Volume 43 - Issue 1

The Covenant of Redemption: Origins, Development, and Reception

by J. V. Fesko

The doctrine of the covenant of redemption (pactum salutis) has fallen on hard times within the contemporary theological landscape. For many, it is a strange, speculate doctrine; for others, it is a historical relic from the dustbins of post-Reformation scholasticism. Thus, J. V. Fesko performs a great service in this monograph, focusing attention on this sorely neglected doctrine.

In the introduction, Fesko notes that while some contemporary theologians (e.g., John Webster, John Frame, and Michael Horton) have offered brief expositions of the doctrine, there have been, by Fesko’s calculation, “only three monographs on the subject and five historical-theological works” (p. 20) since the famous speech on the doctrine by David Dickson (1583–1662) “at the 1638 General Assembly of the Scottish Kirk” (p. 16). With this in mind, Fesko argues that this doctrine ought to be retrieved as it has significant bearing on “christology, soteriology, theology proper, covenant,” and other areas (p. 23).

In the first chapter, Fesko outlines the historical origins of the pactum. He asserts that the 1638 speech by Dickson is “the first explicit defense and definition of the [doctrine]” (p. 30). In this speech, Dickson asserts that the primary failing of the Remonstrant view was its neglect of the covenant of redemption. Interestingly, this speech appears to presume the general acceptance of the pactum among the Reformed as indicated by the lack of cited authorities in the speech and the identification of the doctrine as “our doctrine” without recorded complaint (p. 31).

Fesko then turns to Herman Witsius’s (1636–1708) refutation of the claim that the covenant of redemption was a recent theological invention. While admitting that few ancient writers engaged with the doctrine, Witsius marshalled such figures as Jacob Arminius (1560–1609), William Ames (1576–1633), and “a Roman Catholic Jesuit theologian, Jacob Tirinius [1580–1636]” (p. 33), to support the high pedigree and basic catholicity of the doctrine. Fesko, anticipating the objection against the persuasiveness of Witsius’s refutation, argues that while the terms connected with the doctrine were not always used, the basic issues surrounding the ontological/economic Trinitarian distinction and its relationship to Christ’s obedience and our redemption are treated by such ancient theologians as Augustine (354–430) and Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274). Fesko notes, in turn, that these “requisite pieces” (p. 42) of the pactum are also found in subsequent writers, even when the explicit terms connected with it are missing.

The second chapter addresses the seventeenth-century treatment of the pactum salutis in England and Scotland with the lion’s share of the chapter being directed toward Patrick Gillispie’s (1617–1675) full-length treatment of the doctrine entitled Ark of the Covenant (London: Thomas Parkhurst, 1677), mentioning others of the era and period along the way. Here, Fesko notes Gillispie’s definition of covenant, his Scriptural support for the covenant of redemption (e.g., Zech 6:13; Pss 2:7; 40), and the elements and properties that make up the covenant of redemption. Gillespie defines the pactum as “an eternal transaction and agreement between Jehovah and the Mediator Christ, about the work of Redemption” (Ark of the Covenant, p. 50; cited by Fesko on p. 55). Fesko then gives substantial attention to critical issues that surround the pactum (pp. 61–80) such as the role of the Holy Spirit, the relationship between the pactum and the covenant of grace, and the implications of the pactum on justification and imputation.

The third chapter discusses the treatment of the pactum in seventeenth-century continental Europe with primary attention given to Herman Witsius’s explication of the doctrine. Fesko notes that in this context, dispute over the exegetical footing of the pactum was more fervent than in either England or Scotland. Again, critical issues are explored in connection with the pactum (e.g., Christ’s merit and reward and whether Christ was a conditional or unconditional surety for Old Testament believers).

Fesko’s discussion of the eighteenth century, in the fourth chapter, gives specific attention to John Gill (1697–1771) and Jonathan Edwards (1703–1758). For Fesko, these two figures represent the “deconfessionalization and the denominational disintegration” of the eighteenth century (p. 110). Following his justification for including Gill, a Particular Baptist theologian, in his survey, Fesko notes three areas where Gill modifies the prior tradition: (1) the structure of the covenant, i.e., the conflation of the covenant of the redemption and grace; (2) the role of the Holy Spirit as a partner in the pactum; and (3) the placement of justification in the immanent life of the Triune God. With regard to Edwards, upon comparing his treatment of the pactum with the prior tradition, Fesko gives significant attention to Edwards’s understanding of justification, which finds its origin in the pactum, and especially his rejection of faith as an instrumental cause of justification. Fesko concludes this discussion by seeing the modification of Gill and Edwards as a reaction to the philosophical challenges of their day.

In Fesko’s description of the nineteenth century, he gives most of his attention to the Old Princeton theologian, Charles Hodge (1797–1878). Here, Fesko is concerned to defend Hodge against the charge of rationalism (cf. p. 146) and demonstrate his basic continuity with the Reformed tradition. Thus, he sees Hodge’s treatment of the pactum as indicative of an epistemology rooted not in reason but in revelation and his articulation of union with Christ and justification as in the mainstream of Reformed theology contra Gill and Edwards.

The final two chapters speak most clearly to the reception of the pactum salutis as it discusses the twentieth-century critics (ch. 6) and proponents (ch. 7) of the doctrine. With regard to its critics—John Murray (1898–1975), Herman Hoeksema (1886–1965), Klaas Schilder (1890–1952), and Karl Barth (1885–1968)—Fesko notes numerous reasons for their rejection of the pactum, e.g., the rejection of the covenant of works, redefinition of the concept of covenant, an elevation of John Calvin (1509–1564), and, excepting John Murray, an anti-scholastic sentiment. With regard to its proponents—Abraham Kuyper (1837–1920), Herman Bavinck (1854–1921), Geerhardus Vos (1862–1949), Louis Berkhof (1873–1957), and G. C. Berkouwer (1903–1996)—Fesko argues that, despite differences among them, these twentieth-century proponents of the pactum are, to varying degrees, influenced by Vos’s speech “The Doctrine of the Covenant in Reformed Theology (in Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation: The Shorter Writings of Geerhardus Vos, ed. Richard B. Gaffin, Jr. [Phillipsburg: P&R, 1980], 234–67). Fesko ends his volume with a conclusion that helpfully summarizes some of the highlights of what he has covered throughout with a final encouragement to appropriate the insights of the pactum for contemporary constructive efforts.

Fesko has offered a clearly-written, well-organized, and insightful monograph on the history of the covenant of redemption, which not only highlights the distinct articulations of the doctrine itself but also how it intersects with and informs other theological loci. He succeeds, in turn, in demonstrating the importance of retrieving this doctrine for contemporary theological purposes. Thus, this reviewer highly recommends this volume for the aspiring systematic theologian, the student and the historical theologian. Unfortunately, while accessible, its high price point may be cost prohibitive for most educated lay readers. Nevertheless, the price is typical of specialist monographs, so the intended audience will not be caught by surprise.

Thomas Haviland-Pabst

Thomas Haviland-Pabst
Asheville, North Carolina, USA

Other Articles in this Issue

This article considers the emergence of an evangelical endorsement of the Two-Source Hypothesis as a solution to the Synoptic Problem in the first half of the twentieth century...

Brian Simmons has made a new translation of the Psalms (and now the whole New Testament) which aims to ‘re-introduce the passion and fire of the Bible to the English reader...

Nearly three hundred fifty years after Martin Luther nailed the 95 Theses to the castle church door in Wittenburg, Charles Haddon Spurgeon confronted the growing influence of Roman Catholic teaching within the Church of England...

Philip Rieff’s sociological analyses explore the implications of Western Civilization’s unprecedented attempt to maintain society and culture without reference to God...

The giant of Old Princeton, B. B. Warfield, outspokenly condemned the racism and rigid segregation of American society of his day...