The Heritage of the Covenant: Agenda for Dialogue

by Michael Hardin

In recent years the heritage of the Covenant and its self-definition have come into debate. Paul Larsen’s Mission of a Covenant1 has been, in some respects, the catalyst for this debate. An article delivered as a 1985 Nyvall lecture but published after Mission adds further clues as to President Larsen’s theological agenda.2

At the outset of this essay, it is important to stress that theological dialogue on the points to be adduced is not in any way a violation of Spener’s fourth proposal in the Pia Desideria which calls for a limitation of doctrinal polemics. In each instance, we are concerned with how we live our Christian faith. President Larsen should be congratulated for his efforts to facilitate conversation with his publications. Our remarks and disagreements are simply a sign that we have taken his work seriously, even though we have deep reservations about it.

I would contend that there are three areas of concern; others may identify more. These are the Lutheran-Reformed debate concerning our roots and concomitantly the relation between evangelicalism and Pietism; the role and authority of Scripture; and the theology of mission in the Covenant.

The first area of dialogue concerns the theological root of the Covenant. Root is an important metaphor. Roots bring nourishment from the rich soil of tradition to the living organism. To begin the dialogue, Phil Anderson, Professor of Church History at North Park Theological Seminary, wrote an essay in a volume honoring Covenant historian Karl Olsson.3 The so-called “circles theory” utilized by Larsen is critiqued by Anderson. Following a suggestion by Lloyd Ahlem and developed by Milton Engebretsen, the circles theory is an attempt to describe the Covenant in terms of theological/ethnic influence. However, many contemporary Covenanters, as well as past Covenant history cannot be neatly fit into such circles. The description is not good sociology based upon the sources. What Anderson has rightly pointed out is that to do a sociology of the Covenant demands more than a simplified categorization of theological agendae.

Anderson’s most trenchant criticism is aimed at the lack of “careful historiography."4 In an article published previously in Pietisten, I, too, was concerned about the lack of referral to primary sources and the apparent revision of Covenant history.5 To rewrite history is a bold undertaking, and to follow that rewritten history has profound consequences. I believe that Phil Anderson’s call for “careful historiography” needs further attention. If Larsen has not done the necessary critical work in the theological traditions, then the summary conclusions at the end of his work will not stand. Not only so, but the “turning of the rudder” of the Covenant under his leadership must also come under reflection. To place one’s view into print is to invite dialogue (and disagreement!).

Anderson also directly critiques Larsen’s 1986 essay on the relation between covenantalism and interiority. The blurring of boundaries in the Lutheran-Reformed identity dialogue needs to be challenged.6

What is at stake here is more than a debate between academics, an intellectual vis-a-vis; what is at stake is the way we will define ourselves as Covenanters, the way we will pursue. mission, and the way we understand the education of clergy at North Park.

At North Park the common texts used for Covenant history are those written by Karl Olsson, especially By One Spirit. Olsson unequivocally finds the roots of the Covenant in Lutheran Pietism. Larsen, on the other hand, discerns what he believes to be important Reformed elements in the roots of Covenantal life and thought.

In a personal conversation this past Annual Meeting, President Larsen spoke of the need for the Covenant to allow both traditions, Lutheran and Reformed, to remain in dialogue. I agree. Nevertheless, the root of the Covenant is Lutheran and the graft is that of the Reformed heritage. The two should not be mixed or confused. To do so alters the paradigm of Covenant life, education, and mission. Sociologically, it may well be true that we need to discern the difference between our ethnic identity and the theological roots of that identity. However, the unique ecclesial aspects of our heritage must be brought to the fore. I would boldly state that there is a substantial gap between the Pietist heritage of the Covenant and broader mainstream evangelicalism. Though Larsen may put the Covenant smack in the middle of evangelicalism (Mission: 123), John Weborg’s recent contribution carefully points out areas of distinction.7 These areas of distinction form the parameters of what is loosely termed “Covenant identity.” It is Weborg’s and Anderson’s careful scholarship that must be heeded.

We must discern the meaning of the word “evangelical” in our denominational name. Does it refer to the (1) the Reformation, (2) the revivalist heritage, or (3) a distancing term from fundamentalism? Olsson, Anderson, and Weborg would, I think, affirm the first seen clearly through the lens of the second. Our Reformation heritage is crucial to our piety and theology.

The significance of this lies in the distinction between evangelicalism, which was influenced by Pietism, and Pietism itself.8 John Weborg delineates the further contrast of Evangelicalism and Pietism discussing Scripture, conversion, and revivals. As we have stated, these distinctions must be maintained or we will find ourselves slipping into that amorphous category known as “evangelicalism.”

The second issue is that of the authority of Scripture and the freedom of hermeneutics in the Covenant. President Larsen is a “spirited proponent of biblical inerrancy [sic].”9 This sounds similar to the position of Gustaf F. Johnson, former pastor of the Minneapolis Tabernacle. Johnson’s virulent attack on both Nils Lund and David Nyvall demonstrated the fear of scientific biblical work, an enterprise valued at North Park since its inception. Larsen affirms the shift in the faculty at North Park from non-inerrant to those who “significantly strengthened the inerrancy tradition” (Mission: 114). I have challenged inerrancy as a nonviable hermeneutic enterprise, an issue which must be discussed, given the growing concern over the role of. the Bible in the Covenant.10

When we say that the Bible is the only “perfect rule for faith, doctrine and conduct,” are we to understand the affirmation of the “perfect rule” as an affirmation of inerrancy? I think not. In a children’s sermon I give, I show them a ruler and tell them how perfect my ruler is. I show them inch by inch how absolutely perfect it is, how each inch is like every other inch. But what is a ruler for? Rulers are for measuring. In themselves they are nothing; when used, they function as they should. Our task is to use Scripture to test all that we say and do, to measure our preaching and teaching, to clarify the logical consistency of our proclamation.11 The Covenant recognizes a diversity of “rulers” in the New Testament; hence inerrancy, while a better option than a pseudo-critical distantiation, cannot allow hermeneutic diversity. Finally, the notion of a “perfect rule” is Newtonian and should be adjusted to an Einsteinian perspective.

To affirm Scripture as the “perfect rule” is to affirm what it affirms. For the Christian and the Church, that affirmation is the Christological focus to which all Scripture bears witness. This is expressly seen in a preference for the New Testament In one very important sense, the language of “perfect rule” is misleading in that it equates the Old Testament and the New Testament revelation. It is crucial to observe that the founding fathers and mothers of the Covenant expressly chose the New Testament as their guide. Though the official minutes of the 1885 Constitutional meeting use the “perfect rule” language, the report published in the Missions Vannen for February 25, 1885, exegetes the language of “perfect rule” when it states:

We believe and confess that the Holy Scripture is the only infallible rule and guide for people’s faith and conduct and we accept especially the New Testament as our Constitution or unchanging statute which we from the heart will obey and follow as long as God through his Spirit gives us understanding and grace to do so.12

This emphasis on the New Testament is a validation that, for the early pietist Covenanters, the “perfect rule” is the Word of God, Jesus Christ It is not an abstract Word, nor a theory of inspiration, nor a theological system. It is the Living Word, the Word active in our hearts and minds interpreting God’s will for us by his Spirit through Scripture. To affirm the “perfect rule” is to affirm Jesus Christ as the source and goal of all biblical interpretation. In the light of these founding statements, inerrancy is not a viable interpretation of the “perfect rule” language.

The corollary to biblical authority is our understanding of freedom in hermeneutics. The Covenant is neither creedal nor confessional. One aspect of our life together is that we have this hermeneutical freedom almost as a sacred charter. In Mission (123), Larsen delineates the theology of the Covenant in precisely those categories reminiscent of American Fundamentalism. These include ‘The Bible as God’s Word, the deity of Christ, his virgin birth, sinless life, atoning death, his resurrection, ascension and promised return.” In point of fact, virtually every one of these statements is open to interpretation and debate. When Larsen affirms that we are “devoid of sectarian clamour,” he utilizes a theological model that is itself sectarian. Compare, for example, the statement of the early fundamentalist leader John R. Rice (see also John Gerstner) with that of Larsen. Rice declares:

It is generally understood that the fundamentals of the Christian faith include the inspiration and thus divine authority of the Bible, the deity, virgin birth, blood atonement, bodily resurrection, personal second coming of Christ . . .”13

The implicit, if not explicit, connections with Fundamentalism are of no little consequence. It was from the Fundamentalists that attacks came on Nyvall and Lund, and later, on other faculty at North Park Seminary. This raises the problem of heresy and doctrinal error as theological categories for Covenanters, especially clergy. Is there such a thing? If so, what is it and how is it described and defined? By the creed? By Anglo-American evangelical standards? By the collegia pietatis? By the ruling administration? There are not simple answers to these questions. But we are not, and have never been, fundamentalist.

Third, we must address the understanding of mission in the Covenant. If we are led by the hand of Lutheran Pietism, then we have an inclusive view of the work of Christ for the world and are concerned to help others live in the reality that is already theirs. As the early Covenant pietists asked, “Are you living yet in Jesus?” On the other hand, if we follow Larsen, we move into the realm of Anglo-American evangelicalism where we go to a lost world to announce a possibility that is made real by the human acceptance of a contract.14 To “save souls” is not our goal; to share good news is. Karl Olsson summed up the difference between the two positions when he claimed that the emphasis of the pietist Herrnhuters:

was upon an unceasing and joyous acceptance of what Christ had done and was doing; the Anglo-American tradition stressed what I must do to be saved, and what, being saved, I must do to order my behaviour or to win souls.15

I realize that these are summary statements that need further development, but the issues are, I believe, clear.

At the meeting of the Covenant Ministerium in 1991 there was a resounding affirmation that these issues need public dialogue. This small piece is a public call for that dialogue on the issues facing us today as Covenanters. This debate can only further our actual “being” as Covenanters. I hope that President Larsen hears this call and responds by having the debate soon at an annual gathering of the ministerium. If a new direction is plotted for the good ship “Covenant,” then let it be plotted from the well-worn, time tested maps of our Lutheran identity. Any other map could only lead us into waters our founding forebears never desired to navigate.

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

2. The Convergence of Covenantalism and Interiority” in The Covenant Quarterly Vol. XLIV, No. 1, February 1986.

3. “The Covenant and the American Challenge” in Amicus Dei a special issue of The Covenant Quarterly, Vol. XL VI, Nos. 2 and 3, Summer 1988.

4. Ibid., p. 111.

5. Michael Hardin, “Tracing the Roots of a Denomination” in Pietisten, Vol. V, No. 2, Summer 1990.

6. In an article to be published in The Covenant Quarterly, 992, ‘‘The Trinity as Hermeneutic: A Pietist Perspective,” I will challenge the theological understanding of “faith” as defined by Larsen in Mission, contending that there is a substantial distinction between Reformation (Luther and Calvin) and later Calvinist understandings of faith. It is the later that Larsen utilizes in his theological framework.

7. “Pietism: Theology in Service of the Living God” in Dayton and Johnston, eds., The Variety of American Evangelicalism (Downers Grove: NP, 1991).

8. See Paul Kuenning, “Pietism: A Lutheran Resource for Dialogue with Evangelicalism” in The Covenant Quarterly, Vol. XLIV, No. 2, 1986.

9. Larsen appeals to John 10:35, “If he called them gods to whom the word of God came (and scripture cannot be broken),” as justification for inerrancy. However, in John 10:35, Jesus is ironically appealing to scripture, a scripture that has no authority in and of itself (John 5:39f.), and which has been replaced by the living Word (John 1:17-18). The hermeneutic of the Gospel of John demands more than just proof-texting. Larsen’s appeal to John 10:35 is a complete mis-construal of the text.

10. Michael Hardin, “The Authority of Scripture: A Pietist Perspective” in The Covenant Quarterly Vol. XLIX, No. 1, February 1991.

11. David Fredrickson’s comments on inerrancy are important in this regard (Covenant Quarterly, August 1987). Fredrickson is correct to utilize the notion of the “ruler,” but what is the perspective of the ruler? Most inerrantists I know use the perspective of Reformed Orthodoxy and its American stepchild, Conservative Evangelicalism. See the devastating critique of inerrancy by Paul Selly, a conservative Presbyterian pastor who studied at Westminster Theological Seminary in Inerrant Wisdom (Portland: Evangelical Reform 1989).

12. Glenn Anderson, Covenant Roots (Chicago: Covenant Press: 1980), p. 34. A similar statement was published in the Svenska Kristna on Feb. 5, 1885 and March 4, 1885 by Rev. Erik August Skogsbergh. This is not Marcionism. (Marcion excluded the Hebrew scriptures from the emerging biblical canon in the second century.) Rather, it recognizes that the New Testament exercises a critical relation to the Hebrew Bible, indeed, gives us the critical hermeneutic in itself!

13. Quoted in George Marsden, “Fundamentalism and American Evangelicalism” in The Variety of American Evangelicalism, Dayton and Johnston, eds. (Downers Grove: IVP, 1991), p. 23. See also his Fundamentalism and American Culture (New York: Oxford, 1980), pp. 118-123; Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991).

14. See my essays (notes 5 and 6) for a critique of Larsen’s understanding of covenant, where he equates covenants and contracts. My desire was to demonstrate the correctness of Olsson’s understanding of Lutheran covenantalism. Alister E. McGrath has shown this clearly in his work on Luther’s early theology and his break with the medieval ordo salutis (reminiscent of the contractual theology of Larsen et al.) in Luther’s Theology of the Cross (Oxford: Blackwell, 1985).

15. Karl Olsson, By One Spirit (Chicago: Covenant Press, 1962), p. 39.