‘The full reality of God and God’s work are not adequately grasped till the Covenant of Redemption – the specific covenantal agreement between Father and Son on which the Covenant of Grace rests – occupies its proper place in our minds’.
Bob Letham has suggested in a couple of places that the Reformed idea of a pre-temporal covenant of redemption between the persons of the Trinity, which is present in nuce (if not in express terms) in the Westminster Confession of Faith, opens the door to the heresy of tritheism. Although the phrase ‘covenant of redemption’ is not to be found in the Westminster Confession, the idea is, in the Chapter on Christ the mediator, where it is stated that Christ is called to the office of a mediator by the Father. (The Westminster Assembly 235-70)
Without doubt here is a pre-temporal plan of redemption, but (Bob Letham claims) it is wrong or misleading (and potentially dangerous), to describe the relation of the persons of the Trinity, and particular the relation of the Word to the Father, as covenantal. This is because the idea of a covenant is a legal or quasi legal notion, one that it is highly inappropriate to suppose exists between the members of the Trinity who are united, as one God, in intimate, perichoretic relations of love. But more basically, perhaps, the idea of a covenant is objectionable because it requires there to be different parties, and to suppose that the persons of the Trinity are or could be parties to such an arrangement among themselves threatens the idea that the Trinity is one God, and that its works are indivisible.
I certainly agree that we should avoid mental pictures of the Trinity as if they are three people sitting around a boardroom table deciding who does what. Such imagery can at best be an accommodation. Also, the idea of a covenant being necessarily legal can be sidestepped. A covenant is an agreement between two or more persons. It may or may not be legal. ‘The word is used in great variety, and what is intended by it must be learned from the subject-matter treated of, seeing there is no precept or promise of God but my be so called.’ (John Owen,Commentary on Hebrews, Exercitation XXVIII, ‘Federal Transactions between the Father and the Son’, II.81) There may be many different kinds of agreement, depending on the status and the roles of the parties, and the provision of various stipulations or conditions. So in what follows we shall concentrate upon the problem of the parties.
It is a widely-held tenet of Christian orthodoxy that there are distinctions between the persons of the Trinity, but no division.s For the Lord our God is one Lord, in three persons. The oneness of God is not simply the idea that divinity is a common property which the three persons share, like Tom, Dick and Harry share the property of being human, nor is it the union of a society of individuals, like a bowling club or a Masonic Lodge. So it would be wrong to suppose that the three persons are three parts of the one divine nature, or three members of one society. For each person is wholly God, each is God’s indivisible essence. To think in terms of parts would be to divide the godhead, and each person would then preside over a different segment or division of the divine nature. To avoid this (in the case of the Father and the Son, for example) it is necessary to maintain that being God, both Father and Son are wholly and indivisibly in harmony in their work together. So how are to understand the covenant of redemption? Is it a legitimate idea, consistent with such triunity?
Let us approach this question first from the economy of redemption, and work backwards, or upwards. It is an aspect of the economy that the Father gives the Son a ‘work’ to do (John 17.4) and it is the Son’s food to accomplish it. (John 4.34) It is clear from this that the giving by the Father was (as it must have been) also a receiving by the Son in a Father-Son union of love and grace. So such a relation is not merely that of direction or delegation, nor is it a legally binding covenant or bargain. Rather, the Son delights in the Father’swill, (Ps.40.8/Heb.10.5-9) and vice versa. Whatever the doctrine of the Trinity is, this economic arrangement must also be consistent with it.
If the relations between the persons of the Trinity in the economy are in harmony with the mutuality of the persons of the Trinity, then it is hard to see how the eternal covenant of redemption could fail to be an expression of the same sort of relationship. If there is an agreement between the Father and the Son that is revealed in the redeeming of the race, then it is hard to see how there could not be an agreement between the persons prior to the economy.Of course there is a voluntary humility of the Son, his taking on of human nature, but he remains the person of the Son in doing so, fully divine, and so he remains in mutual love and harmony with the other persons, despite the fact that neither the Father nor the Holy Spirit are incarnate. It is not the Father who is incarnate, but God in the person of the Son.
What of the pre-temporal situation? We may say this: if the economic relations between the persons are compatible with full Trinitarianism, then so must the pre-temporal arrangements be. Let us try to spell this out.
If the persons of the Father and the Spirit mutually indwell the person of the Son in his becoming incarnate, then if in the eternal counsel there is a covenant between the persons then this must also be perichoretic, an expression of the mutual indwelling or interpenetration of each person in the other, while at the same time not destroying the distinctions of the persons. So, if we suppose a council of redemption, then given the unity of the Trinity, what the Father wills for the Son must also be what the Son wills for himself, together with his further willing that this be the Father’s will for him, and that it be the will of the Spirit for the him, and so on.There is complete coinherence. If at this point we use the language of covenant, then the covenanting between the persons must be coinherent in this fashion. Why may it not be? At what point has the door been opened to tri-theism?
And there is complete unity. As Owen expresses it:
The will of God as to the peculiar actings on the Father in this matter [that is, the eternal Trinitarian covenant] is the will of the Father, and the will of God with regard unto the peculiar acts 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 actions 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. (Commentary on Hebrews, II.88)
We may stiffen up the relation between the economy and the pre-temporal arrangement but observing that it is hard to see how the Son’s obedience in the economy in Incarnation and redemption can fail to have a pre-temporal anticipation, a prolepsis, an eternal willingness thus to obey. For his being given the work of his Father does not date from a time after the Incarnation, but (as we have seen) it expresses a pre-temporal determination to give the Son a work, and a similar determination of the Son to be willing to do that work, prior to its actually being undertaken in the humbling of Incarnation. The willing of the work, and the doing of the work, must presuppose the same trinitarianism.
There is also concern that in traditional statements of the eternal Council of Redemption the agreement is between the Father and Son. Where is the Spirit, it is said? Maybe we could call this the bi-theistic question. Perhaps two things can be said. Since it is God the Son. incarnate in the person of Jesus Christ, who is redeemer of God’s elect, it is appropriate that the covenant is principally between the Father and the Son. But this, once again, must be understood in terms of the divine Triunity. Is the Spirit absent, a bystander? By no means. For he is indivisibly God, together with the Father and the Son.
To say that the idea of an eternal covenant of redemption ‘tends towards, or borders on, tritheism’, means that it starts a line of thought that may lead to tritheism, though there is no suggestion, I think, that it actually did lead in this direction, that certain people became tritheists as a result of adhering to the covenant of redemption.(Though note what Bob Letham says, 236) In fact, rather ironically, the tendency was entirely the other way, the expunging of the mystery of the Trinity in rationalistic Unitarianism. Nevertheless, were some tempted to push at the door of tritheism it can most certainly be kept closed by careful statements and the use of appropriate qualifications that are characteristic of sound theology.