A Catholic Anaylsis of Reformed Federal Theology

Feb 28th, 2009 | By | Category: Blog Posts

Covenant or Federal Theology became formally articulated in the Calvinistic theological tradition, beginning in the 17th century. This was the era of “Reformed Scholasticism.” Beginning especially with Theodore Beza, Aristotelian methods of theological speculation began to take root in Calvinist circles (whether they were conscious of it or not). As a result, Calvinism in the 1600s began to morph in a number of ways.

17th century Calvinism became increasingly focused on predestination and “eternal decrees” – much more so than John Calvin himself had been. I think it is safe to say that Calvin presented soteriology in a more Christological way than his later followers. Later Calvinism pushed the locus of salvation out of history and into the Godhead. This also led to a fully articulated doctrine of limited atonement (i.e. that Christ’s atoning death was only accomplished for the elect and not all mankind). This “decretal” perspective also diminished the role of the sacraments in the Calvinistic tradition. Unconcerned with questions about predestination, Lutheranism was disinterested or hostile to growing influence of covenantal theology in continential Calvinism. By the 17th century, covenant or federal theology was being called the “marrow of theology” by Reformed theologians.

The Federal Theology of Cocceius
The focus on salvation arising from eternal decrees and not from redemptive history led to the development of a late medieval notion of the pactum. Dutch Calvinist theologian John Cocceius taught that God the Father and God the Son entered into a eternal pactum by which Christ agreed to be testator of an eternal testamentum. History is thus divided into two covenantal eras: the covenant of works (foedus operum) and the covenant of grace (foedus gratiae). The covenant of works is the time before the Fall of Adam. The covenant of grace is the era of redemption in which the eternal pactum is anticipated by the Old Testament and executed in history by Christ.

The Federal Theology of Amyraut
Moses Amyraut (father of Amyraldianism or what is called “four point Calvinism”) was also a Dutch Calvinist of the 17th century. He put forth a competing covenant theology that was also triplex. However, Amyraut put forth three historical covenants corresponding to redemptive history. This model is historical, less esoteric, and more Catholic. He posited the foedus naturale (from Adam to Moses), the foedus legale (from Moses to Christ), and the foedus gratiae (from Christ forward). Anyone familiar with Thomas Aquinas’ treatment of the law will notice that this basically follows the triplex model of Thomas: Natural Law, Old Law, New Law.

It was however the model of Cocceius that won the day. The covenant theology of Cocceius was enshrined in the Westminster Confession of Faith as the Covenant of Redemption (pactum salutis), the Covenant of Works (foedus operum), and the Covenant of Grace (foedus gratiae).

What Does This Mean for Catholic Theology?
Nothing really. However, we can see in these models a failure to appreciate the ecclesial and familial language of Sacred Scripture. Covenantal theology of 17th century Calvinism is heavily contractual. Calvinists rightly gravitated toward the biblical model of the covenant but they filled it with their forensic presuppositions of extrinsic righteousness and legal, courtroom imagery. The Catholic Church, while not possessing an advanced “covenant theology”, has maintained the substance of what a covenant is – a unitive bond that creates a real ontological or familial union between God and man and man and man.

Taylor Marshall also writes at his personal blog Canterbury Tales.

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Leave a comment »

  1. Can you expoundon what you mean here:

    “The focus on salvation arising from eternal decrees and not from redemptive history led to the development of a late medieval notion of the pactum. “

  2. Franciscan thinking following Duns Scotus (but not including him), began to cast doubt on the Thomistic teaching (and I would argue, the Catholic teaching) that the sacraments effect what they signify. These Franciscans instead placed efficacy in the “pactum” that God made with man.

    So it comes down whether the death and resurrection of Christ (and His sacraments) actually effect salvation – or whether they are simply tokens to which God previously agreed to assign grace. The former rests securely in human history. The latter tends toward “eternal decrees”.

    This concept pactum thus smacks of “contract”.

    There is an entirely different way of doing “Catholic Covenant Theology” and that is through the idea of union or “kinship” as Dr. Scott Hahn demonstrated in his dissertation, which will be published by Yale later this year. Here “covenant” forms bonds through sacraments and thus rests on the Thomistic doctrine of efficacious sacraments.

  3. Hi,

    I’m glad someone is interested in Reformed covenant theology but this account is about 150 years out of date. Reformed covenant theology began to be articulated in 1523 by Johannes Oecolampadius and Huldrych Zwingli and was developed in the 1530s by Heinrich Bullinger and in the 1540s-64 by Calvin and from the -80s by the Palatinate theologians and others. They developed this system to synthesize the Protestant doctrines of justification sola fide and sola gratia with the Protestant reading of redemptive history. Federal theology did not develop in the 17th century! It was not the product of rationalist or speculative theology and it wasn’t a deduction from the doctrine of God.

    You can begin read the modern account of the history Reformed covenant theology by Geerhardus Vos (written in the 1890s) and an updated brief history of covenant theology here:


    You might also want to read the work of Lyle Bierma, Richard Muller, and my work on Caspar Olevianus as an orientation to what actually transpired.

  4. Dear Mr. Scott,

    Are you suggesting that Oecolampadius, Calvin, Zwingli, et al. in the 16th century set forth the ideas of foedus operum and foedus gratiae as they appear in the WCF?

    Technically, Reformed covenant theology “originated” in the 16th century – it “developed” or became scholasticized in the 17th century. I certainly didn’t mean to suggest that “covenant theology” was invented in the 17th century.

  5. As a topic unrelated to the discussion about covenant theology, to say that a sacred doctrine “wasn’t a deduction from the doctrine of God” is for a Catholic to say that it is fact incorrect (cf. Thomas Aquinas Summa theologiae I, q. 1, a. 3).

    I realize that this is probably a methodological difference between Catholics and Protestants – and worth nothing.

  6. Taylor,

    1. Everything Thomas says has magisterial status?

    2. Yes, Oecolampadius did teach an early form of the covenant of works and the pre-temporal covenant of redemption. The Palatinate theologians taught the covenants of redemption and works. The Reformed were picking up on themes from the anti-gnostic writings of the fathers, especially from the Ep to Dignetus, Justin, and Irenaeus.

    3. On Cocceius see the work of W. van Asselt.

    R. Scott Clark, DPhil
    Prof. Church History and Historical Theology
    Westminster Seminary California

  7. Hi, Dr. Clark. Thanks for these references.

    Just perusing your brief exchange with Taylor, it isn’t clear to me whether you’re objecting to the substance of what was initially written or whether you’re primarily concerned with a few of the historical details. That Oecolampadius delivers an incipient form of the covenant of works etc., as you indicate, is consistent with the claim that Covenant/Federal theology as expressed in the WCF was “formally articulated” only after some years of development, as Taylor indicates. It’s also consistent with the contention that we don’t see this construal of federal theology clearly set forth in Calvin’s work, with the gradual ‘morphing’ of Calvinist thought, and with the larger (though more contentious) point that the substance of covenant theology is more familial than legal and has been preserved in that form within the Catholic Church.

    As to (1), I guess it’s alright to disagree with Thomas every now and then. But you’re supposed to feel kind of guilty about it I think. :)

    Thanks again for the resources,


  8. Dr. Clark,

    “The Reformed were picking up on themes from the anti-gnostic writings of the fathers, especially from the Ep to Dignetus [sic], Justin, and Irenaeus.”

    What in particular did the Reformed find in the Epistle to Diognetus that led think of covenant theology in terms of foedus operum and foedus gratiae?

  9. Is that last paragraph the analysis?

Leave Comment

Subscribe without commenting