Barth offers a challenging critique of the covenant of works. Let me summarize three points, briefly.
First, Barth points out that the covenant of works sets law and works as the framework for the entire account of redemptive history and God's dealings with man. The work of Jesus is understood in these terms, as the fulfillment of the covenant of works, and he argues that even the Christian life is guided by law, in the sense that the law provokes our repentance and guides our obedience. God's relation to man is centrally that of Lawgiver and servant.
But this, second, stands in unresolved and probably unresolvable tension with the pactum salutis, the covenant of salvation that, according to many Reformed theologians, is concluded between the Father and the Son. Barth points out that the federal theologians never attempted to root the covenant of works in an inter-Trinitarian covenant, and he believes they were right not to do this. But if the pactum salutis doctrine is correct, then the eternal, divine root of God's relation to His people is not law and works but salvation. If the pactum salutis is real, then God only regards His people as being in Christ, only regards them through the mediator. Grace thus envelops the whole covenant structure, including the covenant of works. The only way to avoid this is to suggest that there is something analogous to the covenant of works within the Trinitarian life, but Barth suggests that no Reformed theology has tried to do this.
Finally, Barth pushes the question back to theology proper in a challenge to the whole theory of a pactum salutis. The theory suggests, Barth argues, that God's righteousness and mercy need to be reconciled, as if they are not eternally reconciled in the Good Righteousness and Righteous Goodness that is God Himself: "We have to reckon with the existence of a God who is righteous in abstracto and not free to be gracious from the very first, who has to bind to the fulfillment of His promise the fulfillment of certain conditions by man, and punish their non-fulfillment." The covenant of redemption is proposed because of an "axiety lest there might be an essence in God in which, in spite of that contract, His righteousness and His mercy are secretly and at bottom two separate things." Against this, Barth insists that there is no abstract righteousness of God, but "In the eternal decree of God revealed in Jesus Christ the being of God would have been seen as righteous mercy and merciful righteousness from the very first."
The covenant of redemption also raises the specter of a breach between the Father and Son: "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 reletivised 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."
posted by Peter J. Leithart on Wednesday, May 16, 2007 at 10:38 AM
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