Thursday, August 30, 2007

Trinity & Covenant Part V

Continued from Trinity & Covenant Part IV

Okay. Let's try to apply what I've been saying to the traditional Reformed formulations on the pactum salutis.

Understanding the relations between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as covenantal is not entirely new. Reformed theologians have typically affirmed that the inter-trinitarian relations are properly described as covenantal. Many Reformed theologians, since the 17th century, have spoken of an eternal “covenant of redemption” (pactum salutis), sometimes called the “counsel of peace” (consilium pacis from Zech. 6:13).

That there is a pre-temporal covenant between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit has long been the majority position in the Reformed theological circles. It was held and taught by the primary authors of the Heidelberg Catechism, Caspar Olevian (1536-87) and Zacharias Ursinus (1534-83), as well the Westminster Divines (WCF 8.1-2; WLC 31), and also by J. H. Heidegger (1633-98), G. Voetius (1589-1676), John Owen (1616-83), Francis Turretin (1623-87), P. van Mastricht (1630-1706), Charles Hodge (1797-1878), A. A. Hodge (1823-1886), R. L. Dabney, and later Louis Berkhof (1873-1957). Consider Dabneys comments in his Lectures in Systematic Theology:
If there is any gospel remedy for sin, then there must have been, from eternity, such a remedial plan in the Divine mind. But the question is, was this part of the eternal decree, in any proper sense a covenant? Has it properly the form of an eternal compact between persons of the Trinity? This is purely a question of revelation, to be decided not so much by finding the words, covenant, compact, agreement, applied to it in Scripture, as the substance of the thing asserted. Calvinists hold that in the one, eternal decree of the Trinity, which is one in essence and attributes, and harmonious in will and thought, this remedial purpose (or part of the plan) has from eternity held the form of a concert or agreement between the Father and Son, for the redemption of believers (p. 431).
Dabney correctly reminds us that the absence of the word “covenant” itself is not sufficient evidence to conclude the absence of a covenant. One must look for defining characteristics of the covenantal relations.

Nevertheless, this quotation reveals the central weakness, I believe, of the Reformed tradition on God’s eternal covenantal relations. God’s eternal covenant is too often conceived of solely as a “remedial plan in the Divine mind.” I want to argue that the eternal covenant is the very life and glory of God’s eternal inner-trinitarian relations.

The typical Reformed scholastic characterization of the eternal covenant is that it is some sort of agreement or compact between the Persons of the Godhead for the sake of accomplishing an external purpose—the redemption of the elect. For almost all of our theologians the covenant is a “remedial plan,” an arrangement to deal with a particular problem—man’s sin and God’s desire to save his elect. The covenant is the means by which the Persons of the Father and Son decreed to accomplish salvation for the elect.

The covenant, on this understanding, is something external to God’s being and life, something that came into being in view of the sin of the human creature. The Son entered into covenant with the Father in order to become our Federal Head. It is a means to an end, not an end in itself. The covenant is the means of bringing salvation to God’s elect.

But I believe that the eternal covenant is much more than this. When I speak of the inter-trinitiarian relations as covenantal and argue that these relations are the ground of God’s external covenantal relations with humanity, I am not simply saying that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit entered into some sort of pre-temporal pact with one another to save us. I am speaking of something richer than the contractual agreement that dominates older attempts to conceive of the eternal ground of God’s covenant. I am not arguing simply that the Persons of the Godhead came to some agreement about what each of them would do to save the elect, but that the form and manner in which Father, Son, and Holy Spirit eternally relate to one another is covenantal. That what we know and experience as God’s covenant with us is the Trinity’s astonishing and gratuitous act of opening up these family relations to embrace persons other than themselves. That creation itself is an act of covenantal inclusion.

To be continued

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