Integrated Covenant Theology (1):
The Nature of
Rev. Angus Stewart
(Slightly modified from an article first published in
the Protestant Reformed Theological Journal)
is neither the originator of Reformed covenant theology nor the author
of the first book on the covenant—these honours falling to Zwingli and
Bullinger respectively—he is, as Peter Lillback states, "the first … to
integrate the covenant concept extensively into his theological system."1
Calvin’s longest and most detailed treatment of the covenant is found in
book 2, chapters 10 and 11, of his Institutes, his greatest and
most systematic work.2
The Unity of
striking that Calvin’s first point, and that which he spends the whole
of chapter 10 proving, is the "similarity—or rather unity" of the
covenant of God, that it is one in all ages: "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 [or administration]" (2.10.2, p. 429).3
Saints in the Old and the New Testaments share "the same law," "the same
doctrine," "the same inheritance," and the "common salvation" by the
grace of the "same Mediator" (2.10.1, pp. 428, 429). Calvin avers, "It
is very important to make this point," adding later that the unity of
the covenant is also "very profitable for us" (2.10.1, pp. 428, 429).
the heretics he is opposing, giving them none too flattering titles:
"that wonderful rascal Servetus and certain madmen of the Anabaptist
sect" (2.10.1, p. 429). Their error was that the Jews were partakers
only of a "carnal covenant," as Calvin dubs it (2.10.19, p. 446),
consisting of "carnal prosperity and happiness" (2.10.2, p. 429) for a
"carnal folk" (2.10.15, p. 441). They present "the Israelites as nothing
but a herd of swine … fattened by the Lord on this earth without any
hope of heavenly immortality" (2.10.1, p. 429). The Anabaptist doctrine
"that the Lord promised the Jews, or that they sought for themselves,
nothing but a full belly, delights of the flesh, flourishing wealth,
outward power, fruitfulness of offspring, and whatever the natural man
prizes," Calvin calls an "insane and dangerous opinion" (2.10.23, p.
448; cf. 4.16.10, p. 1333).
"carnal covenant," Calvin asserts the "spiritual covenant" (2.10.7, p.
434; 2.10.15, p. 441; etc.).4
Calvin’s doctrine of one, spiritual covenant rests upon "three main
points" upon which "we must take our stand." First, Old Testament
revelation proclaimed, and the elect Jews aspired to, "the hope of
immortality" and not merely earthly riches. Second, the covenant was not
of human merit but "solely" of God’s "mercy." Third, believing Jews "had
and knew Christ as Mediator, through whom they were joined to God and
were to share in his promises" (2.10.2, pp. 429, 430).
identifies the first of these three as "the chief point in this
controversy" (2.10.10, p. 436) requiring "closer attention" (2.10.3, p.
430), and so he spends most of book 2, chapter 10, treating it,
especially in sections 3, 7-23. First, sections 7-9 argue that the
fathers had everlasting life because (1) they had the quickening Word,
(2) they fellowshipped with the living God, and (3) God’s goodness is
stronger than death. Second, Calvin describes the lives of the
patriarchs in Genesis—Adam, Abel, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph
(2.10.10-14, pp. 436-441)—as so miserable that they were thereby "taught
by the Lord as to perceive that they had a better life elsewhere; and
disregarding the earthly life, to meditate upon the heavenly" (2.10.10,
p. 436).5 Here Calvin notes Scripture’s description of the
fathers as "strangers and sojourners" (cf. Gen. 47:9) and quotes at
length that famous passage in Hebrews 11:9-10, 13-16 as "very
beautifully" proving his point (2.10.13, p. 440). Third, he shows that
in the Psalms, Isaiah, Job, Ezekiel, Daniel, etc. (2.10.15-22, pp.
441-448), "eternal life and Christ’s kingdom are revealed in fullest
splendor" (2.10.15, p. 441). Calvin rightly believes that he has "blazed
a trail for the moderately discerning reader" to understand the Old
Testament Scriptures (2.10.20, p. 446).
4-6 of book 2, chapter 10, are directly concerned with proving that
God’s covenant, even in old testament days, was by God’s mercy through
Christ. Calvin practically equates the one, everlasting gospel of grace
with the covenant by speaking of "the covenant of the gospel:"
… the Old
Testament was established upon the free mercy of God, and confirmed
by Christ’s intercession. For the gospel preaching, too, declares
nothing else than that sinners are justified apart from their own
merit by God’s fatherly kindness; and the whole of it is summed up
in Christ. Who, then, dares to separate the Jews from Christ, since
with them, we hear, was made the covenant of the gospel, the sole
foundation of which is Christ? Who dares to estrange from the gift
of free salvation those to whom the doctrine of righteousness by
faith was imparted? (2.10.4, p. 431).
quotes John 8:56 and Hebrews 13:8, before noting that Christ came in
fulfilment of the covenant promise (Luke 1:54-55, 72-73; 2.10.4, pp.
Not only is
the gospel of God’s mercy in Christ essentially the same in both
testaments but also the old covenant "sacraments" (Israel’s baptism at
the Red Sea, the water from the Rock that followed them in the
wilderness, and the manna) were also "truly spiritual sacraments"
(2.10.6, p. 433). Thus "the apostle [in I Corinthians 10:1-6, 11] makes
the Israelites equal to us not only in the grace of the covenant but
also in the signification of the sacraments" (2.10.5, p. 432).
however, to be noted that Calvin proves the unity of God’s covenant in
book 2, chapter 10, of his Institutes, in order to establish the
unity of the Scriptures. Thus this chapter is entitled, "The Similarity
of the Old and New Testaments." Moreover, Calvin thereby also
demonstrates the unity of the covenant people of God in all ages, for
"all the saints whom Scripture mentions as being peculiarly chosen of
God from the beginning of the world have shared with us the same
blessing unto eternal salvation" (2.11.10, p. 459). All three—one
covenant, one Bible and one church—are basic and essential aspects of
Administrations of the Covenant
In book 2,
chapter 11, of the Institutes, Calvin is not simply comparing the
Mosaic covenant with the new covenant. Rather he explains the
differences between God’s revelation of the covenant in the Old
Testament Scriptures and in the New Testament Scriptures. Before listing
and discussing the five differences which Calvin identifies, he
underscores the fact that none of them individually, nor all of them
together, "detract from [Scripture’s] established unity" (2.11.1, pp.
449-450). Instead, the "additions," "appendages," "accessories" and
"accidental properties of the covenant" (2.11.5, p. 454) all "pertain to
the manner of dispensation [or administration] rather than to the
substance" of the covenant (2.11.1, p. 450). The Genevan Reformer’s
Christological concern is evident: "In this way there will be nothing to
hinder the promises of the Old and New Testament from remaining the
same, nor from having the same foundation of these very promises,
Christ!" (2.11.1, p. 450).
reiterated and understood, Calvin turns to the five differences. First,
the Old Testament differs from the New in that it contains physical,
earthly and temporal benefits which foreshadowed and mirrored spiritual,
heavenly and eternal blessings (2.11.1-3, pp. 449-453). Second, the Old
Testament "in the absence of the reality … showed but an image and
shadow in place of the substance [whereas] the New Testament reveals the
very substance of truth as present" (2.11.4, p. 453).
The third and
fourth differences particularly pertain to the Mosaic covenant under
which the law was given. Here Calvin, following Jeremiah and Paul in
Jeremiah 31 and II Corinthians 3 respectively, "consider[s] nothing in
the law except what properly belongs to it" (2.11.7, p. 456). He
example: the law here and there contains promises of mercy; but
because they have been borrowed from elsewhere, they are not counted
part of the law when only the nature of the law is under discussion.
They ascribe to it only this function: to enjoin what is right, to
forbid what is wicked; to promise a reward to the keepers of
righteousness, and threaten transgressors with punishment; but at
the same time not to change or correct the depravity of heart that
by nature inheres in all men (2.11.7, pp. 456-457).
difference is that while the Old Testament law is literal (considered as
in its own nature and engraved on stone), the New is spiritual, written
in our hearts by the Holy Spirit (2.11.7-8, pp. 456-457). The fourth
difference, as Calvin notes, "arises out of the third" (2.11.9, p. 458).
The Old Testament, considered from the distinctive idea of "law," is one
of "bondage," whereas the New Testament is one of "freedom" through the
gospel (2.11.9-10, pp. 458-460).
The fifth and
last of Calvin’s differences applies to the covenants with Abraham,
Moses and David, and not to those in Genesis 1-11: in the Old Testament
God’s covenant of grace was with one people, the Jews, but in the New
Testament, the church is catholic, embracing believing Jews and Gentiles
(2.11.11-12, pp. 460-462). In former days, God "lodged his covenant, so
to speak, in [Israel’s] bosom; he manifested the presence of his majesty
to them; he showered every privilege upon them" but in the fullness of
time elect Jews and Gentiles are "reconciled to God and welded into one
people" by the blood and Spirit of Christ (2.11.11, pp. 460, 461).
Reformed Christians have agreed with Calvin’s evaluation of this chapter
of his Institutes: "In these four or five points I think that I
have explained faithfully and well the whole difference between the Old
and the New Testaments as far as a simple statement of doctrine demands"
(2.11.13, p. 462). Over against the objections of some as to why God
should have ordered such variations in the administration of His
covenant, Calvin rightly affirms the freedom and wisdom of God’s
sovereign will (2.11.13-14, pp. 462-464).
treatment of the unity and the differences between the two testaments
leads him set forth what may be called a "covenant hermeneutic." This,
Calvin believes, provides us with the "key" for understanding the Old
Nevertheless, I shall warn my readers beforehand to remember to open
up their way with the key that I previously put into their hands
[cf. 2.9.1-4, pp. 423-427]. That is, whenever the prophets recount
the believing people’s blessedness, hardly the least trace of which
is discerned in the present life, let them take refuge in this
distinction: the better to commend God’s goodness, the prophets
represented it for the people under the lineaments, so to speak, of
temporal benefits. But they painted a portrait such as to lift the
minds of the people above the earth, above the elements of this
world [cf. Gal. 4:3] and the perishing age, and that would of
necessity arouse them to ponder the happiness of the spiritual life
to come (2.10.20, p. 447).
of the Old Testament "lineaments" or "portraits" which portray
spiritual, heavenly and eternal blessings in various ways. For example,
in book 2, chapter 11, he speaks of "signs," "symbols," "figures,"
"images," "shadows," and even a "mirror." But the word he uses most is
"type" or "typify." Since God has "imprinted" "analogy and congruity"
between the type and the antitype (2.11.3, p. 452), Old Testament
exegesis must interpret the types which are given by God (but not
invented by the exegete) typologically and not merely literally.
prophets more often represent the blessedness of the age to come
through the type that they had received from the Lord. In this sense
we are to understand these sayings: "The godly will possess the
land" by inheritance [Prov. 2:21 p.], but "the wicked will perish
from the earth" [Job 18:17 p.; cf. Prov. 2:22 …]. In many passages
in Isaiah we read that Jerusalem will abound with all kinds of
riches, and Zion shall overflow with plenty of all things [cf. Isa.
35:10; 52:1ff.; 60:4ff.; ch. 62]. We see that all these things
cannot properly apply to the land of our pilgrimage, or to the
earthly Jerusalem, but to the true homeland of believers, that
heavenly city wherein "the Lord has ordained blessing and life
forevermore" [Ps. 133:3] (2.11.2, p. 452).6
repeatedly explains the need for ceremonies and types in Old Testament
days as being rooted in the "childhood" of the church when "God confined
them to rudimentary teaching commensurate with their age" (2.11.13, pp.
462-463; cf. 2.11.5, pp. 454-455; 2.11.9, p. 459).
Progressive Revelation of the Covenant
comparison between the Old Testament (usually taking it as a unit) and
the New Testament in book 2, chapters 10 and 11, of his Institutes
does not mean that he is ignorant of the various covenants within the
Hebrew Scriptures. In these very chapters, Calvin speaks of the orderly,
progressive revelation of the covenant of grace from post-fall Adam
(Gen. 3:15) to the coming of Jesus Christ. The attractive imagery in
this justly celebrated passage is that of increasing light.
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 [Gen. 3:15] it glowed like a feeble
sparks. 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 [Mal., Ch. 4]
(2.10.20, p. 446).7
Calvin identifies the covenants with Abraham, Moses and David:
them "the mercies of David," because this covenant, which has
now been solemnly confirmed, was made in the land "of David." The
Lord indeed entered into a covenant with Abraham (Gen.
15:5; 17:7), afterwards confirmed it by Moses (Ex.
2:24; 33:1), and finally ratified this very covenant in the hand
of David, that it might be eternal (II
Sam. 7:12). Whenever, therefore, the Jews thought of a Redeemer,
that is, of their salvation, they ought to have remembered "David"
as a mediator who represented Christ; for David must not here be
regarded as a private individual, but as bearing this title and
character (Comm. on Isa. 55:3).
is quick to add that the various manifestations of the covenant do not
make "void" the earlier covenants: "the covenant into which God entered
with the fathers was firm, sure, and eternal, and not changeable or
temporary" (Comm. on Isa. 55:3). In Christ, the one and eternal covenant
is "ratified," "confirmed" and "proved:"
calling [David’s antitype] "a witness," [Isaiah] means that the
covenant into which he entered shall be ratified and confirmed in
Christ … for he clearly shows that this covenant shall be proved in
Christ, by whom the truth of God shall be made manifest (Comm. on
the covenant with Noah, including the promise not to destroy the world
with water, is a manifestation of God’s everlasting and universal
there is no doubt that it … was not therefore a private covenant
confirmed with one family only, but one which is common to all
people, and which shall flourish in all ages to the end of the world
… Wherefore, relying on this promise, let us look forward to the
last day, in which the consuming fire shall purify heaven and earth
[II Peter 3] (Comm. on Gen. 9:8-9).
highlights the heavenly implications of the Noahic covenant:
although this be an earthly promise, yet God designs the faith of
his people to be exercised, in order that they may be assured that a
certain abode will, by his special goodness, be provided for them on
earth, until they shall be gathered together in heaven (Comm.
on Gen. 9:10-11).
observes that God "promises salvation to a thousand generations," and so
the covenant with Noah refutes "the ignorance of the Anabaptists … who
deny that the covenant of God is common to infants" (Comm. on Gen.
scholars have found only one passage in which the Reformer speaks
explicitly of God’s covenant with pre-fall Adam. In the Institutes,
he writes of the "covenants" (plural) with Adam and with Noah and their
respective sacraments or signs:
when [God] gave Adam and Eve the tree of life as a guarantee of
immortality, that they might assure themselves of it as long as they
should eat of its fruit [Gen. 2:9; 3:22]. Another, when he set the
rainbow for Noah and his descendants, as a token that he would not
destroy the earth with a flood [Gen. 9:13-16]. These, Adam and Noah
regarded as sacraments. Not that the tree provided them with an
immortality which it could not give to itself; nor that the rainbow
(which is but a reflection of the sun’s rays opposite) could be
effective in holding back the waters; but because they had a mark
engraved upon them by God’s Word, so that they were proofs and seals
of his covenants (4.14.18, p. 1294).8
refers once to a pre-fall covenant with Adam, whereas he develops "the
covenant of his mercy" (2.10.20, p. 446), manifested progressively in
the covenants with post-fall Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses and David, and
"ratified," "confirmed" and "proved" in Christ (Comm. on Isa. 55:4).9
1 Peter A. Lillback, The Binding of God: Calvin’s Role in the
Development of Covenant Theology
(Baker: Grand Rapids, 2001), p. 311.
2 All citations of the
Institutes are from John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian
Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, 2 vols.
(Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960). All citations of Calvin’s
commentaries are from the 22 volume Baker (repr. 1993) edition.
3 Cf. Westminster Confession 7:5-6; Westminster Larger
Catechism, Q. & A. 33.
4 Calvin often refers to the "spiritual covenant" in his writings
(e.g., 3.20.45, p. 910; Comm. on Gen. 17:8). For him, the "spiritual
covenant" is synonymous with Christ’s "spiritual kingdom" (cf. Comm. on
Isa. 60:2; Comm. on Isa. 65:10), and the "carnal covenant" is synonymous
with an "earthly kingdom" (cf. 2.10.23, p. 449).
5 Note Calvin’s striking summary of Abraham, "the father of all
them that believe" (Rom. 4:11): "In short, throughout life he was so
tossed and troubled that if anyone wished to paint a picture of a
calamitous life, he could find no model more appropriate than Abraham’s"
(2.10.11, p. 438). "As for Jacob," Calvin continues, "he is a notable
example of nothing but extreme unhappiness" (2.10.12, p. 438). How
different from the facile view of the Christian life proclaimed by much
6 Here Calvin’s hermeneutic opposes not only the Anabaptists and
the dispensationalists but also the "health and wealth gospel,"
Christian Reconstructionism and postmillennialism.
7 "Nothing surpasses" this quotation from Calvin on the progressive
revelation of God’s covenant, according to John Murray ("Covenant
Theology" in Collected Writings of John Murray [Great Britain:
Banner, 1982], vol. 4, p. 224).
8 "The term ‘sacrament’" in this context, explains Calvin,
"embraces generally all those signs which God has ever enjoined upon men
to render them more certain and confident of the truth of his promises."
In this broad category, Calvin includes Gideon’s fleece and Hezekiah’s
sundial going back ten degrees. Thus Calvin is not referring to the tree
of life as if it were the equivalent of baptism or the Lord’s Supper
(4.14.18, pp. 1294, 1295).
9 For a succinct treatment of Calvin on God’s covenant with Adam
before the fall, see Angus Stewart, "The
Covenant with Adam—A Brief Historical Analysis."