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An Appropriate Pact

The Pactum Salutis and Triune Simplicity

Virtually any study of Reformed, covenant theology involves studying the covenant of redemption. It stands as an important link between the triune work of salvation and the unity of the Godhead, both in essence and in will. Largely a product of post-Reformation exegesis and doctrinal synthesis, the covenant of redemption, or pactum salutis, is the eternal intra-Trinitarian pact made by the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit to accomplish and apply salvation to the elect. It provides the eternal foundation of our salvation, and the covenantal context in which salvation occurs.

However, the pactum is not without its critics and mishandlers. One of the most potent critiques comes from those who argue that the pactum is not sufficiently Trinitarian. By not considering the doctrine of divine simplicity, some argue that the covenant of redemption necessitates introducing multiple wills into the Godhead. Unfortunately, these charges are not entirely unmerited, as some have utilized the pactum to ground ontological authority and submission dynamics in the inner life of the Trinity.

While critics and misuse threaten the covenant of redemption’s demise, I believe that the covenant of redemption is vital in understanding the unity of the Trinity’s mission. Additionally, and perhaps counterintuitively, rather than standing in opposition to the pactum, the doctrine of divine simplicity provides important context for the pactum’s construction by way of the doctrine of divine appropriation.

The Covenant of Redemption: Doctrine, Reception, and Biblical Basis

From beginning to end, salvation is Trintiarian. Writing in the 180s, Irenaus of Lyons described how the persons of the Trinity work together in salvation as “the Father planning everything well and giving his commands, the Son carrying these into execution and performing the work of creating, and the Spirit nourishing and increasing [what is made].”[1] From planning, to accomplishing, to applying, the persons of the Godhead work inseparably according to the singular, divine will, to bring about redemption. From beginning to end, salvation is Trintiarian. Click To Tweet

At its core, the pactum salutis is an attempt to understand those passages of Scripture which describe the persons of the Trinity planning and accomplishing salvation in eternity, giving us insight into the very heart of the Trinity’s nature and mission. The covenant of redemption is located in eternity, that is, before any other external work of the Trinity, and it entails the Father’s appointment of the Son to accomplish redemption through his incarnation, life, death, resurrection, and ascension, as well as the Spirit’s role to anoint and equip the Son for his mission as surety and to apply his finished work to the elect. Thus, Scott Swain, utilizing Hebrews 2:10, says the pactum concerns the divinely ordained, messianic means whereby the Father, “for whom and by whom all things exist,” seeks to manifest his glory by “bringing many sons to glory.”[2]

The seeds of the pactum can be found as early as Jerome’s (ca. 347-420) commentary on Zechariah 6:13, which Herman Wistius appealed to in defending the doctrine’s antiquity.[3] The skeletal structure of the pactum can also be found in the works of Caspar Olevianus (1536-87), Martin Luther (1483-1546), and Jacob Arminius (1560-1609). However, it is not until the post-Reformation in the thought of theologians such as David Dickson, Johann Cloppenburg, Peter Bulkeley, Johannes Coceius, and Herman Witsius that that the doctrine came to full blossom.[4]

Often, the covenant of redemption is charged with “novelty.” How could such a relatively late product of reformed thought hold such a place of prominence in the tradition? What these charges fail to account for is the surge in exegetical endeavors that the Reformation created with its emphasis on the original biblical languages. By the 16th and 17th centuries, theologians began to move away from drawing their theology from the Latin Vulgate, and began to utilize Greek and Hebrew in their exegetical and theological endeavors.

For example, this push to the original languages drove Theodore Beza (1519-1605) to reject the Latin translation of Luke 22:29 – “I appoint (dispono) to you a kingdom” – and translate the Greek word διατίθεμαι as “I covenant to you” instead. Thus, according to Beza, Jesus covenants a kingdom to his disciples just as it was covenanted to him. Rediscovered covenantal dimensions in passages like Luke 22:29 led to the formation of the covenant of redemption, not by way of unwarranted theologizing, but by way of careful exegesis.

However, Luke 22:29 is not the only passage that the framers of the covenant of redemption use to formulate their doctrine. Along with Zechariah 6:13, Psalm 2:7 and 110:1 serve as Old Testament texts which position the reign of Christ over creation in distinctly covenantal terms. These passages seem to describe an eschatological vision of the Son, the priest-king who rules at the right hand of Yahweh. All three passages share a covenantal context, evident in specific words and phrases such as “council of peace” (Zech 6:13), “decree,” and “today” (Ps 2:7), or Yahweh’s oath to make the Son’s enemies a footstool (Ps 110:1). In the New Testament, both Ephesians 1 and 2 Timothy 1:9-10 are passages which, along with Luke 22, contribute to the covenant of redemption’s formulation. In both passages, Paul locates the origins of salvation in God’s election “in Christ.” Temporally, this election in Christ occurred  “before the foundations of the earth,” and “before the ages began.”

These theologians who first articulated the covenant of redemption did so because they saw it as the natural theological conclusion to their exegesis. The pactum comes together, not by way of  isolated prooftexts, but by weaving together several passages and themes from across both Testaments.

The Covenant of Redemption and Trinitarian Theology

Though, traditionally, the covenant of redemption has held a position of prominence in reformed theology, it still has its detractors. Of particular note is the charge that the covenant of redemption is not sufficiently trinitarian. The covenant of redemption, so the charge goes, fails to be sufficiently trinitarian by running aground of the doctrine of divine simplicity.

Historically, the Church has confessed that God is “simple,” that is, not made up of parts. The persons of the Trinity are not parts of a whole, and the persons do not possess only an allotted portion of the divine essence. Instead, the divine essence (or nature) fully subsists in Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Consequently, because the divine essence possesses one divine will, each person of the Trinity fully possesses the one, divine will.

The Church Fathers were united on the belief that if the distinct persons of the Godhead possessed their own will, instead of possessing the one, divine will, then they must possess their own nature, and if they possessed their own nature then they cannot be of the same essence. For example, in arguing against Eunomius’s view that the Father and Son’s distinct works necessitate that they are distinct beings, Gregory of Nyssa wrote, “For if there existed any variation in their energies, so that the Son worked His will in a different manner to the Father then (on the above supposition) it would be fair to conjecture, from this variation, a variation also in the beings which were the result of these varying energies.”[5] However, because God is simple, the divine essence, including the divine will, fully subsists in each person. Thus, simplicity necessitates that there are not multiple wills which the persons of the Trinity join together, but instead a singular, divine will. If the distinct persons of the Godhead possessed their own will, instead of possessing the one, divine will, then they must possess their own nature, and if they possessed their own nature then they cannot be of the same essence. Click To Tweet

The covenant of redemption, so the charges go, is not compatible with this classic understanding of simplicity. Does not the pactum necessitate that the Father have a will to send the Son, and the Son have a will to become incarnate and accomplish redemption, and the Spirit have a will to empower the Son and apply redemption? It seems that by its very nature, the covenant of redemption necessitates that the persons of the Trinity have their own wills which they covenant together to accomplish their shared purpose.

Proponents of the covenant of redemption have an answer for this charge. The simplicity-elephant has been answered, historically, by the utilization of the doctrine of “divine appropriation.” Divine appropriations states that one person of the Trinity takes on a special or focal role in any external work of the Trinity. When considering the relationship between the pactum and the divine will, consideration must be given not only to the singularity of the will, but the tri-personal manner of subsistence of the single will.

Recently, Scott Swain has demonstrated that John Owen is particularly elucidating on this point.[6] He highlights the tension that the pactum creates with simplicity:

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?[7]

He then resolves the tension by asserting that each divine person subsists distinctly within the one essence. Thus, each person individually acts according to his personally appropriated part in God’s work ad extra. Appropriation, then, is the application of the single divine will to that personal action. The will is not divided, but it is distinctly appropriated to each person as he prepares to act or acts:

This difficulty may be solved [by having regard to] the distinction of the persons in the unity of the divine essence, as … they act in natural and essential acts reciprocally one towards another. …As they subsist distinctly, so they also act distinctly in those works which are of external operation…. The will of God as to the peculiar actings of the Father 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.[8]

 The doctrine of appropriations not only resolves the apparent tension that the covenant of redemption creates with divine simplicity, but demonstrates that the pactum, via divine appropriations, actually aids in maintaining divine simplicity. The external works of the Trinity are inseparable (simplicity) yet individually appropriated to accomplish the one will of the Trinity (covenant of redemption).

The covenant of redemption was formulated with special care taken to uphold historic trinitarianism via simplicity and appropriation. This historical context is why proponents of EFS are mistaken when they attempt to utilize the pactum to support authority and submission structures within the Trinity ad intra. The covenant of redemption is not an extension of pretemporal authority and submission relationships, but is instead the appropriation of the one divine will. Further, the persons’ respective roles in the pactum are best understood to be an extension of their relations of origin — the Father is unbegotten and begets the Son, the Son is begotten of the Father, the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son — not an eternal authority structure.[9]

Conclusion

Rather than run aground of divine simplicity, the covenant of redemption through appropriation, demonstrates that redemption is the act in line with the one, divine will of God. Indeed, the pactum salutis is the linchpin between God in himself and God in relation to the world. Our salvation was a triune, covenantal act. The Father chose us in Christ, the Son became incarnate and purchased our salvation by his substitutionary death, and the Spirit applied that salvation upon faith in Christ, to the praise of Father, Son and Spirit.


Endnotes

[1] Iranaeus, Against Heresies, 4.38.3

[2] Scott Swain, “The Covenant of Redemption,” in Christian Dogmatics, ed. Scott Swain and Michael Allen (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2016), 117.

[3] Herman Witsius, Economy of the Covenants Between God and Man: Comprehending a Complete Body of Divinity, 2 vols., trans. William Crookshank (1822; Escondido: Den Dulk Foundation, 1990), II.ii.8. Cf J. V. Fesko, The Trinity And the Covenant of Redemption, (Great Britain: Mentor, 2016), loc 215.

[4] Richard A. Muller, “Toward the Pactum Salutis: Locating the Origins of A Concept,” Mid-America Journal of Theology, 18 (2007), 15.

[5] St. Gregory of Nyssa, “Against Eunomius,” in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, vol. 5, II (Christian Classics Ethereal Library). 136.

[6] Swain, “The Covenant of Redemption,” 121

[7] John Owen, Hebrews, 18:87.

[8] Ibid., 18:88.

[9] See Matthew Y. Emerson and R. Lucas Stamps, “On Trinitarian Theological Method,” in Trinitarian Theology: Theological Models and Doctrinal Application, ed. Keith Whitfield, (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2018).

Jake Rainwater

Jake Rainwater is the Assistant Registrar and a Ph. D student in systematic theology at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. His research interests include the doctrine of sanctification, soteriology in general, and theological methodology. He is a member of Emmaus Church in North Kansas City, where he serves on staff assisting with the church’s pastoral residency. He is married to his high school sweetheart, and they have a one-year-old daughter and a Great Dane named Scotland.

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