Review: The Binding of God: Calvin’s Role in the Development of Covenant Theology by Peter A. Lillback

Whether Calvin was a covenant theologian has been a matter of considerable confusion and controversy in modern Calvin studies. The answer to this question has usually been determined by whether one considers the rise of covenant theology a positive or negative development, and by whether one sees continuity or discontinuity between Calvin and later Calvinism.

In this volume, a revision of his 1985 PhD dissertation, Peter Lillback argues convincingly that Calvin was more than a merely casual, occasional, or sacramental covenant theologian. In this respect, Lillback agrees with those who see Calvin appealing regularly and even systematically to the doctrine of the covenant. Lillback documents Calvin’s consistent use of covenantal language, as well as the substance of covenant theology. Furthermore, he shows that Calvin’s notion of the covenant was formative for his doctrine of the Christian life.

The book begins with an overview of the secondary literature and moves to a survey of the use of the covenant idea in medieval theology and society, laying the foundation for his argument that Calvin’s covenant theology had roots in and was a recasting of late medieval Franciscan covenant theology. From there, it moves to a consideration of Luther’s covenant theology, the main thesis of which is that Luther’s covenant theology was formed by his turn to the “radical” law-gospel dichotomy that had no place for conditions in the covenant of grace.

The survey then continues with Zwingli and Bullinger, in order to provide an alternate context to Luther in which to interpret Calvin’s covenant theology. In this account, Calvin’s federalism was part of the broader Reformed movement beginning with the Zurich Reformers. To be sure, parts of this survey serve as a helpful reminder that covenant theology was not a seventeenth-century development, as was often reported in previous scholarship.

The second part of the work begins with a helpful survey of Calvin’s use of covenantal terminology. The rest of the volume introduces Calvin’s use of the covenant motif as a way to describe the historia salutis (the progress of redemptive history), specifically to argue against the Anabaptists for the unity of the covenant of grace from Abraham to Christ. Lillback also describes in some detail Calvin’s use of conditional language, the benefits of the covenant, Calvin’s appropriation of the “covenant of acceptance” (the Franciscan pactum), the relations between covenant and election, the question of covenant breaking, the covenantal nature of the Christian life and the question of a covenant of works in Calvin’s theology. Like Andrew Woolsey’s 1988 PhD dissertation, Lillback’s discussion of “mutuality” in Calvin’s theology (ch. 8) is a helpful antidote to much modern Calvin interpretation which tends to read Calvin as a proto-Barthian who never spoke of conditionality in the covenant of grace. There was a general agreement among all Protestants, including Luther, about the unity of the covenant of grace in the historia salutis against the Anabaptist radicals, so the real question is how the covenant functioned in the ordo salutis (i.e. in the application of redemption) within Calvin’s theology.

Despite its virtues, there are, however, some problems with this provocative essay. Though helpful in places, it is marred by a tendentious reading of the Reformation generally and Calvin’s place in it particularly. First, it spends a significant amount of time trying to situate Calvin’s covenant theology in the lineage of Zwingli and Bullinger. It is not difficult to establish a line of communication between the latter and Calvin, but it is considerably more difficult to draw direct lines between Zwingli and Calvin. The book assumes more than it should here, and this part of the argument is not well supported. There is, for example, no direct reference to Zwingli in the entire text of the Institutes. By associating Calvin solely with the Swiss Reformed (Zwingli, Bullinger et al.) Lillback is able to use Luther’s harsh language against Zwingli and the sacramentarians as though it were aimed at Calvin.

Second, according to Lillback, Calvin adopted and developed his covenant theology in such a way as to abandon the fundamental Protestant distinction between law and gospel in the ordo salutis. This hermeneutical question is essential to understanding Calvin and the Reformation. For the entire medieval period, it was understood that one is justified only to the degree one is sanctified, and the Bible was read to contain two laws, the old and the new, the latter having more sanctifying grace than the former. According to most scholars, Luther and Calvin both held that, relative to the ordo salutis, the distinction to be made was not between old law and new, but between law (“do this and live”) and gospel (“for God so loved”). If Calvin abandoned Luther’s insight, then Calvin must be said to have rejected the very foundation of the Protestant doctrine of justification.

There are a couple of very brief formal acknowledgments by Lillback that Calvin agreed with Luther on justification, but the tenor of the work suggests just the opposite. Having called attention to Calvin’s use of conditions in his covenant theology, Lillback proceeds to misinterpret Calvin’s language (e.g., p. 174). None of the passages quoted support the claim that, in effect, Calvin was teaching that faith and sanctity are twin conditions of justification and remaining in the covenant. In his noble attempt to rescue Calvin’s covenant theology from the Barthians (viz. the obliteration of any conditionality in Calvin), Lillback has made him into a moralist by misconstruing the way conditions actually functioned within Calvin’s theology—that is, as logically necessary evidence of sanctity, not as the ground or instrument of remaining in the covenant of grace. This move by Lillback has been called the new perspective on Calvin. The old perspective on Calvin (e.g. B. B. Warfield, Brian Gerrish, and David Steinmetz) was that Calvin was in fundamental agreement with Luther on the basics of the Protestant law-gospel hermeneutic and soteriology. Those familiar with the contours of twentieth-century Dutch (and North American) Reformed debates will recognize aspects of Lillback’s interpretation of Calvin as remarkably similar to that of the Dutch Reformed theologian Klaas Schilder. In this respect, it is not always clear that Lillback’s first horizon for interpreting Calvin was either Calvin’s self-understanding or his reception among his early orthodox followers. Richard Muller’s Unaccommodated Calvin is quite superior and is commended to Calvin scholars as a methodological counterpoint.

Part of the problem is Lillback’s rather unsympathetic and historically problematic portrayal of Luther’s theology. Given that Luther consciously repudiated the medieval doctrine of progressive justification over time (1513–21), one must mark the date of any Luther text when interpreting it, something that Lillback does not do consistently. More remarkably, Lillback regards Luther’s turn to the law-gospel hermeneutic not as the signal breakthrough of the Reformation, but as introducing an “inescapable tension” (p. 71), which Calvin’s covenant theology was intended to resolve. His claim is that relative to the ordo salutis, where Luther’s hermeneutic saw two words in Scripture, law and gospel, Calvin used a spirit-letter hermeneutic. Lillback spends a considerable amount of ink trying to establish this thesis.

The prima facie evidence against this conclusion is, however, quite strong. First, in the very place where Calvin discussed the spirit-letter hermeneutic (in his lecture on 2 Cor 3:6), he clearly equated the spirit-letter dichotomy with Luther’s law-gospel dichotomy, both redemptive-historically and as a matter of systematic theology. Furthermore, the basic structure of the Institutes from 1536 was in two parts—law and gospel. Despite the major revisions from 1539, Calvin always maintained the law-gospel hermeneutic, even as the Institutes developed to reflect Melanchthon’s influence and Calvin’s own work in Romans.

Second, there is virtually no evidence in the corpus of Calvin’s writings that he ever dissented from this basic hermeneutic. Calvin did criticize Luther, on three counts, for his view of the Supper and the vehemence with which he defended it, and also for being sometimes, in B. A. Gerrish’s words, “too fond of winning theological victories.” When it came to the law-gospel hermeneutic and the doctrine of justification, Calvin regarded Luther as an “apostle,” and repeatedly described himself and the Reformed as “Lutherans” (e.g. in his 1543 The Bondage and Liberation of the Will which appears in English translation in this series).

In order to accept Lillback’s argument, one must ignore many clear places in Calvin’s writings which contradict Lillback’s thesis. For example, he asks the reader to juxtapose Calvin’s “covenantal hermeneutic” (p. 125) with the Lutheran law-gospel hermeneutic. To make his case, he quotes a passage from the Formula of Concord (taken from Luther’s 1535 commentary on Galatians) as conclusive proof that Luther rejected every discussion of works in justification. Yet, to draw such a conclusion one must ignore Calvin’s comments on Galatians 5:6, “When you are engaged in discussing the question of justification, beware of allowing any mention to be made of love or of works, but resolutely adhere to the exclusive particle,” which is virtually identical to the very language of Luther that Lillback believes shows the contrast between Luther and Calvin.

Calvin sometimes used covenantal language in reference to the historia salutis—that is, to explain the movement of redemptive history from promise to fulfillment and sometimes in reference to the ordo salutis or the application of redemption—but sometimes his language moved fluidly between the two categories. Lillback might have helped interpreters of Calvin’s federal theology to observe this nuance by highlighting when Calvin was speaking of the historia and when he was speaking of the ordo in his covenantal language. But by missing this distinction, Lillback frequently treats passages where Calvin is discussing the historia as if he was discussing the ordo, thereby leading the reader to a wrong conclusion.

Much of this discussion revolves around the fundamental question of how Luther and Calvin related justification to sanctification. Lillback acknowledges that Luther turned to the third use of the law (without using the term) against the Antinomians but paints a picture of Luther’s covenant theology that makes him, with a few small exceptions, functionally antinomian, thus setting the stage for Calvin to react to him. It is also a little surprising that, given Lillback’s lengthy discussions of the duplex beneficium theme (e.g. pp. 146, 168, ch. 9), that the author made no reference to the definitive 1985 research of Cornel Venema on this topic. As an aside, one might also see this author’s, Caspar Olevian and the Substance of the Covenant: The Double Benefit of Christ. Rutherford Studies in Historical Theology, ed. David F. Wright (Edinburgh: Rutherford House, 2005). As Venema has shown, Calvin did indeed teach justification and sanctification as twin benefits of Christ, which are not absolutely parallel, but that in Calvin, justification is logically distinct and prior to sanctification. In contrast, Lillback misunderstands Calvin to teach that, under Christ, the Law is no longer a harsh taskmaster demanding perfection, but now through faith in the gospel with the Spirit helping us, we can keep the Law in a way that God will accept (p. 171). That is, in effect, to say that Calvin taught a revised version of congruent merit. Lillback continues this argument in chapter 10, where he makes this troubling claim that Calvin appropriated and modified the Franciscan “covenant of acceptance” (facientibus quod in se est, Deus non denegat gratiam) so as to teach that God graciously accepts the works of Christians not merely as a response of gratitude, as Protestantism has traditionally taught (e.g., Heidelberg Catechism 2), but as a part of the way of justification (p. 204). If this interpretation is true, one can only wonder why Calvin complained so vociferously about the Roman doctrine of the congruity of works as taught in session six of the Council of Trent.

Fourth, in addition to his Calvin vs. Luther argument, Lillback also makes a sort of Calvin vs. the Calvinists argument, that though Calvin had a thorough covenant theology, it was not essentially the same as that of later Calvinism regarding the covenant of works (ch. 15). According to Lillback, Calvin taught a prelapsarian covenant, but not a covenant of works whereby Adam could have merited eternal blessedness. He also claims that Calvin’s student and the primary author of the Heidelberg Catechism taught the same view. In contrast, Lillback offers Frans Burman (1628–1679), as an example of one who did teach a meritorious prelapsarian covenant of works. Whatever one makes of the evidence regarding Calvin’s covenant of works, the attempt to re-contextualize Ursinus will not stand scrutiny.

The fifth problem, beyond several very controversial historical claims and conclusions, there are methodological problems in this work. In some places, the reader is left to wonder at the lack of support for the claims the author makes. For example, Lillback’s interpretation of Bucer’s comments on Genesis 17 relies on Werner Elert and provides no citations of primary texts. This pattern also appears in the author’s use of a quotation of Jerome Zanchi (p. 207, and n35) which he derived from a German secondary work by M. Schneckenburger. The quotation, however, from De Natura Dei (1577), has been re-contextualized and interpreted to show that Calvinists are moralists who taught justification through works. Lillback agrees with Schneckenburger. He writes, “A striking contrast exists between the Lutheran theologians of the law/gospel distinction and the Reformed, who hold to the spirit-letter hermeneutic.” The difficulty is that the quotation from Zanchi does not, in fact, support this interpretation. Zanchi was arguing that “good works are the instrumental cause of the possession of eternal life” (Schneckenburger, 49, my translation). Assuming that Schneckenburger’s quotation of Zanchi is correct, Zanchi said nothing more here than Calvin had already written in Institutes 3.14.21, where he enumerated a series of causes of justification (efficient, material, instrumental, and final). Having omitted works from any of the causes of justification, he continued by making a logical distinction between justification as a narrower category and salvation (or the possession of eternal life), as a broader category that incorporates Christ’s double benefit of justification and sanctification. Under this broader category, the Lord may be said to embrace our works as causas inferiores, by which he meant only that in the ordinary providence of God, he “leads us (inducit) to the possession” of eternal life “by means of good works.” This is no radical repudiation of the law-gospel hermeneutic or a fundamental change in the Protestant doctrine of justification, but an acknowledgment of the fact that the justified are ordinarily sanctified on the way to glorification. They are not justified by or through good works, but they are delivered from the power of sin through progressive sanctification.

This appeal to Zanchi further illustrates well the methodological problem. Lillback makes what will seem to many readers a striking and novel claim, which he justifies only with a primary source quotation taken from a secondary text. The problem this presents should be obvious. For example, it appears that Schneckenburger cited Zanchi incorrectly (ch. 2, p. 670). Certainly, his citation does not correlate with the way De natura Dei appears in the 1605 edition of the Opera Theologicorum, where it is divided into a series of books each with several chapters in 588 pages. Thus it is impossible to check the reference in context for oneself. The author would have served his readers well by doing such footwork himself.

Lillback not only sets Calvin against Luther on the most basic issue of the Protestant Reformation, but he also sets Calvin against some Calvinists, at least on the issue of the covenant of works. Though this book does not fit the typical Barthian Calvin vs. the Calvinists mold, it does operate in an analogous way by isolating Calvin from his immediate and most important predecessor and many of his orthodox successors.

There is value in this work, but there are also significant problems that should make Calvin scholars continue to look for the definitive treatment of Calvin’s covenant theology.

© R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.


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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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