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The Trinity and the Covenant of Redemption by J. V. Fesko

Carl Trueman

The Trinity and the Covenant of Redemption, by J. V. Fesko. Fearn, Ross-shire, UK: Mentor, Christian Focus, 2016. xx + 414, $29.99, paper.

John Fesko’s study of the covenant of redemption is a most timely and helpful contribution to an important and contested topic. Given the recent resurgence of interest in classical Trinitarianism amongst confessional Protestants, this book touches on questions which will probably be preoccupying Reformed theologians for some time to come.

As a concept, the covenant of redemption refers to the arrangement, forged in eternity, between the Father and the Son which established the Son as the Second Adam. It thus stands in positive structural relationship to the covenant of works and the covenant of grace. Indeed, it is the conceptual foundation for making the work of Christ efficacious.

It has nonetheless proved controversial over the years, as Fesko indicates. Criticism has ranged from the simplistic—“Where is the covenant of redemption explicitly mentioned in Scripture?”—to the more sophisticated and dogmatic— “Does the covenant of redemption not posit too great a division in God?” “Does it not neglect the Holy Spirit?” Fesko is aware of these criticisms and seeks to address them.

After a historical introduction, Fesko addresses the exegetical foundations of the doctrine in Part II. Drawing on Zechariah 6:13, Psalm 2:7, Psalm 110, Ephesians 1, and 2 Timothy 1:9–10. In this section, he demonstrates that the doctrine does not rest on a single text but seeks to synthesize the implications of a thread of teaching which runs throughout the Old and into the New Testament touching on the identity and the role of the Messiah. This is a sound approach consistent with the original work of the seventeenth century divines who first formulated the doctrine. Dogmatic constructs such as the covenant of redemption do not simply fall from the pages of Scripture or find explicit expression in one or two texts. Rather, these constructs attempt to synthesize the teaching of the Bible as a whole as it touches upon matters of ontological and economic importance. Rather like the covenant of works, which finds its primary motivation in the New Testament teaching of the relationship between Adam and Christ, so the covenant of redemption offers a synthetic concept which helps to make sense of Scripture’s teaching as a whole.

In Part III, Fesko offers an account of the dogmatic significance of the doctrine, touching on issues of both ontology (the Trinity) and economy (the elements of the order of salvation). What emerges very clearly in this section is that the covenant of redemption is that which connects the ontological Trinity to the economic Trinity. Indeed, one’s understanding of the relationship between these two is going to be decisively reflected in one’s attitude to the covenant of redemption.

It is in this section that Fesko addresses many of the standard concerns about the covenant of redemption but also engages in lengthy interactions with numerous modern theologians, most notably Karl Barth, but also Rudolph Bultmann, Hans Frei, and others. Particularly useful is his defense of the role of metaphysics in theological formulation over against the anti-metaphysical critiques offered by neo-orthodoxy and narrative theology. Yet even here Fesko models good scholarship through his concern to treat his opponents fairly by carefully expounding their critiques before responding.

There are a couple of areas which need further exploration—though I present them here not as a criticism of Fesko’s book but rather as suggestions about how his work should be carried forward.

First, there is more work to be done on the historical origins of the idea. As he notes, the conceptual language emerges in the mid 1640s, although it receives brief mention by David Dickson in 1638. This is why the doctrine is not explicitly taught in the Westminster Standards.  But, as Fesko notes, the concept is adumbrated in earlier Reformation work on Christ as mediator. The key here is that the Reformers argued that mediation is the act of a person, not a nature, and that Christ was mediator according to both natures. In doing this, they broke decisively with the medieval tradition which had posited mediation as an act of the human nature. This opened the Reformers to the criticism, made most powerfully by Cardinal Bellarmine, that they were doing damage to the doctrine of God by making God somehow mediator with God.  That polemical background is important.

This then leads to a second point: the covenant of redemption raises acute questions about the inner life of God. Fesko addresses the issue of the unity of God’s will; but I suspect that, in the light of the welcome recovery of classical Trinitarianism and renewed appreciation for the confessional doctrine of divine simplicity, more work needs to be done on how to understand the covenant of redemption in relation to the unity and simplicity of God. To posit a separate will for Father and for Son is, as Fesko sees, an illegitimate move; and yet for many ordinary Christians, this is an issue which will need further explanation and refinement. The rise of classical theism is to be welcomed; this will in turn raise the bar for discussions of matters such as the appointment in eternity of Christ as mediator.

This is a very good book which offers a straightforward yet learned introduction to its subject. For anyone wanting to know about the covenant of redemption and its dogmatic, historical, and exegetical underpinnings and implications, this is certainly the place to start.

Carl Trueman is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and serves as a professor of biblical and religious studies at Grove City College, Grove City in Pennsylvania. Ordained Servant Online, April 2020.

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