Caspar Olevianus


This post is really in response to a discussion I’ve been having in the previous post to this one (‘The Ground of the Atonement’). Given the nature of Covenant theology, we have “Covenants;” these “Covenants” are parsed out differently, even amongst Federal theologians. Some of these theologians have three, but usually it is two (the Covenant of Works and the Covenant of Grace). Here is how the Westminster Confession of Faith describes these two ‘Covenants’:

I. The distance between God and the creature is so great, that although reasonable creatures do owe obedience unto Him as their Creator, yet they could never have any fruition of Him as their blessedness and reward, but by some voluntary condescension on God’s part, which He has been pleased to express by way of covenant.

II. The first covenant made with man was a covenant of works, wherein life was promised to Adam; and in him to his posterity, upon condition of perfect and personal obedience.

III. Man, by his fall, having made himself incapable of life by that covenant, the Lord was pleased to make a second, commonly called the covenant of grace; wherein He freely offers unto sinners life and salvation by Jesus Christ; requiring of them faith in Him, that they may be saved, and promising to give unto all those that are ordained unto eternal life His Holy Spirit, to make them willing, and able to believe. . . .

Here is how one of the original framers of Covenant theology (or Federal theology), Caspar Olevianus, understood the Covenant of Grace — here recounted by Lyle D. Bierma,

A search for the ground or basis of the covenant of grace in Olevianus will uncover not one but three such foundations, better understood, perhaps, as  a single foundation with three levels. The first and uppermost level is Christ Himself in His role as eternal High Priest. It is as Priest that He offered up Himself as a sacrifice for our sin and obtained our righteousness before God. And it is as eternal Priest, ascended and seated at God’s right hand, that He preserves forever the covenant blessings obtained below. The death of Christ is the foundation of the covenant promised to Abraham, therefore, in the sense that it was on the cross that the covenant promise was “founded,” or established or confirmed. Indeed, it was both a necessary and sufficient foundation. The establishment of the eternal covenant of grace depended on the death of Christ, but His death would have been in vain if it were not also the only way our reconciliation with God could have been procured. (Lyle D. Bierma, “German Calvinism in the Confessional Age,” 76)

In the post below this one, I said: “The ‘Federal Calvinist’ makes God’s love for ‘elect’ humanity a byproduct of something else being met first, viz. the the penalty for ‘Law-breaking’ — the ‘ground’ of His love is that the requirements of the ‘Law’ are met . . . .” This seems to be in agreement with what the Westminster Confession of Faith says on ‘The Covenants’, and it does not disagree with what Bierma is saying per Olevianus’ Federal Theology, in fact it dovetails.

My point here is simply this, in the ‘Federal scheme’ salvation is framed through a contractual arrangement (a bilateral or diplueric covenant system); man (in the first Adam) was to keep His end of the ‘pact’, and then God would keep His (covenant of works) — quid pro quo. Man failed, God initiated His plan of salvation in Christ (based upon His decree — I’m of course speaking temporally here); Christ met the conditions of the covenant of works (in man’s place), but in order to secure this, a penalty had to be paid, first. In other words, God’s grace, and its enactment for man were conditioned or ‘grounded’ upon a ‘forensic’ footing. Since man broke the Law (cov. of works), man must pay for his crime. Since God is gracious, he becomes man, meets the conditions of the Law (active obedience); but none of this means anything unless He also pays for the “crimes against God.” In other words, God’s acceptance of man in Christ all hinges upon this payment (passive obedience) — or as Bierma said above: The death of Christ is the foundation of the covenant promised to Abraham, therefore, in the sense that it was on the cross that the covenant promise was “founded,” or established or confirmed. Indeed, it was both a necessary and sufficient foundation.

God’s grace, God’s love for man, in ‘Federal/Covenant theology’ is grounded upon the atonement of Christ (the cross); if He does not meet the conditions of the Covenant of Works, but more importantly, if He does not ‘found’ or ‘establish’ the Covenant of Grace (payment for sin) at the cross . . . then the contract/covenant is nullified. Love/grace for man is not attainable. This is why I said that the ‘atonement’ or the ‘cross’ serves as the ground of God’s love for humanity (in ‘Federal theology’) — versus God’s free determining life of love. God is subserviant to His decrees, He cannot love us until the conditions and legal requirements are met in the covenant of works and grace.

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Here is Lyle Bierma on Caspar Olevianus (1536-1587), one of the first developers of Federal Theology (according to Bierma, the first, but this is disputable). Bierma here is describing how Olevianus understood the Covenant of Grace vis-a’-vis the Covenant of Works:

When did God make such a pledge? [Referring to the ‘Covenant of Grace’] We will be looking at this question in some detail in Chapter IV, but it should be mentioned here that for Olevianus this covenant of grace or gospel of forgiveness and life was proclaimed to the Old Testament fathers from the beginning; to Adam after the fall (“The seed of the woman shall crush [Satan’s] head”); to Abraham and his descendents (“In your seed shall all nations of the earth be blessed”); to the remnant of Israel in Jeremiah 31 (“I will put my laws in their minds . . . and will remember their sins no more”); and still to hearers of the Word today. To be sure, this oath or testament was not confirmed until the suffering and death of Christ. Christ was still the only way to Seligkeit, since it was only through His sacrifices that the blessing promised to Abraham could be applied to us and the forgiveness and renewal promised through Jeremiah made possible. Nevertheless, even before ratification it was still a covenant — a declaration of God’s will awaiting its final fulfillment.

In some contexts, however, Olevianus understands the covenant of grace in a broader sense than as God’s unilateral promise of reconciliation ratified in Jesus Christ. He employs some of the same terms as before — Bund, Gnadenbund, foedus, foedus gratiae, and foedus gratuitum — but this time to mean a bilateral commitment between God and believers. The covenant so understood is more than a promise of reconciliation; it is th realization of that promise — reconciliation itself — through a mutual coming to terms. Not only does God bind Himself to us in a pledge that He will be our Father; we also bind ourselves to Him in a pledge of acceptance of His paternal beneficence. Not only does God promise that He will blot out all memory of our sins; we in turn promise that we will walk uprightly before Him. The covenant in this sense includes both God’s promissio and our repromissio.

This semantical shift from a unilateral to a bilateral promise is most clearly seen in two passages in Olevanius’s writings where compares the covenant of grace to a human Bund. In Vester Grundt, as we have seen, he portrays the covenant strictly as a divine pledge. While we were yet sinners, God bound Himself to us with an oath and a promise that through His Son He would repair the broken relationship. It was expected, of course, that we accept the Son (whether promised or already sent) in faith, but Olevianus here does not treat this response as part of the covenant. The emphasis is on what God would do because of what we could not do.

In a similar passage in the Expositio, however, Olevianus not only identifies the covenant with reconciliation itself but describes it as a mutual agreement (mutuus assensus) between the estranged parties. Here God binds Himself not to us “who were yet sinners” but to us “who repent and believe,” to us who in turn are bound to Him in faith and worship. This “covenant of grace or union between God and us” is not established at just one point in history; it is ratified personally with each believer. Christ the Bridegroom enters into “covenant or fellowship” with the Church His Bride by the ministry of the Word and sacraments and through the Holy Spirit seals the promises of reconciliation in the hearts of the faithful. But this is also a covenant into which we enter, a “covenant of faith.” As full partners in the arrangement we become not merely God’s children but His Bundgesnossen, His confoederati.

When he discusses the covenant of grace in this broader sense, i.e., as a bilateral commitment between God and us, Olevianus does not hesitate t use the term conditio [conditional]. We see already in the establishment of the covenant with Abraham that the covenant of grace has not one but two parts: not merely God’s promissio [promise] to be the God of Abraham and his seed, but that promise on the condition (qua conditione) of Abraham’s (and our) repromissio [repromising] to walk before Him and be perfect. Simply put, God’s covenantal blessings are contingent upon our faith and obedience. It is to those who repent, believe, and are baptized that He reconciles Himself and binds Himself in covenant. (Lyle D. Bierma, “German Calvinism in the Confessional Age: The Covenant Theology of Caspar Olevianus,” 64-68)

I wanted to provide this because there has been recent discussion by some of us on this very issue; what is “Federal Theology?” The charge went, that I misunderstood the premise of Federal Theology, and thus the rest of my critique of it, was amiss. The assertion further went that what I was presenting was akin to the Federal Vision (the red-headed step child of “Federal theologians”).

What this quote demonstrates, beyond a doubt, is that Federal theology is exactly what I originally summarized it to entail. Primary of which, is its conditional nature; and thus its penchant to force people to look to themselves before they look to Christ — an anthropocentric problem.

Further, I fear that even after folks read this, they will say that this just cannot be what contemporary ‘Federal Theologians’ advocate. Well, this is wrong, none other than R. Scott Clark, faculty member at Westminster Theological Seminary–California (bastion of contemporary Federal Theology), clearly defends and advocates for this kind of “bilateralism” that we see in the ‘Federal Theology’ of Olevianus. Here is a piece Clark has on this at his blog.

I realize much of this requires further commentary, but I’m just going to put this out there for future reference. I want folks to know that I’m not engaging a ‘paper-cut’ theology when I critique Federal Theology vis-a’-vis Evangelical Calvinism. More to come . . .