A Book Review of Scott Clark’s Book on Caspar Olevian

Dr. Clark invited me to read his book a while back. So I bought the book and read it. And I’m very glad I did. It is very well-written and very well researched. I say I am writing a book review. However, it must not be thought that I am any sort of expert in the field of historical theology. I write this post very much from the perspective of a student learning from a professor, not as a colleague. It is available here.

I really have almost nothing to criticize about the book. Clark first explores the historical context, debunking a number of curious myths about the Reformed faith in the 16th century (such as saying that the Reformed were in positions of power throughout Europe during this time; rather, most Reformed folk were aliens and strangers). Clark sets Olevian firmly in the historical context of 16th century Germany. His importance is often overlooked, and it is somewhat startling to read that “the Palatinate of this period cannot be fairly interpreted without Caspar Olevian” (pp. 20-21). Of course, he is (justly) famous primarily for being one of the two main authors of the Heidelberg Catechism. However, his theology is not so well known. Lyle Bierma has written an excellent study on Olevian. However, Clark’s study is by no means superfluous, as Bierma himself acknowledges. Indeed, Clark’s study moves beyond Bierma in placing Olevian’s covenant theology in the context of his entire theology.

Olevian was a humanist (in the Renaissance sense of the term, a linguist) who was well-educated in the classics (chapter 3). He brought this training to bear on his theology in his methodology, not in an anti-Protestant rationalising movement (pg. 41). In other words, scholastic humanism influenced how he did theology, not so much what he actually said. In so doing, he functions as “a transitional stage in Reformed orthodoxy between the earlier stages of Protestant theology and the more highly developed dogmatic theology of the seventeenth century” (pg. 73).

Olevian’s covenantal theology depends on his trinitarian theology (chapter 4), since “the covenant is nothing more than a way of describing the relations which obtain between the triune God and his people” (pg. 74). In this chapter, Clark deals with several theologians in order to set the context for Olevian’s theology.

Calvin is included, of course, since Olevian was one of Calvin’s students (pg. 84). It is in this chapter that Clark addresses Calvin’s doctrine of mystical union. It is here that I would have some questions to ask Dr. Clark. First question: if Books 3 and 4 of Calvin’s Institutes “focus on (sic, ‘the’) Holy Spirit’s work in uniting sinners to Christ and sanctifying them in the church through the means of grace” (pg. 83), and given the use of the word “simul” in Calvin’s Commentaries on Romans (see Mark Garcia’s book, pg. 135) to describe the simultaneously given sanctification and justification, to what extent is Clark willing to say that sanctification is the result of union, but justification is not?

Chapter 3.1.1 of the Institutes clearly says that nothing of what Christ did is of any value to us unless we are united to him. This includes what Christ did for our justification. Without union, no justification, in other words. Can we really say that there is a time lapse in between justification and sanctification? I confess to having a hard time with this. Is it true that the infusion of the grace of sanctification happens “subsequent to justification” (pg. 83)? If this is so, then why did Calvin treat sanctification (chapters 1-10 of Book 3) before justification (chapters 11-18)? It would seem to me (and this point is not original with me; I believe that Dr. Gaffin first suggested it to me) that Calvin did this because of a polemical rhetoric against Rome’s claim that justification encouraged license. Calvin’s point is that it doesn’t matter which order you put them in because they are simul in union with Christ. Of course, 99.9999999% of sanctification occurs after justification. But the beginning of it is given at the same time as justification, so that justification and sanctification are distinct, yet inseparable aspects of union with Christ.

I think I have read Clark saying somewhere that the order is logical, not temporal. Fair enough. However, it seems to me that such language almost inevitably results in temporal thinking, much like the order of the decrees when discussing supra- and infralapsarianism. How can one talk of temporal order in the decrees of God, which were all determined in eternity (simul)? Yet the debate between the two positions almost inevitably resorts to temporal language. Of course that is eternity, and this is time. Nevertheless, I think it is best to speak of justification and sanctification being given sultaneously in union with Christ. I don’t have any great quibble with Westminster West’s way of putting it. I’m sure that they would affirm that one cannot be justified without at once being sanctified. True justification is inseparable with true sanctification. The difference is that milli-second…

It seems to me that what union with Christ does for the Westminster East folks, covenant does in this book. Covenant is what joins together the duplex gratia in Olevian’s theology (according to Clark, pp. 139-140). I wonder if this might be the place where Westminster East and West might be able to meet: is not union with Christ an integral, nay, definitional part of the substance of the covenant? If so, then there might very well be a place where they could meet together and agree.