Patcum Salutis and Social Contract Theory

Yesterday I went to ETS Far West 2014 and heard several really good papers. Unlike ETS the last few times, there were some really good post discussion conversations. One of my favorite conversations happened after a paper on the Pactum Salutis (covenant of redemption) and subordinationism.

A student from Westminster Seminary (California) presented a paper with the thesis that, the pactum saulutis provides a solution for verses which might be taken to imply subordination within the Trinity.

Covenant of Redemption: The pre-temporal covenant between the Father and the Son in which the son agrees to suffer and die in exchange for a reward – namely, the Church.

Subordinationism: The idea that the Son is inferior to the Father. All agree that saying that the Son is ontologically subordinate to the Father is heretical. Some want to argue that the Son can be (and is) subordinate to the Father in role or function. i.e. Grudem and Ware.

The paper the student presented was a pretty good explanation of the Pactum Salutis within reformed thought. However as we discussed after the paper presentation, Kelly Kapic pointed out the fact that the student overlooked and failed to engage with those who deny the Pactum Salutis – among those, Karl Barth.

Barth rejects the Pactum Salutis because it is too “scholastic” and unbiblical – the covenant is mythological. Barth, being a good reformed theologian, wants to reject this sort of speculative theology. Rightly so.

As we discussed objections to the Pactum Salutis Kelly Kapic pointed out that the Covenant of Redemption makes law a part of inner-Trinitarian Life. He also pointed out the fact that this covenant has been portrayed, especially among Puritans as a covenant between an Angry Father and a Merciful Son. In which the Son has to rescue his brothers and sisters from his Father’s wrath. In other words, the Pactum Salutis can be explained in a violent way, bringing violence into the heart of God.

I brought to the presenter’s attention some work that Amy Plantinga Pauw has done on Jonathan Edwards and the Pactum Salutis. Pauw points out that this covenant is highly speculative, and more importantly that the covenant is guilty of anthropomorphizing the life of the immanent trinity. This covenant portrays God as an human being engaged in discussion of which contracts he should or should not engage in. Its an interesting historical fact that the Covenant of Redemption flourished during the early modern period – right when social contract theories were all the buzz. In my opinion the Covenant of Redemption (Pactum Salutis) resembles social contract theory a little too much. That isn’t to say that the Pactum Salutis isn’t true. After all, I don’t want to be guilty of committing the genetic fallacy. However, it is curious to me that the development of this supposedly timeless doctrine is so embedded in its cultural context.


Published by cwoznicki

Chris Woznicki is an Assistant Adjunct Professor of Theology at Fuller Theological Seminary. He works as the regional training associate for the Los Angeles region of Young Life.

One thought on “Patcum Salutis and Social Contract Theory

  1. I think the pactum salutis/covenant of redemption/council of peace is meant to be less of a dogmatic, “So this is what happened” and more of a way to think about the Scriptures that speak of how we were chosen in Christ before the foundations of the world or that Christ is the lamb slain before the foundations of the world, etc. A way of making sense of those truths. It is, of course, speculative, but certainly not closed-hand theology and something I’d want to divide with another brother or sister over.

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