Eternal covenant; almost eternal debate

I just finished Ralph's book, Eternal Covenant, and enjoyed it. I think I largely agree with it.

Smith's main point is that the covenant of works is an extension of the eternal covenant of love within the Trinity. Instead of viewing the covenant as Adam earning God's favor meritoriously, we ought to view it as God creating Adam IN His favor, with the blessing of life, Eden, etc. Adam was required to keep covenant by obeying God, but categories of merit are unnecessary to this view.

(Quick glossary:
FV = Federal Vision
TR = Truly Reformed, who think FV is not Reformed, that it denies justification by faith alone, etc)

Well the TR crowd is all over this one. Here is a long article by Richard Phillips critiquing Smith and his FV cronies. My take on the Phillips article:

1. Phillips dismisses as unworthy of attention Smith's argument that the elements of a covenant imply an actual covenant (Ps 2:7-9; Jn 17:1-5, 20-23) when speaking of the inner-Trinitarian covenant, yet Phillips uses that exact same argument to confirm a covenant of works from John Murray's writings.

2. Covenant does not inherently require unequals, as Phillips insists (Gen 21:32). Historically, the term can be used for agreements and relationships with lords-vassals or between equals. This opens the way to see the Trinity as in covenant.

3. I disagree that Smith is headed for tri-theism with covenantal understanding of it. We speak of husband and wife as becoming one flesh, though two persons. The mystery is the same. Philips is underestimating what covenantal unity is. One could as easily accuse Philips of modalism.

4. While Phillips sees Smith's covenant as relationship as denigrating covenant, I found Smith's argument compelling. Phillips prefers to see covenant as our means to relationship with God, nothing more, and certainly not the relationship itself. If this is so, Smith asks, then is covenant jettisoned once we get to heaven? It would have to be if covenant is only soteriological, and not ontological, too. But do we not remain in covenant with God there? Do we not renew covenant with God in worship? Does our covenantal union with Christ go away once we are with Him directly? How else are we as the Church to be one as the Trinity is one (John 17)?

5. Smith may not be as big a leap for me since I'm not as steeped in the Westminster side of things, with its explicit covenant of works. I'm more familiar with the Dutch guys, Kuyper et al, who Smith relies on...

Phillips is very unfair to Smith in saying that "Instead of the classically identified elements of a covenant - the parties involved, the condition, the promised blessing, and the threatened sanction - all that now is involved is a mutual commitment to relationship". He must have missed Smith's argument that the classical elements of a covenant imply a covenant. Smith is not doing away with these elements at all, but saying there is a more relational backdrop to those legal elements.

When Phillips says the biblical structure of covenants collapses, he is just asserting what Smith denies: that the covenant of works should be foundational in defining all the other covenants. Reading works into the Trinity is all right to a point (John 17:4), but those works are motivated by love (John 17:23) and grounded in faith (Hebrews 5:7; also, did Jesus merit God's favor, or have it from the beginning? See Luke 2:40). Smith's point, with which I agree, is that the works required in God's covenant of works with Adam also had to be motivated by love and grounded in faith. Smith DOES differentiate faith and works clearly, but he asserts that they function equally in cov of works and cov of grace, which I agree with. The difference is whose faith and works are the basis for righteousness - Adam's own in first; Jesus' for us in second. (If this is the distinction TRs want to keep in keeping the cov of works language, I'm all for it.) Phillips' repeated accusation that FV "merges faith and works" is unfair.

Phillips makes me angry when he says Smith describes a covenant we have to stay in by works. I just read the book, and Smith says no such thing. Smith DOES say Adam was created in covenant and the test was to stay in, but he had to do so by faith, resulting in good works, in standard "faith alone, but not faith that is alone" categories. Adam's faith - in God's Word and to His covenant - was the sole instrument justifying him, keeping him in covenant obedience to God before the fall. After the fall, it is our faith - in Christ's obedience and death for our faithlessness - that is the sole instrument justifying us before God.

Then Phillips critiques Peter Leithart - but I don't think Leithart would say "our relationship with God is derivative from our relationship in the church" as Phillips has him saying. I WOULD want to make the church more central to our identity, as Leithart does, though.

He mis-interprets Wilson's objective covenant: "This means I can know objectively I am right with God because I am in the church." This is patently false. Wilson would say no such thing. You can know you are in covenant with God if you are in the church, and that brings real blessings (or curses).

Anyway, it degenerates from there, and I'd better stop. Phillips is on the other side from me of a widening chasm on these issues. In my humble opinion, his side comes close to denying James 2's living faith, while FV has found a way to hold justification by faith alone, undiluted, AND James 2. (I probably ought to read a TR's exposition of James 2 to figure out their position better on that.)

Smith has several compelling points in the book:
1. The tree of life was not forbidden Adam from the start. Thus he was in the covenant of life from the moment he existed, by fiat of creation in the image of God.

2. Assuming a covenant of works as the foundation makes the whole system man-centered. The center of Gen 1-2 isn't the prohibition of the fruit, but God saying "Let Us make man in Our image." Smith retains this God centered orientation, while not vitiating the first covenant with Adam, either.

3. Bavinck, AA Hodge and Dabney all spoke of God's graciousness in the covenant of works, long before Doug Wilson or Ralph Smith did. Smith's question is pertinent: "Has Bavinck denied the Gospel?"

If you are worried about Smith's orthodoxy, see page 82-83 of Eternal Covenant:
"The facts that we are involved in Adam's sin, that our sins were laid upon Christ, and that we are counted as righteous because of His faithfulness to the covenant (Kline's revised view of merit) cannot be denied without denying the gospel. But to affirm these truths, one does not have to agree with Kline's particular formulation of the covenant of works or any other view of the covenant of works.... Was Adam required to be faithful to the covenant in order to be blessed? Yes. Was it such that even one infraction of the covenant meant death? Yes. Was Christ required to be faithful to the covenant in order to be blessed? Yes. Was it such that even one infraction of the covenant would have meant death? Yes."

"What the Bible - and also the Westminster Confession - requires in the way of a parallel between Adam and Christ, then, is not denied on a trinitarian covenant of love approach. None of the essentials - not federal headship, nor the importance of Jesus' active obedience to the demands of the covenant, nor righteousness, nor law, nor imputation - are diminished... nor does it undermine the doctrine of justification by faith. On the contrary, the system of doctrine which finds its genius in the fact that it is wholly theocentric is allowed to attain a mature form, leaving behind the medieval merit system and a doctrine of the covenant that makes the trinitarian covenant subordinate to the covenant of works."

Here is a statement of Ralph Smith's to evaluate:
"When merit has been redefined as covenant faithfulness and we understand that both Adam and Christ are promised blessings upon the basis of being faithful to the covenant, there seems to be very little lost if we drop the redefined and now unnecessary word 'merit.'... life was not a blessing to be won by merit. Life was essential to the original condition of the covenant."

I would say that most TRs equate merit with active obedience. If that is the case, I agree with them. But FV is pointing out that the medieval debate saw merit as either (1)strict justice, genuinely earned merit, which is condign merit; or as (2)merit God defines in covenant, even if it isn't strictly worth the reward given, which is congruent merit. FV makes the point that the Reformed rightly reject the first, adopts the second, but that that second option, congruent merit, isn't what we think of as merit at all. Grace was there from the start. God sustains our lives while we "earn" His reward, given before fully/truly earned. This is not merit. The picture is often given of a parent telling a child they can have their allowance if they clean their room. The allowance isn't a strict worth reward for cleaning the room. They should have cleaned it anyway! But the parent condescends. This is all true, but as the child in relationship to God, doesn't it glorify Him more for me to remember the condescension as I obey? Isn't the relationship in that covenant of works as much about the gracious condescension as it is about the strict obedience of meritorious work?

Now, when it comes to Christ, He fully satisfied God's justice by complete obedience. But He didn't have to work into this favor. He had it from early childhood (Luke 2:40) and at His baptism (Luke 3:22). The hard part for Jesus and for us is to hold faithfully all the blessings and grace that our Father loads upon us.

Anyway, it would be interesting to read the FV statement at the FV link at the top of this post, in conjunction with this critique, as it would highlight many unfair characterizations, I think. I'll leave that for you to do someday....

1 comment:

  1. I had never stoppped to think, though I should have, that the definition of covenant that was taught to me could be derived from an older definition - one that gets its meaning from the eternal covanant. I knew my understanding stemmed from real instances in history and Scripture. What I missed was the corruption, or transformation, rather, that must have taken place in what is called covenant through the movement from between persons of the Godhead to between fallen creatures or to between God and His fallen creatures. "Solemn bond, sovereignly administered, [sealed in blood (if we are talking about a covenant between God and man)]with attendant blassings and curses," works well, but only within a specific context. The etertnal covenant is the prime covenant.