on the covenant of redemption

The Trinity And the Covenant of Redemption

Compared with Fesko’s recent volume on imputation, I didn’t come away quite so satisfied with his The Trinity and the Covenant of Redemption, although there are several significant points in its favour.

Like the work on imputation, this treatment of the covenant of redemption provides a helpful synthesis of the three facets of the doctrine – history, exegesis, and dogmatics.

The Trinity and the Covenant of Redemption also successfully demonstrates that a covenant was made between the persons of the Trinity before the beginning of time – a pre-temporal intra-trinitarian agreement to save sinners.

At various places Fesko takes the opportunity to emphasise that this agreement was an effect of God’s love (the love of the triune God). Obedience, he points out, is entirely consistent with love. So indeed is the very concept of covenanting. These sections are a welcome reminder that no matter how technical your treatment of any of God’s truths might become, and however dispiriting it must be to engage so thoroughly with influential scholars whose widely accepted views are so wildly off the mark, the truth itself is revealed in love by the God who is love, and the scheme of redemption in its plan and its execution is steeped (or as Fesko says, bathed) in love at every point.

Fesko also deals well with the allegation that the idea of a discussion and agreement between the persons of the Godhead somehow leads to tritheism. He shows that while all three persons of the Godhead share the same will and act on it, yet each person of the Trinity acts according to his person, the Father sending the Son and the Spirit, and the Son and the Spirit being sent by the Father.

Fesko also sees a role for the Spirit in the covenant of redemption. His role is not just subsequent to the covenant as the one who applies the saving benefits purchased by Christ, but according to the terms of the covenant, the Holy Spirit agrees to be sent by the Father, and he anoints and equips Christ to carry out his work as the covenant surety.

Another plus point to The Trinity and the Covenant of Redemption is that it interacts seriously with recent scholarship and emerges with Reformed credentials intact. Fesko reviews the thinking of Barth, more recent narrative theologians, and a Roman Catholic theologian, not only to show what is argued in these alternative paradigms but to carefully expose their limitations and flaws. Even for readers who have never encountered these theological positions, the outcome of Fesko’s discussion is a clear sense of the great gulf between them and the Reformed position.

But the source of my dissatisfaction has to do with how the concept of the covenant of redemption itself is presented. The Trinity and the Covenant of Redemption takes the view that in addition to the covenant of works there is not one but two covenants which take to do with the salvation of sinners – the covenant of redemption as well as the covenant of grace. The preface to this book explains that it is the first in a series of three, with subsequent volumes due to appear on the covenant of works and the covenant of grace in turn. The drawback of this approach is that very little work is done in this volume itself to motivate the distinction between the covenant of redemption and the covenant of grace.

It is certainly the case that some older Reformed theologians identified three covenants. David Dickson (1583-1662), James Durham (1622-1658), and Samuel Rutherford (1600-1661) distinguished between the covenant of redemption, made between the Father and the Son, and the covenant of grace, made between the Father and the elect sinner. However, it is not the case that this view persisted until the twentieth century, as implied in the preface to The Trinity and the Covenant of Redemption. The discussion in the preface jumps directly from the “classic Reformed covenant theology” of Dickson and Durham to “twentieth century Reformed theologians such as Murray, Schilder, and Hoeksema,” giving the reader to infer that it was not until the advent of Murray and others that the covenant of redemption was “either rejected or redefined” (p.xviii).

In fact, almost as soon as the three-covenant view was articulated, Reformed theologians respectfully expressed reticence about pushing the idea too far. They preferred to see only two true covenants, the one of works with Adam and the one of redemption/grace with Christ. This was to preserve the idea of Christ as the head of one covenant, not two, and to avoid positing a covenant with the elect sinner which either has a condition attached for the sinner to perform (therefore turning it back into a covenant of works all over again) or no condition attached (and therefore not technically a covenant at all).

For reasons such as these, theologians as close (in time and in thinking) to Dickson and Durham as Thomas Boston and Adam Gib declined to posit both a covenant of redemption and a covenant of grace. Thereafter in systematic theologies whenever the covenant of redemption is mentioned, it tends to be only to deny that it is truly a distinct covenant from the covenant of grace.

  • Thomas Boston (1676-1732): “The covenant of redemption and the covenant of grace are but two names of one and the same second covenant, under different considerations” (View of the Covenant of Grace, Vol 8 of Complete Works, p396).
  • Adam Gib (1714 – 1788): “The covenant of grace is a covenant of redemption. … There is only one covenant of God’s making, the covenant of grace and redemption, for the eternal salvation of mankind sinners. The Scripture reveals but one for that purpose, ‘the new covenant,’ ‘the everlasting covenant.’ As man’s ruin is by one covenant, his recovery is likewise by one” (Sacred Contemplations, p141-142).
  • John Brown of Haddington (1722-1787): “it is manifest that it [the covenant of grace] ought never to be splitted into two, as if one covenant of redemption had been made with Christ, and another of grace were made with the elect in their own persons” (A Compendious View of Natural and Revealed Religion, p242).
  • John Dick (1764–1833): “there does not appear to be any ground in Scripture for the notion of two covenants. … The truth is that what those divines call the covenant of grace is merely the administration of what they call the covenant of redemption, for the purpose of communicating its blessings to those for whom they were intended; and cannot properly be called considered as a covenant…” (Lectures on Theology, p496).
  • As I’ve happened to be looking at Hugh Martin (1822-1885) on the atonement recently, I also noticed that when he relates atonement to federal concepts he makes no mention of a covenant of redemption, but relies heavily on the contrasts between only the covenant of works and the covenant of grace. My impression is that this was the mainstream understanding of the covenant theology for nineteenth century Reformed theologians (Hugh Martin, The Atonement: In Its Relations to the Covenant, the Priesthood, the Intercession of our Lord, first published 1877).

Incidentally it may be worth adding that Thomas Boston wrote a treatise specifically tackling the covenant of works (A View of the Covenant of Works from the Sacred Records (1775), and Adam Gib devotes the first part of his Sacred Contemplations (1788) to this topic too (again titled A View of the Covenant of Works, running to 120-odd pages).

Clearly, whether or not Boston and other subsequent Reformed theologians were correct to move away from Dickson and Durham’s proposal of three instead of two covenants is a question worthy of discussion in its own right. But this discussion does not appear in The Trinity and the Covenant of Redemption, so far as I could see. It is worthy of discussion on at least two counts – one that the two-not-three covenant position was perceived as entirely consistent with the Westminster Confession to at least the same extent as Fesko says the three-not-two covenant position is, and it would therefore would have been useful for this difference of opinion to have been handled as something within the Westminster tradition itself. And the other is that, to the extent that John Murray of the twentieth century was shaped by a Scottish theological tradition stretching from the sixteenth to the twentieth centuries, it would be interesting to know in detail how far he perpetuated rather than diverged from this tradition. A section in Part III of The Trinity and the Covenant of Redemption is titled, ‘Relationship [of the covenant of redemption] to the covenants of works and grace’ (p138-140), but although this sounded promising, it reads as something inadequately edited beyond draft stage, and only lists points of difference between the putative covenants of redemption and grace without demonstrating why the two are better than the one. As the ‘one covenant (of redemption/grace)’ formulations preferred by theologians such as Boston are careful to include all the features which Fesko attributes to the covenant of redemption – the love and activity of the triune God, election, imputation, and the precedence of eschatology over soteriology – it remains to be seen what the positing of a second distinct covenant of grace really adds.

All of this adds up to make me keen to see Fesko’s forthcoming volumes on the covenant of works and of grace. In the meantime, my overall impression of The Trinity and the Covenant of Redemption is that it is a worthwhile and useful presentation of key historical, exegetical and dogmatic considerations relating to the triune God’s eternal scheme for the salvation of sinners, chosen and beloved in Christ before the foundation of the world.

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3 thoughts on “on the covenant of redemption

  1. I didn’t know that! I’ve only ever dipped into it.

    On the covenants he comes across sounding the most patient/sympathetic out of the ones I mentioned with the three-covt view considering he holds the two-covt view himself.

    Do you have an opinion on this yourself?

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  2. I was taught the three-covenant view: the covenants of redemption, works, and grace, with the covenant of redemption coming before creation within the Godhead. Seems to make the most sense to me, though I can see the point of the “two” view, in which the covenant of redemption is folded (so to say) into the covenant of grace. Fortunately, one’s salvation doesn’t hang on which view one takes. It’s interesting and instructive to see how different theologians put the Bible’s theology together.

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