In a post (HT: Aquila Report) dated Friday 9 August, Bill Evans raises the question whether there is in Reformed theology what he calls “pervasive covenantalism” or an over emphasis or imbalanced emphasis in Reformed theology on covenant. He points to persistent internecine arguments among the Reformed over how define covenant and how to talk about conditionality in covenant theology, which, he notes, is odd for a tradition in which “the notion of covenant” has long been thought to be its “very hallmark.” He concedes that his argument will not be received favorably by those who are “suspicious of any suggestion of discontinuity between Calvin and the later Calvinists….” He contends that Calvin’s use of “the covenant theme is both limited and judicious” but that later, “some Reformed thinkers came to believe that all God’s dealings with humanity must be covenantal.”
Clearly Evans is not entirely comfortable with the mainstream of the older Reformed tradition(s) of covenant theology. E.g., he suggests that the Reformed doctrine of the pre-fall covenant of works lacked the same “exegetical and historical foundation” as their doctrine of the covenant of grace. This is Evans’ way of saying that the doctrine of the covenant of works is speculative. His discomfort with classical Reformed theology is even clearer when he writes that the
covenant theme was even projected into the divine psychology via the notion of an eternal “covenant of redemption” between the Father and the Son to accomplish redemption for the elect.
This problem of “covenant overload” (he cites John Stek’s article by this title) had led to a series of problems:
- The exegetical foundations for the covenants of works and redemption are inferential at best.
- Following Stek, he argues that the OT appropriation of covenantal language/themes was an accommodation to the ANE world and was never intended to be “a timeless, all-encompassing organizing principle of theology.”
- Excessive focus on covenant has distorted some of the biblical materials by flattening out of redemptive-historical differences. E.g., instead of of focusing on the transition from Old Covenant to New, the transition is located in Genesis 3, which, in short has led Reformed folk too often to ignore the differences between Israel and the church (as in theonomy).
- We still haven’t arrived at an agreed definition of covenant.
- Covenant is too often used as a catch-all and cover for vague theology.
- Oscillation between antinomianism and legalism
- All of this covenantalism has led to “extrinsic views of solidarity in sin and salvation in which the unity and concreteness of salvation in Christ has been obscured.
This latter problem led to “[n]otions of “federal” or “covenantal” or “legal” unions with Christ and Adam” which allowed “federalist (sic) such as Charles Hodge, William Cunningham, and Louis Berkhof” who criticized Calvin “for his view of union with Christ” and led away from his “rich sacramental theology” and ultimately to Karl Barth.
His proposed alternative is to go back to Calvin’s “more limited and careful deployment of the covenant theme….” He’s attracted to Andy McGowan’s critique of federal categories as a way of describing divine-human relations. To move away from Reformed federal theology would connect us with the “Irenaean tradition of real solidarity with Adam and Christ as it was mediated to both East and West.”
It’s interesting that this post comes just now as I’ve been writing a series on covenant theology recently. Before I reply in substance, let me say that, to be sure, some of what Evans says is true. It is beyond question that there have been debates in the 17th, 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries about how to define covenant. There have been, in those same centuries, debates among Reformed theologians about to speak about conditionality in the covenant of grace. To concede a broader point, there has been diversity in Reformed theology. Evans is surely right when he notes that the term “covenant” is too often employed as a catch-all (my term) or more pejoratively, as a sort of magician’s wand, whereby the writer describes his view/project as “covenantal” and having described his work as “covenantal” it is supposed to be beyond criticism by Reformed folk. Further, I think that it is reasonable to be concerned about “flattening out” the biblical story. Finally, agree that some of our writers lost sight of Calvin’s and the confessional doctrine of the sacraments.
B. B. Warfield famously said that covenant theology is “architectonic” for Reformed theology, i.e., as covenant theology goes, so goes Reformed theology. What Evans has suggested is nothing short of a radical revision of Reformed theology. This is not the first time that Evans has signaled his profound discontent with Reformed theology. In 2008 he called for “a decisive break with the ordo salutis thinking.” In this post he continues the earlier trajectory.
As I noted before, however, it is far from clear that Reformed folk should be interested in Evans’ alternative. The first reason for our skepticism should be his account of what he’s rejecting. Were Evans’ account of the history of Reformed or its relations to Patristic theology true, we might well have reason to be interested. His account, however, is somewhat mystifying to this theologian. One could be a little more sympathetic to Evans’ account of Calvin and Reformed orthodoxy were this 1859, 1959 or even 1979 but it’s 2013 and his narrative is simply not tenable or remotely credible.
His juxtaposition of Calvin and the later orthodox on covenant theology is understandable. Calvin did not organize his theology along covenantal lines but, as Pete Lillback has shown, Calvin did use covenantal themes and covenantal language and categories more pervasively than earlier scholarship recognized. Evans does not seem intimately familiar with modern scholarship on Reformed orthodoxy. Here is a start. He might also consult Protestant Scholasticism: Essays in Reassessment (1998) and Willem van Asselt’s, Introduction to Reformed Scholasticism. Carl Trueman and I edited the former and it has value still but van Asselt’s work is more recent and it is the text that I assign to our students.
There was diversity in Reformed theology but there was also considerable unity. The first evidence is the existence of the Reformed confessions themselves. Those documents testify to the substantial agreement among the Reformed both in the mid-16th century and in the mid-17th century. The diversity wasn’t so great as is sometimes suggested. Second, the image of radical diversity is easier to maintain when one hasn’t read the primary sources but it is more difficult to maintain in light of the sources. Whether one is reading Perkins at the turn of the 17th century, Cocceius at mid-century, or Witsius or van Mastricht at the end of the century, the unity of the tradition on the most essential things is quite remarkable. Indeed, doubts about the covenants of works and redemption as speculative or mere projections is quite a modern phenomenon.
Further, many of our writers addressed covenant as a topic under soteriology and some wrote whole volumes under the heading of covenant and some (e.g., Olevianus and Cocceius) wrote both topical (roughly, systematic) and redemptive-historical treatments of Reformed theology, the latter anticipating aspects of what would later be called “biblical theology.” The substance of what they taught, however, was remarkably uniform in its main outlines. Probably the main source of disagreement was over how we ought to speak about the Mosaic covenant and even then one finds considerable agreement.
As to flattening out the story, in this regard it has seemed to me that Stek’s criticism, though not without some merit, may reflect his CRC setting than the history of Reformed theology. I’ve heard sermons that did as Stek complained but poor covenant theology is no ground for abandoning covenant theology. Did Vos flatten Scripture? Ridderbos (in his best work)?
Covenant theology was not, as Evans seems to suggest, a later development in Reformed theology. It arose almost as early as Protestant theology. Johannes Oecolampadius was using covenant as a way to explain the major prophets in the early 1520s. Heinrich Bullinger was using covenant as way of explaining the fundamental unity of the covenant of grace in the mid-1530s and those insights, along with Calvin’s prodigious exegetical and theological work, were harvest by the early orthodox, even while Calvin was still alive in the early 1560s, to outline a comprehensive covenantal account of Scripture as Ursinus did in his two catechisms in 1561 and 1562. Calvin died in 1564. In the 1560s Olevianus wrote comprehensive covenantal account of the faith and again in the 1570s, and again more fully in the 1580s. That work formed the foundation for elaborations of covenant theology at the end of the century and into the early 17th century in the British Isles and across Europe.
In other words, covenant theology is co-extensive with Reformed theology. There has never been a Reformed theology that was not also deeply indebted to and shaped by an attempt to get to grips with the biblical teaching about God’s covenant. Calvin himself never regarded the work of his students, with which he was familiar, to be some sort of “covenant overload” or abuse or corruption of his theology.
Yes, the Reformed in the 17th century and again in the 19th century did sometimes criticize Calvin. This is because they did not regard Calvin as the be all and end all of Reformed theology.
The argument that too much covenant leads to Barth is ironic because Evans’ case is suffused with the Barthian critique of Reformed orthodoxy and covenant theology, beginning with the claim that the covenant of works is speculative. It wasn’t covenant that wrecked Barth’s theology, it was, according to Van Til, Modernity. Theologically, it is arguable that it was the Anabaptists (Glomsrud—see his essay on Barth in Always Reformed) and his use of the decree (so Berkouwer) that wrecked his theology but it wasn’t covenant.
There has been much literature written defending the covenant of works so I won’t attempt it here. It must do to remind the reader that the covenant of works was considered so fundamental to Reformed theology that the Westminster Divines expressly taught it not once but twice in the Confession in chapter 7 and again, almost verbatim, in chapter 19. The covenant of works was taught in the British Isles, in the Netherlands, by the French, and the Germans. It was universal. It was not controversial. Cocceius used it to structure his entire account of the biblical doctrine of the covenant.
There has been resistance to the covenant of works, from the Remonstrants, the Socinians, and the Lutherans. Among the Reformed, however, it was clear as early as 1561 (and arguably earlier) that “covenant of works” was a good way to account for the way God related to Adam (and us in him) before the fall. Behind that move was the pan-Protestant consensus that there are two distinct (if inseparable) kinds of words in Scripture, law and gospel. For the Reformed, the covenant of works was simply a redemptive-historical way of saying “law” and the covenant of grace was the redemptive-historical way of saying “gospel.”
Evans apparent rejection of the covenant of works signals and is connected to his more fundamental rejection of the idea of legal-federal (mediation) theology. He seems to assume that we must choose between realism and federalism in order to reconnect with Irenaeus. The great irony is that Irenaeus was a federal and covenant theologian, as was Justin and as were other patristic writers. Take a look at my Brief History of Covenant Theology. There’s a more fully documented and more comprehensive history published as “Christ and Covenant: Federal Theology in Orthodoxy,” in Herman Selderhuis, ed., Companion to Reformed Orthodoxy (Leiden: Brill, 2013). You should be able to get the chapter via inter-library loan. The early Reformed writers taught both a realistic (biological) connection with Adam and a legal/federal relation. We do not have to choose between them.
David VanDrunen and I have replied to the allegations against the biblical and historic doctrine of the covenant of redemption (pactum salutis) in Covenant, Justification, and Pastoral Ministry. I won’t rehearse the responses here except to express surprise that Evans is still repeating such canards.
It is true that Reformed covenant theology in the 20th century has largely been disappointing and sometimes worse but this is not because covenant theology is inherently defective. Ad fontes! It isn’t. Judging covenant theology on the basis of idiosyncratic 20th-century presentations is like judging automobiles on the basis of Ford Pintos, Chrysler K-Cars, the AMC Matador (or any other AMC car, with apologies to Dave Reiter who loves them) or the Dodge Aspen.
It is fantastic to imagine that, the sorts of arguments within Reformed theology (e.g., conditionality in the covenant of grace) Evans observes would have been avoided without covenant or federal theology. The history of Protestant theology from 1525 through the 1550s (largely within Lutheran circles) is a history of the very same sorts of arguments which Evans blames on covenant theology and covenant did not figure in those debates one whit. Indeed, one of the reasons that Ursinus, Olevianus, and others turned to covenant as a way of explaining Scripture was to provide a measure of biblical-grounded stability to Protestant theology without losing the essentials of the Reformation. On this see the last two chapters of the Olevianus book linked above.
I don’t see how covenant or federalism had anything to do with Hodge’s (or Dabney’s) problem with Calvin’s view of the supper. That had a lot more to do with the intellectual climate of the time, the influence perhaps of a kind of mild rationalism, than it did with covenant or federal theology. Indeed, historically, covenantal or federal theology has help to stimulate a vigorous doctrine of the sacraments.
Federalism, i.e., the representative headship of Adam and Christ, is such a basic biblical category (Rom 5:12-21 and 1 Cor 15) that it is more than a little surprising to see it called into question this way by a Reformed writer. Our writers and churchly confessions were federal and covenantal in character because they were Protestant, because they understood that the biblical doctrine of freely given divine favor was inextricably connected to their biblical theology of law and divine righteousness.
As in his earlier critique, it is hard to see how Evans is not calling into question the fundamentals of the Protestant Reformation. On what basis does God accept us? Who earned that righteousness? How does a sinner come into possession of that righteousness? Where is that righteousness to be found relative to the sinner, within us or without? Evans may scoff at the doctrine of an “extrinsic” doctrine of justification but Paul himself asked these questions and historically the only alternative to extrinsic (alien) righteousness is a “proper” or “intrinsic” ground of divine acceptance and in that case we’re right back in the medieval soup or, to switch metaphors, moving in with Andreas Osiander.
As in his earlier post, Evans posits his account of union with Christ as the final solution, as it were, to all of these covenantal conundrums. There is plenty of evidence on the basis of which to contest his claims about Calvin’s doctrine of union. I’ve provided sufficient evidence on the HB. Richard Muller, John Fesko, Cornel Venema and others have reached quite different conclusions about the nature of Calvin’s doctrine of union with Christ.
Whatever the case concerning Calvin’s doctrine of union, I intend to stick with the biblical understanding, as confessed by the Reformed churches, that we sinners are accepted freely by God, for the sake of Christ’s alien righteousness, which he earned for us, and which merits are imputed to us, and received through faith resting in and receiving Christ alone as the sole ground for justification. I’ll stick with the teaching of Westminster Shorter Catechism, Q. 30, that Spirit-wrought faith creates a mystical, spiritual union with Christ, the Last Adam, our federal representative, who fulfilled all righteousness for us and that we live our Christian lives, in union with the ascended Christ by grace alone, through faith alone.
Finally, I do not understand the attraction of these sorts of arguments, i.e., the sorts of arguments that imply that Reformed theology is in crisis and the only way to save it is to kill it. This is the “we had to bomb the village in order to save it” mentality. No, we don’t. What we need to do is to get back to Scripture as understood by our churches and our classic writers. The fault is not with our theology, piety, and practice. The fault lies with those of us who don’t seem to understand what they seem to want to destroy.
Here is a follow up.