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The debate over the history and character of “covenant theology,” and its relationship to the thought of John Calvin has raged for years. R. T. Kendall’s study, Calvin and English Calvinism to 1649 (Oxford, 1979), touched on this and other questions, drawing fire from Paul Helm in his “Article Review: Calvin, English Calvinism and the Logic of Doctrinal Development” (Scottish Journal of Theology, 34.2, 1981), and his subsequent monograph Calvin and the Calvinists (Banner of Truth, 1982). A few years later, M. Charles Bell, a student of James B. Torrance, then professor of theology at Aberdeen University, wrote his Calvin and Scottish Theology: The Doctrine of Assurance (Handsel Press,1985) using both Kendall and Torrance as models, roughly paralleling Kendall’s argument, and extending it in a study of soteriology in the Scottish theological context through the early nineteenth-century. This lively debate has been deepened by seminal studies by David Alexander Weir, whose magisterial work, The Origins of the Federal Theology in Sixteenth-Century Reformation Thought (Oxford, 1990), was originally written as a Master’s degree thesis at St. Andrews University, but was assessed by its examiners to be of such exceptional merit that he was awarded a Ph.D., and by Michael McGiffert, James B. Torrance and Thomas F. Torrance, J. Wayne Baker, Richard Muller, and Holmes Rolston III, to mention only a few, who have taken scholarship far beyond Perry Miller’s renowned, but theologically superficial, studies in the mid-twentieth century.
Peter A. Lillback’s book, the published version of his own dissertation at Westminster Theological Seminary, is the most recent serious study to enter the fray. After providing an admirably detailed, though necessarily brief, summary of the scholarly debate over whether or to what extent Calvin’s own theology is related to covenant and federal theology, and following a short excursus on the “conflicting definitions of covenant theology,” he attempts to demonstrate the continuity between Calvin and his federal successors. Lillback takes Jürgen Moltmann’s broad definition of covenant theology as the standard by which he will judge that Calvin’s thought represents a covenant theology. Indeed, Lillback argues: “Calvin is the first of the early theologians [of the Reformation] to integrate the covenant concept extensively into his theological system. Thus covenant theology owes its existence in various ways to Calvin” (p. 311). However, as Lillback himself observes, Moltmann’s definition of covenant theology is so broad (and, one might add, so lacking in nuance) that few would fail to classify Calvin as a covenant theologian by its standard. “One defines covenant theology,” writes Moltmann, “as a theological method which utilizes the biblical theme of the covenant as the key idea for a) the designation of the relationships of God and man, and b) the presentation of the continuity and discontinuity of redemptive history in the Old and New Testament” (p. 27). That Calvin can be said to adhere to such a broadly conceived “covenant theology” hardly merits a book of such seriousness or length, considering that most Protestant theologians would also conceive of covenant certainly as the key idea for understanding God’s relationship with humanity, and for discussing God’s redemptive history in the Old and New Testament. Lillback is aware of this fact. He writes, “Few, indeed, would exclude Calvin from the mainstream of covenant theology if this definition is accepted” (p. 27).
Lillback contrasts Moltmann’s broad definition of covenant theology with Charles S. McCoy’s much narrower definition specifying that covenant theology must include a covenant of works between God and humanity that precedes the covenant of grace. Lillback accepts Moltmann’s definition, assuring from the outset that Calvin will be understood as a covenant theologian in the broadest sense. Obviously, however, to show that Calvin’s theology can be characterized as covenant theology, in the sense in which Moltmann uses the term, does not remotely respond to the more difficult and more interesting question as to whether Calvin shares the theological scheme of federal theologians like Zacharius Ursinus, the co-author of the Heidelberg Catechism and the theologian generally acknowledged to have been the first “to articulate the two covenantsthe covenant of creation and the covenant of grace” (276).
Weir’s three-fold distinction, which Lillback notes, between the biblical idea of covenant itself, the general usages of this idea in a broadly covenantal theology (Moltmann’s definition), and full blown federal theology in which the whole of a theological system is held together by the covenant scheme, including a prelapsarian covenant of works and a postlapsarian covenant of grace (p. 27), provides a far more helpful definition if one wants to determine Calvin’s kinship to the later federal developments which influenced so many late sixteenth and seventeenth-century theologians. Lillback’s task, in fact, is to demonstrate that Calvin, in the narrower sense, is a covenant theologian. A more subtle definition (such as Weir’s) would have helped him to identify clearly the points at which Calvin suggests, if only in a nascent and general form, elements that would be developed systematically by subsequent federal Calvinists. Lillback succeeds in producing some impressive evidence of this sort. What he does not do is demonstrate that Calvin’s thoughtrichly evangelical, ruggedly evocative and powerfully suggestive as it iscan be characterized as covenant theology, not in the sense in which this covenant or federal theology would be recognized within a generation. Is it the case that Calvin resisted working out the implications of certain aspects of his thought? We seem to have evidence for this possibility in his doctrine of election. Or is it that Calvin never imagined that the biblical theme of covenant would be recast into a doctrinal system that effectively, if not intentionally, makes grace appear a second resort and works to be God’s original intention, or that invents what Karl Barth famously referred to as the “false mythology” of a pre-temporal pactus salutis between God the Father and God the Son?
This is not to say that Lillback’s book is not valuable. The book provides fascinating and extremely helpful descriptions of Calvin’s use of the covenant idea, contextualizing his thought in relation to the scholastic movement, and to other Reformers. It also assists the reader in understanding how elements of Calvin’s thought were reshaped as subsequent Reformed theologians made use of him. For this reason alone the book deserves careful and appreciative, if critical study.
PUBLISHED IN THE BULLETIN OF THE INSTITUTE FOR REFORMED THEOLOGY, WINTER 2004, VOL. 4, #1.
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