Adapted from Michael Allen and Scott R. Swain, ed., Christian Dogmatics: Reformed Theology for the Church Catholic (Baker Academic, 2016).
The doctrine of the covenant of redemption (also known as “the pactum salutis” and “the counsel of peace”) is a beautiful doctrine. It concerns the eternal purpose of the blessed Trinity to communicate the bliss of his triune life to elect sinners through the mediation of Jesus Christ for the glory of Jesus Christ. More fully stated:
The pact between the Father and the Son contains the will of the Father giving his Son as lytrōtēn (Redeemer and head of his mystical body) and the will of the Son offering himself as sponsor for his members to work out redemption (apolytrōsin). For thus the Scriptures represent to us the Father in the economy of salvation as stipulating the obedience of the Son even unto death, and for it promising in return a name above every name that he might be the head of the elect in glory; the Son as offering himself to do the Father’s will, promising a faithful and constant performance of the duty required of him and restipulating the kingdom and glory promised to him.
Thus Francis Turretin.
Once one of the central features of Reformed teaching about Christ and salvation, the doctrine of the pactum salutis no longer enjoys wide acceptance today, even among Reformed theologians. According to O. Palmer Robertson, “To speak concretely of an intertrinitarian ‘covenant’ with terms and conditions between Father and Son mutually endorsed before the foundation of the world is to extend the bounds of scriptural evidence beyond propriety.” The doctrine, in other words, lacks sufficient biblical warrant.
Coming from a slightly different angle, Karl Barth asks, “Can we really think of the first and second persons of the triune Godhead as two distinct subjects and therefore as two legal subjects who can have dealings and enter into obligations one with another?” Robert Letham’s response to this question is decisive and severe: “to describe the relations of the three persons in the Trinity as a covenant, or to affirm that there as a need for them to enter into covenantal–even contractual–arrangements is to open the door to heresy. The will of the Trinity is one; the works of the Trinity are indivisible. For all the good intentions of those who proposed it, the construal of the relations of the three persons of the Trinity in covenantal terms is a departure from classic Trinitarian orthodoxy.” The doctrine of the covenant of redemption, according to this criticism, entails tritheism and thereby compromises an orthodox trinitarian confession.
In coming days, I plan to post two excerpts from Christian Dogmatics that address these two criticisms. Is the covenant of redemption an unbiblical doctrine? Does the covenant of redemption compromise orthodox trinitarianism? As you might expect, my response will be negative on both counts.
This article first appeared on Reformation 21