Monday, April 23, 2012

What is Federal Calvinism: And Some History

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)
Ultimately the problem with Federal Calvinism, in its early days, was that it caused the 'potential saint' to look at themselves prior to being able to look to Christ. This reversed Calvin's emphasis of and his 'union with Christ' 'double-grace' theology/salvation.

This is something, Federal Calvinism, that Evangelical Calvinists would want to correct. Surely Federal or this kind of Covenant theology will continue to persevere (pun intended), but at the least we, as Evangelical Calvinists would like the world to know (those who care) that there is an alternative strand available within Calvinism that grounds all of the conditions and contingencies of salvation in Christ himself. So we look to Christ!


  1. I wonder whether your last sentences are a fair comment on the basis of your Bierma-quote. Is it really true that Olevianus makes the potential saint to look at herself? Or is this quite the same as Calvin continues to stress in his theology: God's promises are reliable, but if we don't believe them, they won't benefit us at all? I believe Olevianus' theology is much more akin to Calvin's, then this post suggests.
    Best wishes,

    1. Hi Arjen,

      I don't think Calvin worked within the parameters of the 'Federal' Covenant framework, that would be anachronistic. I also don't think that Calvin's 'double grace' theology and union with Christ theology advocates for a person's salvation being contingent upon him/her keeping or doing good works (this is what took form later 'After Calvin' with the post Reformed orthodox ... as you know). I see Olevianus, as sketched by Bierma, in line with the post Reformed orthodox in a seminal form and not with Calvin. So I don't think the issue was simply one of simple trust in Christ or not; within the Federal framework good works become the badge for the elect (or not). I don't see this emphasis in Calvin's theology (even though he does develop thinking on good works, but those are intentionally grounded in the double grace both embodied in Christ, and thus an emphasis upon union with Christ is at the forefront for Calvin ... meaning that Christ is at the center of salvation not me).

    2. Hi Bobby,

      You're right, of course, about Calvin's not working within a Federal Covenant framework. I'm also acquainted with the complaints about post Reformed Federal theology. My question was, whether it was right to charge Olevianus with these complaints. As far as I can see, the Bierma-quotation doesn't give rise to such a charge.
      I don't know much about Olevianus, so there might be proof that he holds the position you suggest. But I didn't read it in your post. You might also argue that everyone who is working within a Federal framework inevitably must subscribe a kind of good works doctrine, in the sense you mentioned. But that's a line of argument that needs to be explained and defended as well.

    3. Arjen,

      You'll just have to read this book to see ;-).

      Yes, I do think that Federal Theology leads to a works righteousness performance based Christian spirituality; English Puritanism only helps to substantiate my point.

      I think we need to be careful to make a distinction what Federal Calvinists say about their theology today, and indeed what the actual implications of their theology leads to if we follow its logical trajectory.


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