Murray on the Noahic Covenant
I recently read through John Murray’s Covenant of Grace with Joshua. I had read it a number of years ago and was very skeptical of it then. Reading it again recently has taken some of the bite away. I feel the weight of critiquing someone whom I respect greatly, someone that I acknowledge has given great contributions to the Reformed world, but I still must object to a few things in Murray’s essay. This is far from exhaustive, and I am sure I will have more questions (and praises) the more I read it, but three of my original objections remain. I question the way that Murray treats the Noahic, Abrahamic, and Mosaic covenants. In this blog, I discuss a few of my concerns with Noah. In a second blog I will discuss my concerns with Abraham and Moses (as they are related to one another).
I appreciated that he gave a good deal of thought to the Noahic covenant. In my experience, people seem content to acknowledge it exists and get to the “major” covenants. Murray did not do this. He lists five features of the Noahic covenant: it originates with God, it’s universal in scope. it’s unconditional, it’s monergistic, and it’s everlasting. His explanation of those five features is fantastic.
My hesitations to affirm what he says about Noah lie in the closing statements that he makes. In arguing that the Noahic is indeed a “divine covenant with men” (15), he brings Noah’s pre-existing obedience into the discussion. While he does not say that the covenant was established on the basis of Noah’s obedience, he does say that even though “[Noah’s] obedience to commandments is the means through which the grace of the covenant is to be realized and enjoyed, we must also take note of the fact that in other respects this covenant exhibits the features of divine initiation, determination, establishment, and confirmation which are so conspicuous in the post-diluvian Noahic covenant” (15). I am profoundly uncomfortable with placing Noah’s faithfulness front and center as the means for which the covenant was established. For the rest of the essay, Murray will stress the necessity of covenant faithfulness “apart from which the enjoyment of the covenant blessing and of the covenant relation is inconceivable” (19). The establishment of a covenant with Noah (and the relationship of faithfulness to the covenant) is unique in the data of scripture. It doesn’t seem to fit well with the any of the other covenants in scripture. The way that Murray is trying to unify all the covenants of scripture (that he sees) as the one covenant of grace makes it seem as though he is trying to hard to force the Noahic covenant to fit the mold.
This brings us to my last observation about the Noahic covenant. Murray, in summarizing the one covenant of grace in all of scripture, says that “at the center of covenant revelation as its constant refrain is the assurance ‘I will be your God, and ye shall be my people’” (32). This refrain is most definitely the refrain of the covenant of grace, but it is not the refrain of the covenant with Noah. Preservation, not redemption, is the focal point of the Noahic covenant. And far from establishing a redemptive, covenant relationship with a people, God brings all of creation and all of mankind into relationship in the Noahic covenant. The Noahic covenant certainly serves redemption by preserving the world until all of the lost sheep of Israel are gathered, but it is [a common grace covenant] not a redemptive covenant. Murray acknowledges this in his essay, but he seems determined to force it into the same type of covenant as is seen with Abraham, Moses, David, and Christ.
I wish that Murray would have been comfortable with the idea of different types of covenants between God and man being found in the data of scripture. I (think I) understand why he objected to the presence of a covenant of works in scripture, but in doing so, he seems to have defined covenant so narrowly that a different type of covenant that is explicit in scripture must be made to be like the others. This is an unfortunate move, in my opinion.