Tuesday, December 01, 2015

The Plan of God, the Covenant of Redemption, and John Owen

It is very difficult for our minds to take in the singleness of God’s plan, and much more congenial for us to think in terms of his plans, plural. It is much easier and more attractive to think that God has many plans. Plans for the inanimate creation and plans for the far points of the universe which are unaffected and un-affectable by human activity. A plan for your life and for mine, a plan for the present-day millions in Somalia and for those Europeans in the now long-gone medieval era, and so on.  So - on this way of thinking - just as you and I may in the course of a week or of a year have many plans, which we are continually making, so God has a very great number of plans.

But this approach does not do justice to the one will of God.  While Scripture refers to many plans of God in respect of the individuals who benefit from them, distinguishably different plans are part of the one plan, integrated with it, with God in Christ its unifying centre and end – the one in whom we live, and the one in whom all things are gathered or summed up. God works all things after the counsel of his own will. 

The doctrine of the covenant of redemption seems to imply a distinct plan for each member of the Trinity. So what are we to think of it?

The covenant of redemption and the one plan of God

In the covenant of redemption there is envisaged to be an eternal pactum salutis between Father, Son [and Spirit], in which in utter harmony the Father chooses the Son to be the redeemer, and the Spirit to be the applier of the fruit of the Son’s redeeming work. The  Son and Spirit willingly concur, or perhaps more than this, the Son agrees to play the role of the Redeemer of God's elect.

Whatever we think of plans or a plan this construction, between Father and Son and Spirit, or more usually between Father and Son,  must be  a highly anthropomorphic business. It requires  eternal minds are first unmade up, and then those minds are settled in agreement. For  arriving at such an agreement is central to the idea of a covenant of redemption. But  if this is treated literally, not as anthropomorphism, but as dogma or doctrine, then before we know where we are we are committing ourselves to tri-theism. 

For it seems to be forgotten that the Father,  the Son, and the Spirit are the three persons of the one Triune God, in utter harmony and unity, in the life of which there is no moment in which their minds, having previously been in a state of indecision, come to be made up. For they have an eternal, timeless, existence. In any case this state of affairs could only be so if the two or three persons had separate divine minds, and if there were moments in eternity when agreements were fashioned.  But to move in that direction is, as I say, to court tritheism, and a social trinitarianism, in which the divinity of the Trinity refers not to one divine essence, but to a nature  shared among the persons  of the Trinity, like you and I and Barak Obama share human nature. And (unless we throw a spanner in the works) it is to to take a step towards divine temporality in which God in three persons enjoys not an eternal life, but an unending life.

Robert Letham’s worry

In his book The Westminster Assembly (P and R, 2009), Robert Letham has some paragraphs which I think point us in the right direction on this matter. He is concerned with the proper understanding of the Westminster documents, particularly the Confession, and writes:

This [pre-temporal] counsel is Trinitarian, as is clear from  that chapter [III] and the preceding one [II] on the Trinity. However, to describe the relations of the three persons in the Trinity as a covenant, or to affirm that there was a need for them to enter into covenantal - even contractual - arrangements is to open the door to heresy. The will of the Trinity is one; the works of the Trinity are indivisible. (236)

Here Letham seems to be making the point that as it is usually understood, making a covenantal agreement implies ignorance of the outcome until it is made, or the more general points that such an arrangement implies Trinitarian non-unity, or even that it implies three-mindedness. Whatever the precise point, the general worry that covenantal language of the Trinity in se courts tritheism is surely sound. (The Westminster Confession just about avoids referring to the covenant of redemption; the Savoy Declaration (1658) and the Baptist Confession of 1677/1689 were not so fortunate)

Letham says  that John Owen favoured such a pre-temporal covenant, and it may be worth looking a little at how he expressed himself in his great Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews, which Letham cites. Unfortunately he does not discuss Owen's language. How does Owen safeguard the divine unity?  One of the Exercitations that precede the Commentary proper, entitled ‘Federal Transactions Between the Father and the Son’ (Works Vol 19. 77f.) contains his thoughts on the one will of God and its bearing on the Covenant of Redemption. 

John Owen

Here’s what Owen says:

First, he is explicit on the one will of God. 
The will is a natural property [ie the property of the nature of what possesses the will] 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? (87) 
Good question. Here’s how he answers it. First, he notes the reciprocal relations of the wills in the persons of the Trinity, in which their essential acts are involved, their acts of understanding, love and the like, the one for the other, due to their mutual indwelling, their perichoretic relationship.  The one will of God is peculiarly (i.e. specially, or distinctly) attributed to each person of God in this indwelling. It is on this basis, that if indwelling is OK then 'federal transactions' are, that Owen argues. So the will of God as it is the will of the Son is distinct from the will of God as it is the will of the Father. It  is 'the distinct application of the same will unto its distinct acts in the persons of the Father and the Son.' (88) So the persons of the Trinity do not have distinct wills but one will which has 'distinct applications'.  And so in the matter of the covenant of redemption.

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 these, 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 was he esteemed to have done and suffered what he had undertaken so to do and which, through faith, was imputed to them that did believe. (88)

So the one will of God as seen in his decree is to be distinguished from the ‘distinct actings’ or the 'distinct applications' of the persons, which are free acts. [This is an importnat distinction, between acts of members of the Trintiy which are essential, and those which are voluntary. But here we leave it to one side.] In respect of the covenant of redemption each person acts freely, not necessarily, and each person's 'actings' give rise to a new habitude or relation on the part of each person regarding what that person has freely entered into. But the question is not simply how the three persons each have distinct relations to one another, but how in the choices that each makes  respecting redemption, each person being wholly God,  how can we avoid them having three divine wills?

The idea seems to be that if we count acts by their objects then we have distinct application of the will; say that choosing the elect is one object then being the Saviour of the elect is another object. But if we count acts by their sources then since in each case this is God's will then it must be one will. Yet it looks for all the world as if what Owen calls a 'distinct application' of a will is itself an act of the will. What else could it be? But then, an act of whose will?

What are we to think?

Before we try to answer that question, we need to note that what Owen is describing - free reciprocity  between the persons, the arising of new habitudes (that is, new capacities) of different sorts in the Father and the Son, and  so forth – is said to occur in the timeless eternity of God’s life. Is this consistent? It does not seem to be.

But the heart of the matter is the will of God. Consider Owen’s expressions here. The will of God, the one will of God, has distinct ‘actings’ in accordance with the free (ie non-essential) acts of each person. Can the one will have such distinct person-related modes and possess a distinct 'habitude' (habit), without there being distinct wills? The insertion of that particular word, 'habitude', does not seem to do any good. Inserting new words is only of use if those words refer to realities that solve or ameliorate the problem. But 'habitudes'  refers to the products of these wills (I think) and so is of no help with the 'many wills' difficulty. 

Yet Owen may mean something different. Can the will of the Son to do the Father's will be the same willing as that of the Father that the Son do the Father's will, but each expressive of a different habitude, one a filial habitude, the other a paternal habitude? Or the will of the Father to give the Son a bride be the same as that of the will of the Son to be given a bride by the Father? Is that what Owen means? (That is, for every voluntary act of one of the Persons, there are corresponding 'chiming' voluntary acts on the parts of the other persons). If so, he is home and dry. Except that there does not seem much that is bilateral (or trilateral) in such states of affairs, as their respective roles in the covenant of redemption requires. 

As Owen earlier says, ‘God’s will be one, as being an essential property of his nature?....Father, Son and Spirit have not distinct wills’. Is he not running into obscurities, even contradictions, in pursuit of a coherent account of an eternal covenant of redemption? Does he not wobble over the question, does the Triune God have one will or not? The going certainly gets pretty treacly, doesn't it? Is not the wiser course to call off this particular chase and instead to think of the covenantal language used of the Son in Scripture as applying not to an eternal pactum but to the Son's incarnate life as the Christ?

I surmise that on balance the language of Scripture to which champions of the covenant of redemption appeal is either frankly anthropomorphic, pictorial, or accommodated language drawn from post-incarnate situations in which the Son, in willing obedience to the will of his Father, has condescended to become incarnate as Jesus Christ, and has as the Lamb of God subordinated himself to the Father in breathtaking fashion. As the redeemer taking human nature Christ could say 'My meat and drink is to do the will of him that sent me', so indicating his subordinate economic place regarding the Father, and yet at the same time say ‘I and my Father are one’, so  rubber-stamping the one will of God.

Maybe, in the spirit of William of Ockham, we should not multiply plans unnecessarily; that is, divine plans. (There's not much we can do about human plans.)  And stick to 'the plan of salvation'.

[It happens that at present Scott Swain has three articles on the covenant of redemption on Reformation 21, taking up a different stance on it than my rather sceptical approach, and discussing the same passages in Owen and Bob Letham as are discussed above.