Owenian musings on God's eternal decree
August 12, 2014
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.