qualitatively. This means that Adam would have needed to be transformed into a condition of incorruptibility (both materially and spiritually)—a truth that Adam himself would have been able to grasp, even if he did not comprehend the precise manner by which such a transformation would happen.

My concluding thoughts.

While not all of Turretin’s arguments carry equal weight, their cumulative force certainly seems to support the majority Reformed view on Adam’s reward. It is worth briefly addressing two objections that modern Reformed critics of this view raise, which are not directly addressed in Turretin’s own treatment of the subject.

The first objection is raised by those who see the covenant of works not as something added on top of Adam’s created nature, but rather as connatural with it. It is claimed that Turretin’s account illegitimately imposes the nature/grace dualism of medieval Scholasticism onto the text of Genesis. However, it seems that a certain kind of nature/grace distinction can be justified exegetically. According to Turretin and others, Adam as a rational creature owed obedience to God according to the natural/moral law, without any expectation of a higher reward (cf. Luke 17:10). But this does not prevent God from offering Adam a higher reward on condition of obedience to a positive divine command added to the natural law. [3] This is what we see in the prohibition against eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. There’s nothing intrinsically immoral about eating a fruit, so it does not violate the natural law in any absolute sense. The command stems purely from the divine will, as Turretin observes (Top. 8, Q. 4). So his creation/covenant distinction is not artificial; it parallels the distinction between natural law and divine positive law. This also means that there is no merit principle in the law per se, but only when God chooses to attach a promise of reward to it.

The second objection is that Turretin’s view is reductively “anthropocentric”. That is, it narrowly focuses on Adam’s fate, while ignoring the cosmic scope of God’s purposes and Adam’s broader calling. However, there does not seem to be any reason to treat this as an either/or. According to O. Palmer Robertson, the covenant of works has both a general aspect and also a focal aspect. The general aspect includes Adam’s duties as God’s vice-regent over all creation (Gen. 1:26-28), while the focal aspect deals specifically with his garden probation (Gen. 2:17). Further, these two aspects are not entirely separated. Adam’s obedience doubtlessly would have had a cosmic impact, just as his disobedience did. We can infer this from Scripture’s eschatological imagery, where we read of the wolf lying down with the lamb (Isa. 11:6-7), and the sun and the sea ceasing to exist (Rev. 21:1, 23). Even if we take such images figuratively, there is good reason to believe that Adam’s obedience would have transformed not only himself but also the entire created order into a higher state of glory (cf. 2 Pet. 3:10).

Lastly, along with Turretin, I would emphasize that no single view on these questions should be made a litmus test of confessional orthodoxy. While some views (such as Socinianism) are clearly out of bounds, there is room for a relatively broad range of positions, as was the case throughout the Reformed Scholastic period. However, the lack of consensus does not mean that it is fruitless to explore these questions. They help us to deepen our knowledge of God and of the salvation that he has achieved for us through Christ.

[1] Blocher, Always Reforming: Explorations in Systematic Theology, ed. A.T.B. McGowan (IVP Academic, 2007), 258.

[2] Joel Beeke and Mark Jones, A Puritan Theology (Reformation Heritage, 2012), Kindle loc. 8871.

[3] See also Francis Junius: “Indeed, since no human being living according to pure nature either would have known supernatural life and grace (which leads to life)  by natural law, or would even gain it naturally, it was necessary that a law superior to nature be added by the grace of God.” The Mosaic Polity, thesis 4.

About Kyle Dillon

A teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), assistant pastor of theological instruction at Riveroaks Reformed Presbyterian Church, and theology/languages teacher at Westminster Academy in Memphis, Tennessee.

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