The Evangelical Calvinist

"The world was made so that Christ might be born."-David Fergusson

Holy ‘Pactum Salutis’ Batman and Vanhoozer! Why Love is better than Law in the frame of Salvation

There are many images, metaphors in the Bible to depict God’s relationship to his creation, humanity. There is the law-court pactumsalutisbatmanimagery, the Shepherd-sheep picture, and so on and so forth. But what undergirds all of it is who God in Jesus Christ is, and that reality–who he is–has been most clearly revealed in Jesus Christ; we know then that he is love, and thus it is God as love that comes before everything else, every other image and relationship depicted of him and us in the Bible. If this is the case it behooves us then to drive deep into this reality (God as triune love) as the interpretive grid through which we construct our primary understandings of how he acts and who he is; it beckons us to live under this pressure as the mode through which we develop our theological frameworks. These frameworks then need to bear up under the given reality of who God has revealed himself to be; we must take our cues from there, and not elevate subsidiary imagery in the Bible over this prime reality of who God is for us in Jesus Christ. And yet this, I would suggest, is the very thing that has dogged, in particular, the Protestant Reformed tradition. A tradition that has taken the imagery of the law-court, and legal metaphors in the Bible and used that as the primary interpretive grid through which God is understood and articulated. Of note, in this vein, is what has been called Covenantal (or Federal Foedus) theology; this framework developed in the 16th century, primarily under the oversight of Heinrich Bullinger and Caspar Olevianus. The basic premise of this framework is described well by Dewey Wallace:

A second development in English Calvinist thought, also international in its scope, was the rising importance of federal theology. Federal theology built upon the covenant theology of the Reformers, especially that of Heinrich Bullinger, Zwingli’s successor of at Zurich, and also of Calvin. For Bullinger, God had made one covenant with humanity, the covenant of grace, known by anticipation in the times of the Old Testament and by remembrance after the coming of Christ. For Calvin too there was but one covenant, that of Grace, but he stressed its testamentary character whereas Bullinger spoke of it as more conditional, although for both the covenant was the means in a history of salvation by which God unfolded his purposes. At the end of the sixteenth century, the Heidelberg Reformed theologians Zacharias Ursinus, Caspar Olevianus, and Franciscus Junius shaped the idea of a covenant of works distinct from and preceding the covenant of grace. Important English Calvinists, beginning with Dudley Fenner and including many later Puritans, adopted this double covenant federal theology with its covenant of works made with Adam, the federal head of humanity, to be followed, after the fall of Adam, with the covenant of grace, which was anticipated in Moses and fulfilled in Christ, the federal head of redeemed humanity. This federal theology was not only a pedagogically useful and biblically warranted scheme for organizing theology but also “a useful vehicle of the gospel message,” closely related to the flowering of Calvinist piety.[1]

So we get this kind of bilateral covenantal understanding of the Bible and salvation history; we get this legal understanding of God as the prominent interpretive grid through which we understand God’s dealings and relationship with humanity. The covenant of works essentially (as the story goes) was a covenant God originally made with Adam and Eve wherein they were to obey his Word, his Torah, his Law, by not eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Of course they disobeyed God, they ate of the tree, broke God’s holy law, and thus incurred God’s penalty which was death. Fortunately, in this accounting of things, God had already ratified another covenant, the so called covenant of grace, wherein Jesus Christ, the second Adam, would come along, pay the penalty of Adam’s sin, and legally purchase back (i.e. redeem) an elect group of individual humans who the Son and the Father had bargained for in eternity past; the only payment required then was the Son’s active obedience for this elect people, climaxing in his passive obedience of death on the cross for these elect people. At this point, God’s holy law and the penalties incurred by humanity (through Adam’s disobedience) have been remitted, and this elect group of people bargained for by the Son and the Father are finally purchased by the Son, and they have legally become his and thus legally rightly related to God who ultimately relates to people by his Holy Law (even if it is said to be motivated by his love).

With all of this background in place, I wanted to underscore all of it by quoting theologian Kevin Vanhoozer’s defense of this legal framework as the primary means through which he believes (along with the rest of the classically Reformed tradition) we should understand God’s relationship to and with humanity. Remember I just quickly (above) mentioned the ‘bargaining’ that took place for these elect group of people between the Father and the Son? This has been called the pactum salutis (or the Covenant of Redemption), and it serves as the middle term between the Covenant of Works and Grace that helps forward this epic Covenantal story between the Father and the Son; it helps to keep the logic of legal Covenantal thinking moving, and fills in the blanks even further (Robert Letham in his book The Westminster Assembly gets into how the ‘Pactum Salutis’ developed among some of the later Westminster divines). Here is what Kevin Vanhoozer has to say about the significance of this ‘pact’ for contemporary understanding of how Christians in general, from his perspective, should understand God’s relationship to humanity:

There are good biblical reasons to expand the idea of an eternal divine decree in a more dialogical direction. This, at least, was the conclusion of the post-Reformation Reformation theologians who discerned, through a careful reading of Scripture, a pactum salutis (i.e. the intra-Trinitarian “pact of salvation”) between the Father and the Son. Consider, for example, Paul’s reference to “the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God, … in accordance with the eternal purpose that he has carried out in Jesus Christ our Lord” (Eph. 3:9, 11). To be sure, Scripture does not wear the notion of a pactum salutis on its sleeve, but like the doctrine of the Trinity, it appears to be a necessary implication of what is said explicitly. Minimally, it says that both the Father and the Son freely formed a partnership, agreeing on a plan from before the foundation of the world that would be executed on the stage of space-time history: “You were ransomed … with the precious blood of Christ…. He was destined before the foundation of the world, but was revealed at the end of the ages for your sake” (1 Pet. 1:18-21). The historia salutis is thus the dramatic representation in space and time of the eternal pactum salutis. This is all to say that the eternal divine decree is dialogical, the work of more than one communicative agent.[2]

Remember above as I opened this little essay up how I highlighted how we, in my estimation, should think interpretively through God’s life of triune love instead of elevating other subsidiary biblical imagery as the lens through which we interpret God’s relationship to humanity in Christ? It appears that Kevin Vanhoozer, along with the post-Reformed Reformers, has opted to take this subsidiary imagery as the primary lens through which he believes that we should understand God’s relationship with us.

A consequence of this, among many of them, is that who God is for us, for fallen humanity ends up getting distorted. A subsidiary picture of God’s dealing with humanity (the legal picture) becomes the frame, when this is not the frame that God has chosen to reveal himself through in the prime. God has chosen to reveal himself to us as personal triune love in his eternal Son Jesus Christ; any idea of Law-giver, or any other picture must be framed by this reality: that God is love, and because he is and because he loved us first we can love him through the Son as the mediator.

I submit to you that this framework that Vanhoozer claims to be a necessary implication of biblical truth, as necessary (implicitly so) as the Trinitarian conclusion, ought to be rejected. The ‘pactum salutis’ (‘pact of salvation’) is only a necessary conclusion about the Father’s relationship to humanity through the Son, if and only if we first and in an a priori way commit ourselves to this kind of classically conceived Covenantal construction of salvation. But why should we? The Apostle Paul used other imagery (and it is a canonical imagery through and through) to depict our relationship to God in Jesus Christ; the imagery of marriage. Why wouldn’t we follow this imagery instead? It better proximates the theological reality of who God genuinely is for us in Jesus Christ; the lover of our souls. And this imagery is in the garden before the tree of the knowledge of good and evil; the imagery is first appealed to in Genesis 2 (i.e. marriage), while the ‘tree’ imagery is provided for in Genesis 3. If there is a primary covenant then it is framed, even in a straightforward and linear reading of Scripture, in the imagery of marriage; and so we end up with a covenant framing our understanding and relationship with God, a singular covenant of grace, which pre-temporally fits better with God’s choice to not be God without us but with us in the election of our humanity for himself in Jesus Christ (the ultimate bridegroom).

Something to think about then …

[1] Dewey D. Wallace, Jr., Shapers of English Calvinism 1660-1714: Variety, Persistence, and Transformation,(New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 16-7.

[2] Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Faith Speaking Understanding, kindle loc. 1997, 2003, 2009.


Written by Bobby Grow

January 27, 2015 at 11:34 pm

16 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. Reblogged this on James' Ramblings and commented:
    Reblogging for future reference.



    January 28, 2015 at 8:58 am

  2. As you yourself filled in, legal language and discourse pertaining to covenant and promise is still legal and yet not bloodless and ‘Roman’ in description. I think you read a lot into Vanhoozer. You’re putting a lot of theologians and nuanced ideas into flat boxes for an easy historical narrative.

    Ultimately, promise is the primary language of the Bible. At the end of the day, love and law do not need to be cut up or hierarched. There is both in that constant, beautiful refrain: “I will be your God, and you will be my people”.

    Covenant theology does not necessitate a covenant of works except, perhaps, as a deepening, historical development, of the singular covenant of grace, the promise of the wedding feast of the Lamb.




    January 29, 2015 at 9:03 am

  3. Honestly, Cal, unless you explain yourself better I have no idea what you are talking about. When you say I am reading into KJV too much and flattening things out, beyond making that assertion you need to explain how I am doing that. In the context I take the quote from Vanhoozer from he explicitly states that he is defending classical Decretal thought. The pactum salutis is absolutely the middle term and natural result of framing things from a forensic reading of things starting with the covenant of works; have you never really studied this period of things? I have. The Latin term itself for federal or covenant connotes a juridical frame. So quit speaking as if you are an expert on this and actually substantiate your large assertions. If you think I have flattened things out here, how so? Based on what? You haven’t demonstrated why you think that! You’ve just made empty assertion.


    Bobby Grow

    January 29, 2015 at 12:46 pm

  4. Not only that Cal, I am basing my insight on sound historical research. Beyond that Cal I was mentored by and proffed by a historical theologian who specialized in Puritan theology, and who was an expert on this stuff; I base much of my critique upon his doctoral research and upon the bibliography which he used in his research that I have subsequently read myself.

    My critique has nothing to do with Torrance or Barth at this point! What do you base your insight on? To me all you have done is make an easy assertion; that just won’t fly Cal!


    Bobby Grow

    January 29, 2015 at 12:50 pm

  5. Cal when you write:

    You’re putting a lot of theologians and nuanced ideas into flat boxes for an easy historical narrative.

    How so?! I am basing my critique upon “boxes” that historical theologians and ecclesiastical historians have created in their reconstructions of the period. People like Janice Knight, Theodore Dwight Bozeman, Ron Frost, Stephen Strehle, et al. You seem to imagine that there is some sort of black box or historical vacuum that this theology that developed from the past came from, and thus is not able to be critiqued upon its own terms. You mention some sort of ethereal alternative which is not present in the metaphysics of history of ideas relative to this period of Reformed development (namely Federal theology). So again, I really have no idea upon which you are basing your flimsy assertion.


    Bobby Grow

    January 29, 2015 at 1:27 pm

  6. All I’m saying is that a juridicial framework of covenant does not preclude God is love being primary. Promise and marriage are both examples of this. Covenant does not necessitate contract. KJV is resourcing Reformed orthodox to construct beyond some of their pitfalls, which you point out. My point about boxes was that you didn’t do KJV justice.

    Go in peace,



    January 29, 2015 at 3:05 pm

  7. But I am not sure how your claim withstands scrutiny, Cal! When you make the assertion that the juridical does not preclude God as love being primary that sounds nice, but it does not at all engage with at a material level the actual theology and historical theology itself. And KJV is not speaking from a vacuum, in fact the context I take the quote from makes that exceedingly clear; he is defending the classical framing of Federal theology which in fact, at a metaphysical level does indeed preclude God as love and emphasizes God’s relationship to humanity through a duty centered (Covenant of Works) relationship–and the atonement etc are predicated upon this kind of duty based relationship. KJV is defending that tradition and seeking to contemporize it for his readers. I did not take him out of context (have you read him in the context I take the quote from), and KJV is not constructive at all when it comes to basic premises that have funded and fun Federal theology (have you read his critique of our Evangelical Calvinism?). So even with your further qualifications I don’t agree with you at all; so far you are still leaving it in the realm of assertion. You haven’t demonstrated how I have taken KJV out of context, for example.


    Bobby Grow

    January 29, 2015 at 3:29 pm

  8. Yes, many Reformed orthodox made juridiciality quite bloodless. But I’m not apt to paint such a broadbrush anymore. I don’t see how promoting a ‘pact of salvation’ is by necessity unlinked from God is love. No ‘bargaining’ or any such thing is implied. Nor is that the acceptance of a ‘pact of salvation’ requires a covenant of works.

    KJV’s main point in the cited section, if anything, is that Word is fundamental to God’s identity, and intertrinitarian communication is warranted. His constructive approach is how God as a communicative agent and act (i.e. Revelation as a self-communication) cuts through cause-effect depictions. Love is not just a force, it is a Worded force, namely a promise. This incorporates Barth’s insight that God, in His total freedom, chooses to be ‘for us’.

    Not even brought out is how the use of the Covenant of Works was an attempt to maintain a Law-Gospel dynamic that was historicized. Some Reformed seemed to collapse salvation-history and providence into predestinarian election. Amyraut, and the Saumer school, articulated a way forward, using the covenant of works. But this was lambasted as 4-pt Calvinism. Point is, the idea was put through different foci for different reasons. Some were philosophical (history vs. ideas), some were theological (doctrine of God) and some were, as the quote points out, for ‘flowering piety’.

    For myself, I think talk of a covenant of works in Eden is contrived. Command and promise don’t necessitate the covenantal structure found later, only that the bonds of love and communion were already in place. One doesn’t need to a cut a covenant if two are already united.




    January 30, 2015 at 6:29 am

  9. Well, I don’t agree, whatsoever with you Cal! So far you haven’t really referred to anything that proves your point. The covenant of works is tied into law keeping (into the Mosaic code etc), and then law breaking. It doesn’t really seem like you have spent a lot of time studying its history and development; the only reason I say that is because you are really misrepresenting Covenant theology especially in the way you are defending KJV’s appropriation of it. In the context I take the quote from he is explicitly defending the old framing, he says he is! There is a difference between piety–which the classically Reformed have in spades–and the material theology behind said piety which is non-correlative with said piety because the substance metaphysics behind it don’t and cannot give us an emphasis upon a personal loving triune God, but instead a monadic determinist god who looks nothing like the God revealed in Christ. So you have made a category mistake between classically Reformed piety and their substance metaphysics that supports their development of Federal theology. And KJV is defending the framework as compatible with the piety when it clearly is not!


    Bobby Grow

    January 30, 2015 at 12:38 pm

  10. The Covenant of Works, when separated from the Covenant of Grace, is primarily found in the Garden of Eden. The Mosaic Covenant is considered a “republication” of the Covenant of Works. I have a problem with the dual-covenant approach.

    I don’t understand your point that I’m misrepresenting covenant theology. My point about Vanhoozer was not that he was rejecting covenant theology, but reworking it (hence why he says he wants to expand the idea of a Divine decree dialogically). The quote you used doesn’t do his project justice. I think he’d make a similar point that a God of Promises and Covenants (which, for him, is to say God is Word) is not contrary to God is love.

    The only reason I mentioned piety was the above quote. The author said that articulating a strong covenant of works was to maintain the gospel message and bring about a “flowering of Calvinist piety”. Now I don’t quite get that.

    The Covenant of Grace is conceived as an intertrinitarian act (both word and deed) to love, a binding of God’s fidelity to His creation. The reason some Reformed separated the Covenant of Works as a second covenant was to keep the former unpolluted, a Lutheran insistence of the Law-Gospel dynamic, but one that was better historicized and made more sense of the Biblical narrative. So to say that Love is better than Law, well, that’s what these Covenant of Works were trying to insist and protect.

    Because God is Love, He forms an internal Covenant, a decree, to be for man. Some Reformed abstracted this, but that’s not necessary. God’s Decree, His Word, comes to us as none other than Jesus Christ, Mediator between God and Man.

    All my point has been in this string of comments is this: we don’t need to pick between Covenant and Love.



    January 30, 2015 at 3:18 pm

  11. And my point is that you are wrong; unless of course you want to recast covenant theology altogether, which you seem to.

    Have you read Vanhoozer’s book? If so then you must be aware of the preceding context where he makes it clear that he is not attempting whatsoever to break away or reconstruct classic Federal theology. And Cal like I noted I have read much on the development of Federal theology, much. I don’t think you are representing it right at all.

    My point about piety is that someone can assert that the intent of Federal theology is to magnify triune love all day long. But if the metaphysics that fund federal theology are not compatible with presenting a grammar that correlates with God as love–which Aristotelianism doesn’t–then your assertion about Federal theology’s intent (and there’s) is a non-starter.


    Bobby Grow

    January 30, 2015 at 10:09 pm

  12. I have not read this particular book, but I have some of his other work. You’re right, he is not trying to break away from Covenantal theology. But he is trying to rethink some of the methodological considerations to better accord amidst the time, combatting both forces in modernism and postmodernism.

    He resources speech-act theory and the work of Paul Riccouer (in hermeneutics) to find a way out of Enlightenment rationality and Aristotelian mechanics. For the latter part, he has a good essay on the “effectual call”.

    Vanhoozer, and the Dutch Calvinist school generally, on the one hand does not reject covenantal theology and yet has, mainly, left behind Aristotelian formations. Yes, some Reformed Orthodox were very infatuated with Thomism and Aristotle, but that is not, necessarily, true.

    Even the Covenant of Works, as it was developed, is considered as a move away from Reformed scholasticism and returning to Calvin (that was Brian Armstrong’s thesis in his book on Amyraut). Again, it was a law-grace dynamic that was a motivator, not just Aristotelian prior commitments.

    Again, a legal frame does not imply bloodlessness. Some evangelicals posit, too strongly, a law court analogy. But that is not ‘only’ legal. Lord-subject can be impassioned. And your last example, marriage, still falls under the frame of ‘legal’. But does that demand the horrors you recount? I think not!

    cum amore,



    January 31, 2015 at 6:00 am

  13. Cal,

    How can you make such strong claims about KJV in this particular book if you have not read it? And why are you explaining KJV to me when I have read much if most of his stuff?

    Amyrauts novel covenant theology with its three movements, for Amyraut may have been in his mind a move away from Reformed scholasticism, but of course Amyraut is just as scholastic as the scholastics in his mode. I’ve read Armstrong’s book as well.

    Marriage mysticism as a tradition theologically looks very different from a juridical frame of things; the primary distinction is a theological anthropological distinction (Norman Fiering details that well).

    But back to KJV, if I had the time and energy I would quote the relevant context to demonstrate that he is intentionally defending the classical model. And like I noted Cal, when KJV recently critiqued our EC book and our understanding of election etc he simply makes his critique based upon the classical categories of Calvinist theology; there is not any innovation in what he has to say in his critique–not in the way you are proposing that he does. Yes KJV engages with PoMo etc, but he also still thinks and argues as a classical Calvinist thinker who is committed to the classical substance metaphysics.


    Bobby Grow

    January 31, 2015 at 12:12 pm

  14. So it’s not an open-closed case whether Amyraut was himself a scholastic or trying to work outside its boundaries, but that is neither here nor there. My mentioning was that the motivation was not so simple as Aristotelianism.

    My contention is that marriage imagery does not require unhinging the juridicial aspect. Because God is Love, God is a God of covenants. God saying “I will be your God and You will be my people” is both juridicial (in the context of being united in a Covenant) and an act of love.

    Vanhoozer is a classical calvinist, but according to his work, he’s filling in the weaknesses. He’s resourcing the Reformed orthodox. And it’s not quite clear that he is using classical substance metaphysics. His and Michael Horton’s use of Tillich’s distinction of estrangement vs. meeting a stranger militate against that reading (the ‘BayouHuguenot’ blog has done writing on it).

    But maybe that’s a misreading.

    At the end of the day, I’m stating that you don’t need to separate a juridicial/covenantal approach and love. They can both be primary and do not necessitate substance metaphysics, Aristotelianism, or Newtonian metaphysics. Marriage, as a legal/covenantal agreement and an act of love, is merely one example that they need not separate. I would even argue the Suzerain/Vassal could also engender love (especially when imaginatively captured vis. kingly visions of CS Lewis or Tolkein).

    Forgive me if my initial post came off as antagonistic. However, I view comments as a place to flesh out ideas in the post. I didn’t think you substantiated the connection of why the grammar of love and grammar of covenant were, inherently, contrary.

    But you came out thinking I was accusing you and attacking you. I’m sure you have much schooling and education and have read plenty, but my so-called lack thereof keeps me from interacting with what you wrote? The automatic assumption is that I’ve not thought about this topic at all, because we disagree, and so you size yourself up based on your amount of research, your reading, your mentors, etc. etc. You come off as defensive and an uncharitable dialog partner.

    I won’t waste any more of your time. May the Truth lead us both into more fullness.




    January 31, 2015 at 2:07 pm

  15. Cal,

    Okay. But let me say something about your tone as well (and it comes with almost every comment you’ve made at my blog): You don’t act like you want to have a conversation, you act like you are the educator filling me in with stuff that I apparently have overlooked. That is not an approach that invites anything but a kind of rejoinderish kind of response, and so that’s what I have been giving you. You haven’t really made an argument per se. You are telling me what you think of KJV from a general understanding of his other works, but you haven’t even read what I am quoting from him in its full context.

    And the reason I am referring you to people I have read and research I am relying on is because that is usually how an argument is mounted. I am letting you know that the connections I am making here on the blog are not ad hoc nor unfounded but based upon broad and solid academic research in these areas. I get defensive because I see stuff just wiped away online all too easily when it isn’t that easy just to wipe away real life research. And so I am referring to people who I have studied in this area for years etc. Not to appeal to credentials to make my argument, but to let you know that I think in light of the research that I have studied and read and been mentored in over the years, your claims about Covenant theology are too facile and easy. And so I strongly disagree with them.

    I have no problem doing constructive thinking and theology, and that seems like what you are wanting to do. But it also seems like you are conflating that with how it actually was in the history of ideas. In other words, in the history itself the connections I am making ideationally are very much so present. Puritan England was a very very legalistic ecclesio-political society, and that has direct correlation to their view of God and development of Federal theology. So when I see KJV defending it in its classical form, I have serious problems with that. And I don’t understand the basis of your strong disagreement with that when you haven’t (again) even read KJV in the context I am quoting him from.


    Bobby Grow

    January 31, 2015 at 8:20 pm

  16. Cal,

    Like I said, I am referencing some very specific research and periodization in re to marriage theology. My mentor did his PhD research on that, and shows how marriage language avoids the forensic emphasis much better.

    Plus I am not saying anything about what “marriage” framing “has” to be or not, but what it wasn’t in its history of usage among Puritan Calvinist theology. It was used to critique and as an alternative to Westiminster Federal legal theology. That is just the historical reality.


    Bobby Grow

    February 1, 2015 at 11:31 am

Comments are closed.