Is the Covenant of Works an Aberrant Theological Construct? Part I

c of wThe covenant of works (hereafter CoW) is that feature of covenant theology (which stands in contrast to various understandings of the overall structure of the Bible[1]) that is most commonly rejected by those reject the broader interpretive or hermeneutic approach of covenant theology. This rejection of the CoW is due to the word “works,” which brings to the mind the idea of merit in the Thomist sense. That is to say, the CoW seems to suggest that man, in his original state, was able to earn a life with God. Such an idea is rightfully seen to be repugnant and thus to be rejected. Yet, it will be our contention here that such an understanding of the CoW is not necessary to it. We will do so by interpreting this event with relevant biblical-theological categories. At times, this may sound like a criticism and even rejection of the CoW, but, it is our hope to reframe the CoW using biblical-theological categories so as to shed it of those misconceptions which are commonly attached to it.

I. A Brief Exposition of the Covenant of Works as Defined by the Westminster Confession of Faith

Before moving forward, it behooves us to present an articulation of the CoW with some comments. The Westminster Confession of Faith writes:

The distance between God and the creature is so great, that although reasonable creatures do owe obedience unto Him as their Creator, yet they could never have any fruition of Him as their blessedness and reward, but by some voluntary condescension on God’s part, which He has been pleased to express by way of covenant. The first covenant made with man was a covenant of works, wherein life was promised to Adam; and in him to his posterity, upon condition of perfect and personal obedience.[2]

By way of comment, we can note, first, that this confessional standard does not present the CoW as devoid of God’s grace (“some voluntary condescension on God’s part”), but rather was a free act of God toward man (cf. the words “voluntary” and “pleased”). Note, further, that this standard presents God himself as the “blessedness and reward,” hence, the “life promised” is God himself. Moreover, the words “perfect” and “personal” modify the type of obedience required.

Personal has to do with the personal relationship between God and man; hence, it is not some abstract principle of merit that we are dealing with but rather man in engagement with a personal God. Perfect is the modifier that would cause an obvious knee jerk reaction for those less-than-sympathetic to the CoW, and, as such, we will discuss this in more detail below. Suffice it to say here, the gracious, voluntary act of God toward man; that God is presented as the reward and the life received; and, the personal dynamic between God and man should caution us against admitting a Pelagian or semi-Pelagian understanding of merit or some principle abstracted from God himself into our understanding of “perfect” at this point.

II. What is Faith?

Paul writes in Rom 14:23,[3] “For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.” This statement Paul makes at the conclusion of his discussion of how believers with different convictions are to relate to one another; and, it is a categorical statement which basically orients how we are to understand any and everything that we do. Whatever we do, if it is not accompanied by faith, is sin. That is to say, faith is to be the ground of all our activity. Now, it would be a mistake to assume that he means faith simpliciter, rather, he has in mind faith connected with a particular object, namely, God as he is revealed in Christ. Thus, faith in Christ, God the Son, is the ground of all that we do.

Paul’s statement here pairs well with and in fact draws out his phrase “the obedience of faith” in Romans 1:5 and 16:26. This phrase bookends Romans, and, as such, serves as an interpretive clue for the book. Paul is concerned with an obedience that arises from faith, with obedience apart from faith being impossible.

At this point, further clarity on what exactly faith is will be beneficial. As James 2 makes clear, faith is not merely mental assent. Rather, the culmination, the height of faith, although not less than mental assent, is trust; in this case, trust in a person, namely, God. The author of Hebrews writes:

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. For by it the people of old received their commendation. By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible (11:1-3).

Here, Hebrews brings out the fact that faith in God is a faith which sees, as it were, the unseen. Faith apprehends God, faith trust in God, who is unseen. Paul, in 2 Cor 5:7, confirms this aspect of faith when he writes, “For we walk by faith not by sight”; that is, it is not by our empirical understanding or even the appearance of things that we are to live, but we are to live by faith. The remainder of Hebrews 11, which presents examples of those with faith who did not act according to empiricism or appearance, but according to trust in God, further supports this. We are to look “to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith” (Heb 12:2).

Returning now to Romans, this faith in God, a faith that is apprehends the One who stands outside mere appearance or empirical evidence, we see faith as a pivotal, indeed essential, concept for understanding how one is to live before God. Those who are righteous, that is, who walk with God, are those who “live by faith” (Rom 1:17). We receive Christ, “a propitiation” for our sins, by faith (3:24-25). Moreover, we are counted as righteous, justified, by faith, “apart from works of the law” (3:21-31; cf. Rom 4:1ff). Even more strikingly, Paul states that the Jews did not attain righteousness “… [b]ecause they did not pursue it by faith, but as if it were based on works” (9:30-32). Indeed, we stand as believers by our faith (11:20).

This summary of Paul’s teaching on faith may seem rather rudimentary, but, as we will see, it is essentially for understanding the pre-fall sitution of man. Trusting in God, or, apprehension of the invisible God by faith in him, is necessary for us to truly walk with God, receive him and the salvific benefits that come from him,[4] and be truly righteous before him. Again, it must be stressed, nowhere does Paul (or, it is our contention, any biblical author) understand obedience to God as existing without it being first and in a totalizing manner grounded in a trusting apprehension of the invisible but truly manifest God. Put differently, obedience must exist under the hegemony of a trusting apprehension of the Lord, who is good and loving, for to fail to do so it in fact to fail to attain to actual obedience (cf. Rom 1:5, 9:32; 14:23; 16:26, et al.).


See Next Week for Part II of This Post.


[1] This is a complex subject, although, in the main, the differences between the various understandings of the supra-structure of the Bible can be summarized as the continuity or discontinuity that is posited between the Old and New Testaments. Classical dispensationalism can usually be seen as the understanding which posits extreme discontinuity between the various periods of the Bible; covenant theology can be seen as positing a basic continuity between the various periods, seeing the strongest point of discontinuity between the covenant of works and the covenant of grace, although, as with any summary, this is something of an oversimplification. See the guest posts of Brittain Brewer here and here for a outline of Karl Barth’s provocative critique of the CoW.

[2] Chapter VII, para. I-II. The Westminster Larger Catechism (Q/A. 20) calls this same covenant a “covenant of life.” Had this terminology been adopted in the Confession, some of the misunderstandings of the CoW may have been avoided at the outset.

[3] The epistle to the Romans is a key book for understanding the relationship between faith and works as well as Christ’s relationship to the original man, Adam; therefore, we will be drawing from Romans throughout.

[4] The reader may anticipate a connection between a reception by faith of God and his benefits here and in the pre-fall situation. We will turn to this possible line of connection as we move forward.


How are we to understand Jesus? Historically? Ethically? Psychologically? – Beholding the God-man as He Ought to be Beheld.

moneySome people breathe heavy, some breathe deep; for others, their breathing becomes shallow, almost imperceptible. These forms of breathing signal varying responses to the name of Jesus Christ. Oh, yes, the one-and-only Jesus Christ, who has been the subterfuge of many a historical-critic, the bane of many a Marxist atheist, and the one whose eyes pierce to the bottom of the soul for many a Christian. Now, these responses, with the last being the most clearly dominant (if we are to take empirical and statistical evidence at face value), are responses to, as the Christian tradition articulates it, the God-man, the Son of God/Man, who was sent by the Father, yes, Father God, to redeem a broken, afflicted, and rebellious humanity. And it is these responses, or, more specifically, what the right response of believers should be, that we are concerned.

In a recent book, I was presented with a picture of Jesus, a “low to medium Christology,” as it were, which cast Jesus, the Son of Man, in terms which modern day ethicists deem as proper, or, at the very least, the most comfortable. By painting Jesus against this wall, he was, in turn, painted as an oppressor, for he did not immediately overthrow the Roman Empire with all her crimes; as a racist for his treatment of the Syrophoenician woman; as a rage-o-holic for his anger and violence toward the temple merchants; and, essentially, as something less than what we’d expect from the (quotes intentional) “Son of God,” never mind a son of God.

Yet, is this the proper way to approach Jesus or is something, to put it mildly, drastically amiss? Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 5:16-17:

From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.

Briefly, we can note a few things about this statement. First, the “no one” Paul has in mind, while it could be taken to refer to every person, in light of vv. 11-15, likely refers to not regarding the apostles, and any other such person, who lives for Christ (v. 15). Second, it is clear that Paul has in mind the identity of believers, those who are in Christ, as being part of a new creation for the eschatological breaking-in of God’s kingdom/new creation has “come.”

T. F. Torrance writes with regard to 2 Cor 5:16:

Paul is [not] indifferent to the historical Jesus – but that a Jesus who is known only in a carnal manner, as by the mere historian, the reporter of historical events, can be of no interest to us. That Jesus … apparently failed in his mission … [Rather], it is … Jesus Christ, spiritually discerned, by a transcendent mode of apprehension … we have [thus] … an object of knowledge presented to us in a complex of historical fact and spiritual event.[1]

Torrance is helpful here, for it would be wrong for us to deduce from 2 Cor 5:16 that we are to reject any notion of Christ historically-speaking. In fact, this would militant against the very existence of the Gospels, which, albeit in different ways and with different emphases, gives us a picture of the historical Jesus. Instead, we are to regard Christ in a manner that, while taking Christ’s humanity into account (for, indeed, how can we rightly fail to do so?), holds it together with Christ as the God the Son incarnate, or, in Torrance’s terms, we must keep in mind the “complex of historical fact and spiritual event.”

waterSo, choosing to start with a constructive approach, we cannot expect to truly apprehend Christ unless we approach him in faith. Now, to be clear, by faith we mean not mere intellectual assent, but rather, something far greater: trust. We must be those who trust in Jesus as our mediator and redeemer. This kind of trust is greater than merely the trust that can exist between peers, or, even the trust between a superior and an inferior (e.g., child toward parent). It is trust in the God-man, the One who, by his priestly work, provides the way for us to boldly approach the throne of grace. As a consequence, this kind of trust quickly approaches worship. By beholding Christ by faith, we receive him as the subject and object or the God and man of our faith. By approaching him in this way, we cannot see him merely from a historical or anthropocentric viewpoint, whether it be the modern canons of ethical deliberation, modern historiography, or something else. Rather, we must look upon Christ as truly encapsulating, incarnating, a spiritual event. It is Christ as both God and man, rejecting the possibility of denying either the former or the latter, whom we behold and receive by faith, and, in turn, whom we worship.

Moving toward a polemical orientation, to approach Jesus in any other manner is, to be blunt, blasphemy. BDAG defines blasphemy (βλασφημία) as “speech that denigrates or defames, reviling, denigration, disrespect, slander.[2] Now, what is often translated as slander when referring to humans is the same word used for blasphemy when referring to God, namely, βλασφημία. It is our opinion that this lexical definition can be expanded to give countenance to the theological nuance accompanying such a definition. In sum, blasphemy is communicating in such a manner that detracts for the essential dignity of the human or divine person of whom the communication refers. In the case of humans, it takes the shape, in large part, of slander; with God, it takes the shape of blasphemy so-called. Yet, whether this communication is directed toward humans or God, this does not significantly modify the substance of such a communication. At base, it is a distortion of the person (human or divine) which is subversive of the person’s basic dignity and worth.

Therefore, while we would expect those who do not enjoy fellowship with Christ, who have not been united to him and, as a consequence, received the benefits of this union, to speak in such a manner that conforms with our discussion of blasphemy, or, in Pauline terms, “according to the flesh” (κατὰ σάρκα). Christ can never be merely an object of historical inquiry for the believer, nor can he be seen through the eyes of modern-day psychoanalysis, ethical theory, or everyday politicizing. To attempt to approach him in these ways is in fact to approach him “according to the flesh” and, as such, in a manner that does not in fact apprehend or give the rightful dignity and honor owned to him.

So, to conclude, let the one who does not enjoy such a beautiful, life-altering union with the risen One engage in such blasphemous and thus severely miscalculated analyses of Christ, but, for the one who truly trust in and worships this same One, let their thoughts be ever beholding anew the beauty, majesty, holiness, goodness, love, truth, and perfection of him thus shaping how one understands Jesus’ treatment of the Syrophoenician, the Roman Empire, the Temple merchants, and the Pharisees, to name a few.


[1] T. F. Torrance, Incarnation: The Person and Life of Christ (ed. Robert T. Walker; Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2008), 29.

[2] A Greek Lexicon of the New Testament and other Early Christian Literature (3rd ed.; University of Chicago Press, 2000), 178. Italics original.

The Book of Chronicles as a Polemical, Reorienting Document: a Proposal

dariusThe book of Chronicles (consisting of 1 and 2 Chronicles) is a book that is neglected relative to other books of the Old Testament, never mind the entirety of Scripture. Upon reading a monograph by David Janzen,[1] some background information relevant to the book was brought to our attention. The purpose here is to outline an argument for reading Chronicles as a polemical and thus reorienting document.

To begin with, even for one only minimally acquainted with Chronicles, it is clear that, while the book has much in common with 1-2 Samuel and 1-2 Kings, there is much that distinguishes it from them. Some would take the approach of viewing the relationship between Chronicles and Samuel/Kings as something akin to the synoptic relationship between the gospels of the New Testament (Matthew, Mark, Luke). Yet, such an approach, we would argue, misses the particular focus of Chronicles and Samuel/Kings. Now, this does not mean that something can’t be gained from comparing a story found in these distinct books, but to make this the central interpretive framework for understanding Chronicles, i.e., vis-à-vis 1-2 Sam/1-2 Kgs, is to miss the unique message of Chronicles.

In Chronicles, there are four main ways in which the author portrays the Davidic line. First, it is presented as an established fact (1 Chron 10) rather than as something that developed over time. Second, Solomon is said to have been chosen by God to build the temple as well as rule (1 Chron 28:5, 6, 10; 29:1). Third, the reign of David and Solomon are presented as essentially overlapping. And, lastly, good kings in Chronicles are rewarded by God in Chronicles for given due attention to the temple cult.[2]

Neo-Assyrian and Neo-Babylonian concepts surrounding the king appear to be incorporated by the Chronicler in these four aspects of his portrayal. For one, it was believed that “the king was the special creation of the gods.” While the Chronicler does not portray the Davidic king in such terms, his omission of virtually any development toward a kingly rule, with only one brief mention given to anything preceding David’s reign (1 Chron 8-10:7) leaves the reader with the impression that the Davidic monarchy stands at the beginning of Israel’s history; or, at the very least, such a monarchy is natural to it.[3]

Continue reading “The Book of Chronicles as a Polemical, Reorienting Document: a Proposal”

The Neglected Doctrine of Christ’s Ascension: a Dogmatic Sketch

by Thomas Haviland-Pabst

ascensionIn our last post, we briefly surveyed pertinent NT biblical teaching on Christ’s ascension. It is our purpose now, based on prior post, to provide a dogmatic sketch of Christ’s ascension. Given this reliance, we will presuppose the biblical teaching without citing it afresh. We will first concentrate on how the ascension of Christ relates to his person and work, which will be followed by some implications for us who are united to him.

Throughout we see a picture were Christ’s deity is set alongside his humanity. For examples, the book of Hebrews and Phil 2 present Christ’s person having a divine origin, as it were. Yet, Christ also, in his humanity, grew in wisdom, demonstrated his obedience to his Father, indeed, to the point of death on the cross. This death is, in turn, followed by his resurrection and ascension or exaltation. This already signals something of importance, i.e., unless one adopts an adoptionistic schema wherein Christ, formerly a mere man, is exalted to divinity by his obedience (a heretical position, we hastily add), there must be something more occurring in such passages.

Putting it differently, if Christ is God, then it follows that he does not need to be exalted; his exaltation is, as it were, superfluous. So, either Christ’s exaltation is superfluous or the adoptionist schema is correct, right? No. Rather, the biblical teaching suggests something else; something intrinsic to Christ’s work, and, as such, necessary for understanding his assumption of human flesh.

Christ, God the Son, assumed human flesh in order to perfectly reveal the Father for, as the gospel of John tells us, no one has seen the Father except the Son; and, it is only in the Son that the Father is made known. When we behold Jesus, we see the Father. Thus, Christ is the prophet of God par excellent. Moreover, Christ is the mediator between God and man; and, as such, he has reconciled men to God by his blood, but also, by his obedience. That is to say, Christ’s incarnation was a priestly work. And, finally, Christ demonstrates the rule and reign of God by his power over nature, sickness and disease, and even demonic powers which are at war with God. In summary, Christ is the prophet, priest, and king of God; and, both his deity and his humanity lend a hand in these three offices.[1]

In order to draw this out, we will concentrate on Christ’s priestly office. Christ in his incarnation was both in the full and complete presence of his Father, doing only what he saw his Father doing, and, bearing the weight of a fallen, broken creation. Thus, we see Christ enduring the suffering that is temptation, perceiving and indeed becoming the object of the rejection, exploitation and scorn of men (yes, before even the cross), and experiencing firsthand the sorrow that accompanies existing in this fallen world. So, God the Son was not one who was removed and thus at a vast distance from the fallen, sin-riddled, and God-opposed world; rather, he experienced this world first hand. But, for whose sake, we must ask? Was he resigned to such an existence, such a host of experiences, by necessity? Not in the least. Quite to the contrary, he willing took on human flesh, with all that that entailed (i.e., immersion in a sin-soaked and death-conquered environment) for our sake. How so very much is Christ’s incarnation a priestly work!

We recall that Hebrews describes Christ’s substitutionary sacrifice as a heavenly act. Christ crucified was in the very presence of his Father—indeed, how could he not be! He was laid bare, bruised and humiliated, in the presence of his God. It is not as if he was transported to some place other than the gruesome cross from which he hung. Better, he is the only one who stands in the unrestrained presence of his Father, far above all created beings; and, as such, he is the only one that provides the way to the Father. Christ is the only human that can rightfully say without qualification that he has descended from the Father for he is God. Yet, this descent (assumption) does not entail that Christ removed himself from the presence of his Father (to do so is to abrogate his deity—an impossibility); so, it is best to understand Hebrews as teaching that at the same time as he hung on the cross he was purifying the heavenly things of which the earthly tabernacle, with its corresponding sacrifices, pointed. Hence, the veil of the earthly tabernacle leading to the very presence of God (the Holy of Holies) was torn, which communicates that Christ’s sacrifice made a way for us to enter into the Father’s presence unhindered.

Yet, Christ’s priestly work doesn’t stop there. In Hebrews 9:24 we read, “For Christ has entered, not into holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true things, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf.” Note the word “now.” Christ is now interceding for or serving as priestly mediator between God the Father and man in the unrestrained presence of God. This is where we see the person and work of Christ come into sharp relief: he is the only one that has such access to the Father for he is the Son, and, he can only bring us to this access because he is a man. That is to say, Christ, in his ascension/secession (exaltation), took our humanity into the presence of the Father; something that only he could do for it is only he that is at the same time God and man.

Since Christ’s ascension/session is deeply interwoven with his priestly work, which is, in turn, inextricably connected with his incarnation, it is best to understanding his ascension as the culmination of his inter-advent work. This is further substantiated by the fact that Christ’s prophetic and kingly offices are still exercised after his ascension. With regard to the latter, the very idea of ruling and reigning is built into his ascension above all principles, powers and authorities; with regard to the former, we see Christ still speaking to his church. Yet, even more to the point, Christ’s ascension allows the Holy Spirit to step forward, as it were. Christ then is speaking to his church through the Holy Spirit; and, the Holy Spirit is empowering Christ’s body. The prophetic and kingly function of the Spirit is clear. Moreover, the Spirit comforts us as well as interceded for us as “another advocate,” pointing to the Spirit’s priestly work, if you will. Thus, the ascension of Christ leads to a thoroughgoing Trinitarian understanding of Christ’s work as well as a pneumatologically rich one.

Turning then to our union with Christ, Christ’s ascension becomes even more relevant. We are even now seated with Christ above all other authorities and power. So, nothing in the entirety of creation can take us from the presence of God. This brings great comfort, especially if we are faced with threat to our physical safety. Moreover, as Hebrews reminds us, because Christ is interceding for us before the Father even now, our salvation will be completed. Christ’s once and for all substitution did not occur only once on this earth, only to be forgotten. Rather, it occurred in heaven and continues there, in the very presence of God; thus, it’s effectiveness to save is unhindered. Lastly, Christ, as the one seated at the right hand of the Father in glory, gives us his Spirit to equip us, but, moreover, to communicate to us (teaching, convicting, revealing). Christ, as man, has pulled us up, as it were, into the presence of God.

In sum, Christ’s ascension is the culmination of his inter-advent work as it is the continuation of his priestly, kingly, and prophetic office; indeed, it is the continuation of his incarnation. Christ was not exalted for his sake (does God need to be exalted?) but for ours. By his exaltation, we were brought near to God, and he was brought near to us. The Spirit, as God’s presence with and in us, brings the reality of this into our lives in growing measure. We await the day when Christ returns, the apocalyptic Son of Man, the theanthropos descending again to complete the salvation he began (and continues), to consummate his kingdom, and establish a new heavens and a new earth where God’s full, unrestrained presence is expressed “on earth as it is in heaven.”


[1] Of course, much more could be said here, but, for the sake of brevity, we would encourage the reader to read more extensively in this area on their own to substantiate further what we are asserting.

The Neglected Doctrine of Christ’s Ascension: a Biblical Survey

ascensionOf those aspects of Christ’s work, his post-resurrection ascension to heaven is the most neglected. Often in the preaching and teaching of the church, we hear something like, “Christ became a human, lived a life we couldn’t live, died in our place and rose from the grave.” Yet, silent from this liturgical formula is “and ascended into heaven.”

One main reason we would suggest for this is that it is simply harder to imagine or conceive of than the other aspects of Christ’s work, that is, every other aspect deals with something very earthy and tangible. The incarnation reminds us of our humanity; the crucifixion reminds us of death; even the resurrection is not, indeed cannot be, entirely divorced from the prior non-resurrected body which preceded it. The ascension, then, lies on the fringes of our imagination; it pushes and stretches the very walls of our conceptions. Surreal is this picture: a man—that is God—walked, talked, slept, breathed, tasted; and, now, ascended into the heaven, no longer visible (Acts 1:10-11). Despite the surreal nature of it, it is a vital and integral aspect of Christ’s work. With this conviction stated, it is our purpose to bring Christ’s ascension into the foreground of our thinking.

This first part of our treatment of Christ’s ascension will focus on some primary biblical texts which deal with Christ’s ascension. As such, this focus will be largely expositional, reserving a more dogmatic sketch of Christ’s ascension for the second part of our treatment. The reader must be forewarned that, while we may note some theological implications of these texts in passing, we will leave the loose ends hanging until the second part.


In Luke-Acts, we see Christ’s ascension recounted. The wording of Luke 24:49-53 closely parallels that of Acts 1:10-11; and, in both of these passages, Christ’s ascension is connected with the coming of the Holy Spirit. Prior to his ascension in Luke, Jesus tells his disciples that he is “sending the promise of my Father upon you,” urging them to wait in Jerusalem “until [they] are clothed with power from on high” (Lk 24:49). What is implied in Luke is made explicit in Acts regarding the “promise of my Father” and “power from on high,” namely, Christ was speaking of the Holy Spirit (cf. Acts 1:5, 8; cf. Acts 2).

Also to be noted are the words of the angel after Christ’s ascension, “Jesus … will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11), namely, in “a cloud” (v. 9), which, likely alludes to the “son of man” in Daniel 7:13-14.

In addition to Luke 24 // Acts 1, we can briefly note that Stephen, upon being persecuted, saw “the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God” (Acts 7:56), which not only points to the Daniel 7 references noted above, but also, it’s connection to Christ’s ascension. In Acts 9, the later-to-become apostle Paul was met by the presently speaking yet ascended Christ on the road to Damascus.[1]

The Gospel of John

The Gospel of John has much to say about Christ’s ascension, especially as one begins to tease out what is actually being said. In John 1:18 we read, “No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.” This one at the Father’s side, namely, Jesus, is the one who makes him known, for, only he has seen God. Similarly, in John 3:13, we read, “No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.” The only one who has ascended into heaven is the one who finds his origin (“descended from”) in heaven so to speak, namely, the Son of God. Again, we can note the use of the title “the Son of Man.”

Now, at this point, we must be clear as to who Christ is speaking of when he says “no one.” Clearly, Christ does not mean this in such a way as to rule out the hypostasis of Holy Spirit within the one divine essence. So, this must speak to angelic and human beings, thus marking off Christ’s access to his Father as over and above that of any created thing, for he is “the only God, who is at the Father’s side.”

This brings us, in turn, to Jesus’ later statements. In John 14:1-7, Jesus alludes to his ascension (vv. 3-4a; cf. Acts 1:10-11) and that he is the only access (“way”) to the Father (v. 6); moreover, by knowing Jesus, we know the Father (v. 7). Jesus, again in connection to his ascension, mentions that he will send the Holy Spirit to his disciples (John 15:26); in fact, the sending of the Holy Spirit is contingent upon his ascension:

I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you. And when he comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment: concerning sin, because they do not believe in me; concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father, and you will see me no longer; concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged (John 16:7-11).

In John 20:17, Jesus tells Mary Magdalene to tell that disciples that “I [Jesus] am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” Here, we can note that implicitly the hypostatic union of the Son, God’s assumption of human flesh, is found in the words “my Father [and] my God.” Continue reading “The Neglected Doctrine of Christ’s Ascension: a Biblical Survey”

Deus in Abstracto: Barth’s Critique of the Pactum Salutis Examined: Part II

27658573_10155304523952469_609693938_nThis is the continuation of last week’s post by Brittain Brewer.

In the previous post, I began looking at Barth’s surprising objection to the pactum salutis. There’s no need to rehearse what was argued there.This post will continue that thread, looking at the second half of what I believe makes the pactum revolting to Barth and some concluding remarks.

Deus pro nobis

Christology necessarily progresses from anthropology and flows back into anthropology. Anthropology in se sets the parameters for a coherent Christology, a high priest who is able to sympathize with our weaknesses (Heb. 4:15-16). Christology then rearranges parameters for an anthropology coram Deo. As man stands in relation to Christ so he stands in relation to God, being reconciled to Him through Christ (2 Cor. 5:18). Within this boundary, we may properly understand the God who is with us (Gen. 17:8; Ex. 29:45; Lev. 26:12, 45; Jer. 7:23; 11:4; 30:22; Ez. 37:27, et al). It is God’s covenant love to His people that Christ secures and fulfills. As seen above, Barth removes all covenant content and grounding besides the person Jesus Christ. Christology is not conditioned by anthropology and therefore hamartiology. Instead Christology, defines and surrounds anthropology. RHR Brouwer summarizes our dilemma as such: “man can only be thought of as a man of the covenant, in no way as an ‘abstract’ man apart from God’s choosing him.”[1]

Man’s position within the covenant is determined by Christ’s election and revelation as the God-man. The promise of this covenant is simple but profound: God will be with us. God’s first steps as a gardener (Gen. 3:8) end with God’s final throne as king (Rev. 22:3). Classic Reformed orthodoxy maintains that only the elect of God, rooted in pactum salutis, formalized by the covenant of works, and redeemed by the covenant of grace, stand here. However, because of Barth’s Christology—both content and ground of the covenant—man as whole has a claim to this covenant of God.

Man does not stand divided before God. Karl Barth writes of the covenant of grace: “That is the covenant of God with man, from which He has bound and pledged Himself always to begin, and in virtue of which He has constituted Himself his God” (CD IV/1, §57.2, 38). The ground of redemption is the covenant of grace, but not in the classic Reformed understanding which holds that this covenant is given to the seed of the woman (Gen. 3:15) and ratified with Abraham (Gen. 12; 15; 17). It is this covenant alone that, for Barth, predicates and anticipates God’s relationship “with all men” (CD IV/1, §57.2, 32).

How does this inform Barth’s view of the pactum salutis? It is arguable that because of this monocovenantalism that dominates Barth’s purview of redemptive history, any covenantal dealing of God concerning man must happen Deus pro nobis [God for us] not only in intent but also in mode. God cannot establish a contract concerning men outside of a contract with men. Barth says this almost explicitly: “To His faithfulness—He himself will see to it—there will then correspond the complementary faithfulness of his people. The covenant—God himself will make it so—will then be one which is mutually kept, and to that extent a foedus δίπλευρον [two-sided covenant]” (CD IV/1, §57.2, 33).

If God should stand before man as a God who contracts outside of them, a problem emerges for Barth. Should at any point God’s covenantal dealing with man not include man—which the pactum salutis certainly does, as the Father wills man’s salvation and Christ voluntarily agrees and wills to purchase their salvation not as man but as God—it ceases to be a covenant of grace because it is a God who stands in abstracto. This is untenable for Barth: “the perception of grace is grace itself” (CD IV/1, §57.2, 45).

It is this grace that is “God with us” and therefore Deus pro nobis [God for us] that Jesus Christ reveals. But this grace is not established, contracted, or designed apart from man, but indeed is part and parcel of God’s dealing with man. It is momentous. Therefore it is above all concrete:

And if the ‘God with us’ at the heart of the Christian message speaks of the unifying factor between God and man, it speaks of a specific conjoining of the two, not always and everywhere but in a single and particular event which has a definite importance for all time and space but which takes place once and for all in a definite hic et nunc. (CD IV/1, §57.1, 8).

George Hunsinger helpfully argues that

The ‘particular act’ at which God eternally aims, according to Barth, is the covenant in which he is ‘God with us.’ What God does—not only in creation and providence, but also ‘in himself as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit’—is all said to be ordered to this goal (IV/1, 8). It seems that there is a single ‘eternal activity’ in which God has his being, ‘both in himself and in the history of his acts in the world created by him’ (IV/1, 8). In other words, there is one indivisible activity in which God subsists, and it would seem to embrace not only history1 but also history2.[2]

There is no divisibility between God’s interaction concerning man and with man. God’s first and timeless act is the election of Jesus Christ wrapped up with the creation. Everything has been condensed to the ad extra. In Barth’s theology, God for God concerning man is nonsense because the moment God created man is the moment God became for man. As man stands before God, he stands not as a man separate from God, and therefore separate from the covenant of grace.[3] Barth stresses a constant and even eschatological priority: “Man is not simply distant from God and far beneath Him. He cannot let Him be God in His sphere in order in his own sphere to try to be man in abstracto and on his own account” (CD IV/1, §57.2, 42).

The implications of Deus pro nobis are much deeper than a dipleural [two-sided], concrete covenantal dealing. Reverberations are felt all the way down into Trinitarian theology. The incoherence of the pactum in Barth’s understanding cannot stand up to this final assault of the Deus pro nobis which takes out man’s speech of a Trinity in Christological contexts:

In this context [that of Jesus Christ as the Man] we must not refer to the second ‘person’ of the Trinity as such, to the eternal Son or the eternal Word of God in abstracto, and therefore to the so-called λογος ασαρκος [unincarnate Word]. What is the point of a regress to Him as the supposed basis of the being and knowledge of all things? In any case, how can we make such a regress? The ‘second’ person of the Godhead in Himself and as such is not God the Reconciler. In Himself and as such He is not revealed to us. In Himself and as such He is not Deus pro nobis, either ontologically or epistemologically (CD IV/1, §57.2, 52).


My purpose here is to provide a close reading of Barth’s unusual objection to the pactum salutis. What leads him to charge God’s inter-trinitarian covenant with abstracting God in his righteousness and mercy? First, Barth locates the covenant exclusively in the person of Jesus Christ not only in expression but in content and dipleurality [two-sidedness]. Second, God may only be thought of as Deus pro nobis both in intention and contract.

His critique is a devastating one and deserves a fitting response. If it is true that the pactum gives us an abstract God who deals only in charts and figures, the doctrine deserves a thorough reexamination. I remain unconvinced, though, that Barth has properly understood what the pactum secures nor how God stands in freedom above us even while being pro nobis [for us].

Barth’s understanding of the covenant seems to proscribe any understanding of Deus pro Christo. This does not collapse a positive understanding of Deus pro nobis, but reframes Immanuel explicitly within Trinitarian terms. It largely understood that the pactum salutis is first and foremost intended towards the glorification of the Son, as John Flavel writes: “He [The Father] engageth to reward him [The Son] highly for his work, by exalting him to singular and supereminent glory and honor, when he should have dispatched and finished it.” [4] Ps. 2:7 and Acts 13:32, 33 provide the chief exegetical grounds for this reading. Biblically it can be said that it is Christ who receives the reward for his work. Theologically, Scott Swain rebuffs Barth: “To ascribe an ultimate Christological end to the pactum salutis is not to speak of what God decrees ‘apart from and prior to the “Fall” or even creation itself.’ God’s decree concerning all things outside of himself is one.”[5] A Christological end does not divide or even abstract God as our God but rather cements Him as the God who is our God in his very being.[6]

Second, a more robust Christology will not collapse all of God’s covenant into Christ, but will rather have them flow from Christ, the fulfiller of the Covenant. God’s fellowship must not be actualized in one particular event as in Barth’s Christomonist reading of the covenant. Such truncation threatens the promise of progress and even consummation. Nor does a historical reading of God’s interaction with man lead to any sort of human achievement.

The pactum does not abstract God’s favor with His people. Because He is the God who has bound himself to our salvation, he will forever be our God, within the bounds of both our history and his eternity. He is the God who loves in freedom. And in that freedom he acts. Only then does He vow to us his covenant love.


[1] Rinse H. Reeling Brouwer, Karl Barth and Post-Reformation Orthodoxy (Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2016), 111.

[2] George Hunsinger, Reading Barth with Charity (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2015), 121. Guretzki helpfully summarizes these two aspects of Barth’s view of history: “When Barth uses Geschichte (history1), he generally refers to the unique events spoken of in Scripture regarding God’s manner of relating to the world, while Historie (history2) refers to the unfolding and subsequent recounting of everyday events that make up the totality of human history as understood apart from the world’s relationship to its Creator” (Explorer’s Guide to Karl Barth, 76, 77).

[3] “Just as there is no God but the God of the covenant, there is no man but the man of the covenant: the man who as such is destined and called to give thanks.” CD IV/1, §57.2, 43.

[4] John Flavel, The Fountain of Life (Grand Rapids: Baker House, 1977), 35.

[5] Swain, “Covenant of Redemption,” 124.

[6] Swain, “Covenant of Redemption,” 124.



Deus in Abstracto: Barth’s Critique of the Pactum Salutis Examined.

27658573_10155304523952469_609693938_nThis week’s blog, part 1 of 2 parts, is a guest blog from my friend Brittain Brewer. By way of a bio, Brittain is currently pursuing his M.Div at RTS Charlotte. He is the director of admissions for RTS Global and New York City and is interning at South Charlotte Presbyterian Church. Best of all, he’s getting married in a month!

Karl Barth stands as a divisive character in the history of covenant theology. In a famous ten-page footnote (CD IV/1, §57.2, 56-66), Barth both returned covenant theology to the limelight and leveled a devastating critique to the classic formulations of Cocceius, Witsius, and Reformed theology. While affirming the covenant of Grace in a radical monocovenantalism rooted in the election of Jesus Christ, Barth refused to adhere to either a covenant of works or a pactum salutis. Both undergo stringent critiques by Barth, but especially the pactum.

Most who rejected the covenant at least recognized its coherency. Barth, always one to egregious asseverations, calls the pactum “mythology” (CD IV/1, §57.2, 65). But why? We might ask. Well, Barth’s first, and the most interesting, critique rejects any sort of abstraction for God: “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 fulfilment of His promise the fulfilment of certain conditions by man, and punish their non-fulfilment” (CD IV/1, §57.2, 65)

Barth’s Critique

At first glance, Barth’s critique seems contained to a few remarks. He aids the reader in breaking it down into sections, but promptly obviates any real attempt at interpretation of lazy theologians. This paper will focus exclusively on Barth’s covenantal doctrine found in IV/1, 3-66.

What exactly is Barth’s rebuke of the pactum salutis in its relation to man? His frustration, if not disgust, dominates the page:

“For God to be gracious to sinful man, was there any need of a special decree to establish the unity of the righteousness and mercy of God in relation to man, of a special intertrinitarian arrangement and contract which can be distinguished from the being of God?…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 fulfilment of His promise the fulfilment of certain conditions by man, and punish their non-fulfilment” (CD IV/1, §57.2, 65).

Barth first objection to the pactum salutis attacks a covenantal foundation: where does God ground his mercy and righteousness towards man? Is it in his being as God? Is it from the very first? Essentially, Barth argues that the pactum salutis divides God, not tritheistically, but subjectively—“His righteousness and His mercy are secretly and at bottom two separate things” (CD IV/1, §57.2, 65).

Why is a Deus in abstracto is so toxic? For Barth, God’s gracious interaction with man must take precedence with God’s relation to man in toto. Mercy and righteousness must be united from the first. Should God stand contractually mercifully righteous and righteously merciful to man rather than vis-a-vis, we lose our footing to say that God is both Deus cum nobis [God with us] and Deus pro nobis [God for us]. The pactum salutis abstracts the God of the Bible in two ways: 1) the pactum negates God’s covenant in the person of Jesus Christ; 2) the pactum stands in contrast to Deus pro nobis. These two theological concepts are crucial for understanding Barth’s charge of abstraction.


Two assumptions lead Barth to lay his claim. The first one is what I am calling Christo-covenantalism. Barth’s covenantal theology is so rooted in the person of Jesus Christ that any pre-temporal covenant outside God’s gracious revelation and election of Jesus Christ is incoherent.

The question Barth implicitly poses for those teaching the pactum salutis is essentially this: “How does this doctrine bring God any closer to us?” Plurality of decrees cannot unify but only serve division as shown above. However, Barth’s offers his own cure for a problematic pactum: “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” (CD IV/1, §57.2, 65). Christ for Barth is the only sure revelation of any decree that God gives.

The Christological component to Barth affects his view of the pactum in two ways. First, God has no covenant that involves man outside of the Man, Jesus Christ. Second, God has no covenant with man which Christ does not contain in his person. Christ stands as both party and as promise. The first indicates covenant partnership and the second covenant content.

First, God has no covenant concerning man outside of the Man, Jesus Christ. Orthodox Christians universally affirm that God’s intention from the beginning was to save man. Though the administrations of that salvation are disputed, the concept is easily inferred from Paul’s magnanimous introduction to his letter to the Ephesian church: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ…even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world…making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set for in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time” (Eph. 1:3, 9, 10). The heart of the pactum salutis is to certify this as a wholly divine work. However, Barth’s view of the revelation of God radically divides information concerning his being and his action: “Barth is determined to establish the revelation of God as found in the Scripture entirely upon the basis of God being the content of all revelation or it is actually not revelation” (Kurt Anders Richardson 2006: 138).

Barth’s doctrine, then, takes a radically christomorphic description. God’s initial position towards man must be seen even through the lens of the eternal mediator: “In all that we have said about the original place and status of God and man in their relationship one with another, we have tried never to look past Jesus Christ, but always to consider it as seen through him with a steadfast regard fixed on him, ‘as it was in the beginning’” (CD IV/1, §57.2, 44). Christ encompasses, from beginning to end, the relationship between God and man. As God deals with Christ, he deals with man. As man sees Christ, he sees God. Christ completes in his person the diplueral [two-sided] character of the one and only covenant of God (CD IV/1, §57.2, 33).

The root of Barth’s charge of abstraction to the pactum is rooted in what we are calling Christo-covenantalism. What we have said before is crucial: Christ is both revelation and content of God’s interaction with man. In his later theology (including IV/1) Barth drives this theme further (e.g., “The Humanity of God”). From the very beginning, God’s contract with Christ is necessarily a contract with Man. Any determination of God in his “being-for-himself” outside of a partnership with man is antithetical to the covenant of grace and the Gospel of Christ.

Christ’s position is so radical for Barth that it transcends historical contingency.[1] Christ’s position stands above any other interaction. Eternal and sure, it, or more properly He, is God’s plan from the beginning. Jesus Christ is proof of “the original ordination of man to salvation and of salvation for man as the meaning and basis even of the divine creative will.” And he comes as an “original Word which underlies and embraces all other words so that no other word has any independent significance as on historical report with others” (CD IV/1, §57.1, 19).

As the original Word, Christ is also “the content and form of the divine thought of grace, will of grace and decree of grace in relation to the created world, before the created world was” (CD IV/1, §57.2, 50). In the person of Christ, the Triune God expresses, compacts, and ratifies his singular will towards mankind. In his eternity of election and personhood, the God-man Jesus Christ reifies the voluntantem Dei: “He is the One who according to the free and gracious will of God is Himself eternal salvation, the last and also the first; our eternal yesterday in God who is the same today and forever” (CD IV/1, §57.1, 19). This covenant is not a pre-temporal­ covenant that is established between the Father and the Son, but the covenant which God intends towards all people at the moment of creation.

The pactum salutis is an abhorrent abstraction for the Barthian view of covenant and even theology proper. There is no concord concerning the salvation of man outside of an immediate and capitulative concord with Jesus Christ. This is the first piece of Barth’s fear of abstraction. It promises only to evacuate the significance and power of God in Jesus Christ who is “the concrete reality and actuality of the promise and command of God, the fulfilment of both very God and very man, in one person amongst us, a fellow-man” (CD IV/1, §57.2, 53).

 Check Back for the Forthcoming Second Part of Brittain’s Contribution 

[1] The division between geshichte and historie is important in Barth studies. In my reading, in accord with other readers, Barth’s rejection of historical contingency does not erase or reject historical action but roots them and places their significance above time. Ahistoricism is certainly alarming, but I do not follow some critics who say that Barth’s theology is necessarily a denial of what happened. In a concerning passage, though, Barth illuminates what he means by historical contingency: “In this knowledge or recognition we make the right distinction between the atonement accomplished in Jesus Christ, which is the center and proper subject of the Christian message and the Christian faith, and all events which are purely contingent, which have only relative significance, which concern certain men but not all men, which may not even be necessary rebus aliter stantibus [lit: things otherwise standing]” (CD IV/1, §57.2, 46).