Tracing the Roots of a Denomination

A Critique of Paul Larsen’s The Mission of a Covenant

by Michael Hardin

If there is one thing we know about the modern world, it is this: what we know is always changing. As access to information increases, and as disciplines become more specialized, our general theories and paradigms are put to the acid test more frequently than we would like. The theories of history have been tested by more vigorous discipline. Newer, comparative methods of research have uncovered what historians of earlier periods could not have dreamed possible. The sources already available have not changed, but the integration of disciplines has brought about a change in our understanding of the sources.

Leading up to the publication of The Mission of a Covenant in 1985, Paul Larsen, now President of the Evangelical Covenant Church, sought to discern the historical roots and future directions of the Covenant. Larsen was commissioned by the Centennial Commission of the Covenant Church to write The Mission of a Covenant (hereafter Mission).1

The thesis of the book is simple and straightforward. The denominational name Covenant and the use of the term covenant in “federal” or “covenant” theology go hand in hand (Mission: 18). Larsen argues that covenants are interchangeable with contracts and that the conventicle is a “contracted group.” At the heart of the Reformed understanding of covenant lies the idea of acceptance rather than the idea of assurance which, I submit, is the underlying understanding that informed the Covenant forebears and must inform us now.

It is from the fountain of Reformed Orthodoxy Larsen argues, rather than from Lutheran theology, that the Covenant draws its inspiration. He quotes with partial approval Karl Olsson’s understanding of the term “covenant” in By One Spirit (p. 3), then suggests that Olsson has misunderstood the fine distinctions within post-Reformation churches regarding “covenant” (Mission: 23). It is to Calvinism that we must turn, he argues, to discern the biblical meaning of covenant.

In a work as broadly conceived as President Larsen’s, a critique must be to the point. The critique is three-fold: 1) that the relationship between the Reformers, particularly John Calvin (1509-1564), and later Calvinism has been misunderstood, 2) that conclusions have been drawn from false historical premises, and 3) that the roots of the Covenant must be discerned elsewhere than where Mission suggests.

Let us begin our exploration by looking at the working definition of a covenant in Mission. Larsen states that “a covenant requires an agreement between two parties, even if they are unequal (Mission: 19).” His argument with Karl Olsson is about the definition of covenant. In By One Spirit, Olsson, in defining covenant, specifically points out that “the meaning of the term covenant was not contract” (p. 3). Larsen argues that we should understand covenant as contract, an understanding he says has its ground in the Old and New Testaments.

Larsen’s next step, then, is an attempt to explicate his theology of the covenant from biblical sources. He cites the works of Walter Eichrodt and Karl Barth to support his contention that covenant is a central term in the Bible.2

The understanding of covenant developed is, in turn, grounded in George Mendenhall’s 1957 essay on the structures of ancient near-Eastern covenants. Following Mendenhall, Larsen suggests that covenants are bilateral, consisting of mutual obligations. This is asserted even in relation to God so that he can say “our role in salvation is simply our acceptance of God’s saving words and acts” (Mission: 35, emphasis mine) and that, in a covenant, “there are objective commitments and obligations forming an ordered relationship” (Mission: 41).3

This notion of covenant finds its chief expression in the writings of the Puritan, John Flavel, who argues that it is not assent nor assurance but rather acceptance that is true faith in Christ (Mission: 43).

The point of our critique thus far is to establish that Mission fails to distinguish properly a covenant from a contract and ends up producing a contractual theology, not a covenantal theology. Though Larsen’s work seems to be biblical, it is heavily influenced by Reformed theological presuppositions, as will be shown.

We agree that whatever definition we give to covenant, the term has profound social and political ramifications. The book points up the merits of seeing these implications through the lens of contract theory. However, is this contract theory, I wonder, the basis for a true understanding of our denomination’s covenantal heritage?

Larsen is correct to observe that covenants play a major role in the Bible (Mission: 26f). Covenant (diatheke) is a significant word in the Septuagint. There are the covenants made with Abraham, Moses, and David. Various kings made covenants. There is the covenant of Jeremiah 31:31ff, and later, utilizing Septuagint terminology, Jesus is described as the mediator of a new covenant.

However, in the Old Testament there is a difference between covenants and contracts. The Septuagint writers did not use the term suntheke, contract, to translate the Hebrew berith, but chose the more uncommon diatheke. This is because a covenant is unilateral, whereas a contract is bilateral. The apostle Paul saw this more clearly than any other biblical writer. The nature of biblical covenantalism permeates his letters to Rome and Galatia. As the Apostle was a Pharisaic Jew, one would expect him to adopt the Old Testament understanding of covenant as it had been interpreted by his contemporaries. It is precisely this that he does not do.

In examining Paul and Rabbinic Judaism comparatively, one observes several similarities. But, the differences are more significant. First, the similarities. Ed Sanders in his book, Paul and Palestinian Judaism, points out a number of similarities between Paul and Rabbinic thought. The first three similarities he identifies are:

  1. Judaism is a religion of grace. Israel is the elect people of God. God gives his promises in grace to Abraham, Moses, and others.
  2. God spells out the obligations of grace in commandments that demand unconditional obedience.
  3. There are consequences for those who obey as well as those who disobey. He rewards those who obey; he judges the transgressors.

At this point, however, there is a sharp division between Paul and Rabbinic Judaism. Rabbinic Judaism had argued that if there is a transgression, one must perform acts of penitence and acts of atonement. This is covenantal legalism in which one endeavors to keep the law as though one could in the power of the flesh. For the Apostle Paul, one turns to Christ who fulfills the conditions and obligations of the law for us.4

This promeity (for me-ness) is central to the biblical definition of a covenant. It suggests that God not only makes covenants but also takes responsibility to keep both sides of a covenant! God in Christ has made the eternal covenant and has, in Christ, kept that covenant on our behalf. The biblical covenant is thus unconditional. It is not predicated upon anything that we might do. One can see this understanding of promeity attached by Jesus to the cup when, at the Last Supper, he calls it a “new covenant for you.” It is an act of God “for you.” It is done on our behalf when we could and would do nothing to effect our salvation (Romans 5:6-8). Mission comes close to an incipient Pelagianism (believing that our works help earn our salvation) when it contends that acceptance is integral to the covenant.5

For the Reformers, salvation is sola gratia, solus Christus. Though this is noted in Mission (30), it is in reference to “our role in salvation (35).” This suggests that salvation is a contract in which our part is “acceptance.” This model, that all are lost in Christ except those who believe, i.e., those who accept the consideration of the contract offered by God, is the model of much Protestant Orthodoxy (traceable to Augustine) but is not the biblical model in which “all are saved in Christ except those who reject Him.”6

Hearkening back to the gospel in this way is what stands behind the Reformation sola gratia and solus Christus. Calvin and Luther saw that the gospel is completely unconditional. The covenant of God is an unconditional covenant. In this respect a covenant is not a contract.

What is a covenant (the Latin word is foedus)? No one word adequately describes it. Theologically, as we have seen, a covenant is a promise binding two parties together unconditionally. The notion of promise is crucial to covenant. It is the promeity (for me-ness) of the covenant. According to James Torrance, in 1549 the word covenant is brought into the marriage service in the Calvinist tradition. This is because there is no such thing as conditional love. The Reformers rightly saw that Ephesians five, which speaks of marriage as a sign of Christ and the Church, is covenantal in character. Each member lives for (hyper) the other.

There is no such thing as conditional love. The inner nature of a covenant is crucial. If it is unconditional, one can say that forgiveness is an expression of love in action when one party fails in the covenant. This is the heart of the Reformation, and this is why a covenant is so different from a contract.

A contract is a legal relationship in which two parties bind themselves together under mutual conditions and mutual obligations to effect future results. To argue that a covenant is a contract is to make a grave error and to engage in theology that leaves the Reformation behind.7

Reformed Orthodoxy, and its American heir, Evangelicalism, have a notorious heritage of drawing theological battle lines and contending they are the true heirs of the Reformation. An illusion is created when a straight line is drawn from Calvin through Calvinism to Evangelicalism. It is incorrectly assumed that, in doing this, one is, in principle, following the Reformation. In such thinking, the theological issues involved are obscured. In particular, working Calvin’s working definitions are different from Calvinists and Evangelicals even if the terminology is the same. The desire to bring the Covenant into mainstream Evangelicalism with its Post- Reformation Calvinist roots is based upon a phantom, both historically and theologically.

Mission asserts that covenant is not a central term for either Calvin or Luther. Given the parameters of this review, only Calvin shall be considered, although a similar case could be made for Luther. To quote the thought in full:

Interestingly, covenantal thought was not central to either Luther or Calvin. The idea of a covenant implies a contract between two parties. Luther and Calvin though of “testament” rather than a “covenant.” The former is like a will in that it implies a gift or bequest without reciprocal commitment. A covenant requires an agreement by two parties, even if they are unequal (Mission: 19, italics mine).

Larsen is correct in noting that covenants or testaments are not contracts in Calvin’s thought. However, contrary to Larsen’s assertion that covenantal theology was not central to the Reformers, Calvin utilizes testamentum and foedus as synonyms (Institutes: 2.11.4). Calvin and Luther again and again, insist on covenants, which are unilateral, and do not confuse covenant with contracts, which are bilateral.

In Mission’s thesis, Larsen misunderstands Calvin at this point for he assumes that because the term “covenant” is infrequent, it is not of central importance for Calvin. Calvin’s understanding of the revelation of God and the authority of Holy Scripture is undergirded by his understanding of covenant. At this juncture we observe that, although Larsen’s thesis appears to heed Calvin and Luther, neither is directly quoted in Mission. This absence of primary sources is enough to vitiate the historical argumentation. The conclusions are drawn from secondary sources.

Federal Theology [a theology articulated by Johann Coccejus (1603-1669) which became very influential among the Puritans] distinguishes different kinds of covenants in God’s dealings with humans.8 Federalist theologians compart- mentalized these covenants [sic] and eventually drew a distinction between the covenant of works and the covenant of grace. The covenant of works is made by Adam who, in terms of natural law, contracted for all humanity. When he fell, he brought judgment upon all those for whom he contracted. Jesus then contracts for some (election is arbitrary) and, by his obedience brings salvation to some. This dualist model suffers inasmuch as it is foreign to both the New Testament and the Reformers.

When Calvin wrote his first edition of the Institutes in 1536, he followed the structure of Luther’s Small Catechism, namely, first law, then gospel. However, by 1539, Calvin saw the need to make a very important shift because of the possibility of misunderstanding.

If one begins with law and moves to grace, it could be understood to mean that there are two covenants. Calvin, in his 1539 edition of the Institutes, made a significant shift by adding a discussion of covenant (section 7 of the 1539 edition). Here Calvin observed that “the covenant made with the Patriarchs is so much like ours in substance and reality that the two are actually one and the same” (Institutes: 2.1.2).

In his commentary on Jeremiah 31, Calvin argues that there is only one covenant of grace in God’s dealings with humans. The covenant of grace does not mean that God made his part 1900 years ago, and we make ours today. No, the covenant of grace is the covenant made pro nobis, for us. It is not a matter of placing a covenant of works righteousness against that of faith righteousness, rather, it is recognizing that in all of his dealings with humanity, God never makes a legal covenant, that is to say, a contract.

There is a further hidden agenda to explore. It concerns the anthropological issue of whether humanity has the ability both to will and to keep its part of the contract.

Mission argues consistently that the ground of participation - humanity’s part - is acceptance of the covenant rather than assurance of the covenant. However, for Calvin, knowledge is certitude grounded in proper authority.9

Arvin Vos argues,

Calvin holds that faith is a firm and certain knowledge of God’s benevolence toward us, and that knowledge consists more in assurance than in understanding ... [it is] a full and fixed certainty that we are accustomed to having of things experienced and proved. Calvin sums up his position succinctly: “The knowledge of faith consists in assurance rather than in comprehension (Institutes: 3.2.14).”10

This is true because of the nature of the covenant made for us; it is an assurance grounded in the character of God as a gracious and helpful Father.

In this regard it is important to note that support for Larsen’s thesis is drawn from a major Reformed exponent of the nature of faith, the Puritan, John Flavel. Flavel argued that it is neither by assent nor assurance that Christ dwells in our hearts, “but by acceptance (Mission: 44).” This acceptance presupposes that humans could and would choose to accept God ‘s part of the contract. As we observed before, this is a semi-Pelagian anthropology in disguise.

This is all the more striking when Larsen states that faith is “not to utter a nod of approval . . . It is to declare that God is faithful to His covenant promises and that one is committing one’s life to the faithfulness of God” (Mission: 42). Here Larsen sounds remarkably like Calvin in understanding faith as assurance, not acceptance. It becomes more puzzling when Calvin’s text, then, decries assurance as the ground of the Christian life. For, is it not the very assurance of God’s fidelity that overcomes our own unbelief rather than the acceptance of “truths” or the belief that faith is our work—our “role in salvation”?11

Reason cannot give assurance, nor can the human will; the Holy Spirit working in and through our hearts and minds can and does. As Glenn Anderson so frequently reminded his students, the early Covenanters did not ask whether one was converted—as though one had accepted the contract. Rather, they asked: “Are you living yet in Jesus?”—a reference to the gracious, unconditional, effectual covenant reality for all humanity.

To speak of human ability to accept freely the contract offered by God places us back into the covenant of works. It assumes the priority of the covenant of works instead of the covenant of grace made in Christ Jesus. At issue here is the extent of fallen reason. How much, how far can humans know? This question has more than just cursory significance for our discussion.

The later Calvinists departed radically from the Christian tradition when in polemics against both the Arminians in Holland and the Deists in England, they asserted the supposed ability of human reason to discern the work of God. This assertion is contrary to Calvin’s conviction that total depravity is both moral and intellectual. Further, this assertion has as a correlate the assumption that reason is the imago Dei (image of God), which, though effaced, still functions as the anthropological mediator between God and humans.12

Federal theology, à la Coccejus, accepted this dualism of covenants. This dualism is inherent when arguing from natural law to revealed law, from the covenant of works to the covenant of grace, from human reason to the acceptance of the gospel. The problem in Federal theology is that it reverses the grace-law order of the Reformers and instead argues from law to grace, from the covenant of works to the covenant of grace. Reason becomes the sole arbiter between God and humans, and faith becomes the acceptance of certain theological paradigms.

Alcoholic treatment counselors have learned that there is a profound difference between acceptance of alcoholism and actual surrender.13 Pietism argued strongly for faith as fiducia, trust in God’s covenant love, whereas Calvinism argued for faith as assensus, acceptance of certain paradigmatic theological statements. As we are finding out, acceptance guarantees only ego compliance, trust involves the whole person.

Hence, because of the supposed ability of human reason to discern the truth of God, one could speak of two covenants, one with Adam, who misused his reason, and one with Christ, who used his to the glory of God. The problem arises in that we then have two federal heads; some of us are in Adam, a few of us are in Christ. This reversal of biblical thought by the post- Reformation theologians has come into our time and is exhibited when groups, using Calvinist presuppositions divide humanity into classes (one can see how Calvinism then shares in the ignominious distinction of being forerunner of both capitalism, with its acceptable class distinctions, and South African apartheid, with its acceptable race distinctions). Against these distinctions, Calvin would have argued vehemently.

It has been the point of this essay to show the crucial distinction between Calvin and the later Federal Calvinists with regard to the understanding of covenant. We do not object to someone speaking of Reformed influence on the forebears of the Evangelical Covenant Church. We do object to the logic that all Calvinism is the same. No! It is one thing to argue, as both Larsen and Olsson do, that Philipp Jakob Spener (1635-1705) was influenced by Calvin’s conventicalism or even his theology. It is quite another, given the quantum differences between Calvin and Federal theologians, to argue that if Calvin, then also the Calvinists. There are simply too many crucial theological differences between them. One looks in vain, for example, in Spener’s Pia Desideria for any reference to two covenants or for a reversal of the Reformation grace before law. Such references are easy to find in Coccejus, Turretin, Wollebius, or any other Federalist.

One must also point out in this regard that, whereas Larsen’s thesis makes much of the influence of the Reformed preacher, Jean de Labadie (1610-1674), on Spener, K. James Stein has corrected this impression and contends throughout his book, Philipp Jakob Spener: Pietist Patriarch, for Spener’s adherence to Lutheran Orthodoxy. Indeed, although Larsen finds a positive assessment of conventicalism in Reformed thought, he fails to notice that the Reformed Labadie was banished from his congregation for forming conventicles!14

The nature of a conventicle is quite different if it is based upon covenant instead of contract. In a conventicle based upon a covenant, one can see the wisdom of arguing that what prompts the unity of the conventicle is the mission of the church in contrast to unity predicated upon acceptance of certain truths.

Glenn Anderson, in his Covenant Roots, has the documents of the “Official Minutes of the Organizational Meeting,” 1885. In the first meeting, session 2, the question was raised: “Is it right or wrong that Christian congregations and organizations join together in work for the kingdom of God, and on what basis can such a union occur?” The basis for such a union turns out to be an acknowledgement of the authority of the Word of God among those who have faith in Christ. Larsen correctly notes that what prompted the Free Churches who did not join the Covenant to stay away from such a förbund (covenant) was their fear of a binding legal authority other than Holy Scripture. The Free Churches misunderstood the “covenant” (förbund) as contract and rejected the invitation to union.

What binds the Covenant Church together is the work of God not the work of humans. It is the recognition that Christ calls us, unites us, and gives us His Spirit together. The tie (forbund) that binds us as Covenanters is the person of Jesus Christ, who has fulfilled God’s covenant promises on our behalf. We, as covenant people, can only live in gratitude for such love and seek to live in the light of that Love.

Suffice it to say that, once again, the chasm is opened up between Lutheran Pietism, which is the primary source of our heritage, and Evangelicalism, which is the heir of Reformed Orthodoxy (among other influences). Once again, we point out that the concern of this essay is not to deny Reformed influence on Spener or the Covenant forebears. In reality, there are no pure theological specimens. All theology is somehow a hybrid. Our concern is the connection Mission makes between the heritage of the Covenant and covenant/federal theology.

As far as the Pietists are concerned, they imbibe from the fountain of the Reformation, with its covenantal thought, not of Reformed Orthodoxy, with its contractual thought. Larsen’s work would have been better titled The Mission of a Contract. It seems that The Mission of a Covenant has yet to be written.

1. Paul Larsen, The Mission of a Covenant (Chicago: Covenant Press, 1985).

2. However, Barth distinguishes very carefully between covenants and contracts in his Church Dogmatics IV, 1 (London: T&T Clark, 1957, 3-78).

3. More recent exegeses of the covenant-treaty more closely delineate covenants from contracts. Cf., the essays on conditionality and covenant by Bruce Waltke and William A. Dubrell in Israel’s Apostasy & Restoration, ed., Abraham Gileadi (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1981).

4. See the standard works on Paul by Davies, Schoeps, Ridderbos, Dahl, Schweitzer, Bornkamm, and Kasemann. The recent study by Stephen Westerholm is a masterful summary and clear presentation of Paul’s relation to the Torah, Israel’s Law and the Church’s Faith (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988).

5. In contrast to such Pelagianism, note the responsibility of gratitude in Calvin’s covenant.al theology. See M. Eugene Osterhaven ‘s “Calvin on the Covenant” in Readings in Calvin’s Theology, ed., Donald McKim (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1984).

6. Neil Punt, Unconditional Good News, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980); see also Karl Barth, Church Dogmatic II/2, (London: T&T Clark). A similar model of faith was proposed by Axel Mellander in Glenn Anderson, ed., Covenant Roots (Chicago: Covenant Press, 1980), esp. 140-142, 146.

7. R.T. Kendall, Calvin and English Calvinism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979). A similar criticism of federal theology can be found in Holmes Rolston III, John Calvin Versus the Westminister Confession (Richmond: John Knox, 1972). Johannes Coccejus is a significant exponent of Calvinism for Mission. On the gains and pitfalls of Coccejus’ covenantalism, see Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV /1, (London: T&T Clark, 1957, 54-66).

8. A valuable resource for federalism is Heinrich Heppe’s Reformed Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1960); see also the Westminster Confession.

9. Arvin Vos, Aquinas, Calvin, & Contemporary Protestant Thought (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985).

10. Vos, ibid: 17. For Calvin, faith is the assurance of the promise of God in Christ. Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans., John T. McNeill (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960, 3.1.4, 3.2.1, 3.2.2, 3.2.4, 3.2.6).

11. See Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, IV /I (London: T&T Clark, 1953, 608 -642). Justification by faith alone is the “article by which the church stands or falls.” Faith within contract theology functions as an anthropological merit. This puts the burden of salvation on humankind’s decision to accept the contract offered by God.

12. A discussion of the history of the imago Dei can be found in David Cairns, The Image of God in Man (London: SCM, 1953).

13. Harry M. Tiebout, “Surrender versus Compliance in Thcrap:,·,” Quarterly Journal of Studies on Alcohol, Vol. 14, No. 1, March 1953, 58-63.

14. K. James Stein, Philipp Jakob Spener: Pietist Patriarch, (Chicago: Covenant Press, 1986, 60).