Defending the covenant of redemption (part two)
November 17, 2015
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.
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.