A Review of Caspar Olevian and the Substance of the Covenant- Updated

Here’s a talk on Olevianus that I gave at Christ Reformed (URC) Anaheim.

At Green Baggins.

I’m glad that Lane took the time to read the book and that he found it helpful. He asks some important questions.

By way of preface, the first thing to say, is that this was a work of historical theology. It’s purely descriptive. The only arguments in which I engaged were historical. HT is no place to try to make dogmatic/systematic points. Of course no one does history in a vacuum and I was aware of the discussions about justification and other contemporary discussions, but the status quaestionis was a little different than it is today. After I finished my research, it did inform my approach to some of the current discussions.

One of the things Lane asks about is the relations between Calvin’s doctrine of union and the duplex gratia relative to Olevianus’ doctrine of the duplex beneficium. Some responses.

1. Muller is right that Calvin isn’t the alpha and omega of Reformed theology. The 16th-and 17th-century writers didn’t treat him the way he’s come to be treated in the 20th century in the wake of Barth.

2. I did my work on Olevianus without trying to relate him closely to Calvin simply because it assumes the necessity of harmonizing them to validate Olevianus.

3. As I read Calvin on the duplex gratia and Olevianus on the duplex beneficium I didn’t see any substantive difference between them.

4. I’m in the midst of a big research project right now so I haven’t read Mark Garcia’s book. I did take a peek at it, however, and I didn’t see any substantive interaction with Cornel Venema’s very serious research on this question in Calvin. That’s disappointing. Even though it was just recently published, the dissertation has been available for more than a decade. I didn’t read it until after I finished my work but I was pleased to see that we had come to identical conclusions. I am listening (off and on) to the CTC interview with Mark and I was struck by the similarity between his argument that Calvin anticipated Dick Gaffin’s doctrine of union with the Barthian use of Calvin as a sort of proto-Barth.

Lane’s very question seems to press Calvin to answer questions he isn’t answering. Anachronism is a constant problem in historical theology. One criticism I’ve made of Mark Karlberg’s work is that he seems to want to vindicate Meredith Kline via historical research. This is a mistake if he does it and it’s a mistake if Garcia does it and it it’s a mistake if the Barthians do it. The point of historical theology is not to go back to find a precedent for one’s favorite contemporary writer. The point of history is to tell the truth about the past as best one can, without regard to contemporary questions. It’s a difficult discipline to put away systematic concerns, but it must be done. There’s a time for doing ST but history isn’t that time.

Some might call me naive. It’s true that I read Gaffin’s Centrality of the Resurrection in the mid 80s. I assumed that it represented the Reformed view of union, so I think I was prepared to find something like it in Olevianus. I didn’t set out to find something different in Olevianus. I was driven to it–though I don’t think I realized that Olevian’s scheme was different until I had been finished for some time. In other words, I didn’t do my work on Olevianus with an eye on Gaffin’s view.

Again, only reflecting on what I heard Mark say in the interview, it seemed that he knows that the “Central dogma” approach is wrong but he wants to set up a central dogma, while using other terms, without being tagged for doing it. Further, his claim that Calvin’s approach to union is distinct from “other approaches” sounded not a little like the Calvin v the Calvinists theme.  I tried to show in the book that the doctrine of the Trinity is just as central as any other doctrine on Olevianus’ theology. He had no “central” doctrine. To understand Olevianus, and Calvin, we have to think more about circles and less about centers. The covenants of works, grace, and redemption were the ways he expressed his Protestant theology. We should reject the notion that covenant theology represents some reaction to Calvin or something other than a redemptive-historical way of expressing substantially the same theology found in the dogmatic presentations of covenant theology.

On the dupex beneficium, I provide fairly extensive quotations from Olevianus on how he related justification and sanctification in chapters 6 and 7 (esp. the latter). It’s pretty clear in Olevianus, Ursinus, and Polanus (I spent a good part of today reading Polanus’ Syntagma (1612)) that the two benefits are roughly parallel but that justification is the source of sanctification.

For Olevianus, justification is logically prior to progressive sanctification. For Olevianus, progressive sanctification flows from justification. It is the justified who are sanctified. For Olevianus, to correlate justification and sanctification absolutely would be to concede the point his Roman contemporaries, such as Canisius. Olevianus was a Protestant and he was devoted to the doctrine that Christ justifies the ungodly (in opposition to the Roman doctrine that God justifies the sanctified). Further, neither Olevianus nor Calvin know anything about a two-stage doctrine of justification or an “already-not yet” structure to justification. For Olevianus (as for the rest of the Reformed orthodox) justification is once-for-all and vindication is the recognition of what has been declared in justification.

As to justification being the “result” of union, it would depend upon how one is using the word “union.” Even Gaffin rightly distinguishes different senses of the word. Olevianus mainly speaks about union being the result of faith. There’s no question that, for Olevianus, there’s an important sense in which the elect are “in Christ,” before they come to faith by virtue of the decree and Christ’s federal headship, but he doesn’t reduce everything to the decree. It functions for Olevianus, as it did for Calvin, as an a posteriori explanation of how one came to faith. The Spirit operates sovereignly through the preaching of the gospel to call the elect efficaciously to faith, to make them alive (to regenerate), to give them faith, and thereby uniting them to Christ. Certainly the Christian life is lived by faith alone in Spirit-wrought union with Christ. Like Calvin, for Olevianus, the Spirit is the vinculum between the believer and Christ.

One more thing, one thing that struck me in Olevianus is that he never sets his doctrine of justification or his view of law and gospel (about which he was explicit; again there’s a large section on this in Polanus) over against the Lutherans. He was not shy about criticizing the Lutherans on Christology and the Supper and worship, even calling them “half-evangelicals,” but he didn’t see the sort of dichotomy that I hear some making with the Lutherans, and especially not on union with Christ. It’s pretty clear that he saw himself as a follower, on soteriology anyway, of Luther.

I sketch an approach to relating Luther, Melanchthon, Bucer, and Calvin on this theme in “The Benefits of Christ: Double Justification in Protestant Theology Before the Westminster Assembly.

Good news. I just signed a contract with Reformation Heritage Books to do a second edition of the book. it should be out before the Spring semester.

There’s another exciting book announcement coming soon.

Part 2 of the response is here.

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One comment

  1. Dr. Clark, thank you for introducing me to a new word: vinculum.

    I looked it up and find it to be a useful word; especially useful with regard to how you used it to describe the Spirit as the bond between the believer and Christ.


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