Gospel-Driven Reading Recommendation: Caspar Olevian and the Substance of the Covenant

Caspar Olevian and the Substance of the Covenant

Caspar Olevian and the Substance of the Covenant is helpful on many levels and presents some important lessons for Evangelicals. Here are three important emphases in Dr. Clark’s book that I found particularly helpful and important.

First, Olevian’s theology was preeminently Trinitarian.

(Note: As an aside, to be gospel-driven is to be preeminently Trinitarian! I want to write more about this in the near future.). This Trinitarian emphasis is foundational and indispensable to an orthodox, catholic faith and confession. Sadly, it is neglectfully assumed and underemphasized (in some cases rejected, e.g., T.D. Jakes) in contemporary Evangelical circles.

John Calvin certainly played an influential role in Olevian’s Trinitarian emphasis (cf., pp. 84-85). Concerning Olevian’s Trinitarian theology, Dr. Clark writes,

    “Olevian has been interpreted almost solely as a covenant theologian, but this view needs to be challenged. In fact, Olevian was as much a theologian of the Trinity as he was a federal or covenant theologian. Indeed, he was a federal theologian because he was a Trinitarian theologian. In his mind, to exposit the Trinity, or the ancient Trinitarian creeds, was to teach the doctrine of the covenant, since the covenant is nothing more than a way of describing the relations which obtain between the triune God and his people,” (p. 74).

Dr. Clark concludes, “Caspar Olevian was a Calvinist, catholic and creedal Trinitarian theologian. The doctrine of the Trinity not only supported and coloured the substance of this theology, but also structured it,” (p. 103).

We would do well in following Olevian’s Trinitarian emphasis.

Second, there is no evidence that Olevian’s theology was a reaction to Calvinism.

Dr. Clark convincingly shows how Olevian was not a “repristination (Barth) nor repudiation of Calvin (Heppe) but rather a developer of Calvinism,” (p. xiii). And, despite those who seek to pit Olevian against Ursinus (i.e., federal-legalists vs. gracious covenantalists) and portray Olevian as “anti-Puritan and anti-federalist,” Dr. Clark shows how the very framework of Olevian’s theology contradicts such claims. He writes,

    “It is my contention that this sort of reading of Olevian is exactly wrong because it overlooks his doctrine of the double benefit and therefore misconstrues the role of Olevian’s doctrine of sanctification in his theology…In fact, through his use of the motif of the covenant, Olevian recast and developed the received Protestant doctrine of sanctification, giving the doctrine a more distinctly Reformed appearance,” (p. 184).

Olevian described his system as “the substance of the covenant of grace, (xviii).” Dr. Clark writes,

    “These two expressions, ‘substance of the covenant’ (substantia foederis) and ‘double benefit’ (duplex beneficium) summarized his soteriology. Considered objectively, the substance of the covenant is comprised of God’s saving acts in Christ and the explanation of those acts in Christian theology. Considered subjectively, it refers to the Christian’s personal apprehension of Christ’s benefits. This phrase, double benefit, describes the two things, which Christ has earned for his elect: justification and sanctification. Like the ‘substance of the covenant,’ the double benefit has both objective and subjective elements. Justification concerns Christ’s work for the sinner and sanctification concerns Christ’s work in the sinner,” (p. xviii).

This second point may seem to some a bit academic (Who cares if Olevian’s teaching was a reaction to Calvin or a repristination of Calvin or a repudiation of Calvin? We should leave such irrelevant queries to the academy!). But, this assumption would be a terrible mistake.

In Olevian’s thinking, both justification and sanctification were the double benefits of being in union with Christ. In other words, Olevian was gospel-driven!

What is at stake here is the proper understanding of the gospel and its application in both justification and sanctification.

While maintaining a careful distinction between the twin benefits (e.g., justification was entirely forensic and sanctification was progressive and the result of the infusion of grace which is never perfected in this life, cf., p. 188), Olevian was equally careful not to separate them (cf., p. 187).

Dr. Clark writes,

    “There are two ‘special’ benefits to the covenant: justification (gracious remission of sins and the imputation of Christ’s justice) and sanctification (renovation in the image of God), or inward moral renewal…Together, justification and sanctification comprise the duplex beneficium,” (pp. 184-185).

Olevian’s doctrine of the double benefit was the essence of his definition of the covenant and therefore sanctification was an essential component of his definition of the covenant (p. 187). But what is important to note is that sanctification (i.e., obedience and repentance) was for Olevian the second part of the double benefit not the first. In other words, sanctification is the fruit of saving faith not the root.

For Olevian, obedience and repentance were inseparable from true saving faith but at the same time they must be clearly distinguished from faith. Faith belonged in the realm justification (the first part of the double benefit of the covenant) whereas obedience and repentance belonged in the realm of sanctification (the second part of the double benefit of the covenant). Dr. Clark writes,

    “He called repentance ‘the second part of the Gospel’ because it is ‘born of faith.’ Repentance is the ‘change of mind’ (mentis mutatio) proceeding from the Holy Spirit which results in transformation of the sinner from ‘natural depravity’ to a serious and filial fear of God arising from a ‘sense of just divine judgement and partly from the experience of sworn eternal mercy in Christ.’ Repentance is not only a mental transformation, rather it is a synonym for the whole complex of events, which make up the progressive sanctification of the Christian. Because repentance is sanctification, it cannot be a condition of the ‘remission of sins’ (remissio peccatorum) or justification, but repentance is to be preached according to the ‘purpose of God’ (scopus Dei) which is that God’s goodness should shine through us,” (pp. 197-198).

Like faith in justification, repentance in sanctification (and all aspects of sanctification, obedience, assurance, etc…) is a divine gift. Dr. Clark writes,

    “Hence repentance is a parallel benefit along with assurance, flowing from the preaching of the gospel. Repentance, as all other aspects of sanctification, is a ‘gift of God’ (donum Dei) flowing primarily from Christ though, ‘as they say in the schools,’ it is received instrumentally through faith. Thus through the justice of God the Father preached to sinners (‘that one is unable to sustain the rigours of the law’), one is made aware of his need. The faith, which apprehends Christ, is created through the preaching of the gospel. In this testimony God the Spirit is at work convicting sinners, drawing and uniting them to Christ for justification only by the imputed righteousness of Christ (sola imputata obedientia Christi) and working sanctification in them,” (p. 198).

Again, we would do well in following Olevian’s gospel-driven emphasis.

Third, Caspar Olevian’s chief desire was to be a faithful preacher of the gospel.

Today Olevian is most likely best known as co-author of the Heidelberg Catechism (Zacharias Ursinus being the other). However, Dr. Clark shows how Olevian was much more (and wrote much more, see p. xvii). Caspar Olevian was a Reformed theologian, unversity professor, seminary instructor and pastor of St. Peter’s Church and Church of the Holy Spirit in Heidelberg, Germany.

However, what intrigued me most was to learn that even though Olevian was one of the more significant Reformed theologians of the last quarter of the sixteenth century, his chief desire was to be a faithful herald of the gospel to the Germans (p. 20).

Dr. Clark writes,

    “As a ‘preacher to the Germans,’ he was committed to propagating the Protestant message of justification by imputed grace through apprehensive faith in Christ alone,” (p. xx).

Here we learn that what we believe not only affects how we live but also how we minister. There are two ways in which we see the genuine pastoral heart of Olevian and his level of pastoral commitment to the German people in this book.

First, we see Olevian’s pastoral heart and commitment illustrated during the outbreak of a plague in 1566. Dr. Clark writes,

    “In 1566 his ministerial commitment was tested, as the plague affected the Electorate. The court withdrew and the University closed and most pastors fled, except Ursinus and Olevian. The latter stayed on amidst the tragedy and wrote two tender pastoral tracts to aid the ill and grieving,” (p. 20).

Second, we see Olevian’s commitment as a faithful pastor illustrated in his perseverance during persecution.

Olevian was a faithful guardian and herald of the gospel to the Germans during a time in Europe when such views were not only unpopular but also illegal. Olevian was, as Dr. Clark shows, one of those believers and ministers in Heidelberg who thought of themselves as “strangers and aliens” in the world. He belonged to a persecuted minority within Christendom. During his ministry, Olevian found himself in exile and imprisonment for his uncompromising stand for the gospel. Dr. Clark writes,

    “Historically he was a second-generation reformer. Existentially, however, he experienced many of the same challenges of the first generation Protestants: popular acceptance, official rejection, and personal hardship for the sake of the gospel,” (p. 19).

Preaching played a prominent role in Olevian’s pastoral ministry. Olevian viewed preaching as a means of grace. Both Word and Sacrament testify to the “substance of the covenant of grace,” (p. 191). Dr. Clark writes,

    “The preaching of the gospel was said to be the ‘chief testimony and principal organ of the Holy Spirit by which the substance of the covenant is offered to us,” (p. 193).

Thus, Olevian’s preaching was thoroughly gospel based and driven. One might say that Olevian was not only a gospel-driven theologian but he was also a gospel-driven preacher! His theology of the covenant had a direct bearing upon his preaching (His orthodoxy informed his orthopraxy). Dr. Clark writes,

    “For Olevian, the Spirit is given ‘through the ministry of the Gospel’ (per ministerium Evangelii) as the ‘ordinary means’ (medium et instrmentum), ‘partly audible and partly visible,’ through which ‘God works salvation’ in his elect. They are the ‘external voice and visible seals’ by which the substance of the covenant is administered to the elect in the visible church,” (p. 191).

“The greatest benefit of preaching is reconciliation with God through Jesus Christ.”

Through preaching, the Spirit of God is given and it is the way in which sinners come to receive Christ (preaching is the testimony to Christ, p. 192). Olevian believed in proclamation precisely because it is through preaching the gospel that Christ is truly offered and the means by which the Holy Spirit creates faith in the elect. Like the Apostle Paul, Olevian “believed and so he spoke” (cf., 2 Cor. 4:13). “The greatest benefit of preaching, Olevian argued, is “reconciliation with God through Jesus Christ,” (pp. 192-193).

Equally important is the fact that for Olevian the preaching of the gospel not only creates faith but it also serves to sustain and strengthen faith. In other words, the gospel did not have application just for unbelievers. The gospel was also for believers! Dr. Clark writes,

    “Preaching however not only creates faith, but it is the chief means by which God ‘conserves and strengthens’ it and ‘through it not only communicates that substance of the covenant (substantia foederis) to all the elect,’ but also ‘daily promotes by degrees’ the beginning of the mystical fellowship between Christ and his people,” (p. 193).

How, according to Olevian, does the gospel preserve (and thus cause believers to endure and persevere) and strengthen the faith of believers? Dr. Clark writes,

    “The proclamation of the gospel (praedicatio evangelii) strengthens and confirms faith in the elect by the pronouncement of repentance (poenitentias) and forgiveness of sins in the name of Christ. Through gospel teaching, Christ is offered to us daily, clothed in the covenant of grace or the promise of the forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit,” (pp. 193-194).

Hence, for Olevian, sanctification (confidence in the gospel) is advanced through the preaching of the Gospel (p. 197). In the preaching of the gospel, the Holy Spirit not only creates, sustains and strengthens faith but also brings assurance to the believer. The proclamation of the gospel is “the antidote for doubts and fears,” (p. 197). Dr. Clark writes,

    “As one hears the gospel promises, the Holy Spirit illumines the believer’s heart, ‘that part of the soul illuminated by faith and regenerated’ and confirms to him that God has not withdrawn from him. Olevian called this ‘persuasion.’ The Spirit reminds one of God’s eternal oaths (‘de iurata aeterna’) and of his gracious mercy in Christ, that he is never angry with us. Through the preaching of the Word the part of the soul illuminated by faith is freed from the sense of any guilt,” (p. 197).

“…sanctification (confidence in the gospel) is advanced through the preaching of the Gospel…”

Olevian’s preaching of the Word (i.e., administering the covenant) consisted of two parts: law and gospel. Again, this is a very important lesson for pastors (as well as believers) to learn and follow.

First, Olevian taught that the law must be preached because “the law was designed to inflict ‘horrors of conscience’ (horrores conscientias) in the elect as a preparation for faith,” (pp. 194-195). This “conviction” is to be seen as an evidence of the internal work of the Holy Spirit who is ‘kindling the desire to reconcile oneself to God,’ (p. 197). In contrast, the reprobate experience nothing of this internal, convicting work of the Spirit (p. 197). Olevian contended (and rightfully so) that the Holy Spirit uses the preaching of the law to prepare the hearts of sinners for the offer of Christ in the gospel.

One important qualification is called for at this point. This “preparation for faith” must not be confused with preparationism, so prevalent within Evangelicalism today. Olevian, as Dr. Clark points out, “did not consider that a sinner could prepare himself for faith. Indeed, ‘men do not naturally believe in Christ,'” (p. 195). Olevian was careful to distinguish the law and the gospel. He made it clear that the law was powerless to deliver men from sin and that it was equally powerless to enable believers to obey God (pp. 195-196). This leads to the second aspect of Olevian’s preaching.

The gospel offer was the second part of Olevian’s preaching. The free promise of the gospel was to be offered to all men because it is through the preaching of the gospel that God creates faith in the elect (p. 196). The only way of salvation for sinners is through the preaching of the gospel for it is through the preaching of the gospel that the Holy Spirit efficaciously works to create and sustain faith.

One last important point to note is that Olevian emphasized that the preacher does not offer a half-Christ. In other words, Olevian insisted that the preacher must preach both justification and sanctification. Dr. Clark writes,

    “Through the gospel the Holy Spirit efficaciously creates faith, ‘by which we receive Christ offered with the eternal righteousness which he imputes to us.’ As one receives Christ and his imputed righteousness, one also receives the ‘Spirit of sanctification whom it is impossible to separate from Christ, who renews us to repentance which consists of the mortification of the old and the vivification of the new man.’ As Christ is not divided, neither can the two benefits be divided, though they may be distinguished for pedagogical purposes. The preacher must preach not only justification, but also sanctification: ‘a Gospel sermon consists of two parts: embracing the gracious remission of sins by faith and repentance,” (p. 196).

Once again, we would do well in following Olevian’s commitment to and pattern of preaching the Word.

I highly recommend Dr. Clark’s work on Caspar Olevianus not only because it epitomizes careful, academic prowess and scholarship, but also because it contains life-changing gospel truth, truth that is applicable and necessary for all generations to understand and embrace. It is a great gift to the church. Through reading it, you cannot help but to come out with a richer, fuller understanding of, as well as a more inspired commitment to study, live and preach the substance of the covenant.


5 Responses to Gospel-Driven Reading Recommendation: Caspar Olevian and the Substance of the Covenant

  1. Hi John,

    Many thanks for this! It’s great to see someone not only read the book but “get it.”



  2. Richard says:

    John, I found Dr. Clark’s lecture on his book, found here: http://christreformedinfo.squarespace.com/mp3s-and-real-audio-of-academy/
    given at Christ Reformed URC in Anaheim, a great benefit as an introduction to his book. It made me want to read more about Olevian.

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