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The Binding of God


(This book review will appear in the Canadian Evangelical Review, Spring 2001)

The Binding of God: Calvin’s Role in the Development of Covenant Theology by Peter A. Lillback. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2001. Paperback Pp.331.


This book is the latest in a series (of seven so far), “Texts and Studies in Reformation and Post-Reformation Thought.” According to editor Richard Muller (Calvin Theological Seminary) the series aims at filling in gaps in our knowledge of the intellectual development of Protestantism in the sixteenth century and at addressing myths concerning Protestant orthodoxy of the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Lillback affirms his book to be the first to provide a taxonomy of assorted views of Calvin’s covenant theology, and the first to provide a complete summation of it. He probes the role of the covenant in Calvin’s theology with a view to assessing the extent to which Calvin’s thought in this regard underlies the preoccupation with the covenant found in later Protestant Scholasticism and the latter’s characteristic use of it. His conclusion is that “Calvin’s hemeneutical application of the covenant is central to his entire system.” As expected, Lillback upholds substantial continuity between Reformers and Protestant Scholastics and disagrees most strongly with Calvin scholars (e.g., T.F. Torrance) who find Scholastic thought a declension from the Genevan’s.

Lillback divides his book into two major sections: “The Genesis of Covenant Teaching: The Conception of the Covenant in Calvin’s Historical Context” and “The Genius of Calvin’s Covenant Thought.”

In the first section Lillback discusses mediaeval covenant motifs, contrasting the stream of Augustine and Staupitz (the Reformed Augustinian Superior whose advice, “Contemplate the wounds of Christ”, enlightened a young Luther perplexed over predestination) with those of the Gabriel Biel’s nominalism and Tauler’s mysticism. While the Augustinians repudiated the notion of merit, the nominalists deployed it thoroughly in their finessing of “congruent” and “condign” with respect to the covenant, even as the mystics insisted on a “natural covenant” that presupposed an ontological structure to humankind which gave it an inalienable spiritual connection to its Creator and a natural capacity to turn to God.

The early Luther’s search for a gracious God edged him away from a merit scheme, and by 1517 the Wittenberger had shed all mediaeval vestige of the covenant as binding God to reward humankind for its having prepared for grace. Luther’s characteristic notion followed immediately: God’s saving promise as the core of the covenant rather than human responsbility. Luther’s conviction here underlies his bifurcation of law and gospel, the covenant pertaining to the latter alone: “alien” righteousness is God’s gift as promised to believers, law lacking any intrinsic relation to the gospel.

As the Reformation gained force in Switzerland the Reformed there, like Oecolampadius, maintained that Christians are found in the same covenant as Israel. Zwingli too insisted on the continuity of the covenants throughout scripture, establishing therein the Reformed conviction that infant baptism is rooted in, and is to be understood in light of, Israel’s practice of circumcision. Zwingli maintained that the ordinances do not confirm faith (nothing external can do this) but instead signify the covenant. Lillback sees Zwingli’s struggle with the Anabaptists and the latter’s denial of covenant-continuity as a watershed: the inception of covenant consciousness in Reformed thought.
In 1527 Bullinger, another Swiss Reformer, penned the first study of the covenant to be produced in the church. It affirmed the covenant to be the “chief point of religion.” All of scripture is to be referred to Genesis 17 (God’s covenant with Abram.) At this point there appeared what has never disappeared from Reformed thought, the conviction that there is ultimately one covenant only that God has forged with Abraham and his Christian descendants, “old” and “new” pertaining merely to modes of administration. In the same vein Calvin’s use of the covenant permeates his discussion of all theological topics, even as Lillback admits that the covenant doesn’t provide the organizational structure for the Institutes.

For Calvin the essence of covenant is the mutual binding of God and people. With respect to God the covenant is unconditional; with respect to the people, conditional upon their obedience. The Abrahamic covenant, operative today, distinguishes believers from unbelievers. Jesus Christ is its “heart”, while justification and sanctification are its two “great benefits.”

Certain to prove controversial, concerning the obedience of believers, is Lillback’s discussion of the form of “works” righteousness that he says appears in Calvin. Calvin scholars have long noted the concept of “double justification” in Calvin whereby believers together with their sin-riddled works are acceptable to God only insofar as grace justifies both them and what they offer. Lillback speaks at length of a “works” righteousness that stands before God, albeit as a “subordinate” righteousness to justification. Here he affirms a contradiction between Calvin and Luther, since the latter “could not see any righteousness in any human action before a holy God.” In the same way Lillback’s pronouncement, “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”, will provoke discussion among Reformation scholars.

Lillback’s discussion of Calvin’s use of the Scholastics’ “Covenant of Acceptance” will prove no less controversial. He maintains that both Calvin and mediaeval scholastics agree that good works are acceptable to God only by a covenant; they disagree insofar as the scholastics understand works to be covenant-graced so as to merit salvation. Lillback adds, “Calvin admits that he is indebted to them.” Again, many Reformation scholars will ask if Calvin didn’t repudiate them.

Lillback expounds with approval elements in Calvin that other scholars find tangential, contradictory, or “surd.” One such is the distinction between the scope of covenant and election, the former being wider than the latter. He maintains that covenant is the means whereby God administers salvation, whereas only the elect are saved. “General election” or covenant, the same as “common adoption”, must be ratified by “special election” before anyone is rendered a beneficiary. Again, what Lillback uncritically expounds, other Calvin scholars have found to be highly problematic.

The question of whether there is a covenant of works in Calvin’s theology is a major consideration in the book. Lillback admits that Calvin never used the expression; this is not to deny he used the concept. Still, Lillback’s thesis here appears less substantial as he argues that there are concepts in the Institutes that are “conducive” to the notion of a pre-fall covenant, which covenant “appears warranted” to be called a covenant of works, since this is how it “functions.” He admits Calvin’s exposition here to be merely “rudimentary and inchoative”, yet it “seems in certain ways to adumbrate the covenant of works of the federalists.”

Readers may suspect special pleading here, particularly when Lillback deploys arguments of “lesser and greater grace” in Calvin to distinguish between a prelapsarian covenant and the covenant of law, and then concludes sweepingly that “Calvin’s system can be presented as a series of lessers to greaters.”

There remains another reading of Calvin. When Lillback, for instance, insists that for Calvin the covenant “contains” Christ and has Christ as its “foundation”, readers will want to ask whether Christ illustrates and/or instantiates a covenant lying behind him or is himself the covenant. Would not Calvin’s Christology, particularly his understanding of the Mediator, entail as much? Did not Oecolampadius imply this when he insisted that God first makes a covenant with Christ, which covenant God fulfills for his people in Christ?

Lillback’s book does much to advance the conversation among those who uphold either convergence or divergence with respect to Calvin and post-Calvin Scholasticism. The conversation, however, has by no means been concluded.

Victor Shepherd    November 2001