Results tagged “Covenant of Redemption” from Reformation21 Blog

The present post is the third in a three part series addressing contemporary objections to the doctrine of the covenant of redemption (for parts one and two, see here and here). What follows is adapted from Michael Allen and Scott R. Swain, ed., Christian Dogmatics: Reformed Theology for the Church Catholic (Baker Academic, a division of Baker Publishing Group, forthcoming 2016). Used by permission.

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As I noted in my first post, some recent Reformed theologians worry that the covenant of redemption potentially undermines orthodox trinitarianism. Thus, Karl Barth asks, "Can we really think of the first and second persons of the triune Godhead as two distinct subjects and therefore as two legal subjects who can have dealings and enter into obligations one with another?" Robert Letham offers what he deems the inevitable answer to this question: "to describe the relations of the three persons in the Trinity as a covenant, or to affirm that there as a need for them to enter into covenantal--even contractual--arrangements is to open the door to heresy. The will of the Trinity is one; the works of the Trinity are indivisible. For all the good intentions of those who proposed it, the construal of the relations of the three persons of the Trinity in covenantal terms is a departure from classic Trinitarian orthodoxy." This is quite a charge! How should we respond?

It is important to observe that proponents of the doctrine of the pactum salutis long ago acknowledged and answered the tritheistic objection. So, for example, to the question of how it can be said "that the will of the Father and the will of the Son did concur distinctly in the making of this covenant," given the unity of God's will, John Owen responds: 

[S]uch is the distinction of the persons in the unity of the divine essence, as that they act in natural and essential acts reciprocally one towards another,--namely, in understanding, love, and the  like; they know and mutually love each other. And as they subsist distinctly, so they also act distinctly in those works which are of external operation... The will of God as to the peculiar actings of the Father in this matter is the will of the Father, and the will of God with regard unto the peculiar actings of the Son is the will of the Son; not by a distinction of sundry wills, but by the distinct application of the same will unto its distinct acts in the persons of the Father and the Son. 

Wilhelmus à Brakel addresses the issue in similar fashion: 

Since the Father and the Son are one in essence and thus have one will and one objective, how can there possibly be a covenant transaction between the two, as such a transaction requires the mutual involvement of two wills? Are we then not separating the persons of the Godhead too much? To this I reply that as far as personhood is concerned the Father is not the Son and the Son is not the Father. From this consideration the one divine will can be viewed from a twofold perspective. It is the Father's will to redeem by the agency of the second person as surety, and it is the will of the Son to redeem by his own agency as surety. 

In other words, when it comes to the relationship between the pactum salutis and the divine will, we must consider not only that will's unity and indivisibility, we must also consider that will's tripersonal manner of subsistence if we are to appreciate the doctrine's status as an instance of orthodox trinitarian reasoning.
 
Far from undermining orthodox trinitarian theology, therefore, the doctrine of the covenant of redemption should be seen as an application of orthodox trinitarian principles to the locus of God's eternal decree. Because the Son is consubstantial with the Father, God's redemptive will cannot be limited to the Father; the Son too must the agent of God's redemptive will. Moreover, because the Son eternally proceeds from the Father in his personal manner of subsisting, so too does his personal manner of willing proceed from the Father. The Son's willing submission to the Father in the pactum salutis is thus a faithful expression of his divine filial identity as the consubstantial, eternally begotten Son of God.
The present post is the second in a three part series addressing contemporary objections to the doctrine of the covenant of redemption (for part one, see here). What follows is adapted from Michael Allen and Scott R. Swain, ed., Christian Dogmatics: Reformed Theology for the Church Catholic (Baker Academic, a division of Baker Publishing Group, forthcoming 2016). Used by permission.

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Before addressing the biblical bases of the covenant of redemption, we must consider two potential pitfalls that are to be avoided. On the one hand, there is the pitfall of overinterpretation. According to John Owen, we must "carefully avoid all curiosity, or vain attempts to be wise above what is written." On the other hand, there is the pitfall of underinterpretation. Again, according to Owen, we must "study with sober diligence to declare and give light unto what is revealed" in the scriptures concerning this doctrine, "to the end that we should so increase in knowledge as to be established in faith and obedience." In my introductory post, I noted that contemporary critics of the doctrine such as Robertson believe that it extends "the bounds of scriptural evidence beyond propriety." Seventeenth century proponents of the doctrine would likely charge modern critics with failing to avoid the pitfall of underinterpretation, convinced as they were that the doctrine is "expressly declared ... in the Scripture." Given the controversy that exists among Reformed interpreters regarding the doctrine's biblical bases, the task of dogmatics in relation to the covenant of redemption is not simply to indicate the biblical texts from which this doctrine arises but also to explicate, as far as possible, the pattern of biblical reasoning by which it emerges. 

The doctrine of the pactum salutis follows from biblical teaching regarding the Father's eternal appointment of the Son, by way of covenant, to serve as mediator. The New Testament portrays the Son's incarnate work as a mission he received from the Father (e.g., Mark 12.1-12; John 4.34; 5.30; 6.38; Gal 4.4; Heb 10.5-10) and as an appointment to an office, variously described under the title and functions of "servant of the Lord" (e.g., Matt 12.18) and under the priestly, kingly, and prophetic functions of the Lord's "anointed" (e.g., Acts 2.34-36; 3.22-26; Heb 5.5-6). The Son of God "gave himself for our sins," Paul declares, "according to the will of our God and Father" (Gal 1.4). Furthermore, unlike prophets and apostles, who are consecrated to their offices from their mothers' wombs (Jer 1.5; Gal 1.15), the Son of God is consecrated to his office from eternity: he is one "whom the Father consecrated and sent into the world" (John 10.36) and the lamb "foreknown before the foundation of the world" (1 Pet 1.20). God chose us in Christ Jesus (Eph 1.4) in accordance with "his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began" (2 Tim 1.9). Herman Bavinck summarizes New Testament teaching in this regard, "To conceive of the work of Christ as the exercise of an office is to relate that work to the eternal counsel. He bears the name Messiah, Christ, the Anointed, because he has been ordained of the Father from eternity and has in time been anointed by him with the Holy Spirit." 

This is well and good. But by what warrants may we say that the Son's eternal messianic appointment occurs per modum foederis, "by way of covenant"? Certainly texts that describe the Son's eternal appointment to his incarnate mission (e.g., John 10.36 Eph 1.4-5; 2 Tim 1.9; 1 Pet 1.20) do not contain the kind of covenantal language that would compel us to draw this conclusion. Whence, then, is biblical warrant for the pactum salutis derived? Wilhelmus à Brakel's response is instructive: "It will be easier to comprehend this matter if we primarily consider the execution of this covenant rather than the decree from which it proceeds... [T]he manner in which the Lord executes it in this time state is consistent with the manner in which he eternally decreed it." In other words, though the scriptures are relatively reticent to speak of the Son's eternal appointment by the Father in covenantal terms, the scriptures speak quite liberally about the Son's historical execution of that appointment in covenantal terms and this language, when coupled with other biblical teaching about the eternal nature of the Son's messianic appointment, constitutes sufficient biblical warrant for the doctrine of the covenant of redemption. 

Two patterns of New Testament of christological discourse confirm Brakel's observation. First, the New Testament speaks on a number of occasions of Jesus as one who is both recipient and mediator of the Father's covenant promises. In Luke 22.29, Jesus says, "I assign to you, as my Father assigned to me, a kingdom." Similarly, in Acts 2.33, the ascended Jesus is described as one who has "received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit" in order to pour out the promised Spirit to his people. Furthermore, in Galatians 3.16-29, Jesus is described as the heir of the promises God made to Abraham and, thus, as the one in and through whom believers become heirs of the same covenant promises. Jesus is the one in whom all of God's promises are "yes" because he is at once the heir and the mediator of the Father's promised covenant blessings (2 Cor 1.20-22). 

Second, by means of "prosopological exegesis," the New Testament repeatedly employs Old Testament covenant language to portray the mutual dialogue between the Father and the Son regarding the latter's messianic mission and reward. Hebrews 1 uses the covenantal language of 2 Samuel 7, Psalm 1, and Psalm 110 to describe the covenantal honor bestowed by the Father upon the Son. Thus, the Father declares: "You are my Son, today I have begotten you" (Heb 1.5 citing Ps 2.7), "I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son," (Heb 1.5 citing 2 Sam 7.14), and "Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet" (Heb 1.13 citing Ps 110.1). Moreover, as Hebrews goes on to argue, Old Testament texts such as these, read in the light of Christ's appearing, demonstrate that Christ's appointment as high priest did not occur through self-exaltation (Heb 5.5-6) but through an oath: "The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind, 'You are a priest forever'" (Heb 7.21). The Son's eternal and irrevocable appointment to be our great high priest, and his ensuing enthronement at the Father's right hand, is rooted in an eternal and irrevocable covenant oath. When we further consider that Psalm 110 is the most commonly cited Old Testament text in the New Testament, the covenantal nature of the Son's messianic mission and reward becomes unavoidable.
The doctrine of the covenant of redemption (also known as "the pactum salutis" and "the counsel of peace") is a beautiful doctrine. It concerns the eternal purpose of the blessed Trinity to communicate the bliss of his triune life to elect sinners through the mediation of Jesus Christ for the glory of Jesus Christ. More fully stated: 

The pact between the Father and the Son contains the will of the Father giving his Son as lytrōtēn (Redeemer and head of his mystical body) and the will of the Son offering himself as sponsor for his members to work out redemption (apolytrōsin). For thus the Scriptures represent to us the Father in the economy of salvation as stipulating the obedience of the Son even unto death, and for it promising in return a name above every name that he might be the head of the elect in glory; the Son as offering himself to do the Father's will, promising a faithful and constant performance of the duty required of him and restipulating the kingdom and glory promised to him.

Thus Francis Turretin.

Once one of the central features of Reformed teaching about Christ and salvation, the doctrine of the pactum salutis no longer enjoys wide acceptance today, even among Reformed theologians. According to O. Palmer Robertson, "To speak concretely of an intertrinitarian 'covenant' with terms and conditions between Father and Son mutually endorsed before the foundation of the world is to extend the bounds of scriptural evidence beyond propriety." The doctrine, in other words, lacks sufficient biblical warrant.

Coming from a slightly different angle, Karl Barth asks, "Can we really think of the first and second persons of the triune Godhead as two distinct subjects and therefore as two legal subjects who can have dealings and enter into obligations one with another?" Robert Letham's response to this question is decisive and severe: "to describe the relations of the three persons in the Trinity as a covenant, or to affirm that there as a need for them to enter into covenantal--even contractual--arrangements is to open the door to heresy. The will of the Trinity is one; the works of the Trinity are indivisible. For all the good intentions of those who proposed it, the construal of the relations of the three persons of the Trinity in covenantal terms is a departure from classic Trinitarian orthodoxy." The doctrine of the covenant of redemption, according to this criticism, entails tritheism and thereby compromises an orthodox trinitarian confession.

In coming days, I plan to post two excerpts from Christian Dogmatics that address these two criticisms. Is the covenant of redemption an unbiblical doctrine? Does the covenant of redemption compromise orthodox trinitarianism? As you might expect, my response will be negative on both counts.
I've been working of late on the doctrine of the pactum salutis, i.e., the eternal covenant between the Father and the Son concerning the redemption of elect sinners. Here, as in so many places, John Owen is instructive. Although it is not central to my own project, Owen's discussion of the particular delight that God takes in the eternal covenant of redemption strikes me as a particularly wonderful topic for contemplation. 

In chapter four of his Christologia (Works, vol. 1, pp. 54-64), Owen addresses a question that received quite a bit of attention in his day, namely, the question of what it means to say that Jesus Christ is the "foundation" of God's decree regarding the salvation of his people. Owen's answer to this question is clear. To say that Jesus Christ is the "foundation" of God's saving decree is to say that God's eternal plan of salvation was laid in Christ to be accomplished by Christ. God chose us "in him" to redeem us "through him" (Eph 1.4-5), and this sovereign decree is the foundation of all God's saving counsels regarding his children.

In discussing Christ's status as the foundation of God's saving decree, Owen makes the remarkable claim that God takes more delight in making his eternal decree of salvation than in executing said decree. Such a claim is not only hard to understand. On the surface at least, it is also hard to swallow. Is Owen saying that God delights more in the idea of us than in our actual existence as redeemed siblings of Jesus Christ? Is Owen's God perhaps like the person who loves the idea of marriage more than his or her actual spouse? Certainly not. What, then, does Owen mean in saying that God's "principal delight and complacency ... is in his eternal counsels"?  

Fully unpacking Owen's point would require setting it within the broader context of seventeenth century Reformed orthodox discussions of the divine decree, to which we may have opportunity to return at a later time. For now, we may put the matter this way: According to Owen, God takes more delight in his eternal counsels than in the temporal execution of those counsels for the simple reason that God takes more delight in himself than he takes in his creatures. God's works only manifest "the outskirts" of his sublime nature (Job 26.14). However, God's decree, because it is God's decree, is the occasion wherein God rejoices in the unfathomable depths of his triune perfection. According to Owen, God's decree is the principle expression of his infinite wisdom, goodness, love and grace, and the eternal occasion whereby the Father and the Son engage in mutual, ineffable delight through the Spirit. Owen takes Proverbs 8.30-31 as a description of the intratrinitarian delight that characterizes God's eternal decree of salvation: "then I was beside him, like a master workman, and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the children of man."

Reflecting upon Owen's discussion of this topic reminds me of the oft-quoted statement from Geerhardus Vos: "The best proof that [God] will never cease to love us lies in that he never began." Translating this statement in an Owenian register, we might say: The best proof that God will never stop loving us lies in that he has always loved the idea of loving us. And this too helps us see that Owen's remarkable point is not misanthropic. God's eternal plan to save us in and through Jesus Christ is not a plan that he engages reluctantly or as the result of external compulsion. It is a plan directed by infinite divine wisdom, whose fountain is the infinite goodness of God and whose womb is the eternal, ineffable delight of the Father and the Son in the fellowship of the Spirit. God's eternal delight in the eternal covenant of redemption is a source of comfort to poor sinners because it reminds us not only that the eternal plan of salvation is God's idea. It also reminds us that God loves his idea with a love whose spring is utterly and wholly divine.