Last week, I posted a critique of the argument of Cal Beisner and Fowler White concerning the connection between the covenant of redemption and the covenant of works. Beisner and White replied, and I post their reply here with their permission.
We offer our sincere thanks to Dr. Leithart for his thoughtful interaction with our observations on the relationship between the doctrine of a meritorious covenant of works and the doctrine of God. We agree with him that reflections on that relationship promise to shed useful light on matters of dispute in the FV controversy. In what follows, we present our response to his evaluation of our thinking.
After citing the material relevant to the interests of his essay, Dr. Leithart turns first to analyze a shift in the terms we use to describe the respective rewards for obedience in the covenant of redemption and in the covenant of works: we speak of the “everlasting inheritance of all things” merited by the Son and the “everlasting life” merited by Adam. In his analysis, Dr. Leithart rightly concludes that, according to our view, Adam begins in a state of great favor and, by his obedience, would have entered into a subsequent and final state of even greater favor, namely, eschatological life. At this juncture in his essay, Dr. Leithart examines implications of our view of Adam, the most significant of which is his observation that our position is actually quite close to the position of the FV and Norman Shepherd. Unfortunately, we do not share his perception. The closeness of our position to that of the FV/Shepherd is only formal, not material: common terms are used, but common definitions are not. This phenomenon has been a recurring problem throughout the debate over the FV and Shepherd. Let us consider the details of Dr. Leithart’s discussion.
As to his point that the covenant of works is not about Adam earning life and fellowship with God, we agree, inasmuch as Adam was blessed with these benefits at his creation. Yet, lest we be misunderstood, we have to emphasize a point that we made in our essay and that Dr. Leithart noticed, namely, that Adam’s obedience to the command in Genesis 2 would have earned him something more than life; that is, it would have earned him immortality. In light of 1 Cor 15:45-49), we have to say that Adam’s obedience would have enabled him to move from his first, natural, earthly, protological state to his second and last, spiritual, heavenly, eschatological state. We emphasize this point because, as our essay states, there was a (level of) life for Adam to earn by his obedience and, in that sense, the covenant of works actually was about Adam earning life, albeit life of the eschatological sort.
On Dr. Leithart’s second point that Adam’s obedience is set in a context of favor, we agree. In agreeing to this point, however, we do not, as Dr. Leithart noticed, define the term “favor” to mean “grace”—and the difference puts us materially at odds with the FV and Shepherd. We do indeed reserve the word “grace” to apply to God’s acts of favor in the face of demerit. There are, we believe, good reasons for this limitation: first, it is not sound lexical semantics to load all the senses of the word “favor” into each occurrence, and, second, it avoids definitional confusion in critical theological terminology. The term “favor” (Gk., charis) applies to acts contrary to demerit (grace), to acts according to positive merit (merited favor), and to acts despite the absence of positive merit (unmerited favor). The word “favor,” then, has a wider range of meaning than does “grace”: “favor” is the genus of which “grace” is a species. In the case of Adam before the fall, God condescended to show him favor despite the absence of positive merit. In other words, God’s favor toward unfallen Adam was unmerited. So, to rephrase the point at issue, Adam’s obedience did indeed begin in a context of unearned (i.e., unmerited) favor. We hasten to add, however, that Adam’s obedience would not have ended there. Rather it would have had its end in a context of earned (i.e., merited) favor, for eschatological life would have been the reward earned by him and due to him for his obedience.
Turning from the implications of our interpretation of the covenant of works, Dr. Leithart proceeds to analyze our statements about “strict justice” in the covenant of redemption and “covenantal justice” in the covenant of works. In the first place, it appears that Dr. Leithart has either overlooked or not fully grasped the explicit definitions that we ourselves gave to the terms “strict justice” and “covenantal justice” in our essay. Our discussion makes it plain that these terms have nothing to do with any caricatures of God’s justice as “justice and nothing but justice” or “justice mixed with other factors,” much less any caricatures of God’s simplicity. In fact, our most key statements on the terms in question are actually quoted in Dr. Leithart’s essay. Thus, readers can see for themselves that he has erected and attacked a straw man. In light of that, his interaction does not actually engage what we said about strict versus covenantal justice.
Dr. Leithart does, however, raise an interesting new issue through this provocative observation: if love and goodness combine with justice to characterize the Father-Son relationship and the Creator-Adam relationship, then merit is not a component of either the covenant of redemption or covenant of works, and we are glad to engage him there. In the starkest terms, if the Creator-Adam relationship is one of “justice mixed with favor” and the Father-Son relationship is one of “justice and nothing but justice,” then, quoting Leithart, “we have a significant blemish in the doctrine of God, an implicit denial of the simplicity of God or a suggestion that the Father and Son and Spirit might possibly relate in terms of ‘strict justice,’ the suggestion that the Father might withhold his favor until His eternal, beloved Son has performed meritorious obedience.” Dr. Leithart’s analysis of our statements about “strict justice” and “covenantal justice” exposes fundamental differences between us and him.
First, the fact that love and goodness characterize the Father-Son relationship does not in any way negate the fact that it is also characterized by justice. There are both filial and legal aspects in any father-son relationship. A father-son relationship is more than strictly filial: its meaning is not exhausted in “the filial and nothing but the filial.” So it is in the covenant of redemption. The argument from divine simplicity cuts both ways.
Second, there are in the covenant of redemption both essential and economic aspects to the relationship between the Father and the Son. Specifically, the Son is not just a Son; He is also a man and a servant (Phil 2:6-8) and a minor under a pedagogue (Gal 4:1-5). These facts have enormous implications for our understanding of merit in the covenant of redemption. On the one hand, contrary to Dr. Leithart’s suggestions, a relationship of strict merit does exist between the Father and the Son by Their very essence as the perfectly worthy God. Each Person merits—each Person is due—the worship of the Other. On the other hand, though not essential to Their Deity, there is also a relationship of covenantal merit between the Father and the Son in the covenant of redemption, and that relationship is as eternal as the counsel of God in which the plan of redemption was determined. To be specific, by submitting to humiliation to fulfill His role in redemption, the Son covenantally merited—He was covenantally due—the reward of exaltation from the Father in eternity past. In other words, the Son’s humiliation necessitated His introduction into the realm of covenantal merit, wherein the Son and the Father were related no longer only as God with God but now also as God with man, as lord with servant, and as father with minor. For such humiliation, and indeed for submission to the will of His God and Father, the Second Person of the Trinity was rewarded by the First Person of the Trinity with exaltation after humiliation (Phil 2:9-11; Rom 1:4). There is, then, a connection between the Son’s humiliation and covenantal merit: covenantal merit originates in the Son’s submission to humiliation. To put it differently, there are both essential and economic aspects to the relationship of the Father and the Son in the covenant of redemption, and covenantal merit is a necessary component of Their economic relationship as strict merit is a necessary component of Their essential relationship.
There is no doubt that the debate between the FV advocates and their critics has profound implications for theology. We agree with Dr. Leithart in this respect: putting the issue of a meritorious covenant of works into the realm of theology proper clarifies a number of related issues. Not least among those issues are the essential and economic aspects of the relationship between the Father and the Son and the concepts of merit entailed therein. We are convinced that consideration of these matters gives greater understanding of the covenant of redemption and the covenant of works and, with that, comes greater honor to the triune God we serve.
posted by Peter J. Leithart on Thursday, May 3, 2007 at 5:47 pm
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