Calvin and the Unity of the Biblical Covenants

August 01, 2016

by Peter Lillback

With the Reformation’s emphasis on Scripture, the covenant became an important theological concern in the Reformed tradition. Huldrych Zwingli, for example, emphasized the covenant with Abraham and identified Genesis 17 as the model of the relationship of the Christian with God. In 1534, Heinrich Bullinger wrote the first treatise in church history on the covenant: Of the One and Eternal Testament or Covenant of God. Bullinger argued that all of Scripture must be seen in light of the Abrahamic covenant in which God graciously offers himself to man, and in turn, demands that man “walk before him and be blameless.”

John Calvin also employed the covenant idea extensively. In various ways he can be considered the forerunner of covenant and federal theology. He made extensive use of the covenant idea in his Institutes (1559) and other writings in the following areas: the unity of the Old and New Testament, the mutuality and conditionality of the covenant, the benefits of salvation, the Christian life (law, prayer, repentance, assurance), predestination (predestination explains why the covenant works as it does), the Reformation of the church (the Roman Church has broken the covenant, and therefore may be and must be resisted), and the sacraments. Even an elementary form of the covenant of works appears in Calvin’s writings.

Students of Calvin further developed his thought and formulated the ideas of a prefall covenant of works and a pretemporal covenant of redemption. In 1562, Zacharias Ursinus (1534–83) spoke of a prefall covenant of law between God and Adam in the garden that demanded perfect obedience with the promise of life and threatened disobedience with the penalty of death. In 1585, Caspar Olevianus (1536–87) presented the idea of a pretemporal covenant between God the Father and God the Son for the salvation of man. The covenants of works and grace received creedal status in the Westminster Confession and Catechisms (1643–49).

Calvin’s understanding of the covenant in the Institutes must be placed in the broader context of Calvin’s understanding of the parties of the covenant in the Institutes themselves, as well as in terms of Calvin’s emphasis on the Abrahamic covenant.

The Uniformity of the Covenant

For Calvin, the parties of the covenant in the Institutes are Adam, Adam and Eve, Abel, Noah, Abraham, Abraham’s children, Jacob, Esau, Ishmael and Isaac, the patriarchs (fathers), Moses, Levi, Levitical priests, Israel (the Jews), David, prophets, Christ, the apostles and the prophets, the church, the church and kingdom, Christians, Rome, the papists, European nations, any people, all men adopted by God, believers, families, babies and children, the Lord’s servants, the holy generation, Gentiles or any people, spiritual sons or children, posterity, descendants, and successors, the elect, adult converts, infants of Israel and of Christians, the communicant, “Us,” that is, New Testament Christians, and those who keep the covenant.

Thus, for Calvin, the covenant encompasses the entire scope of salvation history.

First, Calvin insists on the unity and eternity of the covenant. He writes:

The covenant made with all the patriarchs is so much like ours in substance and reality that the two are actually one and the same. Yet they differ in the mode of dispensation.

The spiritual covenant was also common to the patriarchs. . . . Adam, Abel, Noah, Abraham, and other spiritual patriarchs cleaved to God by such illumination of the Word.

Similarly, Calvin describes the covenant as “one and eternal.” The covenant is “everlasting” or “eternal,” “forever inviolable,” “firm and inviolable,” and “still in force.” It has been established “once and for all” and “keeps itself alive by its own strength.”

Second, Calvin explains the differences between the various biblical covenants in terms of progressive revelation:

The Lord held to this orderly plan in administering the covenant of his mercy: as the day of full revelation approached with the passing of time, the more he increased each day the brightness of its manifestation. Accordingly, at the beginning when the first promise of salvation was given to Adam it glowed like a feeble spark. Then, as it was added to, the light grew in fullness, breaking forth increasingly and shedding its radiance more widely. At last—when all the clouds were dispersed—Christ, the Sun of Righteousness, fully illumined the whole earth.

Third, Calvin sees the covenant with Abraham as the actual establishment of God’s covenant. Calvin states, “For what else does he [Moses] do but call them back to the covenant begun with Abraham?” Calvin believes that the covenant was in existence before Abraham. Yet, in a very real sense, the covenant’s formal establishment was with Abraham in the words of Genesis 17. Here one may observe the harmony between Calvin’s Institutes and Bullinger’s Of the One and Eternal Testament or Covenant of God.

The Abrahamic Covenant in the Institutes

Given Zwingli’s and Bullinger’s view of the centrality of the Abrahamic covenant, it is significant to see Calvin’s full support for this perspective. There appear to be five aspects of the Abrahamic covenant that are emphasized by Calvin in the Institutes that are also in harmony with the covenantal theology of the Reformers of Zurich.

First, the covenant is the divine means of separating the world into those who are believers in Christ and those who are not. Calvin asserts:

My readers therefore should remember that I am not yet going to discuss that covenant by which God adopted to himself the sons of Abraham, or that part of doctrine which has always separated believers from unbelieving folk, for it was founded in Christ.

I do not yet touch upon the special covenant by which he distinguished the race of Abraham from the rest of the nations. For, even then in receiving by free adoption as sons those who were enemies, he showed himself to be their Redeemer.

Second, the Abrahamic covenant is the source of salvation for Israel, as they are the offspring of Abraham. Calvin avers:

He [Jacob] knows that the complete blessedness of his posterity consists in the inheritance of the covenant that God had made with him [Abraham].

Inasmuch as the covenant made with Abraham applies to his descendants, Christ, to perform and discharge the pledge made once for all by his Father, came for the salvation of the Jewish nation.

Third, the Abrahamic covenant is still in force for Christians as well. Calvin declares:

Indeed, it is most evident that the covenant which the Lord once made with Abraham is no less in force today for Christians than it was of old for the Jewish people.

Fourth, Calvin affirms the Christ-centeredness of the Abrahamic covenant for all nations:

For even if God included all of Abraham’s offspring in His covenant, Paul nevertheless wisely reasons that Christ was properly that seed in whom all the nations were to be blessed.

Fifth, there are two great redemptive benefits contained in the Abrahamic covenant, namely, justification and sanctification:

Abraham’s circumcision was not for his justification, but for the seal of that covenant of faith in which he had already been justified.

The Lord covenants with Abraham that he should walk before him in righteousness and innocence of heart. This applies to mortification, or regeneration.

Thus for Calvin, the entire sweep of the history of redemption is covenantal and finds its center in the Abrahamic covenant as fulfilled in the incarnation and saving work of Jesus Christ.

This post was adapted from Peter Lillback, “Calvin’s Interpretation of the History of Salvation,” A Theological Guide to Calvin’s Institutes (P&R, 2008), 168–70 and 180–84. Used with permission of the publisher.

Peter Lillback

Dr. Lillback (PhD, Westminster) is president and professor of historical theology.

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