Holy Pactum Salutis Batman and Vanhoozer!: Why Love and Marriage are Better than Law and Magistrates

There has been some talk recently, in the blogosphere, about the pactum salutis; primarily Darren Sumner’s good post on it with reference to the eternal functional subordination debate. That has prompted me to post this, as an elaboration on the pactum; and to offer another angle into the pactum rather than just the EFS debate.

The pactum necessarily has a forensic or ‘legal’ character to it, and those who appeal to it in the Reformed faith, seem to think that this is the only way to think of things in the Reformed faith. But that is simply not true. Marriage mysticism, for example, was alive and well, and even prominent in English Puritan and Post-Reformed orthodox (so called) days. The Reformed faith is much broader than people think, it is not just an anachronistic re-reading of the Protestant Reformed history by modern theologians who make it so. This [re]post points to the broadness of the Reformed heritage, and in doing so offers critique of the pactum salutis as if it is the most biblical way to go.

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.

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