Old Testament Sacraments, Pt. 1: The Tree of Life in the Covenant of Works

For those who have studied church history, it may seem that enough ink has been spilt over the nature of the sacraments. Yet for all these great sacramental treatises, the significance of Old Testament sacraments remains to be fully plumbed. As I argue in my recent article “Old Testament Sacraments? A Reformed Overview,” many of the great Reformers believed there to be several Old Testament sacraments whose significance has bearing on how we understand how Christ fulfills the promises of the Old Covenant. The post also demonstrated, however, that there was not universal consensus among the Reformers on what exactly qualified as a sacrament and to what extent.

This post is the first in a new series of articles in which I intend to investigate each of the candidates for being an “Old Testament sacrament” in turn, bringing exegetical and historical theology to bear.

Purpose and Method

We will examine Old Testament sacraments in continuity with John Calvin’s (1509-1564) understanding of the nature of a sacrament as a sign and seal of God’s covenants and a testimony of the Gospel fulfilled in Christ. Calvin calls the sacraments signs of a covenant.[1] He further argues that “a sacrament is never without a preceding promise but is joined to it as a sort of appendix, with the purpose of confirming and sealing the promise itself.”[2] Because every sacrament is a sign of a covenant promise, “the testimony of the Gospel is engraved upon the sacraments.”[3] Within the broad category of sacrament, he identifies three different kinds:

  1. Covenant signs attached to “natural things”—examples of which are the Tree of Life in the Covenant of Works and the Rainbow in the Noahic Covenant; [4]
  2. Signs of faith “set forth in miracles”—examples of which are the smoking oven in Genesis 15 and Gideon’s fleece;[5]
  3. Covenant signs willed by the Lord for his church as “ceremonies” rather than “simple signs”—examples of which include circumcision, Passover, baptism, and the Lord’s Supper. [6]

This series will examine certain Old Testament sacraments that fit under one or more of these three categories, specifically examining how these signify and seal God’s covenant promises and foreshadow the Gospel as fulfilled in Christ.

The Tree of Life in the Covenant of Works

The Reformed tradition places special emphasis on the reality of a covenant of works existing in the Garden of Eden between God and man. Had Adam and Eve carried out their calling from God obediently, and not eaten of the Tree of Knowledge, they would, it is fair to assume, have been granted eternal life. If we accept Calvin’s premise that every covenant contains at least one sacrament, we may then ask: what was the sacrament of the Adamic covenant of works? The answer which presents itself is the Tree of Life.[7]

Admittedly, little is said directly about the Tree of Life. Its presence, along with the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, is established “in the midst of the garden” (Gen. 2:9). Withdrawal of the ability to eat from it and live forever is the main motivation of God’s banishment of Adam and Eve from the garden later (Gen. 3:22-23). We may reasonably ask, however: what purpose would the Tree of Life have served to man whilst he remained in the garden?

As its name suggests, the Tree of Life functioned as a reminder that God was the giver of life and that life was found only in relationship with Him and confirmed the promise of his covenant blessing.[8] As God’s priest-kings, Adam and Eve were given tasks: to work the ground, to be fruitful and multiply, to fill the earth and subdue it (Gen.1: 27-28). They were also given a more specific command, not to eat of the Tree of Knowledge (Gen. 2:16-17). If they ate of the tree, they would die. If they did not eat of the tree (and, presumably fulfilled their other responsibilities), they would gain eternal life through eating of the Tree of Life. Within this covenant context, the two trees communicated both the conditions and the rewards of the covenant, seeming to function sacramentally.

Even within the early church, it was understood that the Tree of Life had a sacramental function, and this opinion continued throughout the Reformation. Theologians who regarded the Tree of Life as a sacrament include Bede, Augustine, Calvin, Musculus, Perkins, Chytraeus, and (possibly) Luther. This is not to say that everyone in the early church had a robust covenant theology or a belief in the Covenant of Works. Nevertheless, the seeds of this understanding were sown very early by those who understood the tree sacramentally and were taken up more fully in the Reformation. The Tree of Life was a sacrament of “the prolongation of life” like the pillar of cloud and fire were “sacraments of something invisible,” according to Musculus.[9] And the sacramental understanding of the tree was given extensive discussion by Calvin.

The Tree of Life as Sign

The text does not give much explanation as to the function of the two trees, particularly the Tree of Life. In the Ancient Near East, trees often symbolized the meeting place of God and men as well as the divine presence attached to the rule of the king.[10] In this sense, it may have symbolized Eden as God’s temple-kingdom where He dwells with his priest-kings.[11] Within the Old Testament, the concept of a “tree of life” was most often associated with wisdom and obedience (Ps. 1; Prov. 2:18; 11:30; 13:12; 15:4). Given the covenant stipulations that required total obedience, the Tree of Life most likely represented the choice of obedience and the promised life that followed. In a sense, the two trees symbolize two competing paths to knowledge, the two “ways” discussed in Proverbs. The Tree of Life as a symbol of wisdom represents the life-giving knowledge of God. The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil represents a competing wisdom under the lordship of mankind. By standing next to each other in the center of the Garden, the trees gave Adam and Eve a daily sacramental illustration of the two ways: the way of wisdom and obedience which leads to life and the way of autonomy and disobedience which leads to death.

Historically, there has been a debate over where the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil derives its name. Peter Martyr Vermilgi (1499-1562) explains that there were two prevailing views among most interpreters: 1) that it received its name after the fall, for it was only upon eating the forbidden fruit that Adam and Eve gained experiential knowledge of evil–and by the loss of goodness, the knowledge of good as well. 2) that it was already given the name because it was associated with a legal prohibition, which by nature creates a distinction between good and evil.[12] Some today speculate that Adam and Eve would have eventually been able to eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, for the knowledge as such would not be sinful to possess, merely the disobedient means for attaining it. This view doesn’t seem to accord with the predominant opinion among early Protestant theologians. It is more likely that the Tree of Knowledge, as a kind of sacrament, would have given Adam and Eve a blessed knowledge through their act of obediently abstaining from eating of the fruit, for through the law comes knowledge of sin (Rom. 3:20), and through active obedience would have come fuller experiential knowledge of righteousness. It is unlikely that they would have needed or been permitted to eat of something that had been forbidden, particularly since the Tree of Knowledge was a symbol of sin.

Within this context, the two trees embody within themselves both physical and spiritual qualities of life and death, innocence and knowledge.[13] The two trees did not function in the same way, however. Because partaking of the Tree of Knowledge was forbidden and by it the covenant would be broken, it cannot strictly be understood as a sacrament, although some–such as David Chytraeus (1530-1600)–maintain it is a kind of sacrament.[14] In a sense, it serves as an anti-sacrament, a physical manifestation of spiritual death, a sign and seal of the certainty of the death promised to the disobedient. The Tree of Life on the other hand featured as the true sacrament of the Covenant of Works: a sign and seal of the life God promised to Adam if he obeyed.[15]

The Tree of Life as Seal

There is much debate on in what sense the Tree of Life sealed the eternal life promised for obedience, whether they had access to the Tree of Life before they fulfilled the stipulations of the Covenant of Works, and whether the Tree of Life would have conferred eternal life after the fall. Space does not permit to outline all the various views, but the most likely explanation is that the Tree of Life was a sacramental means of physical and spiritual sustenance during the probationary period of the covenant of works, and if Adam and Eve had fulfilled the covenant, it would then have been the initiatory means through which they would gain eternal life, a life that was higher and greater than the one they currently enjoyed in the garden.

Wolfgang Musculus (1497-1563) argues that the tree was a sacrament of the “prolongation of life,” while Martin Luther argued (1483-1546) that it conferred eternal youth.[16] Johannes Oecolampadius (1482-1531) argues that the fruit itself did not have power to impart life, but was a sacrament and means by which God would communicate it: “So also we understand the tree of life, not that the tree itself was able to vivify, for that ability belongs to the divine Spirit alone. [. . .] That tree was set up as a sign that if humankind had been found obedient and had refrained from the forbidden tree, on account of their obedience they would have been able to eat of the Tree of Life and thus by a divine gift to have become immortal.”[17] Calvin argues that just as the new covenant sacraments do not impart life apart from the work of God working through them within the context of covenant relationship, so too the Tree of Life had no life within itself, but merely functioned as a means of grace, directing them toward the life given from God Himself within the perfect relationship between creature and creator.[18] As such, he argues that the tree of life was a “figure and image” of Christ in his role as Creator and Sustainer.[19] As he eloquently argues,

“He intended, therefore, that man, as often as he tasted the fruit of that tree, should remember whence he received his life, in order that he acknowledge that he lives not by their own power but by the kindness of God alone, and that life is not an (as they commonly speak) an intrinsic good, but proceeds from God.”[20]

Thus, the eternal life promised in the Tree of Life was not simply physical immortality apart from communion with God, but eternal life proceeding from God Himself through the means of the sacramental tree. Because of this, it is possible that the sustaining power of the Tree of Life during the probationary period was a perfect sign of the future greater eternal life in God promised upon obedience and offered through the Tree of Life.

The Tree of Life and the Fall

Because the covenant was broken and the promise of eternal life was no longer theirs, God excommunicated Adam and Eve from the Tree of Life after the fall. Musculus maintains that even if Adam had eaten of the fruit of the Tree of Life after the fall, he would not have lived forever or gained immortality because nothing can confer something contrary to God’s will. By removing the tree, God signifies that immortality will be attained through another means.[21] Peter Martyr Vermigli maintained that the Tree of Life would have conferred eternal physical life on Adam and Eve, but not spiritual life. Thus, separating them from the tree and allowing them to suffer death was an act of mercy by God so that they wouldn’t live in sin forever.[22] But because the tree allegorically “refers to Christ, who is our life, as he himself testifies when he says, ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life’”, they were kept from the tree so that they might repent and after repentance become “worthy” to partake of Christ, the true Tree of Life.[23]

Because the Garden functioned as the meeting place between God and Man, the exile from the Garden was “ecclesial and sacramental.”[24] And because the Tree of Life was the sacrament that signified and sealed this communion, they were cut off from it as a form of discipline.[25] Calvin references this idea in his discussion of the excommunication from the tree:

By depriving them of the symbol, God also takes away the thing signified. We know how sacraments are meant to work, [. . .] the tree was given as a pledge of life. Accordingly, a solemn excommunication is added, in order that they might realize that their former life had been taken away. Not that the Lord intended to cut off all hope of salvation, but rather, by taking away merely what he had given, to cause them to seek new assistance elsewhere. [26]

No longer hungry for God, Adam and Eve were excommunicated from the Garden and separated from the Tree of Life so they might recognize the separation caused by their rebellion and might long to find life in God once again.[27]

In the next post we will explore how the Tree of Life is fulfilled in Christ, and how the Lord’s Supper is a foretaste of the future Tree of Life in the New Jerusalem.

Nathan Johnson is Assistant Dean of Academics, Head of Program, and Teaching Fellow at New College Franklin. He holds two M.A. degrees in Biblical Studies and Theological Studies from Reformed Theological Seminary (Charlotte) and an M.A. in Liberal Arts from St. John’s College. He also serves as a Lecturer in Philosophy at Davenant Hall.

  1. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1970), IV.XIV.6.

  2. Calvin, Institutes, IV.XIV.3.

  3. Calvin, “2 Corinthians 5:19,” in Commentary on the Epistles of Paul to the Corinthians, trans. John Pringle (Baker, 2009), 239.

  4. Calvin, Institutes, IV.XIV.18.

  5. Calvin, Institutes, IV.XIV.18.

  6. Calvin, Institutes, IV.XIV.19.

  7. This idea goes back at least as far as Severian of Gabala. In his understanding, neither tree was supposed to be accessed. If they obeyed in not eating of the Tree of Knowledge then they could eat of the Tree of Life and live forever. Severian, “Homiliy Five,” in Ancient Christian Texts: Commentaries on Genesis 1-3, ed. Michael Glerup, trans. Robert C. Hill (Downers Grove: IVP, 2010), 69.

  8. Geerhardus Vos, Biblical Theology (East Peoria, IL: Banner of Truth, 2012), 28.

  9. Wolfgang Musculus, In Mosis Genesim (1554), 67. This translation is given in the Reformation Commentary on Scripture: Genesis 1-11, ed. John L. Thompson (Downers Grove: IVP, 2012).

  10. Michael Bauks, “Sacred Trees in the Garden of Eden and Their Ancient Near Eastern Precursors,” Journal of Ancient Judaism 3 (2012), 275-79.

  11. For more on the nature of Eden as a Temple and Adam and Eve as priest-kings, see: G.K. Beale, “Eden, the Temple, and the Church’s Mission in the New Creation,” JETS 48, no. 1 (2005).

  12. Peter Martyr Vermigli, “Genesis 2:9” In Primum Librum Mosis (1569).

  13. John Peter Lange, Commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Critical, Doctrinal, and Homiletical: Genesis, trans. Philip Schaff (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, n.d.), 205.

  14. David Chytraeus, “Genesis 2:16-17,” In Genesin Enarratio (1576).

  15. Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 217.

  16. Musculus, In Mosis Genesim, 67; Martin Luther, Lectures on Genesis.

  17. William Perkins, An Exposition of the Symbole, or Creed of the Apostles in The Workes of that Famous and Worthie Minister of Christ, in the University of Cambridge, 1:152. This modernized English rendering is given in the Reformation Commentary on Scripture: Genesis 1-11, ed. John L. Thompson (Downers Grove: IVP, 2012).

  18. John Calvin, Sermons on Genesis 1-11, trans. Rob Roy McGregor (East Peoria, IL: Banner of Truth, 2009), 167.

  19. John Calvin, Treatises on the Sacraments, trans. Henry Beveridge (Grand Rapids: Christian Heritage, 2002), 166.

  20. Calvin, “Genesis 2:9,” in Commentary on Genesis, trans. John King (Baker, 2009), 116-117.

  21. Musculus, In Mosis Genesim, 116.

  22. Vermigli, “Genesis 3:22” In Primum Librum Mosis (1569). This translation is given in the Reformation Commentary on Scripture: Genesis 1-11, ed. John L. Thompson (Downers Grove: IVP, 2012).

  23. Vermigli, “Genesis 3:22”.

  24. Donald F. Duclow, “Denial or Promise of the Tree of Life? Eriugena, Augustine and Genesis 3:22b,” in Iohannes Scottus Eriugena: The Bible and Hermeneutics, eds. Gerd Van Riel, Carlos Steel, and James McEvoy (Leuven: Lueven University Press, 1996), 224.

  25. Duclow, “Denial or Promise,” 224.

  26. Calvin, “Genesis 3:22.”

  27. Calvin, Sermons on Genesis 1-11, 339-41.

*Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons


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