Better late than never: The Covenant of Redemption and the Trinity Debates (Matthew Barrett)
Thus far in the online civil war over the Trinity I have been a fly on the wall. Yet curious students at Oak Hill Theological College have been pressing me as to my take on the debates, as well as my own view. So perhaps it is time I added a small voice to the loud party noise, though I admit I am way late to the party (does that make me a party crasher?… not sure).
Since so much has already been said, I don’t want to merely regurgitate the debates or just shout out “I’m Nicene” louder and louder. That’s been done. Instead, I would like to come at the debate from a specific angle: the pactum salutis, also referred to as the covenant of redemption. In all the uproar, I have not heard much discussion of the covenant of redemption in eternity (though I am starting to see some). This is embarrassing, frankly. It only proves what I already suspected: the pactum salutis is too often neglected as a Trinitarian doctrine.
But before I get into issues of obedience and submission, let me very clearly lay out some presuppositional, trinitarian cards on the table. I very much affirm and teach (1) eternal generation, (2) one divine will in the triune God, and (3) two wills in Christ incarnate (dyothelitism). However, affirming these three doesn’t automatically put me in a “camp.” So hold off your assumptions. Those who have read the Ware/Starke book (and Fred Sanders’ review of it) will recognize that just as there is diversity among those who reject eternal submission, so too is there diversity among those who affirm eternal submission in the Trinity (something carelessly overlooked by the initial responses). This means, then, that some affirm all three of the above points but still see some place for “obedience” or “submission” (some prefer different words) in the Trinity in eternity. In other words, there is a spectrum.
About this spectrum, it’s obvious by now that there are two polar opposites of the spectrum: (1) Those who reject eternal generation, one will in the Trinity, and two wills in Christ and by consequence go the route of a (soft?) social trinitarianism, and, on the other end of the spectrum, those who (2) affirm the three previous beliefs but see absolutely no place for the obedience and submission of the Son to the Father in eternity. I do not align with either polar opposite and my reasons have to do, at least in part, with the pactum salutis. At the risk of “goldilocks theology,” I humbly find myself somewhere in the middle.
Clearing the smoke
Along with Michael Horton, Mike Allen, Ryan McGraw, and Joel Beeke, I recently I wrote an endorsement for an excellent book by J. V. Fesko: The Trinity and the Covenant of Redemption (Mentor, 2016), which has just released (talk about good timing!). In that book John thoroughly demonstrates just how biblical the covenant of redemption is (see Zech. 6:13; Pss. 2:7; 110; Eph. 1; 2 Tim. 1:9-10; etc.). For those of you unsure what the covenant of redemption is, Richard Muller defines it as the “pretemporal, intratrinitarian agreement of the Father and the Son concerning the covenant of grace and its ratification in and through the work of the Son incarnate. The Son covenants with the Father, in the unity of the Godhead, to be the temporal sponsor of the Father’s testamentum (q.v.) in and through the work of the Mediator. In that work, the Son fulfils his sponsio (q.v.) or fideiussio (q.v.), i.e., his guarantee of payment of the debt of sin in ratification of the Father’s testamentum.” J. V. Fesko offers a similar definition: “The pactum salutis …is the eternal intra-trinitarian covenant to appoint the Son as covenant surety of the elect and to redeem them in the temporal execution of the covenant of grace.”
With those definitions in mind, here is what I want to get at: I think that those who reject any and all forms of obedience in the Godhead in eternity overreact (understandably to the social trinitarianism they see). I agree with them in their affirmation of eternal generation, one divine will in the Trinity, dyothelitism Christology; however, to go to the other extreme and say that there is absolutely no place for obedience in eternity is a problem precisely because it ignores the biblical reality of the covenant of redemption. (More on this in a minute.)
But things get more complicated still. Others deny eternal submission and obedience in the Godhead and still want to affirm the covenant of redemption. They do so by arguing that, yes, there is a covenant of redemption but this covenant is only related to the economic Trinity and the Trinity ad extra. This move, they believe, allows them to still affirm the covenant of redemption while rejecting the belief that there is any relational submission between the persons ad intra. To their credit, they are rightly trying to protect the priority of eternal generation, defining the relations of the Trinity according to generation and procession (and amen to that). And I agree, at least with grounding the Trinity in eternal generation, because, as Fred Sanders has pointed out in his first 9 theses, this is the proper biblical and theological starting point. It grounds everything that follows, including the missions that result. The sending of the Son, for example, is not irrelevant to the eternal generation of the Son.
That said, there are potential problems with those who say the economic and ad extra has no relation to the immanent and the life of the Trinity ad intra. For starters, this move divorces and severs the immanent from the economic, the ad intra from the ad extra. Secondly, and related, it raises the question as to how we can know anything at all about the immanent, at least if we say that the economic actions reveal nothing and have no implications for the relations of the immanent (see Swain’s lecture critiquing Warfield on this point). It is hard to see how this doesn’t lead to agnosticism regarding the immanent. Nor does this view pay heed to biblical language (see everywhere in John’s Gospel) that does connect the dots from the economic back to the immanent. So this move would do untold harm to how we understand divine revelation and the Trinity.
Now, we have to be very (and I mean very!) careful at this point precisely because there is a danger in going the other direction too. If we say that the economic and the ad extra does resemble the immanent and the ad intra, we run the risk of adopting the worse sense of Rahner’s rule: the economic is the immanent. J. V. Fesko warns of this danger. Karl Barth believed the origin of Christ’s obedience was found in the divine essence itself. Fesko warns that Barth fell prey to the same weakness as Rahner’s rule, namely, “it runs the risk of placing economic categories within ontological processions,” making the incarnation “part of His ontological procession”. As a result, Christology swallows the Trinity, and “Christ’s mission ends up defining the Trinity rather than revealing it.” That last sentence is key. While we might allow the economic to reveal something about the immanent, it shouldn’t exhaustively define it. Finally, Barth’s view dangerously makes Christ’s decision to accept the pactum necessary rather than voluntary since it is “simply the necessary outworking of His procession.” Fesko offers a better solution: “the Son proceeds eternally from the Father, which means He eternally shares in the Trinitarian will to redeem fallen humanity, but more specifically voluntarily pledges His obedience to the Father’s covenantal command to be sent into the far country.” As we’ll see, that word “obedience” is quite important.
So to summarize thus far: pushed to their extremes, both roads have problems. If we say the economic and ad extra says nothing about the immanent and ad intra, then we risk dividing the works of the Trinity from the identity of the Trinity, succumbing to some form of agnosticism. On the other hand, if we press the economic and ad extra into the immanent and ad intra too far then we risk equating the two, making the Son’s redemption inherently necessary rather than voluntary, potentially creating three wills in God.
Oh, no! Not the “O” word: obedience
So what is the way forward? Again, sorry to appeal to goldilocks, but I think the answer is not being either too hot or too cold. First, those who say there is absolutely no obedience of the Son to the Father in eternity are just plain wrong. Given the biblical witness to the covenant of redemption, there certainly is an obedience of the Son to the Father in eternity. It will not work to say that the Son merely “agrees” or “accepts” the responsibility of being the redeemer, as if these terms somehow exclude any form of submission/obedience. To do so is to empty these terms of their meaning. How does the Son agree/accept the Father’s plan of redemption (and appointment), especially when it involves dying on a cross (!), without there being at some level an act of “obedience”? Given what the Father is asking the Son to do, and given that it is the Father doing the asking (again, see Fesko here), surely any agreement to the pactum involves obedience to the pactum’s requirements, and by consequence, therefore, to the Father’s plan. Jesus seems to assume this much in his incarnation when he constantly returns to the fact that he does what the Father tells him and, presumably, accomplished what the Father has planned. In other words, let’s be careful not to cut the incarnate obedience of the Son off from the covenant of redemption in eternity. The two are related to one another, one giving birth to the other.
J. V. Fesko is once again helpful. He couples “obedience” language to the biblical language of “love”: “the love of the immanent Trinity becomes manifest in the covenantal economic missions of both the Son and Spirit; namely, the Son’s obedience and the outpouring of the Spirit. …The categories of covenant, love, and obedience find their origins in the pactum salutis in the Father’s command, the Son’s obedience, and the outpouring of the Spirit to redeem fallen sinners. Far from a cold piece of business, moving numbers from one side of the ledger to the other, the Father sends the Son in love, and the Son obeys the Father in love, and the Spirit applies the Son’s work in love” (emphasis added).
So we must say there is obedience in eternity, and this obedience is inseparably related to the love between the persons. The only question is whether this obedience is restricted to the economic (read covenant of redemption) or whether it reflects on the identity of each person ad intra. That is a hard question. But to be extra clear: either way you answer that question, you have at the very minimum conceded that there is obedience in eternity (that is, via the pactum salutis). It’s now just a matter of whether you want to restrict this obedience to the covenant of redemption or whether that obedience actually does reflect, in some way, the inherit relations between the persons ad intra.
To be perfectly honest, I am still chewing on the answer to that final statement. I have no doubt, due to the covenant of redemption, that there is obedience in eternity. I think this is essential to the covenant of redemption itself. But whether that ad extra covenant of redemption reflects the ad intra relations—well, that is harder to answer. Yet, I think there are good reasons for answering a very nuanced “yes.” I fear if we don’t then we run the risk of saying the economic does not reflect the immanent whatsoever. Moreover, we cannot forget that the covenant of redemption is an eternal covenant, so it is hard to see how the economic cannot but reflect the immanent to some degree. These are not two trinities, as if one exists ad extra and the other ad intra. So while it helps to distinguish between ad intra and ad extra, and while we should be on guard against equating the two, nevertheless, it is hard to see how the covenant of redemption in eternity does not in some way reflect the internal life (ad intra) of the Trinity (also in eternity). That said, it is key to stress that such obedience via the pactum salutis is a matter of God’s free decision (which terminates outside of God), in order to highlight the contingency of the incarnation as well as the full equality of the Son.
Fred Sanders, though not in favor of “submission” language, seems to say something similar: “There is, in the relations of origin of the triune God, an irreversible taxis to which the obedience of the incarnate Christ corresponds in human form. It’s an eternal procession that reaches its strangely logical final conclusion in the sending of the Son. As for his submission to the Father, don’t know what they call it in the happy land of the Trinity, but when it lives among us it is rightly named obedience.” Well said, Fred, well said. In that light, Fesko may be on to something when he writes: “The triune missions reveal their eternal processions and in particular, their covenant-making, world-projecting, work of salvation.”
An objection: What about the one will?
Before I conclude, there is one significant objection for any who would say the covenant of redemption involves “obedience” in eternity: how can this avoid multiple wills in God? At the start of this post I affirmed one will in God, so you can see why this objection is heavy. Heavy, but not impossible to answer.
For starters, it should be acknowledged that this objection is one reason why those who affirm a covenant of redemption but despise eternal submission views, choose to use language like “accept” or “agree” to speak of the Son’s response to the Father’s pactum. They fear that if the Son “obeys” the Father then there must be multiple wills in God. But as I said earlier, I really doubt this slight shift in language gets one “off the hook,” or that those raising the objection find this language adequate or convincing.
Additionally, even if you avoid “obedience” language and triumphantly conclude that you have preserved one will in the Trinity, you really haven’t addressed the heart of the objection. Even if you say the Son doesn’t “obey” the Father in the pactum, but only “assents,” “agrees,” “accepts” (whatever word you want to use instead), one still hasn’t explained how there can be legitimate, even distinct, actions of one person toward another. For example, how does love function within the Godhead in eternity? Surely the distinct persons must act toward one another. This is one reason why eternal generation (as incredibly important as it is), shouldn’t be waved around in people’s faces as if it explains everything in the Trinity in eternity. Yes, it is our starting point and our base of operation (no pun intended), but more must be said as to how the persons actually love one another, for example, as distinct persons in relation to one another (see Swain’s book on Robert Jenson).
So we are left with the dilemma (challenge?): how to make sense of the Trinity having one will yet the Son simultaneously choosing, voluntarily, to obey his Father’s pactum. Here is my (work in progress) answer: Is there language that explains how the undivided, one will of the Trinity can make room for and make sense of personal agents who still genuinely act in relation to one another? I think so. Perhaps John Owen’s use of language concerning the covenant of redemption is best: “there is a new habitude of will in the Father and Son towards each other that is not in them essentially. I call it new, as being in God freely, not naturally.” (emphasis mine; quote from Mark Jones’s article, though he does not want to use “obedience” language as I do.)
All that to say, the proper starting point for distinguishing between the persons is eternal generation, but this does not preclude but rather assumes that the eternal pactum involves the eternal obedience of the Son to the Father, though this obedience does not multiply the one will but rather is (to borrow from Owen) a “new habitude” between the persons (also see William á Brakel on this point). I really like how Scott Swain, echoing a lengthier quote from Owen, puts it, “Because the Son eternally proceeds from the Father in his personal manner of subsisting, so too does his personal manner of willing proceed from the Father. The Son’s willing submission to the Father in the pactum salutis is thus a faithful expression of his divine filial identity as the consubstantial, eternally begotten Son of God.” Swain, much like Francis Turretin before him, is not afraid to use the language of “willing submission” as long as it is defined within the proper classical Trinitarian context.
As has been the case so far, the war in the blogosphere is notorious for neglecting fine theological nuancing, either in theologizing itself or in representing diversity among representatives (hence how long this post must be). I say that as a warning; I hope this post at the very least demonstrates that there is more diversity among representatives than at first thought. But more to the point of my argument, if we are going to affirm the covenant of redemption (and that is a very good, biblical thing to do), then there is no question that there is “obedience” by the Son in relation to the Father in eternity. The million dollar question, then, is whether that eternal obedience reflects (and to what degree) the life of the Trinity ad intra. Certainly we must, though very carefully (and, perhaps this side of heaven, fallibly!), lest we sever the economic from the immanent altogether.
Matthew Barrett is Tutor of Systematic Theology and Church History at Oak Hill Theological College in London, as well as the founder and executive editor of Credo Magazine. Barrett is the author of numerous book reviews and articles in academic and popular journals and magazines. He is the author of several books, including Salvation by Grace: The Case for Effectual Calling and Regeneration, Owen on the Christian Life: Living for the Glory of God in Christ (Theologians on the Christian Life), God’s Word Alone: The Authority of Scripture. Currently he is the series editor of The 5 Solas Series with Zondervan. You can read more about Barrett at matthewmbarrett.com.