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The Trinitarian Covenant in John 17

by Rev. Ralph Allan Smith


At least since the time of Olevianus there has been a tradition in Reformed theology that believes in a pretemporal covenant between the Persons of the Trinity.[1] This covenant, often called the counsel of peace, provides according to Geerhardus Vos, the "center of gravity" in Reformed theology:

In the dogma of the counsel of peace, then, the doctrine of the covenant has found its genuinely theological rest point. Only when it becomes plain how it is rooted, not in something that did not come into existence until creation, but in God's being itself, only then has this rest point been reached and only then can the covenant idea be thought of theologically.[2]

In line with this tradition, but taking it a step further, James Jordan finds his definition of the covenant in God Himself: "the covenant is the personal structural bond among the three Persons of God."[3] This contrasts with Vos, who found a "genuinely theological rest point" for the doctrine of the covenant in what was actually a soteriological conception. The "counsel of peace" is the covenant made between the Father and the Son for the salvation of the elect. No doubt this notion connects the doctrine of the covenant with the doctrine of election and connects election with God's working in history. But what it does not do is provide a genuinely theological rest point, for it does not make the doctrine of the covenant essentially Trinitarian.

Jordan's definition of a covenant, however, does. In his view, the covenant refers first and foremost to the personal relationships of Father, Son, and Spirit. When God created man in His own image, it meant, among other things, that Adam was created to enjoy the covenantal fellowship of the Triune God. When man's creation is taken into account, the covenant is defined as follows: "the covenant is a personal-structural bond which joins the three Persons of God in a community of life, and in which man was created to participate."[4]

As evidence for this view, Jordan cites only one Scripture, John 17:20-21:

Neither pray I for these alone, but for them also which shall believe on me through their word; That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me.

Both Jordan's Trinitarian view and the more traditional view held by prominent Reformed theologians of the past may be and have been questioned. One problem with the traditional view that there is a covenant between the Persons of the Trinity - whether thought of in Trinitarian or in soteriological terms - is that the Bible contains no explicit reference to such a covenant. In the words of O. Palmer Robertson, "A sense of artificiality flavors the effort to structure in covenantal terms the mysteries of God's eternal counsels. Scripture simply does not say much on the pre-creation shape of the decrees of God. To speak concretely of an intertrinitarian 'covenant' with terms and conditions between Father and Son mutually endorsed before the foundation of the world is to extend the bounds of scriptural evidence beyond propriety."[5]

Moreover, the word covenant does not appear in the context Jordan cites. In fact, the word "covenant" does not appear in the entire Gospel according to John, nor in his epistles. It is used in the book of Revelation only once (11:19). Jordan's citation of John 17:20-21 provokes the questions: Why should the covenant idea be read into a book of the Bible that never mentions it? And if a covenant is to be found here, why should it be a covenant that is nowhere else mentioned in the Bible? Are there not other approaches to this passage of Scripture that do more justice to both the general context of the Gospel of John as well as the immediate context of our Lord's prayer?

[1] See: Lyle D. Bierma, German Calvinism in the Confessional Age: The Covenant Theology of Caspar Olevianus (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996).

[2] Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation: The Shorter Writings of Geerhardus Vos, ed. by Richard B. Gaffin, Jr. (Phillipsburg, N.J.: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1980), p. 247.

[3] James B. Jordan, The Law of the Covenant (Tyler, Tex.: Institute for Christian Economics, 1984), p. 4. (Italics in the original.)

[4] Ibid., p. 5.

[5] O. Palmer Robertson, The Christ of the Covenants (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1980), p. 54.


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