What Is The Substance Of The Covenant Of Grace?

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  • What Is The Substance Of The Covenant Of Grace?

    by R. Scott Clark

    For most of 2,000 years the Christian church was universally agreed that there is one way of salvation, that the history of redemption was essentially unified. In the post-apostolic church this consensus began to develop very early in the 2nd century in response to the challenge of various heretical movements and most particularly the Gnostics, who sharply distinguished between the “god” of the Old Testament and the God of the New. Indeed the orthodox Christians reacted so strongly they began describing all of Scripture as law. The Old Testament was the “old law” and the New was the “new law.” This is not to say that there was no recognition of diversity in the history of redemption, there was, but the emphasis was strongly on the unity of salvation between the old and the new.The Reformation inherited and continued to value the fundamental unity of salvation history in Scripture even as they described that unity in different terms. Thus, Adolf von Harnack’s quip that Luther was the first theologian to understand Marcion was most certainly false. The Protestant hermeneutical and theological distinction between law and gospel did not reintroduce the Marcionite juxtaposition of the OT “god” v. the NT God. The Reformed churches, partly in response to what appeared to them to be a movement back toward Marcion by the Anabaptists, developed a reading of redemptive history that explained the unity and diversity of Scripture in terms of the covenants that God had made before history and in history. Again, this was not new. The 2nd and 3rd century fathers, in response to the Gnostics and other dualists (e.g., Marcion) had done the very same thing. In the 5th century, Augustine would appeal to the covenant God made a covenant with Adam before the fall as if it were a given. The medieval church had also referred regularly, although not always happily for the gospel, to a sort of covenant theology.

    In modern period of church history and particularly since the mid-19th century, however, the widespread and long-held conviction about the fundamental unity of salvation has been challenged and especially in the US. The 19th century saw a number of movements that emphasized the discontinuity between the old and the new. Chief among those was Dispensationalism but there were other movements too that stressed discontinuity. Nineteenth-century American evangelicalism looks a great deal like early sixteenth-century Anabaptist radicalism. For more on this see the essay “Magic and Noise: Being Reformed In Sister’s America.”

    Since then there have been broader social and cultural changes that have made it more difficult for American evangelicals, who remain deeply influenced by those 19th-century changes in American Christianity, to appreciate and value the unity of redemption. Americans under 40 and certainly those under 30 have grown up in a culture, in a time, in which the one of the reigning philosophical assumptions is that the “many” are more important than the “one.” Those who lean toward “the many” emphasize diversity, that which distinguishes one thing from another. They’re all about the individual, the particular. They are suspicious of attempts to link one thing to another. It seems artificial. They don’t want to be pigeonholed. Having been raised in the wake of the Reagan prosperity, they assume a higher standard of living than their predecessors. They expect “options.” This preference for the particular is so powerful that they sometimes have difficulty making choices because it means picking one thing and bypassing another and that requires them to give up an option.

    By contrast, those over fifty were probably raised in a culture where the emphasis cultural assumption favored “the one” or that which unifies over that which distinguishes. That generation had fewer choices and lower expect ions about personal autonomy. They were shaped by an ethos formed by the first half of the twentieth century which had seen not one but two world wars, the second of which was followed by the Cold War. Their economic assumptions were more influenced by those who had experienced the Great Depression. In that period America was not yet fully urbanized and suburbanized. They had more experience with rural cultures and unity was considered a virtue rather than a disguised form of oppression.

    For these historical, cultural, and social reasons, Reformed Christians in America (and perhaps elsewhere in the west) face genuine obstacles as they try to explain the historic Reformed doctrine of the “substance of the covenant of grace.” There are other obstacles. Many evangelicals are unfamiliar with even the notion of a covenant of grace. Most of them and not a few Reformed folk think that the doctrine of predestination (that, from eternity, God has elected some to salvation and allowed others to remain in their fallen state) is the sum of Reformed theology.

    It was not so from the beginning of Reformed theology. The Reformed writers assumed the ancient Christian view that there is one way of salvation. In the 1530s Heinrich Bullinger (1504–75) wrote a treatise defending the essential unity of the covenant of grace in the Old and New Testaments against the Anabaptists. In the 1580s, Caspar Olevianus (1536–85) published On Substance of the Covenant of Grace, in which opened with a discussion of Jeremiah 31 and continuing to elaborate on the essential unity of the covenant grace while accounting for the progress of revelation and redemption in Scripture. Herman Witsius (1636–1708), in his great work surveying the Biblical teaching on the unfolding history of redemption and revelation, The Economy of the Covenants (1677), followed Bullinger, Olevianus, and the mainstream of Reformed theology to that point and in the next post we’ll begin looking at his account of the unity of the covenant of grace “as to its substance.”
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