Witsius is Back in Print

The other day I listened to a lecture by a well-known, well-respected evangelical scholar. There was a lot of good material in the lecture and I have much appreciated and benefitted from his work over the years. During his talk, however, he associated “hyper-Calvinism” with “covenant theology” and he went on to give an account of the nature of Reformed covenant theology that bore no resemblance to the primary sources I’ve studied.

Now this fellow’s specialty is not 17th-century Reformed theology or the history of theology in the Reformation or post-Reformation periods but those were remarkably ill-informed. There was a time, perhaps, when shocking degrees of ignorance were possible simply because it was very difficult to get primary sources and the secondary literature was generally substandard. This hasn’t been the case for many years, however. If my academic evangelical friend would simply sit down to read Herman Witsius he would see that, whatever he thinks of Witsius’ conclusions, his analysis of the nature of Reformed covenant theology is contrary to fact.

It is not just scholars who should read Witsius, however. Pastors (who should be pastor-scholars), elders, students, and others will want to get hold of Herman Witsius, Economy of the Covenants along with his other works (on the Lord’s Prayer and on the Apostles’ Creed and excellent exemplars of the state of Reformed theology in the mid to late 17th century. These volumes are available now at Reformation Heritage Books and will be available soon through The Bookstore at WSC. If you know a seminary student or a pastor or an elder who doesn’t have these volumes you would do your friends a great service by putting these books in their hands.

If you want to know more about what happened to Reformed theology from the middle of the 16th century through the end of the 17th century you might also take a look at this volume. You can read some primary sources in the series, Classic Reformed Theology. There are two volumes thus far in the series, William Ames on the Heidelberg Catechism and Caspar Olevianus on the Apostles’ Creed and more volumes on the way.

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  1. Very good, Dr. Clark! I have picked up this volume many times to read, yet haven’t made it through, yet. I don’t think I’m ready for it as I have yet to read all of Calvin’s Institutes. I’m kind of an Ad Fontes guy, as I’m sure you are as a Scholar. So, it’s always good to read people who influenced others, and I think Calvin, from what I have read in Volume 2 of the Institutes, influenced the shape of Covenant Theology.

    That being said, I may return to my friend’s bookshelf today and pick up his copy and begin to read Volume 1. Thanks for the inspiration! I’ll have to put my historcal studies on ancient Israel as per John Bright down to do so, but it will be worth it. I am reading Bright to get a head start on my History career in academia, and I thought bolstering my knowledge of Israel woul help me amidst skepticism.

    As a historian, what would you recommend as far as reading goes to get a good sense of the task ahead of me? What is the proper method for establishing historical truths? What is the best approach to studyinghistory?



    • PJ,

      Start with Protestant Scholasticism: Essays in Reassessment. Read the Muller, Trueman, and Godfrey essays to begin with. That volume was done to try to orient readers to the field.

  2. Hello Dr. Clark, I got the email from ‘monergism’ which quotes your endorsement of this set. In the description of ‘Economy of the Covenants Between God and Man ‘ it says that it “is a reflection of some of the most fruitful and mature thinking on federal theology during the seventeenth century” which leads me to ask the question, What is the difference between Federal Theology versus the theology of The Federal Vision? I am opposed to the Federal Vision in that it seems to attempt to return the state of the church to a Roman Catholic style of absolute authority under a so called Reformed banner. If you have any links or thoughts, they would be most appreciated.
    Thanks and God Bless,

    • Hi Brandon,

      Federal Theology and the Federal Vision are two very different things. As has been noted, federal theology refers to the two-Adam scheme in Rom 5 and 1 Cor 15. The Federal Vision is a form of what I call covenant moralism wherein people are said to be united to Christ, elect, justified etc temporarily, conditionally in baptism. They are said to retain these baptismal benefits by grace and cooperation with grace (i.e., works). As you can see it’s not a particularly Protestant way of thinking nor is it a biblical way of thinking. Federal theology, by contrast, is about what we did in Adam (fell into sin and death) wherein Adam’s sin is imputed to us and what Christ did for us (earned righteousness) which is imputed to us and the benefits of which are received through faith alone, in Christ alone, by grace alone.

      Read more here:


      The booklet, Baptism, Election, and the Covenant of Grace, linked on the homepage of the HB will help. See also Covenant, Justification, and Pastoral Ministry (linked on the home page).

      have a blessed Lord’s Day.

    • Hi All,

      E-texts are great and useful (though I really, really hope that they don’t replace books).

      RHB has taken a financial risk to republish these and other important Reformed texts. Let’s support them so that they remain available.

  3. >What is the difference between Federal Theology versus the theology of The Federal Vision?

    Federal Theology is classical Covenant Theology systematized, the spine being the two Adams (Adam in the Garden and the Second Adam, Jesus Christ), both ‘federal heads’ of humanity. You are under the federal head of old Adam just by birth, and you can be under the federal head of Jesus Christ by faith.

    Federal Vision, on the other hand, is just a classic attack on the truth from inside the tent. Just as their name is a slightly different version of ‘Federal Theology’ their theology is the same. Slightly different, which means turning truth wholly into falsehood.

    Beyond that you have to study it on your own. There are many good sources from Dr. Clark himself on this site if you look around.

  4. Ah, Thank you Dr. Clark, and Frederick!
    It seems to be about the same thing when someone says they are a Calvinist, but only a four point Calvinist. The name for a four point Calvinist is an Arminian. Or for that matter, semi-Pelagian. Trying to use the names devoid of their meanings. “Hath God said?”, right? Anyway…
    Again, thanks again for the clarification and for the link!
    God Bless

  5. As someone who is a friend of one of the original lecturers at Auburn Avenue 2002, i have to say that this controversy about the FV and Christian/Reformed orthodoxy and orthopraxy is confusing. My friend denies justification by works, repeatedly. He doesn’t hold to a baptismal regeneration, either. He does, however, believe that when Paul addresses the church in his letters he is addressing the whole church, not just the elect. To this, I agree without saying that there is temporal election. I also am not a paedocummionist, as I once thought I was.

    It is interesting to read you and Doug Wilson go back and forth in the Blogosphere, though, Dr. Clark. I know you are not alone in your view on FV, as is well documented by yourself. Maybe my friendship is hindering me viewing FV for what it is said to be, a denial of Justification Sola Fide, Sola Gratia. I have investeda lot of my time on this subject, which could be used studying Calvin, or Turrentin, or Old Princeton. But, I think it well worth it. Though i’ve only been a Christian for 4 years, it is good to know what is going on in the Theo. world today. This and NPP are “what’s hot.”

    That being said, I am not a proponent of FV, and certainly not of NPP, though I think N.T. Wright has done good work on the Historical Resurrection, from what I’ve read and seen.

    • PJ,

      Friendship does sometimes blind us to the truth but it’s also the case that the FV folk have not done a very good job of explaining what they’re about. They’re also confusing because they’re mostly untrained theologically and ignorant about the history of Reformed theology. Finally, as someone else has already noted, they’ve a nasty habit of re-defining words without telling people. In this they follow one of their Jedi masters, Norman Shepherd, who re-defined faith, in the act of justification, as “faith and works” and then as “faithfulness.” This is not good news. How faithful were you yesterday? Were you faithful enough to be accepted by God? How about today? How about the day before yesterday? You get the point.

      Few of the FV folk have been willing to come right out and say that they believe in justification through works but few Roman Catholics have been willing to do so either. The deduction that works are essential to justification according to Rome and according to the the FV is just that: a deduction. It’s a deduction to which the the orthodox have been forced by the FV fellows themselves.

      I had a conversation with an FVer today who didn’t really seem to understand what the issues are. It’s not about calling one’s children Christians. I do that but it is about what we mean by that expression. The FV means that all baptized persons are united to Christ by baptism and given a temporary, conditional election, union with Christ, and justification etc which they must keep by grace and /cooperation/ with grace . The Protestants called this scheme “justification by works” because it makes our part, our cooperation essential to justification and not mere evidence and fruit of justification.

      The FV has not only corrupted covenant theology by putting us all in a covenant of works but they’ve corrupted justification by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone and they’ve corrupted the sacrament of baptism and they corrupted the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper (by paeodocommunion, essentially a Baptist mistake which conflates the sacrament of initiation with the sacrament of renewal) and the doctrine of the judgment (by teaching a doctrine of “final justification” based partly on our sanctity which is the result of our cooperation with grace). In short, the FV has turned the good news into bad news.

      Why have they done these things? They are reacting to real problems in evangelicalism and in the Reformed world (insofar as it’s influenced by American evangelicalism) but their reaction has created more problems than it solved. They want people to be sanctified but because they didn’t take the time actually to learn Reformed theology they have made a mess of things. The Reformation and classic Reformed theology and the Reformed churches in the confessions have already addressed the problems but the FV come out of a biblicist, fundamentalist approach to Scripture (many of them are ex-fundamentalists and they’ve never changed their approach to Scripture) so they’ve just changed rationalist, fundamentalist horses.

      Here’s a resource page (which contains links to other resource pages and books and audio) so you can see the documentation for all these claims:


  6. Hi PJ, you might find, if you’ll take the time to read some of the older discussions on this site that words have different meanings for FV proponents when pressed. Your friend may well have used language that convinces you that there’s nothing worrisome about that belief, but if you look at the discussions, it will be readily apparent that there is a significant communication breakdown that could be called dishonest.

  7. I’m reading Witsius’ “Economy of the Covenants” now, and it is outstanding. I recommend it to everyone. I also don’t think one needs to read up on Protestant scholasticism first. If you have any kind of basic understanding of Reformed covenant theology, you will benefit from this book.

    • Chris,

      That’s great for you but printed books are still important. I argue that, in fact, printed books are essential especially for important texts. Sure it’s fine to read a cheap novel electronically but significant texts of lasting value should be read interactively, on paper.

  8. Dr. Clark,
    Well, I wouldn’t be so absolute about that. I agree that print is wonderful (I design printed materials for a living and am generally a nerd about typography and real press work), but I use both, and when it comes to older books that are no longer in print, the e-book is a good substitute. Nothing will ever replace the printed page absolutely, and I don’t think that new technologies are the enemy of knowledge.

    Besides, for a man with a small budget, an e-book can be a great boon. For example, I am reading Herman Dooyeweerd’s works on my nook. The printed versions would have cost me over $200.00, but the free versions are available from Paideia Press.

    I empathize with your convictions, but I am seeing the benefits of both sides.

    PS- I don’t read cheap novels.

  9. This qoute has been in our church bulletin several times…possibly of interest for someone who might not think that the reformed docrine of JBFA is genuine or historic.

    “For faith itself alone grants justification and santification” Marcius Victorinus [4th century]

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