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Thursday, August 28, 2014



Maarten Wisse

1. Introduction

Twentieth-century interest in federal theology in general and in Cocceius’ theology in particular was primarily motivated by the intention to compensate for the post-Reformation Reformed interest in the doctrine of predestination by the notion of the covenant. The alleged role of predestination as the “Zentraldogma” gave so-called “Reformed orthodoxy” the image of a harsh, rationalist, fatalistic system.1 In this context, a strand of Reformed theology in which the loving fellowship between God and believers played a crucial role was more than welcome, fitting as it was into the typically twentieth-century interest in thinking God as love.2 Thus, twentieth-century research on Cocceius interpreted his theology as biblical rather than scholastic, historical rather than rationalist, experiential rather than abstract.3 Willem J. van Asselt is the present day expert on Cocceius.4 He always resisted the oversimplified appropriations of Cocceius’ thought, arguing that it is an anachronistic misreading of Cocceius’ work if one contrasts it too much with the mainstream Reformed scholasticism of his contemporaries.5

          Still, van Asselt shares much of the twentieth-century worries about the particularist aspects of Reformed theology. Two anecdotes may be invoked to illustrate this. Once, I heard van Asselt reinterpret the traditional Dutch Reformed opening (votum) of a Church service. He paraphrased “Who will never abandon the works of his own hands,”6 as “Who will never abandon the work he has begun in each of us.” What if his great seventeenth-century hero Johannes Cocceius had heard him, who, as we will see, argues against this “heresy” to much length in the Summa doctrinae! Also, when I was a student and expressed my worries about the consequences of predestination thought to van Asselt, he always replied with a quote from one of his teachers, the Dutch systematic theologian Arnold van Ruler: “The gospel skims across the border of universalism.”7 Although van Asselt has been eager to criticize a number of Karl Barth’s readings of the Reformed scholastics, when confronted with the riddle of predestination, he often expressed his sympathy with Barth’s universalisation of Reformed soteriology. Given the combination of van Asselt’s expertise on Cocceius on the one hand, and his appreciation for a Barthian solution to the problem of predestination on the other, it seems appropriate to me to devote my contribution to this Festschrift to the question of the relationship between predestination and covenant theology in Cocceius and Barth. On the one hand, my contribution presupposes and builds on van Asselt’s Cocceius scholarship, his translation of Cocceius’ Summa doctrinae and the two monographs. On the other hand, it poses a friendly critique of van Asselt’s sympathy with a Barthian universalisation of Reformed soteriology. Before I turn to Cocceius, I introduce the twentieth-century objections to Cocceius’ theology in a bit more detail by outlining Karl Barth’s critique of federal theology. After having introduced the reception of Cocceius in Barth, I will follow the main steps of the development of the doctrine of the covenant in Cocceius’ Summa doctrinae (SD below),8 and confront Cocceius’ view of the relation between covenant and predestination with Barth’s universalisation of election.

        To issue a warning beforehand, I do not intend to develop a full-scale theological defense of the traditional Reformed doctrine of predestination. Until recently, I myself accepted most of the common worries concerning a theology of predestination. The present essay is the result of a reassessment of these worries. These worries have not gone, but I have now got an eye for some distinctive aspects of a traditional Reformed soteriology that I had not noticed before. Thus, this contribution is intended to challenge the now commonplace Barthian view of election as obviously theologically superior to everything that the Reformed fathers had to offer.9 Instead, I aim to show that the theological presuppositions and implications of Barth’s view precluded him from taking some crucial soteriological notions properly into account in the way the Reformed fathers like Cocceius were able to do. At the same time, by way of a historical argument, my contribution confirms van Asselt’s portrait of Cocceius as an “ordinary orthodox Reformed theologian ” rather than a “precursor of the Enlightenment” or “corrector of Reformed predestinarianism,” as traditional scholarship had it. In fact, I hope to put forward some of the good reasons Cocceius thought to have to be as harsh a predestinarian thinker as his Reformed contemporaries, reasons that, to my conviction, have retained a good deal of their validity over against the allegedly superior innovations of post-Barthian twentieth-century theology.

2. Cocceius and the Barthian Tradition

        In one of the footnotes to his magnum opus, The Federal Theology of Johannes Cocceius, van Asselt characterizes Barth’s occupation with Cocceius as follows:

In any case, Barth was occupied with Cocceius over the whole span of his life—Cocceius caused this twentieth-century church father many a sleepless night! Often visitors would find Barth reading Cocceius. Through his study of Cocceius the concept of the covenant became perpetually and permanently conspicuous for Barth.10

Barth had three of Cocceius’ works in his personal library.11 In addition, his attention was drawn to Cocceius through his reading of Schrenk’s book on federal theology.12 Barth’s evaluation of Cocceius’ doctrine of the abrogations depends almost entirely on Schrenk, given that he probably did not have access to Cocceius’ main work on this topic, the SD.13

In the Church Dogmatics, there is an extensive discussion of federal theology in general, and Cocceius in particular, at pages 61–70 of volume IV/1.14 In this excursus, Barth is very critical of federal theology as a whole. It will be helpful to quote Barth’s general criticism of federal theology at length, because it gives a good impression of the main issue at stake in Barth’s relationship to federal theology:

But the more embracing and central and exact this apprehension becomes in the main period of the Federal theology, the more insistently the ques-tion imposes itself from what standpoint this occurrence is really regarded and represented as such. What happens when the work, the Word of God, is first isolated and then reconnected, according to the teaching of pragmatic theology, with a whole series of events which are purposefully strung out but which belong together? Does this really correspond to the state of affairs as it is prescribed for theology in Scripture? Can we historicise the activity and revelation of God? . . . They saw excellently that the Bible tells us about an event. But they did not see that in all its forms this narrative has the character of testimony, proclamation, evangel, and that it has as its content and subject only a single event, which in every form of the attestation, although they all relate to a whole, is the single and complete decision on the part of God which as such calls for a single and complete decision on the part of man. . . . The Federal theologians did not notice that for all the exclusiveness with which they read the Scriptures, in this analysis and synthesis of the occurrence between God and man they were going beyond Scripture and missing its real content. . . . As becomes increasingly plain in the sketches of  the Federal theologians, the atonement accomplished in Jesus Christ ceases to be the history of the covenant, to which (in all the different forms of expectation and recollection) the whole Bible bears witness and in face of which theology must take up and maintain its standpoint, and it becomes a biblical history, a state in the greater context of world-history, before which, and after which, there are other similar stages.15

Most striking in this quotation is the overcritical attack on what Barth calls the “historicizing” of theology that federal theology develops. Even if Barth’s own theology is commonly presented as a Copernican revolution in thinking about the relationship between God and history, this quotation makes clear that the historicizing in Barth’s theology is of a very special kind, namely a historicizing in the sense of the identification of God with the human person Jesus Christ. If we had to believe  Barth, only a theology of the strictly Christological character that he favours can do justice to the richness and complexity of the biblical message! This is indeed the great divide between federal theology on the one hand, and Barth on the other. Barth holds that theologies must be based on and consist of only one thing: either Christ, as he claims his own theology does, or sinful human nature, as he claims all theologies accepting some form of natural theology do.16 As van Asselt has pointed out, it is one of the central tenets of federal theology to think in pairs, duplexities, as the English translator of his dissertation calls them.17
        In spite of the vigorous critique that Barth exercises in his excursus on federal theology, there is much more positive influence of Cocceius on Barth than Barth himself wants us to believe. In fact, throughout the volumes of the CD, Barth is increasingly using covenantal conceptuality to develop his theology. This starts in volume II/1, where Barth introduces the notion of the covenant (as Gemeinschaft) in his doctrine of God.18 According to Barth, God, by definition, is a God who chooses himself to be a God in relation with human beings. This notion of the covenant is then running through his doctrine of election and the divine commandments in volume II/2,19 and it plays a central role in the doctrine of creation in volume III. In volume IV, then, reconciliation takes the form of the restoration of the covenant.20
         In a way, Barth’s dogmatics can certainly be said to be a covenantal theology. It is even appropriate to speak of a radicalization of federal theology in Barth. Where Cocceius still sees the notion of the covenant between God and human beings as characteristic of God’s works, not of God’s being, at most metaphorically, this is different in Barth. Barth sees the covenant as the one single definitive act of God’s being in Jesus Christ. Exactly this is what accounts for the difference between Barth’s Christological monism—although the term is overly pejorative— and the duplex—not dualist as I hope to show—character of traditional federal thought. For Barth, God’s relationship with human beings is definitive of God’s being. In this sense, Barth holds that the covenant of God is always a two-sided covenant, as God decided to be never without a relationship to a human being—Jesus Christ. Still, Barth upholds the one-sided origin of the covenant through an emphasis on God’s free choice to be the way God is.
          Hence, the “twentieth-century church father” cannot but vigorously criticize a theology that speaks with two words rather than one. This is especially true of two duplexities that are characteristic of federal theology: first, the duplexity of the covenants of works and grace and, second, the duplexity of the pactum salutis and the foedus gratiae.
          As to the first duplexity, Barth’s conviction that God is God in Jesus Christ makes it impossible for him to account for some sort of relationship between God and human beings that is not a relationship mediated by grace in Jesus Christ. For Barth, the idea of there being such a relationship suggests that we as human beings have some sort of natural power to know God independently of God’s free decision to reveal himself to us. If such a relationship not mediated by Christ is then also the first, the original and the natural relationship between God and human beings, even more natural than that through which God decided to be the one decisive relationship with human beings, Barth can only see that as an attempt to create one’s own god out of one’s sinful mind.21 As to the second duplexity, the duplexity of the pactum salutis and the foedus gratiae, Barth’s conviction that God is by definition God in Jesus Christ makes it impossible for him to account for a level of decision in God that is different from God’s definitive decision to be God with us in Jesus Christ. For Barth, allowing for a pactum salutis will inevitably lead to a dualism in God.22

3. Cocceius on Pactum Salutis and Foedus Gratiae

The Covenant in General

In this essay, I will assess Barth’s twentieth-century critique of the second abovementioned duplexity that is central to Cocceius’ theology, the duplexity of the pactum salutis and the foedus gratiae. We start our analysis with Cocceius’ definition of a covenant in general: 

The covenant of God with a human being is different from the covenant that human beings have among each other. A covenant between human beings, namely, is based on mutual well doing, whereas God makes a covenant based on his welldoing only. The covenant of God is nothing but the divine declaration concerning the way of receiving the love of God, and of acquiring the union and communion with him. If a human being makes use of this way, he is in a relationship of friendship with God, or put differently: God is his creator and his God in a special way.23

One should notice that this is a definition of every covenant that God has with human beings, no more, no less. As Cocceius points out, it is not a definition of any covenant we can think of, because inter-human covenants are different, as in inter-human covenants, both partners formulate conditions and promises constitutive of the covenant. In a God-human covenant, God’s declaration alone is constitutive of the nature of the covenant.
          So far, Barth and Cocceius are still on par. For Barth, it is very important to stress that God is never dependent on the existence or actions of human beings. Human beings only exist in the covenant with God by virtue of God’s initiative in creation and revelation.
         For Cocceius, this is as much the case as for Barth, although it is significant that for Cocceius, this is still only the definition of the covenant in general. That is, although both concrete covenants (of works and of grace) between God and human beings are characterized by this definition, concrete covenants have some specific features that this definition does not contain. This is already hinting at the difference with Barth. In a sense, for Barth, the general definition is a sufficient description of what God is for us in Jesus Christ. In Jesus Christ, God offers us a way in which we can enter into a relationship of love and friendship with God. Human beings are called to respond to this offer in faith and obedience. This offering of a way in which we can enter into a relationship of love and friendship with God is constituted by God’s act of reconciliation in Jesus Christ, in which God, acknowledging that we will and cannot live in this friendship with God, responded to this call in the ultimate way, suffering for us at the cross.24 As we will see, in Cocceius, the consequences of sin make it impossible to account for the specificity of the covenant of grace in terms of a mere offer of grace to which we are called to respond.
          Cocceius needs the distinction between a covenant in general and specific covenants for two reasons: First, concerning the covenant of works, Cocceius needs a specific covenant because the promise and the conditions of the covenant of works are essential to the nature of this covenant. Second, concerning the covenant of grace—more on that below—Cocceius needs a specific covenant because the abrogation of the covenant of works is of such a radical kind that a covenant in terms of an obligation to be fulfilled on the part of human beings does not suffice. After sin, human beings lack the ability to fulfil the obligations of a covenant that asks something of them, if it not also “gives what it asks”— Augustine.

The Covenant of Grace

The first concrete form that the covenant between God and human beings takes is the covenant of works, but we skip the covenant of works and its first abrogation in the fall for the moment. We will come back to it in due course, and proceed to Cocceius’ definition of the covenant of grace:

The covenant of grace is an agreement between God and a sinful human being, in which, [first], God declares his free benevolence to give justice and an inheritance to a certain seed in the Mediator through faith, to the glory of his grace, [second], God invites through a commandment of repentence and faith—or put differently: the repentence the beginning of which is faith in the Mediator—, and through a promise, to give justice to those who believe in him, [and third] the human being joins in the agreed matters through cordial faith, resulting in peace and friendship and the right to expect the inheritance with a good conscience.25

          The most important difference between the general definition of a covenant and the specific definition of the covenant of grace is the first part of the latter—the declaration. In the first part of the definition, there is no mention of a covenant between God and human beings, but of God’s unconditional decree to save certain people through the mediatory work of Jesus Christ: “God declares his free benevolence to give justice and the inheritance of the covenant to a certain seed, to the glorification of his grace.” Thus, in the definition, the decree is combined with the invitation and the human response to the invitation, without the relationship between the decree, the invitation, and the response being clarified.26

What is the background of this? The background is the first abrogation of the covenant of works mentioned in the previous chapter of Cocceius’ Summa Doctrinae: sin. According to the Reformed tradition that Cocceius is following here, the power of sin is such that it makes a natural human response to God’s invitation to the covenant of grace impossible. If the covenant of grace is a mere proclamation of the work of Christ for all humanity, leaving it to the responsibility of human beings to accept this message in faith or not, no human being would be saved, the Reformed fathers hold. Therefore, not a mere general proclamation of a common message is needed, but also the actual liberation from the bondage of sin. This, then, is the reason why the covenant of grace as an invitation to the love of God in Jesus Christ can only take effect if it is rooted in a testament. This testament is the declaration of a pact between the divine Persons of the Trinity that guarantees the actual salvation of certain people, whether these people accept it or not.27

Returning to Barth, this view of the implications of sin means that his charge of natural theology in Reformed orthodoxy is unjustified. Given that sin makes it impossible to know God without God’s actual intervention in the life of human beings, there is no room for a human attempt to reach God through the powers of one’s own autonomous existence, as Barth fears. Hence, there are other ways to avoid the dangers of an autonomous capturing of God than Barth’s option of formulating the whole of Christian doctrine in Christological terms. It may even turn out that the traditional Reformed distinction between pre-fallen and fallen humanity provides a better way of avoiding this trap than Barth’s Christological dogmatics. This, however, depends on the specific strand in Barth’s thought that one pursues. Following one line, there is ultimately only one true ontological state of human beings, that is the state of being in relation to God through Jesus Christ. Ultimately, human beings are what they are in Jesus Christ even if they do not know or ignore it. Faith is not a change of an ontological state. It is not a becoming of a new being in Christ. It is just realizing what we have been all the time! This implies the risk of “naturalizing grace” by accepting one’s relation to God in Christ as a standing condition. It is something we can count on, whether we reckon with it or not. Of course we need the revelation of God in Christ to know in what state we are, but whatever we do in that state, the result is the same. Barth, however, following another—I would say: opposing— strand of his thought, would deny the possibility of “ontologizing” the Christological foundation of his dogmatics. Being human in and through Jesus Christ is never something one can count on, as it is always a concrete gift of grace with a strict “here and now” character. Taking our relationship with God in Christ for granted, Barth would say, is precisely the proof of sin, as it takes us away from the dependence on God’s free gift of grace.

Traditional Reformed orthodoxy accounts for the dependency on grace in a different—I would say: more consistent—way. Here the ontological state of fallen humanity is really distinct from the state before the fall, and after the gift of grace. The gift of grace must be understood as the beginning of the gradual restoration of one’s true humanity to its pre-fallen state. In the state of the fall, the original image of God is not entirely lost, but access to salvation requires a true ontological change of what it means to be a human being.

The Pactum Salutis

Ontological change, however, is a delicate issue, as it is easily associated with coercion and determinism. It was not without reasons that twentieth-century theology dropped the notion. Reformed theology developed the duplexity of a “covenant from eternity,” the pactum salutis, in order to provide the covenant of grace with a completely secure foundation on the one hand, and maintain a sufficient degree of human freedom on the other. Let us see how Cocceius develops it and how he relates it to the covenant of grace.
         The first thing significant to note about chapter V, the chapter in which Cocceius extensively discusses the pactum salutis, is the title: “A Further Explanation of the Foregoing.”28 This title is significant, as it shows that Cocceius saw the pactum salutis not so much as a covenant distinct from the covenant of grace, but rather as the eternal foundation of the covenant of grace.29
         The internal coherence of the pactum salutis and the foedus gratiae is confirmed by the opening of chapter V of the SD, which is simply the continuation of the previous line of argument:

However, in this divine testament [as discussed in the previous chapter, MW], there is a pact that makes up its firmness. This pact, namely, is not a pact with a fallen human being, but with the Mediator. This pact is the will of the Father giving his Son to be a Head and Redemptor of the  foreknown people, and it is the will of the Son, setting himself up to take care of this salvation. This will has the nature of an agreement insofar as, in this ineffable economy of salvation, the Father is considered as the one who stipulates the obedience of the Son to death, and as a reward for his obedience, promises him a kingdom and a spiritual seed, and it is an agreement insofar as the Son is considered as the one who sets himself up to do the will of God, demanding the salvation of the people that were given to him out of the world or, more clearly stated, claim his rights from the other party.30

         Several aspects of this quotation are worth noticing. First, the issue of the strength (firmitas) of the testament. Why is the pactum salutis needed to safeguard the firmness of the testament, and more generally, of the covenant of grace? Should not God’s promise of salvation to all who believe be firm enough? As we will see in more detail below, not so for Cocceius. If the testament were only God’s promise of salvation to those who believe, there would be no guarantee that the testament would arrive at its destination at all. If the covenant were only an invitation on God’s side, the sinner’s case would be hopeless, as the sinner would be unable to fulfil the condition of access to the goods of the covenant. Therefore, the covenant of grace, if it is to be a real answer to the demand of human sinfulness, must include not only the invitation to the friendship of God, but also the fulfillment of the condition of faith. This is only possible if all conditions of the covenant of grace are met in the trinitarian God, in the trinitarian pact. Therefore, secondly, it is unavoidable that the covenant of grace as a whole, as regards its nature as a testament, remains restricted to the elect, those “given to the Son by the Father.”
         Finally, it is significant that Cocceius speaks of the “ineffable economy of grace.” The characterization of the pactum salutis as “ineffable ” qualifies all contractual speech between the divine Persons, as Cocceius explains in § 92:

Indeed, the will of the Father and the Son are the same, and not diverse, because they are one. Still, insofar as the Father is not the Son, nor the Son is the Father, this will is appropriated by each of both distinctly and according to their own mode, to the one as sending and giving, to the other as sent and given. Thus, this greatest mystery becomes known (which had to become known to confirm our faith concerning our salvation and to direct [this faith] to God), in what way we are justified and saved by God, in what way God is, who both judges and vouches for us, and is judged in that way, who absolves and intercedes, who sends and is being sent.31

        Cocceius’ insistence on the inexpressibility is significant vis-à-vis Barth’s critique of the pactum salutis as a sort of contract between two divine subjects, a view of the Trinity which is obviously incompatible with Barth’s view of the trinitarian persons as modes of being.32 While Barth refers to the Reformed tradition in support of his conception of the trinitarian persons,33 the possibility of a pact between the trinitarian persons in Cocceius makes clear how Barth’s conception differs from the tradition. Whereas Barth’s modes of being in God are three rationally conceived functions of a single subject, the traditional Reformed view still conceives of the relationship between the one being of God in three Persons as, well indeed: an ineffable relationship.34 In this ineffable relationship, indeed three more or less subject-like persons can be distinguished, who at the same time, however, form an inexpressible unity, both in themselves and in their works. 

        Obviously, Cocceius’ conviction that the covenant of grace must include a pact between the Father and the Son, has also significant ramifications for his view of the work of Christ. In § 104 the question is raised for whom Christ has become Sponsor: for the elect only. However, Cocceius is very careful with the use of predestination language. He is always keen on explaining the soteriological context in which the conclusion of limited atonement becomes unavoidable:

First of all, it is clear that, for whom he has vouched, for them he has also succeeded, he has been their merit, their sins have been put on him and they have been condemned in him, he has sacrificed himself for them and has prayed for them; in addition, it is clear that those for which he died, also died [in him]: that those are the same that have been justified and saved through him. These things, namely, are of the same effect and extent. . . . Since Scripture denies in the strongest wordings that the guarantee of Christ concerns all and each, no one excepted, and since it has thus far been a generally accepted dogma in the Church that Christ, as it has been said, did not die for all without exception according to the efficacy [of his death], it can easily and safely be concluded (although it concerns a great mystery), that Christ was no guarantee for all without exception, or for those who are not saved.35

An extensive argument follows against the Arminians and Socinians, who extended the benefit of Christ’s work to all people. What is at stake in this argument time and again, is the content of what it means to say that Christ died for someone. If, Cocceius argues, the scope of the atonement in Christ is extended to all people, the material content of what it means that Christ died for someone will change, and in Cocceius’ view, it will loose its force. Thus, in § 113:

In no way should the phrase from Scripture be weakened that Christ has died for sinners. This means much more than just that he has died to the benefit of humans, insofar as at least is not meant that benefit that there is in the attainment of salvation, but in some other benefit, such as that they are called, or that they are led to the knowledge of truth.36

 And again in § 163:

There are others who reduce the merit of Christ, such as 1. Those who state that Christ has died no more for those who are saved, as for those who perish. Although they seem to extend the merit of Christ, in fact they reduce it in such a way, that nothing remains of what he has merited. Indeed they speak of the grace that is necessary and sufficient to believe and to acquire reconciliation. But what is this [grace]? Is it the calling? Impossible, for many are not called.37

So, if we bring this back to the discussion with Barth: for Cocceius, the duplexity in the covenant of grace, that is the duplexity of the firmness of the inter-trinitarian pact on the one hand, and the dynamics of invitation and faith in time on the other, is absolutely necessary. If we, like Barth, speak of only one decision in God, we will loose one of the two elements: We will either loose the firmness, fruitfulness and effectivity of God’s work of salvation, ending up in a theology in which God is in some way dependent on human responsibility for salvation to come about (Pelagianism/Arminianism), or we loose the dynamics of God’s interaction with human beings in the preaching of the gospel, ending up in hard universalism (unconditional salvation for all, regardless what their response is).38 The problem of Barth’s position is that he refuses to choose one of the two options.

The Covenant of Grace as Communicative Act

So far, we have seen that for Cocceius, the covenant of grace needs to be grounded in the pactum salutis—among other reasons—in order to provide the covenant with the robustness required by the disastrous effects of sin. This is the first central tenet on which the Reformed soteriology is built. Reformed theology would not be characterized by duplexity, though, if there were not a second central notion constituting it. As much as Reformed theology is concerned to maintain the firmness of salvation, it is concerned to maintain the nature of salvation as a communicative act. God saves by the Word, by proclaiming salvation in Christ to human beings in the preaching of the gospel. Partaking in salvation is a matter of a human act of response to the preaching of the gospel.
          But can these two notions live together in a peaceful way? The charge of the Barthian tradition is that they cannot. In Barth’s view, the Reformed view of Christ as the mirror of election cannot be consistently thought together with a doctrine of double predestination, in which God decides on the ultimate destination of human beings in an arbitrary way. This is one of the main grounds for Barth’s reduction of the doctrine of election to a communicative act: Election is the “Sum of the gospel.”39 According to Barth, the covenant between God and human beings can only be a communicative act if there is no “secret decree” behind it. Cocceius is of the exactly opposite opinion. He believes that the communicative nature of the covenant of grace can only be truly safeguarded if it is rooted in the pactum salutis as God’s ultimate decision on the destination of human beings that remains independent of the communicative structure of the gospel. It needs to be independent of this communicative structure because its firmness requires that it remains independent of human consent.

        The key passage in which Cocceius explains the inner logic of this position is this:

This is of utmost importance to the foundation of faith and evangelical consolation. And because God approves every truth that flows from his counsel, one can rightly say that it is his will that everyone who sees the Son and believes in him, has everlasting life. Although, namely, these ALL are ONLY those given to Christ, and in God there is no universal counsel without a determination of subject, or again, a decree to bless without the explicit mentioning of a certain seed, nevertheless, through his approving will, he wants to be universally true that which follows and is implied by his special and definite counsel. . . . Through such a conditional commandment and promise, salvation is offered to all those called, i.e. it is proposed to them without any deceit; thus, it is clear that there is no reason to suggest some sort of desire or incomplete will or the like that God would be unworthy of, so that we uphold God’s integrity and sincerity.40

This passage may require some explanation. Let me start at the end. Cocceius’ emphasis on God’s integrity and sincerity can be technically phrased as his conviction that the combination of a doctrine of predestination (including limited atonement) with the free offer of Christ in the gospel to all who hear it, is entirely consistent. No compromise of the content of God’s eternal decree in the preaching of the gospel is required, nor is the offer of Christ in the gospel to all in any sense an insincere offer, a mere play to guarantee the responsibility of the nonelect. 
         Cocceius provides the solution in the above mentioned key passage: what God decides to work out from eternity is an unconditional promise, taking the form of “God will do so and so whatever happens.” At the same time, however, this decree to do so and so appears in the preaching of the gospel in a conditional manner: “All those who believe in Jesus Christ will be saved.” The latter is entirely consistent with the former, as all those who believe in Jesus Christ will indeed be saved, the eternal decree providing the certainty that those who receive the regenerating grace of God, will indeed believe in Jesus Christ. Thus, the eternal decree of God in no way interferes with the free offer of Christ in the gospel, because the believer-to-be does not in any sense need access to the eternal decree in order to be allowed access to Jesus Christ offered in the gospel. The Reformed theologians remain perfectly able to quote Isa 55:1/Rev 22:17: “[W]hoever wishes, let him take the free gift of the water of life.”41
        Furthermore, the act of faith in Christ is and remains the sole point of access to salvation. It is important to see that this is a crucial point of agreement between the Reformed orthodox theologians and the Arminians. Being saved is really about doing something, acting upon the gospel proclaimed. The Reformed object against the Arminians’ unclarity about the origin of the act of faith, i.e., the question whether and in what sense grace is necessary to make the act of faith possible, but they do not dispute the character of faith as an act of response to Christ offered in the gospel.42 If we put it in a popular way: What the Reformed orthodox would have against the mass meetings of Billy Graham is not the emphasis on making a decision for Christ. There is much of such emphasis on making a decision in Reformed practical literature, the Anglo-American Puritan tradition in particular. What the Reformed tradition might have against a Billy Graham meeting is the suggestion that one’s being able to make the right decision depends on oneself rather than God alone. You may choose, but in choosing, the only thing you can say is: “We love because he first loved us.” (1 John 4:19).
         Of course, the conditional nature of the promise of salvation to all who believe qualifies the object of the belief. What one has to believe is not so much the fact that one is saved, but that those who believe will be saved. This has important consequences for the question of assurance of faith:

Question: is everyone in common obliged to believe that Christ has died for them? Answer: This is exactly the consolation that is the fruit of justice; it pertains only to those who have a dismayed conscience, and to those souls that hunger and thirst after justice. . . . Nobody may dare to arrogate this consolation to himself who has not been converted to God by true faith of his heart, i.e. who not hungers and thirsts after justice, and [bears] fruits of that to the glory of God. Someone who has not taken refuge in Christ, to put it concisely, who did not begin to love him as the ruler of salvation.43

The position of the traditional Reformed theologians becomes all the more clear when we confront it with Barth’s view. Barth’s single decree of God to be God in Jesus Christ is motivated by his attempt to think God exclusively as God with us, as God in relation to human beings.44 In addition, the attempt to think God as God in Christ exclusively is motivated by Barth’s aim to dynamize the allegedly static understanding of God in the tradition.45 Barth’s aim is to bring history, the contingent encounter between God and human beings in the here and now, to the center of the theological discourse. Thus, for him, the doctrine of election can be nothing but a form of communication, the sum of the gospel.
         However, as there is only room for one decree in God,46 and the communicative message of the gospel cannot be the announcement of those elected from eternity, Barth is forced to accept universalism.47 Thus, the message of the gospel can be nothing but an announcement of a state of affairs, namely the state of being reconciled with God. Although in Barth, God is defined by his being God in Christ in time, the dynamics of God in time is in fact a dynamics of a single moment, namely the being of God as being God in Christ.48 The event of the preaching of the gospel and the human response to it is a mere recognition —both on the part of the preacher and on the part of the believer— of the one single act of God’s being in Christ. There is no additional soteriological level in which the restoration of the divine-human relationship between God and the believer is taken into account. Put in trinitarian terms: there is no separate level of the Spirit in the economy of salvation.49 While motivated by a concern to build the relationship between God and human beings into the very being of God, Barth ended with a static account of this relationship, a relationship in which a reciprocal action between God and the believer cannot truly be taken into account.50

1 For the view of the doctrine of predestination as a .Zentraldogma,. see Willem J. van Asselt, ed., Inleiding in de gereformeerde scholastiek (Zoetermeer: Boekencentrum, 1998), 18.30. Willem van Asselt has been one of the key critics of this so-called .old school.-interpretation of Reformed scholasticism.

2 See Kevin J. Vanhoozer, .Introduction: The Love of God . Its Place, Meaning and Function in Systematic Theology,. in Nothing Greater, Nothing Better: Theological Essays on the Love of God, ed. idem (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), 1.29.
For two full-scale works on God as love, see Vincent Brümmer, The Model of Love: A Study in Philosophical Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993); Markus Mühling, Gott ist Liebe: Studien zum Verständnis der Liebe als Modell des trinitarischen Redens von Gott, Marburger theologische Studien 58, 2nd ed. (Marburg:Elwert, 2005).

3 Willem J. van Asselt, The Federal Theology of Johannes Cocceius (1603.1669), trans. from the Dutch by R. A. Blacketer, Studies in the History of Christian Thought 100 (Leiden: Brill, 2001), 2.16.

4 Among his main works on Cocceius are a complete Dutch translation of Cocceius . Summa doctrinae: Johannes Coccejus, De Leer van het Verbond en het Testament van God, trans. from the Latin by W. J. van Asselt and H. G. Renger (Kampen: De Groot Goudriaan, 1990) and, in addition to numerous articles, two monographs: a more biographical one in Dutch (Willem J. van Asselt, Johannes Coccejus: Portret van een zeventiende-eeuws theoloog op oude en nieuwe wegen, Kerkhistorische monografieën 6 (Heerenveen: Groen, 1997)), and the thoroughly revised English translation of his dissertation: van Asselt, Federal Theology.

5 Van Asselt, Federal Theology, 94.105.

6 A traditional Dutch Reformed church service opens with the following phrase: .Our help is in the name of the Lord, who has made heaven and earth, who will never abandon the works of his hands,..a combination of Pss 124:8 and 138:8.

7 In Dutch: .Het evangelie scheert langs de rand van de alverzoening.. More on van Ruler in English: Allan J. Janssen, Kingdom, Office, and Church: A Study of A. A. van Ruler.s Doctrine of Ecclesiastical Office, The Historical Series of the Reformed Church in America (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006).

8 The English translations of the quotations from the Summa doctrinae have been prepared in close cooperation with drs. Jan Boom, who wrote his Master.s thesis under the supervision of van Asselt on a Dutch translation of Aquinas. and Cocceius. commentary on Lamentations 1. References to de SD are by chapter and paragraph number.

9 Bruce McCormack, .Grace and Being: The Role of God.s Gracious Election in Karl Barth.s Theological Ontology,. in The Cambridge companion to Karl Barth, ed. John Webster (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 97.

10 Van Asselt, Federal Theology, 9. 

11 Van Asselt, Johannes Coccejus, 107.

12 G. Schrenk, Gottesreich und Bund im älteren Protestantismus, vornehmlich bei Johannes Coccejus (Gütersloh: Bertelsmann, 1923).

13 There is no single reference to Cocceius. own works in the excursus on federal theology. In volume II/2, where Barth appeals to Cocceius for his identification of election and the covenant (See van Asselt, Federal Theology, 199.201 and van Asselt, Johannes Coccejus, 222.225), he refers to the Summa Theologiae only: CD II/2, 85, 102, 114.5, 308; KD II/2, 91, 109, 122.3, 338.

14 CD IV/1, 54.66.

15 CD IV/1, 56.57. KD IV/1, 58.59: .Aber je umfassender, prinzipieller und genauer diese Zusammenschau [vom Alten und Neuen Testament] in der Blütezeit der Föderaltheologie wird, desto mehr drängt sich die Frage auf: von welchem Standort aus dieses Geschehen nun eigentlich in Blick genommen und als solches dargestelt
sein möchte? Was geschieht da, wo das Werk, das Wort Gottes auseinandergelegt und dann wieder pragmatisch-theologisch verknüpft wird zu einer Serie von sinnvoll aneinandergereihten und ineinander greifenden Ereignissen? Entspricht das wirklich der der Theologie in der Schrift vorgegebenen Sache? Kann man Gottes handlung und Offenbarung historisieren? . . . Daß die Bibel von einem Geschehen berichtet, das haben sie vortrefflich verstanden, nicht aber, daß dieser Bericht in allen seinen Gestalten den Charakter von Zeugnis, Verkündigung und Botschaft und zu seinem Inhalt und Gegenstand ein einziges Geschehen hat, das je in dieser und dieser Gestalt seiner Bezeugung, indem doch jede von ihnen sich auf seine Ganzheit bezieht, die eine, ganze Entscheidung Gottes ist, die als solche nach der einen ganzen Entscheidung des Menschen ruft. . . . Die Föderaltheologen haben nicht bemerkt, daß sie zuerst mit ihrer Analyse und dann mit ihrer Synthese des Geschehens zwischen Gott und Mensch bei aller Aufgeschlossenheit, in der sie die Schrift gelesen haben, an der wirklichen Schrift vorbeilasen und an ihrem Inhalt vorbeisahen. . . . Ihm wird . . . die in Jesus Christus geschehene Versöhnung aus der Bundesgeschichte . . . zu einer biblischen Geschichte, zu einer Etappe in einem größeren Zusammenhang von Geschichte, vor der und nach der es auch noch andere solche Etappen Gibt..

16 On the Christological character of dogmatics, see CD I/2, 122.3; KD I/2, 134. 5. On the refutation of the knowledge of God from nature, see CD II/1, 63.127; KD II/1, 68.141.

17 Van Asselt, Federal Theology, 303ff.

18 CD II/1, 272.296; KD II/1, 306.334

19 CD II/2, 3.33; KD II/2, 1.35.

20 CD IV/1, 1.78; KD IV/1, 1.82.21 CD IV/1, 56, 61.63; KD IV/1, 59, 64.66.

22 CD II/2, 94.116; KD II/2, 101.124.

23 SD, I, 5: .Foedus Dei cum homine aliter se habet ac hominum inter ipsos. Homines enim de mutuis beneficiis: Deus de suis foedus facit. Est enim Dei foedus nihil aliud, quam divina declaratio de ratione percipiendi amoris Dei, & unione ac
communione ipsius potiendi. Qua ratione si homo utatur, in amicitia Dei est, sive, Creator ipsius est & Deus ipsius peculiari ratione..

24 As we will see below, here is the big tension in Barth.s conception. On the one hand, God calls us to respond. Faith is  exactly this response. On the other hand, only God can respond to this call and does so in Jesus Christ, basically fulfilling the condition of the covenant for all human beings once and for all.

25 SD IV, 76: .Foedus gratiae est conventio inter Deum & hominem peccatorem, Deo declarante liberum beneplacitum suum de justitia & haereditate certo semini danda in Mediatore per fidem, ad gloriam gratiae ipsius, & per mandatum resipiscentiae
ac fidei sive resipiscentiae, cujus initium est fides in Mediatorem, ac per promissionem justitiae credentibus in illo dandae invitante, homine autem per fidem cordis astipulante contracta, ad pacem & amicitiam & jus expectandae haereditatis in bona conscientia...emphasis mine. There are a number of subtle differences between van Asselt.s translations of this definition and ours. Boom and I have read the definition as built around the three verbs .declarare,. .invitare,. and .astipulare..

26 Van Asselt has always insisted on the differences between the decree, the pactum salutis, the testament and the covenant of grace: van Asselt, Federal Theology, 219.226, 239.247. Still, from a systematic point of view, it is important to see that
within the definition of the covenant of grace, reference is made to that which makes this covenant possible, that is the eternal decree. This is not to suggest that the covenant of grace (or parts of it) coincide with the eternal decree. Rather, I would say thatin the covenant of grace, the declaration of the eternal decree (in close relationship to the pactum salutis), takes the form of a testament.

27 Cf. van Asselt.s translation of the definition of the covenant of grace, who translates .conventio inter Deum & hominem peccatorem. as .an agreement between God and sinful humanity.: van Asselt, Federal Theology, p. 41. This is incorrect, as the rest of the definition shows. According to Cocceius, the covenant is only made between God and the believer.

28 SD V, 88: .Uberior praemissorum explicatio..

29 As such, it also appears in the STh where, contrary to the SD, the pactum salutis precedes the foedus gratiae. In the STh, the pactum salutis denotes the eternal counsel of salvation at the basis of the trinitarian work of salvation in time. The foedus gratiae then, denotes the fulfillment of God.s counsel of salvation in a pact of friendship and peace between God and the believer. STh XLI, 1.4.

30 SD V, 88: .Inest tamen in hoc Testamento divino Pactum, quo nititur ejus firmitas.Pactum scil. non cum homine lapso, sed cum Mediatore. Scilicet voluntas Patris filium dantis caput & lutrwth&j  redemptorem populi praecogniti, & voluntas Filii, sese ad hanc salutem procurandam sistentis, habet rationem conventionis, dum secundum ineffabilem illam oeconomiam negocii salutis notrae consideratur Pater stipulans obedientiam Filii usque ad mortem, & pro ea ipsi regnum & semen spirituale repromittens: filius autem se sistens, ad faciendam voluntatem Dei, & à Patre salutem populi sibi è mundo dati restipulans, sive, ut claritis loquar, altrinsecus petens.. 31 SD V, 92: .Patris quidem & Filii voluntas eadem est, non diversa, quia & unum
sunt; sed, quatenus Pater non est Filius, neque Filius Pater, eadem voluntas distincte & suo modo utrique appropriatur, scilicet alteri ut donanti & mittenti, alteri ut dato & misso. Ita mysterium illud maximum (quod fidei nostrae de salute nostra confirmandae & in Deum dirigendae causa patescere debebat) patescit, quomodo in Deo justificemus & salvemur, quomodo Deus sit & qui judicat & qui spondet, atque ita judicatur; qui absolvit & qui intercedit; qui mittit & qui mittitur..

32 CD IV/1, 64.65; KD IV/1, 68.69. See also van Asselt, Federal Theology, 233. 236. For some nuances concerning the use of the trinitarian persons as .modes of being,. see: Iain Taylor, .In Defence of Karl Barth.s Doctrine of the Trinity,. International Journal of Systematic Theology 5 (2003): 33.46.

33 See also CD I/1, 407.415; KD I/1, 374.381.

34 For a systematic account of the view of the Trinity as ineffable, drawing on Augustine.s theology, see: Maarten Wisse, ..Ego sum qui sum.: Die trinitarische Essenz Gottes nach Augustins De Trinitate,. in Entzogenheit in Gott: Beiträge zur
Rede von der Verborgenheit der Trinität, ed. M. Mühling and M. Wendte, Ars Disputandi Supplement Series 2 (Utrecht: Ars Disputandi, 2005), URL:, 63.76; idem, .De uniciteit van God en de relationaliteit van de mens: De relevantie van Augustinus voor de hedendaagse theologie,. Nederlands Theologisch Tijdschrift 60:4 (2006): 310.328.

35 SD V, 108: .Et primo quidem illud evidens est, pro quibus spopondit, illis & impetravisse, illis meritum esse, illorum peccata in ipsum injecta suisse, & in ipso condemnata esse, pro illis se obtulisse, pro illis orasse; &, pro quibus mortuus est, illos mortuos esse: eosdemque justificari & salvari per ipsum. Haec enim paris efficaciae & ejusdem sunt latitudinis. . . . Quum igitur Scripturae apertissimis verbis negent, illam sponsionem Christi ad omnes pertinere & singulos, nullo excepto, fueritque hactenus in Ecclesia receptissimum dogma, Christum (ut loquuntur) secundum efficaciam non esse mortuum pro omnibus hominibus sine exceptione: & facile & tutum est (licet in remagni mysterii) definite, Christum non spopondisse pro omnibus sine exceptione, sive etiam pro illis, qui non salvantur..

36 SD V, 113: .Minimè enervanda est phrasis Scripturae, qua dicitur Christus pro hominibus mortuus. Plus illud significat, quam mortuus utilitate hominum, siquidem non utilitatem illam, quae est in assecutione salutis, sed utilitatem quamvis intelligas;ut est, quod vocantur, quod ad agnitionem veritatis adducuntur . . ..

37 SD V, 163: .Sunt alii, qui imminuunt, videlicet 1. Qui statuunt Christum non magis pro iis, qui salvantur, quam pro iis, qui pereunt, mortuum esse. Quanquam enim videantur extendere meritum christi, reipsa tamen id adeò imminuunt, ut omnino nihl ipsi relinquant, quod meritus sit. Dicunt quidem . . . Gratiam ad credendum & reconciliationem consequendum necessariam & sufficientem. Quid illa? An vocatio? Non potest. Plurimi enim non vocantur..

38 I distinguish between .hard. and .soft. universalism. .Hard universalism. is a view of salvation in which all will be saved, regardless of what their response is (the so-called apokatastasis pantoon). .Soft universalism. is a view in which God romises salvation to all, but makes it dependent on human decision whether it is actually realized (popularly phrased: Arminianism).

39 CD II/2, 12.34; KD II/2, 11.35.

40 SD VI, 184: .Maximique id ipsum momenti est ad fundandam fidem & consolationem Evangelicam. Et, quia Deus approbat omnem veritatem, quae ex consilio ipsus fluit, rectè dicitur voluntas ipsius esse, ut omnu, qui videt filium & credit in ipsum,
habeat vitam aeternam. quanquam enim hi O M N E S sint S O L I dati Christo, & Deus non habeat consilium universale sine determinatione subjecti, sive propositum benedicendi citra vocationem seminis; tamen Voluntate approbante hoc vult universaliter esse verum, quod ex speciali & definito ipsius consilio fluit & consequitur. . . . Per tale mandatum & promissionem conditionatam omnibus vocatis salus offertur, h. e. proponitur sine omni illusione; ut patet neque necesse est singere desiderium sive voluntatem incompletam & alia istiusmodi Deo indecora, ut tueamur ipsius integritatem & sinceritatem..

41 See the earlier argument for this point in: Maarten Wisse, ..Zij laat alles zoals het is.: De actualiteit van de scholastieke methode,. in van Asselt, ed., Inleiding, 163.173.

42 It must be said that there are some exceptions to this rule, compensating for the negative consequences the emphasis on faith as an act might have in pastoral practice. This compensation is particularly provided by the concept of faith as a habit. See Maarten Wisse, .Habitus fidei: An Essay on the History of a Concept,. Scottish Journal of Theology 56:2 (2003): 172.189.

43 SD VI, 180: .Quaeritur, An omnibus omnino imperetur credere, Christum esse pro se mortuum? Resp. Hanc ipsam esse consolationem, quae est fructus justitiae; & non pertinere nisi ad conscientias contritas & animas esurientes & sitientes justitiae. . . . Hanc consolationem nemo sibi debet arrogare, qui non vera animi fide conversus est ad Deum; h. e. qui non sitit & esurit justitiam & fructus ejus ad gloriam Dei; qui non confugit ad Christum, &, ut uno verbo dicam, qui non ipsum incepit amare, ut principem salutis,. Here, Cocceius is fully on par with Voetius: De scholastieke Voetius: Een luisteroefening aan de hand van Voetius. Disputationes Selectae, ed. W. J. van Asselt and E. Dekker (Zoetermeer: Boekencentrum, 1995), 98.100.

44 CD IV/1, 1.22; KD IV/1, 1.22. Of course this is not to deny Barth.s emphasis on the freedom of God to be God with us.

45 CD II/1, 257.271; KD II/1, 288.305.

46 What I mean by .one. decree here is: one level of decision in God.over against the two in traditional Reformed orthodoxy. This is not to overlook Barth.s doctrine of reprobation. It is only to suggest that in Barth, the doctrine of reprobation is a
function of the doctrine of election, and thus does not introduce a distinct level of decision in God.

47 I am aware of the discussion concerning Barth.s universalism. Berkouwer.s discussion provides a good overview: G. C. Berkouwer, The Triumph of Grace in the Theology of Karl Barth (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1956), chapter X.

48 On this point, see especially the essays on time and eternity: CD I/2, 45.121, and III/1, 42.93; KD I/2, 50.133, and III/1, 4.103.

49 In a sense, Barth.s critique of Cocceius as having no room for the Spirit in the pactum salutis is a typical case of the pot calling the cattle black! Cf. van Asselt, Federal Theology, 233.236.

50 I would like to thank, in chronological order, Prof. Dr. Christoph Schwöbel, the members of Prof. Schwöbel.s Doktorandenkolloquium at Tübingen, Dr. Bert Loonstra, Prof. Dr. Gijsbert van den Brink, Prof. Dr. Richard A. Muller, and Prof. Dr. Marcel Sarot for their comments on an earlier version of this paper. The research for this article was funded by the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO), the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, and the Flemish Organisation for Scientific Research (FWO-V).

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