Monday, 8 September 2008

Covenant of Redemption

In my first post on covenant theology, I said “Covenant theology therefore presents salvation as a unified act of the Triune God, centered on Christ's death and resurrection.” Some covenant theologians systematise this cross-centred unity in terms of a pre-creation, intra-Trinitarian "covenant of redemption".
This covenant of redemption happens before creation, within the three persons of the Trinity. Logically, it therefore precedes the other two covenants - the covenant of works, and the covenant of grace. These two covenants are outworkings of this covenant of redemption.
The content of the covenant of redemption is as follows: the Father appoints the Son a task: to redeem the elect, by dying and rising for them. The Father also promises the Son that as a reward for accomplishing this task, the Son will possess the church. The Father also gives the Son power to complete this task by equipping the Son with the Spirit.
This covenant of redemption is then worked out in history through the events of the gospel. The incarnate Son obediently dies and rises, accomplishing salvation for the elect, and earning the Father’s promised reward. The Spirit implements this reward by working in the elect, through the gospel of Christ crucified, to draw them to trust Christ, and thereby become Christians – members of the church – part of Christ’s prize.
The covenant of redemption highlights the Trinitarian, theocentric, Christocentric nature of salvation. Salvation is not primarily about us; it’s about God – the whole, Triune God. This agrees with the theocentricity of the whole Bible - we exist for God, not the other way 'round (Isaiah 40:12-31; Ezekiel 20:30-44; 36:22-23, 31-32; Romans ch 3). The covenant of redemption retains an order in the Trinity: the Father takes the initiative; the Son responds in glad obedience; and the Spirit is active in both empowering the Son to accomplish redemption for the elect, and applying the Son’s redemption to the elect (John 2:17; 4:34; 14:16-17; Eph 1:3, 10, 13-14). In terms of its actual outworking, it’s focused on Christ, especially on his death and resurrection - which is of course the focus of the whole New Testament.
Objection 1: Should we really talk about the Son “earning” a “reward” for “obeying” the Father? How could the eternal Son of God ever disobey the Father, anyway? That would break the unity of the Trinity – which is an ontological impossibility, because the Trinity is constituted by his mutual interpersonal indwelling. And if the Son couldn’t help obeying the Father, how could he deserve a reward?
Reply 1A: I agree that the terms “earning” and “reward” are problematic, because they imply uncertainty about the result. If someone “earns” a “reward”, that implies they could have failed, thus not earning the reward. Perhaps we should replace them with “establishing” the “desired goal”. The incarnate Son obediently dies and rises, establishing the Father’s desired goal: the salvation of the elect, whom the Father gives to the Son to rule, in love, forever. The Spirit implements this goal by working in the elect, through the gospel of Christ crucified, to draw them to trust Christ, and thereby become Christians – members of the church – members of Christ’s kingdom.
Reply 1B: I do not think the word “obedience” is problematic. The covenant of redemption does not deny the unity of the Trinity; on the contrary, it expresses it. The Father delights to honour the Son, and gives him the resource – the Spirit - necessary to perform the task set for this honouring – the task of dying and rising, to redeem the elect. The Son delights to obey the Father in performing this task. The Spirit delights to empower the Son to perform the task, and to implement the result once it has been achieved: convert the elect.
Reply 1C: I agree that the divine Son could not disobey the Father. Nevertheless, I think that obedience was costly, and the Son's willed obedience was necessary to establish the desired goal of redeeming the elect. How else could we make sense of the Garden of Gethsemane (Matt 26:36-45 & parallels)? Or Philippians 2:5-11?
Objection 2: Being God-centered and Christ-centered is all well and good, but doesn’t it make people kinda irrelevant? The covenant of redemption makes humans sound like mere instruments – God uses us to make himself look good.
Reply 2A: And what’s wrong with that? The question smuggles in a hidden middle term: it’s somehow bad, wrong, immoral for God to use us to make himself look good. The question makes “use” sound like “abuse”. We – and all creation - were created for God’s glory. When we glorify and praise God, we are doing what which we were created for. It’s good for us to do that - it's not abusive.
Reply 2B: The way God draws us to glorify him is not by abusing us, but through redeeming us. The normal response to being saved is to give God heartfelt praise. How else could we respond when we survey the wondrous cross?
Reply 2C: That act of redemption establishes that while humans are instruments for God’s glory, we are not merely instruments. Viewing humans as tools for divine self-glorification is true but not sufficient. We are personal beings, who are objects of God’s redeeming love.
Objection 3: You talk a lot about the elect, the church – but what about the rest of creation? Doesn’t the Bible talk about Christ redeeming a whole new creation?
Reply 3: Yes it does. I would adjust the statements about the church being Christ’s reward to state that the end goal of Christ’s death and resurrection was a whole new creation, with redeemed human beings as the crowning glory of that new creation.


Seumas Macdonald said...


I'm enjoying your posts on covenant theology, but I think it's wrong-headed. I find the idea of a covenant of works pre-Fall to be speculative and inconsistent with the shape of the biblical narrative. I find this idea of a pre-creation covenant within God to be hyper-speculative: it sounds like the attempts of systemic theologians to tie every down in very nice systems and explanations.

John McClean said...

Nice to see you thinking through covenant theology and putting forward a defense.

I think the strongest objection against the Covt of Redemption is that it introduces a contractual element in the Triune relationship. My answer would be that while that is a possible weakness in the 17th C a covenant was not seen a mercantile but as giving a careful structure and a deep solemnity to a relationship. Look at the wording of the Scottish National Covenant of 1638 or at Alexander Whyte's report of the covenant between Rutherford and Gillespie: "… the two men took one another by the hand and swore a covenant that all their days, and amid all the trials they saw were coming to Scotland and her Church, they would remain fast friends, would often think of one another, would often name one another before God in prayer, and would regularly write to one another, and that not on church questions only and on the books they were reading, but more especially on the life of God in their own souls."

Reformed theology has usually been clear the this kind of discussion about God involves ectypal or analogical knowledge of God and not archetypal.

On Seumas' comment - I'd ask if Romans 5 teaches the involvement of all humanity in Adams sin and if so why he'd feel it was hyper-speculative to try to find a biblical way to describing how that took place or if he'd like to advance another explanation.

Marty said...

Hey Kamal,

Like John it's great to see you wrestling with covenant theology and in particular the pactum salutis. Seumas expresses the well-known thought that the ps is extra-biblical speculation. However, one only has to notice that over 40 times John's gospel speaks of the Father sending the Son, plus the Son's willing obedience to the Father's plan, to see that there is exegetical substance in it. Should we call it a covenant? It's not the word that's important but the concept.

Blessings bro,


Seumas Macdonald said...

Here are my thoughts articulated, hopefully, more clearly.

Marty's comment gives me the lead in, really. What's 'there' is the thing that matters, but our concern for the right words is properly a concern to describe accurately what is 'there'. My concern then, is that 'covenant' is a word that analogises from the covenants in the scripture to a hypothesis about other relationships, and possibly imports into our understanding of those relationships elements that are not there.

So, in the case of Adam, I fully agree with John that Romans 5 teaches the involvement of all humanity in Adam's sin. My objection, or question even, is simply this - is it proper to term Adam's relationship with God as a 'covenant of works'? I would suggest that the modifier 'of works' pushes this in a strongly contractual direction.

John's point about 'covenant' in the C.17th and Marty's point about the Father sending the Son in John, bring me to consider the pre-creation covenant. Is it right to express intra-Trinitarian relationships with the language of covenant? I would suggest that covenant is too weak a word for such a relationship. Covenants can be broken, but the mutual relationships of the three persons are, by the character of God, perfectly faithful.