Meet my good friend John Owen: one will, distinct acts, and the covenant of redemption (Matthew Barrett)
Many thanks to those of you who sent me emails last week after reflecting on my article: “Better late than never: The covenant of redemption and the Trinity debates.” I was genuinely encouraged at the ways it helped others think through this very complicated issue.
Today I merely want to piggyback off that article and introduce you to a good friend of mine: the great (greatest?) Puritan, John Owen. I mentioned him before, specifically his useful language of “habitude.” Two things have come to mind since then. First, in my book with Michael Haykin, Owen on the Christian Life: Living for the Glory of God in Christ (Theologians on the Christian Life), I have a section devoted to the covenant of redemption, explaining how Owen understood it. It is brief (pages 137-140), but if my mention of the covenant of redemption has sparked interest, those pages are a place to start.
Second, in my treatment of Owen and the covenant of redemption, I focused entirely on Owen’s The Mystery of the Gospel (vol. 12 of the Banner of Truth edition), though I also mention Owen’s treatment of the covenant of redemption in The Person of Christ (see vol. 1 of the Banner of Truth edition). Side note: these two volumes truly are two of my favorite theology books on Christology! Warning: you’re not a theologian until you’ve read this.
That said, I do mention just briefly (see the footnotes) Owen’s Hebrews commentary (vol. 2 of the Hebrews commentary), and just the other day my friend Lee Gatiss mentioned this section as well (ah, the wonders of Facebook!). My article on Credo briefly cited Owen’s Hebrews’ commentary but I would like to provide the full paragraph below (this comes out of pp. 87-88 of vol. 2 of the Banner of Truth ed.). A little context: Just before this passage Owen defines and explains the covenant of redemption, specifically the Son’s obedience to the Father’s pactum.
But then Owen anticipates an objection (the same one I mentioned in my article on Credo): How can the Son enter into this covenant if there is but one will in the Trinity? Notice how careful Owen is with his language (good theologians are always precise). Also notice how he reconciles one will in the Trinity with two wills in Christ incarnate. And do not miss his emphasis upon the acts of each person toward each other in mutual love. Here is Owen:
“But this sacred truth must be cleared from an objection whereunto it seems obnoxious, before we do proceed. ‘The will is a natural property, and therefore in the divine essence it is but one. The Father, Son, and Spirit, have not distinct wills. They are one God, and God’s will is one, as being an essential property of his nature; and therefore are there two wills in the one person of Christ, whereas there is but one will in the three persons of the Trinity. How, then, can it be said that the will of the Father and the will of the Son did concur distinctly in the making of this covenant?’
This difficulty may be solved from what hath been already declared; for such is the distinction of the persons in the unity of the divine essence, as that they act in natural and essential acts reciprocally one towards another,—namely, in understanding, love, and the like; they know and mutually love each other. And as they subsist distinctly, so they also act distinctly in those works which are of external operation. And whereas all these acts and operations, whether reciporcal or external, are either with a will or from a freedom of will and choice, the will of God in each person, as to the peculiar acts ascribed unto him, is his will therein peculiarly and eminently, though not exclusively to the other persons, by reason of their mutual in-being. The will of God as to the peculiar actings of the Father in this matter is the will of the Father, and the will of God with regard unto the peculiar actings of the Son is the will of the Son; not by a distinction of sundry wills, but by the distinct application of the same will unto its distinct acts in the persons of the Father and the Son. And in this respect the covenant whereof we treat differeth from a pure decree; for from these distinct actings of the will of God in the Father and the Son there doth arise a new habitude or relation, which is not natural or necessary unto them, but freely taken on them. And by virtue hereof were all believers saved from the foundation of the world, upon the account of the interposition of the Son of God antecedently unto his exhibition in the flesh; for hence he was esteemed to have done and suffered what he had undertaken so to do, and which, through faith, was imputed unto them that did believe.”
I think this is (as my British friends like to say) a “brilliant” paragraph. It is an example of how one can affirm eternal generation, one will in the triune God, two wills in Christ incarnate, no ontological inferiority in the Son, yet simultaneously make sense out of the Son obeying the Father’s eternal covenant with regards to the economic work of the Trinity. If only those debating the Trinity would imitate Owen’s careful, precise, nuanced, and properly balanced theological argument.
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.