Supporting Theological Reflection and Conversation that Strengthen the Ministry of the Church
In this publication of his revised doctoral dissertation (Duke, 1980), Lyle Bierma, professor of theology at Reformed Bible College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, offers a careful and detailed study of the covenant theology of Caspar Olevianus (1536-1587), best known as the co-author of the Heidelberg Catechism. “My general purpose,” Bierma states, “is to take a new and hard look at Olevianus’s doctrine of covenant and to determine its place in the larger picture of sixteenth-century Reformed covenant thought” (p. 12).
After a brief review of Olevianus’s life and a summary of previous research on Olevianus that he characterizes as “. . .highly confused, and at times contradictory. . .” (p. 29), Bierma analyzes the role of the covenant in continental Reformed theology starting with Ulrich Zwingli and continuing with Heinrich Bullinger, John Calvin, Wolfgang Musculus, and Zacharias Ursinus. According to Bierma, Zwingli and Bullinger acknowledged both a divine and a human dimension to the one covenant of grace between God and humanity. In contrast with the views of Leonard Trinterud and others, however, Bierma denies that the human dimension constitutes a condition on which salvation depends in the covenant of grace as understood by Zwingli and Bullinger. “For Bullinger, therefore, as for Zwingli, the benefits of God’s covenant of grace do not ultimately depend on faith and obedience; they include faith and obedience” (p.38).
Bierma concludes that over against the Anabaptists the early continental reformers developed an essentially unified doctrine of the covenant of grace that served to link the Old and New Testaments and clarified the nature of the sacraments, especially baptism. The third generation reformer Ursinus expanded the concept of the covenant of grace into a central theological principle and introduced the beginnings of a natural covenant that later developed into a covenant of works.
Bierma’s third chapter on Olevianus’s understanding of the covenant is the heart of his work. Olevianus developed a view of the covenant of grace as a bilateral commitment initiated and effected completely by God but also ratified by believers in whom the Holy Spirit brings about faith and good works. Olevianus linked the covenant of grace with the kingdom of Christ and the believers’ mystical union with Christ in faith. The basis for the covenant in Olevianus’s view is the person of Christ and his priestly work of redemption that demonstrates the loving nature of God who choose to redeem the elect. In Bierma’s assessment, Olevianus’s understanding of the covenant did not temper his doctrine of double predestination because it demonstrates both God’s love for the elect and God’s justice toward the reprobate. Bierma says that according to Olevianus the audible and visible witnesses to the substance of the covenant are the preaching of the Word of God and in the celebration of the sacraments. The mutual giving and receiving of grace in the sacraments are visible signs of the covenant of grace. Even if some of the participants in the Lord’s supper are not elect, this does not vitiate the character of the sacrament as a visible sign of the covenant of grace. Bierma concludes that Olevianus did not depart from a Reformed position in favor of Lutheran view of the objective character of the sacrament, however, as Otto Ritschl claimed. This is because the divine promise accepted by the believer through faithand not the elements themselvesbrings about the reception of grace. Olevianus is not consistently clear on how the sacrament of baptism conveys grace to the baptized child. In his earlier writings Olevianus seems to say that the sacrament of baptism itself effects the forgiveness and redemption provided by Christ. In his later writing, however, Olevianus asserts that the faith of the believing parents is the effective cause of the infant’s salvation. If a baptized child reaches maturity and does not have faith, Olevianus declares that such a person is excised from the substance of the covenant even though such a person has participated in the administration of the covenant. In Bierma’s view, “Olevianus’s whole discussion of infants and the covenant, then, leaves us with many more questions than answers” (p. 103).
Bierma devotes his fourth chapter to a discussion of other covenants Olevianus believed he found attested in scripture. He carefully reviews five other covenants mentioned briefly in Olevianus’s works and concludes that they are not central to his thought. Bierma shows that Olevianus understood the relationship between the “old” and the “new” covenant to be a matter of “dispensation” or “economy” of the one covenant of grace. The promises, conditions, and benefits of the covenant of grace remain the same before and after the redemptive work of Christ, but greater clarity and the enjoyment of the benefits of redemption mark the new dispensation. Nevertheless, for Olevianus, “Even in the Old Testament, gospelnot lawwas the maior et principalior doctrina” (p. 135).
In his concluding chapter, Bierma turns to an assessment of Olevianus’s role in the history of covenant theology. As important as the covenant is for Olevianus, it does not function as the organizing principal of his theology, he argues. His theology is essentially organized to explicate the Apostles’ Creed and for this purpose the concept of the covenant provided an essential unifying theme. Bierma rejects the view that Olevanus synthesized the thought of Bullinger and Calvin on the grounds that there is nothing distinctive of Bullinger in his thought. Instead, Olevianus was a proponent of covenant theology redolent with the theological perspective of his major teacher, Calvin, but with distinctive nuances due especially to his earlier legal training. This began a trend that was more fully developed in later federal theology. It is especially characteristic of Olevianus that he linked covenant theology with the believer’s assurance of redemption. Near the end of this chapter, Bierma addresses the view of Juergen Moltmann that the Biblical theology of Olevianus and others influenced by the anti-Aristotelian logic of Petrus Ramus countered the Reformed scholasticism represented by Theodore Beza and Zacharias Ursinus among others. Bierma demonstrates cogently that Olevianus was as Aristotelian as Melanchthon, that his doctrine of the covenant did not mitigate the decrees of double predestination, and that he is more appropriately categorized as a dogmatic theologian than a Biblical theologian. Bierma documents Olevianus’s contribution to continental Reformed theology through the Academy he founded at Herborn in 1584. Among the students at this institution were several covenant theologians including Piscator, Martinius, Crocius, Alsted, and Ravensperger. Furthermore, the 17th century federal theologian Johannes Cocceius explicitly acknowledged his indebtedness to Olevianus. Bierma also describes possible connections between Olevianus and the Scottish theologian Robert Howie and the English divine William Perkins as “almost too uncanny to be coincidental” (p. 179).
Bierma summarizes the results of his research as follows: “In short, Caspar Olevianus was neither the founder not the final architect of sixteenth-century Reformed covenant theology but a key intermediary figure in its development” (p.184). While this book bears the marks of a dissertation with its copious documentation from Latin and German sources and occasional lapses into turgid prose, its contribution to our understanding of the theology of Olevianus and the development of covenant theology make it an extremely valuable and instructive resource.
James A. Brashler
PUBLISHED IN THE BULLETIN OF THE INSTITUTE FOR REFORMED THEOLOGY, SPRING/SUMMER 2003, VOL. 3, #2.
The Institute for Reformed Theology is an Associated Program of
Union Theological Seminary and Presbyterian School of Christian Education, Richmond, Virginia
All materials on this site are © The Institute for Reformed Theology, unless otherwise noted.