Clothed In The Covenant Of Grace

I try not to burden you too much with pieces about Caspar Olevianus (1536–87) but I’m to give a paper later this morning at the Evangelical Theological Society meeting in San Diego. It’s been a few years since I wrote anything on Olevianus although I have spent a fair bit of time working my way through his major work on covenant theology, On the Substance of the Covenant of Grace between God and the Elect (1585). My thesis is that scholars have not always recognized how important the external administration of the covenant of grace was to our covenant theologians, e.g., Olevianus. In the modern period particularly he has been received as a contributor to the catechism (presently it’s thought that his contribution to the Heidelberg was fairly limited) and, since Barth, one of the “good guys” of covenant theology. Barth said that, in Olevianus, he could “hear the voice of Calvin.” That was a signal to the Barthians that Olevianus was approved as distinct from the allegedly “conditional” covenant theologians or those for whom the decree allegedly swallowed up the covenant. That entire way of reading the history of Reformed theology is misguided. Olevianus was received by the earlier Reformed as a covenant theologian but they didn’t make the sorts of distinctions among the tradition that have been made since the middle of the 19th century. One of our writers described him as a “preacher of the covenant.” I like that phrase and almost used it for the title of the paper but I went with Olevianus’ own language: “clothed in the covenant of grace.” (vestitus in foedere gratiae). According to Olevianus God never comes to us nakedly, as it were, but always clothed, as it were, in the covenant of grace (De substantia, 2.53). We only experience the covenant of grace in the visible church instituted by Christ. Olevianus (and most of his orthodox successors) did not know anything about people being in the church or in the kingdom (he did not distinguish the two) apart from being in the visible church.

For Olevianus, the church is where the action is, where the drama is. God actually uses the feeble preaching of the law and the gospel to bring people out of darkness and into the light, to translate them into the kingdom of God, to give them new life, faith, and through faith justification and union with Christ. The sacraments do not work automatically (ex opere) but God does use them to confirm his promises to believers. Faith is the essential instrument or condition of the covenant of grace. Both “the legal covenant” and the covenant of grace have promises (life) and both have conditions. The condition of the legal covenant is works, perfect obedience to the law. The instrument or condition of the covenant of grace is Spirit-wrought faith in the only Mediator of the covenant. The only place that happens is in the visible church. The only means to which he has attached is covenant promise (“I will be a God to you and to your children”) is in the visible church. He repeated the ancient (but not exactly Cyprianic) dictum: “outside of the church there is no salvation” (extra ecclesiam nulla salus est). As it turns out Cyprian didn’t say quite these words but used similar formulae.  Olevianus used that formula and others as did the Belgic and Westminster confessions.

Behind the external administration of the covenant of grace in the visible church is the divine decree of election and reprobation. That is why he spoke of the covenant of grace with the elect. Ultimately it is only with them but it is administered to everyone in the visible church. We don’t know who is elect and who is reprobate so we preach the law and the gospel to all and administer the sacraments as appropriate. Baptism is the sign of admission to the visible covenant community to be administered to believers and their children.  The Supper is the sign of confirmation to believers who profess faith. The sacraments do not create the reality they signify but the the Spirit does use them. The Spirit operates through the Word to create faith. The sacraments confirm visibly to believers that what they heard audibly in the Word is true. He seems to have avoided the temptation to leverage the decree with the administration. They are two distinct things and he avoided collapsing the administration into the decree. He wanted to maintain the reality of both things. Ultimately the decree determines the outcome of the administration. Contra the FV, there is no temporary election, union, justification. For the reprobate there is only greater condemnation. Contra Rome, the sacraments are not magic. Contra the Anabaptists, the external administration is the ordained pattern. To refuse to admit covenant children to the external administration until they come to faith is self-defeating, it is like refusing to feed a child until he’s grown. He can’t grow unless he is fed.

More later.

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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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3 comments

  1. ” I’m to give a paper later this morning at the Evangelical Theological Society meeting in San Diego. ”

    Always better to have the home-court advantage!

  2. Good to know that “that Olevianus was approved as distinct from the allegedly “conditional” covenant theologians”

    I’ve always thought there were too many of the latter around – even masquerading as Reformed

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