Everyone who reads the story of Jesus in the Gospels with an eye on the astonishing interaction between Jesus and the Father is faced with some difficult questions. I called attention to this in my previous post. But let me try to flesh this out some more.
What are we to make of Jesus' conversations with the Father? Who’s talking to whom? Who is listening to whom? What does their conversation and behavior toward one another tell us about the form of their relationship?
Were Jesus’ words and actions in relation to the Father human words and actions directed to God? Was a man talking to God the Father? Was a man giving and receiving from God the Father? Was Jesus’ obedience to the Father the performance of a duty that the human creature owes to its Creator and God? Was Jesus’ offering himself on the cross to the Father as a sacrifice, a self-offering of a man?
How shall we answer these questions about Jesus’ words and actions? A human conversation with God the Father? Yes. A human obedience to God the Father? Absolutely. The self-offering of man to God the Father on the cross? Surely. But is that all we can or should say? Have we fully adequately answered these questions when we identify Jesus’ words and actions as simply human speech and acts directed to God the Father? Is there more?
When Jesus speaks to and acts with reference to his Father was this an instance of God relating to God? Was God talking to God? Was God obeying God? Was God offering himself to God? God the Son to God the Father? May we speak of the sacrifice of God to God? The obedience of God to God? Can we talk meaningfully about God’s obedience or God’s sacrifice or are these categories limited to the relational acts performed by created humanity with reference to God? Human creatures can sacrifice to and obey one another. They can, of course, sacrifice to and obey God. Human creatures can also speak to God.
But can God sacrifice to and obey God? Is it possible that Jesus’ conversations with and obedience to his Father reveal something more than simply the human creature’s proper response to his Creator?
The answers we give to these questions will have vast implications for our theology, especially for our understanding of the nature and character of the covenant. That may not be immediately evident to everyone reading the first few paragraphs of this post. Questions like these may strike many readers as esoteric and speculative. Nevertheless, I hope to show that that answers we give to questions like these ought to govern how with think about God’s own covenantal life as well as our covenantal relations with the Triune God.
In order to unpack the significance of Jesus’ words and actions in relation to the Father we must move carefully through a series of theological affirmations which the Christian church has arrived at after careful reflection on the biblical record. Although it has been the Reformed church that has been most attuned to the central place of the covenant in God’s relations with man, nevertheless, I want to suggest that our tradition’s exposition of the character of the covenant has not always been securely grounded in orthodox Christology and Trinitarian theology.
This is not to say that traditional Reformed theologians have been unorthodox in their understanding of Christ and the Trinity, only that we have not always adequately constructed our theology of the covenant, especially the eternal covenant between the Persons of the Godhead, with these considerations in mind. Which is to say that the Reformed teaching on the covenant, especially the place of the inter-trinitarian covenant, sometimes called the pactum salutis or Covenant of Redemption, may profit from a careful reevaluation of the nature of the Son’s personal interaction with the Father as recorded in the Scriptures.
I hope to demonstrate that some of the traditional ways of characterizing the pactum salutis have not always adequately taken into account certain biblical and theological data concerning the interaction of Father, Son, and Spirit. Careful attention to this data will help to restore the importance of God’s covenantal life as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit for our understanding of creation, redemption, and the eschatological end of history.
Now, let's see if I can live up to that claim in the coming posts.