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.


  1. KBennett said,

    July 30, 2008 at 6:57 pm

    Wow. This is not much of a book review, is it Lane?

    Why did use this review opportunity to challenge/ask Dr. Clark about unionism?

    This is fine, but maybe you should change the name of the post.

  2. JDKetterman said,

    July 30, 2008 at 8:18 pm


    I’ve been kind of wondering about these questions myself. Currently, I’ve been reading Justified in Christ edited by K. Scott Oliphint. Union with Christ is not something I have not thought very much about until reading this book.

    If I am mistaken, please correct me, but isn’t WSC view is that our union with Christ is the basis of our justification? From reading Vos, Gaffin, and Calvin, I always thought it was the other way around. Would you also agree with Mark Garcia that the Law/Gospel hermeneutic is foreign to Calvin?

  3. July 31, 2008 at 12:20 am

    […] July 30, 2008 in Uncategorized At Green Baggins. […]

  4. greenbaggins said,

    July 31, 2008 at 10:10 am

    KBennett, the reason Clark asked me to read his book was precisely this issue of union with Christ, and so I slanted the book review towards asking these particular questions. It is certainly not the same kind of book review I would submit to a journal. I am not challenging him in the sense of calling him wrong necessarily, since I am still working through these issues myself. Nevertheless, I wanted to ask him some hard questions.

    JD, WSC would probably say that justification is the basis for our union with Christ. WTS would say that union is the basis for justification. Garcia does not claim that Calvin rejected the law-gospel distinction. The issue is more complicated than that. The way I would describe it is that in the first use of the law (the pedagogical use), the law is contrasted with Gospel, whereas in the third use of the law, it sweetly complies with the Gospel. Neither use conditions or negates the other.

  5. July 31, 2008 at 9:49 pm

    Again, on the “basis” of union with Christ, we should distinguish between aspects of union. Again, even Dick does this in his latest book. We all agree that when we’re talking about the decree, we’re talking about one aspect of union. Then we may talk about the existential aspect of union and, at the moment, I can’t recall the 3rd. I would distinguish between legal and vital union.

    I also think we should stop speaking about the “WSC” or the “WTS” view of union. The seminaries haven’t published any statements on union, so far as I know.

    As I understand Reformed theology, we don’t have what Dick calls “existential union” until we are regenerated and given faith. That faith brings us into existential union with Christ. We can speak of sanctity being given simultaneously (temporally) to us when we believe, and certainly we have a sort of union prior to coming faith, but that’s the decree. We ought not to collapse everything into the decree.

    As I said on the HB, I agree with much of what Dick says in his latest book, but I question is critique of the “Reformation tradition” and his insistence on absolute logical simultaneity of justification and sanctification. The latter, reckoned as progressive sanctification, logically considered, should be said to flow from justification.

  6. July 31, 2008 at 9:49 pm

    ps. I’m not at all offended by Lane’s review. I’m just glad that someone is actually reading the book!

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