A Brief Response To Dr. Fesko’s Critique

by Ralph Allan Smith

In an essay titled, “The Federal Vision and the Covenant of Works,” Dr. J. V. Fesko mentioned my writings on the doctrine of the Trinity and offered brief critical interaction. I offer my own response here summarized in the following four points, followed by a sincere appeal for responsible critical interaction.

1. I have argued that covenant as agreement and as relationship are not contradictory notions. But covenant as mere agreement is too narrow a perspective, especially when considering God’s covenants with men. Murray’s whole book The Covenant of Grace is written to demonstrate that “agreement” is not a Biblical or an adequate definition for the word “covenant.” Though I believe he is correct and his arguments have not been answered, the debate about definition will no doubt continue. But those who argue for a more comprehensive view cannot be simply dismissed with quotations from Reformed writers of the past.

It is odd that Fesko quotes O. P. Robertson (p. 10) as believing that a covenant is “a relationship based on an agreement,” when Robertson specifically argues — just a few pages after the page cited by Fesko — that “A long history has marked the analysis of the covenants in terms of mutual compacts or contracts. But recent scholarship has established rather certainly the sovereign character of the administration of the divine covenants in Scripture. Both biblical and extra-biblical evidence point to the unilateral form of covenant establishment. No such thing as bargaining, bartering, or contracting characterizes the divine covenants of Scripture. The sovereign Lord of heaven and earth dictates the terms of the covenant.” (italics added, The Christ of the Covenants, p. 15)

Robertson believes that a covenant is based upon a sovereign and unilateral administration. He denies the notion of agreement or contract in the clearest language possible. It is not accurate to cite him as evidence for “a relationship based on an agreement.”

2. There is no problem with the legal in God’s covenant (p. 10 Fesko). Among the Persons of the Trinity the Covenant of Love is the definition of righteousness. In God, there is no tension between love and righteousness — the basis in God for what becomes the legal among men. Thus, the legal aspect of God’s covenants with men is grounded in the fact that Father, Son, and Spirit relate to one another in absolute and utter righteousness. At the same time, the legal is always vitally connected with the personal love of God. Or, perhaps better, the legal finds its binding authority and terrifying purity in the passion of God’s absolute love.

3. Fesko misses the point of the trinitarian covenant. To begin with it is not Jordan’s idea or my idea; the theological reasoning behind the trinitarian covenant is quoted from Abraham Kuyper. Kuyper says that it is inconceivable that the Persons of the Trinity would enter in to a covenant relationship among themselves to deal with the sin of man unless covenant were fundamental to the way they relate among themselves. The covenant of redemption, though it contemplates the salvation of man, is understood to be a covenant among the Persons of the Trinity, whereby the Father gives the Son a commission and promises Him certain rewards. The Spirit, too, is commissioned to complete the work of the Son. Kuyper’s question is, Why do the Trinitarian Persons covenant among themselves when contemplating this concrete goal? If covenant is an aspect of the very life of God, then our question is answered. If not, we have a problem. When the problem of saving man from sin comes in to the picture, the unchangeable God seems to change at the most fundamental level — an alteration in the intratrinitarian relationships.

Van Til is less direct in his statements about a trinitarian covenant, but clear nonetheless. He says that the persons of the Trinity are exhaustively and mutually representative of one another and that representation is the essence of the covenant. Both of these points seem obvious to anyone who has studied the trinity or the idea of the covenant, but virtually no one brings the two ideas together. Even Van Til, after introducing this insight, does not follow through by expounding the idea of a covenant among the Persons of the Trinity. All the same, the covenantal implications of the Biblical idea of representation and its relevance for trinitarianism constitute one of the most profound arguments for an intratrinitarian covenant.

But I also presented Biblical arguments, including an essay on John 17. It is true that the Biblical arguments are “indirect” in the sense that there is no eternal covenantal relationship specifically mentioned. But the argument was still exegetical. Besides, indirect argumentation is the best we can offer for the doctrine of the Trinity itself and for the doctrine of a covenant of redemption. (And what of the doctrine of a covenant of works?) I used the same method of interpretation that is used to formulate the doctrine of the Trinity.

4. Fesko writes (p. 11), “In fact proponents of the federal vision go as far as to say that ‘the ‘economic’ Trinity is the ‘immanent’ Trinity and the ‘immanent’ Trinity is the ‘economic’ Trinity.’” Again, he writes, “Stated more succinctly, the federal vision believes there is no distinction between the economic Trinity and the ontological Trinity. To say the least, this theological construction is fraught with problems.” Let me say that I agree that the formulation he refers to is “fraught with problems.”

The problem is that Fesko is actually quoting my quotation of Karl Rahner’s famous formula. And immediately after quoting Rahner, I added, “Rahner formulates the principle in bold language that invites distortion, but the idea is not new. Herman Bavinck phrases this traditional notion more carefully when he writes, ‘The ontological trinity is reflected in the economic trinity.’”

What we see here is a remarkable process of distortion. Note the three stages.

First, Fesko quotes the formula from Rahner as mine in spite of the fact that in the context I specifically express my dissatisfaction with it.

Second, he not only ignores the fact of my disapproval of Rahner, but also the alternative statement by Bavinck that I specifically recommend.

Third, the formula that I disapprove of is imputed to the “proponents of the federal vision.”

So, even though no one has ever invited me to speak for the federal vision and my book was written in the late 1990s and first published in 2000, before the federal vision controversy, the "proponents of the federal vision" are burdened with the responsibility for a theological formula that I rejected in the very place cited as evidence that they supposedly hold it.

Finally, for the record I think I ought to mention that my writing on the Trinity was the result of reading Van Til, Kuyper and Jordan. It really had nothing to do with the Federal Vision. Years ago (in the early 1990s) I began a long term writing project inspired by the fact that I am a missionary-pastor in a pagan Buddhist/Shinto culture. My aim was and is to write a Van Tillian introduction to comparative religion -- with the qualification, of course, that for me to be Van Tillian means taking the Bible and its teaching on any and every subject as the presupposition for all that I do. To accomplish that rather large task, I have been re-reading Van Til and trying to get a hold of the most important aspects of his thought, reading and studying the Bible, and studying classic texts in comparative religion. It seems to me that Van Til’s contributions to the doctrine of the Trinity, especially relating the Trinity to the problem of the one and the many, were most important for my own project and I began to study and to think more along those lines.

Jordan helped me to relate the doctrine of the covenant to the Trinity more concretely. It was statements he made in a lecture and his definition of the covenant in The Law of the Covenant that first provoked me to look into the notion of a trinitarian covenant. Jordan especially pointed to the Dutch tradition, which led me to look into Herman Hoeksema, who had translated relevant portions of Kuyper and offered his own insights into the covenant among the Persons of the Trinity.

I have to confess that for me it is exciting to see how Van Til shows not only that the Bible itself must be the presupposition for all thought, but more specifically how the Triune God is the focus and center of Christian epistemology, metaphysics, and ethics. More than anyone I had encountered before him, I came to understand that Van Til depicts man as created to trust, worship and serve the one and only Triune God. Jordan shows hows this works out in Biblical theology, illumining every aspect of the history of the covenant in the light of the Trinitarian covenant. Jeffrey Meyers’ work on worship unites the doctrine of weekly worship with the doctrines of the Trinity and the covenant — or I should say with the reality of our covenant with the Triune God — when he expounds the Biblical idea of worship as covenant renewal. Peter Leithart, elaborating on themes in Jordan, ties in the doctrine of the sacraments with the doctrine of the Trinity. In addition, he takes his Van Tillian presuppositions with him into the world of literature, both ancient and modern, Christian and pagan.

For a missionary pastor in a pagan land, struggling to lead a local church against the grain of the world around it, this is breathtaking. Imagine, Kuyper, Van Til, Jordan, and others have introduced the Christian worldview in such a way that I can show my congregation how our understanding of who God is constitutes the beating heart of every aspect of our thought from science to literature to housekeeping. I can show them that the whole history of the Bible is a revelation of the glory of the Triune God in the unfolding of His covenant love. And I can relate all of this both to the form and content of our weekly worship as covenant renewal, concretely expressed in the celebration of the covenant in the Lord’s Supper.

I have to confess that the sheer exhilaration of seeing the mystery and wonder of God in everything is overwhelming. I am extremely happy with what I have learned — though I have learned nothing as I should — and strive daily to achieve a more concrete and worshipful knowledge of the Triune God of love, as I continue to work on my original project. My recently published book, Trinity and Reality, is an attempt to think through the basic issues of the Christian worldview from a distinctly Reformed and Trinitarian perspective. But it is actually a step in my ongoing work toward writing a Van Tillian introduction to comparative religion.

Of course, I recognize that all of this is still in the process of testing as far as the church at large is concerned. There is a fire of testing through which ideas must pass and even though Kuyper’s and Van Til’s ideas are not really new, it is perfectly legitimate for them to be criticized. If Dr. Fesko, Richard Phillips or anyone else can offer informed and intelligent criticism, I will read it with fear and appreciation. If it happens that what I now regard as wonderful insights turn out to be wrong, I will suffer withdrawal pains from the intoxicating ideas I have been imbibing for these last few years, but I will not hold on to what has been demonstrated to Biblically wrong.

How could one demonstrate these things to be wrong? First, one would have to show either that the whole idea of a covenant of redemption is false, thus eliminating Kupyer’s deduction from it, or one would have to show that the fact of the covenant of redemption does not imply what Kuyper claims it does. Second, one would have to show that Van Til was wrong when he said that the three Persons of the Trinity exhaustively mutually represent one another and/or that he was wrong when he said that representation was of the essence of the covenant. Third, Herman Hoeksema, John Murray, O. Palmer Robertson and James Jordan offer perspectives on the covenant that fit with the view of a trinitarian covenant better than any alternative. Not only must various teachings by these men be refuted, the opponent of their views must show a better and more Biblical way. Fourth, my own arguments built on Jordan and others and added to Kuyper and Van Til are secondary at best, but if someone is going to refute Kuyper and Van Til, it would be nice if he would demolish my arguments also.

If someone does that, it will take me time for me to recover but it will only mean that I am forced back to the drawing board. I cannot believe that any truth other than the reality of the Triune God Himself can be central to our theology, our reading of the Bible, our worship, our intellectual pursuits, or our daily routines and struggles. Father, Son, and Spirit — the one and only God — demands our whole love and devotion. To preach the Gospel in this Asian world, I need to know what that means. I need to be able to spell it out in words that will bring the strength and joy of the knowledge of God to the people to whom I minister.

However that may be, it is not my intention to simply jump for the first and simplest answer that comes my way. If Kuyper, Van Til, and Jordan are wrong, please refute them and help me learn what is right. Show me the better alternative.

Indeed, not just me — I am not the only one suffering the blissful bondage of the illusion that he sees worship, faith, and love for God being exalted to the highest pinnacle of the rock hard mountains of real life. If those of us who are so persuaded are wrong, free us from what must be an addiction. I feel that what I have learned is too good to be false and that its Biblical foundation is clear.

So far, by way of refutation, I have met with misunderstanding and misrepresentation. Dr. Fesko in particular has simply not read carefully what I have written. Richard Phillips’ critique contains many statements that are plainly false. I have provided more than one answer to Richard Phillips essay, including a recent article on Tritheism and lectures responding to his criticisms in some detail. Mr. McMahon’s critique is so full of misrepresentation that it is hardly worth responding to, though I have responded to it briefly.

I would be very happy for Biblical and theological critique and interaction along the lines suggested above. Unless however, critics actually deal with Kuyper and Van Til,, they have not even touched the real issues. One wonders what the point of the whole controversy is if the obvious theological issues underlying the debate are going to be ignored.


Copyright 2005 Ralph Allan Smith. All rights reserved.