On Olevianus, Calvin, History, and Union: Points 5 and 6–updated

Part 2 is here.

In this response I focus only on Lane’s points 5 and 6, because those are ones about which I’m most concerned.

5. Regarding historical method. Of course everyone who does history does so with some sort of theology. The question is whether history shall or should be done with a view to vindicating some theology or other. I say no, that to do such is inappropriate. 

Yes, “truth is one,” but so what? We discuss this question in our H501 Orientation to HT course. The question is whether Christians have some unique insight into the proximate causes of history. I can’t tell with certainty but I wonder if Lane is holding on to the notion that because they are regenerate and have access to special revelation that somehow Christians understand the Thirty-Years War better than non-Christians on a historical level. I wonder if Lane has accounted for my distinction between history and theology. The latter is the explanation of the ultimate meaning of the Thirty-Years war, but the explanation of the proximate causes of it is a matter of history. That’s a common function of believers and unbelievers. Indeed, sometimes when it comes to history, the desire of some believers to vindicate themselves causes them to do poor history.  Lane says that the goal of HT is to examine theology. To quote Keith Jackson, “Whoa Nelly. Hold on their pardner. The man with the yellow flags has got something to say.” 

HT is history, not theology. It is a branch of intellectual history. It is not theology. It seeks to explain what people wrote or taught, where they did it, why they did it, and how they did it. That’s all. It seeks to put them into a diachronic context (where possible) and always into a synchronic context. That’s why I spent so much time in the Olevian book trying to put him into context. Bad HT turns subjects into talking, decontextualized talking heads. I admit to doing some of that, of necessity, in the service of larger projects in Covenant, Justification, and Pastoral MInistry. I stand by the histories I offered there but I plead guilty to making the folks surveyed there into talking heads. Note to my students: Do what I say, not what I do.

Can this be separated from one’s reading Scripture? Yes, as respects history as distinct from theology, it must be. Scripture teaches me the meaning of the event, but here Lane is seeking to sneak theology into the back door of historical theology. As G. H. W. Bush should have said, “Nope. Not gonna do it. Wouldn’t be prudent.” What Lane thinks Scripture says is irrelevant to historical enquiry. If he wants to evaluate the truth or falsity of a figure, fine. Just don’t call it history. If he wants to conduct dogmatic arguments with dead people. Fine. It’s not history but it’s interesting.  

Thus, it’s essential to HT to distinguish between canonical and non-canonical texts. Scripture belongs to the former category and everything else belongs to the latter. Historians, when dealing with non-canonical texts must treat them dispassionately, without judging the truth or falsity of theological claims and the like. I realize that it’s a little more difficult when doing ancient history and trying to account for Scripture in that context, but even in that case, as in the cases when I account for the post-canonical interpretation of Scripture, I set my own views aside to tell the most complete story I can about how Scripture was being used or viewed. In other words, even though biblical scholarship involves description, there is a sharp difference to be made, between biblical exegesis and historical exegesis, even though we might use many of the same methods. I encourage students to employ, in their historical papers, the same set of tools that they use in their biblical exegetical papers, but I require them to leave their own views about the correctness or lack thereof out of the paper.

Of course no mere mortal can achieve complete objectivity in this life, but there’s no good reason not to try. There are some very good models, which I’ve listed, for us to follow. It will help immensely if Lane will distinguish between the ultimate and the penultimate. History of the postcanonical world is about the penultimate. We ought not to be practical pentecostals in our historical method. Refusal to distinguish between the postcanonical and canoncial or between ultimate and pentultimate will wreck his attempt to do history, especially since, as Richard Muller pointed out to John Frame in the discussion over biblicism, God hasn’t revealed to us a divine historiography exactly. History is more like road paving than it is like preaching. 

6. As to the theological issue. I thought I read Lane to say that he was having a hard time thinking in purely logical categories. 

As to Calvin’s simul it seems to me that he (and perhaps Garcia and Gaffin) are pressing this in a way not intended by Calvin. Isn’t Calvin simply saying that both benefits flow experientially to us at once (simul), having been united to Christ by faith? Read Venema.

Hence I return to the problem of anachronism. Is the Gaffin/Garcia/Keister question about union and the double benefit arising from Calvin himself? Is it a question that the Institutes or the Romans commentary or other Calvin texts want us to ask or are we asking Calvin to answer a question from another time and discussion? Nothing I’ve read in Calvin makes me conclude that Calvin intends to teach the sort of rigid logical simultaneity they want to read in(to) Calvin. Nothing in Olevianus’ discussion of the duplex beneficium leads me to think that was on his mind. 

One thing that struck me today about this discussion is that, like R. T. Kendall, we’re probably applying the wrong template to Calvin and Olevianus. If we want to look at a theologian in the period who worked out a highly developed and quite obvious doctrine of union we should be discussing Girolamo Zanchi. I’ve been looking a new critical edition of his De religione, published by Brill (with the 16th-century English translation on parallel pages) and was struck again (as John Farthing has been) by his overt and repeated appeal to union. On the surface the only reason we’re asking Calvin about union the way we are is because he’s become CALVIN. It’s much more prominent in Zanchi. If we’re really interested in history, we should be looking at him.

As to the theology of the thing, Paul says that it is the ungodly who are justified. I don’t see how he can reconcile his view of the logical simultaneity of the two benefits with Paul’s language. I’m reading Olevianus’ commentary on Romans and frankly, the “union” fellows are bound to find it entirely too Lutheran for their liking. It’s clear as day that justification is logically prior to sanctification and that law and gospel are two quite distinct words. Indeed, he sees “law and gospel” in Paul in places where even I can’t do it.

I cannot see how Lane’s formulation of definitive sanctification, which far outstrips what I understand anything Mr Murray to have taught — a purely forensic notion, Lane’s notion is anything but purely forensic–and has us infused with sanctity in exact logical parallel with our justification. By doing this, as I’ve heard from other proponents of this view, he thinks he’s forestalling the criticism that we marginalize sanctity. 

This is a serious mistake. The moralists will never be satisfied. This move is like trying to pay off a loan shark with a quarter. No, he wants the whole thing with interest. We’re justified on the basis of the imputed righteousness of Christ. Full stop. Sanctity flows from that. That’s the Reformed faith. Let the moralists scream. I could care less. The gospel is much more precious to me (and I know Lane agrees) than whatever the moralists think. The only way we’ll ever satisfy them is to give in completely. 

I go back to the Heidelberg Catechism: Sin, Salvation, and Sanctity. The latter is logically premised on the former. Here I think Lane has made, in principle, a potentially fatal concession to the FV and the rest of that lot.  If people want to accuse me of separating justification and sanctification, well, I’m not sure how else to say this but they’re just ignorant. They just can’t read. How many times do I have to say that they are inseparable but logically distinct, and logically ordered benefits? I know that won’t satisfy the moralists but who cares? Here I stand.

UPDATE 1 August 9:00 AM


On the questions:

Or do we have then to go on to point out how God’s providence has been working? It would seem to me that on the level of secondary causality, the believer and the non-believer could reach the same conclusions. However, it is on the level of primary causality (which is surely still a part of history!) that the believer and the non-believer will come to radically different conclusions.

That’s the function of theology. Reformed theology makes us want to be very careful about interpreting providence, of course. We like to appeal to providence selectively (God raised up Whitefield, okay, but didn’t he also raise up Finney?), but that’s not very good theology. History, any more than science or brick laying isn’t concerned with ultimate meaning.

So, yes the believer and unbeliever will come to radically different conclusions about the meaning of history. That’s a function of the antithesis.

How does one engage in historical analysis of Scripture itself? Is that a valid enterprise?

A believer approaches the canonical text in submission to it. Scripture is like other texts, in certain respects and we don’t go back to the old “Holy Spirit Greek” approach nor to the dictation theory, nevertheless, it is the inspired Word, it a covenant document from God to humans and particularly to his people. Thus, it’s distinct from all other texts. It’s a human document, yes, the Spirit inspired humans to write and worked through their circumstances and gifts etc but it isn’t a purely human document. It’s the divine Word.

Surely we can verify the historicity of Scripture and we investigate it and study it and relate it to history. It is an historical document. It was given in a time and place. It must be understood first of all in that time and place, but as it’s part of a larger historical process, the historia salutis, it has to be understood in its canonical relations as well.

There is a profound difference between my relations to canonical and non-canonical texts. I stand in judgment over non-canonical texts. I can criticize Calvin or Thomas or whomever. I cannot do that with Scripture. In the nature of the text it will not allow it. It stands in judgment over me– the Word forms the church not the reverse. As a Christian I have a different relation to it than I do to other texts.

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  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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  1. “We’re justified on the basis of the imputed righteousness of Christ. Full stop. Sanctity flows from that. That’s the Reformed faith.”


  2. Dr. Clark,

    I appreciate your distinctions between doing Historical Theology and Theology; and how looking at the “proximate causes” in history is not something Christians are inherently better and more suited to doing than non-Christians. I appreciate your points on historical-theological method, and how you are not thereby denying the “unity of Truth.”

    Honestly, some of the most refreshing parts of my time at Westminster Philadelphia were my church history classes with Dr. Trueman and Dr. Jue. They made studying Church history challenging and refreshing mainly through doing it as history and not a back-door theology class. In your terms, they did not do what I think many students expected them to do: turn Luther, Calvin, even Machen, etc., into “talking heads” for our theology–they did not make them decontextualized cloud-walkers. This what quite frustrating to many.

    Yet, in a seemingly strange way (in that the classes were not overt explicit theology classes with a view to vindicating WTS Reformed Theology), there were many edifying payoffs for all of us in this approach, especially in preparing us for ministry.

    It sounds as though you approach church history and HT at WSC in similar ways to Dr Trueman and Dr Jue–not surprising, of course, since Dr. Jue received his formative theological training at WSC.

    I certainly agree with you about how when it comes to historical study/analysis of Scripture we are in a submissive relationship to it—we submit to it. You make a distinction here between canonical and non-canonical texts, and rightly bring in the distinctions of non-canonical texts not being divine and human, etc. I agree with you on all this.

    If you do not mind me asking, what does this actually mean for how we historically study the writings of our Bible? To put that another way, how do these differing attitudes and understandings of the natures of canonical versus non-canonical writings play out in different ways (methodological, historical-hermeneutical ‘rules,’ etc.) for historically studying such writings? How does the way we go about understanding Daniel in its historical context differ from how we go about understanding Ignatius, the Pseudo-Clementine literature, Aphrahat, Porphyry, Plutarch, Calvin, etc., in their historical contexts in view of the canonical non-canonical distinction? How do these attitude differences work themselves out in hermeneutical-methodological practices?

    Thanks for your time.

  3. FTH,

    There is overlap between the study of non-canonical texts and canonical texts. I think I said somewhere in this exchange that I encourage students to use, in their historical work, the same exegetical skills learned in bib studies. So too the bib scholar asks some basic historical questions (who said this?, when? Where? Why? How? To whom?). It’s impossible to do good biblical exegesis without asking these questions and coming to some sort of answer, even if the answer is uncertain in some cases. We must read Daniel in its synchronic and canonical contexts. To understand Daniel we have to understand his context, setting etc. This is why I’m puzzled by people who complain about the use of ANE treaty forms to understand Genesis. I thought that’s what good exegesis required? I think some folk like to de-contextualize Scripture so they can make it sit up and bark.

    With deutero-canonical literature or pseudepigrapha, now we’re back to extra-canonical lit. I treat Maccabees the same way I treat any other extra-canonical text.

    It’s a difference in my stance toward the text. What Calvin says, of course, is normative to the degree he’s faithful to the Word, to the degree we confer authority upon what he says etc. What Paul says in canonical Scripture is normative because it’s canonical. What he says in his laundry list is interesting perhaps (or perhaps not) but not authoritative or canonical and subject to criticism. He should not use starch in that tunic. It will ruin it!

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