Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Herman Bavinck on the Covenant of Redemption

The idea that the Father entered into a 'covenant of redemption' with the Son in eternity is a staple of Reformed covenant theology. As typically expressed, the Father appointed the Son Mediator and Surety of the covenant of grace and promised him a glorious reward on completion of his redemptive work. This construction is found in the work of early covenant theologian, Johannes Cocceius, seventeenth century Orthodox Reformed divines, old Princeton theologians, Charles and A. A. Hodge, and more recently, Louis Berkhof. 

However, Robert Letham complains that as traditionally explained the 'covenant of redemption' is open to a number of criticisms. It seems to entail the eternal subordination of the Son to the Father, and as the pactum salutis (pact of salvation) is taken only to concern the Father and the Son, with little or no mention of the Holy Spirit, it is sub-trinitarian.  Indeed, in his The Work of Christ, (endnote 34, p. 254), Letham points out that in his Outlines of Theology, (p. 371-372), A. A. Hodge makes no reference at all to the Holy Spirit in his discussion of the covenant of redemption. Charles Hodge defends the notion of the Father entering into a pre-temporal pact with the Son by invoking the doctrine of the Trinity (Systematic Theology Volume 2, p. 359). But, once more, when it comes to the substance of the 'covenant of redemption', the doctrine is unfolded in terms of an arrangement between the Father and the Son. The Father is said to give the Holy Spirit to the Son to facilitate the work of redemption, but that is about as far as it goes. Louis Berkhof's treatment of the 'covenant of redemption' likewise pays scant attention to the role of the Holy Spirit, (Systematic Theology, p. 265-271). He defines the compact thus, the agreement between the Father, giving the Son as Head of the elect, and the Son, voluntarily taking the place of those whom the Father had given Him. (Italics original, p. 271). As Berkhof's definition makes no mention of the Holy Spirit, it clearly falls foul of the principle that both the internal and external acts of the Trinity are undivided. On this basis the 'covenant of redemption' in its traditionally stated form is highly problematic.

Now we come to Herman Bavinck. The Dutch dogmatician is critical of some aspects of the construction of the pactum salutis found in Orthodox Reformed divines such as Cocceious. But he nevertheless sees a clear biblical basis for the idea that in eternity the Father appointed the Son as Mediator (amongst other texts, he cites: Isaiah 42:1, John 6:38-40, 10:18, 1 Peter 1:20, Revelation 13:8). As he develops his teaching on the 'covenant of redemption', Bavinck is keen to set out the trinitarian character of the doctrine,
The pact of salvation makes known to us the relationships and life of the three persons in the Divine Being as a covenantal life, a life of consummate self-consciousness and freedom. Here, within the Divine Being, the covenant flourishes to the full.... The greatest freedom and the most perfect agreement coincide. The work of salvation is an undertaking of three persons in which all cooperate and each performs a special task... It is the triune God alone, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, who together conceive, determine, carry out and complete the entire work of salvation. (Reformed Dogmatics Volume 3, p. 214-215).
The pact of salvation between the persons of the Trinity in eternity is the foundation of the saving acts of the triune God in the history of redemption. 
All the grace that is extended to the creation after the fall comes to it from the Father, through the Son, in the Holy Spirit. The Son appeared immediately after the fall, as Mediator, as the second and final Adam who occupies the place of the first, restores what the latter corrupted and accomplishes what he failed to do. And the Holy Spirit immediately acted as the Paraclete, the one applying the salvation acquired by Christ. (RD. 3, p. 217). 
And so it is that under both Old and New Testament dispensations that the Father saves his people by the redeeming work of the Son, applied to them by the Holy Spirit. "There is one faith, one Mediator, one way of salvation, and one covenant of grace." (RD. 3, p. 217).  

Bavinck's treatment of the 'covenant of redemption' is thoroughly grounded in Scripture. He takes into account the trinitarian dimensions of the doctrine, relating the eternal pactum salutis between Father, Son and Holy Spirit to the historical fulfilment of the work of redemption. John Murray is not altogether happy in speaking of pre-temporal 'covenant' between the persons of the Trinity, preferring the designation 'inter-trinitarian economy of salvation.' (Collected Writings of John Murray, Volume 2, p. 130). But, as his suggested rewording implies, he is in full agreement with Bavinck's trinitarian emphasis, 
The title ['inter-trinitarian economy of salvation'] is inclusive enough to comprise all aspects of the economy, eternal and temporal, pre-temporal design and fulfilment in time and in the ages to come... After all, our study of the plan of salvation will not produce abiding fruit unless the plan captivates our devotion to the triune God in the particularity of the grace which each person bestows in the economy of redemption, and in the particularity of the relationship constituted by the amazing grace of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The fellowship of the living God is the fellowship of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. (CW. 2, p. 131). 
As set out by Bavinck and Murray (despite the latter's reservations concerning the use of covenant language when it comes to the pactum salutis), the 'covenant of redemption' demands a place in biblically faithful Reformed theology. In eternity and time salvation is of the Father, by the Son and through the Holy Spirit. 


Leslie Wolf said...

I am not sure that there is any biblical support whatsoever for the claim that there are any intra-Trinity covenants; and, in fact, I think that the claim may be deeply unbiblical. At the very least, I think that we would need to be clear about exactly what kind of "covenant" may be operative among the members of the Trinity, as the Bible (like ANE culture generaly) recognized different kinds of covenants, but I doubt that the Bible itself will furnish us with enough evidence to go on. I suspect that this is yet another area where the Reformed tradition raced ahead of Scripture.

A quick note - not every act of obedience, compliance, or agreement implies the existence of a covenant. In fact, very few do. Does God covenant with Gabriel when He sent him to announce Mary's pregnancy to her? The notion seems absurd to me, and I certainly don't think that there is any biblical warrant for it. And, while the nature of Jesus's obedience differs greatly from Gabriel's, I don't see any more biblical evidence for the existence of a covenant with God in the case of Jesus than in the case of Gabriel. The biblical passages cited by Bavinck and others seem incredibly weak to me.

I think that we should take Calvin's advice and be very reluctant to impose schemes on the Bible that cannot be clearly found there. In particular, we should be very careful about taking ideas and themes from one part of Scripture and reading them into other areas where they cannot clearly be found. Just my two cents.

Guy Davies said...

Would you be more comfortable with John Murray's concept of an 'inter-trinitarian economy of salvation' that preserves the substance of the 'covenant of redemption' envisaged by Bavinck, but shorn of the covenantal language?

Leslie Wolf said...

Absolutely. Without question. I would accept Murray's concept shorn of the covenantal language.

I hope that my previous post didn't seem overly critical. And I want to be clear - I wouldn't go so far as to say that there definitely aren't intra-Trinity covenants in Scripture. And, someone may well convince me that there are such covenants, or at least one. My concern is simply that the biblical support for such a view seems weak to me, at least at present, though I may be wrong about that.

More generally, I am concerned that Reformed theologians sometimes overapply the notion of covenant in the Bible, finding it in passages where it may not actually be present. In itself, I don't think that there is anything particularly dangerous about this. I just want to caution others that we should be wary of the temptation to impose more order and structure on Scripture than Scripture itself clearly permits. I think that Calvin shared this concern, and this is one of the things that I love about his exegesis - i.e., his concern always to let Scripture speak for itself. It isn't wrong to apply logic to Scripture, and to make deductions on the basis of Scripture, but we need to be very careful about extrapolating schemes from parts of Scripture and imposing them on the rest.

I am sorry if I misunderstood your post in any way. It was definitely very interesting, and it has made me even more curious to read Bavinck. I have heard very good things about him.

Guy Davies said...

I don't mind criticism. If what I said has encouraged you to read Bavinck's RD, then I'm a happy man.

Leslie Wolf said...

You're a good man. Though when I think about how long RD is, and how much it costs, I'm not sure that you have done me any favors. Hah!

Leslie Wolf said...

By the way, would you recommend any contemporary Reformed theologians other than Bavinck? I would like to read many of the early Reformed theologians, like Vermigli and Beza, but my Latin has long rusted beyond recovery, and much of the Reformed literature from that period doesn't seem to be readily available in English. I think that a wealthy Christian or Christian society needs to fund some new translations. In the meantime, I would appreciate any recommendations of contemporary Reformed authors. Other than Kuyper. I know about him. Thanks.

Guy Davies said...

John Frame, Sinclair Ferguson, Donald Macleod, Robert Letham, Richard Gaffin, Kevin Vanhoozer.

Leslie Wolf said...

Thanks for the references. I have heard Sinclair and Vanhoozer speak. They were both pretty good.

Vincent Harris said...

I'm not so sure the idea that the Father entered into a 'covenant of redemption' with the Son in eternity is representative of all neocalvinist theological writings. Klaas Schilder, during the thirties, made "the covenant" a central theme of his theology. First chapter of his commentary of the Heidelberger Catechism gives us some idea of what he means. As J.J.C Dee writes in an introduction to one of Schilder's sermons: "Schilders understanding of the covenant is characterized by a strong emphasis on Gods work in history. This differentiates him from Kuyperian reformed scholastic and the Barthian dialectic theology where the teachings of the covenant are strongly connected to predestination so strongly, that it should be considered to have been erected in eternity. Schilder distinguishes sharply between covenant and election. He emphasizes, that the covenant has been erected in time as a historical reality. While Schilder is the theologian of the unity of history and for him there is only one covenant between God and man which moves through several historical phases. Unity between "work covenant" and "grace covenant" and between old and new covenant is preserved,..."

By the way, there is a copy in dutch of Reformed Dogmatics of Herman Bavinck online.

Leslie Wolf said...

Thanks Vincent. It seems to me that the question largely turns on what one means by "covenant". It seems to me that the Old Testament contains two types of covenant - the obligatory covenant, which imposes obligations (and sanctions), and which was exemplified by the Sinaitic covenant; and, the promissory or royal covenant, in which a gift is given without imposing obligations, and was exemplified by the Abrahamic covenant and perhaps also the covenants with David and Phinehas. It doesn't seem to me that the so-called covenant of redemption falls under either category. If this is right, then we need to ask (1) what Biblical support there is for the claim that there is such a covenant and (2) what it could possibly mean to say that there is such a covenant - in particular, what kind of covenant would this be? Here we should remember that the term 'covenant' is stronger than 'relationship', 'consensus', etc. If two people work together for a common purpose, that doesn't mean that they have entered a covenant in any real sense. If the term 'covenant' isn't to be deprived of all content, something needs to be said here.

Vincent Harris said...

All these examples from the old testament (which you quote) contribute to the meaning of the word covenant is my understanding. Olevianus' book "solid ground" (and some of his commentaries on letters of Paul) on the 12 articles zooms in on the notion of the "covenant".

He asks for example, why our salvation or reconciliation with god is represented in the form of a covenant, or more precisely as a covenant of grace(redemption). "Apparently he understands the teaching of the covenant as a teaching of the whole of soteriologie. The covenant appears to not be an appendix, and it's noteworty that this doesn't even have to be mentioned‘expressis verbis’"(Klaas Schilder, college verbond in gereformeerde symbolen).

The purpose of this covenant of redemption as Olevianus understands it is to create a feeling of safety. As with covenants between humans the covenant serves to create peace. "God made a covenant with man so that he might find peace and tranquility" is a phrase he writes. The covenant of redemptions creates certainty.

Olevianus writes that Christ is the mediator of an eternal covenant: In order for the foundation of the covenant of redemption or the union between God and us to be solid and unshakable, God has wanted, that the two natures of Christ would be united in a particular way, namely through a personal union"

Schilder writes on this: "Eternal union of the two natures is proof of eternal redemption".

I have now come halfway my thoughts concerning the possibility of using the word covenant to describe the "covenant of redemption". The question concerning the existence of a intra-trinitarial covenant is what I still don't grasp. I think Schilder did write something on it, once I graps his position I will let you know.