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The Pactum Salutis, Divine Agreement, And Karl Barth

June 30, 2016

The question I consider here can be summed up this way: Can God agree with Himself?  What would it mean for God to agree with God?

The ongoing debate over the so-called “Eternal Functional Subordination” (EFS) of God the Son to the Father (also called ESS, “Eternal Subordination of the Son,” or more benignly ERAS, “Eternal Relation of Authority and Submission”) has opened up a number of related avenues for continued discussion. The conversation has stirred up questions of the will, wills, and willing in the Trinity; the relationship between God’s life ad intra and God’s activity ad extra; just what the ancient doctrine of eternal generation is, and why it has historically been regarded as crucial; questions of orthodoxy and heterodoxy, and what adherence to the creed of Nicaea-Constantinople entails; and more.

In this post I’d like to pursue a topic of special concern to those of us in the Reformed tradition: the doctrine of the pactum salutis, the eternal covenant of redemption, an eternal agreement (“pact,” contract, or covenant) between God the Father and the Son by which the triune God determined to enter into the world and redeem sinners.  According to the divine missions the Father sends and the Son is sent.  The Father commands the Son to take on flesh and make atonement for sin, and the Son willingly obeys.

All of this, according to the Reformed scholastics, occurred in eternity and provides the basis for the temporal covenant of grace.  A classical statement comes from the Dutch theologian Johannes Cocceius (1603-1669), summarized here by W. J. Van Asselt:

The council of peace involves the triune God and has its own oeconomia — an economy with specific legal relationships.  To formulate it more precisely: the concilium pacis or pactum salutis describes a relationship among the three Trinitarian persons in a negotiated agreement (negotium) in which these persons act as legal parties who are mutually obligated to each other.  The Father functions both as the Lawgiver who requires that righteousness be rendered and that sin be punished in the person of the Son, and as the all-wise Sovereign, who appoints his Son as sponsor in order to reveal his mercy in his dealing with his creatures.

W. J. Van Asselt, The Federal Theology of Johannes Cocceius: (1603-1669) (Brill, 2001), p. 230

John Owen (1616-1683), a contemporary of Cocceius, structures this Trinitarian covenant this way (as summarized by John Fesko):

Regarding the pactum salutis (or covenant of redemption), Owen explains that there are five characteristics: (1) the Father and the Son mutually agree to the common goal of the salvation of the elect; (2) the Father as principal of the covenant requires the Son to accomplish all that is necessary to secure the redemption of the elect — to do the Father’s will; (3) the Father promises to reward Christ for accomplishing his will; (4) the Son accepts the work given to him by the Father; and (5) the Father agrees to accept the Son’s work upon its completion.

John Fesko, Beyond Calvin: Union with Christ and Justification in Early Modern Reformed Theology (1517-1700) (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012), p. 288; citing Owen, Vindiciae Evangelicae, 12.500-07

For the purposes of the discussions over EFS what is important is the pactum‘s description of the ways in which the Father and the Son relate to one another — not only that one sends and the other is sent, but that here the divine counsel is depicted as a plurality of acting agents.  “Legal parties” and “negotiated agreement” are the key terms in Van Asselt’s quotation above: within the Trinity there is an exchange, a compact that is formed by two parties following some negotiation and agreed upon by both, each with his respective role to play in the subsequent economy of salvation.

While I am by no means an expert on this era I think it is right to say that, for the Reformed scholastics (and their successors today), this pactum is by no means a mere metaphor for explaining the inter-Trinitarian relations.  It is not that the tradition imagined a fitting narrative to illustrate a divine mystery by way of legal-covenantal language.  No, the eternal agreement of these two “legal parties” is, I think, intended to be taken literally: the Father and the Son covenant with one another to accomplish the redemption of sinners.

~ ~ ~

Two aspects of this doctrine immediately give pause.

First, it is not clear that the scholastics have articulated a vision of the Trinitarian “persons” (hypostases) and the realization of their actions that is entirely in keeping with the ancient doctrine.  What is a “person?”  Boethius’ famous definition, so often quoted throughout the Middle Ages, is that a person is “an individual subsistence of a rational nature.”  In God that nature is one, and it subsists in three distinct but essentially and perichoretically united persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

The Reformed pactum poses a sort of over-againstness of the persons, identifying them as discrete subjects, each with his own agency.  They are distinct “legal parties” that can have dealings with each other just as, say, a man and his banker might.  On some accounts the Father and the Son have discrete minds (or consciousnesses), and thus are able to enter into an agreement in a way that would be impossible if the Trinitarian persons were in fact subsistences of a single subject.

Trifacial Trinity (Cusco School)It’s not clear that the Reformed view here deviates from classical Trinitarianism. But it does seem as though it is operating with an implicit notion of person that has advanced upon the medieval way of conceiving personhood (and, in particular, divine personhood) by positing multiple consciousnesses in God (prior to the incarnation of the Son).  It is on this basis that God can have interchange with God.

Second, and related to this, there is a more overt deviation from the Sixth Ecumenical Council’s declaration regarding the will of Christ.  This, too, is perhaps only implicit.  The Council determined as orthodoxy the teaching that Christ has two wills — one divine and one human — because the faculty of the will goes with a nature, not with a person.  Because God has one nature (or essence), then, God has one will.  And because they share the one divine essence the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit share one and the same will — not that they always agree on a course of action as three distinct agents, but that they possess one and the same faculty of willing.

The picture of the pactum seems to strain this nearly to the breaking point.  It does so by positing agreement between two parties, Father and Son, suggesting at least the theoretical possibility that they might not have agreed.  They might not have entered into such a mutual compact, because while they share the same intentions they do not share the same faculty of will.

Again, I’m not convinced that this is entirely fatal to the doctrine of the pactum salutis.  But the way in which a negotiated “agreement” appears to run against the grain of “one divine will” should give pause.

~ ~ ~

A number of potential solutions might be suggested here.  (a) One would simply be to reduce the pactum narrative to a mere illustration, a Sunday School lesson meant to give some insight into the different parts that the Father, Son, and Spirit play in the work of redemption (akin to those bad analogies still used to try and illustrate the doctrine of the Trinity).  The pactum is an imaginative extrapolation on the Son’s “sent-ness,” but shouldn’t be taken literally.

(b) Another is to press on to a full argument for three centers of consciousness in God.  Rather than a single Subject who subsists in three ways, God is a plurality of subjects who each has his own mind, thought world, and intention.  (“Subjectivity” here is a modern term that we may use to probe the character of oneness and threeness in the doctrine of the Trinity.) Augustus Hopkins Strong (1836-1921) was one who affirmed this view (along with three divine wills, Systematic Theology I, p. 326ff) — which of course entails its own set of problems.

(c) Still another (seen, for example, in Francis Turretin [1623-1687], Institutes 12.2) is to articulate the eternal pact as an undivided work of the whole Trinity, with each divine person undertaking “his own proper and peculiar mode of operation here, agreeable to this saving economy (1 Pet. 1:2)” (Turretin, 12.2.7; cf. Owen, Death of Death I.3).  This places any notions of multiple wills, of negotiation, and of agreement strictly in the economy (cf. 12.2.13).  Placing the maxim opera ad extra sunt indivisa front and center, it recasts the divine pactum such that the Father and Son are not legal parties who reach an agreement but the one God who is self-appropriating the various elements of the covenant and its execution.

This, I think, is probably the only way forward; but it does call into question whether this even qualifies any longer as the pactum salutis doctrine, which seems to trade on the notion of a negotiated settlement between two parties.

~ ~ ~

The key to the problem as I’ve tried to diagnose it, then, is how we will answer the question “What is a person?”  In God is a person a discrete subject, an “I,” with his own center of consciousness?  Or is a divine person an instantiation of the single Subject who is the one God, who enjoys one center of consciousness in the Godhead — though in a different way with respect to the Son and the Spirit?  (And what might this “different way” entail?)

Karl Barth chooses the latter, arguing for God’s (tri-personal) single subjectivity. He seems to have the majority of the tradition behind him, even with support to be found among the Reformed scholastics (cf. the language of modus subsistendi and τρόπος ὐπάρξεως).  This goes a long way in explaining Barth’s criticism of Cocceius and the pactum salutis doctrine:

The conception of this inter-trinitarian pact as a contract between the persons of the Father and the Son is also open to criticism. Can we really think of the first and second persons of the triune Godhead as two divine subjects and therefore as two legal subjects who can have dealings and enter into obligations one with another? This is mythology, for which there is no place in a right understanding of the doctrine of the Trinity as the doctrine of the three modes of being of the one God, which is how it was understood and presented in Reformed orthodoxy itself. God is one God. If He is thought of as the supreme and finally the only subject, He is the one subject. And if, in relation to that which He obviously does amongst us, we speak of His eternal resolves or decrees, even if we describe them as a contract, then we do not regard the divine persons of the Father and the Son as partners in this contract, but the one God — Father, Son and Holy Spirit — as the one partner, and the reality of man as distinct from God as the other.

When the covenant of grace was based on a pact between two divine persons, a wider dualism was introduced into the Godhead — again in defiance of the Gospel as the revelation of the Father by the Son and of the Son by the Father, which took place in Jesus Christ. The result was an uncertainty which necessarily relativised the unconditional validity of the covenant of grace, making it doubtful whether in the revelation of this covenant we really had to do with the one will of the one God. If in God there are not merely different and fundamentally contradictory qualities, but also different subjects, who are indeed united in this matter, but had first of all to come to an agreement, how can the will of God seen in the history of the covenant of grace be known to be binding and unequivocal, the first and final Word of God? The way is then opened up on this side too for considering the possibility of some other form of His will. The question is necessarily and seriously raised of a will of God the Father which originally and basically is different from the will of God the Son.

Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV/1, p. 65 (emphasis mine). For Barth’s full critique of this aspect of Cocceius’ federal theology, see CD IV/1, pp. 64-66.

The relation with which we have to do when we think of the basis, the ground and starting point, of redemption is not that of an agreement between the Father and the Son, Barth says, but that of the union of God and humanity.  This seems right to me.  The basis of redemption is not an inter-Trinitarian pact but God’s free election of grace, that eternal work of God internum ad extra by which God determines to be God for us, and to make us God’s people.  The content of this decision — that decision of the one Subject in his unified will — is that as Father God will send, as Son God will go, and as Spirit God will complete this work in the perfection of divine unity.

Those who have been following the current discussions over eternal submission may conclude that Barth is working through the same problem of willing and obedience in a somewhat modalistic way.  How does the Son obey the Father eternally, if they are one Subject with one will?  This is a larger topic which requires that, if we are going to hear Barth’s contribution to it, we reorient ourselves a bit into his way of thinking about the Trinity.  For further reading I’ll point you to CD Volume I/1, and to my essay on obedience in Barth’s Trinitarian theology in Advancing Trinitarian Theology (Zondervan, 2014).  But in this immediate passage on Cocceius, Barth does offer one important insight that we ought to attend to:

[In God’s free election of grace] even in His eternity before all time and the foundation of the world, He is no longer alone by Himself, He does not rest content with Himself, He will not restrict Himself to the wealth of His perfections and His own inner life as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. In this free act of the election of grace there is already present, and presumed, and assumed into unity with His own existence as God, the existence of the man whom He intends and loves from the very first and in whom He intends and loves all other men, of the man in whom He wills to bind Himself with all other men and all other man with Himself. In this free act of the election of grace the Son of the Father is no longer just the eternal Logos, but as such, as very God from all eternity He is also the very God and very man He will become in time. In the divine act of predestination there pre-exists the Jesus Christ who as the Son of the eternal Father and the child of the Virgin Mary will become and be the Mediator of the covenant between God and man, the One who accomplishes the act of atonement.

He in whom the covenant of grace is fulfilled and revealed in history is also its eternal basis. He who in Scripture is attested to be very God and very man is also the eternal testamentum, the eternal sponsio, the eternal pactum, between God and man. This is the point which Coccejus and the Federal theology before and after Coccejus missed. (CD IV/1, p. 66, emphasis mine)

Thus there is a basis for a distinction of wills between the eternal Father and the eternal Son, for a relationship of command and obedience, because (and only because) Barth is convicted that the eternal Son is already Jesus Christ — the God-human.  Jesus Christ in his very person is the covenant, the pactum, not only the redeemer in time but also in eternity the very basis for redemption.  But that is a topic for another time.

~ ~ ~

The point to focus on for the topic at hand is Barth’s conclusion that the pactum salutis doctrine is “mythology.”  It is a narrative which, in seeking to explain the eternal covenant of grace and the modes of personal appropriation in the Trinity, instead manages to pile on at least implications (if not material content) that deviated from the ancient, medieval, and Reformation tradition and muddied the waters of Trinitarian theology for the next four centuries.

If Barth is right in this judgment, then the doctrine can provide no comfortable solution for contemporary Reformed reflection upon the assertions of Eternal Functional Subordination.  The story of God the Father and God the Son negotiating a mutually acceptable arrangement for the accomplishment of redemption requires unacceptable alterations to the doctrine of God.  It also seems to play into the hands of EFS / ERAS supporters by allowing for multiple minds — one authoritative, one equal but submissive — in God.

11 Comments leave one →
  1. June 30, 2016 6:20 pm

    Great post, Darren! Very happy to see you address this. I’ve seen a couple folks online trying to appeal to the pactum as a stop-block against EFS, but didn’t think it worked so well. Thanks for spelling it for the onliners.

    I just posted something Maximus the Confessor’s dyothelitism that I think dovetails with you point on that aspect of the what the pactum presupposes about the persons in relation.

  2. June 30, 2016 7:09 pm

    I should add that Steven Wedgeworth posted a good piece yesterday that includes a nice long section on the pactum (with special reference to John Owen). Go read it!

  3. June 30, 2016 7:31 pm

    I read it! I believe Liam Goligher is the other guy I’ve seen making an argument from the pactum. But I shared this post on my FB wall, and D Rishmawy has just reminded me of Swain’s chapter where he gets into the pactum and covenant of redemption; he offers a response and I think he thinks a defeater to Barth’s (and thus your) critique. You should go read that thread! 🙂

    • June 30, 2016 7:53 pm

      Yes, and on Twitter … it’s terribly difficult to keep up with the same conversation in three different places. Hopefully they’ll choose to interact here if they think the discussion might be fruitful.

      I haven’t gotten ahold of Scott Swain’s full chapter in the new book, but he did adapt sections of it for a series of posts at Reformation21 last fall. Part three is especially relevant. He concludes with this: “When it comes to the relationship between the pactum salutis and the divine will, we must consider not only that will’s unity and indivisibility, we must also consider that will’s tripersonal manner of subsistence if we are to appreciate the doctrine’s status as an instance of orthodox trinitarian reasoning. … Because the Son eternally proceeds from the Father in his personal manner of subsisting, so too does his personal manner of willing proceed from the Father. The Son’s willing submission to the Father in the pactum salutis is thus a faithful expression of his divine filial identity as the consubstantial, eternally begotten Son of God.”

      I’m wondering how close this is on the map to my (c) above (represented by Turretin): the one God simply appropriates different covenantal roles to each divine person. Turretin speaks of “the Father’s will” and “the Son’s will” in this context, but he is specific that this is a distinction which obtains in the economy. Scott, on the other hand, seems (from what I’ve managed to read so far) to be arguing that the one will of God is instantiated three times by way of the Father, Son, and Spirit’s own personal subsistences. This, I think, would locate that plurality of willing in the immanent Trinity.

      If I’m reading that right, I’m not sure that his solution will finally manage to avoid Barth’s critique. But I need to read the whole essay.

    • June 30, 2016 8:06 pm

      Yeah a central place discussion would help. It is close to Turretin, but I think that you are right; it sounds as if Swain is locating the willing in the immanent which wouldn’t avoid Barth’s critique.

      If you go to my FB wall and go to the thread where I shared your post, Caleb shared more of the context which you just quoted from above. Also, if you have Scribd you can read it in full there; that’s how I will be reading it (he briefly critiques me and Myk and our EC book in his chapter as well).

  4. Nathanael Johnston permalink
    June 30, 2016 9:16 pm

    That was a very interesting post. I wonder if all versions of the pactum are open to Barth’s critique. Turretin’s, perhaps, could avoid it but as you point out his doctrine of the pactum doesn’t seem to add much to a traditional doctrine of the divine missions and appropriations. (I also wonder if in this Turretin was being, in a way, a more traditional Reformed scholastic since the doctrine of the pactum salutis wasn’t developed until the mid-17th century.)

    I would be curious to know what you think about John Webster’s defense of the pactum salutis. I heard his defense in his Kantzer lectures and I was very surprised, given his Barthian background.

    • June 30, 2016 11:46 pm

      Thanks for leaving a comment, Nathanael. I think there is some helpful research needing to be done out there to articulate the pactum as either an extension of, riff on, or deviation from missions and appropriations. (Richard Muller has a lengthy essay on the origins of the pactum concept, which would be a good place to start.)

      I plan to re-listen to Webster’s Kantzer lectures soon, and will definitely keep an ear open for his comments on this topic. It’s not something he and I ever conversed about.

  5. July 2, 2016 5:37 am


    Thank you so much! Brilliant and wonderfully helpful on maintaining the one will of God in the Trinity. Christ Himself the pactum. Wow!

    Question for you. When Jesus says to Philip, “He who has seen Me has seen the Father; how can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?”

    What is He referring to that Philip could see?

    • July 4, 2016 12:29 pm

      Thank you, Ted. I’m not sure I can add anything enlightening about John 14:9 that you likely haven’t read elsewhere. I take it that “seeing” here is not literal, of course, but rather is a matter of perception — or, to use a more theological term, revelation. To encounter Jesus is to encounter the Father (who sent him, who is one in essence with him); to know Jesus and what he is about — i.e. his mission of liberation in the world — is to know the Father and what the undivided Trinity is about.

      This verse is generally taken, then, as pointing to the undivided unity of the Trinity. How might it relate to the pactum salutis and the above critique? For starters, I would say that biblical statements such as this point to the fact that the willing and doing of God in the world is one and undivided (while also being personally appropriated).

      But I admit that the verse is framed such that those who endorse a strong pactum also have room to speak of the Son’s agreement with the Father, i.e. his conforming his will and activity to the will of the Father. Thus our judgments about a doctrine such as this ought not to rest on any one verse.

  6. July 3, 2016 3:57 am

    Reblogged this on Overthrowing Atlantis and commented:
    This summarizes my own problems with the Pactum Salutis.

  7. July 10, 2016 6:49 pm

    Barth apparently followed Bavinck in thinking that the PS led to an overly anthropocentric theology – both seemed to have thought that Cocceius was overly anthropocentric in general, though. Any force to this objection?

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