The Binding of God: Calvin’s Role in the Development of Covenant Theology, by Peter Lillback.  This book is one in a series titled: Texts & Studies in Reformation & Post-Reformation Thought, ed. Richard A. Muller. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 2001. Pp. 331, with bibliography and index.

This review © Cornelis P. Venema is from Vol. 13 Mid-America Journal of Theology, 2002, of Mid-America Reformed Seminary, 229 Seminary Dr., Dyer, IN USA 46311

One of the significant debates regarding the history and development of Reformed theology focuses upon the question of the continuity between earlier, sixteenth century and later, post-Reformation theological formulations. Due to the influence of Barth’s reading of Calvin and sixteenth century Reformed theology, many interpreters of the Reformed tradition argue for a substantial discontinuity between the theology of Calvin, for example, and the later theology of the Calvinists (“Calvin against the Calvinists”). Many representatives of this point of view maintain that Calvin’s earlier Christocentric theology was recast by a “scholastic” Reformed theology whose principal theme was God’s sovereign decree of election. In the process of recasting Calvin’s theology, scholastic Reformed theology altered the form and content of Reformed theology. Furthermore, among students of the Reformed tradition, some have followed the lead of Perry Miller, Leonard Trinterud and others (most notably, J. Wayne Baker) in treating the development of the covenant in Reformed theology as an attempt to mute the severity of Calvin’s decretal theology. Not only do these interpreters detect a significant discontinuity between earlier and later Reformed theology, but they also posit a disjunction within the Reformed tradition between theologians who emphasize the divine decrees and others (especially the Rhinelanders, Zwingli and Bullinger, and their Puritan epigoni) who emphasize the doctrine of the covenant. In this reading of the history of Reformed theology, Calvin is not viewed as having a genuine doctrine of the covenants, since his theology was formed in terms of his emphasis upon the pre-temporal decree(s) of God.

            Peter A. Lillback’s study of Calvin’s role in the development of covenant theology is framed by this debate over the interpretation of the development of Reformed theology. Originally written as his doctoral dissertation at Westminster Theological Seminary, his book represents a substantial and long-overdue consideration of Calvin’s doctrine of the covenant. By means of his carefully-researched and thorough reading of Calvin’s view in the context of the sixteenth century, Lillback persuasively argues against the thesis of discontinuity between Calvin and the Calvinists, and the alleged disjunction between Calvin’s doctrines of election and covenant. For these reasons, Lillback’s work makes a significant contribution to a resolution of the debates regarding the development of Reformed theology in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In so doing, he also lends considerable support to Richard Muller’s claim that later developments within Reformed scholastic theology were in substantial continuity with Reformed theology in its earlier, sixteenth century expression.

            Lillback’s study begins with an opening chapter that details the conflicting interpretations of Calvin’s use of the doctrine of the covenant. Weaving his way through a large body of secondary literature, he suggests that these interpretations fall into four broad categories. Some interpreters maintain that Calvin has no doctrine of the covenant, and that other themes are central to his theological position. Others suggest that Calvin develops an “incomplete form of covenant theology,” one that employs the doctrine of covenant at particular points (e.g. the debate regarding the baptism of infants) but does not employ the doctrine as a central theme. Another group of interpreters, who follow the lead of Miller and Trinterud, claim that Calvin’s doctrine of God’s decree militates against any doctrine of conditional covenant. In this interpretation, there is a significant theological difference between the Reformed tradition as it was influenced by Calvin and Geneva, and the tradition as it was influenced by Zwingli, Bullinger and the Rhineland theologians. The last group of interpreters, which includes Lillback himself, argues that Calvin developed “an extensive if incomplete” covenant theology. According to these interpreters, though Calvin may not have developed the doctrine of the covenant to the full extent of later “federal theology” (as represented in the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms), the essential components of this theology are present, even if at points only in germinal form.

After this important introductory chapter, Lillback divides his study into two major parts. The first part provides a relatively brief survey of the genesis of covenant theology in the late Medieval and Reformation contexts. The second part, which constitutes the bulk of Lillback’s study, details what Lillback terms the “genius” of Calvin’s covenant theology.

In his survey of the genesis of covenant theology, Lillback makes several important points. One of them concerns Augustine’s view of the covenant or pactum between God and his people. Contrary to the interpretation of J. Wayne Baker, who insists that Augustine’s view was a “testamentary” or unconditional covenant doctrine, Lillback shows how Augustine’s definition clearly includes a “bilateral” or “conditional” aspect. When God graciously establishes a relationship between himself and his people, he enters into a mutual agreement that obligates both parties to the covenant. Lillback also provides a helpful distinction between two approaches to the covenant that emerge in the late Medieval period. Among Augustinian theologians, the covenant, though mutually binding, is based upon the priority of God’s grace and excludes any idea of human works as “meriting” God’s favor. Among some nominalist theologians, however, the covenant idea emphasizes the priority of the human will in preparing for and cooperating with God’s grace. In this formulation of the doctrine of the covenant, when sinners do what they can to prepare themselves for God’s grace, they initially merit God’s grace with a “congruent merit” (that is, God covenants to “accept” and graciously give them more than strict justice deserves) and subsequently merit God’s favor with a “condign merit” (that is, God grants them the reward their works, prompted by his grace in them, justly deserve).

Perhaps the most important and controversial claim that Lillback makes in the first part of his study relates to the differences he discerns between the Reformed view of the covenant and Luther’s law-gospel distinction. According to Lillback, Luther’s emphasis upon the doctrine of justification compelled him to treat the old covenant as a “covenant of law” that was substantially at odds with the gospel of free justification through the work of Christ. Rather than viewing the Old and New Testaments as in substantial agreement, Luther contrasted the Old as a covenant of law, which required perfect obedience as the condition for life in communion with God, and the New as a gracious communication of free justification on account of the work of Christ. Luther was, accordingly, suspicious of Reformed theologians who emphasized the continuity of the covenants, fearing that this would confuse the gospel with the law and reintroduce the idea of merit. Contrary to this disjunction between the law and the gospel, the Zurich and Strassburg Reformations, which were first to give expression to a more fully developed covenant idea, emphasized the continuity between the Old and New Testaments. In the development of the covenant idea among the Reformed, the themes of God’s sovereign grace in election and his mutual binding of himself with his people (believers and their children) were equally emphasized. Unlike Luther, who sharply separated between faith and good works in order to maintain the law-gospel distinction, the covenant idea enabled Reformed theologians to discuss works “in the context of justification” (p. 125).

In the second part of his study, which Lillback entitles “The Genius of Calvin’s Covenant Thought,” Lillback makes a case for regarding Calvin as a significant exponent of covenant theology. Though Calvin does not fully develop the doctrine of the covenant to the extent that would be true of the “federal theology” of the seventeenth century, the covenant idea is certainly a major and recurring theme in his thought. Lillback maintains, therefore, that all the components of the later, more fully developed federal theology, including a prelapsarian “covenant of works,” are either present or anticipated in embryonic form in Calvin’s writings.

After a chapter in which Lillback illustrates the pervasiveness of the idea of covenant in Calvin’s writings, he takes up the question of Calvin’s view of continuity or discontinuity in the history of the covenant. Following the lead of the Rhineland Reformers, particularly Bullinger, Calvin viewed the covenant as substantially one throughout its administration. The covenant of grace is one and eternal, though it is variously administered in the course of the progressive revelation of God to his people. According to Lillback, Calvin distinguished between the “law” in the general sense of the covenant of grace in its Old Testament administration, and the “law” in the specific sense of its strict demands and sanctions. Though the “law” in the general sense is fully compatible with the “gospel,” in the narrower sense of the law (Moses “peculiar office”) there is a profound difference between it and the gospel. By itself the law exposes human sinfulness and its consequence in the way of condemnation and death. However, when the law is viewed within the context of the promise of forgiveness through Christ and the Spirit’s work in renewing God’s people in righteousness, there is, according to Calvin, no fundamental conflict between the law and the gospel.

One of the claims often made regarding Calvin’s covenant idea is that he does not allow for a “mutual” covenant. However, Lillback adduces considerable evidence in Calvin’s writings that he, no less than the Rhineland Reformers, taught a doctrine of the covenant that allowed for the stipulation of conditions. From God’s point of view, the covenant is “unconditional,” since he not only initiates but secures the reception of covenant blessings for his people in Christ. From his people’s point of view, the covenant is “conditional,” since it requires faith and obedience on the part of those with whom God covenants.

Perhaps one of the most striking features of Lillback’s treatment of Calvin’s covenant thought is his claim that Calvin, by means of the covenant, was able to give greater place to the necessity of good works in the salvation of God’s people. The covenant of grace, according to Calvin, provides believers a “twofold benefit” through the work of Christ: the benefit of free justification and the benefit of regeneration or renewal in righteousness by the work of the Spirit (N.B. Calvin uses the language of “regeneration” often as a synonym for “sanctification” or “repentance”). These benefits, though distinct, are simultaneously and invariably granted to all who are united with Christ by the work of the Holy Spirit. By means of this insistence upon the double benefit of the covenant of grace, Calvin was able, Lillback argues, to avoid Luther’s radical disjunction of law and gospel. For Calvin, not only are believers obligated to keep the law of God by the working of the Spirit of sanctification, but their good works are also “graciously accepted” and acknowledged by God.

Lillback describes the differences between Luther and Calvin at this point in sharp terms: “Luther’s understanding of justification by faith alone had no room for inherent righteousness, while Calvin’s view required it as an inseparable but subordinate righteousness. The resulting difference is due to Luther’s law/gospel hermeneutic versus Calvin’s letter—spirit hermeneutic” (p.192). Contrary to Luther’s rejection of the necessity of good works and obedience to the law of God for salvation, Calvin insisted upon the inseparability of justification and sanctification. Calvin was even able, on account of this inseparability, to speak of a “second justification” that has reference to the believer’s good works. Indeed, in his articulation of a doctrine of “second justification,” Calvin utilized the scholastic idea of God’s “acceptance,” on the basis of his covenant promise and obligation, of the good works of believers. Though believers do not “merit” anything from God in this second justification, they do receive a gracious reward for works that have genuine value and significance to God. By this teaching Calvin was able to occupy “middle ground between the merit system of medieval Schoolmen and the law/gospel hermeneutic of the Lutheran system” (p. 205).

In the concluding chapters of his study, Lillback takes up several controversial questions relating to Calvin’s covenant thought. He argues, for example, that Calvin, far from opposing election to covenant, held the two doctrines in close proximity. Even though Calvin admitted that not all those with whom God covenanted were elect in terms of what he called God’s “secret election,” he nonetheless stressed the genuineness of the covenant’s promises and obligations as the means whereby God secures the salvation of his people. Far from identifying covenant with election, and on that account rejecting the idea of covenant sanctions for disobedient covenant breakers, Calvin insisted that the covenant’s administration includes the possibility of hypocrisy and covenant-breaking, which require the covenant sanctions of discipline and even excommunication. That Calvin acknowledges this clearly indicates that he did not view the covenant strictly from the standpoint of the doctrine of election, thereby diminishing its conditions and corresponding blessings or sanctions. In an important chapter on the covenant of works, Lillback also argues that Calvin taught a kind of inchoate pre-fall covenant “that in various regards adumbrates that of the Federalists” (p. 304).

 There is much to commend in this study of Lillback. As I indicated earlier, Lillback is the first to provide a truly comprehensive study of Calvin’s covenant thought. He fills a void in the literature by means of this work, and does so in a way that properly locates the question of Calvin’s view in relation both to its Medieval antecedents and later developments within the Reformed tradition. Lillback’s reading in Calvin’s writings is obviously extensive and the case he makes for viewing Calvin as a covenant theologian in his own right is compelling. Interpreters of Calvin who would pit Calvin against the Calvinists, or Calvin against the Rhinelanders on the doctrine of the covenant, will face a formidable, perhaps unassailable, obstacle in Lillback’s study.

There are, however, two issues that Lillback’s study fails to address adequately. As Lillback himself admits, his study does not provide a very fulsome account of the early origins of covenant theology. The evidence he adduces for the use of the idea of covenant in late medieval society and church is rather slim, and not clearly linked to the development of covenant theology by Reformed theologians, including Calvin, of the sixteenth century.

A much bigger question in my mind, however, relates to the way Lillback sharply contrasts Luther and Calvin on the doctrine of justification. One of the major themes of Lillback’s study is that there is a wide divergence between Luther’s law/gospel hermeneutic and Calvin’s covenant hermeneutic. This divergence accounts, he maintains, for Calvin’s ability to stress the mutuality and conditionality of the covenant between God and his people. Calvin, for example, was able to bring the law into the “context” of his doctrine of justification because he insisted upon the inseparability of justification and sanctification, the two benefits of the covenant. According to Lillback, Calvin’s covenant theology links up at this point with the scholastic tradition of the late Medieval period by means of his rehabilitation of the doctrine of God’s “acceptance” or “justification” of the believer’s good works. Though Calvin nowhere countenanced the idea of “merit” in his covenant theology, he did insist upon the necessity of good works, and of a “subordinate” and “inherent” righteousness as an indispensable and instrumental cause of salvation. In this respect Calvin did not fully agree with Luther’s articulation of the doctrine of justification.

Even though Lillback rightly detects some real differences of emphasis between Luther and Calvin, he seriously overstates the differences between them on the doctrine of justification. No doubt Calvin differed from Luther in positing a more positive role for the law of God as a rule of gratitude in the Christian. Moreover, whereas Luther primarily focussed upon the doctrine of justification, Calvin shows greater balance by emphasizing as well the necessary and indispensable place of sanctification as the second part of the “double grace” of God in Christ. Lillback also correctly observes the far more positive way that Calvin relates the Old and New Testaments, which are regarded as two formally distinct administrations of one covenant of grace, in contrast to Luther’s tendency to treat the Old Testament as an administration of “law” in the narrow sense as opposed to the “gospel.”

However, in making his case for a distinction between Luther and Calvin, Lillback misrepresents Luther’s position. Reading Lillback’s account of Luther’s view, one gets the impression that Luther did not have a doctrine of sanctification or stress at all the necessity of good works as an inevitable fruit of a living faith. Lillback’s presentation gives the distinct impression that Luther was “antinomian” in his formulation of the doctrine of justification, because he excluded altogether works performed in obedience to the law from his doctrine of justification. The fact is, however, that Calvin was every bit as emphatic as Luther about the distinction between law and gospel, when the question concerned the ground or basis for the believer’s justification. Several times in his study, Lillback misreads Calvin’s understanding of the “double grace” of God by arguing that the unbreakable link between justification and sanctification allowed Calvin to bring the law into the “context” of justification (e.g. pp. 124, 125, 185-93, 205). Calvin’s point, however, is not that the law or works performed in obedience to the law have anything to do with our justification. Rather, his point is simply that the faith that alone justifies is never an alone faith; it is a faith granted to believers by the Spirit of sanctification who always renews those in whom he dwells. Calvin, no less sharply than Luther, insisted upon a clear distinction between free justification apart from works and sanctification by the working of the Holy Spirit. Lillback’s language confusingly suggests that, by linking justification and sanctification, Calvin introduced the believer’s works into the context of justification in a manner somehow distinguishable from Luther’s doctrine of justification.

Perhaps as the author of a dissertation that principally deals with Calvin’s understanding of the relation between justification and sanctification, I am especially sensitive to this point. But Lillback’s lack of precision and care, when treating the way Calvin speaks of the law in relation to justification, is also evident in the way he interprets Calvin’s doctrine of a “double” or “second justification.” Lillback argues that, by means of this doctrine, Calvin was able to steer a middle course between Roman Catholic and Lutheran views of justification. Indeed, Calvin’s idea of God graciously rewarding the good (though imperfect) works of believers is regarded as an example of the way Calvin rejects Luther’s law/gospel disjunction. In this way, Lillback suggests, Calvin was able by his covenant doctrine to emphasize the necessity of good works in connection with or in the context of the believer’s justification.

In my judgment, this is a misreading of Calvin’s understanding of a “second” justification. It is no doubt true that Calvin spoke of a second justification, which involves God’s fatherly acceptance of the good works that his Spirit works in the believer. But this second justification did not in any way, according to Calvin, change the substance of the doctrine of free justification by introducing a “subordinate righteousness” as part of the context for the believer’s justification. It is only on the basis of the believer’s prior and fundamental acceptance before God, which is itself exclusively founded upon the righteousness of Christ, that his works can find any acceptance with God. Far from compromising the gratuity of God’s justifying grace, Calvin’s doctrine of a second justification taught that even those good works that the Spirit of Christ effects in the believer are acceptable to God only on the ground of his free acceptance of our persons in Christ. Calvin’s repeated insistence upon the necessary distinction between justification and sanctification served to make the same point Luther insisted upon—that the believer’s good works, however perfect or imperfect, contribute nothing to his justification before God.

            It is unfortunate that Lillback’s otherwise fine and outstanding work is marred by this kind of exaggerated presentation of the differences between Luther and Calvin on the doctrine of justification. Particularly at a time in history when the doctrine of justification is so little understood or properly prized, it is critical to recognize that on this subject Luther and Calvin were in hearty agreement.

© Cornelis P. Venema, 2002