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Dogmen- und Theologiegeschichte


Fesko, John V.


The Covenant of Redemption. Origins, Development, and Reception.


Göttingen u. a.: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht 2016. 256 S. = Reformed Historical Theology, 35. Geb. EUR 100,00. ISBN 978-3-525-55098-4.


Grant Horner

John V. Fesko offers a much-needed scholarly work filling a sizeable gap in historical theology – a wide-ranging study of the Reformed covenant of redemption. F.’s prose is highly readable and his grasp of historical theology very rich, his use of primary sources is precise and sufficient without being overwhelming, and his arguments are highly organized and persuasive.
F. rightly points out the lacuna in recent scholarship regarding the covenant of redemption, or pactum salutis, the eternal covenant between Christ and the Father to elect and redeem certain indi-viduals, which is distinct from the covenant of grace which is bet-ween God and Man. Originally a major given of theology for most Reformed theologians, and of course a point of significant differ-ence with the Remonstrants, the doctrine of this singular covenant experienced a wide range of permutations in the centuries following its origins in Reformed scholasticism. F. ably traces the reception of the pactum from its nascent appearances to the current day. The work here is impressive, scholarly, and expansive. More importantly, it serves the church in a neglected area of doctrine.
The seven chapters plus Introduction and Conclusion provide an ample survey of the question. The Introduction argues that while the covenant of redemption was generally received as a central point of Reformed orthodoxy, it has experienced a somewhat ho­stile contemporary reception, and is often accused of being exegetically speculative and anti-Trinitarian, among other things. F. claims that a workable point of origin for historical theologians is a speech made by David Dickson (1583–1662) in 1638 at the General Assembly of the Scottish Kirk. Dickson of course is critiquing Remonstrant soteriology and asserting eternal election, grounding election in the covenant of redemption. F. further demonstrates the widespread support of the doctrine by seventeenth-century theologians such as Owen, Turretin, and Witsius. The 1649 Sum of Saving Knowledge by Dickson and James Durham explained the doctrine in detail and was bound together with the Westminster Standards, though other Reformed theologians taught that the covenants of redemption and of grace need not be separated. Eighteenth and nineteenth-century theologians such as Jonathan Edwards and Charles Hodge continued to hold to the separate pactum salutis, as did those in the twentieth such as Kuyper, Bavinck, Vos, Berkhof, and Berkouwer – while others such as Barth and Hoeksema rejected it. As a kind of »pre-covenant covenant«, the pactum salutis impinges upon all virtually aspects of theology and is thus a central question, one which F. rightly points out has received less and less attention by recent scholars.
Chapter One provides the historical background for the origins of the doctrine, which F. connects most explicitly to Dickson and Witsius, and argues for a careful grounding of Reformed exegesis in linguistic precision. Chapter Two focuses largely on the Reformed Scot Patrick Gillespie (1617–1675) and his Ark of the Covenant, a rare full-length treatment of the doctrine. Much later critique of the pactum comes from those who differ with Gillespie’s explicit argument that the Holy Spirit is not part of the covenant. Chapter Three shifts focus to the continental reception of the doctrine, particularly in the work of Witsius, showing that while there were contiguities between British and continental theologians on the point, there was considerable independence of methodology as well. These differences argue even more strongly for the pactum salutis as an exegetically supportable category. The third chapter shows how after the origin and development of the doctrine in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the theologians of the eighteenth and nineteenth begin to »improvise« and take liberties in various ways from the foundational structure of the pactum as originally formulated; focusing on John Gill and Jonathan Edwards (in an especially illuminating example of comparative historical theology) F. shows how the doctrine morphs over time into some surprisingly different forms and functions. Equally cogent is Chapter Five’s treatment of Charles Hodge, whose exegetical theology respects but also slightly recasts the pactum in terms of his own historical mo-ment; F. presents Hodge’s work in light of Old Princeton theology and its intellectual context and solidly supports his claim to provide a »win-dow into the soteriology and theology« of this very American movement. Chapters Six and Seven bring the work to a close, arg-uing that many twentieth-century theologians such as Barth and Hoeksema reject in various ways but for similar reasons the bicovenantal structure of works and grace as well as the pactum salutis, largely due to the way »covenant« has been defined. Their claim is to return to the theology of Calvin (»before the Calvinists« we might say) and a single covenant of grace. Here it would be helpful to see in even more detail how these theologians attempt to link themselves more directly with Calvin while critiquing »the Reformed tradition«, though that question might well have distracted the author from the main argument and thus is not a major flaw. Of course, not all rejected the doctrine: Vos, Kuyper, et al. developed a robust and exegetically rich modern tradition of the pactum salutis, modifying where they felt it necessary (with the degree of modification being closely tied to how tightly they accepted the work of Reformed scholasticism). F. argues finally in his conclusion that while there are many exegetical paths supporting the doctrine of the pactum salutis, the often neglected idea of divine love is the linchpin which holds it together. This sounds like a fine genesis for another book supporting the covenant of redemption as an act of love.