Should Reformed Theology Move Beyond Covenant Theology?

Caspar Olevian and the Substance of the Covenant-FeaturedI. SUMMARY

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:

  1. The exegetical foundations for the covenants of works and redemption are inferential at best.
  2. 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.”
  3. 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).
  4. We still haven’t arrived at an agreed definition of covenant.
  5. Covenant is too often used as a catch-all and cover for vague theology.
  6. Oscillation between antinomianism and legalism
  7. 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.

Dodge AspenIt 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.

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  1. 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.

    The attraction imo is that one, they are either hate the truth, or two, they think more highly of their own opinion and are ignorant – arguably willfully – of the breadth and depth of reformed theology.
    IOW ignorance talks loudest and longest.

    Which means it’s now time for that precious moment of silence.

  2. Dr. Clark:

    I used to drive a Dodge Aspen. It had a slant-six engine, which was great! The car may have been ugly, but the engine never died!

    Otherwise, a very enjoyable article. Thanks.

    • Tim,

      The Dodge Aspen that I drove in the 70s was the only vehicle I ever drove that stalled when the driver accelerated. It not only did that in the Dodge model but also in the Chrysler version.

      The slant six was a great engine when I could get the accelerator to work. I can’t say how many times that Aspen jeopardized my life—I drove one of them making deliveries for the university and as a taxi. Now, the Plymouth Fury was a great car. We could get from the downtown campus to East campus very quickly.

    • Dr. Clark:

      I had the same problem (stalling out) with the Aspen (mine was a ’79). However, we discovered the problem was actually with the carburetor. My parents took that car to a couple of dealers who couldn’t figure out the problem. Then, one weekend when I was home from college, we left it with a local shade-tree mechanic. He spent about an hour (on a Saturday no less) taking the carburetor apart until he found the problem and replaced the part. I think he only charged my dad about $25 for labor and part.

      I also drove a Ford Pinto in high school, but notice I didn’t mention that. That car was a piece of junk. 🙂

      • One of my high school buddies had a Pinto. We were allowed to go off campus for lunch (school wasn’t yet an archipelago) and we sometimes went in his Pinto. When drivers would pull up behind, they would see that it was a Pinto a back away! It was hilarious. We should haven’t painted a bullseye on the back with an invitation: “go ahead, make my day. Boom!”

    • Gavin,

      Thank you for this. I very much appreciate Woolsey’s work. He was kind enough to share a portion of his doctoral thesis years ago and I have been indebted to him ever since, as I have tried to indicate in footnotes over the years. I am very glad to see it in print and available to everyone

  3. Hi Dr. Clark,

    This was a good and helpful post for me, especially considering my earlier questions.


  4. I dunno — maybe this fellow is just personally overloaded on the word / concept of covenant, and has over-intellectualized it. When I follow PCA issues as an outsiders, the preoccupation with the term does come off as repetitious to the point of satire. It also is used as a code meaning “Real Reformed.” E.g., in seminary they offered an apologetics course called Reformed Apologetics. It was a course solely advocating Van Til. So the title implied that Warfield’s apologetical approach wasn’t Reformed. I know there are real issues at play, but the obsession with covenants rivals the obsession with dispensations shown by the most ardent Scofield Bible fans.

    • Hi Jack,

      I understand the desire to stake out a place between the two approaches but is it really possible? I don’t think so. I was driven to covenant theology by Scripture itself. I was led to reject dispensationalism by Scripture. Ephesians —the dividing wall has been broken down. Dispensationalism is nothing if not a re-building of that wall.

      As I noted in the follow up post the principal Hebrew term, Berith, is used 289 times in the Hebrew Scriptures (BHS) and the Greek term, Diatheke, occurs 33 times in the Greek NT (NA 27). It occurs the first time in Genesis 6:18 and is used repeatedly in Genesis 12, 15, and 17 to describe the way that God relates to us. It is true that it isn’t the only way to describe the way God relates to us but it is an important term and is fairly described as comprehensive. It is notable that Zechariah, in Luke 1:72, characterizes the advent of our Lord in terms of God’s “remembering his holy covenant” is instructive. This is a typical OT way of speaking. The Spirit preserved this testimony to help us understand the person and work of Christ. The synoptic gospels (Matt, Mark, Luke) all record the same institution of the Lord’s Supper. Our Lord said “this is my blood of the covenant” (Matt 26:28 and Mark 14:24). Luke says, “blood of the new covenant” (Luke 22:20; on which Paul capitalized in 1Cor 11:25). Thus, the very sacrament instituted by our Lord for our frequent observance, in which, as we confess, we are fed by the true body and blood of our Lord or even the “proper and natural” (Belgic Confession Article 35) body and blood of Christ can only be understood in covenantal terms. His blood is the new covenant. To say that is to invoke all of the ANE categories of which some now want to be rid. I was taught to read Scripture in light of its original context that still seems right. If Scripture was given in a covenantal context and if, through Jeremiah, God promised a new covenant (ch. 31) and the NT claims that Jesus inaugurated that new covenant, then how can we avoid covenantal hermeneutics?

      In Acts 3:25, Peter, preaching on Solomon’s Porch, appealed to the covenant. Stephen (7:8) also did in his sermon. Paul appeals to it in Rom 11:27. Paul characterized his entire ministry as the ministry of the new covenant (2Cor 3:1–14). He clinched his argument with the Judaizers by an appeal to the history of God’s covenants with Abraham and Moses (Galatians 3:15–17). Geerhardus Vos thought that the theme of “covenant” was so strong in Hebrews that he titled it the “Epistle of the Diatheke” (covenant). Certainly, it is not possible to understand Hebrews without getting to grips with its covenant theology particularly in chapters 7-10 and then again in his benediction. The term for covenant (diatheke) occurs about 15 times in Hebrews alone.

      Then there are allusions to the covenants beyond the express discussion of the Abrahamic covenant. E.g., Ps 110 one of the most frequently quoted passages in the NT. Some argue that it is the most frequently quoted OT passage in the NT. The turning point in Ps 110 is vs. 4 which is Adonai’s (The LORD) oath to Adoni (my Lord). In the ANE context (c. 1000 AD) it seems impossible to understand this oath, on which the NT spends so much time, except as a covenant between the Father and the Son. This is how Hebrews understands it and I doubt we want to call the writer to the Hebrews “narrow.”

      Reformed theology did not invent covenant theology. Several of the 2nd-century fathers appealed to the biblical notion of “covenant” for roughly the same reasons that the Reformed turned to the category of “covenant” to reply to the Anabaptists in the 1520s and 30s: to express the fundamental unity of salvation in the history of redemption. God is one. There is one God and Father, one baptism, one salvation. Covenant is the way that Scripture articulates that unity and so the fathers appealed to it in their defense of the unity of Scripture and of God against the dualists (both Gnostics and Marcion). The Fathers, like the Reformers after them, appealed to the covenants also to express the progress of revelation and redemption. They didn’t use it to “flatten out” redemptive history.

      I won’t re-post the whole thing here, but there are good reasons for thinking that covenant is a major biblical theme recognized by the broader church beyond the Reformed communions. It’s not just a “Reformed thing.”

      I’m not sure what this discussion has to do with CVT and Warfield. FWIW, I’m a huge fan of both and think both should be appreciated for what they gave us. Kim Riddlebarger argued, in his PhD dissertation (why isn’t this in print yet?) that the differences between CVT and Warfield have been overstated and that BBW has too often been mischaracterized by some partisans. I thought that it was really helpful.

  5. I received this blurb for a new book from a young prof at Moody:

    ncreased study of the significance of believers’ union with Christ has propelled the doctrine to the forefront of theological conversations in both the academy and the church. In this accessible introduction, Marcus Johnson argues that union with Christ stands as the dominant organizing concept for salvation in the New Testament and as the lens through which all other facets of redemption should be viewed. Interacting extensively with the biblical text and the testimony of church history, he offers a timely reminder that our union with Christ is actual, mystical, and sacramental. Ultimately, Johnson demonstrates that the recovery of this central biblical theme helps us to better understand the relation of Christ’s person and work, the church as the body of Christ, and the glorious unity of our salvation in Christ.

    Union: It’s the new thing.

  6. Hebrew children in the Old Testament were born into God’s covenant, both male and female. Circumcision was the sign of this covenant for boys, but the sign was not what saved them. Faith saved them. Rejecting the sign, circumcision, for boys, either by the parents or later as an adult himself, was a sign of a lack of true faith, and therefore the child was “cut off” from God’s promises as clearly stated in Genesis chapter 17:

    “Every male among you shall be circumcised. 11 You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you. 12 He who is eight days old among you shall be circumcised. Every male throughout your generations, whether born in your house or bought with your money from any foreigner who is not of your offspring, 13 both he who is born in your house and he who is bought with your money, shall surely be circumcised. So shall my covenant be in your flesh an everlasting covenant. 14 Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.”

    What was the purpose of this covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? God tells us in the beginning of this chapter of Genesis:

    “And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.”

    This covenant wasn’t just to establish a Jewish national identity or a promise of the inheritance of the land of Caanan, as some evangelicals want you to believe. In this covenant, God promises to be their God. Does God say here that he will be their God only if they make a “decision for God” when they are old enough to have the intelligence and maturity to decide for themselves? No! They are born into the covenant!

    If Jewish children grew up trusting in God and lived by faith, they then received eternal life when they died. If when they grew up, they rejected God, turned their back on God, and lived a life of willful sin, when they died, they suffered eternal damnation. Salvation was theirs to LOSE. There is no record anywhere in the Bible that Jewish children were required to make a one time “decision for God” upon reaching an “Age of Accountability” in order to be saved.

    Therefore Jewish infants who died, even before circumcision, were saved.

    The same is true today. Christian children are born into the covenant. They are saved by faith. It is not the act of baptism that saves, it is faith. The refusal to be baptized is a sign of a lack of true faith and may result in the child being “cut off” from God’s promise of eternal life, to suffer eternal damnation, as happened with the unfaithful Hebrew in the OT.

    Christ said, “He that believes and is baptized will be saved, but he that does not believe will be damned.”

    It is not the lack of baptism that damns, it is the lack of faith that damns.

    Luther, Baptists, and Evangelicals blog

  7. Gary, I agree that children of believers are born into the Covenant, not circumcised or baptized into it.
    Everyone, because of Hebrews 9:16 (Testament and Covenant meaning the same thing), the Covenant of Works could not have been a covenant without it being broken – Had it been kept, it could never have been a covenant. But ever since then, it HAS been the Covenant of Works.

    • John,

      This makes no sense. The covenant existed before it was broken. That’s an odd and even idiosyncratic definition of covenant. My covenant with my mortgage holder exists right now. I’m still fulfilling it. The sanctions will come into force should I fail to meet the terms of the covenant but it exists. My marriage covenant with my wife exists right now, not only should I break it.

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