Election and Covenant
(Adapted with permission of the author from :
Herz, Peter J. 2001. Covenant to Constitutionalism. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Department of Political Science, Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, Illinois.)
By Cephas Harte
Both popular and scholarly minds correctly associate Reformed theology or “Calvinism” with belief in a predestining decree of God covering all events, not least of which are the salvation or reprobation of human beings. Although predestination was not the only concern of Reformed doctrine and piety, it appears in all the Reformed confessions from Zwingli to the Westminster Confession and Catechisms (1647).
But the Reformed were not the only ones to wrestle with the problem; nor is predestination the only distinctive of the Reformed faith. Whatever later Rabbinic Judaism may have believed, Josephus’ Antiquities of the Jews testifies that its Pharisaic forebears accepted a predestinarian doctrine during the first century A.D., perhaps providing the background to certain statements found in the New Testament, especially in John, Paul, and Peter. In the early church, Augustine of Hippo preached a predestinarian doctrine, whose emphases the Roman church condemned when reiterated in the 9th century by Gottschalk; in the 16th by the reformers; and in the 17th by the Jansenists. In Protestantism, statements in Martin Luther’s Bondage of the Will and Lectures on Romans are as forcefully predestinarian as anything in Calvin, the Dutch anti-Remonstrants, or English Puritans. Islam also possesses a doctrine of divine determinism. One may even find in the various scientific determinisms of the 19th and 20th centuries a quest for a new deity to replace the one whom Nietzsche declared dead.
Humanists such as John Colet in England and Desiderius Erasmus in the Netherlands bequeathed to Reformed theology a Biblicism which sought to ground all religious doctrine and practice in the Scriptures—the most ancient source of Christian theology. From their earnest reading of the Scriptures, the Reformed theologians derived their predestinarian doctrine. Numerous points in the Old and New Testament teach predestinarian doctrines either openly or hint at it through confession of the omnipotence and eternality of God. The Reformed thus became predestinarian not out of the sudden insight of Calvin, but by the same biblical route whereby ancient Pharisees, Augustine, Gottschalk, and Luther discovered the same doctrine. It was further reinforced by the Augustinianism which pervades the thought of all the major 16th century Reformers.
Predestinarian doctrine is associated with the name of Jean Calvin chiefly because his was the chief systematic exposition and defense of the doctrine during the 16th century. However, Calvin’s systematic works exhibit a wide range of topics, ranging from the nature of God, epistemology, soteriology, and ethics. Nor can his exposition and defense of the doctrine of predestination obscure the fact that earlier Swiss reformers such as Zwingli, Bullinger, and Bucer, accepted and taught predestinarian doctrine. Calvin himself did not deal with it in his earliest edition of the Institutes of the Christian Religion (1534), adding sections on the doctrine in later editions following attacks on predestination by Bolsec and Costellio. It should be noted as well that the Lutheran churches did not distance themselves from predestinarian doctrine until some time after Luther’s death.
In Reformed theology, predestination is not so much the central doctrine as an outgrowth of the central insight that God rules, governs, and stands as the ultimate cause and source of all things. It confesses that no event lies beyond God’s purview, that the divine will determines all things, that nothing takes God by surprise, and that God is thus in no way indebted or beholden to his creatures. But the Reformed doctrine of divine sovereignty does not dispute the presence of secondary causes and providential means whereby God brings his decrees to pass, for the Reformed theologians between Zwingli and Witsius were all too careful students of Scripture to do otherwise. The Westminster Confession, prominent among the confessions chiefly because its late date allowed it to summazie and distill a century’s worth of theological argument and reflection preceding it, states:
God, from all eternity did by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will freely and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass: yet so as thereby neither is God the author of sin, nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures; nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established. (Westminster Confession, 1647: III:1).
Such ideas were not original to the Westminster divines, neither do they represent a Hegelian synthesis of a Reformed predestinarian thesis and an Arminian or Socianian anti-predestinarian antithesis. Calvin (1560) and the Dutch anti-Remonstrants who produced the Canons of Dort (1618-19) offer a similar, if less pithy, doctrine, while similar trains of thought probably can be discovered in Bullinger by comparison of the Second Helvetic Confession and his A Brief Exposition of the One Eternal Testament or Covenant of God.
Despite the statements of modern writers such as Daniel Elazar in his Covenant and Commonwealth, the Reformed doctrines of election and covenant are not mutually exclusive; nor is “covenantalism” an anodyne to “predestinarianism”. Rather, the two ideas are coeval in Reformed theology. Indeed, the later editions of Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion which include his classic defense of predestination represent a near-summa of Reformed doctrine, in which all key elements of Reformed theology come into play, whether soteriology, theology proper, ethics, ecclesiology, epistemology, or even ideas on civil government.
CLEARING UP SOME MODERN MISUNDERSTANDINGS
The confession of both a divine decree predestining “whatsoever cometh to pass” and the liberty and contingency of secondary causes operating within the confines of the divine decree permit a clear understanding of the place of covenant theology in classical Reformed doctrine. The covenant stands as the means whereby God’s decree to save his elect moves from eternity into the conditioned, temporally-bound world of his creatures; not an attempt to retreat from or “soften” predestinarian doctrine. Perry Miller writes:
Here, then, is the task which seventeenth-century Calvinists faced: the task of bringing God to time and to reason, of justifying His ways to man in conceptions meaningful to the intellect, of caging and confining the transcendent Force, the inexpressible and unfathomable Being, by the laws of ethics, an of doing this somehow without losing the sense of the hidden God, without reducing the Divinity to a mechanism...(1964:56).
Miller is correct if his meaning is that Reformed minds from Zwingli on wrestled with the relationship of God’s transcendence to the revelation of the means of salvation. But none should suppose that Calvin or anyone else first presented the high mysteries of predestination and the eternal decrees of God, then left his successors to wrestle with reconciling the predestinarianism found in the Scriptures with the ethical demands of divine law found in the same Scriptures. Calvin’s consideration of predestination is always linked closely to the work of Christ in winning salvation for his people, which, in turn, was interpreted in terms of satisfaction of the demands of divine justice. Nor is it possible to doubt that Calvin ignored ethics, for his exposition of the Decalogue, concern for the practical organization of the church, and the meaning of the civil magistracy and government show that ethics loomed large as an element of his thought, just as it did for the practical divinity of the Puritans and others who lived in the post-Calvin era of Reformed orthodoxy.
Modern social scientists are correct to identify covenant theology, with its understanding of treaty formation between God and man, as an important influence on political and jurisprudential theory. Yet, once again, a major misperception clouds the view of such authors as Malcolm MacKinnon, Daniel Elazar, and others. Given the scope of Elazar’s The Covenant Tradition in Politics (1996), his understanding of Reformed covenantalism requires special attention:
There is a paradoxical element here. Covenant theology as it spread throughout the world in its Calvinist form emphasized predestination, that is to say, God’s a priori decision as to who was saved and who was not, based upon his granting of His grace to certain humans--the greatest possible contradiction to the idea of liberty. Later covenant theologians who appreciated the relationship between religion and liberty as much as the doctrine of predestination would grapple with this paradox and attempt to reconcile the contradiction inherent in it. Regardless of how well they succeeded intellectually, it is a historical fact that those groups that accepted the covenant theology and made it the cornerstone of their faith were also the groups that became committed earliest to human liberty and contributed to its advancement. (1996:II:151).
Elazar carries the bifurcation of Reformed theology into predestinarian and covenantal traditions a step further when he speaks of the predestinarianism of Calvin, Dort, and Westminster as a “deviation” in Reformed theology. Yet this is possible only if much in the earlier Reformed theologians, Calvin, and the Puritans is ignored.
Bullinger, identified as the long-lived patriarch of the covenantal “alternative” to Calvinist predestinarianism, was a colleague and collaborator with Calvin and de Bèze as well as with Zwingli and Oecolampadius. The Second Helvetic Confession (1565), which Bullinger helped frame, affirms predestination:
From eternity God has freely, and of his mere grace, without any respect to men, predestinated or elected the saints whom he wills to save in Christ, according to the saying of the apostle, “God chose us in him before the foundation of the world” (Eph. 1:4)...(Cochrane 1966:240).
Bullinger not only speaks of covenantal themes in A Brief Exposition of the One Eternal Testament or Covenant of God (1534), but also echoes covenantal themes of promise, fulfillment, and the essential unity of the Old and new Testaments in the Second Helvetic Confession’s treatment of the law of God (ch. XII), the promises concerning Christ (ch. XIII), and elsewhere. A third is that the Canons of Dordt, which specifically dealt with the question of predestination in the salvation of men, also incidentally affirm covenantalism in passim (I:17).
Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion do not include a chapter expounding covenant theology per se, yet the essential emphases of what later historical theology would identify as covenant theology are present. Chapters x-xii of Book II of the Institutes discuss the essential unity of God’s purposes under the Old and New Testaments, and insist on the Israelites of old being heirs to the promise of eternal life and justified by faith rather than works as much as those who live after the coming of Christ. His discussion of the sacraments and defense of infant baptism (1560:IV,xiv-xv), like that of Zwingli before him, also makes much of God’s covenant with his people. By the same token, Zwingli’s Commentary on True and False Religion (1525) uses predestination as a means to underscore the unearned character of divine grace. Hence, Elazar’s view of Calvin as “deviating” from the earlier Swiss Reformers is seriously misleading to any social science student intent on examining the impact of covenantal theology on political modernity.
Most significantly, the Westminster Confession and Catechisms, promulgated in 1647 to provide a unified system of doctrine for the temporarily triumphant Presbyterians of Scotland, England, and Ireland, the ecclesiology of which was modified by the English Independents and New England Congregationalists, clearly teaches both the high predestinarianism of Dort and the covenantalism which had been developing in Reformed circles since the time of Zwingli. It is politically significant for English-speaking people in that it represents the consensus of Scottish Covenanters and their English allies. Samuel Rutherford, the political theorist of Covenanting Scotland, contributed to the documents as one of the Scottish commissioners to the Westminster assembly.
For the Westminster divines, the theological function of the covenant is as follows:
The distance between God and the creature is so great that although reasonable creatures [i.e., human beings--PJH} do owe obedience unto him as their Creator, yet they could never have any fruition of him, as their blessedness and reward, but by some voluntary condescension on God’s part, which he hath been pleased to express by way of covenant (VII:1).
They further distill roughly a century of theologizing to identify two covenants between God and man:
The first covenant made with man was a covenant of works, whereby life was promised to Adam, and in him to his posterity, upon condition of perfect and personal obedience (VII:2)
Man, by his fall, having made himself incapable of life by that covenant, the Lord was pleased to make a second, commonly called the covenant of grace: wherein he freely offereth unto sinners life and salvation by Jesus Christ, requiring of them faith in him, that they may be save, and promising to give unto all those that are ordained unto life his Holy Spirit, to make them willing and able to believe. (VII:3)
Covenant as divine condescension rather than diminishment of divine sovereignty is also found in Heinrich Bullinger. But the Swiss reformer also speaks of the gracious basis of the covenant, indicating a closer kinship with his heirs in Geneva, Dordt, and Westminster than seems allowable by the school of interpretation which Elazar has chosen to follow:
The point is that the very God who has graciously designed to call this mystery of the unity and fellowship with the divine by a human expression has at the same time followed human custom, on account of the weakness of our nature, in making the covenant or instituting the testament (Bullinger 1534:103)
The ineffable mercy and divine grace of the eternal God are proven, first, in that God offers this covenant not in any way because of the merits of humans but rather out of the sheer goodness which is God’s nature...This indisputably is the origin of our religion and its primary point: we are saved solely through the goodness and mercy of God. (Bullinger 1534:104-05).
Bullinger, the founder of covenantal theology, is no less a proponent of the sola gratia doctrine than Calvin, Beza, the Dutch anti-Remonstrants, and Westminster divines. He, and the rest of the German-speaking Swiss reformation, can be seen as positing a synergistic salvation against the monergism of later Calvinism only if important parts of the latter’s covenantalism and teaching on secondary causes are ignored, along with the sola gratia elements in Bullinger’s own thought. Yet the sources themselves show that this isnot a possible reading.
Bullinger’s Brief Exposition of the One and Eternal Testament or Covenant of God (1534) also speaks at length about the divine covenant as a testament, designating the redeemed as heirs of God’s promises, illustrating largely by appeal to definitions of terms given in Ulpian. The death which permits the testament to take effect is, of course, that of Jesus Christ on the cross. This discussion ties together Bullinger’s broad education in both Roman law and humanistic studies in classical and biblical languages.
Perhaps a final statement of the inequality of the parties to the covenant in classical Reformed covenantalism can be found in the Swiss theologian Johannes Wollebius (1586-1629):
The form of the covenant consists of mutual obligation, but relations between unequals; the promise and obligation of God is free, whereas that of man is a debt and requirement (Beardslee 1965:118).
Thus, the Reformed concept of covenant did not posit God and man treating as equals, but retained a healthy respect for the sovereignty of God. It is one thing for God to condescend to man, quite another for him to lay aside his omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence, and infinity in his dealings with his human creatures, and it is evident that the early Reformed theologians meant no such thing in their framing a theology of the covenant . A careless reading of Perry Miller or Heinrich Heppe should not be allowed to obscure this from the social scientist seeking connections between covenantalism and the rule of law.
THE COVENANTS OF WORKS AND GRACE AND THEIR RELATION TO DIVINE LAW
The correct insight of Elazar’s work is that the early Reformed saw God as governing his rational creation by means of a legal framework, namely, the covenant. Existentialist theologians and post-modern critics of Reformed orthodoxy are quick to point out that Bullinger, Calvin, and the Westminster divines freely drew on the definitions and categories of Roman law at numerous points, and use this to justify the critics’ own dependence on modern extra-biblical philosophies. Yet it may also be that backgrounds in Roman law sensitized the refomers and their disciples to the covenantalism and legal categories of Scripture. It is thus an open--and perhaps insoluable--question whether the early Reformed churches perpetuated the African fathers’ making Western theology captive to Roman law, or whether Roman law provided a handy set of tools which helped make the biblical Gospel intelligible in the cities of both the 4th century Maghreb and those of the 16th century Rhine basin. Either way, the Reformed retained the use of foedera or foedus to translate the Hebrew b’rit, and then made the concept an important part of their systematic theology and catechetical instruction.
The covenant of works made with Adam involved obedience to an eternal, unchanging moral law. In the state of innocency, Adam had both freedom and ability to observe it; but this natural law is not completely lost even after the fall:
...that inward law...written, even engraved upon the hearts of all, in a sense asserts the very same things that are to be learned from the two Tables. For our conscience does not allow us to sleep a perpetual insensible sleep without being an inner witness and monitor of what we owe God, without holding before us the difference between good and evil and thus accusing us when we fail in our duty. (Calvin 1560:II:viii:1)
The moral law was understood as the Decalogue of Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5, and could further be summarized in the commands to love God and neighbor (Deuteronomy 6:6, Leviticus 19:8, Matthew 22:37-40). Adam, by his fall into sin, lost the ability to keep this law, although the law lost none of its power to condemn man for his dereliction of duty, especially since the engraving of the moral law on the heart of man remains (Calvin 1540:47-49).
In Reformed divinity, divine law has three major uses. One is a political use, to restrain sin in both believers and unbelievers. This, among other things, justified the existence of political or civil society and the lawfulness of the callings of magistrate or soldier for the Christian. The second was an elenchtic use, whereby the law exposes sin, shames unbelievers, and demonstrates man’s need of redemption. The final use was as a “rule of walking” in Puritan parlance--close to the meaning of the Hebrew halakhah--whereby believers followed the moral law out of gratitude to God for salvation and in pursuit of progress in sanctification.
The work of Christ in salvation and the sinner’s acceptance by God are also understood in terms of the divine attribute of justice--a concept in which Western theologians and jurists educated each other throughout the Christian centuries. In a nutshell, sin is understood as transgresion of or want of conformity to the Law of God, while the penalty due transgression against the holy law of God is God’s wrath and curse, both in this life and that which is to come (Westminster Shorter Catechism QA84). The death of Christ is understood as follows:
The Lord Jesus by his perfect obedience and sacrifice of himself, which through the eternal Spirit once offered up unto God, hath fully satisfied the justice of his Father; and purchased not only reconciliation, but an everlasting inheritance in the Kingdom of Heaven, for all those whom the Father hath given unto him
Although the work of redemption was not actually wrought by Christ till after his incarnation, yet the virtue, efficacy, and benefits thereof were communicated unto the elect, in all ages successively from the beginning of the world, in and by those promises, types, and sacrifices wherein he was revealed and signified to be the seed of the woman which should bruise the serpent’s head, and the Lamb slain from the beginning of the world, being yesterday and today the same, and forever (WCF VIII:5, 6).
The Reformed shared with the Lutherans the doctrine of justification by faith alone, in which justification was understood not as a process, but as a verdict of divine justice:
Those whom God effectually calleth, he also freely justifieth: not by infusing righteousness into them, but by pardoning their sins, and by accounting and accepting their persons as righteous; nor by imputing faith itself, the act of believing, or any other evangelical obedience to them, as their righteousness, but by imputing the obedience and satisfaction of Christ unto them, they receiving and resting on him and his righteousness by faith; which they have not of themselves: it is the gift of God (WCF XI:1).
Why do you say that you are righteous by faith alone? Not because I please God by virtue of the worthiness of my faith, but because the satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ alone are my righteousness before God, and because I can accept it and make it mine in no other way than by faith alone (Heidelberg Catechism QA 61).
It should be noted that statements against the infusion of grace as justification are aimed at the doctrines of the Roman Catholic Council of Trent (1524), while statements against the act of belief or evangelical obedience as the ground of justification are aimed at Socinians, certain Anabaptists, and later (in Westminster’s case) against the Arminians--including both the original Dutch Remonstrants and the Arminianizing followers of Archbishop Laud. While justification is by faith alone, it is never alone among the gifts and graces of God. It is preceded by regeneration, whereby a human person is enabled to believe, and followed by a process of sanctification, in which the believer grows in grace, understood as manifested in such good works as are enjoined in the moral law. Although the Reformed understood that believers in Christ were freed from the curses of the law, their failure to obey the moral law could result in temporal manifestations of divine displeasure. The purpose of the church was understood as proclaiming the good news of salvation, and aiding the believing community in its pursuit of sanctification.
Thus, the Reformed theologians understood the work of Christ as one of satisfying the demands of the moral law, including its blessings and penalties. The language used is perhaps the clearest example of the mutual interpenetration of theology and law throughout the centuries following Tertullian. The Reformed thinkers understood that one justified was declared righteous in terms of the divine law, and that Christ’s obedience offered on behalf of the elect was performed in terms of that divine law. This was the Reformed approach to the question of justification—that is, the question of how man might be just before God (cf. Job 9:2).
Divine law, found in Scripture, was also divided into three types. The moral law was understood as representing the eternal standard of right. But in addition to this, the Reformed theologians held that Old Testament law also contained ceremonial statutes and civil statutes applicable only as long as the Israelite cult and commonwealth stood. The ceremonies, including circumcision, the Passover, the tabernacle, and the various sacrifices enjoined by Moses, were given to show forth the benefits which would later be given through Christ’s work of redemption. These were abrogated in the coming of Christ (WCF XIX:3). The judicial or civil laws of the Old Testament bind no “further than the general equity thereof require” (WCF XIX:4). Hence, the notion that the Reformed Commonwealths of Geneva, Scotland, England, and New England simply borrowed wholesale the Mosaic legislation does justice to neither Old Testament law nor the nuances of Reformed thought on the nature of divine law. To be sure, certain reforms may have been enacted according to the community’s understanding of the general equity of the Old Testament civil law, but in general, Reformed dominance left largely intact the English Common Law and the Roman law systems of the states which adopted the Reformed creed.
Twentieth century political scientists who have seen in covenant theology an important contribution to the rise of constitutionalist liberalism are not wrong, but it is important to note that covenantal theology neither exalted the powers of man nor diminished the powers and full sovereignty of God. While it posited the divine government of creation as imposing a legal framework on the relationship of God and man, the divine law was understood as reflective of the attributes and being of God rather than being extraneous to him, for justice, goodness, and truth, essential elements of any legal system, were seen among the attributes of God in which redeemed man may share (Westminster Shorter Catechism 1647:QA4). While the Reformed system of theology did not liberate either man the sinner or redeemed man to treat with God as an equal, it did struggle mightily to remind all men, including those holding the levers of power, of both their ontological and legal limits before God.
The Reformed concepts of covenant and election are by no means antithetical. Election speaks of an eternal, Trinitarian purpose to redeem a portion of fallen, sinful humanity; covenant refers to the way this divine purpose works itself out.
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