The Moralistic Focus of Covenant Theology: Further Notation on What is Being Recovered in the Reformed ‘Resurgence’

As a continuation from the last post I wanted to get into William Ames’s Federal or Covenant theology a bit further; in order to do that I will be referring to Janice Knight—at great length!—with the purpose of highlighting what in fact are the guts of Covenant theology. Within the field of Covenant theologians there are a range of nuances and views, whether that be historically or contemporaneously, relative to the way that this theologian or that emphasizes this syllable or that in the covenants (of works, grace, and redemption). That noted there is also a general self-referential ambit within which someone who is considered a Federal theologian thinks from; it is within this shared reality, conceptually, that I want to lift up Ames’s theology as exemplary of what the foundational stuff of Covenant theology entails. Knight, as our tour guide, I think, provides insightful analysis and description of Ames’s theology, with the type of critical attention that is often lacking in others when engaging with this period of theological development.

As a caveat, before we get into Knight’s analysis, I want to make clear that she isn’t writing as a Barthian, Torrancean, or even an Evangelical Calvinist; she is writing from the perspective of a historian who is attempting to critically offer penetration through the historiography of this period.[1] She is attempting to break down the wall that early 20th century, Puritan expert, Perry Miller set in regard to reading the Puritans monolithically; to reading Calvinism and Reformed theology in general as monolith. Her work is typically dismissed by the establishment historians and theologians of this period; ironic, I know! Clearly this is why she is so appealing to me; her work coalesces well with the work that Evangelical Calvinists are engaged in (e.g. broadening the landscape or the scope of the makeup of Reformed theology in the history). With this in mind let’s turn to Knight, and allow her to explicate the clarion of federal theology in its classic English form.

William Ames was careful to maintain the distinction between covenant as contract and as free testament; he argue that the first sense properly applied only to Adam’s bond. The fall of Adam made necessary the death of Christ and the testament of his free grace. The first covenant was between friends and implied mutual responsibilities; the second was a “reconciliation between enemies” made possible only by divine intercession.

Yet Ames’s discourse, like that of his famous teacher William Perkins, seems consistently caught in the undertow of legalism. His admirers argue that “theologically and propositionally Ames preached the omnipotence of God,” yet admit that for Ames “on the practical level man was responsible.” Detractors like R.T. Kendall claim that Ames’s theology “is ‘Arminian’ in every way but in the theoretical explanation that lies behind the actual practice of the believer.”

In terms of the covenant, this emphasis meant that despite strong reminders of God’s provenience, Ames exhorts auditors as if faith were a condition of the covenant, contingent on human action. Practically speaking, the doctrine of the covenant became an exhortation to the saint to work out his or her salvation with fear and trembling; it offered a means of assurance but also enjoined the saint to make that assurance secure. In one sense, it was a doctrine of great comfort, motivated by a humane desire to provide a place for human initiative. In another sense, however, it bound men and women to unremitting self-scrutiny and anxiety.

The stress on conditionality evolved with the elaboration of English covenant theology; it entered into the formulation not only by the avenue of antecedent faith but from the other direction, by a consequent moralism. Once elected, God’s saints manifested their gratitude by observing the moral law. Since Ames de-emphasized the doctrine of perseverance, keeping within the covenant also became tinged with the conditional. Even theologians who were adamant about the absolute freeness of grace might admit conditionality in this second sense. Flexibility with respect to perseverance of the saints, then, allowed conditionality even where God’s prevenience was insisted upon. Covenant-keeping became the province of human beings, and the engine for communal as well as individual exhortation. It was by this means that the tribal identification with Israel was effected, and the jeremiad as a rhetorical strategy for social control was born.

Ames first introduces the covenant as a part of God’s providence, his special government of intelligent creatures: “the revealed will of God, which is the rule for the moral life, applies to the rational creature” and requires obedience. God’s governance demands that he “give to everyone according to his ways and according to the fruit of his action.” From this sense of justice and reasonable recompense, “from this special way of governing rational creatures there arises a covenant between God and them.” Resting on justice and its conditions, “this covenant is, as it were, a kind of transaction of God with the creature whereby God commands, promises, threatens, fulfills; and the creature binds itself in obedience to God so demanding.” This description properly applies to the governance of creatures under the covenant of works.

In this context, Ames seems to advocate the kind of contractualism with which he has been so widely associated. He argues that moral deeds done under the rubric of the covenant “lead either to happiness as a reward or to unhappiness as a punishment.” In theory, however, he protects God’s sovereignty by adding that “the latter is deserved, the former not.” Men and women are fallen creatures who deserve only reprobation; grace is wholly gratuitous. The terms of the covenant of works are satisfied only by the sacrifice of Christ. Accordingly, at one point Ames declares that the new dispensation is termed a testament as well as a covenant. Yet, this is a designation and a meaning he does not pursue.

Indeed, though Ames repeatedly reminds his readers that God fulfills all of these conditions under the covenant of grace, in practice he begins to exhort them, to stress the necessity of an active faith. Just as he argues that the two covenants are parts of the single work of redemption, differing only in application from age to age, so too Ames discovers conditions in both covenants. Christ performs obedience to God’s decrees, but human being must accept Christ’s offer of righteousness. Drawing on biblical injunction to believe and live, Ames and his followers argued that the covenant of grace depends “upon condition of faith and obedience.” Even though God himself provides faith as the fruit of his favor, human beings must actively hope in Christ. To the Amesians, the very term covenant implies this reciprocal relation. In contrast to the unilateral testament of the Sibbesians, Ames asserts that this is a covenant in which faith defines human obligation.

The original relation of the sinner and God, based on such vast disproportions of sin and power, now issues in relation suggesting greater mutuality. Emphasis on the condition of faith focuses Ames’s theology on practical divinity. Indeed, though his rhetoric takes him further in the direction of human voluntarism than he would wish, it might be argued that the central concern of the Marrow is to map the ordo salutis as a series of predictable and practical increments. The first step on Ames’s path involves not only passive receiving of the habit of faith but also active believing, in which the individual turns to Christ. For Ames, both of these steps precede justification.

Faith is the virtue whereby “we learn upon [God], so that we may obtain what he gives to us.” Ames uses active verbs to describe the life of faith: “by faith we first cleave to God and then fasten on to those things which are made available by God.” Faith is “our duty towards God,” the condition by which we enter his covenant and secure his promises for ourselves. Ames is not afraid to spell out the “divers duties . . . which both ought and are wont ordinarily to be performed by the certainty of this grace can be gotten.” As with Perkins, there is an implied condition or contract whereby human beings deal with God. The activism implied in the constructions “to cleave,” “to labor,” “to fasten on to” become more pronounced in Ames’s followers, as does the appeal to self-interest in laying hold of the covenant.

Conditionality is admitted into an otherwise predestinarian scheme by way of the distinction between chronometricals and horologicals—God’s time and ours. This distinction allows for the simultaneous understanding of God’s promise as absolute and conditional, and therein underwrites an emphasis on preparationism. Ames argues that justification is a twofold change, “relative and absolute.” In real terms, “the change, of course, has no degrees and is completed at one moment and in only one act.” This absolute change, however, is according to God’s reckoning. As Ames goes on to say, “yet in manifestation, consciousness, and effects, it has many degrees; therein lie justification and adoption.” This space between the relative and absolute allows preparationism to thrive, and with it the pragmatism closely associated with American religious expression. By focusing on relative change, men like Ames and Hooker could map the steps to the altar and enjoin their auditors to make their salvation sure. Their antinomian critics, however, would argue that even when deployed in the interests of a pastoral pragmatism, preaching the conditionality of faith invests doctrine with a legalistic aura.[2]

Much to consider. I will not try to unpack what I just quoted from Knight, I’ll let what she wrote stand on its own and allow it to impose itself on you one way or the other (this quote covers a whole little sub-section on her coverage of Ames and the conditionality and preparationism inherent to his style of federal theology).

In closing though, let me just put this out there in anticipation of the dismissiveness that comes with sharing critical things like this from Knight. Indeed, someone offered this response to my last post, and what I shared from Knight (this is very typical):

From a Calvinist perspective, I don’t recognize this critique at all. There seems to be a lack of familiarity with the Puritan and Reformed tradition if Sibbes is seen as an outlier. What about Rutherford? What about Goodwin? Andrew Gray? There are so many Puritan sermons and works which pointedly attack the love of Christ merely for his benefits and not his person.[3]

The respondent in the last post failed to appreciate the gravitas of Knight’s thesis; her thesis isn’t that Sibbes and those of his company were the “outliers,” no, just the opposite. Knight’s thesis is that Richard Sibbes offered an alternative emphasis and trajectory within the English house of Puritanism which was just as much, and even more so in England, the accepted or majority report among many of the more successful Puritan pastors and theologians. Knight addresses this respondent’s other concerns as well; but what is required is that he actually reads her argument in full. Will he; will others?

For further reading from ecclesial historians who also see the things that Knight does (and some of these are on the side that Knight is critiquing when it comes to their own theological moorings), to one degree or another let me suggest:

There are of course more resources, the primary literature itself; but these are helpful in getting a handle on Knight’s own claims. At the very least it should problematize the critic’s easy-dismissivism of Knight’s work.

 

[1] It’s funny that I feel compelled to make this caveat, but I feel I must since so many simply reject what they perceive might be informed by Barthian themes in regard to anything historical theological; particularly when it comes to Reformed theology. Believe it or not there are other critics of the turn to Muller historiography of things; in Knight’s case she is critiquing a thesis that Muller himself follows in Perry Miller’s reading of English Puritanism. He set the stage, just as Muller is nowadays, for how historians ought to read the Puritan age; she thinks he flattened things too much thus missing important movements within the period. Rather than simply being a complexity within a monolithic frame (think Muller’s own thesis in regard to the Post Reformation Reformed orthodox period), Knight sees English and thus American Puritanism as an amalgam of two distinct movements. She doesn’t downplay emphasis, instead she thinks this is definitive in the formation of the distinct movements of Puritans that she is engaging with.

[2] Janice Knight, Orthodoxies in Massachusetts: Rereading American Puritanism (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1994), 93-6.

[3] Unnamed respondent from a Facebook thread.

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My Status with Barth and A Ramble On Distinguishing Covenant Theology From Evangelical Calvinism: Theocentrism V Christocentrism

My Status With Karl Barth

In some ways I’m still in crisis mode in regard to Barth, personally. I don’t want this whole post to be about this, but I wanted to start off with a word as I continue to think about how it might still be possible for me to be Barthian. The reality is this: in the main I find a large percentage of what Barth teaches to be some of the most compelling teaching in regard to theological method (formal) and theological content (material) that I have ever been confronted with; this is not going away for me. I know for some this isn’t the struggle it is for me, but for me it is a struggle—we’ve already treaded these waters. I have come to the conclusion that I will have to accept the notion that Who Barth bears witness to is bigger than Barth himself, and bigger than any unconfessed immorality he lived within throughout his life-time with Charlotte von Kirschbaum. I remain deeply troubled by the whole ordeal, and so I experience some sort of dissonance as I engage with Barth’s theology; but like I said, I believe that despite Barth God was able to use Barth to point people beyond Barth and to the living Word of God, Jesus Christ and the Triune God. With this caveat in place let’s move on to the rest of this post.

A Ramble On Distinguishing Covenant Theology From Evangelical Calvinism: Theocentrism V Christocentrism

I am continuing to read Michael Allen’s newly released book Sanctification—I won’t be sharing any quotes from it here—and in it he is arguing, really, for the value of federal or covenantal theology as the best hermeneutic for engaging scripture. Further, he is seeking, in mood, to offer a recovery operation wherein he resources the categories offered by luminaries such as Thomas Aquinas, Post Reformed orthodox thinkers, John Owen, et al in order to furnish the 21st century evangelical and neo-reformed landscape with touchstone fixtures by which the Protestant church might better know Jesus through. The reason I bring this up here is because part of what is being retrieved is something that evangelical calvinists are seeking to ameliorate through recovering a different hermeneutic; a hermeneutic that thinks personalistically about how the church engages with God, as if in ongoing dialogue with him. Not through the metaphysics and geometry that funds what Allen is seeking to recover, but instead through understanding that our relation to God is immediately grounded in God’s choice to encounter us in an ongoing basis through the miracle of the Christ-event; the event of the ensarkos, the enfleshment of God in Christ, the assumption of humanity by God for us. And in this event, in the coming of God for us in Christ, the conditions for that coming created by the Holy Spirit, created in the hovering over the waters, over the womb of Mary, becomes the condition by which we come to know God; in and through the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ, the glory of God in the proposon of the Christ. In other words, what, in accord with folks like Barth, T Torrance, et al evangelical calvinists are interested in developing and pointing people to is that our relationship to God is based upon an ongoing non-analogous miracle. The miracle’s context is given performative reality by the Holy Spirit’s action of uniting the eternal Logos with the humanity of the Son (an/enhypostatic) in the singular person (singular personalis) of Jesus Christ. In further words, what the Holy Spirit accomplishes for the Son in the miracle of the Incarnation is what is accomplished from that first miracle of Incarnation in the lives of humanity simpliciter. What I’m referring to—admittedly I’m not being as forthright as I ought to be—has to do with what traditionally is called the ordo salutis (order of salvation). The entailments of the ordo, doctrinally, are bound up, traditionally, in the theology that someone like Allen is seeking to recover. Grace is typically understood as a created quality, or an abstract quantity that is attached, cumbersomely to the work of the Holy Spirit, by which the elect individual is not only regenerated but enabled by to cooperate with God through fulfilling their covenanted role in the salvific process. In other words, the only thing in this kind of ordo way of understanding salvation that serves as the framework for understanding it in a “personal” way between God and man is the introduction of the covenantal or “contractual” arrangement God has set up between himself and elect humanity in order to bring about salvation (and fulfill the Abrahamic covenant) for the nations. The mechanisms, within this covenantal scheme, that give it energy is not the mystical and personal relationship that coinheres between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; instead, it is a set of Aristotelian properties, quantities, and qualities synthesized with soteriological categories that covenant theology must appeal to in order to offer their theory of salvation.

Contrariwise, evangelical calvinists, at least this one, as noted earlier, seek to understand salvation directly from Jesus Christ; directly from the unio mystica of God’s Triune life in eternal relation. We understand that because we are up against an Ultimate, up against the ineffable God, that we are fully dependent upon what this God reveals about himself; and this implicates everything. This is why miracle is such an important loci for an evangelical calvinist; we are thinking salvation from Christology; we are thinking salvation from what T Torrance calls a novum, the novum of God’s life in Christ. Yes, there are many implications about reality that are given explication and elucidation from there; but in such a way that things remain untidy, and less coherent (by the standards of philosophical endeavor) than the human mind would like. There remains an element of trust, and vulnerability in how the evangelical calvinist theologian thinks salvation. This bothers people. It makes them think that we are engaging in sleight of hand, and magic thinking; but what is really going on is that we are allowing the rationality of our thought to be conditioned by the determination of the givenness of God’s life in Christ; we are allowing the categories and emphases we think through to come to us through God’s Self-exegesis in Christ (Jn 1.18). This doesn’t mean we don’t have to still interpret, but we are attempting to bear up under the pressure of the Revelation itself; we are attempting to allow that Revelation of God to dictate the terms of our interpretive process; allowing God to interpret us, by the Holy Spirit in the archetypical humanity of Christ, prior to us interpreting him; and living in the spiral of this dialogical relationship.

What this gives us, in part (because there are other parts to all of this), is an understanding of salvation that is at odds with the classical covenantal theology that Allen is recovering; it places us at loggerheads with the substance metaphysics that covenant theology appeals to in regard to developing the guts or mechanics of the various working parts of their federal schema. We end up with an emphasis, relative to salvation, that focuses on the agential and personal reality of the Holy Spirit working us into union with the miracle he accomplished, first, in the hypostatic unioning of the eternal Logos with humanity in the womb of Mary. George Hunsinger brings this into clarity as he details how miracle works in the soteriology of Karl Barth:

The work of the Holy Spirit, as Barth saw it, is miraculous in operation. Within the trinitarian and christocentric framework of his theology, this theme elaborates his point that the Spirit’s work is never “anthropological in ground.” The Holy Spirit is seen as the sole effective agent (solus actor efficiens) by which communion with God is made humanly possible. In their fallen condition (status corruptionis) human beings cannot recover a vital connection with God. Their minds are darkened, their wills enslaved, and the desires of their hearts are debased. Through the proclamation of the gospel, however, the impossible is made possible, but only in the form of an ongoing miracle. This miracle is the operation of the Holy Spirit, not only to initiate conversion (operatio initialis), but also to continue it throughout the believer’s life (operatio perpetua). The only condition (necessary and sufficient) for new life in communion with God is the Spirit’s miraculous operation in the human heart (operatio mirabilis). Faith in Christ, hope for the world, and consequent works of love have no other basis in nobis than this unceasing miracle of grace. Faith, hope, and love, in other words, do not depend on regenerated capacities, infused virtues, acquired habits, or strengthened dispositions in the soul. Those who are awakened to lifelong conversion by the Spirit never cease to be sinners in themselves. Yet despite their continuing sinfulness, the miracle of grace never ceases in their hearts.[1]

Do you see what I emboldened in the Hunsinger quote? This is what I’ve been referring to previously; these are the categories that Allen’s theology, in particular, and covenant theology, in general, operate with. They come, as I noted, from an Aristotelian complex of ideas integrated into the medieval church and taken over by Post Reformed orthodox theology; the theology that produced federal or covenant theology. You can see the distinction, I was noting previously, in the Hunsinger quote; the distinction between the impersonal and kind of abstract potentially theocentric theology offered by Allen&co. versus the christocentric concrete theology offered by evangelical calvinists following Barth, Torrance, et al.

Conclusion

The differences here are basic and fundamental. They have their sources not only in and from Barth, but evangelical calvinists appeal to the patristic theology of Irenaeus, Athanasius, and to later Orthodox theologians like Maximus the Confessor. The ontology of salvation for the evangelical calvinist is grounded in seeing the Trinity as determinative for the bases of what salvation entails and what may be said of it. The ground of salvation for the evangelical calvinist is personal, it is Jesus Christ as the mediator between God and humanity in his humanity; a humanity created by the Holy Spirit. We aren’t going to appeal to qualities, the habitus, or created grace when we refer to salvation; we will refer to Jesus Christ and the emphases that come with his coming for us.

Hopefully in my rambling you have come to see, once again, how us evangelical calvinists are different than what you typically will find in what people say counts as “Reformed theology.”

 

[1] George Hunsinger, Disruptive Grace: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2000), 162. [emphasis mine]

On a Christ Concentrated Theology: Its Historical Development from Calvin, to the Federal Theologians, to the Marrow Men, to Barth and Torrance

Evangelical Calvinism is really a bubbling over of a variety of impetuses from within the history of Reformed theology. We look to the Scottish theology of Thomas Torrance, and the antecedent theology he looks to in the theology of John Calvin and also in the Scottish Kirk from yesteryear. We of course also look to the Swiss theology of Karl Barth towards offering a way forward in constructive ways in regard to where some of the historical antecedents trail off (primarily because they didn’t have the necessary formal and material theological resources available to them to finally make the turn that needed to be made in regard to a doctrine of election and other things).

In an attempt to identify this kind of movement, that has led to where we currently stand as Evangelical Calvinists, let me share from Charles Bell’s doctoral work on the Scottish theology that Torrance himself looked to in his own development as an evangelical Calvinist. Bell has been doing genealogical work with reference to various Scottish theologians, and also with reference to John Calvin, in his book. We meet up with Bell just as he is summarizing the development he has done on what is called the Marrow theology. This was theology that was developed in the late 17th and early 18th centuries by a group of twelve men; they sought to offer critique of the legalistic strain they discerned in the mainstream of Federal or Covenantal theology of their day, and hoped to place a priority of grace over law (which they believed their colleagues, the Federal theologians, had inverted thus providing for a legal faith) in regard to the covenantal system of theology. What Bell highlights though, is that while they discerned and even felt the pastoral problems provided by Federal theology, they themselves still did not have the wherewithal to remove themselves from that system; and so they suffered from a serious tension and irresolvable conflict in regard to the correction they saw needing to be made, and the way to actually accomplish that correction. Bell writes:

Boston and Erskine can only be fully appreciated against the background of 17th century Federal theology and the Marrow controversy. The Black Act of 1720 threatened the very heart of Reformed teaching concerning the nature of God’s grace. See in this context, it becomes highly significant that Boston and Erskine contend for the universal offer of Christ in the gospel, for such an offer is necessary to provide a basis for assurance. Not only do the Marrow men’s contemporary Federalists deny this universal offer, but they also deny that a basis for the assurance of faith is necessary since, according to them, assurance is not of the essence of faith. In light of the legalism which pervaded the Scottish scene, it is highly significant that men, who were themselves Federalists, detected this legalism and contended against it for the unconditional freeness of God’s grace. This they did by rejecting the covenant of redemption and insisting that there is but one covenant of grace, made for us by God in Christ. It is, therefore, a unilateral covenant which is not dependant or conditional upon our acts of faith, repentance, or obedience.

The Marrow men adhered to such doctrine precisely because they believed them to be both biblical and Reformed truths. Yet, because these men were Federal theologians, they were never able finally to break free of the problems engendered by the Federal theology. The Federal doctrines of two covenants, double predestination, and limited atonement undermined much of their teaching. So, for instance, the concept of a covenant of works obliged them to the priority of law over grace, and to a division between the spheres of nature and redemption. The doctrine of limited atonement removed the possibility of a universal offer of Christ in the gospel, and also removed the basis for assurance of salvation. Ultimately such teaching undermines one’s doctrine of God, causing us to doubt his love and veracity as revealed in the person and work of Christ. The Marrow controversy brought these problems to a head, but unfortunately failed to settle them in a satisfactory and lasting way. However, the stage is now set for the appearance of McLeod Campbell, who, like the Marrow men, saw the problems created by Federal Calvinism, but was able to break free from the Federal system, and therefore, to deal more effectively with the problems.[1]

What I like about Bell’s assessment is his identification of a distinction in and among the Federal theologians themselves; the Marrow men represent how this distinction looked during this period of time. And yet as Bell details even these men were not able to finally overcome the restraints offered by the Federal system of theology; it wasn’t until John McLeod Campbell comes along in the 18th century where what the Marrow men were hoping to accomplish was inchoate[ly] accomplished by his work—but he paid a high price, he was considered a heretic by the standards of the mainstream Federal theologians (we’ll have to detail his theology later).

What I have come to realize is that while we can find promising streams, and even certain moods in the history, we will never be able to overcome the failings that such theologies (like the Federal system) offered because they were, in and of themselves, in self-referential ways, flawed. As much as I appreciate John Calvin’s theology I have to critique him along the same lines as Bell critiques the Marrow men here, even while being very appreciative for the nobility of their work given their historical situation and context. This is why, personally, I am so appreciative of Karl Barth (and Thomas Torrance); Barth recognized the real problem plaguing all of these past iterations of Reformed theology, it had to do with their doctrine of God qua election. It is something Barth notes with insight as he offers critique of Calvin, in regard to his double predestination and the problem of assurance that this poses (and this critique equally includes all subsequent developments of classical understanding of double predestination):

How can we have assurance in respect of our own election except by the Word of God? And how can even the Word of God give us assurance on this point if this Word, if this Jesus Christ, is not really the electing God, not the election itself, not our election, but only an elected means whereby the electing God—electing elsewhere and in some other way—executes that which he has decreed concerning those whom He has—elsewhere and in some other way—elected? The fact that Calvin in particular not only did not answer but did not even perceive this question is the decisive objection which we have to bring against his whole doctrine of predestination. The electing God of Calvin is a Deus nudus absconditus.[2]

This was the problem the Marrow men needed to address; it is the problem that McLeod Campbell attempted to address with the resources he had available to him; and yet, I conclude that it was only Barth who was finally successful in making the turn towards a radically Christ concentrated doctrine of double predestination and election. With Barth’s revolutionary move here he washed away all the sins of the past in regard to the problems presented by being slavishly tied to classical double predestination and the metaphysics that supported that rubric.

Concluding Thought

This is why I am so against what is going on in conservative evangelical theology today (again, think of the ubiquitous impact and work The Gospel Coalition is having at the church level). The attempt is being made to retrieve and repristinate the Reformed past as that developed in the 16th and 17th centuries in particular; and the retrieval isn’t even of the Marrow men, it is of the theology that the Marrow men, as Federal theologians themselves, understood had fatal problems in regard to a doctrine of God and everything else subsequent. My question is: Why in the world would anybody want to resurrect such a system of theology? There is no theological vitality there; it can only set people up to repeat the history of the past, in regard to the type of Christian spirituality it offered. Indeed, a spirituality that caused people to be overly introspective, and focused on their relationship with God in voluntarist (i.e. intellectualist) and law-like ways (because of the emphasis of law over grace precisely because of the covenant of works as the preamble and definitive framework for the covenant of grace/redemption). People might mean well, but as far as I am concerned they are more concerned with retrieving a romantic idea about a period of history in Protestant theological development—an idea that for some reason they have imbued with sacrosanct sentimentality—rather than being concerned with actual and material theological conclusions. For my money it does not matter what period of church history we retain our theological categories from; my concern is that we find theological grammars and categories that best reflect and bear witness to the Gospel reality itself. Federal theology does not do that!

 

[1] M. Charles Bell, Calvin and Scottish Theology: The Doctrine of Assurance (Edinburgh: The Handsel Press, 1985), 168.

[2] Karl Barth, CD II/2:111. For further development of this critique, with particular reference to John Calvin, see my personal chapter, “Assurance is of the Essence of Saving Faith: Calvin, Barth, Torrance, and the “Faith of Christ,” in Myk Habets and Bobby Grow eds., Evangelical Calvinism: Volume 2: Dogmatics&Devotion (Eugene: OR, Pickwick Publications, 2017), 30-57.

Athanasius and T.F. Torrance Contra Mundum, Against the World of classical Calvinist Forensic Conception of the Atonement

Here’s a post I originally wrote in 2011. It illustrates how evangelical Calvinists, following T.F. Torrance and Athanasius are at odds with classical Calvinist or Federal theology. In this post I use Michael Horton as the representative of the Covenantal/Forensic approach. The focus is on what has happened in the atonement, and, indeed, in salvation generally.

I often speak of T. F. Torrance’s view of the atonement as the ontological view, which is inextricably related, for Torrance to the Incarnation (which is why his most recent posthumously athanasiuspublished books Incarnation & Atonement came in the order that they did— there is a theo-logical and even, dare I say it, necessary relation between the two). Well I just wanted to quote Athanasius directly, so that folks won’t think that Torrance fabricated such things out of whole cloth. Here’s Athanasius discussing the apparent dilemma God has set before Him given the reality of the “Fall” (and the non-existence or non-being that it brought humanity separated from Him), and the fact that not just a “legal” kind of relation had been violated between God and man through the “Fall;” but in fact an actual corruption of man Himself and the loss of grace as an intricate aspect of man’s relation to God had occurred —man’s very “nature” and even “heart” had been broken to the point of death (non-being and separation from God). Athanasius is sketching the only way the only dénouement possible for God to remain consistent with Himself as the Creator of man in His image; he says:

Yet, true though this is, it is not the whole matter. As we have already noted, it was unthinkable that God, the Father of Truth, should go back upon His word regarding death in order to ensure our continued existence. He could not falsify Himself; what, then, was God to do? Was He to demand repentance from men for their transgression? You might say that that was worthy of God, and argue further that, as through the Transgression they became subject to corruption, so through repentance they might return to incorruption again. But repentance would not guard the Divine consistency, for, if death did not hold dominion over men, God would still remain untrue. Nor does repentance recall men from what is according to their nature; all that it does is to make them cease from sinning. Had it been a case of a trespass only, and not of a subsequent corruption, repentance would have been well enough; but when once transgression had begun men came under the power of the corruption proper to their nature and were bereft of the grace which belonged to them as creatures in the Image of God. No, repentance could not meet the case. What—or rather Who was it that was needed for such grace and such recall as we required? Who, save the Word of God Himself, Who also in the beginning had made all things out of nothing? His part it was, and His alone, both to bring again the corruptible to incorruption and to maintain for the Father His consistency of character with all. For He alone, being Word of the Father and above all, was in consequence both able to recreate all, and worthy to suffer on behalf of all and to be an ambassador for all with the Father.[1]

Rich stuff. Now if you’re into the “kind” of Covenantal/Reformed/Federal Theology that Michael Horton & co. articulates, then you might as well throw Athanasius’ insights, just quoted, in the burn pile. Here’s why. Horton style Covenant theology offers a “Juridically-Forensically” based view of the atonement—the kind that would actually fit into the “repentance-only” model that Athanasius says or NO to—that frames what takes place on the cross as a Divine transaction between the Son and the Father. The “Law” (eating of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil cf. Hos. 6.7) has been broken (Covenant of Works), and the Father-Son agree to a pact (Pactum Salutis or Covenant of Redemption) wherein the Son will become a man, die on the cross for particular people (elect), “pay” their penalty (or fee), and give them back to God (Covenant of Grace). On the face that might sound good, but let’s think with Athanasius. All that has occurred in the Hortonian view of salvation is essentially to deal with an “external” issue and payment (which is akin to Athanansius’ point on repentance). The fundamental problem with this approach, as Athanasius so keenly points out, is that the issue isn’t primarily an external issue wherein a legal repentance will do; the issue is an issue of nature. Man’s nature was thoroughly corrupted and even lost. The only remedy is for the image of the Father (the Son) to literally become humanity; penetrate into the depths of our sinful souls through His redemptive grace; take that corrupted nature/heart from the manger to the cross to the grave; and resurrect/recreate it into the image of the Father which can only be realized as we are vicarious participants in Christ. The issue is not primarily an issue of a broken “Law;” the issue is that we have broken “Hearts,” and only God’s grace in Christ in the Incarnation can reach down into those depths and recreate us in Him. Horton’s approach to salvation does not allow for such thinking. It doesn’t deal with the heart, and thus we are left in our sins non-being.

 

 

[1] Athanasius, On The Incarnation, §7, 32.

 

The Covenant of Works in Reformed Theology and an Alternative Covenantal Frame Provided by evangelical Calvinism

I have had a little interaction, recently, on Twitter, with Derek Rishmawy in regard to his affirmation of the Protestant Reformed Federal theology covenant of works. As such I am returning to this post I originally wrote up at least a couple of years ago, a post that offers a full explanation of the history and development of the covenant of works; and then offers an evangelical Calvinist alternative informed by none other than Karl Barth. This is also in response (but only in acknowledgement) to a forty page paper I read from David Gibson where he critiques the type of critique I offer up in my first paragraph following this one (which is informed by T.F. Torrance’s type of critique of Federal theology). Gibson argues that the three points I make in my following paragraph are weak and misunderstand Federal theology; his response isn’t directly to me, but to Torrance and Rolson in particular.

The Covenant of Works/Grace in classic Covenant Theology ultimately provides us with a God who 1) becomes shaped by Law as Grace, in relation to His creation (primarily the gem of His creation: humanity); 2) cannot efficaciously love His ‘elect’ people until the legal conditions of the Law are met; 3) and who ends up with a rupture in His subject (or person in the Son), as the Son’s jesuscreatorlife is shaped by the decrees in creation when He agrees (in the pactum salutis or Covenant of Redemption) to meet the conditions of the broken-Law by redeeming and purchasing the ‘elect’ humanity by incarnating (enfleshing), actively obeying (meriting), and dying on the cross.

I think these above stipulations and observations all represent theological problems that most Christians, by way of piety, would want to repudiate, because these observations about God in classic Covenant Theology do not actually end up cohering with the conception of God as love and grace that becomes so apparent in God’s first Word of original creation in Genesis 1, and His continuous exemplification of this in the manger of Christmas, and so forth.

Beyond trying to further engage with the inherent theological problems that I find plaguing classical Covenant Theology, for the rest of this expose, as it were, what I would like to do is attempt to substantiate my claims by simply quoting post Reformed orthodox scholar, par excellence, professor Richard Muller on what gives classical Covenant Theology its purported shape;  both in its etymology and synchronic historic development, and in its contemporary expression in our current situation. So, be prepared to read for about the next five to seven minutes or so, and then reflect upon what Muller articulates as the focal points of what constituted, and thus of what constitutes the particular and global realities of what makes classic Covenant Theology, classic Covenant Theology. [ps. The following is not for the faint of heart, take off your blog hat, and put on your paper reading hat, the following is made up of approx. 3600 words]

[G]iven these relationships between law and grace, the two covenants, and the problems of sin and salvation, it should not be surprising that a central issue addressed in the Reformed doctrine of the covenant of works was the issue of federal headship and, therefore, the parallels between the first and the second Adam, the federal heads of the covenants of works and of grace. It is at this point that the soteriological ground of the doctrine of the covenant of works is most clearly presented, particularly in terms of its relationship to the doctrine of Christ’s mediatorial headship and work of satisfaction.

mullerAdam, in the covenant of works, “stood as the head of mankind [caput totius generis humani],” in his person “representing” the entire human race. By the same token, as indicated by the Apostle in Romans 5:11-15, Christ as the antitype of Adam stands as the representative of humanity in the covenant of grace and the “surety” of fulfillment or substitute for mankind before the law of God, in effect, in fulfillment of the demands of the violated covenant of works. After all, the violation of the covenant of works abrogated the law as a covenant, not as the ultimate “rule of life.” It is both the permanence of the divine promise of fellowship and the stability of the divine law as the standard of holiness and righteousness and, therefore, as the basis for fellowship with the holy and righteous God, that relates the covenants to one another: “the law declares, that there is no admission for any to eternal life, but on the account of a perfect and absolutely complete righteousness; [and] also, that every sinner shall undergo the penalty of death, the dominion of which is eternal” unless the penalty of sin is paid and “the dominion of death … abolished.”

Drawing on the epistles to the Romans and the Galatians, Witsius argues the equivalency of the promises of the two covenants. Paul, he notes, “distinguishes the rightness of the law from the evangelical” while at the same time indicating that “life” is promised under both covenants. Concerning legal righteousness, Paul writes “that the man which doth these things shall live by them” (Rom. 10:5) and concerning evangelical righteousness, “the just shall live by faith” (Rom 1:17). Even so,

On both sides, the promise of life is the same, proposed in the very same words. For the apostle does not hint by the least expression, that one kind of life is promised by gospel, another by the law…. But the apostle places the whole difference, not in the thing promised by the law to the man that worketh, which he now receives by faith in Christ. But to what man thus working was it promised? to the sinner only? Was it not to man in his innocency? Was it not then when it might truly be said, If you continue to do well, you shall be the heir of that life upon that condition. Which could be said to none but to upright Adam. Was it not then, when the promise was actually made? For after the entrance of sin, there is not so much a promise, as a denunciation of wrath, and an intimation of a curse, proposing that as the condition for obtaining life, which is now impossible. I therefore conclude, that to Adam, in the covenant of works, was promised the same eternal life, to be obtained by the righteousness which is the law, of which believers are made partakers through Christ.

The identical point is made by Brakel with reference to the same texts.

Arguably, both theologians here manifest the central reason for the doctrine of a covenant of works and its fundamental relationship to the doctrines of justification by grace through faith and Christ’s satisfaction for sin: the issue is not to hammer home a legalistic view of life and salvation but precisely the opposite, while at the same time upholding the stability of divine law. There can be no salvation by works, but only by a means that excludes works—in short, through faith in Christ. Nonetheless, the law is not void. Indeed, the law remains the representation of divine goodness, holiness, and righteousness placed in the heart and mind of Adam even as he was created in the image of God. Given the fact of sin, such a law can no longer hold forth its original promise of fellowship with God, but it remains the condition of fellowship just as it remains the temporal indication of the goodness, holiness, and righteousness of God. The covenant of works takes on for the fallen Adam the function of the second or pedagogical use of the law—precisely the function of the Mosaic law understood as the legal covenant or covenant of works: “The Lord willed,” Brakel writes, that Adam “would now turn away from the broken covenant of works, and, being lost in himself, would put all hope in the seed of the woman, which was promised to him immediately thereafter.”

The covenant of works, then, was not violated and made void from the human side by the sin of Adam and Eve, rendering the promises of the covenant inaccessible to their posterity—but it was also, Witsius argues, abrogated from the divine side in the sense that God has clearly willed not to renew or recast the covenant of works for the sake of offering to fallen humanity a promise of life grounded in its own personal righteousness. In other words, God will not now, in the context of human sinfulness “prescribe a condition of obedience less perfect than that which he stipulated” in the original covenant of works. Nontheless, so far as the promise of eternal life is concerned, all of mankind remains subject to its “penal sanction”: thus, sin does not render void nor the divine abrogation of the covenant of works remove “the unchangeable truth” of God’s “immutable and indispensable justice.” Even so, Calvin had argued the “perpetual validity” of the law and had insisted that “the law has been divinely handed down to us to teach us perfect righteousness; there no other righteousness is taught than that which conforms to the requirements of God’s will.”

The divine abrogation of the covenant of works, then, does not abolish the promise of God or the condition of holiness and righteousness required for the fulfillment of the promise. And it is precisely because of this coordinate stability of promise and law that the covenant of grace becomes effective in Christ alone. When the Apostle Paul writes, “Do we then make void the law through faith? God forbid: yea, we establish the law,” he indicates both that “the covenant of grace does not abrogate, but supposes the abrogation of the covenant of works” and that

the covenant of grace is not [itself] the abolition, but rather the confirmation of the covenant of works, inasmuch as the Mediator has fulfilled all the conditions of that covenant, so that all believers may be justified and saved according to the covenant of works, to which satisfaction was made by the Mediator…. The very law of the covenant, which formerly gave up the human sinner to sin, when his condition is once changed by union with Christ the surety, does now, without any abolition, abrogation, or any other change whatever, absolve the man from the guilt and dominion of sin, and bestow on him that sanctification and glorification, which are gradually brought to perfection, which he shall obtain at the resurrection of the dead.

The stability of the law, guaranteed in the divine maintenance of the terms of the covenant of works, points not to a legalistic view of salvation but to the fullness of Christ’s work of sanctification and to the totally unmerited character of the salvation provided by grace through faith to believers. “Recognize,” writes Brakel, that “the Lord Jesus placed Himself under” the “same law Adam had … and thereby He merited redemption and adoption as children for the elect.”

The ultimate relationship of the covenant of works to the covenant of grace and, equally so, of Adam to Christ as the old and new federal heads of the humanity, is established and outlined by Witsius, Brakel, and virtually all of the major Reformed covenant theologians of the seventeenth century in their discussion of the “covenant of redemption” or pactum salutis between God the Father and God the Son. Here, also, as in the case of the covenant of works, we encounter a doctrinal construct, elicited according to the terms of the older Reformed hermeneutic, from the collation and exegetical analysis of a series of biblical passages. The doctrine itself probably originated with Cocceius, but its roots are most probably to be found in the earlier Reformed mediation on the trinitarian nature of the divine decrees. While not attempting to offer a discussion of the entire doctrine of the covenant of redemption, we can note here its function with respect to the two other covenants. In the first place, it is the eternal foundation of the covenant of grace, according to which Christ is established, in the depths of the Trinity, as the Redeemer, the new federal head of humanity, and the surety and sponsor of humanity in covenant: in short, the covenant of redemption is an “agreement between God and his elect. The covenant of grace thus also “presupposes” the covenant of redemption and “is founded upon it.”

In the second place, the covenant of redemption established the eternal remedy for the problem of sin and ensured the full manifestation and exercise of the divine righteousness and justice both in the covenant of works and beyond its abrogation. As Brakel comments, “The fact that God from eternity foreknew the fall, decreeing that He would permit it to occur, is not only confirmed by the doctrines of His omniscience and decrees, but also from the fact that God from eternity ordained a Redeemer for man, to deliver him from sin: the Lord Jesus Christ whom Peter calls the Lamb, “who was foreknown [voorgekend] before the foundation of the world. By the covenant of redemption, the Son binds himself to the work of salvation and, therefore, to the fulfillment of the condition of fellowship with God for the sake of God’s covenant people. Thus the promises, the conditions, and the penalties for failure to fulfill the conditions remain—but the conditions are met and the penalties satisfied in Christ. As eternally guaranteed by the covenant of redemption, “conditions are offered, to which eternal salvation is annexed; conditions not to be performed again by us, which might throw the mind into despondence; but by him, who would not part with his life, before he had truly said, “It is finished.”

After excoriating Thomas F. Torrance, Rolson, and Poole for naïvely deconstructing this kind (the above aforementioned by Muller) of classical Covenant theology through a ‘Barthian’ misunderstanding and caricature (of classical Covenant Theology, as described by Muller above); Muller concludes thusly:

[…] The purported legalism of the continuing covenant of works as presented in the demands of the law is nothing less than permanence of the original divine intention to ground the fellowship in the nature of God and in the imago Dei. Witsius and Brakel recognized in their debate with seventeenth-century Arminian and Socinian adversaries that as long as covenant refers to a relationship between God and human beings, law must belong to covenant as much as promise. They also understood—as we should perhaps recognize in the theological presuppositions of the contemporary critics of the doctrine—that the denial of the covenant of works, the attempt to deny the legal element of covenant in general (and, today, the attempt to pit the Reformers against their successors), represent not only an alternative view of the original relationship between God and human beings but also an alternative theory of Christ’s atonement and a theology that, at best, is less than traditionally Reformed.

The elements of the Reformed doctrine of the covenant of works that I have described here indicate the result of a process of doctrinal development in the Reformed tradition. As such, the language of the doctrine is certainly different from the language of the Reformers and even from that of earlier successors to the original Reformers such as Ursinus and Olevian or, indeed, in a slightly later time, William Perkins. Yet, the fundamental points of the doctrine, that the work of redemption must be understood both in terms of law and of grace, that human beings were created in and for fellowship with God under terms both of promise and of law, that Adam’s fall was a transgression of God’s law, that human inability after the Fall in no way removes the standard or the demands of the law, and that the gift of salvation through Christ’s satisfaction for sin both sets believers free from the law’s condemnation and upholds the laws demands, remain virtually identical. The free gift of grace in the one covenant respects the stability of law in the other, while the presence of law under different uses in both covenants echoes both the immutability of the divine nature and the constancy of the divine promises.[1]

Muller’s explication of the history, development, and contemporaneous reality of classical Covenant Theology is quite clear. As he develops this it becomes clear that for classical Covenant Theology, the touchstone for the subsequent redemptive-historical narrative development in the Old Testament, in particular, is Genesis 3; wherein ‘Law’ is elevated as locus classicus for interpreting God’s relation to tim-kellerhumanity in the imago Dei, and further, for exegeting how ‘Grace’ functions as an adjunct of ‘Law’ in the divine determination and decree.

Bringing this into application: In reference to my post on Timothy Keller’s book, Gospel Theology: Center Church, what bubbles up for me, and becomes pretty apparent (especially understanding the background of Keller’s theological education at Westminster Theological Seminary, where he also has taught as Adjunct Faculty), is that even if Keller is not a theological technician, such as Witsius & Brakel are in the history, or as Richard Muller, Carl Truemen, Scott Clark, et. al. are presently, he (Keller) is a practitioner, and I would suggest not a naïve one, as some would like to understandably suggest. Keller’s theology in general, and soteriology in particular, have an ‘informing theology’, as Walter Kaiser imbibes in another (and in his own biblical studies) context. And while Keller might not dot all of his “i’s” and cross all of his “t’s,” like Muller & co. do, he still has these “i’s” and “t’s” present and underwriting his practical theology (I think my post on him illustrates that to a “t”).

An alternative to all of the above, the alternative that we offer in our so called, Evangelical Calvinism, can be indicated by Karl Barth’s reification or recasting of Covenant Theology by starting the order of things not in Genesis 3, but in Genesis 1 as reinterpreted by John 1:1. The relation of God to His creation is ‘protologically’ grounded personally (not decretively) in His first and final Word of grace to be for us  barthglassesand with us (as the archetypal imago Dei & imago Christi in the original creation and apocalyptic re-creation) in and through His Self-determined (gracious) free choice to not be God without us, but only with us. Barth’s reordering of things, in this regard is captured well as he opines in (and more commonly as he applies this contour of thought throughout his theological oeuvre):

He [God] wills and posits the creature neither out of caprice nor necessity, but because He has loved it from eternity, because He wills to demonstrate His love for it, and because He wills, not to limit His glory by its existence and being, but to reveal and manifest it in His own co-existence with it. As the Creator He wills really to exist for His creature. That is why He gives it its own existence and being. That is also why there cannot follow from the creature’s own existence and being and immanent determination of its goal or purpose, or a claim to any right, meaning or dignity of existence and nature accruing to it except as a gift. That is why even the very existence and nature of the creature are the work of the grace of God.[2]

Barth sees the Covenant [of Grace], as do I, as the ‘internal basis for creation’ and ‘creation as the external basis of the covenant’[3]; Michael Allen writes:

[…] Faithful to his doctrine of election, he [Barth] considers creation within the bounds of his ‘Christological concentration’. The next paragraph (§41) considers the link between creation and covenant, noting that they are intertwined with ‘creation as the external basis of the covenant’ and ‘covenant as the internal basis for creation’….[4]

I will have to leave this kind of suggestive alternative for later (and simply refer you to other posts on my blog where I have engaged with the ‘alternative’ further, and to our edited book: Evangelical Calvinism: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church).

Conclusion

This paper (of sorts) has covered a lot of ground (about 3,500 words of ground). I started this “paper” out with a few points of theological critique in regard to classical Covenant Theology and its implications. I then turned to Richard Muller, and quoted him at length for the purposes of illustrating how I might have come to my conclusions which are based upon the kind of historic classical Covenant Theology that Muller & co. articulates, embraces and defends. I then turned this depiction of classical Covenant Theology towards the pastoral theology of Timothy Keller as he has articulated it in his book Gospel Theology; and I included, therein, that Keller, while not a technician of classical Covenant Theology, is in fact a practitioner of classical Covenant Theology in its most basic and thematic expression. After all of this, I offered an alternative to classical Covenant Theology by alerting the reader to Evangelical Calvinism’s ‘informing theology’ provided by Karl Barth (and I would add here, Thomas F. Torrance). And I have had to leave it here, because of space and time restraints.

My hope is that, at the least, even if you disagree with my conclusions and the way forward in regard to engaging with Covenant Theology, that you will at least arrive at the one conclusion; and that is that classical Covenant Theology (made up as it is of the covenant of works, grace, and redemption, respectively) elevates ‘Law’ as the touchstone—even if one wants to argue is couched in ‘Grace’—for how Covenant Theology believes that God relates to humanity, even in His ‘dearly beloved Son’. If Grace is contingent upon Law and Law is contingent upon Grace, then it becomes very hard to conceive of a way to disentangle them as distinct things or realities; indeed, Muller and the classical Reformed position does not want to do so. And so grace is really law, and law is really grace. And I must leave it here.


[1] [emboldening mine] Richard A. Muller, After Calvin: Studies in the Development of a Theological Tradition (Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 185-89.

[2] Karl Barth, CD III/1.95

[3] See R. Michael Allen, Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics: An Introduction and Reader (New York: T&T Clark International, 2012), 115 (nook edition, chapt. 8, first page).

[4] Ibid.

The Covenant of Works, The Covenant of Grace; What Are They? The evangelical Calvinists Respond

As evangelical Calvinists we stand within an alternative stream from classical Calvinism, or Federal/Covenantal theology; the type of Calvinism that stands as orthodoxy for Calvinists today in most parts of North America and the Western world in general. The blurb on the back of our book Evangelical Calvinism: Essays Resourcing the Continuing Reformation of the Church makes this distinction clear when it states:

In this exciting volume new and emerging voices join senior Reformed scholars in presenting a coherent and impassioned articulation of Calvinism for today’s world. Evangelical Calvinism represents a mood within current Reformed theology. The various contributors are in different ways articulating that mood, of which their very diversity is a significant element. In attempting to outline features of an Evangelical Calvinism a number of the contributors compare and contrast this approach with that of the Federal Calvinism that is currently dominant in North American Reformed theology, challenging the assumption that Federal Calvinism is the only possible expression of orthodox Reformed theology. This book does not, however, represent the arrival of a “new-Calvinism” or even a “neo-Calvinism,” if by those terms are meant a novel reading of the Reformed faith. An Evangelical Calvinism highlights a Calvinistic tradition that has developed particularly within Scotland, but is not unique to the Scots. The editors have picked up the baton passed on by John Calvin, Karl Barth, Thomas Torrance, and others, in order to offer the family of Reformed theologies a reinvigorated theological and spiritual ethos. This volume promises to set the agenda for Reformed-Calvinist discussion for some time to come.

A question rarely, if ever addressed online in the theological blogosphere, and other online social media outlets, is a description of what Covenant theology actually entails. Many, if acquainted at all with Reformed theology, have heard of the Covenant of Works, Covenant of Grace, and Covenant of Redemption (pactum salutis); but I’m not really sure how many of these same people actually understand what that framework entails—maybe they do, and just don’t talk about it much.

In an effort to highlight the lineaments of Federal theology I thought it might be instructive to hear how Lyle Bierma describes it in one of its seminal formulator’s theology, Caspar Olevianus. So we will hear from Bierma on Olevianus, and then we will offer a word of rejoinder to this theology from Thomas Torrance’s theology summarized for us by Paul Molnar; and then further, a word contra Federal theology from Karl Barth as described by Rinse Reeling Brouwer. Here is Bierma:

When did God make such a pledge? [Referring to the ‘Covenant of Grace’] We will be looking at this question in some detail in Chapter IV, but it should be mentioned here that for Olevianus this covenant of grace or gospel of forgiveness and life was proclaimed to the Old Testament fathers from the beginning; to Adam after the fall (“The seed of the woman shall crush [Satan’s] head”); to Abraham and his descendents (“In your seed shall all nations of the earth be blessed”); to the remnant of Israel in Jeremiah 31 (“I will put my laws in their minds . . . and will remember their sins no more”); and still to hearers of the Word today. To be sure, this oath or testament was not confirmed until the suffering and death of Christ. Christ was still the only way to Seligkeit, since it was only through His sacrifices that the blessing promised to Abraham could be applied to us and the forgiveness and renewal promised through Jeremiah made possible. Nevertheless, even before ratification it was still a covenant — a declaration of God’s will awaiting its final fulfillment.

In some contexts, however, Olevianus understands the covenant of grace in a broader sense than as God’s unilateral promise of reconciliation ratified in Jesus Christ. He employs some of the same terms as before — Bund, Gnadenbund, foedus, foedus gratiae, and foedus gratuitum — but this time to mean a bilateral commitment between God and believers. The covenant so understood is more than a promise of reconciliation; it is the  realization of that promise — reconciliation itself — through a mutual coming to terms. Not only does God bind Himself to us in a pledge that He will be our Father; we also bind ourselves to Him in a pledge of acceptance of His paternal beneficence. Not only does God promise that He will blot out all memory of our sins; we in turn promise that we will walk uprightly before Him. The covenant in this sense includes both God’s promissio and our repromissio.

This semantical shift from a unilateral to a bilateral promise is most clearly seen in two passages in Olevanius’s writings where he compares the covenant of grace to a human Bund. In Vester Grundt, as we have seen, he portrays the covenant strictly as a divine pledge. While we were yet sinners, God bound Himself to us with an oath and a promise that through His Son He would repair the broken relationship. It was expected, of course, that we accept the Son (whether promised or already sent) in faith, but Olevianus here does not treat this response as part of the covenant. The emphasis is on what God would do because of what we could not do.

In a similar passage in the Expositio, however, Olevianus not only identifies the covenant with reconciliation itself but describes it as a mutual agreement (mutuus assensus) between the estranged parties. Here God binds Himself not to us “who were yet sinners” but to us “who repent and believe,” to us who in turn are bound to Him in faith and worship. This “covenant of grace or union between God and us” is not established at just one point in history; it is ratified personally with each believer. Christ the Bridegroom enters into “covenant or fellowship” with the Church His Bride by the ministry of the Word and sacraments and through the Holy Spirit seals the promises of reconciliation in the hearts of the faithful. But this is also a covenant into which we enter, a “covenant of faith.” As full partners in the arrangement we become not merely God’s children but His Bundgesnossen, His confoederati.

When he discusses the covenant of grace in this broader sense, i.e., as a bilateral commitment between God and us, Olevianus does not hesitate t use the term conditio [conditional]. We see already in the establishment of the covenant with Abraham that the covenant of grace has not one but two parts: not merely God’s promissio [promise] to be the God of Abraham and his seed, but that promise on the condition (qua conditione) of Abraham’s (and our) repromissio [repromising] to walk before Him and be perfect. Simply put, God’s covenantal blessings are contingent upon our faith and obedience. It is to those who repent, believe, and are baptized that He reconciles Himself and binds Himself in covenant.[1]

What we see in Olevianus’s theology, according to Bierma, is a schema of salvation that is contingent upon the elect’s doing their part, as it were. In other words, what binds salvation together in the Federal scheme is not only the act of God, but the act of the elect; an act that is ensured to be acted upon by the absolute decree (absolutum decretum). The ground of salvation involves, then, God’s act and humanity’s response; the objective (or de jure) side is God’s, the subjective (or de facto) side is the elect’s—a quid pro quo framework for understanding salvation. What this inevitability leads to, especially when getting into issues of assurance of salvation, is for the elect to turn inward to themselves as the subjective side of salvation is contingent upon their ‘faith and obedience.’

Thomas F. Torrance, patron saint of evangelical Calvinists like me, rightly objects to this type of juridical and transactional and/or bilateral understanding of salvation. Paul Molnar, TF Torrance scholar par excellence, describes Torrance’s rejection of Federal theology this way and for these reasons:

Torrance’s objections to aspects of the “Westminster theology” should be seen together with his objection to “Federal Theology”. His main objection to Federal theology is to the ideas that Christ died only for the elect and not for the whole human race and that salvation is conditional on our observance of the law. The ultimate difficulty here that one could “trace the ultimate ground of belief back to eternal divine decrees behind the back of the Incarnation of God’s beloved Son, as in a federal concept of pre-destination, [and this] tended to foster a hidden Nestorian Torrance between the divine and human natures in the on Person of Jesus Christ, and thus even to provide ground for a dangerous form of Arian and Socinian heresy in which the atoning work of Christ regarded as an organ of God’s activity was separated from the intrinsic nature and character of God as Love” (Scottish Theology, p. 133). This then allowed people to read back into “God’s saving purpose” the idea that “in the end some people will not actually be saved”, thus limiting the scope of God’s grace (p. 134). And Torrance believed they reached their conclusions precisely because they allowed the law rather than the Gospel to shape their thinking about our covenant relations with God fulfilled in Christ’s atonement. Torrance noted that the framework of Westminster theology “derived from seventeenth-century federal theology formulated in sharp contrast to the highly rationalised conception of a sacramental universe of Roman theology, but combined with a similar way of thinking in terms of primary and secondary causes (reached through various stages of grace leading to union with Christ), which reversed the teaching of Calvin that it is through union with Christ first that we participate in all his benefits” (Scottish Theology, p. 128). This gave the Westminster Confession and Catechisms “a very legalistic and constitutional character in which theological statements were formalised at times with ‘almost frigidly logical definiton’” (pp. 128-9). Torrance’s main objection to the federal view of the covenant was that it allowed its theology to be dictated on grounds other than the grace of God attested in Scripture and was then allowed to dictate in a legalistic way God’s actions in his Word and Spirit, thus undermining ultimately the freedom of grace and the assurance of salvation that could only be had by seeing that our regenerated lives were hidden with Christ in God. Torrance thought of the Federal theologians as embracing a kind of “biblical nominalism” because “biblical sentences tend to be adduced out of their context and to be interpreted arbitrarily and singly in detachment from the spiritual ground and theological intention and content” (p. 129). Most importantly, they tended to give biblical statements, understood in this way, priority over “fundamental doctrines of the Gospel” with the result that “Westminster theology treats biblical statements as definitive propositions from which deductions are to be made, so that in their expression doctrines thus logically derived are given a categorical or canonical character” (p. 129). For Torrance, these statements should have been treated, as in theScots Confession, in an “open-structured” way, “pointing away from themselves to divine truth which by its nature cannot be contained in finite forms of speech and thought, although it may be mediated through them” (pp. 129-30). Among other things, Torrance believed that the Westminster approach led them to weaken the importance of the Doctrine of the Trinity because their concept of God fored without reference to who God is in revelation led them ultimately to a different God than the God of classical Nicene theology (p. 131). For Barth’s assessment of Federal theology, which is quite similar to Torrance’s in a number of ways, see CD IV/1, pp. 54-66.[2]

And here is how Brouwer describes Barth’s feeling on Federal theology, with particular reference to another founder of Federal theology, Johannes Cocceius. Brouwer writes of Barth:

Barth writes ‘For the rest you shall enjoy Heppe’ s Locus xiii only with caution. He has left too much room for the leaven of federal theology. It was not good, when the foedus naturae was also called a foedus operum’. In Barth’ s eyes, the notion of a relationship between God and Adam as two contractual partners in which man promises to fulfil the law and God promises him life eternal in return, is a Pelagian one that should not even be applied to the homo paradisiacus. Therefore,

one has to speak of the foedus naturae in such a way that one has nothing to be ashamed of when one speaks of the foedus gratiae later on, and, conversely, that one does not have to go to the historians of religion, but rather in such a way that one can say the same things in a more detailed and powerful way in the new context of the foedus gratiae, which is determined by the contrast between sin and grace. For there is re vera only one covenant, as there is only one God. The fact that Cocceius and his followers could not and would not say this is where we should not follow them – not in the older form, and even less in the modern form.

 In this way paragraph ends as it began: the demarcation of sound theology from federal theology in its Cocceian shape is as sharp as it was before. Nevertheless, the attentive reader will notice that the category of the covenant itself is ‘rescued’ for Barth’ s own dogmatic thinking.[3]

For Barth, as for Torrance, as for me, the problem with Federal theology is that it assumes upon various wills of God at work at various levels determined by the absolute decree. The primary theological problem with this, as the stuff we read from Torrance highlights, is that it ruptures the person and work of God in Christ from Christ; i.e. it sees Jesus, the eternal Logos, as merely an instrument, not necessarily related to the Father, who carries out the will of God on behalf of the elect in fulfilling the conditions of the covenant of works ratifying the covenant of grace. Yet, even in this establishment of the Federal framework, salvation is still not accomplished for the elect; it is contingent upon the faith and obedience of those who will receive salvation, which finally brings to completion the loop of salvation in the Federal schema.

These are serious issues, that require sober reflection; more so than we will be able to do in a little blog post. At the very least I am hopeful that what we have sketched from various angles will be sufficient to underscore what’s at stake in these types of depth theological issues, and how indeed theology, like Federal theology offers, can impact someone’s Christian spirituality if in fact said theology is grasped and internalized; i.e. it is understood beyond academic reflection, and understood existentially as it impacts the psychology and well being of human beings coram Deo.

 

[1] Lyle D. Bierma, German Calvinism in the Confessional Age: The Covenant Theology of Caspar Olevianus, 64-68.

[2] Paul D. Molnar, Thomas F. Torrance: Theologian of the Trinity,  181-2 fn. 165.

[3] Rinse H Reeling Brouwer, Karl Barth and Post-Reformation Orthodoxy (Farnham: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2015), 112-13.

The “Marriage Framework” versus the “Legal Framework” of Salvation in Post-Reformation Reformed Theology

This is a very old post that I am sure none of you have read. It was written in a time before I became “The Evangelical Calvinist,” and represents the influence I had on me coming out of seminary back in 2003. I still hold to this distinction, and believe it can be synthesized well with what we are doing with evangelical Calvinism. The period the theology in this post is resourced from is the Post-Reformation Reformed orthodox period. I am almost positive that most Reformed folks of today are unaware of the distinctions discussed in this post, and much of that lack of exposure has to do with the way the scholarship has run in Reformed theology. 

Is there a proper framework for salvation, or is it “just” salvation?

Federal Calvinism believes the answer to this question is an “affirmative!” They believe[d] that God (the divine *Law-giver*) provided framework to salvation through a bilateral contract, viz.
that God initiated a “Covenant” with man (“Covenant of Works”), and now man (if He is “elect”) must keep his end of the *deal* by “obeying” the “Law” (e.g. Mosaic) through a “Spirit-enablement” marriagereformedprovided by the incidental obedience of Christ (you know quid pro quo). If “elect man” keeps his end of the deal (and he will, since he’s elect — so goes the “story” [“Covenant of Grace”]), then based on the conditions originally set out by the “Law-giver,” he will (according to the divine “pact”) reap the “rewards” of said obedience consummating in “eternal felicity.” This is a “rough” overview of the “legal” (juridical) framing of salvation [in fact much of this is still in force, at a very popular level, through the preaching and teaching of folks like R. Scott Clark and the White Horse Inn]. So this is scenario, and framework #1.

There is another group though. This other group “grew up” concurrent with the group above (the Federal Calvinist), and they had a different answer — albeit an affirmative to my original question. Instead of saying “Your honor” (as the Federalist), they say “My lover,” let me explain. This group, lets call them the Marital Mystics, believed that the best framework for salvation is not primarily “legal,” but “marital.” They believed that the Apostle Paul’s framework, in Ephesians 5:18ff, of Marriage; was much more than a metaphor, but that this language spoke to a “real union” (an ontological reality) between Christ and His bride — so human marriage is only a “prefigurement” of the real thing between Christ and His Church. Instead of a “potential union,” as implied by the “legal guys” (i.e. if we meet our end of the deal [viz. obedience to the Law, good works], then God will ratify the deal and bring us into eventual union at the eschaton), the *Marital Mystics* believed that we have been sought after by the “lover of our souls;” and once He catches us, we are overcome with His winsome beauty and love (we become smitten with “love at first sight”). At this instance, we reciprocate His love for us (cf. Rom. 5:5) and respond with an “I do!” It is this framework that shapes our relationship to Jesus Christ (Song of Songs is a favorite book of the Bible for this group, and lets not forget the “bridal” language of John in Revelation, and other smadderings throughout the OT [Hos., etc.]), and it is this kind of relationship that crowds out the “responsibility” (cooperative) duty driven construction provided by the “Legal guys.” The “Marital guys” see a freedom for reciprocating love, a unilateral movement initiated by the bridegroom for His bride; which eventuates in whispers of sweet nothings towards the bridegroom, from His bride — there is not a sense of responsibility and duty shaping this relationship, but a continual and deepening love for the bride as He woos her with His beauty and charm. There is no fear of “not living up to the “Judge’s” expectations, in this arrangement, but a disposition of hopeful anticipation; as the bridegroom takes His bride into His Father’s house, and “covers” her with His “robes of righteousness” through penetrating and “mystical union” (unio mystica) [but real union] with Him. The focus in this arrangement is on Him — the Bridegroom — and His love and righteousness given as a “dowery” to His Bride, through the communion (communio) of the Spirit. And this is framework #2 (notice the trinitarian involvement in this model, this is meaningful vs. the “legal approach”).

I was first introduced to “framework #2” by my prof in seminary, Ron Frost. He did his PhD dissertation on a Puritan named Richard Sibbes, and Sibbes was a proponent of framework #2 (and so was John Calvin, Martin Luther, and Bernard of Clairvaux, amongst others); and his opining (Sibbes’) on this subject was intentionally contrairian to the “Legal guy’s” (typified by William Perkins, amongst others) approach — and rightly so. Here is how Frost summarizes Sibbes’ framing:

. . . It seems likely, then, that Sibbes’ doctrine of mystical marriage based on a Bernardian reading of the Song of Songs drew him away from the cooperative theology of his Perkinsonian training, back to a unilateral view of the covenant. He came to hold that the affections are crucial in the function of mystical marriage, and that mystical marriage is the ground of saving union. In his emphasis he was well aligned with the view of the early reformers who held that the marriage of Christ and the church represents a primary foundation for the theology of real union. [Ronald N. Frost, “Richard Sibbes’ Theology of Grace and the Division of English Reformed Theology” [Unpublished PhD Dissertation, King’s College University of London, 1996, 121.]

You may ask why is this important? And you may ask for a variety of reasons. I would just say, because understanding how we relate to Christ has everything to do with everything! If our conception is formed by the “legal accounting” then we are stressed with an relationship that comes off rather cold and calculated . . . not to mention an arrangement that causes us to be consumed with ourselves and our performance (“man-centered” — anthropocentric) — and approaching life in Christ this way could have dastardly consequences on our daily walk and spirituality (could lead to: angst, fear, depression, dark nights and seasons of the soul, anger, frustration, fatalism, hopelessness, etc., etc.). But beyond the “consequences,” scripture is replete with passages and concepts that present the “Marital Framework” as the most adequate framing, providing the greatest explanatory power for understanding a biblical approach to thinking about “salvation.” I’m an advocate for #2, how about you?

P. S. There are other implications (having to do with: salvation from the “inside-out” vs. “outside-in,” “assurance” [becomes an non-issue], sanctification, ethics, etc.), but we will have to wait and flesh those out later . . . or if you want in the comment meta on this post.

Karl Barth and Covenant Theology

Karl Barth engaged heavily with his perception of the Post-Reformation orthodox/scholastic theologians of the 17th century, primarily (early on anyway) as mediated through Heppe. Rinse H Reeling Brouwer in his recently released book Karl Barth cropped-barthderspiegel.jpgand Post-Reformation Orthodoxy provides very good insight into how Barth engaged with this period of theological development, and how he (Barth) constructively appropriated the grammar of orthodoxy in his always reforming kind of way. As follows Reeling Brouwer gives us his insight on how Barth engaged with the Federal theologians and their concept of covenant (foedus), and in addition Brouwer highlights what he thinks served as central components for how Barth indeed received the concept of covenant. Here is Reeling Brouwer:

In his encounter with the writings of federal theologians, especially in his work for the Göttingen Dogmatics, Barth felt that federal theology had exerted a regrettable influence on Reformed doIn gmatics by historicising revelation. At the same time he discovered the importance of the theological concept of the covenant itself and he apparently saw possibilities for this concept in his own dogmatic project. For him the main features of this concept are as follows:

  • The covenant is a one-sided initiative of God, a fully free arrangement on His part and purely an act of grace and mercy towards humanity; this becomes especially clear when, like Cocceius, one identifies the eternal decree of election with the pactum salutis as the presupposition of the covenant of grace in time;
  • The covenant is closely linked to revelation: the God who wants to be a God of this covenant speaks to His people, and man from his side can only be seen as a being addressed by his God;
  • The character of the covenant as a covenant of grace comes out most clearly when Christian preaching speaks of the divine grace for sinners. This does not, however, exclude the possibility of a modification of the one covenant, where man in the state of nature is seen as a being bound by his free choice for God from the beginning, nor does it exclude that the covenant has the character of a promise and an expectation, that it bears the eschatological mark of all Christian preaching;
  • The covenant is not only a promise, but also an obligation; it binds human beings not only as gospel, but also as law;
  • The concept of the covenant is corrupted when it is split into a duality of works and grace, justice and mercy; as such, it becomes dependent on influences that are alien to its properties.

In my view, Barth could profitably put the covenant concept to work in his own project, provided that it was defined in this way.

And now the thesis: Heinrich Heppe says: ‘from the beginning German- Reformed theology described the fundamental concept of revelation with the expression foedus Dei (also regnum Christi, koinonia cum Christo)’. Karl Barth indeed tried to use all these expressions as a ‘fundamental’ or, perhaps more accurately, ‘integrating’ concept for his theological project. He began with the concept of the regnum (in Safenwil), he – possibly for methodological reasons – drafted a theology of revelation (that is, of the Word of God) in his years in Germany and from the 1940s onwards he placed the (more material than formal?) concept of the covenant at the centre of his endeavour. In what follows, we will turn to this last phase.[1]

What do you think?

[1] Rinse H Reeling Brouwer, Karl Barth and Post-Reformation Orthodoxy (Farnham: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2015), 116-17.

Karl Barth and Thomas Torrance, Against Federal Theology Side by Side

Both Karl Barth and Thomas F. Torrance (Barth’s best English speaking student) were against Federal or classical Covenant theology, even though both of them took the concept of foedus or covenant and reified or recasted it in such a way that Christ truly became the center on both God’s side and man’s side (and they did other stuff with covenant too, like in Barth’s innovative way he barthglassesinverted the classical Federal order of things from 1) creation, 2) covenant to 1) covenant (as regulative in regard to God’s relation to creation), 2) creation.

In the following I am going to share on Barth from Rinse H Reeling Brouwer, and on Torrance from Paul Molnar; both detailing why Barth and Torrance had serious problems with classical Federal or Reformed theology (as it came to us in a Westminster shape). First we will hear from Reeling Brouwer on Barth:

Barth writes ‘For the rest you shall enjoy Heppe’ s Locus xiii only with caution. He has left too much room for the leaven of federal theology. It was not good, when the foedus naturae was also called a foedus operum’. In Barth’ s eyes, the notion of a relationship between God and Adam as two contractual partners in which man promises to fulfil the law and God promises him life eternal in return, is a Pelagian one that should not even be applied to the homo paradisiacus. Therefore,

one has to speak of the foedus naturae in such a way that one has nothing to be ashamed of when one speaks of the foedus gratiae later on, and, conversely, that one does not have to go to the historians of religion, but rather in such a way that one can say the same things in a more detailed and powerful way in the new context of the foedus gratiae, which is determined by the contrast between sin and grace. For there is re vera only one covenant, as there is only one God. The fact that Cocceius and his followers could not and would not say this is where we should not follow them – not in the older form, and even less in the modern form.

 In this way paragraph ends as it began: the demarcation of sound theology from federal theology in its Cocceian shape is as sharp as it was before. Nevertheless, the attentive reader will notice that the category of the covenant itself is ‘rescued’ for Barth’ s own dogmatic thinking.[1]

And Paul Molnar on T.F. Torrance (I have shared this before):

Torrance’s objections to aspects of the “Westminster theology” should be seen together with his objection to “Federal Theology”. His main objection to Federal theology is to the ideas that Christ died only for the elect and not for the whole human race and that salvation is conditional on our observance of the law. The ultimate difficulty here that one could “trace the ultimate ground of belief back to eternal divine decrees behind the back of the Incarnation of God’s beloved Son, as in a federal concept of pre-destination, [and this] tended to foster a hidden Nestorian torranceyoungdualism between the divine and human natures in the on Person of Jesus Christ, and thus even to provide ground for a dangerous form of Arian and Socinian heresy in which the atoning work of Christ regarded as an organ of God’s activity was separated from the intrinsic nature and character of God as Love” (Scottish Theology, p. 133). This then allowed people to read back into “God’s saving purpose” the idea that “in the end some people will not actually be saved”, thus limiting the scope of God’s grace (p. 134). And Torrance believed they reached their conclusions precisely because they allowed the law rather than the Gospel to shape their thinking about our covenant relations with God fulfilled in Christ’s atonement. Torrance noted that the framework of Westminster theology “derived from seventeenth-century federal theology formulated in sharp contrast to the highly rationalised conception of a sacramental universe of Roman theology, but combined with a similar way of thinking in terms of primary and secondary causes (reached through various stages of grace leading to union with Christ), which reversed the teaching of Calvin that it is through union with Christ first that we participate in all his benefits” (Scottish Theology, p. 128). This gave the Westminster Confession and Catechisms “a very legalistic and constitutional character in which theological statements were formalised at times with ‘almost frigidly logical definiton’” (pp. 128-9). Torrance’s main objection to the federal view of the covenant was that it allowed its theology to be dictated on grounds other than the grace of God attested in Scripture and was then allowed to dictate in a legalistic way God’s actions in his Word and Spirit, thus undermining ultimately the freedom of grace and the assurance of salvation that could only be had by seeing that our regenerated lives were hidden with Christ in God. Torrance thought of the Federal theologians as embracing a kind of “biblical nominalism” because “biblical sentences tend to be adduced out of their context and to be interpreted arbitrarily and singly in detachment from the spiritual ground and theological intention and content” (p. 129). Most importantly, they tended to give biblical statements, understood in this way, priority over “fundamental doctrines of the Gospel” with the result that “Westminster theology treats biblical statements as definitive propositions from which deductions are to be made, so that in their expression doctrines thus logically derived are given a categorical or canonical character” (p. 129). For Torrance, these statements should have been treated, as in theScots Confession, in an “open-structured” way, “pointing away from themselves to divine truth which by its nature cannot be contained in finite forms of speech and thought, although it may be mediated through them” (pp. 129-30). Among other things, Torrance believed that the Westminster approach led them to weaken the importance of the Doctrine of the Trinity because their concept of God fored without reference to who God is in revelation led them ultimately to a different God than the God of classical Nicene theology (p. 131). For Barth’s assessment of Federal theology, which is quite similar to Torrance’s in a number of ways, see CD IV/1, pp. 54-66.[2]

For those of you who are interested in this kind of stuff hopefully you find this helpful to have these insights together in one post.

[1] Rinse H Reeling Brouwer, Karl Barth and Post-Reformation Orthodoxy (Farnham: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2015), 112-13.

[2] Paul D. Molnar, Thomas F. Torrance: Theologian of the Trinity,  181-2 fn. 165.

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.